I usually don’t post a new article so quickly after my last one, but Trump’s CNN Town Hall requires a timely response. This was an unnecessary ratings grab. There was no public interest served in such premature focus on Trump at this point in the campaign. And in any case it was an irresponsible way to cover Trump. You cannot obtain truthful information from Trump even in a deposition format, but at least there the damage is minimized. If you care about truth, you certainly don’t go out of your way to enable him to unleash his stream of explosive diarrhea onto the public.
Presenting Trump in a town hall format, with a cheering crowd of supporters to egg him on and a female foil to joust with, is not journalism. It is rather more like staging a reality show conflict or hawking side-show freaks at a circus.
Come one come all. See the Wild Man of Borneo as he rages and lashes about in his cage. But fear not. It is an educational experience that must not be missed!
Or another image that comes to mind is when royals might trot out a buffoon, a simpleton, or a sad, deformed cripple to prance about, spout gibberish, and pretend to be royalty as they laugh and sneer. The trouble is, in fiction such depictions are invariably followed by the throng of peasants laying low the elites, putting the buffoon in charge, and making those royals dance and prance for him.
Have we really not learned from the last two election cycles? Even today, hosts on MSNBC for example, are opining and handwringing about how to responsibly cover Trump. Even acknowledging their failure in the past, they still try to minimize and whitewash the extent of their past failure. Let’s be clear. In 2016 MSNBC helped get Trump elected. They covered every move he made, every word he spoke, and every comment anyone offered about him incessantly and obsessively. It was typical for them to give Trump hour after hour of uncensored airtime, only to pop in on a Hillary Clinton rally for 5 minutes before frantically returning to their Trump marathon.
MSNBC, you horribly miscalculated the effect of all your coverage and you were probably just greedy as well. Blame yourselves for helping to elevate Trump. But better yet, own your history and fix it this time around. The same goes to you, CNN.
How do you fix it? You don’t give Trump an open mic platform, period. Don’t livestream one rally, one interview by him or his surrogates, and don’t obsess on covering his every attention getting stunt. Ignore the screaming kid having a tantrum in aisle one. Do not echo and amplify Trumps rants and lies. Of course continue to report on him when it is newsworthy, but don’t serve as a megaphone for a man for whom even bad press is good press.
But won’t that silence empower him? Don’t you have to expose his insanity let people see for themselves how dangerous he is?
Of course, continue exposing Trump in a responsible journalistic manner. But here’s the thing. I recently published a book, Pandemic of Delusion, in which I talk about how people come to believe things. In a very condensed few words, our brains, our neural networks, simply don’t work the way one might hope. When our brains, all of our brains, are exposed to anything over and over we get more comfortable with it. It’s just brain physics. Repeated exposure does not normally have the effect of exposing inconsistencies or lies or bad behavior. Quite the contrary, repeated exposure makes our brains progressively more comfortable with whatever we are exposed to, however illogical it may be, until it seems perfectly normal, even desirable to us.
I know each and every one of you would like to think that is not the case. That we are much smarter than that, that others are smarter than that, that your audience is much smarter than that, and certainly that we ourselves are smarter than that. But it isn’t about how smart you are. It’s just plain brain physics over which we have little control.
Somehow in his ridiculous gut brain, Trump understands this. He repeats the same lies over and over and over because he knows that simple repeated exposure reliably works in a way that logic or facts or sound arguments do not.
You don’t protect people from infection by exposing them to germs. You quarantine the vector. Exposure may produce an immune response, but does not actually make our immune system any stronger. Rather exposure weakens our immune system, making us even more susceptible to repeated exposures.
It’s the same when our brains are exposed to misinformation over and over. The only way to win against Trump is to avoid repeated exposure to him. MSNBC, you may generate outrage by your incessant coverage, but you weaken our defenses with each exposure. You unintentionally acclimate us to a sickly state of mind, normalizing what you seek to denormalize.
Media, don’t serve as infectious vectors, sneezing out Trump pathogens daily. Don’t rationalize an underlying desire for ratings by telling yourselves you are serving the public interest. You are not. Talk about Trump and yes show Trump telling lies and behaving badly, but don’t expose your audience to him unfiltered.
CNN, you failed to safeguard truth and democracy. Protecting the public from Trump is not censorship. It is responsible journalism. Just stop spreading the disease.
Viewers, if your network persists in exposing you to Trump without the protection of careful controls, turn them off and save your brain from infection.
In today’s world, it’s tough to feel positive let alone inspired by anything. It’s all too easy to think that the worst of us represent all of us. It seems like heroes only ever existed in comic books and today even they have been reinterpreted as deeply flawed creatures.
But true heroes do exist in the world. Singer, songwriter, and activist Harry Chapin was one such real life hero. I was reminded of this when I watched the marvelous documentary about Harry called “When in Doubt, Do Something” on Prime Video (see here).
If you are still a huge Harry Chapin fan, you should watch this documentary. If you are wondering if Harry Chapin is the guy that did “Cat’s in the Cradle,” you should watch this documentary.
Harry Chapin was a musical genre all to himself. Although a few other artists might be identified as storyteller musicians, I doubt that even they would feel worthy to be placed along side Harry Chapin in that category. He told emotionally raw stories, set to the backdrop of sweeping cello strings and ethereal falsettos that bore right through the heart to the soul of the listener. Real, basic, everyman stories that anyone can relate to. His story songs ranged from comedic to sappy to dark but he told all his stories fearlessly. He didn’t pontificate. He was never so obvious as to entreat us to “give peace a chance” or “love one another right now.” He didn’t tell, he showed us universal truths by showing us the everyday people he brought to life through his music.
If you are interested in my recommendations, I’d suggest “Mail Order Annie,” “Mr. Tanner,” and “A Better Place To Be” as just three. If these don’t make you emotional you may have trouble passing the “I am not a robot” test.
Besides being a prolific songwriter and tireless performer, Harry was also a pragmatic idealist who devoted his energy and creativity to combating global poverty, hunger, and homelessness. During the Carter years he gave everything one could possibly give in service of his fellow human beings through both his music and through his dauntless legislative lobbying on behalf of humanity.
One thing that the documentary illustrates vividly is that everyone who interacted with Harry Chapin, and Harry reached many, many people, has their Harry Chapin stories that they can never forget. It is not undue hyperbole to say that most anyone who heard his music was deeply touched. Those who saw him in concert or in more informal performances felt forever connected to him. And those who lived and worked alongside him were transformed by him.
I’m no exception to that. Although I’m only one of millions that were profoundly touched by Harry Chapin, my own Harry Chapin stories are still unique. In true Harry Chapin tradition here are two of them.
I was tending bar in my early twenties. It was one of those local corner family-owned dives there I mostly poured beer for regulars. Every Friday night this young couple would come in and sit at the bar. I never actually learned their names but we had a ritual. At some point during the night they would play “Taxi” on the jukebox and the three of us would share six and a half intimate minutes while we sang Taxi along with Harry Chapin. Like honoring some reverent moment of silence, none of the other working-class patrons would so much as shift on their stool until we were done.
To appreciate my second Harry story, you have to understand that I always went to see Harry Chapin in concert whenever he played in the area. One week, the radio stations kept promoting his upcoming concert at the local Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee where I lived. On concert night, the DJ mentioned that the Harry Chapin concert was to start shortly and I realized that for some reason I had never bought a ticket!
Just out of hopeless desperation I drove over to the PAC. There was no one in the lobby as the concert had already seated. I nevertheless walked up to the ticket window and inquired. Of course there were no tickets left. Sad but unsurprised I turned to walk away but hesitated when I noticed another employee come in from the back and whisper to the agent. The agent turned back to me and said that there was a no-show and they were putting the ticket up for sale. Of course I snatched it up!
It turned out that the ticket was row AAA, the very front row, dead center. I had the best seat in the house to enjoy that Harry Chapin concert. Eventually, Harry came out for the encore. He did Sniper. Now you have to understand, Sniper is a 10 minute magnum opus, exhaustively relating the gut-wrenching story of a clock tower sniper. It was probably longer in concert.
And for this song, Harry came and sat on the edge of the stage with his guitar, feet dangling just inches from my knees. At the finish, exhausted and sweat covered, Harry ended the epic climax of the song. While the audience cheered he just sat there, looking directly at me the entire time, spent and flushed, yet with the kind of connection one only imagines experiencing in feeling of true love at first sight.
I found I just couldn’t clap along with the rest of the audience. I couldn’t call for yet another encore. I feared he might think badly of me, so I just pursed my lips and nodded as if to say, “It’s OK. You have given it all. You don’t have to give any more.” Harry nodded back, every so slightly, and I could see he understood and appreciated my holding back as perhaps his loudest applause of all.
Well, that was my Harry moment was back then. The documentary brings back those memories and shows me how very common my moment was for anyone who interacted with this exceptional human being. But that doesn’t make my moment feel less special. On the contrary, it makes me appreciate him even more.
Harry, you taught me to look at people with all their flaws and quirks and see them as worthy of love, understanding and respect. You taught me to look at all the darkness of the world, to expose it, even to battle against it, and not become jaded or disheartened by it but rather embrace it with compassion and even humor.
I wish there were more like you in the world, Harry, and it is our loss that you died so young. But the fact of your life makes me confident that we all can be better as well.
Harry still reminds us that we are all not just represented by the worst of us, but that we are all also represented by the best of us.
When I was in grade school, my best friend’s grandfather was a former chess grandmaster. He attempted to teach me the game. And he failed.
Every time I would start to make a move, he would swat my hand, reset the piece, and tell me no. Never move just to move or merely to react. He would demand that I think farther ahead and come up with a better move.
Although I was hopeless at chess, that one lesson did sink in. Never make a move without first anticipating the subsequent moves that may follow. No move should ever be merely a reaction and none should ever be made in isolation. Rather, every move must coordinate with every other move to advance a larger strategy.
It’s that strategic ability to anticipate, to corral your opponent, to control the board, and ultimately to trap them that constitutes the difference between the grandmaster and the novice, the winner and the loser. It is true in chess and it is no less true in the legal and political battle for abortion rights, a game where refusal to play is not an option.
As energetic, creative, and diligent as pro-choice activists may be, we have been outmatched by opponents who think many more steps ahead. Not only do they have more skill at this game, they have a level of ruthlessness and focus that we struggle to overcome, regardless of how passionate we are about preserving a woman’s right to choose.
Abortion activists do work very hard to counter each of the moves that anti-choice grandmasters make toward ending abortion. But while the moves of our opponents are well-coordinated and planned, our moves are mostly reactive. The following list of examples is long, but its very length serves to underscore the magnitude of the problem.
When they prohibited Medicaid and/or insurance from covering abortion, we set up funds that provided financial assistance.
When they required that patients must be given inaccurate or biased counseling, we developed websites and other sources of accurate info that patients could access.
When they required that counseling be provided by a physician days before the actual service, we started using videoconferencing or phone to enable patients to avoid an extra trip.
When they required parental approval for minors to have abortion, we set up services that helped minors to seek approval from a judge.
When they established unnecessary but onerous requirements about abortion clinic structure or provider credentials that were impossible for many clinics to meet, some clinics closed down. We started mailing pills to patients who were left with no nearby access.
When they required patients to have tests before the abortion, we found ways for patients to get the tests in their communities, without having to travel to the clinic itself.
When they banned abortion in certain states, we set up clinics in adjacent states, right across the border.
When they protested outside clinics, we engaged escorts to help patients get through the picket lines.
When they started killing abortion providers, we installed bulletproof barriers and hired guards.
When they started to harass or threaten people who had had abortions, we advised patients to say that they were miscarrying.
When they required that the provider show the patient any ultrasound pictures, we stopped doing ultrasounds unless they were absolutely necessary.
When they required that providers describe the fetus in detail to the patient, we gave patients headphones that they could use to block out the sound.
Again, these are all necessary and hard-fought actions taken to mitigate the damage caused by the anti-abortion movement. But they are isolated and reactive or predictably proactive at best. They do not demonstrate coordinated progress in advancing a strategic plan to win the larger battle. As just one example to illustrate, one prong of a strategic plan might be a generational effort to erect a legal foundation to ultimately establish that a fetus is not a person. None of these reactive efforts contribute to any such wider and longer term effort.
Our activists often lament that we cannot take any initiative because we are continually put on the defensive. But isn’t that the whole point of chess? To advance a strategic plan even as you deploy and defend your pieces?
If my friend’s grandfather were observing the abortion rights game we are engaged in, he would swat the hands of our pro-choice activists and insist that we think strategically, that even as we respond to counter immediate threats we simultaneously maneuver to take ultimate control of the gameboard; hopefully in subtle ways that our opponents never see coming.
Here is what seems clear. If we keep on as we have, if we continue to simply react without advancing a larger strategy to win, abortion is headed to a checkmate. And that checkmate will mean personhood for fetuses and a total nationwide ban on abortion under penalty of murder.
Like any novice in chess, we may be far closer to a loss than we can appreciate. If our opponents succeed and achieve an all-too-sudden checkmate, what should we expect?
Together with my wife, who is a leading abortion researcher, we put together a short video to depict the future that anti-abortion zealots may very well force upon us. It adapts a scene from the popular television show The Wire to illustrate how abortion medications may be administered in the not-too-distant future.
It may be that our best hope for relatively safe and effective abortions will lie with street corner drug dealers who can outthink and outmaneuver the forces arrayed against them to offer abortion medications to people who desperately need that help.
Not to in any way minimize the urgency of avoiding that dystopian future, but streetcorner sales might actually not be as disastrous as many might imagine.
Mifepristone and misoprostol are highly safe and effective abortion medications. Patients can almost always determine on their own whether they are pregnant, whether they want an abortion, and whether they are eligible for the treatment. And, in the rare instances in which the patient misjudges eligibility, the risk of severe complications is minimal. There are very few medical contraindications, and the risk of severe issues is low in even those cases. Studies have shown that the quality of the medications, even when produced by questionable foreign sources is, so far at least, perfectly fine. Supervised follow-up, while desirable, is not essential.
Be that as it may, no one wants to end up relying upon illegal drug sales as the mechanism for health care delivery in America. But to avoid that, we need to stop reacting and start taking control of this deplorable game of abortion chess that anti-choice zealots are forcing us to play.
I <believe> that the title of this article may be a bit of an exaggeration. In this installment I only intend to discuss the literal definition of the word “belief.” But as you will see, that is not as simple as one might imagine. Still, it is an essential first step toward a fuller understanding of belief.
Dictionaries cite a number of distinct definitions for the word belief. It can express trust in a person or a thing, acceptance of a well-known idea, or it can convey our conviction of the truth of a proposition. But those few definitions don’t even begin to touch the wide range of ways the word belief is used in everyday conversation.
The different uses of the words “belief” and “believe” are almost endless. We may say “I believe in forgiveness” to express support for that outlook. We may say “I believe that’s true” to express agreement, or we may say “I find that hard to believe” to express skepticism. We may say “I believe today is Tuesday” to express a factual certainty or “I believe it will rain today” to express a prediction. We may say “I believe I’ll have a piece of cake” to express an intention. We may say “I believe in you” to express trust, or “I believe it will all work out for the best” to express hope.
And yes, we may say “I believe in angels” to express a literal belief in their existence.
It is really only that last usage of belief that makes it a crucial word in the epistemological sense, that is, in discerning facts from lies, reality from fantasy. All those other usages confuse and make it difficult to think about belief clearly in the literal context. So it is important that we understand what a belief is in that narrower context if we are to understand its role in knowing the truth of things.
In this narrow but critical context, a belief is an assertion that an idea is true despite having neither verified facts nor sound logic to support it, particularly when some evidence should be observed if the assertion were true.
Asserting a fact is not, as some like to assert, merely asserting another belief. One does not strictly believe in facts. Facts are supported by logic and evidence. Beliefs, by definition, are not.
Yes, sometimes we may be wrong about a fact. But a mistaken fact is not a belief. While we may be incorrect in our assertion of fact, we did not accept the idea without first concluding that we had sufficient valid evidence to support it.
And yes, sometimes what is a belief at one point later becomes a proven fact. However, that does not make all beliefs some sort of potential facts that deserve provisional respect. A belief is rarely just an unproven fact. That may better be called a hypothesis.
There is another requirement of beliefs that is not normally recognized. A belief must be subject to rejection. After sufficient evidence is presented, the believer must be willing to reject that belief. If they are unable do so, then their belief is actually a delusion. A delusion is a persistent belief that we cling to despite being presented with evidence to the contrary, logic to the contrary, or a lack of evidence where evidence should be found.
So I may hold, what is for me, a belief born of ignorance. But if I continue to hold to that belief after evidence to the contrary has been presented, or after it has been shown that there is no evidence where one should expect to find it, then it becomes for me a delusion.
When we persist in believing an idea despite any evidence to the contrary or a lack of evidence where one expects to find it, then that is no longer a belief, it is a delusion. It turns out that many of the ideas that we commonly call beliefs should by definition be more accurately characterized as delusions.
And one cannot simply rationalize that they are not delusional by refusing to accept evidence to the contrary, by refusing to acknowledge a lack of evidence, or by citing bogus evidence or logic. Our own delusions are not something one can self-assess with any degree of confidence and our rationalizations of our delusions do not make them rational (more on rationalization).
In fact, there is a further category along this spectrum known as a “bizarre delusion.” A bizarre delusion is a delusion that is so extreme, so bizarre, that it deserves a more severe label. A bizarre delusion might be something on the order of believing that one is possessed by a demon.
The number of believers and the level of normalization of a belief do affect how we categorize these ideas. Certainly, for example, belief in God qualifies as a bizarre delusion. But because so many people share this particular bizarre delusion, it seems less bizarre and we upgrade it to a delusion. And because even that would be intolerably insulting to so many people, we further upgrade it to a belief. But belief in God really is a bizarre delusion since it is both exceedingly implausible and not subject to rejection regardless of logical implausibility or a total lack of evidence where one would certainly expect to find it.
Here are some examples of assertions that illustrate these steps along the belief spectrum:
Fact All life evolved on Earth over the last 3.7 or so billion years (supported by overwhelming evidence).
Mistake Simple cloth masks can prevent Covid transmission (as stated early in the pandemic but rejected soon after).
Belief Intelligent aliens must exist but I do not believe they could ever reach us (supported by logic and lack of evidence but subject to reevaluation if evidence is found).
Delusion The Earth is 6000 years old and evolution is a hoax (stubbornly rejects overwhelming evidence to the contrary).
Bizarre Delusion I speak to God and he answers me (when meant literally).
I hope this short overview provides a starting point from which to better navigate discussions of belief. You can continue delving into beliefs, how and why we believe them and how to think better, by picking up my new book, Pandemic of Delusion.
Even though we see lots of articles about AI, few of us really have even a vague idea of how it works. It is super complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explain it in simple terms.
I don’t work in AI, but I did work as a Computational Scientist back in the early 1980’s. Back then I became aware of fledgling neural network software and pioneered its applications in formulation chemistry. While neural network technology was extremely crude at that time, I proclaimed to everyone that it was the future. And today, neural networks are the beating heart of AI which is fast becoming our future.
To get a sense of how neural networks are created and used, consider a very simple example from my work. I took examples of paint formulations, essentially the recipes for different paints, as well as the paint properties each produced, like hardness and curing time. Every recipe and its resulting properties was a training fact and all of them together was my training set. I fed my training set into software to produce a neural network, essentially a continuous map of this landscape. This map could take quite a while to create, but once the neural network was complete I could then enter a new proposed recipe and it could instantly tell me the expected properties. Conversely, I could enter a desired set of properties and it could instantly predict a recipe to achieve them.
So imagine adapting and expanding that basic approach. Imagine, for example, that rather than using paint formulations as training facts, you gathered training facts from a question/answer site like Quora, or a simple FAQ. You first parse each question and answer text into keywords that become your inputs and outputs. Once trained, the AI can then answer most any question, even previously unseen variations, that lie upon the map that it has created.
Next imagine you had the computing power to scan the entire Internet and parse all that information down into sets of input and output keywords, and that you had the computing power to build a huge neural network based on all those training facts. You would then have a knowledge map of the Internet, not too unlike Google Maps for physical terrain. That map could then be used to instantly predict what folks might say in response to anything folks might say – based on what folks have said on the Internet.
You don’t need to just imagine, because now we can do essentially that.
Still, to become an AI, a trained neural network alone is not enough. It first needs to understand your written or spoken language question, parse it, and select input keywords. For that it needs a bunch of skills like voice recognition and language parsing. After finding likely output keywords, it must order them sensibly and build a natural language text or video presentation of the outputs. For that you need text generators, predictive algorithms, spelling and grammar engines, and many more processors to produce an intelligible, natural sounding response. Most of these various technologies have been refined for a long time in your word processor or your messaging applications. AI is really therefore a convergence of many well-known technologies that we have built and refined since at least the 1980’s.
AI is extremely complex and massive in scale, but unlike quantum physics, quite understandable in concept. What has enabled the construction of AI scale neural networks is the mind-boggling computer power required to train such a huge network. When I trained my tiny neural networks in the 1980’s it took hours. Now we can parse and train a network on well, the entire Internet.
OK, so hopefully that demystifies AI somewhat. It basically pulls a set of training facts from the Internet, parses them and builds a network based on that data. When queried, it uses that trained network map to output keywords and applies various algorithms to build those keywords into comprehensible, natural sounding output.
It’s important we understand at least that much about how AI works so that we can begin to appreciate and address the much tougher questions, limitations, opportunities, and challenges of AI.
Most importantly, garbage in, garbage out still applies here. Our goal is for AI should be to do better than we humans can do, to be smarter than us. After all, we already have an advanced neural network inside our skulls that has been trained over a lifetime of experiences. The problem is, we have a lot of junk information that compromises our thinking. But if an AI just sweeps in everything on the Internet, garbage and all, doesn’t that make it just an even more compromised and psychotic version of us?
We can only rely upon AI if it is trained on vetted facts. For example, AI could be limited to training facts from Wikipedia, scientific journals, actual raw data, and vetted sources of known accurate information. Such a neural network would almost certainly be vastly superior to humans in producing accurate and nuanced answers to questions that are too difficult for humans to understand given our more limited information and fallibilities. There is a reason that there are no organic doctors in the Star Wars universe. It is because there is no advanced future civilization where organic creatures could compete the AI medical intelligence and surgical dexterity of droids.
Here’s a problem. We don’t really want that kind of boring, practical AI. Such specialized systems will be important, but not huge commercially nor sociologically impactful. Rather, we are both allured and terrified by AI that can write poetry or hit songs, generate romance or horror novels, interpret the news, and draw us images of cute dragon/butterfly hybrids.
The problem is, that kind of popular “human like” AI, not bound by reality or truth, would be incredibly powerful in spreading misinformation and manipulating our emotions. It would feedback nonsense that would further instill and reinforce nonsensical and even dangerous thinking in our own brain-based neural networks.
AI can help mankind to overcome our limitations and make us better. Or it can dramatically magnify our flaws. It can push us toward fact-based information, or it can become QANON and Fox “News” on steroids. Both are equally feasible, but if Facebook algorithms are any indication, the latter is far more probable. I’m not worried about AI creating killer robots to exterminate mankind, but I am deeply terrified by AI pushing us further toward irrationality.
To create socially responsible AI, there are two things we must do above all else. First, we must train specialized AI systems, say as doctors, with only valid, factual information germane to medical treatment. Second, any more generative, creative, AI networks should be built from the ground up to distinguish factual information from fantasy. We must be able to indicate how realistic we wish our responses to be and the system must flag clearly, in a non-fungible manner, how factual its creations actually are. We must be able to count on AI to give us the truth as best as computer algorithms can recognize it, not merely to make up stories or regurgitate nonsense.
Garbage in garbage out is a huge issue, but we also face a an impending identity crisis brought about by AI, and I’m not talking about people falling in love with their smart phone.
Even after hundreds of years to come to terms with evolution, the very notion still threatens many people with regard to our relationship with animals. Many are still offended by the implication that they are little more than chimpanzees. AI is likely to cause the same sort of profound challenge to our deeply personal sense of what it means to be human.
We can already see that AI has blown way past the Turing Test and can appear indistinguishable from a human being. Even while not truly self-aware, AI systems can seem to be capable of feelings and emotion. If AI thinks and speaks like a human being in every way, then what is the difference? What does it even mean to be human if all the ways we distinguish ourselves from animals can be reproduced by computer algorithms?
The neural network in our brain works effectively like a computer neural network. When we hear “I love…” our brains might complete that sentence with “you.” That’s exactly what a computer neural network might do. Instead of worrying about whether AI systems are sentient, the more subtle impact will be to make us start fretting about whether we are merely machines ourselves. This may cause tremendous backlash.
We might alleviate that insecurity by rationalizing that AI is not real by definition because it is not human. But that doesn’t hold up well. It’s like claiming that manufactured Vitamin C is not really Vitamin C because it did not some from an orange.
So how do we come to terms with the increasingly undeniable fact that intellectually and emotionally we are essentially just biological machines? The same way many of us came to terms with the fact that we are animals. By acknowledging and embracing it.
When it comes to evolution, I’ve always said that we should take pride in being animals. We should learn about ourselves through them. Similarly, we should see computer intelligence as an opportunity, not a threat to our sense of exceptionalism. AI can help us to be better machines by offering a laboratory for insight and experimentation that can help both human and AI intelligences to do better.
Our brain-based neural networks are trained on the same garbage data as AI. The obvious flaws in AI are the same less obvious flaws that affect our own thinking. Seeing the flaws in AI can help us to recognize similar flaws in ourselves. Finding ways to correct the flaws in AI can help us to find similar training methodologies to correct them in ourselves.
I’m an animal and I’m proud to be “just an animal” and I’m equally proud to be “just a biological neural network.” That’s pretty awesome!
Let’s just hope we can create AI systems that are not as flawed as we are. Let’s hope that they will instead provide sound inputs to serve as good training facts to help retrain our own biological neural networks to think in more rational and fact-based ways.
You may have heard that March Madness is upon us. But never fear, March Sanity is on the way!
My new book, Pandemic of Delusion, will be released on March 23rd, 2023 and it’s not arriving a moment too early. The challenges we face both individually and as a society in distinguishing fact from fiction, rationality from delusion, are more powerful and pervasive than ever and the need for deeper insight and understanding to navigate those challenges has never been more dire and profound.
Ensuring sane and rational decision making, both as individuals and as a society, requires that we fully understand our cognitive limitations and vulnerabilities. Pandemic of Delusion helps us to appreciate how we perceive and process information so that we can better recognize and correct our thinking when it starts to drift away from a firm foundation of verified facts and sound logic.
Pandemic of Delusion covers a lot of ground. It delves deeply into a wide range of topics related to facts and belief, but it’s as easy to read as falling off a log. It is frank, informal, and sometimes irreverent. Most importantly, while it starts by helping us understand the challenges we face, it goes on to offer practical insights and methods to keep our brains healthy. Finally, it ends on an inspirational note that will leave you with an almost spiritual appreciation of a worldview based upon science, facts, and reason.
If only to prove that you can still consume more than 200 characters at a time, preorder Pandemic of Delusion from the publisher, Interlink Publishing, or from your favorite bookseller like Amazon. And after you read it two or three times, you can promote fact-based thinking by placing it ever so casually on the bookshelf behind your video desk. It has a really stand-out binding. And don’t just order one. Do your part to make the world a more rational place by sending copies to all your friends, family, and associates.
Seriously, I hope you enjoy reading Pandemic of Delusion half as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Of course, I’m aware that would be a considered foolish position by the vast majority of people who are horrified by gun violence and truly want to make meaningful change to curb the carnage. We cannot abolish guns. That kind of extremist talk is not only unrealistic but it threatens to undermine the hope of implementing the sensible, meaningful gun reforms that serious gun control advocates have struggled so long to enact.
But that’s just it. We have been chasing “sensible gun reform” for many decades and we have been getting nowhere. In all the time that we have been meekly begging for reasonable gun control measures, the gun epidemic has only intensified in severity and scope. For every marginal success, there have been far more numerous losses. It is no longer realistic to counsel patience. We need to face reality. And the reality is that what we have been doing, the consensus measures that our advocates continue to call for, have not worked, are not working, and are not going to work.
After every mass shooting their meme used to be “thoughts and prayers.” Now the new meme is “thoughts and prayers are not good enough.” But like the one before it, this new rallying cry is just another empty, mollifying platitude that may appear to be a strong call to action but is in reality just another impotent lament.
Banal platitudes like this are the typical drum beat of our most ardent and well-intentioned gun control advocates. David Hogg and Fred Guttenberg are just two examples. I mention them not to disparage them but only to provide two examples of passionate, dedicated, and well-meaning gun control leaders who are failing us. Their milksop calls for “sensible gun legislation” are not fresh and new. These are the same old same old we have been hearing as long as there has been a gun debate.
Their calls for incremental reforms only help convince a bullet-riddled population that they cannot realistically hope for any more than the most bromide of relief from gun violence. In fact, the NRA would do well to fund our gun control advocates as they serve the gun industry by offering placating calls for ineffective half-measures, measures that, even if enacted, would do little to nothing to address the real problem — guns in our population.
Almost every supposed activist gun control advocate appearing in the media goes to great pains to preface every comment with assurances that they are gun owners themselves, that they hunt, and that they ardently support the 2nd amendment. They feel it is crucial that we know first and foremost that they are not trying to take away anyone’s gun. They go to great lengths to reassure pro-gun viewers that they are only advocating for a few modest, sensible gun reforms. Perhaps the very anodyne tone of their activism is what makes them attractive to controversy-shy media outlets fearful of being called too radical.
Given the lengths to which gun control activists go in their efforts to praise guns and gun ownership, it is sometimes difficult to see what side they are on. They seem to spend more time legitimizing and validating an inviolate right to gun ownership than they do condemning the key enabler of gun violence, namely guns.
The sensible, modest calls to action from our gun control advocates are simply inadequate to the urgency of the gun problem we face. The truth of this seems blatantly evident but yet we are continually assured and largely convinced that modest reforms are the most we can hope to achieve. I for one refuse to believe that we cannot do far, far better. And do far, far better we must.
One might think that our failure to institutionalize even the most modest gun control measures proves that we cannot reasonably hope to achieve more. There is some logic to the view that if one demands too much one will get nothing. But in this case that has proven to be failed logic. It is also true that sometimes, when pushing against a deeply rooted barrier with a lot of inertia, that no modest pressure, however persistent, will ever cause it to budge significantly. Only by the exertion of tremendous force can one hope to break it free and gain any momentum. Clearly no number of mass shootings alone will ever break the iron will of gun enthusiasts and profiteers.
We need to finally understand that only by exerting extreme pressure against the gun industry and our gun culture can we hope to make any lasting gain whatsoever. We should learn from anti-abortion activists and adapt some of their strategies that have proven to be highly successful. I know, I know, we aren’t like them and don’t want to be like them. But at some point, you have to either play rough, get tough, and do whatever it takes… or get out of the way.
Our nation may be overcome by a mass gun obsession, but the solution is not to enable it. The only way to snap us out of it is to set far more ambitious gun sanity goals than those long sought by mainstream gun control advocates. And it is feasible to achieve them. It is possible to change hearts and minds, change cultures, and change economic risk reward balances dramatically and quickly.
Here is just a short list of some of the kind of things we could and should be doing if we want to accomplish more than merely wringing our hands and effectively accepting a permanent culture of gun violence in America and an endless recurring nightmare of gun violence.
Admit the truth. Gun control measures will not fix the gun violence problem. Often in life when leaders don’t know what to do, or can’t do what they know they should, they advocate for inconsequential half-measures. They know these will have negligible effect, but it makes everyone feel better to see <something> being done even though they all know that these remedies will do little good. This is the case with our modest gun reform demands. Everyone knows that they won’t significantly curb the problem of mass shootings, but we all go through the motions nonetheless. It gives us some hope of improvement, however false, until the next mass shooting.
Focus on guns as the problem. Every time we get diverted into talking about mental health, about training, about background checks, or about gun locks we are not talking about the singular overriding cause of our gun problem, namely guns and the gun industry. Guns can effectively turn anyone into real live superpowered villain, and as long as we have guns, people will be lured into using them to commit mass murder. No amount of “sensible gun regulations” will curb that significantly. Engaging in debates over “sensible gun regulations” distracts and misdirects our focus away from the key problems; guns, guns, and guns. We need to stay laser focused and redirect every attempt to deflect back to the problem of guns.
Break free from internalized low expectations. I am going to put extra emphasis on this point because it is so critically important. Gun interests have succeeded fantastically in conditioning their opponents to believe, and take as an immutable given, that there is no hope that America might ever abandon its love affair with guns. It is an intractable reality, or so they have made us believe, that guns are here to stay and we cannot hope for anything more than some few “sensible gun regulations.”
But this is a lie. We have seen over and over again how broad public sentiment can change, and change profoundly, almost overnight on what seems like the most strongly felt issues. Broad public sentiment can turn against our gun culture overnight. And severe restrictions and liability can cause even the most sociopathic gun owner to recalculate their cost/benefit.
Gun supporters know that their gun culture is fragile. Why do you suppose they fight so rabidly to defend it? Why is it we have such trouble believing what our opponents prove to us every day by their fearful, paranoid defense of guns?
Stop legitimizing gun ownership and excusing gun owners. Stop legitimizing guns by going on about how much you support gun rights and assuring gun owners that they are great, responsible, people who happen to love guns and have every right to own them. We should instead marginalize gun ownership and gun owners as socially irresponsible collaborators in gun violence.
Frame gun ownership as moral choice. We should frame gun ownership as an irresponsible, unethical, and immoral choice. Because it is. We should force Christians in particular to justify over and over again how their faith places their right of gun ownership over the life of even one child slain in a mass shooting. Similarly, we need to send the message to men that guns are evidence not of their manliness, but of their cowardice.
Emphasize that we do not have to exercise every right. Just because we currently have a right to bear arms does not mean that we are obligated to do so. We need to send the message that even if one has an uppercase Right to do something, that does not mean it is lowercase right to do so. When it comes to guns, a good person would moderate their selfish individual rights for the good of society. In fact, the noblest definition of morality may be our willingness to forego our individual rights for the good of our fellow man. We need to make that argument and hammer it home relentlessly.
Stop accepting rationalizations. We accept too easily what are often fake rationalizations that we legitimately need guns for hunting, or for recreational target shooting, or to expand our collection, to wage war against our government, or for personal protection. We should stop giving these excuses more weight than they deserve. To whatever extent there is a legitimate, justifiable need for a gun, the appropriate gun can be signed out from a well-regulated gun repository. Private guns can be held in the custody of an approved and monitored facility for check-out as needed for recreation or other purposes. If we can rent snow skis when we want to go skiing, we can check out a gun to go deer hunting.
Marginalize and denormalize gun ownership. We should stop being so reluctant to blame and shame gun owners, manufacturers, sellers, and apologists. Every gun owner is part of the problem and we should stop pretending that there are any “good” gun owners out there. Further, we should stop participating in the fiction that whoever commits gun violence is a special mental case. The reality is that guns turn otherwise normal people into gun maniacs. The desire to purchase a gun that is only useful for killing lots of people quickly should be a sufficient red flag to alert us to a potentially dangerous and unstable person.
Make extreme demands. Abortion activists didn’t gain ground by calling for “sensible abortion reform.” They demanded nothing less than the end of all abortions, period. They didn’t bemoan the fact that they might seem unreasonable or generate blowback. They welcomed blowback. We should do the same. We should stop calling for “sensible gun reform” and start demanding the abolishment of all private gun ownership in our society. We should make gun proponents feel lucky to walk away with only somewhat less Draconian reforms.
Stop accepting that the 2nd Amendment is the last word. Anti-abortion activists never accepted that Roe v Wade was the last word. True, it was not a Constitutional Amendment, however it was “settled law.” But not for their activists. Similarly, the 2nd Amendment should not be accepted as sacrosanct by anti-gun activists. Maybe we cannot repeal it, but we can try. At the very least that effort would force their side to divert resources and offer substantive arguments to defend an archaic interpretation of the 2nd Amendment in a modern world replete with 21st century weaponry.
Reinterpret the 2nd Amendment. While we work to repeal the 2nd Amendment, we should work to limit it. Again, anti-abortion activists have pioneered a wide array of effective strategies that we can adapt. Foremost, we should embark upon a decades-long mission to appoint anti-gun Supreme Court Justices with the courage and conviction to reinterpret the 2nd Amendment. Contrary to what we have come to accept, the 2nd Amendment is neither unambiguous nor absolute. It is open to broad interpretation and less ideological Justices could legitimately overturn previous precedents as overly broad interpretations of the 2nd Amendment and conscribe gun rights in a far more socially responsible manner. We should not accept any ruling as the final word until they do.
Make it as hard to open a gun shop as it is to open an abortion clinic. The next thing we should be doing to lessen the damage of the 2nd Amendment is to limit its application in the real world. Again, anti-Abortion activists have given us the model for aggressive activism. Anti-abortion activists targeted abortion clinics very successfully. We should use those same proven successful tactics against gun factories, gun shows, and gun shops. Appear at every city council meeting in large and vocal numbers and lobby for new zoning restrictions and multitudinous regulations to make it difficult to open or operate these businesses. There are a million bills we could get passed to make their life difficult. “Of course, you can open a gun store, we are not stopping you, but you now need walls and windows that can stop high speed armor piercing ammunition. It’s a safety issue to protect gun buyers.”
Push for laws to effectively reduce guns by restricting firearms everywhere. In addition to lobbying for laws to make it difficult to run gun-related businesses, make it difficult for gun owners to take their gun anywhere. Establish gun-free zones and other requirements that make it impractical to carry guns. When these new laws or private sector policies are challenged, defend them vigorously. When they are blocked or overturned by courts, modify them slightly and try again. The anti-abortionists didn’t let such setbacks dissuade them from their unrelenting efforts. Even if a hundred initiatives are struck down, some will get through and in the meantime the gun lobby will have spent limited resources to defend against them.
Pressure individual gun sellers and gun manufacturers. We should put every bit of pressure we can bring to bear upon the individual people supporting gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership. Picket, boycott, protest, publicize, shame, and even harass them to a point. We should make their every activity in support of guns an ordeal. Like anti-abortionists, we should set up cordons in front of gun stores, showing prospective customers graphic pictures of gun-torn bodies and asking them how they can contribute to this carnage by buying a gun. Remind them that this is more likely to be the fate of them or their loved ones if they keep a gun in the house. We should confront store owners and ask them how they can live with themselves for selling tools of murder. We should confront gun executives and employees in restaurants and ask them how they can work for an industry that profits from death. Expand and escalate counter-protests at every pro-gun event.
Be willing to show graphic gun violence. Television and movies, no matter how graphic, do not do justice to the real horrors of gun violence. We need to be less squeamish about confronting people with that horror, through both words and images. For many on both sides, a personal, visceral experience is all that will move them to action or cause them to really consider the harm that guns cause.
Push for laws to increase liability and lawsuits. We need to stop taking “the gun industry is protected from lawsuits” as an insurmountable barrier. We need to renew our efforts to overturn such protections and, in the meantime, bring legal action, finding creative cause to challenge and test every possible variation in court. At the same time, we need to use each of these opportunities to make our case to the court of public opinion.
Wage Performative Protests Follow the model of The Satantic Temple in pushing back against religious extremism and hold performative events to make gun rights supporters uncomfortable with their own policies and behaviors. Give them a taste of how they would feel if the “wrong” people in their view brandished guns. Establish groups like Blacks for Gun Freedom, Gays for Gun Rights, and Machine Gun Moms for Choice and flood gun open carry zones and Hobby Lobby with people in paramilitary gear brandishing guns. Imagine a huge presence of Drag Queens for Guns Everywhere at CPAC or a force of mock Muslim Fighters raising up fake AK-47s and shouting “2nd Amendment! 2nd Amendment!” at gun rallies. Of course this must be very well organized and obvious toy weapons are enough to make the point. But the Satanic temple has shown how this kind of smart performance pushback can be very effective to force the other side to reconsider whether they really want everyone <else> to exercise the rights they are advocating.
So, there are just a few ideas.
If you feel that these sorts of tactics are too distasteful for you, then what <are> you willing to do to save the lives of your loved ones from gun violence? If they die in a mass shooting at school, or at the grocery store, or at some public venue, will your conscience be at ease knowing that you called for commonsense gun reform?
While it is sometimes true that the ends don’t justify the means, in the real world the ends absolutely do justify the means in most cases. Every time we make a tough decision, every time we risk ourselves to save a life, or prevent a crime, or accomplish any noble goal, it is precisely because the ends do justify the means.
Certainly, the end of reducing gun violence does not justify any means. But it does justify, no it demands, far stronger means than we as a nation have enacted so far. Let’s rise to the challenge that we face and take bolder, stronger action against the plague of guns in our country.
If this article motivates you to want to do more than merely donate more money to institutionalized gun control advocates, you can start by reposting it on other media platforms!
After being snowed in for a week, I finally got out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home (see here). It was a super fun action movie. But as with all good writing, it also made me think interesting thoughts, such as what makes people bad, redemption, and the effect of superpowers our real world.
The following contains movie spoilers. If you have not seen it yet, and think you might like to, close this article and come back after you’ve checked it out!
With sympathy to those of you who have little patience for superhero stuff, I’ll set up the story really simply. A group of supervillains are brought into our universe by accident. They immediately do what supervillains do; they unleash their terrible powers to create widespread havoc and death.
Spiderman does find a way to send them back to their own universes. Despite intense pressure to do so, and despite the horrible threat that these supervillains pose, he cannot bring himself to effectively deport them to wreak havoc in their old universes. So instead, he tries desperately to help each of them to become better people who can live peacefully in any universe.
Each of these supervillains has a different background and unique challenges that contribute to their evil behavior. Since I don’t have the room in this article to talk about all of them, I’ll focus on just one. That supervillain is called Electro and he is played in the movie by Jamie Foxx.
Electro has the ability to literally siphon electricity from electrical grids and to fire it in lightning-like bolts and bursts. His destructive power is fantastic. But when Spider-Man manages to destroy his electrical emitter, Electro immediately becomes your uncle. Suddenly he is no longer a crazed and maniacal supervillain, but a pretty ordinary next door neighbor. He is no more crazed and maniacal than your typical muffler-repairman and just about as dangerous. In fact, once his power is taken away, it’s hard to imagine that he was ever any kind of threat.
This sudden and dramatic transformation isn’t as unlikely as it may seem at first. Superpowers do actually exist in our real world, and they do induce the same kind of deadly behavior in many otherwise harmless people. Take those superpowers away, and those real-world supervillains are just your uncle, your neighbor, or your muffler-repairman.
These real-world superpowers most typically take the form of public or private office, wealth, or guns.
High offices are in limited supply. And great wealth is still relatively hard to come by. So while dangerous, people with those superpowers are somewhat rare. While they do exist and can do great damage, there can never be too many Donald Trump or Lex Luthor type supervillains in the world. And also, these supervillains are somewhat constrained by the precariousness of their positions of power.
But anyone today can buy a semi-automatic weapon and become a real-world supervillain that rivals Electro in destructive power. And relative to the rich and the office-holders, many of these people have few constraints that restrain their unleashing of that power – at least one time.
As Spider-Man often repeats, “with great power comes great responsibility.” There are certainly some, like Spider-Man, who take that to heart and strive to use their power, their office, their wealth, or their gun, to make the world a better place.
But it is also true to observe that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And as Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, there are many who are intoxicated by great power and who, like Electro, would be perfectly decent citizens if not for that power.
So yea, guns.
Guns grant anyone a superpower. By making guns so easily available, we have created a nascent army of actual and potential supervillains.
Many rationalize that guns are not the problem. But that is simply wrong. As Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, the means to destroy is exactly the problem. When people who can be drawn toward violence are allowed to have guns, it’s like giving Electro his superpower back. Without that power, he is not particularly dangerous. But with that power in his hands, he cannot help but become a supervillain.
For too many people, the lure to use their superpower can be overwhelming. If you could shoot lightning bolts, how could you not? You possess a voice. Are you never frustrated enough to shout out in anger with it? The mere possession of a superpower fundamentally inverts every calculation. With guns, your muffler-repair guy becomes a mass shooter. Without guns, well he’s just your muffler-repair guy.
Electro could not both possess a device of mass destruction and not use it. Modern guns grant less flashy but similarly destructive superpowers. We should not be so foolish as to give everyone access to them. Giving everyone access to Twitter is dangerous enough.
Spider-Man realized this. The weapons are the problem, not the people who possess them.
In her excellent book, “Breaking Their Will,” author Janet Heimlich powerfully documents the many ways that religion motivates and justifies the maltreatment of children (see here). She identifies the following general forms of religious child abuse:
justifying abusive physical punishment with religious texts or doctrine;
having children engage in dangerous religious rituals;
taking advantage of religious authority to abuse children and procure their silence;
failing to provide children needed medical care due to a belief in divine intervention;
terrifying children with religious concepts, such as an angry and punitive god, eternal damnation, or possession by the devil or by demons;
making children feel guilty and shameful by telling them they are sinful;
neglecting children’s safety by allowing them to spend more time with religious authorities without scrutinizing the authorities’ backgrounds;
inculcating children with religious ideas; and
failing to acknowledge or report child abuse or neglect to protect the image of a religion or a religious group.
“Breaking Their Will” goes into tremendous detail in documenting and expanding upon each of these forms of child maltreatment, with the possible exception of the one that jumps out to me like a flashing neon light. That one seems like it is far too easy to skim over and lose sight of.
I am speaking of the second to last item. I was very pleased that, in addition to all of the more specific forms of abuse, the author did include “inculcating children with religious ideas” as a form of abuse. This foundational form of abuse deserves deeper and more serious consideration.
Fantasy is wonderful for kids. But saturating a developing mind in fantasy presented as fact does fundamental harm to their rational capacity and compromises their ability to distinguish fact from fantasy more generally. It diminishes their ability to evaluate evidence and to recognize sound logic. It necessarily trains their neural networks to falsely rationalize irrational beliefs. And it thereby does real harm their ability to make fact-based decisions as children and throughout their lives.
While none of the many of the abuses documented in “Breaking Their Will” can be excused or dismissed or minimized as merely misguided aberrations of otherwise benign religious practices, some would try to do so. This particular abuse, however, is inherent in all religious inculcation, however benign or even beneficial it may be in other ways. It is so inherent to religious inculcation that it cannot be dismissed as aberrational.
Further, as difficult as it can be to “get over” or “move beyond” other forms of religious abuse, the compromising of the developing rational faculties of a child during their most formative years has long term implications that are particularly difficult to overcome, insidious in their expression, and impacts practically every aspect of a child’s future life.
Most of us grew up with religion and we think we are just fine. That makes it very difficult for most of us to see the harm in religious training. Many people feel the same way about corporal punishment. My dad beat me and I turned out fine. Our upbringing and continued exposure to religion creates a bias to accept religious inculcation as normal.
In order to “control for” our bias, substitute religious beliefs with some other comparable belief. What if we were teaching our children that aliens are present on Earth and that they can body-snatch us if we are bad. If we are good, the aliens will take us on board their ship to their home planet where we will live in in eternal happiness. Imagine further that this idea was mainstreamed such that huge numbers of people not only believed this, but they used this belief to guide their lives and insisted that we implement public policies based on this belief.
Certainly, you would find this unacceptable. Even if you held that adults should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like, you would probably still argue that they should not be allowed to inculcate their children with this set of crazy beliefs. You would undoubtedly argue that this does real long term harm and that parents should be prevented from “messing with” their children’s impressionable minds in such a detrimental manner.
How is the inculcation of religious nonsense any different? It is not, except for the fact that we have been inculcated to accept it as reasonable.
Perhaps our own ability to rationalize away the harm caused by religious inculcation is the best proof of the harmful effect of the religious maltreatment we suffered as children.
You can learn more about religious child maltreatment and ways that you can join the fight in stopping it at the Child-Friendly Faith Project (see here).
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.