Awareness of Awareness Statistics

I often talk about how we can become better consumers of information. One subtle way that information is often presented in a misleading manner is through what I will call “awareness statistics.” These statistics inform you about the number of people who “know of someone” who knows someone.

You hear these awareness statistics all the time. You hear that x of every y people know someone who has suffered from cancer, or abuse, or gun violence, or sexism, or ageism, or police brutality, or has been unfairly profiled, or has been burgled, or who uses personal pronouns.

While all of these issues I cited as examples are real and are important, drawing conclusions – both qualitative and quantitative – from these kind of awareness statistics can be very misleading. Worse, these kind of statistics are often intended to mislead, to exaggerate, and to induce a heightened reaction.

In very rare situations, awareness statistics can be legitimate. They can tell us how deeply a particular narrative has seeped into a population. It can tell us how many people are aware of a particular issue.

But that is not generally, or even often, the point of these statistics. Typically the point of citing such statistics is to serve as a surrogate for direct measurement. Rather than directly reporting the number of people who have been injured in motorcycle accidents, we report how many people know of someone who has been injured in a motorcycle accident. The intent is not to measure mere awareness, but to convey an impression of actual accident frequency.

The underlying problem is that awareness relationships in a population are extremely complex, highly uneven, and skewed. Some few people have many more relationships than others. We simply cannot correlate “awareness” with actual frequency in any straight-forward manner. If Britney Spears tweets about her bad hair day, millions of people know of someone who had a bad hair day. If Nicki Minaj tweets about her friend’s testicular reaction to the Covid vaccine, tens of millions of people “know someone” who had a terrible reaction to the vaccine.

Consider the example of sexual behavior. Experts strongly suspect that a relatively few men have relationships with a much larger number of women. No one knows the exact numbers, but let’s just make up some to illustrate. Let’s say that 1 guy has affairs with 10 women during a period of time. Each woman tends to share this information with 5 close friends. Now, when surveyed, 50 women report that they “know of someone” who has had an affair. It sounds like lots of guys are having affairs, but it’s really just that one really horny studmuffin. Most women are led to believe that lots of guys are having affairs and most of the guys are wondering why they are such losers at love.

So how should we assimilate such awareness statistics?

First, You should be skeptical whenever you hear awareness statistics. Actively skeptical. It is not enough that you merely be aware of their limitations, because they can still be successful in creating a lasting misleading impression despite your academic skepticism. You must not only be aware of their limitations, but actively suspicious of them.

You should always ask whether awareness statistics are being presented simply because we cannot measure the actual number directly. If that is the case, you should consider this to be no more than a very unreliable indicator.

But if awareness statistics are being presented despite the fact that the actual number can be directly measured, then you should assume that the intent is to manipulate your reaction. If advocates report that 2.5 million people know someone who knows someone who has been murdered, that sounds far more alarming then saying there were 1000 murders committed. It is their intent to alarm you when the raw numbers are insufficiently alarming.

Finally, resist the urge to accept statistical exaggerations when you support the cause and even when you think people need to be more alarmed. The problem is that the other side can play the same game. Anything you can exaggerate with awareness statistics, they can exaggerate just as easily. Sixty-five million people know someone who has been a victimized by cancel culture and 27 million people know of someone who was saved by a hero with a handgun.

Stay true to real facts. Don’t be swayed by manipulative statistics – especially when you believe in your heart that some exaggeration is warranted. After all, over 45 million people know of someone who knows someone who has been a victim of awareness statistics.

Better yet, just don’t use them at all unless you are a sophisticated demographer.

Trump Exposed Our Stupidity

I have long expressed the speculation that we are probably no smarter than the population of ancient Babylon. Yes, we may have more technology and more knowledge, but brains evolve very slowly and have probably long ago reached intrinsic intellectual limits like the maximum size of an insect with an exoskeleton. Similarly, we are probably no smarter overall than people were way back when.

Given the number of people in our population who believe in any sort of crazy, nonsensical, disproven claim, it’s hard to deny that we have a lot of really stupid people in our population. Despite that, we have long preferred to respect the intelligence of our fellow humans and at worst characterize them as misled, uninformed, uneducated, and so on. Not stupid though. Oh no, we’re not saying that.

When Trump came to power I said that was further proof of how stupid we are. Clearly we are not stupid in all ways, but I was talking about the particular set of “social intelligence” smarts that might allow us to form a just and sustainable social system. As social stupidity exerted itself throughout the Trump era, more and more people found they had no choice but to refer to his supporters as simply stupid.

Still, most continued to resist that harsh point-blank criticism. They hung on to hope that Trump voters were simply misinformed by Fox News.

Then Covid came along. As it became clear that many Trump supporters and some others were continuing to resist vaccines and thereby placing themselves and others at mortal risk, the rest of us have pretty much been forced to admit that, yes, they are just plain stupid. We can no longer continue to pretend that any less critical adjective is sufficient to describe them.

Trump has not made people stupid. Stupid people created Trump. Trump didn’t tell them what to think, he threw out trial balloons at his rallies and he echoed whatever they cheered to most strongly. He led stupid people wherever they told him they wanted to go.

The stupid people don’t worship Trump. They don’t even follow Trump. The moment he tries to take them where they don’t want to go, they rebel. They boo him as they did when he tried to urge them to get vaccinated. As horrible as Trump may be, the real problem is not Trump, the real problem are the stupid people who created and continue to empower Trumpism.

Look, it’s clear we have different kinds of smart and stupid. Some people may be brilliant in lots of ways, but still be quite hopelessly stupid at math. You don’t want them teaching math to your kids. In the same way, we should accept that some people, as smart as they may be in lots of ways, are simply hopelessly stupid when it comes to social policy and they should not be allowed anywhere near making it.

In their excellent book, Hating America, authors Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin document the dire misgivings that many 18th century European intellectuals expressed regarding the formation of a Democracy in America (see here). They warned that a system that empowered uninformed and stupid masses to make critical decisions was doomed to be dysfunctional and destructive. Their concern was elevated by their certainty that America, with all its vast resources, would become very powerful. Putting that much power in the hands of the stupid masses would be disastrous, they warned.

It has taken longer than those European intellectuals feared, but their predictions and warnings are finally coming true. A powerful America, dysfunctional and destructive in its behavior, careening down the road to a calamitous global future with stupid people behind the wheel.

Why now? I mean, the stupid people who support Trumpism – if not Trump himself – have always been here. They spewed nonsense in ancient Babylon, they owned slaves in America, and lynched free Blacks more recently. They have always hated government, believed in nonsense, proudly flew their Confederate flags, denied climate change, and rejected vaccinations. But we have managed pretty well so far. We have made progress despite them. So why worry about them now? What makes them more dangerous today?

I’ll give two reasons why our stupid population is more dangerous today – social media and guns. Social media gives them the critical ability to mutually-reinforce their stupidity, to coordinate, to rise up in online or real-world mobs, and to take over our government through coordinated action or even under threats of violence. Social media promised to empower the masses, and unfortunately it has succeeded.

And guns give these people the real power not only to mobilize, coerce, and threaten, but to exert their will through with profoundly horrifying violence and destruction.

It is long past time that we all accept and acknowledge that we have, and always will have, a socially stupid and dangerous fraction of people in our population. We must further accept that no amount of education, media campaigns, or empathetic outreach – or even fear of death – will dissuade these people from their stupid behavior. We cannot “bring them around.” We rather must find ways to moderate them, disempower them, and achieve a fair and sustainable society despite them.

We need, as George Will has said, sane and rational people in our representative form of government who can moderate our worst, stupidest, passions. But social media, and increasingly guns and threats of violence, are installing stupid people in our government who then gerrymander and create other pathways to bring in even more stupid people.

Eliminating, or strongly controlling, the two major enablers of stupidity, social media and guns, is essential if we are going to survive our socially stupid population and prove those European intellectuals wrong about the unavoidable fate of a Democratic system of government.

Paranormal Investigations

When I was a kid my friends and I did lots of camping. We’d sit around the campfire late into the night, talking. Without fail, my friend John would capture our interest with some really engaging story. It would go on and on, getting wilder and wilder until we’d all eventually realize we’d been had. He was just messing with us again, having fun seeing just how gullible we could be. And somehow we all fell for it at least once on every trip.

In the 1970’s author and anthropology student Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books detailing his tutelage under the a mystic Yaqui Indian shaman named don Juan Matus. The first books were fascinating and compelling. But as the books progressed, they became increasingly more fantastic. Eventually these supposedly true accounts escalated into complete and utter fantasy. Despite this, or because of it, hundreds of thousands of people reportedly made trips to into the desert in hopes of finding this fictional don Juan Matus. In fact, Castaneda was awarded a doctoral degree based on this obviously fictional writing.

Castaneda never admitted that his stories were made-up. We once had “mentalist” Yuri Geller who refused to admit that his fork-bending trick was only just a trick. We have long had horror films that purport to be “based on actual events.” These sort of claims were once only amusing. But now these kind of paranormal con jobs have escalated, like one of John’s campfire stories, to a ridiculous and frankly embarrassing and even dangerous level in our society. This kind of storytelling has become normalized in the prolific genre of “paranormal investigations” reality television shows.

We need to say – enough already.

Sadly, we see dozens of these shows on networks that call themselves “Discovery” or “Learning” or “History” or (most gallingly) “Science.” There are hundreds of shows and series on YouTube and elsewhere that purport to investigate the paranormal. These shows do us no service. In fact they are highly corrosive to our intellectual fabric, both individually and socially.

They all follow the same basic formula. They find some “unexplained” situation. They bring in experts to legitimize their investigations. They interview people about how they feel apprehensive or fearful about whatever it is. They spend a lot of time setting up “scientific” equipment and flashing shots of needles on gauges jumping around. They speculate about a wide range of possible explanations, most of them implausibly fantastic. They use a lot of suggestive language, horror-film style cinematography, and cuts to scary produced clips. And they end up determining that while they can’t say anything for sure but they can say that there is indeed something very mysterious going on.

These shows do tremendous harm. They legitimize the paranormal and trivialize real science. They turn the tools and trappings of science into cheap carnival show props.

Some of these shows are better than others. They do conclude that the flicker on a video is merely a reflection. But in the process, in order to produce an engaging show, they entertain all sorts of crazy nonsense as legitimately plausible explanations. In doing so, they suggest that while it may not have been the cause in this particular case, aliens or ghosts might be legitimately be considered as possible causes in other cases. By entertaining those possibilities as legitimate, they legitimize crazy ideas.

There would be a way to do this responsibly. These shows could investigate unexplained reports and dispense with all the paranormal theatrics and refuse to even consider paranormal explanations. They could provide actual explanations rather than merely open the door to paranormal ones.

MythBusters proved that a show that sticks to reality can be entertaining.

I am not sure what is worse, that this is the quality of diet that we are fed, or that we as a society lap it up and find it so addictively delicious.

Religious Child Maltreatment

In her excellent book, “Breaking Their Will,” author Janet Heimlich powerfully documents the many ways that religion motivates and justifies the maltreatment of children (see here). She identifies the following general forms of religious child abuse:

  • justifying abusive physical punishment with religious texts or doctrine;
  • having children engage in dangerous religious rituals;
  • taking advantage of religious authority to abuse children and procure their silence;
  • failing to provide children needed medical care due to a belief in divine intervention;
  • terrifying children with religious concepts, such as an angry and punitive god, eternal damnation, or possession by the devil or by demons;
  • making children feel guilty and shameful by telling them they are sinful;
  • neglecting children’s safety by allowing them to spend more time with religious authorities without scrutinizing the authorities’ backgrounds;
  • inculcating children with religious ideas; and
  • failing to acknowledge or report child abuse or neglect to protect the image of a religion or a religious group.

“Breaking Their Will” goes into tremendous detail in documenting and expanding upon each of these forms of child maltreatment, with the possible exception of the one that jumps out to me like a flashing neon light. That one seems like it is far too easy to skim over and lose sight of.

I am speaking of the second to last item. I was very pleased that, in addition to all of the more specific forms of abuse, the author did include “inculcating children with religious ideas” as a form of abuse. This foundational form of abuse deserves deeper and more serious consideration.

Fantasy is wonderful for kids. But saturating a developing mind in fantasy presented as fact does fundamental harm to their rational capacity and compromises their ability to distinguish fact from fantasy more generally. It diminishes their ability to evaluate evidence and to recognize sound logic. It necessarily trains their neural networks to falsely rationalize irrational beliefs. And it thereby does real harm their ability to make fact-based decisions as children and throughout their lives.

While none of the many of the abuses documented in “Breaking Their Will” can be excused or dismissed or minimized as merely misguided aberrations of otherwise benign religious practices, some would try to do so. This particular abuse, however, is inherent in all religious inculcation, however benign or even beneficial it may be in other ways. It is so inherent to religious inculcation that it cannot be dismissed as aberrational.

Further, as difficult as it can be to “get over” or “move beyond” other forms of religious abuse, the compromising of the developing rational faculties of a child during their most formative years has long term implications that are particularly difficult to overcome, insidious in their expression, and impacts practically every aspect of a child’s future life.

Most of us grew up with religion and we think we are just fine. That makes it very difficult for most of us to see the harm in religious training. Many people feel the same way about corporal punishment. My dad beat me and I turned out fine. Our upbringing and continued exposure to religion creates a bias to accept religious inculcation as normal.

In order to “control for” our bias, substitute religious beliefs with some other comparable belief. What if we were teaching our children that aliens are present on Earth and that they can body-snatch us if we are bad. If we are good, the aliens will take us on board their ship to their home planet where we will live in in eternal happiness. Imagine further that this idea was mainstreamed such that huge numbers of people not only believed this, but they used this belief to guide their lives and insisted that we implement public policies based on this belief.

Certainly, you would find this unacceptable. Even if you held that adults should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like, you would probably still argue that they should not be allowed to inculcate their children with this set of crazy beliefs. You would undoubtedly argue that this does real long term harm and that parents should be prevented from “messing with” their children’s impressionable minds in such a detrimental manner.

How is the inculcation of religious nonsense any different? It is not, except for the fact that we have been inculcated to accept it as reasonable.

Perhaps our own ability to rationalize away the harm caused by religious inculcation is the best proof of the harmful effect of the religious maltreatment we suffered as children.

You can learn more about religious child maltreatment and ways that you can join the fight in stopping it at the Child-Friendly Faith Project (see here).

I Say Give Them Time

As my readers know I occasionally take exception to comments made by highly respected intellectuals. I hope that when I do so it is not to engage in a gratuitous attack, but to offer an important counterpoint. In that spirit I must take exception to recent comments made by the highly respected thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell (see here).

The comments I refer to were offered by Mr. Gladwell when he appeared on The Beat with Ari Melber last week. The full text can be heard on the Ari Melber podcast dated July 3rd, 2021.

Mr. Melber introduced the segment by pointing out that we live in a period in which Republicans are attempting to revise history and promote lies. He asked Mr. Gladwell for his thoughts about all of that and whether there were any solutions. It should be noted that this question was asked in the context of promoting Mr. Gladwell as an expert on human thinking and behavior.

Here is a slightly polished transcription of the response by Mr. Gladwell:

I think about the role of time. I wonder whether we’re in too much of a hurry to pass judgment on the people who continue to lie about what happened on Jan 6th, there are many forms that denial takes. One of it is that I honestly don’t believe that anything went wrong there. Another form is that I do believe but I’m not ready to admit it yet. A lot of what looks like a kind of malignant denial in the republican party right now is probably just people who aren’t ready to come clean and renounce a lot of what they were saying for the previous four years. I say give them time.

While this admonition for patience may sound superficially learned and wise, I find it naïve, wrong both theoretically and factually, and damagingly counterproductive. While I certainly don’t expect Mr. Gladwell to cite all his supporting evidence in a short interview segment like this, I don’t believe he has any. I suspect this is simply well-meaning but unrealistic platitude, analogous to “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s OK, except that he is putting forth an unsupported platitude as the conclusion of a purported expert in human thinking.

But such an expert on human thinking should understand that neural networks simply do not function in a way that would make “give them time” a reasonable strategy. As long as Republicans continue to hear the same old lies repeated over and over, they are not going to eventually recognize and reject them. Repeated exposure does not reveal lies but rather transforms our brains to accept them more deeply.

Our neural networks are influenced mainly by the quantity and repetition of the training “facts” they are exposed to. They have little capacity to judge the quality of those facts. Any training fact, in this case any idea the neural network is exposed to, is judged as valid by our neural network machinery in proportion to how often it is reinforced. And by the way, I know most of us want to believe that we collectively are not so susceptible to this because we want to believe that we personally are not. But we are.

So, my objection to Gladwell is that he does not truly understand how our neural networks function because if he did he would understand that “I say give them time” is counterproductive advice at this time. Now, yes, it would be good advice if we were confident that Trump voters are being exposed regularly and primarily to truthful information. If that were the case I would agree, yes, give their neural networks more exposure time. However, I don’t believe that there is any reasonable basis to think that giving them more time will serve any purpose except to further reinforce the lies they are continually exposed to from Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News. We are simply not ready to just be patient and let the truth seep in and percolate.

The more nuanced advice, in my opinion, to the question posed by Ari Melber is that we must discredit and stem the flow of misinformation from these sources and expose Republicans regularly to truly factual information. Once we do that, then, yes, I say just give them time for their neural networks to become comfortable with it. With enough exposure their neural networks will transform whether they want them to or not. But to accept the status quo right now and “give them time” as Mr. Gladwell suggests would be horribly premature and ill-advised.

False Positives and Us

Cognitive scientists often discuss various forms of cognitive bias. Confirmation bias is just one well-known type (see here). Recognizing cognitive biases in all their forms is really important. But that effectively only focuses on symptoms. not the underlying causes or mechanisms of cognitive biases. In order to better overcome them, we also need understand the mechanisms that give rise to them.

As I discuss at length in my book (see here), our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines. Almost everything we do is a form of pattern recognition. And evolution has tuned our pattern recognition neural networks to err strongly on the side of false positives.

Here’s an example I often use to illustrate the importance of false positives. Imagine when we were evolving as animals. There were real tigers in the forest that were a mortal threat to us. Therefore, our neural networks were trained to recognize even the most vague hint of a tiger in the trees as a real tiger. It did not much matter if we imagined a hundred tigers that were only shadows or leaves blowing in the wind. What was critical however, was that we not miss even one real tiger, no matter how cleverly it concealed itself. An extreme bias toward false positives was a gigantic evolutionary necessity.

The result of all of this natural selection is that today we both benefit from and are hampered by powerful neural networks that are tuned to err strongly on the side of false positives. This is particularly acute when it comes to anything that might threaten us or distress us or make us uncomfortable.

This soft-wiring of our neural networks on the side of false positives not only underpins many of our cognitive biases but has huge ramifications in our social and interpersonal interaction.

For example, false positives certainly bias our perception of any *ism that offends or distresses us. If I am sensitive about my hair, I almost certainly detect far more insensitive comments about my hair than are objectively real. This is true of any *ism that impacts us, whether it be sexism, racism, or any other form of bigotry or hostility. And let me be very clear. All these things do exist and do happen, but I’m making the claim that any given individual almost certainly detects many false positives that are not really incidents of it.

This expands on our usual assessment that I am “sensitive” about my hair. Such prosaic sensitivity can be seen as a another symptom of these underlying mechanics. Our understanding of the false positive bias of our neural networks helps us understand how and why this happens and make us better able to accept it in others and defend against it in ourselves.

This is important because our exaggerated perceptions based on false positives have huge repercussions for individuals and for society. They cause us to react negatively in situations where such a response is actually counterproductive. It also exaggerates our feelings of anger and hostility which not only produce unfortunate behaviors and emotions, but those false positives also act as new legitimate “facts” that “train” our pattern recognition brains to recognize even more extreme false positives. Our biased perceptions and our memories of those false perceptions serve to reinforce our biased neural network in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Soon we see our *ism everywhere, we hear it in every comment, see it in every glance, and respond with depression and anger which make it still worse.

These same mechanisms play a critical role in our one-on-one interpersonal interactions as well. If our friend or spouse says something we find bothersome or offensive, we quickly become attuned to it and start to see it in every nuance of expression and hear it between the lines in every comment. This reinforces our neural network to become even more sensitized toward it, detecting even more false positives. We can soon get to the point where there is nothing you can say, or even not say, to the listener that is not further evidence to support their feelings. We can quickly become surrounded, even paralyzed by all the tigers in the shadows.

Certainly merely being aware of this mechanism of false positive pattern recognition does not eliminate our susceptibility to all cognitive biases, but I think that understanding how our pattern recognition network functions is essential to protecting ourselves against perceptions that are not realistic or healthy. I know that for me, understanding how I am vulnerable to false positives does not immunize me by any means, but it does help me on many occasions to recognize and to push back against my own pattern recognition biases. And this is true even for perceptions or memories that seem incredibly real and compelling. Having some appreciation, and some humility, with regard to how susceptible we are to false positives can have a tremendous impact for the better.

What Pinky and the Brain Can Teach Us

Some of you might remember Pinky and the Brain from the 1990’s or from the revival series released in 2020. But whether you were a fan or not, these genetically enhanced laboratory mice have a lot to teach us all about creative interaction and collaboration.

The Brain was brilliant and preoccupied with conceiving and executing hairbrained schemes “to take over the world.” His dim-witted companion Pinky didn’t care about taking over the world in the slightest but was irrepressibly delighted to join in anything fun.

While most of their schemes flopped hilariously, some succeeded quite well. Regardless of their level of success however, none would have even gotten off the ground were it not for their unlikely collaboration. The Brain on his own would have gotten completely fixated on a scheme without ever seeing obvious flaws or considering alternate options. Pinky, with his right-brain churning away madly could never focus on anything long enough to carry it forward on his own.

Pinky and the Brain are like individual left and right brain hemispheres, divided into separate bodies. And we get to watch and laugh while learning how they work so well together both creatively and logically.

Here’s an example I made up to illustrate of one of their planning sessions..

Pinky I have it! An infallible plan to take over the world!

Egads, really Brain? Oh do tell!!

Look at these schematics Pinky. This device will place jellybeans strategically along the sidewalks to lure people to this park [thrusts pointer toward map]. You know people cannot resist jellybeans. Once the mindless throngs have been lured into the park, I shall announce my candidacy for President and promise jellybeans for everyone.

Narf! Brilliant Brain. I mean no one can resist jellybeans can they? And you can put the red ones on the grass and the green ones on the red carpet so no one can miss them!

Excellent idea Pinky, let me just add that to my calculations…

Oh, but wait Brain… what about the white ones? I mean no one really likes the white ones do they Brain? What are they anyway, coconut? They don’t taste like coconut, narf!

Hmm, excellent point Pinky. I shall have to rethink this entire plan. Let us regroup tomorrow night.

What are we doing tomorrow night Brain?

The same thing we do every night Pinky, try to take over the world!

So, here’s what I’d like to point out about this highly compressed illustration. First, Brain comes up with an idea. Pinky enthusiastically supports the idea and suggests how it can be improved. Brain incorporates the improvement. But then Pinky spots a possible flaw and Brain realizes he must rethink at least a portion of his plan.

In real life, creative thinking must occur this way to be successful. As author Bob Samples pointed out in his book The Metaphoric Mind (see here), effective creative thinking alternates between logical progression and unrestricted lateral thinking. Or as Samples calls it, logic and play. One must move down a logical path sufficiently to develop it, but must also be willing and able to jump out and head in a different direction if that looks more fruitful.

If one remains locked in a single logical train of thinking, there is a huge chance that the thinker becomes blinded to how increasingly ridiculous that train of logic is becoming. Even if every little step is perfectly sound and logical, such paths can end up concluding that benevolent aliens are going to pick us up after we drink poison. Likewise, flighty thinking that cannot settle down to develop an idea sufficiently can never take it anywhere.

This leads many people to think that their role in creative interaction is to play the curmudgeon, the devils advocate, the nay-sayer, the flaw-finder, the pick-aparter. By doing that, they think, they are contributing positively to make ideas better. But unfortunately this does not work if that is all you do. All that such behavior does is to smother every new idea in the crib before it ever has the chance to grow.

Likewise, others believe that if they’re just unfailingly positive, support every idea no matter how objectively flawed, they are helping. They are not. All they are doing is enabling ultimately doomed trains of thought to steam-roll over a cliff.

The best approach is the one modelled by Pinky. He is unfailingly positive and does not poke holes just to show how smart he is or in some misguided view that doing so is the best way to help. He gets genuinely excited and enthusiastically contributes new ideas that make the plan even better as long as he can. But, if he does see a major flaw at some point, he points it out. Despite his investment in the plan, Brain responds appropriately. He bonks Pinky on the head if the objection is silly, makes adjustments if it is substantive, or heads back to the drawing board if it is a fatal flaw.

So when you collaborate with a friend or colleague on a new idea, try to emulate Pinky and the Brain. Help develop ideas as long as you can before poking holes. If holes appear after carrying the idea along a ways, play with divergent new approaches and carry those forward as long as you can. Keep the idea bouncing around like a volleyball. Don’t spike it prematurely into the dirt. If you are all alone for now, use the Pinky and the Brain inside of you. If you do, you’re much more likely to take over the world, maybe even tomorrow night.

Lost Pet

Meh poor beloved Norbert has gotten himself lost or maybe worse. Norbert is jus’ a wee-bitty feller. Cute as can be. He’s really a well-behaved li’l dragon, well fer a Norwegian Ridgeback anyways. Poor thin’ mighta gotten lost in the Forbidden Forest seeyin as he likes to play with his critter friends chasin’ ’em around an’ such. I’m jus’ beside mesself wit’ worry ya know. <snif>

So if yeh see him, send him home to Hagrid in the Caretaker’s Cottage won’cha? Only don’ get too close. I mean, he wouldn’ hurt yeh or nothin’, not on purpose anyways. But he does get a bit skittish around strangers. Tends to bite a tad… well an’ claw truth be told… an’ belch flames and whatnot, bless his wee soul.

Anyway, keep yer eyes out fer my sweet los’ Norbert won’ ya? All the kids love ‘im like a brother! They mus’ be missin’ him sumthin’ terrible! <sob>

Cars Have to Go

I’m not a huge fan of private enterprise and I don’t hold much hope that for-profit ventures will save our planet. But if there is one single private product that I desperately want to see exceed expectations, it’s Zoox (see here), or at least something like it.

Zoox is a startup taxi-share service that was acquired by Amazon for roughly a billion dollars in 2020. Unlike other taxi-share ventures, Zoox will be totally automated. You summon a driverless Zoox vehicle using your smartphone, it pulls up, the doors slide open, you get in, and the Zoox takes you to your destination. Since no driver’s compartment is needed, Zoox is designing their vehicles completely from scratch to seat passengers. It looks a bit like one of those Ferris-wheel cabins with doors on each side and center-facing benches. The all-electric vehicles can transport you to your destination at expressway speeds up to 75 mph.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this venture?

It is unquestionable that private automobile ownership has been one of the key drivers of all the amazing progress and advancements we have made since the early 1900’s. But it is also unquestionable that private vehicles have brought with them terrible side-effects to our societies, our cities, our health, and our planet (see here). The simple truth is that traditional car ownership must change dramatically if we are to survive as a sustainable planetary civilization.

I know that the vision of Zoox in the short-term is simply to complete with traditional ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. But we need to carry this much, much farther. I want to see, like yesterday, a total shift away from private vehicle ownership to a near-total reliance on driverless shared-vehicles like Zoox. We need to get to a future where private vehicle ownership is simply too impractical, too expensive, and too inconvenient to continue.

Consider the benefits of doing away with private vehicle ownership…

  • Driving will be far safer if we take human drivers and poorly maintained cars off the road.
  • Automated cars can operate in the most energy-efficient manner.
  • Computers are not subject to road-rage.
  • Driverless vehicles can’t be used as weapons.
  • Driverless, pool vehicles require far less police enforcement.
  • Driverless vehicles would allow us to begin to redesign our spaces in a way that is more conducive to human quality of life rather than for automobiles.
  • Sharing of pooled cars means far fewer cars sitting idle much of the day and more efficient resource utilization overall.
  • Since too many folks feel compelled to alter their cars to make them as obnoxiously loud as possible, corporate-owned vehicles will be quieter and create a more pleasant environment for everyone.
  • Frees people from insurance, maintenance, and liability risks and expenses.
  • Without private vehicles people will “cruise” less for fun thereby saving fuel and creating less pollution and less congestion.
  • Fewer cars overall means less space dedicated to public and private garages and more for cheaper and denser housing and business space.
  • Driverless vehicles make new innovations like tunnels, vehicle conveyor belts, and other exciting transport solutions much more feasible and cost-effective.

Look, I know that these ideas are all heresy in a nation that is still in the throes of a century-long love affair with their cars. Heck, I love cars too. But the simple truth is that traditional car ownership, however we might tweak it, is not sustainable if we wish to survive as a planet. We have to make big changes and that means big sacrifices. If it means that I can no longer feel pride in my cool car, that I give up the joy of working on it, that I stop going cruising on Sunday afternoon, and that I wait a few minutes for my robo-car to arrive… that’s a small price to pay to save the planet.

I know that many will say that even if I’m totally right on all counts (and I am), people will no sooner give up their private automobiles than their guns and their Bibles. But to that I say, no, we can get there. And soon. All it takes is that we make shared, pooled, driverless vehicles so easy, enjoyable, cheap, and safe compared to private ownership that people would be idiots to own their own car. Or, if they are idiots, they can no longer afford to own a private vehicle.

And the other big reason this could actually happen is that in this one unique instance the self-interest of Amazon and other private companies aligns with the sensible and right solution for people and for the planet. This is one public-private partnership that our government should help in every way to make a reality.

America Without God?

I don’t often rebut other articles, but on occasion I feel that I would be intellectually negligent not to do so. One such article that requires a response is entitled “America Without God” (see here). It was recently published in The Atlantic by contributing writer Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This article is so bloated with egregiously specious arguments that it is a real challenge to rebut it concisely.

The tl;dr that is being put forth by Mr. Hamid boils down to the following fallacious assertions…

  1. Religiosity, or religious-like conviction, is a universal and unavoidable human condition that must inevitably manifest itself in some fashion.
  2. This “religiosity” is nebulous, but seems to be defined by Hamid as an innate human compulsion to embrace an “ultimate loyalty” expressed through “strongly held ideological convictions.”
  3. As religion has declined, the resulting “God-shaped hole” has been filled by a similarly fervent set of political convictions.
  4. This “sublimation” of religion into politics has not resulted in a more rational world as promised and expected. Therefore, secularism is disproven as better set of beliefs.
  5. Religiosity cannot be “effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment.”
  6. Christianity is superior since it motivates people to be forgiving and to “withhold final judgements for another time – perhaps until eternity.
  7. Without a religious reawakening, we are left with either “world-weary resignation,” “violence,” or a “divisive wokeism.”
  8. Therefore, we should give up on secularism and re-embrace Christianity as our best hope for a better world. If we do not, dire consequences will result.

Sigh, where do I start?

First, like many articles in The Atlantic, this one is bloated and convoluted and loaded with gratuitous and irrelevant references and quotes. I don’t know if this is simply to fill space, or to argue by quantity, or to argue by creating the perception of authority, but one should not be misled into thinking that because it is hard to follow that it must be really smart.

By way of contrast I will quickly and clearly list some of the problems with this article…

  1. There is no evidence that “religiosity” is a necessary or unavoidable condition. It may be difficult to stop drinking whisky without dipping into the cooking sherry, but this does not disprove sobriety.
  2. The vast majority of Trump supporters are also the most gullibly religious believers in our population. They did not turn to Trump to fill any “God-shaped void.” They embrace Trumpism because their religious rationalizations have conditioned their brains to accept nonsense.
  3. The Left has not embraced “wokeism” to fill any void left by secularism just as atheists in general have not felt compelled to turn to anything beyond sound rational thinking.
  4. To assert that “secularism has failed” as a given is a ridiculous claim. First, we are still hugely religious as a nation. Second, secularism HAS succeeded dramatically in making our nation a saner and more inclusive place for all and has protected us from the worst extremes of religious zealotry.
  5. To claim that Christianity “tempers” our worst impulses is again asserted as a given without any serious credibility. There are countless burned, tortured, and lynched spirits that can attest to Christian forgiveness.
  6. And why is an eternal deferral of judgement and punishment a good thing? Justice must be timely to be fair and must be exacted in the real world.
  7. Lastly, but hardly the last flaw, is the fear-mongering that forms the final argument. Embrace Christianity or all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah will be befall you!

The author is clearly motivated by a revulsion of Trumpism, a movement only rational-sounding to religious magical thinkers, then makes a false equivalence with wokeism, and concludes that the problem is secularism and that the cure is yet more religion. He attempts to maneuver us into an intellectual false choice between a secular dystopia and acceptance of organized religion as the only possible alternative. This is, quite simply, nonsense.

Look, I know I am being harsh. But this is a high-profile article that is receiving a lot of publicity. The author is out on the interview circuit spreading this nonsense of pro-religious manipulation and fear-mongering on talk-shows all across the country.

The truth is that we have not yet given secularism a chance to show us a saner world free from religion. The truth is that many of us are atheists and quite comfortable. We will not recant on our death bed nor will we ever pray in a foxhole, and we do not need to fill any God-shaped hole with Trumpism or Wokeism or any other *ism.

Now, that is not to say there is no problem. I have always emphasized that as an atheist I would not want to simply “do away with religion.” Religion has trained our brains to accept nonsense. We must fix that first or else we’ll simply adopt other nonsense, yes like Trumpism.

Reason can be our rock. Our best hope as a species is not merely the least destructive catechism of nonsense. We can learn to be rational. That is why my focus has always been on teaching fact-based thinking rather than attacking religion. My book (see here) was based on the premise that we must eliminate magical thinking, religious or non, by teaching rational thinking.

So I have still not given up on the vision of a rational, ethical, and healthy secular world and I assume John Lennon would not take back his words either…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one