The World is Ending and All I Have to Wear is this Chambray Shirt

I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic, but stuff is getting real. Hurricanes, fires, floods. Rampant overt racism. Plans to round up groups of people and ship them off to who knows where.

Even if you are not directly affected by these events, you can feel the many different holes that are slowly tearing themselves open in the everyday fabric of society. Those who previously existed hidden within those holes are now feeling emboldened to come out and bully others for no other reason than they now feel empowered to come out of their holes and bully others.

Meanwhile, life goes on. I get my kids ready for school in the morning. I put on a happy face and greet the other parents and teachers, wishing everyone I see to have a good day. They return the sentiment to me. Kindness goes a long way.

After dropping the kids at school, I return home to check my Twitter timeline, which consists of a healthy mix of protest tweets against the latest outrageous act of the Trump regime, disaster tweets documenting the newest natural disasters, and moms asking you to answer their poll about whether you would prefer to drive or fly to Disneyland this year.

So what do I, as a middle-class, white, suburban mom, do? Do I continue to play my fiddle as Rome burns? Do I put on a false face and act like the erosion of common decency, the manifestations of climate change, and the scarily backward time-lapse of America isn’t bothering me? Do I put on my chambray shirt and post of picture of myself on Facebook asking people to comment on whether they like it or not?

Or… do I try to close one of those many holes that’s opening? Do I try to block the way, standing strong, chest out, feet wide, hands-on-hips, like some middle-aged wannabe Wonder Woman?

It’s risky (and, yes, sometimes embarrassing not to fit in with the model of what I should be doing as a white suburban mom). But if I posted my own personal Twitter poll about how I would prefer to get from this point in time to some time in the future, I would choose to be a middle-aged Wonder Woman. I’m putting my whole mom-self out there with my needlepoint skills and my Wonder Woman attitude, and I’m going to try to sew up as many of those holes as I can. The future that my kids inherit is worth both the risk and the embarrassment.

I dressed up as Wonder Woman for Halloween one year when I was a kid. Maybe I can find my old mask packed away somewhere and wear it with my chambray shirt.

Mansplaining 2.0: Sexism in the New Resistance

This post contains adult language. This post is a continuation of my earlier blog post Division in Social Movements: How to prevent a movement from collapsing.

Mother’s Day 2017: I’m reveling in the homemade gifts and cards my kids have made for me. Filled to the brim with hugs and kisses and the sweetness of my 7-year-old twins on what my daughter called “You Day, Mommy.”

I spend the next couple of days reflecting on what I went through to become a mom of twins and on my life, including the struggles I have faced over more than forty years of life as a girl and then a woman. I am reflecting on my own mother (passed on 10 years ago), the strength she had, and the sexism she had to overcome in her day. It doesn’t end there. I reflect on her mother, and her mother’s mother, and generations of women, feeling the strength of each of them inside me as I continue to try to manifest and demonstrate the strength, kindness, and calm reason I’d like to pass on to my daughter and son.

On twitter, I’m reminded of the disadvantaged status women still have in society—from how we treat Mother Earth,

to how the Republicans are trying to strip women of their basic healthcare and reproductive rights,

Mother's Day Paul Ryan

to how women are not paid equally for the work they do, to the fact that in America we still don’t have paid maternity leave, while so many other countries do (including Iran and Mexico at 12 weeks paid leave).

I laugh at, and agree with, a quote that has been falsely attributed to Betty White: “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!”

Then, 3 days after Mother’s Day, I see a tweet by a leader in the local resistance movement that says: “Thx MOC Kinzinger for testicular fortitude MOC Roskam lacks. Must be the Seal in you. Go hold Peter’s trembling hand.” (This is in reference to Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger from Illinois calling for a special prosecutor or independent investigation into Trump’s administration, and Republican Representative Peter Roskam from Illinois supporting everything Trump and the other Repubs in Congress do.)

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Ok, I think. Someone is trying to be cute and funny with this tweet, but the fight against the current Republican administration is personal for me. It’s personal for all women, as gains that we have made over the last 8 years are being swiftly thrown aside by white men who are hiking up their testicles and doing their best to quash any sense of power women may feel they have.

I politely respond to this tweet by pointing out the unnecessary use of gender-biased language (esp. in the wake of the new women’s movement). “Testicular fortitude?” I tweet. “I’m not sure one needs testicles to exhibit bravery and stand… up for what is right.” I also offer a link to my blog post about how sexism played a role in prematurely tearing apart the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

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This is the reply I get: “Let’s not lose focus by concentrating on wrong things. It’s a word in a Tweet. Bill Maher said it best.” And I’m offered a clip of Bill Maher.

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First of all, “Let’s not lose focus…” he says. I have not lost focus. My eyes are on the prize. I’m focused on fighting for the rights of the downtrodden (that includes those of us that have two X chromosomes and birth babies).

Second, let’s get to the clip. I don’t have high hopes that Bill Maher has anything eloquent, relevant, or NOT misogynistic to say on the topic given that the one editorial of his that sticks out in my mind contains this quote about his preference in women’s pubic hair styles: “New Rule: Bring back a little pubic hair. Not a lot, I’m not talking about reviving that 1973 look that said “I’m liberated” and “I’m smuggling a hedgehog.”I just want a friendly, fuzzy calling card that’s a middle ground between toddler smooth and “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” It’s supposed to have some hair on it. It’s a pussy, not Dr. Evil’s cat….”

Ok, so let’s look at what Bill Maher has to say on the topic at hand (transcript below):

Transcript: “While the sting of defeat is still fresh and the horrors resulting from that defeat pile up, liberals must examine all the reasons why we keep losing elections—starting with Democrats have gone from the party that protects people to the party that protects feelings. From “ask not what your country can do for you” to “you owe me an apology.” Republicans apologize for nothing. Democrats apologize for everything. Can’t we find a balance? In 2016, conservatives won the White House, both houses of Congress, and almost 2/3 of governorships and state legislatures. Whereas, liberals, on the other hand, caught Steve Martin calling Carrie Fisher beautiful in a tweet and made him take it down. … Liberals do this all the time. They get offended for people who, themselves, would not be offended. … [He goes on to mock celebrities who have offended people by not being politically correct and their subsequent apologies.]

The majority of Americans are actually with the Democrats on the issues: raising minimum wage, sensible gun laws, path to citizenship, abortion rights, pro-environment, you name it. But we keep losing. Now there’s a lot of reasons for that. But the one we can immediately fix is that too often Democrats remind people of a man who has taken his balls out and put them in his wife’s purse. And, please, someone tweet me right now and tell me how that was inappropriate so I can tell you to:


[He talks about another celebrity that was accidentally politically incorrect and subsequently apologized about hurting peoples’ feelings.]

Things like this don’t matter at all. What matters is that while you self-involved fools were policing the language at the Kids’ Choice Awards, a madman talked his way into the White House. What matters is that while liberals are in a contest to see who can be the first to call out fat-shaming, the Tea Party has been busy taking over school boards.

Stop protecting your virgin ears and start noticing you’re getting fucked in the ass.” 

Ummm, ok. So you have to be an asshole to be in the resistance? If that’s so, then I’m out.

And is this local resistance leader telling me to go fuck myself?

Once I vigorously shake my head in an attempt to get over all that was thrown at me in that 5-minute video clip, I am able to say to myself: Wait a minute, a leader in the local resistance thinks Bill Maher is right when he says that the reason Trump is in the White House is because liberals care about each other’s feelings? THAT’S NOT WHY TRUMP IS IN THE WHITE HOUSE!!!! Trump is in the White House because he (and Putin) rode the wave of disenfranchised, poor white people feeling discontented because NOBODY in government cared about them!

That being what it is, being an asshole is not the way to build a government that works FOR the people. It’s just not. And this movement will never be anything but a flash in the pan if whole segments of the resistance are told not to be so sensitive and are tossed aside when they point out that something is happening that is divisive.

I have to be honest, I didn’t watch the Bill Maher video at the time, before responding with the following series of tweets: “I’m not attacking…never attacking. Merely pointing out a problem that could divide the movement. I know you want to move forward, but you can’t move forward without including everyone. This fight is for all of us. Gender-biased language removes me from the fight. I just wanted to point out that language is a reflection of an attitude that may be unconscious. We’re all in this together. We’re on the same side. Let’s try not to foment division in our social movement.”

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I never got a reply.

So what can we do to ensure that those in leadership positions in the resistance don’t marginalize the very groups they’re supposed to be fighting for? Besides just pointing it out. This will take some thought.

Please check out my earlier blog post: Division in Social Movements: How to prevent a movement from collapsing.

UPDATE: Bill Maher has subsequently issued an apology for using the ‘N’ word on the air on 06/12/17.

If you have any ideas or suggestion, please share in the comments below.

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Motherhood, Medicine, and Institutionalized Sexism: A Personal Story

(Originally posted on 10/14/2016)

Discrimination and Motherhood

I have never before felt discriminated against before I became a mother. I was always encouraged to follow my passions, my dreams, always excelled in school. I never felt the need to take a home economics course, as I was going to be a career woman. Never did I think that institutionalized sexism would hold me back.

Excited about pursuing a career in medicine.

I became a mother later in life, not getting pregnant until age 35. I had pursued every dream, every passion, as I had been encouraged to do up until that point. I did, however, start to feel my biological clock start ticking around age 30. And, when I finally met and settled down with Mr. Right, we started trying to get pregnant. Nothing happened.

Not knowing whether or not we would be successful with a pregnancy, I decided to move on with my life while we continued to try to have a family. After the untimely and unexpected death of my mother, I was propelled to follow another dream of mine. To attend medical school. (I say “attend medical school” instead of “become a physician” because I guess I didn’t really know what the day-to-day life of a doctor was at that time, let alone residency – the required low-paying position that leads to licensure and board certification.) I had already taken all the required pre-medical courses and decided I would take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and see how I did. Well, I scored pretty well. So I decided to apply to medical school and got in.

Part of me knew, however, that if my husband and I were successful in our quest to start a family, my career would probably suffer. But what was I to do? Not pursue an interesting and challenging career? Not pursue having a child? Both noble pursuits indeed. In the end, I figured it would all work itself out. And I entered medical school in the fall of 2008.

Late night on-call studying.
Scrubs and socks.

Medical school was hard, as anticipated, but nothing I couldn’t handle. So I decided to throw some fertility treatments into the mix. As anyone in the know knows, juggling a relationship with a significant other while in med school is quite a challenge. Try being the perfect wife, the perfect student, and the perfect female procreating specimen. Well, lest you say it cannot be done, I am here to tell you that it can.

The first couple of quarters, I earned all A’s and B’s (well, one A and the rest B’s), and served both as a student representative to the Educational Affairs Committee and as a news editor for the student newspaper.

By the end of first year, after one abandoned IUI (intrauterine insemination) cycle in which my follicles were overstimulated and one IVF (in vitro fertilization) cycle, I became pregnant. And not just pregnant, but pregnant with twins. The first time I saw two little specks on the ultrasound at 6 weeks, I knew my career would be in jeopardy. And I kind of freaked out.

I was supposed to participate in a summer research project regarding medical education, but was not able to because of my unbearable morning (all-day, all-night) sickness. I had wanted to participate in research about medical education because I, as an experienced adjunct professor in the humanities and child of a grade school teacher and college professor, saw many flaws in the way I and my colleagues were being educated. There had to be a better way than just memorizing astounding amounts of information, regurgitating with a number 2 pencil on a scantron, and repeating.

And the method of feeding all that information to the students? An instructor would stand in the front of the lecture hall reading a pre-prepared PowerPoint presentation word-for-word. There was no actual “teaching.” No wonder I continued to do just fine even after I stopped attending class to travel to the city for fertility treatments.

Studying in the hospital–neurology notes at my knee. (NOTE: According to my OB/GYN clerkship supervisor, none of my experience with my high-risk twin pregnancy counted toward having any knowledge of OB/GYN.)

“And Who’s Going to Take Care of these Babies?”

At the point that I backed out of the summer research project, I was still telling people that I had a “medical issue.” I was a bit frightened about coming out and telling others, the dean of students included, that not only was I pregnant, but I was having twins. The day finally came when summer break ended, second year started, and I started looking like I had been eating a few too many potato chips.

I made an appointment to discuss some “personal issues” with the dean of students. She was a female who had previously given a presentation to the students about what it was like to be a woman in medicine, about her difficulties getting pregnant, about a spontaneous abortion experience that altered her career decisions, how she had an adopted a now college-aged daughter, and how she lived in a different state than her husband so they could both pursue their careers. I figured this meeting wouldn’t be too uncomfortable.

I think my attitude really said it all about how I was influenced to feel as a pregnant woman in medical school. I went into the meeting apologizing. (For what? Who apologizes about willingly and successfully starting a much-longed-for family?) I told her I was pregnant, and she took that in stride. But when I told her I was having twins, she asked me, in a condescending tone, “And who’s going to take care of these babies?”

I was somewhat taken aback and totally offended. I was a married 35-year-old woman. I replied, “My husband and I are.” Um, ok. This does not bode well for my career.

Day after emergency C-section to deliver 32-week twins.

“Doesn’t your job offer parental leave for new fathers?”

I remember naively asking my husband, “Doesn’t your job offer parental leave for new fathers?” as I was studying for medical school exams while caring for newborn premature twins. The answer was a big no. This was so astounding to me. I painfully came to the conclusion that just because I was a woman, I was the one who was supposed to sacrifice my career. Ouch! Never had I expected such discrimination in the land of opportunity. I refused to let this phase me, however, and continued straight through school and hospital rotations until a year later when I just physically could not continue, due to stress-related back pain and severe lack of sleep.

After a 6-month leave of absence, I returned to hospital rotations, and received glowing recommendations from my superiors. I graduated soon after and was offered two different resident physician positions outside the residency matching system.

For many reasons, I turned them both down.

Mama and son.

“Mama, why are you a little bit mad?”

My kids are very tuned in to my facial expressions these days. “I’m not mad. I’m just thinking.” I’m thinking about how I worked very hard to get through medical school and I feel like I’m precisely nowhere. Well, that’s not exactly true. I get to spend time teaching and guiding my school-age children. I get to have on the planet the people that I wanted to put on the planet, instead of having them raised by someone outside of my family with a completely different value system. That’s something.

Before seeking a residency, I got advice from many physicians (mostly male). “Your kids will be fine,” they would tell me. But I don’t want my kids to be fine. I want them to thrive. I want them to feel safe, like someone’s there that has their backs no matter what. So this is the sacrifice I made. I guess it wasn’t such a difficult choice when the only two options were to devote my life to being an underpaid resident physician, working both day and night hours, missing out on contributing myself to the early lives of my children, or to devote my life to two little human beings who, I often pictured to be floundered in the world without their dad (working a lot) or their mom (working even more).

My husband has now advanced at his job and I feel happy to give him the support that he gave me during medical school. I have even begun to feel proud at times and to reframe the traditional marriage model as a partnership.

Still, the field of medicine calls to me. And I have a call for the field of medicine in return. At this point however, because of the timing in my life, I think that ship has sailed for me.

But there are other women out there who want to pursue medicine AND motherhood. This male-centric model of medical education has got to be pushed aside to keep up with the times. (It’s important, when understanding where the male-centric model of residency comes from, to explain that medical residents were traditionally young, single men who actually lived in the hospital.) Times are changing, more varied and diverse groups of people are aching to join the field, aching to help people. If we had more flexible, extended residencies that allowed people to tend to both their work and family lives, we wouldn’t have a shortage of doctors. Instead of keeping the barriers up and keeping the non-traditional, highly educated women out of the field, they should be welcomed and accommodated for.

I now hold an M.D. (medical doctor) degree, and I’m apparently qualified to do absolutely nothing. Leaving medical school owing many hundreds of thousands in student debt, the only job I could get (outside of residency) was teaching clinical skills at the medical school from which I graduated. The pay was about $16,000 a year. Quality childcare for the twins was about $19,000 a year. Thinking that one opportunity might lead to another, I put my children in preschool and just paid the difference. Given the amount of education and debt, after almost a year, I decided it didn’t make sense.

I am currently a work-at-home mom.

5 MORE Easy Ways to Make a Positive Difference RIGHT NOW

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post called 5 Easy Ways You Can Make a Positive Difference in the World RIGHT NOW.

Here are 5 more:

1. Divest. Move your money from a for-profit bank to a not-for-profit credit union. Credit unions offer the same benefits as banks, but you become an owner. The purpose of a for-profit bank is just that – to make money. Banks invest in things like the Dakota Access Pipeline and expect a return on their investment. Putting your money in those banks helps them invest in projects that you may not support. Credit unions are a much better option.

2. Find your park. Did you know that park rangers for the National Park Service were early leaders in the resistance? They were the first group of federal employees the Trump administration gagged because they sent out that famous (now deleted) tweet decrying Trump’s claim that the inauguration crowd was YUUUUGE.

Also, on January 24, 2017 Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight Committee that refused to investigate Trump, introduced House Bill 621, to sell off 3.3 million acres of federal park lands. Luckily, because he was met with such resistance he withdrew the bill.

Support the NPS and post a picture with the hashtag #FindYourPark. (If you’re in the Chicago area, the closest is Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.)

3. Subscribe to a reputable news outlet. Show your support for investigative journalism (and the 1st Amendment). With the Republican majority in Congress, freedom of the press seems to be the only check or balance we have on executive power these days. You can even give a gift subscription to someone who may need to be a little more informed. As the Washington Post‘s new slogan says: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

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4. Support STEM/STEAM education. STEM/STEAM teaches critical thinking, creativity, ingenuity, and problem-solving. Students who are educated Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math are, literally, going to save the world.

STEAM, not just STEM Education Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

5. Take care of you. Seriously, fighting fascism is exhausting. Especially when you feel like just one little, tiny person fighting a giant cabal. Take a day or two every now and again to recenter yourself. Then get back in the fight again!

Do you know of any more easy ways to change the world for the better? Please share them in the comments below.

Please like and share with your friends.

5 Easy Ways You Can Make a Positive Difference in the World RIGHT NOW

1. Donate to the ACLU. Like the Constitution? So do they. The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit, non-partisan team of lawyers and activists that defend constitutional rights. Charity Navigator gives the ACLU a score of four stars.

2. Read a good book and share it. I have read quite a few great books these days that emphasize the teaching of American history, cultural awareness, activism, and science and technology. Read them. Share them with your children and your friends.

  • For the littlest of littles: Faith Ringgold’s We Came to America is a lovely picture book about the cultural diversity that makes America great.We Came to America Faith RinggoldFaith Ringgold We Came to America
  • For elementary school kids: Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock are great choices. Sit-In is a lovely book which tells very simply the story of the four African-American college students who sat at a “whites-only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 to protest segregation.Sit-in pinkney
  • The Camping Trip That Changed America tells the story of what, in 1903, inspired Theodore Roosevelt to protect America’s wilderness.That camping trip that saved america
  • For high-schoolers and up: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a good one. The book is about a teenage hacker in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack in San Francisco, when The Department of Homeland Security clamps down on individual freedoms under the guise of ‘safety.’ Little Brother Cory Doctorow
  • For anyone interested in the intersection of science and society: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene is absolutely enlightening. It is not just straight science. It a history of how scientific discovery can change society, and how misunderstanding that discovery can lead to nightmare scenarios. (Which leads me to the conclusion that science education is now more important than ever, so everyone can have a clear understanding of science and not be lulled into false representations that can serve political purposes.)The Gene Siddhartha Mukherjee

3. Help defund horrible alternative news websites: Sleeping Giants, an anonymous internet collective, is aiming at “trying to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars. Many companies don’t even know it’s happening. It’s time to tell them.” If you have a twitter account, follow the steps below on How To Be A Giant:

Here’s one of my contributions (can’t wait to hear from the trolls on this one):

4. Contact your Congress person. Calling is most effective. Tell them how you would like them to vote on upcoming issues. If you like their votes so far, let them know. If you don’t know who is representing you in Congress, you can find out here.

I recently download a free app called Countable that tells you who is representing you. It also gives info on upcoming legislation. I haven’t used it much yet, so if you have any feedback on it, please let me know.

countable app
Screenshot of Countable

(UPDATE 3/17/17): You can also text-fax with Resistbot.

text-fax resistbot

5. Grab your wallet. Go here to find out what companies you should be boycotting and why. Here is a current list of the top 10:

  1. Macy’s
  2. Neiman Marcus
  3. L.L. Bean
  4. Bloomingdale’s
  5. Zappos
  6. Amazon
  7. Hudson Bay
  8. T.J. Maxx
  9. Lord & Taylor
  10. Bed, Bath, & Beyond

(UPDATE 3/19/17): #grabyourwallet is a national campaign to boycott retailers that do business with the Trump family.

Do you know of any more easy ways to change the world for the better? Please share them in the comments below.

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4 Things I Learned Engaging with Trump Supporters on Facebook

Recently, I wrote a post titled How to Communicate Facts in the Age of Trump which offered some helpful advice on communication, as well as insight into the psyche and motivations of conservatives.

As a data-gathering expedition, I decided to test my own advice and engage some Trump defenders on Facebook. Here’s what I found:

  • If they’re commenting just to be mean, they won’t respond to your request for more communication.

kohls under armour boycott trump

  • They like to change the topic of conversation.

    The Trump defender in this case is referring to Bernie Sanders:

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In this example, the Trump administration’s ties to Russia turned into a Breitbart-inspired referral to Soros:

Trump russia stay on topic

  • They can sometimes seem very reasonable and even moderate their stance in response to questioning.

    In response to the Mike Pence AOL email hack:


Until you visit their Facebook page and find this:


  • Much of the time they just don’t get it.



To recap, I learned:

  • If they’re commenting just to be mean, they won’t respond to your request for more communication.

  • They like to change the topic of conversation. (This is a YUGE-ly used strategy to put you on the defensive.)

  • They can sometimes seem very reasonable and even moderate their stance in response to questioning. (Until you find a Confederate flag on their Facebook page.)

  •  Much of the time they just don’t get it.

It was seriously difficult to stick to my 4 suggestions for communication, listed in this previous blog post. But I learned some very valuable information by engaging Trump supporters in Facebook discussion. If you try to engage (which I suggest because we have to keep the facts from becoming lost in the shuffle), DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE REDIRECTED. As stated above, this is a strategy used by Trump supporters that is meant to put you on the defensive.

In the (not quite) words of that Star Wars guy at the end of A New Hope: “Stay on Topic. Stay on Topic.” And may the force be with you as you continue on in this new resistance.

Have you tried to engage in discussion with a Trump supporter? How did it go?

Do you have any strategies that worked? That didn’t?

Please like and comment below.

How to Communicate Facts in the Age of Trump


In this age, where the Republican administration is relying on “alternative facts,” gagging federal employees, and barring reputable news sources from White House briefings, effective communication of factual, evidence-based information is now more important than ever.

In order to effectively communicate, two things need to happen:

1) a signal must be transmitted, and

2) a signal must be received.

I have found, in my own political communication with those who do not share my viewpoint, that although I am transmitting what I consider to be thought-out, evidence-based ideas, those ideas fall on deaf ears. That is, although I am transmitting a clear signal, my signal is not being received. Therefore, I am not communicating effectively.

My failed communication is partly my fault, and partly the other person’s fault. Let me start by telling you why the other person is at fault, and then I will share some ideas that I’ve been pondering about how to communicate more effectively.

Confirmation bias

First, when talking about how the other person is at fault, we must consider something called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the search for and interpretation of information that conforms to one’s preconceived notion of ‘truth.’ That is to say, the receiver only receives information that confirms his ‘truth’ and disregards information that does not. (Think of your favorite Fox News viewer here.)

Further, people who rely on an incompetent (or intentionally lying) source usually surround themselves with others who rely on that same source. They all become more emboldened to believe their ‘truth’ together because they are now not alone in their belief.

Further still, there is even some evidence that people get a rush of dopamine (the addiction chemical) when they come across information–true or not–that confirms their point of view.

Unconscious incompetence and Illusion of explanatory depth

Second, we have unconscious incompetence. This describes people who are unaware that they are NOT knowledgeable on a certain topic. (A simple example is someone who points to a guitar and vehemently insists that it is a giraffe – even posting diatribes on Facebook about it.)

Unconscious incompetence Scott Archer drawing

The interesting part about unconscious incompetence is that we all exhibit this in one form or another. Consider this: “In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Researchers call this the illusion of explanatory depth. In some domains this illusion is just fine. We don’t need to know the details of toilet ‘flush-age’ or exactly how a cylinder lock works in order to properly use these devices.

However, when it comes to politics or climate change or reproductive rights or LGBTQ rights or vaccinations or the 2nd amendment or an immigrant ban (the list goes on), this illusion of explanatory depth becomes dangerous. Citizens are voicing their opinions, voting, and affecting policy (and posting diatribes on Facebook) on issues which they know little about. But these issues affect the health and safety of others greatly.

So what can we do to communicate more effectively when faced with others’ confirmation bias, unconscious incompetence, and illusion of explanatory depth?

The onus is on us

Like it or not, we who are communicating rational, evidence-based information have to bear the burden of changing how we communicate in order to make our message heard. In other words, we should consider marketing the message. We can do this in four ways:

  1. Appeal to emotion. Understand that merely providing statistics does nothing to open the mind or pierce the intellectual barrier of someone with confirmation bias, unconscious incompetence, or the illusion of explanatory depth. Simply put, citing the statistic that a person’s chance of dying in an airplane crash is one in 11 million, will do nothing to quell the fears of a terrified air passenger clutching his armrests on takeoff. We are emotional beings. (As a side note, appealing to emotion is something that science communicators definitely need to use more of.)

    emotion appeal climate change science
    My attempt at appealing to emotion in debating a climate change denier.
  2. Understand that conservatives and liberals process the world in very different ways. A recent study by John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska (summarized here) showed that conservatives have a stronger negativity bias than liberals do. That is, they focus more on negative stimuli and respond accordingly, suggesting they have more of a “threat-oriented biology.” Furthermore, a 2003 study provided evidence that conservatives also have a “need for certainty” and an “intolerance of ambiguity.” This explains their stance on many issues including gun ownership, immigrant bans, LGBTQ discrimination, etc.
  3. Invoke nostalgia, and the return to a “better” time. Conservatives love the thought of “restoring” America to its former glory. Even if the aim is to restore a glory that never existed. (And we all know that the nostalgia is for a time in which many marginalized people did not have the rights they now have.) Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany decided to test this restoration bias when it comes to environmentalism. Their recent study found that conservative thinkers donated more to a hypothetical environmental charity that aimed to restore the planet to a previously healthy state, rather than one that favored preventing a future disaster.
  4. Exploit the illusion of explanatory depth. If someone is making an untrue claim, ask for a deeper explanation of the topic. As in the Yale study above, that person may expose their own unconscious incompetence to themselves (thereby making it conscious), and will less fervently defend their view. Hopefully, just exposing their lack of important knowledge will lead them to seek out factual information to fill in that gap. (I know, it’s a long shot.) N.B.: This approach may backfire if engaging in debate on social media, as your debate partner may realize his lack of explanatory depth and provide you with a link to an article from their favorite right-wing blog.
My failed attempt at exploiting the illusion of explanatory depth. (Note the person who runs the linked website won the Breitbart Award for Excellence in Online Journalism from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in May 2015.)


Facts are vitally important to the survival of our democracy. It’s time to start calling out the people who are peddling in the currency of unverifiable information. The old strategy of ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ isn’t working anymore. Engaging in civil debate with those who are spouting false statements that are not supported by any scientific evidence is a now a civic responsibility. Arm yourself with evidence-based information and the strategies outlined above.

Works Cited

Beinart, Peter. “The Republican Obsession With ‘Restoring’ America.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Caruso, Catherine. “Make Earth Great Again!–Here’s How.” Scientific American. N.p., 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Scientists Are Beginning to Figure Out Why Conservatives Are… Conservative.” N.p., 18 July 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Do you have any other strategies to add? Please share in the comments below.

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