Challenging the equivalence between right and wrong

We live in an era where facts seem to be relative rather than absolute.  The facts about climate change, history, war and even the past statements of politicians seem to be malleable to suit ideology.  Human language, in all its forms, is wonderful for transmitting rich and nuanced content but it is very poor at putting a relative weight on the same information.

Like many animals, when a chimpanzee sees danger they make specific warning calls, depending on the type of predator and immediacy of the danger.  Unlike today’s political discourse, when a chimp warns of a leopard you don’t have the rest of the community gather around and debate whether it’s a hoax!

Perhaps as we have become safe from sabre-toothed tigers, our ability to communicate degrees of confidence in what we’re saying has been blunted.  Ideology has taken over from biology!

A predator threatening a community is not a topic for debate.  Yet, in everything we humans discuss, we want to hear from two sides.  We wasted years arguing about climate change despite eminent scientists making the emergency call.  Mainly because the media believed they needed to provide a voice to an alternative, no matter how little credibility the fringe perspective had.  History will judge that there was never equivalence between the views.

Similarly, when Russia invaded Ukraine, it also created an information war allowing a sizable part of the world to see two perspectives.  History will also judge that there was never equivalence between the arguments.

As we face global economic disruptions.  The world’s leading economists tell us that the best way to ensure development and protect the environment is to continue to liberalise trade.  Protectionist policies don’t work, and most alternative arguments do no service to the world’s most vulnerable people and should not be treated as being equivalent to that of the experts.

Is the danger of drinking a hot coffee the same as the danger of drinking bleach?  Both have warning messages written on the containers, and both have had advocates arguing they should be consumed, the latter by a former US president!  Although the two warnings are not equivalent, despite their similar wording, our common sense is able to help us navigate the language confusion.

Sadly, common sense is not as useful navigating the less familiar terrain of complex problems.  Whether arguing about climate change or war, when there is a right or a wrong, those that would seek to obfuscate simply put an alternative argument forward that is either cleverly worded or, worse, an outright lie.  As soon as there is doubt, there are two sides, and the population is confused.

While mathematics provides a wonderfully rich way of expressing logical arguments through both Boolean logic and statistics, we have great trouble combining it with our daily lives.  It is too easy to make arguments using clever language to obfuscate rather than clarify a political position, shifting without informing the community.

Logician, and namesake of Boolean algebra, George Boole said “Probability is expectation founded upon partial knowledge.”

The role of adding information is to increase knowledge and reduce the role of the probabilities that Boole was referring to.  It may be time for a code of conduct for anyone seeking to share information in a public forum.  The role of experts should be to help weight the information that is in the public domain.

The online “town square” of social media has become less of an open forum and more of a free-for-all with little intent to inform and a great deal of effort to confuse.  Perhaps there is a role for citizen juries in these forums to dive more deeply into topics, informed by experts, and to share their perspectives.

Regardless, future generations will be unlikely to look back at our era and see it as a golden age of contested ideas.  They are far more likely to see it as a time of partisan gladiatorial contests where the audience rewarded blood and gore rather than insight and wisdom.That there are better ways for society to hear from experts must be beyond doubt.  Given the state of discourse today, any counter view is surely not equivalent!

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