Comment

Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Thoughts on gun control - The Washington Post Article

I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise. - The Washington Post

As part of the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting the usual reactions have erupted. Gun control advocates use this as a call for imposing more measures to restrict access to guns while their opponents say these new measures won't prevent mass shootings like this.

I stumbled across this article by Leah Libresco, a statistician and former news writer at FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation website with a blog created by analyst Nate Silver. I'm citing it because Libresco arrives at interesting conclusions based on her analysis of the data. She admits to being in favor of stronger gun control but then her study lead her to different potential answers.

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.
Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.
At the end of the article Libresco concludes that the following steps need to be taken instead of continuing to pursue stronger gun control legislation. 
Older men, who make up the largest share of gun suicides, need better access to people who could care for them and get them help. Women endangered by specific men need to be prioritized by police, who can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns. Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts.

Philosopher Stephen Hicks has posted some statistics comparing gun ownership by country and their homicide rates. He notes that there is no apparent correlation between the two and concludes:

Let’s think sadly about those who were injured and lost their lives. Let’s think angrily about the evil man who killed them. And then let’s also think sophisticatedly about the multiple influences and causes of homicide. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Further thoughts on the Fragile Generation

In my earlier post on the fragile generation the interview has this quote from Jonathan Haidt.

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.

I agree with Haidt about the first two ideas that the current generation seems to believe. To me the first idea, that feelings are always right, stems from the lack of teaching kids the ability to think critically. Way back in the mid 1980s a friend and I designed and taught an adult continuing education course on critical thinking. At that time we could see that our adult students had never been exposed to thinking in a methodical, logical way. It makes sense that if people don’t have even a rudimentary grasp of logic and arguments they are subject to subconscious biases and to the push of emotional reactions.

I’ve read a number of books over the last ten years that explore how we form opinions and how we are unconsciously influenced by many biases. I recall reading about one study in which some of the participants read a series of words related to being elderly. When they were later given a series of physical tasks to perform they completed them more slowly than the control group that had not been exposed to those words!

As I explain it to people we like to think we’re being detectives when we’re really lawyers. By that I mean a detective tries to find out who committed a crime by objectively collecting and piecing together the evidence. A lawyer, on the other hand, tries to build a case, either to defend their client or to prosecute the defendant. The studies I’ve read about show that we often come to a conclusion about an issue then go looking for confirming data. We tend to ignore or discount data that doesn’t fit our conclusion.

I agree with Haidt with his identifying the second prevalent idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. This idea seems to be rampant among what some call the derisively call the “snowflake” generation. I think this is tied to the first premise. That is, if you don’t have the tools to think critically then we’re threatened by ideas with which we disagree.

My main objective is to touch on his third point: that the world is divided into good people and bad people. I’m sure Haidt will explain this more in his upcoming book and that he isn’t saying there are no evil people. Being familiar with Haidt’s work, I believe he is saying that people are too quick to lump those who disagree with them into the evil camp. I’ve seen it happen many times where you’re demonized if you disagree with someone politically. Liberals think conservatives are evil and vice versa. I’m not saying everyone does this but a lot do. It has happened to me during the 2016 presidential election. A couple people have quit talking to my wife and me when we disagreed with them.

I’m assuming Haidt would agree that there are some evil people. The clearly obvious examples would be Hitler, Mao and Stalin or murderous sociopaths. But these are extreme examples. In our daily lives we rarely deal with people who are truly evil. They might buy into ideas or policies that we believe ultimately hurt people. For instance, conservatives and libertarians believe gun control disarms the poor who might live in high crime areas. Liberals believe gun control protects us from those who, in the liberal’s eyes, can too easily obtain guns. Conservatives and libertarians think welfare benefits eat away at the incentive for people to find work while liberals think welfare is needed to compensate for the victims of an economy rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Neither side in these debates are necessarily evil. But I’ve seen it happen too often where you get slapped with the evil label for disagreeing! I assume Haidt’s book will delve into this in much more detail.

Before closing I’d recommend using something called steel manning and taking the ideological Turing test. Steel manning is opposite of a straw man argument which involves distorting what an opponent is saying then refuting it while the original argument wasn’t really addressed. Steel manning means we take the opposite approach of the straw man argument: you try to strengthen the argument of the other side before trying to refute it. To do this means applying what has been called the Turing ideological test where you try to state the argument of the other side as fairly as possible, as if you actually are taking that stand, then addressing it. I think if more people tried to do this we would have more civil and productive disagreements.


Both steel manning and the ideological Turing test take a lot of work! It means trying to think like your opponent then coming up with your response. Unfortunately, we tend to take the easy way out. Haidt has said in his earlier work that humans are still fundamentally tribal in nature. Once we form an allegiance to a tribe we talk the language of our tribe (see Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics) and look at the other tribe as the “enemy.”

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The fragile generation - Jonathan Haidt Interview

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-fragile-generation/20257#.WcQOntN96SN

This is an excellent interview of Jonathan Haidt on the idea recently floated that it's OK to prevent certain people from speaking in public because their ideas are considered offensive and a form of violence.

Here is a summary that appears at the end.

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.
So how can we resolve the problem of vulnerability among young Americans? Haidt says part of the solution must begin in childhood and will require parents to give their children daily periods of ‘unsupervised time’. ‘We have to accept the fact that in that unsupervised time there will be name-calling, conflict and exclusion. And while it’s painful for parents to accept this, in the long-run it will give them children that are not suffering from such high rates of anxiety and depression.’
As for university students, Haidt references a recent quote from CNN commentator Van Jones. Jones said: ‘I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically.’ Building on this, he says universities should help students develop their ‘anti-fragility’.
‘We need to focus on preparing students to encounter intellectual and ideological diversity. We need to prepare them for civil disagreements. We need to be very mindful of mental illness, but otherwise need to minimise the role of adult supervision in their lives. College is a major opportunity, once they have left home, for them to develop anti-fragility and we must not deprive them of that learning opportunity.’
Here is an article from The Atlantic as well.

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/why-its-a-bad-idea-to-tell-students-words-are-violence/533970/


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What's Worse Than Thieves? Thieving Police - Bloomberg: Applying The Three Languages of Politics Model

What's Worse Than Thieves? Thieving Police - Bloomberg

This article by Megan McArdle looks at civil asset forfeiture through Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics model. (For an explanation of civil asset forfeiture, here is what Wikipedia has: "Civil forfeiture in the United States, also called civil asset forfeiture or civil judicial forfeiture or occasionally civil seizure, is a controversial legal process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.")

Anyway, this is a nice application of Kling's model (which Kling apparently supports because he posted a link to McArdle's article on his blog).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Camille Paglia: On Trump, Democrats, Transgenderism, and Islamist Terror | The Weekly Standard

Camille Paglia: On Trump, Democrats, Transgenderism, and Islamist Terror | The Weekly Standard

Camille Paglia continues to be one of my favorite writers. While I don't agree with her choice of the politicians she endorses I do agree with much of her analysis of the current political scene. Here is one quote from her recent interview that I believe captures the essence of the difference between the elite and Trump.

There seems to be a huge conceptual gap between Trump and his most implacable critics on the left. Many highly educated, upper-middle-class Democrats regard themselves as exemplars of "compassion" (which they have elevated into a supreme political principle) and yet they routinely assail Trump voters as ignorant, callous hate-mongers. These elite Democrats occupy an amorphous meta-realm of subjective emotion, theoretical abstractions, and refined language. But Trump is by trade a builder who deals in the tangible, obdurate, objective world of physical materials, geometry, and construction projects, where communication often reverts to the brusque, coarse, high-impact level of pre-modern working-class life, whose daily locus was the barnyard. It's no accident that bourgeois Victorians of the industrial era tried to purge "barnyard language" out of English.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” | the fifth wave

The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” | the fifth wave

I found this essay to be rich and highly thought-provoking. It talks about the nature of narratives, the relationship between the elite and the public and the political battles over what constitutes the truth.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ways to Burst Your Filter Bubble - Bloomberg View

Ways to Burst Your Filter Bubble - Bloomberg View

Tyler Cowen offers some ideas for how we can overcome confirmation bias, "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses" per Wikipedia.

Cowen introduces the subject as follows:


Often readers send requests, and last week I was asked for “Good Rules to Avoid the Filter Bubble.” My correspondent meant, how to avoid reading too many of the people he agreed with, maintaining a balanced perspective in a time of increasing polarization. Of course, a “balanced” perspective isn’t always a more correct one (sometimes one side really does have more truth on its side). But still it seems valuable to understand the views of others, and to keep in mind the limitations of one’s own.
The sad thing is, this isn’t as easy as it might sound.
He offers several suggestions. My personal favorite is the ideological Turing test in which "you could write out the views of a Trump or Clinton supporter, or of some other point of view contrary to your own, in a way that would be indistinguishable from the writings of supporters." I also rely on Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics because I think his model helps identify the main focus liberals, conservatives and libertarians use when expressing and defending their positions. (Quick summary. Liberals talk about the oppressed/oppressors. Conservatives refer to civilization vs. barbarism while libertarians see things in terms of rights versus coercion.)

For a more detailed analysis of confirmation bias and other factors that affect our ability to be objective check out Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

Do You Want Reagan’s Economy or Obama’s? - WSJ

Do You Want Reagan’s Economy or Obama’s? - WSJ

When my wife and I get together with other couples of our age we almost inevitably end up talking about how our kids won't have the standard of living that we enjoy. We collectively shake our heads as though there is some mysterious malaise that dooms our economy to anemic growth and our kids to a bleak future of living with their parents. This article touches on the reasons I believe why the economy hasn't grown like it used to. I refer to the three Rs: revenue (i.e., taxes), regulations and redistribution. The combination of these three forces have throttled the engine of growth.

I know liberal critics of Reagan will point to the deficit spending and the military buildup of his presidency while conservatives and libertarians will point out that Reagan actually didn't reduce the size of government. He just slowed its rate of growth. Still, Reagan's overall approach and focus differ from Obama's.

For a much more detailed discussion of the malaise we're in see Our Miserable 21st Century by Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary. Eberstadt doesn't specifically identify the causes of this misery but does catalog the symptoms and outcomes in depressing and disturbing detail.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting Oscars Comment: Related to Kling’s Three Languages of Politics

I’ve written a number of times about Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. Basically he says that each of the three main political groups in the U.S. prefer to use a language that centers on an axis. Liberals talk about the oppressors vs. the oppressed. Conservatives worry about the effects of barbarism on civilization. Libertarians coach their positions in terms of freedom versus coercion.

With this as background a comment was made during the acceptance speech for best movie at the Oscars by Marc Platt, a “La La Land” producer. His comment was lost in the drama that unfolded shortly after he made this comment due to the award being given to the wrong film. I don’t know if Platt is familiar with Kling’s book. (Probably not.) Or if he was trying to appeal to conservative in his phrasing. (Also probably not.) But I found his statement a potential use of Kling’s ideas to express an idea that could span the two groups, liberal and conservatives.

Here is what he said with the key text highlighted: “Here’s to the fools who made me dream: my uncle Gary Platt; my mentor, Sam Cohn; my parents; my children; my wife Julie, on whose shoulders I’ve stood for 40 years because she insisted I reach for the stars. And to the Hollywood community that I’m so proud to be a part of. And to the Hollywood and the hearts and minds of people everywhere, repression is the enemy of civilization. So keep dreaming, because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.”

I know he uses repression rather than oppression but I think the terms are close enough. Oppression involves keeping a person or a group of persons down while repression deals with the ability to express oneself. In any case, I find it interesting how Platt starts off with the liberal’s preferred term of repression to tie it to a conservative’s preference for civilization. I’m sure Platt would argue that a “civilized” world needs to allow freedom of expression, not the traditions conservatives want to protect such as religion.

What about the libertarians? They probably would say that the best way to prevent repression and protect civilization is by protecting individual rights.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The real Super Bowl lesson wasn’t about revenge - The Boston Globe



This article nicely captures my feelings about the New England Patriots' incredible come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. As a Pats fan it was sweet to have them win despite Brady's suspension for the first four games of the season due to allegations that the Pats lowered the pressure in their footballs.

But the satisfaction of getting this win (with properly inflated balls) pales to the spectacle of watching the Patriots methodically, relentlessly and calmly chip away at the Falcons' lead. Meanwhile the Atlanta team could have easily added a field goal to put the game even further out of reach but succumbed to some head-scratching decisionsThere easily were half a dozen or more plays that would have thwarted the Pats' comeback if any one of them had not worked in the Pats favor. 

It seems that everything is politicized these days. We know that Robert Kraft (the team owner), Bill Belichick (head coach) and Tom Brady (quarterback) are Trump supporters. We know that some of the players have said they will not attend the team meeting at the White House for political reasons. Yet it's great to see that both sides could set aside these differences (at least publicly) to work toward a common goal.

It was as if everything our parents, our teachers, our coaches had tried to teach us transpired in the last 18 minutes of this magnificent spectacle, this Super Bowl. In the end, it wasn’t about revenge. It was about not giving up, about perseverance, about not panicking, about having a backup plan if the original plan isn’t working, about believing in yourself and your ability and in one another.
... 
The roots of the comeback were embedded in another of our parents’ mantras: that you lay the groundwork for success in ways you often can’t see, simply by persevering. Even after they had fallen behind by so much, the Patriots were controlling possession and running the Falcons defense ragged. In the fourth quarter, and especially during the winning drive in overtime, the Atlanta defenders were gassed, exhausted. 
...
So many of us had assumed that Tom Brady wanted to win this game so he could rub it in Goodell’s face. But it turns out he really wanted to win the game to put a smile on his mother’s face. There’s something much stronger, sweeter, and more satisfying than revenge. It’s called love.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Seven Secrets of Feigning Objectivity

This article, NPR's Seven Secrets of Feigning Objectivity, by Bill Frezza in Forbes talks about NPR but the points made easily apply to any news outlet, whether it's Fox, MSNBC, Drudge Report or CNN. I've seen all of them using these "secrets." I know some of the selectivity in the stories they cover is driven by time constraints of their medium. However, Frezza also identifies other ways a news outlet can shape the news they're presenting to push their agenda. That's why I make it a point to get my information from more than one source. It is enlightening to switch, say, between CNN and Fox to see how they select different stories to headline or who they choose to comment on events.

I heartily agree with Frezza's last sentence: "Knowing these secrets will help you be a smarter consumer of the news and a better informed citizen."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Global Warming: Questions That Need Distinguishing – Maverick Philosopher

I like to share posts that give examples of what I think is objective thinking. Below are some extended quotes from Maverick Philosopher about global warming that provide an example.

I am a skeptic about global warming (GW). To be precise, I am skeptical about some, not all, of the claims made by the GW activists. See below for some necessary distinctions. Skepticism is good. Doubt is the engine of inquiry and a key partner in the pursuit of truth.

A skeptic is a doubter, not a denier. To doubt or inquire or question whether such-and-such is the case is not to deny that it is the case. It is a cheap rhetorical trick of GW alarmists when they speak of GW denial and posture as if it is in the ball park of Holocaust denial. People who misuse language in this way signal that they are not interested in a serious discussion. When GW activists speak in this way they give us even more reason to be skeptical.
I have not investigated the matter with any thoroughness, and I have no firm opinion. It is difficult to form an opinion because it is difficult to know whom to trust: reputable scientists have their ideological biases too, and if they work in universities, the leftish climate in these hotbeds of political correctness is some reason to be skeptical of anything they say. (Both puns intended.)

Off the top of my head I think we ought to distinguish among the following questions:

1. Is global warming (GW) occurring?
2. If yes to (1), is it naturally irreversible, or is it likely to reverse itself on its own?
3. If GW is occurring, and will not reverse itself on its own, to what extent is it anthropogenic, i.e., caused by human activity, and what are the human causes?

(3) is the crucial empirical question. It is obviously distinct from (1) and (2). If there is naturally irreversible global warming, this is not to say that it is caused by human activity. It may or may not be. One has to be aware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Suppose there is a close correlation between global warming and man-made carbon emissions. It doesn't straightaway follow that the human activity causes the warming. But again, this is not a question that can be settled a priori; it is a question for climatologists.

4. If anthropogenic, is global warming caused by humans to a degree that warrants action, assuming that action can be taken to stop it?
5. If GW is caused by humans to an extent that it warrants action, what sorts of action would be needed to stop the warming process?
6. How much curtailment of economic growth would we be willing to accept to stop global warming? And what other effects on human beings could the anti-global warming policies be expected to have?
The first three of these six questions are empirical and are reserved for climatologists. They are very difficult questions to answer.


Our first three questions are empirical. But the last three are not, being questions of public policy. So although the core issues are empirical, philosophers have some role to play: they can help in the formulation and clarification of the various questions; they can help with the normative questions that arise in conjunction with (4)-(5), and they can examine the cogency of the arguments given on either side. Last but not least, they can drive home the importance of being clear about the distinction between empirical and conceptual questions.


Just for the record I too am a skeptic or, to be more specific and accurate, a “luke-warmer” which means I think we humans have some impact on the global climate but nowhere near what global warming alarmists claim. It would take many pages to explain why I believe this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

5 Reasons Meryl Streep's Golden Globes Speech Was A Dud

5 Reasons Meryl Streep's Golden Globes Speech Was A Dud 

Last night as my wife and I channel surfed we stopped at the Golden Globe awards just in time to see Meryl Streep receive the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award. She lost no time to launch into an anti-Trump tirade. I like this commentary on The Federalist by Mollie Hemingway.

Here is a sampling of her commentary.

Streep said, “Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press.”
How do I put this? UM, NO. Just no. The press and Hollywood are some of the most privileged segments of society. Whether you measure it in terms of cash money, prestige, fame, or an ability to fail year after year and get promoted, Hollywood and media elite do not get to cast themselves as victims. 
To be fair, Streep is right that the press and Hollywood are indeed vilified among certain parts of the population which includes some but not necessarily all of Trump's supporters. Streep's comment therefore is partially true: some of the people who voted for Trump did so because they vilify Hollywood and the press ... maybe because these voters feel vilified by Hollywood and the press! So it's mutual vilification!

Read the rest of it. Hemmingway is not a Trump supporter; I agree with her criticisms of some of Trump's verbal shenanigans during the campaign that consisted of mocking insults. 

I also agree with her closing paragraph.
As individuals, however, we can and should always redouble our efforts to speak well of each other and treat each other well. We shouldn’t take our guidance from politicians or movie stars, and if we focus our efforts on improving our own virtue, perhaps future generations will have better statesmen and artists.