05/6/13

Mastery: Self Help or Just Opinion?


MasteryRobert Greene’s new book has me somewhat flummoxed. It’s not at all like his previous books. The other books of his I have were all ‘meta’ books – books about what others thought on various subjects: power, leadership, war, seduction, politics.* Mastery combines biography with exhortations to raise one’s self up to the level of mastery. We are all potential geniuses.

It strikes me as an overly-intellectualized self-help book. So far, anyway. I’m still only mid-book. But the little editorial conceit of capitalizing “Life’s Task” throughout the book already annoys me. That and it’s preachy, moralizing and somewhat condescending tone.

He also writes that, “No good can come from deviating from path you were destined to follow.” Destiny is a flimsy religious concept, not a psychological, developmental or scientific one. I find appeals to “destiny” as convincing as the claims of self-described “psychics.”

I personally don’t care for the usual lot of self-help books any more than I care to share motivational pictures or inspirational quotes attached to cute pictures of kittens and puppies, as often appear on Facebook. If you can be motivated more by a photograph of people rowing together than actually doing it, you’re not really motivated at all (and I’d hazard a guess that 85-90% of all the quotations posted on Facebook are either wrongly attributed or just plain wrong).**

Maybe it’s just me; but my experience as a publisher’s sales rep selling a seemingly endless stream of insipid self-help books on every topic has made me cynical towards the genre. I’m okay with do-it-yourself guides that offer tips and hints to help you work through a project or goal. But a lot of self-help books strike me as faux-psychological or saccharinely pseudo-spiritual. Plus a lot of them are mere flimflammery: become a psychic with these easy lessons, homeopathy in your kitchen, seven steps to crystal therapy or how to cure yourself with prayer instead of medicine.***

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02/2/13

The other conspiracy theories….


Red Queen and AliceAfter writing about the nonsensical “chemtrail” conspiracy theory and its tin-foil-hat brigade believers, I amused myself by reading up on some of the other conspiracies-du-jour on the internet. And no, I don’t mean your garden-variety secret-mushroom-farm, PRA dome, lobbyists-and-rec-facilities, aliens-in-disguise-running-the-library, Eddie-Bush-is-falling-down, Scoop-is-working-for-the-town or other local conspiracies. I mean real conspiracies: meaty stuff shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of wingnuts. Maybe millions…

Wikipedia – gotta love that site, even though it may be a conspiracy itself (see below) – has a list of popular conspiracy theories. Now it’s not a full list (there’s not a single mention of a mushroom, but a search for “mushroom conspiracy” on Google produces nearly 3,000 pages, and 1.92 million without the quote marks – but curiously, mushroom conspiracy collingwood produces 2.04 million…), but it has oodles of entertaining conspiracies to pursue.

Anyway, back to Wikipedia:

The list of conspiracy theories is a collection of the most popular unproven theories related but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories are meant to cover up the accusers’ own schemes, such as Holocaust denial.

Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered to be similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany’s pretense for invading Poland in World War II.

Got that? Unproven. Keyword here. Okay. Scroll down the page to “paranormal” (aka wiki-wacky wingnut) conspiracies. Click on “evil aliens.” Opens to a page about “reptilians.” Now if you thought chemtrails made Scientology look smart, the reptilian conspiracy goes well beyond into  the loony tune zone:

According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.[7] He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he frequently gives lectures to crowds of 2,500 or more. American writer Vicki Santillano ranked the notion that “Reptilian humanoids control all of us” as one of the 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

Reptilian HilaryPopular, of course, doesn’t mean smart. Or logical. Or even sane. But David Icke clearly has some brains: he makes money off this silliness. He sells his ideas, including through a premium membership on his website. Non-subscribers have to put up with the annoying Google ads and invitations to join to get to only a portion of the tin-foil-hat stuff. Icke’s stuff is a treasure trove of nuttiness that encompasses a wide range of weirdness. Be prepared to spend at least an hour reading his stuff and giggling aloud at it.

So I can guess Icke’s reasons for promoting this silliness (money is a powerful motivator). But what motivates the people who follow him or who have spun off their own theories from his? What motivates the self-described “Nibiruan Council“?

Welcome to the official site of the Nibiruan Council, a multidimensional off-world council whose members are connected to the people of the planet Nibiru and the Nibiruans’ ancient ancestors, the 9D Nibiruans.

The Nibiruans’ mission is to prepare humanity to take their rightful place in the greater galactic community. The Nibiruans are especially interested in assisting starseeds and walk-ins. Multidimensional ascension tools along with an accelerated program for DNA recoding will prepare them to be the teachers and wayshowers needed today. Jelaila Starr is the Nibiruan Councils’ messenger and channel. Through her articles, workshops, and lectures, the Nibiruan Council’s message has touched the hearts of many people around the world inspiring hope and understanding.

Or the Alien Nation?

The reptilian and other entities, which are manipulating our world by possessing “human” bodies, operate in frequencies between the Third and Fourth densities. These are referred to as “hidden spaces and planes unknown to man”, in the apparently ancient Emerald Tablets, which I quote from in “Children of the Matrix”. For simplicity, I refer to this “between world” in my books as the lower fourth dimension.

It is from here that they police our vibrational prison – the Matrix – and seek to addict and restrict us to the dense physical senses. This world was once far less dense than it is today and the “fall” down the frequencies, caused by the manipulation of incarnate consciousness and DNA infiltration, has made it so much more difficult to maintain a multi-dimensional connection while in physical form. We are now in a cycle of change when the vibration of this “world” will be raised out of dense physicality and return to where it once was. In doing so, the reptilians’ ability to manipulate our physical form will be removed and this is why they are in such a panic at this time to prevent this shift from opening the vibrational prison door.

The reptilians and other manipulating entities exist only just outside the frequency range of our physical senses. Their own physical form has broken down and they can no longer re-produce. Thus they have sought to infiltrate human form and so use that to exist and control in this dimension. They chose the Earth for this infiltration because it most resembles in vibration the locations from which they originate. These reptilians are addicted to the dense physical “world” and the sensations it offers and they have no desire to advance higher. Their aim in this period is to stop the Earth and incarnate humanity from making the shift from dense physical prison into multi-dimensional paradise.

A conspiracy theory explains an event as … an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public. Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new by a long shot. They’re as old as humankind. I’m sure there were residents of Nineveh, 2,600 years ago, meeting in dark storerooms to mutter “Ashurbanipal is a secret agent for the Egyptians.” But in the age of mass media, these conspiracies gained a lot more traction than they ever had because they could be shared among millions with ease. And they have become a lot stranger and less believable than ever. But that doesn’t seem to deter the True Believers.

Rational Wiki has a longer list of conspiracy theories, but even it can’t cover the sheer number of conspiracies that have erupted online over the last two decades (although you have to read about the conspiracy that a Yiddish secret society is using Wikipedia to dominate the world!).

There must be a thousand different paranoid right-wing conspiracies about President Obama’s health care plan alone. Hell, Obama himself has generated a gazillion truly astounding conspiracy theories, including that he visited Mars as a teenager (really…)

List25 has a list of (you guessed it) the “top 25″ conspiracy theories. Frankly it’s a bit thin, and lacks any links or proper explanations. But it does include the “phantom time” conspiracy, which is so entertaining you should look it up. This conspiracy says 297 years of history between 614 and 911 CE (the early Middle Ages) never happened. Instead, these dates were added to the calendar by historian conspirators who faked all the artifacts. ‘Nuff said. have fun: it’s on par with UFOs and Bosnian pyramids.  Spoiler: Skeptoid debunks it.

After the shooting of children in Sandy Hook, “truthers” (a pejorative for conspiracy theorists who call their wacky ideas “truth”) developed a raft of conspiracies around the tragedy that ranged from there-was-no-shooting to the-government-killed-the-children-to-take-away-your-guns. More than 40 YouTube videos claiming to expose the “”Sandy Hook hoax” had more than 100,000 views. YouTube is a godsend* for “truthers” (and self-alleged “psychics” who share the same level of truthiness…)

Time Magazine has a list of ten of the top conspiracy theories, most of which are pre-internet doozies most of us know and have waded into:

  • The JFK Assassination
  • 9/11 Cover-Up
  • Area 51 and the Aliens
  • Paul Is Dead
  • Secret Societies Control the World
  • The Moon Landings Were Faked
  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • Holocaust Revisionism
  • The CIA and AIDS
  • The Reptilian Elite

The internet has allowed every fruit loop to publish online and garner an audience of starry-eyed idiots. Who needs critical thinking when you have the internet?

Since the vaccination conspiracy doesn’t show on the Wikipedia list, I did some searching and was able to pull up hundreds of wingnut pages in which vaccinations are blamed for all sorts of improbable acts and evils, usually perpetuated by the anonymous, secretive but authoritarian “government.” For example, this site warns (comically but very sincerely):

…the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices… As new technology has developed over the years, the need to vaccinate each and every one of us has become more creative, particularly with older citizens. Enter the Flu Vaccination. The flu vaccination has provided a perfect way for the government to implant updated beacon devices, particularly for those individuals who recieved vaccinations fourty or more years ago, whose beacons may not have had the benefit of various technological advances. These vaccinations are also used for experimental weapon purposes as well. The government not only implants various forms of biological and chemical warfare within the citzenry for experimental purposes, but also for mind control techniques, such as implanting specific types of criminal or anti-social behavior — also for warfare experimental purposes. In conclusion, the vaccination process has provided the government with a convenient way not only to plant beacon devices within the entire citizenry, but also to test experimental warfare and mind-control techniques.

I know, I know. It’s hard not to guffaw. But vaccination theories are dangerous, not just foolish: they are killing people gullible enough to believe that it’s safer not to vaccinate your kids or yourself. Despite hundreds of children’s deaths from measles in Pakistan (there were 306 deaths from measles in 2012 alone), one woman has written a book encouraging children to delight in the joys of this and other potentially lethal childhood diseases.

What will she write about next? The fun of polio? Happy meningitis? The delights of diabetes? This anti-vaccination stuff is seriously DANGEROUS.

If you want to read how insidious this particular stupidity is, just spend a few minutes on Google. Look at the list of madness a search for “vaccination conspiracy” produces. One site associates vaccinations with fracking, cannibalism, GMO foods, government education, nuclear power, fluoride and cancer. All at once. This is really scary, not fun. It’s worrisome that these people can not only vote, but can own guns and are not locked away in institutions.

And that’s just part of the problem. People who willingly delude themselves about one bit of bizarre pseudoscience like chemtrails or homeopathy** will usually swallow the rest of the conspiracy Kool-Aid and accept pretty much all of these wacky ideas wholesale, just abandoning all common sense and critical thinking. It’s a stunningly short jump from believing governments are vaccinating everyone through airplane exhaust at 25,000 feet to believing reptiloid aliens are masquerading as humans and running governments.

For example, the author quoted above isn’t done with vaccinations. He links these vaccine-inserted nano-beacons with highway building projects, information technology, West Nile virus, supercomputers and the CIA:

Indeed, although states are replacing water pipes, they are also, unknowingly, installing millions of miles of fiber optics and other receptor cells. As discussed earlier, these wires are used to monitor everything, sometimes as a backup to satellite system monitoring or to more specific monitoring strategies to fill any gaps of satellite technology…
The West Nile Virus, or other types of viruses with different names, will likely “spread” to other parts of the country. This will prompt public outcry — which is manipulated by the media — for more sprayings…
The partnership between this unnamed drug corporation and the United States Military continues.
In the late 1940′s, the government created a supercomputer, known as Ergo9. Ergo9 was used, in conjunction with various satellites, to spy on the Russians….

Uh, I hate to break your bubble, Mr. Fruity Loop, but the first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched in October 1957. The USA didn’t launch its own satellite – Explorer 1 – until 1958. The first reconnaissance satellite was not launched until 1962, (GRAB).

This site also seems to be the source for the Ergo9 reference, which gets repeated on a few other paranoid conspiracy-theory sites, but hasn’t grown legs. Yet. These things require time to gestate into full-blown ludicrosity – even though Ergo9 is almost as daft as the local “Rick-owns-your-mortgage-and-your-car,” “Elvis-is-still-alive” or “pro-wrestling-is-real” conspiracies. Spoiler alert: supercomputers weren’t invented until the 1960s when Seymour Cray designed the first one. The small-building-size Eniac computer of 1946 was hardly a “supercomputer.”

Most of the conspiracy theory sites are a mashup of the bizarre, the curious, the angry, the paranoid, the gullible, historically and factually incorrect, and the stupid.They’re often based on either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of facts. Particularly the angry. The amount of vituperation is incredible. People writing about these conspiracies get angry and then angrier as they cobble their theories together.

And it’s not just the Tea Party supporters who walk the conspiracy trail into the deep woods of angry paranoia (although illiterate, right-wing Christian fundamentalists seem particularly prone to them – just Google the Westboro Baptist Church wackos). It almost seems infectious. Once you believe in one impossible thing, you start to believe in them all, from mushroom-farm conspiracies to vaccinations-implant-homing-beacons-for-the-government to reptilians-are-masquerading-as-municipal-councillors…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland.

Although these crazy conspiracies give the rest of us a fair bit of entertainment, we can’t ignore them just because they are ridiculous: some of these crazy, deluded people are in government (or plan to be). Some of them are already among policy makers and bureaucrats (for example there are creationists in government, even holding on the US Congress Science Committee!). Can you imagine people who believe in vaccine conspiracies getting appointed to a ministry of health? Or someone who believes in chemtrails getting onto a national research council board?

It could happen. That’s just one reason we have to push more rationality, critical thinking and plain common sense online. Let’s keep debunking and ridiculing this stuff so that it doesn’t get any further grip on the gullible among us.

~~~~~

* What would an atheist say instead of “godsend”? Are there any good but secular synonyms that carry the same sense? Imaginary-deity-send doesn’t quite cut it. Words like blessing, miracle and, manna carry a religious sense, too. Calling something a stroke of luck or windfall suggests it was mere coincidence, which godsend does not mean. Have to think about that… Apple lovers probably use Jobs-send…
** This is also true of those who believe in so-called psychics, palm readers, astrologers or faith healers. Once you believe in the paranormal, you’re doomed to misunderstand and mis-appreciate science. You’ll start believing in creationism and all sorts of codswallop, like phrenology, homeopathy, numerology and other crackpot ideas.

01/10/13

The Art of Worldly Wisdom


Balthasar GracianPublished in 1647, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of 300 aphorisms about life, behaviour, politics, morality, faith, philosophy and society. One comment, on Amazon.ca called it, somewhat unfairly to Machiavelli, “Machiavelli with a soul.” I have been reading it of late as part of my ongoing study of Machiavelli.

It was written by Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658), a Spanish-born Jesuit priest, and titled in its original Spanish, “Oraculo manual y arte de prudencia” which translates to “The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion.” Today it is known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. A popular English translation was made in 1892 by Joseph Jacobs, and is available in several formats online as a public domain book. This is available on several sites as a PDF.* A newer translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

Gracian also wrote A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (El héroe) around the same time. This was a guide for the behaviour of Christian princes, written as a counterpoint to Machiavelli’s advice. A translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom combines general observations on the human condition with practical tips and prudent advice. Many of the aphorisms still have relevance today: they are common sense, and often witty. It is not, like Heroes, a counter-argument against Machiavelli written for rulers, but rather a general guide, written for people of society; professionals, politicians, socialites. It reads a bit like Chuang Tzu or Mencius, at times. Other times it is sternly moralizing in a very European-Christian manner. Others it seems like Emily Post on manners and civility.

Typical of Gracian’s advice is aphorism 43: Think with the Few and speak with the Many. This can stand alone, but is embellished by his commentary:

“By swimming against the stream it is impossible to remove error, easy to fall into danger; only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is their condemnation. Disgust is doubled on account of the thing blamed and of the person who praised it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. The prudent avoid being contradicted as much as contradicting: though they have their censure ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used to it. The wise man therefore retires into silence, and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons.”

With 300 such aphorisms in the book, there’s always one you can find that relates to your own situation or a local issue. Some, like the one above, can be quoted by its title, but many require Gracian’s explanation to be made clear. For example, xviii: Application and Ability. This is meaningless without the subsequent paragraph of explanation:

“There is no attaining eminence without both, and where they unite there is the greatest eminence. Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. Work is the price which is paid for reputation. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts it is only in some cases application that is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things than eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but not so to be content with humble mediocrity when you could shine among the highest. Thus nature and art are both needed, and application sets on them the seal.”

Here are a few of his aphorisms that struck me as relevant, while I read the book. I have edited some of the commentary, to reduce the size of this post. I recommend, however, you get a copy of the original and read everything in it:

  • xxiv Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize, and is not content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

    lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. … To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.

  • xxv Know how to take a Hint. He cannot make himself understood who does not himself easily understand.
  • xxviii Common in Nothing. …to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Take no pleasure in the wonder of the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders, wisdom watches for the trick.
  • xxx Have naught to do with Occupations of Ill-repute, still less with fads that bring more notoriety than repute.
  • xxxiii Know how to Withdraw. If it is a great lesson in life to know how to deny, it is a still greater to know how to deny oneself as regards both affairs and persons… To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing.
  • xxv Think over Things, most over the most Important. All fools come to grief from want of thought. They never see even the half of things, and as they do not observe their own loss or gain, still less do they apply any diligence to them. Some make much of what imports little and little of much, always weighing in the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have none to lose.
  • xli Never Exaggerate. … Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.
  • lxix Do not give way to every common Impulse. He is a great man who never allows himself to be influenced by the impressions of others. Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.
  • lxxvi Do not always be Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things… Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
  • lxxviii The Art of undertaking Things. Fools rush in through the door; for folly is always bold… prudence enters with more deliberation… Step cautiously where you suspect depth. Sagacity goes cautiously forward while precaution covers the ground. 

    xxiv: Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize,… influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

  • lxxx Take care to get Information. We live by information, not by sight…Let reflection assay falsity and exaggeration.
  • lxxxvii Culture and Elegance. Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher… even knowledge is coarse If without elegance.
  • lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. He ought never to pry too minutely into things, least of all in unpleasant matters… To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.
  • xci Never set to work at anything if you have any doubts of its Prudence. A suspicion of failure in the mind of the doer is proof positive of it in that of the onlooker… Action is dangerous where prudence is in doubt… Wisdom does not trust to probabilities; it always marches in the mid-day light of reason.
  • xcii Transcendent Wisdom. …an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness.
  • cvi Do not parade your Position. …The more you seek esteem the less you obtain it, for it depends on the opinion of others. You cannot take it, but must earn and receive it from others…Do not enforce respect, but try and create it.
  • cvii Show no Self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance… Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own.
  • cviii The Path to Greatness is along with Others. Intercourse works well: manners and taste are shared: good sense and even talent grow insensibly… It is a great art to agree with others… by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found.
  • cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty, not from any evil motive but because it is their nature to. They condemn all: these for what they have done, those for what they will do… They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison…
  • cxii Gain Good-will. …By gaining their good-will you gain men’s good opinion.
  • cxiv Never Compete. …The heat of conflict gives life, or even new life, to dead scandals, and digs up long-buried skeletons. Competition begins with belittling… when the weapons of abuse do not effect their purpose, as often or mostly happens, our opponents use them for revenge, and use them at least for beating away the dust of oblivion from anything to our discredit.
  • cxvi Only act with Honourable Men. Their honour is the best surety of their behaviour even in misunderstandings… ’tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones.
  • cxvii Never talk of Yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded… above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of unwisdom really is unwise.
  • cxviii Acquire the Reputation of Courtesy; …Politeness is the main ingredient of culture,–a kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition…
  • cxix Avoid becoming Disliked. …There are many who hate of their own accord without knowing the why or the how. Their ill-will outruns our readiness to please. Their ill-nature is more prone to do others harm…Some manage to be on bad terms with all, because they always either produce or experience vexation of spirit. Once hate has taken root it is, like bad repute, difficult to eradicate.
  • cxxi Do not make a Business of what is no Business. …Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. It is preposterous to take to heart that which you should throw over your shoulders. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made much of.
  • cxxv Do not be a Black List. It is a sign of having a tarnished name to concern oneself with the ill-fame of others. Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.
  • cxxvi Folly consists not in committing Folly, but in not hiding it when committed. …Reputation depends more on what is hidden than on what is done…
  • cxxix Never complain. To complain always brings discredit… By complaining of past offences we give occasion for future ones…
  • cxxxv Do not nourish the Spirit of Contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish… To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool.
  • cxxxviii The Art of letting Things alone. …There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbour and ride at anchor…
  • cxl Find the Good in a Thing at once. …some seek the good, others the ill. There is nothing that has no good in it… But many have such a scent that amid a thousand excellences they fix upon a single defect, and single it out for blame as if they were scavengers of men’s minds and hearts.

    cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty…They condemn all… with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes.

  • cxli Do not listen to Yourself. It is no use pleasing yourself if you do not please others, and as a rule general contempt is the punishment for self-satisfaction.
  • cxlii Never from Obstinacy take the Wrong Side because your Opponent has anticipated you in taking the Right One. You begin the fight already beaten and must soon take to flight in disgrace. With bad weapons one can never win.
  • cxlv Do not show your wounded Finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured… Ill-will searches for wounds to irritate, aims darts to try the temper, and tries a thousand ways to sting to the quick. The wise never own to being hit…
  • cxlvi Look into the Interior of Things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind becomes disabused when you show the kernel. Lies always come first, dragging fools along by their irreparable vulgarity.
  • cli Think beforehand. …The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble… The pillow is a silent Sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards… Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life.
  • civil Do not make Mistakes about Character. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within…Men must be studied as deeply as books.
  • clxv Wage War Honorably. You may be obliged to wage war, but not to use poisoned arrows. Everyone must needs act as he is, not as others would make him to be… In men of honour the smallest trace of meanness repels…
  • clxvi Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. …Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.
  • clxviii Do not indulge in the Eccentricities of Folly. …Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance.
  • clxix Be more careful not to Miss once than to Hit a hundred times. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause… ill-will notices every error and no success.
  • clxxxviii Be the Bearer of Praise. …since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company.
  • cxcix To find a proper Place by Merit, not by Presumption. The true road to respect is through merit… push and insistence is degrading…
  • cci They are all Fools who seem so besides half the rest. …the greatest fool is he who thinks he is not one and all others are….
  • ccix Keep Yourself free from common Follies. …being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others…
  • ccxiv Do not turn one Blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four others in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another.
  • ccxviii Never act from Obstinacy but from Knowledge. All obstinacy is an excrescence of the mind, a grandchild of passion which never did anything right…
  • ccxxi Do not seize Occasions to embarrass Yourself or Others. There are some men …always on the point of some stupidity…Their humour always strokes the wrong way since they contradict all and every.
  • ccxxviii Do not be a Scandal-monger. …Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful… The backbiter is always hated…
  • cclii Neither belong entirely to Yourself nor entirely to Others. Both are mean forms of tyranny… A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him.

    cxxv Do not be a Black List.  Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.

  • cclvii Never let Matters come to a Rupture, …Few can do us good, almost any can do us harm… Hidden foes use the paw of the declared enemy to stir up the fire, and meanwhile they lie in ambush for such an occasion. …They cover their own failings with the faults of others.
  • cclxi Do not follow up a Folly. …some continue in their folly and prefer to be constant fools.
  • cclxx Do not condemn alone that which pleases all. There must be something good in a thing that pleases so many; even if it cannot be explained it is certainly enjoyed…You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame…
  • cclxxii Sell Things by the Tariff of Courtesy. Courtesy does not really make presents, but really lays men under obligation, and generosity is the great obligation.
  • cclxxxiv Do not be Importunate, …Be sooner sparing than lavish with your presence…The importunate is always the butt of blame; and because he thrusts himself in without shame he is thrust out with it.
  • ccxcv Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim exploits without the slightest claim…content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others.

Some of these just begged to be copied and pasted into Facebook or other sites as comments in ongoing discussions, but I restrained myself and will be content to weave a few of them into my book on Machiavelli. I recommend you read the book to appreciate fully what Gracian wrote in these sayings, and determine yourself their applicability.

~~~~~

* Most of these seem derived from a rough OCR of a scanned book on archive.org. The OCR was poorly edited and contains several typos and contextual mistakes. For example,  aphorism in these version read, “clxxiv Be Attractive.magnet of your pleasant qualities more to obtain goodwill than good deeds…” That is nonsensical. The proper word is not magnet, but “manage” which can be determined by reading the original scan. Other reconstructions suffer from bad grammar and editing. In one, for example, aphorism cclvii reads, “Never let matters come to a braking point.” The correct word is “breaking” (other versions say, “Never let matters come to a rupture.”)
Also, aphorism xci mentions “…if resolutions passed nem. con. by inner court.” Nem. con. is an abbreviation of “nemine contradicente,” a Latin phrase for “without dissent,” “unanimously,”or “of one mind.” It helps to be able to read Roman numerals when identifying aphorisms.

11/19/12

Ten Lessons Learned From the Petraeus Affair


Sex scandal cartoonAfter watching the recent, exaggerated – and sordid – upheaval over the story about an extramarital affair that the (now former) head of the CIA had with his biographer, I have come to several conclusions about America, sex, American media and publicity:

1. Americans, who bought millions of copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey“, a poorly-written, highly derivative, pornographic book, and then turned it into a national industry that includes home parties where BDSM equipment is sold to housewives, and dozens of spin-off blogs based on the book, are easily offended by “racy” emails between consenting adults.

2. Americans, who consume a vast quantity of online pornography, and who turned the porn industry from a back-alley business into a multi-billion-dollar business, are offended when real, consenting adults outside of the sex trade, have ordinary sex. And, of course, get caught.

3. Americans, who elevate mediocre and untalented stars, starlets (like Pam Anderson) and wannabes (“socialites” like Paris Hilton) to exalted popular status when they make an explicit video recording of themselves having sex and then ensure it gets broadcast all over the Internet for millions to view, are offended when consenting adults have sex and don’t make a sex tape for the public to watch.

4. Americans, who revel in graphic sex scenes and nudity in their TV shows (i.e. True Blood) and  have made entire TV series based on sex and adultery (i.e. Sex in the City), condemn extramarital sex between consenting adults as a “scandal” in their TV news and in other media. (When exactly is a news story a scandal? See here.)

5. A sexual liaison between consenting adults can become headline news for weeks, even though it has no proven effect on national security, has no proven effect on the business of the state, is not a criminal matter – but is simply a private matter between the parties involved. Meanwhile, Americans avoid real news stories and have no idea what’s happening in the world. Few American media outlets seem either willing or able to rise above the tabloid-style headline. As Saskboy writes:

The American media is very primitive, which is why it avoids complex and important issues, and instead resorts to tabloid topics like sex scandals. While their country is embroiled in an unprovoked war in Iraq, occupies Afghanistan (along with Canada), and itches to bomb Iran for oil, they’re worried more about where the wiener Petraeus has been.

6. Sex is still a potent weapon for partisan battles in politics. Republicans will try to use anything they can to hurt the Democrats and especially president Obama, by blaming them for the scandal or worse – trying to impeach him.

Republicans have quickly shifted from licking their election defeat wounds to trying to tie the David Petraeus’ affair to Benghazi in order to impeach President Obama…

After losing elections, paranoid conspiracy theories are Republican comfort food used to soothe the fractured psyche of those who got a taste of what ‘Real America’ actually thinks of them. If anyone thought the GOP rank and file would learn any lessons from their latest defeat, think again.

7. Americans love sex scandal, and revel in making it into public entertainment. They will glorify the ‘scandal’ by turning a rather mediocre affair into a glitzy Hollywood drama to elevate the titillation level.

The hormone-charged hijinks have now spread to include military groupie and Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, who blew the whistle on the marriage-breaking manoeuvres and the current warlord of the Afghan campaign, Gen. John Allen.

But who to cast in the leading roles? Here are our picks: Denzel Washington as President Barack Obama; William H. Macy as Petraeus; Demi Moore as Broadwell; Teri Hatcher as Kelley; Jack Nicholson as Gen. Allen; Vin Diesel as FBI Agent Frederick Humphries, and the Sopranos Steve Schirripa as Kelley’s cuckolded hubby, Scott Kelley.

8. The American government and media have screamed loudly about the exposure of their government documents to public scrutiny on Wikileaks, and demanded that the site’s owner, Julian Assange, be tried for treason. Yet the same media and government officials revel in exposing the sexual peccadilloes and personal lives of consenting adults caught in an affair.

9. Americans have always loved sexual scandal. As the Constitution Daily reports, this sort of event have captivated American audiences ever since the nation was first formed:

The current sex scandal involving the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military, and possibly several private citizens isn’t the first in Washington, but it has some things in common with the huge scandal that hit Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago. The Maria Reynolds affair was the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-John Allen triangle of its day in the 1790s, with its admission of adultery, scandalous mail exchanges, and a high-profile resignation.

Political cartoon10. Nothing is ever secret online, no matter how you try to hide it. A nation that voluntarily and eagerly gives up its privacy online, and will post revealing details and even photos about its private life and body parts, is apparently shocked when private details of an affair between consenting adults are made public. Obviously had Petraeus posted the details and videos online, he would have become a media star.

It’s amusing that in late 2010, one political site was wondering aloud if sex scandal was dead as a political weapon or would hold media attention:

Perhaps in America the road to forgiveness is simply becoming shorter. Maybe, people are seeing what many in other countries have seen for years –the political sex scandal may change the conversation, but doesn’t by any means change the game.

However, as The Onion wrote satirically, this silliness may have opened some Americans’ eyes to some of the real news they’ve been avoiding while googling the salacious news about Petraeus:

WASHINGTON—As they scoured the Internet for more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus’ affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving U.S. forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Allie Lipscomb, 29, said after accidentally stumbling on an article about the war while she tried to ascertain details about what specific sexual acts Petraeus and Broadwell might have engaged in. “According to this, 2,000 American troops have died, 18,000 have been wounded, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Jesus Christ. And it’s been happening for, like, 11 years.” Sources confirmed that after reading a few paragraphs about the brutal war, the nation quickly became distracted by a headline about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash’s alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy.

The long run? America’s attention span for real news – Gaza, Syria, the Fiscal Cliff, pollution, GMO foods, the environment, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, and on and on -.is that of a gnat’s. But a sex scandal appeals to American’s mixed-message attitudes about sex – part smut, part puritan, all agog – and will capture American audiences for weeks and weeks, at least until another scandal takes over the headlines.

PS. Here’s a fun infographic on adultery from the National Post.

11/13/12

The Useless Web


Useless web sitesWe all know Wikipedia is not always accurate, and sometimes biased. We all know that most internet quotations are wrong attributed or misquoted. We all know that the Web is full of useless, trivial pap like “psychic” hot lines, astrology, creationism and Ann Coulter. Plus it’s replete with the shallow: salacious gossip, celebrity skin, innuendo, pornography, political extremism, angels, UFOs, crop circles, anti-vaccine advocates, religious fundamentalists - the intellectual-nourishment equivalent of a  box of greasy fries and a sugar-laden soft drink.

But they are content-rich, compared to the truly useless material collected on The Useless Web. Well, maybe not Ann Coulter. She’s still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured. Even the colour of Kim Kardashian’s latest shoes are more relevant to the real world than anything Coulter has to say.

If you really want to waste a whole lot of time exploring the pointless edge of the internet, beyond Ann Coulter that is, go to the link in the previous paragraph and click away. Be prepared: you will be sucked in. It’s hard not to see just one more…

But it’s not alone. true to the meme-like nature of the internet, others join in pointing out the pointless. For example, Pointless Sites and Pointless Web Pages (don’t bypass the older site list either). Some, like I-Am-Bored.com seem to pile on user-submitted links of varying levels of worthlessness into their pages.Others, like House of Geekery and Makeuseof.com, compile lists of uselessness, with some pointless commentary to muddy the waters. Useless added to useless equals…? Right.

Ann Coulter is still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured.

Other aggregators of non-utilitarianism include 15.com, Squidoo.com, Ambitweb.com, About.com, the Daily What, Splitsider, PCWorld, Digital Trends (and check the video for the Japanese World Cup, linked below the list!) and many more.

Useless doesn’t mean they are not artistic, however. Some are outright brilliant (check out www.xkcd.com/1110/ for an example of weirdly wonderful useless).

Okay, so it’s a waste of time. But it’s an entertaining waste of time, so not entirely without merit. Some people apparently have taken to studying these sites with all seriousness. Know Your Meme has a short history of them, deferring intellectually to them as “single serving” sites (a long list of such sites is here). Codehesive tracks the story of a single, single-serving site.

Jason Kottke wrote about this phenomena back in 2008, and coined the term. Since then it has entered the language age even made its way to Wikipedia.There’s even a single-serving site webpage generator.

But don’t get stuck in the intellectualizing. When you have ten minutes to waste, just go back to the top of the post and find the first link. Click and enjoy. Don’t think too hard about any of it. Just celebrate the useless.

09/24/12

Are internet polls valid?


Internet pollHow valid are internet polls? Are they credible for making serious or significant decisions, or merely as general – even vague – indicators of intent? Are they equivalent to paper (and phone) surveys?

No. At least that’s what many experts say. Yes, they can be cost-effective, and good tools to engage the community. But like online petitions, they seldom have sufficient controls that restrict access to the relevant respondents. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works can easily bypass the limited security and vote numerous times. Often all it takes to get another vote is deleting cookies in your browser tools. More sophisticated users can create voting bots that automate the process.

Time poll hackedYou can read many articles on how to easily hack polls and cheat them. Some poll hacking is actually quite entertaining and imaginative, like the hack of the 2009 Time poll on the most influential people. The point is that polls are vulnerable to a variety of techniques. As one programmer noted about the Time poll:

“I took a look at the process of voting with a very basic set of tools on Firefox: Firebug and LiveHTTPHeaders. What I found is that when you submit the rating, it calls another page and passes a key, the rating, and the poll information through the URL to the page, like so:

http://www.timepolls.com/contentpolls/Vote.do?key=eba3a55e955bc93ade4fc820649cde04&rating=9&id=1857552&pollName=poy2008

Theoretically, then, you could hit this page as many times as you wanted with any rating you wanted, and drive up a candidates’ score. Though one would expect that Time would have figured that anyone could game the system, it’s easy for a programmer to forget that what they don’t intend for public viewing may still be visible, and that they always need to check to ensure that the data they expect is the data they are getting.”

Generic online polls are easy to create and many are free – this makes them attractive to businesses, media and political groups that don’t have the resources to do phone or door-to-door surveys. How many of these instant polls are actually mining participant data can’t be determined, but you have to expect the companies to get some return for a “free” service. Some media clearly use polls not as a count of anything specific, but rather as a measure about how engaged people are on an issue – and how much attention they are paying to that particular media’s coverage of it.

As one Australian study concluded,

“…online polls cannot be considered as an alternative to using paper based surveys. The independent sample t-tests results obtained for the questions administered using a paper based survey and those through an online poll showed that in the majority of cases that there was significant difference between the means. The implication is that online polls cannot be used to survey a cohort of people replacing the more costly paper based survey.

Online polls and surveys are generally open to anyone with an internet connection. Similar to clicking the Facebook “like” button, most online polls simply count clicks, but don’t qualify them by demographic – gender, region, sex, age, income or anything else that might matter. While some may believe 12 and 13-year-olds should be able to vote for any issue, they are not really old enough to appreciate the many facets of any political or social issue. But how do you tell if a vote was cast by a child or an adult?

Unless you have qualifying questions that ask personal information to identify the participant as belonging to the target demographic you need, you can’t distinguish between valid and invalid votes. That makes them all invalid.

Everyone on Facebook knows that the count of “likes” is irrelevant because Facebook lacks a corresponding “dislike” button to provide balance. Without that, the number of likes or followers has to be measured against Facebook’s almost one billion subscribers. Having 1,000, even 100,000 “likes” is a small percentage of the total possible. But even with millions, you have no way of qualifying those “likes” by any meaningful categorization. Yes, Facebook can do it, but they’re not giving the important data to users free. Besides, when it comes down to it, “likes” may make the user feel better and more popular, but they don’t add up to much else than self-importance.

It used to be the count of page hits that people boasted about. That quickly ended when website owners started putting “counters” on pages that faked the numbers, or started with high numbers. To get a real picture of website use today you need sophisticated tools like Google Analytics that identify time spent per page, whether the page was visited by a search bot or a human, whether the user went to other linked pages within that site, the search terms used to land on that page, etc. Online surveys without that sort of statistical analysis are much like the old page count numbers of the 1990s.

Some online petitions and polls even allow the same person to digitally “sign” or vote more than once. Some petitions allow participants to be “anonymous” to others (which clearly defeats the purpose of a petition as a tool of democracy). Again, that opens questions about validity and credibility. Anonymous online comments or petition signatures have no credibility in the democratic process.

Because these petitions invite comments, it’s not uncommon for people to use them as sounding boards for comment and griping, rather than for their intended purpose of gathering support for a particular position. Bitching about the state of government may be stress-relieving, but it is not relevant to the petition and dilutes the intended message.

Any online petition has to be carefully combed for duplication and repetition of names. Even once these are winnowed out, how can anyone determine the age or location of the signatory unless that information is required when signing and provided as part of the presentation? How do the presenters insure the remaining names are valid in respect to the subject of the petition? This is one reason why paper petitions still have considerably more validity than online ones.

Crazy pollsI have voted in online polls and surveys about American politics and presidential races. I’m a Canadian so my vote, my choices should be meaningless, yet there were no qualifying questions posed to restrict access to Americans of voting age. What if the Chinese government took a serious interest in the American presidential race and used US online polls to sway the results towards Chinese goals? Why not? If a poll by one of the two parties asked whether the US Army should be disbanded, wouldn’t it be in the national interests of, say, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia or Syria to push the poll numbers up towards yes and get that onto the candidate’s platform?

Could US policy be shaped by such polls? Not yet. At present there’s a good level of skepticism about online polls among politicians and their strategists. Making a claim that “70 percent of Americans want to disband the army” based on an internet poll would be not only incorrect, but stupid.

Similarly, if we run a poll asking if school should be two hours shorter and we get 12,000 yes votes, and 3,000 no, should school boards seriously consider reducing school hours? What if you found out 11,000 of those yes votes were cast by students under the age of 18? Would that affect how the poll was perceived by educators and administrators? Of course. Qualifying data is always necessary to validate the results.

Have an opinion on something? Anything? There are

On Sodahead, a popular opinion site, here’s the latest series of polls you can vote on, taken from the front page:

Do Father-Daughter Dances Promote Gender Discrimination?
Arnold Schwarzenegger Releases Book Trailer: Are You Interested in Reading His Memoir?
Will J.K. Rowling Find Success Beyond ‘Harry Potter’?
New Studies Cite Stronger Link Between Soda and Obesity: Do You Drink Soda?
KFC Closes Restaurants in Pakistan Amid Protests: Should U.S. Retailers Get Out of the Middle East?
Is Vogue Featuring Domestic Violence On Its Cover?
Which Show Are You Rooting for to Win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series?
Are Celebrity Video Games Awesome or Annoying?
Which News Anchor is Least Likely to Lie to Viewers
What were you most excited to leave behind after high school?
Do You Multitask at the Movie Theater?
Does Kanye West Have a Sex Tape?
Are These GPS Shoes Wonderful or Weird?

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I visit this site, I keep asking myself “Who cares?” Were these questions created by bored 15-year-olds? Any number of irrelevant, pointless, puerile polls are available online to people who want to express an opinion, but face it: the results aren’t going anywhere because NO ONE CARES about the results. They’re just there to make you feel engaged, let off steam, and think you’ve contributed to something.

For any opinion poll to be valid, it needs to meet certain crucial scientific criteria, including sample size. Most online polls don’t meet any serious selection criteria at all, which means they’re simply for entertainment, like horoscopes.

What is a valid sample size that gives a result meaning? One percent? Ten? Twenty five? What is the effective sample size for, say, Collingwood, with a population of 20,000?

Let me quote at length from an answer on how polls have to be conducted and what sort of sample size is relevant:

You have a two part question – but you didn’t realize it. The question, which you asked, is: “What should my sample size be for this test?”

If you go to the Sample Size Calculator website (www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm), you can find this:

The parameters you are setting are:
1) Population – the number of people in the world who will be seeing your website. Let’s assume that your population is “everyone in the world.” So, if we use a very large number, say, 1,000,000, we will calculate the maximum sample size needed.
2) Confidence - this is how sure you are going to be that the results of your sample reflect the true population. The higher the number, the larger the sample size. This is the “certainty” of the results. Customarily for most marketing work, 95% confidence is ample. The default in the website is set at 0.95.
3) Margin – This is how much error you are willing to allow. If you allow 5% error, that means that in a sample size of 100, if the results are 50 clicks, the true number of clicks could be between 45 and 55 clicks. This is the “precision” of your test. The small this number, the larger the sample size.
4) Probability - this is the value of the result you expect to get. For instance, if you expect to get 50 clicks out of 100 views, this value is set at 0.5. Of course, most of us don’t know this value. But the good news is that setting it at 0.5 yields the largest sample size. If the number of clicks is 20 or 80, the confidence increases for the same margin or the margin decreases for the same confidence. And this is a good thing.

Sample size, of course, determines cost of the test. In your case, this is time. If we use the parameters of a population of 1,000,000 with 95% confidence for 5% margin of error with a probability of 50%, then the sample size is 385. For a 1% margin, it’s 9517. You are at about 1.45% now. That means that you are within 65 of the true population result. Additionally, assuming the number of views are pretty close, this means that if the results of your test can tell the difference between the two websites as long at the results are different by more than 65.

The second part of the question – that you didn’t ask – is how do I determine if the two results are really different. For this, you do another test – a Chi-squared test. You have a hypothesis that the two results are the same versus the alternative that they are different. For the test, we look at the observed values versus “expected values.” Expected values are what we’d get is we added the total clicks for both tests and divided by total views and then multiplied by the views for each:

3760/9060 = 0.415
Expected values
4550 * .415 = 1888
4510 * .415 = 1872

Divide the difference of the expected values squared by the expected value and add the two values:

(2010 – 1888)^2/1888) = 7.883
(1750 – 1872)^2/1872) = 7.951

Sum is 15.834. Using a Chi-square table like at: http://www.richland.edu/james/lecture/m170/tbl-chi.html

If we set our confidence at 95%, we use 1 – .095 = 0.05. Our degrees of freedom are calculated by subtracting 1 from the number of proportions in our test: 2-1=1. So, for 95% confidence, we test the value of 15.834 against 3.841. Since 15.834 is larger, we reject our hypothesis that the two results are the same and accept the alternative hypothesis that they are different – with a much greater than 95% confidence.

So, as Nelson (nelsonm) stated in about 20% of the space, you’re done. Looks like version A is the best with a greater than 95% confidence.

Using the sample size calculator mentioned above, here’s what I calculate for a reasonably accurate survey for Collingwood. Based on a population of 20,000, a confidence level of .95, margin of .05, and probability of .50, the minimum sample would be 378 to get a reasonably accurate assessment.

That’s a fairly small number. But how can one determine the numbers to be punched into the various parts of the equation? What’s the confidence level, margin of error? Change the margin of error to 0.01 – a mere 1% error of margin – then you need a sample size of 6,491. Which number do you change to account for duplicates, outside (irrelevant) votes or votes made by children?

And let’s not be fooled: online polls can be and have been the target of special interest groups who want to express their own agenda. Election polls are particularly vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity.

Journalists have to be particularly suspicious of online polls. The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) provides 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results. Among these is:

How were those people chosen?
The key reason that some polls reflect public opinion accurately and other polls are unscientific junk is how people were chosen to be interviewed. In scientific polls, the pollster uses a specific statistical method for picking respondents. In unscientific polls, the person picks himself to participate.

In other words, self-participation is unscientific. A bit further down the page, it notes,

But many Internet polls are simply the latest variation on the pseudo-polls that have existed for many years. Whether the effort is a click-on Web survey, a dial-in poll or a mail-in survey, the results should be ignored and not reported. All these pseudo-polls suffer from the same problem: the respondents are self-selected. The individuals choose themselves to take part in the poll – there is no pollster choosing the respondents to be interviewed.

Governments cannot govern by poll. That’s not leadership. But attempting to govern by internet poll is not merely foolish but potentially dangerous. There is little if any way to determine the source of the votes. You might as well govern by magic ball or coin toss.

So when I read a statement like, “A community poll has shown that 7 out of 10 residents support the one community centre concept” I have to ask, who did the poll, where, when and how was it conducted? That statement turns out to be based on the results of an Enterprise-Bulletin online poll, which had approximately 200 results – 200 unqualified, unscientific results. As pointed out in the quote above, a sample size for Collingwood to get a reasonable assessment of public opinion would be at least 378 QUALIFIED votes. Qualified means a resident or taxpayer, of majority age, who understands the question being posed.

Ipsos-Mori research
Who conducts the poll and who provides the results is also important. Voters on the left don’t trust polls produced by voters on the right and vice versa. Some media are trusted to be objective, others – Fox and Sun News, for example – will always be suspected of having a bias towards their particular political slant. And the majority doesn’t trust the government to accurately and objectively present figures.

My final point has to do with the questions themselves. Asking “Do you like ice cream?” is asking for a general personal opinion and really doesn’t need more choices than “Yes, No, Sometimes.” A more specific question would be, “Do you like butterscotch ice cream?” Ice cream manufacturers are not going to change their business plans based on these rather vague questions, however. They might pay more attention to a question asking participants to select from a list of flavours not currently made, but one which they would like to see available.

Asking “Should we build a new town hall?” is an iceberg question: it hides a larger mass of questions below it: “What will it cost?”, “Will it raise my taxes?”, “Who will benefit?”, “Why do we need one?”, “Can the old town hall be refurbished?”, “when will it be built?,” “where will it be built?”and so on. Participants need answers to all those hidden questions before they can properly answer the seemingly simple question posed about building a new town hall. Otherwise, the answers on that poll are essentially meaningless.

A more reliable question might be, “Should we build a new town hall on the western side of town away from other municipal services, if it will take five years, disrupt some municipal services during construction, cause intermittent road closures, raise your taxes by 10% a year, have it located at the edge of town, result in hiring more staff, and incur greater operating costs when it opens, despite staff recommendations that we just refurbish the old one?”

Even that doesn’t include all of the factors necessary in the decision making process: what to do with the old town hall, should local contractors get preference in the tendering process, will there be local jobs created, can we get support funding from other governments, is the building “green” or LEEDS certified, do we have to buy or expropriate property, is the site currently zoned for it?

Most of all it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why do we need one now?

Perhaps, if you can vouchsafe that the participants in your poll have all paid close attention to the debate about building a new town hall, that they have attended council meetings to watch the debates, have read all the staff reports, have listened to the treasurer expound on the financial implications, have read and watched the local media to gain insight and understand the differences of opinion – they might be able to answer “Should we build a new town hall?” without further refinement. Good luck finding enough people in that category to fit the necessary sample size to validate the results.

Even if you could find such a group, the results can’t simply be reported in terms of yes and no votes. Demographic breakdown of the results is important, too. Politicians should be told the geographic location of the participants (how many west-end participants voted no compared to the east-end, for example), their age groups (are working parents more in favour than retirees?), gender, whether they live in town full-time or part-time, whether they own a vehicle or use public transit to get around town – all become parts of the decision-making milieu.

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.