Animals are Little People

Like many, I opine quite a bit about the harms caused by social media. Let’s be clear; those harms are real and profound. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge all the good it does. Social media has many well-acknowledged benefits as related to social networking and support, I’d like to point out two less obvious benefits, namely as they relate to science and animals.

For some quick background, I always heard that people spend lots of time watching video clips online. I assumed they must be endlessly entertained by “guy gets hit in balls” videos. But my son sent me some links to clips on the “InterestingAsFuck” subreddit (see here). They were really engaging and gradually I started to watch them more and more. Now, my wife and I ravenously consume the clips daily and can’t ever seem to get enough.

The first great thing is how many of the video clips involve science. These clips tend to demonstrate science principles and phenomena in incredibly engaging and inspiring ways. Some are certainly presented by scientists, but most of the presentations feel accessible, home grown, like real magic that you could be doing too. I have to think that this tone and style of presenting science has a tremendously underappreciated benefit in advancing or at least popularizing science and innovation.

The second benefit of these videos is their effect on how we relate to animals. Throughout history, we have seen ourselves as separate and above animals. While we might acknowledge theoretically that we are animals too, we still view them as relatively primitive creatures. We have zoos that are intended to help us to appreciate animals, but while they offer some exposure and appreciation, they generally just make us feel like we are in a museum, watching uninteresting stuffed figures behind bars and glass required to keep us safely away from their dangerous animal natures.

But then we go to InterestingAsFuck, and we see video after video of animals relating to humans and other animals in compellingly “human” ways. We see animals playing, teasing, problem-solving, sad, fearful, happy, proud, generous, and yes, sometimes selfish and even vindictive. And not just dogs and cats. We see videos that focus on behaviors of and interactions with the full spectrum of animal life on our planet, from eagles to microbes. They all demonstrate profoundly “human” behaviors.

We see videos of animals helping other animals, even ones that are traditional enemies or prey. It is incredibly gratifying that humans are included in this. We see videos of humans helping animals and animals helping humans. In fact, we see almost entirely positive interactions between humans and our animal cousins.

You could visit a hundred zoos or spend your entire life on a farm, and not be exposed to the tiniest fraction of incredible animal interactions captured in these videos. But once you watch enough of them, I find it hard to imagine how people could not be changed by them. It is hard to imagine how, having seen so many extraordinary examples, one could continue to dismiss animal behavior as just “mimicking humans.”

I hope, perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that after exposure to positive social media like this, most people will come away understanding that humans did not just suddenly appear on Earth; that all of our behaviors and emotions evolved and can be seen in our animal cousins. Animals are more like little people, like toddlers on the evolutionary ladder. As such, they deserve far more respect and appreciation than has traditionally been afforded to them.

If you don’t agree, follow InterestingAsFuck for a while, and see if you can still continue to dismiss any due recognition of animal feelings and emotions as mere projection.

Perhaps, just perhaps, social media can inspire us to engage with science, and with the real world around us, in ways that documentaries, and safaris, and zoos, and college courses have never been able to achieve.

The Demise of Superheroes

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the imminent demise of the superhero movie genre.

You should care and I’ll tell you why in a bit.

As a superhero fan for most of my 60 plus years, this saddens me greatly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy that I got to see all my comic book heroes come to life on big screens. But all good things must end.

It’s been a great run. While DC has always struggled to find its zone in live-action films, they still have offered some shining gems like the Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Aquaman.

Marvel, despite some duds, has been brilliant in offering an entire “universe” to “marvel” in. Hey, how many movie producers can you name that have given us dozens of epic movies and shows that you can watch in order like one continuously unfolding saga?

But even the amazing Marvel machine must eventually run out of gas.

Yes, Avengers: Endgame made nearly a billion dollars, and the more recent Spider-Man: No Way Home has come close to that, but these franchises have run their course. Most of its great heroes have been retired, killed, or have just become too familiar, too tiresome, telling their same origin stories over and over like some senile old grandparent. The James Bond franchise took great pains not to oversaturate their market and even they became tiresome, no longer exciting even young viewers.

Whether through desperation or sincere woke consciousness or both, Marvel’s current Phase 4 is overtly all about gender. Phase 4 represents the intentional female takeover of the genre, with female versions of pretty much every character, major and secondary, taking the reigns. Clearly a wokeness agenda is not to blame for killing the genre, but just because the genre is struggling to remain fresh and interesting doesn’t mean we should sacrifice it on the altar of a woke agenda (see here).

Comics have long demonstrated strong threads of social awareness, responsiveness, and leadership. As early as the 1970’s comics took on a lot of difficult social issues like drug abuse, sexuality, racism, and yes even gender inequality. But if the writers only care about the characters as vehicles to promote a social agenda, the stories suffer and fans see through that. That is how the proudly agenda-driven CW network has ruined most of the great DC heroes that they have been entrusted with.

And frankly female heroes are not going to revitalize the industry. It’s not that men don’t enjoy watching female heroes, particularly if wearing tight spandex, but they are not interested in a contrived She-Hulk. Fans can suspend reality enough to accept superpowers, but not enough to accept tiny Natalie Portman as the new Thor. Even Black Widow was a huge box office disaster.

The doubling down of gender in Phase 4 is only going to drive male fans farther away and it will not induce one new female to become a fan. Women who are not fans will pressure and fight to demand that there be more female superheroes, but they still won’t watch their movies let alone pay for them. Wokeness will only accelerate the demise of the industry.

You may ask, I’m not a superhero fan so why should I care?

You should care because not so long ago everyone was predicting the death of the movie industry. Soon, they said, all movie theatres would become extinct. That has not yet happened and superheroes have been a huge part of defying those predictions. Action/Adventure movies represent nearly 50% of movie revenue and the superhero genre represents the lion’s share of that revenue and excitement in general.

It has arguably been superheroes that have saved theatres and have kept it possible for you to still see Downton Abbey and all those Oscar winners on the big screen. If the superhero genre dies, movie theatres and much of the big-budget industry will likely soon follow.

I for one, will lament a world without blockbuster superheroes. And if you care about a vibrant big screen film industry, for yourself or for your kids to marvel at, you should not take any joy in their passing.

In the greater scheme of things, this should be a cautionary tale that coopting creative or other advocacy domains to serve wokeness or any other particular social cause, acts like a destructive parasite that only destroys its host and creates backlash against the cause being promoted.

Atheists Cannot Succeed in Life

Atheists cannot hope to accomplish great success in life.

This is the expressed opinion of someone who has been nominated for the Supreme Court as presumably being one of the wisest and most learned people in America (see here).

At the very top of her nomination speech, immediately after thanking the President and the Vice President, Ketanji Brown Jackson stated:

“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”

There can be no misreading or misunderstanding of her words. Again, she stated clearly that “I do know that one can only come this far by faith.” Only. There is no ambiguity there. There is no modifying context. She thinks this.

Further, this is clearly extremely important and fundamental to her. She chose to put it at the very top of what was certainly the most critical, the most visible, and the most carefully considered speech of her life thus far. She clearly not only thinks this but must think it very, very profoundly.

If this is something she thinks she knows, it must make one wonder what else she thinks she knows.

This revelation must come as a great shock to the many, many highly accomplished and successful atheists to learn that their success cannot be real. They must be imagining it.

More seriously, her considered conclusion must come as a great disillusionment to the many, many children who are not deluded by religion. It is undoubtedly disheartening to hear that they cannot accomplish great success in life unless they find Jesus.

It is disappointing to have a supreme court justice who a) does not appreciate or care about the effect of her words on non-believers and b) doesn’t recognize that her assertion is simply, utterly contradicted by actual facts.

Further, her statement isn’t as much a window into her religious humility and thankfulness as much as it is a window into a self-aggrandizing Prosperity Bible worldview in which god rewards the chosen few with great worldly rewards and success. That kind of self-righteousness does not bode well for a Supreme Court Justice in a secular nation.

Lastly, I’ll point out that I had good feelings about this nominee right up to these statements. When she uttered them, I slammed off the live video and shouted “Fuck!”

Within a minute my phone rang and the first word from my associate, a fellow atheist was, “Fuck!”

I’m sure that this was the response of millions of atheists who are Americans too. That this nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was apparently blind to that response or did not care does not bode well for her ability to act as an empathetic and fair arbiter in decisions that affect ALL Americans.

If, as Justice Brown Jackson, she holds a deep conviction that success is only accessible through faith, and she wishes the best for all Americans, how can she morally do anything other than make decisions promoting religion and diminishing atheist, even simply secular activities?

As a final note, I’ll point out that the most discouraging and aggravating thing about this incident is that Ketanji Brown Jackson is, to a large degree, absolutely right. Atheists cannot reach the highest levels of success in this country. Not because god rewards the faithful, but because our nation is filled with, and critical decisions that affect us all are made by, religiously compromised people like her.

Freedom of Speech Extremism

Why do I still watch Bill Maher?

The guy used to be interesting but now he is just Archie Bunker channeling Andy Rooney. In fact he went out of his way in his 1/28 episode to opine about how he has not changed; it’s the world that has changed. Sorry Bill, but you’re like those guys who lamented that Star Wars was ruined by Jar Jar Binks. But if Jar Jar doesn’t capture your imagination like the Ewoks did when you were a kid, it’s not Star Wars that has changed, it’s you. And you, Bill have become a surly curmudgeon ranting about what a waste space travel is, how stupid superhero movies are, how dangerous Muslims are, and how silly Progressives are.

But that was just my own little rant. What I really want to talk to you about in this installment is Freedom of Speech. In that same episode, Bill Maher spoke with Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the ACLU about the new policies put in place at that organization. Their outrage was because the ACLU has said that it will no longer defend certain kinds of speech that are offensive.

Bill and Ira insist upon a non-negotiable, absolutist, all or nothing view of free speech. As Bill said:

“you can’t have it [freedom of speech] if there are exceptions.”

And later, Ira stated:

“the only way to do that is to defend speech no matter what the content is.”

Sorry but they are attempting to convince their audience to accept a fallacious false choice proposition regarding Freedom of Speech. According to them, if you impose any limits at all, you can’t have free speech. This is nonesense.

I can understand that Bill Maher, like so many other media talkers, has a personal vested self-interest in preserving their total immunity to say whatever they like without fear of repercussion. Therefore it is not surprising that most media pundits who express and create public opinion about free speech, strongly espouse a similar extremist view.

But no right is all or nothing. None can be. Of course, I would not want to see the ACLU become the champion of snowflakes, but they also should not protect what is clearly dangerous and harmful speech. And yes, speech can be deadly. The Free Speech false choice is what hate-mongers and misinformation-peddlers use to convince others to defend them.

We have to say enough already.

There are clear lines of acceptable societal norms at the extreme. And when speech crosses those clear lines, we can all recognize that and we should not have large, powerful, and influential organizations defending the indefensible. This absolutist, false choice position is the same one presented to protect gun rights. If we ban even one gun, they tell us, our Second Amendment rights are gone. Those who support unfettered Capitalism and wealth accumulation frighten us with the same false choice. If you impose any limit, any restrictions, then Capitalism is dead and you’re own right to make billions has been taken away. If we allow any abortions, then we must allow all abortions. The list of similar examples could go on indefinitely.

When it comes back to Free Speech, we can and must have reasonable limits and the ACLU should not defend hateful, damaging, and dangerous speech that crosses clear lines. To do so makes it complicit and undermines its mission to protect free speech.

Other countries like Canada have far more sane, reasonable limits on free speech and they are hardly a propaganda-controlled state.

We don’t accept false choices when they are used to justify abandoning reasonable limits on other rights, we should not accept them when used to advocate for an anything-goes position on free speech.

Bill, you’re simply wrong yet again. But no, I don’t think you’ve crossed the line and you should be able to continue spouting self-interested false choice arguments. Just as I should continue to have to right to push back. But that doesn’t mean there should be no limits at all nor that setting any limits at all would end freedom of speech.

But if you use your platform to suggest that “someone” should exercise their Second Amendment Rights to “deal with” anyone who disagrees with you, I hope the ACLU will decline to defend you.

Spider-Man Gets It

After being snowed in for a week, I finally got out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home (see here). It was a super fun action movie. But as with all good writing, it also made me think interesting thoughts, such as what makes people bad, redemption, and the effect of superpowers our real world.

The following contains movie spoilers. If you have not seen it yet, and think you might like to, close this article and come back after you’ve checked it out!

With sympathy to those of you who have little patience for superhero stuff, I’ll set up the story really simply. A group of supervillains are brought into our universe by accident. They immediately do what supervillains do; they unleash their terrible powers to create widespread havoc and death.

Spiderman does find a way to send them back to their own universes. Despite intense pressure to do so, and despite the horrible threat that these supervillains pose, he cannot bring himself to effectively deport them to wreak havoc in their old universes. So instead, he tries desperately to help each of them to become better people who can live peacefully in any universe.

Each of these supervillains has a different background and unique challenges that contribute to their evil behavior. Since I don’t have the room in this article to talk about all of them, I’ll focus on just one. That supervillain is called Electro and he is played in the movie by Jamie Foxx.

Electro has the ability to literally siphon electricity from electrical grids and to fire it in lightning-like bolts and bursts. His destructive power is fantastic. But when Spider-Man manages to destroy his electrical emitter, Electro immediately becomes your uncle. Suddenly he is no longer a crazed and maniacal supervillain, but a pretty ordinary next door neighbor. He is no more crazed and maniacal than your typical muffler-repairman and just about as dangerous. In fact, once his power is taken away, it’s hard to imagine that he was ever any kind of threat.

This sudden and dramatic transformation isn’t as unlikely as it may seem at first. Superpowers do actually exist in our real world, and they do induce the same kind of deadly behavior in many otherwise harmless people. Take those superpowers away, and those real-world supervillains are just your uncle, your neighbor, or your muffler-repairman.

These real-world superpowers most typically take the form of public or private office, wealth, or guns.

High offices are in limited supply. And great wealth is still relatively hard to come by. So while dangerous, people with those superpowers are somewhat rare. While they do exist and can do great damage, there can never be too many Donald Trump or Lex Luthor type supervillains in the world. And also, these supervillains are somewhat constrained by the precariousness of their positions of power.

But anyone today can buy a semi-automatic weapon and become a real-world supervillain that rivals Electro in destructive power. And relative to the rich and the office-holders, many of these people have few constraints that restrain their unleashing of that power – at least one time.

As Spider-Man often repeats, “with great power comes great responsibility.” There are certainly some, like Spider-Man, who take that to heart and strive to use their power, their office, their wealth, or their gun, to make the world a better place.

But it is also true to observe that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And as Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, there are many who are intoxicated by great power and who, like Electro, would be perfectly decent citizens if not for that power.

So yea, guns.

Guns grant anyone a superpower. By making guns so easily available, we have created a nascent army of actual and potential supervillains.

Many rationalize that guns are not the problem. But that is simply wrong. As Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, the means to destroy is exactly the problem. When people who can be drawn toward violence are allowed to have guns, it’s like giving Electro his superpower back. Without that power, he is not particularly dangerous. But with that power in his hands, he cannot help but become a supervillain.

For too many people, the lure to use their superpower can be overwhelming. If you could shoot lightning bolts, how could you not? You possess a voice. Are you never frustrated enough to shout out in anger with it? The mere possession of a superpower fundamentally inverts every calculation. With guns, your muffler-repair guy becomes a mass shooter. Without guns, well he’s just your muffler-repair guy.

Electro could not both possess a device of mass destruction and not use it. Modern guns grant less flashy but similarly destructive superpowers. We should not be so foolish as to give everyone access to them. Giving everyone access to Twitter is dangerous enough.

Spider-Man realized this. The weapons are the problem, not the people who possess them.

Spider-Man gets it. Why can’t we?

The Original Big Lie

Many of us, far too few but many, look at the big lies that have taken hold in the Trump era and see them clearly for what they are. Delusion. Pure and utter insanity.

We ask, how is it possible? How can so many otherwise sane or at least functional people believe the big lie that Trump won the election? How can so many get caught up in the big lies being spread by QAnon conspiracy theorists? The deep and rapid entrenchment of these delusions is shocking and inexplicable to many of us.

I am likewise shocked by the rapid spread of this mass insanity, but I am neither surprised nor perplexed by it.

I love to say I told you so as much as anyone, but it saddens me to point out that I’ve spent much of my life trying to warn that this was coming. No, I do not claim to be a modern Nostradamus. I certainly did not specifically foretell the coming of Trump or QAnon. One cannot ever predict what exact form insanity will take. But I have long warned that something like this was far too likely. That fear is what has long motivated me to write and speak about the dangers of religious and other beliefs.

The original big lie is religion. How could anyone ever have believed that raising generation after generation to accommodate and rationalize such a blatant and obvious lie as god would not leave our rational defenses fatally compromised? How could it not leave us compromised to the point that Trump and QAnon could be readily rationalized by the very same cognitive impairments put in place to accommodate religious insanity?

I ask not how so many otherwise sensible people could possibly believe in such big lies, but rather, but how could we ever have thought that people so compromised by their rationalization of religion could hope to resist other big lies?

Even a sympathetic reader might argue that religious conditioning does not enable Trumpism, but rather that both are merely symptoms of the same cognitive limitations. They might argue that not all religious believers believe in Trump and QAnon. Even so, the result is the same. In order to truly regain our sanity, we must eradicate even what we consider to be our more benign symptoms of insanity. Strengthening our rational faculties sufficiently to resist Trumpism and QAnon thinking requires that those same faculties be sufficiently sound to resist the profoundly ludicrous god delusion as well.

If we are going to fight this mass insanity we must do so comprehensively. We cannot pick and choose our sanctioned insanities and imagine that we are cured. We must finally admit that Trumpism and QAnon are no more crazy then religion. Anything less will still leave us vulnerable to the next Trump and the next Q. If we do not focus on fact-based thinking, as I have tried to do, we are simply leaving our mental doors open for the next Trumpian insanity. Until we give up our religious delusions, we cannot hope to conclude that we are safe.

Given the stark reality of what is happening all around us, will we continue to bet our future on the claim that we can pervert our rational thinking so as to believe in mythical gods without real-world consequences? Will we continue to insist that religious beliefs do not prime us to believe in other big lies? Or at the very least, that religious beliefs do not demonstrate our susceptibility to other insanely improbable and blatant lies?

Let’s begin our collective recovery by finally admitting that there is no inherent validity to the god lie. Trumpism and QAnon do in fact have far more rational plausibility than does a belief in a god or gods. Let’s admit that it is harmful and dangerous to believe in any of it.

And to those of you who continue to rationalize that religious belief must be sane and reasonable because it is so prevalent, current events should demonstrate how untrue that is. The rise of Trumpism and QAnon should prove to us how easily and quickly huge numbers of people can come to unquestionably accept dangerously crazy ideas. This should show us all how religion itself could have taken hold and become mainstream despite being clearly batshit crazy. It may be that in 1000 years, if humanity somehow still exists, the Trump legend will have morphed into a mainstream belief that Donald Trump was the true second coming of Christ. People then will tell themselves and others that it must be true or at least rational since so many have believed it for so long.

Trumpism is not the disease. It is merely the entirely predictable degradation of our rational faculties that have been chronically and profoundly compromised by our addiction to religion. Even if you believe devoutly in god, denounce that belief for the good of humanity. I guarantee you that a god worth believing in would approve.

With Friends Like MSNBC

Allow me to rant a bit about MSNBC.

MSNBC is supposedly the premier platform for progressive/liberal news and perspectives. But that’s kinda sad. I quit watching MSNBC in disgust during the Trump campaign. It had become painfully obvious to me that they were making a big, big mistake by their incessant coverage of everything Trump. Most days they would only switch to the Hillary campaign rally for 20 seconds before resuming their 5 hour broadcast of anything and everything Donald Trump was doing or saying. Those numbers are not unfair exaggerations.

Their non-stop Trumpathon might have been great for their ratings, but it was tragic for our country. They helped in no small part to get Trump elected and many of their hosts have since admitted as much.

But it’s one thing to recognize a mistake retrospectively and something much different to recognize it while or before repeating it again and again. And MSNBC continues to repeat their pattern of unhelpful coverage.

To highlight the latest example of an ongoing pattern that set me off today, morning host Andrea Mitchell once again asked her guest whether the Democrats made a mistake by focusing so much on the cost of the Build Back Better bill. Excuse me, Andrea, but don’t you set the topic for every appearance? Don’t you decide what to ask about and how to follow up? How much time did you dedicate to asking about the substance of the bill? How do you expect your guests to focus on the substance of the bill when you continually force them to respond to inflammatory questions about the “battle” over the cost?

Oh, sorry, Andrea, you say you’re only just following up on comments they had made earlier? You mean like their responses to the questions that MSNBC Capitol Hill correspondents shouted incessantly to them about the “battle” over the cost of the bill?

Some MSNBC correspondents, not all but some, too often continue to focus on the “horse race” even as they lament over too much focus on the “horse race.” They continue to dedicate their entire segment to inflaming the latest controversy, only finding time at the very end to point out that they would have loved to get into the substance but unfortunately they are out of time. Next time for sure!

And then there are the radical moderates that appear on MSNBC. These radical moderates seem to have an insatiable compulsion to continually attack, belittle, vilify, and scapegoat the Progressive wing of the party. To single out just a few for illustration, you have political analyst Clare McCaskill and nighttime host Brian Williams. While progressive on a wide range of issues, these people attack the Left wing of their party at every opportunity. Their antagonism, for example, toward Bernie Sanders was relentless.

Just last night, Brian Williams yet again had staunch Republican consultant and frequent guest Michael Murphy on to give advise to Democrats. Murphy of course seized upon the opportunity to launch a tirade against Progressives. Williams was perfectly happy to let his “analysis” stand as authoritative.

I’m certainly not saying there is no difference between MSNBC and Fox News. But MSNBC corporate and many of their hosts need to stop crying crocodile tears that they have no time to cover the news in a substantive way. Rachel Maddow largely focuses on substance, does not attack Progressives, and her ratings are generally the highest on the network.

And I’m not even saying that there is no difference between our Conservative opponents and MSNBC “allies” like Mitchell, McCaskill, and Williams. Our tent is big enough to include even radical moderates. But they really need to stop trying to help by gratuitously attacking those Progressives who are not as ready to accept Conservative-Light compromises that only serve to push us slightly less to the Right than the Conservatives might hope.

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.