Climate of Uncertainty

35521701131_938f2e3112_oIn popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”

The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.

The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.

That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.

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Crossing Political Divides

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“I can’t help but feel like, this is our last chance to get it right.”

It is Martin Luther King day, a day when we honor a man and a movement for civil rights unique in our nation’s history, and so it is appropriate that I am spending today contemplating the civil rights we so desperately need. The event, Crossing Political Divides, is an attempt by many of us in the area to find a way over the gulfs that seem wider every day. Some 45 of us have gathered in a classroom at the School for International Training to see if those divides are too great, or if we can still reach across.

As a beginning, we are watching a short clip of Van Jones, a black man with political power, discussing politics with a family on the opposite side. The man who says it is our last chance is white, and a Trump voter, and a man who, in that moment, I entirely agree with. This is our last chance to get it right. We are both patriots. We both see the needs of our country. We both feel, desperately, that things cannot go on as they have.

And yet, if we get any more specific than that, we cannot agree. What he feels is progress, to me, feels like loss. What I think is righteous, to him, feels like weakness. What we both think is patriotism, to the other, seems like treason.

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We’re Doomed, So Resist

flag_viaevechanWhen a man shows us how cowardly, ignorant, and petty he is, we should believe him. We should not expect him to change. We should not expect him to become better. We should not expect him to stop being a bully when he is given power in addition to a bully pulpit. This man has shown us who he is, and he will be exactly the same for the next four years—but with power to remake the country with his actions and not just his words.

He has muzzled scientists and set in motion actions that, without exaggeration, will drive climate change from manageable disaster to runaway cataclysm. And he denies it exists. He has taken action to attack Americans, to strip us of our rights, and to expel us from the country. And he denies we deserve otherwise. He has decreed the building of an edifice of exclusion, and denied that we will pay the price.

And he has whined and complained about the depth of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. Like any coward, he only knows how to silence those who critique him. A leader would strive to be better; this man strives for nothing.

Has it only been a week? There are so many more to come. The temptation to look away is strong—but despair, especially, we must resist.

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Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.

Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.

But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?

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The Missing Words

police_viathomashawkThere are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”

But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.

That word is “unconditionally.”

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The Wisdom of a Fiction

Windmill_viaJavierLineraWhen Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.

There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading

No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

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The Dangerous Middle

balance.jpgThere is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.

It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.

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Bern it Down, or Climb the Hill

BernieHillary_viaABCI’ve been having some problems with the simmering Bernie/Hillary feud among my friends (and their friends, and a bunch of loud people who showed up and no one is sure whose friends they are). I don’t usually write these essays as direct commentary on current events, because current events fade away and writing, in my opinion, should have something to say for a long while. But I think that feud, which is nearly national at this point, has something to tell us about politics.

Namely, don’t demonize your opponents.

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Amending Fences

amendmentsMy smart conservative friends care a great deal about the 2nd amendment, and my smart liberal friends care a great deal about the 4th. Yet both seem intent on limiting the other, and I was recently struck by the idea that the arguments about both amendments are the same. Both, I think, are about the cost of freedom.

Even for my smart conservative friends, the idea of some basic regulations of the 2nd amendment is tolerable. Overall, though, they would prefer a government that treats ownership of weapons as a necessary liberty to be protected even at cost. The fact that we have mass shootings is the price of that freedom, but they hold the freedom essential even at the cost of lives.

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