“My wife could turn to me and she may say, ‘Why do you love me?’ And I can with all honesty look her in the eye and say, ‘Because our pheromones matched our olfactory receptors.” — Robin Ince

If we take biology out of the equation, why do we do the things we do?

Of course, if you totally remove biological responses, innate reactive and primal behaviours, physiology, and psychology, there very well may be nothing left.

If you believe in fate, or that we have souls, that there is a god or two or three, you may say that destiny, heart, purpose, or divinity wholly or in part answers the question.

The things we think may be thought out of our own free will, or they may simply be a series of chemical responses.

They may also be learned, and that’s what is perhaps the most interesting option of all. The most dangerous option: Learning to think a certain way without being consciously aware of the fact that we are learning, adopting, and executing certain behaviours based on certain passively constructed thoughts or ideas. This is the cousin of not being aware that we also have a choice in what we choose to think.

It’s called buying into a “normative society.”

None of us are born with a critically self-formed political affiliation. We may be born into conservative families, our early experiences may shape what we come to believe about politics, but all of this happens after birth. And for the most part, I think it’s safe to say most of us are aware that we are choosing to vote liberally over conservatively and vice versa, to like one politician over another, to choose between sides. Which party we choose over another is more or less an actively- and consciously- made decision. Sure, we may be manipulated, influenced, lied to, and our choice may not even be based on facts, figures, or anything of value. Nevertheless, we are aware of the act of choosing. But where did we learn that we have to choose between sides?

Where and when did we adopt and us-versus-them mentality? Why have we come to adopt the belief that life is lived in these phases of going to school, then starting your career, getting married, then having kids?

When did we come to associate being alone, single, and unmarried, especially later on in life, with being terribly lonely? Or weird?

Why do we buy into these overwhelmingly simple and classical theme of good versus evil? Why do some of us do things in the name of our country, or approve certain actions of our country, but dodge neighbours and disapprove of our kids behaving in a similar vein?

There are of course exceptions to all of these and they are by no means all-inclusive; people we know or have heard of or read about who defy these pre-set expectations of what is important, and of how to live in society. In some cases, there may be a lot of them. But a case can still be made that they are just that, exceptions. There are seven billion people in the world, and there can never be enough free-thinkers, innovators, and mould-breakers.

It may not necessarily be an entirely negative thing, buying into a normative society, and adhering to the norm. But like with any purchase, it serves well to be aware of the cost of such an action, and how much we’re paying.

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It’s like a reverse form of writer’s block.

Instead of spending so many minutes they amount to hours in front of a computer screen, waiting for brilliancy, I start with an often less-than-brilliant thought I’d like to share, and then proceed to draw a blank. The idea hasn’t disappeared. Rather, my eagerness to share my opinion is slowly replaced by worries over how I should say it, whether it is in fact my real opinion, whether I should think the subject through a little more before “enlightening” everyone with a stream of my nonsensical consciousness.

I’ve thought about this matter a lot, mostly because people I’ve spoken with sometimes get frustrated when I tell them that my opinion is to not have an opinion. What I mean when I say that, is my “opinion” is that none of the options they have provided me with are ones that I would choose to adopt as part of my own personal beliefs on how the world should operate. This generally doesn’t appease my counterpart, and the conversation descends into an argument over the validity of my response.

After wondering myself whether what I thought was being “open-minded” is actually quite narrow-minded, I’ve decided that it comes down to this: Whether it is “better” to have an opinion – or at least pick a starting point – that could be subject to change over the course of a life full of learning and experiences, or to acknowledge that you may not know everything, and that you are undecided?

Is it better, I guess, to be a part of the dialogue for the sake of being part of the conversation? For example, is it better for a Canadian to vote because we have been given the right to vote, and thus are entitled to voice our opinions on how we should be governed, even if that voter knows nothing about politics, governance, current affairs, or social issues? What if they know all there is to know, and don’t like any of the options?

Is it possible that, in not being able to pick a side because of uncertainty or indecisiveness or a lack of viable options, you become a part of a different conversation, one that is less about arguing the merits or pitfalls of one side or the other, and more about discussing all sides simultaneously in search of a new answer. Maybe it even becomes the search for a new question.

Another example: In arguing the pros and cons of capitalism versus communism, maybe it’s possible that in not siding with either, or a combination of the two, that we begin to ask ourselves the self-reflective questions we really should be asking ourselves. Questions like, ‘What is it that we need, now?’ instead of, ‘Which one wins?’ or perhaps ‘What has worked in the past?’

I read a book last week titled “The Evolution of the Doctrine and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention,” which, in a sentence, analyzed how United Nations’ and individual State actions have set precedents for where we legally, morally, and ethically draw the line between non-intervention and taking action. (There is of course no actual line, and the real issue being debated is that if States have a right to state sovereignty, and humans have a right to protected human rights, when do violations of the latter give the international community the right to “violate” the right of the former.)

It was a fascinating read (despite the fact that it was published in 1999). But there was one line in particular that stood out to me, and it didn’t really have much to do with anything. It was about how, in giving people the right to care for other people, or for the rights of other people and the rights of humanity, that you are also giving them the right not to care.

This logic is applicable to pretty much anything: In giving people the right to vote, you are giving them the right not to vote. If you have the right to speak, you also have the right not to speak. And when it comes to being constitutionally allowed (within reason) to express yourself and your opinions, you are also equally being given the right to choose not to do so. My question is whether, in consciously choosing not to do something, that makes it any less of a choice? If I don’t choose capitalism, and I don’t choose communism, and I don’t particularly agree with combining the two, does my decision mean I simply do not have an opinion?

Can’t not having an opinion be an opinion?

It’s not a matter of disinterest, in fact I could be just as knowledgeable on a given subject as anyone I’m talking to. When options A, B, and C don’t fit the bill, walking away would be disinterest. Choosing option D, however, is a choice, if for no other reason because it is a declination to choose any of the first three.

And anyone who has ever taken a Scantron test or watched “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” will know that “None of the Above” is, on occasion, the correct choice.

 

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Here are my thoughts on today’s headlines. Everything but the titles is written by yours truly.

Federal government’s selective belief in statistics is criminal by Peter McKnight:

According to the General Social Survey, the amount of crimes being reported to the police is declining, down three per cent in 2004 from 1999.

Numbers don’t lie: if 37 per cent of criminal incidents were brought to the attention of the police in 1999, and only 34 per cent were in 2004 (according to the GSS), then the conclusion to be drawn from the statistics is that less crimes are being reported to the police.

These statistics do not necessarily mean that crime rates are down.

As McKnight pointed out in the article, the reliability of the GSS needs to be taken into account, as do the differences between the GSS and the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, both of which are used to collect data on crime.

Statistics merely show the results of research; how they are interpreted is another story.

If the Conservatives are justifying a $9.5 billion decision to build new prisons on a couple of numbers that can be interpreted to show that crime rates are declining, maybe it’s time to begin monitoring the reasoning process leading up to such expensive decisions.

Forest fire budget at a 10-year low, and B.C. is already over by Todd Coyne:

This year, the B.C. government set aside $51.7 million to fight forest fires.

Last year, the Liberals allotted $61.7 million, but spent $382.1 million fighting fires, according to the Vancouver Sun.

The cost of fighting fires for 2010 has already exceeded the allotted budget; Finance Minister Colin Hansen confirmed the expenses had reached $56.5 million.

If it cost the provincial government over $380 million to fight forest fires last year, why is this year’s budget less than one seventh of that cost?

There is no way the Liberals could have expected that $50 million would be enough funds, which raises yet another question:

Let’s pretend for a moment that the overall provincial budget is $1 billion. (Again, we are merely pretending.)

And let’s say that last year, the government spent one tenth of that, $100 million, on fighting forest fires.

This year, they decided to allocate $50 million, knowing the costs would be exceeded.

However, to balance their budget, the government would have to take the $50 million no longer going towards fighting fires, and put it somewhere else.

By the end of the day, the total expected expenditures would equal $1 billion: by the end of the year, the actual expenditures would look quite different.

On paper, the government balanced their total budget, but they essentially allocated $50 million needed to cover the cost of fighting forest fires to another expense.

So to conclude my complicated thought process: $50 million (forest fires) + $50 million (taken from last year’s budget) + $50 million (the additional money eventually spent on fighting fires, not accounted for in the budget) = $150 million.

That is some magic trick, making money out of thin air…

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Here are my thoughts on today’s headlines. Everything but the titles is written by yours truly.

Free tool allows instant analysis of trends, Google economist says by Tracy Sherlock:

Thanks to Google’s new data-analysis tool, the world’s information, statistics and trends are now universally available and can be easily called-up with the simple click of a button.

By going to www.google.com/insights/search, Internet users can search for data on any subject, making fact-finding and credible research that much easier.

A similar article from PBS recently acknowledged the growing demand of readers and citizens to have access to raw data.

Check out How news organizations should prepare for data dumps by Martin Moore to learn about the interesting data-related projects headed by The Guardian and the New York Times: http://tinyurl.com/2d2k5ck.

Canada’s doctors demand major changes by Meagan Fitzpatrick:

The Canadian Medical Association will be meeting in Niagara Falls later this month to discuss how to better meet the Canada Health Act’s principle of providing universal health care to all Canadians.

Proposals to be discussed include building more long-term-care facilities and establishing more pay-for-performance incentive-based programs, according to the Vancouver Sun.

In its annual report, the CMA disclosed that the Health Act principles are not being met, and that the accessibility of medical services continues to be a major problem.

As the baby-boomer population is nearing retirement, there are more citizens leaving the workforce than entering it. Where will the money needed to create and maintain more facilities come from?

Will income taxes be raised? Will the age of retirement be pushed back?

There is without a doubt a need for major changes, but perhaps those changes are needed in the political system.

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