The Plural of Anecdote is Data

It’s said that the plural of “anecdote” is “data,” so here’s some data in anecdote-sized packages.

My family has so far been spared any cases of Covid-19, thank Goodness.

However, a friend of mine got it and is now recovering after a long week. He says it was brutal. One day he’d feel better, and the next day he’d feel sick again. At least now, he’s definitely on the mend.

Here in the Midwestern United States, we have fewer cases than in the coastal hot zones. By the time it started to spread here, we’d already had ample warning and were starting to play it safe. Even so, we’re getting our share. Like both my parents, two of my brothers are MDs so they’re good sources of advice and information.

Medical professionals deal with illness and death more than most of us do, and they’re not inhuman robots. They have feelings. They need to distance themselves emotionally or it would tear them apart. My father referred to infectious diseases as “the Dread Mahoot.” He also had a sunny disposition that probably helped. My biological mother’s disposition was all over the place, but she was a psychiatrist and seldom treated physical maladies.

I recall that when I was three or four years old, my parents wanted to vaccinate me against the usual things. I didn’t like getting shots, so I hid under their bed. I was small enough to fit underneath it, but they weren’t, so they had to talk me out. These days, if there were a Covid-19 vaccine, I’d eagerly sign up for it.

I got one of my Ph.D.s in Los Angeles and had a postdoctoral fellowship up in Santa Barbara, so I checked to see how my old haunts were faring. Westwood and Studio City have 26 and 19 cases; Culver City has 17. Farther out, Calabasas has 13. Goleta and Isla Vista (UC Santa Barbara) together have four cases. But California is locked down tight, so the rate of new cases should drop.

We’ll all get through this. Then we can get back to screaming at each other about trivial bullsh-t that no sane person would take seriously. Or maybe we’ll recover our senses. It could happen.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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If We Can Learn, We Can Do Better

The world is scary right now. But it won’t stay that way. Things will get better.

The pandemic will subside. We will mourn our dead, be they many or few. We will go on.

But if we can learn, then even from tragedy, some good can come.

We’ve been given a great privilege, even though it’s not one we wanted. The pandemic has shown us our own graves, both as individuals and as societies.

It’s given us a chance to re-assess. To get our priorities straight. To take a second look at how we live:

  • Do we think that in our final moments, each of us will say “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with my family and loved ones”?
  • Do we think it’s rational to get violently angry whenever someone we don’t know says something we don’t like?
  • Do we think it’s our right to dictate to everyone else how to live? How to talk? What to believe? Are we that infallible?
  • Do we want to play politics with every single aspect of life? Can’t we just leave some things alone?
  • Do we want to define ourselves by how much we hate people who disagree with us?
  • Do we want to turn what were relatively peaceful, orderly societies into miserable, Hobbesian wars of all against all?
  • Do we want to be caught by surprise again, the next time some nasty virus jumps out of the woodwork?

We should ask ourselves those questions. The answers will shape our future.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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When It’s Good to be Bland and Boring

“If you’re in an area impacted by the Coronavirus, it’s essential that you listen to state and local authorities for guidance … I want to say ‘thank you’ to the American people. Thank you for your cooperation.”

— Vice President Mike Pence, March 25, 2020

The first time I saw Mike Pence, he was giving a speech at the Jewish Community Center of Indianapolis. He was a Congressman at the time, and his speech was about the alliance between the United States and Israel.

He impressed me as a bland, boring Indiana politician. He wasn’t very exciting, but he was stable. He wasn’t ideologically conservative, but he had common sense.

Since then, I’ve never had any reason to change that assessment.

And that’s a good thing.

President Trump is a showman and a salesman. He’s a perfect fit for today’s reality-TV culture, and for the no-rules Thunderdome of 2020 American politics. He’s entertaining and sometimes obnoxious, but he’s never bland and boring.

Hence, Pence.

Yes, America needs someone like Trump to fight against the relentless attacks on our country and our civilization.

But we also need someone like Pence to provide a steadying hand, a calm voice, a measured response.

That’s why I’m glad Pence is Vice President. And I hope he’s elected president in 2024.

When the moneyed elites yell at President Trump today, he yells back. It’s a good show. And a lot of people who crave attention, get it. :: cough :: Alyssa Milano :: cough ::

When the moneyed elites yell at President Pence in 2025, he’ll answer calmly and politely. He knows that, as the Bible says, “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” It will be boring as hell. And the attention-seekers will go away frustrated.

“Bland and boring America” is going to be wonderful. I can hardly wait!


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Einstein Agrees with the Lone Ranger

Albert Einstein and the Lone Ranger agree: Get over yourself.

Albert Einstein was one of the smartest people of the 20th century. His ideas revolutionized our understanding of space and time. They also contributed to the development of quantum mechanics.

The Lone Ranger was a fictional hero of radio and television shows from the 1930s to the 1950s. The episodes always featured strong moral messages about honesty, courage, forgiveness, and second chances. “Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice,” said the narrator in the show’s opening credits.

When Albert Einstein and the Lone Ranger agree on something, it’s worth paying attention.

Einstein’s version is more easily quotable. In his 1934 book Mein Weltbild (published in English with the title The World As I See It), he wrote that:

“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”

The Story of Sam Bass

The Lone Ranger’s version comes at the end of the show’s April 24, 1944 radio episode, so it requires context.

The episode was “The Story of Sam Bass.” In the opening scene, Sam’s wife is killed in a crossfire between the sheriff and an outlaw gang that just robbed the bank. Sam leaves his infant son Johnny with the boy’s grandparents. He embarks on a quest for revenge against Jim Murphy, the gang’s leader.

Years later, Sam has become a notorious outlaw himself but is finally closing in on Murphy’s gang. Also closing in are the Lone Ranger and his Indian companion Tonto. They’re tracking down the gang because Murphy killed a U.S. Marshal.

Posing as a criminal, the Lone Ranger meets Sam. He reveals that Sam’s grown-up son Johnny has become sheriff of the town that Murphy’s gang plans to rob next. He says that Johnny refuses to believe his father is an outlaw.

Just as the gang emerges from the town bank, Sam shows up, guns blazing. Though shot many times, he kills all of the outlaws before slumping to the ground. He saves his son’s life and the lives of several other people. A little later:

“Doc says there ain’t much hope for him, sheriff.”

“Yeah, I know. I wish that I knew his name.”

“Ain’t no mystery about that. It’s the same as yours. That’s Sam Bass, the outlaw.”

“But that’s my father’s name, and he’s not an outlaw.”

Sam wakes up, speaks to Johnny for a moment, and then dies.

“He’s gone, sheriff. But he went down fighting. You’ve got to admire an hombre like that, even if he was an outlaw.”

“You’re crazy. This is my father and he wasn’t an outlaw. Wait, I’ll bet there’s something in his pockets to prove he wasn’t.”

Johnny searches his father’s pockets. “Here. Look at this: a badge. A United States Marshal’s badge. That’s what Dad must have been doing.”

“Hey, sheriff. What’s on that piece of paper? That was in his pocket, too.”

“I don’t know. It looks like a note.”

“What does it say?”

“‘A man’s true worth is measured by what he does for someone else.’ And it’s signed, ‘The Lone Ranger’.”

The Bottom Line

Albert Einstein and the Lone Ranger agree:

Don’t worry about how you die. Worry about how you live.

P.S. A Real-Life Example

A Catholic priest in Italy not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Few people would have had his courage and integrity. The UK Independent reported:

“A 72-year-old priest who gave his respirator to a younger Covid-19 patient he did not know has died from coronavirus. Father Giuseppe Berardelli, the main priest in the town of Casnigo, refused a respirator which had been bought for him by his parishioners and instead gave it to a younger patient.

He died last week in Lovere, Bergamo – one of the worst-hit cities in Italy’s ongoing coronavirus crisis.

“He was a simple, straightforward person, with a great kindness and helpfulness towards everyone, believers and non-believers,” Giuseppe Imberti, the mayor of Casnigo, said in a statement, according to the Italian news website Araberara.

Although there was no funeral for the priest, residents of the town reportedly applauded from their balconies as his coffin was taken for burial.”


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Show Up for the Future

The future belongs to the people who show up for it.

It’s as simple as that.

I can’t tell you what will happen with the Covid-19 virus. But I can tell you that fear is at least as deadly as the virus.

Unless you’re behaving stupidly, you probably won’t get Covid-19. Unless you’re in a high-risk group (over 70, smoker, etc.), you’ll almost certainly be fine even if you do get it. You might get it and never even know that you had it. Even if you’re in a high-risk group, the odds are a little worse but they’re still in your favor.

Most of the problems we’re seeing right now aren’t caused by the virus. They’re caused by fear.

What does the future hold? We don’t know. But that was also true last year, and the year before that. We weren’t afraid then. Why should we be afraid now?

It’s relevant, so let me tell you how I got a varsity letter as a high-school cross-country runner.

I wasn’t very athletic and was about 40 pounds overweight at the start of the cross-country season. The only reason I was even on the team was that my school required all students to participate in sports. I had to sign up for something, and cross-country was the only sport that didn’t require calisthenics, which I hate.

On the first day of practice, I set a new record for the longest it had ever taken anyone to run the cross-country course. As far as I know, my record still stands today.

After my humiliating first run, I started what I called my “coffee diet.” The theory was simple: drink two cups of coffee with every meal, and don’t eat anything. In reality, I did eat a few hamburgers, so it was more like a low-carb diet.

The pounds fell off. By the end of the season, I was slim, fit, and still a lousy runner. In races, I always came in last.

But I got a varsity letter. Why? Because I always showed up, and I always finished. I worked so hard and improved so much that my letter should have been an “A for Effort.”

The future is the same way. If you give up, then you’re done. The future will be made by people who keep on running even if they don’t feel like it. They won’t quit.

So don’t give up. Show up.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The Weather Report on Coronavirus

Coronavirus

A lot of media people are sounding the alarm about a new strain of coronavirus, a pneumonia-like illness. They’re warning everyone to stock up on groceries, buy face masks, and avoid going outside.

To me, it seems like an over-reaction.

For sure, the new coronavirus is worse than the flu, but the flu also kills some people. And you’re a lot more likely to get the flu.

I can’t tell you what’s in the future. But I can tell you how televised weather forecasts are relevant to coronavirus reporting.

Did you ever wonder why storm forecasts are often wrong? Either the storm isn’t as bad as predicted, or it doesn’t happen at all.

The answer is obvious when you consider the options for a weather forecaster:

  • If you predict good weather and the weather is good, then nobody thanks you.
  • If you predict good weather and the weather is bad, then everyone is angry at you. You were wrong, and they got caught in a storm.
  • If you predict bad weather and the weather is bad, then nobody thanks you.
  • If you predict bad weather and the weather is good, then everyone is relieved and nobody complains that you were wrong.

The same logic applies to coronavirus reporting:

  • If you predict that everything will be fine and it is, then nobody thanks you.
  • If you predict that everything will be fine and it’s not, then everyone wants your head on a plate.
  • If you predict that everyone’s gonna die and they do, then nobody thanks you. There won’t be anyone left to do it.
  • If you predict that everyone’s gonna die and they don’t, then everyone is relieved and nobody complains that you were wrong.

For your personal self-interest, gloom-and-doom predictions are safer than realistic ones. So your incentive is to err on the side of alarmism.

Everyone will almost certainly die someday, of something. It probably won’t be coronavirus.

As for me, I’d choose to be shot by a jealous husband. A guy can dream.

Que sera, sera.

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Language Does Not Equal Reality

Recommended Reading

Every Saturday, my friend Jim Grey publishes a “recommended reading” list of interesting blogs from the previous week.

Today’s list linked to an article about the benefits of speaking multiple languages. Jim explained:

“I used to speak German very well. For years there were concepts that I felt I understood more deeply because I could articulate them in German. The language gave me nuance that English lacked for those concepts. My skill in the language has waned from disuse, and with it went those enhanced understandings.”

I think he got it exactly right. Different languages don’t change the facts, but they do change the nuances, such as:

  • Focus and viewpoint
  • Emotional associations of words and phrases
  • Cultural references that native speakers recognize
  • Sound, rhythm, and euphony

The nuances can be important. British writer Daniel Hannan, who served in the European Parliament from 1999-2016, observed that:

“Working in that multilingual environment [the European Parliament] has convinced me that there are intrinsic properties in English that favor the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas.

I often listen to the interpretation with my headphones covering one ear, so as to improve my language skills. Frequently, a politician or official will say something that seems to make sense enough in his own tongue but that, when rendered into English, turns out to be so abstract as to be almost meaningless.”

He adds:

“Plenty of academic papers in English are now written in unintelligible [gibberish], the authors evidently confusing opacity of expression with profundity of thought. But such authors generally also look to statist European thinkers when it comes to their view of how to organize society, which rather proves [the] point.”

Nuances change, but the facts stay the same no matter how we talk about them. For example, the Chinese language has some surprises for Western speakers:

  • Chinese nouns have no singular or plural forms.
  • In spoken Chinese, the same word can mean “he,” “she,” or “it.”
  • Chinese verbs have no tenses, such as past, present, or future.

Even so, Chinese people still have to distinguish between singular and plural, male and female, past, present, and future. They just do it in different ways.

The practical reality is the same, but there are inevitably minor differences in how they see it and feel about it. In a few situations, it probably affects how they act.

(P.S. In a couple of months, I’m taking the Chinese language proficiency exam: the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì. Wish me luck, which in Chinese is zhù nǐ hǎo yùn. I’ll need it.)

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments