August 31, 2015
by Les Lane


Isn’t it strange that so many things are just the opposite of what they appear to be? Take color, for instance. The color of something is not what it is, it’s what it isn’t. Simplistically put, the wavelength of light that an object rejects is it’s color. So, in one sense, a red object is actually every color but red. Similarly, autism appears to be a lack of awareness of the outside world. In reality, people with autism perceive too much, and the deluge of sensory noise paralyzes them. “Normal” people, able to screen out the majority of sensory input, are the less aware ones. The idea that “all men are created equal” that informed the Declaration of Independence helped bring about another, uniquely American idea, that humans could be separated into “races” and discriminated against on that basis. The upside-down cross is actually a symbol of humility…Hold on!! “All men are created equal” caused racism?!

Well, not exactly “caused.” But catalyzed – yes. Here’s how.

According to Race – The Power of an Illusion, a documentary which aired on PBS a decade or so ago, slavery had been around for millennia, but slavery based on racism only began in the 1700s, right here in the soon-to-be United States of America. Early English plantation owners succeeded in surviving and prospering only because they had low-cost slave labor, but the first slaves, Irish and Amerindian, didn’t take to it very well. They got sick and died, or ran off, or became belligerent. The colonists believed that what was absolutely needed for economic survival were African workers. Africans were the cream of the crop. Africans were already farmers and cattle breeders, with industries, arts and crafts, governments and commerce. They worked harder, were more civilized, were familiar with many of the colonial money crops, had immunities to Old World diseases, were easily identifiable and therefore easily captured if they ran away (not so with the Irish), and they had nowhere to run away to since their home was across the ocean (not so with Amerindians). But there was a problem: how could New World leaders promote liberty, freedom, and democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of non-white people on the other? The first solution was the contrivance that, since Africans were heathens, they benefited from contact with Christians and conversion to Christianity. This, however, did not stand the test of time, so a new solution was developed toward the end of the 1700s. Africans, as it turned out, were sub-human, and therefore designed for slavery. Shamefully, many otherwise admirable historical figures, including well-known “scientists,” colluded on this feat of social engineering over the next 200 years. Such was America’s unique original sin and America has suffered from it ever since. (The Amerindian genocide and displacement, while equally tragic, is not a uniquely American phenomenon.)

Contrarians notwithstanding, modern anthropologists appear to be overwhelmingly in agreement that there is no scientific basis for the concept of human races. Never has been, never will be. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) declared so four times, in 1950, 1951, 1964, and 1967, and strongly worded denunciations of the concept were published by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1996 and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1998. There are some physical differences among human groups, generated by 200,000 years of evolutionary response to different environments, but, if you took a walk from the equator north, you would encounter no biological boundaries or sharp distinctions. In fact, physical characteristics would change so gradually, you might not even notice. As the AAA put it, “it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that…Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes.” So biological markers indicating racial differences in intelligence, sexual behavior, birth rates, infant care, work ethics and abilities, personal restraint, lifespan, aggression, altruism, economic and business practices, family cohesion, brain size, etc. simply don’t exist, and no amount of wishing will bring them into being.

This is not to say that centuries of discrimination, poor treatment, low quality food, sub-standard housing, lack of a proper education and so on did not have consequences, but any humans, from anywhere, exposed for over 200 years to the poisonous fruits of racism would end up disadvantaged and struggling.

Not every expert agrees of course. Dr. George W. Gill, professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming and forensic anthropologist for Wyoming law-enforcement agencies, for example, pointed out on NOVA’s website a few years ago that “Morphological characteristics.. like skin color, hair form, bone traits, eyes, and lips tend to follow geographic boundaries coinciding often with climatic zones…serologists (blood serum specialists) who work largely with blood factors will tend to see…races as not a valid construct, while skeletal biologists, particularly forensic anthropologists, will see races as biologically real. The common person on the street who sees only a person’s skin color, hair form, and face shape will also tend to see races as biologically real. They are not incorrect.”

But Dr. C. Loring Brace, professor of anthropology and curator of biological anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, clarified it in this way: “Major continental terms are just fine, and sub-regional refinements such as Western European, Eastern African, Southeast Asian, and so forth carry no unintentional baggage. In contrast, terms such as “Negroid,” “Caucasoid,” and “Mongoloid” create more problems than they solve.”

When in doubt try logic. Any pinkish tan person who lifts weights in the sunlight will have denser bones and darker skin than another who swims in an indoor pool. Do these differences indicate a difference in “race”? Of course not. How do these temporary adaptations differ categorically from the longer-lasting adaptations acquired after 200,000 years surviving in Africa? The answer is they don’t. A 6% adaptation does not a sub-species make.

There is no such thing as race. What boggles the mind is that this realization wasn’t reduced to a cliché years ago.

August 1, 2015
by Les Lane


Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Last month we asked the following questions: What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? What are the a priori premises upon which they each build these constructs? To sidestep motivated reasoning and avoid intellectual and social gridlock, it is useful for Progressives to know these things. Of course, different studies use different words to describe different concepts in different ways. In other words, this line of inquiry is a can of worms., but perseverance does yield actionable results. The core of the onion appears to be a combination of first, one’s attitude about how dangerous the world is, and second, one’s pessimism or optimism about human nature.

If you believe (likely at a subconscious level) that the world is, essentially, a dangerous place, and that humans are naturally prone to evil, then you will tend to be authoritarian, dogmatic, and comfortable with social/political/economic rank. After all, simple, straightforward, unambiguous beliefs, rules and regulations, leadership by the “most capable” among us, and authority-sanctioned punishment keep evil human tendencies boxed up, and the dangerous world at bay. According to an article by Jonathan Haidt at entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican,” the patron saint of this moral system is sociologist Emile Durkheim. Haidt writes, “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durhheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups…The basic social unit is the…hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions.”

What a bunch of reactionary narrow-mindedness! But…wait a minute. “Self-control,” “duty,” “loyalty,” and “family” actually don’t sound so bad…

If, on the other hand, you find the world more interesting than terrifying and you believe that humans are naturally prone to good, then you will tend to be individualistic, comfortable with ambiguity, and concerned, above all, about fairness and reciprocity. According to Haidt, your patron saint is John Stuart Mill, and a Millian society at its best would be “a peaceful, open and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily…to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.”

Now that’s what I’m talkin about! But…wait a minute. Individualism can devolve into excessive self-focus and comfort with ambiguity can lead to formlessness and world’s gone wild. I mean, how many more choices (flavors, colors, apps, sizes, models) will we be deluged with before we all drown?

As it turns out, nobody has the monopoly on morality or truth, and either side could destroy the world if left unchecked. Go figure. It just so happens that the far right appears to be way closer to accomplishing this right now than the far-left. Progressives need to step in and help save the world alright, but first they need to understand that trying to mercilessly and publicly crush patently absurd arguments with crystalline logic will, because of motivated reasoning on both sides, probably accomplish little. Instead, the secret may be to deploy logic in a more mindful and self-restrained manner, to put oneself in the other’s shoes and couch one’s appeals in language the other side can relate to.

So, instead of “Big oil and gas are destroying our planet and endangering billions because of greed and you’re too stupid to understand that!” we might try, “You know in Job we read ‘But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (12.7-10)’” And Isaiah must have been pretty upset when he said, “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (24.5).” What covenant you ask? To be good stewards of creation for one thing.

The Bible a little too much to handle? Okay, try the Gipper. According to The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, by Thomas Robertson, Ronald Reagan, in a 1970 business magazine, wrote, “Americans at last are beginning to realize man can no longer ignore his own damaging impact on his overall environment…We have permitted air and water pollution to become a national disgrace – a peril that threatens permanently to alter the delicate balance of ecology that preserves a livable natural environment.” Reagan was so right, and saw this coming so long ago!

Reagan make you queasy? Consider a little bit of commentary on world events: “Those crazy Chinese, with their pollution so bad they had to shut down over 800 factories for two weeks in order to get clean air for three days for the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing! Just another example of how communism is a self-serving sham perpetrated by an out-of-touch, greedy elite. Thank goodness America is more self-aware and sensible than that!”

These are perhaps not the best crafted examples – this is undiscovered country for many of us – but none of them contradict Progressive beliefs or values. And there is no shortage of raw material to use or conservatives to practice on. Logically speaking, what is the goal here? To continue to talk past one another while Rome burns, or to fix things? To save the world or to feel morally and intellectually superior while tearing out head hair in frustration?

Besides, if anyone can pull this off, Progressives can, because we are intelligent and logical and open-minded, and right about so many things. And humble…I forgot humble. What do we have to lose? It would be, if nothing else, an interesting experiment.

July 1, 2015
by Les Lane


Last month’s blog, in an effort to bridge the chasm between left “truth” and right “truthiness,” introduced the recent social intuitionist model of cognition that maintains that logic is actually a faithful servant of the emotions instead of their master, and that this is the best arrangement for productive and successful decision making. Three scenarios in which deployment of pure logic would lead to disaster were offered as springboards into the murky depths of what social intuitionists call “motivated reasoning.” This month, we take a closer look at motivated reasoning and how an understanding of it might empower progressives to help save the world from the short-sighted, panic-induced policies and thinking being championed by the far-right. What follows is based largely on an article published in Psychological Review in 2001 by Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”

Haidt’s article opens with a scenario in which a brother and sister decide to make love. (Take note of your reaction.) Nobody else knows about it, both are consenting adults using protection, neither has regrets and no psychological backlash is evident. In fact, even though they agree not to do it again, they are glad they did it and they cherish what they shared. Was their action wrong?

Let’s say you are reading this with someone you respect. (It isn’t necessary to like them.) Chances are your first reaction is to recoil at the incestuous image. When your companion asks if you feel it is wrong you answer, without even having to think, that it is. “But how can you say that when no one was hurt? I think it was sweet.” What??!! How could they possibly believe…?! That’s crazy! Danger, Will Robinson! Your brain goes into overdrive to construct a logical argument to support your judgment (the “wag-the-dog illusion”). Your companion counters with their own logical argument, and that just makes you more determined to get them to see the truth before it’s too late.

Too late for what exactly?

Your reaction is immediate and strong. You do not spontaneously generate a list of logical pros and cons from which to make a reasoned choice, you go straight to judgment. Only afterward does your logic kick in to support that judgment. This, says social intuitionists, is how motivated reasoning works. You make an immediate judgment based on “intuition” or “instinct” or your “gut feeling” and provide logical reasons later. They have even identified the areas of the brain that handle each function. And here’s the kicker – unless you are very self-aware and somewhat trained in philosophy/logic, you are likely to hunker down into your post hoc “logical” interpretation even if a disinterested observer from Alpha Centauri Bb awards the rationality prize to your companion. Your companion/opponent is likely to do the same. Nobody’s mind will be changed and y’all might conveniently forget each other’s birthday that year. There is a better way.

First of all, understand that you are in good company with your nasty motivated reasoning and all – all other humans do it. In fact, Rationality Golden Boy and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson immortalized motivated reasoning in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that Jefferson did not bother to construct a logical platform for these “self-evident truths.” He just stated them…as a priori premises… and then used them as a platform to brilliantly build a case for revolution against the English king.

So the first step in dealing with truthiness is to forgive yourself and your opponent for motivated reasoning and, like an intellectual Judo master, bend like the willow. Use motivated reasoning to your advantage. Use your knowledge of this invisible power, and your logic, to couch your explanations and arguments in the emotional terms of the cultural constructs that engender far right motivated reasoning and you are likely to encounter far less mindlessness. To change the course of a raging river of opinion, in other words, don’t try to build a dam in defiance of its torrent, go with it and gradually redirect the channel.

What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? More to the point, what are the a priori premises upon which they each build their cultural constructs? Many of these premises are shared, and this provides lots of options for communication across the chasm. On the other hand, there are, arguably, two premises on each side that appear to be non-negotiable, that will probably require compromise. Stay tuned next month for that discussion. Fascinating stuff!

May 31, 2015
by Les Lane


Last month’s blog/column suggested that the power that makes the world go round is invisible. Because real power is invisible, and because progressives grasp this intuitively, they have much more power than they might think. The best defense/offense against the far right is to UNDERSTAND it – Knowledge is one form of invisible power – and then use this understanding intelligently. Progressives are good at that kind of thing.

No matter how alarming today’s conservative zeitgeist is, and regardless of the eternal innate potential of humans to self-destruct, there are strong historical, sociological and psychological reasons for believing that progress continues apace, and political sanity and reconciliation beckon from the not-too-distant future. Perhaps a more pressing need is to avoid having our heads explode when we argue with individuals from the other side of the aisle. This month’s blog begins to unravel the invisible motivations behind conservative actions and attitudes so that we can construct solid, “reality-based” common ground between truth and truthiness that conservatives and progressives can safely cross.

A good place to start is with Chris Mooney, former science journalist, podcaster and host, current staff writer for The Washington Post, and author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Articles by Mooney in Mother Jones claim that a growing number of serious scientific studies (my reading suggested there may be over 100) performed all over the world converge on the premise that our brains don’t make moral judgments the way we think they do. Instead, as philosopher David Hume suggested 277 years ago, LOGIC IS NOT THE MASTER OF THE EMOTIONS, BUT A SERVANT OF THEM, and as modern researchers add, THAT IS THE WAY IT HAS TO BE FOR LOGIC TO BE TRULY USEFUL.

Now calm down! Before you go off half-cocked let me explain!

Imagine you are gliding silently through the jungle/tall grass/rocks 2,000,000 years ago. Your muscles glisten in the moonlight, a fierce smile plays on your face as your piercing eyes continually scan your surroundin…sorry, got a little carried away. Anyway, you hear a sudden noise! You stop and ponder: “Hmmm…a noise. But none of my other senses picked anything up. But then, it’s pretty dark, so I can’t really see well. And I have a cold so my sense of smell might be compromised. But is it compromised sufficiently to be unreliable? I think maybe a statistical determination of the degree to which I can depend on my sense of smell is called for here…”

Or you are researching an important paper that’s due tomorrow. You have been reading journal articles and scanning academic tomes for two days, and the more you read, the more you are unsure logically what position you should take on the issue. Lines of reasoning, experimental data and survey conclusions scatter like branches of lightening in every direction. One thing leads to another and another and another ad infinitum. You want to be brilliant, but you need to be on time. You sigh as you open just one more website on the subject and sip your fourth cup of coffee.

Or you’re a boss, a coordinator, a person with the answers. Subordinate and superordinate co-workers deluge you every day with assignments, requests, demands, suggestions, complaints, information, interpersonal disputes, etc. You have to respond correctly and quickly every minute of every day to keep your job and be considered for promotion. So you sit down and begin to consider the latest dispute through the lenses of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue theory, and social contract theory respectively in a focused effort to reach a fair and reasonable judgment.

What’s wrong with these scenarios?

Exactly! You are likely to be chewed up and spit out by a large predator, your teacher, or your boss in that order. (Is there really a difference?) What’s the solution? You go with your gut! Which, by the way, you probably did a minute ago when I stated that logic was the servant, not the master of emotion. Be honest – What was your immediate reaction? If you became a little angry and confused, good job. That is what was supposed to happen. That is how Nature designed you and everyone else. It’s called “motivated reasoning.”
There is not enough room on this page, or enough free time in your life, to go into motivated reasoning right now. So stay tuned. How it informs the attempted suicide bombing of everything we all hold dear in this country, and how progressives can use a knowledge of it to continue to turn the tide with minimum loss of life will be touched upon next month. (The tide is already turning, but we can speed it up and spread goodness and light while we’re doing it.)

Here’s a hint: After I brazenly challenged the sacred principle of Rationality above, I didn’t say: “I know you think Enlightenment philosopher Rene’ Descartes was a particularly talented individual but, if you read him carefully enough, you would discover multiple inconsistencies – here I’ll list them for you – that invalidate a disturbing number of his conclusions.” I didn’t do that because chances are you would have immediately begun correcting my own logic and we would have gotten stuck in a tit-for-tat. Instead, I told you stories that made you feel something.

Oh – spoiler alert – Enlightenment rationality will come out just fine in the end.

By the way, if you begin to feel a connection with your fellow progressives through the efforts of WHYR or its parent organization, the Baton Rouge Progressive Network, help us survive by setting up a sustaining donation. Just click on “support WHYR” and follow instructions. Thanks so much.