Rational thought

Something that has become clear in recent years is that there is a distinct lack of rational thought and fact based, data driven discourse in our political system.  This has been true for a while but it has kicked up a notch.

The rise of “alternate facts” and denialism are troubling.  As many have said, you can disagree on opinions but lets all agree to the facts.  The question is how do you learn to figure out what is fact, what is a trusted source of information, how to evaluate evidence, etc.  In a world where literally anyone has the equivalent of a printing press its pretty hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Something that is critical to bring into our schools and reinforce it constantly and from an early age is how to think critically and evaluate whether what someone is telling you is true or false.  This applies to science, math, history, social studies, etc.  How do you validate something is accurate?  Is reading something on someone’s blog as trustworthy as reading in a peer reviewed journal?

Think about these claims that seem to be based on different “facts”:

  • do vaccines cause autism?
  • is the globe warming and is it caused by human activity?
  • is the crime rate going up or down? 
  • what is the efficacy of a drug or medical therapy?
  • what is the greatest driver of economic growth?
  • Is “x” a good investment?
  • Is organic food better for you or more environmentally sustainable?

Learning to weigh evidence based on the source is critical to understanding the world enough to form well informed opinions.  I care less about the opinions on an action to take than how you form those opinions and what they are based upon. We can debate merits of a given policy all day long but that really isn’t possible if we are starting from a different set of facts. Although this is only part of the equation when forming a policy position, we shouldn’t choose our facts based on the policy we want, we should let the facts inform the appropriate policy taking all factors into account. 

Back to education, I am a proponent of education methods that don’t rely exclusively on rote memorization of facts.  Aside from being more interesting for the student, it can teach the ability to think about the information and research answers. Getting multiple sources on a historical event from different perspectives gives a broader view of what is happening.  You also get to see the biases in the different sources.  Understanding that there are multiple view points is important in evaluating information.  

Having coordination between the material you are learning is also very helpful in order to see why what you are learning is important instead of appearing to be something you’ll never use.  When I was in my last couple of years in high school and a freshman in college this never became more obvious than taking calculus and physics at the same time; you learned differentiation and then learned the laws of motion.  You couldn’t do the physics without the math so it reinforced why it was important.

Without the skills to think critically it is too easy to be fooled into believing things that are demonstrably false.  If you get the wrong facts then you come up with ill-informed decisions. If you aren’t trained in how to evaluate evidence it is easy to get duped in every area of your life.  Lets make sure we are educating our children to think about the world.

The problem with politics today

Maybe it has always been the case that we have a diverse set of opinions about how this country should be run.  It is not the case that politics has always been as polarized as it is.  Each party seems to be motivated by tearing down what the other party has accomplished instead of working together to come up with a better solution.

Let’s use the current healthcare debate as an example.  The Affordable Care Act was put in place during Obama’s first term and mostly because he had a supportive congress.  The legislation is not perfect.  No one will disagree with that.  There are definitely things that could be improved and are less than ideal.  But the legislation does make it so that millions of people can get insurance that couldn’t before.  This is a cost savings for everyone across the board.  Any study you look at will show that the ER is the most expensive option for health care and does not address preventative care; unfortunately this was the last resort for many people because they couldn’t get insurance.

Now, it seems like the GOP is wanting to get rid of it, without having a replacement ready, just because the other party put it in place.  There is going to be a systematic dismantling of many things just because it wasn’t their idea.

These political maneuvers impact people, real people.  The repealing of this legislation is going to result in many people being without insurance, harm the insurance companies and everyone covered by them, and for what?  Political clout?

You have people complaining that there shouldn’t be an individual mandate.  Ok, philosophically I understand this.  You shouldn’t be forced to buy something you don’t want.  The reality though is insurance companies cannot succeed if the only people that sign up for insurance are sick.  That’s precisely why they excluded people with pre-existing conditions.  If healthy people don’t pay into the system to reduce everyone’s risks then the only thing that gives is rates need to go up for all of the members.  This results in more people choosing to go without insurance and you see where this goes.

The only conclusion that I can draw is people in America have become more selfish than ever.  No one is interested in the greater good, but what is good for me now.  Trump’s entire campaign had this refrain going on.  We don’t want (non-white) immigrants coming here because they take jobs.  We don’t want Obama-care because I don’t want/need insurance.  We don’t want free trade because “they” are taking things away from us.

We have become a country where we don’t care about the well being of our fellow citizens and humans because we view they are taking something away from “us”.  The problem with this thinking is it further stratifies differences between groups and creates resentment and further unwillingness to help “the other”.  If someone helps you, you are more willing to help them or help someone else in need.  If someone ignores you when you need help, you are less likely to help someone else.  I’m not saying that you should help people because it benefits you, but because it benefits everyone.

The other conclusion that I draw from all of this is we are no longer looking at the long view, only what is right in front of us.  This is true with the health care debate, the vote for Trump, global conflict, economic policy and global warming.  If the impact isn’t visible right now, or its going to result in me having inconvenience now for benefit later (especially if the impact is seen a generation from now), we aren’t interested.  This is related to selfishness but it is more insidious because even if we are looking out for our interests, we are looking out for them now instead of the future.

We have too many problems that will require us all to work together to look out only for ourselves in the near term.  We need to focus on what is good for the species long term.  Our short sightedness is only going to impact our children, grandchildren, etc.  Who wants to explain that we fucked up the planet and our country because we were only worried about what was right in front of us?

Why its important to call your representative

Even if you don’t agree with your elected representatives, it is still important to let them know what you think.  Case in point…

On Monday January 2, 2017 the house GOP representatives got together in a private meeting to propose an amendment to HR 5 which outlined the rules for the coming Congress.  This amendment changed the rules for the ethics oversight group significantly.  It took away the independence of the group and put it under the control of the people it was to oversee.  It also notably took away the ability for anonymous tips.  There were a number of other changes, but these were the ones that bugged me the most.

News of this broke late Monday/early Tuesday.  I, along with a large portion of the electorate, called our representatives to express our disapproval of this move.  I asked everyone I know to call and express concern.  I was impressed with the number of people that were supportive and asked for more information or wanted to research it before calling.  Exactly the response that should be given.

Midday on Tuesday, after the switchboards were swamped with public outcry, public denouncements by politicians and a general sweeping disagreement the move was reversed.

It shows that CALLING your representative helps.  They pay much more attention to phone calls or in person visits than they do to letters or email.  Please become familiar with your representative, know how to contact them, and contact them whenever you have a strong feeling about an issue; positive or negative.

This was the first thing the new Congress did.  I think that this is telling and indicates to me that I personally will be speaking to my representative’s office a lot during the next 2 years.  It is important that we all watch what they are doing and let them know often that we are watching.

This is OUR Government to support what WE want.  Exercise your rights and your duty to keep our representatives in check.

Holidays and thoughts on childhood

This is the wrong time of year for this conversation, but thinking about holidays, controversy and differences in beliefs got me thinking about an incident…

When I was a kid I loved Halloween.  Scratch that. I love Halloween even today.  “Free” candy, dressing up, wandering about after dark, plus as an adult, costume parties with people wearing outfits that are impractical or too small to keep warm.

As a kid, it was great to dress up to go to school on halloween.  We basically got a big portion of our day not doing class work.  We all dressed up and had a parade.  All of the elementary school kids participated.

When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade there was a kid in my class that was a Jehovah’s Witness.  I didn’t know what that meant.  I didn’t know about the people that go door to door trying to tell you about their religion.  He was just another kid.  The other odd thing, from a kids perspective, was that he didn’t celebrate Halloween.  That was unfathomable to me; why did his parents punish him like that.  Kids don’t understand a lot of things.

Anyway, he was the only kid without a costume that day.  We all felt bad for him.  The teachers took it upon themselves to dress him up like a crossing guard.  It wasn’t a great costume but he got to participate in the parade.  As a kid I thought this was a great thing.

Now, as an adult, I know the teachers meant well.  This is an odd situation because you have someone with religious beliefs that don’t allow him to participate but from a social standpoint it may be better not to single him out.

The problem I have with this is the same problem I have with prayer in school.  If we advocate prayer in school, kids that do not pray may feel obligated to participate, thereby infringing on their right to practice their beliefs, or lack of.  By dressing this kid up, we negated his beliefs and those of his parents.

I think that this is the cause of eliminating Christmas pageants, Halloween parades, etc. It may feel like punishing everyone else, but as American’s we need to respect the fact that this country was founded on religious freedom.  The pilgrims came here because they didn’t want to be forced to practice another religion and were discriminated against or persecuted.  The kid at halloween is just an example, no where near the level of 17th century persecution of our forbearers, but disrespect for others beliefs none the less.

I think this goes along with yesterday’s post.  We all need to be more tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Just because you are in the majority doesn’t mean you get to force your beliefs on another.  As the majority it is your duty to protect those in the minority. That’s the American way.

Manufactured controversy – Christmas Edition

Its the holidays again and time for the annual “war on Christmas” crap.

There is no war on Christmas.  This is a canard intended to whip people into a frenzy when there is no need.

1. No one is telling you that you cannot say “Merry Christmas”.  It’s just not happening.  Because someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” doesn’t mean that this is an affront or stifling your practice of your religion.  It is them trying to respect everyone’s beliefs and not assuming that because you happen to be alive at Christmas in America that you are automatically Christian.

2. If a business says that the appropriate greeting to a customer is “Happy Holidays” or put a neutral message on their cups this is them doing business and wanting to be inclusive to the most broad group of customers.  If you are an employee of that business, it is your duty to your employer to speak to their customers how they direct.  The First Amendment does not hold in a private business.

That one I find particularly amusing because the same people that don’t want to serve certain customers because of “closely held religious beliefs” are now saying that other businesses cannot express their beliefs without offense.  A little hypocritical, don’t you think.

3. Schools have Holiday parties now because there is a diverse population and not everyone celebrates Christmas.  Why exclude small children who’s families do not hold the same beliefs?

The manufacturing of controversy absolutely exacerbates the divide within this country.  We have a diverse population, like it or not.  Christians will soon be a minority in this country.  I’m sure that is uncomfortable for many that are used to the privilege of being the majority belief system.  We all need to recognize that everyone’s beliefs matter and respect these differences.  Don’t take offense where none is intended.

If I wish you “Happy Holidays” I still am expressing that I am thinking of you or complying with social convention.  If I know you celebrate Christmas I may say “Merry Christmas” instead, but if I use the generic greeting I am not trying to offend you.  Taking offense at a polite greeting has more to do with you and less to do with the person delivering the greeting.  You might want to think about why you are offended.  Not everyone is out to get you.

Objective Reality

So, last week a Trump surrogate went on the news (Diane Rehms specifically) and argued that there is no truth and everyone can have their own version of reality.  This flies in the face of everything that modern, democratic societies depend upon.

How can we have a reasoned discourse to agree on a path forward without at least agreement on FACTS.  We can have our own interpretations and opinions on the meaning of the facts, that is expected, but we cannot have our own facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

This is a dangerous place to be.  If we can say whatever we want, don’t back it up with facts, we really are in a dystopia.  This gets into the realm of organized propaganda and revisionist truth that totalitarian communist regimes practices in the 20th century and Orwell warned about in Animal Farm and 1984.  This is where we need the press, in a non-partisan way, to start fact checking things, calling politicians of all stripes out on manufactured truth, and provide references on their facts.

The funny thing it is the Republican party’s leader (or surrogate) that is saying that there are no facts.  This is the type of relativism that historically they have accused the Left of embracing, and now they are taking it to a whole new level.

It is a failure of the American Public that we take everything that anyone says as truth if it is on TV or FaceBook or some random blog.  The Internet and World Wide Web are wonderful tools but they don’t have built in mechanisms to weed out random crap.  With print media, because there is limited space for content, only the strongest pieces make it forward.  Fortunately/Unfortunately anyone, literally anyone, can publish what looks like a professional website and put whatever content they want on it.  This fuels the perception that they are legitimate news outlets and often they are very biased in what they report (at best) and/or manufacture whatever sounds good knowingly or purposefully.

This gets back to things I’ve said before.  We need to work on educating our youth.  We also need to get back to putting standards on news content and clearly differentiate what is news and what is opinion.  For example, Fox News has about an hour of news a day and the rest of their content is largely opinion which leads to confusion for many.  

I am not saying by any stretch that Fox should be restricted in what they can say, it is their right, but I do think that we should have a requirement to mark things as “not news” very clearly.  Just like we restrict what can be said on medications and you need to be able to back up health claims on a medication, or warning labels on cigarettes, we need warnings that information doesn’t rise to the level of fact checked so we can maintain the health of our reasoning faculties.