The Society for Reality-Based Thinking was founded by entrepreneur and author Jack Pelham in 2015. It is the result of a 13-year search for a truly-effective key to societal reform. Perhaps no single quotation could size up the spirit of the effort better than this snippet from Thoreau:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root…”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
It’s not only “evil” that we’d like to see curbed in society, but error, too. And it turns out that both seem to come pretty much from the same roots–bad thinking!
Jack freely admits that he went about the whole search for solutions quite backwards! Here’s how it happened.
In 2002, he and his new wife Kay left a troubled church organization and proceeded with minimal success to attempt to persuade other former and current members as to the importance of the issues over which they left. Jack wrote a short (and quite obscure) book that sought to set the record straight on certain matters of fact, but was disappointed to find that others were simply not very interested in determining the facts relevant to their own religion.
Shortly thereafter, Jack began to be interested in politics, where he quickly realized that apathy among the public is a major problem. From this, Jack designed a non-partisan activist program (The Twenty Minute Patriot) that was aimed at getting citizens to commit to spending a mere twenty minutes each week on politically-related activities of whatever sort they would choose. Lots of people said it was a “great idea”, but when it was ready to launch, nobody signed up!
So far, Jack had learned that the facts don’t matter as they ought to, and that diligence is a hard sell, too. Then came an excursion into principle:
In 2010, Jack and Kay built the Rule of Law Restoration (ROLR), after having realized that—politics aside—American government simply does not follow its own laws well. The objective of the circumpartisan startup movement was to find leaders who would put the goal of having a law-abiding government ahead of the goals of party. This initiative showed some good promise amongst candidates, but the real surprise was that the voters were the ones who wouldn’t buy in!
With the qualified failure of ROLR, Jack realized that some people (mostly from among the candidates) seem to “get it” while a great many others do not. This was both encouraging and daunting at the same time. Determined to continue the pursuit to its most fundamental level, Jack decided to put ROLR on hold and to complete a project previously started. This time, the journey would address character.
The project was his book: Character Not Included: What America must fix before she can fix anything else. Jack published the prototype book for free online in Spring 2012 in something of a marketing test. The book argued that “Washington” is not America’s biggest problem, but that it is that the aggregate character of the American people simply does not make for good overseers of their own government. If the people were, on the whole, better overseers of government, they would not let the government get away with violating our Constitution and other laws. Nor would they tolerate either bad laws or irrational behavior from government. Impeccable as it is, this was the argument that the book made, yet few seem to have found it compelling.
Thus did Jack witness the failure of the following to reform any significant member of societies, small or large:
Interestingly, along the way, he had uncovered many new facts and understandings that would change his own positions significantly from where they began 13 years ago. He would eventually reach an epiphany after much personal study and reform across a number of various topics. With tongue firmly in cheek, he titled that epiphany “Pelham’s Law of Cognitive Error”. It goes like this:
“I am most likely wrong about many things.”
Having become convinced that he had lived in so many cognitive errors, he made Pelham’s Law into something of a safeguard against being unaware of our common human propensity for getting things wrong. To Jack, this was a breakthrough, but he had not found any reliable system by which to get others to reach a similar conviction about themselves.
What was the problem? Why was it so hard to change people’s minds and attitudes? If change were impossible for humans, how had Jack and Kay and a few of their friends managed to change their own minds? The root of the problem must lie deeper yet, Jack reasoned. But what could be deeper than facts, diligence, principle, and character?
As it would turn out, the answer is realityReality -- the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. .
Within a month of launching his book on character, Jack knew the tepid response was indicating a failure for the project. He then turned to cognitive science to see what evidence could be found regarding how people think, why they reach and defend poor positions, and whether they can change. From 2012 to 2015, Jack read these books, along with numerous related articles.
Together, these books painted for Jack a picture of the human mind as an amazing tool that is rarely used to full effect. Our culture is one in which heavy use of the mind is often seen as unnecessary, and is sometimes even discouraged. Our cultural trend toward a lack of substantial cognitive effort even seems to be hard-wired into the mind, with one important exception: the part that Stanovich calls the “Reflective Mind”. That’s the part that tells (or not!) the rest of the mind that it’s not done thinking yet, and that it had better crank up for another round!
To Jack, that sounded a lot like diligence—that had previously failed as a stand-alone motivator. Yet here it was playing a central and crucial role in good thinking. Further, he read about certain traps in our culture that are designed precisely for those who can be counted on not to think their way out of them. He read about common systemic errors in thinking (biases) that pretty much guarantee that we’re going to arrive at poor conclusions, decisions, and beliefs if we don’t override them in the thinking process. He read about how humans are intuitively terrible at statistics and probabilities, and how we had better stop to “do the math” if we’re going to get problems of this nature right on a regular basis.
All this was simply the result of research. Not philosophy or politics or religion, mind you, but simple research. It is the result of years and years of observation of human behavior and the tendencies in it that are obvious. And to Jack, it began to make perfect sense:
Life gets messed up when people behave in ways that are inconsistent with reality.
This is what Jack was seeing when the church members weren’t interested in the particular facts. It was what he was seeing when politically-lazy people weren’t interested in becoming diligent. It was what he was seeing when voters could not be persuaded to value the Rule of Law over the lawless politics that they complain about so routinely. And it is what he was seeing as hundreds of people read his book on character and left without any indication that they wanted to reform themselves and those in their circles of influence.
In every case, these people were determined to ignore reality—to operate outside of reality, despite the very facts and principles they were violating. Thus had he finally identified the most fundamental issue of personal and societal life: the question of whether one will remain responsible to reality or not.
As Jack read some of the word problems the researchers had asked subjects to answer, he was frustrated as he missed many of the problems himself. He was considered “smart” by practically everyone, yet here he was, missing answers in a book that talks about how normal people miss these same answers. He became quickly (and disappointedly) convinced that he, too, must be a “cognitive miser” (a lazy-minded person), and that he had at least a few cognitive biases (flawed methods of thinking) that led him to miss several of the problems.
He noticed also that, unlike religion and politics, when someone gets one of these test questions wrong, they are quickly convinced of the right answer, and never go back to their previous position. Indeed, no one would ever argue begrudgingly later, “Well, that may be, but I still believe that two plus two equals five.” This meant that people could be convinced about the soundness of a certain way of thinking, long before getting to the nitty gritty of applying that way of thinking to their particulars of their lives.
To Jack, this meant that he had found a good alternative to writing article after article in an attempt to convince people that they were wrong about this or that fact or principle. What if, instead, he could help teach people this basic way of thinking, and then let them work through the particulars on their own minds, in their own time, and at their own risk?
To his further excitement, Jack learned that Keith Stanovich and others are currently working to produce the world’s first RQ (Rationality Quotient) Test, designed to measure a person’s skill at thinking rationally (in a reality-based way). In a couple of years, we should all be able to take this test and compare it to our IQ (Intelligence Quotient) scores. And this will likely explain a great deal about our world—about why it is that so very many smart people believe and practice so very many out-of-touch-with-reality things!
Because we are on the threshold of this huge breakthrough in cognitive science (the RQ test), and because he has identified Realty-Based Thinking as the most fundamental target for reform in our society, Jack decided to build the Society for Reality-Based Thinking. Whether it will help 30 million people or three people remains to be seen, but either way, Jack’s opinion is that it is worth it.