Quickie Post – Dunning Kruger, Mental Model Weapons and V-Meme Amplification

Conor with his best buddy, Volkschule, 7th District, Vienna

I know that posting like I do on Twitter, I’m very likely trapped in a Matrix of my own creation and volition. But there’s enough outside posting of mainstream media feeds that I can guess that I’m likely seeing maybe not reality, but certainly media reality.

And there’s no question that the media reality has changed over the last 30 years. I profiled William Greider’s writings (one of my personal journalistic heroes) in this piece in discussing that shift. Short version, in the past 80 years, we’ve seen the mainstream press go from a Power axis (those in power should expect to be scrutinized) to a political axis (perceived-by-the-press Right Wing views now are subject to scrutiny and ridicule.)

Why this matters from a v-Memetic perspective is that now we have a good hunk of our societal observational neurosystem (that’s what journalists are!) failing in their very important jobs. Instead of urging us upward in social evolution (more freedom, more empathy, more understanding of individuality and circumstance,) we have a random, mostly status-driven walk through the various popular and chic authorities-du-jour.

And it’s not very empathetic. Cultural sidebars in journalism used to proscribe picking on poor people, regardless of their viewpoint. All that’s gone out the window. Mores the pity.

An example –a particular thing that gripes me in the current COVID debate over vaccination is the endless replay of the media attacking people with extreme views on vaccine side-effects. Yes – I’m talking about the folks who believe that the vaccine will change the magnetic fields in their body, or some such icks. The media pounces on these poor folks, borrowing reasons from ostensibly higher communitarianism, saying “well we should give these folks an audience, because we certainly don’t want anyone to think that WE (the press corps) think we’re better than them.” But then they proceed to ridicule them precisely for their ignorance.

What this does is prevent society from climbing out of the Dichotomizer, that I discuss in this piece. There are real concerns with vaccines, and who should take them — and in the case of children, whether they should take them at all. Martin Kuldorff, the famous/notorious epidemiologist at Harvard, who has stood up to tremendous social pressure to have the larger discussion, has written extensively about what are the cost-benefit calculations that should be observed — and been censored by Twitter for this. I’m pretty pro-vax — when vaccines came to my age group, I got the J&J, even though I had likely had COVID in March, 2020. But I’m big, healthy, and vaccine-robust.

Here you go

But the lack of discussion around children getting a vaccine that will demand in the USA an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) flows from this kind of dichotomous thinking. And dichotomous thinking almost always leads to status-based characterization. The end result is that the low-status people in our society, our kids, get thrown under the bus. Our children are in our care. And they deserve better.

One of the standard tools that the media trot out when discussing the “key stuck to the forehead” crowd is what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon. I’ve written a thorough discussion of Dunning-Kruger here — it’s actually one of the better things I’ve written, and I highly recommend it. (Those that follow my blog do know I rate and rank some of my stuff, and sometimes not very highly!) The short explanation that resonates with most people regarding Dunning-Kruger is “you’re so dumb, you don’t know how dumb you are.” This interpretation gets folded into all sorts of varying ridicule — “mansplaining” is a great example — of targeted audiences. It’s not that the audiences aren’t actually demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s more that in a reflective, civilized society, we used to be more aware of intellectual and educational privilege, and not want to beat the hell out of people who might not have as much as we do.

But that’s not the sum total of Dunning-Kruger. The phenomenon also shows up in expert-level testimony, with folks being so well-informed, they don’t know how well-informed they are, and project expertise onto various audiences that the audiences simply don’t possess. Both sides of the Dunning-Kruger coin are classic examples of thinking from the limbic brain, with some degree of self-absorption, and very little empathy.

The problem is that a lack of awareness of both sides of Dunning-Kruger turn it into a handy weapon for status-based denigration. Folks find it fun to finger-poke and say “they shouldn’t be so stupid (or something.)” But if someone is truly informed and doing this, they’re actually showing that they’re doing some serious Dunning-Kruger themselves.

Which brings us to the press corps. When you shift the cultural value set of the press from a Power axis, to a Political axis, it’s inevitable that you end up calling people who disagree with you stupid. A Power axis forces you to think potentially past an individual’s personal development, as power dynamics are embedded (even with advanced thinkers) in everything that one does.

But the Political axis mindset throws you into defending your In-Group. And without cultural sidebars that generalize to others outside, those people become non-beings. And in that group of non-beings, trust me that there are always folks on the tails of the distribution that are ripe for ridicule.

To make things worse, some of the media have the Dunning-Kruger thing on the poorly-informed side going on themselves in spades. They hardly know much about the subjects that they’re writing about, and that drives them even more into the Authority-driven camp. As I’ve discussed before, being in the Authority-driven v-Meme also means you suspend your own judgment coming in from your personal sensory channels (e.g. how would someone feel if you were ridiculing them in person?) And things just go downhill from there.

That combination of shame, guilt and ridicule is simply toxic to a society. Not surprisingly, it keeps the conflict alive. And worse, it also shapes the neural programming/v-Meme set of the press corps as well. More moderate/evolved press-people just get tired of filtering the idea that the other side is stupid. They then self-filter out. But that leaves a more distilled press corps even less inclined to either exercise critical thought, or compassion and discernment, on why someone with a position averse to their own might think the way they do. It is the literal death of empathy.

As we continue to break down the old edicts of culture, recasting our opinion of what creates power, we might consider a new paradigm, that hopefully will drive alignment of evolution of society. For me it is the contrast between what I call the “hierarchy of status” vs. the “hierarchy of responsibility.” Though this is indeed a dichotomy, there is great potential. If you view yourself high up in any hierarchy — money, intellect, taste, and so on — that implies a far lighter touch in criticizing those who obviously are not. Equivalently, it also makes you, to varying degrees, responsible for bringing the rest of the unwashed along.

That means you’re going to actually understand them. And that involves developing your own empathy. It will make the ones that don’t have that empathy stand out like a sore thumb. And that is likely a path toward more complete identification of the relational disruptors in our midst, which in my assessment of our current problems, one of the biggest.

Easy? Absolutely not. I call it the Burden of Enlightenment. Don’t expect much praise for doing it. But that self-awareness is the most certain way of beating the Dunning-Kruger imps in your own psyche.

The Endless Spin of the Dichotomous Society

In my son’s Volkschule classroom, Vienna, Austria, 13 years ago, as an assistant

I’m going to attempt to make this accessible to most readers, because it’s an important topic that deserves wide distribution. If you’re not familiar with my work on Knowledge Structures, you’d be well served by understanding the march of complexity outlined here.

OK… here goes!

For those of us that have watched politics for a while (for me, about 45 years!) one of the disturbing things, as many others have noted, is the polarization that has occurred in our discourse. My guess for when this started getting out of hand was around 1994, when the then-elites in the Republican Party — Newt Gingrich being key here — just couldn’t tolerate the notion that a bona-fide White Cracker — that would be William Jefferson Clinton — had ascended into the White House. It didn’t matter that Clinton was smart, nor that he basically was a then middle-of-the road Republican. It was the first latter-day dynamic clash of the Class Wars in this country.

But since Clinton really didn’t do much that the Republican Party at the time wouldn’t support (remember NAFTA?) the only way to really get at the fact that a pragmatic usurper had taken over the caste system that is Washington, DC, and was actually doing a pretty good job was to trot out the “mistress” argument (no surprise that a powerful man had a mistress – many Presidents had.) The calliope started playing, and, well, the circus came to town.

Things were changing in my world as an activist as well. I was very involved with forest politics at the time (I wrote a book that’s actually not too bad!) and it was in that 1994-1995 time frame that USFS officials really just started lying about stuff. Or rather lying about stuff under scrutiny. There had been plenty of backroom deals regarding timber sales since forever — the endless parade of reform legislation, from the original Organic Act of 1897, to the National Forest Management Act of 1976, attests to that. But that was when they started lying directly to our faces in the forest protection movement. It was wild.

There were submerged memetic dynamics going on that I think contributed to the ability of bureaucrats to lie far more freely. One was the burgeoning population of the US — 263M folks at the time. As well as the growth of the wealth gap that had been well underway since 1973. The combination of more people in the system, working more hours, accelerated the independent relational decline, and subsequent (lack of) empathy development of the population. And then, if you follow this blog, led to a decline in number of intuitive complexity thinkers in small communities and large, that then affected the quality of all levels of governance.

I watched this happen in the timber wars. I started my activist career under the tutelage of a hippie/Indian back-to-the-lander named Leroy Lee. We’d actually be out there in the rural communities, and while there was friction between our viewpoint and theirs, the other reality was that there was also a spirit of “let’s make a deal” between rational actors on both sides that would de-conflict the emerging timber wars. There’s a complicated story there that I don’t want to tell today. But the short version is the little guys had realized that the larger corporate interests were going to lie to do what they wanted, and they were watching.

And then the early ’90s came, and all those smart folks (or rather, more evolved folks) that had read the writing on the wall moved out of those rural communities. They re-established themselves in regional centers where they could be successful with their ensemble of blue-collar skills, which were not insignificant. Many were independent mechanics, welders and heavy equipment operators, and they moved on.

But what was left behind was no longer the group with independent drive — there were far more hierarchical workers, with little actual knowledge of the woods. They were the millworkers, and were basically stuck. Looking back, I can see now that the dichotomous path was set, and there would be no more compromise or even discussion of conditions on the ground.

And strangely enough — the date of all that was in that 1994-1996 window. A more evolved, pragmatic, and grounded group of people had walked out the door, or rather migrated out of the rapidly depleting timber belt. And they were not replaced — automation at all levels had lessened the need for that whole workforce. It was just who was left was not going to be the thinkers we needed. Additionally, a mill population was also easily manipulated by the mill owners, most of who did not care about their communities, and a fair number of them were psychopaths. I’m not going to name names (though I could) — but this bunch was more than happy to use whatever manipulative techniques they could on their workforce to make them hate us more. Not that it did much — most of the good stuff was gone, and if there’s a wartime analogy, it was much like the Western Front in 1916. The line wasn’t going to move. It was governed by increased extraction costs (a lot of the timber was really to hell-and-gone far) as well as depleted supply and declining demand.

And so the memetic stage was set, that most of the nation couldn’t easily acknowledge. Things had dichotomized — there was a Right Wing, fed far too often by the toxic politics in the Red States, with conflicts that could never resolve. And there was at the time a still modestly rational Left Wing, that was for all intents and purposes a moderate conservative front, working under the aegis of Neoliberalism.

But moderation can only last without large-scale trauma. There was the election of GW Bush in 2000, with all the conflict, followed up by 9/11, which was terrible, of course. But then that was followed up by the Global War on Terror, and that involved two land invasions that, 20 years later, we are still extracting ourselves from. Compared to our last war with Vietnam, we did not experience a refugee crisis from the afflicted countries. But we brought home the trauma in the pointlessness of it all, and if there was an opportunity to escape from the dichotomous thinking of the war, I haven’t seen it. It’s important to remember that literal millions protested the Iraq War. But it made no difference, and was probably a point in our discourse where we went from goal-based protesting to performative gathering. Mores the pity.

And various factors accelerated out devolutionary decline. I’ve written here about the effects of both the income gap and the accelerating obesity/metabolic syndrome epidemic here. Population in the US is currently at 331M people, with the majority of this fueled by immigration, full of the various pros and cons regarding economic benefit and cultural stability. But putting all of this aside, we’re a number still far above Dunbar’s Number, which says you can roughly manage 150 relationships (I’m assuming these are essentially Independently Generated more-Empathetic Relationships) that human brains can handle. Worse, through a combination of state-based population growth as well as a concentrated takeover of state legislatures by the Republican Party, the path to retreat for a more stable polis at the state level was basically cut off. The only way to win, simply because of the numbers of people involved, was for folks to yell at each other.

Not good.

And then there was Donald Trump — a bona-fide narcissistic psychopath, and a man actually ahead of his time in the use of social media for accomplishing his aims. Donald Trump HAS had a large effect on our politics. But the stages of economic decline, cultural dilution, and an increasingly distant set of national, state and local governments were already in play. Only 20 years ago, I could have an easy audience with one of my national senators, or even the governor of the state. Those avenues are closed off to me at the state level.

And the idea that I might have a relationship where I would shake the hand of either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris is utterly preposterous. I’d have to save 20 or 30 people from burning buildings to even have a shot. Trump had an intuitive sense that this kind of disconnection mattered, which likely fueled many of his messages. He was theoretically a billionaire but still talked about getting an RV and driving from Florida to NYC for a vacation with Melania. Such utter bullshit. But in the world of performative politics, it was back to the future of the movie Network. Like it or not, he was a man ahead of his time.

That leaves us to the ‘Now’. Like it or not, while Trump’s election was not decided by election fraud, it was decided by COVID. The Democrats doubled down their bet on the notion that Trump had killed a bunch of us with his administration’s pandemic response. It was a risky bet, and I cannot believe that all the Ds touting that line didn’t know the reality of the futility of our pandemic response. I was worried that the pandemic would end, Trump would declare it an act of divine endorsement, and we’d be stuck with four more years of that psychopath.

But it didn’t happen. Trump lost, with all the hullabaloo that has gone on since then. But here’s the crux of this piece. I had hoped that the Ds, having dispatched Trump with COVID hysteria, would immediately see the need to get back to normal, and focus on the real issues of governance of our nation — repairing our infrastructure, laying in a pragmatic path to combat global warming, some restoration of environmental laws, and attacking the the two real Monsters in the Room — the obesity epidemic, and the income gap.

That did not happen. Instead, we saw a media elite that simply won’t let COVID pass seasonally. A band of institutional academics doubled down on persecuting anyone looking at a more rational, mitigation approach to dealing with COVID. At the same time, the now-Democratic power elite doubled down on performative pabulum regarding racism. There is no question that racism still exists in the U.S. — that has always been my view. But having worked with minority students across-the-board for the past 30 years, the biggest problems I’ve seen all have to do not with someone hating on them. It has to do with the fact that they are broke.

And increasingly, I’m also seeing this in my lower-class white students as well. As Presidential candidates go, Bernie Sanders got this big-time. But he lost, and it still remains to be seen if Joe Biden can reel in his dichotomous thinking pumpers. Rachelle Walensky, head of the CDC, is one of the most dispiriting figures in all of this. I’ve watched her various pronouncements, and it’s simply impossible to believe that SHE believes her apocalyptic pronouncements. But she’s locked into the dichotomous discourse.

What happens when a country is locked in the back-and-forth of dichotomous discourse is not that a single issue totally dominates the country’s agenda. If that were the case, we’d see at least one bill moving forward for addressing, let’s say, African American reparations. What we see instead is not so much an issue-matching, but a meta-matching of v-Memes between Right and Left. The Right has election theft, and now COVID restrictions. The Left (still) has Trump, COVID and racism.

And there is no more oxygen in the room for anything else to be discussed, let alone anything with nuance. The news space is still filled with chronic, limbic moralizing (“see, poor people are making too much of unemployment and won’t return to work!” or “all those right-wingers are granny killers and hate their neighbors because they won’t wear masks!”) even after various trains have left the station.

One of the most interesting areas that could use a little nuance is the election fraud issue. Here, various Red States have centered in on the issue of identification as necessary for voting. There is scant evidence that we have ANY problem with illegal voting, let alone enough to change an election. Let’s get that straight.

But are we a modern country if everyone in this society doesn’t have some form of verifiable identification? That’s the real problem here. Without verifiable identification, you can’t use the banking system. You’re shut out of more venues than just voting.

Yet one can see how quickly we descend into fear-based, dichotomous thought at the idea of a national system of identification. Everyone who drives is already part of that system, in spades, already. Yet people will be screaming about microchips in their butt, and 5G particles in vaccines. And if one starts launching such a national campaign, the media will amplify the one exception in a country of 330M where that particular idea went wrong.

I’ve been advocating in my local op-eds for moving past all of this through a more goal-based reasoning approach. In education, Critical Race Theory is the new bugbear, with Right Wingers rightly pointing out CRT has racialized advocates wanting to blame every past problem on white people. But the Left, instead of deflecting and re-centering the debate about the fact that in many rural school districts, if kids don’t get fed at schools, then they basically don’t get fed, we see teachers’ unions doubling down on arguing against racist narratives, and using CRT as a tool they say is vital.

One of the things I’ve learned as a classroom teacher for over 37 years is students mostly don’t understand most of what I talk about. Absorbing the details of CRT is not foremost on their minds. But by arguing about it, it destroys the details of what’s really wrong in our school systems — class-based flight to private schools, and education that builds agency and the ability to act independently, and morally in our students. As well as poorer students even getting to eat a healthy diet. I attended and presented in a school in rural Idaho about 15 years ago. 90% of the kids were on school breakfast assistance. And that breakfast was a plastic bowl of Sugar Pops and 2% milk. What this means is that we are stuck in the screaming match. And the brain pattern to boot, which then meta-affects everything else that we do.

That ongoing destruction of complexity in thought is going to wreck society. We have too many people, with too many differentiated needs, that need at least some of us to be thinking out-of-the-box, as well as weaving lots of apparently disparate threads together that can launch us upward from a mental evolution perspective. But we can’t get there from here if all we do is play our own version of Dr. Seuss’ Tweedle Beetle book.

Here’s the thing that the ostensibly Progressive Left needs to wake up and see. Right now, the Right is really selling a version of societal nihilism — the idea that “government doesn’t work, and government is making society worse, so let’s get rid of all of it except folks with guns, both formal and informal.” That vision of society really doesn’t appeal to most folks.

But the latest version of progressivism — moral screaming about folks wearing masks and enforcing NPIs, while businesses close because of pandemic management — makes lots of people pretty angry. Not everyone is crazy on either side, but my insight is that those with less political alignment are going to throw in with the nihilists. That means reversal at the midterms, and then it’s back into the dichotomous thinking blender.

The way out is to ignore the poles of the debate. I won’t even discuss the political Right, because there’s such little desire there to yield on cultural issues. But for those on the Left, you play the dichotomous game at your peril. The constant performative screaming about issues that don’t materially affect people’s lives is theater. It’s pro-wrestling, as this amazing piece makes abundantly clear. And it’s going to stop, or the majority will wall off themselves from the screamers. High conflict people always make a big splash when they show up on the scene. But over time, societies have to get back to some degree of homeostasis. Those same high conflict people, just like a splinter in a hand un-removed, will get the white blood cells surrounding them and a blister that will eventually spall off. That’s the way nature works.

The thing for progressives to realize is that there is a time element in this. People’s lives are finite. There’s only so much misery folks can tolerate.

I wish I had some Guiding Principle I could confidently give to anyone attempting to get involved in politics today. Here’s a shot — if you feel the need for theater, ask yourself what the policy you’d like to see might look like if enough people attended the circus. Would it materially improve those people’s lives? If not, maybe give the rest of us a rest. We’re all a bit worn out at this point.

OK?

How Do We Fix this Mess? (Part I)

The Bradenosaurus, Sorong, West Papua Wet Market

I’ve been hanging out quite a bit on Twitter as of late, and not surprisingly carping about the whole crazy response of basically all our institutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Along the way, I’ve made a bunch of Twitter friends. Well, at least I’d call them friends, and I also think that most would claim me as a Twitter buddy.

They are mostly all mothers, deeply concerned about the societal response to how we are treating children in the pandemic. The answer to that is this: terribly. We have isolated them in our homes, and if and when we release them in public, depending of course on the state, we’ve forced them to be masked, and if in school, often seated in plexiglass booths. The worst case of behavior I saw was students isolated in camping Porta-Potty tents with their musical instruments. For a virus that is aerosolized, that’s just bonkers. But someone thought it was a good idea. Here is the picture.

As bonkers as it’s gotten in the pandemic

What’s worse is that children are basically at no risk from COVID at all. The studies have been done that show that spread from children is also minimal, even if they attend school. I think the causal explanation is relatively simple — if you can’t really get the disease, or a very mild form of it, your viral load is also very small, and the odds of you infecting someone else is also minimal.

But children are being the last to be released from this pandemic, ostensibly because of a lack of a vaccine. But the whole notion of a vaccine for children, who aren’t affected by the disease, but may be at risk from the vaccine, turns the usual vaccine calculus upside-down. The idea behind the vaccine for any illness (say polio) is that the person getting the vaccine is under some reasonable threat from a given disease, and by giving them the jab, they are protected from potentially life-changing (or ending) consequences. The side benefit is the currently abused-and-maligned concept of “herd immunity” — which basically says if enough people have been vaccinated, or had a given disease, the illness cannot “go viral” — spread, dependent on the characteristics of contagion of the disease.

COVID vaccines flip all this on its head. One gets the vaccine, if a child, on the idea that it protects others — which means that the most vulnerable in our society, without any ability of consent (or it seems, even their parents’ consent) have to take the jab. This might be a little fine (not much, but a little) if the vaccine was well-characterized. But the problem in the current situation is that it’s not, to the point where various entities are seeking Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for testing children, some as young as two, with some version of the mRNA vaccines extant.

As I’ve stated earlier, I am very pro-vax in the standard sense. I’ve traveled to all parts of the world, and taken any kind of prophylactic I could in order to avoid illness. That means my backside has been jabbed alternately with Yellow Fever, and Dengue Fever vaccines, as well as all the usual suspects. I’ve taken malaria prophylaxis (and never gotten the disease) for a variety of locales as well. So don’t go all “anti-vax” on me. But I made the choice, and received the benefit, from all those decisions. As well as shouldered the risk. This is a different situation where the burdened population (young kids) have essentially no risk, and receive no benefit from taking the risk.

As well as provide little societal benefit.

The most recent bad news for kids has revolved around summer camps. Instead of letting kids be kids (and in many states they can be) various state entities have implemented restrictions, notably for kids outside, and wearing masks. There’s no question that wearing masks has turned into a talismanic symbol for stopping the virus, and I’ve talked about how from any system perspective they don’t work — and especially outside, where spread is basically impossible.

But the latest dagger in the heart has actually come from the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which has argued for summer camps and outside masking. It is stunning, even for me, that such an organization would do such a thing. And it’s not that I’m a cynic. I’ve argued over and over that the memetics of status-driven hierarchies drive Power and Control value memes, and are more than happy to throw stated constituencies they’re supposed to protect under the bus for elite risk minimization, which is what this pandemic has turned out to be. Short version — those of us that can sit at home are more than happy to have others wait on us with masks and delivery vehicles while we sit the pandemic out. In fact, our pandemic response COULDN’T have happened without that hook. It turned out that COVID-19 wasn’t really that bad, or the egregiousness of our low-empathy response would have shocked.

But back to the group of women/moms (and some dads) I’ve connected with on Twitter. I very much admire them, and they’ve given some great messaging to help move the needle on their kids. My mom wasn’t particularly a great mom, leaving me with a bit of anti-mom bias, but in spite of that, I bear no grudge. At the same time, I wish I had some of these dynamite young women as my mom.

And so I comment on their threads, babbling on about Memetic Kool-Aid and such. Mostly they humor me. The problem IS in the v-Memes a society manifests, and while that is clear to me, I’m not so sure than any of them see me as any thing other than an odd, but interesting ally. I’m sure that directly relates to the density of the material I spread. I never offer any real solutions, largely because the solutions thing to me is obvious. So what I’m going to do is summarize what we need to do so this doesn’t happen again. I’m going to do this in a series of bullet points without any memetic explanations.

  1. COVID has been a social/memetic crisis far more than an actual health crisis. Most of the people who have died were at the end of their lives, or obese/suffering from metabolic syndrome. These are just facts. For the first group, I offer condolences. For the second group, you have been betrayed by the nutrition community and (for lack of a better term) the food creation community. But you’ve borne the outcomes of the collapse of professional responsibility in those communities (medicine and nutrition) and they have to be fixed.
  2. The problem is, at its core, a loss of responsibility and connection of professional communities to their constituencies. The reason for this is a decline of personal development over the arc of a given career, and has been exacerbated by a number of factors. One of these is the passage through the stage of post-modernism where everyone’s opinion is believed to need validation. But the other is a seemingly constant validation in terms of consumer culture, designed to approve of our egocentricism. Do you really deserve a break today?
  3. A culture of overwork for many has been disrupted by the pandemic, coupled with a profound contemporary meaning crisis. Into that crucible of exhaustion and pointlessness COVID strode, and gave many meaning (regardless of outcomes) in demonstrating that we actually WERE good people. All we had to do was put on a mask. Or get a vaccine — two decidedly unheroic things for any adult to do. And that set us up for hating the other side. These simple things were mapped into hate on both sides of the other side.
  4. Some didn’t go along with the Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (in the case of the U.S., these were largely people on the Right side of the political spectrum.) This really, in no way was a result of advanced reasoning, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. One side guessed one way, the other guessed the other. And the pandemic turned out be roughly dichotomous — none of our Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) did much. So as far as reality, the nihilists in our political dichotomy won. The evidence now is flooding in to support their position (and I am one moved over to that argument) but it was nihilism at the fore in the beginning of all that.
  5. The side of the argument receiving support for restrictive policies got them from a racially/ethnic diverse group of constituencies. This is not surprising. We DO have racism and discrimination in our society — denying this is foolish. But what happens when your minorities who have thought (with sometimes righteous reasoning) that white folks are trying to kill them off hear that white folks support various different policies? The end result is that those constituencies will hunker down with the obvious (masks) while being naturally suspicious of more personally intrusive interventions (like large-scale vaccination.) And, of course, that’s exactly what has occurred. White folks are far and away more vaccinated than minority communities, to the point where many are worried about racial splits in reopened venues like ball parks. White folks will be sitting together in the good seats, together, while masked racial/ethnic folks will be spread apart in the cheap seats. What a failure.
  6. If we are going to dig out of this, we have to fundamentally understand how the system works with regards to personal development. You’re likely not going to get much of an argument that most Americans view their neighbors with low regard, and as low responsibility actors. I’ve received numerous insults along the way myself, having changed sides on the various COVID issues. Yet I am constrained in calling my critics various names by my own inner voice, that says such behavior is beneath me. How you view that statement largely will tell you about yourself. Am I an elitist? Or am I a responsible party in a democracy? The fact that so many Americans ARE comfortable condemning their neighbors is not based on data or higher reasoning. It’s because we have ceased to develop people in a larger context of responsibility for the entire country. There has been a collapse in a fundamental code of behavior as a citizen. And it is killing us.
  7. We need fundamentally more systems that promote connection. Systems that promote connection also help evolve people with wisdom — which is what is sorely missing right now. There are no classes in any university curriculum that can fix this problem. And though there is also NO question that various classes can provide tools to help people handle more complex situations, in the end, the integrity and connectedness of the tool user is what decides whether that tool is used to serve the common good, or an egocentric perspective. And that is directly related to the moral development of the user.
  8. We must realize that our current systems (hospitals, academia, professional societies) are low empathy, and will over the course of careers, produce low empathy people, who fundamentally exhibit stunted development. This is not a function of the fact that people are evil, or other such moral argument. It is a function of overwork inside a narrow context of contacts that do not enlarge our brains to the point of embracing others’ experience. It is a natural progression of over-specialization in order to have success in our late-stage capitalistic society.
  9. Children across the board have fallen to the lowest point-of-status in our larger societal calculus. There is no question that class determines outcomes among young people. My go-to statistic as a window on trauma in our society is that 25% of African-American children will experience an eviction before reaching the age of majority. But all but the most privileged children also suffer. School shootings have profoundly disrupted the open atmosphere schools used to possess. Kids are locked in classrooms, with very little unsupervised activity during the course of a school year because parents are afraid of their children getting shot. When you add the differential education that children across this country receive, you are leading the society to a crisis. I’ve been an educator for 37 years. The students in front of me are the most obedient, and agency-undeveloped I’ve ever seen. THEY ARE NOT BAD CHILDREN. They are just people raised in a particular way where outside connection has been eliminated. And children in a bubble will turn into adults in a bubble.
  10. Our dominant professional social systems have become fundamentally ungrounded from the reality of their missions. What that means is that they have lost enough contact points with outside reality to develop into the independent voices every profession needs.
  11. What will fix this is a vigorous program of re-grounding, and a realization of how in the past we used to do this. Charity work in underserved communities can help. In our STEM disciplines, regular rotations into other disciplines, and other economic milieus can also help. I’ve developed my own personal empathy for minority constituencies with my own work on improving student outcomes in the Hispanic community in Washington State. For example, one of the lessons I learned almost 30 years ago was that if you want more Hispanic STEM poor graduate women, you had better have your child care act together at your institution. The women themselves were plenty smart — but they often had a child, and the crux was facilitating success in that part of the support infrastructure. Just FYI — none of these insights came for free on my part.
  12. We must be able to openly discuss the problems in our society without fear of rancor against political correctness. This means we first must experience a value shift in viewing our fellow Americans as engaged actors in a shared project. This is enormously challenging, and of course, there will be bad faith. But we simply cannot share enough information on shared experience of living without it.

There is much more to say, of course. But without this focus on system revision and grounding, we can’t develop the people we need to come up with the solutions our society desperately needs. We will stay grounded in deeper and more rigid hierarchies. And the losers will continue to be the losers.

And for the most part, those losers will be children.

Quickie Post — Miasmas, Vampires and Memetic Persistence

Home-grown Flamenco Guitar — outside the Granada, Andalusia cathedral

Gotta admit — I’m a collector. I hope I’m actually NOT a hoarder, but sometimes, when I look around my living room, surrounded by both my antique tool collection, as well as all sorts of mechanical cameras, I gotta wonder.

One thing that I do collect, at least in my mind, are memetic representations from the past — true “tribal knowledge” — that sheds light on modern-day issues. One of my favorites is the vampire icon, and I write about this here. Short version — the vampire exists across cultures, and roughly describes a narcissistic psychopath. Vampires were invented long before modern-day psychology, and folks with these types of problems have existed across the historical timespan.

Same with things like bipolar disorder or any other forms of mania, which I think likely inspired the werewolf metaphor.

The latest that I’ve been crunching through is the idea of a “miasma”. It used to be pretty widespread, before modern germ theory, that disease was spread through bad air. Even Hippocrates believed in, he of the Hippocratic Oath that every doctor has to take.

Make no mistake — I believe in modern germ theory, which is the scientific basis of how we approach illness today. But the challenges in pinning down COVID-19, in specific our focus on Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) has made me wonder if we can’t learn something from the Ancients. We’ve built an entire set of intervention tools around the prevailing mental model of germ theory, which basically says that viruses need to be in droplets that can be stopped by masks. Yet “The Science” (I hate that term, BTW) has informed that COVID-19 actually spreads as an aerosol has only grown stronger in the past six months, meaning it’s no wonder that our NPIs are meaningless. If you can smell a fart through a mask, you can surely expect viral transmission through the same.

This is a great piece, and the author also brings up the miasma notion. What’s old is new again.

Now, I’m not a big one to double down on all historic beliefs. A lot of things people did believe in the past were utter nonsense. But there is something to what I’ll call memetic persistence. Vampires have lasted over millennia because there was a useful archetype buried in the mythos. It’s the same with miasma. Modern-day science has given us aerosols as explanations for spread which maps very closely to the idea of bad air. And the only NPI I’ve seen that makes any difference as far as COVID harm reduction has been improved ventilation. Regarding memetic persistence, the short version is that things only last that have some profound level of validity grounding in them — ideas that explain the way things are and map to examples in the real world. Without that deep validity, the archetypes vanish in history.

It’s something to think about — how old myths might actually encourage reframing of how we think about things. And it’s also a lot of fun!

Quickie Post — Guilt vs. Shame

In the Whitsunday Islands, Australia

There’s a longer post a-brewing on Joe Henrich’s book, The Weirdest People in the World — How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, but that review will have to wait. Basically, what Henrich has created in this book is an empirical, case-study driven proof of our Theory of Empathetic Evolution. Henrich kind of sees this, but simply can’t pronounce it. For lots of reasons. But I digress.

He does have some killer insights couched in his text, though — and that is the difference in aggregate cultures (social structure be damned!) on the difference of motivators of large masses of people.

Particularly relevant is drawing a line between guilt — which is self-inflicted by the person feeling it; and shame — which is inflicted from the outside.

It won’t take long for students of this blog to realize that guilt is the result of a developed independent self-image. You yourself don’t feel good for doing something that is in conflict with what you believe yourself to be. Shame is inflicted from the outside — by others — and so is inherently a result of social networks that suppress agency, and rely on external defined, status-driven relationships. The authority says you should feel bad about yourself, and so, well, you do.

Shifting back into the topic of this blog, shame functions well in low-empathy environments, with simplistic reasoning on why you are doing what you’re doing. Guilt is the result of existence in higher empathy environments. You hold yourself accountable because you’re connected to a larger body of people. Shame is used in low-responsibility situations, whereas guilt relies on higher responsibility stages of personal development.

What’s more interesting is what a bellwether/signal this is, in the current COVID milieu, on what stage of development our society is currently at — and at what level of complexity messages the larger body politic can actually operate at. There is no better example than masks. If you don’t wear a mask, now even if you’ve had the vaccine, and can’t give the disease to anyone, you’re not operating at the level of emotional empathy that authorities expect. Higher v-Memes would think this as gaslighting (it IS a control measure directed at the population) and resist the manipulation. Or even make the more grounded argument — if what we’re really working on is emotional comfort for those terrified of COVID, for whatever reason, should we not also require women to wear burqas as to not offend the Wahabbi members of our population?

Clearly, it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole — that’s the problem with fundamentally arbitrary measures that don’t work well. But it also allows us to gauge how easily our societies are manipulated. If we are deeply shame-based, AND have open channels to the outside world with poor national self-image, our level of development will make us particularly vulnerable to those who mean us nothing good. The counterpoint of how governments manage this is China, which carefully meters information to their society (through the Great Wall and general press control,) even though China as a whole has a very powerful self-image of itself as a great place. The leadership, either through emergence or design, know that their population is easily shamed (really read manipulated) and they aren’t going to drop the developmental stagnation policies any time soon. In fact, they’ll dangle their version of goodness out to the West (wouldn’t all of you give up your freedom to live in a safe society?) And those at the same level of memetic development, who just happen to be a sizable hunk of our journalistic caste, will amplify them. No extensive propaganda campaign needed.

Regarding guilt, it IS a sign of the development of a society that it can feel guilt. A population that possesses the ability to feel guilt can fix long-time wrongs, like slavery and theft of native lands. But only if we’re developed enough to feel it.

Otherwise, it turns into shame, with it’s concomitant linkages to lower v-Meme development, with strong In-group/Out-group behaviors. Which never help the Out-group in the long run, regardless of how shrill the voices become. The In-group will posture, and the out-group will still suffer. This is a great piece around one of my big issues — equity in education — that offers up ample evidence for this case.

So, thanks Joe — that dichotomy is a good one. And a powerful indicator of empathetic development. I’m doubling down on development in all this. If we do, people will feel guilty — and solutions for our problems will emergently appear. Shame will always remain the tool of the elites. And we know those folks only use what benefits them.

It’s in the memetics.

Quickie Post — Buddhists and Vaccines in Bhutan

Buddhist Temple, Guangzhou

Successful prevention campaigns in any public health emergency use the memetic structures of their society to communicate with their publics. By placing information in an appropriately couched format that matches the population’s level of empathetic development, news literally travels like memetic wildfire. I wrote about this here early on during the pandemic. There’s been a lot of water under that particular bridge — that post was written in March 2020. But it still holds up, because it harnesses that deeper understanding/guiding principle of how people know in a given society. Quick update — the U.S. is still in chaos, and fighting it out in the lower v-Memes (which is actually devolving our society) because we just don’t know ourselves — and we actually refuse to acknowledge the updated science, which shows our initially order Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions just DID NOT work. And no surprise — those biases remain, casting aspersion through the lens of moral purity on pick-your-outgroup. Those filthy Republicans/Democrats. We always knew they wanted to kill us.

Bhutan is an interesting example to the contrary. They are ruled by a king, and the majority of the population rests somewhat comfortably in the Tribal/Magical – Authoritarian v-Meme. I think most Western descriptions of life in Bhutan come through rose-colored glasses, but it’s still a place I would like to visit, even if I didn’t want to live there. The country is kinda racially homogeneous, and religiously homogeneous, in part because they deported a bunch of Nepali-leaning (like over 100K) Lhotsampas, that involved all the usual rape and killing of any Tribally based/Authoritarian populations. If you read just the short Bhutanese history on the Wikipedia page, you’ll never believe any bullshit from the vast majority of Western journalists ever again about Bhutan being a historically peaceful kingdom.

Still, Bhutan is Buddhist, and Buddhism is a very interesting religion (and I owe a lot of my own reflective practice to meditating over Zen Buddhist koans while riding my bike.) The short version is a good hunk of Buddhist leadership realized that they’d never be able to evolve the value meme set of their larger population, because of poverty. So they went “all in” on the lowest level of the Empathy Pyramid — mirroring. I’ve posted the pyramid below in case you’ve forgotten it.

The good old Empathy Pyramid — those words on the right are pure gold

That’s the whole idea behind the Dalai Lama gig. Pick one child, have him raised by other enlightened beings to be an exemplar (kinda like the Buddha himself) and then everyone will copy him. It’s a good idea, and likely has made predominantly Buddhist countries suffer far less sectarian violence than comparable places. But they’re not the paradises that the West projects — Myanmar is over 80% Buddhist, and they seem to have had no problem massacring the Rohingya Muslim minority. Social structure dynamics and empathy development uber alles, folks. Hate to pop your chanting bubble, but Tribal/Authoritarian societies gonna Tribal/Authoritarian. And that usually means hell for the out-group.

Nonetheless, it’s not a bad strategy. And you can use it for the good of your people. This story (that totally makes sense) popped up on Twitter this morning, about how Bhutan launched its vaccination campaign.

Bhutan‘s vaccination kick-off channels the Year of the Monkey energy!

I’m not going to mess with the lamas that made this call — do remember that the policy of this blog is to explain things in the here-and-now, and NOT!!! call BS on higher intuitive insight, unless it’s obvious falsifiable. Which, in this case, it’s not. There are understandings beyond my understanding. At the same time, well, gotta admit that giving a 30-year-old woman was a great choice. In the middle of a demographic category, extremely unlikely to get any side effects, breaking down any male/female preference (the Buddha ordained it, after all) — good on ’em.

Because I am no expert on Bhutan, let alone Buddhism, I also can’t comment on whether all this was emergent system behavior, or choice-by-design. But regardless, it does show that governments, if they have the best interest of their people at heart, can do right by their populace. Because of their level of Empathetic Development, Bhutan could never in 1000 years come up with an mRNA vaccine. But they did know the time to step outside their level of empathetic development and grab that tiger by the tail. Not all borrowing from higher v-Memes has to be iniquitous (as I’ve discussed here regarding nuclear terrorism.)

“If you see things the way they are, things are the way they are. If you do not see things the way they are, things are the way they are.”

Love it!

Default Modes and v-Memes

We know what Baby Coho thinks about in her Default Mode Network

One of the more interesting concepts in neuroscience is called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This Wikipedia article does it justice — as much as one can believe scientists studying what might be called the center of purposelessness.

And what is the DMN? It’s the connected regions of the brain that communicate with each other when you’re not particularly focused. If you believe the Wikipedia article, then you’ll see that much of what the DMN does is background processing for relationships with others and self. Here’s the list:

It is potentially the neurological basis for the self:[18]

  • Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
  • Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
  • Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:[18]

  • Theory of mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
  • Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
  • Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
  • Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
  • Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group
  • Social isolation: A perceived lack of social interaction.[20]

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:[18]

  • Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
  • Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
  • Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
  • Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

What this list makes me more assured about is how we see transfer of relational modes to actual cognitive action modes. If we are indeed captured by the guiding principle of this blog — “as we relate, so we think” — it should come as no surprise that what happens in the DMN bubbles up to the surface when we attempt to focus. Our brains are practicing this constantly, even when we don’t believe we are thinking.

What this also means is our default, First Tier v-Meme is a real thing. I think it’s a fun exercise for blog readers to ponder what this might mean. For me, I am totally a Performance-based thinker. Confront me with a problem, I’ll give you some path out of your current state toward a goal you might have, or we might share. Some people obsess over status and moral judgment (Authoritarian/Legalistic.) And still others are deeply concerned about individual needs, and attempting to contextualize whatever their response is by considering the people around them (Communitarian.) Go down the v-Memes and see where you might fit in.

You’re likely to not get operating v-Meme out of reading any skilled writer’s prose, however. Writing is a developed ability all its own, and people versed in active reflection can often write at a much more evolved v-Meme than they actually operate at. Which is also interesting! And nope — I’m not going to go through my various writer friends and tag them out. Though I did just write this piece on contemporary journalism.

I’m all in favor of more research on the DMN — but it doesn’t lend itself easily to standard techniques. So stay tuned.

Whack-A-Mole and our Theory of Empathetic Evolution

On the Mekong River, south of Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve felt a bit of pandemic stress myself here recently — my dear students are definitely suffering from a lack of social contact, and I can see the fading of resilience in our young people that only connection can heal.

It’s forced me to think a bit about what I write — and why anyone should care. I do know my R0 << 1, regardless of my own regard, or the actual virtue of the work. So recently I was thinking about how to explain why someone should bother, or even attempt to steep themselves in the work on this blog, which, for the most part, avoids descriptive narratives, along with the inevitable good or bad, of current events.

So I came up with this. Whack-A-Mole. For those that care, “Whack” is the Anglicized version of the Japanese-Anglicized world “Whac”. In Japan, the game is called mogura taiji, “Mole Buster” — and so was rebranded to “Whac”, which then got turned into “Whack”. The Wikipedia post is well worth the read.

For those unfamiliar with the game, it is a mechanical arcade game where, for a certain amount of time, little moles pop up out of holes, and you have to whack them before they retreat. Your score is dependent on how many of the moles you whack. When your time is up, it’s up, and your score is tabulated. I’m sure there is a theoretical maximum of moles one can whack in a certain amount of time. Here’s a picture pirated from a software consultancy in Germany.

As you can see, one can really get into this game

Whack-a-Mole is the resonant paradigm for our time, with all our various Wicked Problems. We never can get ahead of whacking the heads of the little critters. They keep coming on and coming on until our time’s up, or our shoulders are tired. You’re set up for fun (or failure) from the moment the system hands you the padded hammer. And yes, you’re never going to really destroy the moles. The best you can do is count coup on the little suckers.

What does this have to do with our Theory of Empathetic Evolution? Or rather, why should you care about the complex, interwoven structure of knowledge, social systems, personal development and culture? If you were to draw a big circle around everything that was involved in Whack-a-Mole, you’d include the arcade game itself. You’d also include the workings underneath. And you’d also have to include both the person doing the whacking, as well as the person who handed them the hammer.

The only real way of winning Whack-a-Mole is to have the self-realization that it is a game, and that the game is actually embedded in a framework where the actual, underlying dynamics are hidden, and elusive. I myself don’t know if the randomness of the moles is generated digitally, or if it’s a complex mechanical system with a non-repeatable pattern. Either way, the only way out of the endless game is to either break the machine, or do game-change beneath the surface. The moles’ behavior is, quite literally, emergent — and we simply can’t know on the surface what makes the moles pop up in the order they show their little faces. They just do.

But if we understand the Deep OS, at least we have a chance. You have the work on this blog about the social physics of game change, and you can, if you’re willing to sweat your brain, make more educated guesses on the pattern of the moles. Or you could potentially reprogram the game, so the moles popped up in a more orderly fashion.

And if you do need a more top-level description, you could read Hanzi Freinacht’s book Nordic Ideology. Highly recommended and as exciting a book on political philosophy as one can find!

Or you could elect not to play. But be aware, just because you decide to sit out a couple of rounds, the moles are going to keep showing their little noggins. As long as someone keeps putting quarters in the machine. And someone is ALWAYS putting quarters in the machine.

How Do We Know the Truth?

Been saving this picture for a while — friend Benny Marr on one of the biggest river waves in the world, N. Quebec

Note — this is not an easy post, and requires familiarity with the larger memetic theory I write about. But it’s an important thing I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

In the hurly burly of political discussions, one of the most volatile topics in play is how we talk about censoring misinformation, or disinformation. For reasons discussed in this previous article, we can expect little help in evolving nuance from the mainstream journalism community. Locked in the paradigm of “reportage”, their job is solely to report what the various experts and authorities tell them — even if what that is goes against everything that is observable.

And this is especially problematic. As Chico Marx once said, “Well, who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?

This surfaces the larger philosophical question — how do we know the truth? And, not surprisingly, how we know the truth must be hooked to how our brains process information. That leads inevitably to our own understanding of how we think and form perspective — which then, inexorably, leads to v-Memes. How we relate in the social structures that we’re given creates in our own mind the truth, because that leads to the basis for coordinated action. A group of individuals sharing the same truth can then functionally coordinate activity — and that leads to, more or less, evolutionary success if, over the long term, that group of truths/information reliably constructs a model of the world that is grounded in reality.

This is a big thought, so I’ll state it outright:

Truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network.

This is the kind of statement that opens up whole cans of worms. Nothing in this indicates anything necessarily contact with physical reality, though with the various forms of social evolution, obviously this matters. Truth also becomes dependent on scales of time and space, as well as energetic reach of a given agent. No one can teach us better about this than Winnie the Pooh. Trees may be filled with hives of bees with delicious honey — but without some means of accessing the honey, we rapidly become disinterested in honey as a food source. That doesn’t mean we can’t find modes of spatial enlargement, as Pooh Bear aptly demonstrates in this famous picture:

Seeking out honey from bees high above his head

Where are we going with this? Instead of arguing about truth, what we really need to do is recast this discussion in terms of what I call validity grounding. How do we know things are true? Or really, how do we know things are valid, and grounded to a larger physical reality?

For those with some electrical background, grounding is a familiar concept. It is a way of taking a given circuit, and making sure that all parts of that circuit function off the same base potential. We use the term as well to show someone, in all forms of life, are not floating about in how they perceive the world, dependent on whatever knowledge base they may reference. We’ve all heard statements like:

“He’s very emotionally grounded.”

“She’s grounded in the physics of the situation.”

And so on. From there, it’s easy to expand the concept to all sorts of information. Validity grounding matters because it becomes the reference that all other activities in a person’s social network (or larger society) relate back to. And this is predicated on the two primary types of information in a society: a society’s beliefs, which are integrated aggregates of information, often processed by and through elites; and the accepted observations of other sentient agents (We the People!) who are doing their own thinking on what they see.

This dichotomy of beliefs and independent observations also map to the notion of closed and open systems in how they manage validity grounding. Beliefs are held inside a closed network that almost inevitably sorts into some version of a hierarchy, with the people at the top of the hierarchy being responsible for defining truth for the larger group. As opposed to more open social networks — data-driven observations rely on the agency of the members of that network, which can both form and dissolve, and so are inherently open in nature. Beliefs are low-empathy and dependent far more on how members holding them feel; data-driven observations are dependent on more developed, rational empathy.

Closed and open systems, for anyone that has done any measurement work inside a lab, also behave very differently. Inside a closed system, signal drift , the result leading to arbitrary measures of voltage or current, makes measurement inherently unreliable, as well as invalid. An insulated, closed system cannot self-correct on its own. My favorite example of this was the Aztec Empire, that I write about here. They convinced themselves (through their priest caste) that human sacrifice and cannibalism not only were acceptable, but necessary for the survival of the society. Without killing people on a daily basis on the altars, the sun would not come up. This set of beliefs led to profound, psychopathic drift in validity grounding for an entire society. One of my favorite examples of this was the focus on developing obsidian spears, refined for the technical purpose of solely wounding their enemies, so they could be sacrificed alive later. The Aztecs had so utterly dominated the subservient tribes that they would line up their young people as tribute when the Aztec emissaries came knocking. They were marched up the mountain to have their hearts cut out and eaten.

But when the Spaniards showed up with their forged metal swords and horses, it served as a profound validity grounding moment for the Empire. Metal swords are, in reality, much more robust than obsidian spears. And that, along with the revolt of the subservient tribes, allowed a handful of Spaniards to sweep away the battle forces of the Aztecs, which likely numbered into the hundreds of thousands, over the course of only a year. If you’re a closed social system, be careful what beliefs serve as your primary source of validity grounding. Because reality is still out there to bite you in the ass. In the lab, poorly grounded systems that drift are subject to violent arcing between different potentials when those systems actually connect with a larger, more relevant grounded systems. In societies, it can literally mean collapse of empires.

More highly evolved systems can still suffer validity grounding failures. But systems that integrate, in an evolved fashion, more viewpoints, are also far less likely to be surprised. I talk about this concept in the context of design in this post. Regardless of how well we may listen, understand and integrate our various agents/people/sensors inside an open system, though, tragedy can still strike.

Consider this example. We’re all relatively comfortable with planning a picnic on any given day if we can check the weather report. And modern weather forecasting has even given us the ability to plan a bike ride, following a nice wind direction on that same day. Models are made and updated every hour that take into account the winds off the California coast and how they’ll affect the foothills of the Sierras that are tremendously accurate — large, global spatial scales are now routinely integrated into modeling of weather in your backyard. But if an asteroid hits the planet (understand this in terms of much larger-than-comprehensible scales of time and space) it’s still “See you later, alligator!”

Walking up the V-Memes — Validity Grounding for Different Social Systems

Since people need points of synchronization in order to understand their position in the universe — relative or absolute — references are provided for validity grounding dependent on the active social structure of a given social organization, and its needs. The simplest example is perhaps the conversion of time of day from being independent for each city (noon could be easily measured when the sun was directly overhead, and watches set accordingly) to time zones, which were required for trains to run on a single track with passing sidings. Two trains, headed in the opposite direction on one track, was literally a disaster waiting to happen.

If you need to review v-Memes, there is the header post, as well as this post that can explain how shared values a.) can be understood and grouped in terms of connectivity/empathy and scale, and b.) how they serve as compact representations of information. V-Memes come from Spiral Dynamics, and are essentially a stack of the different values as we move up in societal complexity. It’s worth reading this piece over if the material is unfamiliar.

So.. here we go — a list of the v-Memes, with social structure, and primary validity grounding (VG)!

  • Survival v-Meme — (survival band) — conscious acquisition of immediate information (is there a tiger in the bushes?) — VG — You lived to see the next day! Centered on the individual and their immediate senses, with little/no influence of social connection to others around you.
  • Tribal/Magical v-Meme (tribal society with magical beliefs) — old myths and stories provide environmental grounding and allow persistence of a group of people into the future who can carry forward these stories. VG — modest level of reinforcing basic survival information, as well as larger context integrated over time from explorations outside the group and returned to “make sense” of the larger world. More VG in an immutable identity as the same as those in your in-group, but different from other groups around you. (Most tribes’ names are usually a variant of “the people” — which has implications for those in out-groups who are NOT part of that tribe.)
  • Authoritarian — (power structure dependent on those higher in the rigid hierarchy holding positions assigned by people higher in the hierarchy). VG is provided by the person at the top of the hierarchy, with potential sub-assignments by that person to various sub-classes of individuals. “The King Knows Best.” One can see the perils of this type of system clearly — if that one person, in charge of grounding the entire society to reality, is a nut, obvious bad things can happen.
  • Legalistic/Absolutistic — (Stacked hierarchy organized by rules, and organized elites somewhat independent of personality. Position/title matters!) VG — different roles are supposed to be aware of certain inputs outside this closed system, and are responsible for the veracity of information used in decision making inside the hierarchy.
  • Performance/Goal-Based — (Mix of lower social structures, where individuals have some ability to choose who they talk and listen to.) VG provided by a shared goal or purpose, that requires the individual to both observe and facilitate that shared purpose. Additionally, this is the first truly open system. If an individual decides that outside input is needed, others can be added to the social structure (like customers) that can provide fresh perspectives to determine if the system is meeting the needs it proposes.
  • Communitarian — (Mix of lower social structures, where group well-being is assessed both by aggregate means, as well as individual cases inside the social structure.) VG is provided to greater or lesser extent by input and data collection of all members of the social system. Where these systems can stumble is through the assumption of equal input. Everyone owns a piece of system validity — but not everyone owns the same size of chunk. This v-Meme will also be more or less valid and grounded dependent on the personal evolution of all system members. One where only a couple of individuals are truly data-driven, but most members are magical thinkers, will not persist, at least at this level. Much of the problems we are seeing with individuals struggling to validity-ground our own current form of governance is related to this failure of personal development.
  • Higher v-Memes/Second Tier (mix of lower v-Meme systems, with intentionality as part of system evolution — we are designing a system for a combination of functions, both lower and higher.) The big VG shifts in Second Tier systems are two-fold. The first is the addition of reflective practice on a profound scale — are we really doing what we thought we were doing? Can we explore other modes of grounding so we can be sure we’re actually doing what we think we’re doing? The second VG point involves actively understanding what is NOT known, as well as what CANNOT be known. This metacognitive awareness may be experienced to lesser extents lower down in the v-Meme stack, but in real Second Tier thinking, is an active part of the discussion. This as well is a current problem in our social systems. We refuse to accept or acknowledge the fact that we can make our systems more valid, and grounded over time — and demand perfection immediately, without evolved change. Or we accept Authorities at face-value, instead of demanding them to provide prima facie, observable evidence that what they say is true. The lack of VG in, for example, the dietary community is extreme — the US has an obesity rate of something approaching 65%. Yet the nutrition community insists on managing old guidelines that have been shown to be wildly, demonstrably false. This is not Second Tier thinking.

Summary — How Do We Know the Truth?

I know the text above is complex. And while it is possible to reason through the above validity grounding points, I thought I’d add this section for those that want to beat me over the head so I just get to the point! The list below is how we get to the truth for the various social structures/v-Memes/stages of development that are all linked together! No justification is given — that comes from above.

·  Survival v-Meme — did we live another day? The information we reflect on will let us figure out what was true or not if we think back on the day’s events.

·  Tribal v-Meme — did our immediate group last another year? Did our myths of how the world works hold up in the face of any larger changes?

·  Authoritarian v-Meme — This one’s easy. The boss tells us what the truth is, and it’s our job, regardless of what we see around us, to believe it. 

·  Legalistic v-Meme — The rules are the truth, and we better follow them, as well as make appropriate sacrifices to our own personal well-being to conform.

·  Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme — The truth will get us closer to both our personal goals, as well as goals shared by a more compact community. The big transition here — we, as individuals, get to contribute to the truth. Our observations matter.

·  Communitarian v-Meme — the truth is reflected in actions that promote aggregate member well-being, which can be measured as those circumstances change. 

·  Second Tier v-Memes — the truth is reflected in larger Guiding Principles of the Universe (we’re not going to argue that the Law of Gravity is The Truth, for example) as well as a deeper understanding of where we cannot possess the truth.

I’ll close with this thought. Validity Grounding — the process of evaluating whether what we believe and act on matches reality — is one of the most important exercises a society can engage in. It’s why science, well-done, is one of the most important functions of a modern society. But as I’ve written elsewhere, it cannot be separated from personal and societal evolution — both in the creation of more complex knowledge, as well as the ability of people in that society to correctly apply it. We will always need authorities as part of validity grounding. But they cannot be, nor should they aspire to be absolute Authorities. We have to come far more deeply to terms with the fact that many outcomes cannot be known with certainty, all the time. 

And that is the current peril with the most recent advocacy movements for censorship. It’s easy to look at the polis and declare certain parts of the information space “untrue” — like QAnon. But there are always going to be controversial shades-of-gray discussion in any modern society. For example, as the pandemic has shown, and will continue to show, many initial assumptions about various prophylactic behaviors involving Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions are false. I wrote a sense making piece myself on mask efficacy here, early on in the pandemic before widespread adoption. I believe that the data I evaluated was true, and the reasoning solid. 

But it has turned out, in hindsight, through simple time series analysis to be NOT true. 

The deep reality that we will have to deal with is that unevolved Authorities in our society are always fond, through emergent disposition, of controlling the information stream – reality be damned. And those Authorities will also be intrinsically interested in their own egocentric interest — regardless how much they may protest. AND they are far more likely to squelch the voices of Validity Grounding that do not support their position — and turn an open society into a closed one. 

Let’s never forget what happens to closed systems with poor grounding. That arcing thing ain’t pretty.

Postscript

One of the reasons I’ve always loved whitewater so much is because running rivers (or surfing big waves) hones one’s sense of validity grounding constantly. You under- or overestimate? The river spanks your ass. The picture above of Benny shredding what is known as “The Cheese Wave” is classic. He’s got to find the wave, figure out when the water level is right, and then practice so he can get on the face of that monster. And then, in the moment, has to rip it up. That’s an entire scaling stack of reality that led to that picture.

One of my favorite visionaries was/is Greg Noll, the dude that (on a surfboard) surfed Big Waimea the first time. His famous quote:

“You want to know what it’s like to be a big wave surfer. Grab a board, paddle out past the break, point that board down the face of a grinder, and MAKE A COMMITMENT. That’s when you know The Truth.”

Validity grounding in a nutshell!

The Relational Power of Uncles and Aunts

Conor and Karrie, on the Lochsa, getting into the wine

One of the things you’ll often hear repeated, ad nauseam, is the value of family in raising kids. And make no mistake, good family is basically priceless. Good family cares about the long-term success of you, as well as your kids, and can create a safety net when, not if you have emotional challenges in your life.

But not all of us are born into families that care. In fact, as I’ve stated, some of us have really drawn the short straw when it comes to that kind of thing. Biological family that plays the “if you love us, you’ll let us beat you” game are more common than folks realize.

Such as it was for my situation. And no — I’m not going to discuss the long tapestry of misery that goes in my own background — I’ve alluded to it enough in my other writings. Too many of them are still alive, and would be happy to litigate.

But I have been truly gifted with an extended family of non-biological uncles and aunts, that have been deeply concerned with the well-being of me, and especially my boys. These people have served pivotal roles in my children’s development, in a host of situations. They have taken their roles as functional adults in my children’s lives seriously. And I am truly, eternally grateful for that. We live in a society that preaches that children are a liability — too much money to raise, think of the career possibilities constrained, and other such icks. But the people that have stepped up in my circle are an exemplary group of humans. They haven’t all be there, at all times — they have other lives and responsibilities. No one person in diffuse modern society can be held to that standard. But they all have brought something, selflessly, to the table.

And you would be surprised how the connections have been made.

A quick review — relationships, as we’ve discussed, create the brain wiring that we all live by. These relationships have two primary components. When combined, they create the memetic profile that the child will see and interact with.

The first are called Externally Defined Relationships — these are title-driven relationships that come with a code of conduct that is established by larger society, and are largely belief-based. Rooted deep down in the limbic system that ran our Tribal past, they are instinctual. Mother and father are great examples, and come with elaborate descriptions of what mother and father are supposed to provide. But there are other slots in all our various hierarchies. Doctor, pharmacist, engineer, teacher — these are also important titles, some gained through extensive schooling. If you are sick, you don’t wander around the local shopping mall, yelling “I’m sick, come help!” You go to a doctor’s office. Externally defined relationships help us, and our children quickly navigate large, complex societies. And to the extent that we have our children practice those relationships, ranging from that tribal background (mother, father) to the far more Legalistic and formal (professor) the greater a range of thinking modes we open for our children to seek out authority-driven advice, as well as form the patterns in their brains for other rule-based processing.

This is an important point. Our children need formal relationships in their life so they can process rules in other parts of their life. As we relate, so we think.

But all the externally defined, healthy relationships in the world are not enough in and of themselves in training your children’s brains. Healthy externally defined relationships do provide children with a bedrock of sturdy attachment. No one can create an entire culture on their own. And not every hierarchy a child is exposed to is wrong.

The second category of relationship deals far more with active empathy. I call it an Independently Generated, Data-Driven, Trust-Based relationship, and it derives its legitimacy through interaction with the two participants. These relationships are inherently data-driven. People interact, they read the cues from faces, and calibrate their behavior toward each other based on that information and their own judgment.

This sounds more complicated than it is. You may trust your wife, for example, to remember to pick up your prescription from a pharmacy, but when she offers to make soup, you might want to order take-out. The independently generated relationship here shows how the scaffolding works. A good wife or husband should be deeply concerned with a partner’s health. But we all know that when it comes to being a great cook, the proof is in the pudding!

These relationships are absolutely vital. They evolve your children to be rational human beings. Rational relationships lead to rational humans, and especially humans that have agency — the ability to act, pick and choose for themselves.

Which brings us back to adding family, especially in the case where you don’t have any. I’m a declared orphan, and my boys functionally are as well. You cannot raise a child in isolation — it just doesn’t work, regardless of how good a parent you are. You need other people, and especially other adults, in your child’s life. If we are having a crisis in contemporary society, it is with that destruction of the multiple-generation family in all our kids’ lives. Kids can indeed learn important lessons from playing with other kids. But anyone that has the idea that homogeneous age interactions (think playing soccer) can completely do the trick, — you’re wrong.

Kids can, and do learn important lessons from interacting with other kids. But when everyone looks like you, and runs like you around a soccer field, there’s not much empathy development going on. Rather, what you’re doing is raising a child with a crowd mentality. And that’s not good for popping kids out of their own egocentricity, which is developmentally where they naturally start. Anyone that’s ever attended a seven-year-old’s soccer game can attest. The ball is kicked. The mob follows the ball, until it is kicked again. Rinse and repeat.

That’s why aunts and uncles are so important. And they can be found and cultivated, from all sorts of interesting places. They will come and go — but they are vitally important in your child’s upbringing.

Here is the challenging part of child-rearing. To receive maximum benefit for your child, you have to establish a pattern. First, assess the person and their ability to be alone with that person safely. All the rest of the advice flows from understanding that trust you can give the adult.

The second part? You have to get out from in between the child and the adult. With all the aunts and uncles in my kids’ lives, I’m very clear at the outset. “I’ve raised this child to this point. I think he/she is a pretty good kid. But if you spoil the child, or create some other imbalance in the relationship, I’m not going to worry about it. You’re going to have to fix it. I’ll always be happy to talk to the child, and potentially discipline after the fact. But I consider you a partner in raising this young mind.”

In the picture at the top is an old girlfriend, Karrie, who definitely fell into the “aunt” category. Karrie and I had a relationship that only lasted formally about three or four months, though we still remain friends to this day. We took a number of camping trips with the boys — Karrie would drive up for the weekend to Pullman, and we would take off with the kids from there. Since we drove two cars, it was imperative that Karrie had a companion to talk to as well. No isolating the kids from their responsibilities as good hosts. So the boys would take turns riding with her.

On one car ride, Conor, who was nine at the time, engaged Karrie in a conversation on her stock portfolio. Of course, I realize how much a nine-year-old can actually know about stocks — not much. But for half the ride, he asked questions regarding Karrie’s choice of stocks, why she thought those particular companies were good investments, and so forth.

At about the halfway mark, though, Conor got out his Yu-gi-oh card collection. While not trying to terribly distract Karrie from her driving, he turned the discussion toward which was his favorite card, and so on. Of course, Karrie found this deeply endearing. As best as a nine-year-old could do, Conor was attempting to balance the conversation, mixing topics he thought she might be interested in, with others that he cared about.

The picture at the top of this post is also a great example. I had taught Conor how to open a bottle of wine and serve, so he was getting a little help from Karrie in setting the table for dinner. Conor had the title on our trips of a “nine-year-old sommelier” so he would always taste the bottle to make sure the wine wasn’t bad (of course, he didn’t really drink himself) and then serve. Karrie was also famous for her chocolate-chip cookies, and she would bring the boys small gifts. A perfect auntie!

Every aunt and uncle is different, and that is part of the joy. Every different one will bring a different set of talents into the child’s life. We spent much of our weekends post-divorce with Uncle Ronnie, who has a son Conor’s age. Ronnie is an amazing skier and lifetime friend of mine. It was through his tutelage that Conor also became an amazing, expert skier. Conor and Ronnie would always be the first up the mountain on powder days, for the first run (called Rope Drop, for the moment that ski patrol would remove the rope blocking the run. )

Other uncles have served other roles. One of the most memorable Uncle moments happened when Conor was five years old. We were on a river trip down the Lower Salmon, and Conor was riding in the raft. We have a standard adventure rule that is enforced by all the uncles — “talk the talk, gotta walk the walk.” One of the things I noticed with young men especially, is in a crowd, they would talk themselves up into doing really stupid things. But this was a ratcheting effect — back and forth, daring each other and then stopping realistic assessment of the actual threat an activity might pose to life and limb.

So we implemented a rule — there was never any pressure to do something risky. But if you say you’re going to do something, then if the uncles present decided it was fundamentally safe, you could not back out. And if something was truly out there, you were called out for that bad decision as well. But you learned to think before you opened your mouth. There was never a shame in deciding a priori to NOT do something. Risk is relative, and rests with the individual. But your word? That’s a different story.

We were drifting down to a very modest rapids, one that is very swimmable. Conor started jumping up and down. “I want to swim the rapids,” he exclaimed. I was rowing — “are you sure?” I asked. He said “yep.”

We drifted down another 100 yards. “OK, get ready,” I said. Conor was looking over the edge, now not nearly as certain about his boast. “You gonna go?” I asked? Conor said “I don’t want to. I’m scared.” Sharing the front of the raft with him was my long-time traveling companion, Uncle George. George looked Conor square in the eye. “You know the rules.” Conor took one look at Uncle George’s face, and immediately bailed off the raft into the whitewater.

Conor rowing Chris and Ivy’s raft, Desolation Canyon, Green River

If you raise your children right, with a diverse community, they will internalize far more from these relationships than you might realize. On an expedition to West Papua, only a couple of years ago, my older son Braden and I were with a very poor trip organizer, in one of the most remote circumstances I’d ever been in. We crowded into an overloaded boat in the dark, because the trip organizer had failed to account for a shift in ferry schedule. The boat had no lights, and the boat driver had positioned a young boy up in the front with a cellphone, to theoretically spot any obstacles on what would be a 20 mile boat traverse of a finger of a bay.

Halfway out, Braden turned to me and said “you realize that you’re violating every rule that you and our uncles have taught us.” “Huh?” I said. “You beat into our heads, ‘Never get on a traverse without some plan on how to get off of it if something goes wrong.’ Always figure out how to bail off the traverse before you start.” He was right, of course. We immediately started guessing distances to shore in the darkness, and deciding which direction we would swim if the boat hit a lost shipping container. These are lessons that stick.

Uncles can be older. One of my mentors, Al Espinosa and his wife Mindy, helped me profoundly raising my boys after my divorce. They are the boys’ only real grandparents. Mindy took Conor to church, and as a consequence, Conor has a far deeper grounding than most of us with a secular background on how other people think. They communicate regularly with both boys, even though they have other grandchildren with their own kids.

Reading a book with Uncle Al

It’s also important that if you expect others to be good aunts and uncles to your kids, you stand ready to serve as well. One trip I had organized brought along Peter, an expert backcountry skiing friend of mine, and his two girls, Willow and Sophie. Sophie was a classic easy keeper for an eight-year-old. But Willow, age six, had the devil in her. She was sitting naked save for a lifejacket in the front of the raft, taking one of the water guns and spraying the other adult, who was a bit less forceful than me, in the face. I told her to stop — and said if she didn’t stop, I was gonna pick her up by one leg and drop her overboard. She looked at me, filled the water gun again, and did it to my passenger.

So I grabbed her leg, and held her out over the edge of the raft. “You wouldn’t dare drop me! I’ll tell my dad!” Of course, I knew her dad, and we both shared that understanding of the value of a child forming her own relationship with adults in the party. I rolled my eyes, said “Oh brother!” and let go. She came up sputtering (she did have a lifejacket on.) “I want my daddy!” she hollered. He was about 1/2 mile down in his own raft. “Start swimming,” I said. In about 30 seconds we had her back in our boat.

At camp that night, she was still sulking, finding very little succor from her father for her behavior. I was seated in my camp chair, smoking a cigar. I reached into my snack bag, and pulled out a jumbo-sized chocolate bar, and started peeling back the wrapper. The rest of the kids started swarming me for their share. Willow cried out, “I want some too!” I replied “I only give chocolate to little girls that can make up and give me a hug.” She had been sitting on her father’s lap. Instantly, she vaulted off the stool of safety and into my arms. We had no other issues the rest of the trip, and of course, became fast friends. And yes — six-year-olds make great friends.

Sophie, Conor, Yours Truly and Braden

What you’ll find if you open your mind is that there are lots of elders who are willing to be involved with your kids. I came at mine through my outdoor activities, and often with my dating life. Your path may be different. But the secret is still the same. Once safety is established, get out of the way. Let the child learn to manage their own relationships. It is the foundation of appropriate agency and rationality.