The Upper Room


If you sense that you are unable to discover truth on your own, whom will you ask?

 The person with the most authoritative voice?
The most certain?
The most eloquent?
The most sincere?

 You are doomed! Stuck with “the anosognosic’s dilemma”: If you can’t figure something out, you are equally incapable of judging who has the expertise you lack, to figure it out for you; and certainty is not an option.

 Listen to me! At least I understand the question…


Ancient History

 I was born a hard-shell empiricist, so purely one that my brain has seizures whenever it encounters absurd claims – such as religious claims about the supernatural. I didn’t get my fair share of the ability to deceive myself. (Since that was unique in my part of the forest, I’m interested in understanding what enabled this austere objectivity. A lot of the cause clearly lies with high intelligence, since all the True Believers in the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society (where we keep our smarties) put together would fit nicely in a breadbox – and none is a cognitive scientist!) Strong cultural headwinds also dictate that one must be tenaciously self-reliant if he or she is to persist in apostasy while surrounded by superstition; and I am.

Maybe when I was a child I believed preposterous things, but for me the notions of the Garden of Eden, the Resurrection, and all the rest toddled off back down the path to their home in the Land of Make Believe, right on the heels of Santa and the Tooth Fairy. However, the stork had dropped me into a nest of rabid Babdists. That was a problem.

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” is about how stupid people think they’re smart, and smart people think others must be just about as smart as they are, when they’re not. I thought that: that the whole church could certainly see that all the elements of their superstition were bunk. I was so puzzled: why would they trick me? I eventually decided that there must be an elaborate unwritten collusion in place which I would understand later, that facilitated the cohesion and preservation of our community.

It took me a long time to decide that I was right about the collusion, but that the whole schema was deeply buried in the subconscious of the “true believers” – buried in their back yards beneath a carefully cultivated pelt of glistening turf. Brain and behavioral scientists together are only now dissecting the believing mind and brain. (One of their more-fascinating findings is that requiring allegiance to absurd beliefs is a good test of loyalty to the tribe.)

I stuck around because I really liked the idea of the compassionate Jesus, and the socialist, sharing Jesus, that I read about in the Bible, but soon realized that these ideas were unwelcome to anyone else in the church (and the socialism scary), so I left. Singing rousers was fun, but not enough to keep me. (“Sacred music could make believers of us all! – but preachers can be counted on to restore the balance.” – Mignon McLaughlin)

The preacher was also the director of our denomination’s missionary society, which meant he was effectively the leader of the denomination as well. That organization was headquartered in the next town, Wheaton, Illinois – the Rome of Fundamentalism, where Billy Graham went to college. This preacher was a little white-haired guy, with a true gift of eloquence in the manner of an old-time revivalist. He was a yeller and a stomper, waving his Bible at us while skirting apoplexy. (I advocated keeping an adrenaline hypo under the pulpit in case he blew a circuit.)

The congregation was cowed by him, I’d guess because of his standing in the denomination. But he was an egomaniac. He couldn’t be stopped from preaching a half-hour past his mark, loving as he did the sound of his own voice (although he blamed it on the Holy Spurut). He was also obsessed with getting all the missionaries to sign a vow that they were “pre-millennialists”. (Don’t even ask!)

The last straw for me was the day he told us that if JFK were elected, he would be the pope’s puppet – a paranoid delusion amazingly common to protestant fundamentalists during that election – remarkably like current beliefs about the Muslim Kenyan Obama. Well, my instinct told me that thing about JFK was just nuts. But it occurred to me that the preacher could be held accountable for this corker because, unlike most illusive prophecies (like Armageddon), it had a due date if JFK won: election day, 1960!

JFK won, and showed no signs of puppetry; and not a damn thing happened to the preacher. Not a peep was peeped. Why not? Because the disconnect from reality was complete – further illumination for me. I cleared off, and seized my freedom.

 The Mystery of the Baptist Mind

 What was going on?   Why was everyone blind? The problem with JFK and the preacher was the same: what was called for in both cases was character judgment. Was no one at all capable of that in the midst of their tribalism?

At its heart the problem was that those people live in a world where pretense – pretending – is a way of life. As so often happens with populations, believers actually exist in a bell curve, rather than at opposite poles. Some believe altogether, some a little, some not at all. The gap is filled with pretending. Pretend not to notice that the preacher is a megalomaniac, or that the visiting evangelist is a polished scammer; and worse, pretend that the Bible does not say what it clearly does say (and vice versa); and that it’s inerrant. Pretend that racism is over, and poor people are lazy…

Pretend not to see the smoke and mirrors.

The most ludicrous example I recall was a woman teaching art appreciation at Wheaton College claiming that a painting of a nude woman had no erotic content. I could see – a “self-evident truth” – t that she was talking blatantly silliness. While disputing this idea, I looked around the classroom for someone to support me. All were staring at their desks, chewing their cud – and I was reminded that I had temporarily re-entered the surreal world, where believers seem entranced by a mystique.

 Conservatives’ Cognitive Crippling

 People in this environment have to do awful violence to their capacity for critical thinking. Karen Armstrong, former nun, author, and now prime mover for the International Charter for Compassion, described prying herself loose from the church, which had made for her a Procrustean bed, and then required that she cut herself to fit it: “I had deliberately told myself lies and stamped hard on my mind whenever it had reached out toward the truth. As a result I had warped and incapacitated my mental powers. From now on I must be scrupulous about telling the truth, especially to myself.” How refreshing! I could have written that myself.

It’s these same “incapacitated mental powers” that cripple the Baptists’ ability to judge character. They are far from alone. This is not a religious condition only; it’s a cultural conservative problem more broadly. As an IT director in a large corporation, I thought the rarity of good character judges was our biggest defect; and if you can’t do it yourself, there’s no way – and no felt need – to identify and encourage it in others; nor do I recall it ever even being mentioned as desirable. So desensitizing in its essence occurs whenever we find it convenient to deny what we know at our deepest level to be the truth – most importantly, ethical truths. Think of Huck Finn dealing with slavery. In the end, he trusted his internal moral compass.

What do we know about this trait, character judgment? Evolutionary biology and psychology indicate that Theory of Mind (“thinking about thinking”) is a relatively recent and invaluable acquisition for our species. We – some of us – develop expertise of a high order in discerning what other people are thinking. My shorthand in the past has described it as learning who to trust. If that’s a good summary, then it’s extremely closely related to – maybe the same as – character judgment; and this is a sensing business.

Anyone forced into an ideological box of any kind is desensitized to the finely-nuanced sensibility necessary to character judgment – that any ideology involves cognitive distortion – crippling – to conform to a catechism. When ideology trumps compassion, civil society withers, and cognitive dissonance is neutered.

My schizophrenic mother at one time was a classic “hoarder” who, in addition to the junk, shared her house with 120 cats. She carried with her wherever she went an abominable stench; but she was completely unaware of it. Her literal shit detector had been desensitized to the point of total destruction. I, on the other hand, have highly developed shit detector – for inauthenticity – for bull shit. A loud bell rings in my head in the presence of a scamming Baptist, or Joe McCarthy, or Ted Cruz… I recoil from them all in disgust. I understand their sordid motives. They curdle my spirit. (Also, I don’t like them.)

Back to the Present

After Obama won his second term, on that election night, Republicans were devastated. The candidates wives were quietly weeping, while the candidates themselves were stunned. Romney had not even prepared a surrender speech. I thought this was unimaginable. Exuding confidence is fine, but believing in yourself without question is – a departure from reality; a form of megalomania – madness. They had been pretending, even to themselves!

For myself, I never wanted to be fooled about Obama’s prospects. Early in the campaign I Googled “recent most accurate election projections,” and the mirror on the wall said, “Nate Silver is the fairest of them all.” So whenever a pundit tried to stampede me I’d google Silver’s projections, which calmed me down. But the Romney crowd were in the fabled hermetically-sealed bubble – their alternate universe, in which doubt was evidently disloyalty as well. They had no interest in objectivity. Their minds worked differently than mine in a fundamental way. They listened only to one another.

Then it occurred to me that long ago I’d seen this willful ignorance before – in the Baptists deliberately ignoring the preacher’s JFK paranoia. Could it be that they were in the same surreal state? I had always wondered at Republicans’ sending relatively buffoonish candidates into the battle. They seem as unable to judge character as the Baptists were. (The sad truth is that they often get away with it because the average voter has, after all, an IQ not far from 100.)

The GOP has been self-selecting for mediocrity for a long time. It was 1981 when Lee Atwater laid out the contemptible Southern Strategy for Reagan to attract racists (which repels liberals). And any sign of fealty to science is mortal to their candidates (which is also repellant thinking to liberals). It was Reagan (now already beatified and nearly a saint) who mocked scientists’ concern about air pollution and deforestation.

The usual tactic is to snicker patronizingly at scientists, also known as pointy-headed intellectuals, and invite the worshipful Luddites in the audience to believe that they are somehow superior to those other-worldly wool-gatherers. (Californians’ own dear Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach is Reagan’s latter-day reincarnation. He wants to cut down the rainforest to decrease air pollution.) Well, bad currency drives out good. The better educated and more intelligent people have left the party.

A hilarious example is Bill O’Reilly’s idea of the moon and the tides. “Moon comes up, moon goes down. Tide comes in, tide goes out. God sees to it.” Billy is totally confident, totally certain… infuriatingly smug… and desperately ignorant. the Barney Fife of the airwaves.

 My Beatification of David Dunning and Errol Morris

 Dunning and Justin Kruger did the scientific spadework that validated the phenomenon – the “Effect” – that bears their names: that dumb people think they’re smart, but smart people imagine that everyone else is just about as smart as they are. This leads to constant disappointment because of our unmet expectations of one another’s behavior. I, for one, all my life, have been unable to accept that others cannot grasp things that I see clearly.

It finally occurred to me that this behavior is universal – that it applies to everyone, to every area of cognition, and that its potential to help us decode our behavior is immense; that it qualifies as a bedrock axiom. We need to pursue it now, and not screw around. (I’m thinking of the regrettably long, troubled path of penicillin’s development to fruition. Scientists tacked to and fro across its path for 70 years until someone finally landed on it, and its full potential was realized at last during the Second World War.)

I imagine the Dunning-Kruger Effect as represented by a bunch of small houses in the mind, representing thinking competence in each mental domain; so – one for math, one for bowling…one for character judgment…and so on. Each house has an upper room where its owner simply cannot go, because it represents the level of competence he lacks, and worse, he’s totally ignorant of this room’s existence. There is no staircase. There are no windows or doors. In Einstein’s Physics house, for instance, the upper room was vanishingly small; my own, by definition, I cannot know. Damn.

One more thing: there is no ceiling to the upper room, because the human potential in any domain cannot be foretold.

I recently was myself a victim/practitioner of this Dunning-Kruger thing. A friend, Elissa, told me about the Effect three years ago, and I liked it very well. But I recently came across “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma” serialized in the New York Times. Parts 1 and 5 record a conversation between Dunning and Errol Morris about the Effect, which made me realize I had an “upper room” myself concerning this very subject. The NYT discussion revealed that there was still a whole world of thought I needed to absorb about nuances and ramifications that – I didn’t know I didn’t know! (Then I have to ask – what else is there that I don’t know I don’t know?) Lifetimes will be spent elucidating this stuff.

Here’s something that troubles me: Long ago I heartily resolved not to deceive myself; and I still catch myself trying occasionally. But when do I not catch myself?

Well, now I have beatified both Dunning and Errol Morris out of gratitude, because of a dialog between them that brought me an epiphany – their discussion sank into my head like hot lead in a snow bank, and it occurred to me that all the best stuff in any domain, sadly, exists in those upper rooms we are unaware of. Here are parts 1 and 5 of “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma,” which record their exchange:


In the Luddites’ minds there is no understanding that smart people are contemptuous of them. That’s all part of the beauty of being ignorant, as Dunning realized. So the Luddites applaud, the bobble-heads bobble and smirk, and all’s right with the world. And Reagan’s “upper room” for the not-understanding of science was huge; yet he was completely ignorant of his ignorance. His bet (which would not have been consciously made) was that there were enough voters with their heads up a warm, dark place (from whence extrication would have required the services of a proctologist) to easily keep him in office – sadly correct.

Only if you, the reader, can also discern character can you stick with my understanding here:

Sarah Palin, a recent example, is clearly an airhead – filled with certainty, knowing nothing. While two of McCain’s senior staffers (Nicole Wallace and Steve Schmidt) soon realized it, McCain never did; yet Nicole Wallace finally couldn’t even bring herself to vote!

Democrats cannot match this list of dunderheads and miscreants: Reagan, Quail, Agnew, Nixon, the Bushes, Cheney, Romney, and Ryan; and now, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio. They are all deficient in more than intellect alone: they also lack in large degree empathy and compassion. I can see no other explanation for their utter failure to comprehend the real anguish of poverty – for their smug judgmentalism which is to me unforgivable. Further, they are unaware of this vacuum. If we were to ask each of them, “how compassionate are you?”, each would likely answer “very compassionate.” Self-assessment is hugely unreliable.

Her’s a big problem with my thinking: If I’m right that these people are mentally deficient (in social intelligence), it’s as unfair for me to be mad at them as at a person with an IQ of 75! Yet I stay angry. How can I not want to give Rohrabacher a good smack? I have said before that the only harbor for a fully-mature mind is Liberalism. Am I disqualified, then? (One more problem, though: these uncivil people vote and legislate. I’m gonna have to smack him.)

 The Cultural Chasm: the Lib/Con Divide

 I prefer the definition of insanity that describes it as a variance from reality. Religion is already a huge step in that direction. Like all ideologies, it requires allegiance to a catechism; and to the extent that it doesn’t comport with reality, it is madness. The conservative culture has lately cast away any obligation to the truth.

But a sea change is underway in our culture (huge hat tip to the internet), after which this will be more fully understood; and that it is essential to our becoming a society that can deal rationally with the grave difficulties that lie ahead. We will really need to do this free of the wishful thinking and superstition that hold sway right now in our governance.

And we also must acknowledge the substantive, stark differences between liberals and conservatives, as they are clearly emerging. The differences between physical brains, and the differences behavioral sciences are finding, confirm one another, and essentially agree with my understanding of events in my own experiences – which lays bare my own strong biases that I acknowledge, but will not apologize for. None of what follows is “settled science,” perhaps, but the evidence all leads in one direction, and is accumulating relentlessly. A scan:

Fear: The right amygdala in an average conservative brain is enlarged. That’s the part of the primitive brain that mediates fear. This matches what we know about conservative thinking, where phobias find their natural home: homophobia and xenophobia (including racism) come readily to mind. Uncertainty and change are fearsome to them. And conservatives are four times as likely to fear death. So since most exist somewhere along the anxiety/fear/paranoia axis, they are more easily frightened by demagogues into the more perilous forms.

Judgment: In most liberals, it’s the anterior cingulate cortex (the “new” brain) that’s enlarged: the region that enables considering alternatives and other attributes that contribute to judgment; and it makes openness possible. (But fear will trump both judgment and compassion.)

Values: Jonathan Haidt has examined values across several cultures and found that liberals and conservatives both value liberty, fairness, and kindness. Conservatives, not so much. But they also value loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity – a sense of the sacred; the honoring of irrational taboos. If I may speak for liberals, I will explain our exclusion of the last three: Loyalty to me equates to tribalism, or xenophobia, which we must outgrow. Sanctity (heeding taboos) is to me mindless conformity, and disregards reality. And respect for authority is what demagogues rely on. I reserve my respect for individuals who I recognize to have earned it, which makes “authority” a useless, dangerous abstraction.

The need for certainty is simply hopeless and infantile. It requires willful ignorance of nuance, and is the antagonist to openness.


 This separation is about more than differences of opinion; it’s a vertical separation, between the primitive and the more civilized – greed/sharing; xenophobia/openness; insularity/compassion – the results of conservatives’ pandering for two generations to people’s baser instincts, until that determined the basic difference between parties. It calls to mind the Romans’ building of Hadrian’s Wall, to quarantine the wild and crazy Scots in the north; but since the wall was permeable, English who inclined to Scots’ ways slowly drifted into Scotland, and biddable Scots sank to England, until both countries became more temperamentally homogeneous. (This is my ethnic brag. The migrations to Ulster, and then to North America, caused further sorting, until by the time we reached Appalachia we were totally nuts. I mean, defiant.)

The brutal truth is that liberals and conservatives are now separated by degrees of ignorance, intelligence, gullibility (superstition), fear, character judgment, and compassion. These profound differences cannot be overcome through reason and discussion.

 What Shall We Then Do?

  • I favor what I think of as accelerated evolution, in which our prefrontal cortex rapidly takes firmer charge of our instincts. That’s the fast path to a more mature civilization.
  • Advances in neuroscience and associated behavioral sciences are accelerating at a remarkable rate, leading to a dramatic growth in our understanding of ourselves – which E. O. Wilson views as our path to species survival.
  • Young people are quickly drifting liberal.       The internet is a great facilitator of this because cultural eddies are being flushed into the mainstream, where anachronistic ideas must compete with modernity. My own belief is that we should treasure our instinct for reciprocal altruism, empathy, and compassion, and define ways to nourish them rather than desensitizing ourselves to them. Rabbi Hilel said we must care for one another. “Everything else is commentary.”
  • In the near term, we should hold exquisite character judgment in the highest esteem, and learn how to recognize it, and to enable it.
  • We have barely even recognized it at present, but human arrogance – self-deceit wrapped in self-puffery the most damnable curse of our species, and seed of aggression and judgmentalism – is stupid, unwarranted, and as perilous to our survival as the Bubonic plague; so we should just as intensely be focused on its eradication. Otherwise the possibility of getting wisdom is utterly foreclosed. I have attached “A Spiritual Carousel,” which is for me sacred, an invaluable lubricant for humility.


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