On Empirical Scientific Facts: The Discussion between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris

On April 9th, a conversation between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris was published with the initial goal of debating the science underlying IQ and race differences.  The conversation quickly was derailed as it descended into topics of social policy, bias, honesty, slandering, and identity.

One of the most important aspects and best aspects about science is that scientific claims are empirical.  That is they make specific predictions and are subsequently verifiable by observation and data.  The issue with this conversation is that at no point was a specific empirical scientific claim made and then debated.  Rather, abstract ideas were tossed around which lead to both parties talking past each other.

However, in an email conversation, Harris put forward 5 empirical claims:

  1. Human “general intelligence” is a scientifically valid concept.
  2. IQ tests do a pretty good job of measuring it.
  3. A person’s IQ is highly predictive of his/her success in life.
  4. Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians).
  5. It isn’t known to what degree differences in IQ are genetically determined, but it seems safe to say that genes play a role (and also safe to say that environment does too).

The first three are generally fine (although, they are way more vague then they ought to be).  The   fourth statement, however, is objectionable on scientific grounds and the fifth statement provides the reasoning for that objection.

Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians).

This fourth premise is missing a very important word – ‘current’.  That is, the claim should be that ‘Current Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians)’. It is this missing word that is pivotal in the disagreement between people like Ezra and Sam.  I should also mention that black, white and Asian are such nebulous and generic concepts that they make the premise non-empirical.  For example, where does one place people that are Mixed race? Or how does one reconcile the fact that Ashkenazi Jews, who are white, tend to have the highest mean IQ.   This is another problem with this premise but I’ll leave that for another debate.

Ultimately the problem is that during the exchange between Murray and Harris, Murray makes the claim that the differences are immutable, a point that Harris doesn’t contest.  That is, Murray suggests that even if the environment was completely neutral, blacks would still be at the bottom of the IQ hierarchy. This is where Murray, and subsequently Harris, move from making scientific empirical claims to ‘peddling junk science’ and arguably move towards the ‘justifying of bigotry and racial inequality.’

It isn’t known to what degree differences in IQ are genetically determined, but it seems safe to say that genes play a role (and also safe to say that environment does too).

This fifth premise provides exactly the reason why the fourth claim is not valid.  Because it isn’t known to what degree, differences in IQ are genetically determined, one cannot make a claim about Mean IQ differences across populations.

Coupled with this problem, may be an issue understanding the interaction between genes and environment.  Harris has made a comment suggesting that intelligence is somewhere around 50% genetic and 50% environment but grouping a complex interaction into percentage is nonsense.  It would be like asking what percentage of bread is the ingredients and how much of it is the heat in the oven? Bread is 40% ingredients and 60% heat makes as little sense as 50% genetic and 50% environment.  Rather it’s a complex interaction between the two.

It should be noted that this is true regardless of whether one wants to say has a strong genetic component – 50% genetic and 50% environment is just as meaningless as 90% genetic and 10% environment.

Ultimately, it may be when environments are neutral, ‘blacks’ actually have the highest IQ.  It might also be the case that different environments interact with different sets of genes, such that the best environment for one group of individuals is not ideal for another group of individuals.

It would be like asking what percentage of bread is the ingredients and how much of it is the heat in the oven? Bread is 40% ingredients and 60% heat makes as little sense as 50% genetic and 50% environment..  Rather it’s a complex interaction between the two.

More Science is Needed

As cliché as it is, questions regarding race and IQ simply don’t have the data yet for any satisfactory answer and any attempt to present an answer is going to be confounded by numerous historical and environmental factors.  While Harris is right that we need to be fine with talking about controversial scientific issues, we also can’t be naïve about the implications that people may draw from the data, particularly when the implications don’t actually reflect the data.

 If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com –  I engage with every thoughtful comment.  


Yesterday, A Self-Driving Car Killed a Person. Today, Human Drivers Will Kill Over 3,000

Driverless car

Yesterday, an article on Vox was published with the headline – A self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian. Human drivers will kill 16 people today.  This statistic, somehow both vastly understates the problem of human-driving, while at the same time also misleads people to the effectiveness and relative safety of driverless cars.

First, the 16 people refers to only pedestrians and only in the United States.   With an estimated 40,200 people dying in motor vehicle accidents each year, that puts the average number of people that are killed by cars each day at around 110 and over 3,000 per month in the United States alone.  To put that in perspective, just shy of 3,000 people died during the September 11th terrorist attacks, which means that the equivalent of a  September 11th terrorist attack (in terms of deaths) occurs every month on U.S. soil – carried out simply by people driving.

The United States is only a drop in the bucket compared to the world-wide death toll, which is estimated at around 1,250,0000 to 1,300,0000 every year.  That’s 1.3 Million.  That translates to an average of more than 3500 people that are killed by cars every day worldwide.  This doesn’t even touch the tens of millions who are injured or disabled every year, which is estimated at between 2.3 – 4.6 million in the United States alone, not to mention the financial costs in terms of healthcare costs, car repair, and insurance.

Now the obvious retort to this statistic is – millions if not billions of people are driving and thus they drive trillions of kilometres every year.  Self-driving cars make up only a small percentage of this.  This is true and brings up the second problem with the Vox article.  Indeed, if we explore these stats using the number of miles driven, we get a much murkier picture, filled with nuance and caveats – but at least it’s more accurate.

World Car Fatality

The first caveat is that different countries have different rates of fatalities per km driven.  Although the data is hard to find, some of it is available.  For example, The United States has an average fatality rate of somewhere around 7.1 – 11 deaths / 1 billion kms driven.  Brazil on the other hand is upwards of 55.9 deaths per billion km.   South Korea and the Czech Republic fall between there at 14 – 16 deaths per billion km, while Australia, Denmark, and other Western-European countries are at the bottom end with 4 -6 deaths / per billion.  Relatedly, different people have different rates as well, with younger drivers (16-19) accounting for three times more likely to be in a fatal accidents than those 20 or over.  These rates drop off and level out from 30 -75 and then increase substantially for those over 75.

The second issue is that different driverless programs also have different rates.  Waymo, Google’s self-driving program had driven approximately 4 million miles (6.4 million km) back in November 2017 (which, due to exponential improvement is now probably closer to 8 million), with 0 deaths.   Tesla’s autopilot (which, in fairness, is limited), was reported to have clocked 222 million miles as of October 2016 but has also resulted in a fatality (a rate of about 5 deaths / billion kms).  Uber, the offender of yesterday’s fatality, had only clocked about 2 million kms, resulting in an abysmal rate of 500 deaths / billion kms – although recent supports suggest that Uber may not have even been to blame.

Of course, an equally justifiable retort to those stats is the clichéd scientific response – ‘more evidence is needed’.  Indeed, the data is both too nuanced and not large enough to make any strong conclusions, a paper published in 2016, suggests that driverless cars would have to drive upwards of ten billion miles before any statistically reliable conclusions can be made – a point gladly made by a Washington Post article.    Moreover, no-one is saying driverless cars have been perfected yet.  Rather, they are still improving; not to mention that there may be increased efficiency gains if most/all cars are integrated and driverless. And while car-related fatality rates dropped considerably over the past 40 years, they have begun to level off, or even increase, such as the 7.2% and 8% increase in 2015 and 2016 in the United States.  Thus, while current rates, particularly in the developed world seem to be pretty static – and still scarily abysmal, self-driving cars provide an opportunity to save time, money, and most importantly upwards of tens of thousands of lives and protect millions more from injury.

The motivation to write this post was two-fold.  First, as noted, I felt the Vox article vastly understated the serious issues related to human driving.  We really do need people to be aware of the consequences and be motivated to push forward automated driving.

Second, however, was that their headline was obviously misleading.  The issue is that weak arguments tend to not just be non-effective, but counterproductive.  If people can easily tear down the point you are making, they tend to feel like it supports the opposite point.  This tends to happen among people who find the information incongruent – as they are motivated to reason why it’s wrong, while those who are in favour of the argument, are more likely to accept it. However, I saw the article on the r/futurology subreddit – a place dedicated to the “development of humanity, technology, and civilization” – and despite this being the psychographic that would generally be the most in favour of self-driving cars, the top comments were all highly (and rightfully) critical – pointing out that the statistics were misleading.

Trust Do Not trust.png

If the people who are least likely to be critical are still finding issues (in fairness, it was highly ‘upvoted’ suggesting that most people tended to happily agree with the premise without much criticism) – then the 63% – 75% of people who are afraid of riding in an autonomous vehicle   are only going to see through this obvious issue and only polarize further.  And every day we don’t have good reliable driverless cars is another day where hundreds, if not thousands of people will be injured or die.

The motivation of this post was to outline the seriousness of the driving problem but also to raise awareness of the need for nuanced reporting.   If we are going to tackle big issues like this one, we can’t just be preaching to the people who already agree with us.  Nuance and caveats might not sell as many papers or generate as many clicks and it might be harder to understand or even turn off some of the people who already agree.  However, it has the advantage of creating a shared set of facts and expectations so that honest discussions can take place with those that disagree, in order to reach reasonable and rational decisions.

 If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com –  I engage with every thoughtful comment.  


The Most Important Things I Learned During My PhD – Part 1: ‘On average’



Scientists discover that eating fish makes you smarter, helps you sleep better

The above headline seems relatively straight-forward: If I eat more fish, I will become smarter and sleep better.

However, headlines like this are missing two important words – ‘on average’

When scientists do research, even when the research is done very well (e.g. randomly assigned participants, double blind protocols, proper controls, etc.),  they are still only looking at averages.  They examine how people behaved without the treatment (in this case those who did not eat fish) and comparing it to people who received the treatment (those who ate fish).   Then, if the people who received the treatment, on average, became smarter and slept better, then one can reasonable conclude that eating fish makes you smarter and helps you sleep better…on average.

The ‘on average’ is very important, as this above finding tells you nothing about any individual person eating fish.  For example, if, for example, 40% of people did get smarter and have better sleep, 50% of people showed no effect, and 10% of people actually got less smart and had worse sleep – the conclusion that, that eating fish makes you smarter, helps you sleep better (on average) would still be true (or at least supported by the evidence[i].

You may think this is due to the finding/research I chose – and that it was correlational – but this would be true about many findings.  “New drug treats chronic pain” “Going outside increases concentration in children” “Women show higher agreeableness than men”.

All of these need to be qualified by the words ‘on average’. That is, a drug like Tylenol might actually increase pain in a small subset of people, but on average, it reduces pain.

However, it becomes even more problematic than the above fish example.  While the new drug, for example, may suffer from the same issues as the above fish example (most people get better, but some show no effect, and some actually may have a negative response), even if the new drug was 100% effective and everyone who took it improved the exact same amount, it still wouldn’t tell you anything about an individual person.  The person who took the drug, but was experiencing a lot of pain before, would still likely be experiencing more pain than someone who didn’t take the drug but was initially was experiencing little to no pain.  Similarly, going outside may help everyone’s concentration – but people who can naturally concentrate extremely well are still likely going to be better concentrators than most, even if they didn’t go outside.  Lastly, women may be, on average, higher in agreeableness than men, but men who are extremely high in agreeableness are going to be more agreeable than most women.

This last example, and ones like it, are often becomes the one where people get heated and may even seek to dismiss the findings.  One possible issue is that unlike the drug or the going outside example, men and women treatments cannot be randomly assigned in a double-blind experiment with controls.  However, this only becomes a problem when want to know why there are differences (which is going to be Part 2 of this blog post).  Does higher agreeableness in women reflect, even in part, some inherent genetic disposition or is it exclusively the product of societal norms? These are good and important questions, but regardless of the answer it doesn’t change the descriptive reality.  As I’ll detail in part 2, it also provides important information on what to do about it.

Nevertheless, the descriptive reality of statistics like this are just as valid as the descriptive reality of the pain drug or going outside example.  Similarly, it tells you nothing about an individual man or an individual woman – it only tells you about averages

Further, comments like the one above is no different than saying that men are stronger than women, on average.  Are all men stronger than all women?  Of course not.  There are relatively weak men and relatively strong women.  If I needed to hire someone for a construction job that demanded a lot of physical labour I only had two applicants, a very strong woman and a very weak man, I would of course be sexist and discriminatory to hire the very weak man (assuming that virtually the only real attribute of interest was physical strength and that they didn’t differ in other attributes).  But it’s not unlikely that my construction site is mostly or even all men, given the fact that, on average, men are stronger than women.

The problem is that between group differences are not the same (and often much smaller) than within group differences.  The difference between individuals on two tails of a distribution almost always dwarfs the difference between the averages of the two groups.


The graph above explores the difference between height between a sample of men and women.  Clearly, men are taller than women (on average). The graph above suggests that men have an average height of around 69 inches (5”9 or 175 cm) and women have an average height of approximately 64 inches (5”4 or 162.5 cm) – an average difference of 5 inches.  And yet men range (in this sample) from 57 inches (4”9 or 145 cm) to 80 inches (6”8 or 203 cm) – a difference of 23 inches (58 cm) from the shortest to the tallest, while women range from about 53 inches (4”5 or 135 cm) to about 74 inches (6”2 or 188 cm) – a difference of 21 inches (53 cm).  Importantly, many of the women in this sample are taller than many of the men.  The finding that men are taller than women (on average), tells you virtually nothing about any individual man or woman.

Further, I did not and do not want this to be a men vs. women argument/blog post.   I use men and women because it is something that virtually everyone can identify with, but any individual differences can be used to the same effect.

For a less controversial example: Children born into rich families end up better financially as adults than children born into poor families (on average).  Do some poor children rise above and do very well for themselves? Of course! Do some children born into rich families end up in relatively poor? Of course! However, the tendency for people to stay in their socioeconomic status, (particularly in the United States, but in general, everywhere) is strong (and something I wrote about here).

For a more controversial example – black men are more likely to be incarcerated than white men (on average).  Does that mean that all black men are criminals? Of course not! Does that mean that no white men are criminals.  Of course not! Does this stat say anything of note about an individual or even about race in general.  Of course not.   Is the statistic true.  Of course it is.

Ultimately, these descriptive statistics are important because they tell us something about our world.  But, equally importantly, they don’t tell us why they exist – Why does the drug reduce pain? Why do children concentrate better after being outside? Why does fish make you smarter? Why are women more agreeable than men? Why do rich children do better financially than rich children? Lastly, they don’t tell us what to do about it and perhaps most importantly they don’t tell us anything about an individual person.

Despite this, people will hear these statistics and they will either deny that they are true (e.g. women and men are not different), or if accepted, they may assert their own inferred causation (e.g. differences between men and women are due solely to genetics or due solely to discrimination), they may misinterpret the statistics and categorize all individuals in the same box (e.g. all women are X and all men are Y) and/or then they may confidently assert what to do about it.

At this point, you may be thinking, this is all obvious or ‘you needed a PhD to learn this?’ While it may be obvious, there are a few reasons to re-iterate it, not to mention a few places where the obvious intuition breaks down.

First, while you may consciously be able to reason and agree with the above, our implicit (e.g. automatic, associative) processes can’t.  We inherently categorize people (or things, or any concept).   As such, our natural tendency is to automatically associate people into a single group or category.  It’s what helps breed stereotyping, tribalism, and us vs. them thinking.  It’s not until you realise you’re doing it, that you can take a step back and apply the above reasoning.  Constantly reminding yourself of these ideas helps prevent these dangerous human tendencies.

Second, it is clear from our political landscape that people do this all the time.  On the left, you have individuals (sometimes with PhDs themselves) arguing that someone deserves certain benefits or advantages simply because they come from a group that is typically less privileged than other groups. And while it’s true that, on average, some groups of people have a better start to life, more advantages, etc., – it is not true about everyone in those groups.   In other words, while it’s true that on average, white people are more privileged than black people, you cannot make any strong predictions about one’s privilege based only on the color of their skin.  Programs designed to target and assist those less privileged based on a specific ethnicity, may succeed on average, but it is a blunt instrument, allowing for those who are still advantaged to be unfairly helped, while leaving others more disadvantaged to be left behind.

Similarly, on the right, you have people advocating and supporting policies based on their group affiliation – such as the ‘Muslim ban’ – whereby people from specific countries were not permitted to come into the United States.  It didn’t matter if you had been living there for the past 5 years and had recently gone home for a visit or if you had been offered to fly-in for a job interview – everyone from these countries was off-limits.  Now, while it is likely the case that on average, people from these countries were more likely to be terrorists than people from other countries, you cannot make any strong predictions based only on where they were born.

One of those two examples might have ‘ruffled your feathers’ and you may begin to rationalize it with something like, ‘it’s better than having terrorists in our country’ or ‘it’s to help end/mitigate systemic oppression’.  And while these utilitarian arguments may allow for you to feel justified with stereotyping and discriminating based on a group, you still have to acknowledge and accept that it is stereotyping and discriminating.  To put this perspective, consider someone suggesting that we should put all men in jail because that would minimize crime.  The argument is the same (although you may not agree with utilitarian cost-benefit, particularly if it applies to you).

Lastly, there is at least one way, these ‘obvious ideas’ are not as obvious as they may seem. Consider for a moment the above height graph.  If I were to tell you that someone was 66 inches (5″6), it would basically be a coin flip of whether they were a man or woman.   However, as you move to the extremes, the percentages begin to change.  In this sample, while there are a number of men that exceed 74 inches, none of the women do, and so you could be certain that anyone above 7″2 is a man.

The same is true among traits like aggression and impulsivity.  The difference may not be huge between men and women and the within-group variance is much higher than the between-group variance.  However, those on the tail-end are the people most likely to end up in jail – and about 90% of inmates are men [ii]

Like this height and personality, example, whenever there is a difference between groups, even if it is small, it is at the extremes where we will see large deviations.  Recently, James Damore was fired from Google for outlining differences in men and women that could influence why there were more men at Google.  The critics who at least agreed with the science on the differences, argued that the magnitude of the differences he cited couldn’t explain the gap at Google.

But I think it’s fair to say that Google is at the extreme end of the computer-science and tech job world, if not the job world all-together and thus people who work there are likely to be at the extreme end of certain traits as well.  Thus, if we can agree that these differences exist, and if we can agree that the differences predict both interest and performance, we would expect large differences at the tail end.  Further, if we look at start tech-startup founders (arguably another example of being on the extreme-end of tech-job world), women make up 17% of founders.  Tech-startup founders provide a window into understanding the levels of highly motivated people who are interested in tech while eliminating discrimination at the organization/firm level.  And while, I concede that there are likely some systemic factors that push women out of tech throughout their lives, this number  is the same as women in tech at Google.  This equal representation suggests no discrimination on the part of Google.

As noted, this does not provide evidence that there is no systemic bias in society, but I’d argue it is not the responsibility of Google or any company to help rectify the systemic biases in our society is an open question.  These issues need to be solved earlier on in life, whether that be marketing towards younger women, programming camps for girls, etc. (things Google could help provide). Otherwise, it is like putting a weight on a runner at the beginning of the race and then taking time off his time at the end of it.  Rather, the correct solution to this problem is to take the weight off the runner at the beginning to ensure a fair and equitable race .

Clearly, there is important nuance in any average finding. However, for whatever reason, many people tend to use the averages as ultimate sources of differences, particularly in political discourse.  It is sometimes hard to resist, even when you think about these statistical issues all the time.  A few years ago, I heard Milo Yiannopolous on Real Time with Bill Maher make the argument that we shouldn’t let  trans people use their preferred bathrooms because they are more likely than non-trans people to be involved in sex crimes.  I remember quickly seeking to fact check it, implicitly feeling that if true, would be a reason to not allow these preferred bathrooms.  However, it is important that even if true (it is not, unless you creatively use involved to also reflect being the victims of a sex crime), the idea that trans people commit more sex-crimes (which to reiterate again – is false)  tells you nothing about an individual trans person. The notion that we should fear or discriminate trans people because of some general average is ludicrous.   Just as using the stat that men are 10x more likely to commit homicide compared to women, doesn’t tell you that you ought to think men are murderers.

The immediate inclination to quickly take averages and assume they reflect a truth that applies to everyone is something we need to be very careful about. Whether it be with the latest scientific finding that a new drug, exercise, or food helps achieve some desired result or that one group of people are higher or lower on some specified attribute – these findings only tell us about averages and may or may not apply to you or the people you know.

 If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com –  I engage with every thoughtful comment.  

[i] It is challenging to be able to study whether something has an effect for an individual person.  For example, even if you used a repeated measures design at two different times and some people showed less sleep after eating fish, you could not draw the conclusion that it was due to the fish.  People will vary considerably between the times (e.g. people who did not get the fish will also show more/less sleep between the two sessions), and thus, any individual who showed less sleep may have done so for a variety of different reasons.

[ii] Obviously, personality traits are not the only predictor.  Cultural norms, systemic bias, etc. all play a part.  This is a question of ‘why’ the statistics are the way they are and will be addressed in an upcoming post.

How Marketing Works

I recently finished teaching a marketing class where I asked my students to get into groups and do some ‘market research’ on why their fellow classmates would or wouldn’t buy a particular brand.  Then they would report their ‘marketing insights’.  One group chose Ralph Lauren and then asked a group of female students whether they would buy Ralph Lauren products (including perfumes, sunglasses, etc.).  The female students said no, it was too expensive for the quality and so the marketing insight was that Ralph Lauren was priced too high and they should lower it.

I then asked the female students a few follow-up questions.

First, I asked them whether they own/regularly wear clothes, perfumes that are as expensive as Ralph Lauren, to which they replied that they sometimes did.

Second, I asked them how they knew that what the quality of Ralph Lauren clothes were, to which they said they didn’t know.

I followed up by asking them if they thought that the Ralph Lauren clothes were of worse quality than the clothes they wear, to which they replied no or that they weren’t sure.

Lastly, I asked them: if I gave them a Ralph Lauren shirt or some Ralph Lauren perfume, how often would they wear it? The female students said they likely wouldn’t.

So it’s not really about the price and quality, is it? I asked.

I guess not, they responded.

Polo Ralph lauren3

But then what was truly motivating this decision and why would they ‘lie’ about it?

As consumers (or as people in general), we like to think of ourselves as ‘rational’.  When it comes to buying things, we love to tell ourselves that we are getting ‘quality’ stuff for reasonable prices – that we are maximizing our utility. If we buy something relatively expensive, it’s worth it, because it’s quality,  it provides certain features, or we give some other rationalization.  And yet our decisions are not actually made this way.

Recently, I read an article on reddit (Ad’s Don’t Work that Way) outlining some of the misconceptions about how marketing influences us (I won’t go into those here but feel free to read the article for some context) and providing some insights into what is really going on ‘under the hood’ of consumers.  The article was relatively well-done but I felt it was wrong in a few places and could have provided a bit more information of the underlying processes.  When I suggested I could write something on this if people were interested, the response was a resounding yes.

Obviously I can’t detail decades of psychological and marketing research but I will try to give a good overview.  If you want to know more – please let me know.


Clutter and Information Overload



To begin, it’s important to recognize that marketing is more than just advertising. For example, the product and packaging are made to look a certain way, regardless of its function.  When you walk into or past a store – the layout, music, the way the sales people interact, and even it’s location have been designed in a specific way to signal a specific idea (more on that in the next section).  Further, most products have been branded very specifically – from clothes to cars to computers, each exposure provides some level of information to you.

Current estimates suggest that we are exposed to between 4,000 to 10,000 of theses messages a day, with around 360 specific ‘ads’.  Couple this marketing information along with all the other information we received in a day (our jobs/school, social media, news, etc.) – there’s clearly too much for us to process everything.  Attention and cognitive activity is a scarce resource and we tend to conserve it when and where we can.

As such, marketing messages aren’t typically telling us about their features in any great depth or why we should buy them.  That information can be found if you are motivated enough.  Rather, the information is made to convey a specific association and/or a clear value proposition.  These two ideas are discussed in the following sections.


Cognitive Associations,  Categorization, and The Self.


Consider for a moment what happens when you walk into a room you’ve never been in before (like the one above).  Immediately and without any thought you know exactly what the items in the room are.  You know that the chairs are chairs and that the table is a table and not a desk. You even know the difference between the coffee table and the dining table.  You may have never seen tables or chairs like these before and yet you know exactly what they are.

Despite requiring no effort, this ability to quickly form associations and categorize items is an extremely impressive feat. Robotic engineers and AI developers have struggled with this problem.  For example, driverless cars struggle with identifying whether an item in front of them can be driven over/through (like a plastic bag) or whether it must be avoided (like an animal or large rock).  While we like to think of certain cognitive feats, such as solving mathematical problems or playing chess, to be the pinnacle of human achievement – this ability to automatically associate and categorize a seemingly infinite number of items, which even young children can do, may be the most remarkable.

To better understand how we do this, consider and reflect what happens when you read or see:  ‘Santa Claus’.


You automatically generated associations of Santa – red, fat, elves, reindeer, Christmas, which in turn generated even more associations.  These associations come with valence too – which means they are tied to positive and negative emotions (which might be where the meme of emotional advertising comes from).  For many, just thinking about Santa will generate feelings of ‘happiness’ because of the strong association with Christmas, presents, and family (although if Christmas is an anxious-filled difficult time for you, Santa probably won’t come with that same feeling of happiness).

Now, you may be thinking – I didn’t think of all those things.  However, this process is implicit – which means it is generally automatic, uncontrollable, and tends to operate non-consciously.  If I say “don’t think of a white elephant” – you will automatically and uncontrollably generate associations of a white elephant.

What does this have to do with marketing? Marketing is designed to create these associations.  Think of any brand – Coke, Apple, McDonald’s Walmart, Amazon, Nike – immediately these brands come with a set of associations.  Some good and some bad.  Marketing’s goal is to generate strong positive associations.

Image result for Brand Associations

This is why brands get anxious when their spokespeople do something not in-line with these associations – like Tiger Woods being dropped from most of his endorsements after his infidelity scandal or why Google fired James Damore after his memo was leaked.  These companies are worried about the negative associations that might form and often with good reason.  Estimates suggest that the Tiger Woods scandal cost shareholders 12 billion dollars. 

An example I like to use in my class is Dyson.  Once again, what comes to mind when you think of Dyson? And how do those associations differ from your associations with, for example, Hoover? If you are like most people – Dyson is associated with modernity, innovation, ‘coolness’, etc. whereas Hoover is associated with your grandmother – older and more traditional.

When I ask my students whether they’d rather buy a Dyson or a Hoover – virtually all of them answer Dyson.  However, then I show them a recent consumer report (below) which demonstrates that Hoover beats out Dyson (at least on these bigger vacuums).

The kicker? I then ask them again – Dyson or Hoover? and still, despite it being more expensive and rated worse, a large majority of students continue to choose Dyson.


But why? Because products are our extended self.  We integrate the associations of the brand into associations of our self.  When we buy (or experience) something, that consumption is not simply providing us with functional utility – it is saying something about us as people.  We care about this a bit more when it’s public, but even in private, we care about what a brand says about us.  We don’t want to feel old, we want to feel young and innovative – so we buy a Dyson.

The below image comes from a very influential paper detailing how we develop self-esteem and identity.  In essence, the authors argue that our self-esteem and identity is a function of the associations we have with ourselves (e.g. professor, intelligent) and the valence or categories we have with each of these items. Since products also carry associations and we integrate these products with our sense of self; they in turn become instrumental to our self-esteem and our identity.

Greenwald 2002.png

The article that spurred this post explored the idea of ‘cultural imprinting’ – which ultimately is just the shared set of associations we have in a specific culture.  It’s important to note that these associations can differ from one specific culture/social group/person to another. For example, Tattoos may be see as ‘trashy’ to some people but as a signal of toughness or beauty to others.  When Starbucks came to Australia, a country with a strong laid-back coffee culture, it assumed its strong associations would carry over. In doing so, it quickly opened a number of stores contributing to Starbucks being viewed as just an impersonal corporate coffee shop.  Eight years later, it closed 60 stores, sold it’s remaining 24, and posted a loss of a $143 millions dollars.

Returning to the Polo shirt example from the beginning – why then did the female students not want to wear Polo? Because to them Polo is likely associated with male, preppy, etc. and that’s not who they want to be, nor how they want to be seen.

Associations change Perception


To see the power of these associations, consider the following:

In blind taste tests, Pepsi beats Coke.  But put labels on them and Coke beats Pepsi.  Why? Because when you’re drinking Coke, you aren’t just drinking sugar/aspartame water – you are drinking the associations you have with Coke (As an aside, many people like to rationalize this by saying that Pepsi is sweeter so that they prefer Pepsi in a single sip but not an entire can.  However, if true, this wouldn’t explain why Coke beats Pepsi in taste tests when branded)

Similarly, a recent large study found that, on average, people prefer cheaper wines to more expensive wines.  But put labels on them, tell people how much they cost and this effect reverses.


Or consider that in blind taste tests McDonald’s coffee beats out Starbucks and GreyGoose Vodka does not live up to the hype.

We tend to associate high price with high quality and our perceptions shape reality.  One of the reasons that Iphones never/rarely go on sale is because they don’t want to signal that their phones are worth less than they charge.  If they had a one-time sale of Iphones for $400 – then people would think that their phones are only worth $400.

Lastly, to demonstrate just how these associations can change perceptions, I give my class a container of Dove soap and a container of Old Spice, except I replace the Dove with Old Spice.  I pass it around and ask people to smell it.  Not only do the men say they would buy the Old Spice and women the Dove, but the students  report a difference in the way it smells.

Ultimately, we tend to conform to our expectations.  Think something is suppose to be good, it usually is.  Although this can backfire when the difference is too large (we all have those experiences when something is over-hyped), this is the exception rather than the rule.  It is the Placebo effect – except instead of mitigating pain or sickness, it’s associations of status, masculinity, coolness, or general taste and quality.

Accessibility, Bounded Rationality, and the Value Proposition  


You might be thinking that this might be true for certain things or for certain people, but surely there are some instances where people are looking at actual metrics and buying based on that.

Fair enough but you’d only be partially correct. Messages that are put out there still have an effect in another way.

Think about the last phone you bought.  How many different phones did you compare?  I recently asked my class and many people didn’t even compare any.  If they wanted an Android, they bought Samsung and if they wanted IOS, they bought the latest Iphone.  At the high end was three.   Have you ever heard of Oppo? would you consider buying it? Why not? It has great specs and even beats out sales of Samsung in China

There are dozens of alternatives, each with different price points, advantages and disadvantages.  They aren’t cheap either, so one would think they would be a product category that people would do their research.  And yet, most people make their decisions without it. Why?

Marketing creates our set of alternatives.  When we need to buy something we think of the few products that come to mind.  Need a new printer – you’ll probably check out a few of the ones you know – HP, Canon, Brother, Epson.  Not only are they the ones you are likely to type into Google for searching, but the brands you know and have heard of tend to convey some level of reliability and quality.  How likely are you to buy some printer you’ve never heard of even if the ratings are good? In the vacuum example, posted above, Shark was rated as the top vacuum in that category – but many people haven’t even heard of it – so could they even consider it?

And when we compare, we are single issue voters. We look at the few features that are important. Marketing – both in the advertising sense and in the product development sense – tends to focus on and delivering these one or two values.  Decisions are typically made as some trade-off between these core values and cost.  Buying a car? What do you care most about – power?  fuel efficiency? speed? luxury? reliability? price? You’ll buy something that fills those most important values and marketing’s job is to make you think (often factually, lest you think that all marketing is a lie) that their product is the best in those categories.

It should be noted that the associations we form are important here as well.  For example, people tend to think of green products as less powerful/effective.  As such selling green cleaning agents or hybrid trucks has been a challenge.  People who are buying cleaning agents or trucks want power and/or effectiveness and if the perception is that they will be less powerful or effective they will be harder to sell – even when consumers want greater fuel efficiency or to be environmentally conscious.

Lastly, the values that we care about are also influenced by marketing.  Although there is debate about whether marketing simply reflects current cultural values or actually creates them, it does at least perpetuate them.  Not only does marketing make certain products more accessible – it makes the values we care about more accessible too.  Accessibility (or availability) refers to the idea that whatever can be easily recalled must be more important than information that is less easily recalled and people tend to weigh judgements towards this more available information.  This tends to bias us in terms of risk – such as not opting for any Samsung phone when information that a few of the Note 7s were catching fire.  Similarly, if we are consistently inundated with pictures of models and ways to look like them, it serves to consistently keep that motivation at the front of the brain.

Some Criticisms about ‘Ads Don’t Work that Way’ 


As noted, the motivation for this post was a response to the he Ads Don’t Work That Way article. although The Ads Don’t Work That Way article was generally well-done, there were a few areas that the author made some arguments that were at best, too extreme. The evidence reflects cherry-picked examples, while counter-examples (and counter-evidence) are readily apparent.

First, the author argued that these associations will only work for conspicuous products – and that all associations are meant as signals to other people.  While the motivations for personal consumption may be different, it does not mean the associations are non-existent. As in the Dyson or Old Spice examples show – we care about how the product makes us feel, regardless of who sees them. It should be noted that when Old Spice rebranded its product to Swagger in 2008 to target younger consumers (who wanted to be manly but not too serious about it), it did not change the scent at all.  Despite this, sales jumped 400%.

Old Spice Pic

And when they furthered this idea with a body wash extension and a successful execution of their ‘smell like a man campaign’ with Isaiah Mustafa, sales doubled once again.

The author even talks about drinking coke and compares it to gas stations, suggesting the former is a social activity while the latter is not.  One can definitely drink coke in the company of others but they also do so by themselves.  Similarly, individuals often go to gas stations with friends and family – not to mention that other people see you getting gas too. Further, given his argument, one would expect toilet paper, types of soap, or underwear* to virtually never be advertised.  Or consider make-up, that which once applied, has no explicit brand-message, shouldn’t be advertised since no-one needs to know what you are wearing.  Clearly, this isn’t the case.

Relatedly, motivations for how we want to be seen by others and how we want to see ourselves can differ and be in conflict. Our motivations can shift from buying products in-line with how we see ourselves now, buying products in-line with how we’d like to see ourselves, and buying products to signal some attribute to others.   For example, a colleague of mine is a Harley Davidson Biker and on weekends he loves getting on his bike. Being a Harley rider is a huge part of his life and his identity.  However, he’s also an academic and is aware of the associations connected to being a Harley Rider.  As such, he generally hides this part of his life at the office, rarely riding his bike to his school (but still opts to sometimes wear a Harley shirt underneath his suit/work-clothes).

Second, the author argues that an ad should scale even more than linearly with the size of the audience.  However, this is not necessarily true (and arguably the opposite is true as will be discussed next), at least not for the reasons specified.  It may be true, in that mass advertising conveys some information simply by being mass advertised.  That is, large scale advertising says something positive about the firm’s size, popularity, success, and subsequent quality.  As alluded to in the phone example, Samsung’s dominance is due, in large part, to conveying that they are the best and most popular Android phone.  People assume it’s the best because it’s the one they see the most advertised.

However, the most effective/efficient way to advertise is to target the specific people who care about those associations.  The ads during the commercial break of ‘The Bachelor’ are different compared to ads during an average NFL game.  Fox News shows different ads than the ads during Saturday morning children’s cartoons. Marketers have learned to shift from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘narrowcasting’ and ‘targeted advertising’ – where ads are specifically targeted to people with specific values and preferences.  As noted earlier, we are exposed to so many different pieces of information and in order to break through this clutter, the message has to resonate with the consumer.  As such, a lot of market research is designed to understand what the target customer values and where they will be exposed to media.  By understanding what a customer values, messaging can be crafted to build the specific association and value proposition that will motivate a consumer to buy it.

The lack of being two-faced as described by the author (e.g. creating multiple associations for multiple targets) is a function of needing to form clear and consistent associations. This is important regardless of whether the product is conspicuous or not and thus is not simply a function of cultural imprinting.  Brands often either completely or partially mask products they wish to convey different associations for.  For example, Unilever owns both Axe and Dove but purposefully hides this fact. While Dove has built its brand focusing on body-positivity for women, Axe has traditionally focused on sexualizing women.  Could you imagine if both were both prominently branded under the umbrella of Unilever?

That being said, some companies that have very broad and abstract associations can pull this off, adjusting their targeting slightly, but still remaining consistent.  Apple for example can target the youth, selling the association of creativity, status, and/or independence while targeting parents and the elderly with associations of family and/or simplicity.

Lastly, it isn’t entirely clear what point the author is trying to make with his ‘personalized selling’ section at the end of the post.  Indeed, people do attempt to motivate themselves by cutting out models and posting them on their mirror in an attempt to motivate them towards more healthy goals.  Further the idea of Pavlovian-style stimulus-response marketing that the author suggests in this section is clearly just a strawman of how marketing works – a point he makes earlier in the post. A “personalized ad with the slogan “Be more social” imposed next to a supermodel or private jet” would not make one more social – but it might make the ‘be more social’ goal more accessible and motivate one to buy some luxury goods to help achieve that goal.


Final thoughts on Marketing


As noted, there is debate about whether marketing simply reflects current cultural values or actually creates them.  However, at the very least, it effects our culture by keeping certain values more or less accessible and creating the associations we think will help achieve them.  Thus, like any science or technology, it is a tool that can be used for good, such as informing and motivating individuals to donate to a charity or to a hurricane relief fund, or for ‘evil’ – motivating people to smoke because it’s cool.



Although I don’t share the view that specific brands need to create cultural imprint to be successful, I share a somewhat related view that marketing (and media in general) help to establish a generalized cultural imprint that establishes our normative values.  A UCLA longitudinal study since 1967 has found a significant change in the values being portrayed by media.  Whereas in 1967, community and benevolence ranked as the values portrayed on television – fame and achievement became the most frequent values in 2007 – and the values people care about have shifted with them.  While many things have likely contributed to this shift, surely marketing with it’s focus on individualism, independence, and the importance of status have been a factor.

UCLA Study.png

These norms are extremely important, but we are often completely oblivious to their effects.  They shape what we care about and how we go about achieving them.  I pointed out the shift in values with the intention of elucidating how misguided we have come, barely realizing the irony that I only feel that way because the value of community and benevolence are my norm.  Had you taken this survey and assigned fame and achievement as your most important values, you likely would have not seen an issue.  Rather you’d feel that we have moved in the right direction.

Questions about what we ought to care about go beyond this post. However, I think it’s important to realise that values we have and the things we think we want are influenced by the marketing around us. There’s so much information that we often fail to stop and really think about what it is we want and why.  We would do well as a society to take a step back and reflect on where we want to go and how we want to get there.


*One may say that underwear is sometimes seen and thus ought to be advertised under this view.   However, if advertisements were meant to imprint some cultural value and signal some form of status/identity, it would follow that underwear advertisements should focus on some status/identity component.  While some obviously do (e.g. Victoria Secret, or Versace for men), others tend to focus comfort or durability.


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In Search of Meaning: Nationalism, Identity, and Well-being



Friedrich Nietzsche is famously remembered for having stated that “God is Dead’.  However, while many take this as a triumphant assertion, the remainder of this quote demonstrates that this was not a celebratory exclamation, but one of fear; fear that this eventual realisation by others would lead to despair and nihilism.  Nietzsche was not alone in worrying about what the death of god would mean to people.  Hegel, for example, wrote about how the death of god left an abyss in man; while Kierkegaard, considered by some to be the father of existentialism, found his meaning in faith[1].

This is not to say that god or religion are necessary or sufficient for meaning.  However, a sense of connectedness to others – the idea that you are more than just an individual but part of a larger whole seems to be vital.  Indeed, people find meaning in things like their family, community, country, or their jobs. But these too have been crumbling. People rarely get to know those that live on their street, opting instead for online communities.  Good and meaningful jobs are becoming more difficult to come by, but even those that exist, still lack the security they once had.   Families have become more spread out, with individuals often moving away for school or to find work.

I recall listening to Richard Dawkins answer a question about how one is to find meaning without god and he laughed at the query, detailing the beauty that life has to offer and the wonder that comes from exploring it scientifically.  However, Dawkins, who for over 40 years, has been a well-respected, highly published author and scientist, has clearly not had to face the dread that comes with worrying about whether you matter[2].  Adding to the culmination of knowledge in such a significant way, clearly imbues one with a feeling of purpose and connectedness. Although one may be able to draw meaning from the beauty and wonder of nature, it is not something that comes inherently.

The underlying motivation for meaning is that[3] knowledge of our mortality causes an ultimate sense of psychological conflict and terror. Knowing we are going to die, and not wanting to die motivates us to either avoid this thought (e.g. we don’t actually die, we go to heaven) or to make some significance of our life.  We create art and monuments.  We also build meaning systems, identities, and cultures, connecting ourselves as important pieces in some greater path.  We need to feel as if our existence is meaningful, that the beliefs we hold are the right ones, and that our goals have inherent value. ‘Democracy vs. Communism’ or ‘Axis Vs. Allies’. Ultimately, we get our sense of self and our sense of meaning from connecting ourselves to some greater cultural whole, believing in the superiority of that cultural worldview, and by living up to or excelling within the standards of that culture.


This universal search for meaning helps to explain the large cultural shifts we’ve seen across the globe.  Small communities may be gone, but large nation states remain.  Cultural and religious identities may be waning, but ethnic and gender identities have endured.  Individuals may not get the sense of success that comes with a hard day’s work, but they can undergo a 10-hour grinding session to level up their online characters.

Consider the rise of the alternative-right (alt-right), characterized as right-wing individuals who reject mainstream conservatism, while supporting nationalism, anti-immigration, and men’s right advocacy.  Economist Jeffrey Tucker has argued that to the alt-right “identity is everything and the loss of identity is the greatest crime against self anyone can imagine” In a time, where globalization has moved towards a more relativistic view of culture, feminism has advocated for greater equality between genders, while we’ve also seen the diminished importance of religion, family, community, and the feeling of being a useful member of society, it is no wonder that there is pushback.  Many people need a sense of order, hierarchy, and the sense that they are on top.  It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.

The great irony is that the largest antagonist to the alt-right, the so-called, ‘social-justice warrior’ (SJW) liberal, is the other side of the same coin. While the right is clearly equally concerned about their identity, social-justice warriors are often attacked for their identity politics.  However, whereas the alt-right have sought meaning by doubling down on their national, gender, or their religious/cultural identity, SJWs have focused on a belief system of multiculturalism, diversity, and an emphasis of vindictive protectiveness.  These extreme-left individuals draw their meaning and identity from this shared system of beliefs. This organizing set of beliefs becomes akin to a religion and failure to pay homage to it, or worse, challenge it, leads one to be shamed as a bigot or racist. It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.


Louis C.K. once joked that everything is amazing and no-one is happy. Indeed, suicide rates have surged in the past 20 years – with an average of 121 suicides per day in the United States (and white males making up about 70% of that). While the joke resonated with many, it failed to take into account the importance of meaning on an individual’s well-being. In the West, we have had been told to focus on happiness – that things or experiences can satisfy these needs.  However, not only does attempting to be happier, typically make us less happy, but being happy does not necessarily correspond with being psychologically well.

People need more than just fleeting hedonic happiness.  Rather, the feeling that one is living up to their potential or that they are living in accordance with some true nature is vital for human flourishing.  For example, the enjoyment I receive writing this blog post is fundamentally different from the enjoyment from a delicious meal.  Similarly, it would be silly to compare the happiness one gets from raising a child to the happiness of an orgasm.  While the latter may lead to a fleeting hedonic happiness, the former typically results in a greater well-being as a function of a greater sense of purpose, connectedness, and meaning.

We now live in a world where many of the simple pleasures of the past are hard to come by.  Rarely do neighbours stop by simply to lounge around with friends and family, share a meal, or tell stories.  Religious and cultural rituals which often help connect us have also taken a backseat.  For example, in the Jewish tradition, not only are you required to pray three times a day, but that you ought to do it communally with at least ten men. Regardless of your religious beliefs, meeting up and sharing an experience with at least nine other individuals, three times a day, would ostensibly help alleviate feelings of a lack of connectedness and thus provide a greater sense of meaning. One time I was in a situation where I was needed to come be the tenth person.  Although I’m not at all religious or even a believer, simply being needed to achieve this silly goal provided a small sense of purpose and subsequent wellbeing.

It is no secret that many individuals feel disconnected.  Take a ride on a bus or a subway and you’ll see a group of individuals sitting as far away as possible, not talking, or even making eye contact.  Even the thought of striking up a conversation fills us with dread.  Rather, it is easy to fall back into the security of our cell-phones and our belief that our solitude makes us happy.  However, this assumption is wrong – People feel happier after talking to a stranger compared to sitting by themselves. 

We live in a world where despite a constant search for meaning, we seem to continue losing it.  Those that haven’t relegated themselves into a new community of shared beliefs, like the alt-right or the SJW-left, tend to feel lost with no obvious path out.  It is ironic that in a world with technology that is more connected than ever we feel more alone. Rather, we use this technology to temporarily avoid and distract from our feelings of meaningless and connectedness, rather than by deeply satisfying it.  The steps we need to take may feel awkward but they are not challenging. Invite a friend over for dinner and talk to a stranger on the street.  Find a shared interest: join a sports team or an art-club or go to the dog park with your dog.  Or Find a passion: Learn a skill, study a subject, go back to school.  Ultimately, we need to change this societal norm of individualistic solitude and banality and redefine what it means to be part of a collectivistic group with goals.  By feeling like an important part of a whole we can find our sense of meaning.


Author Note: If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com


[1] Kierkegaard’s view of faith argued that faith was not a dogmatic regurgitation of religious doctrine, but rather a subjective passion that could not be taught by a priest.

[2] Although one can’t fault Dawkins too much, he is not a psychologist, and so understanding why the wonderment of life would not suffice for the average person may not be something he has thought about to deeply.

[3] The main and most validated hypothesis

The True Cost of Political Polarization

After World War II, aid provided to Europe, helped these countries recover and develop into the prosperous union they are today.  However, despite over a trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the past 60 years, many African countries and their citizens remain in deep poverty.  There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, but one of the primary drivers is their instability and the ubiquity of civil clashes. Over the past 20 years, 11 countries have been involved in civil war, but even this is an improvement from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, even within the peaceful countries, for example Ethiopia, which hasn’t experienced a civil war since 1991, competition breeds instability.  This competition is motivated not just by leaders vying for power, but by a fragmented and polarized population.  Subsequently political parties are unable to mobilize their citizens to achieve a common good.  According to Merera Gudina, an associate professor in Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University:

“Conspiracy and political intrigues have become the hallmark of the Ethiopian political parties and their leaders with the resultant effect of frustration, disillusionment and demobilization of the common folks across the country. To put differently, political leaders are more active in undermining coalitions than alliance building while their vision is blurred to aggregate societal interests for a broader national development goals”

The above quote could just as easily be written about the current state of U.S. politics (and also to Canadian and European Politics).  A cursory glance at the news reveals dozens of cases of hypocrisy where Republicans fight against Democrats (and vice-versa), only to reverse or ignore their own demands when it serves them.  For instance, just recently, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who requested a complete ethics vetting and financial disclosures of cabinet nominees, only to dismiss the same concerns when applied to Trump’s cabinet.

The debt ceiling, blocking the supreme court nomination, the list could go on and on. Perhaps the most stressing example was the response to the Affordable Health Care act.  The U.S. suffered (and continues to suffer) from ballooning costs, uninsured Americans, and a general inefficient system of health care. However, the reluctance and general lackadaisical motivation to join the rest of the first world in developing a universal health care system could have worked in their ultimate benefit.  By studying the numerous systems in place, the U.S. could have learned from other countries’ mistakes and built a well-oiled health care system.

And yet, at every turn, the Republicans sabotaged the ACA. From refusing to expand Medicaid, to declining to create state insurance exchanges, and even blocking improvements when weaknesses were exposed, the Republicans have invested a great deal of time and money in an attempt to publicize misinformation and ensure a disastrous implantation, even comparing the ACA to slavery and suggesting that it allows patients to come to doctors’ houses and conscript them.  A much needed system that could have been a bipartisan olive branch to a hurting population became so polarized that even those who benefited demonized it.  In an attempt to damage the reputation of Barack Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans made millions of Americans suffer.

Or consider the complete lack of concern by Republicans with regards to Putin and Russia’s involvement in the election.  Just imagine for a moment, particularly if you are a Republican reading this, what one would have thought, said, and done, if Hillary had won the election and the same information came out suggesting that Putin had been helping her? Would Republicans have been so easily dismissive? Or would they have subjugated Clinton and the Democrats to dozens of hearings, as they had done with Benghazzi?

As I was writing this, a new bombshell was released, which has suggested that Russia has compromising and salacious personal information about Trump and subsequently may have been using this information to influence or blackmail him.  These reports remain unsubstantiated and so the only thing we should do is to remain vigilante and wait for more information.

Yet the polarization is already in full swing, with Trump opponents confident in their assertion of Trump as Putin’s puppet, while Trump supporters denying these allegations as a political witch hunt. No matter the outcome, this hurts the U.S. democracy.  If the allegations turn out to be untrue,  Trump supporters will have more reason to dismiss future concerns, regardless of how legitimate, while Trump opponents will likely hold some residual belief of Trump as a Russian co-opted President. On the other hand, If the allegations are verified, Trump opponents will have even greater reason for dismissing the concerns and preferences of rural America, while Trump supporters will have to somehow come to terms with the fact that they have been duped by an obvious con-man.  It is frightening that in light of unsubstantiated allegations, Trump opponents were willing to immediately disavow the leadership of their country, while Trump supporters were completely unwilling to consider them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Indeed, for many years, it was not. In 1964, 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to help pass the Civil Rights Act.  Bipartisanship collaboration allowed the creation of NASA, which led to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969.  Democrats joined Richard Nixon and the Republicans to develop the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  When bipartisan support cannot be reached, there can at least be compromise.  For example, in 1986 Democrats favored simplifying the system and eliminating loopholes, Republicans favored treating capital gains and investment income the same as regular income (which was changed in 2003).

Congress polarization images adapted from here

Almost everyone wants the same thing.  They want a life of liberty, security, and justice. There may be different paths to achieve them and trade-offs or compromises are sometimes required.  But there are better and worse solutions, and those solutions rarely exist polarized on one end of the political spectrum.

During last night’s Farewell speech by President Obama, he echoed these ideas, far more eloquently than I could:

“Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

“None of this is easy.  For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

“How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?  It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating.  Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”

Ultimately, the path forward is not always straight. The movement and progress of a society are like settlers exploring new terrain. Sometimes there will be arguments on the best path to take and sometimes you’ll take the wrong one.  But as long as the ultimate goals are the same, everyone moving together will always be better than some people holding the others back.


Author’s Note: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com

Gender Identity and Free Speech: How Extreme Views Shape the Debate


On Saturday November 19th, University of Toronto professor, Ms. Jordan Peterson will participate in a debate surrounding gender identity and free speech. Her general argument is that there should be no legislation that enforces another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them.

Ms. Peterson’s ultimate point is that this type of legislation is qualitatively different from current restrictions of free speech.  Whereas there are certain contexts where certain words should not be used, the current proposal is to enforce types of words that must be used.  While I agree with her with respect to the legal issues, I think both sides here are taking this problem to an extreme.

You may have noticed that I used the wrong pronouns in the opening two paragraphs, referring to Jordan as she, her, and Ms.  If Dr. Peterson had read that paragraph, I’m sure he would have been annoyed.  While he may have acknowledged my right to do it, he wouldn’t be happy with it.  If I was applying to be a graduate student of his and continuously called him by the wrong pronoun, I’m sure it would be a strike against me.

Two things must be acknowledged at this point.

The first is that my use of the wrong pronouns here is not illegal, but it is disrespectful.  By failing to call Dr. Peterson by his preferred pronoun, I am, at-best, being rude.  People are well within their right to ask others to call them by a preferred pronoun and dislike those that don’t.  Of course, mutual respect should be granted on both sides.  Mistakenly calling someone the wrong pronoun need not be grounds for immediate condemnation.  Just as I would expect someone to politely correct me if I pronounced their name imperfectly, I would expect the same for erroneously using the wrong pronoun.  We should strive to be respectful of one another and purposefully using the wrong pronoun or refusing to learn the correct one is the antithesis of that.  Ultimately, people are well within their right to want the use of proper pronouns – but they are not well within their right to demand it.

However, although we should strive to be respectful of one another, there is a difference between correctly categorizing people and creating a variety of new categories; especially when it seems that the plethora of growing gender pronouns does not map onto any sense of reality.  The use of multiple types of non-binary gender pronouns appears to be the product of different linguists, Campuses, Newspapers, or Countries, all proposing their own versions and then never settling on one

While there is some research that suggests that some people do not identify strongly with either male or female and therefore identifying as not male nor female is as psychologically valid as identifying as either of them.  Lucky for us, English has already invented a pronoun for just this occasion: They, them, their, themself.  However, I recognize that they may be less than ideal because it has other connotations (e.g. referring to multiple people) and thus the creation of one new set of pronouns may be in order.

And yet a list of dozen iterations have been proposed.   If you prefer an academic piece see here or for a proposal by a University see here


Preference of one set of pronouns such as e/ey, ve, xe, ze, or the overabundance of others seems to be the product of personal choice and not due to some real concern over mental health.  Demanding others learn and use your specific pronoun then corresponds with selfishness and self-absorption[1]. Can I make up my own pronouns and demand to be called by that? To draw this ridiculousness to an extreme, what if I want my pronoun to be Lord God Savior King of the Seven seas. I can’t demand to be called whatever I want, can I?

The fight now has seemingly been taken to an extreme where very few are actually planting a flag. On the one side, you have people like Peterson who seemingly refuse to call people by the pronoun they want, even if it is a standard he, she, or they[2].  As noted, I can agree with the legal argument, but who really is fighting for the right to be offensive? When we know that certain people do not identify with their biological sex, isn’t this just common courtesy and basic respect?

However, on the other hand, you have some people who are seeking the legal enforcement of being called by their proper gender pronouns.  Further, they are seemingly seeking not just the addition of a single non-binary category but many, despite there not being any real difference between them[2].  It is fair to ask to be treated with respect, but to make it not only difficult, but illegal to not do so, is clearly overkill.

Peterson’s push-back on the legal and functional issues are completely justified but unfortunately it swings the pendulum too far. It positions the response as an over-correction, in which it is not just legal to use the wrong pronouns, but also completely appropriate. I imagine that Peterson would have been very content calling people by their preferred pronoun of he, she, or they – if it was just a friendly request and not a legal threat.

I’d wager that most people fall in the middle and would agree with a simple solution: Choose a single set of non-binary pronouns, treat everyone with respect, don’t legislate it.

Giving voice to those most extreme causes everyone to drift into their own respective corner. By allowing those with the most extreme views to shape the debate, we unnecessarily divide ourselves.


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[1]. As far as I can tell.  I’m open to learning that there are psychological differences between them, but currently that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Further, while not trying to learn someone’s preferred pronouns can be viewed as similarly selfish, it is unclear whether reinforcing this sense of extreme individuation is healthy for a person.  Lastly, while learning one set of pronouns for one person may be doable, the problem becomes much more difficult if one engages with dozens of non-binary individuals, each with their own preferred set of pronouns.

[2] It’s actually hard to know exactly where Peterson stands on this issue.  More often than not he seems quite reasonable, but occasionally he presents himself as an ideologue.  Does Peterson categorically reject calling people their preferred pronoun – even if it just a switch of he to she? or is his concern more about the legal and functional aspects?  I’ve read a few interviews and it is still not entirely clear.   In an interview with the CBC, Peterson was asked: “Professor Peet would like to be addressed by the pronoun “they” — do you accept that?” to which he replied: “The mere fact that professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun. That doesn’t mean that I deny his existence or the existence of people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories. I reserve the right to use my own language and I’m perfectly willing to take that to its conclusion. If it’s the case that I can’t use my language the way that I see fit, because I’m using my language to formulate and articulate the truth in the clearest manner I can possibly manage and if that lands me in legal trouble — well, so be it.”   It’s unclear whether Peterson is arguing solely against the legal aspects, or against the functional aspects.  What’s odd is that although Peterson admits to the existence of ‘people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories’, minutes later he responds with “I don’t believe that it’s reasonable for our society to undermine the entire concept of binary gender in order to hypothetically accommodate a tiny minority of people.”