Science Provides, Wisdom Will Lead

In Pursuit of Logic: Part V of V

“Although most Americans know they are supposed to say ‘We learn from our mistakes,’ deep down they don’t believe it for a minute.”
– Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The key issue we have been struggling with while exploring the topic of this series, In Pursuit of Logic, is how to develop engaging conversations with people of divergent views that avoid the toxicity of ego – to inspire people to listen rather than waiting to talk.

We keep coming back to Brother David Steindl-Rast and his simple message of gratitude. Simply put, he suggests an easy first step that is based on what we do before crossing the street. We stop, look, then cross. The key here is stopping to allow time to think. Or put another way, placing some space between our feelings and how we eventually respond.

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with my dear friend Mike about the issue that has inspired this series: clearing habitat in an attempt to reduce the threat of wildfire. Mike filled our experience together on the phone with laughter, self-depreciation, respect, and pauses. I knew we disagreed on a few things, but by the end of the call I honestly couldn’t tell what exactly those things were. Mike always provided space for me to think, to contribute. That’s the secret of successful communication.

Mike and I have been traveling similar journeys of late, the kind that a lot of folks take an interest in after realizing they’ve entered the last third of their lives – how to connect it all; our triumphs, our mistakes, the space we occupy, the life around us, and the space we will leave behind. On his recent journey to the Southwest, I gave Mike one of the most influential books I’ve read in my life, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism, by Frank Waters.

Like the underground mycelial network of delicate white threads joining together to provide common, vital nutrients to individual plants, Waters connects Indigenous wisdom with other spiritual and intellectual journeys that cultures have taken to understand the flow and meaning of life: Buddhism, Taoism, Christian Science, and Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. They all travel parallel paths.

The road of life …is a long one and a difficult one. For man is at once born of the Earth Mother and the Sun Father and acknowledges allegiance to both the cosmic dualities which they symbolize. Hence the supreme purpose of his life is to resolve within himself the conflict of these polarities so that he may finish his road in harmonic relationship with both and with all the universe.

Much of my life has been guided by the richness of such words, words shared in the kivas of Pueblo ancestors and Buddhist monasteries for centuries.

Masked Gods by Frank Waters.
Our library of dogeared books. Mask Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism by Frank Waters.

Stepping Back From the Abyss

And so, when we were accused of using “offensive, racist language,” and were told we were promoting the “erasure” of Native American “cultures and stewardship” in our original essay of this series, We’re Getting Indigenous Burning All Wrong (which appeared originally as a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times), the dissonance was significant.

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Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

In Pursuit of Logic: Part IV of V

Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

Left alone, Nature is beautiful, as it has been for millions of years. Without us.

A fair number of people are threatened by that independence.

Long before hominids diverged from their ape brethren and began the evolutionary journey to consciousness, the ebb and flow of habitat decorated the mountains, the foothills, and the coastal plain of what would become California, with soft grass, aromatic sage, dense chaparral, and walls of wood. Grizzlies roamed, jaguars courted, Wrentits sang, horned lizards waited, and walking sticks walked on all six. Adapting to herbivory, drought, and fire, the greenery thrived. Dormant seeds waiting for the right signal to burst open with life. Thick bark to protect from frequent, little fires; thin bark where fires were too hot to put up a fight – why waste the energy? Sparse forests, dense forests, denser chaparral for mile upon mile upon mile.

Life, habitat, and countless creations of the evolutionary journey everywhere.

Then we arrived. Humans. Years of fascinating research, from genetics to footprints, has helped us approximate our arrival to North America around 23,000 years ago, give or take. For a while, our impact was minimal.

Fifteen thousand years ago the climate began to dry, deserts expanded, the chaparral began to retreat. A teenage girl found herself trapped (or perhaps laid to rest) in the tarry, sticky mess in what would become the La Brea tar pits about 10,000 years ago. Cultures grew, diversified by the same geographic features that isolated, then created, new populations, then new species, across the Californian landscape. The diversity of human language and culture in California was rivaled by only the island landmass that would eventually be known as New Guinea.

First Americans coming across the Artic land bridge
Coming to America. Mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, Mexico.

As with all other places humans have discovered, Europe, New Zealand, Easter Island, our impact on the California environment grew until we pushed vulnerable species toward extinction. In our trash dumps (shell middens) along the coast and rivers, bones of large animals and easily captured prey, piled up at the lower, oldest levels. As the pile grew, remains of lower calorie catches replaced the richer ones, then at the top, lowly mollusk shells. We picked off the easy protein sources that had no fear of us at first, then moved on to the rest. It’s what humans do and have always done.

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When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

In Pursuit of Logic: Part III of V

There is truth in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, truth is not all socially constructed. Determining truth can be a relatively simple, straightforward process when the facts are assembled by conscious beings other than Homo sapiens.

Once humans get involved, the various lenses through which we view the world start distorting not only what we see, but prevent us from seeing some things all together. Humans can literally look at or hear a factual event and deny its very existence by employing a wild array of rationalizations, logical fallacies, and embellished memories – techniques used to self-justify any action or belief.

On a personal note, I was the victim of my own memory embellishment (or rather, creation) recently when I disagreed with my wife Vicki about how I came to possess a book I was reading, ironically titled Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me. I was convinced I had purchased it recently after my friend Tom recommended it. Not true. Vicki bought it for me in 2019. Of course, I argued this wasn’t true and didn’t relent until I was shown the record of purchase on Amazon. Even then, I rationalized my error as an anomaly – I’ve been so busy lately, I don’t have room in my brain to remember such unimportant details, etc., etc.

On a grander scale, for the Board of Supervisors and staff of San Diego County to admit type conversion could occur in chaparral, a proven phenomenon, would have required them to acknowledge that their plan to add more fire to the landscape through prescribed burning was flawed. The pain of cognitive dissonance was just too much. Consequently, county staff denied chaparral type conversion was occurring at a well known site off Interstate 8 near the town of Alpine that had burned twice in less than 3 years. County personnel repeatedly promoted the idea that the area was recovering just fine. This, despite the fact that the lack of shrub cover and the invasion of non-native weeds could be clearly seen from a nearby highway overlook. The process of self-justification allowed staff to ignore what was right in front of them. The denial was actually a good thing as it inspired us to conduct on-the-ground research that demonstrated the twice burned chaparral had indeed been compromised by weeds and reduced biodiversity. We’re excited about submitting our research for publication soon.

Interestingly, self-justification is not reserved for affirming an individual’s positive view of themselves or their ideas, but also to affirm low self-esteem.

In their definitive book on the subject (the book I thought I had bought), Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write,

An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand why people who have low self-esteem or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; on the contrary, they often feel like frauds… Indeed, several experiments find that most people who have low self-esteem or low estimates of their abilities do feel uncomfortable with dissonant successes and dismiss them as accidents or anomalies. This is why they seem so stubborn to friends and family members who try to cheer them up. “Look, you just won the Pulitzer Prize in literature! Doesn’t that mean you’re good?”

From first hand experience, you can probably guess the answer you’ll get to that last question. “No, I’m not. It was a fluke.” Trying to convince them otherwise would typically result in further intransigence. The actual research that has demonstrated this is fascinating.

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