Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Expertise Matters

Like most of us, I get a fair bit of nonsense that floats by my feed on Facebook. This is actually the byproduct of a deliberate strategy of keeping a diverse group of FB friends and connections. I don't want to fall into the "echo chamber" trap, and I find it interesting to see what people who think very differently from me are thinking and sharing among each other.

Sometimes, though, I run across something so ridiculously silly I just can't ignore it. Today is one of those days:

Now, I get that there are people out there convinced that everything that pharmaceutical companies do is evil. Pharmas like Eli Lilly and Pfizer have unfortunately done enough bad things that, if you cherry-pick your evidence, it's not hard to justify this viewpoint (I don't say it's right, but I can see where you could get the evidence for it).

But the response to this belief is for folks to go out and "do their own research". Do they first bother to go out and obtain degrees in biomedical sciences so they can do that research? Of course not! Because anybody can read peer-reviewed scientific research in obscure journals and understand it, right?

I'm not surprised, but it does still amaze me that people can manage to tie their minds up into this particular pretzel. Even allowing for the different meanings of the term "research", this is an absurd proposition. If by "research" we mean here going directly "to the source" and reading the results that non-biased, non-industry scientists produce in their labs, the notion that anybody with less than a graduate education in the relevant field can do this is laughable. I have as much chance of getting into this summer's olympics as the average suburbanite with a college degree in communications has of understanding the real meaning of an article published in the International Journal of Toxicology, much less in understanding the broader scope of literature in which that article is situated.

This, of course, is one of the factors that allows for communities of people to band together and believe absurd things. The echo chamber that is Facebook facilitates this, but long before Mark Zuckerberg some folks figured out that you can ignore the rest of the world and believe whatever you want about it, so long as you discard the idea of expertise. In order to uphold this notion, you have to believe - even if you don't articulate - that education, practice, and experience don't really matter, and that anybody can master anything with just a little bit of effort. I mean, how hard can biochemistry be really?

The problem, of course, is that the world doesn't care what we think. As Richard Feynman famously wrote in the last sentence of his report on the Challenger disaster, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

So folks are welcome to think that drug companies are evil (and somehow, amazingly disciplined - you'd think that more of the thousands of employees would leak the plans of their evil mastermind overlords). They're welcome to think that research that reaches conclusions they don't like isn't true, and that junk science and psychobabble that confirms their beliefs is real. What none of this will change is the reality underlying the science. Bacteria, genetic mutation, climate change - all of these things will happen whether we understand them or not, and whether we like them or not.

So if you find yourself patting your friends on the back for doing their "own research" that fits some broader conspiracy theory about science, take a step back. Adopt a little humility. Imagine for a moment that the thousands of people who have collectively spent millions of hours in labs struggling to master complex subjects might actually know something that you don't. Then imagine a world in which we struggle to find the truth together through dialogue and real research rather than snarky, self-congratulatory memes.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Seeing the World Through a Pinhole

If you follow politics, or the media, or both, you know that there is a long-standing debate about whether the media is politically biased or not. Both Left and Right like to sport bumper stickers and spout made-up epithets, from "lame-stream media" (one of Sarah Palin's favorites) to "corporate media" (a favorite of the Left). A lot of this argument, of course, is to feed martyr complexes on both sides that make each feel paradoxically disadvantaged and empowered by their victimhood at the hands of the supposedly evil media outlets.

The reality, in my view, is much more prosaic. We shouldn't be worried so much about the bias in the media as we should about our reliance on it to understand the world. The problem isn't that the media is slanting the news (they are, though not always in the directions we think), but that we fail to understand the severe limitations of news media at all.

When we talk about the media as a "lens" through which we view the world, we are either using the wrong metaphor or misunderstanding it. Yes, that lens has distortions. Specific outlets may distort based on ideological lines, but there are also distortions based on business decisions - what sells? Fear and anxiety, of course, sell much better than other things, and so we get a steady diet of stories about what's wrong with the world.

This past Sunday my local newspaper ran a story on the front page about an "increase" in "school threats" (incidents of threats made to schools, often as pranks by students). The headline was about how Ohio had more such incidents than any other state in the 2014-15 school year, which of course would make local news. The source of this data? A Cleveland-based consulting company called "National School Safety and Security Services", a company that provides training and consulting to school districts on security issues. How many such "studies" get put into headlines every day, based on bogus or uncorroborated data promulgated by people who have an interest in telling a particular story?

Beyond the specific stories and how they're reported is the question of setting the agenda. This is where the media is truly powerful, but only because we allow them to be. We assume that whatever is on the front page of the paper and what is being talked about on CNN is "what's going on". Transgender bathroom usage in high schools? This was a complete non-issue until somebody grabbed the media bullhorn and decided to make a big deal about it. Yes, schools should treat everybody fairly and bullying stinks. But why is this particular dimension of that problem driving the national conversation? Because somebody with an interest wanted it there.

Some have tried to argue recently that, despite the general national gloom, we're really pretty well off and things are going pretty well. These arguments, though they are likely true, won't go very far because the stories we see - the stories we assume tell us "what's going on in the world" are all bad. It's like looking at the world through a pinhole, or a telephoto lens. Consider this fellow:

He's in the midst of a beautiful location, surrounded by mountains, lakes, forests, and wildlife. How much of that will he capture in the picture he takes? He will no doubt bring back some really beautiful photos - but how much of what he's surrounded by will he have gotten?

I've gone on some amazing hikes, and have taken lots of pictures. Many of them are quite striking; here's one of my favorites:

This is just a tiny piece of the vista you can see from that spot. Depending on what you're interested in, it may not even be the most important piece to you.

Now imagine that someone else is controlling the camera, and they want you to think that you're in a terrible place. How hard would it be to take a dozen images of ugly things and pass those off as representative of the whole? This is what the media does every day - not because they're trying to favor the Left or the Right, but because Ugly sells and reality - which is often messy, complex, and too big to fit on the front page - doesn't.

So when you're reading the local paper, watching cable news, or scrolling through your FB feed, remember that what you're seeing is just a tiny, tiny part of the real world. There's a lot you're NOT seeing. Go out and find some more of that - and remember how big the world is the next time somebody tells you that it fits in a handbasket on its way to hell.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Beyond Fear: A Very Different View of American Presidential Politics

I was quite surprised to discover that the post I wrote last week, "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump", has rapidly become the most widely-read piece I've written a long time. In just two days it shot to the top 5 most-read posts on my blog, probably because a number of my FB friends shared it with their networks. Apparently I struck a chord.

I want to continue some of those thoughts from last week because of a confluence of two things. First, a desire to continue the "fear" theme in the post about a possible Trump Presidency. A lot of the subsequent FB chatter about the piece focused on the probable costs of Trump being President, and the various bad things that will happen. Some of these went to significant levels of detail in their predictions, in areas from foreign policy to judicial nominations.

Reading through these discussions made me realize that I hadn't expressed my intended point very well. A part of my argument, it is true, is that a Trump Presidency in reality will likely not be as bad as his worst critics think, much as the Bush and Obama Presidencies were not what their enemies foretold. We never did get Chuck Norris' "Thousand Years of Darkness" by re-electing Obama, and Dick Cheney didn't throw all of his political enemies into concentration camps.

What I meant to say - but didn't articulate very well - is that my decision not to be afraid of the future is not predicated on my ability to predict it. Yes, I have certain hunches about what will or will not happen. Some of those hunches are informed by actual expertise in the study of politics. But as my friend Steve Saideman pointed out recently, even experts get stuff wrong. I recognize that my ability to predict isn't very good. None of us predict the future well, and we tend to project a mishmash of our hopes and anxieties. Confirmation bias is everywhere.

What I should have said but didn't is, I choose not to be afraid not because I know what's going to happen but simply because I choose not to be afraid. I am humble about my ability to predict the future, and completely clear about my ability to affect it (near zero). I don't know what will happen in or after November. Given that situation, fear to me is a choice - I don't have to be afraid, so I choose not to.

There are some things I would like to see happen and some I would like to see not happen, but in the present there is nothing I can do about either. The strength of my preferences doesn't affect the outcome either - whether I mildly dislike The Donald or hate him passionately doesn't make any difference. My choice not to fear is likewise not an indicator of how I feel about Trump or his policies. I find the man and his politics despicable. But I don't have to let his awfulness ruin my day.

This is a position based not at all in politics, but in basic philosophy and self-awareness. The world cannot make me afraid; fear is my response to the world around me. I'm sure there are other circumstances in which I would have much greater difficulty controlling the temptation to fear. Today, for me, is not one of those. I can't speak for anybody else, but that's where I am.

The second event that sparked this particular blog post was a brief blurb I heard on the radio from Trump himself, who told a campaign rally "We're going to go after Hillary." In itself, this was not all that remarkable - had Cruz, or Kasich, or Jeb! been nominated, I imagine any of them would have said the same thing, quite possibly using exactly those words. The issue here isn't Trump, it's our politics in general.

We've been talking for decades about the increasingly personal level of attacks by candidates (and the rest of us) against their opponents. Historians have pointed out that there are ample cases from the 19th century of what we would regard as far more vicious attacks on opponents' character. So one candidate simply saying "we're going to go after" another isn't news.

And that's what strikes me - from a Very Different View - as troubling. Politics has become - perhaps has long been - combat. It's a contest of winners and losers. This is true not only on the surface, in terms of the mechanics of elections, but deep in our DNA. When Karl Rove talked a dozen years ago about a goal of creating a "permanent Republican majority," Democrats were distressed only because they were on the other side - not because the very notion itself, of one side "permanently" defeating the other, violates some very basic principles. We're so steeped in our own broken politics that we can't even see it anymore.

We see this in common political discourse, especially on the internet. How often do we run across a headline in which Person X "destroys" Opposing View Y with a few well-chosen words? This is, of course, verbal nonsense - no rhetoric on my part can destroy anything least of all an idea or a candidate. Yet we casually bandy about this idea of "destruction" every day.

The point here is that, despite our gut feeling otherwise, politics doesn't have to be this way. Communities can, and do, run themselves in far less confrontational and far more inclusive ways. The best examples are local, possibly because it's easier to treat other members of the community like real people when you're in close proximity to them and can interact with them in more authentic ways. Demonization of your opponents requires a certain distance. But distance does not create demonization, it only allows it.

Diversity plays a role here as well, but not in a deterministic way. At this point there's pretty much universal agreement that identities are socially constructed - you're not born being part of any particular kind of group so much as you're raised into a shared set of assumptions. Boundaries can be shifted and changed over time, usually by adopting different practices, patterns, behaviors, and norms.

Without quite realizing it, we have evolved our politics around a single norm: win for "our side" at all costs. This assumes a host of things, including the notion that "winning" is the best thing and that it makes any sense at all, and that we have "sides". This is not the only way to deal with differences of opinion, but we have come to think that it is. This, it seems to me, has become our biggest blindness.

We don't do this as much on an interpersonal level. I don't assault everyone I meet who disagrees with me, either verbally or physically. I know a few people who do, but in general we regard this as boorish behavior. But somehow, we reward and celebrate it in our politics.

So what's the alternative? Any different sort of politics has to start with fundamentals. Our current political habits are built on a set of mutually-reinforcing habits, beliefs, and unexamined norms. To borrow from the trite-but-true, if we want things to be different we have to think differently.

So what needs to change? Let me propose a few basic tenets:

1) All people are people - complex creatures with a dizzying array of characteristics, identities, and life experiences. People are not "Democrats" or "Republicans" - these categories don't define individuals.

2) All people deserve respect as people. This doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, be alike in all ways, or like everything about each other. Respect presumes certain assumptions of both attitude and behavior - we understand in general what it means to "treat someone with respect", and it certainly includes not harming others.

3) Insofar as is possible, politics should be the search for mutual solutions - that is, finding ways of establishing rules and distributing resources that are as close to consensus as can be reached, and that benefit everyone or nearly everyone. A corollary to this is that no one perspective and no one ideology has all of the "right" answers.

If we take the term "politics" out, this is how a great many of us lead our everyday lives. We tend to interact with individuals as individuals, and when we do lump people into undifferentiated categories we usually regard that as a bad thing. We tend to try to treat each other with respect, and when that doesn't happen we regard it as universally inappropriate. And outside of a few structured fields of endeavor, most people most of the time prefer to seek mutual solutions instead of trying to "beat" the other person. Workplaces built around that kind of competition tend to be very bad, both for the people who work there and for the work itself.

I realize that all of these assertions are from my own point of view, and that some will argue with me that "people aren't really like that". This is a debate as old as philosophy itself, and is difficult to gather data on. I'm likely not to convince people with a pessimistic view of human nature. But I have seen enough instances of this in my life to know that it's possible.

What does any of this have to do with one politician's unremarkable comment about "going after" his opponent? That comment shows just how far our politics has gotten away from the tenets I suggest above. We do not search for mutual solutions. We don't respect others. And we tend to reduce complex individuals (either public candidates or simply strangers whom we do not know except that they are on "the other side") to simplistic categories, and then condemn them en masse as such.

Despite being a lifelong student of politics, I dislike most of what we call "politics" for this very reason. We have discarded (to borrow Lincoln's phrase) the better angels of our nature and marinated ourselves in our own worst instincts. We are all poorer for it.

In this regard, the anger and frustration so often written about in this election cycle are entirely understandable. Every two or four years, we are told a Grand Lie: that if only our side wins, if only this or that candidate gets elected, if only the other side is defeated, all will be well. Things will be wonderful. Our nation will be Great Again.

This is nonsense. Our problems will not be resolved if Democrats win all the contests, if Republicans win all the contests, or if the result is some of each. We will be no closer to better mutual solutions; but we will in the meantime be a lot more anxious, and lot more distrustful of and compassionate towards our neighbors, and many of us will be frustrated and angry because "we" "lost".

This is a radically different way of looking at politics, and as such I expect it either won't make sense to many or will strike many as hopelessly naive. I can only point out that our current system of elections and parties seems to be making things worse, not better - and by "things" here I mean not only the overall outcomes of our society but us as individuals. We are, as persons and as a people, worse off because we do this to ourselves every few years.

Radicalism in politics is nothing new, but much of what passes itself off as "radical" is really quite tame. Genuinely radical is telling people to stop judging their neighbors and to attend to their own failings instead (Matthew 7:3). It is telling people to love their enemies (Luke 6:27, Matthew 5:44). It is suggesting that we lay down our lives for each other, not for our own good (John 15:13). Somehow, this kind of radical gets left out when folks suggest that their Christianity informs their politics.

Do I have a solution? Of course not. I pointed out above that I have zero ability to affect the outcomes of our nation. And propounding a solution would be beside the point anyway - saying, "I have the answer" would make me no different from the hordes of huckster politicians and pundits who sell us their wares, trying to make us believe that if only their ideas are adopted, everything will be great. I can't create a good solution; only we can.

This, then, is the conversation I long for: a conversation between people, as people, who can take each other seriously in our own wants, desires, experiences, hopes, and dreams. A conversation aimed at one goal: the discovery of things we agree on, the solutions that help all of us. A conversation in which there are no winners and losers, only participants and citizens. There is no room for that conversation in our current politics. Perhaps we can build one elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump

It's May 4 (better known in much of the Nerdverse as May the Fourth) again. Three years ago I published this post talking about how, while I'm a huge nerd and a Star Wars fan, I'm ambivalent about the widespread cultural acceptance of May 4 as a sort of unofficial "Star Wars Day", because in so doing we have lost what little remembrance we had of the much more serious events at Kent State some four and a half decades ago.

In this midst of this Presidential election cycle, with all its unexpected bizarreness, I think that remembering Kent State is more important than ever. As is typical, I've had a blog post floating around in my head for a while with the title "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump" - this is as good an opportunity as any to try to get that point across.

What does the Trump campaign have to do with remembering Kent State? In part because remembering the past helps us put the present in some context. There is a pretty widespread #neverTrump movement within the Republican Party, and I have a number of Republican friends who regard Trump as a fascist and a threat to the republic. The former accusation may be true, at least to a degree; the latter probably is not.

Much of the narrative of this election cycle has been about the "angry voter". The success of Trump, and the better-than-expected showing of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, are held up as indicators that the American voter is "mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore". There is talk of "revolt" and "revolution". All of this because voters are voting for people somewhat outside the usual (rather narrow) mainstream of US politics.

We need to stop for a moment and remember what angry politics really looks like. If you want to see real anger in action, go back and watch footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (an event that spawned the primary voter system we have today). Or read accounts of the race riots in over 100 American cities that same summer. Find a decent, sober history of the Weathermen (yes, I share a name [sort of] with one of their founders - no relation). And then read accounts, not only of the Kent State (and Jackson State) shootings, but of the divided reactions afterwards.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were suffused with anger so broad and so deep that substantial numbers of people seriously entertained the notion that violence was not only an acceptable tool of social and political change, but a necessary one. Part of this was generational, part of it racial, part based on the sudden collapse of a number of social norms and structures simultaneously. A lot of people were pissed off at other people (on both the Left and the Right), and in that anger were willing to support or at least sympathize with violence directed against their enemies.

Seen in that context, the interpersonal violence that has broken out at Trump rallies seems pale and almost pathetic in comparison. Yes, the candidate himself has at times egged his supporters on to beat up those who disagree with them. This has been directed largely at opponents who have shown up to those rallies - the few who have walked into the lion's den, as it were. Ugly as these incidents are, they are far removed from Nazi brownshirts accosting Jews in the street, much less an organized mass attack like Krystallnacht.

I find Trump reprehensible and completely unacceptable both as a candidate and, insofar as he presents himself in public, as a person. He is unqualified to be President. Being President would also probably drive him nuts, because it is a profoundly limited position. The history of our last three Presidents - all of them serving for two terms each - illustrates this nicely.

Opposition to Bill Clinton appears to have been largely personal, not ideological or political. Though Republicans accused him of being a "tax and spend" Democrat who would blow up the Federal government's finances, he was in fact a centrist who supported conservative ideas in welfare reform and brought the budget deficit down to near zero (depending on your accounting rules). He faced determined opposition in Congress despite his centrism. At the end of eight years, none of the terrible things Republicans feared had come true and the country was, to a substantial degree, much better off than it had been in 1992.

Leftist opposition to George W. Bush centered around both his foreign policies and, for the most committed opponents, his suspected authoritarian/fascist tendencies. His electoral victory in 2000 was questionable, which put his administration under a cloud from the beginning. The neoconservatives he brought into the government responded to the 9/11 disaster by starting major wars which, sadly, are still with us. These were policy failures of a significant order. He also supported a number of centrist domestic policies, with mixed results. One could lay some blame on the administration, perhaps, for the collapse of the financial system near the end of his Presidency, leading to the worst economic downturn in a generation. But in the end, he and his administration walked away from power after the 2008 election, and while the country was worse off the problems were recoverable and the republic still intact.

President Obama has faced a level of opposition not seen in modern times in our political system, both ideological and personal. His opponents have spread the most absurd of stories (He's a Kenyan! A Muslim! A socialist bent on destroying America!) while working to block nearly any initiative his administration has tried to undertake. Most of those initiatives have been (surprise!) centrist ones - even the much-maligned "Obamacare" is based on health care reform ideas largely drafted by Republicans a decade or two earlier, a far cry from the single-payer or government-run systems preferred by some on the Left. Nearing the end of his eight years in office, the country is somewhat better off, but not perhaps as far along as many might wish. But if he was trying to destroy the nation, he completely, totally, and utterly failed.

The point of these stories is that they all have a sameness. Despite our howls of protestation about the evils of our opponents (whoever they may be), there is a center of gravity in the American political system. That center can (and does) shift over time - since the 1980s it has shifted significantly to the right, which is why repeated Republican protestations about being victims in a country about to collapse into leftist socialism are bafflingly bizarre. The conservative movement has in fact been succeeding in slow, steady increments, yet to listen to them talk you'd think they were Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

And this is why I refuse to be afraid, even if Donald Trump is elected President. Whatever else he does, he will not push the country still farther to the right - he's not a conservative and never has been, which is why he keeps violating conservative principles on the campaign trail. He will not make the country more racist or xenophobic than it already is - all he is doing is drawing out the existing racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the population. In a way (as some in the NYT have argued) he may be doing us a favor by bringing this nastiness out into the light where it can be more effectively countered.

Trump as President would be confronted with a badly divided and electorally weakened Republican party in Congress, quite likely a Democratic Senate that can filibuster anything he tries to do, and a vast Federal bureaucracy with decades of experience in centrist governance. Washington, DC isn't the Celebrity Apprentice - you can't just fire everybody and start over. If he tries - really tries - to impose his desires simply by force of will, as he has tended to do in his business life, he will rapidly find himself unable to do much of anything, and he might be impeached. His penchant for litigation will get him nowhere - who do you sue when you're the President?

Most of the stuff Americans really care about - that is, the economy - is beyond a President's grasp anyway. The Federal government tends to operate at the margins on the economy. Yes, decisions made today can have significant effects tomorrow. But given the opposing forces battling over those decisions, they are unlikely to drive us off a cliff. On foreign policy, Trump is likely to alienate a number of American allies - but will he do worse than George W?* In the end, international relations (as the Realists remind us) really is based on interests, not on personalities. Europeans and others understand this. They will suffer what they must and do what they can, and they will continue to work with the United States when it suits them, as they always have.

There's a popular saying that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. A Trump Presidency would represent a crisis of sorts, but it would also present a lot of opportunities to have important conversations about what kind of country we want and how we're all going to get along in it. In the end, his greatest impact could well be to unite the country against him. Whatever happens, in the end the republic will still be standing. And so, while I will vote against him and urge everyone I know to do the same, I am not afraid.

*Some have argued that Trump's foreign policy views in particular need to be carefully examined, because Presidents have absolute power over foreign policy in a way they don't in the domestic sphere. See this piece in Vox today for an example of this view. I disagree with this diagnosis - there are in fact a great number of checks on the power of a President in foreign policy, not least that it is formulated, carried out, and managed by large bureaucracies (State, DoD, Treasury, even to some degree the NSC) staffed by professionals. Most of these organizations are only penetrable by Presidents down three or maybe four levels - everyone else is there whether you like them or not. And there probably aren't enough qualified people who share Trump's views on FP to staff all those Deputy Undersecretary slots. Some senior military officers have even indicated during the campaign that they will disobey orders that contradict US law and the Constitution - as they should. So in the end, I think a President Trump would find foreign policy just as frustrating as domestic policy, perhaps even more so.