Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

Covid-19, Trump, election integrity, masks, schools, and everything

November 20, 2020

Covid is surging in virtually every state, worse than ever, a million U.S. infections a week, a quarter million dead and rising fast, hospitals overwhelmed — and national leadership is out to lunch. Not even trying, or pretending to, any more.

Remember the task force Mike Pence headed? Whatever became of that? And Trump has not met with disease experts in months. Real ones he’s shut out, elevating instead this crackpot Scott Atlas, with no epidemiology background, who’s helpfully advising Michiganders to “rise up” against their governor’s anti-covid measures.

Trump campaign e-mail blasts tout vaccine progress. While he actually sabotages the vaccine rollout by refusing cooperation with the incoming administration. Based on the absurd lie that Trump actually won the election. But claims about a big conspiracy to steal it from him, massive fraud, dead people voting, observers kept out, ballots mishandled, etc., are all simply made up nonsense, devoid of evidence, laughed out of court. Giuliani’s appearances there (billing the campaign $20,000 a day) shred his reputation’s last dregs.

Trump would have to somehow flip at least three states with five-digit Biden margins. That being impossible, now his grift is to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to brazenly override popular votes and appoint Trump electors regardless. Never done in our history. Talk about a conspiracy to steal the election! After all Trump’s past false accusations of a “coup” against him, thisis a real coup attempt.

Farcical though it might seem, this is no joke. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney. People around the world are shocked by such banana republic shenanigans. And even if he can’t overturn the election, Trump’s baseless fraud claims — 77% of Republicans polled believe this insanity — 86% in another poll — aim to destroy the next administration’s legitimacy and hence its ability to govern. Aided by continued Senate control by a morally bankrupt and intellectually deranged Republican party that, shamefully, nearly half of Americans still support.

By the way, did you know that, on top of everything, a mid-December government shutdown looms?

*   *   *

After eight months’ experience with covid, we actually know what’s needed. But we’re not doing it. Indeed, Trump continues to fight against doing it. Much of the U.S. is keeping restaurants, gyms, and other public venues largely open, but schools closed. Much of Europe does the opposite — with better results.

Because it’s indoor adult gatherings that most commonly spread the virus. That’s what Europeans are cracking down on. This does create much economic hardship, but reflects an understanding that we can’t get past all this and restore economies while covid continues running amok. This doesn’t seem to penetrate enough American skulls.

Arizona covid chart

We’ve done some locking down, but haphazardly, so incurring the pain without getting the benefits. The New York Times cites Arizona’s example, with a big June covid spike, prompting harsh restrictions. They worked splendidly, but then were eased in August, and infections shot back up. With that happening all over now, another round of restrictions is underway, but often again falling short of what experts say is needed. Many rules seem just weird. New York recently announced that venues can stay open til 10 PM, if they have a liquor license. Huh??

Masks and social distancing help tremendously. It isn’t rocket science. We know the virus spreads mainly via droplets in the air, coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other people’s noses and mouths. Your mask blocks droplets both going out and coming in. And because droplets tend not to travel far before falling to the ground, people keeping some distance apart also reduces ingestion.

Most Americans have acted accordingly, only 15-20% refusing. It’s those 15-20% responsible for causing most infections and deaths. With Trump’s insane encouragement. Literally insane, because for all his obsession with re-election, he destroyed his chances by encouraging anti-maskers, so covid predictably exploded in his face.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, research shows the one type of indoor gathering least risky is school, especially elementary school (with social distancing and other precautions). While, on the other hand, closing schools has long-range consequences far more dire than closing restaurants, bars, or gyms.

Millions of students are being switched to remote learning. But for too many, it’s more remoteness than learning. Indeed, what we learn in school is far more than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. A key part of educational development is socialization — how to negotiate relations with other people. (I missed some of that, being out of school a lot, and still feel handicapped by it.) But even for the more academic stuff, there’s much evidence that learning together with others in a classroom setting works better than solitary study. Particularly for reading and math, surrounding kids with letters and numbers. And one key thing a classroom provides is feedback — children “need people to see what they are doing, to cheer them on, to rally them to care and respond,” says literacy expert Lucy Calkins, quoted in a Times report.

What this means is that we’re raising a cohort of future adults who will never fully make up for lost classroom time, going through life less educated than would otherwise have been the case. A disaster when a solid educational grounding is more vital than ever for flourishing as a member of modern society. The cumulative hit to GDP, over decades, will be astronomical.

Affluent families, with parents who are themselves well-educated and capable, riding herd on their kids, with good home infrastructure and resources, can be expected to mitigate the damage somewhat. But less so as you descend the socio-economic ladder. Many poor kids lack basics of computer equipment and connectivity.

It’s long been a huge scandal of American society that whereas education might ideally be a great equalizer and engine of upward mobility, instead, for those who start out disadvantaged, our educational system actually worsens that. Affluent kids go to decent schools; underprivileged kids to lousy schools. Widening the inequality.

Covid-induced school closures widen it yet more. The whole remote learning thing is largely new, that educators weren’t trained for, and they’re scrambling to adapt. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s going better in schools in affluent suburbs than in poverty-ridden inner cities. And here again, strong parental partnering helps a lot. But parents in less affluent homes — often single parents — have too many other problems of their own.

Just getting kids engaged with schoolwork at home is a challenge. A study by ParentsTogether, an advocacy group, found low-income parents ten times likelier than those with $100,000 incomes to report their children doing little or no remote learning. Indeed, The Times quoted an administrator in a high school full of low income and immigrant students saying many are just disappearing — quietly dropping out of school altogether. It’s no mystery that remote learning feels remote to them, in contrast with a classroom experience.

Yet in many places we’re closing schools but letting bars stay open. UNICEF says school closures are creating a “lost generation” of students while doing little to curtail the virus.

*   *   *

Two months to go with Trump. Throughout, I’ve kept on saying, “it will get worse.” It always has. And so it will still.

Choice 2020: The final word, by The Economist

November 1, 2020

In 2016 we plunged into a political and societal crisis, which I’ve tried to chronicle and analyze. You’ve probably had your fill of it. Me too. But now finally (one hopes) comes the denouement.

The Economist, my favorite publication, is a British-based news magazine of highest reputation. Its editorial stance embodies Enlightenment liberalism (the classical 19th Century kind). It has now published its presidential endorsement, together with in-depth reviews of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy records.

In keeping with their scrupulous fair-mindedness and objectivity, they give Trump credit for some things he’s done. (Much of which I disagree about; as with some of their past presidential endorsements.) Nevertheless, whatever the positives may be, they’re overwhelmed by the negatives. The Economist emphatically endorses Biden.

It’s a lengthy, judicious, compelling editorial. I’ve condensed it, below:*

Why it has to be Joe Biden

Trump has desecrated the values that make America a beacon to the world

THE COUNTRY that elected Trump was unhappy and divided. It now is more unhappy and more divided. With a pandemic that has registered almost 230,000 deaths amid bickering, buck-passing and lies. 

Joe Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again.

Trump’s tax cuts were regressive. Some of the deregulation was harmful, especially to the environment. Health-care has been a debacle. He cruelly separated migrant children from parents, and limits on new entrants will drain America’s vitality. On the hard problems— North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace — Trump has fared no better than the Washington establishment he ridicules.

However, our bigger dispute with Trump is more fundamental. He has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world. To breezily dismiss Trump’s bullying and lies as so much tweeting ignores the harm he has wrought.

It starts with America’s democratic culture. Instead of seeing toxic partisanship as bad for America, Trump made it central to his office. Never seeking to represent the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Faced by an outpouring of peaceful protest after the George Floyd killing, his instinct was not to heal, but to depict it as an orgy of looting and left-wing violence — part of a pattern of stoking racial tension. Today, 40% of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.

The Trump presidency’s most head-spinning feature is his contempt for the truth. Nothing he says can be believed — including calling Biden corrupt. Trump voters like his willingness to offend. But America’s system of checks and balances suffers. This president calls for his opponents to be locked up; uses the Department of Justice to conduct vendettas; commutes the sentences of supporters convicted of serious crimes; gives his family plum jobs; and offers foreign governments protection in exchange for dirt on a rival. When a president casts doubt on the integrity of an election, he undermines the democracy he has sworn to defend.

Partisanship and lying also undermine policy. Look at covid-19. Trump had a chance to unite his country around a well organized response. Instead he saw Democratic governors as rivals or scapegoats; muzzled and belittled America’s world-class institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; sneered at science, including over masks; and has continued to misrepresent the evident truth about the epidemic and its consequences. America has many of the world’s best scientists. It also has one of world’s highest covid-19 fatality rates.

Alliances magnify America’s influence in the world. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognize the place they admire.

That matters. American ideals really do serve as an example to other democracies, and to people who live in states that persecute their citizens. Trump thinks ideals are for suckers. The governments of China and Russia have always seen American rhetoric about freedom as cynical cover for the belief that might is right. Tragically, Trump confirms that.

Four more years of a historically bad president would deepen all these harms — and more. In 2016 American voters did not know what they were getting. Now they do. They would be voting for division and lying. Endorsing the trampling of norms and the shrinking of national institutions into personal fiefs. Ushering in destructive climate change. Signaling that the champion of freedom and democracy should be just another big country throwing its weight around. 

Mr Biden is a centrist, an institutionalist, a consensus-builder — an anti-Trump well-suited to repair some of the damage. He could begin to lay down a path toward reconciliation. He is no revolutionary. His tax rises on firms and the wealthy would be significant, but not punitive. He would seek to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, give more to health and education and allow more immigration. His climate-change policy would invest in research and job-boosting technology. He is a competent administrator and a believer in process. He listens to expert advice. He is a multilateralist: less confrontational than Trump, but more purposeful.

Trumpism is morally bankrupt. America faces a fateful choice. At stake is the nature of its democracy. One path leads to a fractious, personalized rule, dominated by a man who scorns decency and truth. The other leads to something better — something truer to the values that originally made America an inspiration around the world.

In his first term, Trump has been a destructive president. He would start his second affirmed in all his worst instincts. Mr Biden is his antithesis. He would enter the White House with the promise of the most precious gift democracies can bestow: renewal.

* Here’s the full text: www.fsrcoin.com/Econ.html

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

A dozen daffy delusions

October 17, 2020

1. Urban rioting is scarier than Covid-19.1

2. Only Trump can fix it.2

3. Face masks infringe on freedom.3

4. Immigration is bad for us.4

5. Foreign trade costs jobs.5

6. Gun ownership makes people safer.6

7. Whites are better than blacks.7

8. 2016 Russian election meddling was a hoax.8

9. Trump tells it like it is.9

10. He can only lose the election by fraud.10

11. He’s making America great again.11

12. He’s chosen by God.12

Footnotes:

1. Covid’s human and economic toll is literally thousands of times greater.

2. Trump stokes the societal divisions that lead to such violence. And he’s screwed up horribly on Covid.

3. Science is clear that masks curtail the spread of disease. Nobody has “freedom” to endanger others.

4. Immigrants contribute workers and skills we need, creating wealth, paying taxes, and adding consumer demand that means more jobs.

5. Trade enables consumers to buy things cheaper, leaving them with more money to spend on other things, which in turn creates more jobs, not fewer.

6. A gun in the home is way more likely to injure a family member than an intruder. America’s gun violence far outstrips other countries, because of less regulation and more guns.

7. Anyone believing that proves their own inferiority.

8. Major Russian subversion was conclusively proven by evidence.

9. He’s the biggest liar ever (also proven).

10. He can only win the election by fraud, because sensible Americans are fed up with his freak show.

11. His mishandling Covid and the resultant economic fallout hugely damages America. His disgusting behavior degrades our global standing.

12. There is no God. But if there were, he’d be a fool to rely on Trump.

Why are Trumpsuckers so manipulable?

October 7, 2020

We evolved as an extraordinarily social species, with group cooperation a key adaptation. Of course every animal looks out for itself, to get its genes into the next generation. But humans balanced that selfishness against cooperativeness so the whole group could thrive and replicate. That required being able to tell who was really cooperative, and who was faking and should be shunned and punished. So we evolved instinctive lie-detectors.

Thus too cynicism is an evolved psychology. We certainly see a lot of that in the realm of public affairs, with many people skeptical toward the political class, thinking they’re all liars, corrupt and incompetent. That’s been a big driver of political populism all across the world. Making voters receptive to would-be strongmen saying, “Only I can fix it!”

Wait, what? Why doesn’t the latter incur the same cynicism and skepticism? This has been vexing me for half a decade. Why do so many voters’ intuitive lie detectors fail so spectacularly when it comes to a con man like Trump? Can’t they see they’re being manipulated?

Well, that is what con men do. Often successfully, because our inner lie detectors are fallible. Nobody is immune; I’ve been fooled myself sometimes in life. However, there are some basic precepts one can apply.

In many cases you can’t directly verify information; but you can consider the source. Whether there’s good reason to trust it. That’s true of responsible, conscientious mainstream news media, like PBS, NPR, The Economist, The New York Times. As opposed to fake ones like Fox or Breitbart, or what a Facebook friend saw somewhere on the internet. One can also normally trust mainstream science (with understanding of how science actually works), as opposed to hucksters with different agendas (such as religion).

Which brings up the second precept: to consider the motivation — why are they pushing the story they’re pushing? Is it to inform you — or manipulate you?

And thirdly, one must develop a good accurate mental model of the world’s reality and how it works, grounded in factual knowledge. Then assess how any assertion fits with that reality. A basic plausibility test.

Too many people get all this wrong. They’re cynical about responsible news sources like those I mentioned while uncritically swallowing crap from dodgy ones (even the likes of Alex Jones). They similarly discount mainstream science while taking crackpots seriously. And their mental models of reality are like Hieronymus Bosch phantasmagorias.

So Trump says mail voting is a giant fraud disaster. And his supporters nod their heads (“ditto-heads” in apt Limbaugh-speak), fall right in line, and parrot the trope. Not even envisioning the possibility it isn’t true.

But consider the source. With a huge record of lying. And the motivation: obvious self-serving reasons to create this lie. Knowing most mail ballots will go against him, and only by getting rid of them can he win. (He’s actually said so.)

Consider too the plausibility. Look at actual facts. Use your head. Were mail voting really so prone to fraud, wouldn’t candidates have massively exploited that before, with major scandals? There have been practically none. Instead, mail voting has been widely used for years, with only insignificant glitches. (Nothing is ever perfect.)

Thus Trump’s claims flunk all three tests. He’s so obviously manipulating his fans. It will be more dangerous for the country in November when they’ll believe his election defeat is some sort of illegitimate coup. The syndrome can even be fatal. A gal at the Democratic convention spoke of her father’s covid death, saying his “pre-existing condition” was believing Trump. (Even after his own infection, he’s resumed saying the virus is no big deal. As if we can all get presidential level medical care.)

Trumpsuckers’ falling for his manipulation might seem bizarre. Where is all the cynicism they deploy elsewhere? Can’t they see Trump’s own blatant cynicism? There are actually many explanatory factors. One is Trump playing upon their resentments and anxieties, economic but especially racial and cultural, like no other politician. He certainly exploits their hatreds — of elites and seemingly pushy minorities, and their left wing Democratic avatars — which Trump revvs up to fever pitch. Trumpsters vote less for him than against their bêtes noires. 

Perhaps too, after long bathing in corrosive cynicism, many actually thirst for an antidote, for something to believe in. Religion is of course one way to get that. Trump seems to be another. Indeed, there are many comorbidities. The one-third or so of Americans who are strongly religious and the third or so diehard Trumpers are mostly the same people. Religion undermines critical thinking and accustoms receptivity to tropes that flout reality. Both religion and Trumpism share cult-like characteristics. It’s the same willingness to believe, the hunger to believe. Belief itself being a kind of mood-altering drug.

But I find truth and reality better.

Darwin’s apostles and evolutionary science: fighting “fake news”

September 6, 2020

Dr. Abby Hafer has her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and currently teaches at Curry College. She has authored the book Unintelligent Design, among others, and claims to be famous for testicles. (Not her own; see below.) I heard her recent talk about what today’s fighters against fake news can learn from Darwin’s apostles.

She started by suggesting that pre-Trump we could not have imagined an American president establishing a bizarre, counter-factual, evidence-free narrative, yet succeeding in gulling much of the population. But “Welcome to my world,” Hafer said — every evolutionary biologist has always had to deal with such an environment of factual denialism. “Objective reality exists!” she insisted, steadfastly disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.

The Darwin apostles Hafer discussed were scientists who fought, against powerful entrenched interests, to gain acceptance for the concept of evolution by natural selection. After a long hard campaign they succeeded to a great degree (despite pockets of resistance, notably including a high proportion of Americans). Hafer cited publication, in 1889, of a book, Lux Mundi, in which notables in the Church of England discussed reconciling their faith with evolution — which they already assumed was true.

John William Draper was a scientist who authored History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The lesson Hafer took from his efforts: don’t quail from battling fundamentalist religion, but work with religious people wherever it’s possible.

Alfred Russel Wallace was of course the guy who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin. Darwin had long feared publishing would cause a big backlash. But Wallace, Hafer said, struck a different kind of terror into Darwin: not getting credit. So he finally finished up the book he’d been working on for two decades. (He and Wallace actually reached an agreement about public presentation of the theory. In this negotiation Darwin had much back-up from colleagues. I recall one writer saying they “took Wallace to the cleaners.”)

Joseph Hooker was one scientist who had long actually fought against the idea of biological evolution. But ultimately, he said, the conviction was “forced upon an unwilling convert.” He couldn’t fight the facts. That was intellectual integrity.

Darwin’s greatest proponent was Thomas Henry Huxley. Hafer discussed his lengthy battle with Richard Owen, who maintained that brain differences ruled out any close connection between humans and apes. Huxley showed Owen was just wrong on the anatomical facts: “Before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers.”

Huxley was indefatigable, working the “social media of his day” — newspapers. Letters to the editor, and replies, were a very big thing.

One audience member remarked that many people who most need to hear such messages refuse to listen. Hafer acknowledged this, and how a lot of these issues have become politicized. But she held that persistent efforts to debate such issues, vigorously battling error, in the public square, can have an effect. And Americans are actually leaving evangelical Christianity in droves, indeed angry because they feel they’ve been lied to.

A point she emphasized was that to overcome biases you have to tailor the message to engage people. Mention was made of Galileo’s experiments with the motions of balls, illustrating his ideas in a visually unarguable way. Hafer also pointed to her own work on how the human body actually shows un-intelligent design.* A prime example is testicles, hanging vulnerably outside the body cavity, whereas many other animals have them safely inside. It’s because human testicles have to be kept cooler. (I asked whether there was any connection between testicles and Galileo’s balls and she gave a straight-faced answer.) Anyhow, the point was that when you start talking about testicles, people sit up and listen.

She also said the current pandemic is a golden opportunity to make people grasp the importance of being serious toward science. And the virus, of course, evolved. If it weren’t for evolution, there’d never be any new diseases.

Hafer avowed that we are struggling today not only for the soul of this nation — but for its brain. Its integrity. Scientists are on the front lines of this battle.

She channeled Martin Niemoller: First they came for the evolutionary biologists . . . .

* Here’s my earlier discussion of that: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

“10 Books That Screwed Up The World” — Make that 11

August 9, 2020

It sounded like my kind of read, found at a used book sale — Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up The World.  I’d say make it 11, though that would give Wiker’s book undeserved importance. (He actually covers 15; a subtitle refers to five more.)

Reading a few pages pegged the author as religious. So I looked at his bio. Yup — big time. He’s taught at various Christian-sounding venues and is “a senior fellow with Discovery Institute.” Which, Wikipedia’s article forthrightly states, “advocates the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design.”

Wiker begins with Macchiavelli’s The Prince. A “target-rich environment” for easy moralizing. Of course no modern leader should follow Macchiavelli’s advice. But Wiker seems to forget he wrote in 1513, when there was no concept of rulers serving, or accountable to, citizens.

Eventually Wiker gets to his real beef: “Christianity, Macchiavelli contends, focuses our energies on an imaginary kingdom in the sky and thereby turns us away from making the real world a peaceful, comfortable, even pleasurable home.”

This Wiker denounces but doesn’t actually try to refute. Doesn’t defend the idea of Heaven, nor deny its detracting from efforts to make good lives on Earth. But he does say Macchiavelli there “initiates the great conflict between modern secularism and Christianity that largely defines the next five hundred years of Western history.”

Wrong. Macchiavelli’s disparagement of religious delusions was not (alas) even a blip on the intellectual horizon. Most of those five centuries were consumed not by battles between faith and secularism but among differing Christian theologies — with the slaughter of great parts of Europe’s population. Kind of validating Macchiavelli’s point. Only quite lately has secularism, thank God, finally arisen to curb such horrors.

Next, Descartes. Responsible for “Cartesian dualism,” positing (contrary to science) something in mind or consciousness existing separately from our physical bodies. But even though some such dualism might seem necessary if our “souls” are to go to Heaven — which Wiker mocked Macchiavelli for rejecting — Wiker also mocks Descartes. For propounding “a ghostly soul banging around in a ghastly machine . . . A walking philosophical bipolar disorder.” Descartes’ idea was indeed crazyBut has Wiker got a better one to explain going to Heaven after our bodies rot?* Thus his attack on Cartesian dualism seems baffling.

Then Wiker derides Descartes’ “absolutely awful proof of the existence of God.” (Not that Wiker has a better one here either.) Basically, Descartes said that any idea in his head was presumably put there by God; so if he (Descartes) can conceptualize a being more perfect than himself, that being must exist. Though that was a glaringly poor excuse for an “argument,” Wiker goes to the trouble of explicating why. But what really irks him is Descartes’ implying God is what one conceives him to be. Wiker’s paraphrase: “we fashion God after our own hearts, rather than our own hearts and religion after God.” Causing “confusion of true wisdom about God.”

And where, pray tell, do we get that “true wisdom?” Wiker, typically, fails to say. But he presumes the conception of God that, by whatever means, got into in his own brain, was somehow the correct one — unlike the one in Descartes’ brain.

Reeling from so much foolishness, I skipped ahead to the Darwin chapter. Frankly expecting some good laughs, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wiker denies that Darwin actually originated the concept of biological evolution: “for some fifty years or more, it had been associated with political radicals . . . and gutter atheists;” it’s even traceable back to Epicurus. That’s flattering to Epicurus, a great thinker way ahead of his time. But as history these passages are bunk.** Before Darwin, some other people may have nibbled vaguely at the idea, but never had the Eureka moment, putting it together.*** Darwin’s doing so stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual triumphs.

But, creationist though he is, Wiker isn’t brave enough to frontally take on evolutionary biology, nor the Origin of Species. Instead he mounts a flank attack, on Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, trying to tar him with the “deep-down nastiness” of eugenics.Which, Wiker claims, Darwin was guilty of originating.

Eugenics is the idea of improving the species by keeping supposedly less fit members from reproducing. In early 20th century America this was sometimes done by sterilizing them. The Nazis simply killed them.

Wiker quotes Darwin suggesting that unrestrained reproduction could lead to “degeneration.” Had Wiker stopped there, it might have seemed damning. However, he goes on to quote further words from Darwin, ones that (strangely enough) he actually calls “inspiring.” There Darwin said the human being had progressed, so that their “sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed . . . and finally to the lower animals, so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.”****

So where’s the problem? Wiker latches onto the word “sympathies.” This, finally, is his chosen line of attack: “[T]here are few moral concepts as slippery as sympathy. At best it substitutes indiscriminate niceness for goodness in human affairs . . . At worst, it . . . erases all boundaries between human beings and every other living thing.” From this claptrap Wiker goes on to deride the idea of animal rights. But that’s not all. He says that pursuant to Darwin’s own schema, “sympathy” was a trait imparted to humans by evolution. Then: “Here comes the nasty part. Evolution [which Wiker rejects, remember] is driven by competition, and competition brings extinction.” From that he leaps to asserting Darwin’s invocation of sympathy does not “extricate him from blame for the harsh racial eugenics practiced by the harder-reasoning Nazis.”

Huh? That’s it? How stupid does he think readers are? And meantime, for all Wiker’s anti-eugenics ranting, it’s never even clear why he’s against it — given his own attack on “sympathy” and expressed indifference to animal suffering.

His final chapter is modestly titled “A Conclusive Outline of Sanity.” Wiker says the problem with all 15 authors he discussed is their all positing that people have to be saved from something. As if salvation were not a fundamental concept of his Christianity. And how it could apply to Darwin is a mystery, but never mind. Anyhow, Wiker gives this example: “To save the world from male oppression, Betty Friedan would have women kill their offspring.” (Somehow I missed that bit in reading The Feminine Mystique.) Thus, Wiker maintains, all those books (including ones by Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill) are literally insane! And yet Wiker’s own final line says humanity does need saving— from that “madness of our own making.” And the savior is — guess who — the Man in the Sky.

I drew a different conclusion. That nonsensical religious beliefs like Wiker’s mess up one’s capability for rational thought. It’s his book that’s literally insane. Is this disgraceful screed what passes for intellectual work at faith-oriented institutions of “higher learning?” And what’s really scary is the parade of reviews on Amazon gushing favorably about it.

* I recently saw one Christian protesting that most of his co-religionists’ ideas of Heaven contradict the Bible. We do not go there after death, he said. Instead, we get resurrected at Jesus’s second coming. Or something like that. (Don’t look for me to make sense of this.)

** Wiker repeatedly misstates scientific history. For example, saying the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli claimed to see canals on Mars. Actually, Schiaparelli merely reported channels— “canali” in Italian, which got mistranslated as “canals,” notably by the American Percival Lowell.

*** Wallace did, around the time of Darwin’s book, but Darwin had been working on it for decades.

**** Darwin’s “bulldog” T.H. Huxley similarly said that evolutionary biology does not oblige us to play out “survival of the fittest” in our society — our aim instead should be to fit more of us for survival.

Alex Jones, Trump, and the war on sanity

August 6, 2020

Hillary Clinton is a serial killer. Worst ever. Chops up children. Literally. So declared Alex Jones on his “Infowars” show.

Cuckooland? Surely. Yet not only does Jones have a huge devoted fan base believing his ravings, it includes the President of the United States. Who’s appeared on Jones’s show, lavishly praising him (saying “your reputation is amazing” and “I will not let you down”). Trump has even often publicly parroted Jones’s words.

PBS’s Frontline recently broadcast an hourlong look at Alex Jones. He quickly learned that the more outrageously insane his show became, the more viewers he got — and the more money, not just from ads, but from hawking merch like “survivalist” gear and quack medicines.

Hence his stoking Hillary haters with over-the-top demonization — again literal, calling her Satan’s handmaiden. Jones also spread the “pizzagate” whopper, that Hillary was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor’s basement. Frontline showed a pathetic fool who (like millions) believed Jones, and shot up the restaurant, after making a video about sacrificing his life to save those poor child victims. Of course he found none there. The victim was him (and the pizza joint).

Jones also pounded the 9/11 conspiracy theory that the attacks were actually perpetrated by the U.S. government as a pretext for martial law (or something). Never mind that there was no martial law. Some 9/11 loonies concoct what they say is evidence to support their delusion (it doesn’t), but Jones himself never needs any facade of evidence. Like his fan Trump he’ll say anything simply because he can.

Hardly was the Sandy Hook shooting over when Jones called that too a government fake job (preparatory for confiscating guns, which of course didn’t happen either). Jones launched a jihad of vilification against the grieving parents, accusing them of being actors. At least one was forced into hiding from the onslaught of Jonesian troll mobs. Again Jones offered no evidence for his wild charges. Instead telling his fans to do their own “research.”

Oklahoma City bombing? Fake too. Apollo 11 Moon Landing? Fake of course. While Bill Gates is attempting genocide, and the government is creating hurricanes to kill people.

When finally sued by a Sandy Hook parent, Jones testified in a deposition that his behavior was caused by a psychosis making him believe everything is fake. Quite an admission — or a smarmy cop-out to deflect from his culpability. And it didn’t stop him from subsequently continuing the sick shtick.

Oddly, one thing Jones says is not fake is in fact the biggest fraud ever: Trump. The pair comprise a mutual admiration society, Jones calling Trump the real deal. Because Trump validates Jones’s phantasmagoria. Presidential endorsement confers a huge cachet of legitimacy, vastly leveraging Jones’s malign influence.

How low has America sunk. This is not some harmless matter of mere theatrics. And it goes way beyond the harm suffered by Sandy Hook parents. This deranged flight from reality is destroying the country.

Think that’s hyperbole? Look around you — at all the hospitals overflowing with the dying, all the economic devastation, shuttered businesses, unemployed and traumatized people, children who can’t go to school. What has that to do with Alex Jones? Everything.

Because Jonesian craziness made enough Americans throw responsibility to the winds to vote for Trump. And that’s why our pandemic performance is the worst of any advanced nation. We completely blew it, getting both economic and health disasters, because to this day Trump, stewing in his cesspit of derangement, has been incapable of leading a serious national response.

Even with the electorate appalled by this, Trump can’t get his act together on it. Instead imagining he can win re-election with divisive racism that freaks out respectable Americans, and by ridiculously smearing longtime centrist Joe Biden as a tool of raging extremists. And by messing up voting.

While Alex Jones does his usual act crying “fake” about the virus, leading anti-mask protests. Yet saying that if the pandemic gets bad enough he’s prepared to kill, skin, and eat his neighbors.

Trump doesn’t merely ignore science and rationality, he wars against them. Knowledgeable voices about covid are shunned. But Doctor Stella Immanuel he’s recently called “very impressive” and “spectacular.” Retweeting multiple times a video in which she appears, still touting . . . wait for it . . . hydroxychloroquine. The zombie quack cure Trump refuses to let die despite every responsible scientist’s debunking. This Stella Immanuel has also said that “alien DNA” is currently used in medical treatments, that gynecological problems are caused by dream sex with demons and witches, that scientists are working on a vaccine to prevent religion. Oh, and the government is partly run not by humans but “reptilians” and other aliens.*

“Spectacular” quoth our president.

Awash in all this lunacy, it’s no surprise the administration has its head up its ass about the pandemic, and millions of Americans still reject masks and other precautions. Actually, that’s only perhaps 20% of our population. But a recent analysis reported in The Economist calculates that those 20% are responsible for almost all the spike in covid cases and deaths we’re seeing.

So that hard core of fools matters greatly. Our covid epidemic is a direct consequence of an epidemic of epistemic disease. Epistemology refers to how we know things. If someone can’t see Alex Jones is either a raving maniac or a cynically dishonest con man, that person suffers from epistemic blindness. Same for Trump. Any rational person (without even knowing his rotten history) can see just by watching Trump how vile he is, how he degrades America.

Is this reality blindness, this affinity for balderdash, something new? The American character may not really have changed; but in past eras an Alex Jones would have had no way to reach a mass audience. There were gatekeepers, who took their responsibilities seriously, and protected the public from such poison. Now there are no gatekeepers, no gates, it’s a media free-for-all. Jones’s pyrotechnic performances are more compelling to watch than Walter Cronkite ever was. And Jones actually makes viewers feel smart by telling them they’re getting the real hidden truth. A lot of suckers, even seemingly educated ones, lack a sufficient base of knowledge and understanding about the world to properly evaluate what they’re hearing, and to see that it flouts reality.

My viewing the Alex Jones documentary was juxtaposed against the John Lewis memorial coverage. Reminding me of how much good this contradictory country also harbors. Lewis too had to battle against evil and ignorance. The battle never ends. America thrills my soul and breaks my heart.

An election looms (assuming failure of Trump’s efforts to wreck it). Forget issues. Forget ideology. This election is about sanity. Can we make America sane again?

* This “reptilian” trope is the foundation for an entire edifice of meshugaas built by professional conspiracy hawker David Icke (who insists his name is pronounced “Ike,” not “Icky”). Alex Jones has also promoted “reptilian” rubbish.