Friday, February 2, 2018

The Fragile Generation


Authored by Lenore Skenazy & Jonathan Haidt via Jim Quinn's Burning Platform blog,

Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed

One day last year, a citizen on a prairie path in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst came upon a teen boy chopping wood. Not a body. Just some already-fallen branches. Nonetheless, the onlooker called the cops.

Officers interrogated the boy, who said he was trying to build a fort for himself and his friends. A local news site reports the police then “took the tools for safekeeping to be returned to the boy’s parents.”

Elsewhere in America, preschoolers at the Learning Collaborative in Charlotte, North Carolina, were thrilled to receive a set of gently used playground equipment. But the kids soon found out they would not be allowed to use it, because it was resting on grass, not wood chips. “It’s a safety issue,” explained a day care spokeswoman. Playing on grass is against local regulations.

And then there was the query that ran in Parents magazine a few years back: “Your child’s old enough to stay home briefly, and often does. But is it okay to leave her and her playmate home while you dash to the dry cleaner?” Absolutely not, the magazine averred: “Take the kids with you, or save your errand for another time.” After all, “you want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

The principle here is simple: This generation of kids must be protected like none other. They can’t use tools, they can’t play on grass, and they certainly can’t be expected to work through a spat with a friend.

And this, it could be argued, is why we have “safe spaces” on college campuses and millennials missing adult milestones today. We told a generation of kids that they can never be too safe—and they believed us.

Safety First

We’ve had the best of intentions, of course. But efforts to protect our children may be backfiring. When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened. Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.

How did we come to think a generation of kids can’t handle the basic challenges of growing up?

Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, increased regulation, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant)—children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call “moral dependency.”

This poses a threat to the kind of open-mindedness and flexibility young people need to thrive at college and beyond. If they arrive at school or start careers unaccustomed to frustration and misunderstandings, we can expect them to be hypersensitive. And if they don’t develop the resources to work through obstacles, molehills come to look like mountains.

This magnification of danger and hurt is prevalent on campus today. It no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it. If so, the speaker has committed a “microaggression,” and the offended party’s purely subjective reaction is a sufficient basis for emailing a dean or filing a complaint with the university’s “bias response team.” The net effect is that both professors and students today report that they are walking on eggshells. This interferes with the process of free inquiry and open debate—the active ingredients in a college education.

And if that’s the case already, what of the kids still in grammar school, constantly reminded they might accidentally hurt each other with the wrong words? When today’s 8-year-olds become the 18-year-olds starting college, will they still view free speech as worthy of protecting? As Daniel Shuchman, chairman of the free speech-promoting Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), puts it, “How likely are they to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?”

Parents, teachers, and professors are talking about the growing fragility they see. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the overprotection of children and the hypersensitivity of college students could be two sides of the same coin. By trying so hard to protect our kids, we’re making them too safe to succeed.

Children on a Leash

If you’re over 40, chances are good that you had scads of free time as a child—after school, on weekends, over the summer. And chances are also good that, if you were asked about it now, you’d go on and on about playing in the woods and riding your bike until the streetlights came on.

Today many kids are raised like veal. Only 13 percent of them even walk to school. Many who take the bus wait at the stop with parents beside them like bodyguards. For a while, Rhode Island was considering a bill that would prohibit children from getting off the bus in the afternoon if there wasn’t an adult waiting to walk them home. This would have applied until seventh grade.

As for summer frolicking, campers don’t just have to take a buddy with them wherever they go, including the bathroom. Some are now required to take two—one to stay with whoever gets hurt, the other to run and get a grown-up. Walking to the john is treated like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

After school, kids no longer come home with a latchkey and roam the neighborhood. Instead, they’re locked into organized, supervised activities. Youth sports are a $15 billion business that has grown by 55 percent since just 2010. Children as young as third grade are joining traveling teams—which means their parents spend a lot of time in the car, too. Or they’re at tutoring. Or they’re at music lessons. And if all else fails, they are in their rooms, online.

Even if parents want to shoo their kids outside—and don’t come home till dinner!—it’s not as easy as it once was. Often, there are no other children around to play with. Even more dishearteningly, adults who believe it’s good for young people to run some errands or play kickball down the street have to think twice about letting them, because busybodies, cops, and social workers are primed to equate “unsupervised” with “neglected and in danger.”

You may remember the story of the Meitivs in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home together from the park. Or the Debra Harrell case in South Carolina, where a mom was thrown in jail for allowing her 9-year-old to play at the sprinkler playground while she worked at McDonald’s. Or the 8-year-old Ohio boy who was supposed to get on the bus to Sunday school, but snuck off to the Family Dollar store instead. His dad was arrested for child endangerment.

These examples represent a new outlook: the belief that anytime kids are doing anything on their own, they are automatically under threat. But that outlook is wrong. The crime rate in America is back down to what it was in 1963, which means that most of today’s parents grew up playing outside when it was more dangerous than it is today. And it hasn’t gotten safer because we’re hovering over our kids. All violent crime is down, including against adults.

Danger Things

And yet it doesn’t feel safer. A 2010 study found “kidnapping” to be the top parental fear, despite the fact that merely being a passenger in a car is far more dangerous. Nine kids were kidnapped and murdered by strangers in 2011, while 1,140 died in vehicles that same year. While Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature that life in most countries is safer today than at any time in human history, the press keeps pushing paranoia. This makes stepping back feel doubly risky: There’s the fear of child kidnappers and the fear of Child Protective Services.

At times, it seems like our culture is conjuring dangers out of thin air, just to have something new to worry about. Thus, the Boulder Public Library in Colorado recently forbade anyone under 12 to enter without an adult, because “children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or other library patrons.” Ah, yes, kids and library furniture. Always a lethal combo.

Happily, the library backed off that rule, perhaps thanks to merciless mocking in the media. But saner minds don’t always prevail. At Mesa Elementary School, which also happens to be in Boulder, students got a list of the items they could not bring to the science fair. These included “chemicals,” “plants in soil,” and “organisms (living or dead).” And we wonder why American children score so low on international tests.

But perhaps the single best example of how fantastically fearful we’ve become occurred when the city of Richland, Washington, got rid of all the swings on its school playgrounds. The love of swinging is probably older than humanity itself, given our arboreal origins. But as a school district spokesman explained, “Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

You may think your town has avoided such overkill, but is there a merry-go-round at your local park, or a see-saw? Most likely they, too, have gone the way of lawn darts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission even warns parks of “tripping hazards, like…tree stumps and rocks,” a fact unearthed (so to speak) by Philip Howard, author of 2010’s Life Without Lawyers.

The problem is that kids learn by doing. Trip over a tree stump and you learn to look down. There’s an old saying: Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child. We’re doing the opposite.

Ironically, there are real health dangers in not walking, or biking, or hopping over that stump. A Johns Hopkins study this summer found that the typical 19-year-old is as sedentary as a 65-year-old. The Army is worried that its recruits don’t know how to skip or do somersaults.

But the cost of shielding kids from risks goes well beyond the physical, as a robust body of research has shown.

Of Trophies and Traumas

A few years ago, Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray was invited by the head of counseling services at a major university to a conference on “the decline in resilience among students.” The organizer said that emergency counseling calls had doubled in the last five years. What’s more, callers were seeking help coping with everyday problems, such as arguments with a roommate. Two students had dialed in because they’d found a mouse in their apartment. They also called the police, who came and set a mousetrap. And that’s not to mention the sensitivity around grades. To some students, a B is the end of the world. (To some parents, too.)

Free play has little in common with the “play” we give children today. In organized activities, adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

Part of the rise in calls could be attributed to the fact that admitting mental health issues no longer carries the stigma it once did, an undeniably positive development. But it could also be a sign, Gray realized, that failing at basic “adulting” no longer carries the stigma it once did. And that is far more troubling.

Is this outcome the apotheosis of participation-trophy culture? It’s easy to scoff at a society that teaches kids that everything they do deserves applause. But more disturbing is the possibility that those trophies taught kids the opposite lesson: that they’re so easily hurt, they can’t handle the sad truth that they’re not the best at something.

Not letting your kid climb a tree because he might fall robs him of a classic childhood experience. But being emotionally overprotective takes away something else. “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to…experience failure and realize they can survive it,” Gray has said. When Lenore’s son came in eighth out of nine teams in a summer camp bowling league, he got an eighth-place trophy. The moral was clear: We don’t think you can cope with the negative emotions of finishing second-to-last.

Of course, it’s natural to want to see kids happy. But the real secret to happiness isn’t more high fives; it’s developing emotional resilience. In our mania for physical safety, coupled with our recent tendency to talk about “emotional safety,” we have systematically deprived our children of the thousands of challenging—and sometimes upsetting—experiences that they need in order to learn that resiliency. And in our quest to protect them, we have stolen from children the best resilience training known to man: free play.

Play’s the Thing

All mammals play. It is a drive installed by Mother Nature. Hippos do backflips in the water. Dogs fetch sticks. And gazelles run around, engaging in a game that looks an awful lot like tag.

Why would they do that? They’re wasting valuable calories and exposing themselves to predators. Shouldn’t they just sit quietly next to their mama gazelles, exploring the world through the magic of PBS Kids?

It must be because play is even more important to their long-term survival than simply being “safe.” Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.

The older kids, meanwhile, throw the ball more softly to the younger ones. They’re learning empathy. And if someone yells, “Let’s play on just one leg!”—something they couldn’t do at Little League, with championships (and trophies!) on the line—the kids discover what it means to come up with and try out a different way of doing things. In Silicon Valley terms, they “pivot” and adopt a “new business model.” They also learn that they, not just grown-ups, can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. That’s called participatory democracy.

Best of all, without adults intervening, the kids have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. Then, when there’s an argument, they have to resolve it themselves. That’s a tough skill to learn, but the drive to continue playing motivates them to work things out. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, hash it out, and—perhaps with some grumbling—move on.

These are the very skills that are suddenly in short supply on college campuses.

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives,” Gray writes in 2013’s Free to Learn (Basic Books). “Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

Unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to kids if we want them to be strong and happy and resilient.

Where Have All the Paperboys Gone?

It’s not just that kids aren’t playing much on their own. These days, they’re not doing much of anything on their own. In an article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin admits that “when my daughter was 10, my husband and I suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult.”

In earlier generations, this would have seemed a bizarre and wildly overprotective upbringing. Society had certain age-related milestones that most people agreed on. Kids might be trusted to walk to school by first grade. They might get a latchkey at 8, take on a newspaper route around 10, start babysitting at 12. But over the past generation or so, those milestones disappeared—buried by fears of kidnapping, the rise of supervised activities, and the pre-eminence of homework. Parents today know all about the academic milestones their kids are supposed to reach, but not about the moments when kids used to start joining the world.

It’s not necessarily their fault. Calls to eight newspapers in North Carolina found none that would take anyone under the age of 18 to deliver papers. A police chief in New Albany, Ohio, went on record saying kids shouldn’t be outside on their own till age 16, “the threshold where you see children getting a little bit more freedom.” A study in Britain found that while just under half of all 16- to 17-year-olds had jobs as recently as 1992, today that number is 20 percent.

The responsibility expected of kids not so long ago has become almost inconceivable. Published in 1979, the book Your 6-Year-old: Loving and Defiant includes a simple checklist for what a child entering first grade should be able to do: Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored? Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground, or friend’s home?

Hang on. Walk to the store at 6—alone?

It’s tempting to blame “helicopter parents” for today’s less resilient kids. But when all the first-graders are walking themselves to school, it’s easy to add yours to the mix. When your child is the only one, it’s harder. And that’s where we are today. Norms have dramatically changed. The kind of freedom that seemed unremarkable a generation ago has become taboo, and in some cases even illegal.

A Very Hampered Halloween

In Waynesboro, Georgia, “trick or treaters” must be 12 or younger; they must be in a costume; and they must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. So if you have kids who are 15, 10, and 8, you can’t send them out together. The 15-year-old is not allowed to dress up, yet she won’t be considered old enough to supervise her siblings for another six years. And this is on the one night of the entire year we traditionally let children pretend to be adults.

Other schools and community centers now send letters home asking parents not to let their children wear scary costumes. Some even organize “trunk or treats”—cars parked in a circle, trunks open and filled with candy, thus saving the kids from having to walk around the neighborhood or knock on doors. (That would be tiring and terrifying.) If this is childhood, is it any wonder college kids also expect to be micromanaged on Halloween?

At Yale in 2015, after 13 college administrators signed a letter outlining appropriate vs. inappropriate costume choices for students, the childhood development expert and campus lecturer Erika Christakis suggested that it would be better to allow kids to think for themselves. After all, Halloween is supposed to be about pushing boundaries. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious…or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Apparently, yes. Angry students mobbed her husband, the professor Nicholas Christakis, surrounding him in the courtyard of the residential college where he served as master. They screamed obscenities and demanded he apologize for believing, along with his wife, that college students are in fact capable of handling offensive costumes on Halloween. “Be quiet!” a student shouted at him at one point. “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” She did not take kindly to his response that, to the contrary, he sees it as his job to create a space where students can grow intellectually.

As it turns out, Halloween is the perfect Petri dish for observing what we have done to childhood. We didn’t think anything was safe enough for young people. And now we are witnessing the results.

No Fun and No Joy

When parents curtail their kids’ independence, they’re not just depriving the younglings of childhood fun. They are denying themselves the grown-up joy of seeing their kids do something smart, brave, or kind without parental guidance.

It’s the kind of joy described by a Washington Post columnist who answered the phone one day and was shocked to find her 8-year-old son on the other end. He’d accidentally gone home when he was supposed to stay after school. Realizing she wasn’t there, he decided to walk to the store a few blocks away—his first time. The mom raced over, fearing God knows what, and rushed in only to find her son happily helping the shopkeeper stock the shelves with meat. He’d had a snack and done his homework, too. It was an afternoon he’d never forget, and neither would his very proud mother.

When we don’t let our kids do anything on their own, we don’t get to see just how competent they can be—and isn’t that, ultimately, the greatest reward of parenting? We need to make it easier for grown-ups to let go while living in a society that keeps warning them not to. And we need to make sure they won’t get arrested for it.

What Is To Be Done?

By trying to keep children safe from all risks, obstacles, hurt feelings, and fears, our culture has taken away the opportunities they need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile—emotionally, socially, and physically—society actually makes them so.

To combat this problem, we have established a new nonpartisan nonprofit, the Let Grow Foundation. Our goal is to restore resilience by overthrowing the culture of overprotection. We teamed up with Gray, the professor whose research we highlighted above, and FIRE’s Shuchman, a New York investment fund manager who is now our chairman.

We are building an organization that seeks to change the social norms, policies, and laws that pressure and intimidate parents, schools, and towns into coddling their kids. We will research the effects of excessive caution, study the link between independence and success, and launch projects to give kids back some free time and free play. Most of all, the Let Grow Foundation will reject the assumption of fragility and promote intellectual, physical, and emotional resilience.

Children know that their parents had more freedom to roam than they do, and more unscheduled time to read or tinker or explore. They also realize that older generations were trusted to roll with some punches, at school and beyond. We hope kids today will start demanding that same independence and respect for themselves. It’s their freedom that has been chiseled away, after all.

We want them to insist on their right to engage not just with the physical world, but also with the world of ideas. We want them to hear, read, and voice opinions that go against the grain. We want them to be insulted by the assumption that they and their classmates are so easily hurt that arguments must stop before they start. To this end, we hope to encourage their skepticism about the programs and policies that are ostensibly there to “protect” them from discomfort.

If this effort is successful, we’ll soon see kids outside again. Common setbacks will be considered “resilience moments” rather than traumas. Children will read widely, express themselves freely, and work through disagreements without automatically calling on authority figures to solve their problems for them. The more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence.

Children today are safer and smarter than this culture gives them credit for. They deserve the freedom we had. The country’s future prosperity and freedom depend on it.


If You Think The Nunes Memo Will 'Discredit' FBI and DOJ, You Haven't Been Paying Attention For the Past 50 Years


As Scott Shackford reports, the White House has cleared the release of a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that purports to show that FBI agents and others at the Department of Justice (DOJ) acted out of political motives in surveilling Carter Page, a campaign adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump. Nunes' Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has called out Nunes in no uncertain terms:

"The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies."

Well, sure.

But to the extent that Schiff is trying to suggest the FBI and DOJ aren't constantly acting out of political motives and basic incompetence that hurt their credibility, he's completely out to lunch. Both of these units of government have remarkably and well-deserved bad reputations stretching back decades.

And this is where the obsessive fixation of details in Washington completely blocks out the big picture. Remember how Republicans figured that by endlessly sifting sand for details about "Benghazi," they would finally end Hillary Clinton's career in the public eye? They were too far up their own asses to ever ask the obvious question: What the hell were we doing in Libya to begin with? Especially given Barack Obama's manifest lack on interest in getting even a rubber-stamp authorization from Congress? Even after the United States helped plunge Libya into a total clusterfuck, that larger-picture view was left to the crazy-eyed libertarians.

Similarly with "the memo," which deals with a relatively obscure and meaningless Trump hanger-on and, as Shackford notes in his article, fails to advance either side of the debate over whether the president was playing footsie with the Russians. The important issue here isn't the damage that Nunes' document (and eventually, Schiff's minority report that will be published after it is vetted for security reasons) does or doesn't do to the reputation of the FBI and federal law enforcement. It's that the reputation of these groups is already awful.

Schiff is claiming that Nunes is acting only out of political interest, a charge that mirrors what Nunes is saying about the FBI and the Department of Justice. Those of us who actually care about proper governance would do well to think back to, I don't know, a few months before the 2016 election, when then-director of the FBI James Comey, appointed by Barack Obama, laid out a devastating case against Candidate Clinton...before saying he wouldn't recommend bringing charges against her.

Recall the rhetorical cherry that Comey put on the top of that shit sundae:

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

So regular Americans could get strung up, but not Hillary Clinton. This is not ancient history or fable about a black-bag But we're not supposed to bring up the deservedly low opinions of the FBI and a Justice Department that have for decades done everything possible to make Americans suspect their employees aren't really trustworthy. The FBI in particular has a long history of abusing its power and the results of that show up in polls mostly showing a massive lack of confidence in it. To the right is a poll from 2016, which tracks with other measures of a broad-based decline in major U.S. institutions. One-third of Americans have strong confidence in the FBI, the same awful result that the CIA fetches.

A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll from late December found

Sixty-three percent of polled voters believe that the FBI has been resisting providing information to Congress on the Clinton and Trump investigations. This is a remarkable finding for an agency whose new head said a few days ago that the agency was in fine shape. No, it isn't.

Consider this gloss on Tim Weiner's damning 2012 of the FBI, Enemies:

Most presidents since Woodrow Wilson have been less intimidated by the F.B.I. than seduced by it. Under the rubric of protecting the nation, they secretly authorized the F.B.I. to open mail, infiltrate political parties, tap phones, perform "black bag" break-ins of homes and institutions, and draw up vast lists of Americans eligible for "custodial detention" during a crisis....

Botched confrontations with cults and right-wing radicals left a trail of blood from Whidbey Island to Ruby Ridge to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. The bureau was penetrated again and again by double agents from Russia, China, Cuba, even Al Qaeda. (The Chinese spy Katrina Leung, truly a double agent, seduced both the special agent in charge of her case and "a leading F.B.I. counterintelligence expert on China.") F.B.I. turncoats like Robert Hanssen and Earl Pitts went undetected for years, costing "hundreds of millions of dollars" and the lives of a "dozen or more foreign agents who worked for the bureau and the C.I.A."

The best terror informant the bureau actually had was dropped for fear that he might be a double agent, while as late as 2002, only eight agents could speak Arabic. The F.B.I. remained a "pyramid of paper," mysteriously unable to create a decent computer system; by 2000, "the average American teenager had more computer power than most F.B.I. agents," according to Weiner, and agents "could not perform a Google search or send e-mails outside their offices."

This is the essential context for any discussion of "the memo" and investigations by the government into actors such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And the hits just keep coming. Investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, who broke the story of the DOJ's heinous "Fast and Furious" gun-walking operation, reports on new text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI officials whose political animus against Donald Trump has hurt the credibility of the Russia investigation.

Page: Have a meeting with turgal about getting iphone in a day or so

Strzok: Oh hot damn. . . We get around our security/monitoring issues?

Page: No, he's proposing that we just stop following them. Apparently the requirement to capture texts came from [Office of Management and Budget], but we're the only org (I'm told) who is following that rule. His point is, if no one else is doing it why should we. . . I'm told – thought I have seen – that there is an IG report that says everyone is failing. But one has changed anything, so why not just join in the failure.

Attkisson notes:

It's a shockingly cavalier attitude from an attorney and high level FBI official.

There are more text messages between Strzok and Page from a critical time period, as we now know, that the FBI claimed had been lost in a technical glitch. After that became public, the Inspector General said he was able to recover them. (Interesting that the FBI couldn't.)

Are Americans stupid for feeling like its government is not worthy of respect and confidence? No, of course not. The people in government, especially a string of mostly inept-at-best and power-mad-at worst FBI directors and attorneys general have brought us to a place where we don't trust them anymore. Especially in an age of forced transparency, squabbles between highly partisan members of Congress is a diversion from bigger and harder truths. Just like in the early to mid-1970s, when the Pentagon Papers, LBJ's constant lies about Vietnam, Nixon's illegal actions here and abroad, and revelations of COINTELPRO and massive abuses by the FBI, CIA, and NSA came to light, we need a new Church Commission and Rockefeller Commission if we're ever going to be able to believe in our government again.


From Facebook to Policebook


On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a notice outlining extraordinary plans by the social media company to monitor all the postings and messages of its users, censor independent journalism, and use artificial intelligence (AI) to report users to the


Gallery Nixes Naked Nymphs Because #MeToo


HylasThe Manchester Art Gallery has removed a John William Waterhouse painting, "Hylas and the Nymphs," due to concerns that the artwork—which depicts young, nude white women alongside the Greek hero Hylas—is no longer suitable in a post #MeToo world.

"For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven't dealt with it sooner," Clare Gannaway, the gallery's contemporary art curator, told The Guardian. "Our attention has been elsewhere...we've collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long."

Gannaway also described the painting—and others like it—as old-fashioned for depicting women "either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales." She said there were "tricky issues about gender, race and representation." It's a bit unclear what exactly the problem is here, but the curator seems to be suggesting the girls are too white, and too naked.

The Guardian reports that the #MeToo movement "fed into the decision."

The removal might not be permanent, and it is intended "to prompt conversations." The gallery wants attendees to leave post-it notes expressing their views on the wall where the painting used to hang. One such note had this to say: "Feminism gone mad! I'm ashamed to be a feminist!"

The Manchester Art Gallery's website suggests that the painting's removal "was part of a group gallery takeover" and was filmed as a piece of performance art that explores "gender trouble" in 19th century paintings. The gallery is clearly attempting to frame the decision as an artistic choice rather than an act of censorship. But the gallery also removed postcards of the painting from its gift shop. Liz Prettejohn, who curated an earlier Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, told BBC News:

This is a painting that people love and the most ridiculous thing is the claim that somehow it's going to start a debate to take it out of public view.

Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have about it in relation to some of the really interesting issues that it might raise about sexuality and gender relationships.

The Victorians are always getting criticised because they're supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it's us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians.

In any case, Gannaway's apparent criticism—that the painting depicts young girls who are partially nude and serve as passive objects for the male gaze, or some such thing—is wildly off base. Look at it a little more closely and you will see that the nymphs have plenty of agency: They are dragging Hylas to his doom within their watery abode. According to Greek mythology, Hylas was abducted by the nymphs, probably raped, and never seen again. His friend and lover Hercules searched for him, but alas, poor Hylas was never seen again.

So I guess there is a #MeToo angle here: The painting literally depicts a sexual crime. It would be silly to withdraw the painting for that reason too, but at least the perceived offense would have fit the situation. Yet the politically correct curator seems to have missed the point of the painting—she's too busy re-applying fig leaves to R-rated art.


Do Mammograms Save Lives?


For every life saved by mammography, as many as 2 to 10 women are overdiagnosed, meaning turned into breast cancer patients unnecessarily, along with all the attendant harms of chemo, radiation, or surgery without the benefits.

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You can check out my Doc Note under the first video ( in this series to get a sense why I chose to spend so much time on this topic. This is the 4th video in a 14-part series. If you missed the first three, here they are:

• 9 out of 10 Women Misinformed about Mammograms ((
• Mammogram Recommendations - Why the Conflicting Guidelines (
• Should Women Get Mammograms Starting at Age 40? (

Stay tuned for:
• Consequences of False-Positive Mammogram Results (
• Do Mammograms Hurt? (
• Can Mammogram Radiation Cause Breast Cancer? (
• Understanding the Mammogram Paradox (
• Overtreatment of Stage 0 Breast Cancer DCIS (
• Women Deserve to Know the Truth About Mammograms (
• Breast Cancer and the 5-Year Survival Rate Myth (
• Why Mammograms Don’t Appear to Save Lives (
• Why Patients Aren’t Informed About Mammograms (
• The Pros and Cons of Mammograms (

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Thanks for watching. I hope you’ll join in the evidence-based nutrition revolution!
-Michael Greger, MD FACLM
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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life—A Review


A Review of The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, Oxford University Press, (January 2, 2018) 418 pages.

“The elephant in the room” is any important and obvious fact that, for whatever reason, no one is willing to talk about. In their new book, The Elephant in the Brain, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson extend the concept to one the most important and obvious, yet unspoken, facts about the human mind: that we are masters of self-deception, equipped by evolution with an “introspective blind spot” that hides our deeper, selfish motives, even when the same motives are easy to spot in others. The result is an entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors — from laughter to religion to the origin of language.

For fans of books like The Selfish Gene and The Mating Mind, The Elephant in The Brain will be familiar territory. But for almost everyone else, the core thesis is likely to be extremely challenging. That’s because our introspective blind spot is not unlike the literal blind spot in our eye, located where the optic nerve connects with our eye’s disc of photoreceptor cells. Thanks to an evolutionary adaptation, our brain automatically fills in the hole using information from the surrounding context, creating the illusion of a continuous field of vision. We can easily verify that the deception is taking place with imaging techniques or simple optical illusions, and yet knowledge of its existence cannot make us any less blind to our own blindness.

Unconscious self-deception in the social domain works similarly: easy to demonstrate but impossible to switch-off. Thus for any action with a mix of sacred and profane motives — as much Good Samaritan as quid pro quo — we are willfully blind to the latter, not as conscious manipulators, but because strategic ignorance of our Machiavellian side had survival value for our ancestors. As the renown evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers once put it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”

The core thesis of The Elephant in the Brain is that this has major implications for public policy that we are loathe to admit. Thus spending on health care, we learn, isn’t merely about improving our health; it’s also a wasteful way to signal our caring for others. Admitting this, we could conceivably cut medical expenditure in half and be no worse off. Likewise, charitable giving isn’t just, or even mainly, about doing good in the world; it’s also a way to flex one’s wealth and generosity while bathing in the “warm glow” of peer approval. A movement dedicated to “effective altruism” could rectify this by subjecting philanthropic causes to utilitarian rigor.

Reductio ad cynicum 

But Simler and Hanson do not restrict themselves to policy concerns. We also learn, for example, that creating art is as much about signalling one’s genetic quality as it is about pure aesthetic appreciation, and that religious faith is as much about group cohesion as it is transcendent truth. This very book review is as much about sharing my opinion as it is about impressing potential mates and allies with the number of tools in my mental backpack.

In short, everything from higher education to belief in god is best understood through the prism of an elaborate mating ritual predicated on innumerable intersecting status competitions. The corollary is that evolution has made us strategically blind to these ulterior ends, so much so that we are often deeply offended by the suggestion that our motives are anything less than pure — which may be why it has taken a tenured professor and an independent writer to do the job comprehensively.

Many readers will chafe at the reductive, cynical view of humanity offered by Simler and Hanson. But the correct response is much closer to: No duh! The ubiquity of sexual selection in the animal kingdom is beyond dispute — from the peacock’s tail to Trump Tower. Adults are happy to admit this of their younger selves given sufficient emotional distance. But for the typical middle school nerd whose neocortex dropped before their balls, the brief window of unfiltered pattern recognition into hormonal human dynamics may be as close to the alien-scientist ideal as any human observer can come. Nonetheless, for our contemporaries, a meta-norm against discussing our continuity with the animal kingdom leads to polite denial of our biological imperatives. Simler and Hanson are clearly cognizant of this fact, which explains why the book is largely an exercise in simply convincing the reader of the elephant’s existence by hammering away with example after example.

As a result of that hammering, The Elephant in the Brain ends up being light on public policy upshots — far more Theory of Moral Sentiments than Wealth of Nations. That’s unfortunate, since the ideas in the book are bursting with potential applications. Worse, however, is the scant attention paid to helping the reader pick up the pieces of their shattered psyche. Instead, Simler and Hanson simply highlight the need to better align public institutions with our hidden motives, leaving the all-important “how” question relatively untouched.

Public Policy or Self-help?

Take cheating. “Everybody cheats,” declare Simler and Hanson. “There’s no use in denying it … Most of us honor the big, important rules, like those prohibiting robbery, arson, rape, and murder. But we routinely violate small and middling norms.” Even our ancestors were incorrigible cheaters, as shown by “the fact that our brains have special-purpose adaptations for detecting cheats,” manifested in the elusive search for sincerity in the eyes of a suspected liar. The best liars are therefore the ones who believe their own lies, and “drink their own kool-aid.” It’s a feat humans accomplish with the aid of self-serving excuses, what Simler and Hanson call “pretexts” (“I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it.”), that help us construe our misbehavior in a better light.

Fascinating, but now what? Rather than provide a set of policies for addressing our cheating nature, the book simply moves on to another human frailty. Fortunately, criminologists have been studying the use of self-serving pretexts, known in the field as “techniques of neutralization,” since the 1950s, and have developed a small but real literature exploring their public policy application. The philosopher Joseph Heath, for example, has used the theory of self-serving pretexts to propose that conventional business-ethics courses, which today focus on abstract readings in meta-ethics, be replaced with practical training in how to identify and preempt self-serving behavior. “The goal,” Heath writes, “would be to bring to conscious awareness certain patterns of self-exculpatory reasoning, and to flag them as suspicious, so that students will be less likely to accept them at face value when they encounter them later in life. The goal, in other words, would be to neutralize the neutralizations.”

“Conscious awareness” is the key term. Like our visual blind spot, our cheating natures are impossible to excise. Hypocrisy is our evolutionary original sin. Yet unlike our ancient visual system, it at least seems possible to tame the social aspects of our adaptive unconscious with the right self-help techniques, from classroom exercises to mindfulness meditation. This was essentially the strategy developed by the Cynics of ancient Greece. Through rigorous training, the Cynics managed to forgo the pursuit of wealth, sex, and fame in favor of mental clarity and rational ethics.

This is the direction I had hoped The Elephant in the Brain would lead. After all, the elephant in the brain is located squarely in what psychologists call our brain’s “System 1,” or the automatic, noncognitive, and fast mode of thinking. That still leaves our “System 2,” or analytical, cognitive, and slow mode of thinking, as a potential tool for transcending our lowly origins. By failing to give our System 2 mode a balanced consideration, The Elephant in the Brain inadvertently falls into the expanding genre of pop-psych books that simply recapitulate David Hume’s famous assertion that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

Transcending Hume

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been at the forefront of the Humean revival. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt advances a version of Hume’s position with the metaphor of “The Elephant and the Rider,” to which the title of The Elephant in the Brain is clearly indebted. According to Haidt, our rational self is like the rider of a large elephant, our non-rational or emotional self, who believes they’re in control, when in truth the rider is at best an auxiliary to the elephant’s whims.

Work like Haidt’s, and by extension Simler and Hanson’s, represents an important corrective to the naive Enlightenment belief in all-powerful human reason. But it is equally important to recognize noncognitivism’s practical limitations. By seeing human motivation as, in a sense, “passions all the way down,” the classical Humean view generates an infinite regress (“The elephant in the elephant in the elephant in the…) that has a kind of Cartesian skepticism (doubt about the content of one’s own beliefs) as its logical conclusion. This concern is what ultimately led Immanuel Kant to reject Hume’s pure psychologism, not by refuting Hume directly, but rather by arguing that Hume’s view was in a sense cognitively inaccessible — that it represented a position that was literally impossible to conceptualize.

Haidt’s more recent book, The Righteous Mind, helps to illustrate the pragmatic problem. In it, Haidt argues that Liberals and Conservatives derive their disparate political positions from differences in disgust sensitivity and responses to theorised moral foundations such as Care/Harm, Loyalty, Obedience to Authority, Fairness and Liberty. Haidt, and other psychologists theorise that people construct their rational belief systems to justify their moral intuitions. Without denying Haidt’s empirical findings, an inviolable application of this theory raises an obvious question: How does one could ever hope to hold to a rational political philosophy at all?

How to Train Your Elephant

The thesis of The Elephant in the Brain runs up against a similar impasse. How can one write sincerely about everything having a cynical motivation? Simler and Hanson hint at the paradox when they address their own motivation for writing the book — “To put it baldly,” they write, “we want to impress you; we’re seeking prestige” — but ultimately fail to do the question justice. After all, there are many ways to seek prestige, and yet they chose this one in particular. Simler, for instance, walked away from his dream job at Palantir in 2013 after seven years in order to pursue readings in psychology, while honing his writing in an obscure corner of the internet. As a reminder, Palantir is among Silicon Valley’s most powerful technology companies, and Simler no doubt left behind substantially higher earnings and social status in the process.

That’s not to say that signalling for prestige didn’t still play some role in Simler’s decision to co-write The Elephant in the Brain. It’s just to say that the cynical motive dramatically underdetermined his ultimate life course. Instead, it seems like Simler was ultimately able to transcend the Silicon Valley rat-race with the employ of his System Two, or cognitive, mode of thinking. That is, he was rationally persuaded to pull the elephant by the reins and steer his life towards truth-seeking.

Hanson, for his part, runs a blog predicated on the notion that we can “overcome bias,” particularly of the noncognitive variety. In fact, between Simler and Hanson there may be no two people better qualified to write a how-to guide for rationally wrangling our mental pachyderm. Perhaps that should be their next project.


Samuel Hammond is the poverty and welfare policy analyst for the Niskanen Center. He tweets @hamandcheese

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