Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

 

The Night the Starship Crashed

bandDuring the 70’s and 80’s I attended hundreds of rock concerts and saw most every famous and not-so-famous band that toured throughout those decades. Most were really fun, some were memorable even, but only one stands out as truly epic. Even now, over 40 years later, I recall the event vividly and thought I should memorialize it here before it is completely lost from human memory.

It was 1975 when a friend and I went to see Jefferson Starship in concert at the sports arena in Milwaukee. Starship (see here) was still popular enough at that time to pack such a large venue. As the crowds were slowly meandering in and taking their seats, the preliminary band began to play. Of course audiences are conditioned to largely ignore these startup bands, but this band could not be ignored. It didn’t take long for the chattering to die down and for people to hurry to their seats.

Only few songs in, people began to stand, dance, and clap uncontrollably. The lead singer was a stunning girl with long-black hair whose voice thundered like the gods. Next to her was a quiet blonde with equally long hair masterfully plucking her guitar with cool confidence.  A young guy was handling his lead guitar with the bravado of a superstar, swinging his arm across the strings with wild abandon. Bass and drums were equally well-manned with boundless energy.

It was probably three quarters of the way through their stunning performance, that I fumbled through my pockets to find my ticket stub. I had to know who this band was. Squinting to find a name on the torn paper under sporadic flashes of colored light, I finally caught one word. It said simply “Heart.”

Yes, the largely unknown prelim band was none other than Heart (see here) introducing new songs from Dreamboat Annie (see here) that would soon be blasting non-stop from transistor radios and car speakers all across the nation.

When their set ended, the crowd was on their feet roaring with excitement. I have never seen a preliminary band, even in a major double-bill, work an audience into such a frenzy. The applause continued on long after they stepped off stage with people begging for an encore, even though no opening band would ever do that.

The story doesn’t end there. After a long wait, Starship finally came out. Their performance was tired and unenthusiastic. The audience, especially after being pumped up by Heart, needed far more then they could offer. People started to tune out and talk among themselves. Their response died down to scattered pity-applause.

At one point, some bored and impatient people started calling out “White Rabbit, White Rabbit” which was one of their biggest early hits. Rather than take the opportunity to reclaim their audience, lead singer Grace Slick sneeringly told the crowds “we don’t want to do that old shit anymore.

With that, the audience had enough of their Starship ride. Almost as one they joined in a defiant new chant. “Heart, Heart, Heart” they demanded, over and over, “Heart, Heart, Heart.” It was a crushing rebuke of the legendary Starship and an unprecedented anointment of the young breakout band. I don’t know how long after that night Heart continued to open for them, but I cannot imagine how that magnitude of upstaging could be tolerated by Starship.

That was the epic night that the Starship crashed and burned in Milwaukee, and a shining new star took their place in the music cosmos.

Heart, we’re still Crazy on You.

 

Sucks to be Tom Friedman

FriedmanIt must suck to be Tom Friedman right now.

Mr. Friedman is clearly wigging out, and I think I understand why. He recently wrote an NYT Op Ed in which he railed against the extremist positions of the current Democrat candidates (see here).  In it, he grossly misrepresented their positions in ways that surely he knows rise to the level of outright lies and he resorted to wildly exaggerated “end of the world” ravings about the dangers they pose.

But think of it from his perspective. Thomas Friedman has made a huge name for himself as a leading champion of radical centrism (see here). So for him, the current times are an existential threat. For him, it must be viscerally tribal. That was apparent when he appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss his article. He seemed panicked and frustrated and angry and defensive. In short, he seemed to be speaking from a place not of intellectual authority, but of gut-level lash-out emotion.

I suspect he is in this berserker frenzy because his radical centrist worldview, his tribe, is under serious attack for perhaps the first time in his long occupation of the middle ground. He has seen Donald Trump defy his radical centrist prescription for success on the Right and winning. He also sees the Progressive Left winning a lot of hearts and minds with their left-of-center ambitions. He sees that Joe Biden, the current flag-bearer of radical centrism, may not win the day. And most of all, he fears deep down that radical centrism is no longer a tenable position, suggesting that maybe it never was.

If non-centrist newcomers and their “radical” ideas continue to take hold and show success, that threatens the very foundations of radical centrism. The success of a progressive agenda would undermine a lifetime of preaching for moderation. He cannot allow his entire career, his very faith in radical centrism, to collapse around him.

So he lashes out.

And it is not just Tom Friedman, but also the many newscasters and pundits and politicians who are emotionally married to the radical middle. They cannot allow the Progressive Left to ascend. So they dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too ambitious, they call the Squad naive, and they label Bernie Sanders as a Socialist at every opportunity. They rush in quickly to defend Capitalism and all the tenants of centrism including incremental change and pragmatism and realism.

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King identified “well-meaning moderates” as the most frustrating obstacles to meaningful change (see here). Similarly today, we still have a huge number of radical centrists like Tom Friedman who insist that it is too early, that we are asking too much, and that we should just be patient. They use any manipulation to make you feel afraid of any course other than radical moderation.

Unfortunately the planet Earth will not show us any further patience. Fortunately, more and more leaders are stepping up and refusing to defer to the evangelists of radical centrism like Thomas Friedman. More and more refuse to accept the artificial limits these “pragmatists” impose on what dreams we are allowed to dream and what bold new solutions we are allowed to embrace.

Personally, I hold no animus toward Thomas Friedman or all those passionate devotees of the radical middle, but I hope their worldview is discredited and crumbles beneath their feet. If not, the best we can hope for is too little too late.

 

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.

 

The Tragedy of Game of Thrones

GoTsucksThe popular meme going around is that everyone was very disappointed by – even angry about – the Game of Thrones final season, particularly the last episode. Actual statistics reveal a different story. Almost half of the viewers were satisfied with the series and only about one third felt “sad” about the final season. An impressive 44% loved the series from start to finish  (see here).

I felt sad AND loved the series from start to finish.

Clearly a very negative meme about GoT emerged over the last couple seasons. But this was to be expected. Few shows can maintain such an extraordinarily high degree of hype for more than five seasons (let alone eight) without being turned upon by popular culture, regardless of the quality. It actually surprises me that as many as 44% of viewers remained satisfied to the end. Count me among that 44 percent.

I acknowledge that people have valid reasons for complaint. While the negativity is not limited to the final episode, the series finale certainly left a lot to be desired. It seemed like a hastily constructed effort to wrap up a series that had been suddenly and unexpectedly cancelled. It was not fully fleshed out and lacked any epic twists or surprises. No bigger-than-life heroes emerged to allow the viewer to reach satisfying closure after all the preceding sadness and horror.

But much of what disappointed many is precisely what impressed me. I credit the authors and producers for not caving under pressure from vocal fans and critics. They stayed true to the story and to the characters. Game of Thrones was never a Tolkien-esque fantasy nor a superhero blockbuster. It was essentially a Greek tragedy, populated with powerful yet deeply flawed people who could never hope to live up to the expectations that others placed upon them, or in the case of Daenerys, her own unrealistic expectations. The games of the powerful were never noble and their machinations and best efforts only resulted in senseless, horrendous war and suffering.

That was the story.

The series ended exactly as it should have ended, overwhelmed by appalling misery and death. No heroes emerged because there never were any. There were only tragic figures who had no hope of overcoming their baser natures. Jon could never be the hero we wanted him to be. All he was ever capable of was one craven dagger thrust before slinking off into anonymity. Jamie was always a fool for his cold-hearted sister and it was fitting that he expired with his head on her bosom as she gazed away with deathly-cold disinterest. Tyrian remained a soft-hearted fool to the end, transferring his hopes from one flawed leader to another. The emotionally stunted woman that Sansa became was little improved from the self-serving child we first met in Winterfell. Likewise, her sister Arya sailed away from her story arc, from all her promise, without distinction, again running away from relationships and responsibilities just as she had always done.

The only character to show consistent courage and wisdom was Varys, and he met an ignominious end leaving behind no brilliantly laid plans to save the kingdom from beyond the grave. There was one character, albeit a minor one, whose arc was about overcoming hardship and finding heroism, and that was Gregor Clegane. He suffered through horrendous adversity with dignity and became the unlikely anti-hero who battled his soulless monstrosity of a brother to the death. This had no significant effect on world events, however.

The Game of Thrones series lived and died just like its characters – tragically. It had great promise, but it never could be what we hoped or wanted or needed or would have liked it to be. It could never live up to our hopes and expectations for it. It could never make us feel good or give us a happy ending, let alone a satisfying ending. It was all about the senselessness of war and the folly of human beings, and the series could not leave us with any more than that.

Game of Thrones was an unflinching and uncompromising depiction of a humanity tragically inadequate to the challenges of their day. Their failures were vividly brought to life through amazing visual storytelling. Like its characters, the series was all it was meant to be, all it could be. It painted no rosy pictures and remained true to the end. Its greatest disappointment is perhaps that it depicted too much reality and not enough fantasy.

Game of Thrones is a cautionary saga that makes me hope that our humanity can face the existential challenges of our day, like Global Climate Change, with more courage and wisdom than those larger-than-life “heroes” of the Seven Kingdoms.

 

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.

 

The Time to Stop Debating Debate

matt_dilahuntyA while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to  “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).

I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.

While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.

Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.

To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.

In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.

Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.

And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).

Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.

Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.

So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.