I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Via @therealbanksy

Via @therealbanksy

A couple of days ago, a local politician noted with interest the number of “non-indigenous” people, in one instance, who have been given houses off the housing list. While the comment itself seemed innocuous, the reaction was predictable, with many commenters on social media vehemently agreeing with her. A Twitter friend, who is in the public eye, sees this attitude every day. When politicians make such announcements, widespread agreement is almost guaranteed from a large section of the community.

Facebook comments

But no. None of these people are racist. It’s something else, apparently.

The thing is, if that “something else” is not racism, it’s still very ugly.

And in some ways they are right, it’s not just about race. It goes way beyond that. Travellers, obese people, single mothers, feminists, homosexuals, people of other religions, the non-religious – all targets of the same anger and prejudice. Easy scapegoats for those with an axe to grind.

Left to fester, this can boil over into something like what happened in Waterford this weekend, a semi-pogrom in the 21st Century. Idiots taking the law into their own hand.

This is why politicians need to be so careful with their public utterances. The anger, the scapegoating and the hatred is all out there, a background noise in our society. We need community leaders to do their bit to address this – to direct the anger to where it needs to go – not stoking the flames of prejudice. When councillors rush towards populism to appease latent bigotry, they have to share some of the blame when things get out of control.

AngelI was involved in a Cork 96FM radio programme a few days ago, talking about angel belief. Prior to my bit on the programme, a number of women were interviewed. They were deeply invested in their beliefs, many claiming to have seen visions or having received the assistance of angels at important moments in their lives. The women were clearly very religious, many of them describing themselves as “spiritual”, as opposed to paid-up Catholic Mass-goers.

They talked about their encounters with angel healers. According to them, the healers were able to tell them things they couldn’t possibly have known in advance. It was clear that the healers were using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques. Psychologists and mentalists have long discovered that these methods are not at all magical; instead they prey on mental flaws and blind-spots that we all possess. These manipulative and deceptive practices still catch the unwary, hook, line and sinker.

Angel belief has been given a shot in the arm because of a recent pronouncement by the Pope, who recently declared that they exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. The Pope may well be saying this from a position of belief, however part of me suspects that he is addressing a wider problem within his Church. There has been a notable decline in church involvement by women, who have become disillusioned by the behaviour, attitudes and scandals within the world’s biggest boys’ club.

What strikes me about angel belief is the power of the imagery. I doubt if there are many things more potent than the idea that an authority figure is caring for us and nurturing us. It’s inculcated in us from childhood. When things get bad, we can rely on this image to make us feel better. Mary and Jesus are portrayed as nurturing, parental figures for this very reason. While this kind of belief can seem harmless enough, I have some concerns. Should things continue to get worse, then instead of focusing on the problem, people could be wracked by guilt for having disappointed their “angel”; that, in some way they are being punished for a transgression. This could pile additional stress on what is already a difficult situation. Additionally, such feelings of comfort are temporary and unlikely to solve chronic issues and problems fixable with outside help. Far from being a solution, angel belief could morph into a permanent avoidance strategy. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I am not going to condemn people who believe in angels. What people choose to believe is up to them, so long as they are not trying to foist these beliefs onto us, or put other people’s health and mental health at risk. Angel healing is big business, as anyone who has recently visited a book shop will testify. It saddens me that so many people are locked in a parent-child relationship with an imaginary entity. It allows the angels’ real life proxies – the authors and healers profiting from these beliefs – to be viewed very uncritically by their adherents. Given the subject matter they claim to be experts on and the fact that their only “evidence” is personal anecdote, these people are not quite as knowledgable as they make themselves out to be.

Blackrock_CastleWhen we look back in history, it can seem self-evident that previous generations were poorer in almost every way imaginable. To us, they had fewer material resources, a benighted mindset, poorer social structures, rudimentary health systems and a throwaway attitude towards human life. Yet, such a way of looking at the past may be deeply biased.

It may well be an illusion to think of our times as objectively “better” than in the past. Instead, we might only be considering how the past complies with the current zeitgeist. The further back in time we go, the less familiar things become. If we were to apply a percentage to how things comply with the present, then starting at 100% (now), we see this percentage reducing the further back in time we went.

No matter what period people are born into, it’s likely that they would apply the same bias. Whether they lived in the 1920’s, or the Middle Ages, or during the Roman Empire, they would always start at 100%. Their sense of the past would be framed completely by their present, possibly making them believe they were living in the most perfect of ages, irrespective of how bad these same ages might seem to us now.

Such an outlook means we must look at history not as objectively imperfect, but rather relatively different compared to the world we live in today. In the values we measure highly today, the past is unlikely to match up well. However, other measures, of lesser importance to us today, might have been deeply prized in another time. Where a time in the past is 100 – X percent like this world, this missing X becomes hugely interesting. It defines something that we would struggle to appreciate now, but nevertheless would have been crucial to the lives of people of those times, and vitally important if we wish to properly understand historical contexts.

Examples of that missing X could be music, folklore, poetry, humour or religious practice, all now lost to the sands of time. It could be skills and handiwork, no longer practised. It could be the toys and games played, the foods and the sports, of which we know little. All of this possibly lead to lives worth living for those times. When we hear older people bemoaning how older times were better, perhaps we hear echoes of this missing X.

The missing X applies not just to time, but to space too. Foreign cultures may not be poorer to our minds, as they are different. To understand it properly would require living there. To make a spot assumption that our culture is somehow better (or for them to assume it for themselves) is dangerous territory indeed.

All this is not to say that the values of our time are worthless and immaterial. Issues such as feminism, LGBT rights, racism, slavery, child-cruelty, empiricism, medicine and science have made this world a better place and, I would argue, objectively so. However we still need to be mindful of a creeping bias that turns the past into a caricature of itself. Making this mistake blinds us to what might really have been going on. At best, it leads to an imperfect view of our past. At worst, it deepens prejudice and intolerance.

Last night, my eldest son, who is preparing to do his Junior Cert this year, asked me a question. Why should he study history, he asked, wanting to know what jobs might be available after doing it.

In truth, I don’t think there are many directly related jobs, unless you fancy being a historian or an author, but I think that’s missing the point. History is a vitally important subject for reasons that transcend basic job market economics.

First of all, it gives us a sense of who we are, and how we came to be. It tells us stories about our locality, our country and our civilisation that in turn, give us an insight into why things are how they are. Great historical events don’t die quickly. They create echoes that last to and through our present day. History is there in everything we experience. By understanding this we enrich our minds.

Secondly, the stories it tells can often be related to decisions relevant to the present day. History is bubbling over with stories of people who had great decisions to make, and the consequences of those decisions are often described in gruesome detail. History is probably the only laboratory in which many of our decisions can be tested. In history we find context, and from that context we can move forwards, mindful of the mistakes made in the past that lead nowhere, or even to disaster.

Thirdly, history can do wonders for our critical thinking skills. Where there is a narrative, there are often one or many counter-narratives. We learn from our past that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and that the stories we are told often have gaping holes or mind-boggling complexities. We discover that that simple stories often deliberately overlook or distort events in order to push a particular viewpoint or ideology. Being sensitive to these distortions is no bad thing. A careful reading of history asks us to look beyond propaganda and to seek out the untidiness, while also valuing expert consensus where it exists.

History is a powerful subject. It would be a pity to see it commoditised or deprecated simply for its job-winning value. History has to be seen as more than the means to an end, as there is so much to be learned beyond our first job. It’s a type of learning that can accompany us throughout our lives.
It’s a friend to the grave.

Last Sunday, we went on a boat trip in West Cork. We were hoping to come up close and personal with a large pod of fin whales, but, despite excellent weather on the day, they were nowhere to be seen.  Photos of these magnificent creatures will have to wait for another day.

The trip was remarkably uneventful. Not only did we not see fin whales, but we also failed to spot any sunfish, dolphins or minke whales either. Even the skipper couldn’t hide his frustration on the day, as the previous few days had been marvellous for spotting marine creatures. 

We did manage to see seals, but this time of the year they’re not likely to go too far as the females are heavily pregnant. And no, we didn’t see any newborn seal pups either, in case you’re asking.

The upside is that I managed to take some nice photos. The coastline around Castletownshend is gloriously photogenic, even if its marine inhabitants were in hiding.

20140825 - Boat Wake

The Stags

The Stags

Seal Rocks

Seal Rocks

So, yet another local politician has put his foot in it. He requested that the only people allowed to work on a new motorway be Irish, with the dark implication that those damned for’ners go back to the countries they came from forthwith. I’m sure, no doubt, we’ll hear that some of his best friends are “non-nationals”, just you wait.

via Mike Licht (CC Licenced on Flickr)

via Mike Licht (CC Licenced on Flickr)

But who are the Irish anyway? Is it people who were born in Ireland? Then what about the kids who were born here, but are not allowed Irish citizenship because their parents don’t come from these parts? How about Six County Nationalists or, God forbid, Ulster Unionists? Can we include them?

What about the thousands of people from all over the world who have acquired Irish citizenship through a lengthy and expensive process? Are they now Irish, or should we try to take their passports away when they aren’t looking? Can we overlook the fact that many foreigners pay tax here, thereby bolstering our public services?

Then there are the emigrants who left the country to better their prospects and now cannot vote in any of our elections. Should we drop them from the list too? Or the sons and grandsons of emigrants who find they can play on our national soccer team if they are good enough? Maybe if they lose the accent can we leave them in?

Maybe the accent clinches it, leaving us therefore with a “South Dublin Problem”.

And what about those people who hold a sentimental attachment to the aul’ sod? Should we ask them to refrain from calling themselves Irish Americans or Irish Canadians lest they dilute the magic of Irishness? Should we divide St. Patricks Day in two – a “real” one and a “continuity” one, perhaps?

Does Irish mean Catholic? Or lapsed Catholic, because, well, you know, actual Catholics are somewhat in decline these days.

Does it mean you need to have a surname like O’Carroll, O’Casey, Boyle or Desmond? Do we stop at the Norman invasions or can we let a few Old English in before we close the doors? Should they at least follow the hurling or the football, or must they have played it up to senior level? How then, in God’s name, should we deal with a women’s rugby team or Irish cricket players? The state of them.

Could we somehow leave Cork people from the list? Surely they want to secede anyways?

Oh dear. I despair. It’s such a hard thing these days figuring out what “Irish” actually means. Maybe we should leave it to the esteemed councillor Fahy to sort it out for us.

99 Percent InvisibleOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast on my journeys to and from work. If you are a fan of This American Life, you will love it. It discusses the influence of design in contemporary society and how its presence is often overlooked, as if, er, by design. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the nuances of fire escapes, nuclear bomb shelters, and signage designed to last ten-thousand years. From these few episodes alone, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing some of their older offerings.

I thoroughly recommend their recent episode “The Sound Of Sports“. It opens a window on audio production in sports television and radio. It was originally produced in 2011 for the BBC, and is slightly dated because of it. Despite this, it makes compelling listening. 

I never fully appreciated the lengths to which sports producers introduce a sense of hyper-reality into our living rooms. Their aim is to make the experience much better than being there in person. The cameras are up close to the action, the microphones strategically positioned to pick up the nuances of the play, and at times, sound effects are introduced because the real effects are, well, not good enough. This might seem like cheating, but sports broadcasters will tell you that some of their biggest competitors are video game designers. TV audiences now expect experiences at least as good as what gamers will encounter. It’s a kind of arms race, with both teams borrowing ideas from each other so that the end effects excite us in a way the actual event might not.

We have become accustomed to the hyper-real. While long the stock-in-trade of Hollywood with their foley artists and special effects departments, such enhancements are now available to the public for free. Photos are now routinely scrubbed and filtered by the likes of Photoshop and Instagram. Home movies are slowed down, sped up and dispensed of shake and stutter. We don’t see this as a problem because it’s all about pleasuring the senses and getting across the desired intent than portraying hum-drum reality. Perhaps there will be a backlash to this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hyperreality is likely to push us in directions we cannot imagine today. It’s going to be a fascinating journey. 

One of the real attractions of Ireland (if we get the weather for it), is our long summers. The sun rises at 5 am and sets at 9 pm with darkness taking its time to arrive, if it does so at all. Our latitude is so high we don’t actually have a proper night for 2 months.

This year has been wonderful. The summer evenings have thrown up a variety of coloured skies and cloudscapes. I took a few photos close to home that give a sense of it all.

20140814 - Ballymacoda Birds

Flock of crows by Ballymacoda beach

20140814 - Rooskagh1

Haystacks

20140814 - Rooskagh2

Sign from the skies

20140814 - Rooskagh3

Giant Haystacks

20140814 - Rooskagh4

Eerie happenings in Shanagarry

The garden has been abuzz with insects over the past few weeks, going about their chores, unconcerned by the to-ings and fro-ings of us humans. I have been particularly taken by bumblebees. Industrious to a fault, full of variety and character, yet highly unlikely to lose their cool and sting. If you get too close to them, they’ll just fly off, or if they are particularly tired, out will come a leg to ward you off. Getting stung by one of them really is a last resort. Other visitors have included butterflies, moths, hover-flies and dragonflies, with the dreaded wasp conspicuous (so far) by its absence.

Here is a selection of shots, taken on my iPhone, which give a sense of the garden’s busy denizens this year.

20140814 - Bumblebee1

Bumblebee on Ligularia Dentata

20140814 - Bumblebee3

Bumblebees on Echinops

20140814 - Common Blue

Common Blue on Lavender

20140814 - Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia

Magpie Moth

Magpie Moth on Phormium

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