Dreams of Science

Some kids dream of being actors or architects, dancers or doctors, pilots or painters. I dreamed of being a nuclear physicist.

I was born a science nerd. Summers were spent in computer camp and mini-university, and in begging mom to take me to the local museum for the umpteen-millionth time. Even my basic literacy was driven by science: I wanted to read my Album of Dinosaurs on my own, and stop nagging mom.

And what wasn’t to love about science? It promised to unroll the blueprints of the universe and let me peer inside, revealing its secrets through a complex dance of theorems and numbers. The love affair started with dinosaurs, but in junior high school nuclear physics grabbed me, starting with tales of the Manhattan Project, and the race to dig ever deeper into the subatomic world. Each year the brightest minds on the planet discovered exotic new particles with names like gluons, neutrinos and quarks. The machines used to find them were impossibly massive and complicated, particle accelerators the size of Halifax, smashing subatomic bits together near the speed of light, birthing new and even more exotic species of matter. How could I not be awestruck?

I became enamoured of the high priests behind these discoveries, and drank up everything I could find about them: Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Fermi, Heisenberg…. These were legends, the towering intellects of their time. They seemed to exist on the very edge of what was humanly intelligible, uncovering the fabric of our reality with each passing year. I ached to be like them, an explorer of the infinite and minute world around and inside us. I wanted to join that fellowship in unlocking the secrets of the universe!

Just one thing stood in my way: math. More specifically, how terrible I was at it. No matter how much you might want it, you’ll never get admitted to the high priesthood of particle physics with a 55 and 54 in grade 11 and 12 math.

It wasn’t like I didn’t try, and extraordinary steps were taken to remedy the situation: dad conscripted my math major sister to tutor me, but to no avail. My marks barely budged. So I was effectively shut out of the science party, an uninvited guest. I could peer through the windows and tap on the glass, but no matter how much I wanted in, I knew I’d never have what it takes for membership in the club.

Even if I had never dreamed of science, math and physics were preordained for me. As the son of an engineer, there was no question of not taking university prep courses in both. Dad was every bit as worshipful of science as I was. In fact, he’s probably the source of my reverence. Devouring his cast-off copies of Popular Science and Scientific American, and the books in his library, undoubtedly planted the seed.

I never asked if he was disappointed in me. I never really wanted to know. I’m sure he was, at least a little. Science and math were a centre of his world, but there wasn’t a lot I could do to turn my abysmal grades around. The closer I got to hard math, the more dreadful I did. Biology was fine. Chemistry was passable. Physics was downright poor, and by the time I got to pure math I was drowning.

Every little boy wants to earn his father’s admiration, to feel his pride. I knew I never could in the ways that were such a part of his life. But at a certain point everyone finds a way to move on from the shadows of their childhood, or they become prisoner to it. After high school, I put dreams of science away, and studied English and then Journalism, before reinventing myself as a web designer. I felt accomplished enough, but in the back of my mind I still wore a dunce cap in the fields I wished came naturally, the things I still felt really mattered.

Years passed until a pesky idea started buzzing around my subconscious: try again. I’m not sure how it became a plan. I think I came up with the idea that I needed to upgrade my math to get into more hardcore IT disciplines. But I knew the real reason: the desire to shut down the voice in the back of my head that had never stopped whispering, “You’re not smart enough. You’re not good enough.”

I signed up to do grade 12 math again, sweated it out and got a 92. A small victory, but I felt vindicated, that maybe I was capable of more. It was all the redemption I needed at the time, so I filed away any notions of going further.

Until 2022. That’s when a bomb called ChatGPT exploded in the work world. Now anyone can use artificial intelligence to draft copy, create websites, write code and much more. Knowledge workers everywhere (myself included) started worrying about being replaced by machines.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: I decided to dive deep into AI, specifically the machine learning behind things like ChatGPT. That means math. It also means another shot at quieting that voice in the back of my head that had never truly shut up.

I signed up for a university course in statistics and got an A+. It felt good, maybe even a little healing. I started to entertain the idea that I might actually not be hopeless. I got a B+ in calculus, a respectable grade in a field I always thought was rocket science. The feeling of competence, of power kept growing. I’m finishing linear algebra as we speak, and the grades are ok so far. If it works out, I’m on to probability, advanced calculus and who-knows-what next.

It feels like a door has opened, and things I thought I was incapable of no longer seem out of reach. In my dreams, I keep going until one day I’ve earned a data science degree. I want that piece of paper that proves I’m smart. On that day, the monkey that’s been glued to my back for decades is lying flat on the ground, staring up and muttering “You win.” I’ll have proven to myself and to dad that I really can do it. I’ll have earned an invitation to the club.

In the dream, I’m at my graduation ceremony. Dad’s watching remotely from his seniors facility, and I hold up my diploma for him to see. Or maybe it’s too many years from now, and he’s no longer with us. If that happens, I’ll lift my parchment skyward for him, because in spite of aspirations to be a man of science, I choose to hope there’s something beyond this vale of tears, a place we go after the end. That’s not very scientific of me. Call it a hunch.

Either way, I slowly unroll my diploma, hold it up, break it into a smile, and say, “Guess what dad: I’m a scientist.”

Follow-up: I got an A- in linear algebra. The dream continues.

Accidentally Torontonian

Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

It was only supposed to be a year: move to Toronto, get the certificate, move back to Calgary and continue with life.

23 years later, the move back to Calgary hasn’t happened. I have become, accidentally, Torontonian.

That was never the plan. I never had any desire to move to the Big Smoke.
Growing up on the east coast, Toronto seemed incredibly distant, a mysterious chunk of population somewhere past Montreal where folks moved later in life, and from where repairmen ordered parts for your fridge.

Later, it gained an unfortunate reputation as a breeding ground for snobbery. I remember the handful of kids transplanted from Toronto. Young and naive, many of them assumed us yokels would be awed by their big city pedigree, and flaunted it accordingly. That was a bad idea that backfired consistently, leading to ostracism and the conclusion that TO was a jerk factory.

After finishing school, I was faced with a decision: Halifax’s economy was small and sputtering, and I felt the need to move somewhere with more opportunities. Toronto’s economy was in the dumps, Vancouver was too expensive, I’d already lived in Ottawa, and I didn’t think my French was good enough for Montreal. Calgary beckoned with an oil economy firing on all cylinders, and I made the leap.

Soon after landing, I discovered something Calgarians share with Haligonians: antipathy for Toronto. The more folks I met, the more I realized those feelings of resentment travel across our great land. In fact, the unifying force in our country isn’t the great outdoors, maple syrup, poutine or even hockey: it’s animosity for Toronto.

Some of that has nothing to do with the town itself. It’s probably aimed at residents of every big city around the world, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. I think it stems from the inhabitants’ sense that they’re from somewhere just a little more sophisticated, important or awesome than anywhere else. I breathed that in when I landed in Hogtown in 2000.

I loved Calgary. I had no intention of leaving, until I hit a ceiling at work and needed a diploma to keep moving up. I found a program at Humber College, packed everything in boxes and bought a one-way ticket, confident I’d return in a year.

Toronto didn’t impress at first: it felt too big, impersonal and uncaring. It seemed less like a city with an identity or personality, and more like a sea of people crammed together on top of each other.

That feeling started to change when I moved to a friendlier neighbourhood, and found parks and shops I liked, a favourite pub and a go-to coffee shop. I started to discover what there was to like about this big fat city. There were neighbourhoods branded everything from “Little Italy” to “Little Tibet”. There were festivals and a theatre scene I stumbled into after an acting class. There were the bucket list concerts I finally got to see, museums, restaurants and all the other things tourist bureaus stuff into ads.

I ended up staying another year. I found a job and then a girlfriend. I got another apartment. I found another job and another girlfriend. I kept discovering more things to like about the city: bike trails, the islands, ravine hikes and more.

Years passed with the plan to move back to Calgary quietly receding in the rear-view mirror but never overtly abandoned. And then something quite unexpected happened: I started becoming Torontonian.

I’ve transformed, and I doubt the me from 23 years ago would recognize the current one. I’ve become that guy, the infinitely impatient one muttering under their breath at people lollygagging on the sidewalk when they’ve got places to be right now. (Could you walk any slower, buddy?) I talk about how the vibe in places like Kensington Market needs to be protected from gentrification, as if “vibe” were something that shows up on Google Maps. I read blogs and magazines about the city as often as I read ones about Canada itself. And I’ve embraced the idea that there’s something impressive about living in the biggest city in the land.

Recently I had to confront just how Torontonian I’ve become. Part of me will always hate myself for admitting it, but one night in front of the TV — how can I really be saying this?

I found myself cheering for the Leafs.

You can’t spend 23 years somewhere and not have it change you. Halifax will always be home, because home is where the heart is. But home is also where you hang your hat, and that’s Toronto. It’s where my condo leers over the perennially pissed-off drivers on the Gardiner Expressway. It’s where my cats constantly fight and make up. It’s where I found my wife, and where all but a few friends live. It’s the city that needs constant reassurance, but which is somehow quietly certain it’s the Centre of the Universe.

That’s what makes a good city great: a balance of contradictions.
A friend had a theory that life sorts you into the city in which you truly belong, by size, temperament and so on. Calgary is young and a little conservative. Ottawa is bureaucratic, well-planned and restrained. Halifax is friendly and loves a good time.

And Toronto? Well, Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

That describes me a little: a collection of contradictions. It’s what endears me to the city. Like me, Toronto doesn’t have just one identity. At a certain point a city becomes too big for that, and its identity becomes the sum of its parts. Or maybe that’s way too Zen and Toronto is just like every other big city, with its good, bad, beauty, ugliness and endless complexity.

By my calculation, sometime in 2025 I’ll have spent more than half my life here. Assuming I last long enough, will I retire and end my days here? Will I move back “home” to Halifax? Maybe I’ll go back to Calgary. Maybe I’ll find a villa in Italy. Who knows? But this town has shaped me as surely as any other has.

I have become, unexpectedly, Torontonian.

My Goodbye Tour

I’m 52, comparatively young for some, but old for more. To me it’s indeterminate, but closer to the far end of the spectrum than the start. I think about that far end more and more, reminded of my own mortality by the growing count of friends and family who have fallen victim to disease, accidents or other ends. Who knows? I might drop dead in the next moment from some terrible undiagnosed ailment, an accident, a falling piano … the list is endless. Or, medical science might take its next great leap forward and finally discover the fountain of youth.

I’m not taking any chances, and I’m not waiting for the fountain to appear. I’m starting my goodbye tour. A goodbye tour, not a bucket list. The latter is grandiose, a willful denial of mortality by indulging every suppressed travel urge and risky behaviour that’s ever haunted you. It’s the stuff of midlife crises, Hollywood and too many Paulo Coelho novels.

My goodbye tour is about little things, the legion of small but non-trivial moments that make a life. If I’m lucky enough to lead a long one, at the end I have a hunch I’m not going to be sprawled on my deathbed muttering, “God, I regret not seeing Machu Picchu.” That’s too big a thing to haunt me, too grandiose. Bucket list items aren’t woven into the fabric of our lives; the little things are. They’re the everyday, but are by no means mundane companions on our journeys around the sun. They have wormed their way into my heart through simple repetition and familiarity. Isn’t that how a stranger becomes a friend, after all?

Toronto’s High Park in the sun, down by the pond where gentlemen anglers gather to catch carp. Or is it perch? Who knows?

Elias’s falafel joint on Jarvis, so I can hear him try unsuccessfully to sell me an apple cake for the umpteen-millionth time.

The bike trails by the Don River, where new pathways beckon, if the hidden tree roots don’t dump you on your butt first.

Those are the things I think I’ll miss if I live long enough to one day find myself propped up on a pillow, wondering if I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil during my next nap. They’re the things that have found a way into my heart while the Alhambra, Empire State Building and Louvre haven’t. Those are amazing things. They enrich our lives. They help us dream and take us outside our little existences to see a bigger world.

The unintended consequence of looking at our little lives from outside is that we can see what actually makes a life, and it’s not the broad strokes, the grandiose swooshes of jetting off to another exotic location. What makes a life are the little things, repeated, that form a foundation and help us understand that the most heartfelt parts of life are often the smallest and most subtle.

The cat that waits for you to come home every day so he can show you how much he loves you by rolling around on his back all over the dirty floor.

The shop at the market where you can travel the world by sampling all manner of fancy cheeses impaled on toothpicks.

The hidden vista on Toronto’s harbour islands. It’s just a concrete slab squatting ungainly in the water, but its semi-secrecy means almost no one goes there, so you have it to yourself with the best view of the downtown anywhere in the city.

These are the things I think I’ll miss as I wonder which breath will be my last. They take root in your heart when you’re not looking. I’ve been to Paris, Tokyo, New York and plenty of other amazing cities. I’ve seen fabulous museums and wonders of nature, and there are countless more that would take my breath away. But no memory of these wonders will break my heart as I say goodbye to this world, the way the memories of my life’s constant companions will. I like to think of those little things as good friends I choose to spend time with, instead of the big, bright shiny things I could spend time chasing down.

That’s why I’m taking time to live the little things, in case I realize one day it’s too late to live them any more.

The chocolate shop where I know exactly which four absurdly expensive truffles I’ll get, and are worth every cent.

Strolling through ritzy neighbourhoods in early spring, wondering what it’s like to have that kind of money, but not caring too much about it.

Greeting every dog in the elevator with “Hello, puppy!” because I secretly hope that’s a signal to the owner to let me pet them.

I remember an article from ten years ago about the regrets of the dying. Nowhere did it mention, “I wish I had climbed Kilimanjaro.” It talked about having the courage to live life on your terms, staying in touch with friends, not working so hard, things like that. Kilimanjaro is no doubt a life-enriching experience, but life isn’t built out of mountains. Thanks to social media, our culture now fetishizes dramatic selfies staged in front of ruined temples, mountains, desert landscapes, expensive restaurants and other exotic locales. Sure, I will make time in my life for them; they’re amazing and wonderful and give me perspective about what awaits us in the world outside the 9-to-5.

But I feel confident no one posing in front of the Amalfi coast on Instagram is going to reach for their phone as life draws to a close, gaze longingly at that picture and whisper, “No regrets!” I think that person will understand that life isn’t built on drama: it’s built on the quiet magic of little things.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail.

A Grandfather’s Things

I narrowly avoided permanent bachelorhood, finding my better half midway through my 40s. I have no children. Before the big day, my wife and I had a conversation: “Do we really want to be chasing toddlers around in middle age?” The answer on both sides was no. For me, parenthood was probably never in the cards. On a good day I can take care of myself; being able to take care of other human beings for 20 or so years would be wildly optimistic.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I disappointed dad by not having a son to inherit his name. It’s a good name, a solid name. “Farmer.” It’s a name that’s earned through constant teasing in grade school and having to spell it out when someone simply can’t believe it’s actually someone’s last name.

If I’m being totally honest, dad was floored to hear I was finally getting married at all. I think he had resigned me to permanent bachelorhood years ago, so marriage was probably more than enough to hope for. Grandkids to carry on the name might have been the icing on the cake, but he already has six of them to carry on his genes, if not his name. Yet the thought of what will happen to his memory, and to the memory of my grandfathers, occurs to me whenever I rummage through my box of memories. That’s literally what it says on the box, “Memories,” scrawled in black marker on a tin kept safe in storage. Inside sleeps the bric-a-brac of my life and the lives of those who have gone before me.

A shoeshine kit, from an age when the world went to work in suits and ties, before we started Zooming in sweatpants.

I don’t remember my grandfathers; one died before I was born and the other when I was too young to have any memory of him. Ironically, even though I knew my grandmothers, I have almost no keepsakes of theirs, only ones from their husbands. I’m confident dad’s mementos will find a home with his grandchildren, but what will happen to those of my grandfathers?

A Kodak Jiffy camera in its original leather case, with bellows that look like something Ansel Adams might have used.

I can bequeath these things to my nieces and nephews if they’re interested. But how much will the echoes of their great-grandfathers captivate them? Would these things have any meaning to them, or would they be discovered after my nieces and nephews pass away, hidden in a shoe box in a closet? Would their children wonder what they were, before adding them to the rack in an estate sale, to be picked up by some trinket-hunter, enchanted by the mint condition? Or would they go unloved and end up in a landfill? Will my nieces and nephews even have children to ponder these questions?

An engineering class ring from St. Francis Xavier University, 1958, as shiny as the day it was bought.

Unlike my grandfathers, my dad was a part of his grandchildren’s lives, and his mementos will hopefully have meaning for them. I think my nieces and nephew will hold onto such things because of the memories they evoke. But one day, these things will find themselves on a table at a sale, once those to whom their memories are entrusted have passed away.

A lighter sporting the badge of HMCS Uganda, our sole memento of Grandfather Ed’s WW II service.

The world can’t hold onto every token of the past; every shelf and box would fill with things gradually losing their meaning. At a certain point we have to let go of the past and its artifacts, and embrace the truth that the world is for the living; everyone in it will one day be forgotten.

Decorative pewter shot glasses, a gift from a German businessman who used to visit our house.

Sometimes I dig into the box of memories and flick Ed’s lighter, trying to coax a spark from the flint. Grandfather George’s shoeshine kit still smells of polish. I think of the stories told to me about these men, from Ed’s shenanigans to the cottage George built with my father in Cape Breton.

A fishing knife, with an edge honed endless times for trout hauled out of brooks across Nova Scotia.

Sometimes I poke through my own keepsakes, and wonder what will become of them, a former bachelor’s things.

A brown felt fedora, faded to a tobacco colour on top from the relentless sun in Alberta’s badlands.

Playbills from the amateur theatre I’ve acted in, from the Fringe to community shows and beyond.

Copies of newspapers from Sept 11, 2001, my generation’s Pearl Harbor.

Nothing lasts forever, but maybe someone will go through a box that contains something from Uncle Mark or Poppa Fred and take a moment to wonder what we were like. Ultimately, I know the fate of everyone’s material memories, because I lived next to one of Toronto’s biggest antique markets. On a given Saturday, I could be found wandering through the aisles, careful not to seem too interested, lest I get pulled into a sales pitch. I saw the same porcelain figurines mom collected, camera models dad probably used, copies of vinyl records I listened to as a kid. Sometimes I’d pause and handle things just to relive those memories.

And then I would move on, to browse a collection of other peoples’ memories, occasionally imagining the lives behind them. At the end of the day, the vendors would pack up everything that wasn’t sold, and try again the next weekend to pique someone else’s nostalgia or imagination of lives they never knew.

Farewell to Ballybrophy

I had it all planned. I’d waltz into the pub, and the bartender — casually wiping down the bar between patrons — would ask me what I wanted. I’d say I was here to pay a debt. He’d look at me quizzically, and I’d tell him the tale of my grandfather, Ed Brophy, who criss-crossed the Atlantic in WW II on convoy escorts, trying to keep the transports safe from U-boats. One story is that a ship he was on was torpedoed and split in two. One half sank while the other stayed afloat long enough to rescue the men on board. He was on the lucky half.

Ed was Irish through and through, by inheritance but not by passport: we think his grandfather came over in the 1880s. Ed fit every Irish stereotype: a consummate joker and a dedicated drinker, blessed with the gift of gab and a wicked sense of humor. I remember seeing a photo of him at a St. Patrick’s Day party, one half of a duo keeping a drunken friend in between them upright. One day my sister pointed out he was the one in the middle, not the help.

Ed was full of stories. One was that after an Atlantic crossing he paid a visit to the village of Ballybrophy in Ireland, the nominal seat of the Brophys. On arriving at the village pub, he proudly proclaimed he was a Brophy and he’d buy a drink for any Brophy who’d come forward. There were apparently a lot of Brophys in Ballybrophy (shocking, I know). So many came forward that Ed quickly realized he didn’t have enough money to cover the bill and escaped out the back.

It’s a great story. I have no idea if it’s even half true, but that’s the great thing about great stories: their accuracy is less important than their ability to capture our imaginations. This one captured mine, and I resolved to pay back Ed’s debt if I ever made it to Ballybrophy.

I never thought I’d have the chance until my sister decided we needed a homeland tour. I was initially skeptical of the idea of revisiting our Irish roots: the last Irishman in our family was probably born 170 years ago. What connection did we have to them and to Ireland? When someone asks, “what are you?” I say I’m Canadian, whether they’re asking about geography or identity. A century and a half have severed the ties to the old country. I liken it to being shipwrecked on an uncharted Island: there’s no way back to “where I’m from.” Time has erased the route. Even if I wanted to return, who would I return to?

Not only that, but half the family tree’s Irish and the other half’s a mix of English and Scottish. If we’re Irish, it’s by choice as much as by blood. That’s the funny thing about identity: ultimately, it’s a matter of what you choose to call yourself.

But the music, traditions and culture of Ireland live on in Canada’s east coast where I grew up. That much is in my blood. I took the journey, not so much to reconnect to the homeland, but because it promised to be a great vacation. Ireland is beautiful, the people are great, and the butter is unbelievably good. Some of the tales I’d been told turned out to be true: there are a lot of potatoes consumed, it is often quite damp and many folk do enjoy a drink or two.

But Ballybrophy is not what it must have been in WW II, much less in the mid-19th century. The train station is now almost a whistle stop. Half the buildings are abandoned. A water pipe for filling steam locomotives that haven’t visited in who-knows-how-long stands forlorn on the platform.

We wandered around and took a few photos. I looked in vain for a pub that might answer to the description of an antiquated village roost, something that looked at least a century old. There was none. A train pulled in, a few people got off, someone got on, and we departed on our little tour bus. The bumpy, winding back roads to our lodgings afforded ample time to reflect on what home really is.

Home isn’t where you want it to be. It’s not where you imagine it is. It’s neither the wellspring of romantic notions, nor the stuff of legends. Home is prosaic and everyday. It’s where your cat, your spouse and your kids are. It’s where you burned your first curry and where you mourn the loss of those you’ve loved. It’s where you can’t seem to fix the drip on the damn kitchen sink and where you held your housewarming. It’s a thousand tiny things and the bigger ones that make a life.

We all tell ourselves stories to embellish our world, or to make sense of it. Home is where we eat and sleep and live as we craft those stories. It’s the place where we dream about all the other places we’ll come home from.

After we returned to our accommodations, I looked up Ballybrophy on Google maps and found a pub down the road. We missed it. Maybe it’s the same one Ed wandered into that day in the 1940s. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the whole thing was just a great story told by a great storyteller, and never happened.

But if the owner of the Green Roads Lounge Bar in Ballybrophy, Ireland, wants to contact me, I’ll send you 20 euros to buy a round for a few people and we’ll consider Ed Brophy’s debt paid.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 10 – That’s a Wrap

Over the past couple of months I’ve posted ten stories about disinformation and how to confront it. About 120 people have seen them: not bad, but no stampede, and certainly nowhere near enough to move the needle even a tiny bit vs. the propaganda and disinformation facing us. I’m neither a renowned psychologist nor a syndicated columnist, so I never expected the world to rush to my blog and soak up my point of view.

So why say something you know people aren’t going to pay much attention to? Why do something you know isn’t going to be that effective?

The answer is simple: to be heard.

When someone joins a protest, they don’t expect to tip the balance themselves. They protest to do something: to register their anger, provide an outlet for their dissent and feel that — however small — they made themselves heard. Hopefully, in that process they contribute to something bigger than themselves, something which actually could make a difference.

That’s what I did.

Every day I see people falling victim to propaganda and B.S., making terrible decisions in the process. Whether it’s anti-vaccination, QAnon, Stop the Steal or something else, as a society we’re falling for lies more frequently than ever. When people start believing what they want to hear, ignoring evidence and tripping over their own biases, our ability to make good decisions starts evaporating.

So I decided to speak up.

The very first time I realized it wasn’t ok to be silent was when I saw a video of a baby with whooping cough, and it broke my heart. I don’t know the background: I have no idea whether the parents immunized their baby, whether the child wasn’t old enough for the vaccine,  whether the parents  bought into anti-vax conspiracies, or something else. But I do know that anti-vaccination disinformation is rampant, and contributing to a resurgence in preventable diseases. And that’s just one type of disinformation.

Watching that video made me realize that it’s not ok to normalize dangerous, hurtful things. Even if you feel like you’re just shouting into the void, doing so has meaning. That’s one more person who didn’t stay quiet, one more voice that contributes to a collective shout.

Disinformation is the biggest menace facing society, because it enables all the other lies that threaten us. I thought the best way I could have some effect was to do what I do best — write — and see if I could reach anyone, to get them to think about the messages they’re receiving. If I could change even one person’s point of view, get them to challenge their assumptions and think differently, I’d consider my writing a success. I thought of all the times people much braver than me spoke up in dangerous situations, and realized raising my voice was the least I could do.

I didn’t want to look back years from now, as things get worse, and have to say I did nothing.

If we can collectively shine a light on societal lies and force some to scurry back into the darkness, then we’ve achieved something. If I can play the tiniest part in making that happen by speaking out, then I’ve achieved my goal.

Keep questioning.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 9 – Evidence First

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan tells the story of the fire-breathing dragon living in his garage.

Spoiler alert: there’s no dragon. There is, however, an amusing anecdote that demonstrates some very weird things that can happen when you ignore evidence (or the lack thereof). As Sagan tells it, a friend comes by to see the dragon, and Sagan explains that it’s invisible. The friend asks him to spread some flour on the floor so they can at least see its footprints. Sagan says it’s a flying dragon. The friend suggests an infrared camera to detect its flames. Sagan explains that it breathes heatless fire, and so on, and so on, and so on.

In the end, Sagan asks the reader what the difference is between an invisible, flying, incorporeal dragon and no dragon at all. The answer is: none, unless you choose to ignore the complete lack of evidence for any dragon.

Another great example of what happens when you ignore evidence (and a good example of cognitive bias) is contained in When Prophecy Fails, a classic work of psychology from 1956. It examines the activities of a Chicago cult which believed an apocalyptic flood was about to hit the earth, and only by following a specific set of procedures could members be saved by a flying saucer that would whisk them to safety.

Spoiler alert: there was no flood and no saucer. But curiously, after the magical craft failed to appear, the most strident cult members didn’t reassess the new evidence (no flood, no saucer) and adjust their actions and beliefs. Instead, they ignored the evidence and doubled down on their emotional investment in the cult.

When people turn off their critical faculties and make evidence take a back seat to what they want to be true, dangerous things can happen:

  • There was no wave of communists infiltrating America during the 1950s, but that didn’t stop Joseph McCarthy from destroying lives in an effort to smoke them out.
  • Jews weren’t responsible for Germany’s post-WWI woes, but that didn’t stop Hitler from scapegoating them.
  • There was no child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton and others, operating out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour, yet QAnon is a viable conspiracy theory to this day.

When we adopt an evidence-first approach to information, we put a powerful shield on our arm that protects us from a ton of disinformation.

  • Remember to ask, “What’s the evidence?” It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about flying saucers or who makes the best spaghetti in town: our decisions need to be guided by evidence, and not what we want to be true.
  • Look at the source of the evidence. Is it credible? Is it believable? How do you know? Nobody wants to critically examine every single piece of information they come across in life, but the more we look at the underlying evidence, the better decisions we make.
  • Who’s got the best track record with evidence? Since we can’t evaluate every piece of information in life in detail, we need to take the shortcut of identifying trusted sources. Even then, we don’t turn off our critical faculties, but we recognize that these are the sources more likely to be worthy of our trust.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 8 – Talking To People You Disagree With

This is part eight of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part seven, visit What You Want To Hear.

We talk with people we disagree with almost daily, people who hold views diametrically opposed to us, people we’re certain are operating under the influence of disinformation.

You need to know how to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because they’re related to you: your cousin may be convinced that fluoride in drinking water is a government plot or your sister may believe aliens have landed. It could be a colleague, your boss, a friend… anyone.

The most important thing to remember when talking with someone labouring under the influence of disinformation, is that trying to prove them wrong is useless. Thanks to a number of cognitive biases that kick in to protect our ego, humans will perform elaborate mental contortions to avoid admitting they’re wrong. In fact, trying to prove someone wrong is more likely to make them double down on their beliefs and dig in.

Psychologists recognize that getting someone to change their mind means creating a safe space for them to consider alternate points of view. That means you need to abandon confrontation and find common ground. For example, with the vaccine hesitant, it’s important to find out why they’re hesitant.

  • Are they worried about their health? Who isn’t? We all want to stay healthy.
  • Are they mistrustful of the government? That’s not unreasonable: every government in history has been less than truthful at some point in their tenure.
  • Did they read something that made them concerned? Reading to inform yourself about important issues is good, even if you don’t agree with the source in this instance.

Recognize that there’s a reason why these people are acting the way they are, even if you think it’s not a good reason, and start from there. Treat any attempt to get people to change their mind as an exercise in negotiation. As with any negotiation, there are a number of tools you can use:

  • Active listening: let the person know you hear them, and try to feed back what you’re hearing.
  • Stay curious: as soon as you’ve convinced yourself you’re right and they’re wrong, or they’re stupid and you’re smart, the conversation is over. Staying curious doesn’t mean you agree with them, just that you’re trying to understand them.
  • Ask questions: why do they think the things they do? Where did they get their information from? Who did they hear it from?
  • Give them a golden bridge: make it easy for them to change their mind by giving them an “out,” a way for them to start a shift their opinion while saving face and without threatening their ego.

We all want to change someone’s mind at some point, or at least get them to consider alternatives. Treating it like a debate never works; treating it like a conversation can.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 7 – What You Want To Hear

This is part seven of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part six, visit Cognitive Bias.

The best politicians and salespeople take advantage of a universal truth: tell ’em what they want to hear, and they’re yours.

“The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”

It’s insidious enough in a sales pitch, but when a politician does it, it’s infinitely more dangerous. History’s rife with examples.

The obligatory Donald Trump anecdote

A key plank in Donald Trump’s platform was reducing immigration, and he claimed “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” That message got traction, especially in Rust Belt towns hard hit by the death of manufacturing: people are never more vulnerable than when their way of life is endangered. Trump knew that and told them what they wanted to hear: unemployment wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the immigrants taking their work.

Unfortunately, immigrants don’t steal jobs. They’re actually a net gain for the economy. But simple narratives often win out over subtler ones, especially when we’re vulnerable and they tell us something that makes us feel good.

Hitler knew this and used it to convince large parts of the German populace that they didn’t lose WW I, but were stabbed in the back by Marxists, Jews, Bolsheviks and even their own government. To a nation living with defeat, crippled by a decade of reparation payments, the idea that they didn’t actually lose the war was a siren song millions readily accepted, even if it was demonstrably false.

Of course, telling people what they want to hear doesn’t have to be as grandiose or earth-shattering as all that. Every day we’re subjected to sales pitches, and every marketer and salesperson worth their weight knows to compliment the person they’re selling to. The trick is to take a moment to recognize when you’re being targeted.

It’s about ego

We love hearing what we want to hear, because of our ego. Whether it’s a compliment or a balm to soothe an emotional hurt, it just feels good. That feeling is your warning call.

When someone inside your trusted circle tells you something that makes you feel good, that’s one thing. But when someone outside that circle tells you something that tickles a part of you deep inside, stop and ask yourself, “Why do I like that so much? I don’t even know them.”

Taking that moment to stop and think can make the difference between being complimented and being taken advantage of.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 6 – Cognitive Bias

This is part six of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part five, visit Skepticism is a Virtue.

Cognitive biases are the shortcuts we take when thinking. And like many shortcuts, they can leave you lost in the woods instead of at your destination. An ounce of awareness is worth a pound of cure, so let’s look at a few of the big ones:

  • Confirmation bias
    The tendency to look for information that supports your view, ignoring information that contradicts it, and stopping when you find support for it.
    The Danger: if you’re looking for information that only supports your point of view, you’ll find it, whether that’s as mainstream as a given political stripe or as out there as world lizard people leadership .
  • Cognitive dissonance
    Our ability to embrace things we know are objectively inconsistent, contradictory or nonsensical, if it means avoiding admitting we’re wrong.
    The Danger: if you’re willing to go to any lengths to avoid admitting a mistake, you risk embracing increasingly dangerous, fringe ideas. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but he and his supporters continue to double down on the idea of “the big steal” rather than admit defeat.
  • Availability heuristic
    The idea that we overemphasize things that loom large in our mind or memory, even if they’re not that significant.
    The Danger: Threats loom larger than they really are, and opportunities seem golden when they’re actually “meh,” leading to bad decisions.

You can find an exhaustive list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia, more than you’d probably ever want to explore, but to confront disinformation, you need to become aware of your own cognitive biases. Then, you can begin to understand how to talk to people about theirs, the topic of our next installment.

Further reading: Nobel-prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s best seller Thinking Fast and Slow.