On Cowardice, Terrorism, and America

Here at the Theological Heretics Institute for the Nurture of Knowledge, Enlightenment, Reconciliation and Salvation, we recognize that one of the greatest evils we face in this world is groupthink, also known as mob mentality, or in some contexts, tribalism. Groupthink helped to get Jesus killed. It got Socrates executed. It has caused murder and mayhem throughout history, with examples like the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, not to mention the wars of the 20th century. Lately, the US has had a bout of groupthink fed by fake news and nefarious actors who know the power of fear, anger and hate. There is a narrative in particular that is gaining dominance in the groupthink vernacular that is so observably false, that it may serve to call attention to how poorly groupthink performs as a cognitive method.

The narrative is this: Terrorists are cowards. The narrative claims they are cowards because rather than meet on a battlefield in polished brass and shoot at men to settle their matters of honor, they kill babies. Now, the fact that they kill babies and do not instead form armies to duke it out in traditional combat is not in dispute. What is in dispute is that cowardice is what they show. The absurdity of this idea should be plain enough. If you believe that Sgt. Rock leading a suicide charge to take out a machine gun nest is heroic, then you can’t claim that using your body as a bomb is not require a similar amount of bravery. It is despicable and unconscionable to decent people, but it is nothing if not an act of bravery.

This is where people usually start shouting accusations of “apologist” and “why are you defending them”, to which I must shake my head. That is just the groupthink talking. In groupthink, everything is either us/good or them/bad and nothing else makes sense. In Reason, we can see that many things can be used in a good way or an evil way, so the thing itself does not determine good or evil. I can bravely do something good, or I can bravely do something bad. The silly notion is that anything bad you might say about “them” is appropriate because they are “bad”.

“If you aren’t defending them, they why do you say good things about them?”

I don’t. I make a point that groupthink leads to really outrageous ideas with no justification, and that is no way to deal with anything in a positive way. Groupthink leads to the belief that intelligence is bad because it is against what the group thinks. Even if those in the grip of groupthink do not say it that way, it is evidenced by their willingness to accept a simple premise even if they know from firsthand experience that it is wrong, rather than a demonstrable proof that has any nuance to it that the premise is absurd.

This is all pretty abstract, right? Why post about this theoretical discussion that I just said the people it targets will refuse to get it? Well, I have hope that the rest of us can steer clear and not fall into the groupthink, because there are forces at play that push us that direction, and history has shown than virtually none of us are immune.

Let’s go from this abstract pseudopsychology discussion to something that we can agree is a clear and present danger (although we probably disagree on what the nature of the danger is): Terrorism. We have already peeked at the notion that “terrorists are cowards”, and my concern that this is a dangerous belief with no justification and a lot of momentum. The nature of the us/good them/bad mindset is such that we have a pretty good idea of who the “us” is and a pretty poor understanding of who the “them” is. Moreover, because “us” is good, we tend to be blind to all of the ways we are the exact same “bad” as “them”, or even that “they” are not what we claim, but we are. For example, which is more cowardly, to face death in a struggle for what you believe to be a just cause, or to turn cold, hungry children away for fear that they might grow up to resent you? Now, the suspicious ones who are afraid of facing their own groupthink will ask what trick I am trying to pull by making terrorists look good and Americans look bad. No, no trick. Ask yourself how accurately the language we use fits what we describe. My question offers no judgment. You bring any judgment of your own to the question. But, I admit that the question is Socratic. If we are to make moral judgments about others, we must be willing to subject ourselves to the same standard, or as Jesus put it: “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Luke 6:37).

So, let’s examine exactly what “terrorism” is. Terrorism is a tactic of conflict. It may or may not be an acknowledged war, but it is a tactic. Those who use that tactic are thus called terrorists. What if one side of a conflict uses terrorism in some operations but traditional warfare in others? Well, as it turns out, if it is “us” then it wasn’t terrorism, and if it is “them” then we refer to the traditional warfare as “combat with terrorist forces”. But back to what exactly the tactic itself is.

Terrorism is a tactic in which there is an attack that is targeted to strike fear in the general populace to motivate them to some action. For example, prior to sending troops into Iraq in Gulf War II, the US bombarded Baghdad with a spectacular show of airpower dubbed “Shock and Awe” with the express purpose of striking terror into the people who supported Saddam Hussein. There were strategic targets, and civilians who did not work in regime’s headquarters or were not driving on bridges were not targeted directly, but the very fact that it was a mission objective to use fear to affect the outcome actually qualifies as a terroristic tactic. You see, it is not the body count that makes it terrorism, it is the fear it is intended to inspire that makes it terrorism. In WWII, both the Allies and the Axis used terrorism in the form of firebombing civilians for the purpose of demoralizing the general population into surrender, with no pretense of military or strategic target values other than the terror response. I will leave it to History to judge the kinds of large scale terrorism that has occurred in a declared war, but the point is that whether someone blows up a bus in Jerusalem, or drives a truck into a crowded Mall, or flies planes into a building, or drops an atomic bomb on a city, if the intent is to strike fear in the heart and motivate a change, then the tactic is best described as terrorism.

What kind of action can be motivated by fear? Who would expect fear to have the right outcome? The answers vary, but they generally follow the format that cool heads do better in a fight with hot heads. Outrage may motivate fictional characters like the Hulk, but like the Hulk, people smash everything when outraged, including things they value, and unlike the Hulk, they don’t tend to win against the cool head that was using outrage against them all along.

In Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, Sun Tsu describes how to take a small army against a fortified city and win without a prolonged siege. Roughly put, he said to get a young maiden, preferably from the city, but say she is from the city at any rate, and in view of the city walls, rape the girl savagely, and then set her loose to run back toward the city, and shoot her down before she can get there. Give the city time to screw up their outrage, and when the city gates open and the army files out, retreat the bulk of the army to the hills where the approaching army can be ambushed, cut off and slaughtered, while the remaining forces that hid during the retreat enters and captures the city.

The basis for the tactic Sun Tsu describes is that outrage was a weapon supplied by the enemy that could be used against them. Cool heads defeat hot heads.

Terrorism can be very effective in this same way. Fear and Outrage are overlapping emotions. Even those who don’t personally feel particularly vulnerable can become outraged at the thought that the tribe as a whole is under threat.

Why would some Podunk country that nobody likes want to outrage the Mighty United States of America and her allies? Well, let’s get visual. One of the tropes of the comedy western involves the bully throwing a punch at the hero, who ducks, and a bystander gets hit instead, and turning around in a blind rage, the bystander punches another bystander, and in seconds the entire saloon is being destroyed as the hero crawls out the front door, while the bully ducks out the back, and the destruction of the saloon rages on in their wake. What happened in that fictional saloon is believable and absurd at the same time. Everybody other than the initial players let their outrage confuse their ability to properly assess who their enemies are.

Look at how outrageously effective the 9-11 attacks were at manipulating the US into a cycle of self-destruction. The attack was outrageous. It was worthy of outrage and there is not moral way to justify it at all, but it was outrageously effective. As a result of the 9-11 attacks:

Americans gladly ceded their own civil liberties in exchange for a feeling of security.

Americans crippled air travel and shipping, causing an economic downturn we have not really recovered from since.

America went to war with Afghanistan solely to extradite the accused.

America was able to be duped into going to war with Iraq by being susceptible to a false association with the 9-11 attacks.

Most importantly, the goal of the terrorists was fully met in that a plurality of Americans are ready and willing to enter a war with the Muslim Religion itself, having been convinced that the terrorism ever had a religious motivation shared by all adherents of the faith.

Americans gladly defend the notion that we must insult, bully and blame the Muslims of the world for our own outrage and fear, which increases the likelihood that they will recognize us as enemies, as well.

So, we are the undefeatable city that Sun Tsu tells how to defeat. Make us so outraged that we abandon all that we value just to satisfy our moral outrage, blind to the fact that Sun Tsu is not a crazy zealot, but a shrewd warrior, playing our weakness to his advantage.

So, what is the message of this post? Am I just hating on Fox News for cashing in on the fears and bigotry of their viewers? No. The message is that with poor thinking comes poor outcomes, but we are all able to overcome poor thinking.

Terrorists are evil, but they are not the cowards, they take advantage of the cowardice in us. Failure to recognize this hands them one win after another, since they are counting on it.

The terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State pose no existential threat to us, but we pose that threat to ourselves if we choose blind rage over thoughtful observation.

Every time we choose to do the terrorists bidding in response to terror, they win. When we alter our values of openness and opportunity, religious freedom and cooperation, and even when we assume the worst of people and abandon all trust of the goodwill one another, the terrorists win. When we turn away widows and orphans out of abject fear of what we choose not to understand, the terrorists win. When we think open disdain of the Muslim world is a way to defeat terrorism, the terrorists have already won.


Posted in Belief Systems, Political Discourse | Leave a comment

On Sophistry and Demagoguery

One of the real threats to our democracy is that when people become hostile to responsible governance, they will only elect irresponsible governance. This is a useful tool for anyone who wishes to act under the cover of irresponsible governance. There are two ways to make people hostile to responsible governance: Convince them that what is responsible is not responsible, or convince them that irresponsible governance is actually more responsible than responsible governance. Both rely on creating the perception that something bad is good, or something good is bad. Almost always, the trick to doing so is to flatter ignorance or justify personal flaws as virtues.

Let’s start with techniques to flatter ignorance. The simplest form of this is just to confidently state something that is provably false but easily believed. The formula follows the format that everything you have is yours because you deserve it and you worked hard for it and earned it either by your labor, your skill, or your ability to make wise choices. There is truth in there, but it is not a true statement. We all have had luck, privilege (or lack thereof), where we started from, and simple market pressures other than skill or wisdom affect how we have gotten what we have or failed to get what others have. We also all know it. Even the most dimwitted of us knows that if we happen to be tall, pretty, fair skinned, or from a rich family, tons of stuff comes our way that nobody else has as much of a shot at. We even know that we make assumptions about the skills and competence of such people that are based solely on our desire to associate with them rather than any objective comparison of their capability. We not only have the science to prove this, we all know it intrinsically, and yet if flatters us to ignore what we know intrinsically about human nature to assure ourselves that we are the exception, and our looks, status, connections and luck are not significant reasons why we have what we do, and those without our advantages have less only because of their inferior merit. This makes it easy to skew our idea of fairness in our own favor. It’s not fair that the poor kid got a scholarship and I didn’t. It’s not fair that the minority kid got admitted to college and I didn’t. It doesn’t matter if that scholarship or that admission still does not give that student a truly equal chance at success as I have for so many other reasons, because my assumption is that we have equal merit if the one metric I look at seems equal. Any argument in favor of my weak position flatters my ignorance because it supports my tendency to believe something that is not true, but would flatter me if it were. Flattering ignorance is also used to justify all kinds of political positions or bigoted beliefs. It is most effective in selling policies that are unfair to someone else but do not affect you at all. By flattering your ignorance about the someone else it is easy to arouse fear or anger, and easier to obscure the crux of the issue. I would not make that choice given my circumstances, so you don’t need that choice regardless of your circumstances.

Another technique used to convince people of falsehoods is a form of sophistry wherein, a false assumption is implied by a compelling narrative. The assumptions could be that two distinct definitions of a word are simultaneously true, even when they are contradictory (e.g. you dust furniture to remove dust but you dust crops by applying dust) or you assume that something can only be one way or another with no gradation between them (e.g. keeping a borrowed pen and embezzling a retirement fund are equal because they are both theft). Other methods of sophistry include appeals to emotion disguised as logic, guilt by association, and just plain intentionally bad math. Flattering ignorance is useful in each of these methods, and they can be used in various combinations. Many of these take a form of Affirming the Consequent or claims that they are Common Sense. I leave it to the reader to follow links to more detailed explanations of how those forms of sophistry are used.

Some examples:

Fox News runs a story every day about an undocumented immigrant involved in a crime. They do not run stories about similar crimes involving the demographics of their viewers, even though such crimes are more common. Then, in the editorial narrative, they claim that undocumented immigrants are a criminal element, implying that they are an increased criminal threat compared to society at large. This is a form of flattery of ignorance called confirmation bias. They add to this narrative the false equivalence that crossing the border without proper documentation is illegal, which proves the criminality of the population. And then apply the bad math sampling error that none of the individuals who were victims of a crime committed by an undocumented immigrant could have occurred if the immigrant had been deported. While this is strictly true, it is as worthless as claiming that no one who is a victim of a crime committed by person named Smith if all people named Smith were deported. If the crime rate among the undocumented is not higher than the general population (it is not), deportation does not affect the crime rate. The narrative, in short, is more false than true, but it is a powerful narrative at inspiring fear and anger, and thus can be used as a motivator when added to a larger narrative such as “you can’t trust people who are not angry about this to look out for you.”

The Tea Party loves anti-socialism rants. The narratives adopted by politicians that rely on the Tea Party base take sophistry to great heights. Nobody with their wits about them actually believes that allowing people to check out a book from a library is the equivalent of sending poets to concentration camps for re-education, but such false equivalencies are the bread and butter of Tea Party narratives about Capitalism and Socialism. The narrative begins by obscuring the difference between dictionary definitions and reality, and implies an all-or-nothing moral judgement based on the false assumption that the labels are accurate and denote Good and Evil. If I were to say to you that the words tall and short are opposite, for example, you would probably agree, but if I told you “at six feet and three inches, John was the short brother of the family”, you would know right away that short and tall can be meaningfully used as relative terms that are only opposite in context. If you ignore the very real difference between the meaning of words like capitalist and socialist in real world context, then you will make false assumptions about both, just as you might about tall and short. For example, Capitalism is more of a free market system than Communism, so discussions about Capitalism v Communism have meaning, but Capitalism is not the same as free market by any means, and treating them as interchangeable is economic illiteracy. A free market is one in which supply, demand, and competition are the forces at play, and no artificial means are used to control them. For example, if you and I both produce chopsticks from bamboo to sell. In a free market, we both compete to get the best deal on bamboo, and compete on quality and price to sell the bamboo. Capitalism is not based on market competition, but on capital (hence the name). For example, if I have an investor who will put up a million dollars to buy futures on all of the bamboo at a price no one can match, I can force you out of business and then have no one competing with me when I sell my chopsticks. That is what the word means. Use capital to increase capital. If there is nothing bought or sold, ever, it is still capitalism if you use capital to increase capital. When Bain Capital did leveraged buy-outs of companies that employed thousands, only to dismantle and sell divisions, consolidate the debt, then file bankruptcy, and putting thousands of people out of work who had been making a profit for the companies, it was not a free market they were using, it was strictly capitalism. Likewise, Socialism is not just a textbook form of government, it is an overall approach to economy. Socialist policies that excel in some areas are not suited to all areas. Fundamentally, all government is socialist, or it is corrupt. A government, fundamentally, does work for the people paid for collectively by the people for the good of the people. No competition, no capital gains. Anyone who uses government to profit is corrupt. It is fundamentally socialist. Only a dimwit would think that no government at all is superior to government whenever the population exceeds that of a clan, and even within a clan, it is the collective that is served and governed. Hence, you cannot be entirely against socialism and be in favor of police and fire protection, public libraries, roads and bridges, a national military, etc. But you can be fooled into forgetting all of that stuff when someone starts comparing a tax supported county hospital to a Stalinist regime if you believe that the mythical superhero Capitalism is the thin blue line between Truth, Justice and Freedom and the chaos that the supervillain Socialism would impose if his evil plans were not vigilantly thwarted.

This all boils down to false simplicity. There is a bit of instruction that was designed to help people do good science. When I say the name, many of you will immediately recognize the name and associate it will a stupid, wrong statement. That stupid, wrong statement is a powerful tool in selling the flattery of ignorance, because ignorance is always simpler than understanding, and reality is just never as simple as the explanations we like to use to describe it. The name is Occam’s Razor. Now, what stupid wrong statement did you associate with it? Hint: it is not only wrong, it is absurd, and never holds up to scrutiny. Let me guess. The statement you have been told is Occam’s Razor is something like “Whenever there are two or more explanations for something, the simplest one tends to be the correct one.” Was that it? Read it. Now think about it. Have you ever heard anything so stupid in your life?

“How does a TV work, daddy?”

“They have a team of wizards at the factory that cast a spell on it”

“Why does the world look flat to me?”

“Because it is flat, stupid!”

You get the idea. The actual Occam’s Razor was never intended to be an axiom of truth, because Occam was not an idiot, he was a Natural Philosopher (scientist). He was giving instruction on how not to be stupid when trying to do science. “When choosing a hypothesis (often misquoted as “theory”), the one with the fewest assumptions is preferred.” Let me break that down. Despite what Sister Mary Constance may have told you about the Scientific Method, a hypothesis is NOT a guess. It is the basis for a test. It does not matter what you think will happen or what you want to happen, but what you are going to test. “If hot water freezes faster than cold water, then by timing how long it takes to freeze samples of water beginning at different temperatures will reveal if that is the case.” Our word “hypothetical” is the same root. If this is the rule, then these will be the results. A bad hypothesis would be “If there are faeries determining the rate at which water freezes, and they don’t like salty things, then salty water will take longer to freeze or not freeze at all.” It has an unnecessary assumption about why water freezes that is not tested by the experiment, so it is a bad hypothesis for that experiment. Since we prefer that we are not wasting time on experiments that do not yield conclusive results, we prefer to limit the hypothesis to one that can be tested usefully.

Now that you recognize how mind-numbingly stupid something can be and still be accepted as true by people who are somewhat intelligent, you can see how someone skilled in presenting absurd arguments as obvious truths can gain quite a following in a population that wants to be convinced of something absurd. If you can get them invested in defending that absurdity, you can bundle ever-increasingly absurd beliefs into a worldview that is deeply distrustful of anyone concerned with reality, especially if they are convinced that the people defending reality have an ulterior motive to do so, regardless of whether that motive is absurd.


Posted in Political Discourse | Leave a comment

On Labels and Magic Words

I have a close relative who decades ago converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had many discussions about religion, and being a convert, he was quite enthusiastic about all of the things he was learning to believe. In one of the discussions, the subject of “magic words” came up. It was not specifically about words believed to be magical, but rather words you don’t know the meaning of that may have power that you do not suspect. I absorbed that explanation, but he was quick to explain that this was not a metaphor, but literally a danger of summoning a demon, or some similar outcome.

As you may know, I do not disparage religion. While one side of me sees the notion of Hocus Pocus as something altering reality as superstition, the pragmatist in me says that if the description accurately represents reality, there is something to it. Language is a living thing. What is a metaphor today is a word tomorrow, such as having a “definition” of pig of “a person of poor hygiene or untidy habits”, which is sometimes called an entrenched metaphor, or a metaphor that ceases to invoke a comparison, and simply becomes a description. You don’t have to know anything about real pigs to use the word correctly in that context. In fact, the metaphor turns out to be a poor one, but the description is still usefull. We use the word stereotype even though the printing process it comes from is almost totally unknown to most who use it. In short, language can drag a metaphor into literal use, or even change the meaning of the written word over time, such that a literal observation could become a metaphorical description and then migrate back to a different literal interpretation, depending on the language and worldview of the audience. My sermon today is about the wisdom that survives, the truth that hides in plain sight of our closed eyes, and the necessity to communicate across those barriers for the sake of those on either side or the middle of the division between the mystical and the pragmatic, or the orthodox and the heretical. Specifically, this ancient warning about being careful to say what you mean rather than sounding impressive is metaphorically true, and in a sense literally true.

So, if you had trouble unpacking that opening paragraph, you have a glimpse of the problem I hope to address. We can all see how society seems to be abandoning the struggle to communicate and instead digging into their “side” against the other side. While we think we are saying “please explain that again, so I can understand what you mean” we only hear “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Any statement of an opposing belief is not treated as an invitation to conversation, but is “an attack on my beliefs”, in which anything that looks like strong evidence is just seen as an escalation of that hostility. This is very sad, and it is very destructive. I could point fingers as to who I think is to “blame”, but I know that, as with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the temptation to sin is not where the sin lies, but in the choice to give in. We, the People, have allowed this to happen, and We, the People, need to find a way to come through it better than before.

So, about Words and Labels.

Humans are, for the most part, rational. What does that word mean? Rational comes from ratio, which essentially is about dividing things up. It is about differentiating between things and literally putting them into proportion, another synonym for ratio. So we differentiate night and day, hot and cold, heavy and light, on down to fruits and vegetables, cats and dogs, X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, and on and on. It is very useful and adaptive and is at the core of our language, our intelligence, our logic, and our memory. It is good stuff. For the record, I am not against rationality. Remember this when I delve into the dark side of rationality a bit to show where it can let us down.

This is not my first essay on how people think. As I have pointed out before, we all have beliefs that we are reluctant to alter. We cannot function by re-analyzing every thought over and over, we have to build a framework of default beliefs from which to start and then decide if any need to be revised. It is easier to refuse to do any analysis at all than to bother to revalidate our beliefs up to the point where the negative results become undeniably greater than the positive, and we have a great capacity for denial. In terms of rationality, we tend to structure our explanations of our beliefs into patters based on rational concepts of distinction and differentiation. I believe this is the right thing to do because I am this kind of person and I have this value system. This rational construct allows us to adopt minor updates or stiffen our resolve about some component of our beliefs. I can see now that the dog is a little more red than brown, but I am even more convinced it is a dog. Although it is a rational construct, active rationality is looking for updates, while our normal mode is to avoid them.

A lot of comedy is based on the flaws of that process, such as when a stand-up comic extrapolates an absurd conclusion from things we all take for granted. For example, there is a joke “if the black box always works after the plane crash, why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?” If your rationality is dialed up on aviation technology, the joke is not funny, it is stupid You can’t make a solid steel and concrete block plane that will fly. However, everyone who never thinks about those things gets a mental “I never thought of that” rush, which is one of the causes of “funny”. Others do not find the idea funny, but that there may be people that ill-informed who they can laugh at. Most ethnic jokes work the same way. Tropes about an ethnicity form a pattern, so a funny ethnic joke either extrapolates the trope to a new place, or arrives at another branch of the trope by a new path. A generic example might be of the pattern “I asked one of them why they let the trash pile up in the front yard where it will attract flies, and he said ‘it keeps the flies away from my [alleged favorite food for the ethnicity].” I will leave it to you to “mad-lib” a version of that joke to see how one stereotype of the trope connected to another can be humorous because it flatters the person’s bigotry while tripping the rationality circuits into a new usable pattern. The lower the base rationality of the ones telling and hearing the joke, the lower the requirement of clever connections for humor to be found. The objective correctness of the patterns assumed by the joke are irrelevant, but the acceptance of the usability of the pattern are key. That is, even if “some of my best friends are…” or “I know several who are not …”, the baseline from which those distinctions are made is the pattern being used. The more our brain is rewarded for reinforcing the pattern, the more entrenched it becomes in our thinking. Yes, laughing at ethnic jokes can increase your bigotry. Stop it.

Now what I just described is not rationality per se, because although it uses the process of rationality, it is not the power of rationality to make observations about reality, but rather the pleasure or relative ease of simply utilizing rational work done by others or fitting things into established “rational” patterns you already have in place. That is, patterns of division and distinction that fit our thoughts, rather than divisions and distinctions generated or altered by active rationality. The former fits our “common sense” but the latter is the basis of skepticism. Skepticism is not disbelief, it is the inclination not to take an assertion as true without examination, and to err on the side of disbelief if sufficient proof is lacking. People often wrongly claim skepticism when they refer to simple denial. No rational progress is made without skepticism, but neither is it made from willful denial.

One dark side of rationality is sometimes referred to in pop-psychology as rationalization, in which the mental tool of rationality is used to explain something after the fact, in a way that makes sense to us but that not truly what is being explained. An example of this might range from claiming credit for blind luck, to justifying unethical behavior with a description of necessity or a higher cause. It is important to note that rationalization is not a conscious attempt to deceive, but how your mind copes with the conflict of having done something that does not rationally fit your own values. It looks to the outside observer as a crock of shit or a constructed lie, but for it to be rationalization per se it must be unbeknownst to the speaker.

“Why did you eat my lunch?”

“It was in there for a week, so I thought it was just leftovers”

“It’s the same box, but a new lunch every day”

“Well, it looked exactly the same and I had seen it in there after lunch”

The last line could be both entirely made up and entirely believed by the speaker. That is what we call rationalization.

I promised at the top that this would be about magic words, and I did not forget. This primer on rationality and rationalization is to give you a glimpse of the smoke and mirrors, but also the natural process of the mind that leads to altered reality. That is, even if we assume that reality exists apart from what we think about it, if we do things, things happen in reality. So, if something makes us do something we would not have otherwise done, it has “altered” reality by doing so. The magic is in that change happening as a direct result of words and how we process them. Ergo: Magic Words.

The simplest and most direct form of Magic Word is the label. When we label something, we gain the power to differentiate it from other things. That power may also make us see differences that are not real and similarities that are either not present or incidental to the label. The label is like a reference to all of the believed or perceived common attributes of things with that label.

Life can be Plant or Animal (except when it is neither or both). Animals can be vertebrates or invertebrates, vertebrates can be reptiles, amphibians, mammals and so on, mammals include primates, felines, canines, ovines, bovines, equines, and so on, primates include monkeys and apes, apes include orangutans, gorillas, and yes, humans, and (widely believed but not supported biologically) humans include Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid “races”. This last one shows where we tend to be confident in our distinctions and cling to them even when we are shown that they are false, or at least not as well differentiated as we assume. This happens at any level of a hierarchy like the one described above, and affects our understanding of the rest of the distinctions. We also have enormous capacity to embrace the assumption of distinction if a label is present even if we have firsthand knowledge that it is no distinction at all. An example of this is the stereotype that African-Americans love fried chicken and watermelon. Virtually every non-African-American who accepts this as an inherent and defining trait of the African-American also loves fried chicken and watermelon. Almost nobody does not love fried chicken and watermelon, so this is in no way a distinction between the labelled “races”, but because of confirmation bias (“I see examples of my assumption, so the entire assumption must be true”), the label’s validity as a marker for distinction is confirmed in the mind of the labeler.

Labelling allows us to sort our ideas, and badly chosen or poorly understood labelling can cause us to sort things poorly. This goes to another human trait: Tribalism. It is evolved into us to distinguish us from them. Those who are us contribute to the survival of our tribe and those who are them are a threat to our limited resources. In a world where you hunt and gather what is there, scarcity is the biggest threat. The fear of scarcity drives deep divisions between us and them. When you combine tribalism with rationalization, you get pseudo-ideological hostility. That is, the labels that apply to us and them may indicate an ideology, but typically they serve more to signal what ideology our tribe is socially required to hold rather than be a rationally held ideology that happens to attract allegiance. It is more about adopting an ideology to be part of a tribe than adopting a tribe because of a common ideology, but then rationalization causes the members of the tribal collective to convince themselves of the validity of the ideology. Hence, evidence of the invalidity of the ideological basis is seen by it’s members as an attack on the tribe rather than one on the ideology.

Labels apply to them as well as us, and there are many, many more kinds of them. Like us, we don’t really care what the basis of why they are them is, only that they are not us. We don’t call them “them”, we call them by labels that we identify them as not us. Those labels may include Liberal, Conservative, Humanist, Muslim, Feminist, Racist, Socialist, Communist, Fundamentalist, Christian, Non-Christian, Democrat, Republican, Marxist, Capitalist and so on. Each of these labels denote ideologies, but the ideologies referred to by the name may have nothing at all to do with the ideological leanings of the people identified by the label. While we believe that the purpose of the label is to better understand the motivations and values of others, it is far more often a way to short-circuit any temptation to investigate and dismiss a statement outright as an example of a bad label.

“If we divide the total number of hours it takes to produce the current wealth by the number of people able to do the work, we may find that we could all work 10 hours a week and still have enough wealth to feed, clothe and house the entire population”

“Don’t give me your commie math!”

“I am not suggesting we make it happen, I am pointing out that our understanding of what are resources are might be a bit skewed”

“Tell it to Kim Jong Un and Adolph Hitler”

That is the gist of conversations I have actually had, and the one refusing to think was in each case convinced that they had won some argument. As soon as they had decided what label the conversation fell under and that it was a “bad” one, no other thinking could be allowed, and this lack of investigation is perceived by the denier as an intellectual insight and acute analysis rather than an evasion. I recently was exposed to an argument that anyone in favor of a single payer health system were out to destroy the world, because Hitler used the claim of Socialism to lure people into the Nazi party. This person was not an idiot, it was just someone who had sorted and resorted the labels to find the worst version of them and because of the rational process of distinguishing and differentiating based on flawed labels, it made perfect sense that any rational person should see clearly, as far as they could tell. Labels are useful to think about things, but are harmful when they replace thinking.

At the risk of digressing, I would like to illustrate how bad we really are at using labels correctly by delving into some labels that get lots of use in our political discourse, and most all of it is misleading. Capitalism v Socialism/Communism (often incorrectly used interchangeably). Let’s start with Capitalism. Marx started the argument with a pretty spot-on description of nineteenth century capitalism. The name had a very important meaning. A Capitalist was someone who believed that capital was the best basis for all markets. If I have a store that makes a lot of money, and you have a store that makes a little money, but cuts into my market, then I use my money to end that competition. I can do that by undercutting you until you go out of business, or by buying you out, or by hiring away your best employees to keep you struggling until you go out of business, or I could buy the land you lease and raise your rent to put you under, buy the delivery service that brings your supplies or delivers your goods, and cut you off. Anything that I do that leverages the greater capital I have to win the market is what a Capitalist does in that original meaning. These things occur today, too, but we recognize this as undesirable. It is the old Golden Rule “he who has the gold makes the rule”. This is far from what most people who claim to be capitalist today mean when they use the term, but that is exactly what the term that was properly contrast to “communism” meant, and any other meaning is incidental to that contrast. Also, when Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, there was no assumption that a commune would ever have a dictator at the head of government. The very terms “communist dictator” and “Marxist dictator” are oxymorons. Also, Marx was not opposed to the marketplace. He was opposed to regular people being shut out of the marketplace. Each commune was expected to compete with other communes, but competition based on merit and performance would yield rewards for the commune, without the kind of interference to competition that Capitalism entailed. Within the commune, there were shared resources and governance by committee, and communes may cooperate by committee, but the power of the people was the goal of the ideology.

These labels bare virtually no resemblance to how they are used today, except when they are used interchangeably with modern ideologies that differ markedly from these. For example, because some totalitarian governments used the lure of socialist ideals to rise to power, the totalitarianism is wrongly referred to as socialism in order to smear successful social programs found around the world. It involves the socialist label, so it must be the same. Likewise, to contrast between a managed economy and a free market, the label of capitalism is incorrectly used to describe free market enterprise which differs in very important ways. In ECON 101 you will learn that a “free” market is one in which buyers and sellers of goods and services negotiate value in open competition without fraud or coercion. This emphasis on competition based on value and merit is in many ways the opposite of Capitalism, but because people confuse the two, Capitalist ideals, such as cornering markets and leveraging monopolies is hidden behind an incorrect use of the term “free market”. They equate “coercion” with regulation rather than leverage of non-competitive resources. This is an obfuscation that usurps the rational value of these labels and instead evokes tribal, rather than intellectual allegiance to hide the damage done by things like shuttering profitable employers to loot wealth at the expense of the workers.

This is where the idea I started with begins to come in. When you use words that you do not truly know the meaning of carelessly, you can evoke lurking demons to make mischief. You can be tricked into rejecting the values you claim to espouse and into believing that you are protecting those values by rejecting them. A skilled charlatan can string together words that awake your fears and hates and twist them into plans of action that fit patterns woven skillfully into your belief that are your doom. If you believe that your problems are due to actions of them or even the very existence of them, when in fact, them are of great benefit to you, or if in your rush to remove the protections afforded them you remove the same protections for yourself, you can be harmed by actions you are fooled into taking.

Just like the way that the worldview of the Jehovah’s Witness relative who wanted to make sure I knew that the words could have supernatural power, and not just be tricky, I must emphasize that the power of bad labels is so deeply woven into the workings of our minds that this effect can literally be indistinguishable from magic, even if you know how the spell works.

Posted in Belief Systems, Society | Leave a comment

It’s Officially Not Funny Anymore

As a student of logic I have often been amused by bad logic. Most people have a sense of logic and can understand basic logic when they are posed with simple logic problems, but as logical problems get more complex it takes a finer and finer sense of logic to keep up.  However, most people don’t want to think that hard. If you present them with a really illogical proposition that merely has a conclusion they like, they will accept the logic and even attempt to repeat it to impress their friends, who because they are like-minded either adopt the illogic or smile and ignore it.  When millions of people do it, it is no longer just “not funny”, it is scary.

Imagine that a kid comes in from outside bleeding from superficial scratches all over his arm. “What happened?” You ask, and he replies “the rose bush attacked me and scratched me all up!” Of course, you understand immediately that it was the action of the kid that caused the scratches, but you humor him and patch him up. But let’s look at that infantile worldview that we can find amusing and see why it is illogical, because grown-ups do this, too.  The kid did what kids will do. The kid reached for the ball, but something bad happened. It surprised him because that had not happened before. He was within his rights to reach for the ball, but something bad happened anyway. He sees this new reaction as a change in the status quo against him, and sees it as an attack on him by something that simply has its own defense from being disturbed by an outside force.  Why break it down to this absurd degree? Because treating people like they are not mental children does not seem to be working.

Let’s take the same story and change a couple of things to grown-up things. A guy comes back from the Hardware Store on November 1st and cries “Christmas is under Attack!” Why? Because somebody had the nerve to wish everyone who celebrates Winter Solstice holidays, not merely Christians, joy and happiness for the season, and maybe sell those nonChristians some merch in the process. The status quo was that the pagan holiday adopted by the Catholic Church, and only in the past century and a half adopted by the Protestant churches belonged to them and no one else because they had never experienced it from any other point of view. Hence, their comforting ignorance was the only thing under threat, but that comfort, in their world, is what Christmas means to me in the most simple minded terms.  Rather than considering “wow, there is a whole world of wonder just outside my door”, they perceive “there is a scary world beating down my door” despite the fact that no part of that world is even knocking on their door. This willingness to take the darker view as the default assumption is where this gets dangerous.

One of the most disturbing examples of turning what is an opportunity for goodwill into an excuse for ill will has been baffling to me until I looked at it from the perspective I outlined above, of the illogical child-mind of those who see their privilege as a birthright. The mantra I hear is that Obama has made the country more racist.  The evidence is all around you, they say. Before Obama, black people did not riot when police shot their families. Before Obama, my neighbors never told “nigger jokes”, and before Obama black men did not play golf regularly like white men.  Since Obama, black people assume you are racist just because you tell them they have to dress like white folks. Since Obama, black people expect to get the same jobs, and black folks have TV shows where they act like they are not ashamed of how black people behave, which is an attack on how decent people should behave. They laugh loud and use slang and inside jokes that they know we won’t get, and they assume that just because we want them to fit into our ways to be accepted that we must be the ones that are racist, when their attack on our values is what is racist. You have heard it. Just like the store that dares to recognize diversity, white values are under attack because people say “racist” when what they really mean is “uppity”.

The attack is “out there”, and it must be considered real or everything you know could be wrong, and that would end the world as you know it.  If Obama had not been so uppity that he became President, then we would not be so racist.  If Hillary had been elected, just think how misogynistic we would all become.

This is merely how this gets started. It gets much, much worse. Once you have identified an “attack” then you know that there is a force behind the attack, and a motive for the attack and a plan of action behind the attack. Obama took advantage of the White Guilt of liberals to set up a Muslim Caliphate that would destroy Christianity from the greatest seat of power on the planet.  They start by outlawing the very mention of Christmas (secretly, because no such law is on the books). Silly right? Millions believe it is Gospel Truth. Seriously. Millions believe that even though their 80% majority can’t get the word “Jesus” spoken on the loudspeaker at a football game a 1% minority of Muslims has already established US federal Sharia Law courts. I shit you not. And should you point out how insane such a belief is, your credibility is shot to hell, and you are attacking their values, because they do not value logic at all and suggesting that makes them insane is an attack on what they value, and that is faith above logic.

Hence, they want God’s commandments to be recognized as the only basis for law, and refuse to follow the ones Jesus left: Feed the hungry, care for the sick, do unto others as you would have done unto you, judge not lest ye be judged, etc. Absolute contradiction becomes the ultimate measure of faith.

Now, I do not believe that any religion should be the basis for any law. Laws are constructs of man for man in the material world.  Nothing keeps anyone from holding their personal beliefs apart from the law. However, it turns out that most religious laws are actually practical secular laws that just needed the authority of religion to be deemed legitimate back in the days when kings were gods. It makes sense to outlaw theft, murder, fraud, and to promote the general welfare of the populace without regard to religion. Being a religious law does not make it a bad law, it just does not make it a good one, either. But I digress.

You may be able to tell that this post is inspired by the baffling turn of events in which Donald Trump was elected President. I would like to point out that the tortured logic described above helped to get him elected, but I must also point out that it did not cause it. In fact, I believe strongly that the root of his success in the general election was nothing more than the (R) after his name.  The political patterns that have determined elections for well over a century all indicated that whoever had that (R) after their name was going to win no matter how illogical the choice was.  In a way, getting from the outright disgust most republicans had of Trump from the start to the point where they could feel good about doing something so ridiculous as electing him, as they were fated to do, was actually accelerated and exacerbated by the discomfort they felt knowing that they would have to find a way to feel good about it.  Humans like to rationalize their actions, and unfortunately, that word does not mean what it sounds like it should. The word rationalize is used to describe the psychological coping mechanism of explaining an action to yourself and maybe others to make it seem like a rational choice when the actual cause of the behavior had nothing to do with the story you associate it to in your mind. It does not matter if you have a (D) or an (R) after your name, you also rationalize your gut feelings into talking points without knowing it more often than you can guess. In the end, however, if we rationalize away decency toward our fellow man, we have only ourselves to blame, because we have the ability to recognize bad logic and re-evaluate our positions.

Posted in Society | Leave a comment

On Right and Wrong

If you ask a pathological liar a question, what do you really know about the answer? It depends. Do you know this person is a pathological liar? Let’s say you do. Now what do you know about the answer? The answer, of course, is only that he gave that particular answer. A pathological liar dies not just lie, but does lie. Depending on the pathology, why they lie could be anything from a pathological need to be believed, or a pathological need to get their way without regard to truth, or it could even be a pathological lack of consideration for the value anyone else might place upon truthfulness.  What do we not know about it? We cannot know from the fact that a liar said it anything at all about the truth or falsehood of the statement. Catch that? The fact that we know a liar told us something means we cannot trust that it is true, but it does not mean that we can trust that it is false.  A guy is late to work one day because he could not find his wallet.  He asked his child “do you know where my wallet is?” to which the child blushed and said “I don’t think it is under my bed”, and after a half an hour of pulling everything out from under the bed looking for it, he took another look at his own nightstand where the wallet had fallen behind it. Because the way the child lacked credibility, he mistakenly thought that he had determined the truth when all he had determined was that the child lacked credibility in his eyes and may be lying in this instance.

In the case of the story above, the Dad went through his own fact checking and found that although what his child said was true, it had a misleading quality to it.  It was in a context that implied something untrue while being true. It was only after fact checking was it clear if the statement was true or not.  Now, clearly we cannot all always fact check everything personally.  When it comes to certain claims, we must seek out someone who should be able to determine what is factual.  We should be able to ask someone who keeps records of the weather if there is a pattern of change, for example. The more people who keep independent records we ask, the more we should take their concurrence as indicative of better factual quality. This sort of checking is objective.  It does not matter what you believe or what you want the facts for, if there is independent corroborated measurement, it is more factual. Just as there are mathematicians who make their living checking calculation methods, and statisticians who make their living evaluating risks or results, there are people who make their living determining what people to ask about any claim to test its veracity, and to corroborate the answers independently. There are people who make stuff up that they then claim are facts because people just want to believe them, too.  The hallmark of the latter, however, is that the sources they claim to have tend to lack expertise, consistency, and corroboration. They simply quote each other or quote a fictitious source altogether.

Actual professional fact checkers are incented to be correct. Their credibility among skeptics is the only thing that makes their work valuable. When politicians on the left and right were both interested in “spinning the truth”, knowing the truth, and even caring about the truth was assumed. There have been political factions that have made a point of simply pretending that fact checkers are not credible because they say things that the faction does not wish to believe are true. Rush Limbaugh was very influential in making facts taboo on the far Right, not by trying to discredit the sources, but merely by making things up that were contrary to fact, and ironically, often saying “you can’t make this stuff up” as a punctuation to whatever he just made up. Is Rush Limbaugh a pathological liar? Probably not. He is most likely just someone who is rewarded handsomely for making things up that others want to believe. This theme is a recurring one on this site: People will ignore anything to believe what they want to believe. It may sound odd that people want to believe that there is a government out to destroy all that they hold dear, but contrast that belief against the belief that their problems cannot be blamed on anyone but themselves, or that the cause of their suffering is complex and beyond their understanding, and you can see why at least having a scapegoat other than yourself that makes some sense in your world is the more comforting belief. The more one has to ignore to maintain the problematic belief, the more likely they are to construct a worldview in which the truth is under attack from forces that must be evil and malicious to be so relentless in the attack and so effective at instilling doubt among those whose faith is not strong enough.  When the “threat” is to the identity of the tribe itself, then right or wrong the tribe and its ways must be protected.

An example of this I have found is in discussing what beliefs actually mean, and when an attack is no attack at all, but merely a call to openness. There is a quote from the Christian Bible that can be paraphrased as “With God, all things are possible”. Let’s assume both you and I accept this as the Truth.  What does it mean? When we say all “things” do we include “things” that have no meaning? For example, what a “circle” is (round) and what a “square” is (not round), is one of the possible things a “round square”? Can God make 1+1=4? The answer to both of these logically is no, these are not the kinds of things that God can make possible. “But, it said ‘all things’ and we agreed it was true!” We agreed that the statement was essentially true, but no sentence with words can be absolutely true. We can agree on the essential truth and recognize that word games and misinterpretations do not get a bye from intellectual scrutiny. Clearly, if an interpretation of a statement is meaningless, then it could not meaningfully apply.  The meaning of one and the meaning of four is such that there is no way one can mean what it does, and four mean what it does, and still have “one plus one makes four” a possibly true statement. The very meaning of “one” and “four” would have to cease to exist and be replaced by something that is not what we meant before that destruction took place for this to be something God did, which means He did not really do that. Likewise, what “round” means could not apply to a square and still mean what the word means now. Such “things” are meaningless, and therefore not possible. Now, examine your feelings about this paragraph. Did you actually reject outright the proposition that “With God all things are possible” and have no discomfort at all with the discussion, or if you are inclined to accept the statement, did the assertion that “God cannot make a round square” cause you to assume an intellectually defensive stance toward what seemed to contradict your understanding of the statement? Do you still think that God can make a round square or make 1+1=4? Pause, and maybe re-read the paragraph if you think you must have missed the point, but also just take stock of the feelings this kind of flow of ideas invokes in you.

Now imagine all of the things people refuse to accept that others see as plain and simple facts, and recognize that there are probably just as many that you refuse to accept, or at least try your best to avoid having to accept until the proof wins, or until it seems easier to accept than to maintain a worldview against it.  You are human and so am I, and we cannot remain human and be perfect.  Like it or not, prejudice, bigotry, tribalism and xenophobia are evolutionary selective traits that got us to where we are, and that have served a purpose and continue to be part of our nature.  None of us is immune to them, although we can learn to cope and adapt and use the other evolutionary traits: intelligence, empathy and community, to make the world of today more pleasant.

How then, do you get through to someone who seems to believe in things with little or no basis in reality? The most effective (not always effective) way I have found is to use the Socratic Method.  Ask questions.  No, not rhetorical questions. If you find yourself asking those, suspect yourself of being the hard-head with unfounded beliefs.  Ask probing questions.  For example, here is a sample of a dialogue paraphrased from an actual conversation I had a couple of years ago:

New guy: I just graduated and I have a lot of college debt, and it really bothers me that minorities can get scholarships and aid that I couldn’t get.

Me: Do you know for a fact that they were minority scholarships as opposed to need-based scholarships?

New guy: Why do they need it more than me? My family didn’t pay for it, I had to borrow!

Me: Did your dad co-sign the loan?

New guy: Well, yeah, but why should I be punished just because my dad is successful?

Me: Do you think your dad worked harder than any of those other student’s dads?

New guy: Well he made the right choices; he went to work and has always worked

Me: And you think people who are trying to go to college come from families that did not at least try to work whenever they could?

New guy: Well I just don’t think minorities should get a break just because of race, that’s wrong

Me: Do you think your college experience would have really prepared you to work with minorities if you didn’t have many to work with in college?

New guy: That’s not the point.

Me: Do you think that colleges recruiting the best minority students to be part of your experience did not benefit your education?

New guy: Man, you are making me question my conservative beliefs!

Me: Shouldn’t beliefs be based on understanding and truth, and only values and actions be based on whether they are conservative or liberal?

Other Conservative: Okay, guys, time to shut this conversation down, it’s getting too heavy

Whether we are correct or incorrect in our beliefs about objective facts is completely different from what is morally right or wrong, but where they intersect, effectively morally wrong choices can appear to be morally right, because they produce wrong thinking. If I sincerely believe that the best way to help someone is to let them starve to death, for example, then doing so would appear to me to be morally right, and wrong to anyone who did not share that sincere belief. If the reason you sincerely believe it is because it allows you to believe other things that also mask the immorality of your actions, then you personify the old adage that “The road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions”.

Please understand that although I tend to be liberal, I know full well Right and Wrong thinking are equally common on both sides, although the results may not be the same in the “road to Hell” department.

Posted in Belief Systems, Morality | Leave a comment

On Decency

Decent, polite, normal, responsible, deserving, moral and fair are all words that carry a lot of baggage that makes them less than helpful in some discussions.  At the risk of oversimplification, I would like to divide that baggage into two categories to help understand where the snags occur in trying to formulate a good position on things that wind up with these descriptive terms in them.  Those two categories are Conformity and Humanity.  Now, you may notice that these two categories also have baggage. In fair disclosure, I tend to find my positions loaded with the baggage in the one that I think sounds nicer to me.

The baggage I throw into the Conformity category is all of the ways that we tend to feel that following established rules is the determining factor as to the merit of a position or a behavior, including whether to sanction or tolerate that position or behavior. For example, if there are people waiting for service, there is an established rule that the one waiting the longest will be the next one to be served. It is fair and simple and whether we take a number or stand in a line, the “right” thing to do is to conform to the standard, even if you feel that your need is more urgent.  There are cases in which the rule is not so simple, such as triage at the ER, or the elevator stopping at the next desired floor rather than going to each floor in the order it was pressed, but these rules are the basis for an orderly society, as well.  When rules seem to be changing, those who have a lot of conformity baggage have the most trouble.  Does the guy still pay for the date? Do you hold a door open for someone? The most comfortable answer in the baggage is to just do things like they have always been done. This requires belief that none of the circumstances that led to the old ways have changed in a relevant manner or at least none have changed justifiably.

The baggage that goes in to the Humanity category tends to be less about conventional rules, and more about a perceived goal of the rules. For example, in the Conformity category, there is little difference between being courteous and being polite, whereas in the Humanity category, politeness is about form and courtesy is about consideration.  There is nothing courteous or discourteous about which fork to eat a salad with, other than if it makes someone uncomfortable to see you use the untraditional fork, you may show them the courtesy of following their convention. While it may be polite to let the woman exit the elevator first in the parking garage, it may be more courteous for the man to step ahead to relieve her of the uncomfortable situation of being followed in a parking garage. This emphasis on what others feel rather than on what is the standard is the difference between these two categories.

The conformity model has several advantages and is not devoid of merit, but someone who sees things through the humanity model might find the conformity model to be backward and small minded in other ways. Let’s take a look at a few of the things on the plus side of the conformity model.  Let’s start with the old adage that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  Those who fall all over themselves to be nice to others can find themselves creating an intricate web of double standards. “I can’t celebrate my heritage, but you can celebrate yours, because my heritage upsets you” is one of those you may hear of from time to time. Also, from the humanity model point of view, you can understand how uncomfortable it is not to know what to do, and those who cling to conformity have a safety net of always knowing what to do, because it is the normal thing to do.  Who has not felt embarrassed to be at a table with someone who behaves in a way that makes a scene? Knowing “how to behave” virtually always means knowing how one is expected to comport themselves under different situations, or in other words, how to conform to societal norms. We can all relate to this. They are not norms if everyone makes up their own, they are only norms because they are standard for everybody.  When cultures clash, it is often due to different norms. I recently read a story from a couple of different viewpoints. A group of black women took a wine country train tour.  Several other passengers found their behavior to be discourteous, because when these friends get together, on a bus or a train or in a limo or at a restaurant, they laugh and tell stories without worrying who overhears their conversation, but people who would take this tour more frequently were used to the idea that the point of the train was to quietly view the scenery while sipping their wine.  Nowhere in the brochure was this assumption mentioned, it was just what people who took the tour frequently came to expect, so when the group of friends did not conform to the assumed expectation, they were seen as rowdy and obnoxious, and asked to leave the train, and were entirely perplexed by the whole situation. You sit at a table and share wine and laugh, what else do you do? Oddly enough, these women probably had more hours of train travel than anyone else on that train, who only rode a train on that tour, so how you pass the time on a train was from two entirely different perspectives. Neither was non-conformist except in the eyes of the other.  When we look at conformity alone, those who have their own norms can only be seen as the ones who are wrong.

In the Conformity model, to be decent is to adhere to virtues that are established, such as dress modestly, live in a clean and well-maintained abode, earn a comfortable living, and treat people in a polite manner. To be polite is to follow “manners” such as keeping your elbows off of the table, saying “good morning”, not using foul language, calling someone “sir” or “ma’am”, and waiting your turn to speak. Courtesy is to be polite in interactions.  To deserve something could be to have a debt owed to you, or to have broken a rule that carries a punishment. To be moral is to behave in a way that is prescribed by the prevailing moral authority, such as a religion or the law. Fairness is the result of following the same rules.

The Humanity model does not have the same simplicity as the conformity model. It can be confounding because it can lead to apparent contradictions.  It is more nuanced because it does not preclude the potential areas of personal comfort are based on the tendency to rely on conformity.  For example, how boys and girls are expected to behave is layered with conformity, such that a transgender person is drawn to conform to the gender identity they experience. From a strict conformity perspective, this is “wrong”, and if we disregard the issue of conformity, we are hard pressed to explain how or why we need to let the transgender person conform in a nonconforming way, and what that even means. This means that you have to actually think about what is the “best” way to determine what a “good” way to behave is.  Conformity is common, and plays into “common sense” thinking more readily that considering what someone else might need or feel, or whether what they feel is the proper issue at hand. If dealing with how one feels causes another to feel bad, which is most important? The most people’s feelings? The fewest?

There is an overlap in which people trying to conform to behaviors that are grounded in the Humanity model based on observing what the “rules” must be.  This is where the “PC” backlash gets a foothold. Someone who noticed that there is a difference between how one group tends to be treated versus another group wrongly assumes that there really are justifiably two distinct standards, rather than a set of conditions that lead to two similar but distinct situations.  For example, pride in your ethnicity and it’s accomplishments despite oppression can be celebrated while pride in your ethnicity without regard to all those who were oppressed by it might be less cause for celebration, and be an extension of the oppression to celebrate it.  While ethnicity cannot be controlled for independently, the issue is not ethnicity, but the relationship between ethnicities, in terms of dominance and oppression, from the Humanity category, but from a conformity perspective it simply presents a double standard.

As viewed from the Humanity model, Decency is about treating people the way you would want to be treated were you in their position, and no, nobody believes you if you claim you would want to be told to shut up. Politeness has to do with being pleasant and trying to make the other comfortable, including observing the niceties they seem to prefer, while courtesy is about considering others in your actions. You wipe your feet upon entering not because it is expected but to keep from messing up someone else’s home. If someone dresses in a way that is odd to you, it is not an attack on your values if you allow them the courtesy of having their own different but largely equivalent values. To deserve something is dependent on the situation. If I get a free public school education, we must agree that either you deserve the same, or neither of us deserves it.  Whether you are using the word to claim something was earned or to claim something was owed or merited, the criteria should be the same. Nobody deserves to inherit a million dollars, but that does not mean they deserve to have it taken away, either.  If I claim that hard work is what earning is about, then the stock boy at the grocery store probably earns more than the CEO of an oil company, even though we know he does not get it. If you are going to use words like “deserve”, you should think about what you really think they mean, and not just speak from the gut. It will tell you that you deserve everything you have and those that don’t have it don’t deserve it, and that math usually does not hold up.

So, I propose a new term. Rather than ever use the phrase “Politically Correct”, let’s say “Humanly Decent”, as in “Expecting those people to behave the way you would is not Humanly Decent”. Using demeaning terms based on broad stereotypes to describe people you do not really know is not Humanly Decent. Assuming that just because you never considered someone else’s feelings before means that their feelings were never worth consideration is not humanly decent.  Any backlash earned by overzealous people being “too PC” still does not eliminate the importance of being decent to one another, whether you call it PC or not, but if you have decided you “hate all things PC”, then forget that word and just try not to be a total ass, and instead focus on being a decent person.

Posted in Do Unto Others, Society | Leave a comment

Misleading Headline Forces Americans to Eat Children

People read headlines and think they are reading the News.  That may have worked in the 20th Century, but that was before we learned about click bait. Today, even sites that used to offer actual news have taken to making outrageous headlines that link to articles that in no way support what the headline would have you think the story said.  As people lack any attention span, they usually give up and assume that somewhere in the article they get to the point made in the headline, but since the purpose of the headline was not to describe the article, but to get you to open the page full of ads with the expectation of an article that may or may not be interesting enough to warrant the click, the headline often completely misstates the content of the article. One example that comes to mind was in the formerly reputable Chron.com. The headline said “Study finds Porn Shrinks Your Brain”, but the article literally says “these results in no way imply that viewing porn causes your brain to shrink”. This was not isolated.  The headlines all over the internet have similar flaws.  They will claim a politician said something quite different than what was said, and then add “xyz is Furious!” with absolutely no indication that any response was actually made.

As people who aspire to honesty, including intellectual honesty, we must refuse to ever treat a headline as news.  I often see comments in forums in which people post links to articles that are supposed to prove a point, only to follow the link and find that the article actually belies the point they were trying to make, or the article was nothing but a blog post or op-ed piece, not a fact-checked report. If we want to call what we do “debate” then we must follow the Mission Statement of the Heretics:

Listen, Learn, Think, Discern.

Read the articles people who would shout you down offer.  At the very least, you will know that kind of thinking they identify with. Fact check.  If the Article cites a study or report, follow through. Quite often, the truth is far more nuanced than the position the article takes, or the so-called study was done by a group that brags about their own conflict of interest on their home page.  A fairly neutral example of this I ran across is a Heart Association article touting the wonders of statins with a link claiming to be to a study showing statins save lives.  The study actually says fewer people die from heart related issues, but also says that overall mortality is unaffected.  Got that? Their own study showed that statins do not on average save any lives at all. It says it right in the abstract. My point is not to bash statins.  I take them myself. Statins are usually taken along with increased exercise. Since I started to take statins and walk a lot, I have nearly been killed by inattentive drivers at least three times.  At least in my experience, taking statins has a correlation rather than causation to a higher rate of pedestrian mortality. I only know what the study was about because I ignored the headlines and read the content and even fact checked the content, even on a highly reputable source like the American Heart Association. In this case, I also found numerous other articles in places like WebMD that cited the AHA article as evidence (not even the study itself) repeating the claims. This shows how insidious the problem of taking references to references as authoritative in themselves can be even when the author is trying to be accurate, and how much worse it can get when the author is using references to obfuscate rather than educate.

Anyway, In case it is not yet clear, this is more of a blog post than an article, it cites no authority nore does it suggest in any way that the headline is remotely correct.  I don’t even have a clue as to what group I am inclined to dislike that I could say was furious about it. Surprise!  Or maybe no surprise.

Posted in Misc Thoughts | Leave a comment

A Proposal for Affordable College for All

I first floated this idea to friends and strangers a few years ago, and I actually heard echoes of the same idea from a talking head on Fox news about a year and a half ago, but no fire has lit up the political discussion, and I fear that it is because it is neither “liberal” nor “conservative” but a (gasp) compromise somewhere in the middle.  I have only mused on this plan, so in an effort to flesh it out and mentally check my math and open up discussion for flaws that need to be worked on, I decided to put it in essay form.

The most important aspects of this plan are that it is voluntary on all sides, places responsibility on both the college and the student, and is largely self-funding.  It will require an initial investment, but I believe that if administered with any competence at all, that investment will be paid back with interest.

The basics are as follows: Colleges that wish to participate must meet criteria. In addition to being accredited and follow other federal funding guidelines, they must limit  increases in the Total Cost of Attendance (COA) to the Consumer Price Index(CPI). That is, tuition, fees, books, room and board for the average student must be held to a reasonable increase as a whole. The measure will be over a five year average, so that if economic pressures keep the costs low for a few years, then jump back up, the college can make up the difference to a degree. Those colleges that keep these terms can participate.  For the Student’s part, students apply for the program and are allotted funds made payable to the College on the condition that for the rest of their life, there will be an increase in the rate of their income tax. Each semester, for example, they may accrue a 1% obligation on their tax rate. A student using this program for an Associate’s degree would expect a 4% tax burden, while a Bachelor’s would be a 8-10% burden. The program could include graduate studies if the funding model is successful.

There are logistics to work out to make this work, but the voluntary nature makes it flexible and I believe that a large percentage of colleges would opt in once the bookkeeping changes are understood. Colleges that have very high rates but give virtually every student aid would be able to re-direct the money into containing cost increases, or devising a co-pay system for students that still have a gap or students opting out of the obligation. Scholarships would still be a useful tool for enticing students with particular talents to a given school, but it would no longer be the only option for diversifying the student body.

For the student’s part, the funding would be limited, but the caps would be tied to the CPI. It would probably need to be a standard amount high enough to cover in-state COA at most public universities and COA at most tier 2 private universities. Because the funds are paid directly to the college, the COA for the general populace will be the limit disbursed, and the colleges will be forbidden to consider the student’s opting in or out of the program in granting financial aid. Students may opt in or out each semester after financial aid is determined, so that a full scholarship requires no increased obligation for that term. With the same money, more scholarships for all-but-opt-in-funds could be offered to a larger range of students.

So, to bring this into perspective, Harvard would still not be free, but someone who was accepted to Harvard would not have to be smothered in debt to accept the position. Students who choose not to attend college because the lack a co-signer with a decent credit score makes it unaffordable, which is one of the biggest challenges colleges face in diversifying their student body, would have an option for at least getting the “some college” required for much employment.  “B” students would no longer be excluded from getting that sort of shot at success, and the new population of potential students will change recruiting patterns significantly.

Now, for some sample math:

According to the College Board, a college graduate will make approximately 60% more money than someone with only a high school diploma. This is a great deal for only 8-10%

According to This Site, The National Association of Colleges and Employers has determined that the average starting salary for College Graduates in 2016 will have an average salary over $50,000. We all want to say “not me” or “not my kid”, but this includes Engineers making $75,000 along with Art History majors making much less, so it is a good number for dealing with the population at large.

Of those who opt in, a rough table might look like the following, with an assumption of an average annual raise of 2.5% and an Adjusted Gross Income of about 70% of total salary.

Year Ave Salary AGI 8% 10% Total paid in 8% Total paid in 10%
1 50000 30000 2400 3000 2400 3000
2 51250 35875 2870 3588 5270 6588
3 52531 36772 2942 3677 8212 10265
4 53845 37691 3015 3769 11227 14034
5 55191 38633 3091 3863 14318 17897
6 56570 39599 3168 3960 17486 21857
7 57985 40589 3247 4059 20733 25916
8 59434 41604 3328 4160 24061 30076
9 60920 42644 3412 4264 27473 34341
10 62443 43710 3497 4371 30969 38712
11 64004 44803 3584 4480 34554 43192
12 65604 45923 3674 4592 38228 47784
13 67244 47071 3766 4707 41993 52492
14 68926 48248 3860 4825 45853 57316
15 70649 49454 3956 4945 49809 62262
16 72415 50690 4055 5069 53865 67331
17 74225 51958 4157 5196 58021 72527
18 76081 53257 4261 5326 62282 77852
19 77983 54588 4367 5459 66649 83311
20 79933 55953 4476 5595 71125 88906
21 81931 57352 4588 5735 75713 94641
22 83979 58785 4703 5879 80416 100520
23 86079 60255 4820 6025 85236 106545
24 88231 61761 4941 6176 90177 112722
25 90436 63305 5064 6331 95242 119052
26 92697 64888 5191 6489 100433 125541
27 95015 66510 5321 6651 105754 132192
28 97390 68173 5454 6817 111207 139009
29 99825 69877 5590 6988 116798 145997
20 102320 71624 5730 7162 122528 153159

If the average student gets $20,000 per year in benefits from the program, it will be returned to the coffers in roughly twenty years. This would mean that for the first years the program would require an investment, but each year the percentage of the program covered by the additional taxes would increase. Most people who graduate at age 24 and work to age 64 would, in their higher earning years, more than replenish the fund even with cost increases allowed to the colleges, allowing the initial investment to be recovered and reinvested.

Now, as I stated, this is a very rough calculation, and the investment required if 5 million students opt in at $20,000 in the first year would be $80 Billion.  Which is about half of what we spend on the USDA. The annual cost of college would continue to rise, and as the percentage of the workforce attained degrees, the premium on a degree could fall, but the economic benefits of having a populace paying taxes on these higher incomes would still outpace the overall cost. Other nuances include that this table does not take into account those who drop out after 3 years, or how those who stop with 2 year degrees fit into the equation, and none of us can be certain what the future holds economically. But I believe that a better educated populace can only improve our future, and can only raise the discourse of our politics.

I would love to see a better mathematical treatment of this idea. I truly want to know if someone can show this idea to have more or less merit than presented.  I am not worried about Lefties or Righties spouting biased opinions about Truth, Justice and the American Way, but instead I would like to see this kind of idea get serious consideration. No, I don’t expect that whatever bureau might be charged with implementing this idea would be 100% efficient or free of any corruption, but I do believe that on balance it is a good thing that we have highways and a space program and other things that are also handled by the government, and this would be, on balance, a worthwhile kind of thing for We The People to do.

Posted in Misc Thoughts | Leave a comment

On Affirming the Consequent

Most people are capable of using logic. Most people, however, don’t know why or how the logic works, because they just use the language which evolved to include logical constructs. We have no problem understanding simple things like the statement “I will cut the grass and edge the sidewalk” is only really true if you both cut the grass and you edge the sidewalk, and that “I will cut the grass or I will edge the sidewalk” is fully true if just one of those things is done, and still true if you do both, and “If you cut the grass, I will edge the sidewalk” is not true if you only cut the grass unless I also edge the sidewalk. Now, I know the gears are turning for some of you. I have had folks argue over “inclusive or” versus “exclusive or” statements. My example was inclusive, but there can be an exclusive one like “you will cut the grass or I will take away your Xbox”, in which the assumption is that only one of them will be true and that if the statement was uttered with the other meaning, it would be misleading to say the least. Logic can get more difficult, however, if you lose track of meaning. For example, if I said “I did cut the grass, I cut it from the list of stuff I was going to do today”, the meaning of the word “cut” is different in that statement than what was implied earlier. Logic depends on truthful intentions to have the mathematical precision to determine what reasoning is sound. Misleading intentions can be used to twist statements that are logically consistent into arguments that are absurd. We have all been a victim of the “but you just said…” ploy in which this tactic is used to push the desired meaning over the stated meaning of some idea that presents an obstacle to what they want to believe. (e.g. “You just said you beat that woman you were racing against, so you admit you beat women!”) But there is a particular area of logic that is not obvious to a lot of people, and is used a lot by politicians who want to fool or scare people, and subsequently repeated by their base that makes up the echo chamber that reverberates the bad logic until repetition alone convinces them that the logic is sound.

The fallacy is called “affirming the consequent”, and it goes like this: “If you cut the grass, I will edge the sidewalk. I have already edged the sidewalk; therefore you must have cut the grass”. Pretty obviously a fallacy, right? What about this way: “If all illegal immigrants were criminals and rapists, someone will be raped by an illegal immigrant. In the news today, a woman was raped by an illegal immigrant. Clearly, Trump is right that all illegal immigrants are rapists”. The logical form of the “if…then…” statement is termed as follows: If [antecedent], then [consequent]. While the antecedents may lead to the consequents logically, the consequent has no such relationship with the antecedent. The relationship between the antecedent (if) and the consequent (then) is such that if the antecedent is true, the consequent must be true for the whole statement to be true, but the consequent may still be true even if the antecedent is false without affecting the truth of the statement. “If the temperature drops, it will rain” does not preclude rain without a temperature drop in order for the claim to be true, but it does preclude the possibility that the temperature does drop but it does not rain and have the statement still be a true statement. In other words, the if…then… construct is logically the same as “either [consequent] or not [antecedent]”, as in “either someone will be raped by an illegal immigrant, or not all illegal immigrants are rapists”. Perhaps an even simpler example of how the consequent is independent might be “if I am a mile tall, then 1+1=2”. In this one, the consequent is true whether the antecedent is true or not, which it is clearly not. By including the antecedent, I appear to be making the claim that the consequent depends on the antecedent, but as you can see, that would be a misleading claim. Even when the consequent clearly does follow from the antecedent (e.g.,if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates must be mortal), the consequent is not bound by the antecedent (Socrates could be mortal even if some men are immortal or Socrates is not a man, and the statement would still be valid, because if he were both, he must be mortal).

The fallacy of affirming the consequent is pervasive in the media and politics, because it makes the logically absurd sound reasonably logical for anybody who does not want to bother with considering if it is logical at all. Here are some examples I hear a lot.

If blacks are more likely to be criminals, then the prisons will have more blacks.

If all Muslims are out to destroy Americans, then we will catch groups of Muslims trying to do us harm.

If someone hates Christianity and all Christians, then they will oppose imposing Christian values on non-Christians

If someone loves and supports [insert enemy], then they will want to protect the rights of people we accuse of being in league with that enemy.

If people hate morality, they will oppose attempts to legislate morality.

If people are likely to be criminals themselves, then they will demand constitutional rights for the accused.

If someone made a lot of money by working hard, then they will be rich.

Take any of these perfectly good if…then statements and you can find examples of them being turned backward to form a false statement that is widely accepted as true by people who find it comforting to think it must be so (i.e., if they are rich, they earned the money; if they oppose government religion, they hate Christians, etc.). Hardly a day goes by in which I do not hear these very statements used to “prove” the fallacy. I have, in fact, been told that pointing out logical fallacies is “just liberal thinking”. I don’t deny being liberal, but “conservative” and “liberal” are values positions, not logical positions. The fact that someone might see logic as opposed to their values simply indicates that their values are not logically consistent. It is easier, for example to avoid living up to the burden of your values if you simply believe that you already have. So here are some alternates to satisfy the conservatives that I am not totally blind to problems of using this construct for liberal ends:

If hiring and promotion in an industry are biased against women, women will have lower average pay.

If hiring in an industry is biased against minorities, unemployment will be higher for that minority.

If most police are racists, more minorities will be harmed by police.

If your “religious” views were actually motivated by hate, you would cite religion when opposing changes to the status of others you do not agree with.

If you just want to shoot somebody, then you will own a gun.

As well as the value neutral:

If you are wrong, then I may be right.

To conclude, I want to again point out that this sermon is about how to catch bad arguments and not fall victim to them. If I was wrong in thinking that readers of this site are basically logical thinkers, some will assume that I actually agree with the implied arguments which I have identified as “fallacies”, which are arguments that sound to some like they are logical, when they are not.   It is quite possible for some arguments that are fallacies happen to have true conclusions, but what makes them fallacies is that the logic was bad and does not justify the conclusion. For example, the argument “If the clock is working, then when I look at it at noon, it will display 12 o’clock; At noon, it displayed 12 o’clock, therefore the clock is working.” Is bad whether the clock works or not, because the truth of the conclusion was not guaranteed by the truth of the premises.


Posted in Misc Thoughts | 4 Comments

You Might Suck

I have been promising my flock for a while to post this sermon. I hope it does not offend you, but if it does, at least you will know why.

You might suck. I know I do, but I try not to. One thing is for sure: if you think you don’t suck, you probably suck worse that those who are not in denial of sucking. Maybe not, but very, very probably so. It is hard-wired in us to suck in some ways. We are hard-wired to assume that we deserve everything good that happens to us and do not deserve the bad stuff that happens to us. At the same time, we have a built-in bias to view everybody we love the same and everybody we don’t the opposite. There are studies that have shown that this is normal for human thinking. Of course, it is human to suck a lot. So the real issue is not whether we suck, but how do we suck less? Or, if you really suck, you may think the question is “so what if I suck?”, which is worse than the normal “No, I don’t suck”, which is just ignorant, not evil.

But let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. We recognize that we at least suck a little bit, and we want to suck less. How do we do that? It is not possible to be 100% nice and still survive. People will take advantage of you if you have no defenses at all, because they suck. Life is not fair and you can’t make it fair just by noticing, but you can make it more unfair by not noticing, or by misinterpreting what you notice. Here is an example: Bartholomew works in middle management at an oil company. He got a job right out of college and has been their ever since. He gets up at 6:30 every morning to go to work and does not break a sweat at work except during semi-annual evaluations. He goes to the gym during the workday to break a sweat. He believes that he has earned everything he has, and we will not bother to disagree for now. Jesse is the same age as Bartholomew. He did not go to college because his dad died of a heart attack when Jesse was in junior High. His grades were the same as Bartholomew’s, and he was accepted into college, but his mother did not have the credit rating to co-sign his loans and he was not a serious scholarship candidate. He worked construction in temperatures from 28 degrees F to 108 degrees F when there was work, but construction was cyclical. He signed up for community college, but he had to work overtime whenever he could, and this made it very difficult to finish a semester. Five years ago he started slowing down because years of abuse left his back and knees in frequent pain even though he did not have a specific workplace injury to get workman’s comp for.

Who worked harder to get what they have, Jesse or Bartholomew? Whose fate was due to their own merit or lack of merit? When you hear both stories side by side, it paints a stark picture. If you told them each the other’s story, how would they react? If Jesse sucks a little, or is trying not to suck, he will say “Good for old Bart. I made good money for a while building homes for guys like him”. If Jesse sucks big time, he might say “Everything he has he took from folks like me”. If Bart is trying not to suck, he might say “There but by the Grace of God go I”, but if he sucks big ones, he says “Sounds like Jesse should have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, he has only himself to blame.”

These two examples are made up, but you and I both know people who are just like Bart or Jesse. If we try at all, we can remember hearing their own voices coming out of our own mouths at one point or another. Life is too complex to vilify either of them for their feelings. Like I said, we are hard-wired to look at the world in terms of what benefits us the most as being fair and good. I am not suggesting that there are no people like Jesse who have risen above his fate, nor am I suggesting that Bart never did anything to earn his success. My point is that to be better at understanding our own blind spots, we need to look at what is normal. People with fewer disadvantages will tend to do a lot better, and those with more disadvantages will tend to worse with the same relative personal merit, with the same quality of character. It is NOT just a function of merit and character that determine success, and to assume that these things are determinant can lead you to suck. Being wrong about the calculus of success is not what would make you suck, but the more you suck, the more you will use this calculus to justify your sucking. The more you suck, the less you feel the need to be a decent person, or the more you assume that you are a decent person.

So, what hare some indicators that you suck?

If the reason you don’t think other people should get medical coverage is because you don’t want to wait behind them to see a doctor… You suck

If you think that you deserve two parking spaces because you have a nicer car… you suck

If you think that teachers should work for low pay because they love the work… you suck

If you think that garbage men should work for low pay because they work with garbage.. you suck

If you think you work harder than people who make a lot less simply because you make a lot more… you suck

If you assume that people who make a lot of money don’t work for it… you suck

If you assume that you are justified in taking from others what they have worked for… you suck

If you insist that paying your share of the costs of civilized society is unfair… you suck

If you think that whatever you are not used to is a character flaw in someone else.. you suck

Of course, the ways you can suck are far more numerous than these, but this might serve as a pattern to help. The next time you pronounce judgment on someone you don’t know, try to consider all of the ways you might be sucking at that moment. Any time you feel angry at someone for not being miserable, consider that it might just be that you happen to suck. Any time you feel that you have to announce to a bar that the team on the screen is pitiful because YOU just lost a thousand dollars on fantasy football, keep in mind that not only might you suck, but you have just given the whole bar that impression, as well, and the adjective they have in mind for your lost money is not “just” or “unjust” but probably “stupid”.

You might be a very nice person. You may not feel any contempt for people that you treat with contempt. Everything you do may suck even though you try not to suck. This is the origin of the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. You may be sincere in thinking that all of those poor people who don’t know enough to see that your way is the only correct way and you are only trying to help them by using what power you have to stop them from doing the wrong thing like dress in a way that is odd to you, whether it is wearing white after labor day or wearing pants that appear too big without a belt, or to use a different drug of choice than your friends, or for a woman to feed her child without shame. As nice as your intentions might be, you probably suck anyway. As soon as you make the leap from “I would not choose that” to “they should not be allowed” when no harm is being done, you are engaged in the process of sucking.


Posted in Do Unto Others | Leave a comment