Up is Down and Down is up: Opinions, Facts, and Truths

Two scientists walked into a bar. The bartender looked at them and asked, “What’s up?” One of the scientists pointed out the front door while the other one pointed at the ceiling. The bartender being a curious fellow wondered which one was telling the truth.

Before I share the punchline, let’s digress and ponder the meaning of the word “truth”. Like most words, there are several definitions. My Merriam-Webster app gives nine definitions, but three are pertinent for my purposes.

  1. Truth is sincerity in action, character, or utterance. In other words, if you believe what you are saying, then you are telling the truth.
  2. Truth is a judgment, proposition, or idea that is accepted as true. In other words, if you offer an opinion that you believe is widely held, then you are telling the truth.
  3. Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality. In other words, if you say something is so, and in fact it is so, then you are telling the truth.

Now back to the bar. The scientist who pointed at the ceiling is obviously telling the truth because just about everyone agrees that “up” is in the direction of the ceiling. The scientist who pointed at the door is also telling the truth because she knew that door was on the north side of the bar.  Almost everyone agrees that pointing north, in the northern hemisphere at least, means you are pointing up north, so to speak. (If you hold a map so that north is on the top of the map, then north is up.)

Now the bartender who is both curious and enlightened, realizes that there can be more than one truthful answer to the same question. In fact, it happens all the time. In the case of “what’s up?” the number of truthful answers is infinite because “up” is a relative term that depends entirely upon how you define “down.” Just ask a space walker floating in intergalactic space. She might point to her feet as down, or above her head as up. She might point to the black hole she’s orbiting and say that’s down the gravity well. In other words, she needs a frame of reference, a definition. Before she can point to the direction that is truly “up”, by the third definition above, she needs to know what you mean by “up”.

I once had a boss who taught us that to settle an argument usually required two things, defining terms and taking measurements. He also taught us that “truth” by the third definition is not the same as an “opinion” no matter how sincere or widely held that opinion might be. This is important! Sometimes, it is a matter of life and death!

Now to the punchline, but it’s no joke.  We have a major problem in our country. People are pointing in opposite directions and arguing about who’s telling the truth. No one is defining their terms. No one is agreeing on how to decide what is reality. It is obvious the two sides just want to argue. It’s like two football teams that want to play ball, but each team plays by their own set of rules. One team is counting yards gained, the other team is counting the number of offensive plays. Neither team is paying attention to the score on the scoreboard. This game isn’t going to end well.

Here is a relevant example. Gallup recently conducted a poll in which respondents were asked to name what is going well in the U.S. today. The most common answer was the economy which was cited by 37 percent. But here is the significant finding: 97 percent of Republican leaning respondents said the economy was fair to excellent, while 74 percent of Democrat leaning respondents said the economy was fair to poor. At the same time, 85 percent of the Republican leaning respondents said the economy was getting better while 60 percent of Democrat leaning respondents said the economy was getting worse.

We should agree that both groups of respondents were truthful by the first two definitions of truth. They answered sincerely and seemed to believe what they say.  Likewise, both the Democrat and Republican leaning respondents expressed opinions that are widely held among their fellow partisans. These first two definitions of truth get us nowhere! All we have is two figuratively angry mobs yelling different opinions at each other, neither willing to accept the possibility they might be wrong by that inconvenient but essential third definition of truth.

This is precisely where our free press is supposed to help us, but they’ve chosen partisan sides just like the rest of us.  We have the Democrat leaning free press and the Republican leaning free press. Neither expresses the slightest interest in exploring answers that are in accord with reality, the third definition of truth. Here is what they should do.

The responsible journalist should begin by separating the questions. The first question wondered if the economy was closer to poor or to excellent? The second question inquired about the direction the economy is moving, toward excellence or getting worse. Competent journalists should then define the terms of the questions. In other words. What is an excellent economy? Similarly, what is a poor economy? Economists could easily provide such definitions in ways that can be measured and compared. It would be helpful to get agreement about the most relevant dimensions of an economy such as unemployment rates, GDP growth rates, stock market valuation, debts and deficits, inflation rates, levels of poverty or affluence, home ownership, loan default rates, etc. The number of possible dimensions is nearly endless, but a significant subset should suffice to answer our two questions and determine the truth by the third and most important definition.

For the sake of argument, lets assume that most economists agree on a set of key dimensions of a national economy. Furthermore, they define and quantify the state of each dimension. The economists can establish standards based on historical information. For example, unemployment rates historically range from lows near 3 percent to highs in the upper teens. Generally, the lower the better. They could establish a standard (frame of reference) by which this dimension is considered indicative of a good or excellent economy or otherwise, fair or poor. This could be quantified in such a way that we could say whether the unemployment rate is significantly above or below that standard. This could then be done for each of the other dimension of an economy like GDP growth rates, inflation, etc. Combining the metrics statistically into one overall indicator and tracking it over time would determine if the economy is getting better or worse in accordance with reality.

This is what journalists should do. Unfortunately, most don’t. They rage on just like the partisans, and we get nowhere. In fact, our social fabric gets ripped apart. We need to hold our news media to be accountable to all of us. They represent us.  This is why we want a truly free press that is our head referee.  We want a free press that knows exactly what’s up!

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AAAS and the Uncertainty of Science

The morning email onslaught delivered the usual assortment of junk along with some gems. Among the latter was a climate science fundraising letter from Rush D. Holt, PhD and CEO of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

AAAS was formed in 1848 and is now celebrating its 170th year. I’ve been a member for many years, although not nearly that long. The AAAS Board embraces nine commendable goals for the organization.

  • Enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public;
  • Promote and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Strengthen support for the science and technology enterprise;
  • Provide a voice for science on societal issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of science in public policy;
  • Strengthen and diversify the science and technology workforce;
  • Foster education in science and technology for everyone;
  • Increase public engagement with science and technology; and
  • Advance international cooperation in science.

AAAS is an important science advocacy organization and one that I’m pleased to join and support.  Dr. Holt’s letter unfortunately contradicts most of these goals. Below are statements from his letter followed by my responses.

Colleagues, the evidence is as clear as the sky is blue:

Earth’s climate is changing. Humans are a principal cause. The responsible actors — that’s us — can and should act. And acting now will be much less costly than acting later.

Anti-science forces have made many Americans skeptical of this reality — but AAAS is actively working to set the record straight. That’s why I am asking you to support our efforts today with a gift of $100 or more to the Flexible Action Fund’s summer fundraising drive.

Ever since agriculture and cities were created starting about a dozen millennia ago, humans impacted, and continue to impact regional weather and climate. No reasonable person or scientist disputes this. Global climate changes. It always has, and it always will. Astronomical, geological and historical records provide plenty of evidence. However, there is significant disagreement among reputable scientists about the extent that humans contribute to global climate change. This issue is rigorously debated. There are also disagreements about the relative benefits of a warming planet and human ingenuity in adapting. Scientists also disagree about natural climate variability. No one knows with any certainty how the global climate would change in the future if human influences were somehow nullified.

Recent research evidences a global climate much less sensitive to human influences than previously thought. This area of intense study endeavors to understand positive and negative feedback mechanisms, but the number of variables is enormous, almost unfathomable.

There is considerable scientific evidence that the relatively warm current interglacial, the Holocene in which human civilization flourishes, will not last indefinitely. Until science understands natural climate variability, it makes no sense to expend billions, perhaps trillions of dollars on a fool’s errand. We don’t even know if the foreseeable future is warmer or colder, but there is considerable evidence the longer-term future of our planet promises to be very much colder. So why would we exacerbate that devastating outcome?

Dr. Holt ignores this uncertainly. He disparages anyone who disagrees with his opinion that “Humans are a principal cause.” He also ignores the reality that humans cannot stop the climate from changing.

Since when is skepticism anti-science? Becoming emotionally and often unquestioningly attached to a belief is not science. As an advocate for science, Dr. Holt should be encouraging the objective analysis of competing hypotheses. His arguments are anti-science, not the arguments of those forces, as he calls them, that remain uncertain or skeptical of popular notions. He embraces the politically motivated utterances of members of the media, lobbyists, and their elected political minions. He should be informing them of the uncertainties in climate science and the need for further research. Instead he raises funds for a campaign intended to stifle scientific debate.

No, Dr. Holt, this science is not settled.  Those of us who recognize this truth are on the right side of history. You may hallucinate a clear blue sky, but true scientists see clouds.

The fund-raising letter continues as follows.

I can’t think of a more urgent task than providing the public accurate, evidence-based information about public issues — especially climate change. The science is compelling; the risks are profound.

But it’s not just that; it is imperative that we find new and better ways to communicate this message to those who may be uninterested or skeptical; or to decision-makers; or to the next generation.

We’re making progress, but our work is not done. In a 2017 study, more Americans than ever said they believe climate change is mostly human-caused — yet 30% of respondents still say it’s due to natural fluctuations.

Providing accurate, evidence-based information derived from science is important for public discourse about critical issues facing our nation and our world. Distorting that evidence, exaggerating the risks, and silencing debate is unacceptable.

Dr. Holt focuses on communicating a message, changing minds, influencing decision-makers. He measures his success by the number of people who agree with his message, right or wrong. He’s using the AAAS to disseminate political propaganda, not to inform the public of the science.  He’s convinced he’s right and anyone who disagrees needs to be discredited or even silenced.

The AAAS fund-raising letter concludes as follows.

Your gift today to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund’s summer drive will help continue the critical work we’re doing to engage more proactively with the public. Here’s just a sample of it:

  • We are standing up a grassroots infrastructure that will allow us to quickly identify, connect with and “plug in” scientific experts to conversations about climate issues — and their local implications — making them relevant to communities across the country.
  • We are developing How We Respond, a communications effort that will highlight consequential, real-life scenarios across the U.S. where local leaders are working with scientists and engineers to adapt to and to mitigate the effects of climate change.
  •  And through our vast network of fellows and others, we are helping decision-makers, reporters, and the public at large to make informed decisions about these and other important topics based on the best science and technology available.

I know climate change is politically charged these days, like so many other issues.

But at AAAS, we take only the side of the evidence. And on climate change, the evidence is clear: It’s happening and we’re the cause. It’s our job to make sure everyone knows it.

Your tax-deductible gift of $100 or more to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund will help us change that. We’ll continue to spread our message to as wide an audience as we can, every single day.

With my appreciation,

Rush D. Holt

Chief Executive Officer, AAAS and Executive Publisher Science Family of Journals

It is clear that Dr. Holt and AAAS accept only the evidence that supports their message. That message is predetermined while the research and the uncertainty of the science continues. He states unequivocally that “we’re the cause” of climate change. Every living climate scientist will tell you the climate was changing billions of years before humans ever walked the earth, and the climate will continue to change no matter what humans do or don’t do. Does Dr. Holt honestly believe that humans can prevent climate change? I sincerely hope not! That would signify that his science is more like magic. Most unfortunately, Dr. Holt and AAAS do not support research that could uncover evidence that runs counter to their message, because their message is based on politics not science.

I close with some questions about the goals of AAAS as they relate to this fundraising letter.

  1. Do dogmatic assertions enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public?
  2. Does silencing the skeptical voices of scientists promote and defend the integrity of science?
  3. Does a politically motivated message truly provide a voice for science on societal issues and Promote the responsible use of science in public policy?
  4. Does messaging and propaganda using the authority of science and AAAS foster education in science and technology for everyone, increase public engagement with science and technology, or advance international cooperation in science?

These obsessions about global warming, climate change, climate distortion, carbon pollution, and all the other yet to be concocted euphemisms are destroying science. I would hope that Dr. Rush Holt and the American Association for the Advancement of Science would start advocating for science instead of messaging for partisan politics.

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Who Was James Hansen and What Was He Selling?

The extent to which some adult humans assume and are obsessed with IR absorption and heat forcing in the atmosphere as if it’s almost exclusively due to carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other trace gases, is a clear indication we are not a highly evolved species.

There is so much wrong with this assumption it is difficult to know where to begin in setting the record straight. Let’s just admit it’s more complicated than James Hansen argued to Congress back in 1988.

Imagine you’re an IR photon emanating from the surface of the earth. What are the odds (the statistical probability) you would encounter and are then absorbed by a carbon dioxide molecule? A methane molecule? An aerosol? A water molecule, droplet, or ice crystal? Now double the number of carbon dioxide molecules and recalculate. Of course, the probabilities would vary with location, time of day, season, latitude, and numerous other variables, but on average, it wouldn’t make any difference, because carbon dioxide is not a very important GHG.

At 50 percent relative humidity, and 298K there are 24 molecules of water vapor in the atmosphere for every 1 of carbon dioxide. Now add clouds, ice crystals, and particulates and consider the chances an IR photon is absorbed by carbon dioxide. Now consider the IR absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide, a linear molecule which absorbs at very few IR wavelengths and only when asymmetrically bent or twisted, compared to water, a structurally bent molecule which absorbs IR at several wavelengths including almost all the bands absorbed by carbon dioxide.


And this is just a small example of the foolishness of this obsessiveness. Just roll your eyes at the catastrophists. I’m 75 years old. I just wish I could live long enough to observe the rude awakening of these folks when the continental ice sheets return despite our best efforts.

Sometimes I wonder if our descendants, some years down the road, will intentionally add water vapor and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to stave off the eventual end of the Holocene.

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Happy Washington’s Birthday!

It was a simple question the Always-Effervescent-One posed as we sipped our morning coffee. “When did this Monday holiday idea begin?” she asked, quite innocently. Neither of us could remember, so I turned to that ultimate source of all wisdom, Wikipedia. The answer is January 1, 1971, in accordance with The Uniform Monday Holiday Act. If confusion ruins the taste of your morning coffee, or your afternoon tea, read no further. The chaos we rightly blame on all actions of governments is about to be exposed, once again.

George Washington PortraitToday is February 19, 2018. It is a national holiday officially known as Washington’s Birthday. In Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming it is officially President’s Day to commemorate the life and service of our very first president of the United States of America. On the other hand, if you live in Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon today is proclaimed to be Presidents Day altering the tradition of honoring only President George Washington. Similarly, In Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington State, its otherwise declared to be Presidents’ Day for the purpose of honoring all presidents.

Virginia, the home of the first president, appropriately calls this George Washington Day. That’s not all. In Maine, today is Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day and in Arizona it’s Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day. Perhaps the most creative, or possibly the most absurd, name comes to us from Arkansas which celebrates George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day today. If you are still interested, you can find at least another half-dozen variations in various states and territories. Even Toronto, Canada recognizes Washington’s Birthday with American Flags and bunting. Go figure! My favorite by a long shot, comes from my favorite state never to emulate, California, which has declared this third Monday in February as . . . The Third Monday in February.

George Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, and that is the official date of his birth as registered in Virginia, a British colony at the time. A strange thing happened 21 years later (1752) when the British Empire decided to adopt the Gregorian Calendar which had already been adopted by Roman Catholic and other countries in Europe and elsewhere at various times since 1582 when Pope Gregory decreed its official recognition by the Roman Catholic Church. Great Britain and its colonies, along with many other Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries in Europe and elsewhere continued to use the Julian Calendar. Over the course of several hundred years, most countries came to recognize the superiority of the Gregorian Calendar and they switched. All developed countries in the world now recognize the Gregorian Calendar as modified several times over the years.  Many religions continue to use the Julian Calendar as well as others.

There are several differences between the Gregorian and Julian Calendars, but two are pertinent to what we call the date of Washington’s Birth. If we pretend that he was born in a place where the Gregorian Calendar was used, then his birthday would have been February 22, 1732. The Julian Calendar celebrated New Years on March 25, so January, February, and the first 24 days of March belonged to the previous year. The year 1732 didn’t start until March 25 in the colonies, about six weeks after Washington was born. March 25 was supposed to be the day in the year when spring began, and by ancient Roman tradition, the new year started at the Vernal Equinox. Since the Julian Calendar had no regularly spaced leap years, it was off by several days.

It takes approximately 365.25 days for the Earth to complete one orbit of the sun (a year). Every four years (Leap Years), the Julian Calendar would vary from the Gregorian Calendar by missing a day, and this explains the second important difference between the two calendars. By 1752, a difference of eleven days had accumulated since the Gregorian Calendar was created. In Virginia, February 11, 1731 was known as February 22, 1732, if you lived in Italy or France, among others.  Very few people noticed because communication and transportation was by ship which took months.  Most people were not as time or date aware as we have become with our modern technology, high speed transportation, and instant communication.

Another difference in the calendars was when New Years Day was recognized. In the Gregorian Calendar, it was January 1st. Shifting a country from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar caused some confusing and interesting oddities. In the colonies, there never was a January, February, or the first 24 days of March in the year following the shift. Those dates do not exist because the year changed on that date instead of on March 25. The year of the change was 94 days shorter than other years. This included another necessary correction. When you went to bed on the evening of Wednesday, September 2, 1752, you hoped to wake up the next morning, but you would discover that it was suddenly Thursday, September 14, 1752. No one in the colonies could possibly be born on any of the dates between September 2, 1752 and September 14, 1752.

So, Happy Washington’s Birthday! No matter the date, he was a great man who helped to establish a great country and we should take a moment to honor his unique service.

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Ending Violence in Schools

This one hit closer to home. Our daughter teaches in a public high school in the same school district, not far from Parkland, Florida. The shooter once attended her school, but she didn’t know of him. Tragically, she knew and enjoyed a friendship with one of his victims, a high school senior who sang in the same church choir with our daughter. This innocent life was stolen by a senseless monster in an inconceivable act of violence.

What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future? That is the question we are asking in the aftermath of this most recent of too many horrible occurrences.

As I watched and read news reports over the past few days, I heard many sincere suggestions. All sane Americans want to curb violence in society and particularly in our schools. A common thread in these suggestions is the notion that a simple solution exists. Congress as well as state and local authorities need to act! People with mental disturbances should not be able to obtain guns! Schools need more resources! We need more effective gun control! The FBI and local law enforcement need to do a better job of finding these killers before they act! All of us should report to authorities when we see or hear any hints of such evil! Parents need to do a better job of raising kids! Schools need to do a better job of educating and socializing children! Social services need to do a better job of intervening when evidence of future violence is discovered! And finally, all the above and more!

Now for some context, if only one in ten thousand Americans is an evil and dangerous person capable of heinous acts of violence, that means 33,000 dangerous people live among us in the United States, statistically that’s 2,200 in Florida and about 200 in Broward County. Sometimes there are signs, but unfortunately, those indicators usually stay hidden or ignored until it’s too late. In other cases, the evil person only commits one heinous act in a lifetime with no warning. The good news is that sometimes the warning signs are evident and future tragedies are prevented, but we don’t know anything about them, because they obviously and happily did not occur.

As I often do when I’m frustrated by a problem, I make a list. In this case, I made two lists.

First List: What could have been done to prevent or stop this most recent act of violence. Think of this as time travel, knowing what we know now. This is an entirely hypothetical exercise, but valuable for analytical purposes. It is not intended to be exhaustive, only exemplary.

  1. An armed school resource officer might have stopped the perpetrator before anything harmful was done.
  2. Trained school volunteers with technology resources might have observed the entrances to campus facilities and alerted appropriate authorities and school personnel.
  3. The Uber driver might have recognized the suspicious looking item carried by the perpetrator and called school authorities and 911.
  4. The school might have installed technology by all building and campus entrances that would detect firearms or other suspicious items entering the campus and triggering an alert.
  5. Social services might have intervened with the perpetrator after school personnel, students, neighbors, and parents notified authorities of signs of the perpetrator’s potential for disruptive and violent behavior.
  6. The FBI might have traced and successfully intervened with the perpetrator who posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a professional school shooter.
  7. A background check of the perpetrator might have accessed school and social services records and prevented him from legally acquiring or possessing a weapon.

Second List: What political conflicts prevent solutions. This is a list of differences of opinion about solutions that require a balancing of values and political interests.

  1. Surveillance of the public versus the right to privacy
  2. The right to bear arms versus the desire to eliminate armed violence
  3. The rights of individuals versus the rights and protections of communities
  4. School safety versus an optimal learning environment in our schools
  5. Mental health and social service interventions versus individual rights and liberties
  6. Family and parental rights versus community safety
  7. Freedom of speech versus limiting offensive speech or behavior
  8. Federal government solutions versus state and local government solutions
  9. Freedom of the press to sensationalize and exploit tragedies versus public safety
  10. Innocent until proven guilty versus prevention of future violence

Violence in society and in our schools is what I call an eternal problem. No matter what we do, it won’t go away completely. There is evil in a free society and in any society. We surely don’t want to forfeit our hard-earned liberties and create a police state to control the evil inclinations of a small number of monsters living among us. But we do want solutions that prevent such tragedies as occurred this week in Parkland. Those solutions require each of us to act when necessary and our elected representatives to find solutions without regard to partisan political pressures.

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Dimensions of Happiness and Fulfillment

My grandson is just past halfway through his second year, and I’m pushing seventy-five. I think about all that he must learn to prepare for his world and his life. It seems overwhelming. Don’t misunderstand, his parents deserve an A-Plus so far, and his grandparents and others are doing their part as well. He’s off to a very good start on his journey!

All of this has caused me to consider the responsibilities of parents and others in raising a child in this complicated and dangerous world. What should we teach our children, and when? What qualities assure happiness and fulfillment? There are no easy answers to these questions.

I’m reminded of something I wrote a couple of years ago about the qualities of a president that we should expect. Wouldn’t those same qualities apply to each of us, whether we choose to be a leader of nations or the best hamburger flipper in the universe?

In a speech at a university some years ago, Steve Jobs challenged the graduates to find what they love and get really good at it. I’m asking a deeper question. What qualities would help us figure out what we love and then give us the drive to pursue excellence? Here is my answer. These are qualities all of us should embrace and reward in ourselves and in others. These are qualities we should nurture in our children and grandchildren.

Humility – It is important to know oneself, to understand one’s own limitations, and to appreciate the extraordinary potential from hearing and considering other voices and ideas. Effective individuals surround themselves with excellent people, and they are good listeners. They readily give credit when it is deserved. They deflect attention away from themselves recognizing the value of teamwork, everyone having something important to contribute.

Eloquence – People who develop the ability to communicate their ideas are more likely to earn the respect of others in their lives. They possess the wonderful ability to explain and to paint a verbal picture that others understand. They may not always agree, but at least they understand. That understanding encourages meaningful and constructive dialogue. They know each other’s thinking on the issues they face, small or great as they may be. Sometimes in life there are no good choices, but being articulate and eloquent helps us to explain what we believe needs to be done.

Courage – Effective people exhibit the courage of their convictions. They consider the ideas of the others, but they decide what is right, in the best interest of everyone and for the long-term. They reject emotional impulses and seek rational and logical responses. They are not afraid of pressure groups, bullies, and special interests. Being popular is not always being wise or honorable.

Compassion – We appreciate individuals who care about other people from all walks of life. They genuinely strive to find solutions that will resolve difficult problems and improve lives. They do this without regard for personal benefits that might accrue to themselves or others in their immediate circle. They are focused on the important issues of the day, and are genuinely troubled by our failing to mitigate society’s calamities. They are tireless in their efforts to aid and comfort those in need or turmoil.

Principles – We respect people who have an ideological framework, a moral compass, and a thorough commitment to the critically important ideas that ensure human flourishing in any society. In the United States, we respect individuals who understand and appreciate the underlying philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with all its personal freedoms and security.

Wisdom – Intelligence is an important character trait, but wisdom is the ability to use those gifts to make good decisions. Wisdom anticipates the future and prepares for consequences. Wisdom considers alternatives and uses rational methods to ascertain the relative viability of options and alternatives. Wisdom is not swayed by false prophets nor by populist purveyors. Individuals with wisdom understand people and the infinite complexity of social systems. They take appropriate action when time and pressure demands it. They are decisive but thoughtful. They always do what they believe is right and smart.

Integrity – Perhaps the most important quality is integrity, but it goes beyond honesty. Integrity is in the heart and soul. It guides us, and it gives us strength and conviction. We appreciate those who tell us what they believe, without concern for political correctness. Individuals with integrity remain immune from conflicts of interest. They place the rights of people foremost in their thinking, and they never attack others for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Integrity is an essential quality, and we shun those who do not tell the truth and who are morally insecure and vulnerable. Nothing surpasses integrity as a quality we should expect in our children, our grandchildren, and everyone we love.

Now the hard part.  How do we teach these personal qualities? We model them, but first we have to work on improving ourselves.

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Winning an Argument

The two men argued. They debated emotionally, raising their voices, often interrupting. They attacked each other’s character, belittling, condescending, and dismissing the other’s talking points. This was not going to end well.

For many reasons, neither man could possibly admit or even hint at defeat. It was televised. Each man represented millions of like-minded viewers, not to mention competing advocacy groups paying their salaries and counting on them to win the debate while crushing their opposition.

The topic, network, and individuals involved are not relevant. It could be any argument among thousands occurring daily on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, PBS, and countless radio stations or podcasts. It could be among any number of people representing just about any cause or issue.

I’m finding this increasingly annoying. What’s the point? For the stations, its ratings and the money that follows those ratings. What’s the point for the audience? Enlightenment? Are we learning something? Are we just being entertained? Are we being persuaded? Perhaps it’s a bit of all of these, or none.

As a sport’s fan, I like good competition in which one side or the other wins. Sure, occasionally in some sports there is a tie, usually an unhappy outcome for everyone. In these contests, there are rules and scores that determine winners and losers. This is not the case with arguments. Surely there are formal debates with rules and scoring mechanisms, but 99.9 percent of arguments do not follow any rules other than those ascribed by show producers or the FCC. I suppose we might remember the way Hamilton and Burr settled their differences. Now that’s entertainment!

Many years ago, as a young man, I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. One of the chapters titled You Can’t Win an Argument includes the following explanation.

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.

You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non-compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph.

A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

Ben Franklin went even further on this point. In his autobiography, he wrote the following.

. . . My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with other to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. . ..

When I observe the angry divide in our country, I cannot help but wonder why we don’t consider the wisdom of Carnegie or Franklin. Would we be more enlightened, or more persuaded to a right course of action, if the arguments were offered with some humility or empathy?  Shouldn’t we want outcomes we could all embrace? Apparently, few of us learn to argue this way.

Even in sporting contests, most of us were taught to be gracious winners and good sports in defeat by sincerely congratulating the winners.  Those on the losing teams even honor and respect their opponent’s victory in a fair contest. Successful teams learn critical lessons from their losses, the silver-lining. That surely helps them improve and prepare for the next contest. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to competing ideas?

When congress or the local village board decides on some policy, shouldn’t those who argued for something else, respect the will of the majority and help to make it work, at least until some better idea surfaces and wins the day.

What we observe at this moment in the history of our country is destructive. We have winners who want to bury their opponents, and we have losers who want to take away the victory.  This cannot end well!

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