Dignity

Dignity seems like an under-developed concept in political discussions relative to its importance in basic human interactions.

Dignity is close to honor.

There are many polls and quizes that attempt to determine your political values or orientations along axes like Tradition vs Choice or Authority vs Freedom.  Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes highlights five realms:

• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Authority/respect gets closest to what I mean by dignity, but in the US, we tend only to think in terms of respecting those higher than us in the social order.

I am thinking of a more comprehensive respect; an essential dignity that all people possess or should be encouraged to possess.

When you talk to the poor, the aged, the infirm, what do they want? An end to suffering, of course–but also dignity.

Our desire for dignity explains a variety of otherwise inexplicable political phenomena. Why do whites focus more on the actions of a New Zealander who kills Muslims than a Nigerian who kills Muslims, for example? Because whites feel that the misbehavior of the New Zealander reflects badly on them; their collective dignity has been lowered. The actions of a Muslim or a Nigerian don’t reflect on non-Muslims or non-Nigerians; whites feel no collective shame or guilt over these incidents.

(Note: “white” and “Muslim” are not exclusive categories and plenty of Muslims have pale skin, but I lack better terminology.)

Similarly, much of the liberal opposition to Trump probably stems from a perception that he is undignified.

People don’t need to be at the top of the hierarchy to be treated with dignity; good social norms, I suspect, can help people respond to and treat people lower than themselves with respect, as well.

Our society seems to be engaged in an absurd dance where people fight for honor and respect by demanding it from people significantly lower than themselves on the social totem pole. For example, a female professor complains about a university janitor who assumed she was merely the wife of a male professor; a black woman complains that the minimum wage shop employees didn’t let her into the shop after closing time; another professor harasses road crew laborers over a “men at work” sign. These absurd cases all involve women trying to assert power over people who have far less power than themselves in the first place, like a prince having a peasant executed for getting mud on his boots.

Of course, our system doesn’t simply content itself with declaring divine right; it insults us by also claiming that these peasants are the ones with the real power.

Since these folks are not actually princes, though, they probably aren’t just on run-away power trips; I suspect instead that they feel a mis-match between the level of respect they want from society vs the level they get. Since they can’t get any more respect from normal avenues/their peers, they’ve turned instead to targeting the weak, like a D&D player pouring boiling water on an anthill to grind XP. 

Such behavior should be called out for the undignified farce that it is.

That said, much of modern life feels designed to humiliate and degrade; the Cabrini Green housing projects were so ugly they seem intentionally soul-crushing.

RationalRevolution has an interesting article on capital redistribution with a few points of relevance to our current discussion:

us_income_1800_2010
From Rational Revolution

Capital ownership has become increasingly concentrated throughout American history. When the country was founded roughly 90% of citizen families owned meaningful capital from which they derived income, primarily land. Today less than 10% of American families own meaningful capital from which they derive income prior to retirement. …

The other important fact that is often overlooked is the fact that over that past 100 years the portion of the population directly owning their own capital has declined at a pace that exceeds the rate of financial asset acquisition. In other words, 100 years ago a far greater portion of people owned their own business and worked for themselves or within a family owned business. The largest portion of these people were farmers who owned their own land and equipment. As small businesses were overtaken by larger corporations, more people became wage-laborers. Some of these people acquired stock or other financial assets, but the acquisition of financial assets has not offset the decline of directly owned capital assets by individuals over time. Even today, the majority of self-employed people have no meaningful capital assets. The majority of the self-employed today are primarily selling their labor, as consultants, contractors or service workers.

In other words, back in the 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed; most owned their own small farms. To be self-employed is to be your own master. Since then, the number of self-employed has declined steadily, while the number employed has generally increased. (Admittedly, the increase in people receiving wages around 1865 has nothing to do with a decline in small business ownership.) Who knows what the Uber-Revolution holds, but for now, we have transitioned from a nation of self-employed farmers to a nation of employees, and I think it’s getting to people.

Man or beast, even in poverty we can feel dignified if we have the respect of our neighbors, and even in wealth we can be degraded, degenerate.

There are a lot of political issues that hinge, to me, on dignity. Restrictions on speech are restrictions on dignity, for a free man can speak his mind and a slave cannot. A revolution in social norms, either because of technology or regime change, leaves people unsure of what commands respect from their neighbors. And in a sort of moral, spiritual sense, when we expect people to violate their own natures, we violate some essence of human dignity. Humans are not infinitely malleable; each of us has our own particular nature. A fish cannot be expected to swim, nor a chicken to fly; we recognize something cruel in expecting a rooster not to crow or a dog not to bark.

I admit this isn’t exactly fully fleshed-out philosophy.

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Trump, Mueller, and Concerns

We here at EvX try not to dwell too much on the day-to-day of politics, which requires keeping track of too many names and reads a bit too much like tabloid gossip for our comfort, but we are not insensitive to the worries of national governance.

I have maintained since the beginning that there was nothing to this Trump/Russia collusion business. Not being a devote of the news, TV or otherwise, probably helped form this opinion–nothing suggests a sudden change in Russian influence in my daily life. My neighborhood has improved slightly over the past couple of years, which might be an effect of presidential policies (or random chance.)

As we have discussed before, there are many conspiracy theories. Most infamously in my lifetime, belief that a vast, underground “Satanic Daycare conspiracy” was raping children, sacrificing elephants, and flying on broomsticks saw the light of day on mainstream TV in the ’80s and early 90s. This was not just the bread and butter of cheap talk shows, but resulted in actual criminal convictions that sent real people to prison, eventually culminating in a full-scale FBI  and an FBI investigation that turned up exactly nothing, because witchcraft isn’t real. The fact that none of the prosecutors involved were put in prison for gross misconduct remains a serious blot on our nation.

Conspiracy theories arise under a number of circumstances, especially fear and confusion. If the events around you don’t make sense and you can’t explain why they’re happening, then you’re much more likely to conclude that mysterious outside forces are controlling things.

In countries with very little governmental transparency, conspiracy theories run rife–they are a sign that there is something amiss, that the people do not trust the normal operations of government and do not believe that government is operating honestly.

There have always been conspiracy theories, whether about Elvis, aliens, or Kennedy, but these have usually been embraced by people of somewhat less than credible mental stability. The fact that after the 2016 election so many otherwise intellectually normal people embraced the idea that the President of the United States was actually a foreign agent and that a foreign country had managed to “steal” the election is far more troubling. (For what it’s worth, I also thought that people who thought similar things about Obama were wrong–but those people were never given so much credence by the press and upper classes.)

That other countries would like to influence American politics is indisputable. All countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, encourage the US to act in their interest if they at all possess the ability to do so, and we do the same to them. All countries of any size and consequence spy on each other (much of which is just gathering intelligence reports on the state of industries and political unrest) or, if they are very closely allied, they just explicitly share information. Russia spies on us; we spy on them. About fifty other countries also spy on us, and we on them.

There is no reason to single out Russia as the sole national security threat (Ukrainian and Chinese hackers have just as much interest in our secrets;) nor to believe that they are particularly competent at swaying American voters or colluding with politicians–nor is it any more insidious when they do it than when anyone else does it.

The entirety of the “Russiagate” conspiracy was built upon the fact that Trump said a few positive things about Russia during the campaign instead of glibly posturing about shooting down Russian planes in Syria (since when did Congress vote to authorize troop deployments to Syria, anyway?) and the Russians, very sensibly, decided that they liked the guy who wasn’t trying to start a war with them. You would, too, if you were them.

Two people mutually agreeing that getting into a war isn’t in their countries’ best interests isn’t “collusion,” unless you think there is “collusion” going on with every other country we aren’t at war with.  (Quick count: it looks like we are at war in 8 countries–Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia/Kenya, Uganda, and Syria–leaving 187 that we are colluding with.)

The continual demands that Trump believe the “intelligence briefings” (that we Americans conveniently couldn’t see!) that supposedly found Russian hacking or interference in our elections were idiotic from the start–obviously the leaks favored Trump, so he had no interest in denouncing them, no  matter where they came from. Furthermore, we saw back in 2002-3 with the now thoroughly discredited reports that Iraq had WMDs, just how good the government/media are at promoting a completely incorrect narrative based on selective reading of intelligence reports. Anyone who has payed the remotest bit of attention over the past couple of decades should have learned a degree of skepticism by now, but some people seem cursed to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Perhaps they aren’t very bright.

Ordinarily, a conspiracy by itself does very little harm. Sure, a few people might alienate their relatives at Christmas by nattering on about Q-anon, or kill their children by refusing measles shots, but there’s little in the way of widespread damage.

But when members of Congress and the FBI begin believing conspiracies, then they have much more potential to do serious harm.

I have said many times that there are enough laws and the legal (and tax) code is of sufficient complexity that if the police want to charge you with something, they almost inevitably can–everyone jaywalks, after all. We usually trust the police to use this power for good, (catching mafia bosses on money laundering charges, for example) not evil (charging parents with neglect for letting their 9 yr old play outside in pleasant weather).

But with the advent of the never-ending special prosecutor-run investigation (pioneered under Nixon and perfected in full idiocy under Clinton), this power has been harnessed for disturbing political ends. According to Bloomberg, at least 22 of Trump’s family and associates have been investigated since the beginning of his term (not to mention the Trump Foundation, Trump Organization, and Trump himself.) Even if someone is eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, merely being the subject of an investigation is extremely expensive, stressful, and time-consuming.

Most of these investigations are not happening because someone did anything particularly wrong–no more than anyone else in Washington, given the high likelihood of any random person to have committed a crime–but because they were close to Trump, whom Democrats were absolutely convinced was a secret Russian agent hell-bent on destroying America by keeping out illegal immigrants.

And if they weren’t convinced, they were certainly happy to lie to the public in order to use it as cover to interfere with the president.

This is some banana republic level bullshit, folks.

One party leveraging the justice system to target and imprison members of the opposing party and cripple the president’s ability to act should have you concerned, whether you’re on the Right or the Left (don’t think the Right can’t use the same trick back on you).

This is not a good sign.

 

When we become our own worst enemies

In times of danger, tribes merge; in times of peace, they split.

From Scientific Reports, De novo origins of multicellularity in response to predation:

Here we show that de novo origins of simple multicellularity can evolve in response to predation. We subjected outcrossed populations of the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to selection by the filter-feeding predator Paramecium tetraurelia. Two of five experimental populations evolved multicellular structures not observed in unselected control populations within ~750 asexual generations. Considerable variation exists in the evolved multicellular life cycles, with both cell number and propagule size varying among isolates. Survival assays show that evolved multicellular traits provide effective protection against predation. These results support the hypothesis that selection imposed by predators may have played a role in some origins of multicellularity.

If we evolve multicellularity in response to predation, then the inverse–a loss of multicellularity, a splitting apart, can happen when predation is removed. 

The Democrats have faced a bit of controversy lately over the comments of Ilhan Omar (for the non-Americans in the audience, Ilhan Omar is a recently elected representative of Somali Muslim origins.) As Politico reports: 

Then, after being seated on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar was lampooned for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote during an Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”  

Omar then made an idiotic non apology — “she claimed ignorance of the anti-Semitic trope that conceives of Jewish hypnosis.” 

Whether Omar knew it is a trope or not is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Omar was saying something anti-semitic–and even that is not necessarily grounds for an apology, because people apologize when they actually feel contrite about something. Omar most likely doesn’t.

Muslims have their interests; Jews have different interests. The existence of Israel is a big deal for Jews–it helps ensure that nasty incidents like the Holocaust don’t repeat. The existence of Israel is also a big deal for Palestinians, many of whom, I assume, would be living in the area if Jews weren’t. 

Conflicts over land are nothing new in human history, and it doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to realize that sometimes groups have conflicting interests. Americans of the non-Jewish or Muslim variety also have their own interests (many desire, for example, that Israel continue existing for their own religious reasons–not hypnosis.) 

The left’s coalition requires different groups to work together (to ally) in their own self-interest, which works if they have bigger enemies to fear. It doesn’t work if they are strong enough to stand on their own feet (or if someone is too dumb to recognize the value of teamwork.) The ideological justification for allying is “intersectionality,” a term which has been bastardized well beyond its original meaning, but is now used to mean “all forms of oppression are really the same thing, so if you oppose one oppression, you must oppose them all.” So if you are against wife beating, you must also be vegan; if you are opposed to the police shooting unarmed black men, you must also be in favor of hijabs. “Interlocking systems of oppression” work to identify a single enemy, a necessary component for unifying people into something like a voting block or a military. 

And it works as long as there actually is a single enemy. 

It falls apart when you don’t have a single enemy, which is of course the world as it actually stands, because lots of groups have different interests and would like each other’s stuff. There isn’t actually anything magically special about cis-hetero-white-Christian-omnivorous-etc-men that makes them any more or less the oppressors of others. Over in Africa, Africans get oppressed by their fellow Africans. In Islamic countries, chickens get eaten by Muslims. In China, Christianity isn’t even remotely significant. 

In a related story, some British schools have recently seen their pro-LGBT curricula attacked by Muslim parents, who are, despite intersectionalist theory, actually pretty anti-homosexuality.

There is no real way to decide between these two points of view. The vast, vast majority of Muslims believe that homosexuality is a sin, and a school that goes out of its way to teach something counter to that is obviously running up against the students’ and parents’ right to their beliefs. Yet gay people also believe, with equal fervor, that homosexuality is morally respectable and they have a right to advocate on their own behalf and have a perfectly sensible desire to reach out to gay Muslims. 

The difficulty with victory is you don’t need your allies anymore; like the US and the USSR at the end of WWII, victorious allies are apt to turn on each other, fighting for what remains of the spoils. This is true of everyone, not just the left–it is just more interesting when it happens on the left because I’ve been pointing out that this would happen for years. 

Of course, some people react to this and say, “clearly the solution to our group splitting apart is to split our group apart; once our group is split, we will all have the same interests and no one will ever fight, just as children never fight with their siblings–hey knock it off in there STOP PUNCHING YOUR BROTHER you have to SHARE THAT TOY–“

Lack of predation => splitting doesn’t just stop at any particular level. 

297px-world_population_v3-svgThe other difficulty with splitting is that we live in a shrinking world. Up until the 1950s, the entire world had fewer than 3 billion people; today we have more than twice that many, and we’re still growing. Our cities are bigger, communities are expanding, transportation is better and faster, and more people have the money necessary to move to new places. More people than ever before are on the internet, watching TV, or otherwise interacting. 

Devour, get devoured, or make something new?

Tribalism, for good or ill (mostly ill)

esquire

The difficulty with modern politics is that it is stupid. Stupid, cultish, and insane.

Let’s use a recent example: Esquire ran a cover article about a white male teen entitled “American Boy,” and and at least a handful of people reacted with the kind of vitriol that makes alt-right conspiracy theorists point and yell “See? See? We told you so!”

For example:

Capture

Since when has “the cover of Esquire” been a “we”?

Just a few of the responses to Jemele’s Tweet, which has over 48 thousand likes:

So let me get this right, @esquire can’t put any other color person on their cover during the ENTIRE month of #BlackHistoryMonth  !?!?

All during black history month. They know what they’re doing. All press is Good press

I can’t even believe that! Especially during Black History Month? I mean it’s not right to begin with but it’s completely ridiculous this month! The least they could have done was cover me! I’m the biggest black sheep there ever was ask anyone! So kidding…Sry,I know, NOT FUNNY!

During Black History Month no less. Just don’t get it at all.

What the hell?!!!! Was there some type of urgency? Some clamoring from the masses, a cultural void that needed to be filled that warranted the commissioning of this article?! WtF

Seriously?!? Just the title of this article made me throw up in my mouth a little

Okay, new rule: You’re not allowed to talk about single people on Valentine’s Day, colon cancer in October, food during Ramadan, or jam during the entire month of March, because March is National Celery Month.  Also, the second week of July is Nude Recreation Week, so consider yourselves forewarned.

By the way, this is the March issue of Esquire, not February. (As far as I can tell, the last time Esquire published a February issue in the US, it featured a black man–Pharrel–on the cover.)

Ironically, I agree, strongly, with the folks who say we need to teach non-white history–the history of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the rest of the world.

It’s not a pretty history. It involves cannibals. If they’re right that those who fail to learn about history are destined to repeat it, then we’re in for a lot of trouble.

Humans are fundamentally tribal creatures, even when they pretend to themselves that they aren’t. It’s part of our psychology; it’s part of how we understand the world and process threats. Human history is largely the history of one tribe of hairless apes bashing another tribe of hairless apes with increasingly advanced rocks. When we understand history, we realize that our current travails are more of the same old, same old, just fought with new technology.

Tribalism makes sense if you rewind the clock a hundred years or so to before the invention of the car, plane, and television. When most of your dealings were with members of your own community, and your own community was small enough that you knew a good portion of the people in it, “tribalism” was just regular life.

The tie that divides: Cross‐national evidence of the primacy of partyism:

Using evidence from Great Britain, the United States, Belgium and Spain, it is demonstrated in this article that in integrated and divided nations alike, citizens are more strongly attached to political parties than to the social groups that the parties represent. In all four nations, partisans discriminate against their opponents to a degree that exceeds discrimination against members of religious, linguistic, ethnic or regional out‐groups. This pattern holds even when social cleavages are intense and the basis for prolonged political conflict. Partisan animus is conditioned by ideological proximity; partisans are more distrusting of parties furthest from them in the ideological space. The effects of partisanship on trust are eroded when partisan and social ties collide. In closing, the article considers the reasons that give rise to the strength of ‘partyism’ in modern democracies.

In practice, partyism is mostly racialism. 90% of blacks vote Democratic; the majority of whites vote Republican. 

The problem is that these days, we don’t live in communities of a few hundred people. We don’t just interact with members of our own tribe.

bq-5c65baff8d5a5The Esquire controversy is old-fashioned tribalism dressed up in modern language–really, all SJW politics is just tribalism dressed up in new words. There is nothing “social” or “justicey” about disliking an interview with a teenager; Jamele and the thousands of people agreeing with her aren’t objecting to the quality of the article nor the lad’s personality, but expressing a very simple emotion: You aren’t part of my tribe, therefore I don’t like you. 

But who cares about any of this? 40,000 likes is a lot of likes, but then, there are >300 million people in this country. 40k isn’t even 1% of them.

Yet I think it is important. For starters, this low-level sniping is pervasive. Whether you’re on the internet or just watch TV, people who don’t like you are everywhere.

20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea whether Jemele liked Esquire’s latest cover article or not–and I wouldn’t have cared, because I don’t know her. She doesn’t live near me, doesn’t work with me, doesn’t run in any of my social circles. She could hang out with her friends, talking about how much they hate this dumb Esquire cover, and I could hang out with my friends, talking about squids and Aztec sacrifice, and never the twain would meet.

Now we do.

Every group has memes about how awesome the group is and how much other groups suck. (If they didn’t, well, they’d stop existing pretty quickly.) Jocks insult nerds; nerds talk shit about jocks. But normally we keep our opinions within our own groups, where they function to increase group cohesion and punish deviators.

This is your brain on tribalism.

Insane tribalism.

Contrary to what some sociologists claim, bringing people into contact with people whom they don’t like seems to increase conflict, not decrease it. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Being constantly exposed to other people’s ideas about how awful you are seems to have two effects on people: either they agree (become infected–pozzed, if you will) that they are awful and start trying to help the people who hate them (this might be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome); or they react negatively, become immune, and hate back.

The former I refer to as the “suicide meme.” More on this later, but in short, the suicide meme happens when you absorb the memes of people who want you dead.

To the gazelle, the lion is a monster; to the lion, the gazelle is lunch. Neither of them benefits from adopting the other’s ideas.

To the grass, of course, the gazelle is a torturer and the lion a perfect gentleman.

There is something ironic about getting lectured to about treatment of Latinos by someone who is literally named “Cortez,” (Hernando Cortes was the Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico and destroyed the Aztec empire; he apparently also created a lot of children in the process.)

Quoting Cortez (the modern one):

We must have respect for… human rights and respect for the right of human mobility. Because it is a right. [Applause] Because we are standing on native land. And Latino people are descendants of native people. And we cannot be told, and criminalized, simply because for our identity or our status. Period.

There are multiple lies in this statement. “Human mobility” isn’t a right. Not across national borders. If you think it is, go try it on the North Korea border and report back on how it works. There is no country in the world that recognizes the right of non-citizens to traipse across its borders whenever they please.

Second, we are not standing on native land. This was filmed at the US capitol. This is AMERICAN land. It is American land because Americans killed the people who used to live here.

Every single piece of land in the entire world belongs to the person who actually has the ability to physically enforce their claim to that land. China is a country today and Tibet isn’t because the PRC has physical control over Tibet and Tibet does’t. Italy is a country because no other country has the ability to take control of Italy’s land. Bhutan is a country because it controls the borders of Bhutan.

Third, while Latinos are descended from “native” peoples, they aren’t descended from Native Americans. They’re descended from natives from other countries that are not America. White people are also “native” peoples by this logic; they are descended from the native peoples of Europe. Asians are descended from the native peoples of Asia. Blacks are descended from the native peoples of Africa. Etc. Just because Latinos are descended from people from the North and South American continents is not meaningful–Germans and Poles are both native to Europe, but that doesn’t mean Germans have some inherent right to invade Poland.

Fourth, you certainly can be criminalized for your “status” (as illegal immigrants.) In fact, immigration status is exactly what is being criminalized.

There are many other issues with this speech–like the part where AOC blames ICE for the death of a little girl they actually were trying to save (despite the fact that our border patrol has no moral obligation to spend American taxpayers’ money to save the lives of non-Americans) and her promotion of the idea that non-citizens deserve “Constitutional protections” (fact: they already have constitutional protections, under the constitutions of the countries they are citizens of. They don’t have constitutional protections in countries they are not citizens of,)–but the most troubling thing about this speech is the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is an actual member of Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez’s comments would make sense over on the Mexican side of the border–a Mexican advocating for things that benefit Mexicans is perfectly reasonable.

But for a member of the American government to advocate that Americans have no right to control their own borders and assert that the territory of America actually belongs to someone else–including non-citizens–is straight up treason.

Who’s setting Sanders up for a fall?

So the New York Times (which I don’t read, but Steve does so in the end, I do,) ran an article today how Bernie Sanders is a bad guy for inadequately responding to one campaign staffer touching another campaign staffer’s hair back in 2016.

I’ve noticed that SJWs tend to attack low-status people, not high-status (Trump excepted.) For example, a Portland Taco Truck may get driven out of business for “culturally appropriating” Mexican food, but Taco Bell doesn’t. Mere mortals calling Mohammad a pedophile for marrying a 9 yr old might go to prison for insulting Islam, but China can round up millions of Muslims and put them in “re-education camps” and no one makes a peep.

So when SJWs attack someone, it’s safe to say that 1. Their real intent has nothing to do with their claimed intent, and 2. The target is either low-status, losing status, or about to lose status, ie, protection.

The Democratic establishment didn’t like Sanders running the first time and did what they could to prevent him from getting the nomination.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Democrats are gearing up for the next election–looking over their candidates and deciding whom to run–as this piece comes out. Looks like a smear job, a hit piece intended to crush the Bernie campaign before it starts.

I wonder who’s behind it.

Is the News Bad for You?

Whilst traveling through the darkest depths of the unexplored heartland of America, I encountered a mysterious beast I had only glimpsed in the many years since I left home at 18: 

The News. 

What was this flag-waving, headshot-zooming, sound effects-ridden creature, and why did it care that someone in Ohio doesn’t like “Baby its Cold Outside?” 

I really can’t stay (but baby there’s meth outside) 

Extended viewing (or listening) to what now passes for “news” on the 24-hour cable channels strikes me as bad for one’s mental health (possibly physical, as well.)

What is so bad about the news? 

First, it is a never-ending stream of disasters, and disasters naturally tend to make people anxious and worried. But the disasters featured on the news are rarely relevant to your own life–most of them take place on the other side of the country, if not the planet. 

In the past couple of months, you probably heard about wildfires in California, the War in Yemen, ISIS, someone shooting up a Christmas Market in Europe, Ebola in Africa, protests in France, children being gassed at the border, and of course the dire threat of secular Christmas Carols being taken off the radio in Ohio and rap music in Russia. 

Chances are good that none of these things directly affects you. 

How many news stories can you think of that actually occurred in your local community and have some relevance to your actual life?

The Guardian presents it better than I can:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you.

Strong words from a newspaper

At the very best, you are spending time and energy worrying about stuff that doesn’t actually affect you, while not learning about stuff–such as your neighbors’ thoughts on pest control–that actually does affect you. 

And at worst, you are making yourself ill by feeding your mind constant disaster footage: 

Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom

User Generated Content – photos and videos submitted to newsrooms by the public – has become a prominent source of information for news organisations. Journalists working with uncensored material can frequently witness disturbing images for prolonged periods. How this might affect their psychological health is not known and it is the focus of this study. …

Regression analyses revealed that frequent (i.e. daily) exposure to violent images independently predicted higher scores on all indices of the Impact of Event Scale-revised, the BDI-II and the somatic and anxiety subscales of the GHQ-28.  …

The present study, the first of its kind, suggests that frequency rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with User Generated Content material. 

If being exposed to the news is bad for journalists, it’s probably bad for you, too: 

The Relationship between Self-Report of Depression and Media Usage:

In this study, we tested if self-report of depression (SRD), which is not a clinically based diagnosis, was associated with increased internet, television, and social media usage by using data collected in the Media Behavior and Influence Study (MBIS) database (N = 19,776 subjects). … These analyses found that SRD rates were in the range of published rates of clinically diagnosed major depression. It found that those who tended to use more media also tended to be more depressed, and that segmentation of SRD subjects was weighted toward internet and television usage, which was not the case with non-SRD subjects, who were segmented along social media use. This study found that those who have suffered either economic or physical life setbacks are orders of magnitude more likely to be depressed, even without disproportionately high levels of media use. However, among those that have suffered major life setbacks, high media users—particularly television watchers—were even more likely to report experiencing depression, which suggests that these effects were not just due to individuals having more time for media consumption.

One woman I know got so worked up reading/watching articles and news reports about the Catholic Priest Scandals that she spent a week weeping and is now undergoing therapy for PTSD. 

Stupid? Yes. Nevertheless, people are doing this to themselves. 

Another woman I know recently announced that she thought “God was weeping” because things have gotten so bad in the world. After some questioning, she claimed that wars and third-world poverty are “worse than ever”–despite the fact that poverty is actually at the lowest it’s ever been and she lived through WWII

Does watching the news make you any better informed? 

No. 

From Pew, Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions

Since the invention of 24 hour Cable News Networks, general knowledge of political matters has gone down slightly. 

If you must follow the news, do so in print or listen to PBS/NPR--these are the sources with a track record for not actively making you dumber

Looking at those who get their news primarily through radio and television, for most, following the news more or less closely had no reliable relation to whether respondents believed clear evidence had been found that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working closely together. Fox News was the exception. Those who followed the news closely were far more likely to have this misperception. Among those who did not follow the news at all 42% had the misperception, rising progressively at higher levels of attention to 80% among those who followed the news very closely. On the other hand, those respondents who get their news primarily from print sources were less likely to have this misperception if they were following the Iraq situation more closely. Of those not following the news closely, 49% had the misperception–declining to 32% among those who followed the news very closely.

More on this phenomenon.

This analysis is harsh on Fox, but keep in mind that it is specifically looking at misperceptions related to a war championed by Republicans–we might find a similar effect for different networks if we were looking for misperceptions related to something championed by a Democratic president. 

The news makes money by convincing you to watch it–that is, it has a self-interest in being addictive, not in making your life better. The constant parade of anxiety-inducing disasters is one way they capture your attention; the nausea-inducing zooming camera pans and waving flags are another. Some news personalities are actually good at their jobs despite the distractions, but on average, the more boring stations and media do a better job of conveying actual facts, probably because they are less distracting.

The news is one-way communication: it is a voice constantly talking to you, not you talking back (well, you can talk back, but it can’t hear you.) Would you spend so much time listening, in real life, to someone who never listened to you? 

There is something insidious about a voice that talks constantly to you, that decides what is an isn’t concerning, that uses psychological manipulation to keep you listening, and doesn’t listen to you. 

None of which is to say that the news media is intentionally evil or trying to cause harm–these things are just natural side effects of the way media works–the network that convinces more people to watch makes more money than the one that doesn’t. You have a natural desire to hear about disasters, because before the invention of mass media, almost all of them were actually relevant to your life. This also need not condemn any particular news channel–these factors apply to them all.

You can always tell someone who pays too much attention to the news, because their attention shifts radically from week to week. One day, Russia–a nation with a GDP smaller than South Korea’s and a per capita GDP almost as low as Mexico’s–is a critical threat to democracy; the next week Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship well known for things like “funding 9-11,” “women must wear burkas and can’t drive,” and “starving Yemeni children,” is suddenly catapulted from “not a problem” to “defcon 12.”

A week later, all of these things are forgotten because Trump paid off a prostitute, which is clearly a pressing national problem, right up there with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. 

Remember, the European witch-hunt hysteria was spread via the newly-adopted printing press, which made it easy for reports of broom-riding, devil worshiping, and livestock metamorphosis to spread from town to town. The equally absurd Satanic Daycare Scare of the 1980s was also spread by the News, this time on TV and radio.

There are probably some good sides to the news–it’s probably worthwhile to be informed about the world on some level, and it’s certainly useful to know what’s going on in your local area or economic trends that affect your business. 

But be careful about letting strangers determine what you know and what you care about.

Racism OCD and Other Political Neuroses 

 

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Source: Evangelion/blog thereupon

In his post on the Chamber of Guf, Slate Star Codex discussed a slate of psychiatric conditions where the sufferer becomes obsessed with not sinning in some particular way. In homosexual OCD, for example, the sufferer becomes obsessed with fear that they are homosexual or might have homosexual thoughts despite not actually being gay; people with incest OCD become paranoid that they might have incestuous thoughts, etc. Notice that in order to be defined as OCD, the sufferers have to not actually be gay or interested in sex with their relatives–this is paranoia about a non-existent transgression. Scott also notes that homosexual OCD is less common among people who don’t think of homosexuality as a sin, but these folks have other paranoias instead.

The “angel” in this metaphor is the selection process by which the brain decides which thoughts, out of the thousands we have each day, to focus on and amplify; “Guf” is the store of all available thoughts. Quoting Scott:

I studied under a professor who was an expert in these conditions. Her theory centered around the question of why angels would select some thoughts from the Guf over others to lift into consciousness. Variables like truth-value, relevance, and interestingness play important roles. But the exact balance depends on our mood. Anxiety is a global prior in favor of extracting fear-related thoughts from the Guf. Presumably everybody’s brain dedicates a neuron or two to thoughts like “a robber could break into my house right now and shoot me”. But most people’s Selecting Angels don’t find them worth bringing into the light of consciousness. Anxiety changes the angel’s orders: have a bias towards selecting thoughts that involve fearful situations and how to prepare for them. A person with an anxiety disorder, or a recent adrenaline injection, or whatever, will absolutely start thinking about robbers, even if they consciously know it’s an irrelevant concern.

In a few unlucky people with a lot of anxiety, the angel decides that a thought provoking any strong emotion is sufficient reason to raise the thought to consciousness. Now the Gay OCD trap is sprung. One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on. …

Politics has largely replaced religion for how most people think of “sin,” and modern memetic structures seem extremely well designed to amplify political sin-based paranoia, as articles like “Is your dog’s Halloween costume racist?” get lots of profitable clicks and get shared widely across social media platforms, whether by fans or opponents of the article.

Both religions and political systems have an interest in promoting such concerns, since they also sell the cures–forgiveness and salvation for the religious; economic and social policies for the political. This works best if it targets a very common subset of thoughts, like sexual attraction or dislike of random strangers, because you really can’t prevent all such thoughts, no matter how hard you try.

The original Tiny House
Medieval illustration of anchorite cell

Personal OCD is bad enough; a religious sufferer obsessed with their own moralistic sin may feel compelled to retreat to a monastery or wall themselves up to avoid temptation. If a whole society becomes obsessed, though, widespread paranoia and social control may result. (Society can probably be modeled as a meta-brain.)

I propose that our society, due to its memetic structure, is undergoing OCD-inducing paranoia spirals where the voices of the most paranoid are being allowed to set political and moral directions. Using racism as an example, it works something like this:

First, we have what I’ll call the Aristotelian Mean State: an appropriate, healthy level of in-group preference that people would not normally call “racism.” This Mean State is characterized by liking and appreciating one’s own culture, generally preferring it to others, but admitting that your culture isn’t perfect and other cultures have good points, too.

Deviating too far from this mean is generally considered sinful–in one direction, we get “My culture is the best and all other cultures should die,” and too far in the other, “All other cultures are best and my culture should die.” One of these is called “racism,” the other “treason.”

When people get Racism OCD, they become paranoid that even innocuous or innocent things–like dog costumes–could be a sign of racism. In this state, people worry about even normal, healthy expressions of ethnic pride, just as a person with homosexual OCD worries about completely normal appreciation of athleticism or admiration of a friend’s accomplishments.

Our culture then amplifies such worries by channeling them through Tumblr and other social media platforms where the argument “What do you mean you’re not against racism?” does wonders to break down resistance and convince everyone that normal, healthy ethnic feelings are abnormal, pathological racism and that sin is everywhere, you must constantly interrogate yourself for sin, you must constantly learn and try harder not to be racist, etc. There is always some new area of life that a Tumblrista can discover is secretly sinful, though you never realized it before, spiraling people into new arenas of self-doubt and paranoia.

As for the rest of the internet, those not predisposed toward Racism OCD are probably predisposed toward Anti-Racism OCD. Just as people with Racism OCD see racism everywhere, folks with Anti-Racism OCD see anti-racism everywhere. These folks think that even normal, healthy levels of not wanting to massacre the outgroup is pathological treason. (This is probably synonymous with Treason OCD, but is currently in a dynamic relationship with the perception that anti-racists are everywhere.)

Since there are over 300 million people in the US alone–not to mention 7 billion in the world–you can always find some case to justify paranoia. You can find people who say they merely have a healthy appreciation for their own culture but really do have murderous attitudes toward the out-group–something the out-group, at least, has good reason to worry about. You can find people who say they have a healthy attitude toward their own group, but still act in ways that could get everyone killed. You can find explicit racists and explicit traitors, and you can find lots of people with amplified, paranoid fears of both.

These two paranoid groups, in turn, can feed off each other, each pointing at the the other and screaming that everyone trying to promote “moderatism” is actually the worst sinners of the other side in disguise and therefore moderatism itself is evil. This feedback loop gives us things like the “It’s okay to be white” posters, which manages to make an entirely innocuous statement sound controversial due to our conviction that people only make innocuous statements because they are trying to make the other guy sound like a paranoid jerk who disputes innocuous statements.

Racism isn’t the only sin devolving into OCD–we can also propose Rape OCD, where people become paranoid about behaviors like flirting, kissing, or even thinking about women. There are probably other OCDs (trans OCD? food contamination OCD) but these are the big ones coming to mind right now.

Thankfully, Scott also proposes that awareness of our own psychology may allow us to recognize and moderate ourselves:

All of these can be treated with the same medications that treat normal OCD. But there’s an additional important step of explaining exactly this theory to the patient, so that they know that not only are they not gay/a pedophile/racist, but it’s actually their strong commitment to being against homosexuality/pedophilia/racism which is making them have these thoughts. This makes the thoughts provoke less strong emotion and can itself help reduce the frequency of obsessions. Even if it doesn’t do that, it’s at least comforting for most people.

The question, then, is how do we stop our national neuroses from causing disasters?

Political Inconsistency?

Does anyone else feel like politics are disconcertingly inconsistent?
Perhaps that the whole thing has come unmoored?
I was anti-war back in the early 00s, when the Left was anti-war. I marched in protest against the Iraq War. “Hey hey, ho ho, this racist war has got to go,” we chanted.
There was a lot of talk back then about how the US spends too much on the military and is over-involved in military expeditions abroad.
Of course, I was not an expert in international affairs, nor America’s military needs abroad. I might have been wrong. So might most of the other leftists who held similar opinions in those days. But “America is spending too much on the military, which is harming both brown people abroad and also Americans, who die in wars and have to pay for them. We would be better off spending that money on things that actually benefit Americans, like highspeed rail lines, education, health care, or just leaving it in people’s pockets and letting them use it however they want,” was absolutely a mainstream leftist position.
Today, Trump says something like he wouldn’t want to die in a war for Montenegro, and the Left responds that it is very important that Americans be willing to die for Montenegro.
Let’s step back and be rational for a second: No one wants to die for a foreign country. I don’t want to die for Australia, for Russia, for India, Japan, Montenegro, or Chad, and no one from those countries wants to die for America. Certainly there is a logic of “strength in numbers,” in which we are all safer because we create a credible, united front, but there is also logic in avoiding”entangling alliances,” which were blamed for creating the death machine known as WWI.
The question of whether Americans should die in defense of Montenegro (something we have been committed to without ever being asked,) ultimately depends on whether alliance with Montenegro makes us more or less secure here at home–a matter I haven’t seen any discussion about on Left or Right.
The only relevant argument I’ve seen is that various alliance-members have died “for us” in “our” wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore we should be equally willing to die for them in their wars. The logic seems to be, “The government sent you to die in a stupid, racist war that destroyed the American economy and was a terrible idea all around, therefore you’re morally obligated to go die in Montenegro, too.”
Perhaps we should be asking whether dying in Iraq and Afghanistan was a good idea for anyone, not just taking it as some kind of obscene sunk cost that obligates everyone else to go die in random conflicts from here on out.
It seems like all of the talk about how “the military is too big” and “bombing countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is racist” was dropped as soon as people realized that massively cutting the military budget would mean… scaling back military obligations abroad.
I find a Left that suddenly pro-military spending and antagonistic toward Russia awfully disconcerting.
There are a variety of issues on the Right that I find it difficult to believe people *truly* care that much about–for example, I don’t think anyone actually believed that national policy should be determined by whether or not Bill Clinton had sex with an intern. “Bill had sex” is really just an excuse to try to force him out on technical grounds because they already didn’t like him. Similarly on the Left, I don’t believe any of the outraged commentators actually care whether the US flag touched the North Korean flag at the US/NK summit–the Left has never cared about proper flag etiquette.
These issues are transparently not things politicians, commentators, or other elites actually care about.
Was “America spends too much on the military/fights too many wars abroad” similarly nothing but a dumb rallying cry for the Left, something the upper muckety-mucks never actually believed? And what happened to all of the people who were once quite opposed to US “imperialism”?

Vacation posting: When Capitalism Devours Democracy

I am on vacation, and so have only been able to take notes on the posts I want to write for the past week. Here is the outline I jotted down in the car:

  1. When Capitalism Devours Democracy

Ken Star, Mueller, the media, and endless for-profit, anti-nation investigations into the president. (Actually, Tom Nichols’s discussion about the evolution of talk radio and Cable News and their deleterious effects on political discourse is one of the better parts of his book, The Death of Expertise.)

The overly complex legal code + endless investigation + the media + advertising dollars => undermining government function.

Watergate, White Water, Monica, Russiagate, etc.

Can you imagine the national reaction if someone tried to investigate George Washington the same way? It would have been seen not as “anti-George Washington,” but as fundamentally anti-American, an attempt to subvert democracy itself and interfere with the proper functioning of the nation.

Note the complexity of the modern legal, economic, and tax systems, which simultaneously make it very hard for anyone doing much of anything to comply with every single law (have you ever jaywalked? Accidentally miscounted a deduction on your taxes?) and ensure that, with enough searching, if you want to pin something bad on someone, you probably can.

This is why you never talk to the police. Reason #1:

Even though you believe in your heart that you have done nothing wrong, you have no idea whether you might be admitting that you did something that is against the law. There are tens of thousands of criminal statutes on the books in America today. Most of them you have never heard of, and many of them involve conduct that nobody would imagine could ever be a crime.

(Unless you’ve been pulled over for speeding. Then obviously you pull out your driver’s license and talk like a normal human.)

See also Joe Salatin’s Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.

In short, the media discovered, with Nixon and Watergate (at least within the past century or so,) that constant presidential scandals could be good for ratings, and certain folks in the government discovered with Bill Clinton and Monica and Lewinsky that if you go digging for long enough, eventually you can find some kind of dirt to pin on someone–even if it’s completely irrelevant, idiotic dirt that has nothing to do with the president’s ability to govern.

This creates the incentive for the Media to constantly push the drumbeat narrative of “presidential scandal!” which leads to people truly believing that there is much more scandal than there really is.

Theory: Monica, Benghazi, Russiagate, and maybe even Watergate were all basically trumped-up hogwash played for ratings dollars. (Well, clearly someone broke into the Watergate hotel.)

The sheer complexity of the modern legal system, which allows this to happen, also  incentivizes each party to push for constant investigations of the other party’s presidents. In essence, both sides are moving toward mutual defect-defect, with the media egging them on.

And We the People are the suckers.

I feel like there are concepts here for which we need better words.

The Modular Mind

The other day I was walking through the garden when I looked down, saw one of these, leapt back, screamed loudly enough to notify the entire neighborhood:

(The one in my yard was insect free, however.)

After catching my breath, I wondered, “Is that a wasp nest or a beehive?” and crept back for a closer look. Wasp nest. I mentally paged through my knowledge of wasp nests: wasps abandon nests when they fall on the ground. This one was probably empty and safe to step past. I later tossed it onto the compost pile.

The interesting part of this incident wasn’t the nest, but my reaction. I jumped away from the thing before I had even consciously figured out what the nest was. Only once I was safe did I consciously think about the nest.

So I’ve been reading Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (I’m thinking of making this a Book Club pick; debating between this and Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human thought Revealed, which I have not read, but comes recommended. Feel free to vote for one, the other, or both.)

Gazzaniga discusses a problem faced by brains trying to evolve to be bigger and smarter: how do you get more neurons working without taking up an absurd amount of space connecting each and every neuron to every other neuron?

Imagine a brain with 5 connected neurons: each neuron requires 4 connections to talk to every other neuron. A 5 neuron brain would thus need space for 10 total connections.

The addition of a 6th neuron would require 5 new connections; a 7th neuron requires 6 new connections, etc. A fully connected brain of 100 neurons would require 99 connections per neuron, for a total of 4,950 connections.

The human brain has about 86 billion neurons.

Connecting all of your neurons might work fine if if you’re a sea squirt, with only 230 or so neurons, but it is going to fail hard if you’re trying to hook up 86 billion. The space required to hook up all of these neurons would be massively larger than the space you can actually maintain by eating.

So how does an organism evolving to be smarter deal with the connectivity demands of increasing brain size?

Human social lives suggest an answer: Up on the human scale, one person can, Dunbar estimates, have functional social relationships with about 150 other people, including an understanding of those people’s relationships with each other. 150 people (the “Dunbar number”) is therefore the amount of people who can reliably cooperate or form groups without requiring any top-down organization.

So how do humans survive in groups of a thousand, a million, or a billion (eg, China)? How do we build large-scale infrastructure projects requiring the work of thousands of people and used by millions, like interstate highways? By organization–that is, specialization.

In a small tribe of 150 people, almost everyone in the tribe can do most of the jobs necessary for the tribe’s survival, within the obvious limits of biology. Men and women are both primarily occupied with collecting food. Both prepare clothing and shelter; both can cook. There is some specialization of labor–obviously men can carry heavier loads; women can nurse children–but most people are generally competent at most jobs.

In a modern industrial economy, most people are completely incompetent at most jobs. I have a nice garden, but I don’t even know how to turn on a tractor, much less how to care for a cow. The average person does not know how to knit or sew, much less build a house, wire up the electricity and lay the plumbing. We attend school from 5 to 18 or 22 or 30 and end up less competent at surviving in our own societies than a cave man with no school was in his, not because school is terrible but because modern industrial society requires so much specialized knowledge to keep everything running that no one person can truly master even a tenth of it.

Specialization, not just of people but of organizations and institutions, like hospitals devoted to treating the sick, Walmarts devoted to selling goods, and Microsoft devoted to writing and selling computer software and hardware, lets society function without requiring that everyone learn to be a doctor, merchant, and computer expert.

Source

Similarly, brains expand their competence via specialization, not denser neural connections.

As UPI reports, Intelligence is correlated with fewer neural connections, not more, study finds:

The smartest people may boast more neurons than those of average intelligence, but their brains have fewer neural connections…

Neuroscientists in Germany recruited 259 participants, both men and women, to take IQ tests and have their brains imaged…

The research revealed a strong correlation between the number of dendrites in a person’s cerebral cortex and their intelligence. The smartest participants had fewer neural connections in their cerebral cortex.

Fewer neural connections overall allows different parts of the brain to specialize, increasing local competence.

All things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing that is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things. –Plato, The Republic

The brains of mice, as Gazzinga discusses, do not need to be highly specialized, because mice are not very smart and do not do many specialized activities. Human brains, by contrast, are highly specialized, as anyone who has ever had a stroke has discovered. (Henry Harpending of West Hunter, for example, once had a stroke while visiting Germany that knocked out the area of his brain responsible for reading, but since he couldn’t read German in the first place, he didn’t realize anything was wrong until several hours later.)

I read, about a decade ago, that male and female brains have different levels, and patterns, of internal connectivity. (Here and here are articles on the subject.) These differences in connectivity may allow men and women to excel at different skills, and since we humans are a social species that can communicate by talking, this allows us to take cognitive modality beyond the level of a single brain.

So modularity lets us learn (and do) more things, with the downside that sometimes knowledge is highly localized–that is, we have a lot of knowledge that we seem able to access only under specific circumstances, rather than use generally.

For example, I have long wondered at the phenomenon of people who can definitely do complicated math when asked to, but show no practical number sense in everyday life, like the folks from the Yale Philosophy department who are confused about why African Americans are under-represented in their major, even though Yale has an African American Studies department which attracts a disproportionate % of Yale’s African American students. The mathematical certainty that if any major in the whole school that attracts more African American students, then other majors will end up with fewer, has been lost on these otherwise bright minds.

Yalies are not the only folks who struggle to use the things they know. When asked to name a book–any book–ordinary people failed. Surely these people have heard of a book at some point in their lives–the Bible is pretty famous, as is Harry Potter. Even if you don’t like books, they were assigned in school, and your parents probably read The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to you when you were a kid. It is not that they do not have the knowledge as they cannot access it.

Teachers complain all the time that students–even very good ones–can memorize all of the information they need for a test, regurgitate it all perfectly, and then turn around and show no practical understanding of the information at all.

Richard Feynman wrote eloquently of his time teaching future science teachers in Brazil:

In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism – Maxwell’s equations, and so on. …

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn’t any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”

Nobody said anything.

Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”

“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”

“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”

“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

I said, “Well?”

Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”

“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

The students here are not dumb, and memorizing things is not bad–memorizing your times tables is very useful–but they have everything lodged in their “memorization module” and nothing in their “practical experience module.” (Note: I am not necessarily suggesting that thee exists a literal, physical spot in the brain where memorized and experienced knowledge reside, but that certain brain structures and networks lodge information in ways that make it easier or harder to access.)

People frequently make arguments that don’t make logical sense when you think them all the way through from start to finish, but do make sense if we assume that people are using specific brain modules for quick reasoning and don’t necessarily cross-check their results with each other. For example, when we are angry because someone has done something bad to us, we tend to snap at people who had nothing to do with it. Our brains are in “fight and punish mode” and latch on to the nearest person as the person who most likely committed the offense, even if we consciously know they weren’t involved.

Political discussions are often marred by folks running what ought to be logical arguments through status signaling, emotional, or tribal modules. The desire to see Bad People punished (a reasonable desire if we all lived in the same physical community with each other) interferes with a discussion of whether said punishment is actually useful, effective, or just. For example, a man who has been incorrectly convicted of the rape of a child will have a difficult time getting anyone to listen sympathetically to his case.

In the case of white South African victims of racially-motivated murder, the notion that their ancestors did wrong and therefore they deserve to be punished often overrides sympathy. As BBC notes, these killings tend to be particularly brutal (they often involve torture) and targeted, but the South African government doesn’t care:

According to one leading political activist, Mandla Nyaqela, this is the after-effect of the huge degree of selfishness and brutality which was shown towards the black population under apartheid. …

Virtually every week the press here report the murders of white farmers, though you will not hear much about it in the media outside South Africa.In South Africa you are twice as likely to be murdered if you are a white farmer than if you are a police officer – and the police here have a particularly dangerous life. The killings of farmers are often particularly brutal. …

Ernst Roets’s organisation has published the names of more than 2,000 people who have died over the last two decades. The government has so far been unwilling to make solving and preventing these murders a priority. …

There used to be 60,000 white farmers in South Africa. In 20 years that number has halved.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the measures ordinary South Africans have to take in what was once a safe country to not become human shishkabobs, which you should pause and read, but is a bit of a tangent from our present discussion. The article ends with a mind-bending statement about a borrowed dog (dogs are also important for security):

My friends tell me the dog is fine around children, but is skittish around men, especially black men. The people at the dog pound told them it had probably been abused. As we walk past house after house, with barking dog after barking dog, I notice Lampo pays no attention. Instead, he’s watching the stream of housekeepers and gardeners heading home from work. They eye the dog nervously back.

Great, I think, I’m walking a racist dog.

Module one: Boy South Africa has a lot of crime. Better get a dog, cover my house with steel bars, and an extensive security system.

Module two: Associating black people with crime is racist, therefore my dog is racist for being wary of people who look like the person who abused it.

And while some people are obviously sympathetic to the plight of murdered people, “Cry me a river White South African Colonizers” is a very common reaction. (Never mind that the people committing crimes in South Africa today never lived under apartheid; they’ve lived in a black-run country for their entire lives.) Logically, white South Africans did not do anything to deserve being killed, and like the golden goose, killing the people who produce food will just trigger a repeat of Zimbabwe, but the modes of tribalism–“I do not care about these people because they are not mine and I want their stuff”–and punishment–“I read about a horrible thing someone did, so I want to punish everyone who looks like them”–trump logic.

Who dies–and how they die–significantly shapes our engagement with the news. Gun deaths via mass shootings get much more coverage and worry than ordinary homicides, even though ordinary homicides are far more common. homicides get more coverage and worry than suicides, even though suicides are far more common. The majority of gun deaths are actually suicides, but you’d never know that from listening to our national conversation about guns, simply because we are biased to worry far more about other people killng us than about ourselves.

Similarly, the death of one person via volcano receives about the same news coverage as 650 in a flood, 2,000 in a drought, or 40,000 in a famine. As the article notes:

Instead of considering the objective damage caused by natural disasters, networks tend to look for disasters that are “rife with drama”, as one New York Times article put it4—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes all make for splashy headlines and captivating visuals. Thanks to this selectivity, less “spectacular” but often times more deadly natural disasters tend to get passed over. Food shortages, for example, result in the most casualties and affect the most people per incident5 but their onset is more gradual than that of a volcanic explosion or sudden earthquake. … This bias for the spectacular is not only unfair and misleading, but also has the potential to misallocate attention and aid.

There are similar biases by continent, with disasters in Africa receiving less attention than disasters in Europe (this correlates with African disasters being more likely to be the slow-motion famines, epidemics and droughts that kill lots of people, and European disasters being splashier, though perhaps we’d consider famines “splashier” if they happened in Paris instead of Ethiopia.)

From Personality and Political Attitudes: “Conservatives are hard-working, organized, closed-minded, and emotionally stable. Liberals are lazy, disorganized, open-minded, and neurotic. Let’s see how the punditocracy spins that one.”

From a neuropolitical perspective, I suspect that patterns such as the Big Five personality traits correlating with particular political positions (“openness” with “liberalism,” for example, or “conscientiousness” with “conservativeness,”) is caused by patterns of brain activity that cause some people to depend more or less on particular brain modules for processing.

For example, conservatives process more of the world through the areas of their brain that are also used for processing disgust, (not one of “the five” but still an important psychological trait) which increases their fear of pathogens, disease vectors, and generally anything new or from the outside. Disgust can go so far as to process other people’s faces or body language as “disgusting” (eg, trans people) even when there is objectively nothing that presents an actual contamination or pathogenic risk involved.

Similarly, people who feel more guilt in one area of their life often feel guilt in others–eg, “White guilt was significantly associated with bulimia nervosa symptomatology.” The arrow of causation is unclear–guilt about eating might spill over into guilt about existing, or guilt about existing might cause guilt about eating, or people who generally feel guilty about everything could have both. Either way, these people are generally not logically reasoning, “Whites have done bad things, therefore I should starve myself.” (Should veganism be classified as a politically motivated eating disorder?)

I could continue forever–

Restrictions on medical research are biased toward preventing mentally salient incidents like thalidomide babies, but against the invisible cost of children who die from diseases that could have been cured had research not been prevented by regulations.

America has a large Somali community but not Congolese, (85,000 Somalis vs. 13,000 Congolese, of whom 10,000 hail from the DRC. Somalia has about 14 million people, the DRC has about 78.7 million people, so it’s not due to there being more Somalis in the world,) for no particular reason I’ve been able to discover, other than President Clinton once disastrously sent a few helicopters to intervene in the eternal Somali civil war and so the government decided that we now have a special obligation to take in Somalis.

–but that’s probably enough.

I have tried here to present a balanced account of different political biases, but I would like to end by noting that modular thinking, while it can lead to stupid decisions, exists for good reasons. If purely logical thinking were superior to modular, we’d probably be better at it. Still, cognitive biases exist and lead to a lot of stupid or sub-optimal results.