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The Trump administration selectively excluded reporters of the mainstream media organizations of CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and BuzzFeed, from attending a recent news gaggle.[1] Unfortunately, Edward R. Murrow’s words from the dark days of xenophobic Senator Eugene McCarthy’s witch-hunts are becoming alarmingly more relevant.

 

Transcript of Murrow’s broadcast (emphasis mine):

Earlier, the Senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Good night, and good luck.

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/24/white-house-blocks-cnn-new-york-times-from-press-briefing-hours-after-trump-slams-media/?utm_term=.4a10ea83a3a4

It’s becoming apparent to me that I seem to have some sort of fascination with the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s the effect that I first wrote about in 2013 that suggests that a person’s self-assessment of their knowledge of a subject differs greatly from their actual knowledge.[1] The idea is that most people tend to assume they know more about a subject when they in reality know very little about it, but as their knowledge of the subject increases, their self-assessment of their knowledge decreases.

I think the Dunning Kruger effect is real and can be used as a construct to understand the actions of people in various contexts. In October 2015, I indulged my frivolous side by placing several of the presidential candidates on the Dunning-Kruger curve.[2] I had no idea at the time that the candidate I placed at the top of the first peak, indicating maximal delusion, would eventually become president.

Since Mr. Trump is now president, I feel compelled to revisit and revise the Dunning-Kruger chart I published in 2015 to more accurately reflect President Trump’s place on the curve. As you can see in the revised chart below, I believe President Trump has the distinction of being impossible to place on the standard Dunning-Kruger curve. Instead, he has earned his own curve.

President Trump and Donald Trump

It’s a curve that is fully contained within a chrysalis of delusion. No matter how much Trump learns about a subject, he will never reach the realization that he really doesn’t know as much as he thinks. Instead, his self-assessment of his knowledge continues to grow with any modicum of new information. I encourage mental health workers to ignore the Goldwater rule and offer their own opinions of why this may be true.

This chart may not mean much to anyone but fans of Dunning-Kruger. However, I do think it captures the danger that President Trump represents. It’s not just that he’s ill-informed and ill-prepared to be president. It’s that he thinks he awesome and doesn’t need to really know anything other than that which can be condensed into a 140 character Tweet.

I have to believe that most people entering the Oval Office for the first time as President have a feeling of “Oh Crap.” I think that visceral reaction would be an appropriate reaction indicating a degree of humility that an effective president needs. I think President Trump entered the Oval and thought, ‘How can I tell people in 140 characters how awesome it is for me to finally be here, where I deserve to be?”

Humility, introspection, intellect, and reason are virtues that serve presidents. their constituents, and the country well. These personality traits  are discovered in those individuals that reach the far right side of the Dunning-Kruger curve. It’s difficult not to observe that President Trump is at the far left.

[1] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/08/31/you-probably-dont-know-what-youre-talking-about-you-only-think-you-do/

[2] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2015/10/04/the-2016-presidential-race-as-viewed-through-a-dunning-kruger-lens/

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that what drives people’s decision making process is their yearning to believe they are in control of everything in their lives and that there are easy solutions to complex problems. Neither of those are true. And yet, there are many examples of people “going with their gut” or believing anecdotal reports over expert evidence.

Examples of this behavior can be seen in many areas ranging from believing acupuncture works [1],[2] to fear of  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) [3] to those without celiac disease believing avoiding gluten is healthy. [4] None of those three examples is true, but convincing someone who believes they are will be challenging. The reason is that their position is based in a personal belief they are true and not in any objective evidence that they are.

It’s hard to convince a person with a belief-based opinion to change that opinion by providing facts. Just try convincing a Trump supporter that the President is wrong on any issue and you’re likely to get a response that includes not caring about the facts because the President makes them feel good. No matter how overwhelming those facts to the contrary may be, it is unlikely they will displace an opinion that is rooted in emotion. In fact, it’s possible the opposite may occur in what has been defined as a “backfire effect” where providing contrary facts actually causes strengthening of a belief-based opinion. [5]

The other problem in decision making is that people feel that every problem has a simple solution that they can personally identify and implement on their own. However, as H. L. Mencken observed in 1920, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” [6] In some cases there isn’t a simple solution. That may be hard for some to accept so they substitute a belief-based solution that is unsupported by any facts. That imparts a sense of control that empowers regardless of the efficacy of the solution.

A belief-based approach to life may be seductive because it is easy. One does not need to commit to the effort required to be a critical thinker or to have mindset of a skeptic. It is far easier to exploit motivated reasoning and find “facts” that appear to support a position based in belief. [7] Equally easy and equally wrong is to fall prey to the trap of logical fallacies. For example, your physician may not be able to relieve your leg pain so you take matters into your own hands and visit an acupuncturist. Even if you might accept that there’s no scientific evidence to show that acupuncture works, you may believe it works because it’s been around for centuries – a classic example of the appeal to antiquity logical fallacy.

The way to combat the false beliefs that acupuncture works, GMOs are dangerous, or Donald Trump is competent, is to accept that such beliefs are based in emotion and not fact. The next step is to then commit to challenging yourself to spend the time and effort to objectively assess the evidence and be willing to concede your long-held beliefs may be just that – beliefs.

It’s perfectly acceptable to reject the succor of “ignorance is bliss” and approach all decisions with a healthy dose of skepticism and objective, critical thinking. If you do, you may find yourself offended by GMO-free labels on food and offended by Donald Trump being president. Both are nonsensical.

 

[1] https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/acupuncture/

[2] https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/acupuncture-doesnt-work/

[3] http://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/mark-lynas/gmo-safety-debate-over

[4] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/going-gluten-free-just-because-heres-what-you-need-to-know-201302205916

[5] http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/Misinformation_and_Fact-checking.pdf

[6] https://books.google.com/books?id=hy47AAAAYAAJ&q=well-known#v=snippet&q=well-known&f=false

[7] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney

I noted in a posting last November (February 19, 2017 – Holding President Trump Accountable for “soundly and quickly defeating ISIS”) that Donald Trump should be held accountable for his unequivocal proclamation:

“We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction.
They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”

Today is February 19, 2017, the date certain by which Trump promised to have a definitive plan to soundly and quickly defeat ISIS. I have a simple question – where is it?

I think the obvious answer is that there is no such plan and to the President, it really doesn’t matter that there isn’t. It was preposterous proclamations such as this one that ginned up his base, fueled the machine of Islamophobia, and ultimately made him the President. He has consistently and artfully exploited the disconnect between truth and facts.

But we should not forget that Trump rode to victory by exploiting the fears and gullibility of his base. We should take every chance to hold him accountable for statements he has made. It will be challenging. When journalists have pressed him for details on his strategy for addressing terrorism and global conflicts, he unapologetically channels President Nixon and hides behind the subterfuge of those plans being kept secret for strategic purposes.

Whether the chaos of the first 30 days of the Trump administration is by strategic design or is merely an expression of Trump’s personality, I fear one consequence is that accountability for unambiguous proclamations such as this one will be lost in the fog.

So, I ask again my simple question. Mr. President, where is the plan you promised you would have today?

 

I embrace being different. Diversity of ideas, experiences, and perspectives is the foundation of great friendships, exceptional relationships, profitable businesses, and prosperous countries. However, the mere fact that someone is different from a group in some manner does not necessarily mean that person automatically has superior competency to address important, complex issues.

It seems to me that the loyal supporters of President Trump conflate being different with being competent. Their argument goes that Trump must be doing something great because so many Washington insiders disagree with him. Yes, President Trump is definitely different on many levels, but time will eventually show that those differences are more effective in achieving TV ratings and Twitter followers than accomplishing anything positive for America, or even his loyal supporters.

I have called Trump the Potemkin president because there is little intellectual substance behind his 140 character tweets. There is little substance to his executive orders. I can see little substance in anything he says. Well-reasoned substance no longer emanates from the Oval Office as it has with all previous presidents. In that regard, President Trump is truly different.

potemkin-village

Maybe it’s his random birth into a life of privilege that feeds his self-delusion that he is more than one of  the facades in Potemkin. Or, as some have suggested, maybe he really does suffer from NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Regardless of the cause, I don’t know which is worse- a person who actually believes he or she can excel in a job for which they have no experience, or the person who knows they are incompetent but doesn’t care. Neither personality trait is consistent with being president of the United States. Such actions may be more aligned with what I’ve observed in some CEOs of companies.

Sarbanes-Oxley notwithstanding, there is a small subset of CEOs that may have deluded themselves into thinking they have the luxury of insulating themselves from bothersome facts. The delusion includes believing that in the event of failure there is always a golden parachute and bankruptcy to protect their personal wealth. Neither of those options are viable when leading a country as its president.

America in not a business and does not need a CEO with a cheerleader enthusiasm that requires no supporting facts. Surely you, too, have at one time heard the delusional cheers. Your team is down by 40 points with minutes to go and the cheerleaders are enthusiastically shouting cheers of impending victory. It simply doesn’t work that way, and it’s a dangerous delusion to think it does.

In politics, as in life, success is achieved by hard work. In Washington that means working with opponents to compromise on solutions that neither side loves, but in the end gets something done. No great compromises were ever hammered out in Twitter. I would like to think that anyone who embraces the sophomoric slogan of make America Great Again would also realize that their false goal would not be accomplished by Tweets. The reality is they probably do and that is the real problem.

I had nothing less than an epiphany last weekend when I happened to catch an infomercial on TV for a silicone muffin pan. You know the kind I mean.

“The amazing silicone muffin pan that will never stick or never wear out, and it’s only $40 dollars. But, wait! Act now and you get two amazing silicone muffin pans for just $40 (plus shipping and handling). And, if you act in the next 10 minutes you can get both for only $25 (plus shipping and handling). Of course, if you’re not completely satisfied, you can get your money back.”

ron-popeil-american-inventor

Ron Popeil was a trail blazer in direct marketing on television. He was a genius. Who could forget the pocket fisherman or the set-it-and-forget-it rotisserie. The genius of Popeil is the emotional impulse buy. Who really needs a silicone muffin pan, but, what the heck. It’s on TV, I get two for the price of one, and there’s a money back guarantee. What could go wrong?

What goes wrong is that the silicone muffin pan sucks, and rather than go through the hassle of fighting for that money back return, it’s easier just to forget it and wait for the next TV special. The lesson is that people have a short memory when it comes to being duped by media messaging. People are used to making impulse purchases and shrugging off inferior products, that’s what I fear has happened with Trump. People were swayed by Trump’s savvy messaging and voted for him, just like they bought the silicone muffin pan.

I think the voters who elected Trump were enthusiastic and eager to buy what he was selling, but when it turns out the muffins are sticking to the Donald, the attention and the interest of those voters will have moved on. The only problem is that Trdonald-trump-suitump is not a silicone muffin pan. Maybe that’s not being fair to the minority of the electorate that voted for him. Maybe they read and evaluated his detailed policy positions and considered his vast experience in government before casting their vote for him.

No, I think “Make America Great Again” is pretty much the same as “the amazing silicone muffin pan that never sticks.” My hope is that while people may forget their impulse buy of that silicone muffin pan, they will remember what they bought with Trump and not hesitate to get their money back by voting in the mid-term elections in 2018.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever done more than a single posting in a day, but today will be an exception. This morning, I opined about how fear and emotion instead of logic and reason persuaded enough voters to give us a president elect Trump. I blamed the amygdala.[1]

A key point of that post was that Trump didn’t need well-developed policy positions because he was pitching an emotion-based message. During the campaign, one-liners, sound bites, and various logical fallacies were sufficient to get Trump elected. If fear resonated with his supporters, then that was what Trump was selling.20120306-presser

In stark contrast to Trumps single-sentences policy statements, I just watched President Obama in his last international press conference in Peru. As I listened to Obama’s well-reasoned responses, I realized that there may never be such a stark contrast between outgoing and incoming presidents.

Very things in life are black and white. There is complexity and nuance in everything we experience – at least for some of us. President Obama has been criticized in the past for offering long, rambling, complex answers to questions. In a Twitter-inspired world where a full 140-character tweet is a polemic, Obama’s five-minute answer to a question of how to achieve world piece is considered boorish and pedantic.

I will miss his thoughtful, longish answers. They made logical sense to me. All I had to do was listen and follow along. He provided background, context, and logic that usually lead to an inescapable conclusion. If his conclusion didn’t make sense, at least I had a framework by which to understand the differences between him and me. Differences are fine as long as they can be resolved through a fact-based analysis.

I wonder how Trump will handle his first press conference as president. I suspect there will be few long, rambling, fact-based answers. Instead, I suspect his answers will be short, emotional, anger-based, and always black and white. Hello, amygdala! His answers will be ideally suitable for social media and will be easily captured in a 140-character tweet. I don’t need to think, I just want to “Make America great again.”

But, we should not forget that nothing in the world is truly black and white. Nothing is simple. Everything is nuanced. Complex problems never have simple answers, no matter what a candidate tells the voters.

I will miss Barack and his long answers. Those long answers made me feel like he understood the complexity of the problem. They made me feel like he could actually develop a response, and not just come up with a reaction. Those long, rambling answers made me feel safe- it was a great eight years for that feeling. Yes, I will miss those long, reassuring answers.

 

[1] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2016/11/20/understanding-the-trump-victory-its-the-amygdala-stupid/

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