Monday, November 1, 2010

From Demagoguery to Dialogue

Seven referees take the field at each American professional football game. Coach’s challenges and video tape replay scrutinize the referee’s decisions as the crowd waits in suspense for each verdict on the field. Commentators describe the rule and anticipate how it will be applied in each particular instance. Referees describe the evidence and the rules to the fans before announcing their decisions. Cheers and jeers express the fans’ opinions of these rapid and vital proclamations. Perhaps as a result, youngsters playing sandlot football are well aware of the rules, and often play fairly even without referees present.

The commentator smiles warmly as the first guest politician misrepresents facts, endorses false assumptions, over-generalizes, draws invalid conclusions, engages in ad hominem attacks, creates false dichotomies, uses literal truths to send false messages, and uses inflammatory and hateful language to present his position on the typical political talk show. The same personable commentator enjoys provoking the role-playing as the other guest politicians use similar demagoguery to attack opponents. Political conversation resembles WrestleMania; there is nothing fair, sporting, insightful, or adult about it. The referee contributes to the mayhem. The crude and divisive communication style we see used by these celebrity politicians, talk-show hosts, and even political analysts quickly contaminates our everyday discussions. Because we are cautioned not to discuss vital issues such as religion or politics the most essential conversations become prohibited. We pay a heavy price for this constant mischief.

Football is played in college. WrestleMania appeals to children. Can we learn to converse like collegiate adults?

Perhaps refereed dialogue can provide a model for more meaningful conversations by the professionals and by ordinary citizens. The consistent intent of the dialogue is for each participant to move us toward a deeper understanding of what is. Dialogue is a collaborative rather than a competitive endeavor. These simple but rarely followed rules can help insightful dialogue emerge:
  • Statements are required to be factual and representative; untruths, misleading statements, or unrepresentative anecdotes are not allowed. Words are carefully chosen for accuracy and objectivity. Opinion is clearly differentiated from fact. Uncertainty is accurately characterized. Context is fairly represented.
  • Stated conclusions are validly derived from carefully established premise. Logical fallacies or unsubstantiated premise are not allowed.
  • Discussion is relevant to advancing the thread of the argument. Non Sequiturs, distracting tangents, and irrelevancies are not allowed.
  • Speakers work to fully understand each other’s point of view. They ask clarifying questions or suggest clarifying restatements to help the other more fully express his viewpoint. They accurately express the other’s viewpoint before changing the direction of the dialogue. Ideally, speaker “A” expresses the viewpoint of speaker “B” to the satisfaction of speaker “B” before going on.
  • Speakers continuously demonstrate their respect for each other throughout the dialogue. Hateful language, ad hominem attacks, ridicule, sarcasm, preemptive dismissals, and condescension are not allowed.
  • Participants work together to uncover assumptions, gather information, increase clarity, challenge inconsistencies, resolve ambiguity, think critically, dig deeper, identify helpful shifts in viewpoint, and improve inadequate research, reasoning, or presentation.
Sports referees blow the whistle and immediately stop play to address infractions, review what has happened, correct the error, and ensure play continues according to the rules. Similarly the moderator acts as a referee to enforce these dialogue rules. Whenever an infraction occurs the conversation is immediately halted, the infraction is identified, and the speaker corrects the error before the conversation continues. This intervention might be as simple as a request by the moderator for clarification, or the moderator may stop, challenge, and redirect the conversation more vigorously. Skilled participants stay within the rules so the conversation proceeds uninterrupted.

Kids on sandlots learn sports by watching the professionals play fairly by the rules. Amateur athletes at many levels quickly regulate their own play according to agreed rules. Perhaps professional communicators carefully following well-chosen rules of dialogue can provide us with an effective model for meaningful, even transformational, conversations. It’s a wise choice.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Simply Priceless

Many Harvard University graduates earn annual salaries of $100,000 or more. Harvard graduate John Fetterman holds two jobs and earns only about $30,000. What is going on here? Is he some slacker, or can we learn important lessons from him?

American mass media fuels our anxiety and consternation with incessant reports of slow growth in the economy, high unemployment, an obesity epidemic, a steady rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and cancer, and general levels of stress and discontent. Perhaps it is time for more of us to examine the worldview behind these problem statements.

When people talk about economic growth or the strength of the economy, they are often talking about the rate of growth of the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP is a primary measure of a country's overall economic output. It is the market value of all final goods and services made within the borders of a country in a year. For example, the GDP includes:
  • The costs associated with growing, harvesting, transporting, storing, and processing tobacco.
  • The costs of manufacturing, distributing, advertising, and retailing cigarettes and cigars.
  • The costs of doctor’s visits, medications, hospitalizations, and chronic care treatment for smoker’s cough, emphysema, and lung cancer.
  • The costs of FDA tobacco regulations and tobacco-related law enforcement costs.
  • Tobacco-related litigation costs,
  • The costs of advertising health warnings.
  • The costs of anti smoking campaigns and stop smoking programs and products.
Each of these activities actually helps to grow the economy and create jobs even as they contribute to the misery of the unfortunate tobacco addict. Wouldn’t a leisurely hike with friends through the woods ending with a spectacular view of a beautiful sunset be a better way to spend time? But enjoying the splender of sunsets does not help to grow our economy while dying a painful death from lung cancer does.

An emphasis on more, including increasing the GDP, growing the economy, and a relentless focus on increasing stock prices has brought us: the subprime mortgage crisis, housing foreclosures, Enron and other accounting scandals, wars, hydrogen bombs and other nuclear weapons, the Holocaust and other acts of genocide, slavery, traffic jams, urban sprawl, the bridge to nowhere, wide-spread cheating, Vioxx and other dangerous prescription drugs, Twinkies, obesity, stress, anxiety, class struggles, pollution, paparazzi, deforestation, strip mining, overfishing, drought, failed states, global warming, and other waste, violence, destruction, and misery. We have become consumed.

In 2001 John Fetterman chose work for AmeriCorps and move to Braddock Pennsylvania, one of the most devastated cities in the country. It is a mix of burned out or boarded-up storefronts, collapsing houses, and more than 1,000 vacant lots. Pennsylvania has consistently classified Braddock a “distressed municipality”—essentially bankrupt—since the 1980s. Here Fetterman started, and still directs, a program helping the dislocated youth of Braddock and the surrounding communities to earn their GED, get jobs, and receive needed social support and intervention.

Fetterman calls Braddock “home” and is committed to living there for the foreseeable future. He has the Braddock zip code, 15104, tattooed to his forearm. In 2005 he was elected Mayor. He and his wife purchased an abandoned warehouse in the city for $2,000 and converted it into their first and only home. They are living there now and raising their young son. He was elected to his second term as Mayor in 2009, and is paid $150 per month for that grueling job. He also keeps his day job, still helping the city youth.

What if more of us had the wisdom to shift our focus to what is truly most meaningful in life? What if we decided we had enough of the old thinking and decided to value: peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, clean air, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, awe, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, joyful play, meaningful work, authentic experiences, reciprocity, respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education and learning, deeper understanding and appreciation, fun, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others. We can enjoy what is already available to us.

Adam Smith never imagined how greedy the invisible hand would become. It is time to change our focus from economic growth to growth in human well-being.

The relationship between money and happiness is complex. The basic economic assumption that well-being increases with income is being challenged. A 1997 World Development Report shows that happiness increases with income until per capita GDP reaches a level around $15,000 per person at which point happiness levels off and does not appreciably increase as income increases. Another study showed people's day-to-day emotional well-being only rose with earnings up to an annual income threshold of $75,000. Increasing average income brings diminishing returns of happiness, but not less happiness. Also, peoples’ quality of life and longevity is affected by relative rather than absolute income.

At six feet eight inches tall and weighing 370 pounds, Mayor Fetterman is truly a gentle and courageous giant of a man. He is informed, realistic, optimistic, and humble. As an AmeriCorp member he pledged:

Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity I will persevere

He is keeping his pledge, he is taking bold and creative action, and he is making a real difference.

He is slowly transforming the city. There is no grocery store in the community so the Mayor began an urban farming program that provides the residents with low-cost fresh produce as it provides job opportunities for area youth. He has opened the playgrounds and basketball courts and created summer jobs for youth. He is working to attract artists to occupy the low-cost loft space available in the city because he believes artists can often see opportunity where others do not.  He started a nonprofit organization to save a handful of properties.

John Fetterman is committed and contented. He is making excellent use of his Master’s Degree in public policy and economics; he is a happy man.

Perhaps more of us can turn our attention away from narrow indicators of economic growth and focus on the broader pursuit of happiness. We can learn to cope better with abundance. It certainly seems like a wiser path.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Am

I am; I simply am.
I think, but I am not my thoughts. I am.
I believe, but I am not my beliefs. I am.
I feel, but I am not my feelings. I am.
Pain and joy are transient, I am enduring.
I do, but I am not my actions. I am.
I experience, but I am not my experience. I am.
I want, but I am not my desires. I am.
I have, but I am not my possessions. I am.
My body is not me. I am.
I live, but I am not my life. I am.
I was and I will be, but now I am.
I am not that, I am my self.
I alone am. I simply am.
I am; I simply am.

… Inspired by the book:
I Am That, Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Saturday, September 18, 2010


To move toward a greater understanding of the universe we need to be open to learning what we do not yet understand. However it is wasteful to be distracted by spurious claims of nonexistent effects based on nothing more than wild imaginations and undisciplined wishful thinking. It is a difficult and important balance to achieve.

Astrology, biorhythms, fortune telling, channeling, cosmic consciousness, synchronicity, afterlife, reincarnation, faith healing, chakras, exorcism, rebirthing, the law of attraction, and other mystical pursuits are fascinating concepts that remain unproven. Should we explore them further in the hope of revealing a profound cosmic truth, or abandon them as dead ends?

I believe we live in a causal universe but we may not yet know all the causes. Certainly radio waves—those invisible electromagnetic forces travelling at the speed of light—were unknown and unsuspected until 1865, less than 150 years ago. Even the most forward thinker of that time would have been both skeptical and mystified by today’s fantastic uses of the electromagnetic spectrum to phone home or watch YouTube while sitting on the beach. What other phenomenon—analogous to radio waves in their obscurity, ubiquity, and power—remain to be discovered in our universe?

James Randi—previously The Amazing Randi—encourages rigorous investigation and skepticism. He knows that charlatans prey on the vulnerable with knowingly false claims of clairvoyance. He works diligently to end those exploitations. His work is valuable.

I continue to develop my own theory of knowledge—how I decide what to believe. My thinking on nonfalsifiable claims is very simple: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And I recognize this represents a conservative bias.

Even as we explore ever farther into space and probe deeper into subatomic particles we remain profoundly ignorant about the universe. Where did it all come from? Where is it going? Why is it here? But we need to explore the answers, not guess at them or make up stories. While waiting for the facts it is better to suspend judgment, even if feeling certain is so much more comfortable. Will the Large Hadron Collider discover the Higgs boson or not? What is the role of dark matter and dark energy in the universe? What other life forms share this fascinating universe with us?

Stay open, stay curious, stay skeptical. Dream bigger, look farther, investigate deeper.

The Tyranny of Evidence

Ever since humans first saw the sun rise in the morning, move across the sky, and set in the evening, the direct evidence has been clear and obvious: the sun circles the earth each day. Similarly we see the stars move across the sky each night, and it is obvious they are attached to a celestial sphere that holds them up and also circles the earth. This Truth we can all plainly see. With more careful observation we notice that the sun rises earlier and sets later in the summer than in the winter. Perhaps the architects of Stonehenge wanted to celebrate the annual phases of this cycle with its shortest day, longest day and two equinoxes.

Ancient astronomers mapped the sky and catalogued the constellations making up the celestial sphere. However, they also noticed “the wanderers”—certain stars, some of which are particularly bright—that move against the backdrop of the celestial sphere. What are we to make of these direct observations, available to anyone willing to look up and notice the night sky? Perhaps these wanders, now called “planets” have their own celestial sphere. But since they move in different patterns, maybe each has its own sphere. The astronomer Ptolemy worked this all out in some detail for us nearly 2,000 years ago. He even found a place in the heavens for the lovely moon.

Then about 400 years ago the astronomer Tycho Brahe dedicated his career to making the most accurate astronomical observations ever. These observations were inconsistent with planets moving in circles and provided evidence to support Kepler's discovery of the ellipse and area laws of planetary motion. Copernicus’s silly ideas about the earth circling the sun might be worth a second look!

In 1610 Galileo pointed his telescope toward the sky and directly observed the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. He interpreted this evidence to support Copernicus’s heliocentric model and got in big trouble with Pope Urban VIII for speaking his mind based on the evidence he directly observed.

On July 5, 1687 Isaac Newton published the Principia where he stated his three laws of motion. He also defined the universal law of gravitation and used calculus-like mathematics to demonstrate how the laws of motion and universal gravitation combine to cause the planets to move in elliptical obits around the sun. The observations of Tycho Brahe were finally explained, except of course for the later discovery of additional planets, Einstein’s relativity, observations made by the Hubble telescope, and ongoing observations and evidence of our amazing universe. And what do we make of comets, eclipses, galaxies, and ocean tides?

We can now see these Truths:

  • Our direct observations are limited to what one person sees from one place at one time. I see the sun rise and set each day. It has happened each day I know of.
  • We interpret each new observation to help explain or become consistent with other observations. The sun moves across the sky, it does not fall down, therefore it is held up by a celestial sphere.
  • Interpretation is separate from and necessarily extends our direct observations. These interpretations require judgment.
  • The scope of direct observation and deductive logic is very limited. We regularly rely on inductive logic to extend our conclusions beyond our direct observations. The sun has risen every day; I expect it to rise again tomorrow.
  • We regularly supplement our own observations with those reported by others. Those reports may or may not be accurate. We may or may not fully understand them.
  • We have to decide for ourselves how to assimilate observations reported by others. I can see the planets, and if I take the time I can notice they move against the background of stars. I’m not sure what to make of it, but let me learn what the astronomers, religious leaders, and my friends have to say about this. I may also consult the mainstream media, specialized journals and publications, conspiracy blogs, or Wikipedia.
  • Observations become more extensive and refined over time. The skills of Tycho Brahe and Galileo eventually brought more evidence to the table.
  • Evidence is often difficult to collect, difficult to interpret, and apparently contradictory. Available evidence increases over time.
  • As we expand our circle of concern in space and time, we have more observations, evidence, and reports to assimilate, interpret, and reconcile.
  • Long-held beliefs are difficult to overcome, despite contrary evidence. The Pope was not quickly convinced by what Galileo saw. On October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled.
  • People make decisions and live their lives based on what they believe to be true. It is an on-going process.
  • Each of us uses some form of “Theory of Knowledge” to decide what we believe in the face of complex and often conflicting evidence.
  • Developing our own robust theory of knowledge helps us to choose the most reliably accurate beliefs.
  • My own theory of knowledge is described here:
  • Improving our theory of knowledge and applying it is the best we can do to move toward Truth.
  • I hold these Truths to be self-evident!
Stay curious, look again, look deeper, look farther and enjoy exploring our amazing and dynamic universe.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Wise Path—Progress Toward Wisdom

Am I acting wisely now? How wise a person am I? What can I do to increase my wisdom? These are basic questions we all face while trying to navigate through life, increase our significance, and act more wisely. Fortunately there is a map that can help us find ourselves in wisdom space.

Wisdom requires progression in clear thinking, committed action, and emotional regulation. As we develop and increase our learning and maturity our focus can shift from survival, to success, and eventually to transformation.

We are born essentially unaware of the wonderful world we live in. As infants and young children, we learn quickly about our world, but see such a small slice we are almost entirely misinformed about the world.

Eventually our curiosity is armed with language, reasoning, exploration opportunities, number skills, and reading skills. Now we can ask our own questions and seek our own answers. We begin to become factually informed, at least in those areas where our curiosity takes us and we can find reliable answers to our questions. But this realm is still treacherous. Certain questions are off limits, myths and traditions may present falsehoods as facts, trusted people may disagree on the answers to certain questions, or we may accept the first answer we hear. Formal schooling, self study, adventures, and life experiences combine to increase our information base. Some of that information is factual, and some is false, incomplete, invalid, or misleading.

Clear and critical thinkers eventually develop their own theory of knowledge to help them decide what to believe in the face of incomplete or misleading answers and conflicting information sources. Here the rules of evidence, logic, inference, and critical thinking begin to take shape. The ability to integrate information and “connect the dots” to get a larger and consistent understanding of the world becomes important. Falsehoods and fallacies become easier to detect and reject. Inconsistencies become apparent and careful investigation begins to reveal larger and more durable truths about our fascinating world. We are better able to assimilate diversity, learn from ambiguity, suspend judgment, and become comfortable with complexity. These skills allow us to integrate factual information with our own investigations, knowledge base, and world view as we begin to truly know the world for ourselves.

Increasing maturity along three paths: thinking, feeling, and doing, moves us toward wisdom. Click on a word in the diagram to learn more about that stage.

When we can reflect on our reliable and broad knowledge, exercise good judgment, and apply it to solve significant problems to enhance human well-being we begin to understand the world as it is. Examining knowledge from multiple viewpoints, adopting a global perspective and long-term view, understanding interrelationships, and gaining insight all contribute to our holistic understanding of the world. Being curious about what happened, creative about what can happen, and open to new possibilities allows us to make surprisingly good decisions that benefit all.

Holistic understanding brings us to the threshold of wisdom, but these thinking skills still need to be accompanied by a similar level of maturity in both action and emotion.

We are born fussy but largely passive, able only to cry and wiggle and we must rely on others to feed us, move us, protect us and care for us. We eventually learn to roll over, crawl, walk, and then run. We can now move, but we travel in small circles, repeat actions endlessly, and our thrashing around does not seem to accomplish anything more than pass time as we entertain ourselves and perhaps our parents and friends.

Eventually we form goals and we focus and engage our actions to meet those goals. These goals may be modest and self-centered requiring little action, or we may set bolder goals to learn, gain strength, achieve, and help others.

As we begin to explore more of the world, we see opportunities that can only be seized by taking more risks. We can go away to summer camp or stay home. We can go far away to a challenging college ideally suited to us or play it safe and stay near home. We can seek a challenging job or tolerate a boring one. We either decide to yield to temptation and avoid taking risks, or we summon the courage to act on our values and do what we believe is right, despite the temptations of an easier path. Running a marathon, graduating from college, job interviews, serious relationships, and studying for tomorrow’s test all require us to leave comfort behind to attain a greater outcome. Achievement requires courage.

But climbing a mountain or completing a marathon are personal achievements that don’t do much to move the world forward. Action must be combined with well-chosen, human-based values to make a significant difference. Courageous achievements that help others around the globe for all time is wisdom in action. When Rosa Parks kept her bus seat and Martin Luther King Jr. organized and sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott their actions created substantial and lasting progress for all people. This is real progress.

But unless our hearts are in this thinking and doing are not enough; emotional growth is an essential, and often neglected, path toward wisdom. Newborn babies cry endlessly as they know and care only about themselves. They have no empathy for others—they are apathetic. Soon infants learn to reflect the smile on their mother’s face, and react simply and predictably to other’s facial expressions, movements, fears, frustration, and pain. While raw and immediate reactions to emotions represent a growth stage for infants, this reactive behavior is immature, destructive, and unacceptable in adults. Violent tirades, hateful actions, spiteful revenge, humiliation, and ego rants have no wise place among responsible adults. Emotionally competent adults develop the essential social skills to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in themselves and others. Understanding and impulse control allows reason to prevail over passion as we regulate and interpret our emotions. With study and practice we can each become emotionally competent.

Fortunately some people are emotionally talented—they are gifted with a special aptitude for interpersonal skills, or they learn emotional competency at an early age and practice it all their lives. They seem to know exactly what to say or do to bring out the best in each of us, comfort us during times of distress, and quickly reach a rapport even with total strangers. These are the warm and charismatic people among us who often excel at counseling professions.

A few people have dedicated their lives to achieving compassion. One example is Dr. Matthieu Ricard who is a molecular geneticist, Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer sometimes described as the happiest person in the world. He was a volunteer subject in studies on happiness performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, scoring significantly beyond the average obtained after testing hundreds of other volunteers. He radiates calm and compassion.

The long path toward holistic understanding, action for real progress, and compassion bring us to the threshold of wisdom. What lies inside this rarefied region?

Wisdom is action directed by the highest levels of cognitive, reflective, and affective skills.

Wisdom emerges from the fusion of thinking, feeling, and acting at their highest levels of maturity. Cognitive skills require an intelligent, knowing, and pragmatic observer. Reflection requires introspection and intuition based on a true and deep understating of the world and human-based values. Affective skills require a gentle peace, compassion, and understanding based on empathy for others. This deep thought, reflection, and feeling is expressed through action that is always committed, passionate, and generous.

Find yourself on this map, and take steps to advance along the paths toward wisdom. You can take creative and courageous action to solve problems, create opportunity, and increase the well-being of all.

I hope this blog helps make you wiser. I would enjoy seeing your comments about the site, and especially your suggestions for improving it. More on this topic is available at