Rhetoric

"Nature vs. nurture" is a false dichotomy. Rather, it is in our nature to nurture and be nurtured by others

"Nature versus nurture" is a false dichotomy, just as "nature and nurture" is a false compromise. The real relationship is hierarchal: Nature made us nurturing and nurture-able. Nature made certain things difficult to mold, but it also gave us the willpower to overcome those difficulties.

Atheism needed self-help to redeem the power of rhetoric over the soul and hand it back to the individual

The beginning of storytelling is the beginning of when words developed a life of their own. Originally, words were uttered for relational or informational notification such as, "Look out a snake!" or "I love you." In stories, words transcend space and time. A stream of storied text is like a magic spell that delivers blasts of pleasure when uttered. A story doesn't have to point to something happening here and now, and therefore it has a life of its own.

It's likely that the first shamans and druids were originally storytellers. Religion is all about the toll-free bridge between rhetoric and the soul. Sin is a word, which becomes a thought, which becomes one's damnation. The priest utters some words, perhaps even unintelligible words in Latin or glossolalia, which then lift one's spirits. It happens so automatically that we take for granted that a stranger can broadcast some words to a crowd and have it affect everybody's identities.

So, first it was the story, then came religion, and now it's self-help. The difference between religion and self-help is that the latter spells out the mechanics of the link between rhetoric and the soul. The power of positive thinking, or the laws of attraction, or Dianetics, all aim to not only show us that words have power, but that we can manipulate those words. Armed now with two centuries of psychological research, it's no longer necessary to tell people that God condemns them to make them feel guilty. Instead, a cognitive behavioral therapist explains how negative distortions create negative feelings which lead to negative actions, and it is up to us to dispute such distortions.

DNA reports need nuance, including the average, the margins, the confidence, and the key: what causes the variation in survival

The need for more nuanced language in communicating statistics is becoming more and more urgent. While as it's only a venial rhetorical sin for the media to report averages without context, such simplification can prove catastrophic in a different setting. For example, as more and more people get personal genomics reports, it is bewildering to read that you have twice the risk of getting a rare cancer.

When DNA reports come back, instead of saying, "You have a 12.6% chance," they should say, "We can say with a 95% certainty that you have between a 5% and a 22% chance, with the variation depending on lifestyle choices."

Most statistics communication comes across as cold, reductionist, and fatalistic. And yet, the vocabulary of statistics is broad enough to describe hopeful, free-will data. The trick is that whenever we publish an average, we should accompany it with the standard deviation. And we publish the standard deviation, we should include information on what tends to cause that deviation.

For conservatives, there is no apostasy, only orthodoxy; Every mistake is an opportunity to "make American great again."

When conservative politicians co-opt policy positions that they once rejected, they frame it like this is the way things have always been. While as when liberals do it, they frame it like it's something new and innovative. For example, when Mitt Romney campaigned in 2008 for what is essentially Obamacare, he framed it terms of "re-asserting choice in medicine and bringing back accountability," while as President Obama framed it in terms of "modernizing health care and turning a new chapter." Conservatives then cast Obamacare as a form of socialism, to make it seem like a deviation from a good America, while as Obama framed it as a struggle against entrenched interests, and therefore a deviation away from a bad America. Conservatives call it returning to roots, whereas liberals call it breaking new ground. For conservatives, there is no apostasy, only the re-enforcement of orthodoxy.

For religion, the goal is the goal, which is why abstinence pledges persist despite all the data against them

Religion is all about goals and intent. Preventing murder is a worthy goal, for example, according to most religions. Whether or not people follow up on these goals is not what they're concerned about, at least not directly. There aren't social scientists within the Church studying whether or not their messages change communities in a methodical way. Instead, their "social scientists" are religious scholars who study ancient texts for their resonance with souls.

This religious mindset has been made apparent by the debate over abstinence vs. sex education in schools. Abstinence pledges are ineffective. Teens who make the pledges have as much premarital sex as teens who don't, and they are more likely to be unprotected while having it. This flaw is irrelevant to the Christian Right, though, because the purpose for them is to perpetuate the value of abstinence. The job of preventing premarital sex, is, well, up to God and the individual. The Church is just providing the message.

Abstinence pledges do work in roughly 20% of cases, typically among pledges who go to Church regularly. So even if on average the abstinence pledges don't work in a statistically significant way, there are enough impressionable children for whom the word of the Lord will work. Perhaps the Church only cares about their regular flock: "Thou shalt obey certain rules. If you don't, then we'll guilt-trip you out of our group, and all that will be left are people who follow our rules." In other words, the Church is trying to create a world where abstinence is the dominant value.

Introversion has less to do with a disinterest in people, than it does with an interest in focus, something that groups lack

When socializing in groups, subjects randomly stream in and out, bringing in new perspectives and attitudes that lead the number of possible conversations to expand exponentially based on combinatorics. Turn-taking is tricky and determined on the insistence and volume of a dominating speaker. There is no steadiness or predictability as to where the conversation will go and who will speak.

When socializing one-on-one, the number of partners is fixed, and the topics change only gradually. Each partner takes turns leading the conversation, and the proportion that each partner spends speaking is relatively more equal than in a group. The difference between 2-person socializing and groups is much like the difference between sitting for an acoustic set at a coffee shop versus stadium rock.

Extroverts are hailed as charismatic leaders, whereas as introverts seem aloof or uninterested in others, and by extension, uninterested in the human race. But introverts love their friends just as dearly as extroverts. The perceived difference may just be a matter of temperament, not interest.

Political correctness depends on the size of the mouthpiece, with populist news on one end, hushed tones on the other

The nature of ethics changes depending on where we hear those ethics. On one end of the spectrum is network news, which has mass appeal. These ethics tend toward irreproachable ideas, such as "All men are created equal." They're the same ethics that are discussed in high school history books, often perpetuating a mythology of the Founding Fathers and their concern for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

On the opposite end of the spectrum is parental ethics. For example, mothers may teach their daughters things like man-catching, or dads may teach sons "how to be a man." The mainstream media—as well as academia, another land for mass ethics—scrubs out any notion of gender inequality.

In other words, the political correctness of ethics changes depending on who is listening. Somewhere in the middle is talk radio, since you often listen to it alone in your car, as opposed to television ethics, which are the ethics of the living room.

Consensus ethics, the kind of ethics that politicians talk about or we discuss in polite company, are ethics that we can all agree are for the good of all. Peer-to-peer ethics are designed to help both parties in a conversation. And parent-to-child ethics are just for one person since parents are trying to send their children on their way. The kind of ethics that gets handed down from parents tends to be the most selfish of imperatives. They're even worse than the ethics from friends; Friends at least want you to follow the golden rule.

Republicans own family values, and yet modern families, with their Montessori and Adderall, behave anything but conservatively

The marriage between conservatism and family values is a fiction because there isn't something inherently traditional about families. Parents will be the first to try new anti-anxiety meds on their children if it means better performance in school. Parents will be the first to send their children to creative expression Montessori schools if it means increased self-actualization. Parents will take family road trips or explore if it means expanding their child's horizons. Parental ambition is potentially more limitless than non-parental, and so parents will use whatever tools they think will work, whether they're traditional or modern, liberal or conservative.

Perhaps the act of starting a family is traditional. Maybe family units yield to patriarchal patterns more frequently. And perhaps parents are biased against homosexuality in their children. But beyond a narrow set of "traditional values," families aren't a demographic that has to be owned by the right-wing.

Someone who has a 50% chance of winning the election, after winning it, will have actually had a 100% chance in retrospect

The language of probability confounds our rhetoric. When we say that President Obama has a 90% chance of winning the election, the statistician's explanation is, "If the election were to be held today, in 9 out of those 10 times holding that election, it would lead to his victory." But in what universe do 10 hypothetical elections exist? The election that will lead to his victory is a singular event, and so what are we to make of these alternative elections?

Sure, a multi-verse theory of physics could describe an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios that exist somewhere. However, are we then saying that 90% of those alternative universes have Obama winning, and in 10% he is not?

Such thought experiments either sharpen our skills at "probabilistic thinking" or they point to actual un-addressed paradoxes in our understanding of the nature of randomness.

We can label dogs wagging their tails as submissive all we want, but we still have no idea what "submission" means in doggy brains

When we say that animals have memories or that they communicate, we are anthropomorphizing on a basic level; we are essentially saying that animals have features like us. A more limited description of animal memory would say, "The animal returned to the location of its food after a separation of days." But instead, we say that animals have memories. It's simpler and more accurate. While we will ultimately never know what happens inside the black box of the brain, especially animal brains, the odds that animals have memories or that they communicate as humans do is high.

But anthropomorphizing has its limitations. If a dog wags its tail, an ethologist will describe it as a submissive gesture. She is confident in this description because she has studied hundreds or thousands of dogs and knows that when this gesture occurs, it is often in the presence of the powerful. And since the gesture commonly appears with other gestures, such as avoiding eye contact, it's safe to apply a label drawn from humans.

However, when a dog shows submission, it is in the context of the world of dogs. We are power hungry, so the word "submissive" means something special to us. For dogs, it could mean something trivial. For chimpanzees, who are arguably more power hungry than humans, it may mean something more profound. Maybe a submissive gesture for chimpanzees has as much a hold over them as being in love would be for humans.

The most accurate statement, then, is that the dog is making a submissive-x gesture, where -x is a modifier indicating that while it models a behavior found in humans, it may or may not have the same meaning to members of that species. This preserves the accuracy of behaviorist, black-box descriptors, without surrendering the descriptive power of applying terms that obviously link the human and animal worlds.

While a dog kneeling is a submissive gesture, submission means something completely different in the world of dogs to us, and so while it's useful to anthropomorphize, in order to group gestures together, and figure out what is being communicated, it's not useful in that we have no idea what that gesture means to the subject.

Anthropomorphic labels for gestures, such as submission in dogs, is only good enough from a formal perspective, but we have to keep in mind we have no idea what submission means to a dog, maybe it's just a ritual deference, or maybe it's a question, may I have.

What we lose in zest by using passive voice, we gain in intrigue, as storms gather, and things happen

"The Internet was invented" sounds better than "Scientists invented the Internet" or "Al Gore invented the Internet." Even though passive voice is discouraged in English class, we crave it. Much of the human experience is about receiving things or things happening to us, with the actor or agent unknown. We can identify who invented the Internet, but doing so ignores the idea that technology itself has agency. "Technology wants something," with or without the specifically named inventors, and so the arrival of the Internet, in a way, is something that magically appeared.

Active voice frames conversations with causality, which makes sense in the plot of a spy thriller with a character who is pushing the events of the story forward. But even then, one could frame it in terms like, "conspiracies formed, commands were sent, and computers got hacked."