Monday, 24 May 2010

Everyone's an expert, noone is

I love the Internet, it's become like a second home to me. For an information junkie like myself who loves to learn stuff, it's the best thing that ever happened. Any time I get curious, or wonder why or have a nagging question in the back of my mind, five minutes of searching and my curiosity is nicely satisfied. And as it's so easy, you'd have thought that everyone would be doing it. education would never have been so good.

But the reality is rather different.

In the first point, there is the well known phenomenon of like minds congregating - intellectual birds of a feather. We like to associate with, read and listen to those whose opinions match our own. It seems to be basic human nature. And it has been noted in politics that trying to refute an opposing opinion can actual entrench the opposition rather than win them around. Balanced opinion forming doesn't seem to be a strong human characteristic but in some ways I can understand such behaviour.

Developing on from that behaviour, however, is the curious Internet phenomenon of the forum experts. (I pick on forums as it seems to be the worst meeting house for such people as I shall describe.) On the one hand, there are genuinely informed people in all areas of human knowledge, true experts and those who just know their field better. working in a technical environment, I encounter them on a regular basis. And having some technical knowledge, I can spot them in other related fields. I have hobbies that involve technical equipment, and I can see how the principles of my profession apply in those fields. I either know what I'm talking about or can spot those who do.

So why is it that forums abound with ignorant nay-sayers (that being ignorant in the true sense of being uniformed, not unintelligent)? Up pops a technical wise-man to dispel myths, expound facts, explain the principles. And from the woodwork jump the anecdotalists with apparent first hand experience (usually irrelevant) to shoot down the facts. Or pitch in pointless opinions. And gather a crowd of supporters.

What happened to checking the facts, admitting ignorance and apologising for failure. In a world of near limitless access to learning, people still wallow in ignorance. Why is that? I'd love to see the research material on why most people would rather not learn anything beyond the minimum to function. It seems true intellectual curiosity, desire to learn and dissatisfaction with not knowing are rare traits. Much is touted of the ability of technology to bring people and knowledge closer together and yet it's the flames of ignorance that attract the most moths. What's the psychology of that behaviour? I can never understand why others don't wish to learn new things but maybe that's because I do.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The breeding of a nation

A lot of links in this one - largely to Wikipedia as a good first stop for general information but not necessarily my only source of learning, just convenient.

I've been enjoying the recent Caedmon posts (part I, II, III)over at the ever-interesting Idiotic Hat. That lead to me commenting as much on this interlude post. The response I got referring to Celts intrigued me. I wasn't just thinking of the English when suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon period (generally that from the end of the Roman occupation of Britain around AD400 until the Norman Conquest in 1066) set the defining characteristics of the British. And just how separate are the Celts anyway?

The trouble with defining British, English or any other defining national characteristic is that we're really a mongrel horde. Even if we only consider the period from the Roman invasion (the AD dates), there is a mass of immigration, conquest, occupation, inter-marriage. The Romans were really a motley of absorbed foreign legions, promoted locals and a few long-distance postings. They seemed to mix with the various local groups in England.

On Roman departure, there are arrivals & movements of Angles, Saxons, Celts, Norse (roughly grouping the Scandinavians). Then the Normans (a sort of French-Viking mix) and, much later, French and German influences. Not to mention modern immigration.

So exactly which makes British? All of them, I suppose. A development of behaviours, culture, language which all go to making what we consider our national characteristics. Things stolen and
absorbed from many sources. It's why I love the English language so, the idiosyncrasies that lend it power of expression. And much the same with our culture.

So what of the Celts? Well, the modern idea of the Celt as the warrior type, distinct in culture is largely a modern myth. As are many of our views of ourselves as nations - colourful creations of lineage and cultural tradition to foster certain sense of identity. And yet the truth is so much more exciting, I think.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Le Chatelier for sociologists

Le Chatelier's principle is a useful expression of equilibrium in chemistry. It was probably the most important thing I learnt in A-level (high-school) chemistry. Briefly put it explains how equilibrium systems react to change - in effect any system tends to respond to oppose the change imposed on it.

I won't bore the non-science types any further (go read the link) but I was thinking that this basic idea can also be applied to human behaviour and is, in part, linked to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Something politicians, and others who would impose their views on others, could do well to think about.

Whenever we get new laws, decrees, taxes, doctrine, there is a reaction that tends to resist. Raise taxes and tax avoidance and evasion go up. Start cracking down on one crime and the criminals try something else. impose a new speed limit (or worse, a speed camera) and drivers find another route. Societal response is never as cut and dried as those who study it might have use believe. It leads me to have an instinctive skeptical response to anyone who tries to frame such issues in black-white, yes-no terms. It's not that easy and the choices are difficult.

In the end, I want more careful thought from those making the decisions. Weigh up the alternatives, the benefits, the consequences. And realise you'll never achieve the benefits you hope.