Archive for May, 2011

Love, Poverty, and War

May 30, 2011

Reading Christopher Hitchens invariably provokes me to a cloudburst of scribbling. The content of his work, whether tackling God, revising Churchill, or casting the Iraq War as one of Kurdish emancipation, is (almost) secondary to the easy conversational brilliance of his style. Imagine a somewhat inebriate professor of letters who spent his youth alternating between a dinner jacket and dungarees, with an occasional sojourn to the front so he might shake hands with revolutionaries and fellow internationalists. Much like listening to live music in my relative youth instilled a desire to pick up a guitar at the immediate cessation, so does curling up with dear Hitch inspire a similar response.

Love, Poverty, and War borrows it’s title from O’Henry, who claimed no man could go through life escaping all three. It is a collection of essays on variable topics, and if there is a common theme to be found in the volume, it’s a general distate for anything approaching totalitarian, and a profound appreciation for irony and courage. Despite being forced on more than one occasion to duck lest a shot fired in anger do better than whine overhead, Hitchens avoided war for the most part, and I believe that in some senses he regrets it.

In both his memoir and in his essay on Churchillian revisionism, he makes mention of his father’s (the Commander, as he is remembered) naval service during WW2. He recounts the day his dad sunk a German warship that far outclassed his own, and chose “a better day’s work than I have ever done” to couch how he feels about his father’s finest hour. Despite the fact that Hitch was like his mom, a woman he looks back on adoringly as the person who instilled in him a love of literature, and the gentle but firm warning to “never be boring,” there is a subtle ache inside him, and perhaps in most men who’s fathers and grandfathers could count Hitler as a personal adversary.

Most of us will feel love and the pinch of hunger at some point in our lives. But war now escapes our personal reckoning. To experience war first hand one must make it their career, and come to the decision relatively early in life. Great conflict, full of sacrifice home and abroad, celebrated by endless books and films, and draped in polarizing but comforting terms like good and evil, is denied us. The greatest generation was not great for their deeds (though great their deeds were) but for the accident of their birth.

Are we right to be envious of blood, loss, and boredom? Surely, the daily life of the average solider is appositely captured by the cliched 90 percent boredom and ten percent terror (often used to describe commercial pilots, and occasionally by me to illustrate the life of a professional poker player). So why would anyone wish to be thrust into those circumstances, even if only temporarily? Because they will do a better days work than we will ever do, and maybe even more than one.

Portrayal of war is often criticized for being romanticized. For failing to convey the true cost, the pain, the senselessness of the destruction, the displacement of innocents, and the psychological consequences felt by the survivors. But the criticism misses a point. War is thrilling. War does facilitate and identify courage. War does foster bonds. There are many accounts of civilian Londoners (et al) in the aftermath of the blitz describing the time as one where they felt the most alive. The most purposeful. The most connected to their neighbours for enduring a common hardship.

There is no contradiction inherent in recognizing war as an unfortunate and evil manifestation of the human failure to resolve differences more pragmatically and morally, and feeling the unsated urge* to pick up a gun and kill a Nazi swell up inside you once in a while. You can exist in that conflicted state, and not have anything to apologize for.

Robin Lindsay


* I have heard some women describe a feeling of wanting to be pregnant – not have a child (necessarily) but an ineffable desire to be in the state of pregnancy. I think there might be an analogy hiding there somewhere.


Order Whatever You Like

May 9, 2011

Some subjects do not admit of expertise.

What constitutes a healthy diet changes every five minutes. To harvest the opinion of nutrition experts is to reap endless conflict and fickle revisions – if not complete reversals. Truly, the chasm that speaks to the breach between reasonably informed laymen and the devoted expert is a narrow one. Yes, the expert knows more, a great deal more, than the laymen. The expert may even possess greater insight into the relationship between food and health. Be that as it may, if the accuracy of predictions is the only meaningful way to assess whether someone possesses genuine expertise in a given subject (and it surely is) then the flakey nature of nutrition advice speaks to what can only be described as meaningless expertise.

Yes, we know to a moral certainty that minimum dietary requirements must be met to avoid death and disease, and over indulgence in some food groups will negatively effect both quality and span of life. But to read nutritional advice on, say, the value of anti-oxidants, the negative effects of vegetarian diets, the positive effects of vegetarian diets, red meat, pastas, breads, milk, the Atkins diet, etc and ad infinitum is to witness the entire spectrum of endorsement to condemnation. What is inescapable, is that a common sense approach to eating healthy has approximately the same chance of success as one carefully guided by any given expert. Yes, in principle some of the experts must be closer to the truth than some others, but which experts?

I can hear the cries now we have to eat, and we have to make decisions based on the available information – no matter how incomplete the data or flawed the analysis. It’s true, much like everything else in life when we don’t possess all the relevant information, we look to whatever appeals to our sense of reason, and make a choice – knowing full well that it might be wrong. However, if there is a point to be gleaned from the above, it’s that the label expert is inappropriate for a wide variety of subjects, and to call a nutritionist (et al) an expert on food in the same breath as a mathematician an expert on mathematics, is to render the term ‘expert’ useless. Again, if an expert is only an expert if they can predict the future based on what they have learned from the past, then food experts are not experts, but merely databanks prone to very shakey assertions.

The Hierarchy of Real Expertise

1.  Pure Logic/ Mathematics

2.  Evidentiary Coupled with Experimental Science (e.g. Physics)

3.  Applied Sciences (make a bridge that doesn’t collapse)

4.  Purely evidentiary studies (history minus analysis e.g.)

5. Economics/ Psychology/ Social Theory/ Anthropology/ Meteorology/ Politics/ Medicine

Some scientists, and their supporters, are routinely labelled arrogant. Arrogant for being so sure of their conclusions, and so dismissive of conclusions that contradict them. However, aside from the fact that to read a paper or book by a qualified scientist is to encounter great humility almost universally (humbleness in face of the facts being the primary requisite quality of any decent scientist) a scientist working in groups 1 through 4 is operating in spheres where conclusions can very often be drawn – where real answers are possible. That doesn’t make those disciplines more worthy of respect than others, but it does mean that conclusions drawn by scientists working in Groups 1-4 needn’t be treated with undo skepticism.

One last thought. Blanket distrust of expertise is likely borne of the conflation of Group 5 experts with the other four. Sure, there are problems with all five of them, from human error to corruption to laziness. But Group 5 change their minds every five minutes, so their thoughts and conclusions should be met with great caution and skepticism, and by default.

Robin Lindsay


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