A South Africa Story

I usually write articles to make a clear and specific point or argument. This time I’m going to do something different and simply relate a very short story. Although anecdotal, this story illustrates a wide range of individual and societal dynamics that are universal. But I’ll say little more and hope that it stimulates broader thought and discussion.

This story takes place in rural South Africa. It happened while I was serving in the Peace Corps there. Every day I walked past a heavy construction site. This was interesting as it was the only active job site in the village. They were putting up some sort of commercial multistory building. But what jumped out at me one day was that I never saw any men on the job. All the construction workers were women. This seemed curious.

In fact, it felt so odd that I became increasingly irritated about this. Where were all the men? Why were women forced to do all this heavy labor-intensive construction work?

I got curious enough to ask a local about this. “Where are all the men?” The local pointed down to the next streetcorner and said, “They are all in the bar.”

I was incensed. Every subsequent day as I walked past the site I became even more incensed. What kind of miserable, lazy, good-for-nothing men were these that they drank in a tavern while the women were outside doing heavy labor?

My disgust for the men of the village persisted until one day I could not contain my contempt any longer. I expressed my outrage to another local. That person patiently explained that the government gave very attractive incentives to construction companies to hire women. In fact, these incentives were so attractive and successful, that they let all the men go. Those men in the tavern were displaced and simply could no longer hold jobs in construction. And there were no other jobs.

Needless to say, my sense of outrage toward the men of the village immediately disappeared. My judgmental attitude was replaced with embarrassment over my uninformed indignation.

Amazing how just one new fact can flip the entire narrative of judgments that we passionately believe to be so very obvious.

Understanding AI

Even though we see lots of articles about AI, few of us really have even a vague idea of how it works. It is super complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explain it in simple terms.

I don’t work in AI, but I did work as a Computational Scientist back in the early 1980’s. Back then I became aware of fledgling neural network software and pioneered its applications in formulation chemistry. While neural network technology was extremely crude at that time, I proclaimed to everyone that it was the future. And today, neural networks are the beating heart of AI which is fast becoming our future.

To get a sense of how neural networks are created and used, consider a very simple example from my work. I took examples of paint formulations, essentially the recipes for different paints, as well as the paint properties each produced, like hardness and curing time. Every recipe and its resulting properties was a training fact and all of them together was my training set. I fed my training set into software to produce a neural network, essentially a continuous map of this landscape. This map could take quite a while to create, but once the neural network was complete I could then enter a new proposed recipe and it could instantly tell me the expected properties. Conversely, I could enter a desired set of properties and it could instantly predict a recipe to achieve them.

So imagine adapting and expanding that basic approach. Imagine, for example, that rather than using paint formulations as training facts, you gathered training facts from a question/answer site like Quora, or a simple FAQ. You first parse each question and answer text into keywords that become your inputs and outputs. Once trained, the AI can then answer most any question, even previously unseen variations, that lie upon the map that it has created.

Next imagine you had the computing power to scan the entire Internet and parse all that information down into sets of input and output keywords, and that you had the computing power to build a huge neural network based on all those training facts. You would then have a knowledge map of the Internet, not too unlike Google Maps for physical terrain. That map could then be used to instantly predict what folks might say in response to anything folks might say – based on what folks have said on the Internet.

You don’t need to just imagine, because now we can do essentially that.

Still, to become an AI, a trained neural network alone is not enough. It first needs to understand your written or spoken language question, parse it, and select input keywords. For that it needs a bunch of skills like voice recognition and language parsing. After finding likely output keywords, it must order them sensibly and build a natural language text or video presentation of the outputs. For that you need text generators, predictive algorithms, spelling and grammar engines, and many more processors to produce an intelligible, natural sounding response. Most of these various technologies have been refined for a long time in your word processor or your messaging applications. AI is really therefore a convergence of many well-known technologies that we have built and refined since at least the 1980’s.

AI is extremely complex and massive in scale, but unlike quantum physics, quite understandable in concept. What has enabled the construction of AI scale neural networks is the mind-boggling computer power required to train such a huge network. When I trained my tiny neural networks in the 1980’s it took hours. Now we can parse and train a network on well, the entire Internet.

OK, so hopefully that demystifies AI somewhat. It basically pulls a set of training facts from the Internet, parses them and builds a network based on that data. When queried, it uses that trained network map to output keywords and applies various algorithms to build those keywords into comprehensible, natural sounding output.

It’s important we understand at least that much about how AI works so that we can begin to appreciate and address the much tougher questions, limitations, opportunities, and challenges of AI.

Most importantly, garbage in, garbage out still applies here. Our goal is for AI should be to do better than we humans can do, to be smarter than us. After all, we already have an advanced neural network inside our skulls that has been trained over a lifetime of experiences. The problem is, we have a lot of junk information that compromises our thinking. But if an AI just sweeps in everything on the Internet, garbage and all, doesn’t that make it just an even more compromised and psychotic version of us?

We can only rely upon AI if it is trained on vetted facts. For example, AI could be limited to training facts from Wikipedia, scientific journals, actual raw data, and vetted sources of known accurate information. Such a neural network would almost certainly be vastly superior to humans in producing accurate and nuanced answers to questions that are too difficult for humans to understand given our more limited information and fallibilities. There is a reason that there are no organic doctors in the Star Wars universe. It is because there is no advanced future civilization where organic creatures could compete the AI medical intelligence and surgical dexterity of droids.

Here’s a problem. We don’t really want that kind of boring, practical AI. Such specialized systems will be important, but not huge commercially nor sociologically impactful. Rather, we are both allured and terrified by AI that can write poetry or hit songs, generate romance or horror novels, interpret the news, and draw us images of cute dragon/butterfly hybrids.

The problem is, that kind of popular “human like” AI, not bound by reality or truth, would be incredibly powerful in spreading misinformation and manipulating our emotions. It would feedback nonsense that would further instill and reinforce nonsensical and even dangerous thinking in our own brain-based neural networks.

AI can help mankind to overcome our limitations and make us better. Or it can dramatically magnify our flaws. It can push us toward fact-based information, or it can become QANON and Fox “News” on steroids. Both are equally feasible, but if Facebook algorithms are any indication, the latter is far more probable. I’m not worried about AI creating killer robots to exterminate mankind, but I am deeply terrified by AI pushing us further toward irrationality.

To create socially responsible AI, there are two things we must do above all else. First, we must train specialized AI systems, say as doctors, with only valid, factual information germane to medical treatment. Second, any more generative, creative, AI networks should be built from the ground up to distinguish factual information from fantasy. We must be able to indicate how realistic we wish our responses to be and the system must flag clearly, in a non-fungible manner, how factual its creations actually are. We must be able to count on AI to give us the truth as best as computer algorithms can recognize it, not merely to make up stories or regurgitate nonsense.

Garbage in garbage out is a huge issue, but we also face a an impending identity crisis brought about by AI, and I’m not talking about people falling in love with their smart phone.

Even after hundreds of years to come to terms with evolution, the very notion still threatens many people with regard to our relationship with animals. Many are still offended by the implication that they are little more than chimpanzees. AI is likely to cause the same sort of profound challenge to our deeply personal sense of what it means to be human.

We can already see that AI has blown way past the Turing Test and can appear indistinguishable from a human being. Even while not truly self-aware, AI systems can seem to be capable of feelings and emotion. If AI thinks and speaks like a human being in every way, then what is the difference? What does it even mean to be human if all the ways we distinguish ourselves from animals can be reproduced by computer algorithms?

The neural network in our brain works effectively like a computer neural network. When we hear “I love…” our brains might complete that sentence with “you.” That’s exactly what a computer neural network might do. Instead of worrying about whether AI systems are sentient, the more subtle impact will be to make us start fretting about whether we are merely machines ourselves. This may cause tremendous backlash.

We might alleviate that insecurity by rationalizing that AI is not real by definition because it is not human. But that doesn’t hold up well. It’s like claiming that manufactured Vitamin C is not really Vitamin C because it did not some from an orange.

So how do we come to terms with the increasingly undeniable fact that intellectually and emotionally we are essentially just biological machines? The same way many of us came to terms with the fact that we are animals. By acknowledging and embracing it.

When it comes to evolution, I’ve always said that we should take pride in being animals. We should learn about ourselves through them. Similarly, we should see computer intelligence as an opportunity, not a threat to our sense of exceptionalism. AI can help us to be better machines by offering a laboratory for insight and experimentation that can help both human and AI intelligences to do better.

Our brain-based neural networks are trained on the same garbage data as AI. The obvious flaws in AI are the same less obvious flaws that affect our own thinking. Seeing the flaws in AI can help us to recognize similar flaws in ourselves. Finding ways to correct the flaws in AI can help us to find similar training methodologies to correct them in ourselves.

I’m an animal and I’m proud to be “just an animal” and I’m equally proud to be “just a biological neural network.” That’s pretty awesome!

Let’s just hope we can create AI systems that are not as flawed as we are. Let’s hope that they will instead provide sound inputs to serve as good training facts to help retrain our own biological neural networks to think in more rational and fact-based ways.

Pandemic of Delusion

You may have heard that March Madness is upon us. But never fear, March Sanity is on the way!

My new book, Pandemic of Delusion, will be released on March 23rd, 2023 and it’s not arriving a moment too early. The challenges we face both individually and as a society in distinguishing fact from fiction, rationality from delusion, are more powerful and pervasive than ever and the need for deeper insight and understanding to navigate those challenges has never been more dire and profound.

Ensuring sane and rational decision making, both as individuals and as a society, requires that we fully understand our cognitive limitations and vulnerabilities. Pandemic of Delusion helps us to appreciate how we perceive and process information so that we can better recognize and correct our thinking when it starts to drift away from a firm foundation of verified facts and sound logic.

Pandemic of Delusion covers a lot of ground. It delves deeply into a wide range of topics related to facts and belief, but it’s as easy to read as falling off a log. It is frank, informal, and sometimes irreverent. Most importantly, while it starts by helping us understand the challenges we face, it goes on to offer practical insights and methods to keep our brains healthy. Finally, it ends on an inspirational note that will leave you with an almost spiritual appreciation of a worldview based upon science, facts, and reason.

If only to prove that you can still consume more than 200 characters at a time, preorder Pandemic of Delusion from the publisher, Interlink Publishing, or from your favorite bookseller like Amazon. And after you read it two or three times, you can promote fact-based thinking by placing it ever so casually on the bookshelf behind your video desk. It has a really stand-out binding. And don’t just order one. Do your part to make the world a more rational place by sending copies to all your friends, family, and associates.

Seriously, I hope you enjoy reading Pandemic of Delusion half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Our Gun Control Advocates are Failing Us

Excuse me sir, might I have some sensible
gun control please?

I am not a gun control advocate.

I am a gun abolishment activist.

Of course, I’m aware that would be a considered foolish position by the vast majority of people who are horrified by gun violence and truly want to make meaningful change to curb the carnage. We cannot abolish guns. That kind of extremist talk is not only unrealistic but it threatens to undermine the hope of implementing the sensible, meaningful gun reforms that serious gun control advocates have struggled so long to enact.

But that’s just it. We have been chasing “sensible gun reform” for many decades and we have been getting nowhere. In all the time that we have been meekly begging for reasonable gun control measures, the gun epidemic has only intensified in severity and scope. For every marginal success, there have been far more numerous losses. It is no longer realistic to counsel patience. We need to face reality. And the reality is that what we have been doing, the consensus measures that our advocates continue to call for, have not worked, are not working, and are not going to work.

After every mass shooting their meme used to be “thoughts and prayers.” Now the new meme is “thoughts and prayers are not good enough.” But like the one before it, this new rallying cry is just another empty, mollifying platitude that may appear to be a strong call to action but is in reality just another impotent lament.

Banal platitudes like this are the typical drum beat of our most ardent and well-intentioned gun control advocates. David Hogg and Fred Guttenberg are just two examples. I mention them not to disparage them but only to provide two examples of passionate, dedicated, and well-meaning gun control leaders who are failing us. Their milksop calls for “sensible gun legislation” are not fresh and new. These are the same old same old we have been hearing as long as there has been a gun debate.

Their calls for incremental reforms only help convince a bullet-riddled population that they cannot realistically hope for any more than the most bromide of relief from gun violence. In fact, the NRA would do well to fund our gun control advocates as they serve the gun industry by offering placating calls for ineffective half-measures, measures that, even if enacted, would do little to nothing to address the real problem — guns in our population.

Almost every supposed activist gun control advocate appearing in the media goes to great pains to preface every comment with assurances that they are gun owners themselves, that they hunt, and that they ardently support the 2nd amendment. They feel it is crucial that we know first and foremost that they are not trying to take away anyone’s gun. They go to great lengths to reassure pro-gun viewers that they are only advocating for a few modest, sensible gun reforms. Perhaps the very anodyne tone of their activism is what makes them attractive to controversy-shy media outlets fearful of being called too radical.

Given the lengths to which gun control activists go in their efforts to praise guns and gun ownership, it is sometimes difficult to see what side they are on. They seem to spend more time legitimizing and validating an inviolate right to gun ownership than they do condemning the key enabler of gun violence, namely guns.

The sensible, modest calls to action from our gun control advocates are simply inadequate to the urgency of the gun problem we face. The truth of this seems blatantly evident but yet we are continually assured and largely convinced that modest reforms are the most we can hope to achieve. I for one refuse to believe that we cannot do far, far better. And do far, far better we must.

One might think that our failure to institutionalize even the most modest gun control measures proves that we cannot reasonably hope to achieve more. There is some logic to the view that if one demands too much one will get nothing. But in this case that has proven to be failed logic. It is also true that sometimes, when pushing against a deeply rooted barrier with a lot of inertia, that no modest pressure, however persistent, will ever cause it to budge significantly. Only by the exertion of tremendous force can one hope to break it free and gain any momentum. Clearly no number of mass shootings alone will ever break the iron will of gun enthusiasts and profiteers.

We need to finally understand that only by exerting extreme pressure against the gun industry and our gun culture can we hope to make any lasting gain whatsoever. We should learn from anti-abortion activists and adapt some of their strategies that have proven to be highly successful. I know, I know, we aren’t like them and don’t want to be like them. But at some point, you have to either play rough, get tough, and do whatever it takes… or get out of the way.

Our nation may be overcome by a mass gun obsession, but the solution is not to enable it. The only way to snap us out of it is to set far more ambitious gun sanity goals than those long sought by mainstream gun control advocates. And it is feasible to achieve them. It is possible to change hearts and minds, change cultures, and change economic risk reward balances dramatically and quickly.

Here is just a short list of some of the kind of things we could and should be doing if we want to accomplish more than merely wringing our hands and effectively accepting a permanent culture of gun violence in America and an endless recurring nightmare of gun violence.

Admit the truth. Gun control measures will not fix the gun violence problem.
Often in life when leaders don’t know what to do, or can’t do what they know they should, they advocate for inconsequential half-measures. They know these will have negligible effect, but it makes everyone feel better to see <something> being done even though they all know that these remedies will do little good. This is the case with our modest gun reform demands. Everyone knows that they won’t significantly curb the problem of mass shootings, but we all go through the motions nonetheless. It gives us some hope of improvement, however false, until the next mass shooting.

Focus on guns as the problem.
Every time we get diverted into talking about mental health, about training, about background checks, or about gun locks we are not talking about the singular overriding cause of our gun problem, namely guns and the gun industry. Guns can effectively turn anyone into real live superpowered villain, and as long as we have guns, people will be lured into using them to commit mass murder. No amount of “sensible gun regulations” will curb that significantly. Engaging in debates over “sensible gun regulations” distracts and misdirects our focus away from the key problems; guns, guns, and guns. We need to stay laser focused and redirect every attempt to deflect back to the problem of guns.

Break free from internalized low expectations.
I am going to put extra emphasis on this point because it is so critically important. Gun interests have succeeded fantastically in conditioning their opponents to believe, and take as an immutable given, that there is no hope that America might ever abandon its love affair with guns. It is an intractable reality, or so they have made us believe, that guns are here to stay and we cannot hope for anything more than some few “sensible gun regulations.”

But this is a lie. We have seen over and over again how broad public sentiment can change, and change profoundly, almost overnight on what seems like the most strongly felt issues. Broad public sentiment can turn against our gun culture overnight. And severe restrictions and liability can cause even the most sociopathic gun owner to recalculate their cost/benefit.

Gun supporters know that their gun culture is fragile. Why do you suppose they fight so rabidly to defend it? Why is it we have such trouble believing what our opponents prove to us every day by their fearful, paranoid defense of guns?

Stop legitimizing gun ownership and excusing gun owners.
Stop legitimizing guns by going on about how much you support gun rights and assuring gun owners that they are great, responsible, people who happen to love guns and have every right to own them. We should instead marginalize gun ownership and gun owners as socially irresponsible collaborators in gun violence.

Frame gun ownership as moral choice.
We should frame gun ownership as an irresponsible, unethical, and immoral choice. Because it is. We should force Christians in particular to justify over and over again how their faith places their right of gun ownership over the life of even one child slain in a mass shooting. Similarly, we need to send the message to men that guns are evidence not of their manliness, but of their cowardice.

Emphasize that we do not have to exercise every right.
Just because we currently have a right to bear arms does not mean that we are obligated to do so. We need to send the message that even if one has an uppercase Right to do something, that does not mean it is lowercase right to do so. When it comes to guns, a good person would moderate their selfish individual rights for the good of society. In fact, the noblest definition of morality may be our willingness to forego our individual rights for the good of our fellow man. We need to make that argument and hammer it home relentlessly.

Stop accepting rationalizations.
We accept too easily what are often fake rationalizations that we legitimately need guns for hunting, or for recreational target shooting, or to expand our collection, to wage war against our government, or for personal protection. We should stop giving these excuses more weight than they deserve. To whatever extent there is a legitimate, justifiable need for a gun, the appropriate gun can be signed out from a well-regulated gun repository. Private guns can be held in the custody of an approved and monitored facility for check-out as needed for recreation or other purposes. If we can rent snow skis when we want to go skiing, we can check out a gun to go deer hunting.

Marginalize and denormalize gun ownership.
We should stop being so reluctant to blame and shame gun owners, manufacturers, sellers, and apologists. Every gun owner is part of the problem and we should stop pretending that there are any “good” gun owners out there. Further, we should stop participating in the fiction that whoever commits gun violence is a special mental case. The reality is that guns turn otherwise normal people into gun maniacs. The desire to purchase a gun that is only useful for killing lots of people quickly should be a sufficient red flag to alert us to a potentially dangerous and unstable person.

Make extreme demands.
Abortion activists didn’t gain ground by calling for “sensible abortion reform.” They demanded nothing less than the end of all abortions, period. They didn’t bemoan the fact that they might seem unreasonable or generate blowback. They welcomed blowback. We should do the same. We should stop calling for “sensible gun reform” and start demanding the abolishment of all private gun ownership in our society. We should make gun proponents feel lucky to walk away with only somewhat less Draconian reforms.

Stop accepting that the 2nd Amendment is the last word.
Anti-abortion activists never accepted that Roe v Wade was the last word. True, it was not a Constitutional Amendment, however it was “settled law.” But not for their activists. Similarly, the 2nd Amendment should not be accepted as sacrosanct by anti-gun activists. Maybe we cannot repeal it, but we can try. At the very least that effort would force their side to divert resources and offer substantive arguments to defend an archaic interpretation of the 2nd Amendment in a modern world replete with 21st century weaponry.

Reinterpret the 2nd Amendment.
While we work to repeal the 2nd Amendment, we should work to limit it. Again, anti-abortion activists have pioneered a wide array of effective strategies that we can adapt. Foremost, we should embark upon a decades-long mission to appoint anti-gun Supreme Court Justices with the courage and conviction to reinterpret the 2nd Amendment. Contrary to what we have come to accept, the 2nd Amendment is neither unambiguous nor absolute. It is open to broad interpretation and less ideological Justices could legitimately overturn previous precedents as overly broad interpretations of the 2nd Amendment and conscribe gun rights in a far more socially responsible manner. We should not accept any ruling as the final word until they do.

Make it as hard to open a gun shop as it is to open an abortion clinic.
The next thing we should be doing to lessen the damage of the 2nd Amendment is to limit its application in the real world. Again, anti-Abortion activists have given us the model for aggressive activism. Anti-abortion activists targeted abortion clinics very successfully. We should use those same proven successful tactics against gun factories, gun shows, and gun shops. Appear at every city council meeting in large and vocal numbers and lobby for new zoning restrictions and multitudinous regulations to make it difficult to open or operate these businesses. There are a million bills we could get passed to make their life difficult. “Of course, you can open a gun store, we are not stopping you, but you now need walls and windows that can stop high speed armor piercing ammunition. It’s a safety issue to protect gun buyers.”

Push for laws to effectively reduce guns by restricting firearms everywhere.
In addition to lobbying for laws to make it difficult to run gun-related businesses, make it difficult for gun owners to take their gun anywhere. Establish gun-free zones and other requirements that make it impractical to carry guns. When these new laws or private sector policies are challenged, defend them vigorously. When they are blocked or overturned by courts, modify them slightly and try again. The anti-abortionists didn’t let such setbacks dissuade them from their unrelenting efforts. Even if a hundred initiatives are struck down, some will get through and in the meantime the gun lobby will have spent limited resources to defend against them.

Pressure individual gun sellers and gun manufacturers.
We should put every bit of pressure we can bring to bear upon the individual people supporting gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership. Picket, boycott, protest, publicize, shame, and even harass them to a point. We should make their every activity in support of guns an ordeal. Like anti-abortionists, we should set up cordons in front of gun stores, showing prospective customers graphic pictures of gun-torn bodies and asking them how they can contribute to this carnage by buying a gun. Remind them that this is more likely to be the fate of them or their loved ones if they keep a gun in the house. We should confront store owners and ask them how they can live with themselves for selling tools of murder. We should confront gun executives and employees in restaurants and ask them how they can work for an industry that profits from death. Expand and escalate counter-protests at every pro-gun event.

Be willing to show graphic gun violence.
Television and movies, no matter how graphic, do not do justice to the real horrors of gun violence. We need to be less squeamish about confronting people with that horror, through both words and images. For many on both sides, a personal, visceral experience is all that will move them to action or cause them to really consider the harm that guns cause.

Push for laws to increase liability and lawsuits.
We need to stop taking “the gun industry is protected from lawsuits” as an insurmountable barrier. We need to renew our efforts to overturn such protections and, in the meantime, bring legal action, finding creative cause to challenge and test every possible variation in court. At the same time, we need to use each of these opportunities to make our case to the court of public opinion.

Wage Performative Protests
Follow the model of The Satantic Temple in pushing back against religious extremism and hold performative events to make gun rights supporters uncomfortable with their own policies and behaviors. Give them a taste of how they would feel if the “wrong” people in their view brandished guns. Establish groups like Blacks for Gun Freedom, Gays for Gun Rights, and Machine Gun Moms for Choice and flood gun open carry zones and Hobby Lobby with people in paramilitary gear brandishing guns. Imagine a huge presence of Drag Queens for Guns Everywhere at CPAC or a force of mock Muslim Fighters raising up fake AK-47s and shouting “2nd Amendment! 2nd Amendment!” at gun rallies. Of course this must be very well organized and obvious toy weapons are enough to make the point. But the Satanic temple has shown how this kind of smart performance pushback can be very effective to force the other side to reconsider whether they really want everyone <else> to exercise the rights they are advocating.

So, there are just a few ideas.

If you feel that these sorts of tactics are too distasteful for you, then what <are> you willing to do to save the lives of your loved ones from gun violence? If they die in a mass shooting at school, or at the grocery store, or at some public venue, will your conscience be at ease knowing that you called for commonsense gun reform?

While it is sometimes true that the ends don’t justify the means, in the real world the ends absolutely do justify the means in most cases. Every time we make a tough decision, every time we risk ourselves to save a life, or prevent a crime, or accomplish any noble goal, it is precisely because the ends do justify the means.

Certainly, the end of reducing gun violence does not justify any means. But it does justify, no it demands, far stronger means than we as a nation have enacted so far. Let’s rise to the challenge that we face and take bolder, stronger action against the plague of guns in our country.

If this article motivates you to want to do more than merely donate more money to institutionalized gun control advocates, you can start by reposting it on other media platforms!

But What Would We Do Without Religion?

As an author who focuses primarily on science, fact-based thinking, and atheism, I find that many of my conversations end up stuck in religion. Even those who share a clear and open-eyed view of the completely delusional belief pattern of religion, as well as the real social harm that it causes, still end up at stuck at “yea, but we need religion.”

Their suggestion is that, despite the obvious insanity of it, we’re stuck with religion. After all, some people clearly just need religion to better cope with life. They need the support that religion provides, whether real or fantasy. Implicit in this acceptance is the assumption that there is and can be no secular alternative. We have become co-dependent upon our mass delusions.

To those folks I say, look, we’d be completely fine without religion. In fact, if a miracle actually happened and religion disappeared from the planet, it would be quickly replaced with far more healthy fact-based alternatives. The disappearance of religion would open the space at least for rational secular alternatives to blossom and grow to fill any sane, legitimate need. All the money going to churches would be available to them to grow and flourish.

We have plenty of secular support systems already. We have an arguably helpful and supportive secular government, charities, clubs and associations of all sorts, NGO and volunteer organizations, and familial and interpersonal relationships. If religion were to disappear, I am fully confident that there are plenty of fact-based support and comfort systems that would expand and blossom to provide socially healthy alternatives to provide any legitimate benefits that religion may offer.

You know, we are always irrationally fearful of losing anything we have, even when it is harmful to us. Yes, cigarettes are killing us but don’t you dare take them away! Perhaps gas stoves are no longer needed and are giving our kids asthma, but you can pry my gas stove from my dead burnt fingers!

Moreover, we have a tendency to put too much emphasis on what little good someone or something offers while minimizing all the negatives. At one company we had a true bad apple named Tanya. Tanya did virtually no work and spent all her time proudly fomenting dissent. Yet when I asked my boss why he didn’t fire her he said “well if I did who would do the little bit of work she does?”

Finally, we have another tendency to think of things we rely upon as indispensable, irreplaceable. I am a fan of Amazon, but many folks think it is terrible. Yet, most would not wish to do away with Amazon because, after all, we depend on it too much. Like it or not, they would say, we need it.

But I think it is safe for me to assert that you’d be just fine without your cigarettes or your gas stove. Work will go on just fine with Tanya gone, and in fact less can be more and productivity will probably increase. Someone will pick up her work with hardly a notice. And if -<horror> Amazon went out of business tomorrow? The market would quickly adjust and you’d have plenty of ways to buy whatever it is you need. Within weeks they’d be no more than a distant memory, like Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebucks.

Similarly, we overly focus on whatever good comes from religion and we mistakenly worry that it is indispensable and irreplaceable to meet our needs. We practically imagine that civilization would crumble without it. But it would not. We’d do just fine, and, as with Tanya gone, probably much better. As much as Amazon executives or church leaders would like you to believe that they alone can sustain you, they are not truly essential and irreplaceable. No one and nothing is, including religion.

So fret not for the loss of religion in the world. The planet will keep spinning and people will end up in a much better place when we finally escape from our delusions.

Scooby-Doo Set a High Bar

Most everyone knows that Scooby-Doo is an entertainment franchise that started as an animated television series back in 1969. In a nutshell, it consisted of a group of four teenage mystery investigators and their dog, a lovable Great Dane named Scooby-Doo.

The series had, and mostly still retains, a very rigid storyline structure. The kids arrive in their Mystery Van to investigate a report of strange occurrences. After disregarding dire warnings from creepy eye-witnesses who attempt to warn them away, the teens eventually encounter the actual vampire, ghost, alien, or fill-in-the-blank monster.

Hijinks ensue as the team alternately chases, and is chased by, the monster through the usual hallway doors or warehouse barrel gags. Eventually, often with the inadvertent assistance of Scooby-Doo, the team eventually corners the monster.

Here is the important part. Every episode, without exception, ends with the big reveal. The fake mask comes off and the teens gasp, “It’s groundskeeper Ed!” It invariably turns out that some trusted guy was faking the entire thing, typically in some scheme to profit from peoples’ superstition and fear. What seemed like such a compelling and terrifying monster suddenly gets exposed as just some greedy old guy in a cheap homemade mask.

The show should be required viewing as an essential part of every sound educational curriculum. It taught kids that even if something is seemingly inexplicable and scary, even if trusted adults tell you that you should be frightened, you can be assured that the answer is knowable and that it will turn out to be something quite simple and mundane once you discover it.

Scooby-Doo teaches kids the critically important lesson that if something seems inexplicable, they can be confident that “there is always a trick.” This is especially true in the case of any purportedly paranormal or supernatural mystery. The reality behind every supernatural account is always, and can only be, something quite unremarkable. Most likely, it is merely some greedy scammer trying to trick you out of your money.

And those greedy scammers are often television producers.

It is deplorable that ostensibly educational television networks like “The Science Channel,” “The Discovery Channel”, and “The History Channel” are not as educational and socially-responsible as are the Scooby-Doo Adventures. All of these supposedly educational channels not only fail to educate, but indeed they feature supernatural “investigations” without ever getting to the big reveal. They show us the scary stories and the tense chase but never the unmasking. Instead they convince many that these stories might be real and leave them with the tantalizing promise of further revelations in the next episode.

This is not harmless entertainment. This is the socially irresponsible perpetuation of nonsensical thinking that does great damage to our capacity to reason effectively, both individually and collectively.

It is a truly sad that these supposedly educational networks are no better than those dastardly Scooby-Doo villains. It is even more sad that a cartoon Great Dane named Scooby-Doo is a far greater force for reason and sanity in the world than all of those involved in manufacturing this entertainment and representing these paranormal “investigations” as educational reality-based television.

It is even sadder to realize that these networks do not need to broadcast these irresponsible ghost-hunter type shows to make a buck. Scooby-Doo proves, as do highly successful shows like Mythbusters, that you can be socially responsible and create a beloved and very profitable entertainment franchise at the same time. Like Scooby-Doo, they could unmask the real source of each supposed “mystery” — but they choose not to.

Like Scooby-Doo, they could end with a dramatic reveal which exposes how these stories get started, how we get fooled, and how they perpetuate — but they choose not to. Instead, unlike Scooby-Doo, the producers of these shows, the people who make them, and the networks that promote them choose to be socially irresponsible.

Scooby-Doo… where are you?

Wisconsin’s Fall From Grace

I was always proud of being from Wisconsin. I cited my Wisconsin upbringing as a testament to my good Midwestern values.

But for a while now I’ve increasingly felt like, if forced to admit I am from Wisconsin, I need to rush to explain that, despite being from Wisconsin, I’m really not crazy or stupid. To salvage my dignity, I quickly point out that I went to school at Madison (now I know how those Texans feel when they rush to point out that they are from Austin).

It isn’t me that has changed, it’s Wisconsin.

I am a product of Wisconsin as much as Miller Beer or its favorite son, The Crusher (see here). The Crusher was the stage name for a pro-wrestler who reportedly used to train by jogging around South Milwaukee with a barrel of beer on his shoulder. My friends and I used to go to watch the wrestling matches at “The Arena.”

So I have solid Wisconsin creds. I spent my Elementary and High School years roaming the near South side in Milwaukee and camping out in a pup tent at Mauthe Lake. I dragged my overloaded wagon through unplowed snowdrifts to deliver the Milwaukee Journal after school and at 3 am on Sunday mornings. My undergraduate years at Carroll College in Waukesha were challenging and exciting, living in a welfare voucher flop house across from the library. While attending the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, I managed a large [reportedly haunted] apartment complex and parented a group home for a great bunch of mentally disabled residents in nearby Ripon. I taught High School in Wisconsin farm country and was particularly proud to attend Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the historic and vibrant epicenter of Midwest progressivism at its best.

Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of beyond beer and pro-wrestlers. It has a long history of bold and progressive leadership.

Throughout the twentieth century, Wisconsin led the country in devising pioneering legislation that aided the vast majority of its citizens. In 1911, the state legislature established the nation’s first workers’ compensation program, a progressive state income tax, and more stringent child-labor laws. The following year, former President Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”

The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman (see here)

The proud historical legacy of Wisconsin was hard-earned by courageous populist leaders like “Fighting Bob” La Follette (see here) and his sons. But the Wisconsin that birthed and raised me is no more. The sane and compassionate Wisconsin that the La Follette’s worked so hard to build was murdered back around 2016 when Conservatives took control.

While Trump’s victory may have shocked the media, it merely heralded the final stage of Wisconsin’s dramatic transformation from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy’s national unraveling. Powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country had Wisconsin in their sights years before the 2016 election, helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state’s political culture.

The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman

Wisconsinite Dan Kaufman, the author of that article in The Progressive Magazine, also wrote a book on this topic called The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (see here).

The Fall of Wisconsin is a deeply reported, searing account of how the state’s progressive tradition was undone and turned into a model for national conservatives bent on remaking the country. 

Kaufman is certainly correct in what is essentially his obituary for the quirky and loveable Wisconsin we once knew and loved. For me, it is viscerally sad to see Wisconsin laid so low by the Trump-fueled Conservative movement. Wisconsin may not be as Red on paper, or at least not receive as much attention, as other states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. But when one considers how quickly it has been taken over by extreme Conservatism, and how far it has fallen from its former grace, it is particularly shocking. The prognosis seems to be that extreme Conservativism has entrenched itself deep into the very spine of Wisconsin, and that it will not recover back to a sane and rational state for a very very long time.

This one is personal for me. I think of the folks around me when I grew up in Wisconsin. My community was mostly working-class Polish or German stock but there was considerable diversity. Racial or ethnic animus was pretty minimal for that time. Yes, my grandmother locked the doors when we drove through a Black neighborhood, but that was the extent of it. Politics was mentioned after the Packer game, but it was not a particularly divisive issue.

My family were all moderate Conservatives. They complained about welfare, but mostly they treated their politics like their religion. They were Catholics. Now, if you know Catholics, they are very mildly religious. Yes, they believe in god, or profess to for the sake of the kids. They go to church once a year on Easter and Christmas and they figure their souls are safe. It’s all pretty laid back. My uncle who sponsored my First Communion took me to celebrate at the local corner bar afterwards.

These Wisconsinites were pretty much Catholic in their politics too. Yes they were Conservative, but not radically so.

But today, most of my friends and relatives back in Wisconsin are no longer Catholic in their religion or their politics. They are Evangelical Christians and they are MAGA true believers and they are tirelessly active in advancing both. When I spend any time with them they quickly tell me in the strongest terms that my atheism is going to damn my child to hell and that Donald Trump never, ever told a lie.

Their religion and their politics seem linked like two sides of the same coin. They always were, except before it was a moderate Catholic attitude and today it is a radical Evangelical one.

When I look back at Wisconsin, I remember it as that nice State who always brought the best potato dumplings and plenty of Blatz beer to the potluck. But somehow, tragically, got radicalized online and ended up storming the Capitol to lynch our political leaders in praise of god and Donald Trump.

R.I.P. Wisconsin. I hope you can somehow recover from this fever of evangelical religion and radicalized politics and return to the reasonable and sensible Midwesterners that would honor the great ghosts of Wisconsin past.

The Motorcar-Rights Amendment

1885 Benz Patent Motorcar

Back in the year 1900, there were only 4,192 passenger cars manufactured in the United States. Those 4,192 turn-of-the-century car enthusiasts could freely putter along their dirt roads with little concern about speed limits, driver training or tests, licensing, stop lights, traffic cops, seat belts, or fatal accidents. I’m sure some still managed to get into bouts of road-rage fueled fisticuffs, or run over the occasional slow-reacting pedestrian, but these incidents, while vexing, were not unmanageable.

Fast-forward to 2022 and there are now over 284 million motor vehicles operating on the roads of the United States. Today we absolutely do have to worry about things like speed limits, driver training and tests, licensing, stop lights, traffic cops, seat belts, and fatal accidents. Not only are there far more cars today, they are far more densely packed into confined spaces, they are dramatically heavier, and are far faster. To fail to regulate car ownership and to strictly circumscribe their use in today’s world would not be merely vexing, it would be insanely dystopian.

In this, I think any even the most passionate car enthusiast would agree.

But what if one of the drafters of our Constitution was also the proud owner of a 1886 Benz Patent Motorcar? He might have honestly believed that motorcar ownership is a right that should never be curtailed by the government in any way. And further, he might have argued that the personal mobility offered by the motorcar was essential to civil resistance against an oppressive government. Therefore, what harm could come from including a Motorcar-Rights Amendment to ensure that some future tyrannical government can not seek to oppress us by curtailing our ability to move about and associate freely?

What would likely have happened if we did have such a “Motorcar-Rights Amendment” in our Constitution?

Likely we would be in much the same situation we are in with guns.

Like gun owners, car enthusiasts would have tenaciously invoked their Constitutional Right to block any regulation that in any way restricted their use of cars. No seat belts, no speed limits, no competence tests, no police enforcement–no slippery-slope regulations of any kind. Certainly the American Automobile Association, funded by the car industry, would unfailingly argue in front of the Supreme Court that even the most modest car control regulation or liability exposure is unconstitutional. Regardless of the number of horrific high speed accidents, heedless of death and injury counts, the Supreme Court would steadfastly insist that we adhere to the original intent of the Constitution. “Responsible” car owners would buy ever bigger and more dangerous vehicles in order to defend their rights, to defend our liberty, and to defend themselves from all those “other” reckless car drivers.

Over the decades, as cars got bigger, faster, and more numerous, our dogged protection of that right would have gradually transformed our county into a vast and deadly demolition derby with 284 million rhinoceros-sized death-machines all trying to outdo each other by buying even more deadly elephant-sized death machines.

And our only response would be to continue to send our thoughts and prayers to all the victims of that insane car-nage even as we were quick to reaffirm our commitment to protecting “responsible car ownership” and advocating for inconsequentially modest reforms.

And guns have incomparably less value to society than do cars.

What a more sane and rational Supreme Court would and should do about guns is to drastically reevaluate or even better abandon this primeval Constitutional right in recognition of the real world we live in today. But regardless of that, any ethical and responsible individual would and should voluntarily elect not to own guns of any kind for any reason and refuse to defend or support any private gun ownership whatsoever for any reason.

Loss to Follow-up in Research

In my scientific evangelism, I often tout the virtues of good scientists. One that I often claim is that they do not accept easy answers to difficult problems. They would rather say “we do not have an answer to that question at this time” than accept some possibly incorrect or incomplete answer. They understand that to embrace such quick answers not only results in the widespread adoption of false conclusions but also inhibits the development of new techniques and methods to arrive at the fuller truth.

When it comes to clinical research however, many clinical researchers do not actually behave like good scientists. They behave more like nonscientific believers or advocates. This is particularly true with regard to the problem of “loss to follow-up.”

What is that? Well, many common clinical research studies, for example how well patients respond to a particular treatment, require that the patient be examined at some point after the treatment is administered, perhaps in a week, perhaps after several months have passed. Only through follow-up can we know how well that treatment has worked.

The universal problem however is that this normally requires considerable effort by the researchers as well as the patients. Researchers must successfully schedule a return visit and patients must actually answer their telephone when the researchers attempt to follow-up. This often does not happen. These patients are “lost to follow-up” and we have no data for them regarding the outcomes we are evaluating.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these follow-up rates are often very poor. In some areas of clinical research, a 50% loss to follow-up rate is considered acceptable – largely based on practicality, not statistical accuracy. Some published studies report loss to follow-up rates as high as 75% or more – that is, they have only a 25% successful follow-up rate.

To put this in context, in their 2002 series on epidemiology published in The Lancet, Schultz and Grimes included a critical paper in which they assert that any loss to follow-up over 20% invalidates any general conclusions regarding most populations. In some cases, a 95% follow-up rate would be required in order to make legitimate general conclusions. The ideal follow-up rate required depends upon the rate of the event being studied.

Unfortunately, few studies involving voluntary follow-up by real people can achieve these statistically meaningful rates of follow-up and thus we should have appropriately moderated confidence in their results. At some threshold, a sufficiently low confidence means we should have no confidence.

So, given the practical difficulty of obtaining a statistically satisfactory loss to follow-up, what should clinical researchers do? Should they just stop doing research? There are many important questions that we need answers to, and this is simply the best we can do. Therefore, most conclude, surely some information is better than none.

But is it?

Certainly most clinical researchers – but not all – are careful to add a caveat to their conclusions. They responsibly structure their conclusions to say something like:

We found that 22% of patients experienced mild discomfort and there were no serious incidents reported. We point out that our 37% follow-up rate introduces some uncertainty in these findings.

This seems like a reasonable and sufficiently qualified conclusion. However, we know that despite the warning about loss to follow-up, the overall conclusion is that this procedure is relatively safe with only 22% of patients overall experiencing mild discomfort. That is almost assuredly going to be adopted as a general conclusion. Particularly so since the topic of the study is essentially “the safety of our new procedure.”

Adopting that level of safety as a general conclusion could be wildly misleading. It may be that 63% of patients failed to respond because they were killed by the procedure. Conversely, the results may create unwarranted concern about discomfort caused by the procedure since the only patients who felt compelled to follow-up were those who experienced discomfort. These are exaggerations to make the point, but they illustrate very real and very common problems that we cannot diagnose since the patients were lost to follow-up.

In any case, ignoring or minimizing or forgetting about loss to follow-up is only valid if the patients who followed-up were random. And that is rarely the case and certainly can never be assumed or even determined.

Look at it this way. Imagine a scientific paper entitled “The Birds of Tacoma.” In their methodology section, the researchers describe how they set up plates of worms and bowls of nectar in their living room and opened the windows. They then meticulously counted to birds that flew into the room to eat. They report they observed 6 robins and 4 hummingbirds. Therefore, they conclude, our study found that in Tacoma, we have 60% robins and 40% hummingbirds. Of course, being scrupulous researchers, they note that their research technique could, theoretically, have missed certain bird species.

This example isn’t exactly a problem of loss to follow-up, but the result is the same. You can of course think of many, many reasons why their observations may be misleading. But nevertheless, most people would form the long-term “knowledge” that Tacoma is populated by 60% robins and 40% hummingbirds. Some might take unfortunate actions under the assurance that no eagles were found in Tacoma. Further, the feeling that we now know the answer to this question would certainly inhibit further research and limit any funding into what seems to be a settled matter.

But, still, many scientists would say that they know all of this but we have to do what we can do. We have to move forward. Any knowledge, however imperfect is better than none. And what alternative do we have?

Well, one alternative is to reframe your research. Do not purport to report on “The Birds of Tacoma,” but rather report on “The Birds that Flew into Our Living Room.” That is, limit the scope of your title and conclusions so there is no inference that you are reporting on the entire population. Purporting to report general conclusions and then adding a caveat in the small print at the end should be unacceptable.

Further, publishers and peer reviewers should not publish papers that suggest general conclusions beyond the confidence limits of their loss to follow-up. They should require that the authors make the sort of changes I recommend above. And they themselves should be willing to publish papers that are not quite as definitive in their claims.

But more generally, clinical researchers, like any good scientists, should accept that they cannot <yet> answer some questions for which they cannot achieve a statistically sound loss to follow-up. Poor information can be worse than no information.

When <real> scientists are asked about the structure of a quark, they don’t perform some simple experiments that they are able to conduct with the old lab equipment at hand and report some results with disclaimers. They stand back. They say, “we cannot answer that question right now.” And they set about creating new equipment, new techniques, to allow them to study quarks more directly and precisely.

Clinical researchers should be expected to put in that same level of effort. Rather than continuing to do dubious and even counterproductive follow-up studies, buckle down, do the hard work, and develop techniques to acquire better data. It can’t be harder than coming up with gear to detect quarks.

“I have to deal with people” should not be a valid excuse for poor science. Real scientists don’t just accept easy answers because they’re easy. That’s what believers do. So step up clinical researchers, be scientists and be willing to say I don’t know but I’m going to develop new methods and approaches that will get us those answers. Answers that we can trust and act upon with confidence.

If you are not wiling to do that you are little better than Christian Scientists.

Game Theory and the End of Democracy

Asian cultures tend to create games and systems that are inherently cooperative, in which everyone wins or loses together as a team. America, by contrast, is an explicitly and proudly antagonistic culture that pits one side against the other in most every aspect of life. Win-lose competitions drive our society starting with our board games, through our sports competitions, our educational system, our legal system, our capitalist financial system, and right up through our highly prized political system of checks and balances.

But in a system where one must lose so the other can win, it’s tough to be a gracious loser and sometimes just as hard to be a gracious winner. Win-lose competitions often do not end well. Yes, once or twice a gracious loser will walk across the field and congratulate a similarly gracious winner. But if the game is imbalanced, that good sportsmanship cannot be maintained. If one side keeps losing and sees no hope of winning, the game quickly goes sour for both sides. That thrilling boxing match suddenly turns into a repulsive beatdown that forces every feeling person turn away in disgust, and neither the winner nor the loser walk away feeling good.

Win-lose competitions are great fun as long as both sides believe they can win. But when one player starts to fall behind, they might try to distract the other player so that they can shift a chess piece, or they might grab some monopoly money from the bank when no one is paying attention. As the game becomes more lopsided, cheating becomes ever more irresistible. Sometimes the cheating becomes so intense that the entire game is corrupted and sometimes, by tacit agreement, both parties just abandon the rules altogether.

If one player finally becomes convinced that they can never win, why should they continue to play at all? When a chess player finally accepts that they cannot compete against world-class masters, or a runner accepts that their knee injuries make them unable to compete and win, why continue to participate? Of course, they lose interest in the game, they decide it’s stupid anyway, they might even angrily claim the other side cheats, upturn the game board, and insist we play some other game.

That is analogous to what has been happening in our real-life competitive game of politics. The Right has long seen that they are losing at this game of democratic elections. They tried cheating, they engaged in the political equivalent of unsportsmanlike misconduct, they exploited and abused the rules of the game, but it is still clear that they will not win another fair electoral match in the foreseeable future. Obviously, their natural inclination is to overturn the board, to declare that Democracy is stupid anyway, to turn it into a WWF version of political performance art, and even to embrace dictatorship.

From the perspective of the side that has no hope of winning in a fair democratic election, a totalitarian dictatorship that is hopefully more aligned to your perspectives is a rationally desirable alternative. Even if that dictatorship does not serve your own self interest, overturning the chess board at least denies your opponent a win.

So the message here is that the Progressives have finally succeeded in their generational effort to convince Conservatives that they can no longer win the game election game in America. It should be perfectly understandable that, once internalizing that stark reality, the Conservatives tried to cheat, tried to change the rules, and are now engaged in overturning the entire game.

This impulse to abandon the game rather than keep losing is aggravated and reinforced by a simultaneously lopsided win-lose economic system in which it is clear that the ultra-wealthy have claimed the winning cup so completely that none of the rest of us, but particularly rank and file Conservatives, can ever hope to do more than pitch in the minor-leagues.

What, did we think that Conservatives would just walk across the Continental divide, shake our hands, congratulate us on a well-earned victory, and accede to the increasingly progressive will of the majority?

Of course not. Of course they prefer to overturn the game, and end Democracy altogether, rather than lose at the competitive win-lose game that we have made it.