Lately I have been describing my personal political views as “left of Bernie, but with a preference for plans that can work.” In other words, I would love universal healthcare and free college. I just don’t know how to get there in any practical way. I don’t think anyone else does either.
This indirectly brings me to Sam Altman, CEO of Y-Combinator, and a billionaire investor. He’s embarking on an experiment to see what happens when you give citizens free money, no strings attached. This is important because our robot-centric future will mean the end of most forms of human labor. And that means one of two things, in all likelihood: 1) 90% of the world starves to death while the robot-owners thrive, or 2) 90% of the world receives some sort of “free money” from the rich, with no strings attached. Sam is testing option two.
Stop right there. I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking it is far too soon to be thinking about a robot takeover of labor. But you might not know that Sam is heavily invested in robot startups. He’s seen things you haven’t seen. If he’s planning for a robot takeover of labor, get worried. He’s not guessing.
This is the sort of experiment your government should be doing but doesn’t know how to do. So Sam is doing it. And his results could easily inform government decisions when the robot revolution kicks into high gear.
I’ve said before in this blog, and on Periscope, that our old system of government – the republic – has already been replaced by citizen influencers. Thanks to social media, the best ideas go viral, and our elected representatives end up being more like followers of good ideas than leaders with their own plans. If Sam’s experiment shows us something we didn’t know, and the results can be reproduced, it will inform public policy on one of humanity’s greatest inflection points.
A smart investor always insists on small-scale tests of big ideas before committing big dollars. In the world of business, this is standard practice. Compare that to the current GOP healthcare plan that involves granting all the federal money for that cause to the states so they can work it out.
The responsible approach would be to test some healthcare ideas in a few states or counties and then work with what we learned. A wholesale change such as transferring responsibility to the states is reckless and, in my opinion, unethical. The unethical part is that moving funding to the states is little more than a political trick to protect Republicans in the 2018 election. It has nothing to do with helping citizens.
Regular readers of this blog know I am forgiving of politicians who intentionally exaggerate and ignore facts, so long as their intentions appear to be directed at the greater good. But shifting money for healthcare to the states is for the benefit of Congress, not the greater good.
My bottom line is that I can support a government plan that involves testing small before going big. But going big on an untested idea is not leadership. It is just bad management, or worse.
I don’t know if Sam Altman’s test of free money will tell us something important or not. But I do know it is a sensible and responsible approach to leading. Maybe someday our elected officials will learn how it’s done.
Speaking of leading, you might enjoy pre-ordering my book, Win Bigly, because it is filled with pages.
You might enjoy my Periscope playback from this morning in which I describe the several persuasion techniques President Trump is using on the topic of The Wall and DACA.Here’s the quick summary.Visual Persuasion: President Trump describes border …
Win Bigly is a tutorial on weapons-grade persuasion, using as a backdrop the personal story of how I used my knowledge of persuasion to predict a number of unlikely events during the 2016 election. You’ll have a new superpower when you are done with it. And you’ll never see reality the same way again. (In a good way.)
Our duo of hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, have elevated the perceived risks of climate change in a lot of people’s minds. Are these disasters, and the record heat in many places, a sign of climate warming already out of control?
The quick answer is maybe, but climate scientists will need a lot more data and probably a few more years to know whether we are seeing a blip or a trend. From a persuasion perspective, the fascinating thing to me is that the climate science “sides” have reversed because of the storms. And here I am only talking about non-scientists on social media.
Last winter I saw climate skeptics (or deniers in some cases) proclaiming climate change a hoax because it was cold outside. The scientists and pro-climate-change folks mocked those poor souls for not understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and science. You can’t determine a long term trend by looking out the window, say all scientists. And if you think you can, you’re being a big dope who doesn’t know the first thing about science.
If you don’t understand that anecdotal data in isolation is generally useless to scientists, you don’t understand anything about science. A year ago, that described a lot of climate skeptics who were looking out their windows, seeing snow, and declaring climate change a hoax.
But that was last year. This week the sides reversed. Now I keep seeing climate alarmists on social media looking at the hurricanes and declaring them strong evidence of climate change. They might be right. But if they are, it is by coincidence and not by science. Scientists say it is too early to tell. So now we have a bizarre situation in which the pro-science side is disagreeing with the scientists on their own side. That’s what confirmation bias gets you. Both sides see anecdotal evidence as real. Both sides think they respect and understand the basics of science. Both sides are wrong.
Please excuse my generalities here. Obviously there are plenty of smart people on both sides who understand that anecdotal information is not confirmation of anything. But in terms of what I see on social media, the hurricanes have turned a lot of people on the pro-science side into believers in anecdotal evidence. Here’s one example. Read from bottom up.
And this brings me to my topic of the day: How do you know when to trust experts? My hypothesis is that people who have the most experience in the real world trust experts the least. To make that point, allow me to give you a brief tour of my experience with experts.
When I was a kid, scientists seemed to agree on what constituted good nutrition. They even put that knowledge into a handy visual aid involving a food pyramid, and provided it to every school. We now understand the science behind it to be bunk.
I’m old enough to have observed fitness experts revising their advice countless times. I’m no longer sure if stretching is good or bad. And the exercise experts also had the nutrition stuff wrong, along with the rest of the world, for most of my lifetime.
When I was a kid, Sigmund Freud was considered the leading expert on psychology even though he was dead. Now the experts in psychology considers Freud a fraud. His science wasn’t science at all.
When I was young, I assumed experts could pick stocks better than a monkey with a dart board. It turns out I was wrong. Index funds with no experts whatsoever routinely outperform the expert stock-pickers.
I have a degree in economics and an MBA from UC Berkeley. I did financial projections for a living, first at a major bank and later at the local phone company. People considered me an expert in that narrow field. In a number of cases, I got to track how my projections compared to actual results. They were rarely close. As an expert, I deserved no credibility whatsoever. And for a good reason. My projections required human judgment on lots of variables, so the output was little more than guessing and massaging the numbers to meet my boss’s expectations.
Some of you know I lost my ability to speak for over three years because of a bizarre disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. The experts almost unanimously agreed that the source of the spasmodic dysphonia is in the brain, not the vocal cords. I ended up diagnosing myself correctly after my primary care doctor and his recommended specialists were totally stumped. (I figured it out using Google.) Once I knew the problem, I found the one surgeon in the world who claimed he could fix my problem by rewiring the nerve pathways in my neck. The operation was a success, and I recovered from an “incurable” problem. Had I listened to 99% of the experts who said the problem was in my brain, I would not have considered an operation on my neck.
I could go on like this for hours, but I think you start to see my point. At my age, and given my type of experience, I have seen experts get the big stuff wrong lots of times, even when that seemed deeply unlikely.
That brings us to climate change. The experts are strongly aligned on one side. If you have neither the age nor the experience to know how often experts can be wrong, you probably assume the experts are credible. But if you have my type of experience, watching the fields of finance, diet, exercise, psychology, and medicine get the big stuff wrong, you start from a place of skepticism. Ideally, we would look at the details in any given situation to make our final decisions on the credibility of experts because no two cases are alike. Unfortunately, we humans are not good at using facts and reason. We tend to use our biases and then rationalize them later.
So how do we know when to trust experts and when to be skeptical? Here are the red flags you should look for in order to know how much credibility to assign to the experts.
When the players have money on the line, the truth gets distorted. In climate science, money influences both sides of the debate. That’s a red flag.
Complexity with Assumptions
Whenever you see complexity, that is a red flag. Complexity is often used to deceive. And complexity invites human error. When you see complex models that claim to predict the future, stay skeptical, especially when humans are making assumptions that influence the results.
The exceptions are planetary predictions and other straightforward physics. We can predict the future location of planets without any human assumptions. That is just math and physics. But in the fields of finance and climate science, to name just two, humans are influencing the models with assumptions. That is always a red flag. I am aware of no complex prediction model populated with human assumption-tweaking that is credible, in any field. Is climate science the first exception? Maybe. But it would be unusual in my experience.
The Important Fact Left Out
When people have the facts on their side, they are quick to point it out. When a key fact is glaringly omitted, that’s a red flag.
In the world of climate science, most of you would not know the answer to this key question: Are the temperature measurements peer reviewed?
You probably assumed the temperature measurements are peer reviewed. Maybe some, or most, are. All I know for sure is that climate scientist Michael Mann says his temperature data is proprietary. He refused to release it to a Canadian court for that reason. is that a common situation, that data measurements are “secret.” I don’t know. Neither do you. That’s a red flag. It is conspicuous that you and I don’t know the answer to that basic question. Because if the raw temperature data is not peer reviewed, is it really science?
To be perfectly clear here, I don’t know the state of peer review for temperature measurements. But it is such a key question it raises a red flag as to why scientists aren’t making sure we know the raw data is clean and widely reviewed.
Conflation of Credibility
Whenever you see someone conflate a credible thing (such as the peer review system in science) with a less-credible thing (long term prediction models), that’s a red flag. If you question the accuracy of climate models, someone will mention the gold standard of peer review, even though that doesn’t address climate models that involve human assumptions. Conflation of credibility is a red flag.
My view on climate science is that different elements have different levels of earned credibility. Like this:
Basic Science: The chemistry and physics of climate change seem solid. When you add CO2 to an environment, expect some extra heat, all other things being equal.
Temperature Measurements: The temperature measurements used by climate scientists might be solid. But the way science has so far communicated this topic does not inspire confidence. I think you have to put a lower credibility on the temperature measurements than on the basic science, simply because of the way the topic is presented to the public. If the measurements are credible, why not tell us all about the peer review process that has validated them? And why would Michael Mann even have “proprietary” data? Isn’t everyone looking at the same stuff?
Climate Models: As soon as you hear that someone has a complicated prediction model, that’s red flag. If you hear that the model involves human assumptions and “tweaking,” that’s a double red flag. If you hear there are dozens of different models, that’s a triple red flag. If you hear that the models that don’t conform to the pack are discarded, and you don’t know why, that is a quadruple red flag. And if you see people conflating climate projections with economic models to put some credibility on the latter, you have a quintuple red flag situation.
To be fair, none of the so-called flags I mentioned means the models are wrong. But they do mean you can’t put the same credibility on them as you would the basic science.
Have you noticed that I seem to be the only person talking about economic models when it comes to climate change? That’s because there is a tendency to assume the economic decision is so obvious no study is needed.
That’s the sort of thinking that no economist would find credible. Moreover, economists don’t believe anyone can forecast the future with long term economic models. Science might tell us we have a big problem, but economists have to tell us when to start addressing it and how hard. That part is missing.
I have seen some economic guesses of how much damage would be caused by climate change. But I have not seen one that considered opportunity cost, or the benefit of waiting for better technology. No economist would respect a prediction that ignored those two enormous variables. And those variables are deeply unpredictable by their nature.
The One Sided Argument
When I see climate scientists in the media, they are never accompanied by skeptical scientists who can check their statements in real time. Likewise, articles by and about skeptics are usually presented without simultaneous debunking by the experts on the other side. Those are red flags. Any presentation of one side without the simultaneous fact-checking by the other is useless and almost certainly designed for persuasion, not truth. The problem here is that both sides of the climate debate are 100% persuasive when viewed without the other in attendance. If you think your side is the smart side, check out the other side. They look just as smart, at least to non-scientists such as me.
I’ll summarize by reminding readers that I am not a scientist and I don’t have the tools to evaluate the credibility of climate scientists. If you think you do have that ability as a non-scientist, my guess is that you are younger than me or you have less experience of the type I described above.
When I present this sort of framing to climate change believers, they generally retreat to Pascal’s Wager, which says in this case that we should treat any risk of catastrophe as if it is likely, so we aggressively address the risk and eliminate it. That makes sense in a world where resources are not constrained. But our world is the opposite. Everything we do is at the expense of something else we wanted to do. And I am aware of no economic model that considers the opportunity cost of spending a trillion dollars for perhaps a half-degree temperature improvement.
Climate change isn’t our only mortal threat. We have pandemics, terrorism, nuclear war, the singularity, asteroids, and probably a dozen more threats I don’t even know. If we could eliminate all of those threats and have money left over, I say let’s do it. But if resources are limited (and they are), I need a strong argument to put a trillion dollars into any one of the risks.
My new book, Win Bigly, is available for pre-order. It’s about persuasion in a world where facts don’t matter to our decisions. (Even when they should.)
It wasn’t that long ago that climate scientists and their supporters mocked the critics who looked out their window, saw snow in the winter, and declared “global warming” to be a ridiculous hoax.
The climate scientists were right about that. You can’t predict the future by looking at today’s weather, even when the weather is setting records.
Likewise, my latest understanding of climate science (which is always sketchy at best, and certainly in need of updating now) is that we haven’t yet seen the “signal” of climate change in the hurricane data or the weather extremes. But that view is perhaps a year old. Has science updated its opinion to say the two super-hurricanes and our heat extremes are indeed a credible signal of the beginning of a climate catastrophe?
I watch a lot of news, continuously sampling both sides. I haven’t yet seen a climate scientist weigh in on our recent weather extremes. (Perhaps I missed a few?) So I have no idea whether we are seeing something statistically meaningful right now or not.
Let me put this in more stark terms.
If the recent hurricanes and weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate change, we really, really, really need to know that. THAT is NEWS. In fact, no news is bigger than that news. Even the risk from North Korea is smaller than the risk of total climate catastrophe. So if the current weather extremes are statistically meaningful, and science confirms, why-the-hell isn’t that the lead story everywhere?
On the flip side, if climate scientists do NOT believe our current weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate predictions, I’d say THAT should be the lead story too, simply because so many people believe they are seeing the beginning of the end times, climate-wise.
So why is the biggest story in the world conspicuously missing from the news? Keep in mind that climate change is still the biggest story even if the hurricanes are NOT telling us something new. The public wants to know how big the threat is. We’re scared!!!
Instead of that news, we get mostly crickets.
My working hypothesis is that science doesn’t know one way or another whether the current weather extremes are predictive of things to come. And if they are not yet sure, they would say as much. And that would be a problem for news organizations dedicated to reporting climate science risks as real and dire. If you think the world is best served by convincing the public that climate risks are real, your most socially responsible play in this case is to ignore climate scientists at the moment and let the public believe (without the benefit of scientific support, at least right now) that current temperature extremes are a clear sign of climate collapse.
Take this guy, for example. He’s typical of the what I am seeing on Twitter and even from my friends.
[If Tumblr were not broken right now, you would be seeing an image of a tweet that mocks climate critics for thinking the hurricanes are not proof of climate change. But instead you see this boring text because Tumblr won’t accept an image this morning.]
This fine gentleman believes our current hurricanes are indeed a clear signal of climate change. To be perfectly clear, he could be right. But if he is right, it is not because he is well-informed or smart. It would be a coincidence in this case. As far as I know, climate scientists are not onboard with Roger. They might confirm his gut feeling at some point soon, but for now, Roger is doing his own climate science by watching CNN.
So we have an odd situation in which news organizations can report the most “truthful” version of the reality – according to them – by NOT reporting the best thinking on the topic. Here I’m assuming the best thinking is that it is too soon to know how important recent weather extremes are to our predictions of climate change. But if that story is reported, viewers will get the wrong idea and conclude that climate change is not such a big deal even though these weather extremes are clearly a big deal.
Conversely, by not putting climate scientists on TV, and avoiding the trap of having them say, “We can’t tell yet,” which would be over-interpreted by skeptics, news organizations might be doing the most ethically defensible thing they could do. If they believe climate change is a big problem, and they want the public to agree, these hurricanes are doing a great job of persuasion without the benefit of science. It’s hard for the public to see what is happening right now as coincidence, or a normal variation in weather. It just doesn’t feel like normal. It feels like the first big signal of climate change to many observers because they have been primed for confirmation bias on that topic.
If you are a producer for CNN, and you believe climate change is an enormous problem that the public needs to understand, you would hesitate to allow any segment on the air that conflicts with that objective. For example, you would not give equal time to climate skeptics. And while all attention is on the hurricanes, you might not want a climate scientist to come on the air and say some version of “We have no idea whether these specific weather extremes mean something. We’ll need more data to know if this is a real trend or a blip.” That message would sound to skeptics like confirmation of their skepticism, even though it isn’t. Not even close. But it would be received that way by skeptics because of confirmation bias. Everyone hears what they want to hear.
So the biggest story in the world is largely ignored by news organizations because – and here I speculate – reporting any uncertainty about climate change is not as persuasive as allowing the public to look out the window and generate their own illusions of certainty while also frightened to death.
What would Sam Harris say about the ethics in this situation? Should news organizations lie by omission when they sincerely believe doing so is good for the planet? Or should they put scientists on the air to say “We don’t know yet” and give fuel to the climate skeptics whom they believe are jeopardizing the future of humanity?
I say give us the truth in this case, even if the truth is “We don’t know yet.”
You might have heard that North Korea and the United States are not getting along. We mock their lack of electricity, they threaten to annihilate us with thermonuclear weapons, that sort of thing.
But why are we enemies?
I’ll sort it all out for you here.
Obviously the largest source of friction is that the United States and North Korea want very different things. And those different things are mutually exclusive. For example, we want to avoid nuclear war and they… okay, they also want to avoid nuclear war. But on most other issues, we want different things.
For example, North Korea doesn’t want the U.S. to invade their country. The United States, on the other hand, wants to invade North Korea about as much as we want rabid porcupines shoved up our asses. I guess you could say we’re on the same page on that too. But that’s only two points of agreement in this whole mess. You have to look at the big picture.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to establish himself as a credible nuclear power, partly for defense, and partly as a vehicle for national pride. So far, they have succeeded on the national pride part. The United States wishes they had not, but we agree it was an impressive achievement. So we’re on the same page about the national pride. They earned it.
Where we differ is that the United States and its ally, South Korea, would like to see a unified Korean peninsula someday, but we realize there is no-way-in-hell it can happen in our lifetimes. North Korea, on the other hand, wants to see a unified Korean peninsula someday, but they realize there is no-way-in-hell it can happen in their lifetimes. If you strip away the magical thinking and hard-wishing, we’re of the same opinion on unification: Nice, but not gonna happen while we’re alive.
Okay, okay, we’re mostly on the same page about all of the stuff I mentioned so far. But consider that North Korea would like to feed its people and grow its economy. The United States would like for them to do that too, so long as they leave us alone. Okay, I guess we’re on the same page there too.
The biggest problem the United States has with North Korea is that Kim Jong Un wants to avoid being killed or deposed and we don’t give a shit about him one way or another so long as he leaves us alone. So I guess we aren’t too far apart on that either, unless we want to be total dicks about it and kill him just for fun.
One of the biggest sticking points is that the United States has massive military assets in South Korea. North Korea doesn’t like that. Contrast that opinion to the normal citizen in the United States who doesn’t understand why-the-hell we have even one soldier in South Korea. What is the point of it? Are we preparing for the big push to conquer China? (Probably not.) Is South Korea unable to deter an attack from the North? (Not as long as they can afford American weapons systems, and the U.S. still has a navy.) So I guess Kim Jong Un and American voters are mostly on the same side about our presence in South Korea. We all understand that American military presence in South Korea once had a purpose, but not so much in 2017.
I confess to being under-informed about the situation with North Korea, but it seems to me that the issue boils down to magical thinking about future unification. North Korea wants to be on the winning side of any unification and so does South Korea. The problem is that no one knows how both sides could be the winners.
Except for me. This is right in my wheelhouse.
Let me reframe this for you. I won’t change any of the data, just the filter you apply to it.
The situation in North Korea involves a number of what I’d call “real” problems, such as the very real risk of nuclear war, and the very real artillery batteries in North Korea pointed at South Korea. When your security risks are the “real” kind, you hire an experienced military person to deal with it. General Mattis seems to have a good handle on the “real” risks.
Now let’s talk about the stuff that isn’t “real” in any physical sense. The first issue is North Korean national pride. I’m sure any negotiated settlement could keep that intact. For example, having direct talks with the United States would be a point of honor. And one can imagine a negotiated agreement that lets them keep nuclear power for energy while not building any ICBMs. Everyone’s pride stays intact.
But what about all the magical thinking about unification? That requires a magical-thinking solution. That’s where I come in. As a trained persuader, I have a suggested solution. I call it the hundred-year-plan for unification. Both sides would simply agree to work out the details over the next hundred years. The details might include loosening travel, establishing trade, eventual amnesty for leaders, that sort of thing. That way, both sides could claim victory. The victory would be in the imagination of both sides, not in the real world. But it still works, because a change in imagination is all you need to cure magical thinking. And unification in our lifetimes is, for all practical purposes, just magical thinking.
For more details on my 100-year-plan for Korean unification, see this blog post.
For my regular readers, recall that a year ago I was one of the few voices saying Kim Jong Un was rational while most pundits and “experts” were saying he was a total nut job. Today, most “experts” have evolved to my view that Kim Jong Un is a rational player.
Recall also that in 2015 I was one of the first public voices to proclaim candidate Trump was far more than the “clown” the public and pundits widely believed him to be. I mention both cases to bolster my credibility.
In summary, if you have “real” security problems, call General Mattis. But if your problems are in the realm of imagination and magical thinking, call a Master Persuader.
Better yet, elect him president.
You’re in better hands than you know.
That doesn’t mean everything will turn out well with North Korea, but it does mean you have the right team in place for the first time, capable of managing both the “real” and the imaginary dimensions. And in Kim Jong Un I suspect we have a negotiating partner who understands all dimensions.
We are closer to war with North Korea than at any time in recent memory. But we are also closer than we have ever been to a permanent solution. My optimism about North Korea is that for the first time in history we have players on the field who understand the nature of the problem as partly real and partly imaginary, and they have the tools to deal with all of it. I don’t think we’ve had the right people on the job until now.
Have you noticed that our Insulter-in-Chief has been going easy on Kim Jong Un in the verbal sparring? President Trump has been downright respectful.
It isn’t an accident.
My startup’s app, Approach by WhenHub, is helping hurricane Harvey families and emergency responders in the area locate each other. Our analytics show the app picking up popularity in the flood zone.
I blogged some time ago about a perfect city design in which the homes were above ground and all the transportation (people and goods) was below. In another blog posts (that I can’t locate now) I predicted that the big sleeper technology that will change everything is tunneling technology.
Elon Musk is on it. He owns a tunneling company that is just getting started. Now imagine the tunneling technology improving at a normal rate, and the cost-per-mile dropping. Now add robots to build the above-ground housing right on the site. Elon musk invests in that technology too. The future will be new cities, built from scratch, with homes costing about $100,000 that offer a middle-class standard of living. That’s the only way society will survive the age of robots (taking jobs) and the glut of retirees on limited income. The cost of a quality life has to drop by about 90%. Thanks to Musk, that future seems likely to me.
And if that doesn’t work out, Musk has a Mars option in the pipeline.
Oh, and tunneling technology is probably similar to canal-digging technology. Expect some fun there too.
You should be following me on Twitter at @scottadamssays because otherwise you’ll miss the good stuff.
I know you prefer my written blog posts, but I’m recording the audiobook for Win Bigly all this week and only have time for some Periscope fun. This one is about leadership breaking out all over. If you want some optimism with your coffee, here it is.
My hypothesis is that the political side that is out of power is the one that hallucinates the most – and needs to – in order to keep their worldview intact. For example, when President Obama was in office, I saw all kinds of hallucinations on the right about his intentions to destroy America from the inside because he “hates” it.
That was a mass hysteria. If President Obama wanted to destroy America, he failed miserably. We’re stronger than ever.
The birther issue started as ordinary political shenanigans to delegitimize the president. I call it ordinary because you see the trick used whenever it is an option, as it was with “Canadian” Ted Cruz in the primaries. Eventually it morphed into a full-blown hallucination that President Obama was a Muslim sleeper cell from Kenya, or something like that. That was mass hysteria.
Now that Democrats are out of power, we should expect them to hallucinate like crazy (literally) because the election results of 2016 shattered their expectations. Do we see signs of their hallucinations? I’ll walk you through a few examples.
Based on President Trump’s tweets and speeches, I can see into his soul, and it is all darkness and racism in there.
If the President of the United States tries anything racist in the real world, the Supreme Court, Congress, and the voters would shut him down in a heartbeat. For example, the Courts modified President Trump’s immigration ban to remove even the perception of racism. That’s a sensitive filter for racism, and I think we like it that way.
Society’s standard is that you are judged for what you do, not what you privately think. That’s good because humans are terrible at knowing what other people think, while at the same time we think we are good at it. I know this first-hand because dozens of people misinterpret what I write on social media every day. If you don’t have my type of experience – of being routinely misinterpreted – you might think humans are good at reading minds based on subtle clues. We are not good at that. We might be slightly better than random chance, at best. The problem is that we are dead-certain we are champions of evidence-based mindreading. That is a hallucination.
I can spot a racist by how long it takes them to properly disavow other racists.
That isn’t a thing. The first rule of communicating is that people only hear what they think you intend to say. They don’t hear what you actually say. If you think someone is a racist, you will perceive their disavowals of racism as too late and too inadequate. If you think someone is not a racist, you might see their statements as politically incorrect and nothing worse. This phenomenon is most pronounced when strong emotions are involved. The topic of racism stirs our strongest emotions. So according to everything we know about brains, we should expect the highest level of hallucinations when racism is the topic. And that is exactly what we observe.
To be clear, racism itself is very real. The hallucination is limited to seeing it under every bed and behind every couch.
That said, we are 13% into President Trump’s first term, and Congress has created no major bills worthy of signing. Congress is tasked with working out the details of bills. The president can’t do his job until they do theirs.
We observe that the president has not shown leadership on any major legislation. But keep in mind that Congress produced nothing worthy of leadership. Would any leader be able to fix that? Yes, but I assume it takes longer than simply signing bills that come to your desk. Especially in this hyper-polarized environment.
President Trump is performing poorly!
Compared to what? The imaginary president in your head? There is no base case with which to compare any president’s performance. Would Hillary Clinton have passed major legislation with a Republican Congress in less than six months? It seems unlikely. But we can’t know because she isn’t president.
We are terrible at judging how well a stranger performs compared to the imaginary person in our minds. We just think we are good at it.
If you thought some “fine people” were marching with Nazis and KKK in Charlottesville, you are a racist.
I condemn all racists and anyone who marches with them. But It turns out that some non-racists were at the event to support the absolute right of free speech, including the worst kinds of speech. In this one case, President Trump passed the fact-checking but failed miserably on the “saying the right thing” dimension.
He wisely left the facts alone after failing on the empathy.
This country needs moral leadership and we are not getting it!
The country does not need moral leadership in 2017. Social media has filled that void. The country is unified (let’s say 98%) in condemning the KKK and other racists in Charlottesville. We did that without moral leadership. We want moral leadership, but there is no evidence we need it.
We would also like to know our president has the right intentions. But hallucinations on that topic are nearly unfixable. Obama never fixed it. Trump will not either.
The way you worded your statement, you made a moral equivalence between the KKK and people protesting the KKK.
Literally no one but the KKK and other extreme racists has any trouble understanding that Nazis are worse than the people protesting against hate. It is a hallucination (or political tricksterism) to suggest normal citizens can’t distinguish the moral difference between Nazis and those demonstrating against racism.
I could go on, but I think you are starting to see the picture. The party out of power has to hallucinate to make their world make sense. The people who think they are smart and morally pure don’t understand why their side lost an election. The simplest fix for that broken worldview is to imagine there are far more “secret racists” than they first assumed, and those people can be identified by the way they accidentally reveal their “moral equivalence” opinions that look exactly like law-and-order opinions to others.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Cognitive dissonance hits the losing team hardest. It has to, because only the losing side need to make sense of it all. The winning side thinks things are going exactly as expected. They have no trigger for hallucinating.
If our next president is a Democrat, expect the Right to do most of the hallucinating. The Left will think things are going as expected.
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As you might expect, anti-Trumper are saying the tweet didn’t age well. They are saying this on the same week that their side protested a free speech rally by throwing urine on cops.
Okay, okay, I know what you are going to say. Those protestors do not represent all anti-Trump people. But I learned this past week that if you are marching with urine-hurlers, and making common cause with urine-hurlers, you’re just as bad as urine-hurlers. And if that logic doesn’t hold up, it would feel super-awkward for me to be on the team that says it does. But that’s just me.
Meanwhile, Senator Schiff, a prominent anti-Trumper, spoke out today against violence. But he failed to name Antifa or White Supremacists by name, despite being prompted to do so by Jake Tapper in this interview, thus drawing a moral equivalence between Antifa and White Supremacists. And if he later mentions any hate groups by name, we still have to wonder why it took so long. We learned last week from anti-Trumpers that this sort of moral equivalence, and the peculiar pause before a full disavowal, are deeply meaningful. If this logic doesn’t make sense to you, it might feel super-awkward to be on the team that insists it does.
And what about the racist dog whistle that anti-Trumpers tell us only they and racists can hear? Is it not super-awkward that your best criticism involves hearing a secret message that only racists can detect?
Or what if your view is that President Trump accomplished nothing in his first six months? Would this extensive list of his accomplishments make you feel super-awkward?
Perhaps you rejoiced this week about President Trump’s tweet on General Pershing’s handling of Islamic terrorists because he was so factually wrong about the pig blood thing. But maybe you didn’t know how accurate he was according to Pershing’s own words. That feels super-awkward to me, but maybe it sounds different to people who hear the secret racist beacon at the same time.
I will take anti-Trumpers at their word that they don’t feel awkward about any of this. I got that prediction totally wrong. I recently wrote a blog post explaining why anti-Trumpers don’t feel awkward. It involves something I call the Mass Hysteria Bubble.
I will take this opportunity to publicly eat some crow and agree that six months into this presidency, anti-Trumpers do NOT feel super-awkward. But according to Julian Assange, perhaps they should:
If the only thing you haven’t lost to the GOP already is free speech, you might want to hold onto that one.
Unless it feels super-awkward to do so.
To be fair, it was indeed a super-awkward week to be a Trump supporter of any kind. No debate on that. But that’s not what I tweeted about. I tweeted that the other side would feel super-awkward. I got that wrong.
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After the horrors of Charlottesville, and President Trump’s morally ambiguous initial statement, pundits, politicians and citizens complained that we weren’t getting the moral leadership we need.
I have one question: Why do we need moral leadership?
Moral leadership probably made sense in pre-Internet days. But today we get rapid moral clarity from social media, whether we want it or not. That doesn’t mean every person agrees. But social media usually produces a dominant moral opinion, and rapidly. No need for our “moral leaders” to get involved. We got this.
Do you know anyone who watched the news about Charlottesville and thought the White Supremacists might be the ones on the right side of this issue? Well, maybe, but those people would be white supremacists, and not likely to change because a president gave a tearful speech full of moral leadership.
So why did we need moral leadership when no one in the country wanted to be led anywhere? We all had our moral opinions and they weren’t going to change because of anyone’s moral leadership. And no one suggested that one group or another should be exempt from the law. We were all on the same page on that.
It seems to me that people didn’t really need moral leadership after Charlottesville. They just wanted it. What they really wanted was a cry-point. They wanted a leader to share the emotions they were feeling and to put a voice to their concerns. But only because it would feel good, in the same way people inexplicably enjoy sad movies that make you cry. Obviously we want to know our leader is on our side. But that just takes a simple statement.
In 2017, social media is all the moral leadership society needs. It’s messy and brutal, but it generally gets the right answer, and quickly. I have literally never heard anyone ask for moral guidance on events in the news. Most of us recognize evil when we see it. And those who can’t recognize evil on their own will not be cured by a leader who shares a good cry with us.
It is entirely fair to wonder if your leader shares your priorities. And we certainly want to know our leaders view all of us as equal under the law. But we don’t really need a leader to tell us Nazis are bad. Social media has that covered.
President Trump never promised us moral leadership when he ran for office, and he has been consistent in avoiding it. For example, he prefers leaving abortion decisions to the states. He is anti-drug, but he doesn’t lecture us about it. He says he owns a Bible, but he doesn’t wave it in our faces. He told us he was “no angel,” and the evidence supported him. President Trump’s moral leadership seems to be limited to creating jobs, keeping citizens safe, and other practical matters. We’re on our own for the philosophical determinations of good and evil.
Is that a good thing?
I remind you again that Charlottesville was a weirdly unifying event. No serious person on the left or the right disagreed on the moral dimension. Political opportunists on the left tried to frame mainstream Republicans as soft on Nazis, but that was nothing but transparent political manipulation, and clearly immoral. (See how easy it was to spot immorality? No leadership required!)
When critics of President Trump say he did not provide moral leadership on Charlottesville, I agree. His initial statement was tone deaf and politically radioactive. But ask yourself who needed moral clarity on Nazis. You don’t need a leader to take you where you already are.
I won’t go so far as to say social media is the best moral conscience for the country. I’m simply saying it is our moral conscience, and no future politician is likely to take its job. You can demand moral leadership from your president, but what you are asking for is no longer a thing. We already took moral responsibility from our leaders and invested it in social media. If the unified condemnation of Nazis and other racists in Charlottesville is any guide, we’re in good hands.
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History is full of examples of Mass Hysterias. They happen fairly often. The cool thing about mass hysterias is that you don’t know when you are in one. But sometimes the people who are not experiencing the mass hysteria can recognize when others are experiencing one, if they know what to look for.
I’ll teach you what to look for.
A mass hysteria happens when the public gets a wrong idea about something that has strong emotional content and it triggers cognitive dissonance that is often supported by confirmation bias. In other words, people spontaneously hallucinate a whole new (and usually crazy-sounding) reality and believe they see plenty of evidence for it. The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known example of mass hysteria. The McMartin Pre-School case and the Tulip Bulb hysteria are others. The dotcom bubble probably qualifies. We might soon learn that the Russian Collusion story was mass hysteria in hindsight. The curious lack of solid evidence for Russian collusion is a red flag. But we’ll see how that plays out.
The most visible Mass Hysteria of the moment involves the idea that the United States intentionally elected a racist President. If that statement just triggered you, it might mean you are in the Mass Hysteria bubble. The cool part is that you can’t fact-check my claim you are hallucinating if you are actually hallucinating. But you can read my description of the signs of mass hysteria and see if you check off the boxes.
If you’re in the mass hysteria, recognizing you have all the symptoms of hysteria won’t help you be aware you are in it. That’s not how hallucinations work. Instead, your hallucination will automatically rewrite itself to expel any new data that conflicts with its illusions.
But if you are not experiencing mass hysteria, you might be totally confused by the actions of the people who are. They appear to be irrational, but in ways that are hard to define. You can’t tell if they are stupid, unscrupulous, ignorant, mentally ill, emotionally unstable or what. It just looks frickin’ crazy.
The reason you can’t easily identify what-the-hell is going on in the country right now is that a powerful mass hysteria is in play. If you see the signs after I point them out, you’re probably not in the hysteria bubble. If you read this and do NOT see the signs, it probably means you’re trapped inside the mass hysteria bubble.
Here are some signs of mass hysteria. This is my own take on it, but I welcome you to fact-check it with experts on mass hysteria.
1. The trigger event for cognitive dissonance
On November 8th of 2016, half the country learned that everything they believed to be both true and obvious turned out to be wrong. The people who thought Trump had no chance of winning were under the impression they were smart people who understood their country, and politics, and how things work in general. When Trump won, they learned they were wrong. They were so very wrong that they reflexively (because this is how all brains work) rewrote the scripts they were seeing in their minds until it all made sense again. The wrong-about-everything crowd decided that the only way their world made sense, with their egos intact, is that either the Russians helped Trump win or there are far more racists in the country than they imagined, and he is their king. Those were the seeds of the two mass hysterias we witness today.
Trump supporters experienced no trigger event for cognitive dissonance when Trump won. Their worldview was confirmed by observed events.
2. The Ridiculousness of it
One sign of a good mass hysteria is that it sounds bonkers to anyone who is not experiencing it. Imagine your neighbor telling you he thinks the other neighbor is a witch. Or imagine someone saying the local daycare provider is a satanic temple in disguise. Or imagine someone telling you tulip bulbs are more valuable than gold. Crazy stuff.
Compare that to the idea that our president is a Russian puppet. Or that the country accidentally elected a racist who thinks the KKK and Nazis and “fine people.” Crazy stuff.
If you think those examples don’t sound crazy – regardless of the reality – you are probably inside the mass hysteria bubble.
3. The Confirmation Bias
If you are inside the mass hysteria bubble, you probably interpreted President Trump’s initial statement on Charlottesville – which was politically imperfect to say the least – as proof-positive he is a damned racist.
If you are outside the mass hysteria bubble you might have noticed that President Trump never campaigned to be our moral leader. He presented himself as – in his own words “no angel” – with a set of skills he offered to use in the public’s interest. He was big on law and order, and equal justice under the law. But he never offered moral leadership. Voters elected him with that knowledge. Evidently, Republicans don’t depend on politicians for moral leadership. That’s probably a good call.
When the horror in Charlottesville shocked the country, citizens instinctively looked to their president for moral leadership. The president instead provided a generic law and order statement. Under pressure, he later named specific groups and disavowed the racists. He was clearly uncomfortable being our moral lighthouse. That’s probably why he never described his moral leadership as an asset when running for office. We observe that he has never been shy about any other skill he brings to the job, so it probably isn’t an accident when he avoids mentioning any ambitions for moral leadership. If he wanted us to know he would provide that service, I think he would have mentioned it by now.
If you already believed President Trump is a racist, his weak statement about Charlottesville seems like confirmation. But if you believe he never offered moral leadership, only equal treatment under the law, that’s what you saw instead. And you made up your own mind about the morality.
The tricky part here is that any interpretation of what happened could be confirmation bias. But ask yourself which one of these versions sounds less crazy:
1. A sitting president, who is a branding expert, thought it would be a good idea to go easy on murderous Nazis as a way to improve his popularity.
2. The country elected a racist leader who is winking to the KKK and White Supremacists that they have a free pass to start a race war now.
3. A mentally unstable racist clown with conman skills (mostly just lying) eviscerated the Republican primary field and won the presidency. He keeps doing crazy, impulsive racist stuff. But for some reason, the economy is going well, jobs are looking good, North Korea blinked, ISIS is on the ropes, and the Supreme Court got a qualified judge. It was mostly luck.
4. The guy who didn’t offer to be your moral leader didn’t offer any moral leadership, just law and order, applied equally. His critics cleverly and predictably framed it as being soft on Nazis.
One of those narratives is less crazy-sounding than the other. That doesn’t mean the less-crazy one has to be true. But normal stuff happens far more often than crazy stuff. And critics will frame normal stuff as crazy whenever they get a chance.
4. The Oversized Reaction
It would be hard to overreact to a Nazi murder, or to racists marching in the streets with torches. That stuff demands a strong reaction. But if a Republican agrees with you that Nazis are the worst, and you threaten to punch that Republican for not agreeing with you exactly the right way, that might be an oversized reaction.
5. The Insult without supporting argument
When people have actual reasons for disagreeing with you, they offer those reasons without hesitation. Strangers on social media will cheerfully check your facts, your logic, and your assumptions. But when you start seeing ad hominem attacks that offer no reasons at all, that might be a sign that people in the mass hysteria bubble don’t understand what is wrong with your point of view except that it sounds more sensible than their own.
For the past two days I have been disavowing Nazis on Twitter. The most common response from the people who agree with me is that my comic strip sucks and I am ugly.
The mass hysteria signals I described here are not settled science, or anything like it. This is only my take on the topic, based on personal observation and years of experience with hypnosis and other forms of persuasion. I present this filter on the situation as the first step in dissolving the mass hysteria. It isn’t enough, but more persuasion is coming. If you are outside the mass hysteria bubble, you might see what I am doing in this blog as a valuable public service. If you are inside the mass hysteria bubble, I look like a Nazi collaborator.
How do I look to you?
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