On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

The Just War Myth and the War in Afghanistan

The conclusion of two decades of American war in Afghanistan reminds us that war is rarely justified.  A just war responds to aggression or defends human rights.  Just wars should be fought for noble intentions.  Just warriors should avoid deliberately harming noncombatants.  Just warriors should not use torture or commit war crimes.  And a just war should leave the world better off.

In Afghanistan, more than 150,000 people were killed.  This includes Taliban fighters, Afghan government forces, and an estimated 47,000 civilians.  Nearly 2,500 American soldiers were killed.  Trillions were spent.  Millions were displaced, including 2.6 million Afghan refugees. 

It is not clear this was worth it, morally speaking.

This is not to say that the American soldiers who fought, bled, and died in “the war on terror” did anything wrong.  Individual soldiers do not decide where to fight.  In our democratic system, that decision is made by civilian leaders who are accountable to “we, the people.” 

We asked our soldiers to fight in a war that was morally suspect from the beginning.  We should apologize.  In addition to saying “thank you for your service,” we should say, “I’m sorry.”  And we must add, in addressing our veterans, “it is not your fault.”

Retrospective analysis is fraught with difficulties.  But it was not clear from the beginning that an all-out invasion of Afghanistan was a proportional response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Taliban regime was not responsible for 9/11.  It is true that Osama bin Ladin was hiding out in Afghanistan.  But it was overkill to invade an entire country in order to root out terrorists.  Critical voices argued, even in 2001, that a more targeted and proportional response would have been wiser.

It is also important to consider whether sustained and well-funded nonviolent alternatives to war could have been efficacious.  What kinds of nonviolent terrorism prevention programs could have been funded with the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan?

The Taliban was (and is) undemocratic and repressive.  It could be argued that removing the Taliban was justified in defense of human rights.  But nation-building wars are much more difficult to justify and to win, as Afghanistan and Iraq show.  As we’ve learned in both cases, the regimes we installed suffered from corruption as well as a lack of legitimacy and popular support.

From the beginning our intentions were mixed.  Some wanted revenge for 9/11.  Some wanted to “drain the swamp” harboring terrorists.  Some wanted to create democracy.  There were also strategic considerations involving Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China, linked to the neoconservative desire to assert American supremacy around the globe.

Along the way, atrocities were committed.  Lies were told.  Goodwill was squandered.  Contractors enriched themselves.  And brave men and women lost limbs and lives. 

In 2007, I offered a critical analysis of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I showed the problem of “the just war myth.”  The just war myth evolves from wishful thinking about war.  We want to believe that war can be easily justified.  We want to believe that we are the good guys who win the wars we fight because of our moral superiority.  Those are illusions.

We also want to believe that civilian and military leaders are wise and moral.  We want to believe that our leaders know what they are doing, that they are concerned with morality, and that they are not merely playing politics with the lives of our soldiers. 

Our trust in the probity and sagacity of our leaders is broken after years of polarization.  This should undermine our faith in the just war myth.  This does not mean one must affirm absolute pacifism.  Rather, it means we should be more critical of war and more vigilant. 

We, the people must say “never again” to ill-advised and unjust wars.  We should be skeptical of militaristic rhetoric and simplistic narratives that divide the world into good guys and bad guys.  We should question the idea that war can be an effective tool for promoting democracy.  And we should educate ourselves about the importance of nonviolent alternatives to war.

This critical perspective is offered in solidarity with the soldiers who fought and died during the past 20 years.  It is offered on behalf of the next generation of warriors who will be asked to bleed on our behalf.  It is offered with compassionate concern for the men, women, and children who suffer the horrors of war.

Compassion

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book, Compassion. This is the second volume of The Three Mountains.

This book follows the trail of compassion. It offers poetic insight, stunning photography, and the wisdom of ancient philosophy. The book reflects on the meaning of compassion in a world that contains both beauty and suffering. It will provoke, invigorate, and make you wonder.

The book weaves spiritual teachings together with folktales and natural history in a way that surprises and inspires. Compassion involves laughter, chaos, tears, and joy. Compassion is about overflowing and becoming broader.

Excerpt: “The instinct to share is primordial. No one wants to drink or dance alone. We share the wine because happiness and sadness need company. We toast the illusions of life, laughing out loud at the glowing red of sunset and the silver light of moonrise. We toast the illusions of life, singing hymns to lost friends, dead dogs, and silent grandmothers. Here’s to the eyes that once saw this beauty, now closed forever. Here’s to the child whose eyes have just opened.”

The Ethics of Resigning Governors and State Recall Elections

Fresno Bee, August 15, 2021

To resign or not to resign? That’s not quite Hamlet’s question. But it’s close.

In New York, the governor resigned in disgrace, while Californians are trying to kick our governor out of office. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is accused of sexual harassment, fudging the numbers during the pandemic, and other misdeeds. Cuomo said he would step aside so as not to be a distraction from the business of governing.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is not accused of sexual harassment. But he is accused of mishandling the pandemic, being soft on crime, contributing to rising poverty, and so on. In California, there will be a special recall election.

It may seem obvious that if a leader misbehaves, he or she should step aside or be removed.

But Donald Trump and Bill Clinton provide counter-examples. Both clung to power, despite the sleaze and the impeachments. The Trump-Clinton model is one of pugnacious resistance. They teach us to fight the opposition, malign the accusers, and circle the wagons. In both cases, this strategy worked.

Bad guys who refuse to resign typically claim that they are defending their integrity and honor against false accusations. They are lying, of course. But once you are on the highway to hell, the cover-ups are par for the course.

For decent people, this is appalling. If the accusations are true, you should step aside. That’s what a good person would do. Of course, if you are a good person, there probably won’t be any accusations.

Cuomo’s resignation complicates this somewhat. He claims that the accusations against him are false. But he resigned anyway. He said, more or less, I’m not guilty but I’m resigning.

But isn’t that what a guilty person would say? We suspect that by stepping down, he is admitting guilt. That’s the way most people interpret Richard Nixon’s resignation. He said, “I am not a crook.” He resigned before he could be convicted for his “dirty tricks.”

A good rule of thumb is that when scandals get in the way of your job, it is time to go. For most jobs, even governor or president, there are lots of competent people who could do them. If you are plagued by accusations of wrongdoing (whether true or false), you should get out of the way and let someone else take over. Once your leadership becomes a liability, step aside in the name of the common good.

But we cling to our jobs. Sometimes this is malicious. Lascivious scout masters and pedophile priests hang on to their positions. In other cases, people feel entitled to the prestige they have earned. They want to hold on to the money and the status, come hell or high water.

Furthermore, political leadership in a democracy is connected to the will of the people. Newsom won the 2018 election by a 24-point margin. It would seem undemocratic for him to resign. This would subvert the will of the majority who voted for him. And since we have a recall procedure in our state Constitution, this is the most democratic way to proceed.

Of course, Trump supporters made a similar point about Trump during his impeachments — that impeachment was like spitting in the eye of those who voted for Trump. And so it goes. The democracy trump card can be played by anyone.

All of this is exacerbated by polarization and distrust. When our guy (or gal) is in office, we circle the wagons. When the other party is in control, we go on the attack. Our political life can appear to be a game of partisan “gotcha.”

But there are cases when ethics rises above politics. A few Republicans have refused to circle their wagons around Trump. And in Cuomo’s case, his own party turned against him.

This points toward the solution. Hamlet felt himself to be alone in the world. But American politicians are not alone. Their power is the result of a social process. It involves parties, donors and voters.

In the long run, what matters is the truth and the common good. The hyperpartisans on the barricades will be remembered as hypocrites and sycophants. Those who pursue truth, justice, and the common good are the heroes of democracy.