Sermon: You Make No Sense – Gretchen
This past week, the State of Oregon heard public comments for a Bill they were considering that would stop non-medical exemptions for vaccinations.
See, just across the Columbia river, officials in Clark County, Washington have just confirmed three new cases of measles, bringing the total to 68.
I think we can officially un-declare the elimination of measles, a declaration we made almost two decades ago.
My sister Kristina, a pediatric oncologist in Portland, provided comment for the hearing, and then later she was on the local news.
Kristina treats kids who are immune compromised, as in, they medically cannot get a vaccine, and they’d be in serious danger if they got measles.
In her interview she talks about how when she treats her patients, she is always balancing risk and reward, and in this case, if you aren’t immune compromised, getting vaccinated is extremely low risk and high reward – for everyone.
I told my sister that her interview was a little like having to go on the news to make the assertion that the earth revolves around the sun.
Which, as Sean reminded us last week, was BIG NEWS in the 16th century. But it should not be a surprise to anyone now – it should be SETTLED as fact.
Before my sister, they interviewed a mom who was against the bill. She spoke on behalf of people who have settled instead around alternative facts, understandings that lead them to believe that my sister is wrong – the risks of vaccination are too high, for any child, especially their own.
The anti-vax movement started in 1990 when Andrew Wakefield published research asserting a link between vaccines and autism. This research has been repeatedly discredited as bogus. Repeatedly.
And research showing what my sister said – that the risks are low and the benefits high – has been equally ubiquitous. And yet over this same period of time, parental worry and ambivalence towards vaccinations has continued to grow, so that it’s estimated that up to 25% of all parents in the US fall into a category researchers call “vaccine hesitant,” choosing to develop their own vaccination schedule rather than follow the recommended protocol. A small yet vocal sub-group of these are anti-vaccination entirely.
What’s even more fascinating, is that largely these same folks tend to be highly educated, with financial means. As in, it’s not that they don’t get science, or that they can’t pay for health care. And it’s not that they don’t care about their children – often the opposite, many care intensely – one researcher called them “uber-moms” – who also watch carefully their children’s diets and their environment to make sure their kids are safe, and healthy.
They read articles and listen to interviews, obsessively in many cases, they share across parental forums, and with their friends…and they are bolstered by a number of well-known voices speaking about the dangers of vaccinations and the potential links to autism. Including the voice of our current President.
This whole thing basically infuriates my sister – and others who are scientifically-oriented. No matter how many times they point out the research, the reasoning, the rationale – the trend is going the other direction.
It’s a common phenomenon today, that some of us feel exasperated at others of us, for refusing to accept what feels to us like settled fact. It’s part of a cycle of outrage that can be so exhausting, a cycle that plays out not just with random strangers and high school classmates on the internet, but even in our workplace, within our families and friendship circles, in our schools, and in our neighborhoods, even our churches.
Humans we have come to realize, make no sense. And by humans, I don’t mean just mean other humans.
I mean you.
All of you engineers out there, you STEM types, you Unitarians.
Seriously, this is like Unitarian heresy, we’ve prized human reason for so long. Centered human rationality. Prized – the “guidance of reason and science.” (that’s our 5th source) But seriously. You make nosense. Just ask your kids. Or your spouse.
Don’t worry, I don’t either.
None of us do.
I mean, did you know that Steve Jobs – the genius Steve Jobs – when he first received his cancer diagnosis, refused the earliest treatment because he wanted to try natural remedies? Only after 9 months did he go back for the traditional treatment, by which time it had already spread in ways that made it basically untreatable – if he would’ve done that first one, the success rates at that stage are really high.
I mean, if Steve Jobs can be so terribly wrong, what chance do any of us have?
Most of the time, all of us make no sense. Our decision-making is often flawed, and our brains are terribly untrustworthy. And worse, we’re clueless about this. Instead, we are pretty sure, most of the time, that we have carefully, rationally come to the logical, obvious, correct conclusion.
In her 2011 TED Talk, Kathryn Schulz asks a really great question. She asks, what does it feel like to be wrong?
Think about it. What does it feel like when you’re wrong?
Embarrassing? Uncomfortable? Irritating? Not good, right?
But Schulz reminds us – actually, that’s just what it feels like to realize you’re wrong. Because when you’re wrong, but don’t realize it, it feels exactly the same as it feels to be right.
I thought about this a lot this week as I watched the news come in from the United Methodist General Conference. They were deciding in a pretty finalized way if they would welcome gay lesbian bisexual trans and queer folks. Ultimately, they decided, they would not.
Along the way there were many moments where people demonstrated just how it often we can feel exactly right, even when we are totally wrong. It’s why psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that of all things in human behavior, he wishes he could rid us of over-confidence.
“We have too much confidence in our beliefs. Overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence. You look at failures, and overconfidence [always has] something to do with them.” (That’s from his interview with Krista Tippett)
Daniel Kahneman is best known for his work on behavioral economics, which blasted through the foundational principle of western economic theory – that humans are rational decision makers.
Because, as Kahneman has said, rationality, for the finite human mind, is an impossibility. Instead, we are filled with contradictions, and our decision-making processes are often illogical and faulty, based on shortcuts and assumptions instead of actual, intentional thinking.
If I asked you why you believe what you believe about, say, “climate change, or whether you believe in some political position or other.”
Kahneman says, “Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.”
Let me try to explain. With this picture
As you look, notice your thoughts.
What story have you started to create?
What do you imagine she’s about to do?
This thinking you’re doing, it just happens. It’s a kind of thinking that Kahneman calls our fast thinking. “Automatic, quick, no sense of voluntary control.”
I’ve also heard this processing mode called ancient thinking, or even, the lizard brain – because it’s the way of thinking that developed as a means of survival.
It uses patterns, mental models, heuristics to make quick automatic assessments. These mental models are useful, and efficient, especially if you are being chased by a wild beast in prehistoric times. They give us a quick way to make decisions – this angry woman is about to start yelling at me and I need to run the other way.
They are useful, efficient…..and sometimes completely wrong.
When 19th century minister and one of the founders of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, declared his faith in human rationality, or when Unitarian Universalist minister Kendyl Gibbons recently said that “what we are willing to say about the universe…..is based exclusively on human reason,” I’m guessing that in either case, they were not talking about fast thinking.
Instead, they were probably pointing to what Kahneman calls instead, slow thinking, or what I’ve also heard called “modern thinking.”
Let’s look at one other thing…..
17 x 24 = ?
Go ahead, begin to try to answer it. And again, notice your thoughts. As you do, this process you’re in, this is slow thinking. “Deliberate, effortful, orderly.”
Slow thinking includes everything from this math problem to parking in a narrow space (unless you do it all the time for your job, in which case it may be able to be done by fast thinking). Slow thinking definitely includes doing your taxes, as well as monitoring the appropriateness of your behavior in a social setting.
Slow thinking is what makes friends, and nurtures connections. And it’s what offers compassion and contemplates life’s big questions, including whether humans make sense.
Anything that doesn’t come “naturally” requires slow thinking. We think of ourselves as our slow thinking selves. Because slow thinking isn’t automatic. It’s conscious, intentional, and careful. Slow thinking inhibits us from acting on all those automatic thoughts of the fast thinking system. Instead, slow thinking carefully considers complexity, nuance, statistics, probability, risk. We think of ourselves as our slow thinking selves, but actually, the large majority of the time, fast thinking runs the show.
Because whereas fast thinking will jump into action, slow thinking has to decide if a given situation is really worth the effort, and in a lot of cases, decides it’s not. Slow thinking is lazy, slow to engage (like it’s name implies), work-avoidant.
But because we don’t think of ourselves as in terms of fast thinking, we “remember” our processing as slow. We believe we make decisions, not based on shortcuts – our feelings, our likes or dislikes, or on our cultural assumptions, or our upbringing….We believe that we engaged a complex analysis of logic and reasoning.
We have chosen to not vaccinate our child not because of the marketing strategy of the “natural” food movement, or because we have a mental model that distrusts authority, or because we have a desire to belong with a certain group, or because as a kid we really wanted to be and/or date Jenny McCarthy.
No. We have done our research. We are being cautious, independent, responsible, rational.
It is always a risk, that what we believe is our slow thinking’s careful deliberative corrective to the automatic fast thinking system, is instead an apologist for it.
Take for example, the great and radical 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. He was an abolitionist, who took in fugitive slaves – his fellow Unitarians turned their back on him, even as his congregation grew to be the largest in Boston. He believed that all people, of all races, had human dignity. This was his religious faith as a Unitarian and Transcendentalist.
Yet, he was also committed to reason, and science as sources of truth. And in his day, science and “reason” taught that there was a “hierarchy of racial superiority, and that race was the driving force behind human achievements…. science and his own observations convinced him that his own anglo-saxon tribe was the most advanced, and was at the forefront of human progress.”
It’s what we know now as one version of “Confirmation bias.” The tendency to see things that confirm our pre-existing mental models. It’s basically a conspiracy between the lazy slow thinking system, and the error-prone shortcuts of our fast thinking, all in a way that tricks us to believe – we were super thoughtful about this.
Throughout her recent interview with Kahneman, you can hear Krista Tippett trying to get him to give her some better news. Some hope for our times.
There must be a way we can get humans to be more reasonable, she says.
And mostly, he says no.
But eventually, as she keeps trying, he concedes.
There is, he says, one thing that could help: other people.
A group of us from Foothills went to go see the social psychologist Steve Robbins speak this past week, he was speaking on diversity and inclusion. One of the first things he said was that human brains work best when they are surrounded by other people, and even more importantly, people who care about them, and who believe they matter.
Because while we are not good at recognizing the flaws in our own thinking, we are sometimes good at seeing the flaws in others.
I know, you’re all thinking – I would be good at helping other people see the flaws in their thinking!
No. This is not the point.
I told my mom, after I saw one of her recent posts wondering why people wouldn’t just listen to facts to listen to the sermon today. But not because I have the secret for how to get people to listen, but because in the end, I think it’s so important to remember we are only responsible for our own thinking.
But on that note, who among us likes it when someone tells us we’re wrong? It’s one reason why Steve Robbins says we don’t need random other people around us, we need people who care about us. People who are invested in us, and in our growth. People who love us. People who will mentor us – over the long haul. Even if it turns out, we are not as rational, logical, and smart as we try to portray.
People who won’t run screaming when they see our flaws, but who will actually just lean in more, and love us more. Even better than this, if some of these folks come from a different culture or background than we do….
Because while their mental models will still have flaws, they’ll at least be different flaws than our own.
On the other hand…I know my partner is all of those things. She loves me, respects me, won’t leave me if she sees how wrong I am. She’s invested in me, and in my growth. And still! I strongly dislike it and basically stop listening whenever she tries to point out my wrong-headedness.
Which is why my answer to Krista Tippet’s question would add in one more thing. Which is the need to pause. And to practice pausing.
So much of our world encourages, even requires fast thinking. Scrolling through my social media, I see in just seconds stories of friends’ major health scares, job loss, school plays, babies reaching milestones. Between those, the latest complex international crisis boiled down to a one sentence headline, all interspersed with puppies.
It’s all so fast, and so much.
We don’t have time for curiosity, or nuance, for slow thinking. We need the efficiency of fast thinking just to keep up with all that comes our way. We’ve come to believe confusion is a luxury we cannot afford, forgetting that our confidence is actually our fast thinking brain caught up in half-truths.
As Wendell Berry says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
Which is why we need to practice the pause. Like a training for our brains. A training to learn/re-learn how to focus, how not to be interrupted, how to get our lazy slow thinking systems to wake up, to show up, to engage. The best way to do this training is….whatever way will mean you keep doing it.
Come to our meditation group on Mondays. Download a mindfulness app.
Or, just spend 5 minutes, every morning, sitting and singing like we did in the story of Old Turtle. Singing has been shown to have very similar effects to silent meditation.
Or, just sit, and breathe for those same 5 minutes.
Your brain will wander, and when it does, just bring yourself back.
This practice might be excruciating for a while, and maybe always. That’s ok. Not everything is going to be fabulous. Mostly your task is to try not to think there’s a right way to practice pausing, or a wrong way.
And instead, just to keep practicing. Paying attention, and as Mary Oliver would say, being astonished. The more we train our brains to pause, the more space we make to doubt ourselves, afterall, and our own thinking, that we can thinking again, and better.
In our history as a movement, we have talked a lot about cherishing our doubts, but less so have we cherished doubting ourselves. Don’t worry, next week I’m going to come back around to how we should trust ourselves – and our capacity to know truth. It’s a service on mysticism.
But for today, let’s stay with the pause, and the doubt. Cherish your doubts. And try to remember, you, and we, make no sense. And in the remembering, maybe, we can make a little more.