This I believe

November 23, 2014

In the spring of 1951 distinguished American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was portrayed by George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck,  launched the radio series This I Believe. Each episode featured someone, be it a Supreme Court Justice or a secretary — reading an essay expressing the core principles guiding their lives. This programme, in which anyone, from a Supreme Court judge to a judge to a butcher could enunciate their world view, would go on for five years. Here is Murrow presenting the idea. I just love that voice:

The show was later revived by Radio Luxembourg from 1956-58 and by NPR from 2005-2009, which is where I first came across it. I have often thought about doing my own version and today I am taking the plunge. I have done it my way. I wasn’t sure if to call it This I Don’t Believe, as this is a part of my weltanschauung. Anyway, here is my contribution:


This I believe  by Martin Oliva

I am a sceptic. That does not make me a knee-jerk naysayer, but I want to be shown evidence before I believe something. In fact, I am even a bit sceptical about scepticism itself. There are too many times when we are preaching to the converted. We need to engage in debates with people we disagree with. Perhaps it’s a losing battle anyway –people seem to want to believe. It’s like that game, Whack-a-mole – as soon as you knock down a dodgy idea, it will pop up somewhere else, in a new form, but sometimes not even that.

I believe in science. I think it is the greatest tool for understanding our world. It is the systematic application of scepticism. I love the lack of absoluteness the provisional nature of its conclusions. I have no desire for absolute knowledge. This scientific scepticism makes me reluctant to believe in creationism, paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories, the New Age movement, postmodernism and alternative medicine. Science does have its limitations – there is no such thing as scientific morality.

I don’t do religion. I am an agnostic. I don’t need to believe in a creator to find meaning in the world. I believe the world is random. Life is not going in a direction. However, I am not one of those aggressive atheist types. If I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not put an end to violence.

The lack of certainty and the complex nature of our world should instil humility in us. Beware of those offering easy solutions. They believe that they can solve everything with their masterplans. In this sense intellectuals can be particularly dangerous, as they tend to believe in the powers of their intellect to solve all the world’s problems. I believe that humans are fundamentally flawed, and any attempts to perfect us will end in failure. The millennia of human civilisation should make us aware that utopia is not an option.

I am passionate about history and I think we can learn a great deal from it, although extrapolating the right lessons is not always easy. I believe in the contingent nature of history. Things could very easily have turned out differently. Although it may be uncomfortable, we need to look at our country’s history warts and all. I am also a fan of Big History, whose starting point is the origins of the Universe some 13.5 billion years ago. This gives you a real perspective on the vast time scale of world history and the relative irrelevance of events like the French Revolution, or even the two world wars.

I love language; it is one of the things that makes us human. It is a wonderful example of an emergent phenomenon. Like evolution, it is design without a designer; nobody planned it top-down. I am sceptical of those who want to put language in a cage, as it is constantly evolving. I am a descriptivist; I take language as it is.

I think trade is a positive force. I think economic freedom is good, allowing us to capture innate human creativity. There may be some examples of successful government intervention in the economy, but these are surely outnumbered by the disasters. I think technology, though it may create disruption in the short term, does not destroy jobs in the long run. Inequality is a problem that does worry me. In the wake of the 2008 crisis it has become a hot topic. We will need to find solutions that balance economic freedom and the need to maintain legitimacy in the economic system

I think politics is everywhere, from the corridors of power to family dynamics. I take a sceptical view of democracy, but it is the best system known to us so far. I favour systems which protect freedoms. I am suspicious of people who think they know our interests. Prohibition was indeed a noble experiment, but its unintended consequences far outweighed any possible benefits. Policies should always be judged by their results, not the intentions behind them.

This I believe in quotes

November 23, 2014

Here are some of the quotes from my blog which reflect my world view:

Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes scepticism a virtue.  Robert K. Merton

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know, that’s a really good argument, my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. Carl Sagan

They (the socialists) have criticized freely enough the economic structure of “free” society, but have consistently neglected to apply to the economics of the disputed socialist state the same caustic acumen, which they have revealed elsewhere, not always with success. Economics, as such, figures all too sparsely in the glamorous pictures painted by the Utopians. They invariably explain how, in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place. Ludwig von Mises

There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. George Orwell

But these are just stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Ben Goldacre

It is easy for a well-fed metropolitan with time and money on his hands to talk about dealing with his chronic symptoms with Ayurvedic medicine or Chinese herbal remedies, but if you go those countries where they are all they have, you’ll find them crying out for goof old Western antibiotics, painkillers and all the rest of the modern and expensive pharmacopoeia. A Ugandan dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis doesn’t wanted to be treated with the natural remedies of his forefathers: he wants an aseptic syringe full of antibiotics… John Diamond

Alternative Medicine”, I continue

Has either not been proved to work,

Or been proved not to work.

You know what they call alternative medicine”

That’s been proved to work?

Medicine. Storm Tim Minchin”

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early 20th century, for the first time an ordinary story teller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely—this fascinates me—conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual. Tom Wolfe

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. F.A. Hayek

Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes. George Soros

Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop Dr John Marks

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. Richard Dawkins

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one. Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Economists give their predictions to a digit after the decimal point to show that they have a sense of humour.  Anonymous

There are two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. J K Galbraith

Study the past if you would divine the future. Confucius

 There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren’t lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers, cars and celebrities. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.

Picture the world as being a city whose pavements are covered a foot deep in gold coins. You have to wade through them to make progress. Their clinking and rattling fills the air. Imagine that you met a beggar in such a city.

 ‘Please, give me something. I am penniless.’

‘But look around you,’ you would shout. ‘There is gold enough to last you your whole life. All you have to do is to bend down and pick it up!’

When people complain that they don’t know any literature because it was badly taught at school, or that they missed out on history because on the timetable it was either that or biology, or some such ludicrous excuse, it is hard not to react in the same way.

‘But it’s all around you!’ I want to scream. ‘All you have to do it bend down and pick it up!’ What on earth people think their lack of knowledge of the Hundred Years War, or Socrates, or the colonization of Batavia has to do with school I have no idea. As one who was expelled from any number of educational establishments and never did any work at any of them, I know perfectly well that the fault lay not in the staff but in my self that I was ignorant. Then one day, or over the course of time, I got greedy. Greedy to know things, greedy for understanding, greedy for information. Stephen Fry