Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

 

The Art of Technical Lying

bart-simpson-I-didntWe discover the fine art of technical lying at a young age. It might be more accurately described as technical truth-telling, but technical lying is catchier and more descriptive. It is the practice of lying by making false statements that are technically true or at least defensible. One example of technical lying might be when our parents demand to know whether you went to that unsupervised party at Kim’s house. With feigned affront you lie and insist you did not. When confronted with evidence you claim that you didn’t really lie because it wasn’t technically a party it was a “get-together,” and you didn’t go because technically you were “taken” by Josh on his bike, and in any case it wasn’t Kim’s house since technically her parents are the ones that own it.

We all spin the truth and try to mislead and misdirect through technical nuances when it serves us, but this becomes formalized in the legal sphere where lawyers are taught to exploit technical lying in depositions and court testimonies. They coach clients to answer questions with short answers, in part to leave open ways to later claim they did not perjure themselves using some technical rationale.

Fortunately, parents generally know when their kids are playing these games and usually don’t let them get away with it. Sometimes technical lying can help in legal situations, but lawyers, like our parents, are very good at exposing such obfuscation. In legal proceedings there is usually sufficient opportunity to follow-up with probing questions that trip up and expose technical lies. Lawyers are happy to play this game in court because when a pattern of technical lying is exposed thus, it generally backfires badly on the liar and harms their credibility resulting in a worse outcome for them.

But technical lying isn’t limited to family squabbles and court proceedings. It is rampant in the public sphere and in the semi-formal environment of Congressional hearings. In responding to questions from the Press, some people engage in serial technical lying. Even in testimony to Congress, these individuals engage in technical lying with seeming impunity.

Did the President offer you a pardon? He did not. No I did not lie because it wasn’t the President, it was his lawyer and it wasn’t an offer, it was a possible offer, and it wasn’t a pardon, it was “everything in his power.”

The reason this pattern of technical lying is so frustrating is because it can be quite effective. It can really frustrate and delay efforts to arrive at the truth in situations in which the follow-up questioning is limited and delayed. In these settings, to delay temporarily is to win. This is the case for public statements, media interviews, and to a large extent even Congressional hearings. These are disparate and enough time goes by between follow-up questions that the narrative can keep changing, the goal post keep moving, and impartial observers have difficulty recognizing the extent of gamesmanship being conducted over time.

In an age in which truth is under methodical attack using every possible form of deceit and deception, technical lying is rampant. It is particularly well-suited to frustrate efforts by society to arrive at truth outside of courtroom walls. Technical lying has grown into an art form celebrated by proud dissemblers like Roger Stone.

In this ridiculous era of Trump, we have had to become far more willing to call a lie a lie. This must include lies in all their forms, and for Trump and all those who lie incessantly for him, a technical truth is most likely just another type of lie.

 

Is it finally safe to discuss Socialism?

smaug

May I ask, oh great and powerful Smaug, when thy gold will begin to trickle down upon us?

I was once at a high school party where the prolonged silence became painfully awkward and uncomfortable. Suddenly one precocious girl blurted out, “So, what do you all think about premarital sex?” Just like that, the party got lively with everyone talking about a wide range of topics.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to break the ice and make it acceptable to discuss what were previously taboo topics. Bill Maher made it allowable to talk openly about atheism, and Bernie Sanders made it acceptable to speak honestly about Socialism.

But this new open talk of Socialism frightens a lot of people, especially older people and rich people – and older rich people most of all. To them, and most Americans, Capitalism is tantamount to a religion that requires unwavering faith despite any evidence to the contrary. Therefore, it is not surprising that they spew out a lot of hyperbolic fear-mongering and misinformation in hopes of nipping all this Socialist talk in the bud.

These Capitalist fanatics spread so much misinformation about Socialism that responding to it all in one overview article is nearly impossible. Therefore I’m not going to take the time here to discuss every point in detail. I’ll simply put forth what I feel are the ethical and empirically supported viewpoints. Feel free to investigate each one more thoroughly on your own.

First, let’s talk about what Socialism is today. Let’s not allow opponents to sucker us into explaining whatever Karl Marx had in his mind a century and a half ago nor into defending the aberrant government that emerged out of the Socialist transformation in China under Mao Zedong in 1949.

Modern Socialists do not want to destroy Capitalism. The difference between a modern Capitalist and a modern Socialist it is simply a matter of where the balance point should be between the governmental and private domains.

Capitalists believe that the government is useless and ineffectual and that virtually all problems should be left to the private sector to solve; all needs should be left to the private sector to meet; and that the private sector should not be restrained in any way. They lie routinely about how much social programs like universal healthcare would cost, by failing to subtract the savings from the frightening numbers they cite. 

Socialists believe that government can and must do good things and that some things like healthcare, public infrastructure, utilities, social services, food and drug safety, and education can be best handled by government, and further can only be handled effectively by the government or through a high degree of regulation and oversight.

Between the two sides, it is the Capitalist viewpoint that is far more extreme, dogmatic, and radical. Socialists still want mostly a vibrant Capitalist system, with only some exceptions and regulations as warranted to protect society at large. Capitalists want to extract profit from everywhere without exception and with minimal or no regulation that would ensure that the public good is considered.

The devotees of Capitalism point out that Capitalism made us great. That is not completely true. Yes it was important, but most of our important achievements like worker safety, environmental protections, and many others came about only through violent opposition to the forces of insatiable unbridled Capitalism. Major projects like our highway system were government funded. And even if we give Capitalism all the credit it deserves for bringing us to where we are, that does not make it the right approach – or even a viable approach – to carry us forward into a more sustainable economic model.

And let’s be clear. Unbridled Capitalism is not sustainable. As Marx predicted long ago, the inevitable outcome of unrestrained Capitalism is growing wealth inequality and instability as all wealth is scooped into the coffers of fewer and fewer individuals. You end up eventually with one Pharaoh and a multitude of economic slaves. That level of inequity cannot be maintained for long. But worse, our planet can no longer sustain a humanity driven by a religion of unbridled Capitalism.

Contrary to everything the devout Capitalists try to claim, trickle down economics is really nothing more than voodoo economics. Socialism is not evil, and Capitalism is not “the best system possible.” Grow or die is a lie. Competition does not really yield the best products for the lowest prices, and what is good for the stock market is usually bad for regular workers (see here). Economic Darwinism is not tough love. Intellectual property rights mostly just retard real innovation. In the real world, free-market competition often breaks down completely. Tax breaks to the wealthy do not create jobs or increase wages. Highly progressive taxation on wealth is necessary and essential. A minimum wage – and a maximum wage – are good economics. And you only need sufficient, not unlimited, wages to motivate and reward talent and work. Private corporations are not inherently more cost-effective than their government-run counterparts, especially since they must extract as much profit as possible.

Taxes, by the way, are not “giving away your money.” Taxes are how we agree to fund philanthropic and charitable causes and joint ventures for the essential public good. Taxes are what we pay for our roads, and police, and all the other services that our government provides for us. Make no mistake, under a Capitalist model, all those services would be far more expensive, if they were provided at all. If left to a purely Capitalist system, all our lives would be horribly diminished.

Capitalism simply has no mechanism to fund essential public services when there is too little profit in it. Even worse, in areas like healthcare, the profit motive is fundamentally and intractably in opposition to providing the best outcome. Capitalist fiduciary responsibility requires that healthcare providers provide the lowest level of care for the highest possible price to maximize profit for their shareholders (see here). Anything less would be antithetical to the Capitalist religion.

The kind of extreme Capitalism that many Americans have been convinced they would prefer is nothing more than “I got mine” economics in which every man (and woman) are out for themselves, and screw everyone else. The idea that good can come from selfishness and greed is a morally bankrupt tenet of our Capitalist religion.

Socialism, on the other hand, is simply how we do things together. It is how we pool our efforts for the good of all. Socialism is the “let’s work together” system of economics. Socialism does not inhibit or replace Capitalism. It merely acknowledges that there are some vitally important things that Capitalism cannot do well enough and it provides the model to work together to achieve those services that Capitalism simply cannot address.

So let’s continue to carry on this discussion that Bernie started and continue to work to find the healthy balance. But do start to question the Capitalist catechism that we have all been taught, and don’t let the fanatical Capitalists convince you that you are the extremist if you defend elements of Democratic Socialism.