Sunday, January 10, 2021

Follow-up to The Reason We Are So Polarized: What is the Real Truth?

 Recently I wrote this post about the polarized politics in United States. A quick recap: the two parties are like two clusters of darts on a dartboard that both miss the bullseye. 

Since then, I have been questioning what the "bullseye", or truth is, if both parties are missing the mark.  This question was highlighted last week when Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill last week. My conclusion is at the bottom and this is how I came to.

The mistake is seeking precision in the truth. For example, precision that can be defined with one word: "stupid", "uneducated", "racist", "elitist", "baby killer", etc. The truth is actually understanding all of the complexity, the interdependency,  the conditions and consequences.

When trying to understand last week, I tried to understand the people involved. Note that I am not trying to excuse their behavior. I'm trying to make sense of it.

I first thought of someone who feels like their government is not looking out for their best interest. I can relate as I don't like running up the debt to the current $27 trillion with no plan to pay for it off; waging war for 18 years with no clear exit plan; partisan politics that seems more concerned about proving the other party is bad than in governing in a healthy responsible way. I'm guessing that last week's protesters have their own issues, some of which may be more personal. No one in government or the media is talking about what matters to this crowd. Trump was so bold as to talk about it, so he was their hero. Then they heard false accusations of fraudulent votes. This could be more easily dismissed if the media didn't appear as so obviously biased: criticizing Trump for everything and then only asking Joe Biden what his favorite ice cream flavor was. Maybe the media had to do everything possible to prevent a Trump victory, but the consequence was the appearance of "stealing the election".  At a rally, Trump tells them to go to the capitol and mob mentality takes over. It wasn't a serious attempted coup. Many protesters truly regretted their involvement, not just because they were caught, but because the effects of the mob wore off. 

Similarly, last year there was a group of people that took to the streets in protest during the BLM movement. I imagine someone who sees success evading them. As a result, they can only afford to live in an unsafe neighborhood. They count on the police to provide safety but find out their one source of security is actual a force to be feared. 

I can't judge the actions of either groups of protesters because I have never been driven to protest. I have a good job. I live in a safe neighborhood. The actions of the government and law enforcement don't negatively impact my life in any significant way. My needs are being met and I have it better than most people that have ever lived in the world.


See that each person is just responding to the complex set of circumstances in their lives. If that leads them to criminal activity, then there is a consequence. But we can still try to understand and maybe even sympathize with others.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Reason We Are So Polarized: Accuracy vs. Precision


  • Accuracy refers to how close a measurement is to a true value
  • Precision refers to how close measurements of the same item are to each other
  • We tend to listen to and associate with others that believe like we do (precision).
  • We mistake precision for confidence of truth (accuracy)
  • The underlying cause is cognitive bias
The election is over and hopefully we can get past the emotion and start thinking rationally.  This is my attempt at providing some thought on this.  

In science, there is a useful metaphor of throwing darts at a dart board, used to explain accuracy vs. precision. Each x in the figure below represents where a dart hit the board.  I would like to apply this 
metaphor to beliefs and ideologies. 

The center of the dart board is truth.  As you move out from the center, you are further from the truth.  The darts (x's) represent each of the things we believe are true.  We all want to consider ourselves in the top left quadrant above: high accuracy, high precision.  In this quadrant, not only are we right, we are right all of the time.  My observation is that when it comes to politics (or religion), most people are actually in the top right quadrant: low accuracy, high precision.  They align very well with their friends on social media and their favorite news sources.  

Currently in politics there are actually two clusters, one on the right and one on the left.  When I talk to my friends that are either left or right leaning, I listen, impressed by their passion.  When I bring up information that would promote a balanced point of view, I feel treated as a heretic (or I'm ignored).  Because their cluster is so tight, they have confidence.  It's just misplaced confidence.

I'm not saying that I'm always right.  I'm more in the bottom right quadrant: low accuracy, low precision.  But occasionally I come across a head scratcher.  Here's a couple examples.

Do you remember this photo of Kellyanne Conway with her feet on the couch in the Oval Office?  How disrespectful, right?

Did you ever see the whole photo or know what the occasion was?  Here's the whole photo.

It was a meeting with leaders of historically black colleges and universities.  Why wasn't it reported what the meeting was about?  Unless you feel too comfortable in your precision cluster, you might want to find out.

There are legitimate and "accurate" reasons to find fault with Trump, but if he does something right, are you willing to give him credit?

On the other side, there were many times when I would read a headline criticizing one of Obama's speech.  They would take one comment and twist it into a different narrative.  I would then go and listen to the entire speech and find that it was very inspiring, patriotic, etc.  Stuff like being a good dad. 

Here are some specific examples of how the polarized clusters choose precision over accuracy:
  • Whether dangling chads should be counted as votes (This was the election of 2000 and the reason I became an independent)
  • Whether mail in ballots are acceptable (they've been an option for decades)
  • Whether everyone should wear a mask (I've gotten funny looks when I haven't worn one, like on a walk outside.  I've also gotten funny looks when I have worn one, like when I was walking by a gardener blowing a bunch of dust in the air).
  • Whether or not a successful national health care system in a much smaller country would scale to wildly diverse country OR is the success or failures of the DMV or post office an accurate comparison to a national health care system (I always get my mail, though the postal service does have its struggles).
  • Whether global warming and climate change are the greatest risk to humanity OR a complete hoax (Isn't there a sane middle ground?  Are carbon credits the only way of dealing with this?) 
  • Whether funding planned parenthood or supporting Roe vs. Wade results in more or fewer abortions.  I'm betting the answer is very nuanced.

The reasons that humans find themselves in these precision clusters away from the accurate bullseye is due to cognitive biases.  If you are interested in choosing accuracy over precision, you first have to overcome these biases.  Below is a quick reference to help you understand them better.  I also highly recommend the book "Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me" by  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Progress in the Presidential Debate: I'd like to see more of this

I would like to acknowledge Kristen Welker for the great job she did moderating the debate.  I would also like to acknowledge the engineers that developed the microphone kill switch so that the candidates could be controlled from talking over each other. 

Here's a couple of quotes from the debate last Thursday that I would like to see more of.  They showed the most honesty that I viewed the whole evening.  

Regarding COVID-19

[10:58] TrumpIt's not my fault that it came here... You know what, it's not Joe's fault that it came here either.

[18:58] Trump: ...So he's allowed to make mistakes, he happens to be a good person. [Referring to Fauci]

Regarding Immigration

BidenBecause we made a mistake...

Regarding the Crime Bill in the 80s and 90s

Biden...It was a mistake. I've been trying to change it since then...

The general theme I agree with is that stuff happens that you can't blame on anyone and people make mistakes.  The truth is that this is a very complex world and no single person or policy is going to fix it.    Some things may never be fixed (poverty, crime, disease).  No candidate or political party, even yours, is going to solve problems that have existed for millenia.  Not even your candidate.  Sometimes it is better to do nothing than to try the solution that you are 100% absolutely sure will work, even though there is no evidence that in this particular circumstance it will work.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

You Can Rewrite History But You Can't Change History

Imagine if all of power houses of the earth decided to change history. For a specific example, let's say they wanted to erase the history of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs, the pyramids, etc. What if all of the military might descended on Egypt and with their greatest weapons, nuclear and conventional, pulverize the Pyramids and ancient ruins to dust. Foot soldiers invaded all of the museums in the world and confiscated Egyptian artifacts. The largest and most powerful corporations funded people to enter all of the libraries and remove any book with reference to ancient Egypt. The tech giants crawled the internet and removed all electronic information. Thought police were hired to prevent anyone from teaching or even talking about ancient Egypt. 

Then writers were hired to create new history books about ancient Egypt. The new history would say that ancient Egyptians were a bunch of shepherds or nomads or something. Wiki pages would support the new history. Web pages would refer to the new history. 

If a whole new history of ancient Egypt is created, would that change history? The facts would remain. There were, in fact, Pyramids, temples and other amazing architecture. There were pharaohs. There was a an elaborate culture. 

Over time, some small scrap of paper would emerge. A book, previously lost or hidden, would be found. A forgotten temple would be unearthed.  All with fragments of the true history.

Does this seem far fetched?  In 1945, fifty-two papyrus texts were found concealed in an earthenware jar buried in the Egyptian desert, known as the Nag Hammadi library.  The texts were most likely hidden from people that wanted to destroy them.  They wanted to write their own history.

I learned about this from a book I recovered from my deceased uncle's library: "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels.  The book, ironically was destined for the refuse pile (what do you do with 1,300 books?).  It was an interesting revelation.  There were schisms and disagreements in the early Christian church: about the nature of Christ, how to obtain salvation, authority, etc.  The Catholic church prevailed with their ideology and managed to destroy what they perceived as the heretical ideas of the gnostics.  I like some ideas of the gnostics and am saddened to think that "might" won out over "right".

There are forces today that want to curate history. They want to curate what truth is to fit their purposes. Most likely what you consider truth is a fabrication. Most likely your staunchest ideological opponent believes a false narrative as well. There may not be a single public person with an accurate picture of truth.  It takes skepticism, doubt, curiosity, diligent inquiry, openness, effort to come to the truth.  Your biases may prevent you from seeing it.  If it is too easy for you to believe it, it's probably not true.  

I've heard of several reports where people have posted on their social media that if their friend votes or supports the opposite party or candidate, then they don't want to be friends.  Yikes!  I hope we can settle down after this election and learn to be more civil. Meanwhile, don't despair. Humans have been disagreeing for a long time.  And in my humble opinion, life keeps getting better.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Looking at the Numbers Part 4: Follow-up on Previous Pandemic Insights

 I've been wanting to go back an evaluate my previous posts on the Pandemic:

Looking at the Numbers: COVID-19 New Cases

Looking at the Numbers Part 2: COVID-19 Cases in the U.S.

Looking at the Numbers Part 3: Insight into the COV-19 Pandemic using a simulation


  • Claim: the pandemic was following a log-normal distribution
    • While the log-normal is useful, the pandemic resembles a more complicated superposition of multiple log-normal distributions.
  • Claim: the future can be predicted using log-normal distribution and/or percentage of population
    • Partially true
      • I predicted total cases for CA, FL, TX would be much larger than expected at the time (actual numbers have exceeded my prediction).
      • Log-Normal cannot predict future outbreaks (Example: Italy, Russian, Japan and Spain)
  • My original claim that many populous countries were just starting to "blow" up and poorer countries will most likely do worse.  This is proven false in the case of Bangladesh and India with lower death rates than the U.S.
  • Claim: Re-opening will most likely result in a rise of cases
    • True

Log-Normal Distribution

Claim: A Log-Normal distribution appears to be a surprising good fit to the number of new cases in various countries

The claim seems to be mostly true if a country or state doesn't make major changes to their response to COVID.

For example, Brazil seems to be following a Log-Normal distribution for COVID-19 cases.  Below are the best fit cumulative and distributions.
Most other countries, however show a resurgence of cases.  Only the distribution function is shown.  For these cases, it appears that the distributions appear as a superposition of two or more log-normal curves. 

Predicting the Future

  • The log-normal is able to predict the future growth of the virus assuming no later waves
  • The trend shows that the maximum expected total cases will be about 2% of the population
  • Several populous states have a ways to go

The problem with this claim is that in all cases, there is a later wave.  Still, I believe that the log-normal can help provide an expectation of how a current outbreak in a locale will play out.  Some examples:

Second Outbreaks

On May 9, 2020, I predicted that Italy would have 246k cases.  It hit this number at the end of July (as predicted) however a month later, the cases started climbing again.  It retrospect, I remember looking at the regions of Italy that had been infected and I noticed there were many other populous areas with low infection rates.  So I am not surprised in the later rise, but I also had no way to predict when it would start nor how large it will be.
Other countries that have had secondary outbreaks (Japan, Russian, Spain).

Populous States

On May 24, 2020, I predicted that California, Texas and Florida would have significantly more cases based on the assumption that peak cases would be about 2% of the population.  This assumption of 2% ended up being too low for many states (Florida and Arizona are both over 3% of the population infected).

StatePopulationTotal Cases to DateEstimate from May 24Actual Oct. 3

California's continually changing policies (partial shutdown, full shutdown, partial reopening, etc.) have resulted in a distribution that cannot be fit to a log-normal.

Populous Countries

On May 9, 2020, I noted that some of the most populous countries were just starting to see the pandemic: 
 India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria.  Though I wrote in my post that  "It's too early to tell how this will play out worldwide", I alluded to my hypothesis that they would experience a more severe pandemic.  The table below does not support this hypothesis.  

CountryMay 9Oct 3Death Rate for those infected
United States1,283,9297,332,2852.8%

Two cases stand out: India and Bangladesh.  India is quickly approaching the U.S. in number of cases but has a death rate nearly half of the U.S.  Bangladesh has an even lower death rate and the total number of cases are very small (0.2% of the population infected compared to the U.S. at 2.2%). And it appears that cases in Bangladesh are on a steady decline.

Re-opening will most likely result in a rise of cases

Here is my prediction using a scale-free model.  The total cases, time scale, relative size and time of peaks could not be accurately modeled.

Here is what happened in the U.S. after many states relaxed the rules around May or June.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Book of Everything

Imagine a book where every page represents the state of the universe at a different point in time.  The first page is the beginning of time.  The last page is the end of time. You thumb through the book and notice the continual changes from page to page.  The formation of stars, planets, life. These pages are a record of all history. As you thumb through the book, you discover the remainder of the book is completely blank. This is the future. Nothing is printed because it hasn't happened yet.

You turn to the last page with printing on it.  This is the present.  On this page is everything happening in the entire universe at this very moment.  The spiraling of galaxies. The motion of the planets. The moon, satellites, international space station and space junk all orbiting the earth.  Meteors are striking the atmosphere and burning up into dust.  Airplanes are flying through the sky.  Clouds floating and changing shape. Rain falls somewhere and it is snowing elsewhere. Birds are flying and singing. The wind blows.  People going about their business: driving, eating, sleeping, crying, laughing, arguing.  Billions of people.  Animals roaming the earth, climbing trees, digging holes.  Trees and plants sway in the wind and reach for the sun.  Fruit ripens.  Fish are swimming in the water.  Boats ride on the oceans, rivers and lakes. 

Your awareness of the present is like a small period on the page of the present.  A little dot.  There is infinitely more that you don't know about the present than what you do know.  You could spend every minute of the day reading the news and social media and your knowing is still a dot. 

You turn to the previous page and there is your little dot at an earlier time.  Maybe seconds ago.  Maybe minutes, hours or days.  There is a trajectory of dots all the way back to your birth. You realize that there is nothing you can do to change your past trajectory.  It is permanently recorded in the book of everything.

When you meet someone in the present, it is a rare moment when your trajectories intersect. Even if it is someone you see everyday, their trajectory is more unique than their DNA or fingerprint. Their path is so different than yours that your only choice is to be curious, interested, non-judging.

You turn to the page after the present and it is completely blank.  It's the future.  It hasn't happened yet.  You have no knowledge of what it brings.  No amount of thinking can make your dot appear on that page, let along anything else.  The printing will only appear when the page becomes the present.

You realize that the only thing that you have any influence over is your tiny dot on the present page.  What you think. What you say. How you act. How you breath. That's what you control.  But only in the present.  And only in the present that you are currently experiencing. You let go of the past.  You forget about the future.  You focus on the now.  You feel your heart open up to the present. Everything becomes more alive. Colors are more vibrant.  Sounds are clearer.  Food tastes better. People are more fascinating. Your feelings are more clear. 

You realize that the goal isn't to change the world; it's to experience the world.
You realize that the goal isn't to feel good; instead it's to be good at feeling.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Parable: A Peaceful Walk in the Park

The Story

You decide to go for a walk in your favorite park.  There are large canopy shade trees along a lazy stream.  Wild flowers line the trail.  Song birds fill the air.  As you quietly stroll, you feel the weight of the world melt away and a peace and serenity engulfs you.  

Then you hear a sound.

"help" someone seems to be calling out.  

You pause.  



Then continue your walk, immersing yourself in the quiet and beauty.


You hear it again, but this time it is louder.  You detect where it is coming from and turn to the voice.

"BE QUIET!!!" You yell.

Then you turn and return on your stroll.

"Please, Help!  Help!"

Once again you turn to the voice.


Then you start walking again.

"PLEASE, OH PLEASE, HELP!!! HELP!!! HELP!!!" The voice is much louder and urgent.

You turn to the voice and yell


The Moral 

What is your reaction to this story?  Could you identify at all with the "you"?  The person crying for help could be a stranger, a friend, a loved one, or even yourself.  The cry for help symbolizes any strong emotion: fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise.  We try to ignore, avoid or stifle strong emotions because they push us out of our comfort zones.  We justify ignoring the emotional outburst by blaming the person.  If they had only been more careful. If they just saw things more clearly.

Maybe they deserve to feel that way.  But while the emotion is being expressed, the least we can do is acknowledge that the emotion exists.  "Wow, I can tell you are really sad/upset/angry!  Help me to understand why".  You don't necessarily need to take on the emotion or feel it yourself.  But you can learn from it.

Last week my dog died.  He was 11 years old.  I knew this day would come and to be honest, I've been ready to have a dog free house for a while.  Yet the day he died I felt a strong grief and loss.  I didn't want to.  But I did.  So I stopped and let myself feel it.  Grief is a wake up call to help us realize how many strong bonds we have with those around us, that now is the time to make the most of our relationships. 

Investigating someone else's (or your own) emotions is sure to bring greater understanding.