On science, and why we should respect it

We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.

How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?

It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.

But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.

Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.

While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.

Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.

Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Criticism

Criticism is painful, especially if it comes from someone you admire, but it’s still necessary and vital for all our interactions with the each other and the world around us.

We already talk of the need for feedback in the creative process, and have accepted its importance. We do not assume that the wonderful works of art we have are perfect from the moment of their conception. We know that humans are not, as a rule, perfect, that we are ruled by emotion, blinded by perspective, and sometimes just plain lazy or apathetic. Whether it’s self-criticism or another’s efforts, evaluation of our work is a purifying process, making the bad things good and the good things better, maybe even the best.

So, then, if careful and clear analysis of our creative work is so very necessary, why shouldn’t the same apply to every facet of our lives?

One of the most common traps we find in life is the things we love, whether they are people or concepts. Our role models are role models for a reason: we admire and respect them and we want to be like them. We cling to our chosen ideologies because we support them, we agree with them and we want to follow them. And that’s fine – that’s part of being human, and needing to relate to things and have something to pursue in life. But when we’re so caught up in what we believe and read and hear, it gets harder to remember that our role models are not perfect, as much as we might believe and want them to be. Our ideologies may be theoretically unshakeable but life has always made practicalities less clear-cut.

Overzealous fans are the perfect example of a lack of criticism. Any time a celebrity screws up, a certain number of their fans will flock unhesitatingly to their defense, decrying any opposing voices and asserting the virtues of their idol even if it means insulting others and supporting things which they mightn’t otherwise agree with. This behaviour – this brief abandonment of rationality and personal convictions – is precisely why we need to consciously criticise our lives and actions. Criticism is the very process by which we develop our own principles and morals, by examining those of others, those of the people we love, and comparing them with our own experiences, knowledge and emotions.

The same idea holds true for concepts – it’s great to say you support a cause, to enthusiastically align yourself with some new notion that appeals to your sensibilities. But unless you maintain a certain distance from it, you run the risk yet again of becoming a blind follower, an unquestioning devotee to an idea which might be imperfect. The vast majority of things in the world are, so it’s only logical to assume that whatever it is you’re currently enamoured with is in some way problematic.

That’s why we have to be able to criticise everything we encounter – to recognise the flaws and try and work past them. And I do mean everything, from your friends, to your favourite books, to your own fleeting thoughts. Why does your friend think they can say that? Was that chapter necessary to the story? Was that really a rational reaction?

Criticism doesn’t mean forever playing Devil’s advocate, or tossing away anything with some tiny imperfection. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the flaws, a conscious acceptance that allows us to judge with greater impartiality, though as humans we will always be biased, and to continue towards improvement. There are too many philosophies and interpretations of life and scraps of advice and inspiration to count, and many have merit, many are fantastic and hugely significant to various people, but it is unlikely any are utterly perfect. Criticism becomes the tool that lets us take the best bits of all the concepts and credos and manifestos that appeal to us without being dragged down by the issues, the unwanted parts.

Life may be about exploring new things but a good explorer knows not to plunge into a murky, unknown swamp just because the leader of the party did. It’s downright foolish. It has always been dangerous to believe blindly and shut your mind to other ideas, to any opposing beliefs, but never has it been so easy to cherry-pick your media and blinker yourself to the vastly diverse realities of life as it is now with the ubiquity of the internet and its hundred thousand realities. The artificial nature of internet-based groups filled only with people sharing almost identical beliefs is a poor reflection of real life, which, unfortunately, is what we need to be dealing with. If the world really did function according to our personal principles and beliefs, we wouldn’t be having to deal with all the various issues that do exist.

But sadly, these issues are real. The world isn’t made for us, we just try and fit in around it, and things go wrong all the time. At least when we learn to criticise our own part in it, we understand it a little better.

The value of friendship and the necessarily related qualities required in a friend.

So, friends.

Friends are sometimes ephemeral, sometimes reliable, generally amusing and hopefully sympathetic. Actually, friends can be a lot of surprisingly different things, from truthful and kind and absolutely selfless to manipulative and needy and dishonest. Some might disagree, and say that they’re not really your friend if they’re manipulative and so on, but I usually consider those people to be wrong. Human relationships are odd things – it’s often difficult to understand the varying relationships of the people around you, precisely because they’re so complicated and individual. I’ve had friends I didn’t like much because circumstances dictated we should be friendly. We weren’t close, of course, but in most senses of the word we were friends. We did things together, we laughed, we shared things, and then behind each others’ backs we complained and whined and that was that. We had to be friends, so we were.

I’ve also had friends who I did really like, wonderful, amazing friends, who were nonetheless dishonest or unfeeling or insensitive or careless. In one sense, it’s a little like having a friend who’s really bad at maths. It’s pretty damn irritating that when you go out, she can never get the right change ready or whatever else, but you can deal with it, and try and help them. You don’t just declare them a complete waste of your time. So if you have a friend who’s mostly quite alright, and who you get on with, then sometimes you can just put up with the way they tend to point out flaws or remind you of things you’d rather forget. Obviously you’d be happier if they didn’t do that, but life isn’t about ideal situations. As I’ve said before, it’s about compromise.

I’ve been forced over and over to make new friends because I’m constantly moving around, and I really, truly think I value friendships very highly. In fact, though this could simply be a result of my unfortunate tendency to believe myself superior to others, I think I might often value friendships more highly than the average, random young person. And while I half-jokingly attribute that to wanting to be special, I do think it’s more likely just because of the way I’ve been raised and my own personality. I’m not particularly at ease with large groups of people. I move around all the time, and I want friends who I can talk to 3 months after I last saw them and still have the same or at least a similar relationship with as when I saw them every day. I understand why other people prefer to have many friends, because I observe it around me a lot, and I have no problem with it. That’s wonderful, if that’s what they want and what they have. I just don’t want it for myself. And that means that I also tend to have quite selective criteria when it comes to finding a friend from the masses of humanity that I am forced to engage with, and thus often take rather a while to settle in to a new place, and find myself new friends.

Which leads me, of course, to what those criteria might be.

I don’t pretend to have some careful list detailing the exact attributes I require – that’s obviously quite foolish. But there are many things that I look for – I have to be able to respect them, for one. As I get older, I do seem to be getting more accepting, but I have limits, and while I do my utmost best to never change my treatment of people – it is my aim to be perfectly polite to everyone, unless of course they do something directly rude or cruel – I still don’t think there’s any reason I have to make them my friend and confidantes.

But one of the most important things in a friend, to me, is that they entertain me, and keep me happy. Honestly, as far as I can tell, that’s the main reason we have friends. It’s certainly the main reason have friends. I want people who make me laugh, and stop me from being bored on a 2 hour train trip, and that’s probably how I judge how well I’m friends with people. When we laugh often, and I don’t feel uncomfortable, like I’m faking it, or like I’m overeager for friends, I feel secure in my relationships.

I don’t mind a bit of dishonesty or selfishness. I would far far rather my friends weren’t selfish or dishonest, but I try to be a realist. No one is perfect. I’m not. It would be odd for someone as imperfect as me to always have perfect friends, wouldn’t it? And I’m dishonest sometimes too. I lie because I’m a private person and don’t want to share everything about myself. I imagine my friends do too. Same goes for being selfish, or rude, or insensitive, or lots of other things. Sure, I want  my friends to be honest and kind and sympathetic and selfless and caring and all these positive qualities. But most of all, I want them to make me happy, to make me laugh, to cheer me up when I’m sad. The kind of friends you can enjoy yourself with in imperfect situations, like when it’s raining and everywhere is closed and you end up in the cold wet park but it’s OK, because you’re with your friends and you can laugh about it tomorrow over hot chocolate in the warm.

I want friends who make me laugh.

That’s what I value most.

 

Compromise

Have you heard about compromise?

People are often romantics at heart, it seems, because I’m forever hearing about the power of love, and how it’s what keeps the world running. And I don’t deny it – our emotions are what make us keep going, what stop us from deciding nothing is worth this hell. If you love something enough, it gives you the strength to put up with a lot.

But actual life, actual, physical, day-to-day life? Well, compromise is just as important as love. You don’t need to live a life of pure happiness, cavorting in the clouds to a soundtrack of your favourite musicians playing live and inviting you backstage afterwards, to be happy. I’m not saying that that wouldn’t make you ridiculously happy – I can’t really comment, having never experienced it – but I know for a fact that you can be quite deliriously happy without such exaggerated reason to be.

That’s one of the great things about humans. The oddest, most pointless things can make us happy.

Of course, that also goes the other way. Everything that makes you happy can seem stupidly pointless and make you question why you even care. But when you’re not looking at it from underneath, it’s almost magical how we can be made happy so easily.

But back to compromise.

Life is not perfect, and probably never will be. But there are enough good things in it, generally, that we can outweigh the bad. Of course, this means doing something that the human brain makes very hard for us – see the negative and the positive equally, or even slightly tipped to favour the positive, rather than the negative. You’ve got to make yourself look at your life, look at the people and the pets and the trips to your favourite restaurant and that feeling you get on Friday afternoon – and see how all of that makes it easier to get up at 7 every weekday, or find the money for that dental surgery, or give up your evening out to do something you don’t want to.

Otherwise, there’s no way out. All the bad stuff will cast too dark a shadow over what’s good in your life. Compromise is literally essential to not hate everything – and that’s OK. Really, it’s fine. Maybe it’s not what we want, but we can work with it. You might have to buy the top of the range phone or laptop, and have the other one be a bit cheap, but you’ll be able to pay your rent and buy Christmas presents, so it’s OK. It balances. I know some people are a lot poorer or unhappier than the difference between an iPhone 5s and an old iPhone 3, but surely even then, compromise is what gets you through.

All our life is is compromise, sometimes. It’s summer so you don’t have to wear a jacket, but you’ll get sunburned. You can go skiing in winter, but it’s freaking freezing. Eat the second slice of cake and you’ll feel a bit sick, or don’t eat your vegetables and you’ll also feel sick. We have to make choices all the time, and they’re not perfect. You just have to learn to take the best compromise – take the better one, because best isn’t always an option.

This rambling has been brought to you by me sitting in the sunshine and staring at the sky and loving Australia. And being unable to decide whether I’d rather live here or overseas. You know, the usual big problems of life.

Too many people think they’re ugly. It’s just plain statistically unlikely.

Do you know what I find possibly the worst about our current culture’s issues with self-esteem? It’s that there are so many girls – and probably guys – out there who don’t just think they aren’t beautiful – I mean, if we’re being honest, with society’s expectations where they are only maybe 10%, 20% of people should be ‘beautiful’ – but they think they’re ugly. Not average, as probability dictates they should be. But honestly, aggressively, ugly. Repulsive to look at in some respect.

I find that horrible.

 

It wouldn’t be so bad if people JUST felt bad about not being beautiful – which as we all know is utterly ridiculous anyway. But instead of the 80% feeling sad that they’re not in the top 20, most of ’em are downright depressed because they think they’re practically in the bottom 20. 

It’s just stupid. It’s all just so crazily stupid that some days I can’t believe this is actually a problem we have.

*********************

The fact of the matter is, I tend to walk around thinking quite honestly that most of the people I meet are attractive. Some more than others, sure, and there’s always a few people who just really don’t fit our idea of beauty at all – but I very rarely meet someone who is ugly. And I know way too many people who I sometimes catch myself staring at and thinking “Damn, they’re so pretty/beautiful/handsome/striking.” AND OF COURSE, those of them that are my friends (admittedly I may be prejudiced by my opinion of their character, but it’s not like I’m completely mad) have all expressed the opinion that they aren’t at all pretty.

*********************

I would like to point out that in most cases, self-esteem is in a constant state of flux. One day you feel particularly good, you think you’re pretty in the mirror, you’re happy. The next you could quite literally be idly considering plastic surgery and cursing how expensive it is, before you catch yourself and are rightfully horrified. And most of the time you’ll be somewhere in the middle, though, it would seem, tending towards to the thoughts of plastic surgery. 

 

 

Books and Films: a comparison by a book lover

Do you like books?

I do. Many of the people I love do. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I love them. They’re just such glorious wonders – and anyone who shares that love of reading will know exactly what I mean. I could wax lyrical and go on describing the joy of letters connecting together to weave gorgeous, heartbreaking, exhilarating, human stories but really, there’s no need. You’ll understand me, or you won’t, and that’s that and maybe it’s sad to think that so many people miss out on something so fantastic, but at least there are those who appreciate it.

But there are some people who don’t like reading and instead love movies, and some who just like a good mixture of both. Many of my friends like to read, but ultimately watch more films than they read books. I don’t know what I think of that. One part of me thinks they’re silly and foolish, to choose a screen over a book. But then again, I love movies, and the things they can show you and the way they bring characters to life, so that’s rather hypocritical. Especially considering that for a long time, I wanted to be a movie actress, to tell stories through drama and costume and beautiful sets.

I do certainly enjoy watching movies.

And yet I prefer to read, generally speaking. I prefer the book to the movie adaptation, almost always. It’s not such an uncommon thing, but still my friends ask me, “Don’t you like movies?”. They find it astonishing just how few I watch. Which leads me to consider just exactly why I watch so few, and to consider once more the differences between a story told through pictures and one told through words. So here are my personal opinions, right or wrong or just mildly obvious.

You cannot read a book with multiple people. At least, only if you’re reading it aloud, like to a child. And while that can be a good experience and a valuable one, I think ultimately the vast majority of people prefer to read by themselves, curled in bed or stretched on the grass or on the bench at the bus stop. That’s not to say that they will always be alone while reading – that’s not true. A quiet companionship of relative silence can be cultivated while you read – maybe two people reading together, or one doing paperwork, or listening to music, or driving. But the actual consumption of the words is done privately, individually. It lets you have things how you want them, to conjure the world within its pages exactly as you see them. To interpret the words in the way that best pleases you. You might not like the words, and you might interpret them differently to others, but you’re the one doing it, and that makes it better.

But movies are more sociable, lending themselves to shared consumption and discussion and interpretation and commentary. It’s a different experience, in that your final opinion of the film will be shaped by others, whether directly or indirectly. As so many have previously pointed out, movies take away the audience’s main power of imagination, by providing everything there on screen. It’s not a bad practice. It’s great to see things happen with explosions and expressions and colour and sound. But it does mean that you have less control over how the story appears in your mind. And, as I said before, it’s more likely that you’ll watch a movie with  someone, meaning that you’ll be influenced by them as well. Their presence can be a huge advantage – I love to share laughter and horror and disbelief and sarcastic remarks with someone as we watch a movie together. But if you’re like me, you prefer being alone when you watch something with tears rolling down your cheeks. Or even just when you want something to be perfect, without your friend or your brother or your boyfriend or your mother there to quip at how silly the character looks just as you’re getting to the emotional, heartwarming climax. It takes something away from the moment, makes it lesser. And I hate that.

Of course, books and films both have good and bad points about them. But obviously one will generally appeal more to a particular type of person. I don’t know what it is about me that makes me prefer books, and it could just be a lifetime of loving them from an early age, but I do. Maybe it’s because I like to have control, and I like to be alone with a story, and I like the limitless possibilities of words and their accessibility. But regardless of the reason, one thing is certain and that is that I am undoubtedly a lover of books, now and hopefully and forever.

Kill ’em with kindness: cruel people and the problems with extreme solutions

Some people have been pestering me of late; how fun it is to suffer through people constantly asking you the same question, over and over and over again, knowing that it’s a question that antagonises you and makes you highly uncomfortable.

Point is, people are jerks sometimes. We all have to deal with them. Some more than most. Bullies, trolls, or just plain old nasty people – they’re got a lot of names but as far as I can see they share one thing in common – they don’t have proper respect for other people.

There’s actually a reason behind this vague moaning today – specifically, this tumblr post about the troublesome website, Return of Kings, which is basically a collection of misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic white men. They’ve been causing some fuss online lately, and my mildly insane hero Amanda Palmer was one of the many who spoke about it, here.

I suggest you read that post if this one is to make any sense from now on.

(This is just, as usual, a long diatribe in which I will try to clarify my feelings and opinion on the matter by musing on it by writing about it here.) 

I hate bullies. Mean people. Whatever. I hate them with a fiery passion, I hate them with a bitter resentment and I hate them with a stubborn determination that sometimes surprises people. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe because they made me miserable as a little kid, and effectively ruined a fantastic experience for me. Maybe because they’ve just followed me my whole life – though I don’t really have many ‘weaknesses’ as such – I’m not gay or an ethnic minority or anything like that – I just seem to be a universal target because of the way I speak and petty things like that.

Regardless of the reason, I hate them.

I’ve also had a few slightly violent habits when trying to deal with these people. Just spur of the moment kinds of things, like slapping someone who kept taking my things or hitting someone with a pen when they refused to acknowledge my existence. I know rationally that it’s awful and I need to stop and I’m making things worse but it’s always seemed like the only way to fight back.

Now, the radfems here are suggesting castration and execution. They’re probably exaggerating a bit – I doubt most of them could actually stomach killing those men. And who hasn’t thought that, some time or other? “I wish I could just kill my boss/teacher/relative/this person who is annoying me”.

But some people find even the suggestion abhorrent. I can’t say I do. Extreme, maybe – but I see their reasoning. As I read that post, I didn’t think “Wow these people are entirely ridiculous.”

Violence isn’t the answer. I accept that. But I don’t think pure love and compassion is either. Yes – it’s part of it. Maybe a big part. But people who act this wrongly – despite being shown why it’s wrong – need to be punished. You don’t make a recalcitrant kid do his homework by constantly letting him off the hook – you do it by threatening to remove his privileges unless he does it. Privileges, not rights. It’s never right to deprive someone of their human rights – I agree with this completely, as much as I wish some people could just be wiped from the face of the earth. But privileges? Oh damn, they are another thing entirely.

No, we shouldn’t be unfeeling and cold and wielding our knives. But it’s both stupid and unhelpful to just drop everything and open our arms and offer hugs to the criminals. In my opinion, anyway.

The way I see it, we need to mix the two extremes. It’s just goddamn useless to only ever have the two opposite ends of the spectrum as options – which seems to be the problem in the linked post.

The culprits have to understand why what they did was wrong before they can learn not to do it. That takes patience and love and understanding – someone taking the time to explain things, to listen to the other perspective and take it into account, to persevere and be someone genuinely trying to help. Not to convert or lecture or punish, but to help the culprit. Because as many people have said before me, if your life is based on treating other people like crap, then it can’t be very good.

Then, if or when the culprit actually understands the issue with their actions, any punishment that’s doled out will actually have an effect. I mean, think about it – if you ever got put in detention for talking in class when it wasn’t you, you’ll note that everything seemed unfair and cruel and awful. But if you actually were talking? Well, odds are you accepted the punishment, not gracefully, perhaps, but knowing deep down that you technically deserved it. Which, in my experience, makes it a bit easier to handle.

So then: attack with kindness until they see the error of their ways, then apply appropriate punishment without the overt influence of emotional responses to the culprit’s wrongdoing and attitude.

Well, that’s what I think, anyway. And yes, I know this wouldn’t work in all situations. But to me it’s damn sight better than killing either with kindness or in the name of righteousness.