Author Archives: Tyson

About Tyson

Love writing all kinds of stuff including fiction, non-fiction, editorials, etc. But writing software is the only writing I do for love AND money!

Would you Buy a Used Car from this Guy?

Used Car SalesmanWhen someone makes a claim, how do you decide whether to accept it or to reject it? Ideally you make an independent assessment of the truth of the claim. But that assessment must necessarily factor in, and factor in quite heavily, the character of the person making the claim. Do they have legitimate knowledge regarding the claim, do they have ulterior motives to misrepresent their claim, and do they have a history of making false and misleading claims?

If any such character questions fail, one should be legitimately skeptical of any claim made by that person. As judges in court proceedings often instruct their jury, if a witness is caught in even one lie, it is reasonable to be skeptical of their entire testimony. If enough questions of character arise, then one should be skeptical that even the most legitimate-sounding claim made by that person may simply be “too good to be true.”

The merits of a claim can be misrepresented. Therefore a character assessment must sometimes be factored in even more strongly than our judgement about the merits of an assertion. Conversely, we should seriously consider even doubtful claims from those of high character and a strong record of being correct.

An offer is a kind of a claim. An offer makes an implicit claim that you have something of value to the recipient that you are willing to share. As with any other claim, the decision whether to accept or reject the offer must necessarily consider the character of the person or entity making the offer.

President Trump has made more false claims that one can count. Well, actually someone did count more than 20,000 false and misleading claims just since taking office (see here). Moreover, he has unfailingly demonstrated that he lacks judgment, is completely self-serving, has total disregard for facts and truth, and considers fakery and manipulation to be a high ideals. He lacks any ethical core and even his sanity is in legitimate doubt.

Given his deplorable character and his clear and almost entirely blemished record of deceit, it is truly mind-boggling how anyone can believe anything Mr. Trump says, no matter how plausible it may sound or how much they want it to be true. Gullible people are those who believe false claims, often willfully ignoring the character of even known liars or confidence men making the claims. Anyone who believes anything Mr. Trump says without exceptional external validation is simply gullible.

Similarly, one cannot be criticized for being skeptical regarding any offer made by Mr. Trump or by his Administration. It is unfortunate when public officials pretend to ignore his character when expressing skepticism regarding his policy offers and recommendations. For example, in interviews regarding Trump’s offer to deploy Federal police into cities to deal with rioting, several Mayors have been asked “Would you reject Federal law enforcement assistance if the offer did not come from the Trump Administration?” The question suggests that considering the source of the offer would be somehow “politically motivated.” Those Mayors tend to skirt the character issue completely and give vague answers about how Federal assistance is not needed.

The correct answer, both rationally and politically, should be “Of course I have to consider veracity and motives of the person making any claim or offer, particularly one of such great consequence as this.”

And of course Mr. Trump’s character must influence the reluctance of those Mayors to accept his offer of “assistance.” If the same offer was made by any of our previous Presidents, it might be reasonable to consider it more favorably. Those Mayors might feel far more comfortable in doing so because no other President has demonstrated such an egregious degree of disingenuous lies and manipulations for their own benefit or spite. Coming from any other President, Mayors would have less reason for concern that the offer was politically motivated let alone another step on the road toward the realization of his Dictatorial aspirations. If the offer had come from any other President, those Mayors would have had far less cause to consider that the offer originated from a morally corrupt and even mentally unstable individual.

It is of course unfortunate that even if Donald Trump were to make some claim or offer that is actually truthful and helpful, most sane and ethical people should be rightfully skeptical of it. That is why an individual as fundamentally untrustworthy as Donald Trump should never hold a position of public trust.

 

The Bridge that Binds

RelationshipsOur consciousness is like a lone person wandering around within the confines of their own small island-body. We see people on their own islands all around us, but we can only wave and call out to them at a distance. But sometimes, miraculously, we happen upon a rope-bridge spanning the void at the same time that another discovers their end of the bridge, and we can come together, embrace, and share our islands as one.

Unfortunately, rope bridges easily fray, and all of our running back and forth together inevitably wears them out. If we are not extraordinarily smart and careful, the tenuous bridge binding us together collapses irretrievably. How do these interpersonal bridges get frayed and can we prevent it?

Four years ago I blogged about the relationship between memory and happiness (see here). Long story short… the better your memory the more unhappy you are likely to be. People with “good” memories invariably remember every insult, every slight, and every disappointment. Those painful memories pile up and eventually weigh one down with bitterness, regret, fear, and anger. These are often directed toward your partner.

When it comes to maintaining a close, loving relationship, a bad memory can be a good thing. Sure you may forget that occasional birthday or anniversary, but you can chalk that up to your bad memory. Hopefully your partner will forgive those oversights. But much worse is to carry every inevitable and unavoidable insult or emotional injury with you in your unforgiving memory banks – especially since it is likely to get worse and worse with each recalling (see here).

But how does a person with a good memory forget a bad experience? Excellent question. One thing you can do is to consciously resolve to wake up each day like Lucy Whitmore as played by Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates” (see here). Resolve that even though you may indulge in being justifiably crabby, sullen, snippy, or plain pissed with your partner till bedtime, come morning you’ll reboot and revert to normal, just like Lucy. You may need to “show them how it feels” or simply shut down emotionally for a day, but don’t carry it on past the morning light.

And if you are the on the receiving end of this behavior change, don’t adjust to a new normal too quickly. Help make it easy for your partner to return to normalcy without either of you losing face.

Because if both partners do not reboot quickly, you run a even bigger risk than adding on another toxic memory. You run the risk of falling prey to an insidious type of “behavioral memory.” What happens is this sort of sequence… say you get angry with your spouse so you do or don’t do something in response. In the morning you feel not ready to let up so you don’t. Throughout the day, you continue with your response, because you now feel awkward going back. By the next day, you no longer know how to go back. Your temporary anger or hurt reflex has become internalized and both you and your partner have adjusted to it. Now, it’s a permanent part of your relationship and there is no way back. You may forget the precipitating event, but your response has become a permanent behavioral memory. It is your new normal, and it diminishes your relationship. The bridge between your islands is frayed and weakened.

So, after a trying episode, wake up like Lucy and try to forget your pain or anger from yesterday. Of course you can’t and shouldn’t forget real abuse and mistreatment. But do try to let go of those minor spats with those who you love and who love you. Don’t allow something relatively minor to fester and grow. Most importantly, don’t allow your response behavior to become ingrained as a permanent behavioral memory.

Second, be on the lookout for any time when, in response to hurt or anger, you say to yourself “for now on I’m gonna…” This is almost always something unfortunate. When you hear yourself think that, just stop that line of thought. Don’t make behavior changes that arise from negative reactions.

If your partner didn’t laugh at your joke, don’t resolve to never tell jokes again. If your partner insulted your lasagna, don’t resolve never to cook again. If your partner shrugged off your hug, don’t resolve to never to risk showing affection again. Each time you decide to make some long-term change out of hurt or anger or just as your sensible adjustment to your partners behavioral change, just stop as ask yourself if your reaction is really worth the cost. Don’t whittle away at the bridge that binds you together.

Finally, if your partner does establish a destructive new behavioral memory, try not to adjust to a new normal too quickly or too deeply. Don’t lock in their behavior through your own adjustment to it, as reasonable as that may seem. Remain open to creating or finding opportunities to restore or strengthen the precious bridge you share.

The picture accompanying this article tells a tragic story of a couple that didn’t start out more interested in their cell phones than in even a merely perfunctory embrace. They started out strongly connected and madly in love. But years of memories that only fester and grow have wedged them apart. A hundred ingrained behavioral memories have destroyed all that they once gave them so much joy. Now their once mighty bridge is merely a tenuous thread.

You don’t need to become them. Choose not to become them. Choose to be Lucy.

 

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

BrainwavesEEGToday I’d like to point out three severe and consequential flaws in your thinking. I know, I know, you’re wondering how I could possibly presume that you have major flaws in your thinking. Well, I can safely presume so because these flaws are so innate that it is a statistical certainty that you exhibit them much the time. I suffer from them myself, we all do.

Our first flaw arises from our assumption that human thinking must be internally consistent; that there must necessarily be some logical consistency to our thinking and our actions. This is reinforced by our own perception that whatever our neural networks tell us, no matter how internally inconsistent, nevertheless seems totally logical to us. But the reality is that our human neural networks can accommodate any level of inconsistency. We learn whatever “training facts,” good or bad, that are presented to us sufficiently often. Our brains have no inherent internal consistency checks beyond the approval and rejection patterns they are taught. For example, training in science can improve these check patterns,  whereas training in religion necessarily weakens them. But nothing inherently prevents bad facts and connections from getting introduced into our networks. (Note that the flexibility of our neural networks to accommodate literally anything <was> an evolutionary advantage for us.)

Our second flaw is that we have an amazing ability to rationalize whatever random facts we are sufficiently exposed to so as to make them seem totally logical and consistent to us. We can maintain unquestioning certainty in any proposition A, but at the same time be perfectly comfortable with proposition B, even if B is in total opposition with and incompatible with proposition A. We easily rationalize some explanation to create the illusion of internal consistency and dismiss any inconsistencies. If our network is repeatedly exposed to the belief that aliens are waiting to pick us up after we die, that idea gradually becomes more and more reasonable to us, until eventually we are ready to drink poison. At each point in the deepening of those network pathways, we easily rationalize away any logical or empirical inconsistency. We observe extreme examples of this in clinical cases but such rationalization affects all our thinking. (Note that our ability to rationalize incoherent ideas so as to seem perfectly coherent to us was an evolutionary necessity to deal with the problems produced by flaw #1.) 

The third flaw is that we get fooled by our perception of and need to attribute intent and volition to our thoughts and actions. We imagine that we decide things consciously when the truth is that most everything we think and do is largely the instantaneous unconscious output of our uniquely individual neural network pathways. We don’t so much arrive at a decision as we rationalize a post-facto explanation after we realize what we just thought or did. Our consciousness is like the General who follows the army wherever it goes, and tells himself he is in charge. We feel drawn to a Match date. Afterwards when we are asked what attracted us to that person, so we come up something like her eyes or his laugh. But the truth is that our attraction was so automatic and so complex and so deeply buried, that we really have no idea. Still, we feel compelled to come with some explanation to reassure us that we made a reasoned conscious decision. (Certainly our illusion of control is a fundamental element of what we perceive as our consciousness.)

So these are our three core flaws. First, our brains can learn any set of random facts and cannot help but accept those “facts” as undeniable and obvious truths. Second, we can and do rationalize whatever our neural network tells us, however crazy and nonsensical, so as to make us feel OK enough about ourselves to at least allow us to function in the world. And thirdly, when we ascribe post-facto rationalizations to explain our neural network conclusions, we mistakenly believe that the rationalizations came first. Believing otherwise conflicts unacceptably with our need to feel in control of our thoughts and actions.

I submit that understanding these flaws is incredibly important. Truly incorporating an understanding of these flaws into your analysis of new information shifts the paradigm dramatically. It opens up powerful new insights into understanding people better, promotes more constructive evaluation of their thoughts and actions, and reveals more effective options for working with or influencing them.

On the other hand, failure to consider these inherent flaws misdirects and undermines all of our interpersonal and social interactions. It causes tremendous frustration, misunderstanding, and counterproductive interactions.

I am going to give some more concrete examples of how ignoring these flaws causes problems and how integrating them into your thinking opens up new possibilities. But before I do that, I have to digress a bit and emphasize that we are the worst judge of our own thoughts and conclusions. By definition, whatever our neural network thinks is what seems inescapably logical and true to us. Therefore, our first thought must always be, am I the one whose neural network is flawed here? Sometimes we can recognize this in ourselves, sometimes we might accept it when others point it out, but most of the time it is exceedingly difficult for us to recognize let alone correct our own network programming. When our networks change, it is usually a process of which we are largely unaware, and happens through repeated exposure to different training facts.

But just because we cannot fully trust our own thinking doesn’t mean we should question everything we think. We simply cannot and should not question every idea we have learned. We have learned the Earth is spherical. We shouldn’t feel so insecure as to question that, or be intellectually bullied into entertaining new flat Earth theories to prove our open-mindedness or scientific integrity. Knowing when to maintain ones confidence in our knowledge and when to question it, is of course incredibly challenging.

And this does not mean we are all equally flawed or that we cannot improve. The measure is how well our individual networks comport with objective reality and sound reason. Some of our networks have more fact-based programming than others. Eliminating bad programming is not hopeless. It is possible, even irresistible when it happens. Our neural networks are quite malleable given new training facts good or bad. My neural network once told me that any young bald tattooed male was a neo-Nazi, that any slovenly guy wearing bagging jeans below his butt was a thug, and any metro guy sporting a bushy Khomeini beard was an insecure, over-compensating douchebag. Repeated exposure to facts to the contrary have reprogrammed my neural network on at least two of those.

OK, back on point now. Below are some examples of comments we might say or hear in conversation, along with some analysis and interpretation based on an awareness of our three flaws. I use the variable <topic> to allow you to fill in the blank with practically anything. It can be something unquestionably true, like <climate change is real>, or <god is a fantasy>, or <Trump is a moron>. Alternatively, if you believe obvious nonsense like <climate change is a hoax>, or <god is real>, or <Trump is the greatest President ever>, using those examples can still help just as much to improve your comfort level and relations with the other side.

I don’t understand how Jack can believe <topic>. He is so smart!

We often hear this sort of perplexed sentiment. How can so many smart people believe such stupid things? Well, remember flaw #1. Our brains can be both smart and stupid at the same time, and usually are. There are no smart or stupid brains, there are only factually-trained neural network patterns and speciously trained neural network patterns. Some folks have more quality programming, but that doesn’t prevent bad programming from sneaking in. There should be no surprise to find that otherwise smart people often believe some very stupid things.

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

Just like no one is completely smart, no one is completely crazy. Jill may have some crazy ideas that exist perfectly well along side a lot of mostly sane ideas. Everyone has some crazy programming and we only consider them insane when the level of crazy passes some socially acceptable threshold.

I believe Ben when he says <topic> is true because he won a Nobel Prize.

A common variant of the previous sentiments. Ben may have won a Nobel Prize, he may teach at Harvard, and may pen opinion pieces for the New York Times, so therefore we should give him the benefit of the doubt when we listen to his opinions. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that he may still be totally bonkers on any particular idea. Conversely, just because someone is generally bonkers, we should be skeptical of anything they say but still be open to the possibility that they may be reasoning more clearly than most on any particular issue. This is why we consider “argument by authority” to be a form of specious argument.

It makes me so mad that Jerry claims that <topic> is real!

Don’t get too mad. Jerry kinda can’t help it. His neural network training has resulted in a network that clearly tells him that <topic> must obviously be absolutely true. Too much Fox News, religious exposure, or relentless brainwashing will do that to anyone, even you.

How can Bonnie actually claim that she supports <topic> when she denies <topic>???

First, recall flaw #1. Bonnie can believe any number of incompatible things without any problem at all. And further, flaw #2 allows her to rationalize a perfectly compelling reason to excuse any inconsistency.

Clyde believes in <topic> so he’ll never support <topic>.

Not true. Remember our flaws again. Clyde’s neural network can in fact accommodate one topic without changing the other one, and still rationalize them perfectly well. All it takes is exposure to the appropriate “training facts.” In fact, consistent with flaw #3, after his network programming changes, Clyde will maintain that he consciously arrived at that new conclusion through careful study and the application of rigorous logic.

Sonny is conducting a survey to understand why voters support <topic>.

Social scientists in particular should be more cognizant of this one. How often do we go to great efforts to ask people why they believe something or why they did something. But remember flaw #3. Mostly what they will report to you is simply their rationalization based on flaw #2. It may not, and usually doesn’t, have anything to do with their extremely complex neural network programming. That is why “subjective” studies designed to learn how to satisfy people usually fail to produce results that actually do influence them. Sonny should look for more objective measures for insight and predictive value.

Cher should support <topic> because it is factually supported and logically sound!

Appeals to evidence and logic often fail because peoples’ neural network has already been trained to accept other “evidence” and to rationalize away contrary logic. It should be no surprise that they reject your evidence and conclusions and it doesn’t accomplish anything to expect Cher to see it, let alone berate or belittle her when she does not.

And that brings us to the big reveal of this article…

There is a fourth flaw that is far worse than the other three we have discussed so far. And that is the flaw that most of us suffer from when we fail to integrate an deep awareness of flaws 1-3 into our thinking. We may not be able to completely control or eliminate flaws 1-3, but we can correct flaw number 4!

This discussion may have left you feeling helpless to understand, let alone influence, our truth-agnostic neural networks. But it also presents opportunities. These insights suggest two powerful approaches.

The first approach is more long-term. We must gradually retrain flawed neural networks. This can be accomplished through education, marketing, advertising, example-setting, and social awareness campaigns to name a few. None of these efforts need to be direct, nor do they require any buy-in by the target audience. The reality of network training is that it is largely unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. If our neural networks are exposed to sufficient nonsense, they will gradually find that nonsense more and more reasonable. But the encouraging realization is that reprogramming works just as well – or better – for sound propositions. And to be clear, this can happen quite rapidly. Look at how quickly huge numbers of neural networks have moved on a wide range of influence campaigns from the latest fashion or music craze to tobacco reduction to interracial relationships.

The second approach can be instantaneous. Rather than attempt to reprogram neural networks, you force them to jump through an alternate pathway to a different conclusion. This can happen with just a tiny and seemingly unrelated change in the inputs, and the result is analogous to suddenly shifting from the clear perception of a witch-silhouette, to that of a vase. Your network paths have not changed, yet one moment you conclude that you clearly see a witch, and the next it becomes equally obvious that it is actually a vase. For example, when Karl Rove changed the name of legislation, he didn’t try to modify people’s neural network programming, he merely changed an input to trigger a very different output result.

I hope these observations have given you a new lens through which you can observe, interpret, and influence human behavior in uniquely new and more productive ways. If you keep them in mind, you will find that they inform much of what you hear, think, and say.

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.

Why Advocates Fear Success

LettingGoWe often see it in parents. Parents expend much of their lives raising their children. More than raising them, passionately advocating for them at every stage. They have built a home around them. They have expended much of their wealth to help them grow. Their emotions and their self-identity are wrapped up in their role as parents. They have done everything possible to help their children to succeed. Yet, allowing them to actually succeed, to fly from the nest and diminish their own role as parents, can be those parents’ most difficult challenge.

Similarly, success is the most fervent hope of advocates, yet it can be the most difficult thing for them to accept. Letting go is often difficult not only for advocates, but even more difficult for advocacy organizations and for an entire advocacy movement. You became impassioned, you rallied, you worked much of your life, your built institutions, you fought many battles, maybe even bled, to advance your cause. It’s understandable that it can be hard to let go. Particularly hard when your advocacy is not only your passion, but all you know how to do. Even harder when your financial livelihood and the financial livelihood of so many others depends upon the continued necessity of those advocacy institutions you have built.

The result is that many advocacy groups have a very difficult time dealing with success or an evolving social situation that has made them increasingly irrelevant. Even when 99% of their mission has been achieved, or when far more important issues arise, they still insist they need more funding, more effort, more time, more dedication, because there is just so much yet to be done. They begin to minimize their own accomplishments and exaggerate the remaining problems, so as to justify their continued relevancy as activists.

All movements go through a life cycle, and retirement is not easy for any of them. But I’m not going to name names. I’ll leave that to you to consider. I will say that I myself have long been passionately active in the atheist movement. However, as greater acceptance of atheists has been achieved (although very far from sufficient), as Trump has emerged as an existential threat to Democracy in America, and as climate change has emerged as an existential threat to the planet, I gradually let go of atheism as my primary issue. It wasn’t easy. I did go through a stage where I insisted that atheism was still a vital cause because religion is so much a foundational issue enabling all these other problems. But even that argument, while valid, sounds clingy and desperate to me now compared to so many other immediate threats, like healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I do feel compelled to point out one specific case in point, Culinary Union Local 226 in Nevada. They strongly oppose Bernie Sanders because of his proposed Universal Healthcare Plan (see here). They have reportedly gone so far and to pressure and intimidate members who support Sanders.

By the light being shone in this article, it should be easy to see why they would so vehemently oppose Sanders. Let’s face it, while Unions advocate for their members on a wide range of issues, healthcare is their clear raison d’être. Since healthcare in America is so prohibitively expensive, and since while other abuses still exist these are no longer the days of Upton Sinclair, people are driven to unions largely for assistance with healthcare. If Sanders were to eliminate healthcare as a major problem, those unions would lose their major point of leverage. They would no longer be desperately needed by members to advocate for their healthcare.

In my opinion, Culinary Union Local 226 and others are not unlike parents who would rather undermine a daughter’s impending marriage than allow her to leave their nest for a better life. Even if you accept their argument that they are only advocating as best as they can for their members, they are shortsighted because their current “gold” healthcare plan is always at risk. Of course, from their perspective, the risk of losing it is why their members need to continue to support and fund them. And from a more principled perspective, their “we got ours” attitude is simply unconscionable for the good of our nation overall.

 

The Great White Suburban False Hope

CollinsSenator Susan Collins has long been looked to as a rational, ethical, and principled moderate who surely would be willing to vote against her own party on issues of conscious. In fact, she has worked very hard to cultivate this image.

However after many years of encouraging platitudes from Susan Collins, and pundits predicting her near certain defection, she has almost always fallen in line with the Republican majority. Finally, her moderate facade has become too difficult to perpetuate with a straight face. Because of her long record of disingenuous and cowardly behavior, GQ Magazine published an article that asked whether Susan Collins is not actually more dangerous that Mitch McConnell (see here).

Part of the reason that Collins has gotten away with playing both sides for so long is because she is associated with the “white suburban woman” image. It is easy for us to assume that as a woman, mother, and grandmother she would never vote against the long term habitability of the planet, against a woman’s right to choose, against working families, or support sending our sons and daughters into needless wars. Surely as a white suburban woman she could never condone the actions of a disgusting, repulsive male thug in the White House. Yet she votes against the assumed interests and sensibilities of white suburban women, over and over and over again.

When one considers our profoundly unsatisfying “hope-disappointment” relationship with Susan Collins, one should also consider that this unsatisfying relationship is merely one instance of a far wider and more pervasive “hope-disappointment” dynamic with white suburban women in general.

Over the last couple decades, pundits and advocates in the media keep pointing to white suburban women as our firewall, our great hope. We keep hearing how, just like Susan Collins, they will surely rise up on this next issue. On this next vote, they will be outraged and mobilized. The Republicans have surely taken their hateful agenda a bridge too far for white suburban women!

But the reality is that, like Susan Collins in particular, white suburban women in general almost always fail to vote they way we thought they would. Apparently they are never really as outraged and mobilized as the pundits assume they are, as the activists hope they are, or as the women themselves claim to be.

Yet, despite a long history of Lucy and the Football, we kick it every time and fall on our asses every time. If you google “white suburban women vote” even now, you will find a ton of articles about how “this time” white suburban women are outraged, they’re energized, they’re mobilized, they’ve had enough!

But Vogue published a more fact-based analysis (see here). The authors recount the long history of white suburban women and their voting against their own apparent self-interest. In my personal experience I know a woman who voted for Bush for a second term, even though he had sent her two boys away to fight in a contrived war. Her rationale was “yes he did, but now we need someone strong in the White House to bring them home safely.”

The Vogue article stresses that despite their long history of disappointment, we should not and can not give up on white suburban women to do the right thing. Nor should we disparage them as moral failures or hold them to unrealistic expectations while we neglect to expect more from white suburban men.

But at the same time, fool me once… fool me twice. We should stop expecting Susan Collins to vote with the Progressives, and we should likewise not believe claims that white suburban women will save us. While some advocates might like to make it so by claiming it is so, it may be that a false sense of complacency that white suburban women will save us, is self-defeating.

We need to keep appealing to the best impulses of Susan Collins and all white suburban women. But we should also put aside unrealistic stereotypes, assumptions, and wishful thinking. Undue faith in white suburban women, like our undue faith in Susan Collins, will only benefit our adversaries.

 

A Case Study in Awful Op-Eds

BrooksA while back I wrote a blog article that rebutted the fallacious rantings by Rand Paul against Democratic Socialism (see here). Now I feel compelled to rise to the defense of Democratic Socialism once again. This time, in response to equally fallacious rantings by David Brooks.

In his recent New York Times article entitled “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked,” (see here) opinion columnist David Brooks repackages many of the same manipulations that Rand Paul employed in his campaign to make us fear Democratic Socialism.  The article is frankly terribly written. But rather than simply refute point by point, I’d like to use it to illustrate fallacious, manipulative techniques more generally.

“Inherited Credibility” Largely discount the “New York Times” banner at the top of the article. Yes, the NYT (or any major news outlet) publishes lots of great articles and are worthy of respect. However they publish so many articles that much of it is mediocre and some is downright terrible. Rely upon information from a reliable sources, but don’t let inherited credibility outweigh your objective analysis of any particular article.

“Argument by Authority” Similarly, largely discount the name of the well-known and highly-respected author. This is another form of arguing by authority. Yes, certainly we should give some respect to the opinions of authors who have credentials and a solid reputation. But we all can name endless numbers of pundits who are well-known and highly sought after for their opinions, but who nevertheless have completely lunatic ideas about a lot of things. This is a particularly true when experts in one thing are assumed to be experts in everything. Well-published op-ed authors in particular are pressured to produce a LOT of articles, often on things they know very little about, and with very little oversight or review. Rather than be overly cowed by a pundit because of their name, consider that they might be totally out of their depth or completely misguided in certain areas.

Appeal to Revelation” David Brooks starts out his article with a rather obvious manipulation. He asserts that he used to be a Socialist, but has since learned the error of his ways. The benign interpretation of this is that he is merely trying to establish his credentials to discuss this topic. But it also serves to manipulate through an appeal to personal revelation. That is, you should believe me because I “saw the light.” But lots of people toss aside rational positions and adopt irrational or even crazy positions later in life. Don’t be overly swayed by the manipulative argument that “I once saw things like you but I got smarter.

Misrepresent Your Opponent” Brooks then misrepresents the position of those he is attacking. He claims that Bernie Sanders is not talking about “good” socialism. He does not support this assertion with any fact, but later in his article starts talking about “socialist planned economies” so as to associate that with Democratic Socialism. Again, at this point however, he does not cite even one policy that Bernie Sanders supports that could be fairly described as moving toward a “socialist planned economy.”

Don’t Bother with Supporting Evidence” Next Brooks touts all of the accomplishments of Capitalism, without of course acknowledging its inherent problems. He claims that economies are simply “too complicated” for Socialist controls, without ever offering a shred of logic to support that claim. Finally, he cites historical benefits of Capitalism, without questioning whether we can reasonably hope to sustain an economy that continues along that same trajectory.

Hijack Your Opponent’s Strengths” Brooks continues by then making the same fallacious argument that Rand Paul makes. He equates Democratic Socialism to the aberrant socialism of China and Russia. And then he goes on to pull into his “good Capitalist” camp the very countries like Finland and Denmark that Democratic Socialists actually aspire to emulate. He cites statistics of the Democratic Socialist accomplishments of some countries and attempts to claim that those are actually accomplishments of Capitalism.

Create Your Own Celebrity Endorsements” Brooks next takes time to associate his position with secondary authorities including Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Sure, it is reasonable to cite greatly respected figures who may endorse your view, but we have to remain vigilant for attempts to cherry-pick endorsements from historical figures, which is what I believe Brooks is trying to do here.

Appeal To Emotion” Some people – like me – argue that Capitalism is like a religion to many American thinkers – like Brooks and Paul – who very adroitly rationalize their faith with pseudo-economic arguments. In fact, in this article Brooks points out that Capitalism is not a religion, but then he goes on at length to characterize it as having many of the emotional benefits of a religion. Again, a lot of appeal to emotion in this article, but very little appeal to reason and facts.

More of the Same” To the extent that he acknowledges that Capitalism has problems, he insists that the way to fix them is more Capitalism. If you’re dying of lead poisoning, due perhaps to the very lead gasoline that served you so well in the past, the solution is not more lead and again, Brooks make no attempt to support his claims.

Kitchen Sink Arguments” Red lights should go off when an author, like Brooks in this article, rambles on and on in a very disjointed manner, throwing everything in that he can think of. This usually reflects a weak position. Just because you cannot make sense of what he is saying doesn’t mean he must therefore be really, really smart.

I could go on and on about what absolutely terrible writing this is and how absolutely misleading the arguments are. But I hope this analysis gives you at least some things to look for when considering articles like this in the future. We must always exercise healthy skepticism, particularly when under the thrall of “big name” authors in “big name” publications.

Champion of Nonsense

RandFrom climate change deniers to religious believers, there is certainly no shortage of intellectuals championing nonsense in the public sphere. But today let’s focus on the Champion of Libertarianism, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Libertarianism is an extremist version of barely restrained Capitalism. While it may sound reasonable and appealing when presented by a faux-intellectual like Paul, it falls apart completely under the slightest scrutiny, just as it did when Rachel Maddow probed just below the surface of Paul’s position on privatized lunch counters (see here).

For a Libertarian zealot like Paul, Socialism is his most horrifying nightmare. It is therefore unsurprising that in response to increasing public support for Socialist policies, Rand Paul wasted no time in publishing a book denouncing it (The Case Against Socialism).

In making his “case against Socialism” Rand Paul focuses mainly on historical bogeymen by raising the long-dead specters of Stalin and Mao Zedong. In a television interview just the other day, he was asked what Millennials in particular who support Socialism don’t get. Paul replied that they don’t get that Socialism means that the government owns all means of production and that it has been a disaster in every country in which it has been tried. He went on to once again invoke the horrors of Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Here’s what Paul doesn’t get or does not wish to acknowledge. Supporters of Democratic Socialism are not advocating those extreme forms of Socialism. They are not advocating that the government seize all private enterprise. And further, there is no reason to think that such Socialist extremism is inevitable, likely, or even possible in America.

Paul’s entire premise against Socialism is based on an obviously specious argument. It claims that Democratic Socialism is evil because something else called Socialism was evil. It’s the reverse of the logical fallacy used by gun zealots who claim that since revolutionary era guns were protected, modern guns should be protected.

Consider this analogy to understand what Paul is doing here. It is like he is railing against tablets. Tablets, he says, are evil. They waste paper and the spiral binding can cause cuts. We did away with tablets long ago and these Millennials who support them simply do not understand how dangerous they are. But no, they are talking about electronic tablets, not spiral notebooks. And similarly they are talking about Democratic Socialism, as practiced in Norway and Finland, not what was once called Socialism in China or Russia.

If we reflected the same disingenuous form of argument back against Paul, we would say that what Paul doesn’t understand is that Anarchy has been tried and it has always been a disaster. Of course, Paul is not talking about total anarchy when he talks about modern Libertarianism. And likewise no one supporting Democratic Socialism today is talking about the form of socialism attempted by Stalin or Mao Zedong (see here).

Further, when Paul claims that Socialism has always been a disaster, he fails completely to recognize that modern Socialist countries are at on the top of every measure of health and happiness (see here). Nor does he happen to mention that virtually every country that has adopted the more Libertarian economic policies of Milton Friedman has suffered direct human and economic calamity on a massive scale. This was excruciatingly documented in Naomi Klein’s landmark book (The Shock Doctrine).

So no Rand Paul. Sorry, but it is not the supporters of Democratic Socialism that don’t understand history. You are the one who is either delusional in your blind rationalization of Libertarianism, disingenuous in your rabid fear-mongering of Democratic Socialism, or most likely both.

Thank you Greta

gretaIn this blog installment, I defer to 16 year old Greta Thunberg. Her words at the United Nations were arguably the most powerful and important words ever spoken on this planet. I shamefully accept her condemnation as part of those generations that selfishly did far too little too late to avert or even mitigate an undeniable impending climate change cataclysm.

I can only hope that should we somehow manage to avoid a total collapse of our planetary ecosystem, future generations will point to her speech as having sparked the turning point away from the abject collective folly of humanity.

Please watch Greta and really listen to her. If you have already seen it, watch it again and listen even harder.

Greta Speaking at the UN

Don’t Believe your Eyes

eyesToday I wanted to talk about perceptions. Not our feelings, but what we actually see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. That is, the “objective” inputs that drive our feelings. Should we really “only believe our eyes?

I think not.

In my book (see here) I talk about how we should be skeptical of our own memories and perceptions. Our memories are not recordings. They are docudrama recreations drawing upon various stock footage to put together a satisfying re-imagining. We remember going to the beach as a child. But in “recalling” details of that experience, we draw upon fragments from various sources to fill it in. The “slant” of that recreation is strongly dependent upon our current attitudes and biases. Our re-imagined, and often very distorted memory then reinforces what we believe to be a “vivid” recollection next time we recall it. Over time our “clear” memory can drift farther and farther from reality like a memory version of the “phone game.”

I contend that our brains work similarly with regard to our senses. We don’t see what we think we see. Our perceptions are filtered through our complex neural networks. It is a matched, filtered, processed, censored, and often highly biased version that we actually see, hear, or feel.

We know that our subconscious both filters out much of the information it receives, and adds in additional information as needed to create a sensible perception. I always favor a neural network model of brain function. As it relates to perception, our neural network receives a set of sensory data. It matches that data against known patterns and picks the closest match. It then presents our consciousness with a picture – not of the original data – but of that best-fit match. It leaves out “extraneous” information and may add in missing information to complete that expected picture. That is, we do not actually see, hear, smell, or taste a thing directly. We see, hear, smell, or taste a satisfying recreation that our network presents to us.

This should not be controversial, because we experience it all the time. Based on sparse information, we “see” fine detail in a low resolution computer icon that objectively is not there. We fail to see the gorilla inserted into the background because it is out of place. We are certain we see a witch or a vase in a silhouette, depending on our bias or our expectations at that moment.

But though this should be evident, we still do not take this imprecision seriously enough in evaluating the objectivity of our own memories or perceptions. We still mostly put near-absolute faith in our memories, and are generally even more certain of our perceptions. We believe that what we perceive is absolutely objective. Clearly, it is not.

In essence, what we believe we objectively recall, see, hear, or touch is not the thing itself, but a massaged recreation of our neural network match. The version we perceive can often be wrong in very important ways. Our perceptions are only as reliable as our neural networks. And some neural networks can be more compromised than others. We can recall or even perceive radically crazy things if our neural network has been trained to do so. I campaign against belief-based thinking of all sort because it seriously compromises these critical neural networks in crazy ways.

Even more unrecognized are the ways that this phenomenon is largely ignored as it impacts scientific research. Scientists often give far too much credence to reports of perceptions, often in extremely subtle ways.

As a simple illustration, consider how we often mock wine connoisseurs who claim to taste differences in wines but cannot pick these out in blinded studies. However, consider the confounding impact of their (and our) neural networks in even this simple case. When experiencing a wine, all the associated data is fed into the drinker’s neural network. It makes a match and then presents that match to the consciousness. Therefore, if the network does not “see” one critical factor, say color, it matches to white, not red, and presents and entirely different taste pattern the the drinker, ignoring some “extraneous” flavors and adding some other “missing” ones.

These same kinds of neural network matching errors can, and I have to assume often do, confound even more rigorous scientific studies. And they are further confounded by the fact that these mismatches are typically temporary. With every new set of data, our neural networks adjust themselves, the weightings change, to yield different results. The effect of a drug or placebo, for example, may change over time. If scientists see this, they typically look exclusively for other physiological causes. But it may be a neural network correction.

That is why I always admonish my readers to stick with inputs that will strengthen your neural networks toward sound objectivity rather than allow them to be weighted toward the rationalization of, and perception of, beliefs and nonsense. But since none of us can ever have perfect networks, or even know how accurate ours performs in any given match, we all need a healthy amount of skepticism, even with regard to our own memories and perceptions.

I further urge scientists to at least consider the impact of neural network pre-processing on your studies, and to develop methodologies to explicitly detect and correct for such biases.