Elite Risk Minimization and COVID — Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (IX)

Newest addition to the family…

Let’s start with a time stamp for this post. This post is being written at the time of maximum gaslighting of authorities regarding COVID-19. I say this because we’ve already passed through a couple of waves in different seasons, around the world. We have reasonably reliable statistics on Population Fatality Rates, and we’re even into variants and mutations, which, other than contagion, pretty much act like the original model. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, of course. But it’s far down the road that would have appropriately justified using the Precautionary Principle back at the beginning of all of this. We have plenty of data on COVID.

We also should realize that in much of the world, they are starting to come out of the Authority-driven Memetic response of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs). Sweden, the most modest of all the Western countries, is now a basically Zero Covid state. Great Britain lifted all its NPIs on July 17, “Freedom Day”, and instead of seeing a surge of cases, saw a dramatic drop. I could go on.

But what is happening in the U.S.? Here we’re fighting in all of the Blue States (with skirmishes in the Red States) over masking kids 12 and under who cannot yet be given a vaccine. And it’s not like a vaccine is particularly needed. Kids 12 and under have a death rate from COVID something less than half of influenza, and that rate is already extremely low — something in the range of 1 in 1 or 2M, with 50% of those deaths with sad, extreme comorbidities, such as stomach feeding tubes. One of the things that might help kids, even if catching COVID is a real thing, would be increased ventilation in schools. Yet the debate rages on surrounding masks, which have little to do with physical reality, but much to do, as I have written here (do read this one!) with memetic reality. The goal of the media is almost always to support authority. And it has managed to do that through essentially an 18 month diet, once unleashed, of constant fear.

Needless to say, living in your limbic brain is not good for complex, nuanced thought. Yet here we are.

Why? What happens when a system is apparently stuck in Survival v-Meme hysteria, but in any measurable reality, is not? Real/valid Survival v-Meme hysteria would have to be fueled by bodies in the street, a collapse of the food and water supply, or other such icks. Of course, none if this is actually happening. Even the vaunted “hospital overflow” problem — the original reason given for large-scale NPIs, has turned out to be a bust, over and over. You can read this post for some insight there. As well as for how to actually find things like real hospital and ICU vacancy numbers. Always go to the source. It’s good for your sanity.

Where we are actually stuck in, both physically and memetically, is in Elite Risk Minimization (ERM.) And what is that? ERM is the social dynamic that takes place once a society functionally loses its desire for agency of the majority of its citizens. The information stream the society works on is so gummed up both by fear and polarization, the only thing that matters in the larger, magnified mindset is the preservation of elites. Because of things like the societal polarization I discuss in this post (worth a read — it’s a breakthrough post) everything informationally in aggregate literally whirls in craziness, and even basic facts become contested.

I did a quick “person on the street” interview of a few people (I walk around and ask folks about really basic facts re: COVID) how COVID spreads. These are educated people, so don’t go there. All of them said “respiratory droplets” — which are really not the problem. The real problem with COVID is that it is an aerosol, and can hang, especially in interior spaces, for an indeterminate time. Yet even saying this to you, dear reader, might come as a surprise, and maybe a pushback. This is just a simple fact of the pandemic.

But if you view the statement of this fact that might not support your model of the situation as some attempt to “count coup” on your understanding, instead of discussing in the same matter-of-fact context of the weather, it becomes impossible to find common ground across opposing camps. And COVID’s death rate is basically so low — worst case scenario, looking at larger societal morbidity rates at twice the annual toll from respiratory viruses — you can’t validity ground this yourself because, crazily enough, 628K + people in a society of 330M means not enough people have died. You might have had an elderly, infirm or obese friend die during the pandemic (I had two) but the reality is there is no way for your mind to create a coherent pattern of those deaths on your own. In fact, you’ve likely not known enough people that had COVID and recovered to establish a pattern from that! And for the record, I’ve likely had COVID myself, it wasn’t fun, and in NO WAY am I saying COVID doesn’t exist.

But your brain and sensemaking needs both examples, and others inside your social network that you trust, to develop a larger shared understanding. If that doesn’t happen, well, you’re left with the “experts”. Your fragmented sense of knowing, already exacerbated by fear from media streams, just can’t validity ground this experiment on your own. And then when you add a lack of socialization, mask wearing, and other anti-social effects (like depression) into the mix, society is serving up a Perfect Storm of paralysis in knowing. Which is, needless to say, anti-empathetic and anti-agency.

So you’re left with the v-Memes of your elites, who, through outsize energetics (money) and other markers of status sit astride the various rigid hierarchies that run our world. And their level of kindness and mercy is directly indexed to the cultural sidebars enforced inside those elite communities, and their level of practiced empathy.

As we’ve seen, with the endless supply of videos on both Left and Right of the political spectrum, it ain’t great. Elites partying while the server-folk serve them canapés are easily found on Twitter. Gavin Newsom goes to the French Laundry. On and on. They’re inside their own little community of other rich folks (and this extends to private schools, and childrearing pods) while the rest of us suffer through mask-wearing, or school closures, because our mask wearing protects you, and your mask-wearing protects me — one of the most clever psychopathic tropes yet invented, considering how masks fundamentally don’t work.

Back up a bit. While it’s fair to say that they don’t work to prevent the spread of COVID. But they DO work — to truncate human interaction, and maintain homeostasis inside the social system. Because they’re wrapped around your face maps to the level of social scales that we believe we CAN control in this pandemic — which is barely about 1mm off your body. This limbic scaling (immediate control of your physical boundaries) fits nicely in the larger model.

Since the elites do have the time to know all the various stuff I’ve mapped on this blog (that absolutely doesn’t mean that they do, of course), but perhaps you don’t, you’d think “hey, why aren’t more of them being good humans and pushing back on this claptrap?” As with all things informatics in an unconscious/subconscious social structure, the answer is in the information flow. Or rather, in the lack of information flow. Our elites have been isolated from the population for a long time. They quite literally don’t feel your pain, because there would be almost no way they would be connected to you. Their kid is in private school. Their house is in the gated community. Service people show up and deliver packages to one’s door, and in this day and age, that even includes food behind pizza and Chinese take-out.

It didn’t use to always be that way. Two of my favorite books by James Howard Kunstler are the story of built architecture in the US titled The Geography of Nowhere and the companion volume, Home from Nowhere. The killer point that has influenced my thinking tremendously — we used to be more understanding of poor people’s lives because they lived with us as the help. We saw the challenges they faced raising their kids, making ends meet, and such because they were in our lives. Not badged in some kind of strange uniform, descending on our mini-mansion to clean the pool or mow the lawn. I myself experienced this. Growing up as a child of a doctor, and living on a hobby farm, we had alternately an African-American cleaning lady that raised me, as well as a lawn man whom I would assist with various chores. I’d bring him water when he was hot, and though he was quite reticent, we would talk. I still can remember both their names (Jeannette and Marvin) — so it was not just a passing incident.

When you are not connected to people, you can generate whatever bullshit you want to justify your own self-interest. One can find whatever flavor of, alternately, oppression or opportunity online to rationalize your mental model. That is much harder to do when the person who is working for you is present in front of you. And over time, it’s just accepted that this is “the way things are.” Which then reinforces the homeostasis of a rigid hierarchy.

What’s really crazy is that this kind of disconnection in our society, since we’ve generated income gaps (and therefore social connection gaps as well) is not only limited to rich/poor. A book now a bit dated (the income gaps are even more extreme!) titled Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich chronicles this among the various strata of the New Rich. This might sound like a non-issue, but this is not true. One of the things that has grounded this country forever in how we treat people across the strata of our society is how our Establishment functions — rich people who care about the fate of the entire nation. With the incredible shift in fortunes from the influence of Old Money to New Money, we also lose continuity in information flow in our Burgher/Baron class. This is no call to some return to a hidebound elite. But it is worth understanding that not all people who are rich are necessarily evil. They are, however, harnessed to an increasingly sequestered, and curated information stream that is further removed from reality. And this lack of validity grounding increases more egocentricism of perspective. And hence, more ERM.

The problem with ERM is that it is a natural outgrowth of limbic fears inside the closed system that the elites inhabit. We talk about understanding risk estimation, but if you’re rich, and there’s only one or two things that can potentially get you, or your kids, you’ll pay extra (a whole lot more extra) to not have to worry about it. Especially if someone else is doing the suffering. Cut seroprevalence of COVID by having everyone (but you) wear masks? Why not? There are a whole litany of excuses one can drum up from masking, including the most insane I’ve been told — masks don’t interfere with breathing. Obviously, masks interfere with breathing. I know because I run the experiment on myself when I have to wear one. I’m doing fine, and then there’s kind of a respiratory debt built up, and I have to pull the thing off my face. Yet I am told over and over again about some ridiculous study about CO2 (I actually dug it up and read it once) that I don’t even have the agency to decide if I’m being suffocated — and if I am, it’s all in my head. That’s some crazy ass gaslighting shit. As a 58 year old man, I am not allowed to even comment. That’s how powerful ERM is.

The other thing that is so fascinating about ERM is that the measures forced on the population are essentially NEVER pro-social nor salutary. Improved ventilation, without a doubt, in interior spaces, can drop COVID dosage, and potentially prevent infection. We’ve seen over and over that places like ships, prisons, and other confined spaces turn into COVID hotspots (this is actually a complicated issue and I should write a post on it). Yet the measures enforced are inherently anti-social, like masking, where the main empathy organ of the human brain has an interface, as well as social distancing. Those little six-foot markers popped right up, far quicker than any other NPI, and even in spite of China being trumpeted as the leader in COVID-Zero talk. It was trivially easy to get on the Internet and see that the Chinese were not standing 6′ apart in line, and in fact, some of the restriction was potentially due to an error in translation. That didn’t make the nightly news, now, did it?

Yet inside the context of rigid hierarchy and its associated v-Meme, all of the masking and social distancing profoundly reinforces the social physics, and the homeostasis of the social topology. You mask, and you get depressed. It’s harder to connect to other folks. Overall, as with all Authoritarian systems, the key markers work toward suppression of energetics of people lower down in the social strata. Lock people up, deny them hugs, don’t let them see others’ faces. Yep — that’ll feed that depression. It’s also why one must be careful about declaring explicit evil in those mandating these things. These are emergent phenomena that come out of a social system proposing a given intervention. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

ERM doesn’t just work on physical COVID risk. I had the realization just two days ago that since we’re so far down this particular rabbit hole, it wasn’t just some micro-adjustment of actually catching the bug that was really at stake. Elite Risk Management also means you want to maintain homeostasis inside the reputational algorithms of the social network that’s creating these various ineffective NPIs. If you’ve been for masks all along, you can’t stop now. And the while the reality is that around the world, kids have been going to school without masks, and no non-salutary effects, now that the spotlight has shifted to the places where the issue of ‘return to school’ for kids come up, you simply also have to be FOR masks there as well. To not be for masks on kids, especially in the masks/vaccinated tradeoff world, would mean that the authorities were wrong. And that’s not what authorities do.

Connected action is also off the table, especially as this whole thing progresses. The mRNA vaccines are also experiencing breakthrough infections among some parties. Even though overall mortality from COVID is knocked way down through vaccination (it’s well-established that the vaccine prevents severe COVID infection) ERM has to rear its ugly head once again. That means masks and vaccines — and boosters when they come along. There will be no end to this, because there can’t be. An end would mean an end to homeostasis of the coercive social system. And we simply can’t have that. Everything is working according to plan. The only real problem is that the plan is emergent, and can’t be seen nor surfaced for conscious debate (well, except on this blog). Short take — things will only get crazier. Because signs of status are always, in the long run, fundamentally arbitrary. And usually for show. Ask your neighborhood peacock if you have any questions. If it works, evolutionarily, we run with it.

If there is a bright spot in all of this, one of the beautiful things about operating in the limbic zone is that since it is fundamentally what we call a “state matching” situation (you’re either happy/sad, angry/scared, no shades of gray) flips will come suddenly. It’s rational debate and shared knowledge that create smooth on- and off-ramps of culture and policy. None of that is promised with this latest round. No figure of authority is speaking, well, authoritatively on the fact that COVID will become endemic. Until we put a stop to this, we’ll always hear about the Sturgis super-spreader (non) event. See how quickly this year’s already been forgotten? And don’t worry about any nuanced story. Just like John Wayne said “never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” our authoritarian cowboys ain’t gonna say they’re sorry. It’s just not in the social physics.

So how will all this end? It’s a good question, and I can think of two immediate pathways. The first is noncompliance from enough of the worker-bee class. In my own School, we’re looking at retirement from two key machinists who simply don’t want to take the vaccine. Both are old enough to retire. Teachers are not coming back who don’t want to get vaccinated. And even in the health care system, we’re seeing lots of reports of various health care workers (who are already in short supply) refusing to get vaccinated, and promising to quit. Not good. Noncompliance is an established way that Authoritarian systems collapse, and the signs are popping up.

The other is riots in the streets. I don’t think we’re there yet, though it sure is starting to look like that the good folks of Australia, with their prominent Zero-COVID efforts are getting there. Smart governments know when the people have just had enough of the craziness and pull back. That might be happening over there. But it might not. I’ll be watching.

Information Fractalization and the Consequences to Society

Walking through the Pantanal with Pedro, his daughter, and father, O Macaco

As the pandemic grinds on, sometimes I feel the need to yank my gaze from all the anti-empathetic behavior (and knowledge creation) of the people that somehow believe if we punish people enough, all this will just go away. It won’t. But that’s for another time.

The pandemic does indeed keep me on Twitter, though. And at some level, in an odd way, because the pandemic is primarily an information war, it does make me up my game. Examples from all sorts of people — evolved, only sophisticated, and otherwise — keep me thinking about what is really going on. I’ve had a lot of fun with youngish mothers, some of whom really have got it going on. Here’s looking at you, Geneve! (@bergerbell)

One thing that is true is that once you have a LOT of people on the planet, the notion that you can manage with simplified knowledge structures is idiotic. As they say in the Spiral Dynamics community, there are too many life-conditions for simplistic ways of living. If you’re a Christian missionary sent to the Amazon, no matter how much you want to keep things simple, you have to adapt.

What that means is you either have to evolve your society with empathy, to get the needed complexity, or you have to engage in branching sophistication. Evolution and upward progression in complexity, my preferred mode, allows for increasing autonomy of individuals, responsibility for each other, and differentiable relationships. The great thing about evolution is that if you do it right, you drive even more evolution, on up the Spiral, that accommodates more people, and more creativity and innovation. Things don’t have to get better with evolution, but they often do — that was Clare Graves’ point.

But if you want evolution, you really have to get out and meet different folks, who are going to work your brain. At some level, you also have to approach them with a limited set of preconceptions on how they think, and what they’ll do. You have to trust in yourself as well, that you’ll be able to connect with them as a human being, and see where things go from there. Of course, all this builds your own self-awareness, and metacognition — knowing what you don’t know. But that exploratory sense also allows for a richer life, and worldview. Who knows what you’ll find out there?

Let’s pull up the old Knowledge Structure diagram as a refresher.

The Big Path

Additionally, evolution, through its more diverse set of canonical knowledge structures, opens up the path for new emergent paths. What that means is increasing radically the potential for new technologies. No better example of this exists than the last 25 years of human existence. Where was the Internet in 1997?

What happens when we stop that upward, evolutionary path? For a society to maintain its ability to support the same number of people, you still need something resembling the information density that you might obtain from a bunch of individuals (read as decentralized agents). But since those decentralized agents are either a.) societally constrained from going out and making new relationships, acting on their own behalf, or b.) incapable because they can’t go out and meet different people, because their own agency and empathy are poorly developed, society, somewhere has develop new templates imposed from the outside. While some of this might be good (who’s going to argue in this day and age against the need to fix racism?) once you’ve created any given rule set, you’ve opened up your society to manipulation by Authoritarians and Legalists who may not have society’s best interests at heart. And may indeed be psychopaths. Evolution is far harder to fake than Sophistication. And it shows.

Take, for example the largely academic fight over “appropriate pronouns.” Most professors and academic administrators proudly hang their pronouns on their e-mail signatures, even though there was never much, if any, ambiguity on what their gender was. Pronouns might have started out helpful. We do have some transgender folks, and I fully recognize the difficulty some of these folks have. Maybe some clarification was necessary. But at some level, there is also a ceding of one’s ability to make decisions and read people on their own. That empathetic work — donated now to the pronouns on an e-mail — exists no longer. And our relational brains are worse off for it.

Further, it gives a new cadre of pronoun specialists to tell us how we’re supposed to perceive different groups of people. Agency takes a dive. We begin the drift off into a senescent society. And of course, there is now an avenue for socially sophisticated risers to stake their claim on the notion of bona-fides for administration. Pronouns are big. They must be sensitive, empathetic people because they’ve latched on to the newest labeling scheme, which really didn’t come from the bottom. One more box-check along the route of administrative progression.

How does relational sophistication go wrong? As populations grow, you do need more boxes for more people — the need for new roles doesn’t quite go away. But self-definition isn’t part of that. The roles will be given by your betters. No better example of how the end game manifests than considering the arc of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907) by the end of it all (and it did end) had something like 20 different classifications/castes of people for a population of 80M people. The Tang is generally considered the high point of the Chinese dynastic progression, with many inventions (the Tang invented the world’s first escapement clocks, and even structural building codes.) But inevitably, without evolution, stasis set in, generals fought, and the whole thing came crashing down.

Once you lock yourself into a position where individuals cannot meaningfully contribute heuristic insights from their perspective, one ends up in a fractalization cascade. What that means is there are a handful of relational patterns with the same meta-characteristics that fill out the hierarchy (and hierarchy it is). Short version — you’re not a “who”. You’re a “what”, with limited ability to pick exactly what that “what” is. It IS historic — look at many of our last names — my last name means “Doctor” in Farsi. But I’m still a “what.” Forces outside me define me.

In our own world, our own version of post-modernism ends in a similar fractal cascade, where, having supposedly deconstructed the power structure of the hierarchy, we get down to the individual getting to assign value of right and wrong, or more exactly, societal benefit. The problem with this is not that an individual shouldn’t be able to contribute in a larger sense to society. But without understanding how our perspective is inherently based on scaling in our brains — some of us really can only perceive any benefit or cost in the immediate sphere around us — those larger forces of culture around us don’t force any reckoning. Are we being selfish or generous? You decide.

Because regardless of either your level of awareness, or your actual expertise, you know best, Dunning-Kruger be damned. If we were actively evolving people so that those scales were expanding, we would create a larger cadre of people who actually DID know better. But we’re not doing that, and so, for the most part, we are simultaneously dismantling these larger codes, while being stuck in an egocentric trap of every human for themselves, where no one not only knows more, but the hierarchy is built on an arbitrary structure of belief and status. Say goodbye to the deeper guiding principles of a hierarchy of responsibility — not just to yourself, but to a broad spectrum of others, each needing an independent optimization algorithm.

If we view this through the lens of quantum mechanics, an individual ends up being represented by an independent electron observing itself. Werner Heisenberg himself noted that this didn’t end well. So just like the wave/particle duality of classical quantum physics, once we move out of deep mythic knowledge structures (like killing others) we get to judge whether we’re the good guys or the bad ones. Perspective then uniquely defines our actions. If, as Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman so eloquently say, post-modernism is making no one happy, this is the mechanism. John Donne said “No man is an island.” We can update this notion to the end-all of the cascade of sophistication in our current knowledge structures as “no individual is an electron, because if they are, we end up in a cloud of our own self-imposition.” And what that means is our own knowledge ends up in a pretty arbitrary, statistical cloud. If you never know what to do, you’re not alone. It’s actually in the knowledge physics.

And it’s damn hard to recover from. Once there’s this infinite fragmentation, all generated by Legalistic/Authoritarian elites along the line of very limited consequentiality (remember we’re down in the Legalistic v-Meme, so all we get is “if this -> then that” ) it’s very hard to knit a coherent worldview back together. Post-modernism doesn’t naturally lead to some version of metamodernisn, with a restoration of hierarchy through the mode of ‘hierarchy of responsibility’. Rather, it becomes an arbitrary, pseudo-egalitarian smorgasbord where some animals are more equal than others. Today, you get to believe in the views of ancient mystics. Tomorrow, you can opt for Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. The problem with grounding your truth with only your beliefs is that it’s impossible to avoid reality drift. The Zen masters realized this explicitly. One of my favorite Zen stories from Paul Reps’ book —

The Stone Mind

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy”, observed Hogen. “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”


The current COVID crisis is ripe for creating a very dark interregnum of social evolution through its very attack on empathy and empathetic development itself. Through broad scripts that mostly fall along the line of implicit Elite Risk Minimization, we are undermined in getting together, sorting out that the vast majority of us are pretty good folks, and seeing each others’ faces, which is hands down good for our own personal evolution and personal well-being. Being somewhat of an optimist, I thought the notion of the pandemic would help the Ds take out Trump, and then it would be back to battling the corporate forces threatening workers’ rights, the environment and so on.

I was obviously wrong. We’re much deeper in The Matrix than that. The Elites at the top really don’t need the majority of us for their own survival. And to the extent that we represent some minuscule, fractional risk to their health, they can’t see a reason to NOT wrap school kids in N95 masks. That’s so whack, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Have you ever seen a child wear an N95 mask all day? Anywhere? Talk about an anti-empathetic social experiment. Travel (especially international travel) is another pathway for empathetic development. Where’s that now? I thought I was going to be pretty much free by this summer to get back in the network with my colleagues overseas. Not so much — though there’s no question that Zoom and other conferencing services have helped.

And it never ends. We started out with COVID, and then got the Alpha, and the Delta variant. Now the World Health Organization wants to add constellation names once we run out of Greek Alphabet letters. This is exactly the kind of repetitive fractalization that comes from rigid hierarchies, and is a hallmark of increasing sophistication. And things aren’t going to change unless outside forces (that’s us) demand it — because their rigid hierarchies don’t recognize change. Until, of course, it all comes apart. At some level, knowing how their brains are wired makes me feel empathy for them. I’m sure if you asked any of them, they’d tell you they were responsible actors, gearing up for smaller and smaller scales in the only way they know how. After all, they’re just naming and creating necessary categories. But they’re stuck — and if you think they’re going to get society unstuck, I don’t know what to tell you.

Underlying all this is a core understanding of the intrinsic driver of Elite Needs. What the Elites do need is cheap labor. And empathetically detuning an entire population is one way of getting this. I’m convinced it’s emergent — I don’t think that the majority of rich folks are actively plotting on driving down wage rates. It’s just a function of system dynamics when you’re separated from people who are different from you — and it’s not just race. The long, emergent game is that you end up with a highly developed group of elites (think private schools, universities and such) who are long on sophistication and apparent empathy, but pretty short on actual connection. They don’t know what the consequences of their actions will be, because of that lack of timescale. And where would they be exposed? They only see the world through a preferential media feed, which is confirming what they thought along.

And over time, the working class starts to match, through neglect of development, what the rich believe them to be. How many times do we have to go back to Hillary Clinton and the concept of Deplorables to see this is happening? You can make people deplorable through neglecting things like wage gaps, decent working hours, and good schooling. So everything turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, complete with developmental (or lack of developmental) feedback loops. China once again serves as a great example. Over an arc of 2500 years, once they got to peak Authoritarian/Legalistic development, there was no need to lift the peasantry out of poverty. Well, until the Great Narcissist himself, Mao Tse-Tung, got in there. And then followed up with the Cultural Revolution. Is that what we want?

I still think there’s time to fix what ails us. But that’s not going to happen without confronting the problem, and dealing with issues in a forthright manner. Human connection is what creates our larger organism. And sophistication leaves that on the table as an optional component. Time to get smart. Or rather, connected.

I forgot to add this to the original post — one might fairly ask “why would information from an evolutionary pathway be “better” than information from a sophistication pathway? This has to do with the validity grounding process. If you are down there, generating viewpoints from a lower value Meme, where grounding experience doesn’t matter, you can basically make stuff up and assert it as true. Though there’s no question that independent experience can be distorted (there’s a whole, reasonable trauma literature on this) the more developed experiential perspective is far more likely to detect bullshit early on. Additionally, if one is actually heuristically adding one’s experience to the larger body of knowledge, there’s a whole brain full of sensory experience that adds reality to all of this on the individual basis. Smell, taste, hearing all combine to give a more accurate representation of a given experience, which then heightens the effect of validity grounding.

Contrast that with something simply made up. And remember that the next time you read a book. Check the author’s bona-fides.

For more on validity grounding, go here.

Quickie Post — What does Endemic really mean?

Caiman, up close and personal, Pantanal, Brazil- note you would never get this close to an African Crocodile. Word.

One of the challenges in educating people about the current COVID pandemic is to get them to understand the literal myriad of terms involved. One of my favorites is “endemic”.

The dictionary definition of ‘endemic’ is: Denoting an area in which a particular disease is regularly found. The definition is pretty much the same for an animal, so we can cross-compare the two, and get a pretty good idea of a reasonable analogy.

Take, for example, alligators and Florida. It’s fair to say that alligators are both endemic, and (another one of my favorite words) ubiquitous (seemingly everywhere) in Florida. Since this blog is all about you developing your own sense of enlightenment, this is an easily testable hypothesis. If alligators are pretty much endemic in Florida, you ought to be able to, using the magical power of The Google, type in the word ‘alligator’ with some place that might exist in Florida.

Like ‘kitchen’. And sure enough, if you Google ‘alligator’ and ‘kitchen’ stories pop up of alligators in kitchens!

Like here!

I also Googled ‘alligator refrigerator’ and did find a hit in Charleston, S. Carolina — but after one hit, it ended up behind a paywall. I ain’t lying!

Later that evening, I was talking to a friend about this very topic. I said “since alligators are endemic, it wouldn’t surprise me if you Googled ‘alligator ice cream parlor’ and found a gator story. A little different, but what do you know. You will be rewarded with a TikTok video if you click through. Granted, the gator was getting a little help from a grown man, but what’s not to like about the human/alligator holobiont?

Before I leave you with this, I decided to Google ‘alligator car dealership’. Sure enough — though to be fair, this gator apparently was in Louisiana.

That’s what ‘endemic’ means! Now that doesn’t mean you WANT to have a gator at your car dealership. But things that are endemic are notoriously difficult to totally eradicate. Maybe some of the Zero COVID crowd could learn a little from this short post!

What’s the takeaway? Once a living thing is endemic in an environment, you simply have to learn to live with it. That goes for COVID — as well as gators!

The Structural Memetics of Masks

Braden and Mary, from a long time ago, Meadow Creek, Idaho

There have been lots of controversial non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in the pandemic. And most of us have gone along with most of them — I’d hazard a guess that a lot of the readers of this blog were, and are, pretty respectful of the various authority-driven pronouncements and restrictions on personal freedom during the course of this pandemic.

Certainly I was. At the very beginning, when I received a request from a friend on a reopening committee, I immediately went to work (this was back in March, 2020) to see if there was any way to contain COVID-19. And like many of us, that road led me to masks. It looked like various countries that had strong mask-wearing mandates had successfully managed to dodge the pandemic. And so I wrote this piece — “How We Know Masks Work.” It is still up on my blog, as I have a policy to leave up the things I’m wrong about, as well as the subjects I nail.

It’s actually still pretty good — but we’re far along the evidence pipeline now, and much stronger evidence is now out there that clearly shows how masks DON’T work. I really recommend everything on Ian’s Substack. It’s super-readable, and he really nails the population-based time series case. And he’s really funny. He also links back to “the Science” (the good, the bad, and the ugly) if you need to read that as well.

The short version of how we know that masks don’t work is we have case/hospitalizations/deaths time-dependent plots from almost every country on the globe. If you look at when in time the various mask mandates have been implemented, you’ll see that none made any difference all in any of the measurable quantities. NONE.

Here’s the short version from a systems dynamics perspective. When you implement a policy, there should be at least a modest change in the dynamics of the system, downstream in time from where you implemented the policy. What that means is that if you implement masks, then you should see some reduction in cases, etc. This is called a “step response” and it’s what we cover in junior-level system dynamics class in engineering. It is true for ALL physical phenomena, and it is EASILY observable. You add an intervention, something happens downstream. And don’t start in with that ridiculous rant about “you’re not an epidemiologist.”

If you don’t see a change, then the input (in this case, the mask mandate) didn’t make a difference. It really is that simple.

I don’t want to belabor this with the various arguments, so I’m posting one of the plots from Ian’s Substack, because folks will inevitably say things like “well, they put in the mandate, but no one followed the rules.” Or “maybe there was an effect and it changed the population dynamics.” And so on. Before we move on to what this post is really about (the social dynamics of the persistence of masks, or rather why authorities want us to use them, which is really weird and strange) I’ll just say ALL OF THAT IS ALSO BULLSHIT. I have pored over this for the past year, attempting to find some version of a rational argument, with data, that really supports this, and it basically doesn’t exist. The fact that people have put masks on hamsters, or built weird devices to blow air through masks, is largely meaningless. You can stop the virus by putting a plastic bag over your head. That would definitely work. But needless to say, there will be relatively immediate downstream consequences.

The various protected island populations (Taiwan, S. Korea, etc.) have now all gotten COVID big-time, they are losing their shit over it (my wife is Taiwanese so I get to watch this firsthand in the home country.) They are running around (at least in Taiwan) in Hazmat suits, and it is making no difference. No NPI is really making a big difference in the time-dependent numbers. Though indeed, when everyone locks themselves in their apartments, they might (might!) make a difference in the various peaks. For a week or so. There is simply no way to tell, because there is enough variation in the populations affected you cannot run what is called a Randomized Controlled Trial, where you have a nation where you introduce the virus, and one where you don’t, and do a comparison. You can’t do it because societies are open systems (a whole ‘other graduate class there) and you have to find other ways of knowing. What’s tragic is that when you build fear to the level that they have in this idolized, homogeneous societies like Taiwan, is that since everyone thinks the same, and everyone believes the virus is a death sentence, you have people allowing themselves to literally be burned alive in order to avoid exposure or spread. Anyone who lives in a Western democracy and advocates for this level of societal control — I honestly don’t know what to tell you. It IS more complicated than black-and-white thinking allows (Taiwan, for example, has some very innovative democratic mechanisms) but it is still a relatively unevolved society in certain measures. And even get me started on China.

And for those post-modernists (read the photo on the link — you’re never gonna be happy!) or those with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger, look — check out my resume’. I kinda feel like I have some street cred for writing about masks and earlier getting it wrong.

Masks don’t work, and like hell they don’t obstruct one’s breathing. In order to believe this, you really have to be under total mind control. And when it comes to empathy — you’d do this to kids? With the level of evidence, as well as the preventative case, out there? Are you for real?

So here’s the South Korea curve from Ian. Thank you again, Ian, for doing this.

So let’s leave that surface-level question of whether masks work. They don’t. That’s not what this piece is about anyway.

It’s about “Why are people so fixated on masks, as well as forcing others to use them?” In order to understand that, I’m going to introduce a few concepts.

First is this. You think you are in control of your own thoughts. But you’re not, completely. You are part of a social organization, or a number of social organizations that have rules of engagement as far as how you relate to people. These rules (or really meta-values – we’ll come back to this) dictate whom, and how, you’ll talk and relate to others. There are bunch of these rules that are packed in our heads. They actually fall out trans-culturally (this is extremely challenging for academics to accept) and they are knitted into our heads across humanity. These rules enable different societies to coordinate activities among individuals inside that society.

And while they are FAR from the same, they do fall out into well-established groups of social structures. These social structures are all motivated by one uniting meta-goal. And what is that? It’s persistence. At some level, for some time, you want to wake up in the same society you left when you went to bed at night.

This feature is called homeostasis. All living things tend toward it. Here’s the wild thing. Just like the cells in your body tend toward a physical homeostasis, you, as an individual inside a larger social network topology, also seek this.

Every single one of us has a variety of social systems that we traverse. And every one of those social systems burns these relational patterns into our brains, in what is called a canonical stack. This canonical stack creates the knowledge in given structures. This leads to a unifying, guiding principle — As we relate, so we think.

As we move up through the different social structures, and their linked knowledge structures, we develop strategies for how we fit in — or really, how we will help a given social structure achieve homeostasis. The level of variability and complexity in that homeostasis is directly related to how evolved the given social structure is.

Let’s take in a brief example — supporting your football team when you go to the stadium. If you’re in the early 21st century, you’re likely going to wear a football jersey of your favorite player. You may have a set of cheers you do when your team makes a first down. You may have a long, mythic history associated with your loyalty for the team (“I believed in the Cleveland Browns when no one else did!”) and so on. I’m not the first to note that there is a tribal identity with something like football. And if you don’t? You sit there while everyone else cheers for the home team? In this modern age, the worst is you’ll have a bad time and people will look at you funny. Scale it back 500 years, and the outcome might have been a bit more grisly.

As you move up in social evolution, different identities emerge with the different social structures. And the one you spend the most time with often creates the rules that are your unconscious “Go To’s” for means of processing information. If you’re in a legalistic hierarchy, for example, you’re used to following the rules. If you’re in an authority-driven hierarchy, you’re likely waiting for someone to tell you what to do — or think.

This natural predilection sits in a part of your brain called the Default Mode Network. It’s the background processor that basically runs the relational patterns on the knowledge you acquire and helps you make sense of your situation. Your default pattern that you’ll unconsciously reach for is a function of your aggregated values, otherwise known as your value Meme (v-Meme — those meta-values I alluded to earlier). For me, I’m naturally very goal-focused. You bring me a problem, I’ll immediately start composing some heuristic to get us to whatever that shared goal is. (Might be sexist to say this, but it drives girlfriends and wives crazy!) Maybe you’re a rule-follower. Maybe you’re a community well-being maximizer. All these modes are represented in the v-Meme set described here.

Now here’s the thing — and it’s a hard one to really grok. A given action (like wearing a mask) DOES NOT IMPLICITLY and definitively reside in any given v-Meme. You can’t look at someone wearing a mask and immediately know what their v-Meme is. But in aggregate, in a larger social system, they DO tell you something.

Finally, we tie this to empathy. The KEY element to evolutionary social systems is the characteristic of the full stack of empathy. Empathy is NOT just giving folks a hug, or telling someone you’re sorry. Empathy has little to do with accepting someone telling you a story — bullshit or not — though this is often how the notion of empathy is weaponized. “You’re not empathetic because you don’t care if grandma dies…” This is a manipulation. Empathy is really about how you connect with others. HOW. Mirroring? Emotions? Reason? Information taken from their person? Projection of their circumstance? All these govern the empathetic response, that is given in a triangle. And here is a never-discussed fact — that level of empathy dictates the level of information coherence inside your social network. The more empathy, the greater the coherence. Here you go:

The good old Empathy Pyramid, modified from work by Frans de Waal

These things are all tied together — social structure, knowledge structure, individual development, our operation of our default mode network, and our v-Meme set that maintains homeostasis inside that social structure. They are all connected, and integral to each other.

They are ALL tied together, in feedback loops with each other.

And while any given action may not uniquely map to a given v-Meme, let’s just say that certain ones turn up over and over.

And some, in the context of modern society, like masks, are a hack.

I’ll repeat that — masks are a hack, in the most literal, computer-sciency sense of the word. They’re meant to get inside that higher-level homeostasis of individual rights, and care of community, that higher v-Meme, and BRING IT DOWN.

And they’re not just any hack. Any modality that fundamentally attacks empathetic function (you cover your face, people cannot read your intent) is what I call a Deep OS hack. It’s hack inside The Matrix — how various social structures relay information around their various networks. Interestingly enough, it helps low empathy social structures (like authoritarianism) while dismantling other social structures that promote individual choice or larger well-being. Here’s a plot of Don Beck’s evolutionary social structures to give you a feel for generalized societal evolution.

So much genius in this little picture.

My work has made the case that the empathy dynamic is the key thread running through societal evolution — by the time you’re up in Green, you’re identifying individuals and their unique needs. In order to do that, you have to be able to look at a person, and read them. And needless to say, when you wrap their face in a mask you’re aggregating them into a homogeneous group. Move that needle down to Red Mode!

So now we have to talk about how at least a couple of these social structures work — in particular, the old Authoritarian Power Structure one. In order for Authority to work, the person at the top has to be right, and you (you!) have to be wrong. That means that regardless of what information you are taking in, you have to disregard it and believe whatever you are told. What I call ‘validity grounding’ — the process of confirming what you’re told, with what your eyes see, or your cognitive process tells you, you have to suspend. It’s not a bug of a stable Authoritarian system. It’s a FEATURE.

Here’s the interesting thing. For some folks, wearing a mask will make them feel safe (regardless if it physically works or not.) That’s a response from down lower on the social organization chart (look to the left.) Maybe a mask “just feels right” for some folks (that would be instinct-driven.) But mostly, masks homogenize and make folks feel depressed. They can’t have a higher level of emotional affect. They can’t recognize individuals. They obviously can’t understand sarcasm, or irony, or all those other human communication signals that are so important for conveying nuance. Or really, independently generated affinity and love.

The overall effect of any Authoritarian system is to create depression among those that are receiving conflicting information streams, and the True Believers that basically have an Old, Angry God installed in their heads that supports whatever the Authority is saying. Low energetics are mandatory — or else folks might speak up and against the Authority, disrupting the natural homeostasis of the system.

Here’s the truly terrible thing. We’ve set up most of our scientific and academic organizations on Authority-Driven and Legalistic social structures. What that means is that when it comes to knowledge structures, they are primarily belief-based. And that means the people in them, whom we’re counting on being rational, aren’t really rational at all. Their relational practice is based on titles — not reading the room. And so that spills over into how they think. That’s the whole Default Mode Network thing. You can see how that might be a bit problematic in a global pandemic. Right when you need multiple avenues of explanation, that really get to the heart of the problem, what you get instead is profound GroupThink.

And now here’s the real kicker. Most of this is unconscious. MOST. The elite consensus on masks was established early on during this pandemic. And it’s no surprise that masks, which kill empathy, and are a single point, small temporal and spatial scale solution (you wrap that sucker around your face, after all) would take off, in a noisy environment where you’re taught to judge your neighbor (more low empathy, in-group/out-group sorting) if they weren’t wearing one. “Just wear your damn mask!” has been the battle cry forever. And it so conveniently divided up into Left/Right politics. And what a way to constrain responsibility. All you had to do was agree to slow-scale suffocation of you and your loved ones, and hey — you’re off the hook!

Now let’s stop and consider that a good hunk of people on the Left are going to be rule-followers (“Wear your damn mask!”) and on the Right (“I’ll do what I want!”) you can see how we got there. And because it was fundamentally dichotomous in knowledge processing (Do/Not wear a mask!) the memetics easily went viral. Simple things go far. More complex, nuanced thoughts do not (don’t even ask me about the vitality of my blog!)

And so masks — the ultimate low empathy hack — came to the fore for what they actually did best — a tool of relational disruption. It certainly wasn’t stopping COVID. You can’t go to church without one. You can’t let your kids go to school without them on. You can’t go into a restaurant without one on, until, of course, you sit down at a table and immediately take one off. And on and on. What an easily identifiable badge of In-group/Out-group low empathy conformance. Masks turned into a memetic virus — far more effective than in the physical world against actual viruses.

Naturally, they favored the memetics of the relationally disordered. If you have OCD, masks are a lifesaver. People are a big old vector of disease, and finally, society as a whole recognizes your pain. I’m being facetious here of course. But we’re going to have to start understanding how all these things work or we’re never going to get out of this.

Little kids masking? No question that little kids are going through emotional growth phases where reading faces, if we want them to be whole, and have appropriate attachments (and here’s the kicker) THAT THEY FORM THEMSELVES. If you live in a country where you’re forced to veil your face, this is no big deal. Note that these are countries that also still have arranged marriages (which is a big can of worms that of course has pros and cons.) Because your ability to develop relationships is severely affected. What’s also fascinating is that kids are passing through a phase of growth in rule-following at the same time, and many children, if you tell them to wear a mask, will scrupulously adhere to it. But it will have developmental effects — especially as we’ve now chosen in some states to carry all this crazy bullshit out over years.

These types of hacks are all emblematic strategies and tactics in what is really a MEMETIC WAR – a war of information structure conservation between social systems. What one tactic/hack, like wearing masks does for one social system (if you’re attempting to identify people individually, or form independent relationships, well good luck with that!) is very different for another. Wearing masks, for example, profoundly disrupts the homeostasis of higher v-Meme systems. Those systems require nuance, and distributed processing in order to persist. They REQUIRE empathy. But that’s where masks as a weapon of rigid hierarchies come in — through disrupting this transfer of information, in aggregate, mask-wearing profoundly supports lower v-Meme systems. And people will quite literally go to war to support their homeostatic social system. (Here’s how that works.)

Do the people inside a given system really know what they’re doing? I have no doubt that THE MAJORITY DOESN’T HAVE A CLUE. They’re in the Matrix, after all, and things just are the way they are. Achieving a higher consciousness, Enlightenment, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, has been dwelt upon by all sorts of philosophers down through the ages. By any faith/system of belief standards, it’s a TON of work, most folks never get there, and most folks aren’t even aware that they’ll never get there. That’s because we process the Matrix at the level of development that we’re at. And looking above our heads is something that we were never very good at, but Postmodern philosophy has now demonized. You are in The Matrix. Even if you don’t realize it. Or the Truman Show. Pick your metaphor. The point is that the behavior is emergent. It’s what you do to get along. Whether you realize it or not.

Does it mean that the various scientists who are doing things like advocating for masks have no clue to their motivations? I also don’t believe that they’re unaware of the surface-level system dynamics for a red second. They may not know they’re in the Matrix. But most know there is considerable career risk for speaking out against the status quo, and the act of speaking out upsets that rigid hierarchical apple cart. Trust me — if you intend to move up in academia, you don’t even write pieces like this one, which I consider a.) to be obvious, and b.) to be relatively innocuous.

And some of the proponents, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, (dude is 81, and relatively sharp!) are very likely experiencing what I call the Nazi High Command problem — they’re in it so deep, they think if they backpedal, they’ll be up against the wall. I’d argue that this would require at least a little self-awareness. So it’s unclear how many of them are actually thinking like this.

But that’s not the only modality for the Fauci’s of the world. You can be sure that there’s also a narcissistic God Complex problem going on. They’re not just worried about their current status. They’re also likely worried about a profound loss of authority, which perhaps they view as necessary for societal good. If they reverse themselves (though it could be argued that Fauci has already reversed himself a couple of times) then they will lose their authority and then the population won’t listen to them the next time. And The Matrix is very clear about what happens to those that disobey GroupThink. Scott Atlas, who has actually been pretty rational in all this, first was attacked, and now shunned. Deborah Birx offered herself up for sacrifice. These are not inconsequential actions. You can bet your hard-earned money that all of these folks can read a time series, and know they should see some change in system performance for any NPI they apply. Yet they are caught up in The Matrix, as we all are, at some level. And ended up with the consequences that the dominant social structure in organizations like the CDC dole out to dissenters. Even if they’re at the top of the organization. If you want the sun to come up, some poor bastard has to get their heart cut out on the pyramid.

As a nation, we were ripe for this kind of nonsense. We have neglected developing our people, as well as our kids basically forever. Once you’re down there with your homeostatic thermostat stuck in Authority-land, which implies low- to no-reality-based grounding, anything goes. If you want people to not fall for Authority, you have to raise them with agency, as well as appropriate empathy. Nope — we didn’t have it coming. But entropy has a way of creeping up on you, and having the bill come due. Our societies have long been set up for the hack. How the hell did Donald Trump become President anyway?

Here’s the thing. Culture will keep you going for a while. Culture consists of sidebars, many of which can be economic. But culture won’t save you if your social structure is broken. And that gets back to the basic dynamics of relationships in a given nation. Culture can preserve old things, but has a nasty time creating new economies — that’s what social structure does. (I do write about this quite a bit.)

And the fact that this has now crept down to school-age kids? No surprise there either. We’ve neglected child welfare in this country forever. The fact we threw them on the sacrifice fire early was also no surprise. That’s what our national Default Mode Network, endlessly stuck in oscillating dichotomy, had in store for us. Status-based thinking. And like it or not, kids are low status.

This kind of low level of empathy development also makes us vulnerable in other ways. As a society plagued with overwork forever — I’ve toured the world many times, and no one works like Americans — the aggregate level of exhaustion leaves us in a Survival v-Meme meaning crisis. Now the very act of wrapping one’s face in cloth is how we define helping others — an ineffective NPI that demonstrably does nothing unless you’re coughing. And that lowers the bar on other arbitrary things that fix no real problems. There is more here in maintaining the social homeostasis of an Authoritarian society, which inherently has a bottom caste, than meets the eye. And one of these, unfortunately, is believing that magical rituals matter, as opposed to removing real human suffering of those huddled masses. That’s the real peril of empathy collapse.

IWhy fight this fight? I’m addressing the U.S. now, though I think that most other countries are really not that far away from us. This chronic level of gaslighting upsets the meta-thinking apple cart on lots of other issues. “If they believe this, then let’s try this!” It’s important to keep things real, or you basically open yourself to more Magical levels of societal development. Like it or not, the informatics will find its level. It’s emergent, after all.

And untethering from the belief that you have an obligation to a little of physical reality (not everything is easy here, so it’s important to temper a bit) is a recipe for societal collapse. Here is the key thought — how we practice thinking is how we WILL think in the future — and the key way we practice thinking is how we practice relational dynamics. Believe this however you need to believe this — with Gladwell’s 10K hours mantra (just so you know, it’s more complicated than this) but this simple concept of how we practice thinking is how we will think should rally you to take action against the gaslighting.

In times like this, I reach back to even worse times and find inspiration. One of my heroes who survived the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, said basically you can make it through anything with one person you grounds you. Our situation is far away from what he endured — don’t go all Godwin’s Law on this current situation. But if you want to give light, expect to endure some burning. We have to speak out. Now. And with school kids, don’t tell me it’s not local and you can’t make a difference. Because you can. You’re in the Matrix. I just explained it to you. Now go get your Neo on.

Back to Basics — Psychopaths in Relational Systems

Chillin’ on the Danube FerryDonau Radweg

I know that I’ve written quite a bit about psychopaths in other places on this blog, but I thought I’d summarize some of these thoughts so that they are more easily usable. We are in the middle of a literal shitstorm of manipulation on both the Left and the Right. And without a media corps that has interest in understanding either themselves, or the larger forces moving us around, we are stuck in the middle of the empathy-disordered.

Let’s explore this a bit. The empathy disorders we are addressing today fall mostly into the Axis II/Cluster B and C categorizations in the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Just so y’all know, my brain LOVES to go down the rabbit hole of validity as far as understanding how the APA actually came up with this. But in the interests of brevity and giving my personal squirrels some rest, let’s just take the surface-level descriptions, aggregate them a bit and reason with them.

Empathy disorders, also known as personality disorders, are quite literally disorders of empathy — where a person’s empathy pyramid just doesn’t work like some representative “average” person. The bad kinds have been better represented by Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Empathy 0 +/-“ and we’re going to focus on the nasty version — not people that represent on the autism spectrum. We’re talking about people that we know just don’t connect the way a normal human does – and often display malevolent, anti-social behavior.

This matters quite a bit, once you understand that one of the key drivers of evolution is inter-agent coordination. The average individual actually wants to get along, mostly doesn’t want to control others, and barring various forms of trauma, wants to be happy. Believe it or not, this is a pretty big net to cast, and includes (depending on who you ask) around 80-90% of the population.

The laundry list of empathy/personality disorders might be something like this — narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, avoidant, and more. These are the ones you encounter in people who are out there functioning, often at the highest levels, in society. They are NOT the ones of people who are actually low-functioning, and obvious. If you were to meet some of them at a party, they might be the most charming person in the room, and bright. You simply cannot tell from a laundry list of symptoms who has, or doesn’t have a personality disorder. As I’ve said in the past, Donald Trump was a classic narcissistic psychopath. Yet, like it or not, he found a way to become the President of the United States, and there’s still a good hunk of the electorate that wants him back in the White House.

The dominant v-Meme of the empathy-disordered is Authoritarian Red v-Meme, to the exclusion of much influence from any of the other v-Memes. This creates a condition I call Collapsed Egocentricism. My thesis (with considerable overlap with others like Scott Peck) is it evolves from a process of destruction, either from genes, or trauma, or a combination of both, of well-defined personal boundaries. The result of this is a structural dissociation, following a range of conditions, that creates a deep state of subconscious confusion. Over time, the individual adapts to that confusion by intense management of others’ emotional states. Think of it this way — when you have weak, or no personal boundaries, it’s impossible to not be absorbed with others’ thoughts. And so the empathy-disordered individual turns toward whatever flavor of control they see work in the surrounding world to create depressed emotional states in the people around them. This lack of differentiation also can lead to very disturbing outcomes, which I’m only going to touch on here. Lack of a habituation response is one; the other is the inherent belief that you can get away with anything as long as there is no obvious, superior external observer.

The sum of these characteristics often lead to people who are inured to any internally developed morality (there are degrees, of course) as well as individuals who are very often detail-oriented. Their lack of boundaries often leads to hypersensitivity toward how others think and feel, and because they are existing in a collapsed-egocentric world, feel free to borrow from whatever the contemporary zeitgeist allows to both depress and control others.

The end result of this analysis, by looking at the individual, is you often, without a whole lot of training or experience with them, cannot finger them in a crowd. The key point here is this: You cannot ID them definitively solely by looking at the individual. There have been books about various famous people who are admitted psychopaths, including various research folks. This story is particularly instructive. And so, just as one cannot associate a particular behavior with a given v-Meme — v-Memes are ensembles of behavioral containers that can produce a given range of behaviors — so also can you not identify a psychopath by looking at a list of personal characteristics. It doesn’t mean that it can’t help — obviously some behaviors are going to be far more common among the empathy-disordered than not. But it’s just not as final as folks would like.

These facts point to even understanding the empathy-disordered, because of inherent knowledge creation problems in our social systems that have evolved to study psychopathy and empathy disorders. Psychological research will tend to fine-scale and study a given personality ensemble to death. But the inherent knowledge creation deficits involved in fragmented, authority-driven hierarchies mean that the real “Golden Ticket” description — how the psychopath maneuvers in a social system — is opaque.

That said, there are some obvious indicators when researchers are cruel. And cruelty in contemporary society (not so much in ancient societies) is a good hallmark of the empathy-disordered. My “favorite” would have to be Harry Harlow, famous attachment researcher, who found all sorts of ways to torture mother and child monkey pairs. It’s no wonder that these guys started, through reaction to their work, the Animal Rights movement.

How then do you tell a psychopath, with any reliability? Certainly, more research absolutely needs to be done. By my thesis, though, the best way to tell is by looking at relational disruption around the psychopath. Donald Trump was a premier case in point. Look at the chronic disruption in his Cabinet. Over the course of four years, his turnover was unbelievable, especially relative to other administrations, both R and D. Trump totaled 28 high-level turnovers, compared, say to G.W. Bush, who only saw 2. It’s tough to compare apples to apples here, but you get the idea.

As a narcissistic psychopath, Trump had no problem playing the various cards out of the “victim” deck, for himself, and his constituency. But lots of politicians (many who have empathy-disordered tendencies) do that. The key signifier in his world was that Donald Trump destroyed empathy through his leadership through obvious relational disruption — from old allegiances with foreign allies (Trump, for example, wanted to withdraw the US from NATO) as well as inside constituencies in the Republican party.

The idea that this is some unique right-wing disease, though, should not be taken seriously. There is obvious chaos in the Democratic ranks as well. Hillary Clinton’s calling a huge section of the country “deplorables” certainly was a relationally destructive move. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds compiling lists of sins for politicians. But the short answer to look for is a down-migration of relational systems to lower v-Memes. Short version — evolutionary leaders create societies where more, and diverse relationships are possible. Devolutionary leaders do the opposite. Trump migrated the country down to Right/Left. But Hillary did her own share of damage.

V-Meme level of development of individuals can also give insight – if, as Don Beck said, small ‘p’ progressive leaders are optimally one v-Meme level above the population they are attempting to evolve, regressive leadership is at least one level below the dominant v-Meme of a given population.

What that also means is that in our larger state of societal evolution, where we have a generalized population in the US that are a blend of Legalistic/Absolutistic Blue v-Meme, with a Goal-Oriented Orange v-Meme in the empathetic sense, we are especially prone to having our relational systems being manipulated by Collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme psychopaths. Such people will borrow from things like racial classification schemes, for example, or even small-scale societal goals, to manipulate events in their favor. Inherently, because of their lower filtering of complexity, more evolved ideas will get turned into concepts without the initial complexity score, or intellectual heft they were proposed with.

The most current example of this would have to do with Critical Race Theory. What Critical Race Theory is at the highest, guiding principles level, is the idea that many legal concepts implicitly produced racism in an emergent fashion. This is simply undeniable. Slavery itself (embodied in the U.S. Constitution), Jim Crow laws, and other legal constructs like redlining created systemic discrimination. They also created isolation of various racial groups from each other, so that empathy could not grow on an individual level, obviously!

The problem arises when you have knowledge encapsulated at higher v-Memes, like CRT (obviously systems of systems) is that when one group wants to weaponize various understandings, they generally have no warm spot in their heart for the people on the other side. And with any higher understanding, inherently people will take a given topic and decomplexify it as their level of understanding permits. In the case of CRT, this turns into “we are teaching white kids to hate themselves” on the Right, to “The Right is attempting to keep us from teaching about slavery/Jim Crow!” Neither of these viewpoints represent the more nuanced, guiding principles take on what CRT is. It’s more like saying “Gravity hates me because if I jump off a cliff, I’ll die!”

But these mental models are powerfully, relationally disruptive. They move people down into their In-group/Out-group limbic brains, and prevent the agency for individuals to form their own relationships with people on the outside of their in-group. They also tend toward perspective homogenization — “all white people” or “all black people” and deny individuals their own ability to decide their affinity for others. Matt Taibbi indirectly talks about this in this piece on current doyenne of anti-racism, Robin D’Angelo. D’Angelo’s consistent denial of any allowable agency for white people in the current milieu is inherently psychopathic. It doesn’t mean that racism isn’t an undercurrent in our society at all. But through simplification of white people all into one aggregated class, regardless of lived experience, means that relational disruption and fragmentation is at play. You must forfeit your agency to D’Angelo or you are evil — a classic psychopathic play.

Psychopaths very often make a big splash when they show up on the scene. Their emotionally disruptive messaging gets everyone in a lather, and exciting those lower v-Memes brings out the tribal behavior in many people, who otherwise might be comfortably intellectually lounging on a given issue. There is a disruption of emotional and societal homeostasis. And that can be a good thing. Ossified systems are prone to be shaken up by psychopaths, who are more than happy to use the viral trigger/affair of the day to get their own way.

What happens over time, though, is that psychopaths might build a cohort of like-minded individuals in the short term — what I call a “vampire colony” — but over time, the overwhelming desire of most people is to return to some positive latency. Peace, by any other word. Dependent on the power and influence of the psychopath, isolation, even of the most powerful, is an inevitable outcome. People develop avoidance mechanisms and work-arounds, that likely will result in lower system performance for hitting goals, and certainly well-being. But things do seek an equilibrium.

Occasionally, the number of psychopaths will reach a criticality, and whole societies will become psychopathic. Certainly, Nazi Germany fell into that category, with its fictional, racialized history of the 1000 Year Reich. And of course, looking back in history, one can look at the comparisons of Athens and Sparta, as I did in this post. But inherently, such larger societies, once they move past a persistent tribal form, cannot support the complexity needed to feed and care for large populations. They then collapse.

That said, tribal societies through careful management of bounding cultural sidebars, can maintain persistence of groups of psychopaths. Iroquois division of war chiefs and peace chiefs might be an example. In this instance, we had a nation based on tribal structure, but through borrowing of knowledge through higher v-Memes (see The Great Law of Peace) managed to contain their empathy-disordered warrior elites. One of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans, illustrates the delicate balance between psychopathic warriors and overall larger tribal structures. For those that need a more recent side-by-side illustration of this dynamic, it’s tough to beat Farley Mowat’s book The Desperate People, an absolutely excruciating read of side-by-side normal vs. psychopathic tribal bands.

Summing up, here are the big takeaways.

  1. Empathy-disordered people cannot be discriminated reliably in a general population through individual characteristics. Mirroring empathy in these individuals, as well as attention to detail, allow them to adopt behaviors that often make them highly successful inside various organizational systems.
  2. Some percentage of any human system will contain the empathy-disordered. Exactly what this number is is not known, but likely somewhere between 5%-20%.
  3. Empathy-disordered people can be identified in social systems through their relationally disruptive behavior.
  4. This relationally disruptive behavior often is the result of decomplexification of more complex, prosocial behaviors that are weaponized for power and control of others.
  5. The empathy-disordered, upon showing up on the scene, inherently make a big splash, often as champions of pressing causes, or moral arbiters of truth. Emotional manipulation and deletion of nuance are key here.
  6. Over time, these relational disruptors become increasingly isolated inside social systems as the larger aggregate of people seek healthy attachment and lower stress modalities of living.
  7. In situations where a manager must manage some degree of the empathy-disordered in their ranks, it’s important to realize that who is at fault in a given conflict situation will be difficult to ascertain. When people start acting badly, the initiator or the reactor might execute a bigger sin. That said, a key element for a manager to identify is who is the pursuer, and who is attempting to get away. It is very likely that the guilty party is the one in pursuit of the other.

Quickie Post — Andrew Yang and the Re-ignition of Concerns for the Mentally Ill

Selling eggs in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

An interesting thing happened of note last week in the constant social roil that we know as the United States of America. Andrew Yang, former U.S. Presidential candidate and now candidate for mayor of New York City, issued a comment declaring the rights of Americans to socialize in public spaces, and then fingered the mentally ill as the reason that they couldn’t.

This isn’t the exact comment (which was more blunt) but you can see Yang is still making this point, while struggling to come up with solutions.

When asked “how we got here” by folks, I’m quick to finger what I consider the Big Three causes —

  1. The growing wage gap that started back in the early ’70s.
  2. The destruction of safe, and diverse public spaces, driven in part by the homeless/mental illness crisis truly precipitated (remember the definition of the word) by Ronald Reagan rolling back the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
  3. The metabolic syndrome/obesity crisis that continues to grow, and is actually affecting the way we think, through obvious means like depression, as well as dopamine shifting from sugar.

Now, take a deep breath, and a pause — let’s look at this from a meta-level/memetic perspective.

  1. How many of the things on that list are trauma triggers for you?
  2. How quickly did your brain process the thought “he’s on the backside of how I view this issue”?
  3. Did your brain say “Huh. I need to learn more about each of them.”

Odds are at least one of the things listed above was a trauma trigger — which means the space is very difficult to discuss!

There is no one root cause to any of those three things — but there are a cluster of these root causes that make it then very difficult to solve other root cause problems in our system. That’s the point. Racism, for example is not listed as a root cause above — instead I view it as a chronic problem that needs dramatic remediation, but we are prevented from doing so because we are just not evolved enough as a country. And the three causes I do list are the largest stumbling blocks for fixing our brains so we can solve these more persistent problems.

With that said, let me explain my view (with no apologies.)

All three of the syndromes above served to drive our current population apart based on both race and class. Money obviously separates groups — haves are going to occupy different spaces than the have-nots. If public spaces are unsafe, then a huge opportunity for trans-racial- and class- socialization can’t occur. When you destroy that, you also destroy opportunities for personal empathetic growth, as the default solution is to surround yourself with your in-group. Plus, when you don’t even recognize that some small percentage of mentally ill folks can be violent, then you a.) hand a powerful tool to the moralizers that say you should just accept everyone, but b.) the legitimacy of the concern means most people will just retreat from dealing with the problem. No one wants to be told (no matter how true!) that they are an immoral person — and so that process of delegitimization of debates will create fluxes of individuals away from a given problem. And then we get back to the state of Kayfabe, so eloquently described in this piece.

This overall devolution of empathy will also affect the advocates for particular pieces of the solution — they’re part of the population as well. We’ll start down a road of disaggregated, dichotomous thinking, which continues to create tremendous burdens on people to even engage — and now they don’t have anything resembling a public space to just BS through things. I’ve always maintained that coffee houses and bars are super-important parts of any society. But if you create a certain fear level of people toward other people, then you lengthen the time constant for people to develop appropriate trust and form those independent relationships. Which then, as this blog intimately details, make it harder to create the baseline neural complexity for people to be able to suggest the nuanced, and complicated solutions that will inherently be required. We’re really missing this last part — the idea that relationships work our brains toward complexity. But just because we’re missing it in the larger culture doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Another point in understanding complexity that we’d do well to put a little more cognitive energy into understanding is the idea of a bifurcation point. A bifurcation point, in complex systems theory, is where we tweak a parameter for the larger system and see a whole new set of stable/meta-stable behaviors. So much of our discussion on creating social change has little to do with bifurcation points, mostly because the suggestion of one involves the folks with less appreciation for complexity (do note — I’m being kind with this description) screaming about the larger problem. But larger problems are fixed with bifurcation/tipping points are reached, where a given policy will reconfigure the problem space to a different set of societal attractors.

And so it is with addressing mental illness in conjunction with creating safe, public spaces. We ought to do both. The first — mental illness — is obviously not being addressed, and will need some level of a leveraged institutional solution. It’s not a “throw the baby out with the bath water” — some aspects of what we do work somewhat, and can be evolved. But we also need to realize that we’ve pretty much turned a blind eye toward the problem, and it affects our larger social mind. The second should be obvious — safe public spaces — and communities that have them immediately stick out as places on the move.

Let me end this with a story — this was supposed to be short, after all.

Anyone that knows me also knows that I’m that guy that lives his life with that fire engine siren permanently attached to the top of my head. I’ve saved numerous lives (the real thing) in my time here on the planet, and when I see a bad situation, I’m that guy. I run toward the situation — not away.

Recently my two sons have relocated to Reno, NV. Reno is a town on the move, for those that haven’t been there. It actually has those huge public spaces next to the Truckee River, and if you need some validation that such spaces matter, you should visit. With so many sunny days, you’ll see lots of folks of all stripes congregate next to the river. There are bars lining a section, and folks of all stripes — from Hispanic and black families, white folks, as well as what my son calls ’80s Music Dude’ — an old white guy with a small boombox — who hang out there for at least a couple of hours a day. It’s truly pleasant to go down to downtown Reno, and every time I’m in town, we drive down there and avail ourselves of the scene, even though only two blocks away, the downtown casino industry is obviously in collapse. This is no paradise.

Only perhaps 10 blocks away, though, is another scene. And that is Reno’s large, linear homeless encampment that lines the Union Pacific mainline railroad tracks. Reno, like many towns, started out as a transportation center. I-80 runs through the town, and the UP mainline ends up going over Donner Summit down into Sacramento and the Bay Area. It is not a small encampment — Reno is on the edge of that weather envelope that allows year-round outdoor occupancy, and as pressure mounts in the more desirable homeless locations in California, more people are showing up. I don’t have numbers, but the environmental factors point to nothing but growth.

My son recently bought a very nice, pretty expensive mountain bike to celebrate, at some level, his financial success in the blockchain business. I am indeed a bike nut myself, so after he bought it, I took it for a spin. I rode down the hill from their modest apartment complex, down to 4th Street that runs by the river, and adjacent to the homeless encampment. On the side of 4th St., close to old downtown, there was a young girl, probably about 14, weeping and screaming. I saw her, and slowed down.

But I did not stop. Instead, I thought “what would my son say if I got off his new bike, and while I was comforting this human, someone literally jumped out of the bushes and stole his new bike?” My older son is a transplant from San Francisco, and had spent the last year living in the Mission, and stepping over piles of human defecation across that city. Though he is pretty righteous about his mission to help in the world, he feels little of the need to share comfort to the homeless. I’d be out an expensive bike if bad stuff happened, and I’d also suffer his wrath.

Just so you know — I really wasn’t worried about my personal safety. That thought didn’t even occur to me (though I guess maybe it should have.) It was really about the bike. So I rode on by.

Those that know me also know that on the Fearless scale, I’m pretty off the charts. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some beautiful, some less so. But if you have a society where even someone like me won’t stop, what does that do to everyone else’s capacity to grow and develop empathy?

How do We Get Out of this Mess? (II) Complexity Development and Scaffolding Your Models

Guangzhou butchery — young bullocks in one of the Wet Markets you keep hearing about

Though it certainly won’t be the last, the academic literature is starting to turn to the obvious failures of the epidemiological science surrounding COVID, the conclusions, and their dramatic failures in over-predicting harm, which was then used as rationale for global civil liberties suspensions around the globe.

I’m going to discuss this in the context of a paper that came flying across my Twitter feed. The title of the paper is: Imagination and remembrance: what role should historical epidemiology play in a world bewitched by mathematical modelling of COVID-19 and other epidemics? The authors, George Heriot from Monash University, and Euzebiusz Jamrozik from Oxford, have the right credentials at least to be believable.

It’s a decent enough paper, and explores the ramifications of a refusal of the COVID mathematical modeling community to ground themselves in past pandemics with data as well as historical newspaper coverage. For those of us with a COVID hobby/problem, I highly recommend reading it. The authors point out with particular historic pandemic cases (they draw heavily, for example, on the 1889-1891 pandemic, with its similar behaviors in terms of low morbidity for children, and obvious seasonal variation.) Here’s the killer paragraph from the paper:

“Specific epidemiological correlates between the 1889–91 and 2020–21 pandemics include the low morbidity among children, the lack of the shift in excess mortality to younger age groups usually seen with pandemic influenza, the magnitude and distribution of peak excess mortality ratios in metropolitan settings, and the rapidity of epidemic propagation within communities (Valleron et al. 2010; Campbell A. and Morgan E. 2020; Nicoll et al. 2012; Nguyen-Van-Tam et al. 2003; Honigsbaum 2010; Smith 1995). While downscaling this synoptic analogy to make short-term forecasts of COVID-19 activity in any given place 130 years later is clearly foolish (short-range forecasts from well-observed local data being very much the preserve of computational modelling), the historical record may provide a richer and more useful understanding of the range of medium- and long-term consequences of a pandemic of this epidemiological pattern on human societies than even the most complex mathematical model.

If you had to have a quick takeaway, the authors say “look, this has happened before… and will likely happen again — just get your timescale right.” (For all Battlestar Galactica fans, cue the appropriate music..)

Looking at the structure of knowledge in the paper, the work itself fits well on the concept of what I’ve named Intellectual Flatland. And what is Intellectual Flatland? It’s that map that academics keep of their disciplines, that maintain there is no evolutionary pattern to information complexity. Everyone has their own little island, and that can definitely accrete, or erode as time goes along. Connectivity and precedence just isn’t there. The case the authors make is had this static pattern-matching happened before the start of the pandemic, we would have moved our understanding far faster, far more quickly with regards to modeling, if we had just paid attention to the past. If we had only visited Past Pandemic Pattern Island.

And, at some level, they’re correct. But the deeper “why” isn’t just “send all epidemiological modelers to pandemic history class,” though that might have helped a little. A confession — I’m always a bit suspicious of learned knowledge, because having delivered it for quite literally 37 YEARS!!! I just know how little people listen if their brains are not prepared for the message, or its complexity.

The real answer is to get people to do more asking “why?” And that’s harder. There are tools I highly recommend, like the Toyota Design Process “Five Whys”. But it really helps more, if your brain has the circuits, to understand the knowledge complexity scaffolding process.

I’ve written quite a bit about this. The short version is that we start with lessons learned from the simplest human social structures (Survival Bands) and then move up — through Tribal/Mythical knowledge, Authority-Driven Power Structures, Legalistic/Algorithmic processing, Heuristic thinking where individual decisionmaking matters, and then on up into higher empathy synergizing of individual viewpoints, and ending up Reflecting back on the whole can of beans.

The big insight here — is this whole knowledge structure thing is nested — lower levels are not thrown away — they instead are embedded in higher forms. It’s not “either/or”. It’s a multiple “Yes/And”.

Here’s the Knowledge Structure chart. This thing is gold.

The good stuff — Canonical Knowledge Structures and the basis for all information

In a perfect pandemic world, all people executing at a given knowledge structure would be well-scaffolded with at least some representative examples of the information underneath. What that might mean, in the case of modeling, is that expert analysis of historical data would be integrated as far as weighting functions for any contemporary modeling. That would mean that the historical information referred to in this paper would have been used, in some kind of translated aggregate, to map the pattern of this pandemic to the past. If this was wrong — that for whatever reason, there was no historic precedent — that would have shown up as well as data collected for the broader pandemic, as time progressed, would be incongruous with the model.

It’s worth it to take a minute and discuss the meaning of “history” in all this. Of course, anyone that’s ever looked at history knows that any numbers from history are literally fraught with peril. The authors of the paper claim to have analyzed historical data, and mention newspaper clippings as well. My guess is they’re playing the empirical research card for status assertion — they are academics, in academic hierarchies, after all. Yet any statistical researcher worth their salt knows that we really have only improved with data collection. When it comes to illnesses and death (especially of the poor) such numbers from history are mostly nonsense. No one really knows.

But even with that said, history as myth is vitally important. History as myth, or narrative, often captures deep information that actually happened — or the myth memetically was not likely to have persisted. Yes, BS does survive. But myths last because, fascinatingly enough, they contain information that are the result of validity grounding, often from large-scale catastrophe. In the lower v-Meme set (below the Trust Boundary and Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes) there is precious little validity grounding. Authorities, experts, and processes say “we know stuff, and you should believe us because we are smart/thorough/etc.”

Myth is different. One of my favorite examples of how this works involves Native American reverence for nature. There is a whole religious edifice built in tribal societies saying “preserve Mother Earth.” A good question is “where did that come from?” Obviously, in terms of Western and Eastern philosophy, for the most part, we don’t seem to care very much about the Earth.

If one, however, understands the context of the Pleistocene extinction, where tribes cross the Bering Land Bridge, and found a whole continent of giant, tasty mammals, this all starts making more sense. The first humans dined away on almost all of these, as few of the animals were evolved enough to avoid the newly transited predators. Many of the species that vanished were “giant” versions of earlier species. And giantism occurs as an evolutionary response in a given species from a lack of evolution along the lines of inter-agent coordination. The few large species that survived — like bison; and mammoths were some of the last to go for reasons of inter-agent coordination.

The incumbent likely starvation after the Giant Pleistocene Barbecue knocked those tribes of humans on their butts — and led to the deeper validity grounding of “don’t just kill off nature or it won’t be there to eat.” These types of deep history events likely constructed the mythos of nature worship.

There’s not much difference between the story above, and the need for appropriate myth generation in the epidemiology community, with solid narratives that form the basis for sound modeling. A selection of narratives might form the basis for model construction, as well as reflection upon why, if a model did fail in its predictive capacity, exactly why it failed.

My guess is you’re going to see serious narrative generation in microcosm about five years from now, when the reality of the societal transgression is fully understood. Epidemiologists and immunologists will be looking at a Survival-level event, with the incumbent trauma and neuroplasticity that accompanies all these things. The In-group supporting all this is going to come un-done, because the recommendations of the various NPIs have been so ineffective and fundamentally anti-human behavior. Like it or not, we are social animals, and all the NPIs are profoundly anti-social, and especially anti-empathetic. And also importantly, anyone who can read a time series can clearly see they didn’t work.

A better question is this — how did the epidemiological and immunological communities get so ungrounded? My suspicion is this has come as a price paid of the specialization and sophistication of the technical communities. Those models, even if they’ve been wrong, are not trivial. There are a host of skills required in order to create them, ranging from statistics, data analysis, coding and so on. There seems to be some magical belief that people learn everything in a field when they get a Ph.D. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in the heightened pressures of the current research milieu, you have to learn enough to avail yourself of funding. You’re far better off learning a statistical package than reading historical accounts of the bubonic plague. And worse — this turns out to be a Survival level choice if you’re a grad student. The longer musings are going to come far later in the career game, after the rigid hierarchical social structures inherent in research groups have a chance to hammer on your brain, and actually prevent you from caring on big-picture notions outside your immediate wheelhouse/silo.

And that, of course, will distort how you see the world, or history and your place in it.

One thing that is important to remember is that such sophistication comes with it sophistication in self-delusion as well. We can create elaborate rituals to elevate our status, and certainly the epidemiological community has done this. Two years ago, the prospects for various stars rotating through permanent advisory chairs in networks like CNN and MSNBC never occurred to them. Finally, at last, they were receiving the notoriety that their titles surely implied they deserved.

But a lack of validity grounding will get the best of any civilization. And the only way to avoid that is to understand knowledge scaffolding, and use it.

Quickie Post — Academia is Not Going to Lead Us Out of the Wilderness

Squid sorting, Guangzhou

A paper came across my Twitter feed today, which was fascinating — or actually, meta-fascinating. Written by a trio of researchers in response to concerns about childhood masking, three Italian academics wrote a piece on the potential consequences of having children NOT have access to facial expressions due to mask usage. It’s in the Journal Frontiers of Psychology and you can read it here if you wish.

I’m not really criticizing the work — and am actually glad they did it. But what’s telling (or more correctly, meta-telling!) about all of it is the following:

  1. It’s a work about kids reading emotions.
  2. It only looks at what I call the simplex notion of reading faces — the kids look at faces and guess the emotion.
  3. It’s definitely deep down in the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme of empirical work.
  4. The main reason to read faces — empathetic connection at whatever level of development a person involved is at — isn’t mentioned at all. Not one time.

The short version of the experiment was that the recruited children were shown pictures on a smart phone, and asked to guess from a list what emotion they were looking at. There are results showing that for younger ages, kids were definitely impaired in their ability to guess; less so as they got older.

Such a study, without knowing the researchers directly, does a couple of things. It could be that the researchers are aware of empathetic development of young people, and facing the difficulty of actually measuring a more duplex (signal and receiver) combo, chose the path of least resistance. Actually measuring empathetic response is wicked difficult, and has to be at least part of why there’s little research out there on this topic.

But I think it more likely that it likely just didn’t occur to them. There’s no mention anywhere in the piece of how that might affect relationship development. There’s certainly no mention of the word “empathy” in the entire piece.

This piece just goes on the pile of academic research that is evidence that if we’re going to count on academia to lead us out of the collective intelligence wilderness, we’d better think twice. Even when investigating low-level phenomena (ID’ing faces it pretty straightforward) related to empathy, it’s another dry run.

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.