Conviction matters more than facts

Trust is a powerful thing. Have it and life is easy: you get what you want, things fall into place, and problems usually are small. Lack it, and well, life becomes hard. Think of it this way: what makes a criminal so bad? Mistrust. Think of the historical boogeymen of American life, and you find an intersection of the dank, dirty, and distrustful.

Cognitive Bias is a powerful thing. Like trust, it can be a powerful panacea deftly dispensing incompatibilities, uncertainties, and messy murky mitigations. But it can also cause quite the hangover: a sort of subjective social reality where your crap doesn’t stink and everything fits neatly into your prepacked ideological narrative.

So what is at the intersection of Trust and Cognitive Bias? Innumeracy, or the inability to reason intuitively with greater orders of magnitude. Basically, the more processing you do the more likely you are to have a major or systemic error in reasoning—your brain is NOT a super computer. In truth humans aren’t rational. Yes, that includes you. Humans aren’t objective. Still includes you! Instead what we think of rationality is cognitive bias: what makes sense to us is a product of our personal experiences, mental shortcuts created over time, and our tendency to trust the conclusions we draw. Now, this is not to say truth is relative or that we are all irrational. Rather, this is to suggest no one is coming to the table without bias and no one is coming to the table with an objective understanding. We are all coming to the table with our baggage.

For most of human history we have mitigated these pitfalls with powerful institutions: curators and gatekeepers. Curators have long been the people responsible for our culture: civic leaders, neighborhood captains, and the people guiding us morally and ethically. These curators have been working with and within powerful institutions like the media, the academy, and the church to ground the conversation. This worked for thousands of years, even though the conversation kept moving to adjust to new ideals (think of the saying: the arch of history is long (and slow) but bends towards justice).

And then came the Internet.

In the last three decades, humans have become overwhelmed with information. We have become inundated with calories, energy, and literally every other human need. For the people driving the global economy (Yes, I’m most likely referring to you) life has never been better: cures for most things, and near instant gratification for everything else. We can go online and have everything delivered to our door or screen: food, fun, information, and even companionship. What is the unintended consequence? We can now order a fully customizable life but we have not created something to fill in the roles of curators and gatekeepers. In fact, we find them anathema in the name of transparency, freedom, and agency.

Which isn’t all bad: we have had sexual and gender revolutions and are in the midst of a powerful recalibration of the white hetero-cisgendered patriarchy.

But we no longer trust. Our cognitive bias reigns supreme. We consider our experts to now be shills for their ideologies when presented with information we don’t like. Our curators reduced to nothing more than capitalist succubi force-feeding us manufactured realities rather than aspirational injections. Our gatekeepers are viewed as old desiccating barriers. Now anyone with a smartphone is an expert, anyone who is attractive and savvy with social media a curator, and the institutions our gatekeepers oversee are under serious strain: can you name a news personality everyone trusts? A politician with the humility required to hold the moral high ground?

All of this speaks to a famous effect in Psychology: Dunning-Kruger. As a form of cognitive bias it explains very much the world we live today: people of low ability have “illusory superiority” and incorrectly over-assess their abilities. I think of it this way: you don’t know enough to know that you don’t know enough. Or: youth is wasted on the young.

So now we trust ourselves. We have all of the data in our pockets, and whatever makes sense to us is just as good as truth because we can trust it and because it fits into how we already see the world. Who needs truth when you can trust yourself? And if you can trust yourself, then those who believe differently must be untrustworthy…or are unnecessary.

We are our own curators and gatekeepers. Our own sense makers.

And, golly, are we senseless.

 

So what can save us: empathy and gratitude. We must all remember that we are all human. We forget that all too often and all too quickly.

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I feel a change ain’t comin’ on.

I’m not so sure we will change our behaviors enough to stop climate change. Many blogs, articles, and thought pieces focus on what we can do to keep global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels. The suggestions are somewhat endless: move to vegan lifestyles; eating bugs (WHO recommends this!); living in dense urban environments with ample integrated flora (Spain has started to have urban renewal with many trees built into the buildings); rationed water; the end of consumer culture; and the end of planned obsolescence.

Yet, we have done very little. We still eat tons of beef each year in the developed world (even more tons of meat across the globe as developing economies adopt western habits). We still consume for the sake of consumption. We have even lost our ability to recycle as China decides to stop taking the world’s trash. Sadly, I do not see a cultural change coming.

I do not see it because I do not think humanity has the capacity to change quickly enough. Humans are irrational creatures feigning rationality. Humans are emotional creatures feigning logic. We are not interested in truth, but rather the confirmation of our worldview. We are creatures of the present, and the present holds tangible problems. Climate change is someone else’s problem for too many today. Those communities who have been most impacted by climate change are distant and often intangible to those in the West most responsible for climate change. So when we see major hurricanes impact people, we do not equate those hurricanes as our fault. Even when they hit us in the western world, we create excuses within our worldview. And even those of us who agree that humans are changing the climate also know that most of us alive today will not be alive to see the climate change: literally someone else’s problem.

Finally, the biggest reason I believe we will fail to curb climate change is: freedom.

In the United States, the world’s biggest contributor to climate change, our culture of freedom is the chief contributor because it teaches each person their desires and wants are more important than the group’s needs. We have stated our intention to leave the Paris Agreement because of freedom.  Can you imagine a serious American politician advocating for the banning of meat? Or legally imposed recycling? Limited use of fresh water? Rationed…anything? Perhaps in the face of war Americans might accept these temporary restraints, but lifelong prohibitions in the face of an intangible likely impacting people somewhere else? I believe by the time the US experiences the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it might be too late to reverse them. Ask yourself, how many changes have I made in life because of climate change? I don’t see a critical mass of change. We cannot even agree how to end the gun violence in America that is taking lives in the tangible present.

The only path I see requires the type of energy bubbling up in the youngest citizens and a unique approach to change: how can we use our brains and technology to alter the outcomes of our behaviors? I believe technologies that allow the production of meat without the raising of animals (lab grown meat) could greatly reduce methane gasses and allow grazing land to be repopulated with diverse flora. I believe technologies that increase re-use capacities will greatly reduce our use of finite resources. One area that is showing great promise is the electric engine. Though the price point for electric cars is unsustainable for the masses, the technology will become cheaper and more countries will have regulations requiring electric cars – I read recently that China is moving in that direction, yet in the States we are still officially advocating the burning of coal and oil.

We will not change our behaviors in my opinion, yet  I believe we will address climate change: we will alter the outcomes of our actions. We need to devote considerable investment in new technologies. It is our only hope of avoiding dystopian deserts dreamed up in so many nightmares.

 

 

It’s Okay. We all can try again.

I used to think the purpose of a New Year’s resolution was to make it but never follow through. Growing up, it seemed like adults enjoyed the act of making far more than doing. In fact, few adults actually even tried: the tradition was rooted in the supposed reflection, and the traction was enough. I naively believed everyone diligently reflected on past actions and created a meaningful, though evaporating, set of resolutions. As I’ve aged, I’ve found how much I had to learn.

For 2018, I have two resolutions: more patience and first draft privileges. Though intertwined, they are different.

Sometimes, I forget learning new things can be hard. I spend most of my hours in my wheelhouse, building on previous wins; daily learning is subtle and nuanced and I rarely have to try something completely new. I wish I could spend hours reading books, or trying new activities. But by 5pm, I’m exhausted. My brain desires unplugging. And so, I resolve to be more patient with myself when I don’t live up to my own standards.

We are in a time when many people are having to learn new skills. It’s hard. Men are learning their default is sexist because men are socialized as such. People of all colors are learning our default is racist, requiring us to question our starting points. We are learning how deep inequity flows and how our society punishes the less fortunate. We clamor for equality while learning the costs of our privileges.

Tough things to learn for any human.

I therefore resolve to assume first draft when engaging with others. If learning is hard, and we are in a time of great learning, it is important to remember that few people are trying to hurt, you or themselves. Though impact matters rather than intention, we must never forget the intention. When someone says something hurtful, I’ll assume the impact did not fit the intention and offer the person the opportunity to revise compassionately.

In an age of bombast and insular xenophobia, I resolve to remember the one thing linking me with every other human: existence. To be patient with those I meet, to assume they have good intentions, and to offer each person I meet the brilliant, extraordinary, gift of being human.

I’m not sure my behavior will change. I’m not sure my resolutions are about behavior. Instead, I want to be present. I want to know that my actions are not simply reactions and that through patience and empathy I can make sure my responses are intentional. I will still defend myself and my values, but I want to ensure that each action is deliberate, and that my actions are a reflection of how I see myself rather than as a reaction to others.

 

 

Either way, the world spins madly on.

You’ll Pay In The End

I’m just getting over a cold. It’s lingered for a bit. I keep thinking it is done, but then *hack* or *cough*. It’s gross. I’ve even debated calling the doctor and getting something stronger than what’s at Walgreens.

I decided my immune system would make it, but I never worried if I could pay the doctor. See, I met my deductible so my healthcare is already “paid”. At least for the next month or so. And then I have to come up with a few thousand dollars in spending. It won’t be fun, but I’ll manage it.

For many Americans the deductibles are so high, they can’t reach them without going broke or skipping a necessity. They have insurance, but it doesn’t really kick in, and when it does, you’ve already put out more money than you likely bargained. A cold can bring economic insecurity.

I’m not sure I call that insurance nor would I say it’s accessible.

Most people reading this likely believe healthcare is a government issue. We may disagree on the extent, but most Americans support some form of government involvement. And, as we move towards a fully digitized world, we will have to manage longer living populations with lower infant mortality rates. The US will have to adjust its healthcare policy to accommodate the fiscal realities of an aging population. Universal healthcare is less a matter of “if” and more a matter of “when”. Expanding Medicare to include any health adult who wants it, would be a great way to achieve universal coverage.

Since millions can barely afford the status quo, a progressive funding scheme is necessary to fund this expansion. Broadening taxation and reducing spending would be ideal ways to balance the books. Spending can be reduced by closing some corporate tax deductions and reallocating subsidies for private insurance. Taxes can be raised on unhealthy consumption and medically unnecessary elective procedures (people will need to be free to consume medical procedures without government boundaries, but there can be an increased fee for the unnecessary x-ray, belly tuck, or bag of Cheetos). Further taxes can be raised on the general population to replace current premiums: many people will abandon private insurance, and those savings can be used to fund expanded coverage. If the tax is fiscally neutral for most Americans, expanding Medicare would be financially feasible. And yes, some of us may end up paying more than others. Some may put in more money than they might ever use. And so, what? If your neighbor’s house is burning, do you really bicker with yourself about having to use your hose and water to put it out? Those of us who would pay more are likely the same people who will profit from a healthier workforce. And even if we aren’t, what kind of country are we if we don’t invest in our collective safety? We have no problem investing in swords, so let’s also invest in medicine.  And if it comes down to spending, our military budget can be reduced by billions without harming out status as the highest-funded military.

The government should also find ways to lower the cost of healthcare for its citizens. Doctors in the US make considerably more money than doctors in the Western world on average, yet our health outcomes are lower than most of Western Europe. A Columbia University study found that in 2008 the average doctor in the US earned $186,582 while in Canada, a country with higher healthcare satisfaction, the average doctor earns $125,000. In the US, the average income after expenses for an orthopedic surgeon is $442,450. In France is it $154, 400. Though compensation disparities have myriad sources, government should take steps to stabilize the market, and an expansion of Medicare would help use market forces to drive down costs, broaden coverage, and potentially stimulate the market into creating more acost effective medical economy.

Expanded Medicare funded by a mix of taxes, spending reductions, and appropriation reallocation coupled with strong abuse regulations, could make universal coverage a reality for the United States.

Peculiar Flames Flickering

What is racism?

Now, before you answer that question, I want you to ponder how you, the individual, would choose to answer that question.

Would you go to the dictionary? Search your brain for a logical answer? Ask someone you know?

If you’d go to the dictionary, how do you know you can trust it?

If you’d search your brain, how do you know your answer is logical?

If you’d ask someone, how do you know they are speaking truth?

At this point, you might be a tiny bit irritated. Wondering where these questions are going. Please humor me, I promise I’m making a point.

I’m going to guess that if you’d go the dictionary, it’s because you know the dictionary is a tool to define words. But who made the tool?

I’m going to guess that if you’d have searched your brain, it’s because you’ve learned the answer to the question in a previous moment in life. But how do you know you learned correctly?

I’m going to guess that the person you’d ask would be someone who knows about the topic, or who is a trusted friend. But who taught them?

I hope you are starting to see where we are headed. Just humor me a little longer.

So, if the dictionary is a tool made by some people, is it objective?

If you learned the information, was it learned objectively?

If someone taught you the information, was the teacher objective?

So, really, the question should be: Do you believe yourself capable of objectivity? In other words, are you free from bias?

Are you sure?

What about your own bias? Think about it this way: you are the sum of your experiences. But also, the sum of how you experience. You are not just what happens to you, but how it happens to you. You learn what is taught to you through the tool of experience. But, like any tool, it’s the user that matters.

So, if life is a process of using tools, then is it possible to be objective? Or is what we call objectivity really a form of confirmation bias? Are we creatures of objectivity or bias?

So, how do you know what you know?? Let’s start over.

 

What is racism?

The dictionary gives a very simple answer: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Our brains probably depict the KKK or Nazis.

Our teachers tell us it is stuff that existed largely in the past, and in small pockets today.

BUT I also know that Racism is systemic and institutional. That it’s passed down by parents to children in warnings to be safe or not date “those people”. It’s in redlining and “good districts”. It’s in poll taxes and “you speak so well!”. It’s in Jim Crow and mandatory minimums. It is at the heart of modernity; a product of extreme greed. It is born from fear. To justify owning slaves, racism was born. To justify slaughtering whole continents, racism was born. Not simply to slaughter or own, but for survival.

And that deep fear remains. It pervades American society, because we never unlearned it. It just became common sense; it became an objective truth. But really, it’s confirmation bias—we already believe something (the inferiority of lesser races) and that belief shapes reality.

It’s why we can’t agree on what racism is. It’s why we don’t think critically about race. Ever.

We can’t think critically. Too much of our existence is predicated on racism. It props up inherited wealth. It props up new wealth. It props up the model minority and talented tenth. It props up suburbs and gated communities. It props up American capitalism.

 

But it doesn’t have to. It’s a modern Plato’s Cave.

So, do we need to talk more about racism in education? Yes. Because the textbooks were created by people who lived in a racist society. Because the universities that trained them were occupied by people who lived in a racist society. Because it goes back through history, hand in hand with the racist society. In the past racism was akin to air or water: just a part of life and all that was ever known. And we are still in a racist society today.

Ask yourself how you know what you know. Think about who taught it to you. Think about how you learned it. What tools have you been given? Are they capable of doing what you think they are doing? Are there better tools out there that you have not yet learned about?

I’m telling you there are better tools. I’d be happy to help you learn how to use them. There is a big world to build outside the cave, and we could use your help. It might hurt at first, just like the light does when you exit a dark cave. You might want to run back, because your entire world was safer as a lie (confirmation bias!). And this is why we need to talk about racism in education: because when you return to the cave to get others, you stop making sense to them. You’re not capable of confirming the bias of the cave. How can you unshackle someone who wants to stay shackled? What if they won’t unlock themselves?

I don’t have a perfect answer for that, but it surely has not stopped me from trying.

 

Happiness is as Happiness does

I remember the first time I made a cup of tea. I can’t quite recall my first cup, but I do remember the first one I made. It was a simple Lipton tea bag. Enveloping, but with a little bite. Sort of the way fall becomes winter. Or that telling itch when the bath was drawn just a little too hot. Every cup thereafter becomes a subtle re-creation attempt.

I try to expand the moment before the tea touches my tongue. Breathe it in. Slowly. Deliberately. It takes a few moments, but it forces me to slow down much the way a mom does an energetic toddler. This slowness is fertile ground for reflection, and I often reflect on how fortunate I am, and how grateful I am for that fortune.

Gratitude and humility are actionable goals I seek to model every day. Though the process of gratitude and humility may be uncomfortable and difficult, those feelings are a necessary part of building happiness, and it gets easier with practice. I am grateful for the souls reading these words. I hope these words edify you. I hope they bring happiness.

Remembering the wonder of the moment helps center my thoughts, as humility opens us to ourselves. But I often fail to remain centered. I often over-think, because too much of my happiness is gained from winning assurances from society. Once you get the job, you have to keep it. Once you get the bonus, you have to get it next year. Once you get a promotion, you have to snag a better one within three.

This is the cost. Different lives have different costs. This is the one I choose. 

So, to reclaim my time on days where gratitude and humility fail to center my perspective, I follow my heart and indulge myself while honoring the gratitude I have for my health.

I take a hot soak every other day, lingering past the point of pruney digits. I eat the extra scoop of ice cream, and the extra slice of pie…or cake. I run the extra mile. I nap for a few more minutes and buy the boots in the window. I remember that everyone, no matter where they are from wants to feel loved, a sense of purpose, valued, and heard.
 

And I try to forgive myself. To remember that good things often bite a little. That asking forgiveness is an indication of strength, just like taking a few moments to breathe deeply helps us with the most time consuming tasks.

But most importantly, I remind myself there is wonder in the world. It’ll always be there, I just have to find it. And most of the time, it can be found during an impromptu dance party on my bed, or in the kisses my dog gives me when negotiating a few more minutes of play, or in my niece’s laugh. It can be found on the beaches when I crossed items from my bucket list, or in the rainstorms I was completely ill-prepared to handle. It can be found watching children grow up, and in the deepest recess of my darkest fears.

 

I find happiness when I take the moment to check-in with the little boy who wanted to be an astronaut, and ask him what he’d like to do today. And doing just that.

 

He is just as cool as I remember, and the tea tastes just as good to him too.

 

Choices

“What are you watching? Those are pretty dresses!” My niece has entered the room with her nose in my business.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“Rude Paul?”
“RuPaul”
“RuPaul sings!”
“Yup, you remember”
“But why is he in girls clothes?”
‘Because he is playing pretend. He likes the pretty dresses and hair”
“Boys can do that?”
“Yup, and so can girls. Anyone can play pretend”
And that was all it took for my five year old niece to understand Drag Queens.

Now, I fully understand her understanding is contextual: she loves to dress up too. She seemed very satisfied that adults can still dress up and pretend. BUT the nimbleness of her mind is evidence that the rigid social lines of the past were mostly constructed and imposed rather than inherent and natural. I grew up thinking sex and gender were basically the same thing. Girls had vaginas and that meant they were different. Since the difference was clear, it made sense that other differences must exist between the sexes.

It was not until college that I began to learn how little I knew. Apparently what is taught in grade school is not the full truth, and it requires sophisticated nuance to understand the science behind sex and gender. It turns out sex isn’t just male/female either– the spectrum is quite vast! Chromosomal diversity helps us see the realities beyond XX and XY.

So, if we have more than XX and XY, that must mean our social evolution is on a spectrum. Today, many young people are like my niece: anyone can be anyone they want. If I want to wear a dress, nothing about me changes. If I want wear a blazer, nothing about me changes.

AND perhaps we see the breakdown of arbitrary gender orientations because our parents raised us to think we could do anything.

If I can do anything, how could it be possible that my gender has some inherent restriction on possibility.

Now, some will say that men are stronger than women. Sure, that is generally true. BUT I also know we socialize women to avoid activities that build strength. So, is it the chicken or the egg?

And even if men are stronger than women, there is no reason to deny a woman anything without giving her an equal try– she should fail on her own merits, not that of an arbitrarily delineated grouping. I recently saw that the Navy Seals had their first female qualify. This is a good thing, and shows that gender means little.

 

And it should mean little.

We should be who we are at our cores.

BUT tradition dies hard. Some scholars argue the “gender gap” began with the move from hunter/gatherer to agrarian civilizations. Women played an equal role while tribes were mobile. Once tribes settled permanently, brute strength became more necessary leading to male dominance and patriarchy.

This makes tremendous sense. It is further supported by the “crisis of masculinity” occurring today. Civilization has shifted from the brute strength of men to the finesse of women. The rigid gender binary has swung sides: traditionally feminine skills are in demand.

And so now men are suffering (and growing beards).

But millennials are bucking that trend. Younger men are starting to reject the toxic masculinity that demands so much from them.

Younger women are blossoming and taking over.

What I see is a messy process where men and women are starting to view themselves on a spectrum– where you are not masculine or feminine, but rather just …a person with interests. And our parents aren’t sure how to handle it all the time. But they do love us. And they want us to love ourselves.

 

Cause, if you can’t love yourself how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?