Rigorous Red or Bogus Blue? Part I


By Mike Cronin

In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” the future is presented as a dystopia where the vast majority of human beings are caged in pods that capture their body heat to energize a vast, governing machine intelligence.  In order to keep people in such a state, the machines created a virtual reality and plugged the brains of the human “batteries” directly into it – this constructed reality is the eponymous Matrix.

There are a few human rebels who escaped the machines, fighting an almost hopeless battle against them. These rebels are able to plug themselves back into the Matrix with full awareness of its virtual nature, and work to free the rare human “battery” who has begun to suspect the Matrix is not reality.  In the process of freeing such a mind, the leader of the extraction team confronts the skeptical person within the Matrix, hints at the truth, then offers the candidate two pills, one red, the other blue.  If the candidate takes the blue pill, he will remain trapped in the Matrix.  If he takes the red, he will be unplugged, rescued from his pod, and shown the true nature of reality.

There are some people today who believe we are living in a Matrix.  I don’t subscribe to that at all, but I do believe nearly all of our society’s ills can be attributed to a conflict between two philosophical meta-traditions, with schools of thought that promote collectivism & altruism on one side; and the philosophies of  individualism & reason on the other.  The traditions of collectivism & altruism have some Matrix-like qualities.

“Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.” ― John Dewy, hero of progressive education.

Like the machines in the Matrix, the elite of these traditions would prefer their subjects remain ignorant of the true nature of things, i.e. to take the metaphorical blue pill.  Creating critical thinkers is not a goal for the education of the masses in systems dependent on these models; nor is it a priority for the media to expose truths that contradict the narratives of the anointed elite.  But unlike the “batteries” of the Matrix, We the People are not trapped in energy-sucking pods. Metaphorical red pills can be found.

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” ― Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States

Promoters and adherents of philosophies of individualism and reason are, like the rebels in the Matrix movies, very much a minority who see things much closer to the way they truly are. A thinking, reasoning mind is valued among such rebels, skeptics, and extremists, but represents a threat to the purveyors of the blue pill.

“To fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence… Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim… is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that is its aim everywhere else.” – H.L. Mencken, journalist and author

The conflict between “blue” and “red” thinking has been with us since humans first started using tools to make tools – probably as far back as the invention of the wheel.  Blue thinking started with superstitions and pagan religions.  It has always had the advantage of being easier to sell and easier to believe in, so it has always flourished in some form or fashion, while red thinking has always required intellectual rigor, which meant it was not preferred by people looking for the path of least resistance. In fact, ours was the first nation to be founded on the principles of individual liberty and capitalism – i.e. The United States of America is the original red state!

5 Ways to Fight Hobgoblins


By Mike Cronin

I often refer to H.L. Mencken’s “hobgoblins” quote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” We see this every day, often with the enthusiastic pot-stirring of the main stream media.

Take today’s headlines, for example.  Rising tensions with Russia over the imbroglio in Syria. Hurricane Matthew. Gold prices. Stock prices. Jobs growth. Giving up control of the internet.  Hillary’s scandals. Trump’s crudities.  Duterte’s bombast. NFL ratings. Crazy clown sightings.

How is all of that really important? How can we ignore the hobgoblins and glean the “ground truth?”

A few rules of thumb can be useful:

  1. Always keep Mencken’s quote in mind, together with Thomas Sowell’s observation:1931497_10156430011180515_9052930332313088412_n
  2. Get your news from a variety of sources. Journalism has evolved, or more precisely, de-volved, in the face of 24/7 cable news cycles, citizen-chroniclers, and the web.  According to the authors of Blur, the old media’s apex occurred at about the time of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. CNN came online shortly after in 1980, and the 24/7 news cycle was born. The term spin as euphemism for truth-shaping entered the lexicon at about the same time. Consumers have had to contend with an ever more clamorous, ratings-driven media ever since. Every outlet is biased, but some do a better job of admitting what their bias is (my own, for example, is for individualism, reason, and laissez-faire capitalism) and/or mitigating for it (this reporter, for example, does a commendable job on reporting from Washington D.C. without interjecting his ideology). Alternately, check out the US news from a foreign source, such as BBC, Al Jazeera, or Xinhua.  They are biased as well, but perhaps not about the same things we are. It can be enlightening.
  3. Once the main-stream media have added unique theme music to a particular story, it’s not breaking news anymore. They are trying to turn it into a cash-cow and milk it for ratings.
  4. Most mainstream media operations lean left/liberal/progressive/Democrat, while Drudge, Breitbart, and Fox News (at least until the recent departure of Roger Ailes) tilt right/conservative/Republican – but what if both of those factions are two sides of the same coin? In order to see liberals and conservatives as opposites, you are supposed to accept a left-right political spectrum model with socialism on one end and fascism on the other. To the subjugated souls living under either, there is no practical difference. As the saying goes: All models are wrong, some models are useful.  A left-right / liberal-conservative model keeps you scared of the hobgoblins.  What if we look through a different lens? What if we put individual liberty on one end, and absolute tyranny on the other?  I contend that on such a model, “liberal” and “conservative” establishment politicians are continuously dragging us closer to the tyranny cliff, with only the flavor of tyranny at issue. Using a better model might get us closer to “ground truth.”  Who will lead us to liberty or drag us to tyranny?
  5. One kind of real hobgoblins we must watch for: luminaries with enough wattage to force the public eye to “look away.” Such wattage could come in the form of personal charm or charisma, whereby the figure is judged by their reputation instead of earning a reputation based on considered judgement (e.g. President Obama’s anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize), or via “wagging the dog” (e.g. President Johnson’s incandescent “Gulf of Tonkin” lie).


It’s a Conspiracy!

Paranoid Android

By Mike Cronin

Last week I wrote about critical thinking.  This week I thought we might look at an area that is ripe for its practical application: Conspiracy theories.

Some people believe the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by our own government in order to provide the Bush administration a pretext to go to war. Others believe the Apollo moon landings were faked.  Conspiracy theories abound: Aliens at Area 51. JFK’s murder. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The list keeps growing.

How do we get at the truth? Sometimes we can’t. While the truth may be discoverable, the means of discovery are not always available at the time the conspiracy theory is popular, nor is discovery always worth the price to find out even if the means are available.

On the other hand, we have thinking tools to help us decide whether a given conspiracy theory is plausible. These allow us to dismiss the implausible theories.  One of these tools is called Occam’s razor.  In a nutshell, Occam’s razor says that there is seldom any need to consider complicated answers when simple ones will do.

Let’s take the case of UFOs at Area 51.  The theory generally postulates that aliens crashed on earth near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the US government is holding their bodies and recovered spacecraft at Area 51.  In order to believe that, you have to accept:

  1. Out of all the possible places the aliens could visit in our galaxy, the aliens came here.
  2. The aliens have faster-than-light travel (which our science believes to be impossible) or they can hibernate for hundreds or thousands of years. Either way their technology is fantastically beyond ours.
  3. Their fantastic technological advantage both failed them utterly (because they crashed) and succeeded spectacularly (because their bodies and spaceship survived the crash roughly intact.)
  4. Out of all of the possible places they could have crashed, they wound up hitting rural New Mexico.
  5. Our government bureaucrats have been savvy enough to keep the real truth secret all of this time.

It might be possible…but the “evidence” to support the theory to date amounts to not much more than fuzzy pictures and unverifiable “eye-witness” testimony, while the holes in the theory are powerful. For example: Remember the space shuttle Columbia disaster?  If the aliens’ spacecraft made it through reentry intact, there would have been a huge crater at the impact location like the one near Winslow, Arizona:


If it broke up during reentry, there would have been debris scattered for hundreds or thousands of miles along the descent path:


Let’s apply Occam’s razor: It is far more likely that there was never an alien spacecraft crash in 1947 or any other year. Most likely, whatever the government recovered in New Mexico in 1947 was man-made and that whatever goes on at Area 51 now is wholly human activity devoid of alien influence. Why believe that?  Because there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that intelligent extra-terrestrials have visited earth.

Why does there always seem to be a slate of such conspiracy theories “active” at any given time?   Because conspiracy theories are fun and profitable!  There is no shortage of people who will “investigate” such mysteries and sell their findings in the form of books and special reports. There are others who make and market souvenirs. If the theory gains enough of a following, there will be entire TV shows dedicated to “solving” (i.e. perpetuating) the myth or even movies that popularize various explanations. (For example: there was a movie called Capricorn One that gave credence to the idea that the government could fake a maned Mars landing – which no doubt fueled the Apollo conspiracy). It’s all meant to keep the gravy train on track.

The conspiracy theory-industrial complex is mostly harmless when understood for what it is.  For example: Like most people, I can enjoy a sci-fi mega-flick like Independence Day or its forthcoming sequel Resurgence (which romanticize the idea of aliens at Area 51). However, for me to enjoy such movies, I have to suspend my disbelief (i.e. “ignore” my faculty for critical thinking).

On the other hand, there is a dark side to the conspiracy market. It manifests in at least two ways:

  1. There are an abundance of Americans whose education neglected to cover critical thinking. They cannot “suspend their disbelief” because they don’t have any!
  2. A viable market for conspiracy theories is also fertile ground for politicians to play upon people’s fears: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken)