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!

Freedom of Speech Extremism

Why do I still watch Bill Maher?

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

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

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

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

And later, Ira stated:

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

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

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

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

We have to say enough already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man Gets It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So yea, guns.

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man gets it. Why can’t we?

The Original Big Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Friends Like MSNBC

Allow me to rant a bit about MSNBC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness of Awareness Statistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how should we assimilate such awareness statistics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Exposed Our Stupidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paranormal Investigations

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

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

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

We need to say – enough already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Child Maltreatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Say Give Them Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Positives and Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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