Category Archives: Politics

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.

America Without God?

I don’t often rebut other articles, but on occasion I feel that I would be intellectually negligent not to do so. One such article that requires a response is entitled “America Without God” (see here). It was recently published in The Atlantic by contributing writer Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This article is so bloated with egregiously specious arguments that it is a real challenge to rebut it concisely.

The tl;dr that is being put forth by Mr. Hamid boils down to the following fallacious assertions…

  1. Religiosity, or religious-like conviction, is a universal and unavoidable human condition that must inevitably manifest itself in some fashion.
  2. This “religiosity” is nebulous, but seems to be defined by Hamid as an innate human compulsion to embrace an “ultimate loyalty” expressed through “strongly held ideological convictions.”
  3. As religion has declined, the resulting “God-shaped hole” has been filled by a similarly fervent set of political convictions.
  4. This “sublimation” of religion into politics has not resulted in a more rational world as promised and expected. Therefore, secularism is disproven as better set of beliefs.
  5. Religiosity cannot be “effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment.”
  6. Christianity is superior since it motivates people to be forgiving and to “withhold final judgements for another time – perhaps until eternity.
  7. Without a religious reawakening, we are left with either “world-weary resignation,” “violence,” or a “divisive wokeism.”
  8. Therefore, we should give up on secularism and re-embrace Christianity as our best hope for a better world. If we do not, dire consequences will result.

Sigh, where do I start?

First, like many articles in The Atlantic, this one is bloated and convoluted and loaded with gratuitous and irrelevant references and quotes. I don’t know if this is simply to fill space, or to argue by quantity, or to argue by creating the perception of authority, but one should not be misled into thinking that because it is hard to follow that it must be really smart.

By way of contrast I will quickly and clearly list some of the problems with this article…

  1. There is no evidence that “religiosity” is a necessary or unavoidable condition. It may be difficult to stop drinking whisky without dipping into the cooking sherry, but this does not disprove sobriety.
  2. The vast majority of Trump supporters are also the most gullibly religious believers in our population. They did not turn to Trump to fill any “God-shaped void.” They embrace Trumpism because their religious rationalizations have conditioned their brains to accept nonsense.
  3. The Left has not embraced “wokeism” to fill any void left by secularism just as atheists in general have not felt compelled to turn to anything beyond sound rational thinking.
  4. To assert that “secularism has failed” as a given is a ridiculous claim. First, we are still hugely religious as a nation. Second, secularism HAS succeeded dramatically in making our nation a saner and more inclusive place for all and has protected us from the worst extremes of religious zealotry.
  5. To claim that Christianity “tempers” our worst impulses is again asserted as a given without any serious credibility. There are countless burned, tortured, and lynched spirits that can attest to Christian forgiveness.
  6. And why is an eternal deferral of judgement and punishment a good thing? Justice must be timely to be fair and must be exacted in the real world.
  7. Lastly, but hardly the last flaw, is the fear-mongering that forms the final argument. Embrace Christianity or all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah will be befall you!

The author is clearly motivated by a revulsion of Trumpism, a movement only rational-sounding to religious magical thinkers, then makes a false equivalence with wokeism, and concludes that the problem is secularism and that the cure is yet more religion. He attempts to maneuver us into an intellectual false choice between a secular dystopia and acceptance of organized religion as the only possible alternative. This is, quite simply, nonsense.

Look, I know I am being harsh. But this is a high-profile article that is receiving a lot of publicity. The author is out on the interview circuit spreading this nonsense of pro-religious manipulation and fear-mongering on talk-shows all across the country.

The truth is that we have not yet given secularism a chance to show us a saner world free from religion. The truth is that many of us are atheists and quite comfortable. We will not recant on our death bed nor will we ever pray in a foxhole, and we do not need to fill any God-shaped hole with Trumpism or Wokeism or any other *ism.

Now, that is not to say there is no problem. I have always emphasized that as an atheist I would not want to simply “do away with religion.” Religion has trained our brains to accept nonsense. We must fix that first or else we’ll simply adopt other nonsense, yes like Trumpism.

Reason can be our rock. Our best hope as a species is not merely the least destructive catechism of nonsense. We can learn to be rational. That is why my focus has always been on teaching fact-based thinking rather than attacking religion. My book (see here) was based on the premise that we must eliminate magical thinking, religious or non, by teaching rational thinking.

So I have still not given up on the vision of a rational, ethical, and healthy secular world and I assume John Lennon would not take back his words either…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Scammers Worthy of Respect

I appreciate folks who are good at what they do, including criminals. Once someone stole my backpack while the strap was around my ankle underneath a desk in the far back corner of a busy Internet café in Quito. Picturing that talented thief slipping cat-like under the desk and slicing cleanly through the strap only made me think, well done sir, it was an honor to be burgled by a professional of your caliber! Another time I was pickpocketed by a group of boys who packed in against me in a crowded bus in Kathmandu. I immediately detected what had happened and peered around at the expert team, all looking perfectly innocent, and nodded my respect saying, “Well done lads!”

In the same vein, I respect a well-crafted street con. I have been privileged to observe some quality teams in action. I’ve watched them practice their craft in Calcutta, Manhattan, Moscow, Cape Town, and elsewhere. One of the most impressive was a group plying their trade on La Rambla in Barcelona. They were working the classic shell game. The dealer kept expressing all expected chagrin and frustration as he lost bet after bet and handed over fists of cash to an enthusiastic group of “players” who exclaimed their delight at winning most every round.

Here’s the thing, even knowing it’s a scam, even knowing that all those “players” were plants who were hamming it up just for my benefit, it was still really, really difficult not to think I could win too. I watched all those rubes who were obviously not as smart as me win on bets against the clearly inept shell dealer. And when they lost, it was obvious to me every time where the pea actually was. The lure to join in, even knowing it’s all a scam and that I was the mark who was reacting exactly as they hoped I would, was still tangibly powerful.

The reality of course is that I had no hope of actually winning. The players only “lost” when they wanted to lose and I only knew where the pea was when the dealer intended for me to see it. Even if I were to win a few rounds, it would only have been because the dealer wanted me to win so that they could suck me in even deeper. To think I could beat them at their game would have been the height of foolishness.

I can even give some respect to more “upscale” confidence artists. A televangelist for example. These guys are really masters of bilking people out of a lot of real, hard-earned cash for nothing more than the promise of a heavenly pig-in-a-poke. Even a pyramid scheme scammer deserves some credit in my estimation. They manage to convince people they can make money by doing nothing. While in reality, the only folks that make any money are a few of the top level investors who make enough to sell the lie that everyone below them will profit as well.

I am even willing to give some level of respect to the reprehensible low-life’s who recently called up my son’s grandparents claiming to be him and asking for emergency bail money. Pretty bold and brassy to pull that off!

You might think I have a warped and misplaced set of values, as evidenced by my willingness to accord some respect to unsavory criminals. Maybe you’re right. But even I draw the line at stock traders. Despite my low standards, I can muster no respect for them.

Stock trading is just too big a scam, even as compared to organized religion. It is too entrenched, too manipulatable, too exploitable, and too consequential. It is not only destructive but unnecessary.

Look, of course I recognize the need for banking. We cannot function without socially responsible lending and credit. I also recognize the need for financial vehicles to grow our wealth and to support us in old age.

But despite the apparent “winners” in the market, stock trading does not meet any of these goals in a socially equitable or sustainable way. Stock trading is not, needs not be, and should not be, an essential vehicle for raising funds, growing wealth, or securing our futures. Not when it is such an inherently extractive and destructive force in the world.

Stock investment does not make investors “invested” in those businesses in which they hold shares, encouraging responsible long-term caretaker-ship of those companies. Quite the contrary. Stock investment promises maximum rent-seeking wealth extraction for a given investment. It only encourages investors to push companies into short-term dividend maximizing policies at the expense of workers, the environment, and the companies themselves. Shareholders exert their influence to extract maximum profit and move on as soon as soon as they have milked that cash cow dry. Day traders exert the same pressures even more ruthlessly and carelessly through their investment activities.

And even though the system allows just enough “winners” to make everyone imagine that they are smarter than the system or luckier than the system, those “winners” only make enough to entice others to invest and siphon more money from the middle class into the investor class. And as most of those “winners” eventually discover, as does anyone who thinks they are “winning” at that shell game on La Rambla, their winnings will evaporate quickly if they play long enough.

So no. Even though I can respect grifters of all sorts, I cannot offer even a begrudging modicum of respect for stock traders. They are unnecessary, rent-seeking, exploitative parasites who only extract money, real blood and heartbeats, from the little guys who think, like me looking on at the shell game on La Rambla, that they too can profit by playing the game. The stock trading game may not be controlled by one dealer, but it is an emergent form of the shell game that dupes millions of people into betting and ultimately losing.

So what is the alternative? On that I take my advice from WOPR in War Games. The only way to win is not to play. Instead invest in real, tangible assets and in hard work over get rich quick schemes. Build instead of extract. If you have more money than you know what to do with, try giving it away to support lasting and socially constructive efforts.

A Right Makes It Right for the Right

In order to continue to rationalize and legitimize their support for Trump and all of the reprehensible things he says and does, Conservatives have had to abandon any semblance of principled ethical decision-making. They have retreated in their ethical justification to one recurring assertion…

Well he has the Right to do it.

We hear it all the time nowadays. But look, let’s be clear. We value and respect the Rights that we afford to each other through social norms, mutual respect, and as codified in our Constitution. But let’s also be clear, simply asserting that one has a strictly legal right to do something does not make it right to do. Acknowledging that someone technically has a right to do something does not excuse one from recognizing any other ethical considerations.

Having a legal or technical Right to do something doesn’t make it a wise thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a sensible thing to do, or even an honorable thing to do. In fact, sometimes asserting one’s Right is a dick thing to do. It may even be a selfish and unconscionable thing to do. Asserting a Right can in fact be the sociopathic thing to do.

It may be my Right to wear my stovepipe hat in a crowded movie theatre, but it’s a dick move. It may be my Right tell you that your little child looks like a mutant Klingon, but no one should do that. It may be my Right to exploit loopholes so that I pay no taxes on my millions, but really? And it may be my Right to brandish my gun and wave my Confederate flag around, but is it really right to exercise those particular Rights in that manner?

Similarly, the Congress may technically have had the “Right” to block Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland for eight months, but it was a dick thing to do. They technically had the “right” to appoint Amy Coney Barrett only weeks before a Presidential election, but it was still hypocritical and low-class to assert that Right. The President may technically have the “right” to personally intervene in Federal criminal cases to serve his own personal agenda, but it is still wrong. Trump may claim a “right” to grant pardons to anyone he wishes, or redirect resources, or to have private conversations with dictators, or any of a million other things. He may have the “right” to lie about matters personal and official, but it is still unethical. Simply put, his “right” to do those things does not make any of them the right thing to do. It certainly does not excuse them or make them into behaviors that we must accept.

It is not surprising that Trump, self-serving child that he is, would assert a “right” to do practically anything he wishes. Nor that Mitch McConnell would assert that any dirty tactic he may employ is within his “rights.” But it is really sad that so many outsiders, so many pundits and elected representatives, folks whose ethical responsibility it is to be ethically responsible, respond to concerns about ethical integrity only by saying “well he has the right to do that.”

Claiming that someone else has “the right to do that” is a weaselly and cowardly attempt to appear ethically-grounded while in fact abandoning anything beyond a pathetic pretense of ethical integrity. Conversely, quite often the truly right thing to do ethically is to put aside one’s own personal selfish “rights” to service a far greater and more noble good.

And it must be pointed out that very often these “rights” invoked are usually not affirmative, specifically granted rights, or even generally accepted rights. Most often these are matters of common human decency that no one ever felt they needed to enumerate in some gargantuan list of all the things no honorable person would ever do, or would even think of doing.

The lack of a specific prohibition is not a Right.

Yet, for the most part, this is the new Trumpian ethical low that we Americans have fallen to. If your totally reprehensible and unthinkable behavior has no specific law against it beyond hundreds of years of decorum and mutual respect, then you claim that it is your “right” to do that thing. And if you are a partisan or sycophant, you excuse that behavior by simply pointing out that it is technically and legally within their rights.

Invoking a technical right to do something is one of the most abused, misused, disingenuous, and yes even unethical, levels of ethical thinking and behavior. So realize that when apologists justify bad behavior as a “right,” they are almost certainly resorting to the weakest possible justification that they hope sounds principled, lofty, and unassailable.

We should not so easily let them off the ethical hook by simply invoking this sort of disingenuous justification.

The Emergence of Malignant Liberalism

I defy anyone to question my liberal credentials. I’m now in my sixties and since my youth I’ve raised my voice against Conservatism, Religion, Guns, our War Economy, Unrestrained Capitalism, Blind Patriotism, Social Injustice, and Environmental Abuse. I’ve spent many years volunteering and working around the world at all levels of the global socio-economic spectrum. I’ve written and spoken out about difficult and delicate topics both formally and informally. I’ve received threats, including death threats, and been often told explicitly to “love it or leave it!” Despite all that I have always proudly identified as an “extreme Liberal,” if not a radical one.

So it is with a sad heart that I must acknowledge that I’m now embarrassed to identify as a Liberal. For me, the Liberal extremists have jumped off the deep end and I refuse to follow them into the abyss. Liberalism has grown and mutated into something almost as toxic as the social poisons they claim they wish to cure.

Modern Liberalism has metastasized into something akin to a religion.

Like religious people, the new Liberals have their rigid dogma. You must prove your devotion by adopting all the accepted language of the religion. You must be willing to dutifully demonstrate your devotion by declaring your preferred pronouns. You must accept every tenet, behave just so, or risk their form of excommunication, the terminal cancellation.

Like “born again” religious fanatics, these Liberals talk of being being “woke.” They tend to be upper-middle class people who suddenly discover the “devil” of poverty and injustice. They then take up their verbal swords with religious fervor to spread their message and enforce their dictates. They wield the language of their religion with terms like “intersectionality,” and “toxic masculinity,” and “microaggression,” and “appropriation” with all the pseudo-scholarly conviction of a television preacher.

And like religious zealots, they have unwavering conviction that their cause is righteous and just and that it is their newfound mission to force proper behavior upon others by any means necessary. Any collateral harm to individuals is justified in service of the long-term mission. Like any religion, they preach love and inclusion while practicing hate and exclusion.

Frankly, as with religious leaders, I suspect that for most of the hard-core Liberal fanatics it’s not really about the mission at all. It’s all about reveling in the role of spiritual leader. Of establishing oneself as one of the “high holies” who sits upon a moral throne above all others.

For vast majority of “regular” liberals, life is now all about towing the line, keeping your head down, saying the right things, not saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, and staying silent when others fall victim to the new inquisition – all in the hopes of keeping the wrath of the righteous woke from coming down upon you.

Religion doesn’t have to be religious. Secular causes can serve all the same base emotional and social functions that religion does. And when they do, they are vulnerable to all the same terrible excesses.

As an atheist, I’m repelled by any religion, particularly secular religions that rise like malignant creeping vines to crush the life out of important social causes that I care deeply about.

Perhaps now I’ll be told once again to “love or leave” this power-crazed liberal nation.

Would you Buy a Used Car from this Guy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any Fool Can Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we have no shortage of fools.

Why Advocates Fear Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Great White Suburban False Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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