Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

TMI, America

Every week or so brings another well thought out, evidence-based article somewhere about how Trump’s base is reacting to his latest stunt. This is immediately followed on social media by someone’s comment to the effect, “I know these guys; they’re not like that at all.” These observations come from the right or the left, makes no difference. My reaction is, “Really?”

Let’s see, most polls give Trump’s approval rating consistently around 35%, give or take a point or two (of which much is made, but that’s another story.) The adult population of the country is about 246 million, and this is presumably the target group of the polls. So the articles in question are making statements concerning the beliefs of approximately 86 million people, based on scientific polling. Now, you can have legitimate concerns about the validity of these polls, either on scientific grounds or past performance.

But the person who writes in a FB comment or a tweet that he or she “knows these people” is talking about an infinitessimal sample. A human being can have direct, personal knowledge of maybe 100 people, max. This has been demonstrated by several studies, but even if it’s off by an order of magnitude, it’s no serious competition for professional polling, especially since “all the people I know” is hardly a random sample.

This is just a symptom of a larger issue: we are giving each other far more information about our personal lives, our beliefs (and ipso facto our prejudices) than we can possibly process in a useful way. Add to that the fact that we have access, updated hourly, to information about hundreds or thousands of instances of tragedy and injustice anywhere in the world, and that makes it — I’ll say it — impossible to evaluate most of what gets fed into our heads each day.

I am interested in significant events in my friends’ lives, I really am, but do I need to know about every hangnail, every maddening computer glitch? As far as the news of the world is concerned, am I really ready to vet every allegation of misconduct? More than likely, the former will generate a snicker, and the latter will be incorporated into my world view to the extent it confirms what I already think. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? If the piece doesn’t fit, out it goes. Except we can subtlely change the pieces of reality we don’t like to make them fit.

The virtue of physical newspapers was that they were limited to roughly the amount of information we could deal with. Biased? Of course, but I’ll bet we’re more neurotic now, torn by the possibility of mistaken outrage, or an injustice we can’t possibly set right.

Our knowledge of our friends’ foibles was limited by however much time we could allot to hanging out in cafes and bars, which usually entailed fewer than 5 or 6 people at a time. There were no headlines about minor domestic glitches published for all the world to see and comment upon.

Technology is racing ahead of cultural adaptation. We still give up our secrets as if we were just talking over the fence with a neighbor. And then we express outrage at our lack of privacy.


What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.




How will you plead at the judgment of history?

If you support Trump’s attack on the constitution, you’re guilty.

If you voted for Trump because you agreed with what he said, you’re guilty.

If you voted for him because you wanted to shake up the status quo, you’re guilty.

If you gave in to your fear, and thought you could be saved by victimizing others, you’re guilty

If you thought he wouldn’t do what he said, you’re guilty.

If you cut down Clinton because you didn’t get Bernie, you’re guilty.

If you voted for an incompetent third party candidate as a protest, you’re guilty.

If you thought only your favorite ideology merited support, you’re guilty.

If you didn’t vote at all because you thought your cool cynicism excused you, you’re guilty.

If you think you’re excused from culpability because it’s all beneath you, you’re guilty.

Above all, if you approve of what’s happening right now, you are guilty, and that’s how you will be judged.


Fact is…

Years ago, when I was at Purdue University studying Anthropology, I was in one of those combined departments you get in a relatively unremunerative major. In this case, it was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Sociology vastly outnumbered, outspent, and generally outdid us. We were like poor relations who were allowed to live with our betters because otherwise we would have been homeless, and that would not have reflected well on the family, would it?

I had a pet peeve, of course, and it was against the sociologists, of course. It seemed to me that they spent all their time studying either trivialities (e.g., why Freshman girls pledging sororities chose the ones they did) or the obvious (e.g., whether people generally prefer to socialize with others like themselves). God knows what conclusions were gleaned from the former, but the latter almost universally confirmed what was expected. Every once in a while, they would turn up something counterintuitive, but that was seldom, and when it did happen, more studies followed up, to see if the results could be replicated.

Of course, my perceptions of the kinds of research conducted by Purdue sociologists were severely biased, and almost certainly grossly exaggerated the percentage of pointless studies. All the same, there was one significant factor about the second variety, the studies of the obvious. When such studies confirmed expectations, they were almost never revisited. In the wisdom of my youth, I thought, good, they never should have been done in the first place.

Nowadays, it seems clear to me that there is good value in investigating “common sense,” since, as the old saw goes, it is often neither common nor sense. But here’s the rub: when such studies confirm general expectations, they’re still only rarely revisited for replication. In fact lack of attempts to replicate research has become an issue across the board; just google “replication in research,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Not revisiting studies of what seems obvious probably stems from a combination of confirmation bias and reluctance to waste time and money in short supply. But the extension to studies of any kind undoubtedly relates to mundane career decisions. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s study. If you’re a junior scientist, or even a senior one, it is far better for your career to come up with something unique. Even then, you’d better get positive results, or your chances of publication are slim, and no publication means time wasted, career-wise.

And why, you’re asking yourself, does this matter? Two reasons: First, there are potentially many common-sensical hypotheses that are unsound, but are propped up by poorly designed studies, and thus become part of the scientific canon. Second, the pursuit of the trivial in an effort to avoid replication opens up science for ridicule by people with political agendas.

The remedy seems clear enough. Replication studies and negative results need to have the same status as original studies with positive results. Try convincing a journal editor or department chair of that, and good luck.

Anti-social media

I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m actually tired of reading the same political comments over and over. They’re not even arguments any more. Each side just posts, bot-like, a few choice talking points without any consideration of relevance. I’m convinced that these exchanges could be streamlined to save everyone time and eyesight. I’ve narrowed the most popular ones down into an easy-to-use numbering system:

For liberals:
1. I’m a progressive, not a liberal!
2. Fuck you
3. Bernie would have won in a landslide.
4. Hillary lost because Bernie supporters didn’t vote.
5. Hillary actually won.
6. Dump the electoral college.*
7. We need to come together and (insert favorite position).
8. The polls were inaccurate.
9. The polls were accurate, but (see #3)

For conservatives:
1. I’m alt-right, not conservative!
2. You’re an out-of-touch libtard.
3. You have no idea how real America lives.
4. Give Trump a chance.
5. Americans should unite, now that the election is over.
6. Give Trump a chance.
7. Trump has a clear mandate.
8. Trump actually won the popular vote, and probably the Nobel Peace Prize, too.
9. Shut up! I said shut up!

*This point can be switched to the other side in future elections, if there are any.

Diverging paths: an allegory

Say you’re walking down a dangerous path in a forest, overgrown with thorny vines, progress is difficult.  You’re increasingly fed up with hacking at the vines to eke out a few steps at a time.  Someone has told you this is the path that leads out of the forest, but you’re no longer convinced it’s true.

Suddenly, the path in front is suffused with light, and there’s an easier looking path splitting off to the left.  The first light you’ve seen in days of wandering, so tempting, but on examination, you see that it just leads to a small clearing a few feet away, surrounded by the same thorny vines on the path you’re on.  A nice enough place to rest, but it won’t help you out of the forest.  Still, you’re utterly exhausted, tired of slogging away, unsure you’re any closer to being out of the forest than when you started. Could you be going in circles? You think, I could just live in that clearing, give up trying to find a way out altogether.

Then you notice that all of the light doesn’t come from that side; on the right is another, narrower path leading away.  It is small, but straight, so you follow it for a few steps, until you see that it leads straight over a precipice to jagged rocks below.  It’s a long way down, you think, but a person might just survive the fall, and it’s definitely out of the forest.

Shuddering, you return to the path you started on, with considerable dismay.  It hasn’t gotten any less thorny, has it.

What to do?