Unintended Consequences

In a classic Sesame Street sketch, Carl brushes his teeth and then washes his hands, water running the entire time. Frank the Fish has been humming along happily in his pond (connected directly to the faucet) as his lifeline drains away. He struggles. He calls Carl to ask him to turn off the tap and reminds him not to waste water. It’s a 46-second lesson that’s lasted me decades, but my topic is not water conservation.

Friday night, after a long day of packing and being packed for a move to California, one of my sons needed to make a run to a dumpster for excess trash. I went along to help. The last of the bags, which I admit I’d packed, held two quart containers of dried up drywall compound. The bag itself, which I admit I purchased, was cheap so only .9 mil thick. My son is father and founder of the Taylor Boys Play-It-Where-It-Lays Society, so I wasn’t surprised when he decided to make a game of tossing said bag into the dumpster. As he lofted it over his head and into the air, the bag pretty much disintegrated, sending the dried mud containers hurtling right toward me. They were heavy and, thankfully, dropped before they reached me. It was hilarious although I guess you had to be there for the full effect. I laughed a lot harder than he did. But my topic is not cheaping out on garbage bags or throwing trash at your mother.

Unintended consequences are not new. In fact, their study has a complex history. The term was popularized in 1936 in a scholarly paper by Robert Merton called “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in American Sociological Review. To say that I understand this work would be a stretch, but if you are willing to take my word for it, he adds in his conclusion that trying to predict what people will do finds an obstacle because the prediction becomes part of the equation. Planners act without taking into account how people (or rabbits or kudzu, not his focus) will react to their plan. The most famous example is the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated legal production of alcohol but led to widespread corruption, organized crime, and, probably, more actual alcohol consumption. Ken Burns made a documentary about these unintended consequences.

My takeaway? Be more thoughtful. No, that’s not quite adequate. Think at all. How do our words and actions affect others? Not an easy call. But the question should be part of our planning and doing. A policeman once told me that he took three seconds before acting in difficult situations. Later I asked him if he’d said ten seconds. He laughed and said no: that would get him killed. Three seconds. We can all live and prosper with that.

Not to worry

I remember the first time it happened—or, more accurately, the first time it didn’t happen. On a playground, autumn of 1961, beautiful day, some kid said to me, “The world is going to end on February 4.  Jeane Dixon said so.”  Other than that, I don’t remember much except the real and urgent dread of a day in the future. February 4, 1962, came and went. No cataclysmic events of an earth-ending nature.

Since that date, 66 such predictions have also come and gone.  A few were horrific in their own ways. Not many people remember that Charles Manson ordered the murders of Sharon Tate and others at her home in order to incite a race war he had prophesied, Helter Skelter. The Heaven’s Gate suicides, also awful.

Some dates were obvious and got lots of attention: The year 1999 because it wasn’t 2000 yet. The year 2000 in spite of the fact it wasn’t the new millennium, and then 2001 which was. The Mayans did a number on 2012 before we learned they had no concept of an ending of time. Their calendars had to do with a complicated cycle. Someone made a movie. Not a very good one, but no doomsday for us either.

More recently we had another date: September 2015, either the 15th or the 28th. Or maybe the 13th. Writing for Discovery.com, Glenn McDonald called these predictions “an all-star celebration of paranoia” because so many possibilities exist for destruction, comets being the main culprit. And another date came and went.

These days, we have a new source of worry called Planet X or Nibiru, a giant celestial body due to whisk by in October 2017. (Such events are usually written about by people using italics, boldface, and bad grammar, as you’ll see if you follow the link.) We already missed the February arrival date, but apparently someone got on the stick to find a new one. Again, NASA says no, but government trust level being what it is…

So why bring this up? Jeane Dixon wrote for the newspapers, and her predictions were news even when they didn’t come true. FaceBook hoaxes still abound. Think of those kids on play grounds next fall when someone is going to say, “Well, you know, the world is ending in October.” Parents, teachers, friends, it’s time to step up. Be aware of current prediction sites. Know what to say if the topic surfaces. Ask open ended questions like “Anything bothering you?” I wish my parents had. It would have saved me some grief.

In spite of the 66 unfulfilled predictions since 1961 and continued NASA assurances, I will be prepared for less exotic emergencies. I have a kit in place. (NASA doesn’t care, but FEMA does and has a great site—ready.gov.) As a person of faith, I’m supposed to be ready anyway. I hope that I am. I don’t like living scared.


On This We Agree

My brother is wrong about a lot of things: politics, religion, the proper way to load spoons in the dishwasher. Perhaps not unexpectedly, he thinks I’m wrong about those same things, adding in the importance of leaving a tiny silver ring on the ground in an Irish stone circle because someone obviously wanted it there. We argued so loudly about that last one people thought we were angry with each other. Not in the least, as it happened. We just have strong opinions.

Through the years, we have taken on so many topics that my brother (David, by the way) has suggested I write a play using all our email exchanges. He was greatly distressed to learn that I’ve deleted many of his instead of archiving them. Oh, the loss of all those carefully chosen words and links to other serious words from better prepared sources! Oh, the quiver of victory in deletion, says I. The play has its first scene. We’ll see how interesting two people talking will be before something real has to happen.

The world out there has its challenges; real things happen daily. We both believe, perhaps, that without opinions we would be somehow complicit in the fray. Stand against the evil! Wherever it exists! One important fact:  Neither of us is evil. Flawed, of course. Known to raise voices, yes. But not the enemy.

What we have learned to do with our intractable positions is not to distance ourselves. Instead, we have developed a model called “On This We Agree.” In effect, it makes us argue backward to the point we are comfortable with the other’s position. Nicer people who wouldn’t have begun an argument might call this the point at which we agree to disagree. In fact, it the point just before that.

Two sources have been helpful. One is Stephen Covey’s talking stick method of communication.  We all know his seven habits; the concept of win-win is so engrained in our culture few remember its origins. The process is simple. An object (his was a walking stick given to him by Native American leaders) is held by a speaker until he or she feels the point has been understood. The other person must be silent except for clarifying questions until that time. Once the first speaker is satisfied, then the object is passed to the next person and the process begins again. That most of us have forgotten how to listen is obvious. Even waiting for the other person to finish can be a challenge.

The second is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here Dr. Haidt, an evolutionary psychologist, presents the six moral foundations that humans use to approach the world: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The book is complicated. This list is not: we weight the values that mean the most to us. A liberal tends to favor care, liberty, and fairness above the others; a conservative accesses all six values. An advantage but not the moral victory it seems.

The emphasis we place, then, becomes the issue. David and I both care about hunger, for example. Haidt believes liberals care more about people while conservatives must also consider their other five moral objectives as well. Questions arise regarding the fairness of redistribution of income or the sanctity of independence from government intrusion. Well and good, but we must still address hunger. To do that, we have to find a way to work together.

There’s lots of talk about the loss of civility and the divisiveness that seem to define us. My dream is to set up a website where people can un-argue or de-argue or whatever it needs to be called. People would do the opposite of convincing. Rather, they would put aside the animosity that comes with righteous indignation and replace it with listening. At some point, going backwards, they would agree on something. It seems to me that would be a good place to take action: links on the website would allow a contribution to the Red Cross, for example.

It could work. The joy of deleting an irritating comment does not compare to the joy of agreeing on the basic nobility of humanity. I once gave David a llama through Heifer International, a group that provides families all around the world with ways to have food and sell the excess at market. It was a sweet victory. Good is always right.

“Maybe if I were stronger…”

Dear Editor:

I mean it this time. When you endorsed Hillary Clinton in September 2016, your piece was clear-headed and almost convincing. Technically, you didn’t endorse her; your word was recommend. You did not go far enough on her shortcomings, however. You ended by saying she deserved our votes. That word rankled. Few there be that would deserve my vote. Secretary Clinton’s worst flaw is her history of self-serving, so you lost me there. But I didn’t cancel my subscription. Obviously, you couldn’t recommend Trump (no, I didn’t vote for him either), but a choice for silence would have been better.

On Friday, June 10, 2017, you went too far. Comey: Trump Lied. In a font size out of proportion to the topic (morale at the FBI). Trump lies on the way to breakfast every day, for all I know. This was not news. Everybody lies, according to Dr. Gregory House. George Washington aside for the sake of argument (although the cherry tree incident isn’t true, you know), we must then assume that President Trump only joins the ranks of all the other presidents who have lied. We had one impeached for it in recent memory and another pilloried for an unpopular war based on perceived lies.

The thing about lying is that it’s hard to prove. Sure, it’s easy to say Trump lied about morale and leadership at the FBI, but for it to be accurate, we must know that he had intent. These days, most so-called lies are simple repetition. Leaks gone astray. But that’s a matter for another day. As a former English teacher, I’ve given the plagiarism-is-lying lecture many times, with limited effect since every semester, every class had someone who lifted, whole cloth, an essay from the Internet. As a former CPS investigator, well, we had doctors who could help sort it out. These days, who knows?

On the other hand, the J. Scott Applewhite photo you ran shows Comey back lit in sort of a full-body halo. His eyes look a little squinty in that evil-empire way, but it was a terrific choice which I can’t share for copyright reasons. Good choice. That you conclude the article with his remark beginning “Maybe if I were stronger…” throws everything into a puzzle. Good grief.

The real news, the explosive news, you buried on page 9. Comey said of The New York Times story concerning Trump/Russia ties “in the main, it was not true.” Notice the art here: He doesn’t say they were lying. He knows better. This is what we call slant, a pervasive, soul-deadening practice we see everywhere. In spite of Comey’s not quite calling the writers liars, Trump and his camp took this as vindication. On a side note, you chose to use material by—wait for it—two NYT writers. Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, a duo that Mother Jones called out for false news regarding two stories, apparently have a history of false reporting. This is what we call fox-guarding-the-hen-house coverage.

So, now, officially, with a heavy heart, I cancel my subscription. I cannot trust your reporting of the most basic news. My family always read the newspaper; I remember the days of morning and evening editions. One of my grandfathers added the Sunday Wall Street Journal. We watched the news at 6 and 10, trusting anchors until we didn’t. Print media troubles abound. You still have a place, I believe, and more importantly, a responsibility. Goodbye, and good luck.

Silent Notes Taking

Autism does not define the child I call Laundry Dude: He isn’t even completely sure what it means. His mother explained the science to him, which seemed adequate at the time. She would also say this year something to the effect of “This was the worst day…ever.”

So when his teacher announced on the last day of school that he had organized a club named HOP (Helping Other People), his mother was surprised. Not that he couldn’t do it (he is bright and capable), but that he did—because he can be so difficult.

This child made a chart and observed his classmates over the last few months. During the day, he tallied whenever he saw them helping other people. Those who got more than ten tally marks moved to a special level, and he made awards for them. (The teacher made sure he went ahead and made one for the whole class.) Then after the teacher handed out her awards, Laundry Dude stood up in front of everyone and handed his out.

He did all this without telling anyone in his family. I can imagine his shrug when asked why not. It was his project, his program. Who else needed to know? One of his uncles worked all year helping a boy with special needs (yes, autism) when in elementary school, never saying a word to anyone. Another surprised mother at an awards ceremony…

Everyone is pleased and, I expect, his classmates are surprised as well. A hymn called “Do What Is Right” has the line “Angels above us are silent notes taking…” Perhaps not all those angels are invisible but sitting right beside us, even though some can scream at levels and in places not often acceptable. And who do NOT want any of you to mention this blog post to him, ever. Thanks.

Scientists now believe…

“Do you believe in evolution?” So the challenge was posed recently. It’s only been a couple of years since the topic was resolved for Texas text books; no longer must evolution be tempered with alternate theories or qualifiers. Some considered the move a victory. That may be an overstatement, of course. According to a 2010 survey quoted in Texas Monthly, 51% of Texas do not believe in evolution. An estimated 13% of Texas biology teachers are creationists. And in 2015, apparently it was a question presidential candidates needed to answer. Dr. Ben Carson, the Republican pediatric neurosurgeon, famously does not believe in evolution, though it was probably the least of his problems, what with the pyramids and all.

A reply to the challenge is more complicated than one might think. While the Texas book battle has been in the news for decades, with proponents of alternate theories ridiculed in some circles, the way the question of personal belief is worded suggests one thing: Is it possible to believe in evolution and also believe in God?

Apparently, creationists don’t think so. The newer Intelligent Design, on the other hand, does not even refer to a deity. Courts do not make the distinction, however, classifying both as non-scientific, religious explanations that cannot be taught.

Into this arena came Francis Collins, currently head of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project. He is, coincidentally, a practicing, believing Christian.  His 2006 book The Language of God explores the various attempts to reject Darwinian evolution, dismissing each with clear examples and logic. The title of his book summarizes his thesis: There is order in the universe which can be seen in our genes as well as in the Big Bang. He often uses the word “elegant” to make his points.

Why is it, then, that some people are so eager to find a way to dismiss God? Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion also dates from 2006. It dismisses Intelligent Design as well, albeit it more stridently than Collins. He traded Christianity for Darwinism as a teenager and apparently has not looked back.

Perhaps more to the point, why are there people who believe that eliminating God is possible for science? When the first Soviet astronaut returned from space, Premier Khrushchev trumpeted that he had not seen God; however, Yuri Gagarin was himself a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even Dawkins, for all his vitriol, can only say “almost surely” God does not exist. Surely people of faith need not be troubled by these rather pallid words.

The very essence of faith is not knowledge. Indeed, faith is stronger than knowledge. Science is more about learning than it is about knowledge. A favorite phrase of mine, “Scientists now believe…,” does not diminish science. Knowledge, scientifically speaking, is transient. That does not mean evolutionary theory is any less real. It does suggest that clarity of method, of results, of implications cannot overcome faith because science and faith have different forums, different purposes. The origin of the word “believe” may hold the key: an old Germanic form and an Old English root mean “to hold dear, to love.” It is possible to love knowledge, but the source of that knowledge is not as important as its truth.

While some might reject evolution as a threat, with Francis Collins’ encouraging words, I find it easier to say yes, I believe in it. Nothing exists that can disprove the existence of God. That is the point, after all. We’re here to walk by faith. Collins seems to think evolution sheds a little light on that path. That sounds like an exclamation mark to me.