Category Archives: Fact-Based Thinking

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.

Paranormal Investigations

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

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

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

We need to say – enough already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Child Maltreatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Say Give Them Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Positives and Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Failure of Science

Before I call out the biggest, most egregious failure of science, let me pay science some due credit. Science routinely accomplishes miracles that make Biblical miracles seem laughably mundane and trivial by comparison. Water into wine? Science has turned air into food. Virgin birth? A routine medical procedure. Angels on the head of a pin? Engineers can fit upwards of 250 million transistors in that space. Healing a leper? Bah, medicine has eradicated leprosy. Raising the dead? Clear, zap, next. Create life? Been there, done that. It’s not even newsworthy anymore.

And let’s compare the record of science to the much vaunted omniscience of God himself. Science has figured out the universe in sufficient detail to reduce it to practically one small Standard Equation. It turns out to actually be kind of trivial, some would say. Like God, we can not only listen in on every person on the planet, but no mystery of the universe is hidden to us. We have looked back in time to the first tick of the cosmic clock, down inside atoms to quarks themselves, and up to view objects at very edge of our “incomprehensively” large universe.

Science routinely makes the most “unimaginable” predictions about the universe that are shortly after proven to be true. Everything from Special Relativity to the Higgs Boson to Dark Matter to Gravity Waves and so many other phenomena. Nothing is too rare or too subtle or too complex to escape science for long.

Take the neutrino as just one representative example among so many others. These subatomic particles were hypothesized in 1931 by Wolfgang Pauli. They are so tiny that they cannot be said to have any size at all. They have virtually no mass and are essentially unaffected by anything. Even gravity has only an infinitesimal effect on neutrinos. They move at nearly the speed of light and pass right through the densest matter as if it were not there at all. It seems impossible that humans could ever actually observe anything so tiny and elusive.

Yet, in 1956 scientists at the University of California at Irvine detected neutrinos. Today we routinely observe neutrinos using gigantic detectors like the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. Similarly we now routinely observe what are essentially infinitesimally tiny vibrations in time-space itself using gravity wave detectors like the LIGO Observatory.

The point is, when talking about anything and everything from infinitesimally small neutrinos to massive gravitational waves spread so infinitesimally thin as to encompass galaxies, science can find it. If it exists, no matter how well hidden, not matter how rare, no matter how deeply buried in noise, no matter how negligible it may be… if it exists it will be found.

Which brings us to the greatest failure of science.

Given the astounding (astounding is far too weak a word) success of science in predicting and then detecting the effects of even the most unimaginably weak forces at work in the world around us, it is baffling that it has failed so miserably to detect any evidence of the almighty hand of God at work.

I mean, we know that God is the most powerful force in the universe, that God is constantly at work shaping and acting upon our world. We know that God responds to prayers and intervenes in ways both subtle and miraculous. So how is it that science has never been able to detect His influence? Not even in the smallest possible way?

Even if one adopts that view that God restricts himself rigorously to the role of “prime mover,” how is it that science has found nothing, not one neutrino-scale effect which points back to, let alone requires, divine influence?

It is mind-boggling when you think about it. I can certainly think of no possible explanation for this complete and utter failure of science to find any shred of evidence to support the existence of God when so many of us are certain that He is the most powerful force at work in the universe!

Can you?

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.

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.

 

Humans are Inexplicable

brainWhether it be in science or business or politics or popular culture, we expend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to figure out why people do whatever people are doing. We seem to have more analysts than actors, all desperately trying to explain what motivates people, either by asking them directly or by making inferences about them. For the most part, this is not merely a colossal waste of time and effort and money in itself, but it stimulates even greater wastes of time and effort and money chasing wildly incomplete or erroneous conclusions about why we do what we do.

Asking people why they did what they did, or why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are going to do what they are going to do, generally yields useless and misleading information. It is not clear that people actually have distinct reasons they can recognize let alone articulate. It is quite likely in fact that most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously based upon a myriad of complex neural network associations. These associations need not be rational. These connections don’t need to be internally consistent to each other or related to the actual outcome in any way. But in our post-rationalizations and post-analyses we impose some logic to our decisions to make them feel sensible. Therefore, the reasons we come up with are almost completely made-up at every level to sound rational or at least sane to ourselves and to those we are communicating to.

The truth is, we can’t usually hope to understand our own incredibly complex neural networks, let alone the neural networks of others. Yes, sometimes we can identify a strong neural network association driving a behavior, but most determinative associations are far too diffuse across a huge number of seemingly unrelated associations.

The situation gets infinitely worse when we are trying to analyze and explain group behaviors. Most of our shared group behaviors emerge from the weak-interactions between all of our individual neural networks. The complexity of these interactions is virtually unfathomable. The challenge of understanding why a group does what it does collectively, let alone figuring out how to influence their behavior, is fantastic.

If you ask a bird why it is flying in a complex swirling pattern along with a million other birds, it will probably give you some reason, like “we are looking for food,” but in fact it is probably largely unaware that it is even flying in any particular pattern at all.

So why point all this out? Do we give up? Does this imply that a rational civilization is impossible, that all introspection or external analysis is folly?

Quite the contrary, we must continue to struggle to understand ourselves and truly appreciating our complexity is part of that effort. To do so we must abandon the constraints of logic that we impose upon our individual and group rationalizations and appreciate that we are driven by neural networks that are susceptible to all manner of illogical programming. We must take any self-reporting with the same skepticism we would to the statement “I am perfectly sane.” We should be careful of imposing our own flawed rationality upon the flawed rationality of others. Analysts should not assume undue rationality in explaining behaviors. And finally, we must appreciate that group behaviors can have little or no apparent relationship to any of the wants, needs, or expressed opinions of those individuals within that group.

In advanced AI neural networks, we humans cannot hope to understand why the computer has made a decision. Its decision is based upon far too many subtle factors for humans to recognize or articulate. But if all of the facts programmed in to the computer are accurate, we can probably trust the judgement of the computer.

Similarly with humans, it may be that our naive approach of asking or inferring reasons for feelings and behaviors and then trying to respond to each of those rationales is incredibly ineffective. It may be that the only thing that would truly improve individual and thus emergent thinking are more sanely programmed neural networks, ones that are not fundamentally flawed so as to comfortably rationalize religious and other specious thinking at the most basic level (see here). We must focus on basic fact-based thinking in our educational system and in our culture on the assumption that more logically and factually-trained human neural networks will yield more rational and effective individual and emergent behaviors.

 

But More Importantly…

climate-changeThose of you who follow my blog know that I’m virulently anti-gun. In fact, I’ll take any opportunity to slip my disdain for guns and the deplorable people who own them into any discussion. Which is why you should definitely go back and read this, and this, and even this.

But not now! Because more importantly… climate change.

As much as I loathe, hate, and despise guns, I fear climate change far worse. No matter what your issue, you are extremely foolish if you do not prioritize climate change far ahead of it. Humanity will survive gun violence, wars, poverty, hate, bigotry, diseases, despots, jobs, slavery, even genocides. But we may likely not survive climate change. Every other issue can be fixed, waited out, and overcome in the long term. Climate change is a death warrant for civilization, for mankind, and possibly for all life on Earth. It’s a terminal disease, game over, if not treated with every means we can muster and more.

So how can you ever rationally argue that efforts to curb climate change must wait because your issue, however important, is more urgent and existential? And no, we cannot “do both.” We must still prioritize. If we spend effort on your issue or even my issue then we are not doing enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

Most of my readers have to know that I’m an outspoken atheist activist. However, I cannot prioritize my atheist movement over climate change. Not even remotely. In fact, if atheists are indeed the more rational and sensible humanists that we think we are and claim to be, we should be taking a leading role in battling climate change. Sadly my atheist community as a whole is not showing such wisdom and leadership.

If there is one litmus test in the next Presidential election, it should be climate change. Not abortion, or gender equality, or a Wall, or fealty to Capitalism, or anything else… because more importantly, climate change.

In a recent interview Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg rattled off ten or so things he would prioritize as President. Not one was climate change. When asked about climate change, he made a dutiful perfunctory comment about it. This should disqualify him utterly. Even if he does make stronger comments about climate change later, I would have no confidence that he is sufficiently sincere.

In fact, at this time, the ONLY candidate we should be strongly considering is Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. He is the only candidate showing the intelligence, leadership, and long-term thinking that we literally cannot live without. Others might make progress on health care, or immigration, or jobs, or LGBTQ rights. But really, will any of that ultimately matter if we fail to mitigate the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change?

Here’s what you should do. Ask your candidates at all levels about what they will do about climate change and make it an unequivocal priority. Be willing to put aside your own issues in order to work together to make progress on climate change. Demand that the social and religious organizations that you affiliate with push for action on climate change.

And finally, in the signature line of your emails, add the line “But more importantly climate change.” This will remind both you and your recipients that while whatever we are discussing is important, it does not begin to compare with climate change.