Intellectual Humility

Brian Resnick at Vox just posted an essay about intellectual humility in the sciences. It’s something I think about a lot when it comes to education.

I used to, when I had a class with Veterans or non-traditional students, talk about the importance of intellectual humility and the real challenge of having the courage to change your mind. When you learn you literally change your brain. You literally change your mind. When you change your mind you are changing yourself. Changing yourself to be a different person can be scary and takes real courage. Without intellectual humility you’re never really going to learn anything, because you won’t be open to changing into a different version of yourself.

Then I talked to them about research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If you’re intrinsically motivated to learn (because you are legit curious) it will stick with you a lot longer than if you are only motivated by grades or getting a diploma (extrinsic motivation).

I don’t do this anymore because there’s no time to focus on anything other than the practical basics of using the library resources.

One tool I use for my own intellectual humility is to assume, whether I believe it or not, but to assume for just a moment that the idea, belief, or conviction I’m hearing is held by somebody smart, honest, and sincere. Then I ask myself – How would a smart, honest, and sincere person come to that conclusion?

For some things, like climate change denial, I have a better understanding how people hold on to those beliefs, though I remain convinced they are wrong.

On other issues, like race, gender, and identity, I learned that there were significant elements of the discussion of which I was ignorant. Once I began addressing that ignorance I started to change my mind, and so changed myself.

I keep thinking about this exchange between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris:

Sam Harris
I get that, but not in precisely the ways you think you do. I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein
You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris
Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein
Well, that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris
In this respect because, no, because I share your political biases there. I would line up with you completely. If I gave into my bias, my social bias I would become, I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to recognize that Nisbett and Turkheimer are reasoning better than anyone else in this field. I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to realize that Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man, was right on the money.

Ezra Klein
I don’t think it would be a relief to you at all. Because the thing that you said when you, I feel like now we’re just getting back to the beginning and we should let this go and I’ll let you get the last word after this, but right at the beginning of all this with Murray you said, you look at Murray and you see what happens to you. You were completely straightforward about that, that you look at what happens to him and you see what happens to you. I think the really.

Sam Harris
It’s not tribalism. This is an experience of talking about ideas in public.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward. All of them can bias me simultaneous, and the questions, of course, are which dominate and how am I able to counterbalance them through my process of information gathering and adjudication of that information. I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you, Sam, when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, “God he’s right. That is just identity politics.” They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it. You just said it’s your experience and they don’t understand it.

Sam Harris
You think that’s Glenn Loury’s view of it, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s view of it, or Maajid Nawaz’s view of it?

Ezra Klein
I think that you have said publicly that you would not have a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, because you think he just plays identity politics.

Sam Harris
Yes, I think he’s, it’s the same reason why I didn’t want to have a conversation with you, honestly, because I think that it doesn’t become fruitful. This is a postmortem on our collision, and I think it was useful to do, and I can only hope our audience sorts it out for themselves in ways that I think will be accurate.

This exchange, I think, gets at something important when it comes to our Current Situation. Harris’s inability to recognize that he is part of a tribe is something you see over and over once you start paying attention. White guys (and others whom the power structures favor) are incapable of seeing how the system privileges them and their ideas. And, until they are able to recognize their cognitive blindness, they’ll continue reinforcing societal structures that diminish their capacity for compassion and empathy.

It’s disconcerting to see a group of people I generally admire (like Bruce Sterling speaking to the Long Now Foundation) and realize it’s all white men. (Even worse, looking back over the history of speakers at the Long Now Foundation, they’ve all been white (with the exception of a lone Indian woman). What kind of future is the Long Now Foundation planning when they listen only to white people?)

One method I (a middle-aged cis white guy) use to interrogate my own privilege is reading (and listening to) people who don’t look like me. I’m intrinsically motivated to better understand the human experience. I’m always working to read more people of color, more women, more LBGTIQA+. I make an effort to read people from different nations, especially the global south. For most of my life I read mostly straight white men without even realizing what I was doing. Those were the easiest voices to locate, and I presumed that they were unbiased vessels transmitting a clearly accurate understanding of the issues.

They are not.

When I started reading outside that cluster of thinkers I realized that they really are part of a tribe. Sam Harris, no matter how much he denies it, is part of a tribe, but the bonds of that affiliation are still invisible to him.

Here’s hoping that in 2019 more privileged folks become aware of their invisible bonds and learn to break them. Learn, change your mind, grow your heart.


I love New Year’s resolutions. For much of my life I was indifferent to resolutions, but then I made the life-altering decision one year to resolve to eat more pie. Suddenly, a whole new world of resolving/self care opened up to me.

Last year’s resolution was to ask friends out for a beer more often. Be more social. Connect more IRL. That mostly went well. The stress of house buying/selling, dissatisfaction at work, international travel, and the flu disrupted it somewhat in the last few months, but it’s a resolution I look to continue in 2019.

Two years ago my resolution was to be more in tune with the moon. Just to be aware of when it’s full moon, what stage the moon is in, where and when it will be rising. That was a good one. I let it slip a little last year, but I still a lot more conscious of the phases of the moon than years past.

This year I resolve to be the Year of Baking. For what inscrutable purpose I’m not sure, but JB has started binge-watching the Great British Baking Show. Having this constantly on the periphery of my attention has inexplicably prompted an interest in baking. Within the last month I’ve already made a pizza crust, a carrot cake, and some chocolate chip cookies. Since I’ve already started I might as well commit. Next up will be a pie, followed soon by bread.

I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

Twenty Eighteen Twenty Nineteen

2018 started off strong in the writing department. I had a project and a clear vision. I finished a story and sent it off for consideration, and by the end of Spring I finished the first round of edits on a novel.

And then in Summer everything shut down. We started looking for (then buying) a house, then we prepared (and ultimately sold) our old house. So, Good News! We got a new house that we really liked and managed to pull off the buying and selling with nary a hitch. But, it occupied most of my cognitive, psychic, and emotional energy. Writing went out the window.

New years allow for new beginnings. It’s time to re-title the blog and consider how to use it to enrich my life.

This year’s theme is Abdera, Florida. Over the last few years I’ve set several stories in the fictional town of Abdera, Florida and early on realized it would serve well as the center of a fictional universe. So this year, as I work on honing the writing craft, I will include some pieces, vignettes, stories, etc. from and about Abdera, Florida, home of the modern-day Abderites.

So, Happy New Year! I hope 2019 exceeds all your positive expectations and we find some way to work together to create a better world for us all.

Happy Holidays 2018!

Happy Holidays!

The end of the calendar year is one of my favorite times of the year. One of the perks of work is that we get a big chunk of time off at the end of the year. I added some vacation days and so I have a two week break to reflect and rejuvenate.

Clearly, blogging was not a top priority during 2018. Between work, working on the novel, and general dismay at the news cycle, I didn’t have much to say, nor the desire to say much.

The novel went moderately well until the summer when we decided to start house-hunting. There’s plenty of chatter about the outrage du jour and I don’t have much to offer except that a lot of people are horrible, anti-social, narcissistic monsters. But, you already know that.

This week I’ll figure out what to do with this blog in 2019, and be ready to launch something new a week from now. Orrr, I suppose I might decide to put it on hiatus. I doubt that I’ll be able to conjure up extra time, so to keep blogging will require some adjustment of priorities.

For the time being I’m adjusting to the new house and some new routines and making plans for the future. I’ll see you again in 2019!

Mean Irma

When I was a kid my friends often started stories with the words Me and Name (Me and Jeff, Me and Charley, etc.). To my ears, because the words were run together and the ‘d’ was dropped, it always sounded like they were starting to tell a story about Mean Jeff or Mean Charley.

This is a story about Mean Irma.

I know enough about hurricanes that I did these two things in preparation. I cut back trees in the backyard in the spring. One was dying and leaning over the neighbors shed, so I hired some people to take it down so a storm wouldn’t. I check the NOAA National Hurricane Center every few days to see what is developing.

Here is what I did not do in preparation. I did not have plywood cut to fit my windows, so by the time it became clear the hurricane would definitely hit us I did not have suitably sized window protections. I did not have a cordless power drill for removing panels once the electricity was out, and I did not have suitable wood screws for putting up window protections.

The Wednesday before Irma plowed through Florida my work announced they were closing Thursday through Monday. At the time the projections showed Irma moving up the east coast of Florida. I had a great deal of confidence in this prediction, and didn’t worry too much about the ‘cone of uncertainty’ indicating the possibility of it shifting our way.

Thursday morning and Friday morning I visited the grocery store at 7am to gather supplies (nuts, dried fruit, beans, water, batteries, chips, cheese and crackers), and filled the car with gas. Mostly because I thought there was a real possibility of losing power for a day or two, but I still wasn’t particularly worried. During the day on Friday I brought in a lot of stuff from outside (chairs, garden stuff, little tables). Friday evening I felt prepared.

Saturday the projections showed the worst case scenario (for me). A high category storm moving up the west coast, heading right for Tampa. If it cruised up the coast without making landfall until it reached Tampa Bay, that could mean for some serious destruction.

JB and I began boarding up windows. She had been much more worried about the storm than I (in retrospect, rightly so), and had asked a friend to drop off her fencing that she had recently taken down. On Saturday we cut down the fencing and nailed it up over windows. We covered windows with shelving we didn’t use in our pantry, and with leftover flooring that’s been laying around for nearly ten years. JB disassembled her Ikea desk and we used her desktop to cover a front window. (Covering windows involved a tremendous amount of sawing wood down to size. Fortunately I have a circular saw and a suitable work bench.) When that was done we brought in all of our plants. We wanted to have as much done by dark on Saturday as possible, because it looked like Sunday would be a rainy day.

I barely slept Saturday night.

Sunday we stayed in touch with friends, monitored the storm, listened to stories of different shelters and traffic jams. I stayed off social media and commercial news. I texted with friends and watched NOAA and the Weather Underground.

Sunday afternoon I felt I had done everything I could to be prepared and turned on the television to watch NFL football to get my mind off worrying about the weather. All football pre-empted in the area. Nothing but Irma coverage on every local channel. I turned off the television, opened a book and lay on the couch to read.

I fell asleep.

JB woke me at 4:30 to say she was going to stay in a shelter. The anxiety and fear was making her sick. She didn’t want to go through this storm in this house. And, she had to make a decision soon, because curfew went into effect at 6pm and many shelters were already closed.

Right or wrong, for good or for ill, I did not share her anxiety and fear. We agreed I’d stay here with the dogs and she would head over to a nearby church that opened its doors to people in the neighborhood. It wasn’t an official shelter, just a church helping out its community.

As we went through the build-up to the storm JB checked in with me periodically to gauge my worry level. What influenced me to stay was the Hillsborough County disaster plan which urged you to take shelter in place if you were in a well-secured space; the fact that we are not in a flood zone, nor an evacuation zone; the history of our house making through storms for decades, and the likelihood of the storm diminishing as it approached. Plus, I had a bag ready and the car pulled up to the doorway if something catastrophic happened to our house and could make it to a near-by friend’s or a shelter within minutes if necessary. I felt prepared and ready to weather the storm.

At 8pm the gusts started, and the occasional branch hit the house. By 10pm there was a lot of debris hitting the house and the gusts were persistent and loud. I moved the couch to the center of the house and the dogs huddled next to me. I watched the laptop, my phone, and a non-news, non-weather channel on TV. The power went out about 11:15. By midnight the sound of gusting wind was strong and persistent, but the sound of stuff hitting the house was mostly gone since most of the debris had already been blown off the trees.

Part of what made the experience so alarming was the persistence of the winds and the length of time it covered. It went on and on and on.

That said, by midnight I was exhausted. The storm had diminished by the time it hit us. All the windows were covered. The dogs were snoozing (they hate thunder (of which there was none), but were indifferent to the wind). Shortly after midnight I fell asleep.

I awoke at 4am to silence. No wind. No rain. I peeked outside, then stepped outside. Only a light drizzle. I took a broom and swept off the deck by the back door. I pulled some branches away from the gateway to the back yard, then let the dogs out. It had been a long time since they had a chance to relieve themselves.

The house was already getting hot and stifling. I fell back asleep and awoke to JB getting home just before 8am.

The house came through intact. A friend had a spare cordless drill so I was able to get the boards down while JB slept that morning. We were without power until Wednesday morning. Others in the neighborhood didn’t get their’s back until Thursday or Friday. Some coworkers never lost power, some didn’t get it back until the weekend.

We spent a lot of time talking with our neighbors, which is the great silver lining of all this. Physically we’re all sound, but there’s a lot of psychological disruption that lingers for awhile. Most of the debris is cleaned up, but if you drive around the neighborhood there are huge, huge piles in front of nearly everyone’s house of branches, trees, and leaves. The clean-up will go on for some time.

I know better now what I need to do to be prepared. And I will be over the next couple of weeks. Kind of have to be because Mean Maria is building up steam out in the Atlantic and heading this way.

Why don’t we have colorful streets?

Why are all of our streets concrete gray or tarmac black or, occasionally, brick red?

I’d like to drive down streets that are rich saffron orange, or the kind of blue you only see in the middle of the Caribbean in the heart of a tropical winter. I want peach streets and viridian streets and pale pink streets with celery edges.