Turn Strangers into Friends

How can strangers quickly become friends? Or at least avoid being enemies?

On my way back from vacation, I passed through Miami International Airport. It’s an enormous place, so I spent a half hour walking from one terminal to another.

A middle-aged TSA officer was walking in the same direction. I struck up a conversation with him. We had a nice chat before we went our separate ways.

Why? How?

Easy. We had something in common. That’s frequently all it takes.

I saw that he wore a yarmulke, so he was obviously Jewish. I took a chance and spoke to him in Hebrew.

I asked if he was an Israeli. Israel’s airport security is better than ours, so I thought he might be helping TSA improve its procedures.

He wasn’t Israeli but he understood enough Hebrew to know what I had asked. He was actually from Venezuela. We talked about how he and his family had come to America. Nice guy. And I got a chance to practice my Spanish.

Even though we were strangers at first, my question in Hebrew signaled that we were members of the same in-group. In-group members tend to feel friendly and cooperative with each other. So we were able to chat as casual friends even though we didn’t know each other.

Groups are sometimes based in biology, such as race and ethnicity. In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observes that:

“People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous.”

But groups can be based on almost any shared trait, as long as it’s known to other group members. Wilson continues:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves … prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or identified themselves as preferring some abstract painter to another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Until recently, “Americans” formed a great big in-group. Whatever our differences, we had that shared identity in common. We wanted to solve our problems together.

I’m not a historian, but I think our sense of shared group identity started to disintegrate when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Since World War II, the Soviet Union had been an external threat to our group’s survival. It encouraged us to set aside our differences and unite against our common enemy.

But now, with no common enemy outside of America, identity politics divides us against each other. We no longer feel enough in common to be members of the same group. We’re also importing millions of people who were never part of our group and who don’t want to be. The inevitable result is as obvious as it is tragic.

What America needs is leadership to re-unite us and re-establish our group identity. But nobody is doing it. Not President Trump. Not Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. Not the talking heads on cable news. Not Hollywood.

And the hell of it is, it can be done! It’s not rocket science. The resources to do it are available. All it takes is the will.

Please, won’t someone step up to the plate and take a swing? It’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re losing. We can still win. But the team leaders have to lead.


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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Christakis’s Blueprint for Sanity

I’ve started reading Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis’s book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.

Christakis is something of a hero not only of free speech, but of sanity itself.

His wife Erika, also on the faculty, was denounced for suggesting that students should be tolerant of Halloween costumes they dislike. He calmly faced down an angry mob of Yale enrollees who demanded an apology for her heretical thoughts.

In light of that incident, I had to chuckle at a statement he makes early in his book:

“Perhaps oddly for a man who has spent his adult life studying social phenomena, I have never liked crowds.”

Especially crowds of screaming lunatics, I thought.

Christakis’s book covers some of the same ground as I do in my own book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things, such as the ways that our biology influences our beliefs and communities. So far, it’s a terrific read.

He dedicated the book to his wife, in a way that was particularly beautiful:

“The world is better the closer you are to Erika.”

That dedication is so good that it’s the kind of thing “I wish I’d written,” though I’d naturally use a different name for the dedicatee.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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When Smart People Get Stupid Ideas

If you want to hear stupid ideas, talk to a stupid person. But if you want to hear incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid ideas, talk to a smart person.

It’s not a new insight. Political pundit William F. Buckley once said that he “would rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”1

In 1787, American Founder Thomas Jefferson wrote to the son of a close friend. Among other things, Jefferson advised that it was a waste of time to study moral philosophy:

“State a moral case to a [farmer] and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

Smart people often get things right. When they get things wrong, they often get them  spectacularly wrong. Why?

They over-estimate how much they know

Smart people are often successful. They got good grades in school. They’re highly skilled in their fields. They usually know a lot of things, which leads them to believe that they’re experts about everything.

One of the funniest examples shows Harvard University graduates explaining the seasons. Why does it get cold in the winter and hot in the summer? Their explanations are both ludicrously inaccurate and stated with absolute confidence. These ignorant people aspire to run American society. (That explains a lot of things.)

Another example is “the dartboard fund.” Professional investors devote their time to studying the stock and bond markets. They know a lot, and they believe it helps them predict which investments will make money. But their predictions seem less reliable than just throwing darts at a list of stocks:

“[The Wall Street Journal] writers threw darts at a stock list in the newspaper. From those random hits they built a portfolio to stack up against highflying financial elites … So how did the dart-throwing journalists do this year? ‘The results were brutal,’ recounts Spencer Jakab of The Journal. The random writer picks beat the pros by 27 percentage points in the year through April 22.”

And it’s not just stocks. In politics and diplomacy, the same applies.2

Smart people also assume that their expertise in one area of knowledge automatically makes them experts in other areas. Richard Dawkins is a superstar in biology, but considerably less competent in philosophy and theology. Sean Carroll is a superstar in physics, but his political ideas are boringly trite and predictable.

They use the wrong tool

If your favorite tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

Smart people really are smart — i.e., they are usually good at remembering facts, seeing patterns, doing calculations, and using language. As a result, thinking is their favorite tool. They try to think their way to solving problems that were solved long ago (and better) by human biological and cultural evolution. The solutions they find are often plausible in theory but disastrous in practice.

Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa argues that the disconnect comes from the environment in which human brains evolved:

“Evolutionary adaptations, whether they are physical or psychological, are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment when they evolved, not necessarily to the conditions of the current environment. Evolution cannot anticipate or foresee the future; it can only respond to conditions in the past.”3

Our pre-human ancestors had no books, science, technology, or mathematics. Language was barely more than grunts and growls. In other words, there were few of the kinds of problems at which smart people excel:

“Intelligent people are only good at doing things that are relatively new in the course of human evolution. They are not necessarily good at doing things that our ancestors have always done, like finding and keeping a mate, being a parent, and making friends. Intelligent people tend not to be good at doing things that are most important in life.”4

In other words, smart people are bad at understanding human life, how human beings feel, and how to solve normal human problems. Their favorite tool, thinking, is a much less reliable guide than history and human experience. As a result, they think their way into errors.

That’s why Jefferson said that a farmer could decide moral issues better than a professor. A professor tries to think of the solution. He applies abstract concepts from books he’s read. On the other hand, a farmer often knows the solution intuitively. The farmer applies concrete lessons from real life. And for moral questions, real life is what counts — so the farmer is more likely to be right.

Footnotes

  1. Telephone directories were books that listed the phone numbers of people in each town or city. Before the 1990s, most people had home telephones whose numbers seldom changed.
  2. Smart people make more reliable predictions when the relevant factors are quantifiable and governed by physical laws. But if the situation involves human behavior, then predictions by smart people are often less reliable than the dartboard fund.
  3. Satoshi Kanazawa, The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One. Kindle ebook loc. 610.
  4. Ibid, loc. 208.

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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Distracted

Posting will be intermittent for the next couple of weeks. A picture is worth a thousand words.


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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What Is Humanity?

Back in the 1960s, the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote Who Is Man? based on lectures he gave at Stanford University.

But to ask “who is man?” assumes that we’ve’ previously answered the question “what is man?”

If humans are merely physical objects like chairs and tables, then the question “who is man” makes no sense. A human person is not just a what, but is also a who: a living consciousness with self-awareness, thoughts, feelings, and moral rights. As Heschel said:

“Human being in distinction from all other beings is endowed with consciousness of its own being, not only with awareness of the presence of other beings.”1

One of the most dangerous mistakes we can make is to see other people only as whats instead of as whos.

Even if we know better, it’s hard to avoid. When we order coffee in a restaurant, it’s impractical to engage the server in a discussion of his or her life: we just want our coffee. That applies in many other situations. We ignore the humanity of the other.

It’s reasonable to make a distinction. When we order our coffee, we ignore the server’s humanity — but we don’t deny it.

On the other hand, if we choose to harm people without respect for their welfare, rights, or personal dignity, then we do implicitly deny their humanity. We act as if they are no more important than chairs and tables, to which we may do whatever we wish.

That’s why it’s troubling to read paragraphs such as the following, which appeared in a review of Francis Fukayama’s book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment:

“Modern science robs us of any illusions we may have about our dignified place in the cosmos. Physics teaches that everything is matter in motion. And biology teaches that human beings, like all living organisms, are the result of an arbitrary evolutionary process. As the French Nobel Laureate in Medicine Jacques Monod once observed: ‘Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance.'”

Many educated people today believe that the human race is just mud with delusions of grandeur. But they’re wrong. Their belief rests on two key errors:

First, modern science tells us no such thing.

Physics studies the workings of the physical universe. It has nothing to say about other subjects. Biology teaches that living organisms evolved, but the arbitrariness of the process is not a biological question. And expertise in medicine confers no special knowledge of whether we are alone, whether the universe is unfeeling, or whether the human race emerged “only by chance.” Those beliefs might be true or false, but they are not scientific beliefs. They are philosophical or religious beliefs.

Second, even if science did tell us that, people would still matter more than mud.

Suppose the worst-case scenario is true, and that we are just a sophisticated cocktail of organic chemicals, mixed and served by blind chance. We live a little while and then we’re dead, dead, dead. End of story.

But wait: what about the story itself? While we are alive, we are conscious. We love, hate, suffer, and rejoice. Even if those things have no value to the universe at large, they’re important to us. Our lives are the stage upon which we find things to value, things to learn, and people to love. Do those things become worthless during our lives simply because they might be worthless after our lives? Of course not.

Our lives matter. Do they matter eternally, and to God? Maybe. Believe what you want. But they certainly matter temporarily, and to the people who live them.

People are not a what. They are always a who.

Footnote

  1. Who Is Man? pp. 7-8.

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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Grokking Our Disagreements

I finally got around to reading Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Starship Troopers.

When I was growing up, I read two or three science fiction novels a week. How I missed Starship Troopers, I don’t know.

And one of my brothers worked on the 1997 movie. His work appears in a lot of the scenes. Let’s just say that if not for him, the giant alien bugs would still be attacking earth.

So I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times. Now that I’m reading the book, Heinlein impresses me even more.

That got me thinking about some of the ideas in Heinlein’s other books. The ideas were only incidental to the stories, so I didn’t give them much thought when I was a kid.1 In retrospect, however, they seem pretty profound.

One of his ideas can help us understand and transcend our disagreements.

The upper limit of knowledge

Heinlein’s most famous book is Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961. The story is set in the United States, presumably the 21st century. The world seems like what people in 1961 expected the future to be: essentially, it’s just the 1950s plus space travel and a few new gadgets.

The “stranger” is a man who was raised from infancy by Martians on Mars. He was born in space during the first manned mission to Mars. He is biologically human but he knows only Martian concepts and culture. As one character says, he is “more Martian than man.”2

When he comes to earth for the first time, he tries to understand the people around him. He calls it “grokking” them.

The other characters eventually figure out what “grok” means. To grok something is to understand it intimately and completely, inside and out, both as a matter of logic and as a matter of feeling:

“‘Grok’ means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed …”3

So we might say that grokking is the upper limit of knowledge. If we grok something fully, then we understand it as much as it can be understood.

The lower limit of knowledge

Heinlein also demonstrated the lower limit of knowledge. I’m not sure that he did it on purpose, but it’s there in the book.

His example shows how sane, rational people can look at the same facts and disagree completely about what they mean.

In Heinlein’s story, some people get special training for the job of “Fair Witness.” They have perfect and complete memory of anything they experience. In theory, they report exactly what they witness, without making assumptions or adding interpretation.

As Ambrose Bierce joked about realism, a Fair Witness’s job is to report events “as they are seen by toads.” For example:

“Jubal called out, ‘That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?’ Anne looked, then answered, ‘It’s white on this side.’ Jubal went on to Jill, ‘You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself unless she went there and looked — and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.'”4

I call it “the lower limit” of knowledge because it you went much lower than what Anne says, you wouldn’t be making a statement: you’d just be saying “white!” You wouldn’t be asserting anything that could be true or false.

Notice some things about Anne:

  • She’s calm and clear-headed.
  • She’s not emotionally agitated.
  • She’s not trying to make a point.
  • She’s not trying to win an argument.
  • She has special training as a Fair Witness to report only what she sees, without assumptions or interpretation.

In spite of all that, she still makes assumptions and interprets what she sees:

  • She assumes that what she sees is a house.
  • She assumes that houses have sides.
  • She assumes that her vision is working properly.
  • She assumes that the light shining on the house isn’t making it seem white when it really isn’t.
  • She interprets her pattern of visual sensations as being the white side of a house.

Just like the rest of us when we look at the Ames room, Anne interprets what she sees. She relies on countless unconscious beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and previous experiences. If the situation matches the mental patterns she applies, then she perceives it correctly. If it doesn’t match her mental patterns, then she perceives it incorrectly.

And if two honest people apply different mental patterns to the same situation, then they’ll disagree about it — especially if they’re not “fair witnesses,” which almost nobody is. But if they’re sane and sensible, they can still figure out how to live together peacefully.

Footnotes

  1. Nor did I give much thought to the books’ kinky sexual ideas, which went completely over my head. I was a late bloomer.
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land, p. 7. Heinlein seemed to have a bad case of “blank-slate-ism.” At the time he was writing (1960), the blank-slate view of human nature was still defensible.
  3. Ibid, p. 241.
  4. Ibid, p. 112.

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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Life is a Judgment Call

The bar patron asked the bartender, “Is life worth living?”

The bartender replied, “It depends on the liver.”1

In other words, it’s a judgment call.

Most of us crave simple patterns to explain life. We crave simple rules to guide our behavior. We often don’t get them.

I encountered an example on the road after lunch today.

In the last few years, our city government has gone on a binge of replacing stop signs with traffic circles. The theory is that they speed up commuting. The reality is that many drivers still don’t know how to navigate them.

As a result, even simple traffic circles are accidents waiting to happen. Multi-lane traffic circles, because they’re more complex, are even more accident-prone.

Today after lunch, I was on a two-lane road approaching a one-lane traffic circle. My lane, on the left, led into the traffic circle. The other lane, on the right, was a right-turn lane.

I had a feeling that the driver on my right would cut in front of me and enter the traffic circle from the wrong lane, so I hit my brakes. And he did exactly as I’d expected. If I hadn’t braked, we would have crashed, with the front of my car hitting the driver’s side of his car. Not good, especially not for him.

Apparently oblivious to what had happened, he zoomed through the traffic circle. I followed behind him.

About a half-mile down the road, we came to another traffic circle. He zoomed into it and barely escaped being hit by a truck. I waited for the truck to pass and then drove through.

He either wasn’t paying attention to his driving, didn’t know how to use traffic circles, or was prone to taking unreasonable risks.

On the other hand, he hadn’t actually caused an accident and I’ve seen lots of incompetent driving. He did manage to avoid the truck.

So I thought, “what should I do?”

Call the cops? That seemed a little excessive. I’d witnessed a couple of traffic violations but no harm was done.

Catch up with him, stop him somehow, and explain his driving errors? Oh, yeah, that would work. Unsolicited criticism from strangers is always appreciated.

I finally made a judgment call: If he stopped somewhere and I was still within sight of him, I would pull over. As gently as possible, I’d try to explain how close he had come to causing two traffic accidents in two minutes. I didn’t expect him to react with anything but anger, but I would at least have done something.

He turned off the road at the next intersection, and I had to get back to work, so I didn’t chase him.

I hope that his driving improves, and that he doesn’t hurt anyone in the meantime.

I made a judgment call.

Footnote

  1. In case you didn’t get the joke, excessive drinking can damage the drinker’s liver.

Check out my new 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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