79. Cashing the reality check.

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An anthropologist, studying a hipster, spotted in Dalston.

This week I had a root canal filled. Guess what, it went well, because I was literally wearing rose-tinted glasses. Radio 2 was playing, everyone was jaunty, the banter flowed as freely as the lidocaine. The craic was mighty, as they (don’t really) say in Ireland.

Fans of CBT know that to stay healthy we need constantly to examine the way we look at the world and the future. I used to be afraid of dentistry but now I easily prefer it to hair care, where the craic is poor and there is no anaesthetic. Although dentistry is invasive and scary, the dental experience can still be positive if the atmosphere is right. Similarly, it’s possible to frame our view of the world as a positive one, though it may be necessary to stop watching BBC News Channel, with all due respect to Clive and Martine.

While we are on the subject of Reality, and how not to face it, let’s ask the question: where have all the scientists gone, the ones who didn’t become dentists?

If you’re reading a scientific paper you expect every single assertion to be carefully argued and referenced. Statisticians will have hosed down the results, using streams of numbers to wash away the confusion. Conclusions will be couched in cautious tones. Where a crisp punch-line is needed, instead there’ll be mumbled suggestions for further research. Anything that a scientist says is subjected to peer review by other scientists before it gets published.

There may be no such thing as absolute truth, but scientists probably come the closest to finding it, or at least wanting to find it.

I often wonder what it would be like if we asked scientists to form a government. This is virtually the opposite of the current situation, where, in the UK at least, scientists are barred from politics. Ok, Mrs Thatcher had a chemistry degree, but that’s about it.   Otherwise all our leaders studied PPE or law or history. Apparently there is only one scientist in the house of commons, out of 650 MPs.

Perhaps, more than any other fact, this one epitomises the British Disease. Which is talking a good game instead of playing one. We don’t know how to use a torque wrench – we use a talk wrench instead.

Most of modern history pays homage to Freud somehow or another. His nephew, Edward Bernays, pioneered the field of propaganda. Bernays had grave doubts about the democratic process, preferring a system where the masses are guided by an Enlightened Elite. Propaganda specialists gradually took over politics in the West, culminating in the election of PR man David Cameron as Top Banana. Bernays was influenced by his uncle, to the extent of recognising there was no such thing as objectivity. We all have different ‘takes’ on reality and we fit any new information into our existing preconceptions.

Clashes between worldviews can’t be resolved by a simple look at the facts. What facts? It all depends on how the evidence is collected and sifted. My view is that we need more of a scientific approach to making sense of information, but others may feel differently. How often do you hear people say that they don’t trust scientists?

Remember, for example, esteemed psychiatrist David Nutt being sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? For saying that some drugs are more harmful than others. And for saying that politicians distort and devalue research findings. The Home Secretary who sacked him was ex-postman Alan Johnson, now a national treasure. Here’s the narrative then: scientists are too narrow or cranky to see things clearly, that’s why we need politicians to decide how to classify drugs.

Quite who belongs to the Enlightened Elite nowadays is open to question. Maybe it is the shadowy ‘new world order’ and their lackeys in the media. Or maybe it is the ‘liberal consensus’ epitomised by the BBC. Or maybe it’s the Hipsters in Stoke Newington. Writer and film-maker Adam Curtis suggested that the Enlightened Elite are manipulating the news to keep us confused and afraid, a process he recently described as ‘oh dearism’ or non-linear war.

The connection between ‘oh dearism’ and Depression in individuals is not clear, but that hasn’t stopped writers like Joanna Moncrieff from asserting that Depression is just one of the missing arrows from the big Venn diagram of discontent, fear, capitalism and drugs.

I’m not sure why the Enlightened Elite would seek to make us all miserable and afraid when – if they had that kind of influence – they could just as easily make us jolly and bright. They are accused of such intent when they stage feelgood events like the Olympics and Children in Need.

In China, being governed by an enlightened elite is not just admitted, it is celebrated. And most of China’s top government officials are scientists. The president, Xi Jinping, studied chemical engineering at university. The last president, Hu Jintao, was an hydraulic engineer. How about the one before that, Jiang Zemin? Yes, he was an engineer too. Cue ‘machinery of government’ metaphor.

Could it be true that people in China have a better grasp on reality than people in the West, because they know the difference between a torque wrench and a thingybob? Do people in China take a more positive view of the world and the future?

Interestingly, it has been reported that there has been a massive drop in the suicide rate in China between 1999 and 2011, some say by as much as 58%.

China is a country run by scientists, which is not to say that UK would become like China if we rounded up our few remaining scientists and sent them to Westminster to rule over us.

Our scientists are just not used to being respected, listened to, or paid very much. Very few of them are party members, attend socialist summer camps or got seconded to tractor factories during their formative years. Our scientists are just not ready to form a party of government.

There is a solution and it will happen anyway, sooner or later. Why not invite some Chinese scientists to join our government, just like the ‘immortal seven’ (the enlightened elite of the day) invited William of Orange to become special guest king? It’s a controversial strategy, but so was the Battle of the Boyne. (Too soon?)

In December, Prince Charles gave a speech about our attitude to engineering. ‘The skills crisis has reached critical levels’, he stated, ‘particularly in the fields of mechanical engineers, machine setters and engineering professionals, which are among the most difficult posts to recruit’.

Like the house of commons, the royal family has only one scientist, Peter Phillips, who did sports science at Exeter. Shouldn’t he be promoted? And is it too early to get George his first electron microscope?

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9. The Optional Illusion.

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Facing my inquiry panel.

It is bank holiday weekend and I am waiting for the news to show the usual rioting in Brighton, as rival gangs of philosophers – down from ‘the smoke’ – fight each other with motorcycle chains. The battle between Positivists and Constructivists continues more ferociously than ever.

It’s all to do with the way you like to see Reality. The R word is an issue for mental health specialists, since mental disorders are loosely defined as a breakdown in reality testing. Positivists like to measure reality with a ruler, whereas Constructivists like to feel it through their sensory experiences.

Positivists are quite certain you have a dining room table made of wood, whereas Constructivists aren’t even certain they are in your house at all.

Having watched the Matrix, there has to be a chance that we are all just brains in buckets being fed information via the higher number Sky channels.

There are times when Positivism is essential, like measuring the dose of insulin and checking the blood sugar level, or flying a jumbo jet. When it comes to appreciating a restaurant or a book, it is probably better to judge the overall experience than rate it with a star scale.

Consider this experience: a car goes past you. There is a large dog sitting in the passenger seat, facing forwards. The dog has the window slightly open and a serious look on its face.

Why is that funny?

The humour is at the expense of the dog. It thinks its a human. It probably thinks it is driving the car. Sadly, the dog probably does not possess ‘theory of mind’. It is happily oblivious to its station in life, which is having no rights whatsoever and certainly no vote, not even for the European parliament.

Pets are big business in the UK. How much of the supermarket is devoted to pet food? How much greenhouse gas is produced by pet related activity?

What are pets actually for, if we exclude working sheepdogs and guide dogs?

OK, horses are arguably a form of transport. And I believe ferrets play a vital role in carrying cables through underground pipes. I think there are mites that play a role in cheese production, oh yes, and the little worm that goes in Tequila, though I’m not sure what it does.

I ask just to get some comments from pet owners and tequila experts.

If the answer is ‘for company’ then I’m thinking do pet owners display the same kind of obliviousness as the dog in the passenger seat?

Treating dogs and cats as people is a strange distortion of what animals really are. But in a way, we are all like the dog in the passenger seat. We construct a view of the world, but the view has many blind spots, illusions and distortions.

If the world was presented to the senses in a completely clear and unfiltered stream, it would probably seem unbearably harsh. Nature can appear very cruel if we don’t give it a bit of positive PR, which is when it becomes all things bright and beautiful.

You would like more friends so you create an imaginary friend in the shape of a grey cat. It has a droopy moustache and its name is  Zorro.

How many movies, how much merchandising, has gone into ‘anthropomorphism’ – projecting human characteristics on to animals?

The brain seems to have a tendency to attribute human like characteristics to natural phenomena and even inanimate objects such as steam engines and curling tongs, so its not surprising that creatures with two eyes and four limbs are treated as though they had finer feelings.

How much are you really empathising with a dog if you regard it as your loyal friend?

By now you have guessed that I just don’t ‘get’ animals as pets, and not much really as food. Some time soon I hope the genetic engineers will be able to make fillet steak from cell culture on a giant loom in Milton Keynes, and our cows (and horses) can relax again.

Animals have a key role in the eco system and they are incredible in how they can look and behave. They are magnificent creatures. I nearly said they are magnificent pieces of machinery (they are). I love Disney films, and Tom and Jerry, but I think I have placed these firmly in the Fiction section.

I just don’t think Toads can really buy motor cars and get put in jail for dangerous driving. Not even in Hartlepool, where they allegedly hanged a monkey having mistaken it for a French spy.

Just to leave the pet lovers alone for a while, let us turn our attention to motorcycles. From a positivist perspective we find that these accelerate very fast in a straight line. They are very cold and noisy, don’t really go round corners as fast as cars, use more petrol and tyres than cars, and are quite dangerous.

That’s if you actually ride them outside their safe operating radius of one mile from Cafe Nero. As a form of transport they get only one star.

But to counteract this, using a constructivist method, we temper our initial experience of noise, cold and danger with a range of romanticised imagery borrowed from Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen and Ewan McGregor, that sets motorcycling into a grainy black and white arts movie with a working class hero.

So Pets. And Motorcycles. The fantasy does not match the reality. We use ‘sentimentalisation’ to reduce the discord between the ways things are and the way they really ought to be. War has probably been sentimentalised more than pets, and slightly more dangerously.

And luckily, there is an absolutely huge industry whose job it is to help us not see things correctly, spanning politics, advertising and business. Advertisers construct chains of feel good imagery and attach them to our perceptions. Yogurt and Skiing, for instance.

In the motor industry engineers try to reduce what they call ‘NVH’, noise vibration and harshness. Sentimentalism is a defence against NVH in the personal environment. It’s a cosy room with cats and cuddly toys, where Liberace plays Candle in the Wind.

Consider this statistic:

Of the 26.4 million households currently in the UK, 7.6 million – or 29% – are made up of only one person, with the growth in single occupant households owned by the middle aged creating extra demand for homes.

There are many reasons for this social trend, but it seems we are becoming increasingly intolerant of living with other people. This trend has also been termed ‘schizoid society’, where we all inhabit a little bubble, and our only contact with others is as spectators.

Such a process was well anticipated and described by Isaac Asimov, in his novels about the planet Solaria. People, in proximity, just cause too much NVH. People – most people – just wouldn’t fit in the yogurt commercial.

Some of the most attractive, well thought out and effective types of therapy have devoted themselves to seeing the world more carefully and sensibly. Some nice examples include rational emotive therapy, now called REBT; personal construct psychotherapy, and Karl Rogers’ person centred therapy.

Interestingly these were all developed in the 1960s and 70s. Sadly none of them are really available much now, not in a pure form at least, though they continue mainly through strands of CBT and counselling.

I don’t think anyone has invented an anti-sentimentality tablet. Nor can I find a sentimentality rating scale to measure its effects. The lifestyle advice is relatively simple however.

Avoid sending cards for anything apart from birthdays and Christmas. Better still, avoid sending cards at all. Avoid most of Steven Spielberg’s output, and anything with James Stewart in it. Rationalise your yogurt buying to the 1000g ‘Eridanous’ pots from Lidl.

Sentimentalism is a kind of emotional clutter. There is a lot written about ‘decluttering’ your house, most of it rather obvious. First order a skip, then rescue ten things you really need.

Not you Tiddles.