Our Northern Flicker

My wife and I recently moved from Manhattan to Tacoma Washington. Although we still love NYC, we were ready for a change from the endless scaffolding and continual roadwork that seems unending and incessant in lower Manhattan. We were frankly tired of being woken up by jackhammers echoing through the skyscraper canyons (in lower Manhattan they literally tear up the streets and pave them over only so they can rip them up again the very next day). We were ready for the peace and serenity of the Puget Sound.

Imagine our Deja Vu shock to be virtually bounced out of bed in the morning by a noise somewhere between a jackhammer and an over-revved race car between 6 and 8 am in the morning. It seemed to come from the general area of the chimney, but it reverberated throughout the house. After exhausting every possibility inside, I went outside to spot a paunchy little bird perched on our chimney, industriously drumming away with his beak on our metal chimney cover at like 10,000 ppm (pecks per minute). He was essentially the little transducer at the base of a huge sound resonator.

northern-flickerIt turns out that he or she is a Northern Flicker and they are well-known to north westerners because they are regionally infamous little drummers. Of course no one can say with certainty why they do this but we can speculate. They are peckers by nature. They peck out hollows for homes with their beaks, they peck to find food, and they peck produce a unique sound that attract mates or communicate with them. Hey, they have a very efficient and powerful little hammer, and when that is all you have…

Some people assume that the bird is just mindlessly pecking on metal because they are too stupid to realize that it is metal. I don’t subscribe to such dismissive and diminutive assumptions regarding animal behavior. This kind of view often arises from a false notion of human exceptionalism that is endemic to religious thinking.

Instead of only taking pride and self-satisfaction in how unique and special we are, I also take great pride and satisfaction in appreciating how alike we are with our animal cousins. Rather than feel diminished by comparisons to animals, by ascribing human-like motivations and capabilities to them, such comparisons give me a deep sense of continuity and familial community with all of nature. Furthermore, we can better learn more about ourselves if we are more open to recognizing our own simplified and less complicated behaviors and motivations in other species.

Therefore, when it comes to our Northern Flicker friend, I think that, like us, he drums for many reasons. Drumming is what he does, he’s really good at it, he takes pride in it, and he enjoys it so it does it just for fun. He probably really, really likes the huge megaphone that our chimney cover offers, and likes to be the loudest Flicker in the neighborhood.

This is not to suggest that our Flicker’s emotions and behaviors and intellect are on a par with ours, but they are simpler versions of our human versions in the same way that his little bird legs gave rise to our human legs and his littler eyes are earlier versions to our human eyes. Their behaviors do not merely “appear” human, they are exactly what evolved into our more complex feelings and emotions. Just as we aren’t the only animals to have some form of brain, we aren’t the only animals to have some level of emotions and intellect and feelings. To dismiss these deep and direct similarities out of some religious sense of separateness is, to me, a highly sad and lonely pedestal on which to place ourselves. You may choose to DEFINE emotions as things only humans have, to DEFINE intellect as intellect only when it reaches human capabilities, but that does not negate the real presence of highly developed precursors in animals.

And just as the drumming of our little Flicker resonates and echoes and touches others in ways he cannot imagine, so too do our more complex behaviors reverberate our to touch others in tangible and deeply personal ways that we cannot imagine. If I were to make it impossible for our little drummer to peck on our chimney cap in some way, he or she might very well start to peck on the wood of our home and that would be much worse for us.

So, my new Flicker friend, you go on drumming on our chimney cap. I grok you and it enriches my life to listen in on your early morning broadcasts. I can identify with your joys and compulsions and frustrations and yearnings for a mate. I hope that later this spring, when your drumming stops, it will mean that our chimney cap has helped you find a mate who will give you other things to do with that spectacular beak of yours!

Tin Pot Trump

tinpotI’m sure you have heard the term “tin pot dictator.” It refers to “an autocratic ruler with little political credibility, but with self-delusions of grandeur.” This pejorative was coined in the early days of the British Empire and it associates certain rulers with the cheap, disposable containers used before the creation of the modern tin can. Like the one on the right, these cheap cans boasted labels that portrayed the contents in a highly overblown and pretentious manner. But the common people were not all fooled. They knew full well that Dinner Time Brand coffee was not exactly the Royal experience promised on the label. Thus the term “tin pot dictator” spoke volumes to them.

Dictators are not uncommon and not limited to only a few flawed countries. The Ranker website has a list of over 100 infamous dictators (see here) from a broad spectrum of nations. Not all of these were true “tin pot” dictators, some were quite capable dictators. Many of these dictators came to power through fair elections riding tremendous popularity with their voters. But I think it is safe to say that few of those voters thought they were voting for a dictator when they voted for a dictator. In fact it is probably safe to say that few people in those nations thought a dictator could ever take power in their country.

Now, in America, we have also succumbed. Deny it at your peril, but we have elected a wanna-be strongman dictator. Donald Trump is unquestionably “an autocratic ruler with little political credibility, but with self-delusions of grandeur.” Even if it is not his conscious intention to become a strongman dictator, his personality and style of leadership will inevitably lead him there. Bury your head in the sand if you must, but we now have a dangerously unstable tin pot dictator in power.

Psychologists generally agree that most dictators suffer from a group of 6 major psychological disorders including sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal. While I’m not a psychologist, it seems clearly evident that Donald Trump also suffers from these disorders to at least a sufficient level to warrant deep concerns. He is disturbingly similar to Kim Jong-Il in his worldview, personality, and behaviors.

If Trump succeeds in his aspirations or even allowed to follow his natural inclinations, America will become another tin pot nation. Trump will continue to be driven by his personality disorders in more and more bizarre ways. He will continue to aggrandize and enrich himself to the exclusion of all other considerations. He will inevitably take us and the world down a path that we may not recover from for many generations, if ever.

Only one question remains, having  foolishly empowered this fledgling tin pot dictator, will we now accept his increasingly dictatorial rule? Will we allow our newly elected tin pot dictator, so disturbingly similar to other crazy strongmen like Kim Jong-Il, to turn our once great nation into yet another pathetic tin pot dictatorship?

That will not remain a rhetorical question for long. We will soon have our answer.

 

 

 

The Traits that Spawn Conservatism

There are a large number of important personal and social policy issues upon which liberals and conservatives completely disagree. I have to consider whether all of these seemingly unrelated positions are merely symptomatic of more fundamental underlying personality differences.

I submit that conservative worldviews arise from three primary character traits: dogmatism, selfishness, and fearfulness.

The first basic personality trait is the degree to which you are a situational or a dogmatic thinker. Liberals tend to be situational, weighing and balancing the nuanced competing ethics of a given situation. Conservatives tend to be dogmatic, enforcing strict, simplistic rules in accordance with their moral beliefs. Liberals are frightened by what they regard as mindless dogmatism, while conservatives view situational ethics as a dangerous lack of moral principles.

The second fundamental trait that influences our worldview is selfishness. Conservatives are essentially selfish in putting their self-interest and their beliefs first, whereas liberals tend to more strongly respect differences and emphasize the public good with the view that “it takes a village.”

Their third important trait is fearfulness. It is fearfulness that drives the conservative need for guns, for an insanely large military arm, and fear of immigrants and those unlike them.

Since the real motivations for conservative positions (dogmatism, selfishness, and fear) are not things that conservatives can acknowledge in themselves, they must come up with other rationales for their positions. This causes conservatives to vilify intellectualism and ridicule facts. It forces smart conservatives to defend their dogmatic, selfish, and fearful positions with stupid arguments. Smart people put forth stupid arguments to defend a selfish, anti-social culture of guns. Smart people put forth stupid arguments to defend a belief in god, to defend pro-life legislation, rampant militarism, economic Darwinism, and trickle-down economics.

Smart Christians like Ken Ham make stupid arguments to support their creationist beliefs. Ham insists that everything in the bible he agrees with is literal, while everything he disagrees with is figurative only (see here). Similarly, smart conservative supreme court justices claim that the Constitution must be interpreted literally when it supports them, but when it doesn’t support them they insist in an “original intent” interpretation that always happens to support their conservative views (see here).

The result is that we hear a lot of falsehoods and specious arguments in defense of a wide range of conservative positions that are all really rationalizations of dogmatism, selfishness, and fear.

Now wait a second, you may say. While conservatives may disagree with us liberals, they are simply good, well-intentioned people with sincere differences of opinion as to what is best for everyone. They sincerely believe their pro-life activism saves lives, that more guns are the solution to gun violence, and that a strong military prevents wars. You shouldn’t disparage them with negative characterizations of dogmatism, selfishness, and fear.

I would be inclined to believe that as well. However, we have a disturbing “tell” that suggests otherwise. The fact that conservatives deny global climate changes signals to us that they have not simply reached a differing conclusion on this issue. The facts are so overwhelming on this, that their denial can only be driven by strong underlying traits, particularly selfishness. They simply care more about being able to burn all the fossil fuels they want, make all the money they want today, and heck with tomorrow for the entire world. Since few are willing to claim that CO2 is actually good for the planet, the others simply deny, deny, deny.

The fact that conservatives can deny facts and rationalize their denial of climate change makes it likely that all their other arguments are similarly driven by underlying traits including dogmatism, selfishness, and fear. Their denial of climate change suggests that conservatives do not merely reach different conclusions given the information they are exposed to, rather they limit their information and formulate rationalizations to defend their dogmatism, selfishness, and fear. Climate change tells us that these traits are strong in conservatives, and those traits cannot help but drive their positions on other important issues as well.

If we liberals wish to push back on these critical issues, we need to stop debating specious and shifting secondary arguments and start to deal more directly with these fundamental character drivers.

 

The Presidential Pendulum

Lots of people subscribe to the popular pendulum swing theory of Presidential elections. Although long-term election history does not support the theory of a pendulum swing between Democrat and Republican administrations, the anecdotal impression that we tend to recoil from the predominant characteristics of the last administration is compelling. It’s not a pendulum swing exactly, but more of an extreme overreaction to the last guy, in which the very strengths that attracted us to the last President become the very things we recoil against in our next President.

Let’s review, starting with Nixon.

Still traumatized by the shady, crooked, “Tricky Dick” characterization of the Nixon debacle, voters recoiled toward squeaky clean Jimmy Carter – a person whose integrity was as beyond reproach as the Pope. (Gerald Ford wasn’t really a choice.)

During the Carter years however, the public took his integrity for granted and instead focused on his “scholarly” nature. He communicated like a scientist – everything nuanced and complicated. He was well-known to dig into the details of original source material rather than rely solely upon executive summaries. He was viewed as an intellectual, and his successor, Ronald Reagan, was the perfect opposite extreme. Reagan played up Carter’s “egghead” perception, called facts thing that “get in the way,” offered simplistic, shallow quips as answers to complex questions, and consulted with psychic advisors. The public embraced Reagan because he was anti-intellectual and because he was anti-government while Carter still naively believed that government was good and should do good things.

In response to what was increasingly seen as a glib and even dangerously senile Reagan, the public gravitated toward the uncharismatic and uninspiring administrator, Bush Senior. But after being quickly bored to death by him, they flew into the arms of a youthful and inspiring Bill Clinton.

After his opponents finally made the Slick Willy impression stick, the public was next prime to reject our “smooth big city talker” and instead adopt a “good old boy,” a virtual country bumpkin, named Bush Junior. Electing Bush was essentially voting for Ned the farmer for Iowa City Mayor because we were just all taken in by that big-city fast-talking flimflam man that we finally booted out of town.

But after the inevitable embarrassment of an inept Barney Fife President that could barely speak proper English, threw up on foreign leaders, and seemed to laugh and dance in the most inappropriate ways, we were ready to recoil toward a far more dignified leader, and we found that in Barack Obama.

cousineddieNo one, even his worst critics, can do anything but praise and applaud the dignity and bearing with which Obama and his family have represented the office of President. Yet, it is that very characteristic that we now feel compelled as a people to reject. So what do we do? We elect Donald Trump – a man who is the antithesis of dignity. A trash-talking trailer-trash President who is about as refined as Cousin Eddie played by Randy Quaid in the Vacation movies. We love Eddie because he is NOT dignified. Likewise we see Trump as a refreshingly frank person who is a great natural businessman.

But after four humiliating years of Donald Trump as President, we will inevitably recoil again. After having eaten up all the food in our house and having trashed the carpets and furniture, we’ll finally push cousin Eddie our of our house, hitting the road again in his garish RV.

Who will we recoil to after Trump? I don’t have any idea, but I wouldn’t put it past many voters to decide that the problem with Trump was that he was just TOO dignified, TOO politically correct, TOO pro-government, and just TOO dang nice.

If there is a Presidential pendulum pattern, it seems to be more like a “nice guy – bad guy” cycle of dating. We are never satisfied in our relationships, so the things that attracted us to the last guy are the very things we explicitly reject in the next. We overcompensate like angst ridden teens and find ourselves making a lot of really, really stupid relationship decisions.

Will Trump be a troubled, deeply flawed bad boy with potential that we can fix, or just another supremely stupid relationship decision that we realize was a huge mistake five minutes after he moves in? I hope for the former but expect the latter.

 

 

Anecdotal Evidence Shows

The titular phrase “anecdotal evidence shows that…” is very familiar to us – with good reason. Not only is it very commonly used, but it is subject to a great deal of misuse. It generally makes an assertion that something is probably true because there is some observed evidence to support it. While that evidence does not rise to the level of proof, it does at least create some factual basis for wishful thinking.

Anecdotal evidence is important. It is often the only evidence we can obtain. In many areas, scientists cannot practically conduct a formal study, or it would be ethically wrong to do so. It may simply be an area of study that no one is willing to fund. Therefore, even scientists often have no alternative but to base conclusions upon the best anecdotal data they have.

Anecdotal evidence is essential to making everyday decisions as well. We don’t normally conduct formal studies to see if our friend Julie is a thief. But if ear rings disappear each time she visits, we have enough anecdotal evidence to at least watch her closely. Likewise, even court proceedings must often rely upon anecdotal evidence, which is slightly different than circumstantial evidence.

Knowing when anecdotal evidence is telling, when it is simply a rationalization for wishful thinking, and when it is the basis for an outright con job is not always easy. The fact that sometimes all we have to work with is anecdotal evidence makes it all that much more dangerous and subject to misuse and abuse.

All too often, anecdotal evidence is simply poor evidence. I once presented anecdotal evidence of ghosts by relating a harrowing close encounter that I had. The thing was, I totally made it up (see here). People don’t always intentionally lie when they share an anecdote, but those people who in good faith repeated my story to others were nevertheless sharing bad anecdotal information.

Testimonials are a form of anecdotal claim. Back in the 1800’s a Snake Oil Salesman would trot out an accomplice to support his claims of a miracle cure. Today we see everyone from television preachers to herbal medicine companies use the same technique of providing anecdotal evidence through testimonials. Most of these claims are no more legitimate than my ghost story.

We also see anecdote by testimony performed almost daily in political theatre. The President points to the crowd to identify a person who has benefitted greatly from his policies. In Congressional hearings, supposedly wronged parties are trotted out to give testimony about how badly they were harmed by the actions of the targeted party. Both of these individuals are put forth as typical examples yet they may be exceedingly unusual.

So here’s the situation. We need anecdotal evidence as it is often all we have to work with to make important decisions that must be made. However, basing decisions on anecdotal information is also fraught with risk and uncertainty. How do we make the wisest use of the anecdotal information that we must rely upon?

First, consider the source and the motive of the anecdote. If the motive is to try to persuade you to do something, to support something, to accept something, or to part with your cash, be particularly suspect of anecdotal claims or testimonials. One great example are the Deal Dash commercials. You hear a woman claim that she “won” a large screen television for only $49. Sounds great, until you realize that the anecdote doesn’t tell how many bids she purchased to get it for $49, how much she wasted on other failed auctions, and how much was spent in total by the hundreds of people bidding on that item. Anecdotal evidence are not always an outright lies, but they can still tell huge lies by omission and by cherry-picking.

Second, consider the plausibility of the anecdote. If the anecdote claims to prove that ghosts exist, someone made it up. Likewise with god or miracles or angels or Big Foot. Just because someone reports something incredible, no matter how credible that person may be, demand credible evidence. As Carl Sagan pointed out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Third, consider the scope of the anecdotal claim. Does it make sweeping generalizations or is it very limited in scope? If the claim is that all Mexicans are rapists because one Mexican was arrested for rape, we end up with a Fallacy of Extrapolation which is often the result of the misuse of anecdotal information.

Finally, consider the cost/benefit of the response to the anecdotal claim. If the anecdote is that eating yoghurt cured Sam’s cancer, then maybe it’s reasonable to eat more yoghurt. But if the anecdote is that Ed cured his cancer by ceasing all treatments, then perhaps that should be considered a far more risky anecdote to act upon.

Anecdotal information is essential. Many diseases such as AIDS have been uncovered by paying attention to one “anecdotal” case report. In fact, many of the important breakthroughs in science have only been possible because a keen-eyed scientist followed up on what everyone else dismissed as merely anecdotal or anomalous data.

Anecdotes are best used to simply make the claim that something may be possible, but without any claims as to how likely it is. For example, it may be that a second blow to the head has seemed to cure amnesia. However, this cannot be studied clinically and it is not likely to occur often enough to recommend it as a treatment. Still, sometimes it is extremely important to know that something has been thought to happen, no matter how uncertain and infrequent. If a severe blow to the head MAY have cured amnesia at least once, this can help to inform further research into it.

Don’t start feeling overwhelmed. We don’t actually need to stop and consciously analyze every anecdote in detail. Our subconscious pattern-recognition machines are quite capable of performing these fuzzy assessments for us. We only need to be sure to consciously internalize these general program parameters into our pattern recognition machines so that they produce sound conclusions when presented with claims that “anecdotal evidence shows.”

 

Time To Dump Linda

You have probably read articles that reference the famous Linda Study conducted by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky back in the early 1970’s. In it, the researchers describe an outspoken person named Linda who is and smart and politically active and who has participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. They then ask the subject to indicate whether Linda is more likely to be a) a bank teller or b) a bank teller who is also an active feminist.

No direct evidence is given to indicate that Linda is either a bank teller or a feminist. She is smart so she might be a bank teller, and since she has been socially active she might be a feminist. But logically it is far more likely that Linda is only one of these things than that she is both. Yet most people, given the choices presented and regardless of education, answer that Linda is probably both a bank teller and a feminist. This is an example of the Conjunction Fallacy (see here), in which a person mistakenly believes that multiple conditions are more likely than a single one.

Although this study is frequently cited in popular science articles, the conclusions drawn from it have been strongly criticized or at least given more nuanced analysis (see here). Few popular ideas from science since the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle have been so misused and overextended as the Linda Study. We really should stop reading so much into this study and cease abusing it so badly.

irrationalAn example of one such popular science article describes research by Professor Keith Stanovich (see here). In his work he used the Linda Study methodology along with other tests to measure rationality. Although I do not know how well this popular science article represents the actual research by Stanovich, it suggests that the Linda Test is a strong indicator of rationality. I find that assertion very troubling.

First off, while the Linda Test does expose the Conjunction Fallacy, we are all are susceptible to a huge number of logical fallacies. I document dozens of these in my book, “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (see here). While everyone should be taught to do better at recognizing and avoiding logical fallacies, failing to do so probably does not adequately correlate to irrational thinking.

If subjects were made aware that this was intended as an SAT-style logic gotcha, many would answer it in a more literal context. But we normally assume a broader scope of inference when answering this sort of question and the pattern-recognition machines we call our brains are capable of all sorts of fuzzy logic that is completely independent of, and much broader than, strict mathematical logic. In the real world, it might well turn out that women like Linda are in fact more likely to be both bankers and feminists.  Moreover “both” is a far richer answer in the context of most real-world interactions. The more logically correct answer is less insightful and interesting.

This is not to suggest that we should become lax about adhering to principles of logic, but only to suggest that a simple “brain teaser” logic question is not a very powerful indicator of overall rationality. Furthermore, equating rationality to a fallacy recognition test diminishes the profound complexity and importance of rationality.

I suggest that there are far stronger indicators of rationality. Does the subject believe in God? Do they deny climate-change? Do they subscribe to pseudoscientific nonsense? Is their thinking muddled by irrational New Age rationalizations? Do they insist the world is only 6 million years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs (cough) Ken Ham see here (cough).

Here’s the problem. All of these direct indicators are too entrenched and widespread to be overtly linked to irrationality. So instead we use safe, bland, non-confrontational indicators like the Linda Test that are at best weak and at worst undermine important and frank questions about rationality.

So dump Linda already in favor of far more meaningful measures of rationality!

 

How True Klingons Battle Climate Change

klingonYou probobly assume that we Americans represent the Federation of the Star Trek universe. Not really. If anything, we are far closer to the Klingons – say otherwise and I will let you taste my bat’leth! Like the Klingons, we may be inept at maintaining our infrastructure, at providing affordable healthcare, at ensuring a good education, a secure retirement, or a working wage… but we are truly exceptional at waging war. We have far more military might than all other human civilizations combined. Our immense “defense” budget is sacrosanct and we subordinate every other priority to sustain it. We bring our armies down upon anyone who dares challenge us and have been involved in over a hundred wars in our short history (see here). Admit it or not – like it or not – we are the Klingons.

You probably mistakenly assumed that Russia represents the Klingon Empire. But the Russians are more akin to the Romulans, favoring cloaking devices and clandestine operations to advance their insular goals. The European Union is probably the closest thing our planet has to a Federation.

But I say, don’t deny our Klingon side, embrace it! In fact, call upon it to battle the biggest, most deadly enemy threatening us – Climate Change. What would a true Klingon warrior do if faced with the threat of Climate Change? Well yes, they would unhesitatingly invade and occupy a nice planet like Bajor that has been responsibly managed by peaceful refugees. But if that were not possible, they would meet Climate Change in glorious battle.

I realize that declaring war on Climate Change seems hopeless, particularly after the election of the world’s most moronic climate-change-denying buffoon to the White House and the impending purge of any remnant of reason from our government. But Klingon warriors scoff at such defeatism.

My proposal is that we get ourselves into a war against Climate Change and bring the full wrath and fury of the American Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to bear against it. Our military knows how to win against all odds. I say bring it down upon Climate Change like a hostile fleet of Klingon Birds of Prey!

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking there’s no way our Republican-controlled Congress would ever declare war on Climate Change. But there is nothing easier than getting America into a war. We love our wars way too much to ever say no to one. And even though many members of the Congress don’t believe in Climate Change, we go to war under false pretenses all the time. We don’t need real reasons when any old aluminum tubes will do.

But you are right about one thing, Congress would need some compelling excuse – merely saving our planet is obviously insufficient. So what we can do is stage a False Flag operation to get them all riled up. Maybe we can plant rumors that the Russians are actually orchestrating Climate Change to spread Communism. Or we could “discover” Climate Change documents in Nicaragua that implicate the drug cartels. We could even stage a fictional attack purportedly made by Climate Change against an American Destroyer or a government building. Better yet, the CIA can merely insert a fake news story on Breitbart reporting that Climate Change gave American soldiers the middle finger. Really, any of the old tried-and-true methods for justifying a war should do just fine.

Once we do go to war against Climate Change, that evil CO2 will be routed. Our Navy subs can fire modified torpedoes to defend salinity in the North Atlantic Conveyor belt. Our Air Force can bomb CO2 strongholds in the Middle East. The Army can hold off rising seas on our Eastern seaboard while amphibious Marines assault mega tornadoes and hurricanes in the Gulf. The Coast Guard can protect polar ice caps. Special Forces will be needed for missions into other countries while the CIA conducts covert ops to take out the worst methane polluters. Homeland Security may have to go door to door to uncover traitors in our midst and I would not rule out drones or even space-based weaponry.

Seriously, we need to leverage our greatest asset in a global effort to reverse Climate Change. Hey, if it takes a military coup to get this war started, I’m all for it. I’m even willing to resort to chemical warfare in this case. Heck, go ahead and waterboard Climate Change if it gets results. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures. And even if we fall, we can at least save our Klingon honor and perhaps even give the surviving cockroaches their chance to evolve to be wiser beings than us.

We are Klingon! Today is a good day to die!!