This Week in Baltimore: A Showcase of Cognitive Biases

This past week has provided an excellent opportunity to observe people’s cognitive biases. The situation in Baltimore has prompted many to show those corrupted mini-programs of thinking that run automatically through their minds.

We have seen many various biases at work, such as the following 40 examples:

  1. All blacks are thugs. (With the possible exception of those who entertain us by playing sports.)
  2. All whites are racist..
  3. All police are thugs.
  4. All arrests of blacks by white police are racist acts.
  5. All arrests of blacks by white police are completely justified and proper.
  6. All people who get arrested had it coming.
  7. All protesting is wrong.
  8. I deserve to be violent and destructive and to steal because I am offended.
  9. If the police say it, it must be true.
  10. If it’s an attack against “us”, then it must be unwarranted.
  11. All criticisms against police are unwarranted.
  12. The “other side” can’t possibly have a good point to make.
  13. Even if the “other side” makes a good point, it cannot possibly weaken my position.
  14. I am right because of all these facts, and even if it turns out that these aren’t the facts at all, I’m still right.
  15. This is my opinion and I will not change it.
  16. All negative issues should be ignored.
  17. My side’s sins are less serious than your side’s sins.
  18. You are responsible for what your ancestors did—if it was bad.
  19. You are responsible for what people of your same skin color are doing now—-if it is bad.
  20. Because your skin color is different from mine, you are responsible for what is happening to people of my skin color.
  21. I am not responsible for what the government does during my watch as a citizen-overseer/voter.
  22. If people have been charged, they must be guilty.
  23. If people have been charged by someone who has an interest in the case, they must not be guilty.
  24. Any wrongdoing against a person of my skin color is the result of racism.
  25. The black cops who were charged in Freddie Gray’s death were exercising racism, too.
  26. Whatever the government does will be the right thing.
  27. Whatever the government does will be the wrong thing.
  28. Everything the media says is wrong.
  29. Everything the media says it right.
  30. Everything that my favorite news channel says is right, and everything that yours says is wrong.
  31. If it deeply offends me, it must be more important than issues that do not deeply offend me.
  32. Law and order is more important when it comes to keeping the public in line than it is when it comes to keeping government and law enforcement in line.
  33. Law and order is more important when it comes to keeping government and law enforcement in line than when it comes to keeping the public in line.
  34. I’m entitled to have one or more of these biases because I’ve been wronged.
  35. I’m entitled more entitled to have one or more of these biases than you are.
  36. Those people should overcome all their biases, but it is not necessary for my people to overcome all our biases.
  37. I pretty much understand how all my people think.
  38. I pretty much understand how all your people think.
  39. It is wrong for you to rush to judgment where I do not agree with that judgment, but it is not wrong for me to rush to judgment on other issues.
  40. No matter how much they say, my opponents have but one point, and it’s necessarily wrong.
  41. If I were wrong about any of this, I would know it.
  42. If I’m wrong about any of this, I’m less wrong than you are, so I deserve to maintain my position.
  43. If I admit on the record that any of these biases are wrong, then I show my fair-mindedness and I earn the right to continue to operate as if I believed in them anyway.
  44. Whatever I thought before, this whole Baltimore mess just confirms it.
  45. People of differing skin color will necessarily have differing characters.  The two are genetically linked.
  46. Racism is the fundamental problem in this whole mess.

The fundamental problem in this whole mess is that the American public stinks at thinking.  It is poor at logic and probability, it is loaded with biases such as the ones listed above, and even worse, it does not like to think, so it avoids reflecting on these things—cutting off nearly any chance to learn something.

This is the sad state that leads to all kinds of inhumanity and injustice, including, but not limited to, racism.  This is what leads churches to continue in practices that violate the facts of the very Bible they laud as the truth.  This is what leads people to support political parties that do not keep the promises they make.  This is what leads people to put off problems, rather than to solve them.

Right now, lots of people are mad at other people because of the “racism” being exercised by those other people.  This is not the foundation, however—not the core of the issue.  As it turns out, people of all skin color are vulnerable to this sort of cognitive laziness and error, and skin color is just one of many topics in which this lousy thinking raises its ugly head.  Meanwhile, however, many are pounding away at “racism” as a fundamental evil that needs to be solved—and they’re doing it without having solved in themselves the cognitive bias and error that we all must guard against if we want to be completely rational and honest people.

We are all prone to cognitive error, and yet we do not have to make any particular error.  We can learn to do better.  We do not have to be biased and stubborn people.  No, that’s not something we’re doomed to be; that’s something we choose to be.

To solve or to correct a problem is better than to persist in it.  But he who hacks at the branches rather than at the root is wasting his time.

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Pelham’s Rule of Screaming

Screaming is for emergencies. It is for situations such as those in which the dad needs to bring the gun, or for which the fire department needs to be called. It is not for play any more than dialing 9-1-1 is for play.

Screaming is not for playing tag.  Nor is it for expressing delighted surprise.  It is not for story time or puppet shows—not even for scary ones. It is not for a wasp flying in the house or a non-venomous snake being handled by the zookeeper. It is not for backyard play or water balloons or for the pool—unless someone needs to go to the hospital.

Screaming is not for events to which one does not mean to invite the attention of everyone within earshot.  So if you don’t want me looking over the fence to find out what your kids are screaming about, then you need to teach them not to scream in non-emergencies.

Children can learn the appropriate time for screaming just as well as they can learn the appropriate time for any other manner of speech. And they can learn this from a very early age. There is no need to wait until their teen years to teach this—by which time they would have learned it themselves from direct observation and reflection.

Screaming is for emergencies—quite like car alarms or road flares.  So if you don’t think it’s a big deal that your kids are screaming for 30 minutes in the McDonald’s Playland, then I hope you won’t find it a big deal if I set off my car alarm to honk for 30 minutes on the curb in front of your house, or if I toss a lit road flare into your garage just for fun.

No, I wouldn’t really do such things.  But then, I wouldn’t let me kids go around screaming, either.  And that’s pretty much my point.

Non-emergency screaming is a needless breach of the public peace, and I would like to think that this fact would be self-evident to rational adults.

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Assigning Blame in Baltimore

The Baltimore riots provide the cognitive/moral miser with an excellent opportunity to exercise his bias. He will condemn the evil actions of one party while excusing—at least in a relativistic way—the evil actions of another. And worse, he’ll probably be two-faced in that excusing—admitting that the acts are bad, but then justifying them as “not as bad” as what the other guy is doing. Continue reading

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At The Mid-Life Crossroads of Crotchetiness vs. Usefulness

I just turned 50, and as I get older, I realize that more and more things about the culture and economy I live in are inauthentic, twisted, harmful, deceitful, erroneous, ignorant, ineffective, inefficient, or just plain stupid. So I reject them.  Yes, yes, I understand that this is the point where many aging men edge over that slippery slop to become “old codgers”, but I refuse to go there. I refuse to invest the remainder of my life in sulking about what is wrong with the world. Instead, it is my rightful aim do two things:

  1. to solve problems and
  2. to leave the place better than I found it.

It seems the more I learn—the more I study and dig and research and do the math—the more answers and solutions I come up with—that harder it is to find anybody who gives a damn about any of it.  I have learned that I can solve a lot of problems.   Indeed, I have solved a lot of problems—even things that other assume are impossible.  That’s the easy part, actually.  The second of my goals, however, is considerably harder because it doesn’t just depend on me.  Indeed, there is a very serious problem with making the world a better place than I found it:  We live in a world that does not seem to want to be better.

Sure, everybody’s griping about something or other—which fact might suggest to the casual bystander that these people do indeed want things reformed—yet they are all also seen to be contributors to the very quagmire about which they gripe.  And there’s your problem.

When you work to find answers that nobody cares about—to solve puzzles that nobody else is working—that’s a pretty lonely business.  I can certainly see how old men who don’t even try to solve anything turn into old codgers, but now I’m starting to see how even the few diligent puzzle-workers could end up being old codgers, too.  It’s because of loneliness and the demoralizing realization that practically nobody cares.  And in no place is this truth as painfully obvious as among most of those who say they care.  Sure, they can say it, but I’m looking right at their hole cards, seeing by the reality of their circumstances that it is just a bluff.

I guess I’m a “divergent” of some sort.  Funny, but I grew up going to the same churches as everyone else, where I was told, like everyone else, that I should love the Bible.  So now I love the Bible and I have worked to solve a considerable many puzzles that often come up in the normal course of church business, yet nobody is interested in the solutions.  Where did I go wrong?  I guess I didn’t realize that I wasn’t really expected to love the Bible after all.  It was just empty talk.

And I went to the same elementary schools, where they taught me that I should have a great appreciation for heroes who would risk themselves in order to oppose injustice and tyranny.  Where I went wrong, however, was that I never figured out that it was supposed to stop merely at appreciation; somehow, what little Jack got from all those lessons is that we should be heroes today, too.  What was I thinking?!

As a result, there have been several chapters in my life where I took a stand against what I could demonstrate was wrong—and found myself standing alone or nearly alone as everyone else rushed to restore the sanctity of silence at the altar of the Status Quo.

I have been abandoned by the very world that got me started in this direction.

How ironic is that?

Or, alternately, I was handed the answers by a world that didn’t realize the usefulness of the answers it already had.

Again, how ironic is that?

While tens of thousands of problem-persistent preachers get paid to spin their exceedingly popular messages, there is simply not a sufficient market from which to gather a salary for mine:  authenticity.  And while many will be elected to public office this election cycle by popular support, nobody wants what I want:  actual reform in accordance with fact and logic and principle.  Indeed, when I write one political post, some friend shouts, “Jack for President!“, yet when I write the next, equally as logical and factual, he is certain that I am an idiot and promptly forgets his former euphoria.

It’s a counterfeit world where appearances are all that matter to most.  They wear their labels—things they fancy, like “Constitutionalist” or “Christian”, yet they don’t really care whether they turn out to be authentic representatives of those labels or not.  Not really.  And silly me; look how often I have taken the time to point out the ways in which one’s behavior and his label do not match.  And when I do, how often is the correction heeded?  Sadly, it happens almost …… never.

Yet that’s another idea I got from Sunday School—that our labels and our reality should match.  Apparently, some Sunday School axioms are like reference books in the library; they’re just for looking at while you’re there, and not for taking with you.  But I must have missed that memo, and nobody searched me on the way out of Sunday School to be sure I was not managing to sneak out with the lessons still in mind.

So where does this leave me?  Depressed?

No, not depressed.  But I must admit it’s quite a drag to live in this culture.  Life would be lots more fun if it were filled with life-long learners who share my paradigms, and who could be counted on to be working the puzzle, too.  I would be thrilled to find that my friends were doing their own work, and had learned things yet new to me.  What a glorious synergy that would bring!

Bitter?

Maybe, somewhat—at least at moments—but mostly frustrated over the senselessness of it all, and feeling sorry for people who are trapped in their own double-mindedness.

I figured out three years ago that the basis of our problem is that people do not routinely use epistemic rationality in all their thinking.  (Epistemic rationality is thinking/deciding/believing that deliberately jibes with reality—mapping onto the real world accurately.) This explains why a guy thinks it’s a mortal sin for that nasty Demublican Party to violate the Constitution, while he views his own Republicrat Party’s violation of it to have been defensible since it was “for a good cause”.  This is why you can’t reform anybody’s political  thinking—because like a 7-year-old constantly changing the rules to his own advantage while playing Go Fish!, they think in whatever way is necessary to maintain their existing beliefs—however smart or stupid those beliefs may be.  Nobody ever taught them to think responsibly.

And God help them when people like this get hold of the Bible.  They don’t care what all it says; they just care if they can find nuggets here and there that seem to suit them—at least when snatched from their context into this make-believe context of the modern-day 5,000-branded monster called “The Church”.

So what am I going to do now?

I’m going to finish writing my book this year:  Reality-Based Thinking:  How everyone—including you—can think better.  And then I’m going to write a companion study book because I’m utterly convinced—and please don’t tell the churches this—that the Bible is packed with information about the kind of high-end thinking that God expects from righteous people.  And whaddayaknow, that thinking has features such as responsibility, fairness, logic, evidence, diligence, comparison/contrast, truth/honest/reality, self-discipline, and so forth—just like epistemic rationality.  That book will be entitled What the Bible Says About Thinking.  In short, it will consist mostly of a boatload of excerpts from the Bible, highlighting these various aspects of godly thinking.  It’s ironic, of course, because all those passages are already quite available in the Bible—the same place I’ll be getting them from—so basically, it looks like I’ll be pulling them out for people who are too apathetic on the subject to find them for themselves.  But I have in mind also the potential reader who has decided that the Bible is probably stupid because he sees too many “Bible believers” acting stupidly.  Perhaps he will find the title intriguing.

Further, I have in mind for this book the reader who finds himself alone at church—believing that things should be rational in a church culture that is often irrational.

So that’s what I’m going to do now.  I’m going to finish these books and self publish them and see who all they might help.  And that’s a far cry from wasting away my latter years as a crotchety, old complainer.  If I can help even ten people, I will have truly helped them with the most fundamental lessons of life–things I have learned the hard way.  They will be grateful for the help, and I will be grateful for their company.

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How Would You Like To Be Executed Over NOT Being Upset About Something?

Once upon a time, in the day of the prophet Ezekiel, the city of Jerusalem was in great sin, with many abominations being committed in it.  God called for a man and said to him:

Ezekiel 9:4  “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.

And he said to six executioners: Continue reading

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Is Error a Serious Problem For Christians?

“Everybody makes mistakes!,” someone will say.

“Nobody’s perfect!,” chimes in another.

At this, most Christians nod along and satisfy themselves that that’s all there is to it.  That is, that making mistakes is simply not a serious problem for the Christian.  That’s what they tell themselves, and the moment they do it, all manner of passages about God’s grace and forgiveness come to mind, settling all over again in their minds what they had already settled—the idea that their mistakes are just not very important.

As with many things in Christian doctrine, however, it’s not that simple.  And who says so?  Well, the Bible.  That’s who.

Let’s take a look at a few passages about error and mistake that the casual Bible student may have never found or considered.  You’ll find my brief notes in red after each passage:

Numbers 15:28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.
Even unintentional error was considered a sin under the Old Covenant, and had to be atoned for.  Yes, God would forgive it, but only, it seems, if it were atoned for.  When we make errors, do we think they are such casual things that nothing need be done about them?  Do we assume that they will be forgiven automatically by God?  Or do we rather approach him in order to address the matter with some appropriate sense of gravity and repentance?

2 Samuel 6:7  And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. 
Uzzah is the one who had done quite a natural thing; he reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it appear that it was going to topple off the cart on which it was being moved.  His error was that he did not know about, or did not follow, God’s decree that no one was to touch the Ark.

Job 4:18  Even in his servants he puts no trust,
    and his angels he charges with error;
19 how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
    whose foundation is in the dust,
    who are crushed like the moth.
If God charges even his servant angels with error, then he will certainly also charge humans with error.  That seems to be the reasoning being voiced here.  (See 2 Peter 2:4-10 and Jude 1:6-7.)

Isaiah 32:6 For the fool speaks folly, and his heart is busy with iniquity, to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the Lord, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.
Here, uttering error concerning God does not seem to be the simple mistake of the upright, but the work of fools.  How many preachers and teachers today make errors in their teaching about God?  The problem is of epidemic proportions.

Ezekiel 45:20 You shall do the same on the seventh day of the month for anyone who has sinned through error or ignorance; so you shall make atonement for the temple.
Under the Law of Moses, atonement was required for sins that came about because of error or ignorance.  Would these no longer be sins once the New Covenant was established?
I have to stop here and point out that ignorance is shown here as just as serious a problem as error.  Few believers recognize that God expected his people to know some things in both the Old and New Covenants.  Instead, ignorance is considered a non-sin today by a great many people.

Daniel 6:4  Then the high officials and the satraps sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him.
Not even Daniel’s critics could find an error in him.  We should be careful to notice that Daniel was a human—even a human under the Old Covenant.  We must allow for the idea, therefore, that diligent believers can indeed–at least under some circumstances–reach a level of knowledge and righteousness at which they no longer operate in error. To pretend otherwise is to dishonestly dismiss the evidence in this passage.

Romans 1:27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Here we see, in the first of our New Testament passages on this subject, that there was a penalty associated with at least this particular error.

1 Thessalonians 2:3  For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.
Paul assured his audience at Thessalonica that his message did not spring from error, but had been entrusted to him by God.  This was worth noting, as the rest of the world’s philosophy was indeed based in error, as the next passage below will show.  If the message did not issue forth from error, then with what level of diligence and care was it to be properly received?

2 Peter 2:18  For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.
The apostles made it clear many times that the Christians were being called out of the world, and here we see that world being categorized as one that lived in error.

2 Peter 3:17  You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.
The error of the world was not something to be taken lightly, but something to be carefully avoided.  And those Christians who did not avoid it would be “carried away” and would lose their stability.  Is error any less serious today?

1 John 4:6  We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
This one is quite interesting as it seems to take error to a higher level of importance than so many might casually assign it today.  Here, John seems to set error apart as being some of the main business of the spiritual forces that were busy opposing God.  On the other side of that “error” coin, he offers up the “Spirit of truth”, which we can readily identify as the Holy Spirit because of our knowledge of the rest of the scriptures.  This makes it very hard to dismiss error as a mere inconvenience or bother or trifle for the believer.  Rather, it seems to elevate it to a matter of very high importance and seriousness.

There’s really nothing to be added to these passages; they speak quite strongly on this matter—and directly.  We don’t really need to infer much at all to understand this topic with an actionable understanding.

So many, however, do not.  So many believers today, it seems, do not believe that the topic of error is one with which they need concern themselves.  There’s a great quote that has been derived from something Winston Churchill once wrote in a letter:

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

This is how it is with so very many believers today.  They will stumble across some passage in the Bible that flatly disagrees with some point of doctrine or practice that the believer has been holding to for quite some time.  Yet when they discover it, they do nothing of any consequence about it.

I’ve been watching this particular habit for a number of years now because it has become quite natural to the experience of sharing my Bible study findings with others.  For example, where many will tell you that the “foreign gods” of the Old Testament weren’t really gods at all—that they weren’t even real beings at all, but were just imagined entities that stupid idol worshipers were using for make-believe—I would find passages like this one:

Psalm 82

God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
    and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
    maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
    they walk about in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, “You are gods,
    sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
    and fall like any prince.”

Arise, O God, judge the earth;
    for you shall inherit all the nations!

Here is Yahweh speaking to beings that he himself calls “gods”.  And these gods are clearly not inanimate idols, for he charges them with wrongdoing, explains to them what they should have been doing instead, and pronounces a death sentence on them, telling them that they would “die like men”, the fairly obvious alternative to which is to remain immortal.

But what do most believers do when they stumble across this new information?  Most whom I have observed simply pick themselves up and hurry off with rarely more than a “that’s interesting”.  Then the next time you hear them speaking on the subject of the “foreign gods”, you are apt to witness that they’re still engaging the same error with which they started.

If I understand the Bible correctly, that’s going to be a problem for these folks.  I know a great many people who are exceedingly nice and kind, and who have many admirable qualities, but who are dumb as a brick with regard to correcting themselves out of error—even once they have been told about it.

What’s up with that?

Apparently, they don’t think it’s as important as God does—which is itself an error!

 

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Love and Truth Go Together

We make many errors in life, so it’s no particular surprise when we make errors in the way we understand the teachings of the Bible.  If you ask some random believers what is the most important aspect of the Christian faith, it certainly won’t be long until you start hearing “love” in response to this question.  The idea of the importance of love has permeated our culture, even so far as to prompt the Beatles title, Love Is All You Need.  Our culture is filled with this and similar messages, and consequently, our churches are, too.

Obviously, the churches should be filled with the idea of the importance of love, for the Bible is filled with it.  The question, however, is whether the notion the churches have of love is the same as the notion held by the Bible’s authors and ultimately, by God himself.  So let’s take a look at what the world thinks about love, and then we’ll see what God says about it.  I’m going to give you a hint about the latter so that you can keep it in mind as you read about the former:  Godly love includes the element of truth. Continue reading

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On The Need For Language

The more use one has for communicating ideas and comparisons and contrasts, the more use one has for language.  Those who do not learn their own languages to a high degree are those who have no use for it at that level.  That is, they simply don’t care to learn how to use the language fully because they’re not interested in doing all the things that the language can do.

In fact, Continue reading

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Impossibility

In the entire history of the Planet Earth, not once has any person done an impossible thing.

The truth of that statement should be self evident. The real trick is in figuring out what it should mean for us. For one thing, it tends to rob of us our common excuses, for other people sometimes do things that we have told ourselves are impossible to do. Continue reading

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All-Or-Nothing Judgments About Ourselves and Others Are a Bad Idea

Everybody knows that Joseph Stalin was infamous as “the Butcher” who directed the slaughter of 25 million people during his reign, but who knows that he would regularly and lovingly spend hour after hour with his daughter, Svetlana, listening to German art songs on the Victrola?

Everybody knows that George Washington was the heroic “Father of Our Country” who led the United States to independence from British rule, but who knows that he willfully violated the Constitution in 1791 by signing off on the founding of the First Bank of the United States—making the regular work of the government into an enterprise from which private bankers could make a profit? Continue reading

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