Having a loved one with cancer is a life changing experience.  It necessitates coping with the medical demands and perhaps equally challenging, the psychological ones.  One of the most curious issues my wife has had to deal with are the things people say.  Many people do say the right thing, but often she recounts horrible things that leave me wondering “What were they thinking?

 

Dealing with a diagnosis is quite overwhelming and really quite scarey.  It demands a grieving process and coming to terms with the reality of it all.  The new learning and the scheduling of appointments are substantial demands by themselves; but, dealing with the psychological issues may readily constitute the biggest early challenge.

 

Fear and uncertainty abound when you first get such a diagnosis.  No matter how hard one tries to internalize the notion that ductal carcinoma is perhaps one of the most successfully remedied forms of cancer, this knowledge is often overpowered by the fear that the word CANCER elicits.  For most of history, a diagnosis of cancer has been a death sentence.  This is hard to get past.

 

A person in the early stages of diagnosis does not need to hear the horror stories no matter how factual they are.  It only feeds the fear.  What has been most surprising to me is the fact that some people, who have had a personal encounter with cancer, seem to forget the vulnerability one feels early in the experience.  Some seasoned survivors seem to latch onto the novice and assume that they have license to unload their painful personal stories.  I do not know what it is like to be on the other side of this diagnosis, but it is my sincerest hope that all of my loved ones will remember the vulnerability one feels at this stage, and will hereafter provide only calming sensitivity when dealing with the newly diagnosed.

 

Clearly it is ill advised to recount the number of people one knows who have been defeated by this dreadful disease, but unfortunately, this is the most common offense.  There are other well intentioned things people say like: “Your so healthy, you’ll beat this!”  Well you know, it’s damn hard to consider yourself healthy, no matter how fit you are, when you HAVE CANCER!

 

Here are some other important realizations.  Most caring people offer their prayers and thoughts and ask if there is anything they can do.  Many others advise staying positive or offer alternative therapies as if these are the key to success.  All these offers and advice, no matter how well intentioned, do little other than making the speaker feel empowered and supportive.  Although this may be important for you, for the person afflicted, it misses the mark.

 

Okay, so you have some idea of what not to say, here is my advice on what might be helpful. Bottom line: take the time to really listen.  The newly diagnosed individual needs to be able to process and work through the fear.  It will also be important to spend time with loved ones and to live life as if the malignancy has not engulfed everything and everyone.  One needs to laugh and feel loved.

 

It is hard to know what to say, but the key to success lies in listening to what’s really going on inside the person.  Skip the self soothing cliches and use real empathy.  Instead of asking if you can do something – do something.  Tell the person what he or she means to you.  Express your love – spend some time with the person doing something fun.  Go to a show, eat dinner out, go for a walk, or stop in for a visit and don’t feel the need to say the right thing.  Instead, ask questions and listen.  Be there, allow for the grief and fear without squelching it.  Focus on his or her feelings, not your own.  Take the risk of not knowing what to say.

 

To make yourself feel better, do some research and learn about the disease.  You may want to contribute to a worthy cause like Relay for Life and get your solace from that. Don’t expect to garner hero status – do it because it is a good thing to do.  Rally coworkers and friends, wear pink (or other appropriate symbolic color) as a tribute, and take a picture of the group and share it in loving support.  Actions speak louder than words.

 

It’s not magic – its what you do when some one is grieving or scared.  If you need more concrete guidance, read this or this.  Know that I am saying this not to offend those who have reached out in an errant fashion.  I fear that I may come across as ungrateful or unappreciative, but, if you really want to be helpful – take this constructive feedback and touch someone in a truly meaningful way.

 

 

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I have little tolerance for unabashed patriotism. When you look closely at the facts with regard to important quality of life indicators, the good ole US of A falls short in many areas.  Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and unalienable rights seem to apply more to corporate entities than they do to we the people. And freedom now has more to do with economic opportunity in other countries than it does with civil liberties for our own citizens.  Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be an American.  Thanks to my brave and industrious parents and their forefathers, I have had a steady launching pad and subsequently have done moderately well for myself.  However, I am very fortunate not to have been born Gay, a minority, or poor.  To paraphrase an old Seinfeld episode “Not that there is anything wrong with being any of these,” but the reality is that these folks suffer at disproportionate levels in this country.  And I suggest that this is a direct result of social and economic policies.

 

Somehow, patriotism has become the exclusive domain of those on the Right who through Conservative policy support deregulation, free markets, hawkish military doctrines, government downsizing and subsequent cuts in social services and regulatory agencies.  Even the Democrats have shifted to the right and this has been particularly true since the Clinton Administration. These policies certainly bolster corporate interests and the financial portfolios of the very wealthy.  But those gains have come at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.  The income divergence between wealthy Americans and the rest of us is no secret.  Charts and graphs, easily accessible, have uniformly detailed the relative economic flat line that most of us have endured for decades while those in the top 1% show skyrocketing and seemingly geometric growth rates.  Meanwhile, policies that may level the playing field for most Americans, have somehow been castigated as “Socialist” and “Anti-American.”  This latter thinking is wrong on so many different levels.

 

Regardless of the real world consequences, nearly half of Americans latch onto and support the Conservative – pro-business policies that are clearly at odds with their well being.  One important way this plays out is in healthcare.  When it comes to life expectancy, the USA ranks number 37 in the world.  That’s right 37!  There are 36 nations that, as a people, take better care of each other than we do.

 

In a recent study published in Population Health Metrics on life expectancy in the United States, data regarding life expectancies in every county from 2000 to 2007 shows how U.S. mortality compares with that from other wealthy nations.  The results indicate that life expectancy in the United States has not kept pace with other nations.  In fact, the data suggests that life expectancy has fallen in many counties, particularly in Appalachia and the deep south.   Women in such settings have fared far worse than men.

 

Here are some of the highlights from the study.  The highest life expectancy for women in 2007 turned out to be in Collier County near Naples, Florida – where women lived on average for 86 years.  In contrast for women from Holmes County, Mississippi the average age at time of death was 73.5 years.  That is nearly a 13 year discrepancy.  Further it was indicated in the report that:

In 2007, life expectancy at birth for American men and women was 75.6 and 80.8 years, ranking 37th and 37th, respectively, in the world. Across US counties, life expectancy at birth ranged from 65.9 to 81.1 years for men and 73.5 to 86.0 years for women (Figure 1a). Geographically, the lowest life expectancies for both sexes were in counties in Appalachia and the Deep South, extending across northern Texas. Counties with the highest life expectancies tended to be in the northern Plains and along the Pacific coast and the Eastern Seaboard. In addition to these broad geographic patterns, there are more isolated counties with low life expectancies in a number of western counties with large Native American populations. Clusters of counties with high life expectancies for males and females are seen in Colorado, Minnesota, Utah, California, Washington, and Florida.

 

What accounts for this gap and the lower relative ranking among our fellow longer living earthlings from other nation states?   On June 16th, 2011, Melissa Block from NPR – Talk of the Nation discussed the results of this study with Dr. Ali Mokdad, a global health professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.   Dr. Mokdad noted that: “there are four factors – three are equally affecting men and women in this country.”   He then indicated that the three equal opportunity factors included:  (1) socioeconomic status;  (2) access to healthcare/health insurance or no insurance; and (3) quality of medical care.  In other words, if you’re poor, you don’t have medical insurance, and you live in remote areas with poor medical facilities, with less proficient professionals, you are more likely to die early.  On the other side of the coin, it is true that we have the best quality medical care in the world, BUT, many Americans do not have access to this Tier 1 level of care.  It’s only true for certain pockets of the population who are relatively affluent and living near major medical institutions.

 

The fourth factor, preventable risk factors (e.g., smoking, obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity), affects both genders but women and particularly poor women disproportionately.  The study points out that in more than 300 counties in the United States, life expectancy declined over 20 years for women.

 

It is time to wake up America!  These statistics are appalling and embarrassing.  Look at the the real world human costs of economic policies that create and sustain such divergence.  The most recent recession, clearly the result of financial deregulation and unfettered free market greed, has had catastrophic global consequences that have reshaped the landscape.  Budgetary discussions center around deep government cuts to education and social services – further compromising the very people who have been hurt the worst.  Elimination of continued tax breaks to the richest Americans is absolutely off the table.  And now the Conservative agenda is to abolish “Obama Care?”  Look at the evidence people – its all around you.  Before you buy into an ideology – look at the real world consequences – look at the evidence, and ask yourself how you and your loved-ones are affected.  It scares me that such callus disregard for our fellow citizens is the new chic.

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I find myself in an unfortunate spot.   Both my mother and father are suffering from seemingly intractable health problems and my wife was just diagnosed with breast cancer.  My parents, each suffering for years with chronic pain have been victimized by aimless care in an over burdened, understaffed, and misguided healthcare system.   The maladies of a healthcare system driven by economists has left us with a patient care system that is often just mediocre and sometimes atrocious.  More evidence for this has played out in the sequence of events that has left cancer undiagnosed and unabated inside my wife’s breast for six months after she first detected a lump.

 

What I have personally witnessed over the last year has left me appalled.  There is not enough time, space, or reader interest, I suppose, to take you through these respective journeys.  And my anecdotes, as deeply meaningful as they are to me, tell only a minute fraction of a complicated story.   Multiple factors have coalesced to degrade healthcare, and these forces have been primarily dictated by the motive for profit, austerity, or the quest for financial viability.  These interests have seemingly superseded the drive for quality care.

 

When I had my own private practice (as a Licensed Psychologist) the reimbursement schedules set up by insurance companies provided financial incentives for care provision that were incompatible with my training and my personal and ethical care standards.  Viability as a service provider demanded either compliance or unsustainable practices.  In large part due to these realities I chose a different career path.  This is all too common.  Two of the best medical doctors I’ve known have left the field because of similar issues.  When you can’t do what’s right and you feel like you have to thin your care to stay in business, the whole patient care scenario becomes compromised.

 

Medical care for run of the mill ailments seems adequate (if you are fortunate enough to have health insurance); however, when issues are complex or they involve multiple body systems, the quality of care seems to break down.  My father, for instance has many health issues.  His care, when any of these issues becomes acute, pits one specialist against another and thus one body system against another.   Just recently his acute pulmonary difficulties landed him in the ER and there, the care, as prescribed by an ER Doc, resulted in an adverse reaction necessitating yet another ER visit that resulted in a worsening response necessitating admission to the hospital.

His care has been so fragmented and communication so compromised that he experienced in this circumstance, a doctor induced overdose.  Looking back over the last several months, he has experienced intolerable amounts of pain and suffering – the likes of which no one should have to experience.

 

While in the Hospital after his initial diagnosis of pneumonia, he fell and injured his back causing significant and persistent pain that was initially misdiagnosed as pleurisy.  Months of pain and misdiagnoses left lingering unresolved pain. My mother likewise has an idiopathic issue that results in protracted and unimaginable pain.  The poor women has experienced dumbfounded docs and care that resulted in multiple re-admissions and ultimately no resolution of the issue.   We have traveled to distant cities to see experts with hopes that we can get her issue under control.  An appointment just this week left even the Doctors at Cleveland Clinic shrugging their shoulders in ignorance.  Idiopathic pain unresolvable by the best.  This isn’t anyone’s particular fault, but it leaves my mother wondering when the next episode will incapacitate her with pain. That is no way to live. She now needs experts in pain management.

 

My parents are strong, independent, self-reliant, humble and unassuming people who do not have a bone of entitlement in their make-up.  They have worked hard throughout their lives as solid contributors to society.  They are careful and cautious people trying to do what is right.  What they have gone through in their golden years is tragic.  And some of it, certainly not all of it, lies at the feet of modern health care.

 

Now, we have cancer care on the immediate horizon. I cannot and will not tolerate the mediocrity that pervades the healthcare system in pursuit of my wife’s recovery.  We will advocate for the best possible care available, and will not accept less than best practices should our insurance company attempt to compromise my wife’s care to save a buck.  This will not be easy and perhaps not cheap, but life and time are precious.  Far more precious than the material possessions that surround us.  I keep saying that if Lance Armstrong can survive the extensive cancer he had and go on to win a record number Tours de France, than we can beat this.  The only question is – will we get Tier 1 level of care?

 

Clearly there are three tiers of healthcare in the United States.  There is the reactive or non-existent care received by the poor and those at the lower end of the SES spectrum who cannot afford insurance.  Then there is the care for those of us with health insurance – adequate for run of the mill ailments – but stressed by complexity.  Then there is Tier 1 care for those with no financial restraints.  Money talks and it can buy you the best care in the world.

 

We do not have limitless resources or the fame and backing that Lance had, but but we do have resolve, determination, and the best breast cancer surgeon in Western New York.  I laid it out on the table when we met with her doctor:

 

“Only the best for my wife! I don’t want an insurance bureaucrat making medical decisions for us.  I’ll sell my house if I need to – Tier 1 Care – nothing less!”

 

And so the journey begins. We have a lot to learn and a formidable opponent. Cancer can be tough too.

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The geology of Western and Central New York tells an incredible story, the words of which, are laid out in the rolling hills, picturesque valleys, and the seemingly banal roadside cuts throughout this region.  The stunningly beautiful cascading waterfalls of Watkins Glen and Ithaca along with the equally dramatic rock city formations of Cattauraugus and Chautauqua Counties round out this tale with a worthy exclamation point.

Figure 1: Devonian World View

The nascent bedrock of this region was laid down over 380 million years ago (mya) on what was then an equatorial continent rotated about 45o clockwise from its current orientation (see Figure 1).  The fossil remains and geological features also indicate that this area was submersed under a vast shallow ocean (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: North American Devonian

A continental collision with Baltica (proto Europe) starting 410 million years ago (mya) pushed up the Acadian Mountains that once stood mightily along North America’s east coast.  Forces of nature then slowly eroded these huge mountains and the fine particulates flowed deep out onto the Catskill Delta that then covered much of the Southern Tier of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Catskill Delta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over vast periods of time those particulates settled to the bottom of the ocean creating layer upon layer of sediment that eventually lithified: the clay sediments became the shale, the silt became siltstone, and the sand became sandstone (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Northeastern US Devonian Deposition Pattern

Devonian Deposition Key for Figure 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing in this region 380 mya would have necessitated a boat.  There were no rolling hills of green – just rolling waves of salty water.

 

It was likely quite hot (average temp 80° F) with no appreciable winter and certainly no snow.  At the bottom of the ocean lived brachiopods, crinoids, coral, placoderm fish, eurypterids, and trilobites.  No mammals yet, not even dinosaurs.

 

As the mountain sediment inflow slowly filled our sea and worldwide oceanic water levels trended downward, this area slowly approached the shoreline of that shrinking ocean. Today’s sandstone remains are evidence of beachfront long ago.  The Acadians continued to shed contents but, larger material was laid down.  The top surface of the current mountain top rock city formations of Cattauraugus and Chautauqua Counties were once the bottom of a shallow sea (see Image 1).  The pebbles (see Image 2) in those mighty rock city quartz conglomerate rocks were flushed into this shallow sea by torrential floods.

Image 1: Rock City Formation, Olean, New York

Image 2: Quartz Conglomerate, Rock City Formation, Western New York

Image 2: Quartz Conglomerate, Rock City Formation, Western New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to imagine their former lowland status today when standing upon these high points gazing down below at the rolling hills and whittled valleys.

 

Over yet another immensely vast period of time, the earth remained tectonically active and another continental collision, this time with Africa, pushed up the Allegheny Mountains between 360 and 245 mya.  Pangaea, the last super-continent, existed 330 to 220 mya and the dinosaurs reigned supreme on land.  About 190 mya the Atlantic Ocean opened and began it’s ongoing expanse.  Concurrently our continent was propelled north-by-north-west by plate tectonics, slowly bringing it closer to its current northern hemisphere location.  During this gradual transition, a mighty asteroid struck near the Yucatan Peninsula (65 mya) causing a cataclysmic global disaster that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs (except for those that evolved into our current birds).  Small rodent like mammals did survive and thereafter thrived – ultimately giving rise to us and our fellow mammals.

 

Until about 1.8 mya the geology of this region remained relatively stable.  Things again got exciting as the most recent ice-age commenced.  Huge and powerful glaciers slowly carved their way through our landscape gouging out deep valleys and Finger Lake crevasses (see Image 3).  They slowly plowed through those long accumulated and lithified deposits creating new lower grounds and thus substantial opportunities for erosion.  The surviving rock city formations constitute the few locations in NY that were not scoured by those powerful glaciers. Regardless, the near misses that exposed the under layers of more delicate sedimentary rock beds (e.g., shale), led to the erosion of this base material and thus the characteristic breakage and shifting of those conglomerate structures that make them city like today.

Image 3: New York Finger Lakes – NASA Image

The deep Finger Lake gouges left by the glaciers also left hanging-falls that slowly eroded to form the incredible formations at Watkins Glen, NY (see Image 4), Buttermilk Falls, and Taughannock Falls (in Ithaca, NY).

Image 4: Watkins Glen State Park, New York

About that same time, the high peaks of the Adirondacks were just beginning to rise from the north country plains being uplifted by a magma hotspot.   The Adirondacks are actually composed of bedrock much older than the bedrock exposed in Central and Western New York.

 

All of these remnant features are unique and incredibly beautiful landmarks that speak volumes about the vast amounts of time and power that played out in this story.   Whenever you pass a roadside cut, think back to when each layer was once the floor of a warm ocean.  Make time to get to Rock City in Olean, Panama Rocks in Panama, NY or Thunder Rocks in Allegany State Park.  Think about how the top of those rocks, the relative top of the world in Western New York now, were once the bottom of this world.  Then picture mountainous walls of snow and ice halting just in time to spare your ground.   Finally, imagine their sculpting retreat.  What a beautiful and powerful story our wondrous land tells.

 

References:

 

Allman, W., & Ross, R. (2008). Ithaca is Gorges: A Guide to the Geology of the Ithaca Area. 4th Ed. Ithaca: Museum of the Earth.

 

Ansley, J. (2000). The Teacher Friendly Guide to the Geology of the Northeastern U.S. Ithaca: Paleontological Research Institute.

 

Van Diver, B. (1985). Roadside Geology of New York.  Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

 

Whiteley, T., Kloc, G., & Brett, C. (2002). Trilobites of New York: An Illustrated Guide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

 

Figures 1-4: John Wiley and Sons – used with permission. http://higheredbcs.wiley.com/legacy/college/levin/0471697435/chap_tut/chaps/chapter11-03.html

 

Images 1, 2, & 4: Photographs by Gerald Guild

 

Image 3: NASA Image: http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect6/Sect6_2.html

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We humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into groups.  We accomplish this in a multitude of ways.  Even within homogeneous groupings we tend to find subtle ways to carve people out.  It is far easier however, when people vary by gender, ethnicity, race, class, neighborhood, region, nationality, religion, and/or sexual orientation.  For some reason we are drawn to and comforted by others that share physical resemblance, culture, attitude, values, history, important symbols, and affiliations.  Conversely, we are threatened by those in the outgroup.  Why is this?  What drives us to carve out, cast away and divide our fellow human beings into camps of “us” and “them?” Is it a byproduct of socialization or perhaps a part of our nature?

 

I saw this very clearly growing up in a small rural town in Western New York.  Even though we were all white middle class Christian kids for the most part, we effectively divided ourselves into camps – some actively participating in the parceling and others passively falling victim to it.  There were the popular kids, the tough kids, the village kids, and the farm kids.  And as we became more “sophisticated,” the parcels emerged with more universal group titles such as the heads, the jocks, the brains, the nerds, etc.  Some kids traversed multiple groups quite effectively while others fit into no group at all.

 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I was immersed with young adults who parceled out their peers in even more “enlightened” ways.  I went to SUNY Geneseo where the student body was very similar to that of my home town, again, largely a white middle class subset of New York State – but a bit more diverse geographically and religiously.  The most striking division was imposed by students from Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City who looked at their fellow New Yorkers emanating from any location west of the Hudson River as being inferior.  This “geographism” was shocking to me.  I was clearly in the inferior outgroup.

 

On top of that, there were sorority and fraternity groupings, valuations made by respect for one’s major, and more subtly by the size of the town one came from.  All this being said, I enjoyed college, learned a lot, and have great respect for the institution today.  I am not singling out any one town or university – I suspect that my experience was no different than that most kids encountered growing up.  The point is this – we are seemingly driven to parcel ourselves.  Even during my doctoral training in Cincinnati there was “geographism” whereby people from Kentucky (just across the Ohio River) were cast in a relative negative light by Ohioans much as New Yorkers downcast people from Pennsylvania or New Jersey.  On another level, think about the antipathy between cat lovers and dog lovers.  Then there are Yankee fans and Red Sox fans (insert any sports team where fans divide themselves with similar acrimony).  It is every where!

 

I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to respect diversity and not to judge others by group affiliation.  She spoke out against or talked with me privately so that I would not emulate other role models who were not so open minded.  I have always been thankful for her influence.  And because of her I have in maturity always tried to emulate her.  It’s not always easy – but I do try.  Something tells me that one’s level of prejudice is not simply a function of having a great role model or a bad one.  This tendency is so universal and plays out in very subtle ways that are not always evidenced as explicit overt racism or sexism.

 

Evidence, as it turns out, is increasingly supporting my hunch.  Group prejudices are evident even in pre-vocal babies (Mahajan, 2011). This growing body of research has been supplemented by an ingenious set of studies of prejudice in nonhuman primates published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The primary author, Neha Mahajan, from Yale University, was kind enough to share with me her paper entitled The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques.

 

The researchers conducted seven different in-vivo experiments to explore whether old world monkeys, with whom we shared a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago (Hedges & Blair, Ed., 2009), evidence human-like intergroup bias.  This preliminary work establishes that we do share this trait, suggesting that prejudice may in fact be a part of our very nature.  It appears that prejudicial thinking has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective or at least has been a vestigial stow away linked with some other trait that has been naturally selected.

 

There is some danger in this notion.  If we accept prejudice as a part of our nature, we may be more inclined to devote less effort to address it from a social perspective.  The authors are careful to point out, however, that previous research has established that prejudices can be re-mediated  through exposure and teaching or conversely entrenched through poor modeling.  These results do not diminish the influence of nurture, instead the authors highlight the importance of understanding that our brains are pre-wired for prejudice.  I have discussed human prejudice before within the context of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that suggests that our biases are implicit (unconscious).  Although implicit attributes are difficult to measure, there is good reason to believe that we do universally, inherently, and unknowingly harbor biases.  We must accept this and build programs upon this understanding with targeted evidenced based strategies to combat such erroneous thinking.  It is part of who we are – and once again, evidence of how flawed the human brain is.  Hate, bullying, homophobia, and racism – they all are part of our “monkey-brain.”  Here’s hoping we can rise above it.

 

References:

 

Grewal, D. (2011).  The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys. Scientific American: MIND. April 5.

 

Hedges, S. B., & Blair, S. (Eds.).  (2009).  The Timetree of Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Mahajan, N., Martinez, M. A., Gutiezzez, N. L., Diesendruck, G., Banaji, M., & Santos, L. R.  (2011).  The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 100, No. 3. 387-405.

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When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst.  It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have.  Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment.  Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces.  What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.

 

It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote.  This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone.  Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.

 

I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities.  Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family.   A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.

 

The whole purpose of my blog How Do You Think? has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general.  In this particular situation, however,  I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.

 

I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities.  But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.

 

I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation.  I was offended and mad.  That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged.  We circle the wagons and lash back.  But this does nothing to further the discussion.  I should have known better.  And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences.  This saddens me, and I am sorry.

 

So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?

 

If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ.   What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic.  The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative).  The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities.  These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s.  Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not.  This is how the divide occurs.  And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.

 

This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share.  Systematic brain errors divide us.  Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us.  Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide.  Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts.  Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them.   I fear that I  have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.

 

Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal.  Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist.  When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism.   We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious.   This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share.  Don’t you think?

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I am a caring and compassionate man with deep concerns about humanity.  Of utmost importance to me is the issue of human flourishing, which roughly translated, incorporates wellness, happiness, success, and adaptive functioning not only for the individual, but for society in general.  Individual flourishing necessitates societal flourishing and vice versa.  One does not rise at the expense of the other.  Promoting human flourishing has been my life’s work.

 

I see around me much acrimony, the source of which often ascends from moral inclinations from diverse cultures.  This concerns me, as one ought to suppose that morality should promote human flourishing.  Should it not instill virtue and wellness for all?  Unfortunately, the moral teachings of the world’s religions pitch one belief against another.  And it does not take much effort to see that virtually all ideologically based moral systems actually inhibit human flourishing for many.

 

At the core of these issues are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters.  Deeper still, at the root of many erroneous human inclinations, is a flawed brain that makes us vulnerable to ideology and likely to sustain beliefs without good reason.

 

Our brains sustain vestigial mechanisms that render us prone to all sorts of cognitive errors and illusions.  As a major consequence, we are inclined to hold on to belief systems regardless of substantive evidence to suggest that we just might be wrong.   This Cognitive Conservatism is a universal human attribute, and it plays out as we disregard, devalue, discredit, and/or out-write ignore evidence that contradicts previously held beliefs.  At the same time, we gladly take in evidence that confirms our beliefs.  This is an undeniable truth about the human condition.

 

Suffice it to say that our brains are belief engines leaving us vulnerable to mysticism and disinclined to accept aggregated evidence.  As such, our moral guidance has been historically guided by intuition (how things seem) as opposed to reason (how things actually are).  As a result, our intuitions in modern times are often wrong.  We tend to be compelled by anecdotes and stories rather than data.  We have relied on intuition and apparent correlations to guide us, and only recently has the scientific method entered our consciousness (circa 1400).

 

Another problematic inclination stems from our tribal tendencies.  Because of this we have developed a wide variety of diverse and often incompatible moral doctrines.  We have for fear of cultural insensitivity and accusation of bias, been pressured to accept as “moral” such atrocities as genital mutilation, genocide, and the demonization of homosexuality.  Although we might not view such acts as moral, the perpetrators certainly do.  This Moral Relativism, I believe is a grave error, particularly when you look at the subsequent consequences relative to human flourishing.

 

In some cultures it is acceptable to engage in honor killing.  For example, to torture, mutilate, or kill a female family member who has been a victim of rape is considered honorable.  Or consider martyrdom.  Suicide bombers fully believe that they are serving their God by killing infidels.  They further believe that they and 70 of their closest family and friends will be granted eternal bliss in the afterlife for doing God’s benevolent work.   Can we rightfully accept that either of these acts advances human flourishing?  Is it truly acceptable to condone either act because it is believed to be morally acceptable by their culture?  Is disapproving of these acts culturally insensitive or indicative of bias?

 

Using the same logic, is it acceptable to limit the expression of romantic love to only those that happen to be from the opposite sex?  Does rendering homosexuality illegal or immoral, promote or hinder human flourishing?  I suggest that it accomplishes the latter.  And are not the origins of the beliefs that render homosexuality wrong, wrought from the same belief mechanisms that encourage martyrdom or honor killings?

 

If I am driven to use evidence to guide decisions regarding what promotes or diminishes human flourishing, one has to ask the question: “Is science biased?”  I recently read articles by morality guru Jonathon Haidt who suggested that indeed this may be the case.  He didn’t really argue that the data rendered by Social Psychologists was flawed.  He simply argued that the scientists themselves (in the field of social psychology) are heavily skewed to the liberal left.  The problem I have with his argument is that scientists use evidence to guide their beliefs, and as such, end up sharing liberal inclinations.  Does that render them biased?   I believe not.  There is a substantial difference between those that base their beliefs on evidence and those that base their beliefs on ideology.  It is more true to say that ideologues are biased because their beliefs that are unprovable and generally devoid of any real evidence.  This, I believe, is far more dubious.

 

Speaking of bias, I recently read an article written by a Roman Catholic Priest that derided National Public Radio (NPR) as being biased on par with right wing conservative media outlets.  The context of the argument was NPR’s inclination to cover the issue of homosexuality in a way that condoned it.  Because the author holds the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and NPR comes off as pro gay marriage (as well as taking other pro “liberal” positions), the author suggests that NPR, as an institution, is biased.  I could not disagree more with this notion.  NPR may have a liberal slant, but this does not automatically imply that it is biased.  I would argue that at NPR there is a stronger inclination to use evidence-based, rather than ideologically-based reason to guide its reporting.  Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do?  Somehow, because the evidence does not support the moral inclinations of the church, or those of social conservatives, it is biased?  I think not!

 

This accusation of bias is wrong at a profoundly deep level!  Even if 90% of scientists are secular liberals, that does not render the facts that they expose as biased.  There is only one truth – and if the truth does not fit one’s beliefs, that doesn’t render it less truthful.  Moral relativism opens the door to multiple truths and renders evidence meaningless.  If we condone such thinking, then who are we to judge those who brought down the World Trade Center towers as “evil doers?”

 

Likewise, who are we to diminish the quality of life of a small but no less significant portion of our population because they happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual?  Within consenting relationships, does gender really matter?  Can it be argued that making same sex intimacy illicit, diminishes human flourishing?  Yes it can, and it most definitely does!

 

When ideology crosses a line that diminishes human flourishing it has gone too far.  I am reminded of what I wrote in Surprise Chautauqua after listening to Bishop John Shelby Spong.

“Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.”

 

I am incensed when religious doctrine results in human suffering. This is particularly true with regard to the Catholic Church who squandered any hope of offering moral guidance with regard to sexuality when it systematically aided and abetted pedophiles.   The Catholic Church should be granted no more moral authority than radical Islam. Their respective track records with regard to promoting human flourishing are abysmal. Only when we have the courage to stop turning a blind eye toward social injustice and stop condoning systematic human degradation (because it is consistent with a religious “moral” teaching) will all of humanity be able to truly thrive.

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So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan?  A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers.  Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy.  Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases.  Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit).  Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake.  Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents  suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake).   Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.

 

The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us.  Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible.  We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world.  Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways.  Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.

 

Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all.  It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events.  Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views.  The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations.  Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.

 

History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies.  In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures.  All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods.  How else could they make sense of such tragedies?  This seems to be how we are put together.

 

A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children.  They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish.   They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression.  This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.

 

In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs.  What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall).  But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events.  So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment?  Bering suggests that:

 

“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”

 

So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.

 

“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”

 

When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.”  We desperately need to understand.  Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.

 

“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”

 

The implications of this understanding are profound.  We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time.  We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility.  As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.

 

References:

 

Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true

 

Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262

 

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Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.

 

Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.

 

It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”

 

We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.

 

Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.

 

Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.

 

We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.

 

It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.

 

Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.

 

I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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