Your Daily Dilemma

You’re approaching a door. 

Not one of those modern supermarket doors with motion sensors that open automatically, but  one of those plain old doors with an old-fashioned brass knob you actually have to turn.

Cradled in your right arm, you are carrying a large bag full of groceries.

In your left hand, you are carrying a Slurpee (or a Slushee, or whatever they call them).  By whatever name, it is a large styrofoam cup (bad for the environment), with a thin plastic lid (bad for the environment) and a plastic straw (the type that kills innocent birds), the liquid contents of which you have already mostly consumed (to the detriment of your gut health).  But the styrofoam cup is still full of ice and a couple ounces of a chemical-laden soft drink which, if consumed, will only further poison you.

But enough of that.  The immediate problem facing you is how to open the door.

To open the door with your right hand you’d have to put the bag of groceries down.  At your age, given the condition of your back, this isn’t as easy as it once was.  You might strain your back, or even fall and break your hip.   And if you put the bag down, it might fall over, spilling out all that marvelous junk food you were so looking forward to.  Is the dog around?  How much of it will he get, before you can stop him?

To open the door with your left hand, you’d either have to put the soft drink on the ground – risking problems similar to those just described, though not exactly the same  – or trying to turn the knob with the drink still in hand, hoping to turn the knob without spilling the drink.  But of course, if you spill the drink, there’s a floor to clean…

Which hand do you use to open the door?

Stop.  Really.  Stop and reflect on it.  Which hand would you use?

Some people would say the correct answer is the right hand.  Others would say the left.

But these people have been raised in a different world than mine – one in which there are only two answers, right or left. 

And whether they’ve chosen the right or the left, they feel quite sure that they have made the only sensible choice.

In my world, there are many, many options available.  And even if it were a simple choice between right and left (which it hardly ever is), there are so many unknowns, ramifications, risks, possibilities and preferences to consider, that it’s really all very subjective. I mean, maybe it would be better for the dog to eat the Twinkies, rather than you…

How is it even possible to think one choice “right,” and the other “wrong”?

How is it possible to think someone who chooses differently than you is either stupid or evil?

Ya got me.  Maybe, as kids, we all just drank too much Kool-Aid.

No More’n a Doorknob

After flipping off the light switch, Carlos crossed the room, moving past the stool and Mother’s vacant mattress to his own.  The dark didn’t bother him, as he knew where everything was. Things like stools and mattresses don’t move on their own.   They’re dependable, even if people are not.  Even in the dark, he knew his mattress would be there when he let himself fall.

That morning, Frank had put the four new kittens in a sack, tied a cord around the open end of it, and driven off in his Durango to drown them.  Upon his return, he’d thrust Carlos a glare that dared him to utter a sound. Though the boy had said nothing, Frank had insisted on driving his point even deeper.

“Don’t even start with me, boy.  It ain’t like they got souls.  Animals don’t feel things, not like you and me.  Any more ’n a doorknob does.” 

Carlos closed his eyes to fall asleep.  Yet with desperate kittens meowing in his brain, he eventually opened them again. Seeing his mother’s mattress in the moonlight coming through the window, he tried not to think about her.

He could still hear Frank’s voice:

“Any more ’n a doorknob does.”

Frank was wrong about the feelings of cats.  Could he also be wrong about doorknobs too? 

Carlos got out of bed and crouched in front of the door to the room. The brass doorknob glowed a little in the darkness.  Wanting Frank to be wrong, he peered into the brass as if into a deep, still pool, but it didn’t make a sound.  After a minute, seeing no sign of life, Carlos felt foolish.  Frank was right, of course. Things are never the way you want them to be. Carlos returned to bed, resigned to dreams of drowning cats.

He remembered the day Mother was taken away.  Frank had slammed the door – a powerful, thunderous slam, much like the time Frank had slammed him into the Durango.  How could a door not feel such violence?  Doesn’t it tremble? And doesn’t a doorknob, bound tight to its side, tremble with it? 

Father had told him, once, before he died, that everything – even people and rocks – are made from the same stuff.  He knew how it felt to be slammed. Would a doorknob tremble any less than he had?

Trying not to think of Frank or clawing cats, Carlos imagined that his doorknob was a living, feeling thing, no less than himself. The next morning, he opened the door more gently than usual.

Father had said that if you could look closely enough, you’d be able to see that the tiniest parts of things are always on the move, vibrating back and forth. Carlos could see guitar strings vibrating, but though he’d looked as close as he could, he’d never seen the little vibrating things his father had talked about, in wood, or stone, or brass.  Father had said our eyes aren’t keen enough to see them, but we can feel them: when something feels warm, it’s because its tiniest parts are vibrating faster than usual, and when something feels cold, it’s because they’re almost still. 

Might a doorknob feel the warmth of a hand that holds it?  Might it feel the air move past when it’s opened or closed?  Can a doorknob feel everything we can feel?  But then, he thought, animals can move when they want to, but rocks and chairs and doorknobs can’t. If the tiniest parts of such things are always moving, why can’t they move themselves?  Carlos spent the day wondering.

And that night, when he fell asleep, he dreamt that Frank was about to come into his room when his doorknob turned and shut the door on its own, leaving Frank out in the hall, pounding as hard as he could, but getting nowhere.

The next day, Carlos knew it had only been a dream, but he remembered something else his father had told him: that sound is nothing more than vibration.  That when you strum a guitar or ring a bell, you hear them because they’re vibrating.  Carlos spent the day thinking about the sound of the breeze, not only when it moves the leaves of trees, but when it’s all alone.  He thought about the way fans hum. And that night, when he turned off his light, he realized that even his light made a sound – you just had to be quiet, and listen hard enough to hear it.

Then his gaze fell on his doorknob again.  If a doorknob can feel vibrations, can it also hear sounds?  Could this one hear him, if he talked?

“Oye,” said Carlos to the doorknob across his room.  “¿Como te llamas?  What’s your name?”

The doorknob didn’t make a sound.

“Alright,” Carlos said.  “Have it your way.  Just be latón, and nothing more.”

Having decided that his doorknob was nothing but latón (the Spanish word for brass) Carlos closed his eyes again, trying not to think of Mother, or Frank, or drowning kittens.

*                      *                      *

As it happens, when your whole life is spent feeling the vibrations of things, you get a lot of practice knowing one vibration from another.  Everything has its own resonance.  Like a snowflake, a fingerprint, or a signature, every sound is different. Every hand knocks differently. A knock on the door means someone is about to open it, and you’re about to be sent swinging through space.  In time, you even get to understand the meaning of the words people use.

The word ‘Carlos,’ for example.  If the boy was there when someone knocked and said that word, the boy would always answer.   By listening closely, the doorknob had come to understand much about the names for things.   Every thing, and every person, had a name. And now, Carlos had given him one.

Latón could tell the difference between Carlos’s footsteps and Frank’s.  He could distinguish their breathing.  From the sounds of footsteps, fans, and even the way air bounced off walls, Latón had created a mental map of the things in the room.  And though he couldn’t see, or taste, or smell, he knew much about what went on around him.

Still, there was one big difference between Latón and living things. Frank might put a hand on him one day, but not the next.  Carlos came and went in ways Latón could not predict.  It was as if people had the ability to do things, or not, as they pleased. 

Latón didn’t.  He couldn’t make anything happen.  He couldn’t do anything.

Pressure from a hand would turn him on his side. Release of that pressure would straighten him up again.  His favorite sensation was the movement of the air around him when the door was open or shut, but he never got to have that feeling when he wanted it; he always had to wait until someone else made it happen.  And his ride through the air always followed exactly the same path.  Sometimes, he imagined how it would be if he could just keep on going, on a path of his own choosing.  Sadly, he knew that day would never come.

The last few times Carlos held him, the warmth had flowed all the way inside him, into the metal spindle that was seated securely in his gut.  He’d liked that extra warmth.  But he had no way to make it happen again.  And he’d had no way to answer when Carlos spoke to him.  He was Latón because Carlos said he was, like it or not.

*                      *                      *

Carlos wondered: if he felt lonely, might his doorknob feel lonely, too?  Across the hallway were two other doors with identical knobs.  But his doorknob had never been with them, had never even seen them.  It seemed entirely possible that Latón might prefer to be among his own kind.  And so, waiting until Frank had left the house, Carlos removed the screws that held his doorknob to the door of his room and switched him to the other side of the door.  When he was done, he stepped into the hall, closed the door behind him, and spoke:

“Look, Latón, you’ve got company! I hope you’ll be happy now, with other doorknobs like yourself.”

*                      *                      *

When Latón heard the clinking of hard metal against his thin brass plate, he’d wondered what was going on.  In the moment that followed, he’d felt loose, disconnected, insecure.  Then, with Carlos’s hand around him, he’d felt cold air rush in to take the place of the spindle no longer in his gut.  That spindle had been more familiar to him than anything else in the world. As long as he could remember, the thin pencil-sized rod of hard metal had been seated right in the middle of his gut, so tightly it had sometimes seemed a part of himself.  With his spindle gone, Latón felt like a child who’s lost more than just a tooth.

A moment later, Carlos’s hand was lowering him, and letting go.  Latón’s round surface was suddenly rolling on wooden boards, making vibrations he’d never felt before.  It was so different, he hardly knew what to think.

Then Carlos’s hand was around him again, lifting him; there was the dull thud of contact with the door, the clink of brass and the feel of the spindle tight inside him again, everything  feeling the way it always had.

But everything was turned around.  The door, and its key hole, and its hinges, and latch – all of them – were backward.  Wait – no – he was backward, facing the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the door. And when Carlos went into the room, pushing the door back until it hit the jamb, Latón was left out in the hall by himself, with no way to understand his new surroundings 

And then, there were the startling words Carlos had used:

“… with other doorknobs like yourself.”

Was he now in the midst of other doorknobs?  The idea was deeply disturbing.  He had no way of knowing they were there, or anything about them, no way of signaling them that he was now in their midst.  He saw no way to make a sound himself, or vibrate, to let the other doorknobs in the hall know of his presence. And if they really were like him, they were equally powerless to signal him.  Had they all been banished to the same place? How could he tell anything about this place?  And how long might he have to stay here?

Latón wished he could scream. 

*                      *                      *

As even a doorknob knows, there are two types of turn in life: one from the outside, and one from within.  A turn from the outside is when, held by something else, you feel the pressure at your surface turn you.  The spindle in your gut resists the turn.  When the pressure is enough, the turning imposed from the outside makes the spindle turn with you. You are the instrument of someone’s hand, turning because someone else wants you to, and when you and the spindle have performed as instructed, the latch comes out of the jamb, allowing the door to open.

A turn from within is very different.  There’s nothing, no hand or anything around you.  You feel a tiny twist of pressure deep inside your gut, coming from the spindle.  It’s you that resists; it’s the spindle that turns you.  You turn the same way you do when you’re in a human hand, but there’s no hand around you doing the turning.  It’s as if human hands – the source of the most powerful movements you know – actually make no difference, as if they only exist in your imagination.  As if all power and energy really come from within.

Wondering about such things had bothered Latón for a long time.  But now, he came up with another theory. If he was not alone – if there were other doorknobs, on other doors, as Carlos had implied – then could one of them be just inches away, on the opposite side of his own door, attached to the other end of his own spindle?  Might a hand sometimes take hold of that other doorknob, causing him to turn?

The idea that there might be something exactly like himself sharing his own spindle, just inches away, once it occurred to him, would not let go.  The possibility of confirming its existence – even, perhaps, somehow communicating with it – became his only focus.

*                      *                      *

Frank slammed his bottle of beer on the kitchen table hard.  When he was finished reading the letter, he dropped it into the trashcan and left the house without saying a word.

Carlos might never have read it, since it was addressed to Frank, but a letter that could make Frank angry was hard to resist.  So Carlos retrieved the letter from the trash can, and as soon as he began to read, he was glad that he had.

The letter was from Mother.  She had been released.  As soon as she could find transportation, she’d be coming home. 

Carlos ran outside. For the rest of the day, every time a squirrel moved or a leaf fell, he spun around to see if Mother was coming up the drive.  When night came, he looked out the kitchen window for her. And now, as he lay on his mattress, his eyes fixed on the hallway, he kept seeing her there.  He gave no thought to doorknobs.  Instead, Carlos listened for the sound of Mother’s hand, turning the knob. 

*                      *                      *

Latón, meanwhile, had been spending every minute trying to send something of his own vibrations into his gut, in hopes of reaching his spindle-mate, while trying to feel something – anything – coming from the other side.  If everything vibrates, in tiny ways, he thought he might be able to feel vibrations coming in, or with enough intensity of will, he transmit some of his own and make some sort of connection. But try as he might, he felt nothing.

Was he a fool? If there was something so much like himself, so close, but he could never come to know it, was he better off to ignore it, to pretend that it didn’t exist at all?  Was he to be so close to something, for all time to come, but prevented from ever feeling anything about it?

Through the door, Latón could hear Carlos’s turning restlessly on his mattress.  When at last the boy fell silent, Latón was relieved.  He no longer wanted to hear or feel anything – not Carlos or anything else.  Existence itself was powerless, futile, and horrid.  He’d have rather had no feelings at all.

The moments that followed might as well have been timeless.  But then, from outside the house, Latón heard a vibration he’d never heard before. As it got louder it began to resemble the noise he heard whenever Frank came and went.  Someone was about to arrive. Latón didn’t care who.  He didn’t care about anyone any more, so he told himself not to listen.

But listening was all he could do. 

The noise outside stopped. A door opened downstairs, then closed again.  The noise started again.  It must have woken Carlos up when it did, for through the door, Latón could hear Carlos get up from his mattress.  He could hear Carlos’s feet on the floor. There were also footsteps down the hallway, coming nearer.  Latón  recognized them as Mother’s footsteps as soon as he heard them.  And Carlos’s footsteps were coming toward him at the same time, from inside the room. 

What happened next was more than Latón had ever imagined possible. Long as it had been, he’d never forgotten the gentle warmth of Mother’s fingertips, the way her palm and fingers and thumb enveloped him.  The feel of her hand around him was unmistakable.  But at the same time he felt it, he also felt a tingling in the spindle inside him, as if Carlos had taken hold of the other doorknob.  For the first time ever, the turn from outside, its warmth and pressure rolling through him, met no resistance from the spindle inside him. He didn’t make the spindle turn. The spindle didn’t make him turn.  There was no resistance either way, as if the spindle and he, too, and the doorknob on the other side were all turning by themselves, as if the power was coming from somewhere inside all of them, of their own free will.  And as Latón entered the familiar arc of movement, as he felt the brush of passing air, he felt neither pushed nor pulled, as if everything were happening this way because he’d always wanted it to.

“Mother!”

“Carlos!” He heard the words – or thought he did – and thought he could feel warmth in them.  But whether Carlos and Mother were still holding the doorknobs or not – whether it was some connection between them that had aroused his feelings, he didn’t know and didn’t care.  There was warmth inside himself, and inside the spindle.  For all he knew, Mother and Carlos were both figments of his imagination.  He could feel himself tingling, his tiniest parts dancing, and he was very much alive.

Wrong Parking Space

Fifteen years ago, I quit taking statins for high cholesterol; I’ve been resisting doctors’ pleas to resume them ever since. For several years now, the doctors have been recommending high blood pressure medication too. Dutifully, I added that recommendation to the list of those I respectfully decline to follow.

But this spring, a series of developments finally reduced (wore down?) my resistance. I’d felt some minor chest pains (more like muscle strain than anything serious) but after that, I began to notice that my blood pressure was way up. My wind was also down. Anyway, last week, I succumbed to an appointment with a cardiologist. The cardiologist insisted I come back for a nuclear stress test. The test was scheduled for this morning.

So I drive to the hospital. I pull into the parking garage and begin searching for an empty spot. The first level is full, so when I find an empty space on the second level, I start pulling into it – only to see a sign informing me that the space is reserved for the elderly. Dutifully, respectfully, I start to pull out of the space, until I happen to glance back at the sign.

“RESERVED – FOR SENIORS, AGE 65 AND UP.”

After a lifetime of being young, I know that reserved spaces are for other people, not me. Right?

But I’ll be 69 next month.

Humbled yet again, I pulled back into the space – apparently, the space where I belong.

– Joe

You Never Know

I haven’t written for a while.  I haven’t had anything new I felt compelled to say.  One school says blogs need to be written regularly, at least once a week, so that readers will form the habit of opening and reading them.  But I think that’s modern business BS talking – the folks who gave us spam and robocalls. I side with the other school, the one that believes in delivering value.  As I look back at my past posts, I see some that lacked it.  I never should have posted them.  I don’t want to add to an unwanted glut, for the sake of regularity.

Another reason I haven’t posted recently is that three longer writing projects have taken hold of me again. Two of them relate to the We May Be Wrong theme, so I haven’t lost interest in WMBW.  I’m just not ready to describe what those longer projects are about.  They’ll have to speak for themselves, when they’re ready.  I hope you find them engaging, when it’s time.

Meanwhile, here, I’ll just share a few odds and ends.

1. I love my TV science shows, especially those about the Universe and Astrophysics.  More than any other group I know, astronomers astrophysicists seem willing to admit the vastness of the things we do not know.  In just the past few months, I’ve learned so much about the errors of past truths I once was told was fact. Current theory tells us that we do have nine planets after all, that our solar system once had two suns, that there are super big black holes at the center of every galaxy, that there are tiny black holes in lots of nearby places that are super hard to detect, that there’s one black hole bearing down on us that may suck us up or gobble up the sun and spin us off into frigid space, and that we’d have no way to spot it until it was just three years away. My favorite admission of all is that most of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy –just labels the physicists give to things they know absolutely nothing about.

2. A year or so ago, when I decided to watch TV news again, I sampled various sources in search of neutral reporting.  The closest I came was CBS’s Evening News with Jeff Glor.  So in the months since then, I watched Jeff Glor’s broadcast every night.  For the most part, I thought the broadcast reported the news neutrally.   Last week, CBS discontinued the show due to low ratings.  (Imagine that!  Wonder why?) Trying to interpret the PR lingo explaining CBS’s thinking makes me worry that CBS has given in.  That to increase  its viewership, it has decided to report “stories” designed  to arouse passions, as opposed to neutral news.  If this is what has happened, I mourn the loss and fear the aftermath.  If we end up with a liberal media reporting only liberal truths to liberal viewers, and a conservative media reporting only conservative truths to conservative viewers, the ideal of a unified, inclusive America will not be possible.  How can we survive if we take our facts from entirely different places?

3.  In the past few months, I’ve thought I could give my support to a Centralist party, if one existed.  It’s platform would say nothing of specific issues.  It’s promise would simply be to keep an open mind, to be inclusive, and to search out compromise between extremes.  I genuinely think that, as a process, that’s as important as any specific issue.  That it’s the only way for us to survive. If a candidate adopted such a set of promises, he or she would have my vote.

4. This week’s news reported that Joe Biden is talking about unity, intending to run for President as the candidate of the middle.  If that bears out in the months to come, he may end up getting my vote!  Imagine that!

5. Years ago, in the Publix cafeteria, absorbed in a lunch time conversation about writing, I opined that a good story-teller can make a good story out of anything – even a door knob.  I don’t know why the doorknob came to mind – probably because of the phrase, “dead as a doorknob.”   But in the twenty years since, I’ve had occasion to make the same observation  repeatedly – that even the dullest things contain with them something from which a talented story-teller could create an engaging story.  And I’ve always phrased it the same away, “even stories about door knobs.”   Well, this morning, I challenged myself.  In the two hours since, I’ve entertained a slew of thoughts about how to write an engaging story about a doorknob.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s worth a try.

6.  If you can make an engaging story about a doorknob, surely you can attract readers with neutral reporting about real news. Maybe that, too, is worth a try?

7. Who knows what surprises the year ahead may bring!  A resurgence in interest in neutral reporting? Yours truly supporting Joe Biden for President?   A fascinating story, debuting right here in this blog, about  a doorknob?   

Like the astrophysicists say, you never know.

— Joe

The Ice Tower

The aim of WMBW is to explore wrongness – ways of being wrong, reasons for being wrong, reasons we persist in wrongness, etc.  But ultimately, wrongness isn’t the only reason we should be humble.  Simple ignorance is another.

As children, we’re used to not knowing all the answers.  When a teacher or parent first tells us that bees make honey or that the moon revolves around the earth, we accept such revelations easily, because we haven’t already formed contrary opinions.  But as we get older, learning more and more about the things that comprise our daily lives, we start to learn new things less often.  That experience, I think, leads us to form a very false impression that we already know most of what there is to know. 

I mean, sure, maybe we don’t know about astrophysics and quarks, maybe not about the history of medieval Bulgaria or the tonal qualities of Mandarin. We acknowledge there are some things we don’t know.  But our daily lives don’t require us to know about quarks or the history of medieval Bulgaria.  What we do encounter, day in and day out, holds few surprises. I already know how ladders work, and traffic lights, and can openers, and flush toilets, and the hinges on doors. I already know my wife’s name, and what time we usually eat dinner, and where the trash can is, and – well, pretty much everything I encounter in my day to day life.

This adult “state of knowing answers” gradually comes to replace the childhood “state of ignorance.”  Especially if we’re parents, or teachers, we get used to informing our children or students about the way things are.  It’s the very definition, perhaps, of being an adult, that we know what we need to know about the world around us. 

Lately, I’ve enjoyed asking myself this question: “Of all the things in the universe that might be known, how much of it do I actually know?”  If I’d started asking myself that question at the age of six, I think my answer then might have been around 5%. If I’d kept on asking it, I think my answer might have risen to about 40 or 50% in my late teens. These days, I’d wonder how many scores of zeroes there ought to be between the decimal point and whatever nanogram of real knowledge I might have acquired about the world as a whole..

But helpful as it might be, the problem with that exercise is that it’s like standing on a beach,  looking across the ocean, and trying to estimate how big the ocean is, based on what we can see.  It’s hard enough to estimate the size of what we can see, as far as the horizon, but more fundamentally, it’s simply not possible to estimate the size of what we can’t see, beyond the horizon.  So the abstract question, “How much do I know of all there is to know?” is really of limited value.   We can’t estimate the size of what we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as I get older, my daily life encounters include fewer and fewer things that I don’t know anything about.  So inevitably, I think, I’m seduced into the false impression that I mostly understand the world. 

So, perhaps more valuable than pondering the scope of what we don’t know are those occasions in life when something falls from the sky, lands in our lap or smacks us in the face that we simply can’t explain. My recent confrontation with the ice tower was one of those things.

Karen and I love to watch the cardinals, chickadees, titmice and wrens that our back yard bird feeder and bird bath attract. The bird bath is an enameled metal dish, about two or three inches deep and about twenty four inches across.  It sits on a stand about three feet off the ground.  We clean the water of debris from time to time, changing it so the birds will have clean water to  drink and bathe in.  But when winter brings cold spells, the water freezes into a solid block of ice. 

In ten winters of looking at that bird bath, I’d often seen it freeze over, but I’d never seen anything like what I saw a few days ago.  Something was sticking up, vertically, close to the outside rim – maybe eight or ten inches higher than the rest of the ice.  My first thought was that it was a bird, light in color – like a dove or a mocking bird, perhaps – but it seemed whiter than white – almost clear, like an icicle.   And as I watched from the kitchen window, it didn’t move. Surely, no bird could have fallen asleep at the water’s edge and become frozen solid. 

Curiosity getting the better of me, I went outside for a closer look. What I found I couldn’t explain.  The birdbath was frozen, as I expected.  The surface of the ice block that now occupied the bath was a flat horizontal plane, as it had always been in the past, like a miniature skating rink – except for the vertical protrusion I’d mistaken for a white bird.  Closer inspection revealed that it was, in fact, a little cylindrical tower of ice, about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter, that projected vertically eight or ten inches above the horizontal surface.  A little ice sculpture model of the leaning tower of Pisa? 

I touched it to confirm that it was, indeed, ice.  I wondered what had caused the little tower to form, rising so high above the surface.  I took some pictures of it.

There were no trees, roofs or other overhangs above the birdbath, so I concluded the tower had not been formed from anything dripping from above, like stalagmites are formed. There were no cracks in the ice or other signs of fracture that would suggest the frozen tower had landed in the horizontal ice, sticking like a javelin in the ground.  There was nothing beneath the tower that would suggest it was rooted in anything but the ice block itself.  It wasn’t like separate pieces had become stuck together the way ice cubes might stick together in your freezer or in a bag of ice bought at the Quickie Mart.  Every surface was smooth. This little tower seemed at one with the block of ice from which it protruded, as if they’d been formed together.

But even if a waterfall can freeze solid in the midst of its descent, how could this water have frozen solid, in the tower shape it now held?  I called the grandchildren over, challenging them to explain the phenomenon we all could see, promising a prize for whoever could come up with a plausible theory.  In the process, we noticed what seemed at first glance like a feather in the middle of the tower, captured like some prehistoric bug in a piece of amber.  I took another photo, trying to capture the appearance of the “feather.”

Jacob theorized that the tower had been formed when a bird who’d come to bathe had gotten a wing stuck in the frozen ice.  When it pulled itself free, it had left that single feather stuck in the ice.  But the “feather,” I pointed out, did not appear to be arranged in a flat plane, like any normal feather.  Its parts radiated in all directions from the center, like the bristles of a bottle brush.  That, and the inherent implausibility of Jacob’s explanation, prevented me from awarding him the prize right way.  Doubting his “stuck bird” theory, I did wonder if an actual feather had landed in the freezing water, had remained upright, and had somehow been made to radiate like the bristles of a bottle brush as it got encased in the tower of ice.  After a couple of days, though, the whole feather theory melted away with the ice. There was no feather left behind when the ice departed.

So there we have it.  As of this writing, the tower remains a mystery to me.  My vague partial theory is that some sort of gas in the water (or from the enameled metal bottom of the bird bath) had started to rise in that particular spot just as the water froze.  That the gas kept on rising while the ice was still “semi-frozen” enough to be malleable.  The bristles of the bottle brush did look like paths taken by gas bubbles radiating from a central trunk, like the branches of a Christmas tree. But whether the “rising gas” theory makes any sense is beyond my understanding of what happens when ice forms, and why I’d never seen such a tower before, and what sort of gas might have formed bubbles in a bottle brush formation, and more.

Among the small but learned group of scholars and philosophers who read this blog, there’s probably a natural philosopher among you who can explain the appearance of the ice tower.  I am tempted to offer a prize, like I did with my grandkids, for the most plausible explanation. If you are as ignorant of such things as I am, I’m sure I’d be amazed at your creativity.  So please tell me what you think! 

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I really want to know the truth.  I mean, what good will it do me? Satisfy my craving for knowledge? Preserve my self-image as someone who knows what’s really going on in the world he inhabits? Perhaps the best explanation for my ice tower is that it came from the fairy world, a gift from some wise creature who figured I’ve gotten too old, that I already think I know too much.  Perhaps I should just hang the pictures above my desk as a reminder of the many things out there I can never hope to understand, even just outside my kitchen window. 

– Joe

Precedential Impeachment

I was heartened this week that in the debate over the legality of the national emergency declared by President Trump, people are talking about the precedents such declarations set.   This has nothing to do with my feelings about immigration, but my feelings about precedent  – both those precedents set in the past, and whatever new precedent we may set by decisions made today. 

As we grow closer to issuance of the Mueller Report and the possibility of  impeachment – which I’m still predicting – I thought the time right to reflect on precedent.

I begin with a reminder of some precedents set by voters.  After Marion Barry, then a married Mayor of the District of Columbia,  was caught on tape in an FBI sting soliciting sex and doing crack cocaine with a girlfriend, he was convicted by a majority-black jury and did time for the crime.  Yet immediately after his release from prison, his constituency reelected him, first to City Council and then to Mayor.  His campaign slogan was, “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”  He won by large margins.

In his 1963 inaugural address as governor of Alabama, George Wallace, champion of the Jim Crow laws, declared that he stood for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  Yet he was reelected Governor of Alabama several times and in 1968, carried five states in his third party campaign for President.

In 1969, Teddy Kennedy drove a young girl off a bridge, failed to report the fatal accident until others had already found her, and until any alcohol in his system had had time to dissipate.  He paid money to the girl’s family to make no public comments.  And yet, a year later, he was re-elected to his Senate seat by a 62% majority.  By the time he died, he’d been reelected six more times.  There was widespread support for his subsequent campaign for the Presidency.

I didn’t support any of these three politicians, but I’ve always supported the electorate’s right to be represented by whomever they desire.  American Democracy has survived in part bcause we have enough faith in our system that we’re content to wait until the next election cycle, to vote out administrations we find abhorrent.  As the cases of Barry, Wallace and Kennedy seem to make clear, we don’t require our political candidates to be free of wrongdoing.  The will of the electorate being supreme, it apparently includes the power to forgive, excuse, or simply ignore the misconduct of a candidate for office.  Misconduct is not, per se, grounds for disqualification, ineligibility, or removal.  If George Wallace had won the presidential election, would he have then been subject to impeachment for his segregationist views?   Should Ted Kennedy have been expelled from the Senate for his crimes at Chappaquiddick?  If he’d been elected president, would he have been subject to impeachment for those crimes?

With those questions in mind, I move on to the precedents Congress has set for removals from office.

Our Constitution permits Congress to expel its own members, on a two thirds vote.  Whereas presidents must be accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” there’s no similar standard set out before Congress can expel its own members.  One might imagine that with so many of them, there’s been a lot more crimes and misdemeanors committed by members of Congress over the years than by Presidents.  Yet only a handful of Congressmen have ever been expelled by vote of their peers.  The great majority of them were Congressmen from southern states expelled after those states succeeded from the union; they were expelled for “support of the Confederacy,” i.e., for conduct that essentially amounted to treason.  Clearly, others have left office voluntarily amid scandal and disgrace, but apart from those civil war rebels, there have apparently been only three members of Congress actually expelled.:

William Blount was charged with treason in 1797 after a letter in his handwriting proved that he was conspiring with Great Britain to take over Spanish Louisiana and Florida.  (As a major land speculator, Blount stood to profit from the predicted increase in land prices.)   Treason is often cited as the most obvious of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”. Interestingly, though, Blount’s home state of Tennessee continued to elect him to its state house; he served as its speaker until his death.

183 years later, Michael Myers of Pennsylvania was expelled for taking a $50,000 bribe from an FBI agent in connection with the Abscam scandal.  Proof, again, was rock solid. And in 2002, Jim Trafficant of Ohio was expelled after being criminal convicted on numerous counts of bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion. Again, solid proof.

Apart from that handful, that’s it.  My sense from this is that Congress has been amazingly cautious in expelling its own members.  By comparison, it has shown greater willingness  to go after presidents.  Still, it has only impeached two of them, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  Since Nixon’s impeachment was certain if he hadn’t resigned first, let’s add Nixon to the mix and call it three.  In case we’ve forgotten, I offer an attempt to summarize them:

President Andrew Johnson wanted to replace his Secretary of War, William Stanton.  Having succeeded to the presidency as a result of the Lincoln assassination, Johnson, a Democrat, had inherited Republican Stanton from Lincoln.  Johnson and Stanton had very different views on reconstruction, and Johnson felt he had the right to a cabinet of his choosing.  The Republican-controlled Congress disagreed, passing a law that prevented the President from dismissing cabinet members without its consent.  Johnson vetoed the law.  Congress overrode the veto.  Johnson considered the law an unconstitutional interference by the legislative branch of government with the prerogatives of the executive branch, so he dismissed Stanton anyway.  For that, he was impeached.

Johnson’s view about the constitution turned out to be correct.  Years later, the Supreme Court decided  that the law in question, restricting the President’s right to dismiss members of his cabinet,  had been unconstitutional.  But in the meantime, the Republic-controlled House had already impeached the Democratic president for the “high crime and misdemeanor” of violating their law by dismissing his cabinet officer.  History has judged the impeachment as a highly partisan political squabble that paid little heed to the opinions of the public.   The case strikes me as an example of how not to use the impeachment power.

The articles of impeachment drawn up against Richard Nixon for his involvement in Watergate were for “obstruction of justice” and “abuse of power” (which boiled down to actions taken to cover up and impede investigation of an illegal break-in by his agents and supporters) and for “contempt of Congress,” i.e., failing to comply with Congressional subpoenas.   Personally, I wonder about that last charge – whether an executive failure to comply with a legislative subpoena is the sort of separation of powers dispute that characterized the Johnson impeachment.  But as for the first two charges, they were (1) for crimes by Nixon (perjury and obstruction), (2) in connection with investigation into another  criminal act (essentially a burglary), (3) committed during the President’s term in office and (4) presumably committed for the purpose of influence his reelection.   Unlike the Johnson case, there was no viable argument that the criminal laws violated were unconstitutional.  In my view, the impeachment articles proposed against Nixon offer a better example of an appropriate use of the impeachment process.

I also find it worth noting that at the time of his near-impeachment, Nixon was a highly unpopular president whose approval rating in public polls had dropped to the mid -twentieth percentile level. A lot of the sentiment against Nixon was actually due to matters extraneous to the impeachment charges, most especially, his conduct of the War in Vietnam.  But regardless of the cause for his low popularity, the Nixon case raises the question of the extent to which public sentiment should be a consideration in impeachment proceedings.  Thinking of Marion Barry, George Wallace, and Ted Kennedy, I’m reminded that we live in a democracy, in which the public’s right to representatives of their choice should not be lightly trifled with.  Any removal of an elected official from office serves to put Congress in the position of second-guessing the expressed will of the electorate.  And as you might suspect in a post on WMBW, any decision by a few people to override the expressed preferences of millions risks being nothing more than arrogance.  As noted in an earlier WMBW post, arrogance is the taking to yourself of authority not rightfully yours.  In a democracy, any time Congress removes someone elected by the people,  it’s hard not to ask whether they’re overstepping their bounds.  That said, why would popular sentiment not be an appropriate consideration in deciding whether to impeach?  If “high crimes and misdemeanors” ultimately boils down to a political question, is that necessarily a bad thing? 

The impeachment of Bill Clinton was for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones.  An Arkansas state employee, Jones alleged she’d been brought to then Governor Clinton’s motel room by state troopers, where he propositioned her and exposed himself to her.  She filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton within the applicable three year period of limitations. 

In the Me Too era, it’s interesting that the Jones lawsuit was only dismissed because the presiding judge found she could not prove that Clinton’s conduct damaged her.  (Not that she hadn’t done so, but that she could not do so.) 

That quirk of history aside, Clinton was asked in the Jones lawsuit about his relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.  Clinton’s later admissions and public apologies remove any significant doubt that he did in fact have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.  But in sworn testimony on multiple occasions, Clinton denied having any sort of sexual relationship with her, or even being alone with her.  The charge of obstruction of justice was for trying to influence the testimony of Lewinsky and Clinton’s own White House Secretary to support him in his sworn denials – efforts quite similar, it seems to me, to the obstruction of justice charges against Nixon.   

At the time, there were many who defended Clinton by minimizing the national significance of a President’s sexual activities.  Clinton complained that the inquiries were an invasion of his “privacy.” But the charges against Clinton weren’t for the sexual activity, they were for the alleged obstruction of justice that surrounded it, and for the perjury Clinton committed. (Nixon was widely considered a liar, but he was not charged with perjury, i.e., lying under oath, as Clinton was.)  As in Nixon’s case, there were two levels of misdeed – the underlying one (burglary, in Nixon’s case, sexual harassment in Clinton’s) and the subsequent misdeeds for which impeachment proceedings were brought – obstruction of justice and perjury.  The Democrat Clinton was impeached, but while Republicans split on the vote to remove him from office, every Democratic senator voted to acquit him of all charges, so conviction by a two-thirds majority failed.

In today’s environment. It seems unlikely that Clinton’s sexual activities would be dismissed as easily as many dismissed it in the 1990’s.  So, if public sentiment is a factor (and I think it is, whether it should be or not), the acquittal of Clinton might have come down differently today.  And that’s true, I think, even though public sentiment about perjury and obstruction of justice has not seemed to change from what it was back then.  It’s public sentiment about sexual abuse by people in power that have changed.

I certainly wonder, if President Trump were impeached for committing perjury and obstructing justice with respect to, say, his relationship with Stormy Daniels, Democrats would unanimously vote to acquit him, as they did with Clinton.

As with Nixon’s obstruction of justice, there was no question about the constitutionality of the laws Clinton was accused of violating.  As with Nixon, the charges against Clinton were for crimes committed during the term of office.  Since the misconduct by Clinton occurred during his second term of office, it was not designed to influence an upcoming election, as Nixon’s presumably was, so a removal from office could not be said to be any sort of remedy for election fraud.  But public sentiment was quite different than it had been in the Nixon case.  In contrast to Nixon’s abysmal public approval ratings, Clinton’s remained in the mid 60th percentile throughout his presidency, and reached a high in the mid 70th percentile after the impeachment proceedings.

Finally, I note that all three Presidential impeachments  so far have been brought by an opposition Congress – twice by Republicans against a Democratic President, and once by Democrats against a Republican President. No Congress has ever gone after a President of its own party.

Bottom line: there seems to be very little precedent for Congress to remove a president, or one of its own, from office.  Treason seems to be enough, and so does taking bribes, but there’s been a mixed record when it comes to perjury and obstruction of justice.  The differences seem better accounted for by partisan politics and by the political climate of the day, i.e., the popularity of the President accused.

I wonder whether, to some extent, this last factor is appropriate.  Other countries have procedures for recall elections.  In this country, we have them for other public offices.  Ultimately, in any democracy, one might think of impeachment and removal from office by Congress as a substitute for such a recall election.   I think the arguments are strong that Congressmen in red and blue states will, and should, be influenced in their actions by what they think their constituents want, and frankly, up to a point, I’m not bothered by that.  But Nixon should not have been impeached because he was unpopular, and Clinton should not have been acquitted because he was a Democrat.   There’s still precedent to be considered regarding the actual allegations made and proven.  And I strongly think it should be.

When Congress acts, I hope it doesn’t deprive us voters, collectively, of the right to be represented by the leaders we choose.  Otherwise, I may think them guilty of great arrogance. That said, I think there’s a point at which elected officials should unseat other elected officials, I just haven’t decided exactly where I think that point is. But as we try to sort such things out is, I hope we act consistently with past precedent, and with awareness that we’ll be setting precedent for the future as well.

The Bias Blind Spot

In my novel, Alemeth, I told the story of an ante-bellum family who ran a cotton plantation in Mississippi.  They owned sixty African-American slaves.  Their belief in the righteousness of the southern cause was based on their view that slavery was sanctioned by Holy Scripture.  Essentially, they believed that God had charged them with a duty to perpetuate the peculiar institution.

One of the mysteries that attracted me to this true story was how so many people could have been wrong about an institution which, today, nearly all mankind agrees is evil.  I wanted to understand how their wrongness came to be.  Of course, this family was not alone.  Their neighbors, their churches, their doctors, their lawyers, their newspapermen, shared their views.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, it is at least roughly true that about twenty million northerners thought slavery wrong, and five or six million southerners thought it right. 

I’m not talking about related questions, like whether slavery was worth going to war over, or whether it justified secession; I’m not talking about whether there were some in the north who supported slavery, or who were racists, or whether there were individual abolitionists in the south. I’m talking about whether people thought slavery was an evil that should be immediately abolished or that it was an economic necessity that ought to be preserved for the foreseeable future – and on that point, the people of the South showed amazing agreement with each other.  One indication of just how geographically lopsided the distribution of opinions was: the large number of Christian church denominations that split into separate northern and southern churches over the slavery question.

If every person had simply thought out the rightness and wrongness of it for himself, there’d have been a thorough mixture of opinions in every state, north and south. Differences as to details notwithstanding, the geographically lopsided distribution of opinions  as to the central question that was a necessary condition for civil war convinces me that something else was going on. 

How was it that nearly all the good white people lived up north, and nearly all the bad ones lived in the south? 

Okay, not really.  I know that couldn’t be true. So I wonder, how did it happen that nearly all the smart people lived up north, and all the stupid ones lived in the south? 

Okay, really, not that either.  While mulling this mystery over, my daughter Jen forwarded me a blog by someone I don’t know – his name is Sean Blanda – called “The ‘Other Side’ is Not Dumb.”  https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.blt9vqmzr.   I think Sean is right.  On average, surely the people of the south were as good, and as smart, as their northern counterparts.  So perhaps, being “right” or “wrong” has little to do with how smart you are?  Or how good you are?

Was it self-interest, tradition and peer pressure that caused the people of the south to descend into such widespread error?   A sort of groupthink, perhaps, arising from common backgrounds and perspectives?.  Fair enough.  But what, then, about the beliefs of those in the North?  Was the correct position of the north regarding slavery due to an absence of groupthink, self-interest, and peer pressure there?  Was the south riddled with conditions that contributed to southern bias, while the north was able to arrive at the “right” answer because it was free of any such influences?

Maybe so.  Maybe we could all agree about the errors and biases of the south, now that we all agree about the evils of slavery.  But what of those controversies on which we don’t yet agree?  In political election cycles, the country always seems split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.  Is it possible that one side’s views are explained in terms of cultural bias, but the other side’s views are not?  According to the Pew Research Center, about 30% of the World’s population is Christian, and a similar portion (about 22%) is Muslim.  Is it possible that the 30% is simply better informed than the 22%?  That the 22% are smarter than the 30%?  That one view is the result of cultural biases and the happenstance of birthplace and family influence, but the other view is not?  Are the debates over gun control, abortion, global warming, Vegan diets and same sex marriage, debates between smart people and stupid people?  Between the good people and the bad people?

Finally, what are the odds that, on each and every issue, it’s ME who recognizes the truth (because it really is the truth), while my opponents’ incorrectness can be explained by bias? 

In Being Wrong (Harper Collins, 2010), Kathryn Schulz writes, “Let’s say that I believe that drinking green tea is good for my health.  Let’s also say that I’ve been drinking three cups of green tea a day for twenty years, that I come from a long line of green tea drinkers, and that I’m the CEO of a family-owned corporation, Green Tea International.  An impartial observer would instantly recognize that I have three very compelling reasons to believe in the salubrious effects of green tea, none of which have anything to do with whether those effects are real…  I have powerful social, psychological, and practical reasons to believe in the merits of green tea.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  In the example just given, Schulz is writing about what would be obvious to an impartial observer.  But more important is what’s obvious to partial observers – to those who are convinced that the other side is wrong.  If we’re talking about people we’re convinced are wrong (like those who supported slavery) it’s natural to believe that their views are shaped by – and therefore depend on – their peculiar life experiences.  Yet when it comes to the things we have decided we’re right about, we ‘re unable to see that our beliefs are a function of own life experiences in the same way.  Because we believe that the Statue of Liberty really towers above New York Harbor, we believe it is objectively real, regardless of our subjective perspective, culture, or bias. To us, everything that’s “obviously true” is like another Statute of Liberty. 

“Sure, it may be that my father was a civil rights activist and my mother worked for George McGovern, but I hold my liberal views because they are objectively right…”  Or, “Sure, it may be I grew up reading the Christian Bible, but my faith in Jesus has nothing to do with that happenstance; I have faith in Jesus because he has revealed himself to me…”  When people believe that something is true, they believe it not because of anything about themselves or their own backgrounds, they believe it because – well, because it’s true.

Simultaneously, because we believe that slavery was wrong, we are quick to conclude that those who supported it only did so because of such a cultural bias.  This readiness to see bias as being the reason for the (erroneous) beliefs of others, while being unable to see that bias may explain why we ourselves believe certain things, is something professional psychologists call the “bias blind spot.” A quick Google search on “the bias blind spot” reveals a host of scientific studies regarding this phenomenon.  Many have shown it to be true: we are quick to ascribe bias (from whatever source) to those we disagree with, while denying it in ourselves.

In a May, 2005 article in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Ehrlinger, Glovich, & Ross, “Peering into the Bias Blind Spot: People’s Assessments of Bias in Themselves and Others”), the authors explored two empirical consequences of the phenomenon: First, that people are more inclined to think they are guilty of bias in the abstract than in any specific instance.  (“Sure, I recognize that I’m capable of bias; but doggone it, not when it comes to this.”)  Second, that people tend to believe that their own personal connection to a given issue is a source of accuracy and enlightenment – while simultaneously believing that such personal connections by those who hold different views are a source of bias. 

I find the second point especially interesting.  Think about it:  As to the beliefs I hold most dear on some controversial subject, do I have personal experiences that are relevant?  If so, do I consider those personal experiences as giving me special insights into the matter?  Now ask the same question about the typical person on the other side of that issue.  Do the reasons for their error lie at least in part in their different experiences?  Do I not see those experiences as providing valuable insights, but as reasons to explain away their error?  Personally, I’ve been guilty of this double standard often. 

Schulz points out that when we try to understand how people disagree with us, our first tendency is to assume they don’t have all the information we have – something Schulz calls the Ignorance Assumption. So we try to educate them.  If our efforts to educate them don’t work, if they adhere to their mistaken beliefs even after we’ve given them the benefit of our own information and experiences, then we decide they must be less able than we are to properly evaluate the evidence.  (In other words, we decide they just not as smart as we are – Schulz’s “Idiocy Assumption.”)  Finally, if we become convinced they’re actually smart people, we find ourselves considering them morally flawed –selfish at best, just plain rotten at worst (Schulz’s “Evil Assumption.”)

At the end of the day, it might just be that I’m right about a few things.  But if so, I doubt it’s because I’m smarter, or a better person, than those on the other side.  And it’s certainly not because I have no cultural biases of my own.

I’ll end by quoting Schulz one more time: “If we assume that people who are wrong are ignorant, or idiotic, or evil – well, small wonder that we prefer not to confront the possibility of error in ourselves.”

– Joe

Sweatshirt Photo

Now you can judge for yourselves.

My last post recounted our domestic controversy about the color of my wife’s sweatshirt. It all began when I made a casual comment that, based on our “matching” sneakers, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, she and I were dressed alike. When she replied that my sweatshirt was gray and hers was green, I readily acknowledged that the match was not exact, and I’ll now happily submit to a judgment that Karen’s is sand, or tan, or mushroom, or any other label that simply proves I was wrong ever to think of it as being “gray” like mine.

But admitting I’m wrong is one thing. Admitting my spouse is right? That’s far, far harder. Can I manage it? Well.. NO! I’ll DIE before I call it green!!!

Still, with so much controversy, I thought it only fair to post a photograph 0f the two. My gray shirt is on the right. Karen’s shirt — call it what you will — is on the left.

P.S. If anyone else says its green, I’ll — I’ll — well, I guess I’ll just have to count it as one more proof that there’s no such thing as objective reality.

Karen’s Sweatshirt

Karen and I were about to leave for the gym when I noticed we were both wearing white sneakers, black sweat pants and gray sweat shirts.  When I casually remarked on the coincidence, she surprised me by disagreeing.  Her green sweatshirt was nothing like my gray one, she said.  Mine was a classic gray, with no color at all; we both agreed about that.  But hers, she insisted, was clearly green.

Astounded, I examined her sweatshirt in every light I could.  To my eye, her gray sweatshirt was different from mine only in that it had an extremely slight brownish tint to it.  In certain lights, I thought I might detect some blue sparkle amidst the gray, and in other lights, red or purple.  If I really stretched, I could persuade myself there were occasional flecks of yellow, the way sunlight reflecting off a field of freshly fallen snow might sparkle with microscopic pinpricks of various colors.  But as I saw it, that was it.  The sweatshirt was clearly gray, as clearly as snow is white, and the mix of other tones, each of them barely noticeable, combined to give its grayness a little more earthiness than mine – no more. It was still clearly gray.

Our respective workouts at the gym did nothing to resolve our different perspectives.  So as we were leaving, Karen asked three women behind the membership counter to tell us what color her sweatshirt was.  Sensing marital discord, one of the ladies tactfully declined to venture an opinion.  But when a second said Karen’s sweatshirt was gray, I chortled with glee to have my opinion corroborated.  Karen’s dismay was evident.  Picking up on Karen’s dismay, the third woman studied the shirt carefully and announced that it was “tan.” To my eye, there was a stronger hint of tan in the gray than green , so on the drive home, I enjoyed that heady feeling a man gets when other women agree with him, especially in disagreement with his wife.  My self-satisfaction was further enhanced when, arriving home, Karen asked our daughter Kate her opinion.  Her answer – “sand” – was music to my ears. I’ve never set foot on a green beach.

Now, we all know people can have different perceptions of the same thing.  But that’s not the point here.  At the moment Karen realized she didn’t have the support she’d expected, she blurted out, “Well.  It USED to be green!”

Aha!  For me, that explained so much.  The sweatshirt, nearly fifteen years old, had faded; Karen had clearly failed to notice the change..  In my very first WMBW blog, I’d told the story of two mistakes I’d just made on the golf course: one forming an incorrect belief about the location of my ball, and the other, more serious error, maintaining that belief thereafter, even in the face of evidence I was wrong.  If Karen’s sweatshirt had been green when she bought it, that would explain why she still thought it green.  She hadn’t noticed its gradual fading, so her once-green sweatshirt had always remained her green sweatshirt. 

I was reminded of the time, forty years ago, when I wrote on an application for a new driver’s license that my hair color was blond.  When the clerk who took my application handed it back to me, saying my hair was brown, I argued with her.  My hair had always been blond.  It wasn’t until a look in the mirror at home that I realized she was right.  Examining myself with “new eyes,” I wondered how long I’d been ignoring the evidence while continuing my long-held belief. 

I thought I might post my thoughts about this phenomenon – the way we cling to our existing beliefs despite contrary evidence – here on WMBW.  But later that day Karen came gleefully home with the report that another daughter, Jen, agreed with her that the shirt was green.  I was crestfallen. For two weeks now, I’ve been bothered by that report.   Was my theory wrong?  Was it simply a matter of differences in the rods and cones of different observers?  Whether my theory about the persistence of old beliefs had validity or not, I felt compelled to admit that Karen’s sweatshirt was not persuasive evidence of it.   I’ve already written about rods and cones. Karen’s sweatshirt, it seemed, deserved no place in WMBW.

But wait.  Alert as you are, you might now be asking yourself, “Why then is he wasting my time with these reflections about the sweatshirt?”  Great question.  The answer is that, just last night, I found out still more about the sweatshirt: namely, I learned that Karen actually has two of them, and they are identical.  Same size, same style, same brand, same color.  Bought at the same time, some ten to fifteen years ago. Bought from the same store, one by Karen and one by Jen. Jen – the only other observer to call the sweatshirt green – had worn the identical green sweatshirt for years, back in the day when it really was green, before she gave it to Karen.

So now I blog to report that of five people who’ve based their opinions only on current evidence, there’s been a single tactful abstention, one “tan,” one “sand,” and two “grays.”  In contrast, the two “greens” come from the two women who bought the same green sweatshirts over a decade ago, wore them for years, and formed their beliefs long before the sun and frequent washings had done their work. Five non-greens from people without prior beliefs,in contrast to two greens from people with prior beliefs.

Now, a sample size of only seven people may not be large enough to constitute statistical proof in support of my view.  That’s probably a good thing, because if a large sample size confirmed my theory, I might feel entitled to tell Karen I’d been proven right. (And that’s rarely a good thing for one spouse to say to another.) So this story is not one like my golfball post, about two mistakes, one the forming of an erroneous belief, the other of holding on to that belief without being willing to question it. And this is not even a story about my conviction that long-held beliefs (whether accurate or not) persist in the face of recent contrary evidence.  (There are reasons our marriage has lasted 47 years.)

Rather my point is simply that there’s always new evidence that can be brought to bear on one’s beliefs. In the case of Karen’s sweatshirt, when all I had was my own observation, that single observation was enough to persuade me that the shirt was gray. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it.”  The thing is, Karen, too, had built her story years ago, and based on the information she had at the time, the shirt was green.

For me, subsequent evidence (Karen’s perception that the shirt was green) was enough to get me looking closer, to question my perception, though it didn’t change my mind.  But next came evidence of the perceptions of others – proponents of tan, and sand, and another gray – that led me to a conclusion about retinal differences (not to mention to gloating that I was in the majority).  The next piece of evidence – that Karen had bought a green shirt long ago that had apparently faded – changed my understanding from a theory of retinal difference to one of believing that Karen was suffering from confirmation bias.  Next, with the evidence that Jen, too, thought the shirt green, I was thrust back in the direction of retinal differences.  Now, the most recent information – that Jen wore the identical shirt for years – has cast yet another light on the whole matter. Currently, I’m back to attributing this “minority view” to confirmation bias. But as for the continuing parade of evidence to consider, has it ended, or is there more to come?

Kahneman could have had my initial conclusion in mind (the simply story that the sweatshirt was gray because I perceived it as gray) when he wrote, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.” Indeed, the more I learned, the more complicated the puzzle became. But I think Kahneman’s conclusion is profound: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

I believe it’s natural for people to continue to believe what they’ve always believed, even in the face of contrary evidence.  And so, I suspect I’ll continue to believe that confirmation bias, aka close-mindedness, is a shared trait of our common human nature – at least until presented with contrary evidence. I only hope that I’ll be willing to consider that new evidence if it comes my way. I just don’t see any reason to believe that I already know everything about that sweatshirt that there is to know.

This morning, when I told Karen I was going to post my thoughts about all this, she looked me in the eye and said, “I STILL think it’s green.”   Well.  I still think it’s a sandy shade of gray. And I’m not calling Karen any more stubborn than I am, because she is a fantastic listener, always willing to consider new information. I only hope she feels the same way about me.

Best to all for the new year.

—Joe

Dealing with My Biases

I like to remind myself that I may be wrong. As a natural born egotist, I think it helps to make me more humble. But I don’t like it so much when I hope I am wrong.  When I hope I’m wrong, it’s usually because I don’t like what I’m currently thinking.  Today may be one of those times.

No one sees all the reactions my posts provoke, since the posts (and the reactions they provoke) appear in numerous places. A few reactions have appeared on this website, but they’ve been joined by numerous others. And my predictions about the impeachment of President Trump sure did provoke reactions.

“Provoke” does seem the right word here.  Judging by comments I’ve received so far, it seems my predictions were taken by a good number of my friends and correspondents as indicating I’ve already made up my mind about impeachment, i.e., that I already think Mr. Trump should be impeached and removed from office.  I’m told, for example, that I’ve been “duped” by his opponents.

It’s as if predicting a tornado is the same thing as favoring one.

I said in a recent post that I hoped to keep an open mind on the questions surrounding impeachment.  However, I did predict that Mr. Trump would be impeached by the House.  I predicted that he would not resign, and so would be tried by the Senate.  (By way of contrast, I’ve made no predictions about whether the Senate will remove him from office.) I predicted that we’ll hear much in the coming months about the meaning of the constitutional standard for removal from office, i.e., “high crimes and misdemeanors,”  and I hope to add to that discussion.

The problem appears to be that I also predicted my own eventual position: that once all the investigations are finished, once all the charges have been fashioned and all the evidence received, I would support his removal from office.

As I saw it, that prediction was much like my 1978 prediction that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have yet another losing season.  And my 1988 prediction that our side would lose our case in the U.S. Supreme Court.  And my 1995 prediction that my mother would live to be a hundred.  In none of these cases was I predicting my hope, only my expectation. Two of these predictions proved true, and one did not.  A prediction is no more than that, a guess about a future state of affairs.  Of course the outcome of the Buc’s 1978 season would depend on a lot of things not yet known when the prediction was made.  All my predictions would depend on things unknown when I made them, including my prediction about how I’d eventually feel on the matter of Donald Trump’s possible removal from office.  It’s all those things yet unknown that make a prediction a prediction.

I struggled with whether to include a prediction of where I guess (now) that I’ll end up on the matter of Donald Trump and his presidency (many months from now).  There were several reasons I did so, but it now seems that the prediction was taken by many as an announcement that I’ve already made up my mind.  In addition to the accusation of being “duped,” I’ve been asked several times why I think Mr. Trump should be impeached.  The answer is that (present tense) I don’t.  I simply predicted that, eventually, he will.  In the meantime, I am undecided.  And as I said in the earlier post, I will strive to remain undecided until the House has brought its charges and all the evidence is in. 

I’m not sure what to make of those who act as if they already have their minds made up.  Because they feel a certain way today, can they say, with confidence, that they’ll feel the same way tomorrow?  If so, what distinguishes that stance from the very definition of close-mindedness?

I think those are legitimate questions. But those are not the current thoughts that I said, at the outset here, that I dislike, and wish I was wrong about.  What I don’t like about my current thinking is that I think others may have reacted as they did not only because I didn’t express myself well enough, but also because we’ve become so jaded.  Do we believe that anyone who writes a blog must have already made up his mind?  Do we ask, “If not, why on earth would he be blogging?”  Have we got to the point that genuine open-mindedness has gone the way of the dinosaurs?   That it’s not possible for a blogger’s agenda to be, simply, that he wants to “think out loud” publicly, in an effort to foster a dialogue that will help us learn from each other?  Put selfishly, to help him make up his own mind? 

I hope not.  I hope I’m wrong about the way people think these days.  And I hope this post will help clarify where I’m coming from.  I hope that there are others who, like me, have not already made up their minds.  I hope we can talk, can learn from each other, and maybe even learn from those who have already made up their minds, regardless of which “side” they’ve taken.

But I’ll make another prediction: that upon reading this post, some will dismiss my claim of undecidedness.  Some will think I’ve made up my mind already, whether I realize it or not.  I predict they’ll draw this conclusion because my prediction reveals an anti-Trump bias.  And I predict that some will think me a hypocrite for denying that bias.

If so, let me answer that charge now.

Of course my prediction reveals a bias

I’ve already written in this space that I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump.  That alone reflects a bias.  On the other hand, I’ve voted mostly Republican in my life – does that mean I’m biased in Mr. Trump’s favor?  What about the fact that I spent a career defending clients accused of wrongdoing?  Of pointing out all the reasons that accusations alone do not prove guilt? Of believing that people are innocent until proven guilty?  What about the fact that I think the media has often been unfair in its reporting about Mr. Trump? Which way do those beliefs and experiences bias me?

Here’s what I think about bias: Every experience we’ve ever had helps shape our interpretation of everything yet to come.  In other words, our experiences inevitably create biases.  In fact, I believe, it is these experiences and the biases they cause that define who we are (or at least the way we think about the world around us).  The same, I believe, is true for every one of us.  The way I see it, we can try to guard against and compensate for the biases we recognize in ourselves – but those we don’t recognize, we’re helpless to overcome.

Those who read my earlier post, “Asking the Ad Hominem Question,” may remember my thinking on this point.  If all our opinions are a reflection of our biases, it’s good to identify and acknowledge why we think the way we do.  I wonder which of the people who read this would claim that they are not already biased by the things they’ve heard and seen and experienced.

I intend to follow developments as they occur.  Now, even before the new Congress is sworn in, I’m trying to take stock of my biases.  Acknowledging my predictions for the end game is in part an effort to help clear the way for the desired objectivity of my own future thinking.  

I do have initial thoughts about the impeachment proceedings I predict will come.   But I hope they are not set in stone.   I expect to be giving a lot more thought to them in the weeks to come.  And I hope that my eventual views will be informed by the wisdom and perspectives of those who visit WMBW in the months to come – whether you agree with the thoughts I share or not.

— Joe