On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

Continue reading

You Won’t Believe Why People Can’t Stop Themselves From Writing Breathless Vacuous Headlines

clicks_viaTimFranklinActually, you probably will believe why, because those punchy gasping headlines are usually wrong. They exaggerate, misrepresent, and often flat-out contradict the content. When there is content, which there often isn’t, because most of the time it is just a dressed up meme or an embedded YouTube video dumped between fifteen ads and a couple paragraphs of partisan nonsense.

But maybe I do have something new to tell you: the click-bait writers aren’t the problem. The problem is us. And that includes you.

Yes, you. You are the problem.

Well, probably not “you” who are reading this. But if you shared something with a crap headline recently, maybe you are! See, there’s plenty of crap content and crap headlines. Every time we share something sloppy, we are giving it tacit approval. Every time we click on something with a crap headline, we are putting our stamp of approval on that nonsense.

I get it. It goes to the lizard brain. It’s easy to get caught up in “this thing that JUST happened [well maybe kinda not really]” or tease ourselves with that thing that “you won’t believe!!!!!.! [although you already do or you wouldn’t be looking at this anymore]” because hey, excitement is fun and cheap and the world sucks.

Unfortunately, it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s becoming the way we learn about the rest of society. We can easily find ourselves hate-clicking pieces about “Trump’s latest plan to create fascist America!” or “The sneaky way liberals are trying to distract you from real America’s problems!” We’re the ones gasping, having the vapors, and fainting over another meaningless tweet. We’re the ones frothing on the keyboard and hitting “like” and “share” before our rational brain has even caught up to the consequences.

It’s like eating candy, only a little more so—because after a few years of it, it’s becoming hard to find real information hiding in all the junk food. Not because filter bubbles and fake news, just because we indulge our urges too much, and that’s how markets work.

And that’s how markets fail. They meet our base desires, even when those base desires are bad for us. They fill our wants, but not our needs. What we need is good, thought-provoking information about what is true and how other people think about it. But what we want is to be endlessly distracted by things that are unchallenging, either because we already agree with what they mean, or because they mean nothing at all. We want to be high on the emotion, but then move on with no consequences.

There is, however, a consequence. The consequence is not only that we are bad at telling what is true, because we do not exercise the skill. The consequence is not only that we are outraged and distracted simultaneously by sickening caricatures of real events.

The consequence is that we are creating more of them. We are not just falling for the exaggerated version of reality, we are seeking it out. We want it, and we don’t restrain ourselves.

We hold the moral ideal that truth will come out on top eventually. But truth and lies don’t have power—we do. There is no absolute value in the truth, just a question of what we ask for.

The headline I put on this piece is actually pretty accurate.

You won’t believe it: because you’re the problem.

The lies are what we click on: so we’re the ones writing them.

And we can’t stop ourselves.

Because we like to be breathlessly outraged, and we care more about feeling right than being right.

 

Image Credit: Tim Franklin Photography

Of the People

IMGP2701.JPGPeople have a great many misconceptions about dictionaries. For a start, we assume that dictionaries are authorities—that the usages of a word listed in the dictionary are allowed, and that other usages are not. We assume that words not in the dictionary are not words, and words in the dictionary but labeled “obsolete” are no longer allowed. And we assume these things because we fundamentally misunderstand what a dictionary is.

We think dictionaries are arbiters of language, determining what is and isn’t allowed. But, in reality, dictionaries are just records of language. They preserve old ideas, record new ideas, and describe how language is being used. They are slow to catch up, but not that slow, and they occasionally retain things we would rather forget.

We have many of the same misconceptions about government.

Continue reading

Give Us This Day Our Daily Outrage

Fire_viaMatthiasjpg.jpg

I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.

They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.

Continue reading

Five Pieces for March

puzzle_viaLetIdeasCompeteAt the end of each month I share some links to pieces I found thought-provoking in some way. Continuing the trend of less noise, more noticing, I offer five pieces for March.

 

Letter From a Drowned Canyon – Rebecca Solnit

“On October 15, 1956, President Eisenhower pushed a telegraph key that sent the signal to detonate the first round of dynamite. Construction of Glen Canyon Dam began with this warlike gesture by the former supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe. A temporary dam was built upstream of the site, and two 3,000-foot-long diversion tunnels were blasted into the canyon walls to send the river through while the dam was built. Rafters explored the canyon, conscious that it was doomed, and Porter made his expeditions to document it. Many Navajo residents of the region were horrified; the confluence of the Colorado and the San Juan rivers, a place of great significance to them, was about to be erased.

“Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death” was how Brower began his essay for Porter’s book on the place. In March of that year, water began backing up behind the new dam, but the scale of the reservoir was so vast that it did not reach maximum water level until 1980. Full, its surface is 3,700 feet above sea level, but it will never be full again.”

 

‘Somebody Else’s Babies’ – Fred Clark

“But, on the other hand, there’s also something terrifying about the message of this sign. It seems to acknowledge and recognize something about our culture that is, frankly, monstrous and horrifying. That unlovely admission suggests that these signs are unlikely to do much good. It suggests that their appeal to empathy and respect for the Golden Rule is misdirected.

Think about it. “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here,” the signs say, because it’s understood that “Drive Like Somebody Else’s Kids Live Here” wouldn’t be an effective slogan. Just those last three words ought to be sufficient: Kids Live Here. But, given that those kids are not “your” kids, it’s expected that “you” would have no reason to care about that. If it’s somebody else’s kids — kids you don’t know, personally, or kids who aren’t a part of your personal bloodline — then it’s presumed that you’ll continue to drive recklessly and without regard for their safety.”

 

The Road That Lies Ahead – Sean Patrick Hughes

“Something happened not too long after that’s stuck with me nearly fifteen years later. Cruising up the highway in one of the long rural stretches of the great agricultural mecca of America that is Central California, we passed three cars that had just been in a gnarly accident. Two of them were smashed up badly. The other less so. There were suitcases and boxes strewn all over the side of the road. People were wandering around in a fog, disoriented, hazy. There was a woman holding a crying child. A man with a bloody nose sat next to one of the wrecks staring out in to space.

No one looked like they were too badly injured. At least not from a half mile away at 70 miles per hour. But the police weren’t there yet. And we were fifty miles from civilization. The first thing that popped into my mind was, man, I’m glad we weren’t in the middle of that.

My leading petty officer in one of the trailers popped into my ear over the radio.”You see that LT?”

“I see it.” Was all I said back. And we kept trucking. I heard him key the mike on the radio again, but he didn’t say anything else.

A hundred miles up the road when we stopped for gas, the door of the one truck swung open. My leading petty officer charged across the parking lot at me tattoos and muscle flying. He jammed his finger into my chest.

“Why the fuck didn’t you stop LT?” ”

 

I am an Arctic researcher. Donald Trump is deleting my citations – Victoria Herrmann

“At first, the distress flare of lost data came as a surge of defunct links on 21 January. The US National Strategy for the Arctic, the Implementation Plan for the Strategy, and the report on our progress all gone within a matter of minutes. As I watched more and more links turned red, I frantically combed the internet for archived versions of our country’s most important polar policies.

I had no idea then that this disappearing act had just begun.

Since January, the surge has transformed into a slow, incessant march of deleting datasets, webpages and policies about the Arctic. I now come to expect a weekly email request to replace invalid citations, hoping that someone had the foresight to download statistics about Arctic permafrost thaw or renewable energy in advance of the purge.”

 

Lithium-Ion Battery Inventor Introduces New Technology for Fast-Charging, Noncombustible Batteries – UT Austin

” “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries,” Goodenough said.

The researchers demonstrated that their new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries. A battery cell’s energy density gives an electric vehicle its driving range, so a higher energy density means that a car can drive more miles between charges. The UT Austin battery formulation also allows for a greater number of charging and discharging cycles, which equates to longer-lasting batteries, as well as a faster rate of recharge (minutes rather than hours).”

 

Image Credit: Let Ideas Compete

What if it Wasn’t Us?

We_Can_Do_It!What if the future of our country, our businesses, our economy, our children, and our friends and family were under threat? What if a natural disaster, requiring our concerted response, put us to the test? And what if, to fight back, we had to innovate, cooperate, act carefully and wisely, solve problems together, and save the world? What if that was America’s challenge, and within our power, and just a matter of will?

I mean, what if that was America’s challenge, but it wasn’t our fault?

Continue reading

Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

Continue reading