Credibility in a Crisis


The President’s speech to the nation (Wednesday morning, Jan. 8, 2020) seems to have raised more questions than it answered, and his approach to the truth appears to be unchanged. The President used the speech for an airing of grievances, and he didn’t display much knowledge of the history of the relationship between the US and Iran. He offered no clear reasons for our attack, did not explain the alleged “imminent attack” by Iraq that he says triggered our military action, and he told an outrageous lie about who paid for Iran’s missiles. These shortcomings are not helping Trump’s credibility problem.

I have no love for the Iranian theocracy, but we would do well to remember that our relations with Iran have not been exemplary. In fact, we were the catalyst for bad relations when we decided to overthrow Iran’s duly elected prime minister and install the Shah. The Shah’s brutal regime brought about an internal resistance movement culminating in the hostage crisis in 1979-80 and the present Iranian regime. We took a democracy and turned it into a tyrannical monarchy, a monarchy that created fanatic, desperate defiance.

The President asserted that Obama provided the money for Iran’s missiles. This is demonstrably a lie. The Iranians were getting their own money returned to them, money we received by selling them weapons and then failing to deliver on the deal. This is known as theft.

And so the President’s recent actions have done little to increase his credibility with the public. To be credible, he’ll need to demonstrate he has the experience and credentials to be taken seriously. In the meantime, world leaders laugh at him. Telling lies makes it hard for the audience to find the speaker trustworthy—a key quality of those who are credible, along with integrity and responsibility. Integrity means you do what you say you will do and others can rely on you to get it right. Responsibility is the idea that we accept liability for our actions. We are accountable for what we say and do.

Trump has failed to show that he understands these ethical concerns, and his zero cred will make it difficult for him to keep events under control. The lack of a plan, a reason, or a negotiation will cause more confusion. The conventional wisdom of the hour is that this incident is now winding down, but those with extensive foreign policy experience do not believe we’ve heard the last word. Cyber attacks, proxy attacks, terrorism may still be likely. We may have avoided a full-blown hot war, but the shadow war continues.

A Matter of Trust


President Trump is on the path to lose the Great Game in the Middle East. Putin has flown to Syria to bolster Russia’s centuries-long interests in the area, China is taking notes, the Pentagon and our allies are in shock, Americans are choosing tribal affiliations and, apparently, the Iraqis are taking their revenge. Trump has poked his finger into the beehive, and now he has lots of problems. Complex problems. In this post, we’ll look at one challenge the President may not be able to overcome.

One of the biggest problems Trump faces while dealing with Iran is his almost total lack of credibility. Not many people believe what he says. And Trump has given us good reason to disbelieve his claims. For one thing, what he claims to be true is often false. Various estimates put the number of lies he has told since taking office somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000. He also habitually denies having said things that were recorded while he was saying them. Does he inspire the kind of trust he will need to get the support of the American public and our allies in this situation?

Credibility can vary from from subject to subject, context to context, but there are some markers we can use to identify the times when a source is credible. Some of those markers are anathema to Trump because they run counter to the gangster/tough guy image he likes to project. For example, gaining credibility with an audience requires an effort to find commonalities with the audience by talking about common experiences and shared values. This is a problem for Trump. His experiences are exclusive to a particular lifestyle, and he appears to have no values other than those that help him market his product: himself.

Respect for your audience is also crucial. To bring people to your side, you must make it clear that you can hear them and their concerns. A credible person will try to start where the audience is and then move the audience to a new and more accurate point of view about a position or claim. Alas, our president doesn’t seem to respect much other than the almighty dollar.

I think there’s a straight line connecting Trump’s personality problems with Trump’s credibility problems. Beyond that, the persuasion techniques he uses are at about grade-school level at best. In a foreign policy situation like this one, what’s needed is a clear summation of the reasons why action is required, why it is required now, and why we can’t find a way to get along with our adversaries without resorting to “might makes right.”

It is now becoming clear that General Soleimani—a man highly regarded by some Iranians—was a ruthless killer, but this was not known to most Americans, and the administration did nothing to educate the public about this dangerous man. Has taking him out created more problems than there were before?

Another error was the President’s failure to include appropriate people in the decision-making process. Real estate developers may be able to shoot from the hip and make unilateral decisions on the fly, but the world is much more complex than the real estate market. In the meantime, we’ll get more politics of  distraction  destruction.



“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Aldous Huxley, British novelist

“People everywhere enjoy believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know.” Brooks Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic

“The public will believe anything so long as it is not founded on truth.” Edith Sitwell, British poet and critic

“Refusal to believe until proof is given is a rational position; denial of all outside of our own limited experience is absurd.” Annie Besant, British philanthropist

“Is a tree really there when no one’s looking?” unidentified quantum physicist

Identifying Good Reasons


One might think that we need a definition of ‘knowledge’ in order to track it down and recognize it once we’re face-to-face with it. The answer to the question “what is knowledge” is under debate and has been for a few thousand years. The good news is we don’t need an answer. That’s because there is no answer. At least, no answer we can all agree on. The attempt to assign the word “knowledge” to specific claims has brought forth myriad opinions on the nature of knowledge–a serious problem in a post-fact age.

We think Plato’s classic view was close to correct: Knowledge is Justified True Belief. This is what sets knowledge apart from opinion. If you have a claim that is justified with appropriate support, you believe the claim, and the claim is true, then you can say you know it. There are some problems with this view of knowledge, but at a practical level Plato’s formula is very helpful:

K=JTB      Knowledge is Justified True Belief

--answering the question, “how do you know?”

Perception—“I saw it happen.”

Self-awareness—“It happened to me.”

Memory—Be careful because it’s not like a recording.

Deduction—the three-part logic of syllogisms

Induction—“These repeated occurrences must add up to something.”

Authority—the use of expert testimonials

Consensus—“We’ve all agreed to do it this way.”

Intuition—An apparent flash of insight that is generated by deep knowledge of      the subject.

Revelation—“God told me.”

          Faith—“You should put on this blindfold and follow me.”

*Of course, these descriptions are brief. Look for more detail in later posts.


The Importance of Critical Thinking

“The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It’s not that there’s something new in our way of thinking – it’s that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it never was before.”

—Carl Sagan, astrophysicist

He had been Standing on a Block of Ice: Lateral Thinking



Thinking can take a number of different forms. Thinking can be linear (or sometimes called vertical), as it must be when we are trying to communicate in speech or writing. It can be associative, as when we jump from one idea to another by way of an association between the two ideas and not through logic (green–grass–badminton–birdie). Or it can be lateral, as in those puzzles with unexpected solutions that still make sense.

Enumeration (or listing) is a form of linear thought as is the grammar pattern Subject-Verb-Object, associative thinking shows up in many children’s games (say the first word that comes to mind), and lateral thinking helps us notice our preconceptions and the significant corresponding details we’ve been trained to ignore.

In this post, a little lateral thinking puzzle to challenge you:

A man and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed and the child is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy – for he is my son!!!’ How can this possibly be?

Lateral thinking gives us a few advantages that we don’t get from linear or associative thinking. Lateral thinking anticipates our preconceptions and uses those to set up a trap. Sometimes called “thinking outside the box,” lateral thought drives us to think in broader form, to examine criteria and categories, to use care in our word choices, and to slip the trap.

The boy’s surgeon is his mother. Surgeons seldom operate on their immediate family members. And our cultural expectation (still) is that surgeons are male.

And the man in the header hanged himself by tying his noose to the rafter and standing on a block of ice. When he was found, there was no chair under him, but there was a puddle of water on the carpet.

If you have a favorite lateral thinking puzzle, share it in the comments.

Good Reasons


How do we recognize a good reason when we see one? In a previous post, I mentioned the concern that in general Americans have poor critical thinking skills. They have difficulty determining the difference between real and fake, bogus and genuine, good reasons and bad ones.

How do we recognize a good reason when we see one? Or a bad reason, for that matter. With all the on-going twists and spins on matters of public importance, discernment is an important skill to have. And as it so happens, reality, authenticity, and good reasons all possess recognizable characteristics that allow us to identify them. In Western culture, the attributes of good reasons are contained in a hierarchy of ten levels, from most to least credible.











A few centuries ago, revelation and faith were higher in the standings. Today, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept those alone as good reasons, and they demand something more empirical. Consensus may be gaining credibility with recent studies showing some evidence that crowds can make good decisions. The top three attributes—perception, self-awareness, and memory—are used almost exclusively in our daily lives and the other attributes are reserved for special situations.

That’s a quick review for now. In later posts, I’ll take a look at each attribute and its level of credibility in more detail.