The lure of the perfect solution

Writer’s block, procrastination and deceptive political posturing have a common element: The search for the perfect solution.

If I can’t write a word until I know exactly what I want to say, that’s a search for a perfect solution. If I can’t wash the dishes because I don’t have time to wipe down all the counters, that’s a search for a perfect solution. If a politician tells you we can’t advance a bill because it doesn’t address every possible issue, that can also be a search for a perfect solution. And sometimes those searches are an excuse for inaction.

Let’s say there’s a den of aggressive, poisonous snakes in my septic tank A few months ago, a snake emerged through my toilet and killed our pet. I tell the family “We should get the septic tank checked out so we don’t have snakes in the bathroom again.”

But I get back that the back fence has a hole in it and a coyote might get in and kill another pet. “We can’t do anything unless we look at both problems at the same time,” they say.

It would be silly to deal with the risk of toilet snakes until we can save up for fence repair. Two things can both be wrong, but that isn’t a justification for doing nothing.

Unity can mean meeting in the middle

It’s story time. 

Nancy and Melika are neighbors, living on the same street in a small, American city. They share a sidewalk, a first-grade teacher and soccer team for their kids and a serious problem. Someone is breaking into the houses on their street and stealing…all the cookies. 

Nancy and Melika share a problem but have very different perspectives. They agree on some things. They don’t want strangers in their houses and if they make cookies, they want to have those cookies. They agree that stealing is bad. They both say they want the neighbors united against this problem. 

“My home is my castle, and I’m going to defend it like a castle,” Nancy says. She and her son want to put a trap over the window where there have been multiple break-ins. The trap will spray the culprit with boiling oil. One spraying, and the problem is over. 

Melika thinks the cookie thieves might have a reason and that if the neighbors remove the reason, there won’t be problems anymore. Maybe they are hungry. Maybe they can’t get cookies where they live. 

Nancy and Melika both want help from the neighborhood to solve the problem. For Nancy, if everyone agrees to install oil sprayers, the neighborhood can save a bunch on bulk purchase and installs. And all the cookie thieves will learn “Don’t mess with Oak Street.”

For Melika, she wants people to bake cookies and leave them outside as a test. If the cookies go away and the break-ins stop, they can work with their city on a hunger program or to encourage more bakeries or cooking classes. 

You, smart reader, are sure to have noticed multiple problems with both their plans. Nancy and Melika would notice them too, if they honestly discussed the pros and cons of both ideas. They could, together, come to a good solution for everyone. 

Sadly, they don’t. Nancy wants what Nancy wants and she wouldn’t mind being on the TV looking important. She starts telling everyone she knows that Melika doesn’t want to solve the problem. Rumors spread, and Nancy does go on TV telling everyone the “Free Cookie Regime” doesn’t really want unity. Melika still wants people to stop breaking in her house and stealing cookies. Nancy does, too, but now she wants more. Like most complex issues, the solution is probably also complex. But we may never know, because Nancy has redefined working together as “do what I want.” And that’s deceptive. 

What do you mean by the systemic in systemic racism?

Equivocation. It’s not always intentional, but it refers to using the same words and doing different things. I think we’re seeing this with the talking point of systemic racism

Politicians, commentators, etc. have been hitting a talking point that there is no systemic racism pretty hard lately. For people of color, who are more likely to be stopped by police and less likely to get job interviews, this talking point is far from their lived experiences.

The equivocation can be drawing the box around your definition very tightly. In this case, what’s the system that you are talking about when you say systemic?

Is it the laws and procedure manuals that guide policing? Is it a company’s stated hiring practices? Those may be real definitions of systems. They may not be useful ones. Rather than looking at intent, it may be more useful to look at impact.

You could include the officer making a decision about deadly force or the manager choosing for interviews when you define the system. Failure anywhere IN that system, from intent to impact would then be failure OF that system. Racism anywhere is still racism.

If the system intends to not be racist, by having laws, policies, etc., but the impact is still racist, the system has failed. Equivocating on this means people are either less likely to recognize the issue or, more troubling, more likely to assume that any failure is the fault of the people who experience the impacts.

How to remain calm while reading the news

Here’s helpful tip for your sanity. Save your indignation for things that actually exist. There’s one neat trick people in power like to play with you and the media.

Public figure need to rehabilitate the image a bit? They come up with something you don’t actually want to do, and leak that idea to the media. They’ll say “NewsToday EXCLUSIVE. According to our sources, X is proposing this thing people will hate…”

Then, the commentariat (you know, those shows and blogs and social accounts who make their $ based on getting clicks) will blow that story up. “NewsToday says…” It will seem real to you, and you, all bent out of shape about it, spread the story more. Clicks = $

No one is talking about the real things public figure did because they are so busy talking about how outraged they are. “Let that sink in” is used a lot. Now is Public Figure’s golden moment.

They say “We were never proposing that thing. We love people and care what they think. NewsToday are a bunch of hacks.” The commentariat will have your back here, with “Aren’t you outraged about NewsToday being hacks?” pieces.

Nothing happens except Public Figure looks better and the commentariat makes some

Money bag
Money bag
Money bag

. (And NewsToday looks foolish and public trust in the 5th estate erodes and you had a fit over nothing at all)

If they vote on something, sign something or ask for public opinion, it’s worth worrying about. If not, learn the basics if you want, but you’ll be happier if you don’t stress out about things that aren’t real.

Making a COVID PSA better

The White House issued an explainer PSA with Dr. Anthony Fauci about the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It’s a needed effort in an information sphere awash with misinformation that is making people afraid to take the shot. I followed it. I know big words and I speak English well. But I think it was something of a missed opportunity. Here’s why.

The original transcript

Today the CDC and the FDA announced that they are calling a pause on the administration of the J & J vaccine for COVID-19 due to a small number of adverse effects. It was seen in 6 out of the 6.85 million people who’ve been vaccinated. And out of an abundance of caution, they’ve called a pause on the administration. 

If the side effects are so rare, why the need to pause the use of the vaccine?

There are a couple of reasons to do that. The first is to investigate a bit further, and the second is to alert clinicians out there, when someone comes in with these types of symptoms, to ask them if they have a history of recent vaccination. 

Should people who have already gotten the vaccine be worried?

The people who have already gotten the vaccine should not be worried because, as I mentioned, this is a very rare event. One in more than a million individuals. The J & J vaccine has been shown in clinical trials to be highly efficacious. What we’re talking about has nothing to do with the efficacy of the vaccine. 

What about people who have appointments to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

The federal government is working with the distributors of this vaccine to see if we can expedite getting appointments to get an alternative vaccine – namely either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine. 

Is there a chance we find the same thing with the other vaccines?

Over 120 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccines. Out of that 120 million, only a small proportion, 6.85 million – are J & J. All the rest are either Moderna and Pfizer. There have been no signals that there’s any concern about adverse events among these tens of millions of people.

Should I still get vaccinated?

Absolutely, you should get vaccinated. The danger of COVID-19 as a disease clearly, overwhelmingly outstrips any risk of an adverse event from a vaccine. 

The problem

Wording. I went to college, and I can figure out what the big words mean. But you can say things like “pause on the administration of” in a more friendly way with something like “temporarily stop giving.”

When people are under stress, their ability to understand complex information goes down. A friendlier tone with simpler wording would help people understand that the temporary stop means the system is working as it should.


Today the CDC and the FDA announced that will temporarily stop giving the J & J vaccine for COVID-19 to take time to understand bad reactions a few people have had. It’s only 6 out of the 6.85 million people who’ve had the shot, but safety is a top priority. We’ll stop giving the shots while we look at the data to confirm that the shot is safe.  

If the side effects are so rare, why the need to pause the use of the vaccine?

There are a couple of reasons. First, we want to understand if the reaction is related to the shot. It may not be, but we won’t know until we check it out. Second, we want to make sure doctors and other health care workers know that if someone comes in with these types of symptoms, to ask them if they had the shot recently, because it could affect the way the doctor cares for them. 

Should people who have already gotten the vaccine be worried?

No. This reaction was a one in more than a million event. The research on the J & J vaccine showed it works well to protect against COVID-19. What we’re talking about has nothing to do with how the shot works. 

What about people who have appointments to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Check with the site where you are scheduled to see what you should do. Here in the federal government, we’re working with vaccine distributors to try to make the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines available as an alternative.

Is there a chance we find the same thing with the other vaccines?

Americans have done a great job of getting themselves vaccinated – more than 120 million people have received at least one shot. Out of that 120 million, about 7 million – are J & J. All the rest are either Moderna and Pfizer and those vaccines work differently. We haven’t seen anything to make us worry with them.

Should I still get vaccinated?

Absolutely! COVID-19 is truly dangerous for some people. The risk to you from having COVID is huge compared to the risk of a reaction to the vaccine.

How to find the right answer

As part of trying to be a critical thinker, I look at a variety of information from a variety of perspectives. It’s not that I don’t have opinions – I do. But I want to have well-thought-out and informed ones. 

This means I read a lot of stuff I personally disagree with, and that’s ok. Sometimes I learn facts that aren’t commonly being reported. Sometimes I even change my mind. At minimum I get to play “spot the logic problem” on a regular basis. 

Today made me stop for a second. Someone was complaining that they had to give professor-pleasing opinions, or their grade would suffer. I really hope that’s not true, or that it’s a misunderstanding from the student. 

As I tell my students often, my goal in teaching is not to tell them WHAT to think, but that they learn HOW to think. How to find, consider and use evidence from multiple sources to develop understanding. How to express that understanding effectively. 

You can draw your own conclusions, I tell my students, but you need to show me good support, correctly applied and expressed well. #TeachJMC 

The model of understanding we have based society on tends to assume this happens – thorough searches applied in solid, good faith arguments lead people to the best conclusions. That’s where it gets tricky. 

I have a lot more experience with that evidence, those arguments and that expression than my gentle learners do. In a sense, I could skip to a good answer and judge students on the end, rather than the process. I check myself by looking at those varied sources regularly. 

Working through the thinking process is hard. It’s hard to learn, and students are often stubborn. Standardized tests have taught them there’s one bubble that’s right, so please just tell me that one. It’s hard to teach. It’s time consuming to grade (s/o to my writing folks). 

One thing that would help would be to use examples of good thinking from a variety of perspectives. This would help in the classroom. It would help in society, too. I remember @nytimes having an opinion section that highlighted good thinking in this way in 2016, but I think it’s gone, and that makes me sad. 

As I’m picking readings for the fall and choosing what to highlight for the few of you who follow me here, I need to be better at this – finding and highlighting good ideas with solid reasoning from multiple perspectives. If you want to reply with some social media sources, you like from different points of view, I’d be obliged. 

Sometimes, pretty good is good enough: Detecting Deception

In the nirvana fallacy, a speaker says something is bad because it isn’t optimal. It ignores the fact that improvements can still be good or even good enough.

The problem is that useful solutions get delayed or discarded for not being perfect enough. It can even keep people from doing honest evaluation of risk and benefit.

I see this a lot around COVID issues. The first is one mask, one N95 mask, two masks, etc. I see people argue that because masks aren’t perfect protection for the wearer, mask requirements are wrong.

This isn’t helpful. Any improvement is still an improvement. Worse, believing only perfect masks are worthy means you won’t give reasoned consideration to the risks vs. benefits of various policies like if governments should provide high-quality masks.

I also saw this in the discussions around COVID relief, where people are dugin around a $2000 figure – for or against. Only accepting that number means not seeking compromise, which means delays on any relief.

Demanding perfect solutions can be a way of silencing debate in a way that seems justified. Media’s tendency to cover conflict more than issues themselves makes it a tempting deception to try, because you can do nothing and still look like a winner.

And you should still wear a mask. Or two.

Detecting Deception: Falsely Assigning Blame

I teach freshmen pretty regularly, and there’s a common feature of the end of the semester – a panic because a student hasn’t done well enough to join Greek life the following semester. There’s a minimum GPA required to rush. As a professor, I think that’s a good idea.

If you couldn’t do well in introductory classes without a consuming activity, adding that activity on top of harder classes may go poorly for you. Greek life is an important goal for students, and sometimes, they will try to pressure me to raise their grades.

“If it wasn’t for my grade on X project, I’d have a Y in this class and a grade point of Z,” they will try to explain. I don’t buy it. You shouldn’t either.

They take classes classes with many projects and grades that all add up to that final tally. Any and all of those projects and grades are responsible for the final. They just think I’m the easiest point to pressure. And it’s the same with elections.

It’s easy to focus on 11,000-plus voters in Georgia. It’s easy to say “If not for Fulton County…” and to blame the manner of voting there or the composition of the electorate. But that’s assigning fault the wrong way.

Consider – if a candidate campaigned really hard in Glynn County, there were more than 15,000 blue votes that could have been red. Even if someone is applying pressure in once place, that doesn’t mean it’s merited.

Even if a student blames their performance on my final project for the whole GPA, that doesn’t mean they are right. Even if a campaign blames Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Detroit, that doesn’t mean those cities are the main reason the state fell a particular way.

Students are learning, and I can, and do, explain to them. Adults who know better and try these arguments may be doing it in bad faith.

Choose Your Own Facts? That’s Cherry Picking

Cherry picking is focusing on information that supports what you want to believe and ignoring everything else. It showed up in discussion of Donald Trump’s second impeachment with the words “peacefully and patriotically.”

The president did say those words in the speech. He said other words, too, like “fight like hell.” Figuring out how those messages were received by the audience, in context, is a challenge in making a ruling.

Speaking of context, the evidence presented so far by the house managers did spend a lot of time on context – trying to set up an argument that Jan. 6 didn’t come out of nowhere, but was a pattern of words and actions even before the election.

Managers tried to show that word choice and actions like retweeting were used to say that the election results would be fraudulent (no compelling evidence has been accepted by courts) and that violence was an appropriate way to remedy this.

The managers’ tactics had another element…an appeal to emotion. The descriptions and particularly videos were disturbing for viewers. I’d guess they were particularly emotional for those in the room who could see themselves fleeing danger.

A crime being heinous doesn’t mean a particular person did it, and I’ve seen some senators noting this. But another issue is at risk here – a fallacy of fallacies, if you will. Just because someone’s logic is bad doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong.

When the majority voted that the issue was constitutional, that settled the matter for this trial, and decisions need to be made based on the evidence presented.

When senators are asked to explain their votes, look to see if their explanation is about the evidence – about the words and actions. If it’s about other things, either they were deceived or they are trying to deceive you

And for heaven’s sake, journalists, when you ask the reps for your area to explain their votes, if they are based on shady logic, don’t just use the soundbite or quote and leave it there. Ask follow-ups about the logic or at least clarify for the audience.

Detecting Deception and Impeachment: The sequel

The Senate trial begins today, and you’ll have a lot of opportunities for #DetectingDeception. You’ve been warming up for months, but here are a few last-minute tips.

You won’t find the deceptions as much in things people say in the trial as you will in things people say about the trial in news and on social media. There are consequences for being deceptive in legal proceedings, but there may not be for doing it elsewhere.

The incentives are actually pretty high to try to shape the shape the story outside of the trial. As I understand it, impeachment is a political process, which means the outcome may be a mix of what’s right and what’s helpful politically for some.

That means that whatever the public (voters) *think* about the evidence matters a lot to what happens. So public figures are going to be working overtime to tell you what to think. Weak evidence could mean more efforts to deceive.

I tend to train with team truth, so I think a FAIR trial is the most important thing. Real evidence, presented fairly and considered without bias to make the best decision. You can play a role through what you choose to share.

Look out for inflammatory verbs. Describing people’s statements as “drags,” “destroys,” “claps back at,” “torches,” and the like is a pretty good sign that this is someone’s biased opinion, hidden in emotional language to make you want to share it. Don’t be a patsy.

If you need to share misinformation, use a screenshot, not a re-share and remember the truth sandwich:

This falsely said thing

Is wrong because

Thus, it’s a wrong statement.

Remember to join with people in your life to be accountable for thinking carefully about the things you are hearing.

Who said this? Why would they say this to this audience in this way? Is there any good proof offered?