Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Nov 6, 2017: Discussion with Dr. Jonathan Haidt NYU - YouTube

Nov 6, 2017: Discussion with Dr. Jonathan Haidt NYU - YouTube

This wide-ranging interview by Jordan B Peterson of Jonathan Haidt contains fascinating and rich insights that are too many and too broad to even summarize here. Both Peterson and Haidt touch on moral foundations, differences in how conservatives and liberals see the world, tribalism, free speech, and so on. It's over 90 minutes long. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

I’ve read a number of books in the last few years that tell us how we think we’re being objective but we’re actually hostage to a laundry list of various biases, many of which influence us subconsciously. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow probably is the most influential of these books based on how frequently it is cited in the other books. While Jacobs’ How To Think tills some of the same ground there is a difference. Jacobs’ personal background helps him see how biases influence how different groups of people perceive the world and think about it. Why do I say this? Because he straddles two worlds. He is an academic (teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University) while also being a Christian. This gives Jacobs a unique perspective where he can see how different groups perceive each other.

When I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think, That’s not quite right. I don’t believe you understand the people you think you’re disagreeing with. And when I listen to Christians talk about academics I have precisely the same thought.

Jacobs differs from Kahneman and others by saying that thinking involves much more than recognizing and fighting our inherent bias. He believes:

[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

Here is Jacobs’ suggested first step how to address this taken from his Can Evangelicals and Academics Talk to Each Other? in The Wall Street Journal.

[T]here is a first step that all of us can take in resisting the hold of our Inner Rings and the reflex to push away our “repugnant cultural others.”

The Inner Ring that Jabobs refers to is from a C. S. Lewis talk titled “The Inner Rings” which describes our fear of being left out of our preferred social group, of being considered an outsider to the ingroup that we want to belong to. Jacobs’ discussion uses his term “repugnant cultural other” (or RCO) throughout his book. RCO captures how we tend to be repelled by those who disagree with us in politics, religion, or issues such as gun control.

Or another way to summarize his approach is:

The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

I do disagree somewhat with Jacobs’ explanation why some people cast those who disagree with them as enemies worthy of being demonized and even disposed of.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. … Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed, it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I wouldn’t label people who think this way necessarily as optimists. I’d say they’re sadly lacking in objectivity. They’re not asking themselves why people who disagree with them could possibly take that position. I’ve seen this especially rampant here in Massachusetts among my liberal friends, where I’ve chosen in some cases not to get into arguments. I know a couple people who have quit talking to me simply because I disagreed with their support for Hillary Clinton as president. Having said that, I’ve also seen conservative, libertarian and Objectivist friends treat people who disagree with them in a less than civil manner.

Jacobs describes how each group creates their own keywords so that allies can easily understand each other while judging other people by their use of these keywords. (It reminds me of Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics in which liberals talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, conservatives cast debates in terms of barbarism versus civilization and libertarians judge whether acts impede our freedom or coerce us.) As Jacobs correctly says, “keywords have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought.” After all, it’s easier to slap labels onto ideas we agree or disagree with than it is to objectively consider them.

Jacobs disagrees with the idealistic image of us as independent thinkers who reach our conclusions unencumbered by the influence of what others think.  “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.” I’m sure we can find examples of people who indeed did heroically work out their ideas in isolation. Based on the summaries of the abundant psychological research I’ve read in the books on how we think, I do believe we are swayed by how our friends think and we tend to surround ourselves with people who tend to agree with us. I agree with Jacobs and others (like Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind) that despite our advancement from our caveman days we still are tribal in nature. However, I also believe that we can strive for objectivity if we follow Jacobs’s advice such as “when faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.” Or “value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’ ”

Before I close let me say that Jacobs doesn’t say we should never come to firm conclusions. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world, any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its root every morning to see how it’s doing.”

I believe if you take the steps Jacobs puts in his final chapter, The Thinking Person’s Checklist, you can still firmly hold and defend your opinions while also accepting that people can disagree with you. You can be secure in your beliefs without demonizing the other person.

At the beginning I said that I’ve read many books, not just on how biases can affect us. For a number of these books after I finish them I sarcastically ask, “Gee, how did the author shoehorn the contents of a three page article into a 300 page book.” By that I mean the author took an idea that made a good magazine article then expanded it into a book by adding filler and stories but not much else. Jacobs’ book sets an example of how to do the opposite: how to pack many ideas into a slim 156-page volume. His book could have been titled How To Think -- and Write.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Why Are Adversaries Expendable?

While reading Alan Jacobs’ book How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds this statement caught my eye.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can not be just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. (An “adversary” is literally one who has turned against you, one who blocks your path.) Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I’ve seen this attitude in action where people who disagree with someone are demonized or “unfriended” to use a Facebook term.

Unfortunately I think Jacobs’ explanation doesn’t go deep enough. Why? Because I know people who firmly think they know the answers to certain problems but they don’t demonize and marginalize those who disagree. This means there must be another, deeper premise at work. Over-optimism isn’t the answer.

I think this difference comes back to objectivity. Can we objectively evaluate what others think and feel without automatically casting them as harboring the worst possible motives? Can we restate their position in the best possible light before trying to refute it? (Thereby using what is referred to as “steel manning” as opposed to knocking over a straw man.) In fact Jacobs refers to this approach in a later paragraph.

One of the classic ways to do this is to seek out the best – the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded – representatives of the positions you disagree with.

If we don’t try to be objective it becomes all too easy (and tempting) to demonize people who disagree with us. It spares us from facing the possibility we could be wrong, not the person who disagrees with us.

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

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.

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.