Dec 18, 2012

Women and Children First: The Calculus of Culpability

In the wake of the Newtown, CT school shooting, philosopher Russell Blackford asked why news reports emphasized the number of children killed, rather than the total number of victims, as if adult lives were worth less than children's lives.

This question really probes our ethical and emphatic priorities. On one hand, few people would disagree that lives of adults are intrinsically as precious as lives of children. Even those who think in terms of years of potential life lost could not conclude there is much difference, on that basis, between a loss of a child and a young adult such as a teacher in her 20s. On the other hand, most people, including me, have a markedly stronger visceral reaction to a murder of a child than to a similarly executed murder of an adult. My moral intuition tells me that the murderer of a child is more culpable. Why?

One could try rationalizing the difference in terms of the loss suffered by the survivors. For most people, it is more painful to lose a child than to a parent or a sibling. That is probably an adaptation to our mortal nature: everyone dies, and the best we can hope for is that deaths will follow the sequence of generations. However, this explanation does not work for several reasons. First, although adults are generally well-adapted to accept the death of their aging parents, a parent's early death can still be a terrible loss for a child of a certain age (old enough to understand death, but too young to be emotionally detached from the parent), so a strict hierarchy of grief is far from clear. Second, hearing of a death of a child is not any less heart-rending if we also learn that the child was an orphan whom nobody loved and thus nobody is grieving. If anything, that additional information may sadden us more. And third, an introspection into my reactions convinces me that a strong revulsion at the act of killing a child comes before, and is independent of, any thoughts of how horrible it must be for their parents. I am quite sure my moral calculus in this case is driven by outrage (anger) rather than empathy, and I suspect this is common, perhaps nearly universal.

My theory is that our moral calculus of culpability is driven by fundamental notions of fairness, that it is evolutionarily conditioned, and that it is ill-adapted to the modern world with a fundamentally changed technology of killing.

Before we had guns, or even bows and arrows, killing another person generally required overpowering them in close contact. For millions of years, it meant using bare hands (and feet, and teeth), then maybe sticks or stones, and in the last few tens of thousands of years also axes and spears. But, basically, to kill someone, you had to fight them and win the fight. You had to be stronger than them.

Or you could catch them asleep and kill them when they couldn't defend themselves. But that's unfair, by a universal human (and broader) standard of fairness, and thus universally condemned. While killing in a fight may feel more or less justified, killing someone in their sleep carries a strong presumption of a cowardly murder. Fairness requires that the victim has a chance at defense, and that, in turn, requires a reasonable balance of strength. I believe this describes pretty well the moral sentiments of primitive humans regarding violence within their community (tribe), but outside of one's immediate family (where some different rules may apply).

Now, men are naturally physically stronger than women, and adults are both much stronger and smarter (more experienced and cunning) than children, which means that a man attacking a woman, or an adult attacking a child, is a fundamentally unfair act, somewhat akin to a man attacking a sleeping man. Thus the human sense of fairness ranks an attack on a woman as more wicked (or at least more cowardly) than an attack on a man, and an attack on a child even worse.

It would follow that killing a child is worse than killing a woman, which is worse than killing an unarmed man, which is worse than killing a man with an axe. And this is consistent with the prevailing moral sentiments of today: it is usually considered OK to kill an enemy soldier, but not OK to kill a civilian, even worse to kill a civilian woman, and worst of all to kill a child.

(A reverse calculus may apply to perpetrators. For example, Judith kills Holofernes while he is defenseless, in a drunken stupor, escapes alive, and is celebrated as a heroine. Could a man get away with it? Male mythical heroes who kill by deception usually don't kill a sleeping enemy, and often have to pay with their lives.)

Modern weapons (and poisons), however, make this moral calculus dubious. Bodily strength has little to do with the capability of modern humans to kill, or to defend themselves. A small woman with a gun can easily kill the strongest man. Or she can lace his drink with cyanide. Either way, his muscles provide no defense and he is objectively in no better position to avoid death than a child. Therefore, in any situation involving an armed killer and an unarmed (or armed, but unprepared) victim, the victim's strength, or sex and age on which the strength largely depends, is irrelevant for the fairness of the situation, and hence, by the logic of fairness established earlier, for the culpability of the killer.

But, as is often the case, our moral sentiments have difficulty adapting to the world dominated by technology.

Nov 24, 2012

Secession ranking

This season, secession is in fashion. But which states are the most fashionable, or should I say secessionable? I compiled the total number of signatures for the secession of each state on the White House petition site, and divided them by population. (There are multiple petitions for some state; in those cases, I added up the signatures on all petitions.) You can see the results by clicking here, but briefly: the top-ranked states are Alaska, North Dakota and Wyoming, while the bottom-ranked are California, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Keep in mind that the signatures for each state (if serious) represent the people from the state that want to secede from the United States, plus the number of people in other states who want the state to go away.

Nov 4, 2012

Why I will not vote for Obama, but you should

That is, you should if you live in a swing state.

EDIT (A little over 4 years later): Although I still think my arguments in this post were valid, I eventually came to regret ever having voted for third-party candidates, because I contributed to giving too much legitimacy to such choices. I would not do that again.

If I had the power to pick the President for the next four years, it would be an easy decision: Obama is much better than Romney. There are two reasons this is a clear and important choice.

First, there is likely to be at least one vacancy on the Supreme Court in the next four years, and the most likely Justice to retire is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 79-year old double cancer survivor. If Romney got a chance to replace her with a movement conservative, that would complete the right-wing takeover of the court. On any ideological issue, the moderates (there really are no liberals on the court) would need the support of both Kennedy and Roberts to prevail. That would almost never happen. There may be other vacancies: by the end of the next presidential term, Justices Scalia and Kennedy will be 80, and Justice Breyer 78. The difference (and consequences for the country) between Obama picking Scalia's successor and Romney picking Breyer's is enormous. Given that Supreme Court justices typically serve about 30 years, this issue alone normally trumps everything else and compels choosing any Democrat over any Republican.

This time, however, there is a second issue of at least equal importance and long-lasting consequences: the implementation of health care reform. The ACA, though imperfect, was the most consequential piece of progressive legislation in about 40 years, but only if it survives and is properly implemented. I don't think it would be repealed if Romney became President; that would require the Senate to go along, and Republicans won't have a Senate majority until at least 2015, when all the popular provisions of the ACA will go in effect and the public will become strongly opposed to repeal. But an administration that's lukewarm on its implementation, combined with the House that defunds it, can turn a decent health insurance system (as envisioned in the law) into a dysfunctional one, which would eventually necessitate major changes. For the reform, which will enable almost all legal residents of the US to have health insurance, to succeed, it is essential to keep Obama in office for four more years.

There are many other reasons to favor Obama, of course. In fact, I can't think of a single issue on which Romney would be better than Obama. But the reality is that the candidates don't differ significantly on foreign policy, and the President really doesn't have a lot of influence on the economy, especially when it is not in crisis. I do think a Romney presidency would increase the risk of a major war (e.g., with Iran), mainly because his current foreign policy team is dominated by neocons left over from G. W. Bush, and neither Romney nor Ryan have any foreign policy or military experience. So, that's probably the third most important reason to keep Romney out of power. And I could go on and on.

But I don't have the power to pick the President. I live in a very blue state, which will overwhelmingly vote for Obama. If the election in my state were so close that my vote had a theoretical chance of affecting the outcome, the Republican candidate would be winning in a landslide nationally. In other words, my vote in the presidential election is worth exactly zero.

However, the fact that my vote is guaranteed to be inconsequential for the outcome of the election also means I have the luxury to vote my conscience and my personal preference. Since I find Obama too conservative and too belligerent, I personally prefer to vote for somebody who stands for more social justice and less war. Therefore, I will vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.

I don't know a lot about Dr. Stein, other than what is on her web page. She is considerably to the left of Obama, and I agree with her on more issues than with Obama, although there is no candidate with whom I agree on all issues. I am pretty sure she would be ineffective as President - she is too much an outsider - but that's irrelevant since she won't be one. She is the only candidate on the ballot in my state that represents the left opposition to the current government, and that is what I want my vote to symbolically support.

I would not come to the same conclusion if I lived in a state that could potentially be pivotal in this election. I would definitely vote for Obama if I lived in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, Florida, or North Carolina. I would probably also decline to tempt fate if I lived in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, or even New Mexico. It's not only that there would be some minute chance that my vote could decide the election. That chance is really too small to take into serious consideration. It's more that voting is, by its nature, a collective act, and although I am not a Kantian by any stretch of imagination, in this case I do feel that my action should conform to what I want everyone else to do. In my state, I am pretty sure that if everyone voted for the candidate they prefer in their heart, Obama would still win. Just like in Texas, Romney would still win. But in states where the race is close, minor party candidates could affect the outcome if voters did not behave strategically. That's why voters in those states ought to view the election strictly as a choice between the two major party candidates. (But I'd be happy if every voter whose preferences are Johnson > Romney > Obama or Goode > Romney > Obama voted from the heart rather than strategically narrowing the choice.)

Oct 18, 2012

Told you so (charitable giving edition)

Nice to see a debunking of the myth that conservatives give more to charity. But I called Brooks's BS five years ago.

Oct 13, 2012

The GRIMS should contemplate the meaning of "I"

What possesses about half of American voters that will make them vote for Mitt Romney for President?

The Grim is an omen of doom in Harry Potter*
I want to understand it because the idea is as foreign to me as taking a pin to a fair, popping every child's balloon, and then swallowing the pin. It also feels equally mean and self-destructive. So I tried to boil it down to a short list of simple reasons why people vote for Romney (or Republican in general). I contend that every Republican voter is driven by at least one of five factors, which can be summarized in an acronym: GRIMS.

G is for greed, R is for racism, M is for misogyny, S is for stupidity. (Where is I? Don't be impatient; I'll give it a special treatment at the end.)

Greed is an obvious factor. For wealthy voters, it is, by most measures, individually rational. If you earn more than about $200,000 per year, or have a multi-million-dollar estate to leave to your heirs, you (or your heirs) will likely be able to consume more goodies if Republicans run the country. If your income is in millions or your estate in tens of millions (or more), you will certainly be significantly richer under Republicans. I may consider you selfish or narrow-minded, but I can't really blame you for voting your purse. I could point to billionaires who vote Democratic—who are willing to bear a personal cost for a better society—but it's your vote and you could do much worse than voting based on your personal material interest. After all, you are in the one percent, maybe two, hardly a group that decides elections. (If you are not wealthy, this paragraph is not about you. If you think it is, please skip to the letter S.)

Racism is an obvious factor in this presidential election and in the last one, but it is almost as important when both candidates are of the same race (whatever that means). Many voters are attracted to the Republican opposition to various social programs. At first, this appears puzzling because polls regularly show that people generally support social programs, and not just "earned benefits" like Social Security, but also "welfare" programs like Medicaid. However, digging deeper leads to a discovery that many people like those programs for "people like me", but think that "those other people" tend to abuse them. The "other" are, of course, those of different race or ethnicity, or immigrants (but mostly those of different race or ethnicity).

Misogyny: what is generally manifested as abortion policy is really all about equal rights for women. (Note that opposition to abortion and opposition to equal pay are correlated.) If you are personally morally opposed to abortion, there is no reason for you to want to use state power to impose your moral views on others. Plenty of such people are pro-choice and many of them vote for Democrats. If you truly believe abortion is murder, I can see why you'd want to outlaw it, but the moment you say you'd allow exceptions for rape or incest, you have admitted you don't believe that abortion is murder at all. Since those who oppose the rape/incest exception are generally considered extreme even by most Republicans, I will not discuss them here, as people on the extremes of the political spectrum don't decide elections unless the election is so close that the turnout of core partisan voters is critical. But my main question is why the election is close in the first place. That's not because of the 10-15% who truly believe that abortion is murder. All other so called "pro-life" voters really want to put women "in their place" and shame them for being sexual at all. If you are anti-abortion, but actively involved in distributing free contraceptives and contraception (not just abstinence) advice, then what I said does not apply to you. All other "pro-lifers", shame on you and don't complain.

Stupidity is, of course, a factor in most people's decisions, and I don't deny that a lot of people vote Democratic for stupid reasons as well. But this post is about why people vote Republican. Denying evolution or climate change are two stupid ideas adopted and promoted by the Republican Party. (Romney doesn't subscribe to either, AFAIK, but he'll still win the deniers' vote overwhelmingly, for reasons discussed later, under "I".) The idea that tax cuts for the rich trickle down and benefit everyone, or that one day you'll be rich and will benefit from those tax cuts, is stupid wishful thinking. Believing that Obama is a socialist who is destroying America's businesses and burdening most people with excessive taxes and regulations is stupid. Ditto for believing that Obamacare is a government takeover of health care that will introduce death panels and force you to lose the insurance you have. Same for believing that Obama is weak in foreign policy, that he apologizes for American values or that he is hostile to Israel. And, of course, ditto for the idea that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim, but that really belongs under the letter R. The list goes on and on, but you get the picture.

I skipped the middle of the acronym, but now it's time to go back to the letter I. Initially, I meant it to stand for ignorance, as I wanted to separate it from stupidity. Technically, ignorance is a state of being uninformed or misinformed, and thus can be remedied by supplying information, while stupidity is an inability to think properly, absorb information, and form reasonable conclusions, and can rarely be helped. Strictly speaking, most of the examples I listed under stupidity are evidence of ignorance, and not necessarily of stupidity. However, I am not convinced that the distinction is meaningful here. The facts are easily accessible to everyone. More than that: most of them are hard to escape from. Schools teach evolution. Your pay stub lists the tax withholding. Obama's birth certificate has been published everywhere. Everybody has seen these things. People aren't really ignorant of the facts. What they are is willfully ignorant, and that's broadly in the realm of stupidity, or perhaps delusion. In any case, it is a personal, rather than circumstantial, shortcoming. So I decided to leave ignorance out of the list. Plus, there is a more compelling "I" word there.

Another reason I looked for a different word is that the list so far fails to explain too many voters. Although I can comfortably say that practically every Republican in Congress today, and every Republican who ran for President in this cycle, with a possible exception of Huntsman (Gary Johnson is incredibly stupid on economic policy), exhibits at least one of the four characteristics discussed so far, not every Republican voter does. First, there are reasonable conservative thinkers whom I read regularly. Although some of them have been ostracized by the institutional Right, and others have tried to keep out of politics, I suspect that most of them will, in the end, hold their noses and vote for Romney (and probably for the down-ticket Republicans as well, unless those are some extreme Tea Partiers). I also know enough people who have expressed preference for Romney, but whom I can't place in any of the four groups, based on what I know (or think I know) about them.

Really, the core topic of this post is how to explain Romney voters who are not idiots. Everything else is not all that interesting. Of course the stupid misogynist racists will vote Republican, as will the dirty rich. Dog bites man.

So here we go: I stands for identity. Politics is tribal, and most people identify with a group. Often that means identifying with a party. It is hard for a "lifelong Republican" to break with his party, even if he thinks the party has changed so much that he hardly belongs in it. For some people, it is hard to support a candidate opposed by the vast majority of their friends and family. And this feeling of loyalty to the tribe gets internalized and takes root—not least because tribe membership is partly explained by the individual's psychological makeup.

Oh, good. That means I can be comfortable around those Romney voters and not feel compelled to put them in a "greedy", "racist", "misogynist" or "stupid" drawer. They just identify with their tribe, it's practically like being of different ethnicity or religious persuasion. And it's not like our tribes are in a bloody war. It's OK.

Well, sort of. I don't hate people for belonging to that tribe. But, honestly, I don't hate people for being stupid, or (as you must have noticed above) even for being greedy. (Racism and misogyny are more serious offenses. No guarantees there.) It's not about hate. Nobody will get in a fist fight. However, I am not sure this tribal identity thing is more benign than "ignorance" would have been in its place, or than stupidity is. Plus, it may be a root cause for other items on the list.

I mentioned that willful ignorance is more like stupidity. But no one wills one's own stupidity. Why do people will their own ignorance? Because it is beneficial for them to do so. There is a hackneyed (but true) saying that it is hard to teach a man something if his salary depends on not knowing it. It is similar with non-material incentives. Learning is uncomfortable if it contradicts one's religious dogma, challenges one's values, or distances one from one's tribe. To avoid that discomfort, people close their eyes and ears and refuse to learn, or they find alternative sources of more convenient "facts". As a result, they end up ignorant, stupid, or delusional. That may be puzzling to others, as the same individuals may be evidently knowledgeable, smart and sane in other areas. Their compartmentalized stupidity is an outgrowth of their tribal identity.

This is nothing new. It is a long-standing standard explanation for smart people who believe in weird things. It probably comes up most often as an explanation of a smart, educated person who denies evolution. But it extends far beyond religious dogma. It is the main driver of politics, and is the main reason that the political discourse is generally idiotic.

So this is a challenge for my Republican friends: think about whether you really like the tribe you identify with. Think about the fact that you couldn't win any national election without some unsavory groups (the racists). Think about the party tenets that are demonstrably false. Think about the lies and bullshit your politicians say, and need to say. Yeah, I know that all politicians lie, but come on, your party is an order of magnitude worse.

And, when you've thought about it, ask yourself: Is this the "I" that describes me?

* Image by Cliff Wright. Source:

Oct 12, 2012

Causes of Romney bounce

I believe the polls, but I don't believe that Romney gained 4-5% based on the debate alone. That just doesn't happen, especially not in an election with so few undecided voters. I think it is a mistake to attribute all the movement to a single cause, as if there were no other events in the last week.

Last week's debate was Wednesday night, and there was another important event Friday morning: the jobs report. So, my hypothesis is that some of the Romney bounce is due to the jobs report.

Now you think I'm nuts. The jobs report was exceptionally good, and thus presumably favorable to the incumbent. Also, didn't I just in the last post explain that it didn't matter? Am I changing my positions like Romney?

Oh, but what I explained was that the substance of the report —the facts reported—couldn't matter for the polls. But there was another event associated with the report: Republicans started spreading conspiracy theories about it, and the media treated those conspiracy theories as if they were respectable ideas. What would be the expected effect on a "low-information" voter? A suspicion that Obama is the new Nixon, of course!

So I think that the irresponsibility of the media in giving free advertising space to the nuts has been a factor in the Romney bounce, and I would guess that it may account for up to half of it.

The poll movements are consistent with my hypothesis: first came a bounce, then it appeared to fade, but then it increased again and stabilized. This can, of course, be a coincidence, as those daily movements were well within the range of normal statistical fluctuations. But at least they provide a prima facie case for two causes, separated by a couple of days.

Oct 10, 2012

Cooking the numbers: a half-baked idea

Many have commented on the Republican conspiracy theories about BLS cooking the September employment numbers to help Obama's reelection. Enough has been said about how preposterous those theories are and how irresponsible the media have been in covering them as if they deserved some respect. I have nothing to add to that, but I am puzzled that I haven't seen anyone ask an obvious question:

How do those people think embellished statistics would help a candidate in an election?

Seriously. Do you know any person who would decide for whom to vote, or whether to vote, based on the published unemployment rate? Can you imagine somebody thinking, "I wasn't going to vote for Obama when the unemployment rate was 8.1%. But wow, the unemployment rate is 7.8% now, and by golly, I'm voting to reelect the President!"?

OK, there may be two or three Aspergians nationwide who are so much into economic data that  oher shethey set a voting decision rule based on such statistics. But, if such people exist, I bet they live in DC anyway (working for the government or some think tank), and DC's electoral votes are already spoken for.

Other than that hypothetical and vanishingly small demographic, no voter thinks that way. Most voters don't even know what the unemployment rate is, and those who know couldn't care less.

Of course, people care about the economy. But they don't care about abstractions. They care about how they are doing, and how their friends and relatives are doing. They react to what they experience. If you are unemployed, and the unemployment rate declines from 8% to 6%, did you somehow become less unemployed? Nothing has changed for you. Things did change for a lot of other people, and they are now more likely to reelect the current officials. That's why job numbers matter for the election. But they don't matter to any individual voter.

That's why you don't see a bounce for Obama in the polls after the good economic news, unlike the day before, when his advantage diminished because of the poor debate performance. But the debate—however irrelevant in substance—was news to every individual. By contrast, the employment numbers were news in the aggregate, but not to individuals. Nobody's experience of the economy changed with the publication of those numbers.

That is not to say that those job numbers are not reflected in the polls. Of course they are—in polls conducted in September. Think about it: if more people became employed in September, more people liked the current administration in September. Incidentally, Obama's poll numbers did improve in September, although we'll never know how much of that was due to the improving economy, how much  to the energized Democratic Convention, and how much to Romney's gaffes and the "47%" recording. But, whatever the effect of the economy, it was there in the polls long before it was in the published data.

And this is generally true: economic statistics are lagging indicators of voters' opinions, because they are published with a delay and voters form opinions based on their experiences immediately. To put it another way: the polls predict the economic data, not the other way around.

So how would making up job numbers help reelect the President? In the immortal words of South Park's underpants gnomes:
  1. Cook the numbers
  2. ?????
  3. Second term!!!
The idea that this could work is crazy—even more crazy than the blind, rabid partisanship that transforms otherwise sane people into paranoid conspiracy theorists.

Sep 30, 2012

Haidting on reason

Last Sunday, I attended an oddly irritating talk. The speaker was smart and articulate and I am sure I would agree with her on 90% of randomly chosen social, political, or philosophical issues. The presentation was effective and well done. The topic was certainly important—how to talk with people who disagree with us. And yet, there was so much wrong with it, I felt the need to emerge from blogging hibernation just to respond to it. (I have invited the speaker to visit this blog and comment, so I may not go back to hibernation.)

The talk was largely based on Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. So I should begin with a disclosure: I dislike Haidt. Although I haven't read his new book, I have followed his writing for years, and have consistently found him to be a member of the most annoying of tribes, the Self-Hating Liberals.

Don't get me wrong: Haidt is worth reading. His analysis of happiness and morality draws on recent research in various disciplines, including neuroscience, and almost everybody will learn a lot from it. He writes well and his arguments often challenge the conventional wisdom. Engaging in a debate with him requires clear and disciplined thinking. But the converse holds as well: clear and disciplined thinking requires engaging in a debate with Haidt, because his most prominent arguments are ultimately destructive.

Haidt got a lot of press a few years ago, when he—a declared atheist—defended religion's contribution to people's happiness. I think it was somewhat unfortunate for his own opus, as most of his ideas are not as inchoate, but he never seemed to object to earning much of his relative celebrity status due to this particular idea, so I must assume that he thinks of it as representative enough of his work. Now he has written a book in which he—a declared liberal—defends the conservative values as an integral part of the "moral matrix" our species has evolved with.

There is a pattern here: Haidt distinguishes himself by asking questions of the type "What if we are wrong?", where "we" are those with whom he identifies through fundamental viewpoints: atheists, secularists, liberals. This is, of course, fine in principle, even desirable, but if one builds a career on those questions, one's success becomes dependent on the challenge actually showing the prevailing views wrong. Merely casting doubt does not make you a famous iconoclast; for that, you must break something.

But Haidt doesn't want atheists and liberals to lose arguments. He still reaffirms his atheism and his liberal values. So he shifts focus from the question of who is right to the one of why people hold the views they hold. He wants to study morality scientifically, dispassionately. That's great, but is has a side-effect: it leads to moral relativism. Haidt is not comfortable with that:
I hope you'll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You can still reject the three binding foundations normatively—that is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism, racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.
But this discomfort muddles the argument. It becomes less and less clear what the goal is. We should consider that we may be wrong... But we can still believe we are right... But we should understand those who are wrong different... Maybe we are wrong in the way we interact with them... Can one go down this path and remain coherent?

For those unfamiliar with Haidt's work, I suggest this essay and the responses to it as a good introduction. (The quotation above is from it.) The flaws in Haidt's essay are pointed out very well by Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and Marc Hauser, but they all miss an important point—that Haidt uncritically relies on biased sources—which I pointed out in this blog. (Note that Brooks has since solidified his hack credentials, as he has become the president of the AEI.)

As I said, I haven't read Haidt's new book, so I cannot criticize it directly. What I will criticize is the speaker's representation of it. I believe, however, that it is a fair representation, based on earlier articles that I have read, and which were clearly stages of the road to The Righteous Mind. An example is here. Again, read the responses, too; I particularly like those by Sam Harris (again!) and Roger Schank.

But on to last Sunday's talk. Its frame was a question: How do you talk with your "nut job" relatives, friends, or associates? Yes, we all have people we care about (or at least need to keep constructive working relationships with) who hold (or, worse, spill) ideas that are crazy, ludicrous, idiotic, or of some other similar kind. How can we have a conversation with them?

The speaker identified two major errors that derail such conversations. One, in our "toxic culture", we surround ourselves with those who think alike, and in our minds dehumanize The Other, those with whom we disagree. Two, we overestimate the role of rationality and falsely believe that our values have a rational basis, when in fact we use reason to justify our moral views we have already formed based primarily on emotions. The latter is illustrated by Haidt's metaphor of the rider and the elephant: the rider (the rational functions of our mind) thinks he is in charge, but the elephant (the irrational) is far more powerful.

To avoid these errors, we need to understand human morality: it is rooted in emotions, which give rise to six basic moral values: caring, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Those six values form what Haidt calls the moral matrix. (As I understand, that concept is the main new idea in The Righteous Mind.) According to Haidt's research, liberals mainly care about the first three of those values, while conservatives care about all of them.

The speaker concluded with guidelines for better conversation with "the nut jobs":
  1. Find the humanity in each other. Stop thinking about them as crazy.
  2. Put aside right and wrong. (This includes facts!) Start by making a connection.
  3. Understand their values and speak to them. Listen. Don't stereotype them or assume they think X because they are conservatives (or liberals, etc.)
  4. Don't fall into cynicism (resignation? pessimism?). Do something!
  5. Get out of your box. Speak with people of different opinions. Get out from behind your computer!
After the talk, there was some opportunity for response from the audience. My elephant wanted to talk for an hour, but that would have been rude and against the rules, so I limited myself to expressing disagreement over equating thinking of somebody as mentally ill and dehumanizing that person. Mentally ill people are no less human than the rest. I do think that calling Tea Partiers "crazy" may sometimes be a comparison offensive to the crazy folk, but that's a different issue. I also believe that conservatism will one day be understood as related to conditions currently classified as psychiatric disorders. But anyone who sees the "crazy" people (of any kind) as less than human has a problem more acute than how to speak with ideological opponents.

So what are my other problems with the talk? My guess is that at this point, having read the summary of the talk, but not having heard my objections, most readers think it was perfectly fine. OK, there are some details I haven't mentioned yet, but let's go over the main points first.

My first problem with the talk as a whole parallels a problem I have with Haidt: it is not clear what the goal is. Are we trying to persuade the "nut job relative" we are talking with? Or contribute to the political success of "our" candidate? Or be a better person, not act like a jerk, have better relationships? The speaker mentioned all of the above, so I guess that would be her answer, but those are distinct goals and I am not sure they are always compatible. Certainly the strategy in achieving them ought to be different. Political persuasion usually benefits from some degree of deception, while I would think that honesty is a crucial part of being a good person.

Moreover, I would be close to answering that question with "none of the above". I discuss political issues often, but I don't usually expect to change people's views or influence elections, and I don't think the style of the conversation has much to do with me becoming a better or worse person. I like to test my own views by exposing them and defending them in a debate. It helps me grow, which may be akin to becoming a better person. Hopefully, it helps the other person grow, too, if they are willing to use the opportunity. I also believe that reason has an intrinsic value, and it is reason I want to triumph in a debate. If I happen to be on its side, that's an added benefit, but being right after a debate is the next best thing—and when you add the value of learning, it may be the best outcome.

A direct consequence is that I enjoy serious discussions with people who hold different views and can articulate good arguments in support of those views. If their arguments are poor, I see a serious discussion as a waste of time. Mocking their views becomes much more attractive. It may not be nice, but humor and satire have an intrinsic value, too. Or, if practical considerations preclude that (say, you would offend someone you need to work with), then it is best to avoid talking about contentious issues with them, period.

The second fundamental problem I have with the talk is that it promotes relativism. Not only moral relativism, but even the relativism of facts. I've already mentioned how Haidt ends up stepping into relativism and being uncomfortable with it. The speaker may feel similarly, as she unambiguously identified with one side of the political spectrum. So she seems to carry this relativism half-way down several diverging paths.

One is the idea that facts don't really matter to people if they challenge their views. Yes, this is important if your goal is political persuasion. But nothing in this talk, or in Haidt's work, is particularly useful for political strategy. If you want to get your favorite people elected and your preferred policies enacted, the book you should read is Moral Politics by George Lakoff. You won't learn much about neuroscience research from it, but you will understand how to connect with a conservative (or liberal) audience. Lakoff's explanation of two political camps based on two models of moral values ("strict father" and "nurturing parent") is far more parsimonious than Haidt's six-dimensional moral matrix.

This path also leads to a cliff. In an attempt to convince us how little people care about facts, the speaker tried to demonstrate that "we" reject inconvenient facts just like the "nut jobs" do. Pox on both houses! Both sides do it! Of course, that is my biggest pet peeve. I am happier listening to five ultraconservative nut jobs than to one liberal who keeps saying "both sides do it". So the speaker asked:
When you hear a study that confirms your views, do you ask "What methods did they use? What was that person's background?"
I don't know what irked me more: that she asked that, assuming the answer was obvious (and negative), or that the audience laughed, signaling acceptance of the assumption. But the assumption is preposterous: my answer is clearly "yes". I even yelled from my seat: "Some of us do!" If that was uncivilized, so be it.

Ironically, in another part of the talk, the speaker advised against assuming what other people think:
If there's anything that drives me more nuts than being told I'm wrong, it's being told "Well, you think…" (...) Don't tell me what I think because you're stereotyping me."
Guess what? You told me what I think, and you assumed wrong. I always scrutinize studies, regardless of which side their results support. A meta-study once showed that the majority of papers published in top-tear medical journals are wrong. I am not aware of a similar meta-study in social sciences, but I would bet the results would be even worse. There are a lot of bad studies; there is even more bad journalistic reporting about studies. You should always be skeptical. "Constant vigilance!" as Mad-Eye Moody would say.

Now, being skeptical toward all studies is one thing; thinking that both sides cheat equally is quite another. Note, for example, that Paul Krugman often shows the models and reasoning behind his positions in his blog. His critics, not so much. There is a reason that the saying "facts have a well-known liberal bias" has become a cliché.

(At one point the speaker showed a slide juxtaposing the photos of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore. That was so wrong I wanted to throw eggs. When a conservative does that to me, it is a conversation stopper: the parallel is crazy; if you don't see it, you don't live on the same planet as me.)

Another path to relativism is inherent in the idea of understanding each other's values and finding commonalities instead of thinking of the other as mentally deficient. This is fine, but Haidt's own work shows that it is completely illogical as an advice to liberals. Namely, if there are six fundamental values, and liberals care about three of them, while conservatives care about all six, then the commonalities lie in the three values liberals care about. Conservatives need to understand that only those three are universal values. Don't tell me to look for commonalities in things we don't have in common! In fact, I abhore the values of authority and sanctity. (Loyalty sounds ambivalent: usually good in the private sphere, but bad in the public sphere. But as I've seen Haidt denoting it "ingroup/loyalty", I suppose I'd abhore it, too, if I saw the full definition.) Those "values" are harmful and destructive. Haidt acknowledges that, as I've pointed out. So why should we try to connect with them rather than fight against them? On the other hand, conservatives already care about liberal values, so they should focus on what we have in common and shut up about the rest.

That was tongue-in-cheek, of course. I cheated, by pretending that I accept Haidt's moral matrix. In fact, I find it highly suspect. Liberty? Makes me wonder if he has ever discussed liberty with a conservative. Because the word means very different things to liberals and to conservatives. Ditto for fairness. I don't know, if I read the book, maybe I would find the substance of the moral matrix concept convincing. But, at the very least, Haidt chose unfortunate terms, which do not contribute to a better understanding between liberals and conservatives.

Related to "commonalities" is the advice to speak to the others' values. There were some good examples (although I'd say in each case the victory facilitated by this strategy was minor), but also an example I detested. It was about the environment, and the thesis was that it is the area in which secular people can understand sanctity. Well, this secular person (and liberal, and environmentalist) does not! Please do not ascribe New Age nonsense to me. Please follow your own advice and don't tell me I think X because I am liberal. There is nothing sacred about nature. I just want my descendants to have decent lives, for which they'll need a livable environment. As for appealing to the sanctity of Creation to get the Evangelicals to size down their SUVs and reduce dumping chemicals on their lawns, that's fine if it works, but be aware that it's deception. I have no problem with that; I'll take Machiavelli over Kant anytime. Just don't deceive yourself that you are connecting when you are in fact manipulating.

Yet another path to relativism was short, but steep. Part of advice #2 ("put aside right and wrong") was not to say "You are wrong!" when someone gives you, in speaker's words, "facts you completely disagree with". Ugh. Facts are true or false. My agreement with them is irrelevant. And there is no hope of reaching any kind of understanding if we don't agree on facts. While this may be a good tactical advice for political persuasion, it is a bad advice for true understanding. One thing I agree with, though. I don't say "You are wrong!" Rather, I say "That's not true." It is good to keep disagreement from becoming personal. I try to follow that principle knowing full well that most people won't notice the difference. They'll hear it as "You are a liar!" Nevertheless, let the error be theirs!

I do not mean to imply that the speaker holds a post-modern, relativist view of factual truth. I did not get that impression at all. The message I got was primarily that facts don't convince people, and that's fair. But it's only true in a limited sense. If someone is convinced that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, there may be no way to disabuse them of that nonsense, but five years from now it will be irrelevant, so insisting on facts now may be a waste of time. But if someone believes the world is 6,000 years old and it will end in our lifetime, that necessarily shapes their views of ethics and policy, and that will not change when someone else is in the White House.

In discussing my two fundamental problems with the talk (incoherence of goals and promotion of relativism), I touched on a lot of its specific points. I'll finish by addressing three more specific claims, which I recognize as versions of oft-stated, but poorly supported chunks of conventional wisdom. (I am not going to quote exactly, but I believe I am paraphrasing fairly.)

Our culture has become toxic because we surround ourselves with people who think alike. This is evident in political polarization by counties or ZIP codes. I don't buy this. The fact is that our political parties have become more aligned with ideology (which may be good or bad, but at least it makes sense) and with urban and near-suburban vs. exurban and rural interests. So it is probably true that voting patterns within ZIP codes have become more homogeneous. (I haven't seen data on that, but I find the claim plausible.) But it says nothing about people intentionally segregating by ideology. You can't jump to that conclusion from voting data, and I doubt there are good ZIP-level repeated surveys of ideological positions. Even if ideological segregation were increasing, would that make the society more "toxic" (in the sense of dehumanizing "others", i.e., tribal)? While I can trace the logic of ideological segregation leading to equating belonging to a community with belonging to an ideology or party, and that leading to reinforcing tribalism, it seems like a stretch, especially in a highly mobile society like ours. Finally, is our culture more toxic than it used to be? I'd say the general trend is quite the opposite. We have become less racist, less homophobic, less distrusting of people with different religious backgrounds, more respectful of people with disabilities, etc. True, we are witnessing an explosion of racism disguised as conservative politics in response to the election of the first black president, but I don't think it can reverse the long-term trends, as evidenced by the fact that virtually all culprits feel a need to disguise their bigotry.

Read and watch the other side's media. You don't have to watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh; maybe start with George Will. But stop reading just things that reinforce our own beliefs. We need to understand what the argument is on the other side and where they're coming from. This is partly terrible advice and partly just doesn't make any sense. Let's start with things that make no sense. A clear implication is that we are watching "our side's media". But that beast doesn't exist. There is no mainstream liberally-biased media, with the exception of a few prime-time shows on MSNBC, and their bias generally stops at the choice of topics and questions. How many examples can you cite of Rachel Maddow telling lies on her show? (I don't watch any of it, so my question is not rhetorical. But I bet the answer would be very short.) In fact, the only media I listen to is the other side's media. I listen to NPR on my commute—Morning Edition on the way to work, Marketplace on the way home—and every day I hear some right-wing crap. Yes, most of it is crap because there are no good right-wing arguments. And the ones aired on NPR are probably as good as they get.

(OK, I occasionally switch to Democracy Now! in the morning, if I happen to be driving between 8 and 9. They report the facts, unlike other news programs, and then occasionally blame the facts on Global Capitalism, which I guess makes them left-wing. So again, how many times did you hear Amy Goodman lie? Not to mention that few liberals I know ever listen to that program.)

First of all, if you want to understand anything, you have to stop watching all mainstream news programs. You can read the New York Times, preferably supplemented with some foreign news sources. And you need to read a variety of blogs and follow the discussions among them. But if you are a liberal Democrat and hope to find the argument on the other side, you'll be disappointed. There is no quality argument that can reasonably be associated with "the other side". Reasoned conservatives have generally been ostracized by the Republican Party, so they are really in no-man's land. Reading them may be intellectually satisfying, but it won't give you any insight about "your nut job relatives" because I guarantee that your nut job relatives don't get their ideas from, say, Bruce Bartlett.

It's bad advice to read nonsense and try to understand it. At best, you'll waste your time; at worst, your health will suffer. You may as well try to attend fundamentalist sermons and try to understand where they are coming from. If you are not very good at spotting bullshit, you can use it for training, but that's all it can be good for.

I can foresee responses saying that this is too blunt or not constructive because it is just calling those people crazy or stupid. Well, yes, I wasn't the one proposing that we shouldn't. Or at least their arguments. I do believe many right-wing writers are sane and intelligent. They'll just write whatever works to establish them as conservative pundits.

Which brings us to George Will. George Fucking Will!? You gotta be kidding me. Nobody should read that dishonest piece of shit, ever. When did he write anything other than lies and manipulation? And how would reading him be constructive? If you took him as representative of conservative thought, what could you conclude other than that conservatives are lying assholes? (One exception is when Will writes about people with disabilities. Then he can show some empathy, respect, and decency. That is because he has a son with with a disability. I don't know if this makes him less bad or even worse.)

Anyone objecting to these characterizations, I challenge you to provide examples to the contrary.

And the last myth: We need to get out from behind our computers. If we tell a story with a human face from our side, it won't be from behind the computer. Oh, I guess that invalidates this entire post, as I obviously wrote it from behind my computer. It also contradicts the advice to read conservative pundits; guess where they write their columns. Seriously, abstaining from any one mode of communication, let alone the most pervasive one, will not help anyone get their message across. Sure, communication on the Internet includes idiotic flame wars and posting comments on articles that get thousands of comments that no one sane reads. But writing a blog and judiciously posting comments on blogs is a way to reach a much wider audience than most people can realistically hope to reach face-to-face. Same holds for message boards. Even Facebook is useful, if nothing else, to avoid repeating the same thing dozens of times to people who may or may not want to hear it. In fact, as soon as I publish this post, I will mention it on Facebook. It will be the fastest and least intrusive way to invite the people who may be the most interested in reading it.

Jul 8, 2012

Catching up with the Oscars

It's hardly timely to talk about the Oscars in July, but I finally saw all of this year's Best Picture nominees, and that is an unusual accomplishment for me. Last time it happened ten years ago, and there were only five nominees then. So I have to give my two cents, even if they are only worth one by now.
Last year seems to have been a pretty good one for movies. I loved four of the nominated films, and there may be others that should have made the list. For example, I haven't seen The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo yet, but, if the critics are right that it is at least not much worse than the Swedish version, it may make my top five.
A more curious feature of this year's list of nominees is how many common themes some of them share. The Artist and Hugo are tributes to old silent movies. Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (EL&IC) are about unique boys obsessively searching for a message from their tragically deceased fathers. The Artist and Midnight in Paris are tributes to the 1920s (and Hugo straddles that decade, in a sense), with the American Woody Allen taking us to Paris as the literary and artistic capital of the world of that time, and the Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius taking us to Hollywood, the movie capital of the world (and then again, American Martin Scorsese reminding us that, before Hollywood existed, it was Paris where the movies were born).
As Hugo's and Oskar's (in EL&IC) relationships with their fathers are left unfinished by the fathers' untimely deaths, so is Matt King's (George Clooney) relationship with his wife in The Descendants, and he, too, searches for clues from the past, sometimes obsessively. War Horse completes the list of movies set in the early 20th century, and The Help and The Tree of Life add two more to a more general theme of revisiting a decade of that century.
Finally, fatherhood is a strong theme running through several nominated films—Moneyball, The Tree of Life (oddly, Brad Pitt plays the father in both), The Descendants, EL&IC, and, to a lesser extent, Hugo and War Horse. Mothers, on the other hand, are downplayed: they are long deceased (Hugo) or brain dead (The Descendants) or being uninteresting to the plot as a non-antagonistic antagonist (Moneyball) or very passive (The Tree of Life, admittedly in the spirit of the 1950s) or the least developed character (EL&IC). In The Help, no white woman knows how to be a mother. Only in War Horse is the mother an active, strong character with some depth.
On to the rankings and thoughts about individual movies:
9. The Tree of Life. It is often said that people either hate or love this film, but I do neither. At least, its cinematography is beautiful enough that it kept me watching to the end. However, it is not a movie; rather, it is a very long PowerPoint presentation, occasionally interrupted by fragments of a movie. And those fragments, while making sense on their own, never connect with the most dramatic event, which remains only implied and not contemporaneous with any other part of the story. An unusual movie-watching experience, and interesting enough to discuss, but not a movie I'd recommend.
8. The Help. This one had a lot of potential: the actors are great and the story is excellent... that is, excellent as pure fiction. But, in historical context, I find it utterly unbelievable that a story like this would end as it does—relatively well, without major harm to any of the protagonists or their families. Overall, it paints a naively rosy picture of the segregated South. This is probably how a young urban person of the 2010s imagines the end of the Jim Crow era, but it ain't the real thing and, in the end, it feels like a fairy tale. If you want to rectify history, do it brazenly and kill Hitler, as Tarantino did in Inglourius Basterds. Don't just make us feel good about the otherwise plausible setting.
7. Moneyball. A big step up from the bottom two—I actually liked this one a lot. That I am not a baseball fan is an understatement; I don't even understand baseball. But the movie is not so much about baseball as it is about effecting change in established, often ossified, organizations. In that respect, it reminded me of Searching for Bobby Fischer, which wasn't about chess, but about challenges of raising talented children. Parenting is a side story here, but important for defining Billy Beane as a human being, and it is nice to see in a movie that busy, divorced, imperfect fathers can love their children, too. This is a Brad Pitt you'd much rather have as your father than the 1950s family man in The Tree of Life.
6. War Horse. A challenge to rank, as most other nominees are human character dramas for adults, and this one is unabashedly an older kids' or "young adults'" tale, a combination of a horse biography (reminiscent of Black Beauty) and a coming-of-age story. The movie is very well made, as you would expect from Spielberg. The story is good, even if it doesn't feel very original. The amazing coincidences are par for the genre, although the timeline is rather strained, as the thoroughbred seems to have somehow survived about 3 years of pulling German artillery. Maybe American moviemakers forgot how long World War I was for those who fought in it from the beginning?
5. The Descendants. A really nice human story about a family whose ties are deeper and stronger than its dysfunction. The protagonist, an imperfect man surrounded by slightly more imperfect people, tries to do the right thing for his family, business, and the intersection of the two. Does he succeed? The movie gets enough under the skin of each character that, in the end, I didn't think that was a relevant question to ask. A minor gripe: I didn't care for the narration-heavy beginning.
4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I give five star to each of the top four, so maybe on a different day I might have ranked this movie even higher. It was the most pleasant surprise of the bunch: I knew very little about it beforehand, and I loved it. 14-year-old Thomas Horn is excellent as Oskar Schell, a boy who may or may not have Asperger's—he is just different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to make it difficult for a typical viewer to identify and empathize with him. It is part of his personality to never stop searching and asking questions. Sometimes he is afraid to ask, or to do things he needs to get the opportunity to ask, but he finds ways to ask anyway. Oh, and by no means is Oskar the only interesting character in the movie, but it would be hard to say much more without revealing some spoilers.
3. Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen's creative genius is not showing any signs of aging, even though he has become too old to play his protagonists and has to cast younger actors to play, well, him. (I never knew Owen Wilson was such a good actor—he completely transformed into a younger Woody Allen.) The idea of making a movie about a writer hopping in time to the 1920s and back, and meeting his literary idols, appears exceedingly silly when described in so few words, but, incredibly enough, it works perfectly... like a painting by Salvador Dalì (who appears in the movie, played by Adrien Brody).
2. Hugo. A masterpiece of cinematography; I watched it twice, on two consecutive days, because it was so visually rich that one viewing wasn't enough to absorb it all. It had all the magic of the first Harry Potter movie, but with a darker and more mysterious air of a Philip Pullman story. (An automaton in search of a heart is reminiscent of Pullman's Count Karlstein.) And that's before it even gets to the early movies, which are the main reason Scorsese made this film. Asa Butterfield was so good as Hugo that I'm looking forward to Ender's Game primarily to see his performance as Ender.
1. The Artist. The best picture doesn't always win the Best Picture, but this time it did. Michel Hazanavicius is probably bat-shit crazy, as that is the only way one could get the idea to make a silent, black-and-white, 4:3 aspect ratio, movie in 2011. He is also a genius, as the product of his madness is a great movie. It is entertaining, dramatic, plays by the rules of the genre and time in which it is set, all the while breaking the rules of the medium, playing with sounds and silence, reminding us that we are watching a silent movie just when we get into it so much that we forget. He even makes great use of the narrow format, emphasizing vertical direction, for example in the symbolic stairway scene when George, on his way down, bumps into Peppy, on her way up. And before you protest that the symbolism is too obvious and thus with little merit, remember: this is the 1920s!

May 27, 2012

A Brief History of Gnash Equilibrium

I am hoping to revive this blog in the near future, so for any new readers, here is a selection of old posts. Let's start with politics; after all, it's the dust out of which blogosphere was created. I haven't written much since the last presidential election, so the political posts are mostly from 2008:

I told you so, back when the crisis started. (Be sure to follow the link in the post, too. And all links in all blog posts. Blog posts are often meaningless out of context.) Unfortunately, Obama has broken the wrong promises.

I was a big Obama fan in 2008 and most of my posts reflected that. But my loyalty is to principles and truth, not to any candidate. So I occasionally defended McCain and attacked Obama. Ironically, the latter was one of the most visited posts on this blog.

Nobody has ever won an election by attracting only smart voters. Politicians need stupid people.

Tell me if you think I am a closeted Republican. :)

I still hope this was a correct assessment, but I am not so sure anymore. :(

And how would you expect a numbers and trivia guy to cover a presidential election?

After the election: sadly, still true, 3 years later.

It is often hard to tell the difference between real-life politics and satire. So a selection of my satirical posts should come right after politics:

Election Jeopardy!

Fun with Republican candidates... in 2008 (and they weren't any better this time around).

Barack Obama stole my puppy. Or worse.

My comment on Al Gore's Nobel Prize.

Remember the "Celeb" ad? I translated it to plain English.

I am an economist and actuary, so I often write about economics:

A brief history of income tax rates.

Why I am not a Mankiwite.

I also write about math, numbers, and numeracy:

The forgotten Eleventh Commandment (more useful than the first ten).

How risky is it to swim outside when a storm is approaching? Not that I'd recommend it, but I still don't know.

I like facts to be true:

One of my pet peeves: historical revisionism. In any context.

And I value freedom of religion, and freedom from religion:

The most bipartisan fun in America: bashing atheists.

Challenging the lazy conventional ethics of abortion.

When the Right doesn't like public prayer.

Update: Some links were messed up. I think I fixed them all.