Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Who are our heroes?

Explorers. Inventors. Jonas Salk. Larry Page.

And what do our heroes all have in common? They open up the future for us. They show us ways to aspire to a better life. Even our sports heroes do that. Wow, if that guy can run the hundred that fast, and look that buff, maybe I should get in better shape.

What else do they have in common? They don’t bring us down. They are never about negativity. They are never about how hopeless it all is. They are the opposite of that. They are all about hope, the dream that we can be better.

Are you with me so far? Do we agree?

Well, then let me ask you this: Why do we support the politicians we do, the ones who want to tear down others, tear up the rights and lives of those who are not like them? The ones who appeal to the opposite of hope. The ones who appeal to fear.

It’s not their fault. They’re like well-trained rats. They’re doing what they have to do to get the electoral cheese. No, my friends, the fault is ours. We’re telling them with our votes and our polls and our rallies what we care most about, and a lot of what we care about, day-to-day, has more to do with not losing what we've got than with reaching for something more: don’t let in those illegal immigrants who will take our jobs; don't ask us to pay more in taxes to support people who won’t work for themselves; don’t attack my religion with your secular intellectualization of rights that the Bible (or the Koran, or whatever) says don’t exist.

So, to ask the question again, but with a slightly different spin: Why are we so afraid? If our heroes look to the future, why do we want to cling to the past? Do we think our heroes are braver than we are? Do we think we could never be anyone’s hero?

It is hard to imagine that you might invent the polio vaccine; or dwarf wheat; or Google. But you don’t have to shoot that high to be a hero. Most of us have a worshipful audience waiting for our wisdom, waiting for our inspiration. Children. Our own, our nieces and nephews, the kids down the block. They’re looking for heroes too. They might not think they can be LeBron James, but they are quite clear that they can be you. You’re just mom or dad, or auntie, or the neighbor. Of course they think they can be you.

So what are you showing them? Who do you say you are? What do you say you stand for? They are watching? They are listening. They will take their first cues from you. Will you teach them to be hopeful, to look to the future, to plan for it, or will you teach them to be afraid?

Monday, July 20, 2015

How to Change the World

Once there was a young man who planned to change the world. He could see clearly the things around him that he could improve. He could see bigotry that could be enlightened. He could see hunger that could be served a meal. He could see ignorance that could be educated. He set out to be a doctor, to heal. Or a lawyer, to bring justice. Or a scientist to find new ways of living on the planet without destroying it. He knew he would have to choose. He knew he could not do it all. But he had faith in others. The problems he didn’t tackle others would. Change would come. It was inevitable.

His chosen field had a long apprenticeship. He was good at what he did, and he was flattered and rewarded and coaxed into more and more sophisticated, complicated endeavors. The sense of discovery and achievement was intoxicating. He hardly noticed that he was solving only his employer’s problems, not the world’s.

He found a mate and had children. He saw the world through a child’s eyes again. He explained it to them and taught them what mattered about the way they would live and work with others. He taught them to want to change the world.

His children grew up and left home and left a hole in his heart. He thought that was the pain he felt, but it was more than that. The loss was of himself. He had not changed the world. He would not. He knew that, suddenly, awfully. It wasn’t his fault, he told himself. He had been naive as a young man. The world was as inexorable and immutable as human nature. He would not make a difference.

As he lay on his deathbed, his wife gone before him, his family gathered in the dim room: his son and his daughter, and his grandchildren, two girls and two boys. The young ones fidgeted and exchanged glances and occasional giggles. Their parents shushed them but they could not impose on them their grief and solemnity. The children knew what was happening, and they did not want it, they loved their grandfather, but they could not for long turn away from themselves and what they planned to do next in the world that was opening up to them in the ways their parents had told them it would.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Instinct For Bias

Confirmation bias. Apparently we all have it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing. Bias sounds like prejudice. No one wants to be thought of as prejudiced.

I read a piece in the NYT recently about a study that showed how when trying to find answers we look in safe and familiar places. The article had a test as part of it. A set of three numbers. The test was to determine the rule governed them. You could enter other sets of three numbers yourself to test your theory. The second two numbers were each double the one before, so it looked like that was the rule. It was…and it wasn’t. It turns out the rule was each number merely had to be higher than the one that preceded it.

Over ninety percent of those tested (including me), said what they thought the rule was without ever entering a number set that failed, even though there was no penalty for that. In other words, we didn’t probe the edges of what the rule might be, we raced down the first safe path we discovered. 

Gotcha, the article said. You don’t want to be told your answer is wrong, so you only test the rule with safe answers. You have confirmation bias.

The authors made it sound like a character flaw. Like prejudice. What I think it is, though, is a survival  instinct. If you are trying to make a quick decision about what to do, and you’re pretty sure what the safe move is, that’s the one you tend to make. Long ago in our evolutionary development, those who made the safe play lived to play (and procreate) another day. Confirmation bias is nothing more that an adaptive trait that helped the species survive. It doesn’t show weak character, just good survival instincts.

That distinction may sound like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The better we understand our behavior, the better equipped we are to modify it. If we think those of us in our red and blue political tribes are preferring to listen to what we want to hear just because we are morons, we miss an important opportunity to break through that evolutionary adaptation and inspire more considered thought, more testing of conventional wisdom, more understanding of what the rule really is. Not just the middle road, but all the possible paths that might lead to common ground.