You’re to blame for Fake News


I’m sick of the term “Fake News”.

It’s one of those intentionally simplistic terms – like “The Big Bang Theory” – that exists because the general public can’t deal with complex concepts without them being stripped to their basest form. Still, it’s the term du jour, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll use it.

As it relates to the US presidential election, “Fake News” is more accurately known as propaganda: distorted news stories and statistics used to push lies about immigrants, urban crime, Muslims, and other boogeyman designed to scare you. This form of propaganda isn’t unique to the US, of course; Brexit was fueled by it, and fear of the “other” has been the politicking weapon of choice since the first politician gave a speech.

But in the broader context of our lives, “Fake News” has always existed, and it has never been a liberal or conservative issue, just a matter of laziness and opportunistic cynicism.

A Long and Tortured History of Fake News

I’ve been calling out my friends’ tendency to spread fake news for years – and lost some for doing it – only to see the same people lambaste Trumpers for spreading fake news. The irony physically hurts.

The uncomfortable truth about the current form of fake news – the Facebook-viral, Russian bot-pushed, grammatically-indifferent breed – is that it didn’t just appear out of nowhere with perfected tactics for reaching the most susceptible (gullible) targets. These tactics have been deployed and honed for years by all kinds of sources pushing their dubious claims, most of them not inherently political. Some you probably trust.

I didn’t call them “fake news” back then, I called them bullshit.

To help explain this, I’m focusing on one website (though there are many) and how it fits into both the current political moment and the road that got us here:

Natural Bullshit

Natural News is one of the most unapologetic sources of bullshit I’ve ever seen. There was a time a few years back when it would pop up in my Facebook feed almost every day.

Natural News

In its heyday, existed as a poorly-designed, green-hued nightmare of circular reasoning and supplement peddling. It ostensibly existed to provide information about “alternatives” to Western Medicine (a.k.a. “medicine”). There have always been snake oil salesman, and there always will be. Natural News just did it digitally.

Natural News became a phenomenon largely because it pushed the roundly debunked and thoroughly bullshit idea that vaccines cause autism. Even now, as I type this, the top link on the site declares “Highest AUTISM rates found in countries with highest VACCINE compliance” (playing the hits). It also went all-in on the “evils” of GMOs, another bullshit scare tactic that you – yes, I know you’re reading this – probably still believe is a big concern.

What made this site so effective and so useful for people spreading its lies is that when you clicked on an article, it appeared to be a legitimate news article, with quotes from relevant experts and links to supporting articles. For a reader ready to buy what Natural News was selling, that’s all it took to be convinced that the article was properly researched and well-sourced. Click, share.

But those articles were garbage.

The quotes were almost never actually quotes. They often referenced “a person there” or “an expert”, but never gave a name, as if they had to maintain the person’s anonymity lest Big Brother snuffed them out.

Worse, if you clicked on a link embedded in the article, it inevitably took you to a different article on, generally written by the same guy (or avatar, at least). Keep clicking and you’d go further and further down the rabbit hole of that website, perhaps even coming right back around to the original article. It was an ouroboros of bullshit, and goddamn was it effective. The creators of the site knew, if you’re predisposed to believe them, you wouldn’t check their work.

The site’s most dedicated readers were usually those who called themselves skeptics, those people who never trust the “official story” and pat themselves on the back because they voted for a third party candidate once. Self-proclaimed skeptics are always the easiest to fool.

If you go to now (I wouldn’t recommend it; except to check my claims, so I guess you should do it), the website has transformed, unsurprisingly, into a pro-Trump, “Deep State” conspiracy-pushing, manure factory. Still poorly designed, but at least it’s keeping up with the latest bullshit. 

I say “unsurprisingly” because, as someone who has been tracking bullshit for my entire adult life, as soon as I saw the political “fake news” websites during the election popping up in my feed, I recognized all the same tactics being used, both in terms of self-referential links and the way they preyed on “skeptics” and “free thinkers.” 

Nowadays, Natural News has gotten a little more sophisticated: Its links go to other websites, sites with names like “Deep State News.” Regardless, it’s the same tactic as always, linking back to different like-minded (almost certainly interconnected) sources to give the sheen of authenticity to its claims. The snake is still eating its tail, one source of bullshit feeding another. (Who would have thought that “The Human Centipede” would turn out to be the most culturally astute film of our times?)

It’s possible that Natural News’ turn to Trumpism is just a natural development of its anti-establishment roots. If you don’t trust doctors and the medical establishment, it stands to reason you probably look askew at the political establishment, too. 

On the other hand, if you’re a bit more cynical –  as I am – you might note that Natural News always had a political slant at its core. I don’t mean Republican or Democrat, or even conservative or liberal. Rather, its politics were about persuading its readers that all “official” sources were lying, so you could only trust them. (And while we’ve got you here, why don’t you buy some vitamin supplements?)

“Everyone else is lying but me.” Sound familiar? When Trump praises Fox News and calls all other news sources “fake” he’s relying on the same tactic that Natural News used to secure a loyal and defensive audience. As soon as you’ve earned someone’s trust and, more importantly, built their distrust of others, they’re yours for life.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying Natural News was a Russian-backed front for spreading fake news (unless it turns out it really was, in which case, I’m also not not saying that).

What I am saying, though, is that all “fake news” sources use this same tactic to create loyalty. It’s not a new tactic. It originated with the original – and still best – purveyor of lies the world ever knew: Religion.

In the beginning…

Once you’ve convinced your followers that only your book, your prophets, your preachers, your celebrity spokesperson have access to the truth, it becomes impossible to dispute your claims.

I said above that I have been tracking bullshit my entire adult life. What I meant was that, as soon as I de-converted from Christianity at the age of 20, I began to look for all the ways that religion convinced its followers – convinced me – to stay in its grasp, even when so little of it made sense.

As a young, firebrand atheist, I was obsessed with debunking Christian myths and disproving its claims. I followed a pretty standard trajectory for an atheist, from excitable (and mean) reactionary to stately but acerbic provocateur, to where I am now: an old man tired of the fight. I mostly don’t write about it anymore, because the debate has gotten tiring, and the results non-existent.

But I bring up my young atheism because that’s where I first noticed the tactics of modern “fake news”: utilize self-referential sources, engender distrust, muddy the waters around what can be known (i.e. facts).

In one specific topic, I saw those tactics being used to prolong a debate that had long been settled: Evolution vs. Creationism (Intelligent Design).

Creationists like Ken Ham have no chance of winning the debate on the merits of facts or reason, so they turn to other methods for winning adherents to their political views: repeating assertions ad nauseam, no matter how baseless (repetition creates the illusion of veracity); arguing that one can’t trust what is seen with one’s own eyes; and proclaiming that biologists (all scientists, really) are part of a conspiracy to trick the world.

Sound familiar?

These same tactics are used by Climate Change deniers, Natural News quacks, and Donald Trump, among others.

When writing article after article about religion in my early 20s, I felt a bit like Chicken Little screaming that the sky was falling. Some people humored me, some even agreed. Turns out, the sky really was falling, and everyone thought they were safe under their particular awnings.

The future is bleak

Things are going to keep getting worse because of technology. Don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing, but its most amazing feature is also its greatest danger: it makes what isn’t real look like it is. Whether it’s getting us emotionally invested in the arc of a talking raccoon in a space epic or creating a video in which Obama appears to be calling Trump a dipshit, our world is increasingly virtual; in other words, fake. Eventually, our tech will overwhelm our ability to tell the difference.

For those looking forward to 2018 or 2020 in hopes of the truth winning out and Trumpism being eradicated, well, don’t hold your breath.

It’s not enough to know that “fake news” exists; we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are susceptible to it, and to blame for it.

You are to blame. I am, too. 

I’ll admit, I reposted that fake Trump quote about Republicans. I’m at least partially responsible for that “quote” having more legs than it deserved.

False Trump Quote
He never said this.

This is the simplest form of fake news, and it’s one that was pretty easy to debunk because it gives the supposed source. Trump never said those words, and obviously he wouldn’t have. The fact that I reposted it speaks to my own willingness to put aside common sense when something feels true enough.

(There is a similar damning “quote” going around, with George Soros supposedly admitting to using Black Lives Matter to stir up violence in America. It’s just as bullshit as the Trump quote and proof that tactics know no political allegiance.)

When I read that the quote was fake, I double checked and was dismayed to find I’d been suckered. I deleted my post and now tell other people when they post it. People often smugly respond, “Well, even if he didn’t say it, the quote is true,” not getting the irony that they’re making fun of other people for believing lies. We have to be better than this.

Calling out these blatant lies is a small thing, but it’s some effort towards stopping the deluge. Sadly, I fear it’s a bit like cleaning up an oil spill with a teaspoon.

You’re to blame for Fake News.

You have spread fake news. I don’t care who you voted for, I don’t care how much of a “skeptic” or a “free thinker” you are. You have helped spread false information. Maybe you found out and corrected yourself, maybe you quietly buried the evidence, or maybe you are still convinced of its veracity. Whatever the case, you’re guilty.

And to prove it, I will list some lies that you believe or did believe. I won’t provide my sources, but I assure you, these are all facts. If you doubt me – good, that’s the first step – I encourage you to do the research yourself and learn why these lies became so massive that most of society accepts them as truth.

Here are lies you have undoubtedly believed at some point in your life:

  1. Carrots improve your night vision
  2. Diamonds are rare
  3. It’s dangerous/too difficult for women to get pregnant after 35
  4. Vitamin C will cure a cold
  5. Milk strengthens your bones
  6. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute
  7. You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day
  8. A woman frivolously sued McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on herself and that’s why we live in a nanny state

We not only live with our lies, we love them. We define our world by them. Like it or not, there is a good chance your idea of the world has largely been shaped by at least one of those lies above (I used to drink a big glass of OJ every time I felt a tickle in my throat).

The spreading of lies isn’t going to stop. Liars aren’t going to stop. The only way to make a better world is to be better consumers of information. 

It’s not enough to just be a “skeptic.” We need to be curious. We need to be invested in the truth. We need to be interested in the wider world.

But, before all that, we need to admit, we’re part of the problem.

Change In America

The United States in the 21st Century is fundamentally different than when it was the preeminent, ascendant world power of the 20th century. It would be simple to point to one or two major events as the catalysts for this change (9/11, the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s election), but in reality the world is in a constant state of flux and the status quo never lasts long.

I have known conservative religious types to warn of the danger of Same Sex Marriage by claiming that ancient Rome’s embrace of homosexuality heralded their downfall. Besides nicely illustrating the causation/correlation conflation fallacy and showing a complete lack of historical literacy, this thinking also illustrates our most common myth about reality. People are prone to believe that their present moment in history is the default, and any deviation from their norm is an affront, when in fact it’s inevitable.

Change is the constant. One of the failings of the environmentalist movement is that in their urgency to warn of Global Warming-caused catastrophes, they initially fell back onto the easy, grabby language of World Ending Apocalypse. The world isn’t ending, but it is changing, a fate that means very little to the planet Earth, but should prove a real boon to Slip N’ Slide sales in Alaska.

We Need Change

The ideas which are holding back or actively dragging down society can be traced to one terrible piece of reasoning: “It’s what I’ve always believed.”

The country I have come to know intimately is one that can be hard to love at times. Overt anti-science, anti-intellectual, sexist and homophobic public policies and talking points are easy targets for Jon Stewart or John Oliver to lampoon, but far subtler, less political strands of these worldviews inhabit average people in ways that are harder to extract from their, otherwise, fundamental decency. Good people can have lousy beliefs, especially if they’ve never had a reason to question them. It’s simple to think that everyone protesting against same sex marriage or outside Planned Parenthood is just a religious fanatic, but I was maybe five or six the first time I carried a sign in a “Pro-life” march. I didn’t know what I opposed (or supported), and it wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I thought back on those days with any embarrassment.

Some people never examine their beliefs. That is a shame and the reason why ignorant, hateful people are so prominent in our society (well, that and because controversial statements make nice headlines). We of the “educated, liberal” persuasion shake our heads at others for their backwards beliefs, and yet it’s among liberal enclaves that pseudo-scientific (not scientific at all, actually) idiocy runs most rampant, from the Anti-Vaccine movement to whatever miracle vitamin Dr. Oz is peddling this week. No political, religious or social group holds a monopoly on bad ideas and ignorance.

The oft-ignored extension of the “some people don’t examine their beliefs” rule is that nobody examines all of their beliefs. When Descartes famously stated “I think, therefore I am,” he coined the definitive statement of Rationalism, but his hyperbolic doubt remained credulous about one central belief: God. Even the forefather of rational skepticism had his blind spots, is it any surprise that the rest of us are no better at scrutinizing our beliefs? Another great philosopher, Dr. Gregory House, once bellowed, “Climb out of your holes people!” but we live in holes and nobody wants to be homeless.

We Hate Change

It is quite possible that people seem angrier and more miserable today because the internet allows us to vent more freely and, thus, the dickish thoughts that we always had but kept to ourselves are now coming into the open. This view suggests that humanity isn’t growing shittier, we’re just more open about our fecal tendencies. I like this interpretation because it jives with the underlying optimism I hold for the human race (even if I’m pessimistic about individuals).

However, it’s hard to ignore the police killings of innocent teenagers and the increased mass shootings, along with the corruption at every level of power, both political and financial. The world may be less violent over all than at any other time in human history, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still acting like savages.

I would argue that if there is one underlying cause for so much of the malignant behavior in our society, it’s change. Rapid, unstoppable change. The last 50 years has produced more social upheaval than almost all of human history before it. For 20 years, we have been in a technological explosion like no one’s ever seen. When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the 23rd century in the original Star Trek, it didn’t look all that much different from the world we inhabit in the second decade of the 21st century (minus the space travel; though that may not be far off). In our time, cultural revolution is more pronounced in one year than it was in entire decades of the previous century.

As the old axiom goes, nobody likes change. Sure, some people embrace new things more readily than others, but even for a guy who has made a life of moving from city to city, I’m not always receptive to shifting sands. We are especially unhappy when a change occurs without our input or permission.

I don’t mean to deny individual autonomy because we are all ultimately responsible for our actions, but I think the depletion of civility and society’s rapid transformation are more than casually linked. I don’t have any studies to support that hypothesis (better minds than mine would have to devise ways to test it), but it’s no stretch to suggest that big changes often have unexpected consequences. If the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was met with fierce opposition, is it any wonder that there is so much turmoil in the wake of social changes that include race, gender and sexual orientation in one massive tsunami? The United States isn’t so much a melting pot as a churning caldron.

There’s no returning to the status quo. Which status quo would that even be?

We Has Change

Will our society continue to evolve this dramatically and this abruptly from here on out? Most experts predict a technological plateau at some point, but since we’re experiencing a period like none other in human history, it’s really anybody’s guess. The concept of the ‘Technological Singularity’ suggests that there’s an endpoint for both human and technological evolution, but how far off is that? Could there be a ‘Societal Singularity’?

Whatever comes next for America, we should expect it to be met with challenges. It’s easy to get frustrated if you’re fighting for civil rights and facing backlash. It can be just as frustrating to be passionate about something, anything, and find nothing but hate and abuse thrown back at you. But take solace: if the world seems especially brutish to you, consider that these may be the growing pains of a society rapidly exploding through puberty. Awkward, ugly puberty.

And if that’s the case, maybe a stable, humane adulthood is still ahead of us.

1 World Trade Center 2

8 Years

June 1st, 2005, a day that will live in… obscurity.



Do you remember what you were doing in 2005? 8 years ago. A person could have graduated college twice in that much time, or watched every episode of How I Met Your Mother on its original air date. There’s been somewhere in the vicinity of 30 million births in that time; 15 million deaths. A black man was elected the President of the United States, twice!

The passage of time is notched with innumerable road markers.

Think about all the bands and artists you had almost certainly never heard of before 2005: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bon Iver, Lykke Li, Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s, Bloc Party, Passion Pit, Beirut, Bat For Lashes, My Brightest Diamond, Fleet Foxes, The Swell Season, Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors, Band of Horses, A Fine Frenzy,  Justice, St. Vincent, Vampire Weekend, the Dodos, Laura Marling, Eisley, She & Him, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Florence + The Machine, The XX… and that’s just in the indie music sphere.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad couldn’t even have existed on television in 2005. Marvel Comic’s strategy of transporting their entire comic universe to the big screen was getting them laughed out of studio meetings (putting Robert Downey, Jr. in your movies was still considered a risky move). Your sister probably hadn’t even picked up a copy of Twilight yet (well, not all the changes have been positive).

“iPhone? What’s an iPhone?” <- That’s you in 2005. Loser.

The point is, the world has changed considerably in the years since I began 10 Cities / 10 Years, and most of those changes happened without us noticing the shift. From year to year, month to month, day to day, our world evolves and the changes just sort of wash over us. But if you pick a date on an old calender and compare it to the current moment in history, the changes are a monsoon.


The Trees for the Forest

Our world transforms at a rate that would be completely incomprehensible to past generations. As those changes come about more rapidly, we evolve to adapt just as quickly, which in turn leads to an even greater rate of change.

But humans don’t really change all that much.

Every few years or so there’s a new article about how this generation is so strange and different and how can the older generation possibly understand them and will these young’uns ever mature and why won’t they get off our lawns? These articles focus on the generational trends and ignore that the underlying motivations and desires of individuals are the same as they always have been. Just because this generation is getting married at 28 instead of 23 doesn’t mean that marriage isn’t a priority. Love, lust, procreation, these will always be the reason we get out of bed (and back into it *rimshot*).

Cultures change rapidly. Species evolve gradually.


We’re here, in the future. Two years from now we’ll have hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers, and man will that be a crazy time, but until then we’ve got a pretty amazing world. There’s a lot of focus on the ills of technology, but from where I sit (in my apartment in New Orleans, where I’d be struggling to breathe if it weren’t for central air), we live in a great future. Literature of the 20th century told us that by this point in human history we would be ruled by a Hitlerian-authority or living in a burnt out nuclear wasteland.

It’s not very hip for futurists to paint with an optimistic brush, but every day we move closer towards Gene Roddenberry’s vision and away from George Orwell’s. Frankly, I hope to be using a transporter to get to work by 2020. Hell, I demand it.



In two years, I’ll be finished with a project that I have devoted my adult life to. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. I imagine there will be a great feeling of relief at the end, as well as a sort of sad emptiness knowing that a major portion of my life is complete. But my life won’t be over. Nor will the life of this crazy, terrible, beautiful, fantastic species.

There are still books to be written, songs to be composed, movies to be filmed. We aren’t anywhere near being done yet.

So answer 2 questions for me:

8 years ago you were doing _______?

8 years from now you will be doing _______?

We Beat On

Happy June 1st everyone.

Fundamental Misunderstandings

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the reasons that people come to disagree with the truth is that their understanding of the fundamental argument is so skewed. This could be because someone has deliberately misrepresented the opposing view, but just as often it can be because in an attempt to simplify a topic for easier consumption the original idea gets distorted by the very people trying to explain it.

Take the Big Bang Theory (not the show, dummy), for instance. The whole theory is very complex and encompasses many fields of study and many theories, but the name makes the whole thing sound pretty simplistic and childish. There’s a reason for that. The guy who coined the term was actually mocking the theory. Whereas the theory is well-supported and is the most widely-accepted theory for the origin of the universe, it’s almost impossible to say the name and not roll your eyes a little bit.

Other major scientific principles suffer from similar public relation problems, and it’s often these sorts of simple misunderstandings that lead people down the initial road to doubt.

Let’s look at 3 such fundamental misunderstandings and see if we can’t set them right.*

1. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

I’m not under any grand delusion thinking that any post I write is going to change the minds of people who believe in Intelligent Design. For people who have already sided with that position, there are pages upon pages of well-written responses and rebuttals (that will likely never make a dent). No, I merely hope to reach the few people who generally have never given it much thought but might be susceptible to false information if the facts aren’t explained to them beforehand (like a kid who goes to a Young Republicans meeting for the economic conservatism, but ends up sucked into protesting gay marriage).

What is the fundamental misunderstanding about Darwin’s big theory? Well, it’s all in that famous picture above. From the time any of us hear about evolution, we are shown this (or a similar) picture. It concisely illustrates the notion that humans come from a long line of ancestors who were of a different species. The problem with this picture can be seen every time an evolution denier says something like, “If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys.”

We did not evolve from monkeys. Not from apes or orangutans, either. As flashy as that picture is, it gives the false impression that evolution is moving us forward, evolving species with a purpose, an end game. That simply isn’t true. We humans share a common ancestor with apes and orangutans, but that doesn’t mean we evolved from them. The reason there are ‘still monkeys’ is because they, as a species, were well adapted to their environment and survived, just as we did. In fact, the only reason the species we know as ‘humans’ still exists is because at various points in our ancestral history, one species was better adapted to survive than another species.

The better way to illustrate the path of evolution is through a tree illustration. Simple trees can look just like branches or family trees, but the more complex (and accurate) ones are often illustrated in this manner:

As I’ve already said, I know that this explanation will be meaningless to someone who has already dismissed the theory, but for those who are studying it and still trying to figure out where they fall in the debate, it’s important to avoid beginning with such a fundamental misunderstanding.

2. Climate Change

If you’re like me (I’m sorry), then you’re probably irked every time someone says during a massive blizzard, “So much for Global Warming!” Granted, I realize when people post that on Facebook or wherever, half the time they’re being sarcastic or just trolling. But it still bothers me because I know half the time people are serious, and the sentence alone probably gets some people thinking, “Hm, yeah, this doesn’t feel warmer.”

While Global Warming is, indeed, an accurate descriptor (unlike the evolution image above that misrepresents the theory), I prefer the term ‘Climate Change’ because as far as short, eye-catching nomenclature goes, it both accurately describes the phenomenon and doesn’t allow as much room for people too lazy to research the topic to get confused (or sidetracked). Yes, our environment is getting warmer, but no that doesn’t mean every day is going to be hotter.

Day to day temperatures are, of course, affected by the overall climate, but that’s just one of many factors that change as our atmosphere heats up. While Hurricane Sandy can’t definitively be blamed on Climate Change, the increasing severity and frequency of these storms can be. At this point, Climate Change is a fact (like evolution). Humans causing Climate Change is the theory (like the Theory of Natural Selection). As the years progress, we’re seeing an increasing number of Climate Change skeptics change their tune from, “Climate Change isn’t real” to “Climate Change is real, but we have nothing to do with it.”

As we see more and more destructive storms and debilitating droughts, though, the question of whether or not we cause Climate Change becomes academic. It doesn’t matter because if we can do something to counteract these changes no matter what the cause, we should.

3. Statistics

I’m talking about this one because, thanks to Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog, statistics are all the rage. Who would have thunk math could be so sexy?

As we saw in this election, anybody with a firm enough handle on statistics can look like a friggin’ psychic. Most of us who followed Silver’s blog throughout the election and read his explanations understood the facts that supported his predictions and weren’t at all surprised by the results (unlike some commentators who were apparently blindsided). Before the election, there were a whole lot of reasons being bandied about why Silver’s Forecast was wrong, things like bias and flawed polls. In the echo chamber of the Conservative media where like-minded individuals only heard from each other, it was impossible to align Silver’s predictions with the view they had.

But statistics are a very misunderstood field even when politics aren’t involved. Statistics are the reason I rarely gamble (and why I never play the lotto). Given time, the house always wins. This has to be the case, or casinos would be closing left and right, not giving out free drinks to their patrons.

If you look at the popular literature on statistics, you’ll see a lot of books focused on what is known in the field as “outliers,” those unexpected occurrences where an event happens outside the norm predicted by the stats. These events are called ‘outliers’ for a reason, because they cannot be counted on. But in true American, “I go it alone” fashion, the idea of the outlier has become intoxicating. “Sure,” we think, “most people fall inside the statistical curve, but I’m going to be the Outlier.” (The Outlier would make for a very interesting Superhero.)

Reality hits hard, though.

Contrary to how they are commonly portrayed, statistics don’t make predictions. Statistics, either in the way Nate Silver uses them, or casinos, or baseball general managers, merely determine the odds of a particular event. Statistically speaking, Obama was favored to win. If he had lost, Silver’s methods wouldn’t have been proven wrong, though that would certainly have been the headline (and math education would have taken a major hit). But Obama’s win doesn’t ‘prove’ Silver was right, either, because the math already did that.

Can statistics be wrong? Sure. If the facts are wrong or incomplete. Or if the math itself is done incorrectly. But when the input is correct and the analysis is done properly, the output will be accurate, no matter what. If something is predicted to happen with 75% assurance, but it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean the math was wrong. It means that the 25% chance panned out.

Because of that less-than-sexy reality, statistics can be quite frustrating. We want these statisticians to predict the future, but all they can really do is give the odds. This is why accusations of Silver being biased were so unfounded. As a statistician, Silver’s reputation rests on his accuracy, not on his political bent. He didn’t use magic or any crazy tricks to make predictions, he just used math.

And that’s damn sexy.

*This is by no means an attempt to give a thorough overview of these topics. Hopefully, if you’re interested, you’ll seek out reputable sources for further information.

Objectivist Christians and the Unselfish Atheist

I have never read Atlas Shrugged.  Nor The Fountainhead.  In fact, other than in quote form, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a thing that Ayn Rand ever wrote.  Like Twilight or Mein Kampf (that’s right, I just compared the work of history’s greatest monster to one of the foundational tomes of Nazism), I don’t feel any appreciable hole in myself for having not ingested these “seminal” works of literature.

For me, I care very little about what Objectivism stands for in its Platonic form, the way Rand intended it.  In debates, one is often chided to contend with the best form of the argument, but if that form isn’t practiced in the real world, it’s meaningless.  A debate on purely philosophical levels is masturbatory.  If I’m going to engage with someone in a debate, I’m only interested in their philosophy in so far as it shapes their actual thoughts and actions.

I say all of that as a preamble to this post because I intend to talk about the philosophy of Objectivism in this post, knowing full and well that I am a noob when it comes to Rand’s literary output.  However, this philosophy has grown in popularity among Conservatives in recent years (as can be evidenced by all the pundits and talking heads referencing Rand and her books), and so I feel like I can comment on the philosophy as it is being preached today, whether or not it truly represents Rand’s original intentions.

Objectivism As I Understand It

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” ~ Ayn Rand

If one portion of the quote were to be bolded, highlighted and festooned with bachelorette party, penis-shaped hats, it would have to be “with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.”  That is certainly the portion of the philosophy that has become the rallying cry of conservatives.  The ‘productive achievement’ aspect ties in with the whole notion of Free Market Capitalism, but it’s hardly a matter of grave importance to the modern Objectivist (at least, not in comparison to the personal happiness aspect).  And ‘reason’ as the only absolute?  Psh.  Tell that to the evolution-denying, climate change-denying members of the Conservative wing.

No, happiness is all that really matters.  It ties back into Jefferson’s most quoted line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s the foundation of our nation, after all, pursuing happiness.

Objectivist Christians: Oxymorons or just morons?

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

The sad irony of the rise of Objectivism in the last decade is that it’s not just popular with Conservatives, it’s popular with Conservative Christians, despite the fact that it was a philosophy developed by an atheist with an atheist’s focus on the material world.  You couldn’t develop a philosophy that stands in starker relief to Jesus’ teachings than Objectivism, but it’s being preached from pulpits and being upheld as a foundational pillar of America in the same way people like to assert that we’re a Christian nation.

Well, if so-called Christians want to claim that the selfish, all-consuming pursuit of personal happiness is the most important facet of their lives, godspeed.  In fact, I’m all for it.  The one thing that religion offers that keeps it alive and beneficial is its sense of community and concern for those in need.  If Christians start stripping their faith of those admirable traits, I foresee the whole enterprise crumbling within a hundred years.  Good riddance.

No, I don’t give a sixpence about selfish Christians.  Let them clean their own house.

I’m here to raise my objections to Objectivism as an atheistic philosophy.

Unselfish Atheists

Objectivism is atheistic to its very core.  It cares nothing for life after death.  It’s not worried about everlasting punishment or consequences for actions other than one’s own happiness (this presumably extends to the happiness of your loved ones, or maybe not?).

But just because it fits with the general godless view does not mean it is the only philosophy for atheists, or even a good one.

As atheists, we should take care of our fellow humans.  We should be concerned with the well-being of the poor and downtrodden.  We should put the happiness and welfare of others on the same plain as our own.  We should not be only interested in the pursuit of our own happiness.

And the reason should be obvious to any atheist who’s come to their non-faith by process of logic and reason and not just because they’re one of those annoying people who get off on being a contrarian.

The survival of our species requires corporation.  Our sense of community evolved not because we survived long enough to develop it, but because without it we wouldn’t have survived.  Objectivism in the wild is going to get you killed.  That’s also the reason religion evolved, to help enforce a mode of behavior that was beneficial to our continued existence.  I’m no defender of religion, but I understand the important role it played in our survival (a role it now only tangentially fulfills).

Social Darwinism is the erroneous idea that Charles Darwin’s “Survival of the fittest” concept was an ideal and not simply a description of reality.  Those who are strongest survive, fact, but that doesn’t mean we should try to govern with that sort of philosophy.  Social Darwinists would argue that helping the weak survive is detrimental to the species’ survival, because we’re ensuring the continued existence of that weakness in the gene pool.  But that’s a complete misunderstanding of Natural Selection.

If we see a bird with a long pointed beak pecking into a tree for bugs, we understand that the natural force of evolution selected his ancestors for survival because they were better adapted to retrieving hard to reach food.  But in another environment, with different vegetation, a long beak may not be helpful, and could even be detrimental.

In the same way, our long, often regrettable history has helped shape a modern society in which some people thrive and others falter.  It’s not a matter of strength or weakness (as if Mitt Romney being born into money proves his worth).  Out in the wooded wilds, a hunter would survive longer than a computer programmer, but no one is going to claim Bill Gates is a weak member of our species.

How about alcoholics?  Or manic-depressives?  Or schizophrenics?  Those are clear weaknesses, right?  If those kinds of people fall between the cracks, wouldn’t we all be better off?

I must ask: How many of our greatest artists have been addicts?  How many of our greatest thinkers, inventors, creators and philosophers have been plagued with mental illness?  If we had been able to wipe out such afflictions, how many of our treasured works of art and science would be lost?  How many will be lost?

But the better question is, how much can be gained by fostering a society that cares for its fallen?*

Just because one does not believe in God or eternal consequences doesn’t mean one must necessarily think only of one’s self.  If an atheist can understand the logic in not murdering or raping, they can understand the benefit in living for others.

No, selfishness isn’t a viable philosophy, especially not for those of us who put no stock in gods or the supernatural and, instead, concern ourselves only with our physical world and the natural process by which we evolve to survive.  A species that favors variety in its ranks and does not willfully allow its own to perish is a species that will continue to survive.  That’s as Darwinian as it gets, and any atheist worth their salt has got to appreciate that.

Think of it as the successful implementation of Game Theory.  Call it a Welfare State or just call it humanity, but however you see it, if your happiness isn’t directly tied into the happiness of your fellow homo sapiens you are unfit for survival.

And in that sense, Jesus got it right, even if his followers don’t.

*I will leave the discussion of how for another post, but I’ll just say here, I absolutely believe the government should be a player in the game.

The 10 Cities Meme

“When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes.  We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes.  But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations… We should not seek immortality in reproduction.

“But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.  Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares?  The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.” ~ Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

“Everybody wants to go on forever.  I just wanna burn up hard and bright.” ~ Ryan Adams, “Firecracker”

The concept of the meme was first articulated by that British rogue, Richard Dawkins, and has since, quite fittingly, become one of the internet’s most persistent memes in itself.  In a profoundly moving passage of the excellent, The Selfish Gene (quoted in part, above), he expresses how we as a species have two ways to propagate ourselves through ongoing generations.  On the biological level, there are our genes which are in a constant evolutionary struggle to ensure their own survival and reproduction.

The meme, though, as Dawkins argues, is the more lasting and substantial way for ‘us’ to live on long after our meat suits have decayed.

On the internet, ‘meme’ is predominantly just shorthand for pictures of cats and celebrities doing odd things, and more cats, but a meme is really any idea that survives and then flourishes as it passes from one mind to another.  The Great Gatsby isn’t a meme, but Fitzgerald’s expression of the American Dream is, and by crafting one of the finest works of American literature, he provided a vessel for his idea to spread.

Similarly, Kerouac’s On The Road has spread a meme that could concisely be labeled as “freedom from normal,” though it’s really more complex than that (and not as idyllic in practice).

That meme took root in my imagination as a teenager and it has given birth to 10 Cities / 10 Years.  Other people have their own, unique ways of expressing that same meme, which is the beauty of the truly transcendent ideas: They can be reproduced in a million different forms but those variations all trace their DNA back to the one, core idea.

On The Road (among countless other works) had an influence on the formation of my project, so in that way Kerouac lives on through my life.  And I can only hope when I’ve completed my decade and written the book, it will be the kind of work that survives in the imagination and art of future generations.  It will likely be dissected and eviscerated by my own generation, but the most powerful ideas take hold in the minds of youth.

It might seem a lofty, even haughty, goal to seek the kind of influence that Kerouac had, but if an artist, inventor or thinker doesn’t want their work to spread, what are they creating for?  I’d rather be deemed an asshole because of my conflated ambition than be just another money-hungry leech on the nutsack of true artistry.

Aim For The Stars…

The unflattering truth is that most people I know have no ambition to ever matter in a lasting since.  The world is filled with vapid, listless, upright apes dreaming of the day the world finally gives in and showers them with wealth and pleasure.  Even most of the artists I know care more about making a bunch of money than they do about crafting truly unique, lasting works of art.  Boring.

And if you’re wondering if I mean you, let me put it this way:  I could probably count on one hand the people I’ve met whose ambition and efforts have that special spark of ingenuity that makes for world changing influence.

For most of you, both your genes and your memes will die off with your grandchildren, at best.

The same may be true of me, I can’t know.  I may never make an impression on the world, but it won’t be for lack of effort.  My goal is not merely to sign a book deal, do the talk show circuit and maybe get a movie made based on one of my novels.  I’m aiming to be discussed in college classrooms.  I’m aiming to be on the bookshelves (or Kindles) of every teenager in America.  I’m aiming to be the inciting idea that inspires some future writer to live differently.

I’m aiming for nothing short of Memehood.*

While people are chasing invisible gods in pursuit of everlasting life in heaven, I aim to achieve the only sort of immortality that can ever exist.

And if I fall short, I’ll have tried.

How many can say that?

*This puts me in the company of some of history’s greatest assholesAlso, history’s greatest innovators.  In the Venn Diagram of history, these two sets pretty much overlap.