Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stopping Bad Guys With Guns

The wonderful thing about Wayne LaPierre and the NRA is that when you go that far out on a limb it's really easy to get cut off from reality. Everyone remembers this wonderful chestnut:

This has come to almost define LaPierre's term as NRA leader: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

The problem, of course, is that this isn't true. Consider the latest hero-story headlines from France:
'Instinct' led US passengers to react
There have been lots of recountings of the heroism of these individuals. For our purposes here, it's important to note that these men were armed only with courage, some training, and the will to act. They had not a gun among them, but they took down a guy with an AK-47 and a heap of ammunition.

Think this was an exception? How about this story from Louisiana just this past week:
Man describes tackling police shooting suspect
Here again we have an individual armed with nothing but courage and instinct, taking down and capturing a 'bad guy with a gun'. In this case, the 'good guy' in question didn't even have military training.

I've written before: if you're serious about self-defense or defending others, you should take the time to understand all of the tactical considerations. There are no magic formulas here, no "this is always true" mantras. Guns are not always the solution. Sometimes, they make things worse. It's worth noting that in the Louisiana story, the trooper who was shot and killed was armed.

Monday, August 17, 2015

You Are What You Eat: Politics Edition

In my last blog post I wrote about the politics of fear, anger, and hatred that permeates much of our "civic discourse" these days, especially in election season. I find this kind of politics repulsive, and there is some indication in the research literature that I'm not alone. Independents and people without strong party loyalty are put off by negative campaigning - and because that group is growing relative to the number of committed partisans in the electorate, the fear and anger has the effect of alienating a larger and larger segment of the population.

While this is an important application of research to society, I'm writing today with a more personal reflection. Most of the anger, fear, and hatred in our politics is self-inflicted. Sure, we like to blame the parties and the demon-figures we raise up in them: it's Trump's fault, it's Hillary's fault, it's Karl Rove's fault, it's the liberal media. But in today's media environment, we have more choice than ever about what information we choose to consume and from where. Which points to a very simple conclusion: We are what we eat.

This is true biologically, of course - the food we consume (or much of it) becomes a part of our bodies. This is also true politically and psychologically - the "food" (information and discussion) we "eat" (take into our brains) becomes a part of our thoughts. If we eat lots of high-fat foods, our arteries may become clogged and we may develop health problems. If we consume lots of high-fear and high-anger ideas, our thought patterns are likely to suffer as well.

In this light, Donald Trump (to pick merely one current example, though the one getting the most attention) isn't merely a colorful candidate, or an unlikely front-runner, or a reality show masquerading as a candidate (pick your narrative). The man is poison. Most of what issues from his mouth, both the words and the manner in which they are delivered, is slathered in anger, hatred, and contempt. The more one listens to him, the more these things become part of the mental landscape, even if you disagree with his policy ideas.

Partisan Republicans are welcome to pick on Hillary Clinton for saying similar things, although I don't know that she's quite so blatant or consistent about it. But the point here isn't that one party is more poisonous than the other - that's an empirical question on which I do not have sufficient data to render judgment. The point is more prescriptive: if we want to keep ourselves politically and psychologically healthy, if we value the ability to maintain civil dialogue and the search for peace and the common good, then we are wise to avoid any candidate and any media inputs that drag us down into the sewer that constitutes much of modern politics.

I recognize that this doesn't leave a lot of ground left, and that the closer the election gets the smaller those islands of peace, reason, and civility will become against the onslaught of well-funded vitriol. The more one feels isolated in the sea of hatred, the more sense it makes to withdraw from the whole thing. Alternatively, if we want politics to be about something other than fear, anger, and hatred we need to find ways of talking to each other about ideas separate from the funded parties and candidates. Luckily, we have wonderful tools for doing so. I hope that we can create such opportunities over the next year and a half, even as the "public" conversation (where money buys the biggest megaphone) becomes increasingly toxic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Politics of Fear

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) know that I am not a fan of partisan politics. While I may find myself agreeing with policy positions of one party more than another, the correlation is far from perfect. I know very thoughtful, intelligent people who identify as both Democrats and Republicans who have helped me view issues in new and different ways. In that sense, I think that many of the policy differences we have as a country are (or can be) reasonable discussions around which compromise can be built and progress can be made.

This is not, of course, most people's experience of American politics. As seen both in our mainstream media and on social media networks (broadly speaking, including blogs and websites shared among tribal groups), politics is about anything but compromise or a search for common ground. It is vitriolic, mean-spirited, nasty, petty, and generally soul-draining.

I have from time to time suggested different divisions which may matter more than our traditional Left/Right, Republican/Democratic divide. One of these is the approach to evidence and reason: do we look for answers to empirical questions in the rules of science and logic, or do we make appeals to authority and revealed answers that may fly in the face of facts? Do we view "facts" as primary or as constructed in the service of power? Karl Rove famously drew this line in an interview in 2004, in which he contrasted the "reality-based community" with one in which "when we act, we create our own reality." Personally, I've always tended to favor Richard Feynman's formulation: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

But as important as I think scientific empiricism is, it has its limits. Many of the challenges of the human condition are not solvable by science alone, and many of the important things in the world are built on meaning that is well outside the realm of facts and scientific inquiry. I pointed out recently that the STEM fields are great for solving all kinds of problems - but if you want to address issues like Dylann Roof and the Charleston shootings, you need to go beyond the lab. Meaning, emotion, and identity matter a lot, and these things are understood far better by poets, historians, and philosophers (professionally speaking) than by biochemists and engineers.

Which brings me back to my original thought: there are more important divides in American politics than the political parties. Facts & reality vs. naked power and tribal identity is one. Fear vs. human connection is another.

What do I mean by this? First, I use "fear" as a shorthand to refer to a cluster of negative emotions and experiences: fear, anger, hatred. Fans will know the most famous compilation of these:

There's a lot of politics driven by these things. Consider this meme, which I found on my FB feed yesterday:

That's a lot of hate and bile packed into one picture. Its added punch is that it's totally gratuitous - at this stage few people give Bernie Sanders any serious chance of winning the Democratic nomination, and most Republicans are spending their time bashing Hillary Clinton. This is a little like kicking the little kid on the playground just because he's wearing glasses.

I wrote recently on this blog: I don't get internet hate. Memes like this spread the hate by making it easy for people to participate in it - just hit "like" or "share" and you too can be part of the fun. What I found surprising about this meme was not that it exists, but that it was shared by a person who belongs to a faith community in which I also am a member. He and I have even served together in the past on church-related matters. In a word, he ought to know better.

I think this divide, between fear/anger/hatred on the one hand and human compassion and understanding on the other, is the most critical difference among us. What makes it vexing is that it is not just a divide between people - some embrace a politics of fear and hate, others don't. It's also a divide within people. All of us, even those most committed to compassion and understanding, struggle with this every day. The temptation to give in to the bile and the vitriol can be strong, and it is extremely persistent:

On my better days - which hopefully outnumber the worse ones - I am happy to stand with anyone in the political arena who is genuinely searching for the common good and who is open to working with others to get there. In this lens, Democrat and Republican disappear. There are only those who want to build a community together, and those who want to tear it apart so they can wall themselves off - or worse, "purify" the world by getting rid of the Others.

Fear, anger, and hatred sell well, which explains a lot of what we see both in the media and on the internet. Donald Trump has planted his flag firmly in that camp, for which he has been richly rewarded with lavish attention, airtime, and bandwidth. I expect this will only grow between now and November 2016, whether Trump persists or quits - there are more waiting to take his place. And I wonder, in the midst of all the screaming, yelling, anger, and hatred, whether there will be any room left for another party with a different view.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Learning from History Redux: The Physicists Pile On

In my last blog post I pointed out that nearly all experts on negotiation and international conflict have piled onto one side (the supportive side) of the nuclear deal with Iran. I also noted that this has happened before (Iraq), and that we ignore this kind of expertise at our peril.

Now a group of physicists has sent a very public letter to the White House with a very similar message. These aren't just any physicists - they include Richard Garwin, one of the inventors of the hydrogen bomb, as well as Frank von Hippel, Freeman Dyson, and some 26 others. Some of these guys have Nobel prizes; several of them have had Q-clearances to work on nuclear weapons. One of them ran the Los Alamos weapons lab for over a decade. Important note: if you don't know who any of these people are, you should probably go read their bios before expressing further opinions about nuclear arms control.

The letter is well worth reading (click the link above, it will take you right to it) because of the specific and detailed commentary on the agreement. You won't see most of these points in the public debate, because these are the kinds of details that politicians and journalists don't understand. As my colleagues over at the Air Force Institute of Technology like to say, sometimes it does take a rocket scientist.

At this point, if you still want to argue that this is a "bad deal" you don't much left to stand on. The group of scientists signing this letter collectively have centuries of experience working with nuclear arms control at the highest, most insider levels. They have proved their devotion to the security of the United States. They know what they're talking about, far more than any of the rest of us. In short: we should listen to them.

I don't expect any of the people running for the GOP nomination to pay any attention to this, of course. But it gives the rest of us a chance to demonstrate which side of the real divide are we on. Do we stand with science, evidence, reasoned argument, and the hope that these tools can help us come to a common understanding of the world? Or do we stand with the tribalists who divide through fear, reject the common search for truth, and adopt the language of science only when it suits their purposes? Politicians always reason backwards from the answer they want. But we only make progress as individuals, in communities, and as a species when we reason forward from ideas and evidence to conclusions and when we are willing to adjust in the face of new evidence. Some among us have a lot of practice in doing so. We should listen to them and heed their advice.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Learning from History: The Iran Deal and the Iraq War

I have said previously that I wasn't interested in blogging about the agreement negotiated between Iran and the coalition of international powers regarding Iran's nuclear program. I still think that what I said then was largely true - we're not having a debate or a discussion about the agreement, we're simply seeing a lot of tribal flag-waving and fear-mongering by people who, consciously or otherwise, have an identity stake in the game. Dispassionate analysis is hard to come by.

Which is why we should be paying special attention in this case to those people for whom dispassionate analysis is their stock in trade. Some members of Congress may not like it, but there really is scientific work done around issues of international relations and conflict between nations. A lot of very smart people have spent the past several decades building a real base of knowledge about how conflict, power, and arms control work. They have done so, to a large degree, under the rules of science, including falsifiability and replicability of hypotheses and peer review. These are not political hacks, nor are they paid large sums of money for their conclusions.

So what are these people saying? Increasingly, the voices of scholars of international conflict are repeating the same points, to whit: the "Iran nuclear deal" is the best that can be achieved and is better than all of the alternatives. David Lake of UCSD has chimed in on this, as has Steve Saideman. Pete Trumbore found and helped broadcast an excellent piece by one of the deans of the field, Graham Allison. A number of prominent scholars have weighed in on Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

All of this work, of course, is being dismissed by those who have an ideological, political, or identity reason to reject the deal. Most of it, in fact, isn't even being read by critics, despite being readily accessible.

Where have we seen this story before? Shortly after the start of the Iraq war, 850 experts signed an open letter predicting that the war would be a disaster, one of the worst mistakes of American foreign policy in decades. That list included many of the most prominent names in the field, including David Lake, David Laitin, Charles Kupchan, Louis Kriesberg, John Mueller, and many more. Many of these had said the same thing before the war started.

We now know, of course, that they were right. The whole thing was a disaster, ill-conceived from the start and horrendously executed. It is no stretch at all to draw a straight line from that decision to the creation and rise of the Islamic State phenomenon we see today. The Bush Administration broke the Middle East, and we will be dealing with the consequences of that decision for decades to come.

So perhaps, before we rush to a new war with Iran (which is clearly what some of the negotiated agreement's critics want), we should stop and think for a moment. We've seen this tune before. We don't have to blunder into yet another crisis blindly. There is real expertise we can turn to. I have no expectation that the blowhards on TV and Capitol Hill will do so. But maybe some of us ordinary Americans might.