Sunday, 31 May 2009

Of Science And Naturalism

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga recently put up an article in Christianity Today stating the position that science undermines naturalism. Just how does an naturalistic process argue against naturalism? Well, if evolution is true then our senses are not reliable in being truth detectors because our brain senses are geared towards survival. And in part I can agree with that sentiment, it's obvious to see that the mind can be so easily tricked that to take certainty into anything is foolish. But to dismiss that evolution could produce a brain that is reliable to understand the environment it is in? Now that takes a huge leap of faith and ignorance about nature.

A fallible mind
It seems like an obvious statement, but the mind is not a perfect system. It can and is fooled time and time again. Conmen, magicians, spiritualists, psychics, religious figures and followers, are but a few of the people who either knowingly or unwittingly exploit the fallibilities of their own mind and the minds of others in order to push their beliefs. The Incas used to sacrifice young women in order to appease the gods, a practice that has not quite gone away yet. It was only a few hundred years ago that witches were being tortured and killed because of a false belief. This is a Demon-Haunted World, where people jump to credulous explanations that we know thanks to empirical inquiry are false beliefs.

There are two types of errors in this respect, false positives and false negatives. A false positive is believing something that isn't - like mistaking a shadow for a murderer. A false negative is not believing something that is - like mistaking a murderer for a shadow. Consider these two scenarios, which of the following two is more likely to lead to your demise? Mistaking a shadow for a murderer is a much more preferable option than mistaking a murderer for a shadow. Michael Shermer explains this here.

The brain does not work with complete information, the sheer volume of information that would need to be processed is phenomenal. To illustrate this, try this site out. The eye refreshes many times a second, but you are not taking in a complete image of the world each time. To find meticulous details, it requires focus and effort. By all accounts, the brain works on heuristics - on pattern recognition. This process by all accounts is not perfect, to see a professional magician (ironically named as what they perform is not magic by any stretch of the imagination), the performance is filled with misdirections and other assorted tricks in order to fool the mind.

But not all is lost, for all the times it fails, it is important to remember the successes. We are agents operating in an ever-changing environment. Just think of the way you operate on a day to day basis. I'm able to navigate around my house, find food, go to work and back, interact with other people and the environment around me. A fallible system does not necessitate a useless system, and the pattern-recognition software that can fail also has many successes. If you want to see this in action, have a friend perform a blind experiment for you. Get him to have two steaks, one that he has left out at room temperature for a few days and one that he has kept in the refrigerator. I'm going to bet that you could tell which one was the off meat every single time.

Finding truth
Well, what we know is that the belief in question was produced by adaptive neurophysiology, neurophysiology that produces adaptive behavior. But as we've seen, that gives us no reason to think the belief true (and none to think it false). We must suppose, therefore, that the belief in question is about as likely to be false as to be true; the probability of any particular belief's being true is in the neighborhood of 1/2.
This is really bad reasoning as I've argued before. I am currently drinking a beer. Is it 50/50 that I'm justified in thinking that this beer is in-fact beer? It could be that I'm drinking water and my brain is going haywire. But I would argue that it is more likely than not that I am drinking a beer, even if I cannot be certain about it. I can gauge this from the years I have had drinking beer and water and while it may be a false positive, the pattern recognition software is detecting a strong hops taste - something which is present in American-style pale ales and not at all present in water. And this is only looking at two cases, there's a infinitude of possible scenarios in which could be reality and me thinking it's beer could only be an illusion.

The fact is that I have better reason to trust that it is beer than it is not because of the pattern recognition software in my brain. And this software, like all other components of my body are an evolved product. I can confidently say this because of behaviour of other animals that we observe in nature. A chimpanzee will use a rock to smash open nuts, and to aid her in this endeavour she will employ the use of a tree root as a fulcrum to smash the nut. Her child will reach in and grab the food from the rock, realising what is edible and what is not. This is complex behaviour born out of higher thinking as opposed to being hard-wired.

Operating in an environment does require a brain that will produce behaviours that will allow for the survival of the species. We have a means of positive and negative reinforcement about whether a particular course of action leads to desirable or undesirable consequences.
Consider a frog sitting on a lily pad. A fly passes by; the frog flicks out its tongue to capture it. Perhaps the neurophysiology that causes it to do so, also causes beliefs. As far as survival and reproduction is concerned, it won't matter at all what these beliefs are
That's exactly right, it doesn't matter if you think that a computer runs on electromagnetic forces being applied through semi-conducting material that have been arranged in such a way as to produce logic gates or that you think there is magic smoke in the components that when fairies come through the wires will produce pornography on-screen, the computer will still work regardless. So why is an explanation involving electromagnetic force better than the magic smoke explanation?

Evolving understanding
To argue that understanding for survival and understanding for truth are two mutually exclusive endeavours is downright fallacious. Quite simply, we need to have at least someone a grasp on our environment in order to survive therein. Our ancestors when visiting a watering hole would have to be alert for lions. Now if they jump at the slightest sound, then they would never be able to get a drink and that would be detrimental for survival - so being somewhat sure that it is a predator is important. Likewise, ignoring all sounds would also be detrimental for survival. In this cut-throat environment, getting it right is important and this is the power of natural selection to explain adaptation in the environment. Quite simply, adaptation for survival does involve a large part of pragmatic understanding of the environment around us.

Knowing this gives us an advantage, we can apply the same tools that allow for these functionality and apply it to beliefs. By assessing what works and what doesn't, there is a better chance of carrying a true belief than having one born out of pure speculation. In my earlier linked post, I talked of gravity. Now we can see that objects fall to the ground when dropped, right now I'm resting that beer bottle on the table on the exclusive property that the beer won't fall to the ceiling. I can apply this same observation to my computer, to the textbook, and even to myself. I have validation that gravity works every second of every waking hour of my life. And in this, I would feel very confident of knowing that if I walk off the empire state building I would fall to my death, despite never having been on top of the empire state building or watching someone fall to their death.

This is the success of science, it is purely pragmatic - truth is derived from observations of what does work. So while this truth is tentative and prone to future revision, the demonstration of science follows on directly from the survival mechanisms that our pattern-recognising brain uses. I can be almost as certain that the earth orbits the sun as I can that I am drinking beer right now, just as a chimpanzee can be certain that nuts can be cracked using a rock. Science is derived from what works, and what works can be seen by what causes us to survive. Yes, this will still produce false positives and sometimes lead to the rejection of false negatives. But that hardly matters, science works.

Science: it works
If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it.
Sitting in front of me is a device that can do more calculations per second than the entire human race combined. I say this often, but it needs to be emphasised. This is an achievement of naturalism - by seeking to understand how the world works, we have been able to use this knowledge to create practical outcomes. I recently flew to Europe, travelling around 15,000km each way - and did this in just a single day. We've been able to build machines that can fly around the world, and even fly to different worlds. Recently we put a rover on Mars that was able to send back data from hundreds of millions of kilometres away. Yet these pinnacles of human reasoning have come from a position of naturalism - the very thing Plantinga is arguing against.
The obvious conclusion, so it seems to me, is that evolutionary naturalism can't sensibly be accepted. The high priests of evolutionary naturalism loudly proclaim that Christian and even theistic belief is bankrupt and foolish. The fact, however, is that the shoe is on the other foot. It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can't rationally be accepted.
The obvious error, so it seems to me, is that when you misapply chance and neglect that higher beliefs are a recent addition to brain development, it misses that having an understanding of the world around us has the capacity to understand. And by focusing on keeping assumptions to a minimum while grounding explanation on evidence, then it keeps the false positive beliefs to a minimum. The apologists for bronze age thinking proclaim the uncertainty of the human mind only when it suits them, ignoring that the same kind of reasoning has led to very different conclusions about the same token throughout the world. It is theism that has no claim to truth as it doesn't even try to ground itself in reality, ignoring the means by which evolution shaped our brains to think and reject that in favour of a false positive belief. By not even trying to engage in how our brains work, they stand little change of being correct, and until they do so, their beliefs cannot be rationally accepted.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

If Carl Sagan Were A Christian Apologist

This is done really well. Cheers to Ed Brayton for linking to this.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Non-Astrologer

An atheist is simply one who doesn't believe in a supernatural higher power, it is the position of non-belief. For whatever reason someone comes to be an atheist, it should not change whatsoever the arguments for theism. So to complain that there are irrational atheists out there is nothing more than a distraction for the arguments for theism. Sam Harris makes the point that the word atheist shouldn't even exist, that we don't have a word for someone who doesn't believe in astrology. So to extend Harris' point about what atheism is, here is an analogy of what it means to be an atheist only the belief is in the understanding the trials of humanity by reading the positions of the stars.

Demonstrating astrology
In this hypothetical world, the prevailing belief is that the celestial bodies tell the story of future human events, and that by knowing how to interpret the stars that one can gain knowledge of future events. Now consider that some people don't believe this. Some people may have been brought up in isolation to this behaviour, that they never knew that people believed in such a way. Others may have been brought up in a family where they considered such a belief nonsense. More still may have been astrologers in their younger age, but lost their belief through an inability to see how it works. Yet however any of them got into that mental state, all of them are non-astrologers.

Now would a valid defence of astrology be that there are some non-astrologers who didn't come to their conclusions about astronomy through reason? I would think not. Nor would I think that someone giving bad arguments why astronomy is wrong would make it any more valid. If a non-astrologer were to come out and say that astrology is wrong because meteors do not contain little green men, does such an argument have any bearing on the truth of astrology? What if they were to say that astrology cannot be correct because it gives a conflicting account to what the tea leaves do, and furthermore the crystal ball shows something different entirely! A Christian does this already in regard to Inca beliefs or Hindu beliefs.

Then come a group of people who study the movements of the planets and stars. Through careful observation and thinking, they conclude that the points of light in the sky act on a set of laws. These laws are able to predict the movements of the stars and planets with such a degree of accuracy that the celestial signs and "wandering stars" now have a sense of order. Many take this point and conclude that astrology cannot be right because the movements are shown to be indifferent to the events of mankind. This sparks some astrologers to re brand astrology and put the motion of the stars as part of a greater plan, that the predictions of the stars are valid because the cosmos is there for us. Other astrologers refuse to believe that mars, like earth is on an elliptical orbit around the sun that causes the wandering appearance.

Now, because there are those who don't believe in Astrology because they had trouble predicting the future, does that mean that the arguments made by astronomers and physicists for the validity of astrology? Again, I would contend not. The validity of a concept should exist externally to the reasons why people believe in it. Either the stars can be used to interpret future events or they cannot. If person X has poor reasons for why it cannot, it doesn't follow that there are good reasons for the notion that stars hold the key to the future of mankind. The same holds true for religion. That people come not to believe in God because of a hardship in their life is simply irrelevant to the question of the existence of God. That there are irrational non-astrologers makes no difference to whether astrology is valid.

Consider the following statement. "Creationists say evolution breaks the 2nd law of thermodynamics. But thermodynamics is to do with heat physics and speaks nothing of biology. Therefore evolution is true." This is frankly absurd, even if a creationist fool thinks that evolution violates SLoT, the invalid argument against evolution has no bearing on the validity of arguments for evolution. Whether there are atheists who don't believe because prayer didn't work for them or non-astrologers who think that the phases of Venus make reading the stars impossible, the arguments for God should be able to stand on their own.

Constructing a worldview
Astrology can be used to understand nature, it predicts future human events and shapes the way we live our own life. What business decisions should we take? Who is best suited for us romantically? An unsure person can consult the stars and use the knowledge of astrology to shape their lives. To not be an astrologer, on the other hand, does not dictate any of those. It can not be a worldview except in the most diffuse sense. To compare astrology and non-astrology as different worldviews is equivocation. Being a non-astrologer, like being an atheist, is the negative position on a particular claim. And even if that claim encompasses Life, The Universe, and Everything, the inverse is not a comparable worldview. We define worldviews by what people believe, not by what they don't.

How does one make business decisions if they don't consult the stars? Well they could decide based on past experience, or by studying market trends. They could consult experts in the field. Or they could ask the advice of friends, random people on the street or even the local priest. Then there are what we would call absurd ways, like pulling names out of a hat or plucking petals off a flower. Which in the non-astrologers worldview points the right way to go? As for romantic relationship, maybe a non-astrologer would choose based on compatibility intellectually or sexually. Maybe they would just choose the person it is the most fun to be around, or comforting. Maybe they would use one of those SMS compatibility programs.

This is why atheism is not a religion, it is the not-belief. It doesn't ascribe behaviour, doesn't pass down dogma, it simply entails not believing that God is a good answer to the way the world works. Yet atheists do have beliefs, they have behaviours and they could very well pass down their own beliefs onto their children and perpetuate a cycle similar to that of religion. Humans have beliefs by which they assess the world. We need to in order to survive. But what atheists have as beliefs varies from person to person. There's no code of conduct, no history of how we came to be, no way of understanding the world. It's a word to describe those who don't believe in the supernatural for whatever reason.

The non-astrologer is one who doesn't believe in the power of astrology. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. But a non-astrologer has their own beliefs and their own way of viewing the world. They may be well versed in the scientific method, or maybe they are into philosophy. Maybe they are lea leaf readers, maybe they believe in the eternity of a soul. They could even believe in God! Yet you can't derive anything about a non-astrologer from them saying they are one. A few things could be implied, but to call it a worldview is absurd.

Many atheists are naturalists or materialists, but not all of them are. Many are well versed in science and scepticism, but not all of them are. Some believe in ghosts, or aliens living among us. There are cryptozoologists who think that Bigfoot is real, Buddhists who believe in reincarnation but not a higher power. The point is that to take atheism as a worldview is to add positive beliefs to it, and then it becomes exclusive. If atheism requires a belief that the scientific method is the only way of ascertaining knowledge about the universe, then it is going to narrow the definition of atheism.

And this gets to the biggest mistake many make, by comparing worldviews as a whole it takes the notion that either one or the other is all true. And since the atheist worldview is lacking (by very definition) it does not account for many of the things that theism does and therefore theism wins! The same tactic is used by creationists on evolution, while evolution says nothing about gravity or abiogenesis, creationists use the lack of explanation for gravity or abiogenesis as weaknesses of evolution. A non-astrologer may not be able to account for how people can gain knowledge, but it doesn't mean that astrology wins because it says that it can account for it. Likewise, the absence of explanation in atheism does not follow that theism can explain anything.

What non-astrology is
As demonstrated, non-astrology cannot by definition be a worldview. How people come to this position should have no bearing on whether astrology is a valid path to knowledge. If astrology works, then it should be able to be shown to work, so it is doing nothing more than begging the question to question how others came to not believe in the power of astrology. The explanation for the movement of the planets and stars still exists even if a non-astrologer has no idea of the science behind it. If the goal is to actually learn how the universe works as opposed to winning arguments, then a focus should be on the strength of the arguments for the topic at hand.

As for what being a non-astrologer is, I'm going to use the slightly modified words of Michael Shermer:
As for non-astrology, there are no major or minor tenets. Non-astrology is simply the lack of belief in astrology. I don't believe in astrology, so I'm a non-astrologer. End of story.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Book Review: Why I Became An Atheist

When people ask me why I became an atheist, the answer is always the same - I was born that way. The truth is I've never believed in a god, and it's only through television, my peers and the oddly cultural-relativistic public school system in Australia that I even came to know god. When I was 9 I changed schools where I was asked what religion I was, I said Christian because I went to scripture at my old school. At further pressing they asked me if I was catholic or Anglican, I didn't know the difference and said catholic. Needless to say my Mother got me out of that nutty cult room pretty quickly. When I was 12 and finally old enough to understand the question, I rejected the concept of God and have since been an outspoken atheist. So why am I mentioning this? Because my background matters when reviewing John W. Loftus' book Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.

It matters for me to make the case for my atheism because unlike a lot of people in western society, I was not brought up Christian. In scripture at school, we weren't taught from the bible, but were taught of the nature of God and the power of faith through parables. It wasn't a literal reading, it was very liberal, very much about selling a personal relationship with Jesus. So to read a book criticising fundamentalism is not even attacking the Christianity I know, to me it's attacking the extreme right who have no basis in reality to begin with.

To me, a criticism of biblical literacy should begin and end with science. We know the world is more than 6000 years old, we know that life evolved - both these facts have been known for more than 100 years now. Yet there are still those who take mythic storytelling and think of it as history? No wonder my scripture teachers focused on the power of belief instead of trying to warn me of the dangers of talking snakes. That to want a personal relationship with Christ is better than selling children on the dangers of Hell.

I have been an avid reader of Loftus' blog, Debunking Christianity, for some time now and find him to be a reasonable and level-headed man. Which is why the first thing that shocked me about the book was the way he would talk about what he used to believe, that it is so obviously absurd. And as I went on through the book, what stood out was how poor the intellectual reconciliation between the modern understanding of the world and the bible actually is. The reconciliations take an absurdity and make it sound even more absurd. To preserve the notion that the bible is the word (in some sense) of an omniscient deity, the most asinine explanations are presented. The book didn't even need Loftus' debunking those claims - they could not stand up on their own.

This is not to say I hated the book, Loftus is an excellent writer and wrote a mostly engaging argument. I say mostly engaging because I found the excessive quoting of scripture to be tedious. But then again, I keep getting scripture quoted at me so it must mean something to somebody - I'm really not the target audience for this. There were some parts that made the book worth getting - the outsider test for faith is possibly the best argument against religion, and that goes for all religion. The philosophy and explanation of the control beliefs was also really thorough and well presented. And finally at the end, the way he tackled the idea of ultimate meaning was done very well.

I was asked if I were to recommend an atheist book to theists, would it be this or Dawkins' book The God Delusion. I answered this book, and I do thoroughly recommend it. But at the same time I found Dawkins' book to be a lot more intellectually satisfying. It gave reasons to do away with superstition, this book attacked what is in my mind a straw-man of Christianity. But what I've fast come to realise over the last 5 years or so, what I perceive as a straw-man is the intellectual and moral foundations for hundreds of millions of people. Apparently some people still believe we are magic dirt who ate some bad fruit on the advice of a talking snake. Thankfully it's now the 21st century and J.K. Rowling has written a much better tale warning of the dangers of listening to talking snakes, and we don't even have to believe that there's a platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross station to heed this advice.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Smacking Down A Creationist Fool

DonExodus2 on Youtube brings down the lies of Casey Luskin on that moron-enabling network Fox News.

A liar for Jesus is still a liar. The media needs to play editor and actually show when people are lying. Because opinion expressed without scrutiny is taken as expertise by those who don't know better. The media has a responsibility in order to make sure that what they are portraying is as accurate and unbiased as possible. To bring a merchant of misinformation onto the airwaves and treat his testimony as expert opinion is a neglect of duty by the media.

Is Christianity more probable than atheism?

That is the question that John W Loftus wants to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig on. Loftus was a former preacher and student of Craig who turned atheist and now runs the fantastic blog Debunking Christianity where he along with other former theists try to debunk Christianity. Now Craig has said he won't debate former students, though given the challenge it does seem appropriate to engage Loftus given his current credentials as a "new atheist". Unlike many of the other atheists recently putting out books, Loftus' book Why I Became An Atheist directly attacks Christianity in particular - contrasting the styles of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett who go after faith itself or the institution of religion.

In the spirit of things, here's why I would say that Christianity is not more probable than atheism.

The sheer number of options
Is Christianity more probable than atheism? The question itself is poorly defined as atheism and Christianity aren't competing ideas for the same prize. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god, whether it be the Christian construct of the Trinity or any other deity. It is the ultimate position of scepticism, the notion that there isn't enough positive evidence for a belief in a higher power to warrant a belief. So to me the question should be is belief in Christianity is more justified than not believing. This means foregoing the choice between all other gods that have ever existed, but to many this is the only choice they have. It is either the religion of their peers or no religion at all, so in this sense the question of whether Christianity is more probable than atheism in this society is akin to asking whether Islam is more probable than atheism in Saudi Arabia.

But therein lies the first problem with the concept of a god - the globe is littered with different versions of the supernatural. Why is it that God in the Trinity form is not the default religion in Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan? Why is it that Hinduism dominates India, or Buddhism dominates Cambodia? Being born in Greece these days may mean a Greek-orthodox version of Christianity but just 2500 years ago it would have been a belief in the polytheistic deities. An Egyptian now would probably have a belief in Allah, but only 3000 years ago it would have been Ra and Osiris (among others) that littered the Ancient Egyptian religion. Aboriginals in Australia had their own tribal supernatural entities, the dreamtime story of the giant rainbow serpent has survived for 40,000 years yet in the last 200 this has been largely relegated to myth as Christianity has taken over.

What this demonstrates is that belief in God is wholly dependant on the time and place of birth. It is an accident to be born into a society where the meme exists or is introduced, which should wave a red flag considering the necessity for the meme in order for salvation. The notion of a maximally loving God that requires belief in order for reward means that anyone unfortunate enough not to be born in the right place and period of history is condemned to eternal torture for an event that is beyond their control. It may be that God will save those who have not heard the message, but this calls into question both the need for Jesus in the first place (as it creates a test where there was none) and the need to proselytise.

The sheer number of different gods also poses a problem for any one god. It can't be that all religions are true as many contradict the others, nor can it be that each religion is explaining the same god as it has the same stumbling block. So any explanation that explains the existence of God also needs to explain why other cultures and religions worship false idols. What makes Christianity so special that all other explanations involving that came before were mere fantasy, but in Christianity's case was an exception. And why if one particular tribe had the one true god did other tribes not fall in line?

The nature of reality
Modern human discovery has changed the way humans look at universe and our place in it. Geocentrism was dealt a fatal blow in the 17th century, special creation in the 19th century, and in the 20th century many of the secrets of nature have been unlocked. The God of the bible was one who created a flat earth where heaven was in the sky and all creatures were created ex nihilo. Even today in 2009, the fundamentalist belief of special creation and the moderate theistic evolution show just how much of a death blow Darwin's theory was to the Christian view of the universe.

We now live in a universe not where the earth is the centre, nor even the sun or our own galaxy is the centre. We are one species of approximately 10 million who orbit one star of about 200 billion in our galaxy alone. And that galaxy is only one of a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars in this universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. Yet this spiritual geocentric model of the universe remains.

The universe is big, really really big. And in order to see a big universe, the universe must be really old. The standard unit of measure for astronomy and cosmology is the speed of light. It takes 8 minutes for light emitted by the sun to reach earth, 4.3 years for the next closest star. That means when one looks at Alpha Centauri, the light we are seeing left the star 4.3 years ago. So seeing distant galaxies means that the distance measured in light years means that was how long ago that light we are seeing left the galaxy. We have observed galaxies over 13 billion light years away and thus the universe has to be at least 13 billion years old. By contrast the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have been on this earth for around 150,000 years.

We have existed for 1/10,000th of the history of this universe, each one of our lives an even smaller fraction of that. We have evolved like every other organism that by all accounts is an unguided process. Yet despite the small part of the universe we occupy, the theist view of us having a special place in the universe by all accounts is putting us into an undeserved special place. Of course none of the science disproves God, but it does highlight the means by which God was created as a substitute for knowledge - and a poor one at that. Quite simply, the ancient Israeli accounts of the nature of reality are no more accurate than those of the Australian Aboriginals and as such the probability of the Christian god grows more and more infinitesimal as more is learned about nature and history.

There are so many reasons to conclude that Christianity is not more probable than atheism, but one argument stands above all. When it comes down to it Christianity requires faith, something of which to be sceptical of. Any idea worth having should be able to stand on it's own merits, survive rigorous sceptical scrutiny, and demonstrate insight into the universe. If the notion of any god, let alone the Christian construct of God were more probable than atheism then it shouldn't necessitate faith. Philip K Dick put it best when he said:
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Herd Immunity

With Swine Flu resonating through the media, the potential for a pandemic is a reminder of the ways in which viruses transmit. Though it's a sad that it takes a threat of this nature to keep people wary of the potential for getting ill. The reaction of medical establishments has been to give simple hygiene advice, hardly befitting a disaster of such magnitude. The Egyptian government slaughtering all the nation's pigs, though completely misguided and unnecessary, is more to the kind of reaction we'd expect. Unlike avian flu, this virus is transmitting human to human and as such any protections need to stop the spread of infection. The standard guidelines for illness are there for a reason, yet should be followed at all times.

It needs to keep being repeated that humans are social creatures, in the context of a society anyone has the potential to be a carrier of a virus. To completely avoid infection from others, it means isolation from society. This option being unfavourable due to the need for society in order to preserve our survival and as such should be a last resort option. So we need to accept that while we are individuals operating within a society, we remain at risk from others and a risk to others. We need to be mindful of what illnesses we could have and how they could spread.

The anti-vaccination people rest almost exclusively on the idea that it is a low risk not to get a vaccine for a now-uncommon ailment. If measles is very rare then the potential risk for not immunising a child is not very high. And if the claims about autism are true (they are not) then it would seem more of a risk to give the vaccine to a child than to not get it. But this individualism brings on the danger that if there were an outbreak, the community would be compromised. This may be individual risk, but there are those who at no fault of their own cannot get the vaccination and are put at risk by those who choose not to. The elderly, infants, and those who are allergic to the injections are all put an increased risk as the more who are not immune greatly increases the potential carriers.

Death of course is not the only problem from getting sick, in the workplace getting sick means lost productivity. And anyone who gets sick has the potential to spread that illness to others and they could suffer the same fate. Last August, I started at a new work environment. 3 days into working there I came down with an illness and had to take a week off to recover, and even then I was still feeling the effects for a while after as my body gradually recovered. But I wasn't the only one, a large portion of the floor were also off sick around that period. Someone came into work ill and in a closed-environment with many people around, the illness took down a lot of people.

Part of the problem in this workplace is that we have a lot of contractors working here. Contractors are paid by the hour, so if they take a sick day then that is 8 hours of lost income. Getting seriously sick could wipe out days of income, a situation nobody wants. Even if one feels up to working, coming into an office environment is inconsiderate as it puts others at risk. Same thing with catching public transport, same thing with participating in communal activities. It should not be a manager's responsibility to make sick people go home, it is an implicit duty of any member of society to be aware of the risks they pose to others. Having a scheme by which the ill are enticed to work and have little reason not to go is just going to cause problems in the long run.

The more infectious a disease, the greater the risk. Say that only 1 in 10 people will become infected by a virus. So if you transmit it to one person, then that person transmits it to someone else, it experiences linear growth. After 10 generations 10 people will be infected. But if it were more infectious and 2 in 10 people will be infected. If you come in contact to the same amount of people, 2 people will be infected and each of those will infect two more people each. After 10 generations, that's 1024 carriers as opposed to 10 if it were twice as infectious. 3 out of 10 and it's 60,000 people after 10 generations. This should demonstrate two things. Firstly that being highly infectious is grounds for social isolation, and secondly that even a few simple measures can significantly decrease the chance of spreading the infection.

To participate in society is to be aware that someone cannot act without regard to others. When it comes to heath, it shouldn't take a pandemic to remind us that one should avoid the sickly and that the sickly should isolate themselves to prevent further spread of that illness. Even taking simple measures such as washing hands properly and covering coughs can be the difference between a small and large outbreak. Waiting until a potential disaster neglects that these measures help save lives and help the community now. It shouldn't take a measles outbreak to get parents to vaccinate their kids, just as it shouldn't take a pandemic to stop people with regular flu from coming to work where they can spread it to others. It's common courtesy!

Monday, 4 May 2009

Retailing Information

A couple of years ago I was at the local supermarket with my girlfriend when a stranger asked me for some cooking advice. Maybe he saw my gut and realised I loved food, maybe it was just a shot in the dark that a stranger could help out, but he just happened to ask me a question that I had knowledge on the matter. From memory it was a question about cooking a laksa and what noodles to use, and I was able to give him a recommendation and even a tip on how to cook it. He thanked me and asked if I were a chef. Nope, just an average chump who happened to have slight domain knowledge on the specific point in question.

The vision impaired leading the blind
It just happened to be circumstantial that I was there to give advice, but what else could the man do? Those who work at the store are trained monkeys, and I don't mean that as an insult. Rather that the job is the facilitation between people and product, ultimate choice comes down to the individual. For fundamentals like food, this model works. It is expected that by adulthood that people can know how to cook for themselves. And domain advice is as far away as a bookstore or even in magazines in the supermarket. There are approximately 40 cookbooks in my house with recipes and instructions on cooking for many different styles. Even the internet has scores of pages dedicated to how to cook; there isn't much excuse for that.

This is modern retail, where most people running the store need only knowledge of how to speak to a customer, be able to read off a specification sheet and use a cash register. Have serious questions about a product? Then asking a retail assistant is about as useful as a visit to the manufacturer's website. Having domain knowledge about a product in so many sectors of the market is just not necessary; it's far cheaper that way. We as consumers reap the benefits from not having to pay for the premium of domain knowledge. It may be for most people that it is unnecessary, but what of those who actually need the advice? Recently I was in a pharmacy where there was a shelf full of competing products all doing roughly the same thing and at the same price. I ended up buying a few to test them out because there's really no way I could expect domain knowledge on over-the-counter products.

Yet there are specialisations where domain knowledge is beneficial to the business. Hardware stores are something I see where the employees actually know what they are talking about. It could be a few reasons for this - the DIY market is large enough to require domain knowledge, such a job attracts educated laymen, or that the type of knowledge has a wide communal base. Whatever the reason, having such specialisation somewhat offsets the extra cost of not choosing major discount outlets for hardware supplies. For music supplies, outlets have to contend with eBay and the far lower prices so the business is forced to be advantageous in other areas of the customer experience.

When it comes down to it, ultimately profitability is what matters. Domain expertise costs money, so the less that is needed in order to keep a customer base the less that expertise is worth. The higher percentage of people with domain knowledge, again the less that expertise is worth. The cost / benefit analysis is something that always needs to be taken into account. Working in a computer store would require some knowledge about how to build computers, but it would not take someone with a master’s degree in computer hardware to do so. Hiring a high school drop-out who has never touched a computer in their life, however, is going to be a problem. This is why McDonalds can hire at $5 an hour while hiring to work in a computer store would cost more.

Brand power
Ultimately capitalism is about competition between products competing for your hard earned dollar. Most of us don't live in the luxury of having enough disposable income to be product testers, so there is importance in choosing the right product to begin with. Think of the competing products as memes. For the complete ignoramus looking for a product, without a frame of reference each meme would have equal worth so there needs to be a way to judge between memes. Yet on the shelf there are ways to entice the consumer into which product to buy. The packaging, the product description, the relative cost - all factors we use when buying items. Because for most things we do not know better, it would be expecting a lot for us to know better as there is just so much out there on the market.

Shelf advertising is about trying to part you with your hard earned money, so it does pay to be informed. It doesn't matter so much to waste $20 to try a new wine, but it does matter when laying out $2000 for a new television. Being informed pays, especially when it comes to complex devices where a simple demonstration will not cut it. The bigger the investment, the more informed one should be about the product invested in. The internet is again a great tool, between product reviews by those with domain knowledge and customer reviews that provide in effect a huge testing facility, a product's strengths and flaws can be found without too much hassle.

We are social creatures who gain memes largely from others. I could have been dead wrong or deliberately misleading to that man, but for whatever reason he trusted that I knew what I was talking about. It's that issue of trust that allows for one of the more useful means to choose a product and that is brand power. While sticking to certain brands may mean missing out on a superior product, it is at least an indicator of the type of quality that is associated with a product. A brand in this way is a trust between consumer and manufacturer, a voice of approval that needs no more than a fancy graphic in order to gain seed in an individual's mind. However dishonest we know advertising is (after all, it exists to sell a product), we understand that it still works; because it can place a seed in the mind of the audience. Any meme that is positively reinforced - even through artificial reality, has an advantage on a meme that doesn't.

Power to the people
When profitability is the goal, the retail market has no reason to change to help those who aren't in the know. And advertising is going to shape the way how we interact with products - this is the consumer environment we operate in. Ignorance is unavoidable, but it is something to move away from at any given opportunity. Knowing where to look for information is vitally important, something that requires planning. Going into a store completely ignorant of the wanted product is leaving yourself vulnerable to the knowledge of those selling you the product. Asking a random stranger for advice is no guarantee of success, after all not everyone has ruined a laksa by trying to cook the noodles in the sauce only to find that they absorbed all the coconut milk.

A post script: when I was first at university, I was boarding with a middle aged man and his mother. When he would cook pasta, he would boil it for an hour. When he asked how I was able to cook my pasta so well, I replied that I followed the instructions on the back of the pack. He once tried that and it failed, so instead of cooking for a couple of minutes longer, his solution was to boil it for 5 or 6 times what was recommended. The phrase 'read the fucking manual' not only for technology, which ironically for an IT student he failed at as well.