You’re probably already media literate – trust your instincts

This week is Media Literacy Week in the U.S., and that means lots of people will talk about how important it is to be able to tell the difference between facts and fake news, especially online.

It’s true. It’s really important. But it’s always been difficult, and it’s becoming harder and harder as we get more and more of our information via social media. This problem is becoming increasingly apparent as we inch closer to the 2020 presidential election. If you aren’t obsessively reading about this (in which case, I envy you) you might have missed that Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, recently said his platform will not be taking action against political ads that contain lies.

In statements last week, he said he’s really concerned about the “erosion of truth,” but he just can’t let Facebook be the arbiter of right and wrong by taking down political ads that contain false statements. One of his primary arguments is that the FCC requires radio and television stations to give candidates equal time, but Zuckerberg also likes to claim Facebook is not a media company… But it’s this “we’re not the arbiter of truth” piece that feels most troubling to me.

It’s a very familiar argument, similar to what I’ve heard from individuals who’ve decided they don’t trust any mainstream media source: “We can’t trust one arbiter of truth, so we really can’t trust any, and we’ll never now what’s ‘true,’ so why bother worrying about it?” Usually I would get a message like this after gently suggesting to an acquaintance or distant family member that a link to InfoWars or NaturalNews or Prager U might be misleading.

Sometimes journalists get a little resentful about this stuff, which, as a journalist, I get. But I also get not wanting to be condescended to about what’s “true,” and I get that there are so many information sources out there, it can be truly impossible to sift through it all without spending a lot of time and energy. I also get that some people might have that time and energy, but choose to spend it finding things that confirm what they already believe – it’s a free country, so I won’t try to talk you out of it.

But… I think that deep down most people really do care about facts, and really don’t like being lied to. Yes, politics is dirty, and media can be too. But throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in these two areas is dangerous. Media is meant to hold the powerful accountable. Facebook can’t decide if it’s a member of the media, or one of the powerful, or both. It might feel like we, lowly civilians, can’t figure that out for them or do anything about it, but what I want you to think about on this media literacy day is that we can.

Media literacy doesn’t have to imply you’re illiterate about the media, or that you need to take some kind of formal class or workshop to understand what’s going on. For most people – people who want to know what’s true but are just a little overwhelmed – it’s about trusting your instincts.

Does a headline seem too good or bad or crazy to be true? It probably is. You can check by looking at the URL, reading the story, and clicking on links within it.

Are you skeptical of the way something is being framed? That’s great insight. You can read articles by other publications about the same topic to round out your exposure to the story and see what makes sense to you.

You’re still going to suffer from confirmation bias – we all want to believe what we want to believe. But I think being intentional about this, recognizing when we’re maybe understanding something based more on our wishes than the facts in front of us, will make all the difference.

It’s true – existentially, it’s hard to know what’s objectively, 100%, no-doubt true. But that’s not what media literacy is about. It’s about knowing what happened, who did it, and maybe why. Sometimes answering those questions takes more than one tweet or article or even one year of reporting and reading. That’s okay – that’s how it’s always been. Getting comfortable with not knowing some things for sure, but being pretty confident you’re following along, is half the battle.


  • Subscribe to The Flip Side, a newsletter that shows you how the right, left, and center are covering various big news items (especially political stuff). It doesn’t always make me feel like I know what’s true for certain, but it helps me understand better the way things are being framed and why.
  • Take this News Literacy Quiz. Fun fact – I didn’t pass the first time I took it myself!
  • Read these 8 ways to tell if a website is reliable.
  • Subscribe to the news sources you use most, and/or sign up for their newsletters so you get the information right in your inbox, rather than through the filter of your social media feed.


Is AOC right about AI?

Conservative Twitter is up in arms today over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying at an MLK Day event that algorithms are biased. (Of course “bias” has been translated into “racism.”) The general response from the right has been, “What a dumb socialist! Algorithms are run by math. Math can’t be racist!” And from the tech experts on Twitter: “Well, actually….”

I have to put myself in the latter camp. Though I’m not exactly a tech expert, I’ve been researching the impact of technology like AI and algorithms on human well-being for a couple of years now, and the evidence is pretty clear: people have bias, people make algorithms, so algorithms have bias.

When I was a kid, my dad had this new-fangled job as a “computer programmer”. The most vivid and lasting evidence of this vocation was huge stacks of perforated printer paper and dozens upon dozens of floppy disks. But I also remember him saying this phrase enough times to get it stuck in my head: “garbage in, garbage out.” This phrase became popular in the early computer days because it was an easy way to explain what happened when flawed data was put into a machine – the machine spit flawed data out. This was true when my dad was doing…whatever he was doing… and when I was trying to change the look of my MySpace page with rudimentary HTML code. And it’s true with AI, too. (Which is a big reason we need the tech world to focus more on empathy. But I won’t go on that tangent today.)

When I was just starting work on my book, I read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (read it.), which convinced me beyond any remaining doubt that we had a problem. Relying on algorithms to make decisions for us that have little to no oversight and are entirely susceptible to contamination by human bias – conscious or not – is not a liberal anxiety dream. It’s our current reality. It’s just that a lot of us – and I’ll be clear that here I mean a lot of us white and otherwise nonmarginalized people – don’t really notice.

Maybe you still think this is BS. Numbers are numbers, regardless of the intent/mistake/feeling/belief of the person entering them into a computer, you say. This is often hard to get your head around when you see all bias as intentional, I get that, I’ve been there. So let me give you some examples:

There are several studies showing that people with names that don’t “sound white” are often passed up for jobs in favor of more “white-sounding” names. It reportedly happens to women, too. A couple of years ago, Amazon noticed that the algorithm it had created to sift through resumes was biased against women. It had somehow “taught itself that male candidates were preferable.” Amazon tweaked the algorithm, but eventually gave up on it, claiming it might find other ways to skirt neutrality. The algorithm wasn’t doing that with a mind of its own, of course. Machine-learning algorithms, well, learn, but they have to have teachers, whether those teachers are people or gobs of data arranged by people (or by other bots that were programmed by people…). There’s always a person involved, is my point, and people are fallible. And biased. Even unconsciouslyEven IBM admits it. This is a really difficult problem that even the biggest tech companies haven’t yet figured out how to fix. This isn’t about saying “developers are racist/sexist/evil,” it’s about accounting for the fact that all people have biases, and even if we try to set them aside, they can show up in our work. Especially when those of us doing that work happen to be a pretty homogeneous group. One argument for more diversity in tech is that if the humans making the bots are more diverse, the bots will know how to recognize and value more than one kind of person. (Hey, maybe instead of trying to kill us the bots that take over the world will be super woke!)

Another example: In 2015, Google came under fire after a facial recognition app identified several black people as gorillas. There’s no nice way to say that. That’s what happened. The company apologized and tried to fix it, but the best it could do at the time was to remove “gorilla” as an option for the AI. So what happened? Google hasn’t been totally clear on the answer to this, but facial recognition AI works by learning to categorize lots and lots of photos. Technically someone could have trained it to label black people as gorillas, but perhaps more likely is that the folks training the AI in this case simply didn’t consider this potential unintended consequence of letting an imperfect facial recognition bot out into the world. (And, advocates argue, maybe more black folks on the developer team could have prevented this. Maybe.) Last year a spokesperson told Wired: “Image labeling technology is still early and unfortunately it’s nowhere near perfect.” At least Google Photos lets users to report mistakes, but for those who are still skeptical, note: that means even Google acknowledges mistakes are being – and will continue to be – made in this arena.

One last example, because it’s perhaps the most obvious and also maybe the most ridiculous: Microsoft’s Twitter bot, Tay. In 2016, this AI chatbot was unleashed on Twitter, ready to learn how to talk like a millennial and show off Microsoft’s algorithmic skills. But almost as soon as Tay encountered the actual people of Twitter – all of them, not just cutesy millennials speaking in Internet code but also unrepentant trolls and malignant racists – her limitations were put into stark relief. In less than a day, she became a caricature of violent, anti-semitic racist. Some of the tweets seemed to come out of nowhere, but some were thanks to a nifty feature in which people could say “repeat after me” to Tay and she would do just that. (Who ever would have thought that could backfire on Twitter?) Microsoft deleted Tay’s most offensive tweets and eventually made her account private. It was a wild day on the Internet, even for 2016, but it was quickly forgotten. The story bears repeating today, though, because clearly we are still working out the whole bot-human interaction thing.

To close, I’ll just leave you with AOC’s words at the MLK event. See if they still seem dramatic to you.

“Look at – IBM was creating facial recognition technology to target, to do crime profiling. We see over and over again, whether it’s FaceTime, they always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings, and those algorithms are still pegged to those, to basic human assumptions. They’re just automated, and automated assumptions, it’s like if you don’t fix the bias then you’re automating the bias. And that gets even more dangerous.”

(This is the “crime profiling” thing she references, by the way. I’m not sure where the FaceTime thing comes from but I will update this post if/when I get some context on that.)

Update: Thanks to the PLUG newsletter (which I highly recommend) I just came across this fantastic video that does a wonderful job of explaining the issue of AI bias and diversity. It includes a pretty wild example, too. Check it out.

On empathy, endorsement, and what happens next

I walk a little over a mile to and from work each day, and I usually spend it listening to podcasts, or to books on Audible. After more than a year of this, I really look forward to certain days when I know certain podcasts will have a new episode out. Note to Self is one of them. I love Manoush Zomorodi’s style of reporting on technology and how it affects our lives, and I love how she’s styled herself as a guide to “our accelerating world.” Because wow, yes, is it ever accelerating.

Note to Self is often about technology in a technical sense, but the show also takes occasional detours into the psychology of how we interact with tech. This, of course, is my favorite thing to write and read about. So I was really excited when Zomorodi recently interviewed Dylan Marron. He’s a progressive YouTuber and writer who also has a new podcast, called Conversations With People Who Hate Me. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Remember when Lindy West called her troll and it became a viral This American Life episode? Marron does a similar thing on each episode of Conversations. He talks to the people who profess to think he’s the scum of the earth, and tries to find out why.

This is something I’m going to write more about soon – podcasts and radical empathy – but for the purposes of this blog post I really want to focus on one thing Marron said during this Note to Self episode: empathy doesn’t mean endorsement. This is a fact that’s become so obvious to me, I think I forget to enunciate it to others when I talk about empathy. I’ve never found such a succinct way of saying it, either. But it’s absolutely the truth: sitting down and listening to someone does not necessarily mean validating them, and it definitely doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It’s just…acknowledging them. Taking their perspective.

That can feel a little scary. I know that I have had experiences in which I read something written by someone with vastly different views from my own and as I prepare to put myself in their shoes I think, what if I can’t get back out? What if they convince me? But things don’t really happen that abruptly, most of the time. We make our decisions and create our ideologies based on a mix of experiences and information, and it all sort of flows together and tries to balance itself out, rarely truly solidifying into one thing. What I mean is, we’re always learning, always changing our minds a little bit, even if we don’t always notice it, or want to.

I thought about this concept a lot as I watched the recent Alabama election unfold. Everyone around me kept asking, “How could these people vote for a pedophile?” I can’t say the answer is the same for everyone who voted for Roy Moore, but I can say pretty confidently that many of them did so because they didn’t believe what they heard about him. Or, they only believed parts of what they heard about him.

Brian Resnick has a great piece about this up at Vox. He interviewed a lot of Moore supporters in Alabama before the election, and reading this piece, I feel like I can really empathize with these people. Trying to put myself briefly in their shoes, I feel afraid, I feel disappointed, I feel betrayed. This is something I tried to do when reading story after story about Trump supporters last year as well. And I think it’s a worthwhile practice. But the part that nobody really seems to talk about is… then what?1

What do I do with this information? What do I do with the fact that people of all parties and ideologies cling to confirmation bias and “motivated reasoning?” Well, it’s made me feel a little bit less hopeless about change, for one thing. That might seem counter-intuitive, but knowing that we’re all susceptible to this, and witnessing people have conversations about it that don’t end in name-calling or fist fights, is encouraging. It also helps me feel less angry, which is no small thing. Over the past couple of years I’ve found anger to be less and less useful for me, at least on a personal level. Being mad at friends or family or strangers who did something I see as wrong doesn’t actually accomplish anything for me, except raising my blood pressure. When I understand their points of view a bit better, I can take some of the emotion out of my reaction to them. And if we’re both on the same page about that, we can have a conversation, and figure out where we agree. And sometimes… sometimes, one or both of us can bend a little. Without the pressure to immediately admit or agree to anything, this can feel a lot easier.

There’s one major caveat to all of this. And it’s never far from my mind when reading and listening to these conversations. This isn’t just about liberals learning to empathize with conservatives. There’s a lot going on in the other direction as well. And, especially after the election of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama, it’s way past time to start asking people to empathize with another group who doesn’t get nearly enough attention despite their huge impact and disproportionate burden: black voters. Especially black women. It’s good that we’re talking about empathy so much, but we also need to be real with ourselves about who we reserve it for.

Empathy for the hysterics

As I mentioned in a previous post, though we may want it to be – I believe empathy is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t miraculously make us stop fearing or hating or resenting each other. It’s a process, and in order for it to look like much more than listening, it has to be paired with things like love and compassion and action.

This morning, I read yet another call to empathy from a political expert. Attorney and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, who ran for president last year, published “Rules for a constitutional crisis” on Medium early this morning. He starts with personal history, explaining some of the impetus for his decision to become a lawyer, and goes on to argue for Congress’s vital role in addressing the “constitutional crisis” the country now faces under Trump. It’s really worth a read. But near the end, something confused me:

Because if America is to avoid slipping into civil war, the people we need to keep in focus are the people who elected Donald Trump. I get that the easy way to think and talk about those Americans is to call them racists, or sexists or idiots. No doubt there are some who are those (as there are some on the other side who are each of those things too). But it is neither true nor helpful to simplify this story into good versus evil. The citizens who elected Trump are not evil. And if America is going to survive this crisis, we need to convince them first that their President should not be President. We need to show them that their own values are consistent with ours, in this respect at least.

That won’t happen with hysterics. It won’t happen with violence. It won’t happen by behaving just as badly as Donald Trump is behaving. It will only happen if the opposition is, and seems, better than Trump. That is, if it inspires in all Americans—and especially a large swath of the supporters of Trump—a recognition of the ideals that we all know we are to embrace: the Constitution, the rule of law, and government officials who know their place within that system.

I’m not the only commenter who has asked, “What hysterics? What violence? Someone is ‘behaving just as badly as Donald Trump?’ Where!?” Though I actually agree with most of what Lessig says here, this kind of call for empathy reads to me more like a rebuke. It reads like it’s asking “the opposition” to practice empathy instead of calling for resistance, because the latter may be seen as “hysteria.” In my opinion, it creates a false equivalence that doesn’t seem helpful to anyone on either side (especially since there’s been little to no violence, it’s unclear who other than Trump – except maybe his core team – can be described to be behaving like Trump, and “hysterics” is an extremely loaded – and therefore not super useful – word).

I also think there’s an important difference between empathizing with someone and pandering to them. Am I saying that I believe the citizens who elected Trump are indeed evil? No! I’m simply saying that while empathy for them is important in understanding how we got here, I don’t believe that should trump (….) being honest about what’s happening, and how dire it might be. I also don’t believe, after many conversations with Trump voters, that liberals and/or Democratic congresspeople redirecting their energy from “hysterically” sounding the alarm to being more universally “inspiring” is going to change many minds. At least not right now. When people have been conditioned to see those who disagree as an enemy – and when this is the kind of spin those trying to win them over have to contend with – I’m not sure any change in tone is going to make a big difference. We know people tend to just get more entrenched in their own beliefs the more we try to convince them they’re wrong, anyway (though presenting good reasoning and facts can sometimes be persuasive).

What’s that saying about “drastic times and drastic measures?” Is it ever legitimate to get a little “hysterical?”

Interested in empathy? Check this out.

Today, the Huffington Post has a big list of ways to incorporate more empathy into your life this year . I’ve been ramping up my writing about empathy, but not here. I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more of my writing about empathy, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move, so I hope you’ll join me!


On empathy as a magic bullet

There’s been a lot of talk about empathy since the election. I have been thinking kind of obsessively about empathy for years, so it was natural for me to go there, but I was a little surprised to see some of the people and organizations that touted it as a way to cope with the election of Donald Trump and connect with family members and friends who voted for him.

I struggled with all of the competing messages. Who exactly deserves whose empathy? Are we all supposed to have it for one another? Or only some of “us” for some of “them?” Is everyone even working with the same definition of empathy?

Over the weekend, several people sent me this smart piece by Amanda Hess in the New York Times: Is ‘Empathy’ Really What the Nation Needs? She makes some really great points about who these directions for empathizing are coming from, and what interest they might have in people following their advice. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has been a big proponent of empathy in the wake of the presidential election, and he wants us to practice it on Facebook, naturally. He also made these comments after many people questioned the role Facebook may have played in spreading conspiracy theories and fake news during the campaign. So yes, maybe we should be skeptical about calls for empathy.

Then there is Paul Bloom, psychology professor and author of the forthcoming book Against Empathy, who warns that trying to feel others’ pain in political and policy contexts actually distorts our reasoning and often ends up doing more harm than good. Yikes.

But what about at the personal level? In addition to the clarion call for empathy from various writers and technology executives, I’ve seen a lot of concern among friends, particularly on social media, that we have all failed at the important task of empathizing with other people as individuals. After  the election, many were shocked to find out that their grandmother or cousin voted for Trump out of a sense of frustration, despair, or in some cases racism, that hadn’t been apparent before. I know I personally looked at a couple of family members and friends and thought, Really? You? So in an effort to understand, I too looked to empathy.

But I have my own qualms with this approach, different from the concerns of writers like Hess and Bloom. My frustration comes from the fact that empathy is being discussed like a simple solution, a cure-all for bringing people together, a switch that can be flipped, when in fact, in practice, it seems to require a great deal of patience and trust-building. Anyone who’s ever had an argument with a stranger on social media has probably experienced this. When you don’t understand a person’s intentions (trolling? lacking context? just a mean person?) or anything at all about their life or history, it’s hard to connect on anything more than a superficial level. And at that level, do we really think we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes? And even if we can, how likely is it that they will trust that we can, or that our intentions are good?

I don’t have the answers! I’m continually researching this. And I’m going through trial and error in my own life. I still don’t think it can hurt to empathize with others, even if it’s ultimately just an exercise for yourself. (Not that you should use other people to learn about yourself, but that if your attempt at empathy doesn’t seem well-received, you might learn something about the way you empathize, and your own intentions.) I also lean toward the belief that empathy is a vital part of long-term relationships with partners, family members and friends. But I do think it’s important that we ask these questions when something as complex and nebulous as empathy starts to seem like a buzzword, or a magical solution to political and policy issues.


It’s not just about politics

Would you say you’ve lost friends because of this election?

That’s an issue that keeps coming up on social media, and plenty of think pieces have already been written, lamenting the death of politics-free relationships and telling us that if we are losing friends we are “doing it wrong.” One recent piece in the New York Times idealized the writer’s 1950s-style neighborhood, where everyone is apparently aware that people hold differing views, but no one talks about it, so no one argues.

I think it’s worth asking ourselves who benefits from these attitudes, and who loses. Who was life great for during the 1950s, for example? And what does it actually say about me if I agree that, quoting one of the articles linked above, I wish I didn’t “know that [my] nephew is a hard-core Trump fanboy?” I understand that we value differing opinions in this country, and that we are fiercely individualistic. Personal choices are paramount. But what about when those decisions affect other people? And not just their feelings or their preferences, but their livelihood? What if the political things you’re avoiding discussing are vital to the personal things you know and love about your neighbors?

I have lost a couple of friends (and a relationship with at least one family member) during the course of this election. But just as in the past when a friend and I cut ties after a political or social issues disagreement, I can’t point to the election as the actual cause. Disagreements and elections are flash points. They are storms that highlight and uncover weak spots. I can’t pretend to speak for everyone, of course, but in my experience, and in the experience of most of my peers who have cut ties with people “over the election,” the reasons are much more nuanced than “we disagree.” I’ll just share a bit of my own experience:

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they align themselves with a different political ideology than I do. I have, however, unfriended someone who aligned themselves with a different political ideology and regularly sought me out to serve as a “token,” to answer for all who share my views and defend them. After a while, I realized this person never seemed willing to interrogate her own beliefs, and she never seemed to want to talk to me about anything else. She was also very flippant about things that I find extremely important, and ignored my efforts to discuss these things more deeply. Why should I maintain this “friendship” just to avoid being called “closed-minded?”

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they disagreed with me about a social issue. I have, however, unfriended someone who argued with me for hours in private messages about basic facts related to various issues and made many comments that could not be described any other way than “blatantly racist.” She lectured me about various things without allowing any disagreement, no matter how civil. Any suggestion that she consider a different view was met with defensiveness and accusations that I was insulting her intelligence. Ultimately, while trying to have a discussion about the respect we wished to have from one another, she declared that her respect for me came in the form of “not writing you off as a lost soul even though I think you are dead wrong.” Should I have kept subjecting myself – and her – to that for the sake of appearing to be “open-minded?”

Here’s the thing. We need limits on how far we open our minds. We can’t accept everything, right? We put limits on how much we will “take” from people in our personal lives all the time (or we should!) We put limits on what we will believe (at least most of us, I think!) We don’t all draw those lines in the same places, but as a society, we have generally agreed to draw some of them, at least in pencil. We have agreed that slavery is bad, Jim Crow was bad and shouldn’t be replicated, stealing is bad, murdering is bad, all individuals have rights, etc. There will be individuals who don’t agree with these things, but generally, as a rule, we accept them in order to move forward.

The thing about this election – this particular flash point, this particular storm – is that it is highlighting those individuals. It is giving a larger platform to people who believe that slavery is bad, but; Jim Crow was bad, except; all individuals have rights, unless. Some of this is about fear and misinformation. I’ve read all of the pieces humanizing Trump supporters; I understand that there are legitimate economic horror stories that have led some people his way. But this is not an ordinary election. Politics aside, the derogatory things Trump says about women, immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not part of our generally accepted agreements that help move society forward. When I bring this up, I am regularly reminded that it’s “just words.” All I can say in response is that it is not “just words” if you are a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim or a person of color. It is not “just words” when those words incite fear and violence, and when they inform actual policies that do actual harm to people.

I don’t think life is better when we avoid talking about politics, because, as the old adage goes, politics is personal. Especially in a year like this, when the personal livelihoods of so many are at stake. I want to talk about these things with people who are different from me. I want to consider the skepticism of people who don’t believe these things are true. I want to listen to their fears, their concerns, even their conspiracies. I want to take these things in and use them to keep building the ever-evolving context of this election, of this cultural moment, in my mind. I don’t want to be a sounding board for slurs, logical fallacies, blatant untruths or manipulation. I don’t want to entertain homophobia, transphobia, racism, or misogyny. I want the same respect and open-mindedness that is demanded of me. And that’s where the break – when it comes to that – happens.

I understand that often, people I know will hold views that I believe are dangerous, and that they will disagree on that point. They will believe that what they believe is right and fair and OK. I accept that I have a responsibility to have conversations about these things with these people. For me at least, the unfriending happens when those conversations are not honest, when the other person insists that I self-reflect and learn but refuses to do it themselves, when they are combative, and when they belittle, condescend to, chastise and insult me. Those are not the qualities of a friend or relative with whom I can have a real relationship. That’s not a closed mind – it’s a healthy boundary. And it’s a risk of talking openly about politics that seems worth taking.

* * *

While I was in the middle of writing this post, I came across this similar piece on HuffPo that expresses my own feelings, with some exceptions. I hope I’ve been able to articulate those exceptions above.

How far (in time) can we stretch our empathy?

I have been doing a lot of research on empathy, and I’m starting to see its potential application almost everywhere I look. I read an article about the future of Virtual Reality entertainment, and it left me wondering how VR might affect – or maybe in some ways encourage – empathy. I read about how so many women experience postpartum injuries that go undiagnosed or ignored, and I wondered how better empathy training in the medical field might help prevent that. Then today, I read this piece about the paralyzing effects of climate anxiety, and I found myself wondering, can empathy be extended to those who aren’t yet born, and to experiences we can’t currently fathom?

According to Roman Krznaric, an adviser to Oxfam and the UN who has written a book about empathy, “empathy is not just a psychological phenomenon but also a political tool.” At least, if your politics depend on breaking down a “we/them” barrier and not building one. And, let’s face it, the issue of climate change is definitely a political one. When the Democratic nominee for president feels the need to say, during her acceptance speech, that she “believes in science,” there’s really no denying that science is political.

But believing in science is one thing. Adding empathy to the equation is another, and some suggest it may be the only way to actually enact change based on said science.

In the piece linked above, Krznaric begins with a story about a woman dealing with the impact of massive flooding in Britain in 2007. She was able to empathize quite easily with people whose homes were at risk from rising sea levels due to climate change. But she’s just one person. Krznaric focuses on why it’s so difficult for governments to enact policies that will protect future people from climate change, but I find myself thinking even more at the granular level. Our political systems are very short-term-oriented, as Krznaric explains, but are individuals? Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede seems to suggest that the answer depends on culture. Which brings me to the question: is this issue of climate change anxiety and climate change empathy really a U.S. problem?

Let’s say, for the moment, that that is the case. That people and politicians in the U.S. have a harder time empathizing with future generations than folks from other cultures. (This seems to be a pretty well-accepted idea, at least in the business world.) A major tenet of U.S. society is equality. In that case, as Krznaric argues: “if we believe all human beings are equal, we cannot morally justify deciding not to act today because future generations should be expected to pay more of the costs of climate change.”

But we do. We justify it all the time. Either because we won’t be around, or we don’t have any children or grandchildren who will be around, or we know our children or grandchildren will have the means to manage with whatever climate disaster befalls their world. Some see this as a moral issue, others a philosophical one. I’m not sure what the answer is, myself. Krznaric suggests that it is imagination: “We must become experts at imagining ourselves into the lives and thoughts of our great-grandchildren, and of strangers in distant times.” But who has time for that?


If any readers have suggestions for further research on empathy – either specific to this post or more generally – please send them my way! kugolik at gmail dot com.

What is ‘healthy?’

It’s a story that’s made for a lot of great headlines: almonds and avocados are “unhealthy,” so much so that companies like Kind, which makes fruit and nut bars, have been warned by the Food and Drug Administration not to pretend otherwise. How could it be that fruit and nuts – a few of the “superfoods” people have been increasingly gravitating toward in hopes of slimmer waists and prolonged life – are bad for you? The more important question, I think, is, “says who?”

In truth, it’s not that foods like almonds and avocados are “bad.” In fact it’s the lack of appropriate judgment of food at all that is one of the biggest problems with regulating food. Almonds and avocados are simply fatty, and since 1994, fatty = bad, according to the FDA. A lot of research since then has suggested that there is such a thing as a “healthy fat,” and that sugar – something the FDA pays much less attention to – is likely more detrimental to health than fatty fruits and nuts. So the announcement today from the FDA that it is thinking about changing the definition of “healthy” is great news, right? It could be, eventually. First the FDA will ask for comments from experts and the public, then it will propose a rule change, then people will be able to comment on the new proposed rule, a final rule will be announced, and then food manufacturers will have a certain period of time to adjust before it is widely implemented. So Pop-Tarts will probably still “officially” be healthier than almonds for a few years.

It’s really the reason that this rule change is even being considered that interests me the most. It’s not solely because the FDA realized the error of its ways and wants to make it up to avocado lovers. It’s because Kind sued.

“We very much hope the FDA will change the definition of healthy, so that you don’t end up in a silly situation where a toaster pastry or sugary cereal can be considered healthy and a piece of salmon or bunch of almonds cannot,” Kind CEO Daniel Lubetzky told the Wall Street Journal.

I very much hope so too, but I also wonder whether this is the best way to be making decisions about food regulation. I’m not naive; I know that much of our country’s legislation and regulation come out of lawsuits and lobbying. When it comes to health, though, and particularly what we eat, which is so personal and also in many ways political, a part of me hopes we can figure out a way to rely more on science than money. Man, I guess that time off has made me a little mushy. Better watch an episode of House of Cards…