Woe v Rage

There’s no such thing as objectivity

The Supreme Court has recently delivered a rash of decisions with major repercussions that echo around these United States. From abortion to gun control, those on the Supreme Court are required to make decisions about constitutional rights.  This would be a difficult task for an advanced AI robot let alone a human being.

Human beings can’t be objective, unless they are playing a simplified constructed game, like Monopoly where there are very defined rules about what can and can’t be done. Even then, there’s room for subjectivity to influence decision-making. So, trying to work out what a group of men, some of whom have been dead for more than 200 years,  would think today is about impossible. I suspect that many times judges are subconsciously if not consciously looking for how the constitution might reinforce their views rather than suspending their judgement and asking what those Founding Fathers really meant, or would do today. That is how humans, at this moment in time, “think”. And if I needed more confirmation of this notion, I recently read from a reliable source that Supreme Court justices often barter amongst each other for their “votes” on different issues. Of course, they’re human beings.

The divisiveness in the USA will only get worse, with potential calamitous implications, if this situation continues. The issue here is that the brain really needs an upgrade to deal with the complexity of modern life. The brain’s main focus is survival, and for that it needs energy. So, energy conservation is critical and that doesn’t help the brain think critically. Critical thinking takes a lot of energy.

As  Grant Renier and I wrote in our recent book  Intuitive Rationality: A New Behavioral Direction of AI…

“…consciousness is selective. It looks to create a coherent summary of reality, a summary that is heavily influenced by past experience and a host of other factors and organized subconsciously.”

Our feelings, opinions and images just appear like magic within us and stroll through the open gate of inattention onto the welcoming fields of acceptance.

As a result of the brain’s energy-saving function, it instantly looks at the world in a binary fashion. It’s either a or b. This leads to an absurd simplicity and instant divisiveness. When any group rallies behind its banner, it instantly distinguishes itself from everyone else, creating more divisiveness. We have one main connecting trait; we are all human. When things are done because of our mutual humanity they resonate. When we separate ourselves, it becomes divisive. That doesn’t sound logical until you realize the fundamental functioning of the binary brain.

This tendency is troubling enough without it being fueled by a divisive media, social media and even some marketing, designed to manipulate as many of us, who are incredibly vulnerable. In the attention economy, where it has been estimated that many of us are exposed to at least 5000 commercials a day, it’s easy to become cynical, if not angry and dismissive, about almost everything you disagree with. The confirmation bias reigns supreme.

In a different era , like 1776, before all these developments led to the bombardment of the mind, it would probably be a lot easier to seriously believe that some people could be completely objective. But in today’s world, that is increasingly unlikely, as in impossible.

It obviously would be helpful if we could return to civility, but that is unlikely to happen in the complex world where peddling divisiveness is what gets “more eyeballs”, and where the most popular narrative is a helpless woeful victim against an angry predator.

Another contributing factor is that reasoning and logic are being challenged, typically by those driven by confirmation bias. While logic and reasoning are very important tools, they are not infallible. In our complex world and even in most scientific studies, the amount of information is necessarily limited. You never have all the information you need, and you can only guess at what the most important variables are. Thus, any argument is potentially fallible, opening the unthinking gate again to confirmation bias, and whatever you want to believe. As British statistician George Box once said about scientific theories,

 “All models are wrong, some are useful.”

That’s a very useful quote we all need to keep in mind.

The secret to wisdom is recognizing what you don’t know. It is understanding how the mind really works and how to escape the tyranny of those editors and lenses that we have often unconsciously acquired and drive our views about others and ourselves. Then being vulnerable and humble enough to accept one’s limitations which would lead to the respect of others and the possibility of more civil and product discourse.

Unfortunately, politics and pretty much every other human endeavor, doesn’t work like that.  So, we are left with decision-making based on confirmation bias and emotion, rather than rational and civil discourse and a mind open enough to put aside political blinkers.

Going forward it looks like the discussion, as well as society, will continue to be centered on woe and rage.

Howard Rankin Ph.D.


Why We’re Not Much Different from Vladimir Putin

“People aren’t logical they’re psychological, often with the emphasis on the psycho.” – Howard Rankin

As most of the world criticizes Vladimir Putin for his shameful actions in Ukraine, there’s an ironic and even an alarming lesson in the judgment of his actions.  In some ways we all share something in common with the Russian ruler.

Human beings are not rational but story-tellers, driven byemotional comfort and consistency. Because of this dynamic, people very often don’t change their minds especially over opinions and actions in which they are heavily invested. This applies to everyone, regardless of whether their ideas are rooted in good or evil.

We know that human beings use all manner of mechanisms, especially cognitive biases to justify their beliefs and actions. We see what we want to see,  ignore what we want to ignore. We seek out the similar views of others, whose supportive ideas give “social proof” and validation to our own beliefs. In my upcoming book, Falling to Grace: The Art and Science of Redemption I write about the seven laws of stupidity, from binary thinking to conspiracy theories, that really drive our thought process.

This social proof is even more advanced amongst leaders, who can surround themselves and authorize people who share their same views. Every autocratic leader, therefore, can insulate themselves way more than the average person from the challenge of alternative perspectives. In addition, this egotistical state is even more prevalent in people with power and fame, in what’s called “situational narcissism”.  Their fame and power colors their views of themselves and can elevate them in their own minds to a god-like status.

Most of us find it very difficult to change our religious perspectives, political views, or even which NFL team we support. We hold on to them with a rigid, and sometimes angry certainty. The three most important words in any language are seldom used, “I don’t know.” And three other words one rarely hears are even more important: “I was wrong.”

If we have such a hard time changing our perspectives and opinions, consider the chances that an autocratic leader who sees himself as the savior of his people, will ever change his mind in any way, let alone reverse course.  And when such a leader has surrounded himself with teams of people who share the same opinion, can we really expect confrontation to change any of the minds of the inner circle? Indeed, the more they are confronted, the more they are likely to defend their beliefs.

Ironically, the way Putin could restore his credibility and even respect around the world would be to effectively say those three  words: I was wrong, or something close to that, like “I made a miscalculation” or “I really thought we would be welcomed by most Ukrainians.” Of course, politicians and pretty much everyone with a big ego hardly ever admit their human faults and errors. Not admitting your mistakes is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

People hardly ever admit to being wrong: pride often gets in the way. I have found, from my personal experiences of being cast into shame, humiliation and disgrace, that admitting your errors and sins is one of the most powerful things you could ever do. That is one piece of advice that I give in my upcoming book Falling to Grace: The Art and Science of Redemption

So, if you are thinking that Putin and his cronies are going to change their minds about Ukraine or anything else, you are almost certainly indulging in an exercise of your own wishful thinking.


Perception is Reality is one of the most misleading, and potentially damaging, pop psychology myths.

The problem centers around the word “reality’. 

The definition of the word reality: something that is real or a fact.

So, there can’t be an individual reality, only a shared consensus about what is real. There can be individual versions of reality but that’s not reality, merely a version of it. And if everyone had their own versions of reality, then there can be no reality.

The problem with the notion of Perception is Reality is that it encourages people to think that their perceptions reflect reality, or should. This leads people into believing that whatever they think is real, and from there, to right. It encourages an egotism that is most damaging to the person, who eventually will  become angry, frustrated and depressed when others don’t share their “reality”.  Of course we all have our own perceptions, opinions, beliefs, etc.,  but we can’t have our own reality.

The fact is perception is perception, there’s no such thing as your “reality”. If something is just real to you, then it’s not real, just a perception.

This cognitive relativism is a damaging philosophy that seems more and more common.

From my book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong

“Similarly, there is cognitive relativism which also argues that there isn’t an overarching “truth” but that it, too, is constructed and relative to a variety of factors, like culture and even human understanding.

Protagoras, a famous philosopher who lived about 2500 years ago,  asserted that “man is the measure of all things — of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” In other words, truth and knowledge are a function of human beings and human variables and don’t reflect any independent and objective reality.

Plato objected that this relativism eliminates the distinction between truth and falsehood; if each individual is really the “measure of what is”  then each person would be infallible.

An excellent article by Emrys Westacott, summarizes these debates about knowledge and reality. Professor Westacott is the author of many works including  The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less.

(This was from an article on Cognitive Relativism that appeared in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Westacott writes:

“Plato argued that if Protagoras is right, then whatever a person thinks is true, is true. But in that case, Protagoras must concede that those who think relativism is false are correct. So, if Protagorean relativism is true, it must also be false.”

That Plato was one smart guy.”

The notion that perception is reality is a damaging myth and we need to stop perpetuating it.

Hilton Head Island Resident Heroically Prevents House Fire

Quick Thinking Prevents Disaster

There are many reasons to be grateful on Thanksgiving, but Hilton Head Island residents Howard and MJ Rankin have an extra reason this year. On Tuesday, Howard bravely dived into action to prevent a major disaster at their home.

“My wife has been telling me for  several years that our dryer vents needed cleaning, but I never really took it seriously. It was just an example of the Spouse Communication Bias, the tendency to undervalue what your spouse tells you. I didn’t think it was necessary,” says Rankin, who appropriately is the author of the recently acclaimed book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong and the podcast How Not To Think.

However, when someone at the Assisted Living facility where his mother-in-law lived told Rankin about the real danger, he listened. After doing some research he discovered that blocked dryer vents are one of the leading causes of house fires.

A piece on the Building Performance Institute says:

“According to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly 17,000 home clothes dryer fires are reported each year. These clothes dryer fires cause around 51 deaths, 380 injuries, and $236 million in property loss. Unsurprisingly, the leading cause of these fires, at 34%, is the failure to clean dryer vents.”

On Tuesday, Howard jumped dramatically into action. He quickly picked up the phone early in the morning and called Advent, a multi-state vent cleaning company that has offices in the Low Country, and arranged for the vents to be cleaned.

After Advent had cleaned the dryer vent, the Rankins were shown the evidence of a massively blocked dryer vent that even included remnants of a bird’s nest.

“We were very lucky. If I hadn’t acted so fast, we were looking at real trouble,” says Rankin.

His wife MJ agrees. “It only took him seven years, but better late then never.”

A blockage in the dryer vent not only increases the risk of fire, but decreases the efficiency and life of your dryer.

‘The service was great and I’m sure we will regain the modest outlay back in extended dryer life and reduced energy bills,” says Rankin. “I’m just thankful I acted so quickly.”

For more information:

Advent Duct Cleaning LLC

Phone: (888) 280-8368

Email: [email protected]


I Think Therefore I Am Wrong

Now available on Amazon for as little as a box of dryer sheets: Just $5.99!

The How Not To Think podcast is available on Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google and Buzzsprout. Here’s the Apple link to the first episode on nutrition.

Nobody Expects Cambridge University to be Hypocritical and Politically Correct

It was announced today that Cambridge University had revoked the offer of a visiting fellowship of Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson, an outspoken critic of political correctness. Peterson was to spend two months at Cambridge working with their faculty of Divinity this fall.

As quoted on the BBC website

A university spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.

“[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot.”

Clearly, Cambridge is not an inclusive environment and their definition isn’t inclusive at all, rather focused on silencing different sides of an argument.

It is a sad state of affairs when one of the supposedly leading academic institutions in the world is both logically and morally bankrupt.  Until you realize that education is big business and no business wants to damage their bottom line by associating themselves with someone who has the courage to voice rational argument but might be controversial.

Even if Dr. Peterson’s views contradicted the ideas of the entire Cambridge faculty, wouldn’t the wise move be to interact with him and to fully understand his logic and motivations?

As Sun-Tsu said:

 “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The BBC also reported that..

In a statement to the Guardian, the university’s students’ union said: “We are relieved to hear that Jordan Peterson’s request for a visiting fellowship to Cambridge’s faculty of divinity has been rescinded following further review.”

Of course! Even the students of the best academic institutions apparently have no tolerance for views other than their own on the grounds of inclusivity.

It’s a sad day for Cambridge, the academic world and mankind. I wonder what my favorite Cambridge alums, Stephen Hawking and Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman of Monty Python would say about it?

Perhaps the latter would shout, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ but unfortunately it seems to have arrived.

Washington Post SuperBowl Ad Misses the Crucial Point

One of the most impressive Superbowl ads was the Washington Post commercial stressing the need for truth and honesty as vital to democracy and a civilized society.  The implication was that their reporting fitted these requirements and thus were serving a greater purpose. The Washington Post could be the most honest, truthful publication in the world but that’s not the point. The bigger problem is that increasingly the world is not interested in the objective truth, merely their own individual truth, i.e. opinions.

Writing in the May 2014 edition of The Atlantic Emma Green reviewing research on the holocaust said,  “Only a third of the world’s population believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth.” )

TV news shows are full of so-called experts pushing their agenda without any regard or reference to meaningful data. The world has become increasingly egotistical and self-centered with scant regard to the evidence let alone truth.

Some of this disaster can be blamed at the feet of marketing. Ever since Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays realized that new insights into the psyche could be used to manipulate people, Marketing and Public Relations have created communication based on manipulation often in defiance of the facts.  (For more, please watch the BBC’s 2002 documentary The Century of the Self). And that pattern of communication has filtered down through the culture, so that people believe communication is about influence and getting what you want. The rise in the recognition of the need for authenticity, says a lot about how inauthentic much communication is.

If Bernays hijacked contemporary psychological theory to manipulate perhaps it’s time for us to do the same: to emphasize that contemporary neuroscience shows human beings not to be rational, but driven by cognitive bias and emotional comfort. With the advent of technology, cognitive bias has been amplified by curating content that gives people what they want to read rather than access to diverse views and  data. Through social proof it allows people to reaffirm their beliefs and ideas rather than question them.

Facts and truth have been washed away in a  sea of sensationalism, designed to get your attention, excite you and, if possible, capture your personal information.

This culture is neither healthy to us as individuals nor collectively as a nation.

The disinterest and denial of data and facts, leads to extremism, hate and conflict.  When we ignore our  ability to consider, and accept  facts as well as produce  and access valuable data, we’re definitely traveling  the wrong way down the evolutionary trail. Getting to the truth is one thing, getting others to believe it is quite another.

Hurricanes and Uncertainty: The real reasons why people stay rather than evacuate

A few days ago, Hurricane Florence roared into the Carolinas causing flooding, mayhem and some misunderstandings about the psychology of evacuations. As a former psychology professor myself, and one who has lived on the Carolina coast for more than thirty years, and who has had evacuated – and not evacuated — from many storms, I was intrigued to read a Fox News Opinion by Michigan professor Daryl Van Tongeren. While acknowledging that there are many factors involved in a decision not to evacuate, Van Tongeren mentions Terror Management Theory; that we minimize the prospect of death by showing we’re not afraid of danger, as a reason why people choose to stay rather than leave.

I suspect that there are a few who show this bravado, but I seriously doubt that Terror Management is the reason why the vast majority of people stay in the projected path of a storm. In my experience there are two main reasons why people stay and they reflect today’s main concerns: money and stress. And if there’s a psychological mechanism involved, it’s confirmation bias.

The fact is that we all want control over our lives – not just death. And the reality is we don’t have it. In fact, an oncoming hurricane is a wonderful metaphor for life itself; full of uncertainty and potential danger.

So you’re told that there’s a dangerous storm headed your way. Evacuation orders are issued. Businesses close and now you’ve lost a week’s income, if not more. You also have to leave town and take your animals too, which could be a problem if you have something more than a cat and a dog, like a horse, goat or chickens. Many people stay to protect their animals should danger arise.

If you do evacuate, you have to find a place to stay, which in a big storm that threatens more than one state, could be at least a couple of hundred miles away. If you’re going, you’ll probably be gone for at least three days, if not more, resulting in a bill of several hundred dollars and even more if you’re lucky to have found a pet friendly hotel.

There’s also a good chance that you’ll be stuck in traffic for hours. In a storm that threatened much of the southeast coast a few years ago, there was traffic gridlock for hours on some interstates, where restaurants ran out of food and toilets no longer worked, compounding the misery – and stress — for thousands of evacuees. Moreover, once you have left town, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get back in while an evacuation order is still in effect, resulting in more frustration and unnecessary expense.

So, evacuation could cost as much as several hundred dollars, which many people don’t have and subject them to extreme stress. And a storm impact in your area is just a possibility. What would you do?

For experienced storm watchers, the typical thought process is to weigh the odds. If a big storm is coming right at you, you’ll probably leave, if you can afford it. We did that for Hurricane Hugo, the massive storm that was headed straight for us, when we left very early in the morning. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Columbia, the storm had shifted and was headed north towards Charleston. The storm actually crashed through Columbia late at night, knocking out the power. We left the next day, being fortunate enough to find an open gas station, and arrived home to find barely a downed tree limb. Some wiser friends decided, accurately, that Columbia was too near the storm and opted for the safer confines of Charlotte, North Carolina. Except they were trapped there for a week as the city saw unprecedented flooding.

If there’s some doubt, you will wait. Typically, mandatory evacuation orders are given well in advance of a storm’s arrival, typically 72-96 hours in advance. So, the experienced have learned to wait and see. Let the first evacuees leave. You still have at least another 48 hours to decide what to do, and then you can base your decision on more updated, and more accurate, forecasting.

We have done that on four occasions: twice we left and twice we stayed. The twice we stayed were good decisions as they were no storm impacts at all in our area. One time we left, we learned soon after, that the storm wasn’t going to hit us but we couldn’t get back and had to continue on an unnecessary evacuation. The other time, there was some minor flooding but many neighbors stayed and spent a couple of days cleaning out their garages that had typically received two feet of water; houses in our area are actually built up 15 feet, so there was no risk of flooding to the actual house.

We know from cognitive neuroscience that having made a decision, we will seek evidence that it is the right one and ignore evidence against it – so-called confirmation bias. This goes for life in general. And when life is so uncertain, the fact is we don’t know until events unfold. Then our hindsight bias takes effect and we can once again blame others for a poor decision, or congratulate ourselves on a good one.

It’s not bravado that determines whether to evacuate from a storm or not, it’s simple practicalities and trying to determine the probabilities and what they mean. And humans aren’t very good at that.

We want certainty when there is none.

Cognitive Bias and Journalism

Human beings aren’t rational. As if we didn’t really know that already, the recent cognitive neuroscience research shows that we are story-tellers driven by emotional comfort not truth seekers. That surely has always been the case, but what seems dangerously different in the digital era is that for some, rationality and truth don’t even matter. And because for the most part we are not rational doesn’t mean that reason and truth should be sacrificed on the altars of narcissism and opinion.

Ever since the understanding of the mind and human behavior gained pace in the twentieth century, it has been used to manipulate and influence, a movement which was well documented in the BBC documentary, the Century of the Self (still available on Youtube) which showed how Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays made a fortune out of turning the notions of the mind in to ‘Public Relations’ and ‘Propaganda.’

A communication, specifically one designed to inform or influence, can be simply be reduced to these elements

Evidence are facts derived by independent enquiry and qualified by the factors that influence them.

Beliefs and opinions. These are not facts. They are personal and can’t be proven, and only have relevance to the person who has them and the people who share them.

Emotions, like being offended, are neither evidence nor an argument.

Writing a news story is problematic if you want it to be even-handed. Even if there’s an appeal to some evidence there are key questions: What is the context? How are you approaching the gathering of evidence? Are you just selecting your stories to conform to your own biases, whether you know them or not?

Even the most objective writer, especially on a short deadline, can’t possibly cover every angle or perspective, even on a long deadline.

You can slant a communication any way you want. And, as we have become more aware of how the mind works, that is what we all do. (see Advertizing).

Some , like the Skeptics, argued that the search for truth is an infinite regress, that the more you dig the more you have to explore. Others like the Stoics, argue that at some point one has enough evidence so that the facts have some practical usefulness.

So, how do we deal with this human imperfection?

Well, surely the answer is not to exaggerate the problem by not engaging in reasoned discourse.

Dismissing everything as fake news with an emotional response is actually worse than the fake news you’re complaining about it.

The answer is to provide an alternative view based on evidence, not belief, emotional convenience, or opinion. However, this is not how inconvenient news is handled. Rather, it is typically blasted with reality show emotionalism.

In fact, for me, an emotional response without an appeal to further evidence is the last resort for someone with a bankrupt argument. Their only defense is no defense – just an outburst designed to deflect, or even better abort, the discussion. It’s like hatefully marching against hate.

At one point, language was a key to evolution. Now, it might turn out to be the reason for our devolution.

The State of the State

I’m thinking of starting a new business. My idea is to set up a board equally divided by members of two different philosophies. The board members know that they are almost certainly going to be on the board for several years and will be paid very well. There also will be no barriers to them working for other organizations or receiving input and money from any sources.

What do you think?

Personally, I think this is no way to run a lemonade stand let alone a business, let alone a state, let alone a country. The presumed checks and balances of such a system lead to a lot of checks for the incumbents and keep the rest of us off balance. The currency becomes wheeling and dealing, quid pro quo, with relatively minor consideration of the important issues at hand. The political social network and bargaining mindset communication is a bit like middle school but with more at stake.

How is this ever going to be resolved?

Term limits? Sure term limits would help. They would be a good start. However, as a professional politician, for example you could have two terms in the state Assembly then two terms in the State Senate, then two terms in the US House and then the US Senate. Assuming a limit of two terms of 4 years, that’s 32 years right there!

Moreover, term limits would ideally need to be matched with campaign spending limits. If not, Joe Billionaire could have his guy serve for two terms, then sponsor someone else to run for the next two terms and so on, ad infinitum.

As someone who sees the serious flaws in binary thinking, I’d like to see the demise of the two party system. It simplifies many complex national issues to absurdity and keeps people stuck in an ideological mindset that is not helpful. Still, I don’t see that demise happening soon.

I have often mused about winning the lottery and then setting up a “shadow” Senate with a group that represented the population as a whole, with three people from each state selected based on their willingness to be open-minded and accept a modest salary without perks for serving their country. I suspect that such a body would resolve many complex national issues in a considerably shorter time and with more focus than the elected government. I guess that they would work much more efficiently as a team, with less rancor. They might even make America great again.

In the midst of my despair about the way this country is run and where it is headed, I met William Herlong, a Republican candidate running for the critical post of Attorney General in South Carolina. He is competing against the Republican Alan Wilson, the incumbent, in an election on June

Mr. Herlong, an extremely accomplished and experienced lawyer, doesn’t need the money, nor does he want a political career. His motivation stems entirely from his desire to tackle what he sees as major corruption in SC politics; corruption that is apparently going unchecked in Columbia.

William Herlong believes in term limits and if elected will limit himself to two terms. That will help him focus on the job at hand, rather than worrying about a political career. As Herlong himself says, as soon as you are intent on establishing a political career your current political office is already compromised, sacrificed on the altar of personal gain and career longevity.

In Herlong, I see an antidote to the development and growth of the swamp. Don’t elect career politicians. Elect people who are pursuing the job for the right reasons; the service of the people, not their own egos. Experience as an elected official is not a positive characteristic in my view.

The Attorney General position is very powerful, perhaps even more powerful than the Governor’s role. The AG is the enforcer and without an efficient and moral enforcer, the swamp just gets bigger, no matter how popular the Governor may be.

Now I understand the culture in which we live. It’s egocentric and a detriment to collaboration, open-mindedness and wisdom. You only have to look at election campaigns where candidates slander and abuse each other, to see how low we have sunk. (By the way, did you know that primates, also have their own ‘elections’ to determine the alpha male? They team up and effectively vote. There’s one difference between these primate elections and ours: theirs are more civilized.)

So as much as, or even more, than term limits and campaign spending caps, we need honest and talented people with no political aspirations to step in and do the job for the right reasons, no strings attached. We don’t need manipulative people, conspiring with others, bartering to get their way. We simply need more honest people like William Herlong. That’s the way to run a state, an organization, a lemonade stand, and yes, even a country.