Dunning, Kruger and Trump

Years ago I took an anatomy/physiology course in a local community college. To prep for one of the major tests we were to take I buddied up with another student for a couple of evening study sessions and was a little surprised at how little my partner seemed to know about our assignments. When the test day came I was more than a little anxious; I never think I’m adequately prepared for taking tests in spite of the fact that I usually do pretty well. Anyhow, after the test and before finding out the results, I asked my study partner how he thought he did, and he said (without hesitation) “Oh, I aced it!” I wasn’t nearly as confident, but it turned out I did well, and my partner didn’t (he barely passed, as I recall). At the time I thought he was blustering when he predicted his results, but I’ve discovered that may not the case.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a study they did at Cornell University entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It:  How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” What they describe (which has since become known, logically enough, as “the Dunning-Kruger effect”) I think helps explain a lot of what I see in our current President. As stated in their introductory paragraph, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains why people tend to “have overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.” The authors state that “…people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” In other words, they not only lack the skill itself, but since it takes a certain intellectual capacity to realize they aren’t got at that skill, they are literally too stupid to realize they suck at it!

So let’s take a look at Trump. He has said over and again how smart he is. He said “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.” And “no one is better than me at” (fill in the blank). Yet he is patently wrong about almost all of them. He’s really terrible at almost everything he claims to be good at. He can’t build a consensus, he can’t create a leadership team, he can’t move his agenda forward, and most often it’s because of stupid things he himself does!

I thought for a while that maybe he’s really smart and playing a role, but I am beginning to think that he’s a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect: he is simply too stupid to know how bad he is at things, and he has no one among his inner circle that is willing or able to tell him.

I wish I could take credit for this observation, but the great British actor and comic Stephen Frye provides voice-over on a really nice description of this phenomenon and how it’s playing out in the White House. It’s on You Tube and I highly recommend taking the 7 minutes to watch it. There are several other You Tube videos with nice explanations; one is here and another (an interview with one of the authors 0f the study) here.

That’s scary enough to me. Even scarier is how many people are willing to follow this idiot. “Let’s give him a chance. He’ll ‘Make America Great Again.’ I’m just sure of it.”

So far, he’s made a mess of nearly everything.

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Help me understand

I have a fair number of friends who voted for Trump, but when I ask them what prompted their decision I most frequently get “Well, Hillary would have been a disaster.” Setting aside for a moment the state of the current administration (I have to resist asking them “So how’s that working out for you now?”), that really isn’t my question. I’m trying to find out exactly what they saw in Trump that made them think he was going to be a successful President. Interestingly (and maybe predictably), it’s becoming harder and harder to find someone who is actually willing to defend the genius currently occupying the White House.

Most fall into the “Anybody but Hillary” camp, or the “All politicians are corrupt and the only way to fix it is to tear it down and start over” camp.

The first group wants to talk about Benghazi and her use of a personal server as evidence of a lack of fitness to be President, and my experience is that there’s no point in trying to reason with them. The fact is that multiple investigations turned up nothing more that some poor decisions, none of which are unique to her nor particularly indicative of unsuitability. But as I said, there’s no point in discussing that with those people; their mind is made up and facts are of no interest. I actually was not all that enamored with Clinton, although most nonpartisan (and even some partisan) evaluations of her stated that she had the experience and ability to be an effective politician.

The other group, that want to “burn it down,” felt that it was exactly Hillary’s qualifications and experience that made her unthinkable as a choice:  they wanted almost anyone BUT a career politician. If you want support for that observation, take the fact that approval of BOTH parties in Congress is at an all-time low. There’s a very large group of citizens who are disgusted with the political infighting and lack of any progress in solving the really big problems of our time:  health care access, immigration, shrinking of the middle class and so on. And actually I understand their point. We do have a broken political system. The “enemy” is the other party, and any indication of a willingness to compromise is viewed by their hyper-partisan constituency as a betrayal of their core values and is a sure way to get booted out in the next election. So electing an outsider represents a disruption of the status quo and perhaps would lead to innovation and real problem-solving. My question to the “burn it down” group is whether they really think that the bozo they helped elect is going to be able to produce a change in business as usual. So for, it looks like he represents more of the same, except with lots of lying.

The other main group is or course made up of those that actually voted “for” Trump rather than against Hillary or against the existing system. I’ve got a few friends who actually said that they thought Trump was exactly what we need, and frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion.

I’m going to try to find out though. And I want to really find out. Not just to try to convince them they are wrong; not to get talking points for future use, but to really understand what they saw in Trump, and whether they still feel that way. I’ve written before about a book I read a while ago that had a pretty significant impact on my understanding of political viewpoints; it was titled “Moral Politics” and was written by George Lakoff. He’s a cognitive linguist who has written extensively about how the metaphors we live by both shape and are shaped by our lives. Anyhow, I suspect that the reasons that I will eventually hear for voting for Trump (rather than against Hillary) will somehow be wrapped around things Lakoff talks about.

So my plan is to find some Trump supporters who are friends of mine and are open to a non-confrontational but thoughtful conversation. I will promise them that I’m not trying to convince them of anything, make them “see the error of their ways” or in any way be critical of them, but to truly find out how they arrived at the conclusion that Trump was “their guy.”

I really do want to understand. We’ll see how it goes!

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How are we doing so far?

We’re well past the current administration’s first 100 days in office. There was a lot of blather about his “accomplishments” (or really, lack thereof) during that period. Of course it’s an arbitrary number and historically pretty meaningless, but for some reason people put a lot of weight behind the significance of that time frame. I heard it originated with Kennedy’s presidency, but I’m not sure that’s true.

Anyhow, we’re watching this idiot dig an ever-deeper hole for himself every time he touches his phone to blast out another “real truth” to his base. I have to describe it that way because nothing else makes any sense. Virtually every pronouncement from him is either ridiculously self-aggrandizing or a diatribe against the unfairness of it all (the media, his enemies, Democrats, and the self-created Crisis du jour.) He’s been noticeably quiet in the last couple of days as Comey’s testimony before Congress unfolds; I can only assume that someone with self-preservation at the core of their motivation took his phone away from him, or convinced him to shut the hell up. I can’t believe a rational person, looking at what he’s tweeting, can conclude it’s actually helping anything other than throwing red meat to his base. Which, by the way, stays loyal to him while his popularity dwindles among the populace. (Remember that his hard-core base is actually quite small; he managed to get elected because enough people didn’t trust Clinton or were desperate for a change—any change—held their noses and voted for him.) He’s hovering somewhere around 33 or 34 percent approval, the lowest of any president in the history of polling at this point in their terms.

Most recently (as alluded to above), James Comey is laying out the case to Congress how Trump committed an impeachable offense by attempting to get him to drop the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn and Russian meddling in our electoral process. At least that’s one way of viewing his testimony; he responded when asked if he thought Trump was “obstructing his investigation” by saying that was up to the Special Prosecutor to determine. Of course Trump tried spinning it as a complete exoneration of himself, because Comey didn’t say that he explicitly directed him to drop his investigation, although Comey said he was clear that’s what the Liar-In-Chief was doing. As this investigation continues I am quite confident we will find out that Trump (or his surrogates) actively colluded with the Russians to hack the DNC email servers and seed false news stories damaging to Clinton as a way to swing the election his way.

But of course, with the Republicans controlling both Houses there is virtually zero probability of Trump getting impeached; they are too interested in getting their agenda of tax breaks to the uber-wealthy and a destruction of the safety net of the middle and working classes to want to have to kick Trump to the curb. After all, he’s the guy that has to sign their bills once they pass. It’s of value to note that an examination of the events that led up to Clinton’s impeachment proceedings were less damning than Trump’s; he was just trying to keep secret his affair with Monica Lewinsky and no one accused him of colluding with our most significant adversary in swinging an election. (And lest we forget, this moron actually tried to defend the betrayal of one of our staunchest allies when he shared intel we got from them with Russia!) It’s clear that their commitment to their ideology of limiting government is more important than what’s right for the country.

The Republicans in Congress should be ashamed of themselves. It’s well past time to impeach this buffoon before he causes irreparable damage.

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Can he really be that dumb?

When Dan Quayle was Vice President (under Bush the Elder) he made a number of gaffes that seemed to indicate he was dumb as a post; the most memorable when he “corrected” a sixth grader for misspelling “potato” in a spelling be, saying it had an “e” on the end of it when of course it doesn’t. (He later said he was going off of cue cards the school provided him which included the misspelling.) Either way, he was pretty thoroughly mocked and the conventional wisdom was that he was behind the door when intellect was handed out.

I’ve also read articles that ranked the various president’s IQ’s (or at least attempted to, since in most cases the actual IQ test results aren’t available, if they exist at all), and most of the time Bush the Younger’s IQ is shown to be pretty low. Low, compared to other presidents, to be sure; they all rank significantly above 100 (average), but only a few get up to the rarified 135 or above. Interestingly, a fair number are 130 or above, generally accepted as the level required to get into Mensa. Dubya was listed as between 119 and 124.
In both those cases, I’ve either read about or spoken to people who have no apparent axe to grind, who have stated that, in actual fact and based on their personal experience, both Quayle and Bush were quite articulate and intelligent and were made out to be stupid by a hostile press. And while I still find their politics contrary to mine, I’m willing to accept the possibility that the two may not have actually been as stupid as I thought them to be. (Note that I still think it’s just a possibility; I saw nothing myself that would lead me to think they weren’t dummies.)

But now we come to Trump. I’ve wrestled with this, for the simple reason that this guy pulls so many boneheaded moves and makes such ridiculous claims that it honestly makes me wonder if it’s all just an act and he’s really pretty smart. How could anyone be as dumb as he appears to be, and be a billionaire? (I’m fairly confident that he’s nowhere near as wealthy as he claims to be, but most people are willing to accept his net worth as being somewhere north of a billion dollars.)

But I’m becoming convinced he’s just simply stupid. His lying is of course well known. Some may say he’s simply exaggerating, but I think it fits the definition of lie: to say something as factual with full knowledge that it is not. But I’m talking about something a little different than lying (which of course is reprehensible, especially for a president); to claim something is true when it is ridiculously easy to demonstrate it as false qualifies as stupid in my book. To claim that his inauguration was attended by “the most number of people in any inauguration in history,” when a child could see otherwise by comparing the two photographs side by side of Trump’s and Obama’s inaugural crowd, is simply stupid.

It was in today’s news that Trump presented to the graduating class of the US Coast Guard Academy, and complained about how badly he’s being treated. He said “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
Seriously? I think that oh, maybe JFK or Lincoln might feel that getting shot in the head is a little worse than having the press point out your lies.

I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I simply don’t see evidence of intelligence. Misogyny, arrogance, narcissism and perfidy, yes. But intelligence? Nope.

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Fact vs ideology

The House Republicans passed their “repeal and replace” bill last Thursday. This is the most current travesty that’s been foisted on the American people since Trump and his band of morons got elected. Their push to eliminate one of Obama’s signature accomplishments is a mystery to thinking Americans because of the popularity of the Affordable Care Act; well over half of the people in the US are in favor of it and an even higher percentage support the key provisions (such as the prohibition against denying insurance due to pre-existing conditions).

So what was driving this? Why vote to eliminate such a popular program?

One of the things that I’ve read in frequent reviews is that the Republicans in Congress painted themselves into a corner. They’ve positioned themselves as the “party of small government.” Since, like forever, Republicans have railed against the Federal government being involved in healthcare. They were opposed to Medicare when it was first proposed, and it was made into law over their votes and strenuous objections; they called it “socialized medicine” from the beginning and have continued to attempt to chip away at its provisions. It’s now become such a feature that any attempt to get rid of it is generally recognized as a sure-fire way to lose the next election.

But for years the Republicans have predicted that the ACA would wreak havoc on our society. Taxes would go through the roof, the economy would tank, companies would close their doors and people all over the country would lose their jobs as a direct result of ACA. Of course, none of this happened. In fact, the very people who the Republican party has appealed to over the last 30 years are the ones who most benefit from the provisions of ACA. The so-called “Red States” (deep south, rural midwest  and western states) have the highest percentage of people who are currently receiving benefits from the Federal government for their healthcare.

But rather than accept the reality that is represented by the experience of those benefiting from the ACA, Republicans are hanging on to their “small government” mantra. It seems that admitting that there are in fact some benefits from Federal government involvement would lead to such cognitive dissonance that it would call into question their other positions. For example that “trickle-down” economics doesn’t work (which, by the way, it doesn’t), or that states are always better at handling policy administration than is the Federal government (also not true).

So ideology gets to trump reality. (Pun intended.) Republicans would rather let millions  of people (upwards of 24 million by one bi-partisan estimate) lose healthcare coverage than accept that one of their foundational premises is wrong. To me, this is a travesty. And there’s the beginnings of rumbling that they may pay a price for it in getting booted out of office at the next election.

I can’t speak for what goes on in the minds of politicians, but it seems they are cravenly ignoring what’s right for their constituency to stick to a philosophy that’s been proven wrong.

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Payday, retribution or its own reward?

During my cab ride to the Miami airport this week I had a very pleasant conversation with my driver. (I am making a point that it was a nice conversation because in writing this it’s not possible to get right the nuance and tone of the discussion, and it’s possible that reading this you may think I was being confrontational and a jerk. Really, I wasn’t. Really.)

Anyhow, I noticed that my new friend had a couple of books on the dashboard and I asked him what he was reading. He told me they were Bibles (as I suspected). I actually thought there was a possibility based on what I could see of his Bible that he might be a Witness, but it turned out he belonged to Church of Christ. So he asked me if I knew Jesus. I said yes, I had heard the name and he said “No, I meant do you believe in Jesus.” I said I thought there was likely a man named Jesus who lived a couple of thousand years ago in the Middle East, was killed by the Romans and a major religion sprang up around him. I knew this also wasn’t what he was really asking and wasn’t trying to be obnoxious, but I wanted to see where this was going. Anyhow, he asked me if I had accepted Jesus as my personal savior and I told him that, actually I had once been a minister but didn’t really practice anything now. After his expressions of astonishment and admonition to “be like the prodigal son,” I asked him if he believed if his religion was the right one. He said “Of course!” and I said, well, if you believe your religion is correct, then you have to believe the one I practiced was wrong since it wasn’t Church of Christ. So wouldn’t I actually be better off if I stay where I am than if I returned to a religion that is actually false worship (by his beliefs)? Wouldn’t god be angrier at me then? I then pointed out that there are more than 500 different religions, all purporting to be based on belief in salvation through Jesus and also professing that each and every one of them were the “correct” faith. Given that I had a nearly 500 to 1 probability that I’d pick the wrong religion (since, at most, only one of them can be the True Faith), wouldn’t it make more sense to not believe any of them? Furthermore, there is no certainty that any of them are actually the True Faith; they could all be wrong. What then?

He didn’t really answer, except to state that the Bible was definitely God’s Word and we need to follow it in order to have salvation. Not wanting to get into which version of the Bible was representative of God’s true words, I switched topics and asked him if he believed in heaven. He gave me the expected affirmations; he’d had a number of problems in his life and looked forward to a heavenly reward in the next life. I said I’m not suggesting there is no afterlife, but if you were to find out that there really was no heavenly reward, would you still believe? He really surprised me by saying “No.” I wanted to be sure I understood, so I asked differently and it became clear that the reason he believed is because of the reward he expected for that acceptance of Jesus as his savior.

I’ve had similar conversations with lots of people of faith over the years and I wonder why more people don’t pursue this a bit deeper. Most people freely admit that they are following a specific set of rules because they are convinced God will punish them if they don’t, or for the payout at the end. I’ve said in previous posts that “the Good Life” is something to be pursued not for hope of reward but because it, simply, is a good life. Besides, if I do something purely out of fear of punishment or for the presumed reward, it seems pretty straightforward to me that an all-knowing God would know that my faith is essentially selfish. How could that life be “pleasing to God?” I make no pretensions of any special personal loftiness, but even I know from my limited management experience that a person who does what they do because they want to, and not because of a carrot I’ve promised them, or worse yet, fear of being punished in some way, is not only going to do a better job of it, but is going to get much greater satisfaction out of the process.

My friend Chris and I had a conversation years ago about this, and he said that, while he believes with all his heart in the correctness of his belief (and I expected nothing less from him), if at the end it turned out he was wrong he wouldn’t want to change a thing. He said, as best as I can recall, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I haven’t had to sacrifice much and even if I did, it’s been worth it just for the joy I get out of my life as it is.”

I have a sneaky feeling that if more “Christians” were like my friend Chris, and were a bit less focused on their personal reward (or on the avoidance of a possible punishment), the world would be a better place to live.

Regardless of what comes afterwards. Or if nothing does.

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The difference of a split second

My brother Jim was skiing in Colorado in early March and some guy on a snowboard ran into him, knocking him down. When he hit the snow, Jim’s leg (femur head, actually) was broken, his arm dislocated and the shoulder socket fractured. Nearly three weeks, two surgeries and lots of pain meds later Jim finally got back home to Bloomington but he’ll be in a wheel chair for at least a few weeks and will be going through some painful rehab for the next year to (hopefully) regain full use.

Several years ago, my wife Cathy was out walking our two dogs (the MoLos are good-sized Labrador retrievers). She had stopped to chat with some neighbors when our dogs wanted to go sniff another dog; she wasn’t properly braced and got jerked off her feet. When she landed on the sidewalk she broke her arm (the upper part of the humerus) which required surgery; a bunch of pins and screws later and a year’s worth of pain and rehab and she’s back where she was (more or less).

In both cases, an instant in time separated my wife and my brother from what they were doing and their plans for the rest of the day, and set them on a completely unexpected (and unwelcome) new path for the next six months.

It gives me pause.

I know we can’t spend our lives thinking of what bad things might happen to us in the next instant, and I’m not suggesting we live in fear of the unexpected, but every so often things happen that brings into sharp focus (if we take the time see it) how quickly things can change. Both Jim and Cathy will (and did) recover; not everyone is so fortunate. If the months of pain and rehab could be considered a “fortunate” experience. But two lessons come to mind: the first (and most obvious) is to use caution. Neither Jim nor Cathy were at fault, but were the two incidents avoidable? Probably; Cathy might have braced herself better when she saw the other dogs, and Jim might’ve taken a split second to look upslope. Please don’t mistake what I’m saying; neither Jim nor Cathy are responsible (or to blame) for what happened to them; it’s clear that the snowboarder ran into Jim (plus the downhill skier ALWAYS has right of way), and Cathy couldn’t have predicted that the MoLos would jerk her off her feet. But it’s also conceivable that it could have been otherwise. I think of the many (MANY) times when something I did, or a decision I made, could have gone south on me.

The second lesson is how quickly things can change. From one second to the next, every thought, every plan, every intent that Jim and Cathy had was put on hold and an entirely new set of decisions and intentions came to the forefront.

I am not really sure what the most important lesson here is, except to maybe take an extra split second to think about what’s going on around us. Maybe we could avoid the kind of misery that both Jim and Cathy had to endure.

And maybe to be more in the moment, because it can change in a heartbeat.

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It’s both worse and better.

Trump and his band of clowns (the scary kind, not the fun type) have been in power for a little over 2 months now and it’s turning out to be both worse and much better than I thought. Worse because it seems that every single day this incompetent moron digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole. His approval ratings are in the toilet; lower than any president in history at this point in their term. Ordinarily the American people take a “wait and see” attitude for the first hundred days or so, which keeps polls from tanking. And while it seems that the Trump loyalists are still hopeful that this bozo will start to fulfill his campaign promises, the majority of the country is beginning to realize just how badly they were misled. And it’s not just that his approval rating is in the toilet, but his disapproval rating is stratospheric. Since lack of approval may not translate to active disapproval, high ratings in this area are even more indicative of what a train wreck this administration is shaping up to be.

Trump is in full-throated blaming mode. Obama, Hillary, the Press, paid Democratic “agitators,” nefarious people from within his own administration who are leaking stories to the press and everyone else in sight is to blame for the mess in his administration. It apparently is beyond him to accept any responsibility, when it’s pretty plain that his own arrogance, stupidity, poor management skills, lack of ability to build a consensus (or even awareness that he needs one), and general incompetence are at fault. Look in the mirror, Donnie boy. I saw a photo of Steve Buscemi at a rally protesting one of the myriad boneheaded things Trump has done, standing next to a sign with a quote from The Big Lebowski that said “Shut the f**ck up Donny, you’re out of your element!” I’m a fan of that show anyway, but I got a kick out of how perfect John Goodman’s line (as Walter) to Buscemi’s Donny fits in a rally protesting Trump.

Anyhow, with all that weight on the “worse than I expected” side, it might be hard to see any rays of hope, but in fact there are. Trump’s massive failure to fulfill his campaign promise to “repeal Obamacare on my first day in office” is the first and most visible example. I’m not sure the whole thing can be laid at Trump’s feet because the Republican majority led by Paul Ryan drafted the “replacement” (if it could even be called that), and the Republicans are so fractured that they couldn’t agree on what was important to them. The far-right fringe of the party, the so called “Freedom Caucus” is made up of 32 members in the House and their position is that the Federal Government has no business in determining anything to do with health care; that should be left up to states and market forces. What they want is immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act, putting us back to a market-driven insurance system and eliminating health care for the 13-million or so who didn’t have it before ACA. Presumably they would then work on the “replace” part, where Congress would come up with something. Presumably. The Freedom Caucus wasn’t happy with the plan Ryan came up with because it didn’t repeal ACA immediately. The moderates in the Republican party, able to look out their respective windows and see how unpopular they would be if they eliminated healthcare insurance for up to 24 million people (the OMB’s best estimates of the effects of Ryan’s bill), also balked, so it seems that Ryan managed to come up with a bill that nearly no one in his own party could support. Trump (The Great Deal Maker) weighed in with his much-touted ability to make deals and failed miserably, so Ryan pulled the plug on the bill to avoid an embarrassing down vote.

Add that cluster f**ck to Trump’s disasters in selecting people for his cabinet. (Remember that “Lock Her Up” Flynn resigned in less than a month when it became public that he lied to Vice President Pence about talking to Russians; it’s especially interesting to note that, apparently, Trump knew he lied to Pence; it only became an issue when the general public found out. So it was OK to lie to Pence as long as the public didn’t know.)

And the list of failures is growing. So Trump is finding out that he can’t just wave his arms around and make things happen. It turns out that being President is different than being CEO (SHOCKER!!) and he can’t bully people like he did in his business enterprises. There are actually rules that have to be followed.

And it seems that those rules, coupled with the well-known pattern of the government to move slowly on almost everything, means that many of the things Trump has promised to do may not actually happen. Another good example is his promise to “bring back all the coal mining jobs” to Appalachia. I get that the people living there are in abject poverty, and voted for him because they believed his promise to restore their jobs. But here’s the thing: the reason their jobs went away had nothing to do with government regulations, EPA, or Liberals. It was because of market forces. Coal is simply no longer needed the way it used to be. Natural gas is much cheaper and has been for years, so most of the power companies have switched away from coal to natural gas in their power plants. So even if the regulations against coal-driven pollution were completely eliminated, the market for coal is a fraction of what it used to be. Those jobs aren’t coming back. Trump, assuming he’s as smart as he claims, had to have known that and was cavalierly manipulating the emotions and preying on the hopes of the Appalachian voters. He lied, in other words.

What a surprise.

So even if Trump and his cronies get away with gutting the EPA and eliminating most of the regulations that protect our environment, it appears that existing forces may make those steps moot. And that’s a good thing.

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An old debate, redux

My friend Mark and I had a discussion the last time we were together that somehow devolved into free will vs determinism. This is a topic of philosophers since, well, forever, and of course Mark and I weren’t going to solve it, but the pertinent connection is one of the underpinnings of the “determinism” camp, which is that everything that happens has some event or circumstance immediately prior to it that contributed to (caused?) the subsequent event. Determinists say it is not logical to conclude that, if the exact same circumstances that led up to an event were repeated, a different outcome would ensue. (Physically not possible, of course, but this is a thought experiment—just go with it!) I’ve read fairly extensively both positions in this age-old debate, and frankly have some issues with both. But where I come to at the end of the day is that I feel like I am making decisions that influence (even determine) outcome, and maybe that’s enough.

There’s lots of things that fall apart when we look very closely at it. For example, I’m sitting here typing this on my laptop. I have no doubt that I feel the keys under my fingers, and the seat I’m in, yet I also know that the vast majority of what I feel is really empty space. Everything is made up of atoms, which are mostly space (the actual “size” of the electrons and the nucleus is a tiny fraction of the “space” that they occupy). While I know that to be true intellectually, it doesn’t really matter to me because it’s at a level so far removed from where I experience things that it becomes irrelevant.

Another example is a bit more complex. We all have a physical brain (admittedly some use theirs a bit more effectively than others, but that’s a rant for another time). If you think about it for a minute it becomes clear that “I” can think about “my brain.” Which leads to the strange conclusion that somehow my brain is not “me,” that “me-ness” is a separate (and maybe emergent) property of my brain, or some function within my brain. But when my brain shuts off when I’m asleep, I obviously don’t cease to exist so consciousness is not exactly the same as existence.
So how does this “me” arise? It’s partly self-awareness (Descates’ “I think, therefore I am” is closely related to this observation). But it’s not just that; not everything alive has the sense of self, although we also know it is not unique to humans. Elephants can differentiate “themselves” in photographs from other elephants, for example, so they, at least, are self-aware. Maybe it’s an emergent property of our brain (of any more developed brain). Or may it’s nothing more than an illusion informed by our perspective, but as I’ve illustrated, it seems like maybe lots of things are.

Back to my debate with Mark. I took the position that free will doesn’t really exist; that every action is determined by some preceding situation or action. And there’s some interesting science emerging that supports this; when I “decide” to move my arm, the place in my brain that controls that action lights up some few milliseconds before I “decide.” So somehow my brain is aware of what I’m going to do before “I” consciously decide to do it.

But after thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided, “So what?” Maybe it’s a fantasy that I’m making decisions that determine outcome, but it sure seems to “me” that I’m in charge of myself, and maybe that’s all that counts.

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Anti-intellectualism

In my last post I explored where I think the current denigration of intellectual rigor may have come from (I think it has its roots in the American rejection of British class distinctions and a more egalitarian, personal-opportunity model). But whatever the cause, I think it’s safe to say there is a growing (and very disturbing) anti-intellectual attitude emerging, particularly in the “Red state/Blue State” political environment. People from so-called red states say that “elitists” from the coasts (New York and California, for the most part) no longer represent the values and positions of “real” Americans and should not be allowed to determine policy that affects them. This plays out in lots of ways. Right now Trump is conducting a war on “the lying media,” by which I guess he means any journalist, newspaper or TV network that disagrees with him or calls him out on his (many) lies. That’s not the saddest part; Nixon had the same siege mentality. The scariest thing to me is how many people seem to go along with him. To take one glaring example: Trump’s claim (laughably repeated by Sean Spicer) that his inaugural address was “attended by more people than any other in the history of the country, period.” When it’s obviously not, by simply comparing side-by-side photos taken from the same vantage point of both inaugural crowds. In order to believe Trump you would have to accept that one or the other photo was altered. While I’m not naïve enough to believe that impossible, that would have to mean either there are no contradictory photos (hard to believe) or that virtually EVERYONE in the media is colluding to hide “the truth.” I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to buy that, partly because SOMEONE, somewhere, would break silence and blow the cover. Same reason I don’t believe in conspiracy theories in general.

And yet, there are people who deny the Holocaust. In spite of the fact that there are people alive today who were in German concentration camps. There are US military personnel alive today who liberated the camps. But I digress.

I had lunch the other day with a professor from one of our local universities. He told me that in his classes he has had students who, when asked to defend their positions in class or in papers, have refused, saying “that proves his liberal bias.”

On what planet does being asked to justify or support your position constitute a bias of any kind, liberal or otherwise? Setting aside the very real possibility that these particular students were either lazy morons or smart-ass kids, the fact that, with a straight face, they would parade their ignorance and denial of even the need to provide a rational explanation for their positions, makes me just shake my head in amazement.

Imagine these doofuses (doofi?) getting into the business world and trying to use that argument. Their boss says, “You say we should pursue this or that strategy. Tell my why you think that?” And they respond “I don’t have to. The fact that you want me to explain myself proves to me you’re an elitist and biased.” How long do you think they would stay employed?

My professor friend went on to say that this was by no means the norm; maybe 2 or 3 out of a class of 40 might take that position. But even that 2 or 3 students in college would take that position is scary. The reason to go to college is to learn how to think!! (Head banging on table).

Just the other day our benighted head of EPA made his biases clear when he said that (paraphrasing) “Carbon dioxide hasn’t been established as the major cause of global warming.” Um…yeah, it has. Furthermore, it’s the consensus among scientists that it’s anthrogenic.

Is it any wonder that a few muddle-headed college students (bound for chronic unemployment) think the way they do, when our national “le

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