John Cleese has made a career out of offending people, for that’s the thrust of much of his comedy, especially with Monty Python. In this short Big Think video, he sounds off on the hyper-offensiveness plaguing today’s society (he singles out college students), showing that it’s a warped extension of a laudable concern for the dispossessed. (By the way, I don’t agree that all humor is critical, and I’ve put a joke at the bottom* that is completely inoffensive.)
The money quote: “If people can’t control their own emotions then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.” We’ve seen this going around the internet quite a bit in the last year, when it’s been deemed okay to mock some viewpoints while others are totally off limits, branding those transgressing those boundaries as ideologically polluted.
*Here’s a joke that doesn’t offend anyone (except perhaps invertebrates):
In the movie The Life of Brian (1979), Reg, played by John Cleese, asks fellow members of the People’s Front of Judea:
… apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health; what have the Romans ever done for us?
“Brought peace” is the answer he receives.
In hindsight, Christmas could be added to the list.
When we think of the Romans, gift-giving, carol-singing and celebrating the birth of Christ don’t immediately present themselves. Waging wars, general oppression and a never-ending desire to rule the world are more likely to spring to mind.
But various Christmas traditions come from ancient pagan festivities, including the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia.
Historian and cultural investigator, Polydore Vergil (c. 1470-1555), was the first to record the similarities between certain pagan and Christian practices. He noted the connection between the predominantly English tradition, “The Lord of Misrule”, which occurred on Christmas Day and an equivalent custom of the Saturnalia. Both involved masters and servants or slaves swapping roles for a day.
Why the Romans permitted such silliness is based on the nature of the Saturnalia. Held in mid-December, the Saturnalia, a celebration in honour of the god Saturn, was characterised by the relaxation of social order and a carnival-like atmosphere.
Saturn, once the principal deity of the Italians, was the god of time, agriculture and things bountiful. He reigned over the Golden Age, an era of peace, happiness and plenty. Indeed, the pleasures associated with the Golden Age were perhaps re-enacted in the Saturnalia itself.
The Saturnalia celebrated the god in his role as overseer of a season of anxiety. Winters were harsh and food sometimes scarce. And as the days became shorter and the earth symbolically died, the seasonal time needed to be commemorated and the god kept happy.
The Saturnalia was a lead-up to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, recorded as December 25 in the Julian calendar.
With revelries and hijinks, feasting and the cessation of formal business, the Romans looked forward to the coming of the light of the sun. With the return of spring, there would be renewed fertility. Crops would grow and farm animals would give birth, providing another year of bounty and full bellies.
As part of the revelries, the Romans exchanged gifts: candles, signet rings, toothpicks, combs, tooth paste, baby rattles, hairpins, woolly slippers, warm caps, tablecloths and, yes, even socks and the Christmas puppy! These were exchanged during or after a feast, served by the head of the household and perhaps his children while the slaves enjoyed their time off.
Saturn’s association with gift-giving has led scholars like Samuel L. Macey to link him with Santa Claus. But, as Macey knows, Saturn had a shadowy side and, like many Roman deities, there were skeletons in his closet! Someone who decides to eat his children as a means of maintaining power, for example, isn’t an ideal Santa prototype. Then again, some kids find Santa pretty scary.
As television was not yet invented, and the internet light years away, the poor old Romans had to occupy their Saturnalian leisure time with human interaction. They enjoyed games, gambled, played dress-ups and recited poetry (some of a risqué nature). Drinking, the modern scourge of the holiday season, was also a feature of the Saturnalia. While some of us take offence at the barbed comments at Christmas get-togethers, the Romans simply regarded them as a ritualised part of the upside-down world of the silly season.
Besides the Saturnalia, there was another important Roman festival with influential ties to Christmas: the celebration of the Unconquered Sun on December 25. According to the fourth century almanac, the Calendar of Philocalus, there is mention of a celebration of the “Unconquered” on December 25, which is most likely a reference to the “Unconquered Sun.”
In the same manuscript, December 25 is also listed as the birth of Jesus.
The Calendar of Philocalus is therefore cited by some scholars as potential evidence for the coalescence of the festival of the Unconquered Sun with the celebration of the birth of Christ. David M. Gwynn suggests: “The commemoration of Christ’s birth on 25 December … appears to have originated in the west, in part to provide a Christian counterpart to the birthday of the Sun.”
By the end of the late Roman period, Christmas was part of the Christian calendar. The pagan festivals may have officially disappeared but traces of the old ways remained.
This is the second article in a series, How we make decisions, which explores our decision-making processes. How well do we consider all factors involved in a decision, and what helps and what holds us back?
It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.
Type in any keyword into a scientific search engine and a staggering number of published articles appears. “Climate change” yields 238,000 hits; “tobacco lung cancer” returns 14,500; and even the largely unloved “Arion ater” has earned a respectable 245 publications.
Experts are keenly aware of the vastness of the knowledge landscape in their fields. Ask any scholar and they will likely acknowledge how little they know relative to what is knowable – a realisation that may date back to Confucius.
Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with. If you start without knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.
This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, it refers to a study they published in 1999. They showed that the more poorly people actually performed, the more they over-estimated their own performance.
People whose logical ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.
Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.
Confidence and credibility
Here is the next catch: in the eyes of others, what matters most to judge a person’s credibility is their confidence. Research into the credibility of expert witnesses has identified the expert’s projected confidence as the most important determinant in judged credibility. Nearly half of people’s judgements of credibility can be explained on the basis of how confident the expert appears — more than on the basis of any other variable.
Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.
But even short of this extreme possibility, the data on confidence and expert credibility give rise to another concern. In contested arenas, such as climate change, the Dunning-Kruger effect and its flow-on consequences can distort public perceptions of the true scientific state of affairs.
Guess who, then, would be expected to appear particularly confident when they are invited to expound their views on TV, owing to the media’s failure to recognise (false) balance as (actual) bias? Yes, it’s the contrarian blogger who is paired with a climate expert in “debating” climate science and who thinks that hot brick buildings contribute to global warming.
‘I’m not an expert, but…’
How should actual experts — those who publish in the peer-reviewed literature in their area of expertise — deal with the problems that arise from Dunning-Kruger, the media’s failure to recognise “balance” as bias, and the fact that the public uses projected confidence as a cue for credibility?
When people recognise that scientists agree on the climate problem, they too accept the existence of the problem. It is for this reason that Ed Maibach and colleagues, from the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, have recently called on climate scientists to set the record straight and inform the public that there is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening.
One might object that “setting the record straight” constitutes advocacy. We do not agree; sharing knowledge is not advocacy and, by extension, neither is sharing the strong consensus behind that knowledge. In the case of climate change, it simply informs the public of a fact that is widely misrepresented in the media.
The public has a right to know that there is a scientific consensus on climate change. How the public uses that knowledge is up to them. The line to advocacy would be crossed only if scientists articulated specific policy recommendations on the basis of that consensus.
The second step to introducing accurate scientific knowledge into public debates and decision-making pertains precisely to the boundary between scientific advice and advocacy. This is a nuanced issue, but some empirical evidence in a natural-resource management context suggests that the public wants scientists to do more than just analyse data and leave policy decisions to others.
It is not. Our statement is analogous to arguing that “the only unequivocal tool for minimising your risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking”. Both statements are true. Both identify a link between a scientific consensus and a personal or political action.
Neither statement, however, advocates any specific response. After all, a smoker may gladly accept the risk of lung cancer if the enjoyment of tobacco outweighs the spectre of premature death — but the smoker must make an informed decision based on the scientific consensus on tobacco.
Likewise, the global public may decide to continue with business as usual, gladly accepting the risk to their children and grandchildren – but they should do so in full knowledge of the risks that arise from the existing scientific consensus on climate change.
Some scientists do advocate for specific policies, especially if their careers have evolved beyond simply conducting science and if they have taken new or additional roles in policy or leadership.
Most of us, however, carefully limit our statements to scientific evidence. In those cases, it is vital that we challenge spurious accusations of advocacy, because such claims serve to marginalise the voices of experts.
Portraying the simple sharing of scientific knowledge with the public as an act of advocacy has the pernicious effect of silencing scientists or removing their expert opinion from public debate. The consequence is that scientific evidence is lost to the public and is lost to the democratic process.
But in one specific way we are advocates. We advocate that our leaders recognise and understand the evidence.
We believe that sober policy decisions on climate change cannot be made when politicians claim that they are not scientists while also erroneously claiming that there is no scientific consensus.
We advocate that our leaders are morally obligated to make and justify their decisions in light of the best available scientific, social and economic understanding.
Click on the links below for other articles in the series, How we make decisions: