Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Places: On Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise

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The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning. Like Caesar, we may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality. Data-driven predictions can succeed— and they can fail. It is when we deny our role in the process that the odds of failure rise. Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.

—Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

 

We have access to more information than at any time in human history and yet we find ourselves light years further from the truth. This is the primary lesson from The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver’s outstanding book on forecasting.

Most of us in the United States are aware of this, having just been through a presidential campaign steeped in bullshit flowing from both sides. We heard President Obama’s version of the truth and Mitt Romney’s version of the truth and concluded that neither version had much to do with past, present or future reality. With no valid information to go on, we pretty much cast our vote based on shared values, common beliefs or the candidate’s likability.

“Whew! Glad that’s over!” was the overwhelming sentiment when the campaign finally ended. But “that” is still with us. By “that” I mean the simple truth that wherever we look, we are surrounded with spin, salesmanship and selectivity. People use facts today to support positions, beliefs and biases rather than discover truth. This is true in every field, from politics to science to economics. Facts are the weapons we select to advance whatever cause we want to advance.

Let’s look at economics, a field that Silver singles out as one of the weakest when it comes to forecasting the future. The truth is that all economic systems are based on the arbitrary assignment of value to goods and services. No thing or act has an absolute price in the same sense that gravity is a universal truth. For a long time, people agreed that the standard of value was gold, and there are still people who argue that all of our economic problems would be fixed if we would return to the gold standard.

What a strange belief! I couldn’t give a shit about gold. It has no value to me. For me, chocolate and cinnamon are far more valuable substances. I could also go with the wine standard, or the tits standard or the music standard—all of which I find of far more value to me than a silly metal. Wouldn’t it be a better and happier world if we decided that the wealthiest countries were those who produced the highest quality art?

These are, of course, completely subjective beliefs. What I have going for me is that I fully admit my subjectivity. The problem, as Silver noted in the quote above, is that most human beings refuse to admit that. They cling to the notion that their data is objective, and therefore the Greeks have to suffer and the Germans get a pass. The truth is that the Greeks are being punished because in the opinion of those who have more of what we call wealth, they have violated certain beliefs that the wealthy claim to hold sacred: prudence, balanced budgets, following the rules and the work ethic. What they refuse to admit is that the entire system is arbitrary; our existence in the universe does not depend on having an economic system of a particular kind. We could blow it up tomorrow if we wanted to, forgive all debts and hit the reset button. We don’t do this in part because we believe this would lead to chaos, in part because those who gain power through the system have no interest in changing it.

This is a good example of human shortsightedness. The truth is that the global economic structure has generated a relatively small amount of haves and a whole lot of have-nots. The have-nots are very resentful of their status, and this resentment often manifests itself in conflict, disruption, terrorism and war. By sustaining the economic system and supporting it with large defense budgets, the haves try to maintain a lifestyle grounded in denial . . . and denial eventually leads to disaster.

Things are unlikely to change, for our biases are protected by the human fear of change. Coming up with a new system focused on helping human beings achieve their potential rather than competing against each other to get more of a fictional substance called money would cause massive disruption, at least for a while. It’s easier to pluck facts out of the air to protect our self-destructive self-interests than try to make the world a safer and more vibrant place to live.

As Nate Silver noted, this state of affairs is likely to continue for some time, thanks to the information explosion. Speaking of the first “information age” (initiated by the printing press), Silver demonstrated that this tendency for human bias is deeply rooted in human nature:

Meanwhile, exposure to so many new ideas was producing mass confusion. The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths. Paradoxically, the result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious lines. The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

As long as we ignore the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of power, we will continue to exist in this confused world of allies and enemies, ignoring the essence of the human condition:

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

—John F. Kennedy

 

Photo Credit: © Kaetana | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

 

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Poetry: The Wish

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If I could have a single wish, if I

Could rub the bronze bottle and send him back

With two shiny trinkets still in his hand,

If I could blow out the candles or snap

The bone so that magic dust filled the air,

I would wake to find myself surrounded

By people incapable of lying,

People who had dug deep into their souls

To reveal and face the truth and hold it

In close embrace, enduring the sharp pain

Of discovery until an imprint

Burned into consciousness the awareness

That truth is the real source of human love

And the warm seed of the human spirit.

 

Photo Credit: © Paija | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Truth and Beauty

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Some time ago I posted a quote from Robert F. Kennedy’s moving address at the University of Kansas:

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile . . . “

Since he spoke those words in 1968, the situation has become worse. The phrase “intelligence of our public debate” and “integrity of our public officials” describe a political culture that vanished years ago. Great artists toil in obscurity as the publishing, film and art industries bring to market only what their marketing demographic studies predict will sell. Educational institutions find themselves marginalized by testing requirements and ill-equipped to deal with a generation that learns differently than what their educational dogma prescribes. Cynicism dominates; imagination is only worth something when it can be transformed into a marketable product or service. Beauty has been defined for us by the media, and the enhanced photographs of attractive models carry very little truth with them.

For some reason (bad genes, mental defect or good old-fashioned stupidity), I still value truth and beauty above all things. If I were to describe the driving force of my existence, it is this pursuit of truth and beauty. When I do find those qualities, whether in honestly-spoken words or in the eyes of a woman experiencing delight or in the sun illuminating the green leaves of  a shade tree in summer, I experience timelessness, awakening and joy.

I have found two things through this endless pursuit. The first is that Keats was right: truth and beauty are one. The second is that the pursuit of beauty and truth can be an alienating experience in a culture that values neither. People in our culture have become almost exclusively transactional, caring little about conversations that do not produce results. This is particularly true for those in our culture who work for a living and are simply too tired to bother with anything that smells of “deep.”

Though many of the people I know find it inconvenient, silly and a little bit weird, I can’t help myself. I will continue to seek truth and beauty regardless of what other people think. It makes me sad that there are so few people with whom I can connect on this subject, but those are the times we live in.

However, I do have to protest when people accuse me of being an idealist. I am not seeking an ideal, I am seeking beauty and truth without a preconceived definition of what it will look like when I find it. The surprise is an essential component in the power of its revelation. What I am constantly seeking is real, tangible and possesses that elusive quality of forever.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Ringing True Excerpt: How to Create a Religion

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Ringing True Book CoverExcerpt from Ringing True:

Shelby: Okay. Now, I’ve been doing some thinking on this. Whatever we create as “the word” has to address two issues: first, the major problems facing the world today—the problems we need to solve—and second, we have to answer the question as to why the religions we have now can’t solve those problems.

Justin: I’m impressed.

Shelby: Thank you.

Justin: But let me get something straight. When you talk about “the word,” what are we talking about? A new Bible?

Shelby: Well, in a way, but I don’t think modern attention spans are capable of slogging through something that long and dull. We have to keep it short, simple and to the point.

Justin: Sound bytes? Bullet points?

Shelby: More like poetry, maybe—not as obscure, because we need to be understood. Few words, lots of punch. If we can get it all on one page, even better.

Justin: Okay. So what was the first question?

Shelby: What are the major problems facing the world today? What’s causing all the grief?

Justin: You want me to start?

Shelby: Let’s just brainstorm. You write it down. (JUSTIN positions his fingers on the keyboard. The following dialogue is conducted over the sound of rapid keyboard clicks.)

Justin: Self-interest leading to self-destruction. People not taking responsibility for anything. Avoiding truth, burying truth, distorting truth in the name of self-protection.

Shelby: Environmental destruction. Inequality, racism, sexism, the existence of isms in the first place. Cultural conflict; cultural destruction. Political correctness. Indifference.

Justin: Evil. The existence of evil. People killing each other despite all the evidence that it doesn’t solve a damn thing.

Shelby: Harming the innocent. Power trips. People believing they’re above any kind of . . . I don’t know, consequence? Effect? I don’t want to say “punishment,” but it’s that kind of thing. People think they can get away with screwing everyone else.

Justin: Religion itself. The hatred caused by religion. The people who use religion to justify cruelty.

Shelby: Corruption. Maybe that gets back to self-interest, but put it down anyway. Greed, too.

Justin: People thinking their way is the only way. That’s religion, for sure, but it’s also the same in politics, at work, in relationships.

Shelby: On the religion theme, the fear of death. They really exploit that angle. And all the weird modern responses to death.

Justin: Like?

Shelby: You know—health-mania, plastic surgery, all the denial about aging.

Justin: Okay. Time itself—or the way time happens to us now. It seems like people have no time to think or reflect. My parents were always doing something, going somewhere, taking care of things that really weren’t all that important and never seemed to have time for anything else—you know, the demands of modern life and all that—and dragging their kids into the same mindset.

Shelby: Hmm. Put it down, but I’m wondering if that kind of thing is universal enough to put into a religion . . . too Western World . . . never mind, sorry, let’s just keep going and we’ll sort it out later.

Justin: Your turn.

Shelby: Taking turns, are we? Really, Justin.

Justin: Okay, call me an anal wank.

Shelby: Prisons, crime, punishment, lawyers, pedophiles, rapists—the whole system seems out of whack about what to do with people who are out of whack.

Justin: Economics.

Shelby: What about economics?

Justin: The economic system—it seems to feed on itself, like it’s out of control. We’re controlled by the system that controls our survival and we all become victims. Capitalistic bullshit. Socialistic bullshit. Governmental bullshit.

Shelby: Wait—the victim thing. People pretending to be victims screwing real victims out of any help or compassion. You know, we’re so sick of victims we don’t want to help anybody—that kind of thing. Victim-hatred.

Justin: Catchy. You should go into op-ed.

Shelby: Sca-rew you, buddy. Go on.

Justin: I don’t know how to put this into words—people thinking they know everything and that they have all the answers and they don’t have anything to learn.

Shelby: They don’t want to look stupid or open up new possibilities that could rock their worlds.

Justin: That makes me think of families. The whole family thing is loaded with expectations that seem to get in the way of any kind of togetherness.

Shelby: Well, on a larger scale, how about organizations—big organizations like your dumb ass software company? That’s a huge problem—these large institutions—kind of like what you said about the economy—creating victims, powerlessness.

Justin: I’ll put it down.

Shelby: And what about technology? I mean, it’s the people who use technology to make bombs and viruses and spam that are really at fault, but I don’t think anyone has a handle on the problem. It just mushrooms and then we have a new set of problems we didn’t have before.

Justin: (Click, click, click, click.) Under technology, I want to work in the point that it hasn’t really helped us reduce the workload. It’s created more busy work, more mindless work. Hold on a minute and let me write down “self-destructiveness” as a note under “self-interest.” It’s sort of a circular thing—self-interest leading to self-destruction. Oh, and let’s not forget the evils of science—cloning, nuclear weapons, all that stuff. (He finishes editing and looks up.) Go.

Shelby: SUV’s.

Justin: What?

Shelby: You know, SUV’s. People pissing away resources they don’t have just so they can feel like they’re above everyone else, pun intended.

Justin: (Not writing.) I think that’s awfully narrow for a religious text.

Shelby: Yeah, okay—just put in the part about pissing away resources.

Justin: Yo.

Shelby: You got anything else?

Justin: Well, there’s the media.

Shelby: Put them down. May be a subset, but yeah, put them down. Put down the whole system of human communication—we have more of it, but less understanding.

Justin: Which reminds me. Mass mediocrity.

Shelby: Oh yeah. That’s big.

Justin: What else?

Shelby: Sex. People think more about sex than anything else other than money, so we should probably say something about it.

Justin: Complicated topic. On one hand, it’s become a commodity; with the gay marriage thing it’s become political. It’s less about intimacy than showing off—you know, people imitating porn stars. I’ll put it down—we can deal with the details later. What else?

Shelby: (After a period of silence.) I don’t know if we have it all covered, but it’s a hell of a start. My brain seems to have clicked off.

Justin: Wait. One more thing. Children.

Shelby: What about them?

Justin: I don’t know. I ran into a guy the other day on my way to your place—he was lost, looking for I-5. Anyway, he had his baby daughter with him—and she was so—jovial.

Shelby: In contrast to adults, who tend to be so—constipated.

Justin: Something like that. (Types something very quickly.) Okay, that’ll do for now. Now I’ll save this . . . done.

Shelby: (Gets up off the bed and removes a pair of worn blue jeans, exposing a bare backside.) Let’s fuck.

Justin: (Stunned, sits up straight.) What?

Shelby: Let’s fuck. Let’s get close. Let’s make love. Let’s do it! (Removes her sweater, exposing a braless top.)

Justin: But . . . we’ve never done that before.

Shelby: Justin, don’t tell me you’re a virgin!

Justin: (Reddening.) No! Come on! I’m just . . . surprised.

Shelby: (Noticing that Justin has been averting his eyes but sneaking in a peak every now and then.) You want to, don’t you?

Justin: (Reluctantly looking into her eyes.) Yeah. Yeah, I do.

Shelby: Then come fuck me. (Justin stands up, moves to Shelby’s naked body and gently follows the outline of her figure with his hands while looking into her eyes.)

Justin: You’re beautiful.

Shelby: So are you. (She pulls his head down to her lips and kisses him.)

Justin: (Pulling back after a long kiss.) Uh oh.

Shelby: What?

Justin: No condoms.

Shelby: (Pulling him closer.) Are you safe?

Justin: Of course.

Shelby: Well, let’s hope The Pill works. The odds are with us. (Unbuttons his shirt.)

Justin: Let’s hope so. (His voice trails away as she covers his chest with kisses.)

Shelby: (Between gasps). Let’s lose the lights. It’s like a hospital in here. (She falls on the bed and takes care of the nightstand lamp while Justin switches off the desk lamp and shuts the drapes. Fade scene as Justin unbuttons his pants, his eyes focused on the sprawled figure of Shelby undulating gently on the bedspread to the sound of squeaky bedsprings that neither of them seem to notice.)


©2010 Robert Morrow. Ringing True is available in e-book, hardcover and paperback formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s and many other booksellers. Go to www.ringingtrue.com for a current listing of online retailers.