Guns, Germs, and Stealing Truth (4: An American Stronghold)

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something” – attributed to Plato (~350 BC; yes, this behavior was recognized that long ago)

This blog series began with the events at Sandy Hook ten years ago and was planned as an attempt to pursue a deeper answer to “Why?”  During the preparation of this particular post we yet again experienced Uvalde and then Tulsa, and it has taken some effort to stay focused on the blog plan and accept that reality has forced the question to now become “Why Again?”  Some things about human nature do not change.

I came across a discussion recently, one that resonated with my ponderings over this virus that we have been dealing with since late 2019 – Covid-19.  With this virus (the simplest of our “Germs”), I had been particularly pondering its unusual and unexpected characteristics – its rapid and unusual transmissibility, its contagiousness without apparent symptoms, and its rapid appearance in mutated forms.

This particular virus has characteristics which mankind has never experienced before.  As a consequence, just as Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, human beings abhor an information vacuum.  But whereas Mother Nature will attempt to fill a physical vacuum with real substance, human beings will attempt to fill an information vacuum with anything that they can quickly get their “minds” on.  And if they can’t find something somewhere, they’ll make something up (for instance, Conspiracy Theories, here, and here).  It’s part and parcel of the Gap Syndrome in our human nature.

The virus transmissibility aspect now seems reasonably well understood (long-lived air suspended microdroplets, a thought that even I had “hypothesized” early in 2020 when looking at severe breakouts that occurred in cities in both Spain and in Italy that could be traced back to spectators at a match between their football teams (soccer to us) in an outdoor stadium (here)).  However, the rapid appearance of distinct mutations in diverse locations that were all more or less under isolation and/or isolated from each other was a puzzle.

My next “hypothesis” was that the mutations were occurring in the bodies of infected people who may or may not be asymptomatic and then locally transmitted, as opposed to it being “imported” by travelers.  The discussion I came across was a validation of this thought.  But what was disconcerting was that the comments in the discussion fell distinctly into two classes – the first was that only ~10% agreed with the premise “unvaccinated people can create variants of coronavirus and keep the pandemic going” and these were virologists, molecular biologists, and those with experience in molecular immunology.  The second group, the ~90% of “others,” disagreed vehemently.  The author of the discussion quoted one dissenting response verbatim, which I also pass along here,

“No evidence just like arms, Mark of the Beast 666 now the Devil laugh at the World, so the life span you in might longer than before vaccines jab, no people got the vaccines jab question yourself how long do you live?”

You can reach this full discussion on in situ viral mutations here (referencing many other articles as this phenomenon is well known).

What interested me more was the impetus driving the 90% of strong dissenting reactions.  It is not simply about being against vaccines or believing in a hoax, it goes much deeper and has existed for far longer than we wish to acknowledge.

It’s about our own domestic cultural bubbles that have developed into fortresses and strongholds 1 despite our increasing emphasis on higher education.  It will surprise you as it did me.

Skepticism and Anti-Intellectualism

There is a difference between skepticism, the hesitancy to accept something significantly new before deliberately seeking independent confirming evidence, and the real but poorly understood phenomenon of anti-intellectualism.

Skepticism is a healthy aspect of normal life, at least when it triggers curiosity to investigate and solidify evidence-based acceptance or rejection of some topic (i.e., what we call learning).  Without that curiosity, if it leads directly to judgmental rejection, skepticism can be unhealthy and risk venturing into outright anti-intellectualism.

Over time the concept of anti-intellectualism has evolved without having a recognizable single concrete definition.  In historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), he explains it as,

“a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to minimize the value of that life.”

To be sure, the phenomenon can be traced back to the 17th century.

Today a working definition seems to have become (source for the following overview,
here 2),

“a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge”.

Based upon that definition it should be fairly easy to identify the already strongly developed bubbles, fortresses, and strongholds 1 present in American culture.

Even today the concept is typically misunderstood as a hostile attitude against acquiring new knowledge (i.e., against continuing learning), or the byproduct of the lack of a formal education (i.e., not having demonstrated “learning” in some area of expertise).  If present, these appear more or less as passive individual attitudes and result in little action.

The issue is that there is also an active form, in which anti-intellectualism is wielded as an offensive weapon by those with power (or seeking it) as a means to uphold the ideas and systems that benefit them, thus propagating these attitudes (both anti-intellectualism itself as well as these beliefs and systems) over time in society and the culture.

In 1991, Daniel Rigney expanded Hofstadter’s discussion to identify three distinct types of anti-intellectualism (here),

  1. Religious anti-rationalism: the rejection of reason, logic, and fact in favor of select emotions, morals, and religious absolutes.  (Note: This is the basis for the phenomenon in the 17th century);
  2. Populist anti-elitism: rejection of elite institutions as well as those found within the social and/or intellectual “elite” (e.g., professors, scientists, old-money politicians); and
  3. Unreflective Instrumentalism (what a mouthful; clearly from an intellectual): the belief that the pursuit of theory and knowledge is unnecessary unless it can be wielded for practical means (e.g., profit).

As mentioned above, anti-intellectualism is not primarily a result of a lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge.  Instead, anti-intellectualism

Distinguishes the concept of knowledge between intellect and intelligence, and heavily favors the latter.

(Hofstadter describes intelligence as utilizing ideas (facts) in a practical way, while intellect concerns developing, challenging, and evolving the ideas (new facts) themselves.  “Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it.  Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.”)

As a result, anti-intellectualism is evoked as a way to halt the acquisition of new knowledge that would undermine groups with power and privilege.

(Note: There is a developing irony here, as our strongly “anti-intellectual” society’s push for people to attend (and successfully graduate!) college assumes the objective of a higher education is to exercise and develop this intelligence (which we know is stable over a lifetime, so perhaps it is simply to treat it as an empty container and fill it with recallable knowledge: “teach them what to think”).  This is opposed to higher education’s primary (in my experience) function, which is to exercise and develop the intellect (“learning how to learn how to learn”, continuously).  The above anti-intellectual assumption may, however, make sense as the overall societal objective seems to be to help children acquire a better and richer life than the parents had, i.e., to get a better paying job, which ironically, depends upon having a healthy profit motive (No. 3 above).  In other words, maintain the old social system and yet move significantly up the system in wealth, influence, prestige, and power).

In 1980, Isaac Asimov (professor and well known author), wrote,

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” 3

Strong words, and Asimov casts rather wide the dispersion.  Although Asimov captures an important aspect, the “reality” is a bit more nuanced,

The aversion many Americans feel toward people who actually know things is complex.  At heart, it’s arrogance.  People who dislike academics and other people who study complex topics carefully think that their own native “common sense” is superior.  They disdain knowledge for the sake of knowledge as opposed to profit (Type 3, above).  And often, they disdain knowledge because it contradicts their biases, often religious (Type 1, above). 4

This arrogance cuts both ways, both of “intellectuals” as well as the “anti-intellectuals.”  Arrogance seems to be an American cultural aspect, and is not new.

In recent research (2021) by political scientists (Note: given the disdain for “knowledge” demonstrated in the political realm, this label seems to be either morbidly ironic or one of the great oxymorons of all time) looking into Republicans growing mistrust of scientists and other experts, only a part of the rationale is found to be due to an educational divide – college graduates prefer the Democratic party, and white people without a college degree prefer the Republican party (Type 2, above).  The greater influence is actually entrenched in deliberate party politics. 5

This mistrust was more about respondents having positive feelings about trusting one’s gut and having negative feelings toward experts, schools, and the “book smarts of intellectuals.”  In the paper, the researchers wrote that those who distrust scientists and other official sources of authority “distinguish those who are ‘book smart’ from those who have common sense, the latter of which they view as a superior means of ascertaining truth.”  (Note: recall the comments on skepticism and common sense, above).  They found that people with this attitude were more likely to align with the Republican party. 

Other more recent research shows that this anti-science attitude is strongly associated with a rural identity, an identity held not only by people who live in rural areas but also by people who strongly identify as rural, regardless of where they live (i.e., their “identity” bubble).  This correlates with political scientist (there it is again) Katherine Cramer’s work on rural resentment, how many rural people disdain anything perceived to be urban, tying that to their rejection of intellectuals and intellectualism.

The key insight in all this work is that those who distrust vaccines, science, and expertise in general aren’t doing so necessarily because they have a knowledge gap or a misunderstanding,

Distrusting experts is part of their identity.  It is their bubble, fortress, or stronghold.  It is Regression to “a” Cultural Mean in action.

Distrusting experts (academics, government, etc.) has become a political choice, which means that any message from an official source – whether it’s a researcher, head of a government agency or a journalist – is more likely to inspire the opposite of its intended reaction from those who view the source as part of the political opposition.  This hasn’t been helped by the recent fractured nature of information flow, policies, mandates, and opinions coming from on high.

The danger now in our culture is that anti-intellectualism has become more entwined with partisanship and these attitudes have become more entrenched and harder to overcome.  Each side takes the position that they have the best sources of information (called epistemic hubris (Note: this must be when Incomplete Information becomes “knowledge arrogance”)).

Our individual Bubbles have morphed into communal Fortresses, which are now being reinforced and replenished as partisan Strongholds.

Yet, not all is lost – it is only miscommunicated (through social media) that way.

A Pew Research survey (2022) indicated that ~74% of American adults are “personal learners,” that is, “they have participated in at least one of a number of activities in the past 12 months to advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them.”  Of these, 80% “say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.”  (Note: Let us hope that someone jumping onto Twitter or Facebook to find the latest on anti-vaccine information was not considered a “learning activity.”)

Those numbers should certainly give hope that an anti-intellectualism stronghold hasn’t taken over the entire country.  The question then remains as to why does it seem to be so prominent.  One reason is that anti-intellectuals make more noise compared to those with a favorable attitude towards the life of the mind.

The numbers also reflect that there exists a significant but little recognized Responsibility to convert Knowledge into Understanding and then put it into beneficial Practice (discussed here).

It appears we again have a Silent Majority – those of who are “personal learners” existing outside of the anti-intellectualism stronghold.  Either we’re just too darn quiet, or we lack good communication skills and when we attempt to communicate we come across as arrogant (there it is, again).

Good communication is the key.  To have courage to step out of one’s bubble or fortress (and even one’s stronghold) with an openness to listen first, to try and understand the skepticism, and respond sensitively to the felt needs.  It’s time consuming.  It also depends upon mutual trust or the willingness to develop trust – something we have also grown noticeably lacking (here).

Revealing thought: we have had emerging Stronghold issues in our culture for quite a while.  Rather than a negative character issue, however, it now appears to be quite the badge of honor.

“Why?”  What part of human nature invariably leads to these types of outcomes?

Time to peal off another layer of the onion.


1 – Working concepts:

  1. Bubble – the limited cognitive and perceived environment that we live in;
  2. Fortress – a bubble that is reinforced for defensive purposes against certain aspects of society and culture;
  3. Stronghold – a bubble that is reinforced and replenished for offensive purposes against certain aspects of society and culture.

2 – Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S. (6/1/2021), Studio ATAO.

3 – Isaac Asimov/My Turn, Newsweek, January 21, 1980 (pdf accessible here).

4 – Is there any widely held answer to why America is anti-intellectual? (Michael Barnard, Quora discussion, March 28, 2021,

5 – Why Being Anti-Science is Now Part of Many Rural American’s Identify (538, April 25, 2022).
Americans Have Even Less Trust in Scientists Now Than Pre-Pandemic, Poll Finds – Especially Among Republicans, Forbes, February 15, 2022.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guns, Germs, and Stealing Truth (3: A Russian Stronghold)

“Ukraine and its allies, including London, are threatening Russia for the last 1000 years, … to cancel our culture – they have bullied us for many, many years” – Yevgeny Popov, Russian Duma (“Parliament”) member, TV host (BBC News)

This is a narrative that the West doesn’t hear, whether it doesn’t want to, or probably more realistically, is dumbfounded about.  This is because what Popov (and Putin and Russia in general) is referring to is outside of the West’s memory bank.

We have become ignorant of the past and are being accused of continuing to repeat it (Santayana was right).

The West’s bubble and Russia’s stronghold are not in the least bit overlapping, and we are experiencing the result.

How does this relate to our question of, “Why do we see behaviors such as experienced with Sandy Hook (here)?”

It is because the sources for these behaviors are buried deep in an onion and multiple layers must be pealed away in order to drill down to both the environmental forces around and those forces within individuals that drive their behaviors and subsequently influence group attitudes and their resulting behaviors.

The Russian cultural bubble, nee stronghold, is an example of the reverse of the bubble forming process that influenced the Boers in South Africa (here) – where now a long history of internal forces, values and attitudes of a few have been used to overwhelm the external forces and environment of the many to create a specific and unique stronghold.  The result has been Russia’s little understood (or accepted) view of itself and its relationship with outsiders, particularly the West.

This indeed has a long history as Popov and Putin (here) refer to.  It will be important to pull out important but long buried and forgotten pieces to shed light on (into) the roots of this stronghold.  We’ll choose to begin with just important events, not Popov’s free interpretation, from well over ~1000 years ago in as best a nutshell presentation as possible.  Keep in mind these are but small rootlets tied to the growth of a major tap root of Russian history. Note also the threads of Western incursions coupled with cultural conflicts.

From the 7th to the 3rd millennium BC, the Slavs, a conglomeration of tribes defined in linguistic (of Indo-European origin) and cultural terms, migrated from the east into the steppes (Ukraine) of eastern Europe north of the Black Sea.(1)  They are the only historical migratory tribes to remain permanently.

In 27 BC the Roman Empire was established after the collapse of the Roman Republic in Rome.

In 476 the western portion of the Roman Empire crumbled into feudal kingdoms.  The eastern portion continued as the Byzantine Empire, now centered in Constantinople.

A few years later, in 482, is the traditional year of the founding of Kyiv, although evidence suggests a date sometime from the 6th to the 7th century.

In 838 envoys of the Viking Rus’ tribe show up in Constantinople, attracted by the Byzantine Empire.  The Vikings, of northwestern European ancestry, came from the Baltic Sea down the Volga and Dnieper Rivers through the steppes and Kyiv into the Black Sea.  The title Rus’ is of Scandinavian root and in Swedish it means, ‘men who row.’  They were traders who did not see violence, coercion and trade as being incompatible.(2) The Rus’ tribe become the ancestors of the Russian people (here).

In 882 the Vikings struggled for control of the outpost in Kyiv.  Achieving this, they and the region they control become known as the Kyivan Rus’.(2)

By 980 the area the Kyivan Rus’ control extends in the north from the Baltic to the Black Sea in the south and from east of the future village of Moscow to the west into what is now Poland and Hungry.(3)  With the baptism of Volodymr in ~988, Constantinople finishes establishing (Orthodox) Christianity in the medieval state of Kyivan Rus’.

Very important was the year 1054, which most of us cannot remember, when the Great Schism of AD 1054 occurred.  This was the breakup of the Christian church into two parts—the Western and the Eastern churches—as the result of growing estrangement (presumed heresies) from the 5th through the 11th century.  These two parts were to turn into the western Latin Church (the Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (based in Constantinople, in the Byzantine Empire).  The mutual excommunications by the Latin Pope and the Eastern Patriarch in 1054 became a watershed in church history.  The excommunications lasted until 1965 but the schism has never healed.

In 1147, some 6 or 7 centuries after Kyiv, Moscow is founded.

Significant in Russian memory is the year 1240 when Alexander Nevsky (prince of Novgorod and of Kyiv) halts the eastward drive of Swedish and German western invaders at the river Neva (north of Moscow).  He was canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547.

Also of great importance is the year 1299 when the “see” of the Eastern Orthodox Church (residence of the Patriarch and seat of government of the church) was transferred from Kyiv to Moscow.

The next very significant event in our root is the year 1453 when Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Empire and the seat of Eastern Orthodoxy with it.  The Byzantine Empire ends and discussion over its successor begins in earnest.

The fall of Constantinople occurred during a period (~1430s onward) when the territory once held by the Kyivan Rus’ was taken by the West and split between the Polish Kingdom (roughly from modern day Poland to just north of the Crimea) and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (north of Kyiv to the Baltic Sea).(4)

A spiritual solution for the successor of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire appeared in the early 1500s.  The monk Philotheus formally outlined Moscow as the Third Rome in his Epistles, based on historical poetic references.  The Third Rome for Philotheus is not a city but “the Tsardom of our sovereign”, Moscow – Russia as a whole as a spiritual space, embracing the Orthodox Church and its children – Russian people, whose faith is different from the faith of Muslims – “Hagarene descendants”, and Catholics – “Latins”.  The fact that Russia was formally perceived as God’s chosen nation was not a basis for expansion or world domination – Philotheus had not written a word of this kind in his Epistles. The Moscow as the Third Rome concept here was aimed solely to plant another task in the minds of Russian rulers: to care for Church and cherish Orthodoxy.(5)

“Moscow, the Third Rome“, however, eventually evolves into both a theological and a political concept comprising three important cultural aspects:

  • Theological: linked with justification of necessity, the inevitability of the unity of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Moscow’s duty to protect the “true” Orthodox faith from further “Latin” heresies (the Great Schism);
  • Social: derived out of the feeling of unity in East Slavic territories being historically tied together through the Eastern Orthodox faith and Slavic culture; and
  • Governmental (State Doctrine): according to which the Moscow Prince (Tsar) acts as a supreme ruler (Sovereign and legislator) of Eastern Orthodox nations and becomes a defender of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  As a consequence, the Church should facilitate the Sovereign in execution of his function supposedly determined by God, in an autocratic administration.

While the date of 1547 may not ring a bell, you remember the name: Ivan the Terrible (Grand Prince of Moscow (1533–84).  This is the year he is the first to be proclaimed Tsar (“Caesar”) of Russia, further building the connection of Russia with Rome and the Holy Roman Empire.  His reign saw the completion of the construction of a centrally administered Russian state and the creation of an empire that included non-Slav states.  Ivan engaged in prolonged and largely unsuccessful wars against the West (Sweden and Poland), and, in seeking to impose military discipline and a centralized administration, he instituted a reign of terror against the hereditary nobility.

It is during this time that Prince Andrei Kurbskii, in his letters to Ivan the Terrible, spoke of the Russian state as “The Holy Russian Empire.”  There are notable similarities both with the idea of Moscow, the Third Rome (above) and the development of the concept of Holy Rus or Holy Russia – as the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal czardom of God in the Heaven and on the Earth, as an important religious and philosophical doctrine that appeared and developed from the 8th to the 21st centuries.

The next two contributors you may also remember.  The first, reigning from 1682 to 1725 is Peter the Great.  Peter inherited a nation that was severely underdeveloped compared to the culturally prosperous European (western) countries.  While the Renaissance and the Reformation swept through Europe, Russia rejected westernization and remained isolated from modernization.  It has been suggested that this opposition to the West (i.e., Europe) was inherent to the Byzantine Empire, that is, the “Second Rome,” particularly after the Great Schism of 1054.  Russia, in turn, followed it in real politics taking an anti-Western, anti-European stance.(5)  Peter fought this and undertook extensive reforms in an attempt to mirror Western culture, focused on the development of science and recruited several experts to educate his people.  He established St. Petersburg in 1712 emphasizing western cultural ideas, and moved the capital there from Moscow.  This did not have a lasting effect on the culture.

Peter also had a problem with an all powerful and rich (and stodgy) Orthodox Church.  He diminished the power of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy by eliminating the supreme religious office of Patriarch, who had wielded near-equal power with the Tsar.  In the place of this single powerful figure, Peter established the Holy Synod of eleven or twelve members, not necessarily churchmen, to administer the temporal affairs and the finances of the church.  In 1722, he appointed a civilian Procurator of the Holy Synod, charged with supervising church administration and exercising jurisdiction over the clergy.  In this way, Tsar Peter made the church subordinate to the state.

The next major contributor reigned from 1762 to 1796 – Catherine the Great.  Catherine was also enamored with Western thought, read constantly about the Enlightenment, and interacted with Voltaire often.  She backed out of war with Denmark and brought the army home.  This was due to extreme state financial difficulties primarily due to a large serf population that paid no taxes, and a rich and propertied church that also did not pay taxes.

She resolved these two issues in one stroke.  By imperial manifesto issued on February 26, 1764, all ecclesiastical lands and property became state property, and the church itself became a state institution. All church serfs were upgraded to the status of state peasants; as a result, one million male peasants—more than two million persons, counting wives and children—came under state control, and now paying taxes to the state.  Power and administrative autonomy were stripped from the clergy, high and low, and all priests became salaried employees of the state.

During the 19th to early 20th centuries the “Moscow as the Third Rome” concept gave rise to a kind of belief that Russia is destined to lead and protect universal Orthodoxy and Christian faith.  The belief, being in tune with the mood of Russian society, had an impact on both the inner political structure of the state (including its Soviet period) and its foreign policy.  This suggests that the Moscow as the Third Rome concept may be seen as Russia’s informal geopolitical doctrine.(5)  (This is an interesting observation as it comes from two Russian researchers).

A major development begins during the 1850s.  The “pan-movements” arise in Central and Eastern Europe – Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism (the 19th-20th century political movements for the unity of all Slavic and Germanic peoples).  The rise of Bolshevism and Nazism owe more to Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism than to any other movement.(6)  Important also is the fact that the pan-movements started with absolute claims to chosenness.(7)

Pan-Slavism takes the official name “Holy Russia” quite literally.(8)  By this time (mid-19th century) “Holy Russia” had acquired two meanings:

  • A name for Russia as a whole, as in the epic poems; and
  • The “mystical ideal of Russia” as a haven for the “new chosen people.”(9)

Commentary on this phenomenon: “… essential was the fact that the totalitarian governments inherited an aura of holiness:  they had only to invoke the past of “Holy Russia” or “The Holy Roman Empire” to arouse all kinds of superstitions in Slav or Germanic intellectuals.  Pseudomystical nonsense, enriched by countless and arbitrary historical memories (recall Popov), provided an emotional appeal that seemed to transcend, in depth and breadth, the limitations of nationalism.(10)

Pan-Slavism offered a new religious theory and a new concept of holiness.  It was not the Czar’s religious function and position in the Orthodox Church (see above, Moscow, the third Rome) that led Russian Pan-Slavs to the affirmation of the Christian nature of the Russian people … who carry God directly into the affairs of this world.  It was because of claims to being “the true divine people of modern times.” (11)

One Pan-Slavic author called the Russian people the “only Christian people on earth.” (12)

The concept continued to develop strength, as reflected by various authors.  In 1871 in Russia and Europe, (a standard work for Pan-Slavism), the Slavophile writer Danielewski praised the Russians’ “political capacity” because of their “tremendous thousand-year-old state that still grows and whose power does not expand like the European power in a colonial way but remains always concentrated around its nucleus, Moscow.(13)

In 1937, N. Berdyaev, in The Origin of Russian Communism, wrote: “Religion and nationality in the (historical) Muscovite kingdom grew up together, as they did also in the consciousness of the ancient Hebrew people.  And in the same way as Messianic consciousness was an attribute of Judaism, it was an attribute of Russian Orthodoxy also.”(14)

And in 1947, M. N. Katkov wrote: “All power has it derivation from God: the Russian Czar, however, was granted a special significance distinguishing him from the rest of the world’s rulers. … He is a successor of the Caesars of the Eastern Empire, … the founders of the very creed of the Faith of Christ. … Herein lies the mystery of the deep distinction between Russia and all the nations of the world.” (15)

Again Katkov: “Government in Russia means a thing totally different from what is understood by this term in other countries … In Russia the government in the highest sense of the word, is the Supreme Power in action …” (16)

Commentary: “Power (in a totalitarian state) was conceived as a divine emanation pervading all natural and human activity.  It was no longer a means to achieve something: it simply existed, men were dedicated to its service for the love of God, and any law that might regulate or restrain it its “limitless and terrible strength” was clearly sacrilege.  … The Pan-Slav movement only had to adhere to this power and to organize its popular support, which eventually would permeate and therefore sanctify the whole people – a colossal herd, obedient to the arbitrary will of one man – rules neither by law or interest, but kept together solely by the cohesive force of their numbers and the conviction of their own holiness.(17)


There in a nutshell is the long history involved in the growth and augmentation of this pseudomystical root and myth that has become the Russian stronghold.  Driven by the few and imposed upon the many, regardless of how “modern” Russia seems, how “Westernized” portions of the culture seem, and how “well” global business interactions seem, the root of the stronghold is still there.

If one carefully pays attention, one can catch in the following articles the crafted performance that is the reality of the Russian Stronghold, which survives by intentionally creating Incomplete and/or Missing Information, by feeding compliant and aligned Attitudes that become Behaviors seemingly by Choice, and ultimately results in the majority’s Regression to the historically created Cultural Mean.

Putin’s ‘surreal’ version of Ukrainian history alarms experts

The Putin show

Russia’s Orthodox Church paints the conflict in Ukraine as a holy war

Why Patriarch Kirill supports Putin’s War

The Russian Orthodox Leader at the Core of Putin’s Ambitions

(Addendum, May 23, 2022:  Just after posting this discussion, an article by Andrey Kortunov, a Russian political scientist, appeared (here).  In it he strongly emphasizes what most of the West does not grasp, that the Russian Ukraine conflict is not ethnic, not radical nationalism, not fundamentally religious, and not about territory, although those subjects appear in Kremlin propaganda and the media.  He affirms what this post has attempted to shine light upon through the development of the historical root, that the conflict primarily concerns a clash between very different ways of organizing social and political life.  Ukrainian society, leaning west, is since 1991 organizing from the bottom up (e.g., strongly contested elections) while Russian society is historically organized from the top down (i.e., Putin’s statement in February that there is only one decision maker in the country).  Given this broader and more fundamental basis for the war, it is hoped that this post makes more sense.  Kortunov concludes with three possible scenarios for how the war ends, all of which have global implications with all of us having to learn to live in a world that will continue to have two incompatible models of social organization: you guessed it, Strongholds – JE)

We’ve only just begun to peal away layers of the corporate human onion.

More thoughts on “going deeper” next post.


1 – The Gates of Europe, Serhii Plokhy, 2015, p 14
2 – Ibid., p 25-6, maps x, xi
3 – Ibid., p 25
4 – Ibid., p 58-60, map xiii
5 – The “Moscow as the Third Rome” Concept: Its Nature and Interpretations since the 19th
       to Early 21st Centuries, Klimenko, A. N.; Yurtaev, V. I. Geopolítica(s) 9(2) 2018: 231-251
6 – Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arndt, 1951, p 222
7 – Ibid., p 233
8 – Ibid., p 226 (Note 18)
9 –
10 – Arndt, Op. cit., p 226
11 – Arndt, Op. cit., p 233, and notes 35, 36
12 – Arndt, Op. cit., p 233 (Note 35)
13 – Arndt, Op. cit., p 223 (Note 5)
14 – Quoted from Arndt, Op. cit., p 242 (Note 61)
15 – Quoted from Arndt, Op. cit., p 247 (Note 69, quoting from Salo W. Baron, Modern
         Nationalism and religion
, 1947).
16 – Quoted from Arndt, Op. cit., p 248 (Note 71, quoting from Salo W. Baron, Modern
         Nationalism and religion
, 1947).
17 – Arndt, Op. cit., p 248.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guns, Germs, and Stealing Truth (2: The Boer Stronghold)

““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

There is no simple answer to our question of “Why do we see behaviors such as experienced with Sandy Hook?” (here)

This will no doubt confuse and irritate many.  Ironically, the fact that confusion and irritation arise is actually a validation of the complexity of the answer(s), pieces of which run like a thread through most of these posts over the past few years.  These include concepts of,

Bubbles – we all live in bubbles.  When asked, most people will acknowledge that they live in something of a bubble defined by their experiences, friends, neighborhoods, values, beliefs, etc.  In actuality, we live in at least two bubbles, one is cognitive (as suggested just above) and the other is our physical reality.  We do not perceive or sense everything that is physically real, and we are often naively content with that – after all, Perception trumps Reality.  Bubbles can become comfort zones, echo chambers and even strongholds.  (More on the Reality Bubble in a later post).

Incomplete or Missing Information – because of these bubbles we are often blissfully unaware of (or, if it is outside our bubble, intentionally ignore) other pertinent information that can affect our values and understanding, if we let it.

Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice – Based on our values, our attitudes, how we think about our perceived reality within and without our bubbles, reveal themselves through our behaviors, especially when we are confronted by something that lies outside and does not agree or resonate with the tenets of our bubble but rather threatens them.

Regression to the Cultural Mean – The external forces from outside our bubbles and the internal forces in ourselves and from others within our bubbles massage and/or manipulate our values and attitudes such that everyone within the bubbles converges on common values and attitudes (the cultural mean).

While Sandy Hook occurred ten years ago, anti-social behaviors had been visible in humans long before and even continue today.  For instance, in the last two plus years we have experienced increasing levels of crime.  These increases can be attributed to social disruption and isolation (due to Covid-19), lawlessness (in response to George Floyd’s death), police timidity and/or overreaction (due to destructive, not constructive criticism), and a typical American reaction to crises with an increase in gun sales.

All four of the above themes (among our Fundamental Principles) can be seen to be active in the above events, if one looks.

Our three villains from Sandy Hook (and the fourth I’ve identified: Every other active “fact propagator,” here) have in common one particular attribute: extreme frustration with society, government, and fellow citizens as they have experienced these outside their own respective bubbles.  The result is what is called anomie,

Anomie – in sociology, anomie is a social condition defined by an uprooting or breakdown of any moral values, standards or guidance for individuals to follow.  Anomie was believed to possibly evolve from conflict of belief systems and causes breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community.  (Émile Durkheim; Wikipedia)

Our villains seem to be acting out their frustrations with what they perceive as a breakdown of (others’) moral values, standards and guidance for individual behavior that deviate from those they have defined as correct within their own bubble, which has now evolved to become a fortress (for defense against felt disaffirmation) or a stronghold (as an offensive base to counter this disaffirmation).

Aspects of our default human nature that contribute to this process of “fortress-ification” (“bubble building”) are the two we generally “know” but rarely admit we are susceptible to: Confirmation Bias (where we seek information and/or others’ opinions that confirm what we already believe (perceive) to be true) and the Availability Heuristic (where we confine ourselves only to immediate (experiential?) examples that come to mind when evaluating a topic, concept, method, decision or event.  This could also apply to limiting ourselves only to specific available (biased?) information sources).

Given these often subconscious default human nature processes, it should be easy to see how often and quickly bubbles develop, and how these can easily progress into hardened fortresses and strongholds where anomie and conspiratorial thinking take hold and direct subsequent social behavior, often contributing to increasing polarization.

The victims of this cognitive drift and isolation are both the concept of and expectation of shared values and an individual’s recognition of one’s responsibility to the larger community and society outside his or her bubble.  As was recognized centuries ago (Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians), “And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.”  And with the implication that its respective responsibilities to the body still remain intact.

We as a society are reasonably early in this polarization trajectory, but there are historical examples, if we will pay attention to them, of where this can be heading.  One example is the history of the Boers in South Africa.

The Boers are descended from Dutch settlers who, in the middle of the 1600s, were stationed at the African Cape to provide fresh food and meat for British ships on their voyages to India.  Few other settlers followed them during the next century, and it was through a high birth rate that this “little Dutch splinter” grew into a small people.  Completely isolated from the current of European history (an imposed bubble), they set out on a path “such as few nations have trod before them…” (1a)

Environmental factors and forces that existed around this bubble that contributed over two centuries to the development of the Boer culture were “the extremely bad soil which could be used only for extensive cattle raising, and the very large black population which organized as tribes and lived as nomad hunters.  The bad soil made close settlement impossible, and large families, isolated from each other, were forced into a kind of clan organization and only the ever-present threat of a common foe deterred these clans from active war against each other.  The solution to the double problem of lack of fertility and abundance of natives was slavery.“ (1b) (Bubbles transformed into Fortresses, aggravated by human pride and intensified by isolation, regressing to narrow cultural values and attitudes).

This fortress mentality and the “absolute dependence on the work of others and eventual complete contempt for labor and productivity in any form transformed the Dutchman into the Boer.” (2)  “They degenerated into a poor white race living beside and together with black races.  They lived on the same subsistence level, primarily the result of the Boers’ inability or stubborn refusal to learn agricultural science and wandering from one area to another, tilling the soil until it is no longer fertile, shooting the wild game until it ceases to exist.” (3)  (Regression to a Cultural Mean; disaffirmation leading to altered values and resulting new Attitudes becoming Behaviors by Choice).

Their “unique race concept seemed to define their own condition and eventually led to the Boers concluding that they themselves were more than human and obviously chosen by God to be the gods of black men.  In practice it meant that their Christianity for the first time could not act as a decisive curb on the dangerous perversions of human self-consciousness, a premonition of its essential ineffectiveness in other more recent race societies.” (4)  The Boers “simply denied the Christian doctrine of the common origin of men, believed in themselves as the chosen people, chosen not for the sake of divine salvation of man but for the lazy domination over other species.  This was God’s will on earth as the Dutch Reformed Church proclaimed it and still proclaims it today (1951) in sharp and hostile contrast to the missionaries of all other Christian denominations.” (5)  (The transformation of Fortresses into polarized Strongholds, and the justification of the redefined values in order to obtain some form of self-affirmation).

When “the British arrived in the 1800s and eventually attempted to abolish slavery (after 1834) and to impose fixed boundaries upon landed property, they provoked the stagnant Boer society into violent reactions.  Boer farmers escaped British law by treks into the interior wilderness of the country, abandoning without regret their homes and their farms.  Rather than accept limitations upon their possessions, they left them altogether.  They demonstrated that they had transformed themselves into an essentially non-European tribe.” (6)  (The result of the transformation of fundamental values and attitudes into new, self-defensive behaviors to avoid new felt disaffirmation).

These transformations were strong enough that when gold and diamonds were discovered (1886), the Boers reaction to the uitlanders arriving to find riches was the same: abandon their homes and farms (where gold and diamonds were eventually discovered) and trek into the wilderness.

The continuous friction (polarization) between the British and the Boers eventually led to the Boer War (1899-1902).  Although defeated, the Boers continued to exist as a separate population (Afrikaners), “which had lost contact even with the lower incentives of European man (they could not be lured back into European civilization even by profit motives) when it had cut itself off from its higher motives, because both had lost their meaning and appeal in a society where nobody wants to achieve anything and everyone became a god.” (7)

The Boers’ anomie and frustration with the externalities to their bubble (society, government, and natives) is palpable and demonstrates the slow erosion that can occur if people do not pay attention to the positive foundations of their values and attitudes and to the negative forces active both in the environment and in each individual.

It did not help when one of their foundational institutions, the church, apparently lacking an understanding of the fundamental tenet (“the equality of all men before God”) underlying one of its basic doctrines (“the common origin of mankind”), strayed from applying this tenet to guide and develop the Boers’ societal relationships (practiced behaviors), and instead altered its doctrines and beliefs to accommodate and justify man’s “dangerous perversions” already practiced in their selfish behaviors.

There are lessons from history here.

The first is the danger in having conveniently fluid and opportunistic values.

The second is that while the isolation and devolution of the Boers’ culture occurred over a period of 250 years (~1650 – 1900) due to isolation and the slow means of communication, the current availability (and misuse) of near instantaneous social media has contributed to our isolation and devolution into polarized strongholds in less than 20 years.

Realistically speaking, the Boers were thrust into an unknown and hostile environment which was made up of the external forces that overwhelmed what internal forces and stamina for resistance they possessed, resulting in the stronghold that became the Boer/Afrikaner culture.

There is another example that is both current and strikes a bit closer to home but is an example of the reverse – internal forces, values and attitudes of a few that have been used to overwhelm the external forces and environment to create a specific and unique cultural bubble.  That is Russia’s view of itself and its relationship with outsiders, particularly the West.  It has a long history.

Thoughts on this bubble in the following segment.


1a,b – Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arndt, 1951, p 191-2
2 – Ibid., p 193
3 – Ibid., p 194, and note 20
4 – Ibid., p 195, and note 22
5 – Ibid., p 195, and notes 23-26
6 – Ibid., p 196
7 – Ibid., p 197

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Lessons from History, The Fundamental Principles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Guns, Germs, and Stealing Truth (1: Sandy Hook)

“If you’re not the lead sled dog, the view never changes”

It was nearly 10 years ago this coming December when the events at Sandy Hook Elementary took place.  But the events that played out in the ensuing ten years should equally capture our attention.

Elizabeth Williamson’s book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth (reviewed here), has just been published and looks both at how deeply the tragedy has grown and how much wider the net should be cast to capture the number of identifiable villains.

Those villains that are identified have had fingers pointed at them over the last ten years.  It is not only the ongoing behavior of those identified that caused me some reaction, but my realization that one villain was missed whose behavior continues to propagate.  As I began to put various unconnected pieces together in an attempt to find an answer to, “Why?” it became clear that there was a bigger pattern than suspected.

To move forward, however, we first need to consider Williamson’s collected thoughts and resulting thesis.

Sandy Hook has become a turning point for America in our increasing flirtation with conspiracy theories.  Long known throughout history and in virtually every culture, these “proposed more truthful explanations” for events seemingly escalated to new and more malevolent heights with Sandy Hook:

  • Outright denial that the shooting happened (it was a hoax);
  • Assertions that it was a government plot to stoke anti-gun sentiment;
  • Parents who lost children were stalked by people who
    • Called them liars;
    • Argued that their children never existed;
    • Demanded that the children’s bodies be exhumed for proof.

While conspiracy theories have always been with us (a fake moon landing; the CIA was involved with JFK’s assassination; the World Trade Centers were brought down by explosives, etc.), they generally remained on the fringes of society.

Ms. Williamson argues that no one person epitomizes “conspiracism’s leakage into the mainstream” more than Alex Jones, “the right-wing conspiracy-monger and creator” of the website Infowars (and since found liable in court for defamation with regards to his Sandy Hook claims, which began on the very day of the shooting).

Thinking broadly about those responsible, Williamson identifies three villains in the story.

The first villain is the shooter himself, who killed his mother, 26 people and finally himself.

The second villains are the conspiracists, Alex Jones, and others propagating less vociferously, who either doubted the massacre happened, or used the episode to gain money and influence.

The third villains are the social media platforms whose business model and algorithms facilitated the spread of outrageous and hateful content because the posts “boost engagement.”

“If outrage begets clicks, and clicks beget influence and money, then hucksters including Mr. Jones are incentivized to follow their worst impulses.”

A significant conclusion from the book is about conspiracism’s place in America today.  It even continues with the “Big Lie.”

Conspiracism can be compared to a virus, constantly mutating and becoming endemic in a society, especially one that deals with “alternative facts.”  Combating conspiracy theories is like a game of whack-a-mole: debunk one person, take down one post, an five more pop up in its place.

“Infowars’ tagline says: “There’s a war on for your mind.”  About that, if nothing else, the website is right.”


The first two villains were “active” participants, clearly.  But the third, social media, was passive, like a sewer line.

The appearance of social media no doubt was the catalyst that permitted fringe “alternative truths” (conspiracy theories) to suddenly go mainstream, available to and reposted by a significant fraction of the population.

And this leads me to think, no matter how well researched and knit together is Williamson’s thesis, it is still incomplete.  There is a fourth villain,

Everyone else.  Those who actively considered and repeated, liked, and/or reposted the stories and actively participated in their propagation.

The bigger, nagging question, is Why? 

Not on a societal level, because that is built upon a mass of individuals.  It’s on the individual level that “Why?” becomes interesting if not necessary.  Especially now.

After all, we run the risk of becoming a society of lemmings.  Only the lead lemming might see the cliff ahead (if she/he cares), but for all the other lemmings the view is always the same.

More thoughts to follow.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why “Follow the Science” Fails

“The greatest mistake you can make is to be continually fearing that you’ll make one” – Elbert Hubbard (an American writer, artist, and philosopher)

We need to tackle a really important issue, one that has received a lot of recent coverage1,2,3: Why does “Follow the Science” fail to answer so many questions today?  While this question has come to the forefront primarily due to Covid-19 and policies established to deal with it, it’s been a skeleton in the closet for centuries, literally.

The first issue is that the question is itself misleading primarily because it suffers from typical slogan myopia – it’s nice as a short catchy phrase but it does not convey all that it should convey.  It is incomplete.  It is another victim of Fundamental Principle 6:

There will always be Missing Information.

A more accurate slogan is:

Follow the Science that we currently have and understand.

That tail end of the slogan is unfortunately omitted for two reasons.

First, to a scientist, it is implied and therefore taken for granted; we know that.  Our naïve error is presuming everyone else understands this too.

Second, for a politician and a media person (and others whose attention span drops after three words), it makes the slogan too long, not zippy enough, not a legitimate sound bite.  Their naïve error is that they don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know that’s missing.

So we end up with a short, zippy, incomplete slogan that is easily and more readily misinterpreted and misapplied as it become more widely spread and used.

The second issue is, as a result, one of the frustrating consequences and complaints (as expressed by a broad range of people) is that Policy Changes as Reality Changes.  Witness social distancing advice, masking rules, vaccine recommendations, etc. all varying by state or locale, and often at variance with governmental “guidelines.”

In other words, it is not well understood or accepted that one steers the ship as new conditions and information develop.  This does not result in clear and stable guidelines, and this does not go down well with the masses.  Why?  Well, there are a number of reasons – but it’s complex and doesn’t lend itself to a simple narrative or explanation.

Let’s begin by considering some simple health reasons for “Following the Science,” all very noble:

  • People want to protect themselves;
  • Protect their families;
  • Protect their communities; and
  • Protect the vulnerable.

Unfortunately, what we see in real-life behaviors is that these are not all of equal priority; the first two take priority while the last two generally get less attention.

A third issue is that one might think that following the advice of experts is a no-brainer.  After all, there is the phenomenon known as The Einstein Effect: this is where the general population accepts the statements of people they have come to recognize as experts in fields beyond their own expertise.

There is also the Celebrity Effect: accepting the statements of well-known personalities with celebrity status (“performing artists”), regardless of their expertise in the area of their statements. 

These two seem contradictory, yet they have great influence over our lives (weirdly, it seems the Celebrity Effect has greater impact).

Both of these appear to be based upon a “feeling” that “expert opinion” is a “unitary omniscient” force – that experts “know” the one, single correct answer for a given situation, assuming that the answer is already known.

This assumption is based upon our innate human tendency to reduce everything to a “binary” solution:

Either it’s This and they’re right, Or it’s That and they’re wrong!

In other words, we seek a simple explanation or narrative for a complex situation that is not recognized or accepted as such.

So here is the first unintended consequence of a short, zippy slogan: “Follow the Science” must imply that there is already a single absolute answer.  After all, we’ve learned that science has already helped in the rejection of myth, conjured opinions, and outright lies. 

So, it is assumed that what science knows about “the reality that counts” (i.e., our perception of reality) looks like this (simplified concept),

The Einstein Effect, following the advice of experts, thus gets sabotaged by the conflicting second issue, Policy Changing as Reality Changes, as well as reading that “experts” themselves often disagree.

This leads us to the next three less recognized issues: overcoming the assumption of a “unitary omniscient” answer must include recognizing that there is a lack of understanding about science and how it works, a lack of understanding about incomplete and dynamically changing information, and, finally, a lack of understanding about risk that is always present.

Let me propose an alternate “simple but more realistic” description of what science is “doing” in dear old Mother Nature:

“What Science Already Knows” represents the results of studies that we know are predictable, reproducible, trustable, and useable.  When people use the slogan “Follow the Science” they are assuming that what Science will tell them is already known and found in this “box” on the left.

“What Science is looking into” (the “box” in the middle, in lighter colored font to signify still incomplete information and a real difference with the “box” on the left) represents studies taking place to answer questions (and hypotheses) that science doesn’t yet have an answer to.  “We’ve got questions, we don’t yet have reliable answers.”  This is the realm of new developments and changing landscape – things like specific vaccines and better masks (tangible items), and better understanding on intangible things, like social distancing.  There is a certain amount of Risk involved in drawing conclusions (and establishing needed policies) from tentative results that arise in this “box” because, Fundamental Principle 6 again, there is most certainly some information not yet discovered here, and therefore missing.

“What Science doesn’t know to look into yet” (the “box” on the right, in very light colored font because we have no information) represents stuff we haven’t decided to look into yet, or need to look into yet because we haven’t been confronted with it yet.  For example, looking into Covid-19 during 2018.  There is a whole lotta’ RISK involved in speculating about this area.  Consider this area fertile ground for conspiracy theories (and bad policies).

Speaking of bad policies (or perhaps better, inconvenient policies, or perhaps unbelievable policies, or if you are like some, any policies at all), these arise in a complicated environment where 1) something must be done to protect more than just individuals, yet 2) we do not have all the information, so 3) we must make a risky decision for policies based upon what we do know and what we think is the best description of what we do not know.

This latter situation is uncomfortable for science.  Normally, we scientists want to be 110% certain of our data and conclusions from a controlled (experimental) environment before we risk putting our name on a publication that will live and be referenced and interpreted forever.

However, in business we learn that very often there are time dependent situations in an uncontrollable environment where you must make a decision when you have only 50% of the information you need or else there are very undesirable consequences.  You estimate the risk, take the decision, but reserve the right to change or alter the decision when more relevant information comes in (and you are always looking for it).

Policy Changes as Reality Changes

Policy issues with Covid-19 fall into the latter category of trying to best manage in a dynamically changing environment:

    • The virus is mutating often and spreading quickly (time sensitive);
    • The public wants decisive, fixed and absolute guidelines (they want “them” to make “it” go away), and they want minimal personal impact and don’t want to hear about Trade-Offs and their possible negative effects;
    • Politicians don’t want to establish a “bad” policy based upon just 50% of data for fear of unintended consequences, including looking like they don’t know what they’re doing, real Trade-Offs flaring up, and not getting reelected;
    • Scientists don’t want to commit for less than 110% certainty for fear of reputation damage and getting blamed for not being “perfectly right,” and the cause of bad policies and unavoidable Trade-Off flare-ups.

You see the dilemmas.

Part of the reasons behind these dilemmas is our seventh issue, that we were raised and educated with a Fear of Failure (leading to some sort of repercussions), and we have become very good at ducking responsibility for our own failures and very good at pointing out the failures of others.  It’s a national pastime (with no worries about opening day being postponed or cancelled).

Underlying all this is our eighth issue, that ever present yet fuzzy, indefinable, and poorly understood concept called Risk (also because we weren’t educated about it).

“We need to be better at quantifying risk, and not discussing it in a binary way”1

Risk is the concept that remains when you discover, or admit, that life is not Either/Or, the way human nature wants it to be.  And it’s not And/And (two or more choices together) either.  It’s somewhere in the broad in-between – and you can’t quite get a handle on it.  The outcomes depend upon Probability, which is a related concept most people can’t comfortably fathom (because we weren’t educated about that either).

In analyst Sherman Kent’s study, respondents were asked What [probability or number between 0%-100%] would you assign to the phrase “[phrase]”?  The results are summarized in this more graph,

You can see the effects of poor education on the concept of “Probability” in the variations in the responses graphed.  Perceptions haven’t changed much since the study.  Other than “About Even” (50% probability), perceptions are generally abysmal (note there are estimations of “90%+ probable” for “Highly Unlikely” and “Almost No Chance”, and an estimate of  “only 15% probable” for “Highly Likely”).

You can see why the skill of good Decision Making based on an understanding of risk is tentative at best.  It’s another area where education is weak.

At least the graph is colorful.

The world we live in is a complex thing.  In spite of that our human nature leads us instinctively to seek a simple explanation or narrative that makes us comfortable and justifies our “convenient wisdom” (a label that can easily describe the “plants and landscaping” inside our individual Strongholds of belief and comfort).

Another way of viewing this “convenient wisdom” (not to be confused with “Conventional Wisdom” which is more widespread but probably neither conventional nor wisdom), is to consider how homo sapiens commonly reacts to challenging or changing new information,

“If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.”

You can see this “compartmentalization” amply demonstrated in the reactions to policies and to “Follow the Science.”

BTW, if that’s your reaction, then you are pretty comfortable where you are in your Bubble (or Compartment, or Stronghold, or Fortress) and permitting change to leak into it is not going to be acceptable or comfortable.  (This is not a new phenomenon.  Two thousand years ago when Stephan testified before the Sanhedrin, they covered their ears and loudly yelled so they didn’t have to listen to him (Acts 7:57)).

With our modern and connected society there are a plethora of conforming and biased sources (who each suffer from the same malady above), so if those are the only ones we listen to then we will conclude that the majority (of what we hear) is right.  This is selective Crowdsourcing, simply putting another brick in the wall.  It’s also known as Confirmation Bias.

The deeper reality is that there is missing or incomplete information and the topic is more complicated than it seems because of the multiple issues above. 

Resolving the situation means individually having the courage and motivation to seek out reliable sources outside of one’s routine.  This is more difficult than it seems because it means transitioning from an Either/Or mentality to an And/And one and becoming more comfortable with the trade-offs that come with Risk (i.e., not knowing exactly what an outcome will be, beforehand).  Neither of these choices is generally well understood.  These are not innate personal skills; they must be taught and practiced.  And they must be desired.

A final issue is that many people “pretend that science offers an unambiguous answer and it just happens to be what they favor,” without clarifying how they got to that “favorite” answer to begin with.  This is perhaps another unintended consequence of the “doesn’t matter; don’t understand” malady above.

It’s entirely possible that this resulting belief involved some kind of Either/Or (and not And/And) thinking (i.e., it was binary), it was convenient, involved no “risks,” originated from an alleged “expert opinion,” and/or maintains a comfortable status quo.  Or possibly all of them.

Invariably this gives rise to the 7 Last Words of Fortress dwellers, the perpetually un- or under informed:

But I’ve always lived comfortably this way.

The proposal that “we need to be better at quantifying risk and not discussing it in a binary way” assumes* that people will listen and try to understand this more complicated approach.

(*assume: to jump to an absolute conclusion without verification and run with it.)

It also presumes that an ample reservoir of applied process education and critical thinking is readily available, and that people are actually willing to listen to and consider uncomfortably new and challenging information.  Given the widespread reactions to “Follow the Science” and various policies, the probability of this happening probably (ugh!) falls into the Little Chance category above.  Perhaps the good news is that somebody thinks Little Chance means 100% probable.



1: Follow the Science?, New York Times, Feb 11, 2022.

2: “Follow the Science” Might Not Mean What You Think It Means, EconLib, Jun 30, 2021

3: What “Follow the Science” Obscures, Slate, Feb 9, 2022.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Psyches: Putin (Russia) & Zelensky (Ukraine)

“The world is not the same today as it was last week” – The Atlantic

“Ambition is a lust that is never quenched but grows more inflamed and madder by enjoyment” – Thomas Otway

This is necessarily a long post, because in case you missed it, this last week is like no other week we’ve experienced in our lives.  For us, not so great an impact, yet, but for those in Ukraine it’s been devastating.

There are lots of questions and finally some deeper heads-up reports resurfacing that we’ve been ignoring for a long time, as well as some more current continuing analyses.

While most of us are trying to figure out ‘what do we do now’ and ‘where do we go from here,’ it seems a bit of retrospective analysis might be useful to throw light on ‘how they (and we) got here,’ and ‘why they got here.’

The thought here is to have a better, more solid foundation upon which to build both a personal and a corporate plan for moving forward.  (In case you’re suddenly wondering, I’m taking the approach of looking at Putin’s and Zelensky’s differing psyches as a lesson for ourselves, and how if we don’t seek, recognize, and accept a better understanding of ourselves we can just as easily devolve into similar destructive life circumstances, for both ourselves as well as how we interact and respond to others and in larger groups – like politics and countries, for instance.)

Let’s begin with a slick ‘troll’ (historically accurate I must say) of Putin’s historical “viewpoint”2 posted just before Russia’s invasion (and, yes, its Kyiv, not Kiev):

Traditionally, Russia’s view of its history idealizes Kyiv as “the mother of all Russian cities” and the source of Russia’s religion, culture, and alphabet.1

If Putin’s “revisionist” history2 (“a screed of ahistorical grievances” claiming that Ukraine has no right to exist, among other tidbits) is to be taken at face value, it would not only mean Russian history would be shorter by at least 250 years, but Russia would also, and more importantly, be deprived of its desperately sought European identity.3  Additionally, Putin’s history would eradicate the source of Russian religion as well as culture.

What led to this inversion of historical perspective?

The answer lies in another Russian tradition, a historical narrative (mythology) that is to a large extent defined by miraculous transformations that turn what seem to be the most humiliating defeats into apocalyptic triumphs (Poles in the 17th century, Swedes in the 18th, French in the 19th, and the Germans in the 20th – after initial defeats put the country in dire straights, a strong leader appears and mobilizes the nation imposing a devastating defeat on the enemy.4  If we are to accept Putin’s rhetoric, this also now means America, hiding behind NATO’s skirts, in the 21st – note this well).

As a result, Russia’s historical narrative of its psyche and modus operandi is built on the concept of a powerful autocrat.  Putin’s ambition since 1991 led him to carefully cultivate this role, his personal psyche as a ‘performance artist’ and his raison d’etre, over the past 20 years since he ascended to the Russian presidency.5  He accomplished this by following two sets of rules, one specific and the other general, the Practiced Behaviors that contributed to the establishment of historical narrative above.  The first of these is “The Moscow Rules.”

The Moscow Rules

Although Moscow was founded later than Kyiv, it clearly developed a power culture in order to become the dominant center of Russian (the area around Moscow) authority.  Running Moscow demanded mastering the Practiced Behaviors that were “necessary” in order to survive and rule.

In simple terms, “The Moscow Rules” is a collection of simple (we wonder why) ten one-line rules for Practiced Behavior (and survival – remember, everyone else is trying to practice them also).  They became the secret code that separates winners from losers in Russian power games.6  (They sound rather James Bond-ish as they became very important for clandestine operations in Moscow during the Cold War, but Bond was never a thug).

  1. Assume nothing.
  2. Never go against your gut.
  3. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
  4. Do not look back; you are never completely alone.
  5. Go with the flow; blend in.
  6. Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
  7. Lull them into a sense of complacency.
  8. Do not harass the opposition.
  9. Pick the time and place for action.
  10. Keep your options open.

Putin is an avid practitioner of the Moscow Rules.  Remember, he was KGB counter intelligence and was an assistant to the mayor of St Petersburg during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Other Rules

Putin layers The Moscow Rules on top of another set of rules that are, not surprisingly, not only generic to human nature but are particularly dominant in the insecure and driven.

I was once affiliated with a religious organization that prided itself on its fundamental “16 Doctrines.”  These 16 doctrines made theological sense to me but when I began working at a higher level in leadership it became clear that there were additional, practical doctrines that, while not openly communicated, were certainly openly practiced.  I came to identify these surprising practiced “doctrines” (The Other Rules) as follows:

Doctrine 17:  Once you have achieved a position of power, it is acceptable to lie to keep it.

Doctrine 18: “Don’t foul in my sandbox, and I won’t foul in yours.”

Doctrine 19:  Fawn over those above you, and demand absolute fealty from those below.

To be clear, these were not unique to this organization or any other – they are generic to human nature and greed for power.  If you look throughout history and the rise of civilizations (and some un-civilizations), these three behaviors should be pretty easy to spot.

In Putin’s case, he’s layered the local Moscow Rules on top of his rather well developed and practiced Other Rules of the power hungry.


Ukraine’s psyche and political imagination, on the contrary, is shaped by the legacy of what is known as the Zaporozhskay Sich, the Cossack military democracy.7  The Cossacks from Central Asia managed to maintain their independence for over 200 years before coming under an alliance in 1654 with Russia (descendants of northern European Viking Rus’ who traded, traveled, and raided along the waterways from the Baltic to the Black Sea8).  Ever since, Ukrainian culture and language has been suppressed but remembrance of independence has never been fully extinguished.

Russian autocrats have never come to terms with the idea of Ukraine as a separate nation, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 they saw its ‘independence driven’ drift towards the West as a betrayal of Russian-Ukrainian sibling ties and an immediate threat to their self image and existence.9

Thus, the current ‘created need’ to ‘liberate our Slavic brothers from suppression by the West’ through a ‘special military operation’ (i.e., not an invasion).10

And in this cauldron we have the leader of Ukraine, Volodomir Zelensky.  Once a true ‘performing artist’ as a comedian, he was elected by an overwhelming majority to become president in 2019 and now finds himself suddenly thrust into a role he seemed totally unprepared and unskilled for.

His response has been to stand on his integrity to freedom and democratic principles and inspire the country to resistance by example (and subtle humor when needed: When America offered to airlift him to safety, he retorted: “The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.”11)  Zelensky, in spite of some leadership missteps, is a representation of Ukraine, not as idealized myth but as reality.  The world’s response: he’s become a hero regardless of outcome.

Putin’s response?  To stand on his integrity to self-serving autocratic principles based upon ambition and acquiring personal power and more ‘esteem’ based on fear.  (Speaking on television in Moscow, Putin had pledged to rub out Mr Zelensky.  Seething with hatred, Putin called him and his government “drug-taking Nazis”11 (odd, since Zelensky is a native Russian-speaker of Jewish heritage.  Perhaps this conclusion originates from the fact that Nazi Germany was west of Russia and the Ukraine, and Ukraine has been leaning toward the west…  Logic that boggles the mind)).

The democratic world’s response: he’s already a pariah regardless of outcome.

That’s most of the stuff so far that we’ve been reading or hearing, plus a bit more of background that is important to help understand events.

What about deeper subtleties of psyches that help drive the human behaviors as we’re seeing them?  For that I’ll choose to refer back to a number of Fundamental Principles of human nature from earlier posts, hoping that in seeing those Principles that drive the player’s behaviors in this current crisis we ourselves will become more able, and perhaps more willing, to see them in our own lives and take appropriate steps to build on the good Principles and mitigate the negatives ones.

Here goes (sorry that it’s long, but it seems good to provide a summary of the principles in one place. As it has been said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”):

Transactions (Fundamental Principle 1):  We are a social species, and when we interact with each other there is a transaction of some form, either tangible or intangible.  Tangible exchanges lead us into free market business transactions, but intangible social exchanges between people are subtler, more prevalent and more important: for instance, trust, respect, esteem, or distrust, disdain, disapproval.

Putin exudes disdain and disrespect to others, even his own leadership. 

Putin distancing himself from his military leaders (not the only instance shared this past week)

People who do not understand that respect needs to be earned instead tend to rip it out of other peoples throats, drawing it out of their fear.

Zelensky is earning respect, and in fact is attempting to bestow it upon Putin, only to be rejected.

Are you aware of the messages you send to others through your “intangible personal transactions”?  Do the unintended relationship consequences that arise meet your expectations and long-term needs, or just your short-term wants?

Added Value (Fundamental Principle 2):  Intangible Value can be created or added (trust, respect, esteem) or destroyed (distrust, disdain, disapproval, etc.) in our social interactions depending upon our attitudes and behaviors.  (Tangible Added Value leads us again to free market exchange, another topic).

Putin is a “Taker” because all created or Added Value must flow to him (and if wealth flows to oligarchs then they must convert it to loyalty that flows to Putin).

Zelensky is acting as a Servant of (Giver to) the People (that’s an intentional life pun, as Servant of the People was the title of the television show he starred in about a high school teacher who became President of Ukraine).

Are you aware of the Value that you Add or Take from your relationships?  Does the Value that you think you Add match your personal fundamental “Values”, or not?

The Peter Principle (Fundamental Principle 3): In a hierarchical organization, a person will be promoted to their level of incompetence.

Perhaps no further comment necessary, other than Putin must be at that level because he has to depend upon Doctrine 17 (above) to maintain it.

If you think you’ve reached a “level of incompetence,” might that be because you’ve stopped trying to learn?

Games people Play (Fundamental Principle 4): the rules a person applies to determine his or her behavior when interacting with another person (even if no decision is eminent).  There’s the Zero Sum Game, the Negative Sum Game, and the little recognized Positive Sum Game.

Zero Sum Game (0∑): The “pot” (wealth, influence, or power) for distribution is fixed; to give more to one activity/person you have to take from another: You win, I lose; I win, you lose.

Negative Sum Game (–∑): somebody helps themselves to the “pot” before or during play, so there’s less to be distributed: The House in Las Vegas always wins; the elites and oligarchs in Russia always win, and the people scrimp.

Positive Sum Game (+∑): somehow the total value of the “pot” seems to grow during play: this is the concept of Adding Tangible Value in a free market economy, or the idea that intangible “credit, esteem and respect are infinitely divisible” in relationships: You win, I win, we all win.

Putin is a Negative Sum Game player in a Negative Sum Russian society.

Zelensky is trying to play a Positive Sum Game against Negative Sum opposition and circumstances.

What (game) strategy dominates your attitudes and behaviors?  If you think you are always losing, perhaps your strategy needs adjusting.  Focus more on Adding Value “into” rather than Taking Value “out” of your endeavors – you’ll be surprised by how much you end up gaining.

Three Types of People (Fundamental Principle 5): There are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.

Both Putin and Zelinsky fall into the first category, but for wholly different motivations.

What category do you think you fall into?  Remember, there are multiple “intelligences” for skills and knowledge to be applied – you can be a “maker” in some, a “watcher” in others, and “wondering” in even others.

Incomplete or Missing Information (Fundamental Principle 6)You will never have all the information.
This is tough for westerners to accept and live with (See Moscow Rule #1, above).  We generally trust and assume* we have all the information that is necessary (if not, we jump onto Twitter or Facebook).

     (*assume: to jump to an absolute conclusion without verification and run with it.
     Significantly different from “presume,” meaning to propose a conclusion from
     among many possible ones but remain open to testing and verification.)

With respect to this Fundamental Principle, people can fall into three categories:
     1) those who are clueless and just drift through life;
     2) those who know that incomplete information is true and try to dig deeper to find what’s missing and relevant.  These people then fall into two subcategories: a) those who are careful to test and verify any new information – journalists and, generally, well educated people, and b) those who don’t bother to test and verify – Twitter and Facebook posters, generally; and
     3) those who know for a fact that important relevant information is out there and move to prevent it from being found, or intentionally create false information and push it out first and loudest – propagandists2,14

Putin and Russia are masters of the latter.  Knowing that people in-country and outside fall into category 2 above and will seek more information and clarification, propagandists will get ahead of any incidents of discovery, as this example:

“It is hard for those who don’t know the details to make out what is happening,” a reassuring vice from Russia’s state-run Channel One told its viewers on February 27th.  It is far better to use information from official sources, otherwise viewers risk being told lies, it said.  “Those who spread such lies want to hold the world in their hands and people in fear.”14

A recognizable bullying technique – accuse your adversaries of openly doing exactly the things you yourself are clandestinely doing in order to deflect attention from you and fix the blame.

Are you aware that there is always missing information?  While most may be irrelevant to current circumstances there is some that may be critical.  Are you willing to chase it, filter and test it, or is it just easier to forget it?  (and get slapped with unintended consequences which you will then blame on others).

“Getting It” (Fundamental Principle 7): Everyone doesn’t “Get” something; Most of us “Get” that we don’t “Get” something and take steps to compensate: Learn it, Hire it, Delegate it, Marry it; But some of Them don’t “Get” that they don’t “Get” it, and though they think that they “Get” it, short of a miracle they never will.

Putin is in the third group, while Zelensky is clearly in the second.

Remember, we’re all in the first group (its human nature), but have you asked yourself if you fall into either of the other two groups?  Or do you ignore the hints from others that you actually DO fit into one of them?

Observing – Listening – Learning (Fundamental Principle 8):

Seeing is a physiological function – Observing is a choice.
Hearing is a physiological function – Listening is a choice.

Zelensky demonstrates listening; Putin does not.

Do you make the constant effort to choose to Observe and Listen?

Behaviors (Fundamental Principle 9): What you SAY (Professed Behavior) is very important, but what you DO (Practiced Behavior) is even more important.  It is not what you do when you’re “on stage” when the limelight is on you and you’re performing for an audience; what is more important is what you do in the daylight (or in the dark) when you don’t think people are watching you.  But they are.

Putin’s Professed and Practiced Behaviors do not line up.  Zelensky’s primarily do.

Are you aware enough to make sure your Professed Behavior preferences actually align with your Practiced Behaviors?  Or do you occasionally hide behind a façade out of a bit of fear?

IntegrityThe character strength to stand upon ones Values in times of stress or crisis (Fundamental Principle 10).  Putin actually has very strong integrity, but to his set of values that worships Mother Russia, personal power and esteem at the expense of the lives of others, and sees no problem in lying in order to achieve it.2,9,15  Doctrine 17 in action.

Zelensky, while initially appearing weak and unprepared, rose up in a huge crisis to demonstrate his integrity to truth and democratic values in spite of personal threat.11

What are your deepest fundamental values, and how strong is your integrity to stand on them in crisis or difficulty?

(Note: unfortunately everyone’s deepest values are not all the same, much less well articulated, or we wouldn’t have the polarization that we ourselves are experiencing.)

Growth (Fundamental Principle 11): Living things need to be continuously growing to remain healthy.  For people, while physical growth slows, cognitive learning never ends.

Putin, realistically, has continued to grow – in power, in animosity.  Zelensky has also, but in the positive directions, characteristics and abilities we associate with the rise of civilization.

Are you making a continuous practice of growing and learning?  Not just in the necessary (Continuing Education), but in the broader aspects of life and living together.

Character (Fundamental Principle 12): This one is multifaceted and each is important:

-Character is a behavioral compass: it directs where you are going (here);
-The Dimensions of Character are: authenticity, humility, courage, self-management (here);
-Character trumps Competence (here);
-Delayed Character Revelation – Character, like Values, has hidden components that only get revealed slowly and under duress (here);
-“Trust, but Verify” (here) (ironically, this is a Russian proverb, apparently not currently practiced).

Both Putin and Zelensky have shown hidden character components coming into the light, Putin’s being negative, and Zelensky’s so far positive.

Have you ever really dug into your own Character aspects?  It takes effort, but it’s worthwhile.  Otherwise you can be lazy and depend upon what others tell you openly (positive ones), or don’t tell you (negative ones, behind your back).

Values and Self (Fundamental Principle 13): Also multifaceted:

-Conservation of Values: emotionally and mentally we only have room for a certain number of Values (including Self) at any given time (here);
Self + Values = 1 (i.e., the more “Self” you display, the less other Values you can display) (here);
-“Self” happens, even if you’re working hard to avoid it (here).

Both Putin and Zelensky display their Values and Self, it’s just that the balance between Values and Self is entirely different.

What does the balance between your Values and Self look like?  Do you, like most people, have swings between displaying Values or displaying Self?  When you swing back into balance, which one gets the emphasis?

Attitudes Become Behaviors by Choice (Fundamental Principle 14):  This is fairly self-explanatory, with some added components:

Conservation of Behavior: emotionally and mentally we have a “maximum capacity” for behaviors at any given time (here);
A small promotion (increase of importance) of Self over other Values (here) drives a much more significant negative change in behavior;
Universal Law of Behavior: There will be consequences for behavior: These may be positive (+∑), of no consequence (0∑), or negative (–∑) (here);
-Behavior that leads to consequences is essentially feedback;
-Prevalent Attitudes lead to Practiced Behaviors, which lead to Inevitable Consequence (ABC);
-Anticipating Consequences of Behavior is feed forward; Strategic Problem Anticipation (proactive).

Putin’s attitudes can be deduced from his behavior as well as his openly stated comments.2,5,10  He demonstrates adherence to an attitude of “perpetually searching for an enemy” (“fixing the blame”) to cover for Russian societal weaknesses and to strengthen “Fortress Russia”12 (since 2014 he has built up monetary reserves, an internal internet, and an internal financial clearing ability similar to SWIFT).

Zelensky clearly stepped up-and-over self-interest (“this might be the last time you see me alive”13) to exemplify strength, fortitude, trust, perseverance, and eyes on a goal and outcome that will benefit all.

What are your Attitudes, about people, life, and society?  Do you notice how they direct your behaviors with others?  Do they result in you achieving what you need and want?

Baggage (Fundamental Principle 15): Everybody has baggage – Absolutely Everybody.

-Practiced Behavior – Professed Behavior = Baggage;
Innate values and principles – we are born with them;
Acquired values and principles – learned from family, clan, peers, tribe, and village;
-Negative, destructive lessons (from people we trusted) lead to baggage:
     The greater the negative, destructive event (or repeated events), the greater the
     potential baggage, which then reduces the number of ‘Do’ options (Practiced
     Behavior) available under various circumstances;
-Baggage has an effect on Decision Making (here);
-Baggage has effect on conflict (here);
     Conflict Resolution – both parties moving to the +∑ side of the Behavior Curve;
     Conflict Management – one party wants it to go away (-∑ or 0∑ on the Behavior
          Curve) – this includes avoidance.

Everybody has baggage, Putin and Zelinsky.  How they manage their baggage is distinctively different.

Can you recognize your baggage?  Do you manage and control it, or does it manage and control you?

And last but not least:

Culture (Fundamental Principle 16): How we think, express and propagate what we Value (here);

-We have an Individual (Personal) Culture (here), which is the sum total of our innate (temperament) and acquired (personality) behaviors (here);
Forces that affect our behavior are internal (innate) and external (family, clan, tribe, society (here);
-We Regress to the Cultural Mean (here) of our tribe or group, which both tells us: “Who We ARE” (here) and “Who is NOT one of Us” (here);
-We can also be Coerced to the Cultural Mean (here) through peer pressure,
     discipline, and threat of punishment, exclusion, shunning, excommunication and
     even genocide;
-Societies seek Cultural Continuity (here), which is the sum total of individual behaviors that are transferred to the larger group;
-Russia is primarily a –∑ Culture (here); America is seeks to be a +∑ Culture(here);
Cultural Lenses – we only see things through our own cultural lens(here).

Russian culture has for centuries demonstrated Coercion to the Cultural Mean (once described as Thugs and Serfs).  Ukrainian culture, which while still suffering from corruption, is demonstrably much more open to growing into democratic values.

Hard question: ever thought about what your Personal “Culture” is, the sum total of your temperament and personality?  Who you ARE, not just who you desire people to THINK you are.

1:Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, explains how national mythologies foment conflict, The Economist, Feb 22, 2022.
2: Extracts from Putin’s speech on Ukraine, Reuters, February 21, 2022; Putin’s Speech Laid Out a Dark Vision of Russian History, Foreign Policy, February 22, 2022; Putin’s ‘surreal’ version of Ukrainian history alarms experts, NBC News, February 22, 2022
As part of Putin’s hour-long televised tirade justifying Russia’s ‘special military operation’.
3: Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, explains how national mythologies foment conflict, The Economist, Feb 22, 2022.
4: Ibid, The Economist, Feb 22, 2022
5: His 2005 speech called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and liberation from communist dictatorship as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” The Last Empire, Serhii Plokhy, Basic Books, 2014, p 406; NBC News, April 25, 2005.
6: What are the Moscow Rules?, Dima Vorobiev, Quora, January 26, 2022.7: Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, explains how national mythologies foment conflict, The Economist, Feb 22, 2022.
8: The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan, Vintage, 2017, pp 110-111, 114.
9: The Last Empire, Serhii Plokhy, Basic Books, 2014, pp 255-270.
10: Do not call Ukraine invasion a ‘war’, Russia tells media, schools, Aljazeera, March 2, 2022.
11: How Volodymyr Zelensky found his roar, The Economist, Feb 26, 2022.
12: Vladamir Putin’s Fortress Russia is crumbling, The Economist, March 5, 2022.
13: Zelensky told EU leaders “This might be the last time you see me alive”, Business Insider, Feb 25, 2022.
14: The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is running at full throttle, The Economist, Feb 28, 2022.
15: Lithuania’s prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, says Russia’s invasion was predictable

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 01: Business, A Definition, 02: Value Added, A Definition, 03: The Peter Principle, 04: Games People Play, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 10: Integrity, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Story (On Scripts, Life, and Politics)

“Story telling is the creative demonstration of truth.  A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action” – Robert McKee

Story (Robert McKee, meuthuen paperback, 2014; hardcover, HarperCollins, 1998) (here) is described on its back cover,

“Story provides insight and inspiration for screen and television writers, novelists, playwrights, journalists – anyone with a story to tell.”

That sounded good to me.  I know I like to tell (or write) informative stories (probably the only time I ever exceed the rumored “5000 words per day” male impediment), especially in a classroom where the audience is limited to silently taking notes.  I figured the book would indeed feed me insights into technique and inspiration for how to spruce up the rabbit trails that make perfectly good sense to me.

Little did I know.

What initially interested me were the questions, “Why are some movies and TV shows excellent and others not?”…  especially after suffering through many from the latter category, and “What do critics look for besides characters, characterizations, plot, dialogue, and action?”… and would I notice and appreciate the same things?

What I (we?) look for in choosing a film, TV show, fiction or non-fiction book typically follows the general expectations: what’s the title? and plot? (do they intrigue me?); who are the performing artists and performances? (good, bad, unknown, ugly?); original or based upon a book (or incident) I am familiar with?; what do the critics say? (or any amateur critics, meaning Amazon reviewers); win any awards? (and which ones?)

Besides having to dig to find critical reviews and awards, most of what I (we?) look for is reasonably available and pretty superficial – title, artists, hint of (superficial) plot, marketing teaser.  Rarely is there any focus on (or information about) who wrote the script.  Even in the Oscars screenwriters come early with the small stuff while we hang on for the director and performers awards.

Story inverts this world, or at least our preconceived visual entertainment world (film, play, TV).

Story hammers home the revelation that the story (the output of screenwriting or any other writing) is actually a metaphor for life (squeezed to 2hrs).

We’ve been paying attention to the performing artists, the cinematography, the set, the plot, not to the story – the vehicle through which the other elements and performing artists project life. (The plot is not the story; “plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time,” how the writer “navigates the dangerous terrain of the story.”)

It’s not just the performers or their performances, but the story and its aspects that speak directly to our recognizing the realities of human nature and behavior, such as…

Watching a great story leads to our identifying with characters and plot and subconsciously recognizing them as “That’s how life is,” but at the same time,

We don’t consciously understand or try to look deeper to take in and recognize the world as behaving in the same way: we choose read books/novels/fiction to do this.

This changed my sense of the objective of film/screenplay and the people who are responsible to create it – the screenwriters, the playwrights, most of whom are underappreciated as opposed to the actors we see in the film/screenplay.  The screenwriters are the important but underappreciated people, even when their creation is considered magnificent.

The story is the metaphor for the truth of our human nature and behavior, our lives, made visible.

This was a worthy revelation.  Previously it was hard for me to take seriously film and stage as exceptionally worthy commentary on reality, something more than momentary entertainment.

But boy did I get schooled in a different “intelligence.” Now I pay greater attention to the vehicle through which the performances are built, whereas in the past it was all about plot, the performers and performances.

And I wonder how did this book and its revelations remained tucked away out of the mind’s eye since 1998?

It has made me think beyond film, stage, and TV shows and look directly at our most recent and popular (but not necessarily memorable) contribution to culture, TV “reality” shows.  It was quite helpful in peeling away the visible façade and looking deeper to the underlying story.

And I decided that it is a shame that we don’t see these exceptional creative writing talents as blatantly in the public arena (all media, social and otherwise) as we are entitled to.  Instead, we are left to focus solely on mere performances of self-proclaimed “Performance Artists.”

That brought me back to my heretofore longstanding viewpoint on Performance Artists “acting” outside of their demonstrated “arena of expertise,” why I don’t take Performance Artists seriously when pontificating on current social and political issues (i.e., real life).  In other words, why take seriously a person whose livelihood is built upon

  • pretending to be
  • a fictional character in
  • a selective (abridged) adaptation
  • created by one or more unknown writers,
  • (accountable only to fit into 2 hours),
  • from a larger work of fiction
  • now set in a limited fictional place
  • in a reconstructed limited period of historical time
  • presenting their perception
  • of what was the actual truth of intent and outcome,
  • interpreted onto the here and now.

Hopefully one can see the limited opportunities here for actually demonstrating transferable credibility (other than the “pretending” skill).  The logical error here is assuming that success and credibility in one area of expertise (one of multiple “intelligences”) is a guarantee of success and credibility in another unrelated “intelligence.”

It seems it would be far better actually to try to develop and demonstrate credible life behaviors outside this one singular “artificial performance arena” than to depend upon the “pretending” skill.

However, reality seems to demonstrate that most people don’t see things that way, and in fact many tend to eagerly embrace the embellished narratives passionately offered by self-proclaimed “Performance Artists” (sans bona fides) (either on reality TV masquerading as news commentary (Tucker, among others), or in the halls of Congress (MTG, among others)).

(Note: Or, more recently, in the unusual and well choreographed televised performance (“bizarre televised spectacle”) by Vladimir Putin before the Russian national security council to obtain “justification” in recognizing the two breakaway provinces in Ukraine – even though he has more than enough bona fides, except perhaps in historical interpretation. Of interest will be earlier posts concerning Russia and the Crimea, here and here).

This rapid embracing response by a significant element of the general public to buy into performances without questioning and checking them is remarkably similar to what we should more readily recognize as,

Chicken Little Syndrome

(which is actually a variation on my posts on Gap Syndrome (here, here, here, and here), but which in fact is a label that seems to be more easily remembered):

Drawing or accepting absolute conclusions (simple narratives) based upon filtered, incomplete and unverified information that is used to address and (incorrectly) explain complex real situations.

It appears to be the direct consequence of watching the Performing Artists and not focusing on the stories underlying the performances, and not asking whether these stories reflect realistic metaphors for life or just filtered fantasies.  It springs from Understanding Erosion, and results in arriving at The Place of Little Effort.

Of course, this behavior is quicker and takes far less mental energy (… and resources).

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 10: Integrity, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Route of Our Discontent – III

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” – Victor Frankl

“In our poor or lack of response lies our stagnation and frustration” – Me

“No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess” – Isaac Newton


Picking up where we left off, (The Route of Our Discontent – II), we have the puzzling question of, “Why, if we have a program to increase the education level for everyone or make it easier to afford, why don’t we experience the results that we anticipated?”

Or, pictorially, if we provide a means for everyone to pass through the “formal education system” (and supposedly grow), why don’t we see everyone shift to greater ability to contribute to society (the “Added Value Potential” outcome), like this?

The simple, correct, but essentially unhelpful answer is that this expected result is an overly simplified one for very complex circumstances and conditions. There is a gap or space between expectations and results. It fits, however, with our default human nature,

We seek and quickly accept simple narratives to address complex situations.

This is, of course, quicker and takes far less mental energy (… and resources).

Educational Environment – A Necessary Digression

Before we embark on our next adventure, we should expand a bit on the more complex phenomenon we call “education.” First off, we human beings are learning beings, otherwise we couldn’t call ourselves the most intelligent species known. And when we casually criticize Education (with a simple narrative) we sell reality and ourselves short. We should more realistically refer to our entire lives as an “Educational Environment,” one in which learning begins immediately at birth (if you don’t believe this, you’ve never had an infant who became a two-year old) and continues until we die.

By the time we enter the formal education system (“school”) a lot has already gone on and significant patterns have already been set (some unfortunate ones in many cases): school teachers do not have the privilege of beginning to work with a clean slate. Simply put, we can describe our life-long “Educational Environment” with two behaviors: the innate Reactive and the acquired Proactive:

  • Reactive (innate responses to unplanned or arbitrary stimulus): from birth up till entering school. Kids learn by trial and error from watching and listening to their environments (i.e., vicariously) without much formal guidance (superficially encouraging them to walk or talk doesn’t count);
  • Proactive (learned/acquired responses to externally planned or unplanned stimuli): the formal educational system. (There is still ample Reactive learning going on, especially during middle and high school, if you remember). The idea here, theoretically, is to use external stimuli (organized teaching) to direct people to learn the basics, how to build on the basics, and how then to learn to do it themselves. The latter is an ultimate goal: moving a person from simply Reacting to external stimuli to being able to Proactively act on the external from internally generated stimuli (curiosity, for example).
  • Both Reactive and Proactive (deliberating responses to planned and arbitrary stimuli): the rest of life.

Not everyone comes out of the system equally skilled.

When viewed from the above perspective, it makes sense why government came up with a plan to “improve the education level for everyone.” It is the only one of the three “times of life” where they could try to exercise influence and “make a difference” without severe push back.

Back to the Question

So, to come up with a better explanation for this gap between expectations and results, we will need to embark in a new and unexpected direction, an adventure that will take us back in time to stuff that you probably have forgotten that you were “exposed to” in school and quickly forgot because you couldn’t picture any possible use for it later in life.

Au contraire.

This adventure will take us, as has happened so often in this blog, to see if piecing together bits and pieces from very different areas or disciplines might, or can, illuminate a discovery and possibly lead us to something new. Another bold educated guess, so to speak.

Our adventure begins by pursuing the hypothesis that we can glean some important understanding by looking into, and here’s the unexpected leap, Blackbody Radiation.

If you don’t recall, or are purposefully trying not to, blackbody radiation refers to the phenomena that when a blackbody (with no inherent capability of emitting radiation on its own) is heated up to very high temperatures it begins to emit radiation across a wide range of wavelengths. You should (might?) remember this typical graph from your school days,

A simple note of explanation: Assume one has a mass of material (the blackbody) and begins to pump energy into it in the form of heat driving it to very high temperatures (the 3000 K and higher in the graph). If one had an instrument that could measure the intensity emitted over a range of wavelengths, one could plot the intensity output against the wavelength and obtain a curve (the black lines above) for each temperature. There is low intensity output at 3000 K, but intensity increases significantly as the temperature increases until at 6000 K the dominant output is in the visible range that we perceive (we don’t really need the instrument any more).

Note two additional things: first, there is visible light output that we can see even at 3000 K although it is not very intense, and second, even as the temperature (heat energy of motion) of the blackbody increases, there is still measurable output far off to the right on the graph (low radiation energy). This typically neglected aspect will become important, as we shall see.

And then there’s this, which you may more vividly recall from your school days: your teacher, and those students who were really interested in math and science, would get absolutely giddy over the graph; you, and the rest of the class, probably either went consciously blank or got nauseous. There is, actually, a realistic explanation for this.

Looking carefully at the graph you will note the horizontal x-axis displays the wavelength, λ. Rightly so, especially for scientists because this is what we can measure easily and it’s what we all perceive (we recognize colors, characterized by their wavelength). However, what we’re more interested in is the energy of the emitted radiation, and in case you’ve forgotten, wavelength is inversely related to energy, and vice versa, that is,

∝ (is proportional to) 1/λ

So here’s a (the) problem with the graph for most of us, and especially for any John or Jane Doe, non-scientist: on the x-axis to the left, as the wavelength and intensity curves decrease to near zero, the energy actually goes to Infinity (∞ = 1/0) with the consequence that the entire x-axis is not linear in energy, linear in the way we are accustomed to seeing in all sorts of other typical graphs and charts. Nausea. And difficult to understand and interpret.

So, let’s fix it and make a (very feeble) attempt to make the graph “linear” in energy (easier to comprehend). Let’s do this simply by flipping the graph horizontally (granted, this is a very cheap and easy if not dirty solution – it isn’t really then truly “linear” (if it was, the visible energy part would extend at least beyond the moon), but conceptually, it should help),


Simple note of explanation: As we pump more heat energy into the blackbody (raise its temperature), it begins to emit more and more radiation with higher and higher energy (moving to the right on the graph; high energy ultraviolet light, which sunburns you, is to the far right).

Here’s the important and often disregarded point: Note that regardless of the temperature of the blackbody (from heat energy pumped into it), to the left on the graph there is still significant radiation emitted of very low energy and even more of it as the temperature of the blackbody increases.

We givith input, but the blackbody doesn’t givith output back uniformly (it keepith, so to speak).

So, are these “blackbodies” common in life? Absolutely, (and here you thought there was no practical use for them):

  • The previously very common incandescent light bulb (Edison’s invention) is basically a pure tungsten wire glowing hot due its resistance to the electricity passing through it – the more energy, in Watts, you pump in, the brighter the bulb (more intense);
  • Your charcoal briquettes, basically pure carbon, glowing hot in your grill;
  • Klieg lights at theater performances are carbon arc lights (and they are hot!).

Blackbodies (“black” meaning they have no intrinsic ability to radiate energy) do not have to be pure materials, however,

  • The sun, composed of 73% hydrogen and 25% helium, at extremely high temperatures radiates a lot and very efficiently (thank heavens);
  • The Calrod® heating elements in your electric stove top, oven and dryer;
  • The human body, although at very low temperatures compared to the above, still has peak emitted radiation in the infrared (so those night vision goggles will work).

So much for “I don’t have to deal with this on a daily basis” (or perhaps more realistic is, “I’ll just live with it and ignore it”).

Is there another instance of energy increasing in a system that leads to a broadening distribution of another measurable output? Yes. When you heat up a gas you increase an individual molecule’s speed and the overall gas pressure,

The x-axis for this graph is, thankfully, linear in increasing speed, v. At the far left there remain gas molecules with very low speed even though the group velocity and pressure (the average, the peak of the curve) increase as we increase the temperature. Example: think of riding in a hot air balloon (or, like the balloon you have to look at when peering into the eye exam instrument).

Another Leap …

Now comes the crucial leap of the hypothesis adventure: if you pump more “energy” (in the form of formal, proactive “education”) into a population, will the end result be a simple shift of the distribution of “ability to contribute” to the right with greater ability (in our first graph above and as politically expected), or will the end result resemble a broadened distribution (like the high temperature blackbody radiation and gas velocity graphs above) with a measurable amount of “low ability and/or willingness” energy remaining at the low end of the distribution in spite of the group’s overall “potential” shifting significantly to higher levels?

The unexpected, and therefore disappointing answer, based upon simple observations of behaviors all around us, especially from the media, is it will resemble the latter.

An unexpected conclusion is then that it will be impossible to move everyone to higher levels of potential (and actual) contributions simply via more “education.” Or, in paraphrase, you can educate all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t educate all of the people all of the time.

An underappreciated “complexity” in this is we have forgotten or choose to ignore the fact that, as mentioned above, we as humans are learning beings, and our learning begins at birth and continues until we die. Our entire lives are an Educational Environment and formal schooling (be it K-12 or through college) is just a measurable slice or interlude in that educational environment, not the whole package. Thus a social and political emphasis on “the education system” presumes too much (and neglects even more).

Another unexpected conclusion is that this picture runs head-on into the “politically correct” understanding that the Constitution (and freedom and liberty and life itself) guarantees a person an Equal Outcome (results obtained), as opposed to Equal Opportunity (for results to be worked for).

Why? Well, it’s also complicated – but let’s poke it and see what we can come up with.

In a blackbody every unique atom or molecule is expected to behave identically to other identical atoms or molecules under similar conditions, and yet when we change conditions (temperature) we do observe differing behaviors (emitted radiation) but with outcome distributions that don’t agree with what we expect when we change conditions. For blackbodies we can’t tell which atoms or molecules will emit at which wavelength (energy), that’s statistical (similar to radioactive decay); we just know that they will.

Human Blackbodies – Complicated

For human beings, however, we observe that we cannot expect either predictable or similar responses or behaviors even under similar conditions (read the news). We humans are each unique individuals, and each of the following complex factors (discussed earlier, here) makes a significant and cumulative contribution to who we are and how we will react or behave:

  • Our Genotype (Nature): Our DNA’s are different – we don’t possess the same genes, temperaments, talents, and skills; these can be strengths and intelligences to be developed (or ignored), or weaknesses that can’t be easily altered; keep in mind, as one British commentator reminded us about royalty and Prince Andrew’s current dilemma, “It is a reminder that heredity is a lottery, sometimes throwing up stars like Queen Elizabeth II, and sometimes duds”;
  • Our Environment(s) + Trigger(s) (Nurture, Events): Our environments are complex and they differed earlier in life and continue to differ – family environments differ, and even siblings in the same family will experience events differently; clan, cultural, educational and societal environments and events differ; each of these can strengthen, stifle or be indifferent to what we are capable of and how we respond to various challenges or circumstances in life (Trigger Events), depending upon what we experience(d), how we interpret(ed) these and how other human beings interact(ed) with us, or what we learn(ed) vicariously when they don’t (didn’t). (“Educational Environments” thus vary widely (i.e., family, clan, culture, schooling, society) – they in no way resemble pumping heat energy uniformly into a blackbody);
  • Chance (life) + Choices (free will): “Stuff” happens in life, and as humans we still fully embrace the thought that we have free will choice in all circumstances and situations. Are we motivated to grow and learn or not motivated and choose to ignore? Whether we see blame or opportunity in any crisis or challenge?

Or, expressed visually (earlier post),

Given that we humans are complex beings and possess free will, I strongly suspect that our resulting “contributability distribution” (for lack of a better word) will be far more broadened and far more heavily populated at the “low ability or willingness” end. Just my thoughts (and observations of behavior, particularly under our current polarized environment).


Is the above hypothesis just some random rambling (or brain fart) based upon what I’ve experienced? Is there any other expressed support, experiential or otherwise, that is consistent with this? Turns out, yes, but this will demand we execute another leap into an unexpected realm. Consider this parable, one rather not so subtle about human behavior, capability, motivation, potential and results, by a great teacher from about 2000 years ago (mind boggling but clarifying commentary added),

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed (his teaching on human behavior and proper actions one-to-another). As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up (recognizing this soil’s (i.e., human) lack of ability). Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root (ability, but no motivation or support). Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants (ability, motivation, support, but no perseverance against strong opposition with competing crises and failure). Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (ability, motivation, support, growth, action, perseverance, and, pay close attention: outcomes of differing magnitudes). Whoever has ears, let them hear (appeal to ability, choice, motivation, perseverance, and ability to learn).”

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them (ability, motivation versus lack of ability, motivation). Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance (those who recognize, receive, learn, and respond will produce). Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them (those who are not motivated to choose to recognize, receive, learn, respond will suffer loss, especially of that which they do not esteem). This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand (abilities and motivation ignored).

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them (abilities and motivation ignored).’” (Book of Matthew, Chapter 13)

I suspect the above will definitely stretch your mind, given the unexpected leap into a parable as well as the gap or space created between expectation and a non-traditional “commentary” on this passage. (A challenge here, now that I’ve created another uncomfortable gap between expectation and result: How will you respond to the above: reject it (fix the blame on inappropriate interpretation and application by me), or pursue the opportunity to discover something deeper and extremely relevant?).

If it’s any consolation or additional help, one can even go back some 900 years earlier and find similar astute observations on the range of desirable and undesirable human behaviors in the writings of Solomon (Proverbs).

Second Wind and Finale

Where does this leave us?

First, we need to accept as a foundational societal understanding that there are no simple solutions to complex issues (here), and in particular that the world is not wholly zero-sum (only so much to go around);

Second, the disappointing but realistic conclusion is that no matter how much emphasis we place on formally “educating” everyone, due to human variation in ability to recognize, receive, learn, and respond, the presence of “low ability and/or willingness” outcomes must be anticipated and expected – they will always be with us (hmmm, seems that the teacher of the parable above also had something to say about the poor always being with us – and “poor” doesn’t only refer to wealth (and today they know they have a voice and they are loud)). They are among the universal segments of any society: The Unable, The Unwilling, The Unaffirmed, and The Underappreciated (here). They are what they will be, and we have to deal with that reality. In other words, while there can be Equal Opportunity, there will often be less than Equal Outcomes;

Third, this does not relieve us of the responsibility (there’s that ugly word of continuing to tune the formal “education” system to better develop and encourage skilled and creative citizens with multiple process skills in multiple arenas (intelligences);

Fourth, there should be renewed focus on and respect for the non-formal rest of the “Educational Environment”: the family as the primary and initial forge (the first 5 years, before a child enters the “formal system”) in which proper development begins and is reinforced and maintained. In other words, we must recognize that the “Educational Environment” and learning operate life-long and begin before the formal system does. Under current circumstances we cannot and should not count on government to accomplish this or even approach this; a new (or renewed), different and creative approach is needed;

Fifth, we need to recognize a deeper root that is the existence of what is called Experience Bias (or The Baggage Burden): “The (incorrect) tendency to believe that our own interpretations of the world constitute the whole, objective truth.” This subtly directs everyone into building his/her own Bubbles and/or Strongholds.

Sixth, because of this bias and the resulting Strongholds, “low ability and/or willingness” members of life will always be with us in measurable quantity. This means we first need to ask ourselves the Repugnant Question, “Am I responding to life and society from my own Stronghold?” and get a grip if we are. We then need to develop our own tools, social skills and the expectation to not exclude or demonize others but to develop social means to identify, communicate, collaborate, relate to and reinforce their unique contribution ability (i.e., one’s growth doesn’t stop at the end of “school”).

The extreme Cultural Change we’re experiencing in a very similar way is like Climate Change – we’re ultimately the cause of it, are failing to recognize it and accept it, and as a result we will have to endure its consequences and effects until such time as we take steps to right the ship and bring it back on course. And the steps begin at the bottom, with us individually and in the family, and not at the top with government.

Remember, there is no free lunch. And a rising tide will not lift all boats uniformly. It will not have any effect on those who do not have boats or those who have them but didn’t maintain them and/or don’t know how to sail them.  That’s our individual responsibility.

Posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 17: Choice, Lessons from History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Route of Our Discontent – II

“One of the basic causes for all the trouble in the world today is that people talk too much and think too little.” – Margaret Chase Smith

“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” – Yogi Berra


A good thing to learn in life when one is picking up a project or activity after a reasonable downtime is to review ‘where you were when’ and look closely at what you had most recently done.  Not having posted for over a year, this seemed a necessary approach to refresh myself.  Thus, with little expectations and a blank slate, I ventured back into The Route of Our Discontent, an adventure into the question of “Why do smart people do dumb things?”

The events of the past two years, the excess of weeds choking each other out while seemingly reaching for sunlight, seemed to have followed a script that has some major elements that match pieces of that previous post as well as earlier ones.  The Fundamental Principles of our human behavior have again erupted to the surface in the most visible and audible ways –

The Bubbles We Live In morphed into the Strongholds We Defend, fiercely; because

We dwell in a shallow vessel of Missing Information, but through our Confirmation Bias we consider it both full to the brim and kept full by our narrow Availability Heuristic, all the while in the midst of an internet ‘flood’ of unfiltered and unverified information; so that

We, who consider ourselves the most intelligent species to ever have inhabited spaceship Earth, promptly rush out where angels fear to tread and do ‘less than intelligent’ things to fiercely defend our Strongholds; all because

We have been lulled into thinking that ‘Intelligence’ is a definite trait that can be measured by just a single number, and we desperately need to prove that Ours is higher than Theirs; justifying that

We need to immediately prove that We are right and They are wrong, because in our default mode of binary (Either/Or) thinking the alternative is unacceptable if not unimaginable (and therefore ‘immoral’ according to some hidden and no doubt unshared value system); and thus

We stake a claim to exercise our ‘constitutionally guaranteed democratic right’ to form an opinion while simultaneously ignoring the greater responsibility to validate it before expressing it unfiltered; with the result that

In feeling justified in defending the ‘turf inside our Stronghold,’ we abandon any recognition of or responsibility for the looming Unintended Consequences: the polarization of life and American democracy coming under siege from many quarters, as has been well documented towards the end of 2020 (here), and which continues unabated.


What happened, and what on earth were we thinking (presuming that we were)? And why? On the surface it appears to distill to one innate behavior: we were ‘thinking’ at the lowest common denominator of how we have so far evolved to think –

We seek and quickly accept simple narratives to explain complex situations

This is the observed behavior of the Fundamental Principle known as Gap Syndrome: rather than pause, check and validate in our desire to ‘know and understand,’ we skip over any effort to understand and jump to absolute conclusions based upon incomplete and generally unverified information.  And two broad cultural reinforcing forces help us along.

The first is our learned expectation from our education system: more or less a one-size-designed-to-fit-all approach primarily to the memorization of what good ‘stuff’ is chosen to be in the curriculum, rather than learning and practicing a process and developing sufficient critical thinking about how this ‘stuff’ came to be, what’s right about it, and what’s incomplete in it.  (Now you may question this statement, as we all hear that education, especially in college, is to learn “critical thinking.”  However, here are three moderating observations: first, I have experienced that not all of my college students were capable or interested in developing critical thinking (this will play a crucial role as we develop this stream of thought in subsequent posts); second, I also had a Board member of the institution where I taught tell me, “We’re not here to teach them how to think, but what to think” (!!); and third, we are currently inundated with reports of teachers and school administrators attacked, and publicly confronted and or fired over teaching how to think about current issues rather than, as parents demand, teaching them what (or what not) to think.)

And the second force is the newly evolved nature of the sources of ‘information’ outside of our education system.  This, too, has deep roots but until recently has gone unrecognized if blatantly ignored.  In very short form,

Once upon a time, long, long ago, mankind developed writing.  At first it was used on clay tablets to record important transactions of trade (e.g., Decipherment of Linear B) and to define societal expectations and values (e.g., Code of Hammurabi).  In each case there was oversight by parties involved to agree upon the content.

Eventually, mankind invented paper (in various forms but still in limited quantity). Since only scribes and secretaries had acquired writing skills, only important matters were dictated and both author and scribe exercised oversight on the product. When scribes copied rare manuscripts there was oversight by abbots or overseers to be sure the copies were as accurate as could be (with rare exceptions).

Then came the printing press. Paper was still a limited commodity and therefore to assure accuracy, editor, publisher, and printer all applied care and oversight.

With the scientific revolution came the desire to communicate results, discoveries, theories, and explanations of the natural world to fellow scientists and the world.  Scientific societies and publications (journals) were established with editors to accept manuscripts that not only met the societies’ stated mission and purpose, but whose content could be verified and validated as a new and true description of some aspect of the natural world.  To assure this, manuscripts needed to be submitted to additional oversight through a blind review and acceptance process by peer scientific experts (unknown to the author) from the same field as the manuscript’s topic and claims (known as the peer review process).

For the most part, all was well with the written word, with the few exceptions rather quickly debunked.

Then came the Internet, and the brakes began to weaken.  Scientists wishing to get their results out into the world fast (and first) turned to preprints (not peer reviewed as yet) posted on open sites before going through the lengthy review process and getting formally published as peer-reviewed and accepted scientific results (Quartz Obsession).  The good news is that almost all the specialist media as well as scientists recognize these are as yet unreviewed preprints and state them as ‘conditional, pending peer review and publication.’  The bad news is that any number of general media publications present the ‘proposals’ in these preprints as if ‘proven and accepted,’ resulting in a number of respectable journals now refusing to consider for review and publication any manuscript that has previously appeared on a preprint site and might sneak through the testing and validation process.

With the appearance of Social Media, however, the wheels have begun to fall off as the rest of the world blithely skips over what is considered ‘constraints’ on their ‘freedom of expression.’  The opportunity to ‘author, edit, and publish one’s own thoughts,’ without the restraints or constraints of oversight, editing, peer review, and validation, and with the resulting lag time in ‘publishing,’ was too much to pass up for the vast under-informed inhabitants of the Bubbles, Echo Chambers, Fox Holes, Caves, Fiefdoms, Fortresses and Strongholds everywhere.

And as editing and oversight were shunted aside, social media, Twitter, Facebook, and other special purpose sites flourished with under-informed opinion as well as untold cute cat videos.

Superficially, there are some entertaining oddities that accompany this ‘flood of thought,’ if it can indeed be describe as thought:

Conspiracy theories, which have always been with us even before writing was developed, have prospered. Even Flat Earthers have an increasing following (but note, there are two groups of Flat Earthers and they each think the other is bonkers).

Recall our expanded adage (from here),

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, become administrators; and those who can’t administer, become politicians.”

It seems easy or perhaps naïve to presume that most people do trust scientists and science, at least in areas they’re familiar with or that do not directly impact their lives – right up until the point in unfamiliar or inconvenient situations when politicians tell them that the scientists are ‘lying’ or the scientists refuse to confirm ‘non-confirmable speculations.’

And then in a so-called ‘revelation’ (or brain fart), half of civilization starts immediately rejecting what the scientists say in favor of what their politicians assure them is actually true and adjust their behavior (speech and postings) accordingly. (Note to America: it is not possible for the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution to change a brain fart into perfume).

What we’ve seen especially during the past two years is that these ‘adjusted behaviors’ are not just self-serving and self-promoting, but very often detrimental to society and to others, particularly to those outside of someone’s personal Stronghold (indeed, it most often appears that this is the intent). As a consequence, the results of recent polls (here and here) show that among Americans who identify as either Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 or more now believe that violence could be justified to advance their party’s political goals—a substantial increase over just the last three years.

It seems, in retrospect, that I was only somewhat incorrect when I proposed Fundamental Principle 7 years ago. Based upon probably at least 100 million data points, it should now read:

Everybody doesn’t ‘get something’; but
Some of us do ‘get’ that we don’t ‘get something’ and take steps to understand it.
However, most everyone else doesn’t ‘get’ that they don’t ‘get something’ but think they do and therefore feel the need to post it (anonymously and uncivilly, of course) while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

Theme and Variations

How did we arrive at this place? And, more importantly, why do we remain here? Many analyses have looked at this centuries old trend, but still there seems to be a few big pieces missing. And politicians, in attempting to do what politicians believe they are supposed to do, – solve a perceived issue –, have, of course, proposed solutions without realizing that these are (wait for it) predicated on missing information (and invariably lead to unintended consequences to say nothing of more tweets).

In the following posts, if you will patiently follow along, is an attempt to connect some disparate pieces of our understanding (some heretofore missing or ignored) and see if they can possibly and legitimately describe some important contributing factors. These will include education, as touched upon in an earlier post, and, for the sake of intrigue, a dollop of blackbody radiation (just to keep the curious engaged) and its possible influence on who we are in a composite and supposedly democratic society.

It is hoped that the reader has read and is familiar with the flow, thought and content of previous posts and the factors ‘relevant’ to our quest, such as

Our Intelligence – what we’ve been told it is (a single number) and what it represents as opposed to what it actually is and our insistence upon using many different words to describe what is perceived as a ‘lack of intelligence’ without understanding what they each actually mean (i.e., intelligent, stupid, smart, dumb, plus two more very appropriate, important and better descriptive words which appear in the earlier post and are left to be discovered by the more interested reader, here);

That we actually possess Multiple Intelligences – and that we may be more or less gifted in each of them (and are generally clueless about this);

That we are a Social Species that congregates in preferred associations not only by genetic heritage but also in groups of similar experiences, interests, values, and abilities. To a degree this represents associating with those people with whom we have a good possibility of sharing positive emotional experiences (even if the outcomes are not positive!). These groups can be called Dunbar Groups (and it seems quite often they can make up the population of our non-familial Bubbles, Strongholds, etc.);

That our default decision-making approach (to reinforce our ‘view of the world’) is most often binary (Either/Or), coupled with intentionally ignoring information that might complicate that decision. This default approach can, however, be converted to a more successful ‘Yes/And’ approach with a deliberate learning effort, and is related to one observable aspect of our multiple intelligences above: The ability (and willingness??) to hold several possible answers to a given question (or alternatives to a situation) without prematurely narrowing them down to one answer.

From the earlier post:

We recognize (or claim that) Homo Sapiens is one of if not the most Intelligent species on Earth. We are also recognized to be one of few species whose offspring do not mature into survivable adults until years after birth. We take nearly twice as long or longer than other primates to mature to self-sufficiency, to become mature physically, emotionally, cognitively (in each of the multiple intelligences), and spiritually.

But, we should now add, this maturation is intended to reach the point of being able to a) survive individually (reasonably well known and accepted), and b) (less recognized) constructively contribute to the survival and health of our preferred association group (i.e., our family or clan, or a more focused Dunbar Group, be it Bubble, Comfort Zone, Fortification, Stronghold, Foxhole, or Cave).

And continuing from the earlier post:

Beyond family or clan interactions, what did we develop to assist this slow maturation in these areas, especially the multiple intelligences, the sole species to do so?


And what has happened to derail or flub up development in these same areas?

Education … or at least how we have developed (or stagnated) it since the ancient Greeks and after Bismarck decided that an educated populace was the secret to a successful and stable militaristic nation (Prussian education system).

In an attempt to rectify this muddled situation and to significantly improve our culture (and perhaps influence other cultures to do the same), we have had proposed (by our astute politicians) one or more (or all) of the following policy solutions:

    • No Child Left Behind Act (ca. 2001); and more recently
    • Forgive at least $50,000 of student debt for each individual (thus increasing what they’ve supposedly learned? or, more to decreasing financial strain so they can more easily apply what they might have learned);
    • Guarantee free community college to everyone (but teaching them the same stuff the same way?); and
    • Guaranteeing affordable four-year college to everyone (again, apparently not changing much else that happens there).

There is substantial data supporting the conclusion that something needs to be done. Some of it takes the following form (the data are for K-12 education, but college costs show the same growth trends):

Some of these numbers seem funny. For instance, we know costs of education have increased for numerous reasons, such as changing expectations and increased support as well as because our ‘measuring standard,’ the US Dollar, has decreased in purchasing power due to inflation from $1.00 in ~1960 to ~$0.12 in 2020 (although inflation has been taken into account in the graph above). What isn’t well recognized is that, for instance, the tests for reading, math, and science have changed to reflect what is now expected rather than measuring percent improvement over what was expected years earlier. In science, high school students routinely perform the same lab experiments that had resulted in a Nobel Prize just decades earlier. So, what does “Reading at a 10th grade level’ or ‘Science Comprehension at a 12th grade level’ actually translate into today? To be sure, the US lags behind other developed countries but that’s not for lack of ineffectively throwing resources at education.

Another revealing set of data is this,

This data no doubt contributed to the creation of ‘policy programs’ to improve the quality of life, value adding capability and productivity for those emerging from our education system. Unfortunately, there is missing information here (i.e., the number of people in each segment) as well as little or no presentation of what criteria must be fulfilled to move up to a higher degree category (it’s tough) nor what skills need to be mastered in order to move up (i.e., standards of performance).

The programs proposed above seem to me to just apply spray paint over the aging quarter-panel of a well used car (or to try to cram more passengers inside) rather than address the real underlying ‘what, why, and for whom’ issues of the education process itself. It’s almost as if the politicians have decided that ‘since’ our education system currently produces a distribution of ‘value-adding’ citizens (what does this mean? measuring their ‘outcomes,’ or ‘contribution potential’ or just their ‘incomes’ ???) that looks like this,

then, when we make it easier for everyone to attend (or ‘pass through’) college (i.e., no child left behind, make it free, supplement student debt, etc.), then we will shift the curve to greater ‘Added Value Potential’ to look like this,

and the idea is that they (students) will all feel better, we (society) will all feel better, and they (politicians) will all get reelected.

Somehow, it doesn’t realistically look, or feel, as simple as that Why?

For one thing, what we are seeing is a manifestation of our lowest common denominator mode of thinking, only this time exercised in Congress:

We seek and quickly accept simple legislation to solve complex situations

I believe that there are yet other unrecognized pieces missing, and presuming that you’ve read the earlier post, I suspect that you can sense what part of them are.

Think on these and see what you can come up with.

This post has become more of an Introduction (Reprise) and Teaser (Theme and Variations), and as such, it does seem even to violate any TL;DR criteria. But it needed to be done to set the stage for what I want to propose and risk exploring in the next post. (Be patient please. I promise it won’t take another year, it’s been steeping a long while).

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 02: Value Added, A Definition, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory, The Fundamental Principles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wit’s Progress

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit” ― Oscar Wilde

This has been a year for the ages.  At times I felt myself at my wit’s end, probably along with you and nearly 8 billion other people.

Shortly after my last post (eons ago, it seems) I was contemplating what felt like a certain lack of traction for what I was pondering, hypothesizing and writing about, when it was expressed to me that it was all just opinion.  Taken aback, I thought it best to just let things lie fallow for a season and see what ideas surfaced, what events evolved, and what, if any, revelations ensued.

The result was actually an unnerving time, a drought of anything fresh, I felt, in my brain for about 12 months.

Elsewhere, however, even fallow fields grew weeds, choking out each other trying to get to the sun or air.

Seeking perspective as I often do in others’ written words, I was gifted a book at Christmas from my wish list, wit’s end (What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It), by James Geary.

Beyond enjoyable and entertaining, the book was enlightening and also revelatory – particularly confirming and affirming, I thought, about the odd way my mind has for ages worked and thought, sometimes beyond the pale, often connecting odd bits and pieces of thought and observation that no one in their ‘right’ mind would consider connecting.

An opening essay, One Bad Apple, Or, An Apology for Paronomasia, concerned puns (paronomasia), something you may remember I appreciate if not relish and posted about early on (here).  The essay offers that, “Puns are not wit’s lowest form but its highest expression.” That had me hooked as well as already feeling validated.

But the discourse that was an exceptional revelation and affirming for me was one that I read on a sleepless night at 5:00 in the morning.  It connected wit with discovery – something in the past I may have felt subconsciously but never openly connected.  Finding Minds was this essay (modeled on a 1754 letter from Horace Walpole to his friend Horace Mann in which Walpole invented the word “serendipity”) and illuminated this connection.

A few excerpts I think will be most enlightening as well as humorously entertaining,

“… the structure of the pun is, in several critical respects, identical to that of other, more respectable literary genres, especially the detective story.”  

Ahhh, I thought, a dollop of respectability at last!

“In a detective story the sleuth solves the crime by deducing facts from scattered scraps of information and by connecting seemingly unrelated observations.”

Yes, the process – observation, question, hypothesis, connection, Eureka! And in a detective story to boot!

“Just so when deciphering puns: the listener “solves” a pun by bringing together previously hidden or unsuspected associations.”

Bingo!  Or not, depending upon one’s mindset.

“… forms of wit other than the pun can also be understood as compressed detective stories … inventors, scientists, and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.”

I had always considered ‘living by one’s wits’ to generally apply to street urchins and not to my profession as scientist or my avocation as esteemed ‘improviser of fixes’ as parent and husband.  An enlightening affirmation.

“Discoveries … are usually chalked up to serendipity, the accidental solution to a problem the problem-solver isn’t consciously trying to solve.  But I would argue that serendipity is actually a sophisticated form of wit, one that leaves little or nothing to chance, relying instead on rather acute powers of attention and observation.”  

“As Louis Pasteur noted, ‘In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.’ And the prepared mind, my friend, is the witty mind.”

Here is when I begin to picture wit as the mind’s central processor drawing upon the random access memory of a pack rat’s collected observations.  Not clean, but it will do.

“Serendipitous wits are first-class noticers … who pay keen attention to their environment, make strategic observations about anomalous or unusual aspects of objects and people around them, and translate those observations into actionable insights or useful inventions.”

Most people are not attuned to detailed observation, leaving a noticer to quietly engage in discrete noticing.  However, occasionally one notices that they have been noticed noticing something by another astute noticer…  

To this point in the essay I am greatly enjoying the subtle affirmations dribbled out through the above remarks.  But the next one slaps me upside the head – someone has noticed what I have noticed, and I have been identified as a noticer by a fellow noticer,

“Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate – you either have it or you don’t – or whether it might not be in some form nurtured and cultivated.  Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.”

Besides introducing the age-old debate between nature and nurture and taking the enlightened position that both are necessary, what has been added is the challenge of intentionally testing one’s observational and ‘fixing’ skills, as I have done, through living in a foreign country.

I also think I see a missing link here (speaking observationally and connecting a dot pulled from my packrat storage): to nurture and cultivate one’s observational skills in a foreign country one must also be imbued with an innate curiosity – about culture and people – or it isn’t going to happen. Financial support might also help.

“What living abroad … involves is ‘schema violations’; that is, an experience that violates an expected sequence of events.  These unusual interruptions enhance cognitive flexibility by creating cracks in habitual thinking routines just wide enough for novel ideas to squeeze through.”

Being considered both “cracked” and curious apparently has some advantages…

I had not made the connection between living in a foreign country and learning a foreign language with practicing observational and ’fixing’ skills. Honestly, one needs to focus so much on the cultural and language lessons that one overlooks the process involved.  But in retrospect, it fits, and for me completed the revelation.

Most often when people observe a wit in action they either presume it’s someone needing attention and affirmation, or the reason they bought tickets for a comedy revue.

Rarely is the underlying character of wit recognized, even amongst those who think they possess it.  And thus, late in life at 5:00 am in the morning on a sleepless night, came the clear revelation.  Not about what wit is, and not about how it works, but what its purpose is.

Wit exists as an innate potential, a mind’s capacity; its process requires developing and practicing good observation and connecting skills; but its purpose is – Discovery.

Regardless of the realm where wit is practiced, either physical, mental and cognitive, emotional, or spiritual, its purpose is discovery and it is necessary for it.

If observing, connecting, and hypothesizing result in something that is not testable, then it is just opinion.  But when it is testable, and eventually verifiable, then it is Discovery.

And I went to bed and to sleep, finally feeling clearly the purpose for what I had been doing since I can remember – Discovery.

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