Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Outrage speed

tl;dr Getting outraged quickly has more social reward and less risk than patiently withholding judgment while waiting for evidence

Consider the recent tragic event in North Carolina, where an atheist murdered 3 muslims. When essentially the only facts we knew were that an atheist shot and killed 3 muslims in their home, people were very quick to let everyone know (a) that the victims were murdered strictly because of their religion (I saw it compared to the Charlie Hebdo attack); (b) that all of the people who have been saying Islam uniquely inspires violence have been proven wrong and need to apologize; and (c) the media are biased against muslims and their lack of coverage of this proves it.

Now that more evidence is in, it looks like the murder was at least partially over a parking dispute. It is certainly possible that religion played a role, perhaps a major one. That is something I don’t know. But from the beginning it was always possible that this wasn’t motivated by his dislike of religion. And if that turned out to be the case, wouldn’t the people who rushed to judgment look bad? So why would they do it?

I’ll provide an answer to that question in a minute. But first, I just want to point out that people do this all across the political spectrum. Politically charged outrage flies across twitter the minute we hear of some event that, if the facts pan out, would be outrageous to some group of people.

So why rush to judgement?

If you are the first person in your social group to find the story and express outrage, you really stand out as being passionate about this cause. If, instead, you try to plug the outrage megaphone by suggesting that people wait for more facts, you look way less committed.

Consider the two scenarios:

1. The facts end up backing up the story. In that case, the first person to express outrage really wins. They showed passion and commitment, and they were right. The hesitant person can try to join the crowd, but they just don’t seem as devoted.

2. The facts do not back up the story. The first person to express outrage will say something like “well, in this particular case it might not have been true, but my main point still holds.” The hesitant person sort of has a minor victory, but who is going to celebrate with them? Their in-group isn’t happy about this outcome, because it made them look bad.

The risk-reward really seems to favor expressing outrage quickly and decisively.

As an aside, this argument reminds me a lot of a point Scott Alexander made about pedophilia

..you gain the most status if you go the furthest attacking pedophilia, if you can separate yourself from the pack by attacking it more, if you can say “My opponents think this marginal case is okay, but I am so against pedophilia that I oppose even the marginal cases” so on even further into the margin. And it’s really hard to say “Okay, you’ve gone too far with the attacks on pedophilia“, because then the other person can just say “I notice my worthy opponent is trying to defend pedophilia” and you lose whatever debate you were having.

There is gain and not much penalty in being outraged the fastest. Who in your in-group is going to say “I think you got outraged too quickly?”


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Critical thinking & motivation

People will sometimes share stories or memes that are so obviously false that it’s hard to fathom how anyone wouldn’t instantly know it was false, or at least have enough doubt to check snopes. So it seems like they completely lack critical thinking ability. However, if someone from the outgroup makes a bad argument (gets facts wrong or uses bad logic), people seem to quickly identify the problems and express their outrage. Examples: (1) if a loyal Democrats hear a Republican make a bad argument, they seem to be able to provide counter-arguments quickly; (2) if someone who won’t vaccinate their kids hears an argument in favor of vaccines, they are able to identify some possible weaknesses in the argument; (3) if the latest study goes against someone’s beliefs, they all-of-a-sudden remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation.

If your ingroup isn’t threatened, then there isn’t much motivation for most people to use critical thinking. Sharing a story about the latest dangerous teenage trend isn’t about showing people that you know actual facts; it’s mostly about showing that you care about kids or that you are higher status than teenagers. That goal is accomplished by sharing the story.

However, if your ingroup is threatened, you have every reason to put on display your critical thinking skills. All of your ingroup will have the same motivation. You can bond over it. You can all show how devoted you are. And hence we get the blowback effect.

Politicians, bad arguments, devotion, & trolling

As a politician, you can take advantage of this. If you occasionally make a bad argument or get some facts wrong, you accomplish two things. (1) you show your base just how devoted to the cause you are. You aren’t that worried about the facts — you will support this cause regardless. Thus, they can count on you to not change your mind later on, if presented with strong evidence against your belief. (2) you troll the outgroup. The outgroup will be in critical thinking mode when you speak, and if you get some facts wrong or use poor logic they will be outraged.

You obviously can’t go too far with bad arguments and false claims or you will eventually lose credibility, but I think some bad arguments are necessary.

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At the end of a year, people like to make lists of top movies, books, etc.  What I plan to do instead is write about the things I learned each year. So, here are some brief highlights of things I learned in 2011:

  • Epigenetics, toolkit genes, genetic switches and how most conversations about heritability are flawed.  I learned a lot about imprinted genes from Charlene Lewis (especially BDNF), about toolkit genes from reading Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful (which I highly recommend) and about all of these topics from (some of) Robert Sapolsky’s lectures on human behavioral biology (which are fantastic, and free on youtube and itunes).
  • Social belonging sits atop the hierarchy of needs.  Sister Y introduced this idea with her blog here: “the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food.”  I have noticed that people are far more likely to want to kill (themselves or someone else) when they have been socially shamed, rejected, or ostracized.  NYU Psychology Professor James Gilligan noted:”The emotional cause that I have found just universal among people who commit serious violence, lethal violence is the phenomenon of feeling overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation. I’ve worked with the most violent people our society produces who tend to wind up in our prisons. I’ve been astonished by how almost always I get the same answer when I ask the question—why did you assault or even kill that person? And the answer I would get back in one set of words or another but almost always meaning exactly the same thing would be, ‘Because he disrespected me,’ or ‘He disrespected my mother,’ or my wife, my girlfriend, whatever.”

    In the same program, Pieter Spierenburg pointed out that murder in defense of your reputation used to be viewed as a pretty minor offense: “Originally around 1300 the regular punishment for an honourable killing would be a fine or perhaps a banishment, whereas punishment for a treacherous murder would be execution.”

  • Evidence in favor of our promiscuous past, the most interesting of which is sperm competition.  I was introduced to this topic in Sex at Dawn.
  • Life cycles of parasites.  I learned about this from Robert Sapolsky and This Week in Parasitism.  I particularly love Toxoplasma and fish tapeworm.
  • Lead and crime.  There are a lot of theories about why crime has declined since the 1990s.  These theories include:  legalization of abortion, tougher sentencing, end of crack epidemic, etc.  But I think the most interesting one is the reduction in lead exposure.  Total lead exposure was a non-decreasing function  from 1900 to 1970.  Lead exposure from gasoline increased sharply from 1930 to 1970.   We know that lead exposure, especially chronic exposure, has neurotoxic effects.  It can be particularly damaging to the frontal lobe.  Thus, we would expect that kids who were exposed to lead would be more likely to engage in impulse crimes when they are young adults.   Jessica Reyes documented the link between lead exposure and crime in the US in this paper.   The graph below, taken from her paper, overlays the lead exposure curve and crime rate curve (with a 22 year lag for lead exposure, because 22 is the average age at which violent crimes are committed, so we would expect childhood exposure to lead to have the largest impact approximately 20 years later):

    I think this is pretty compelling, and a fascinating story.  The League of Nations banned lead pain in 1922, but the US failed to adopt the measure.  The US didn’t take serious action until the 1970s.  To this day, lead paint exposure is a serious problem for people living in old homes in large cities.  I would love to see the lead exposure / crime link investigated using data from other countries.
  • Religion. I learned about the history of god, its relation to changes in civilization (how transitions from polytheism to monotheism paralleled changes from foraging to farming, egalitarianism to hierarchy), lots of cool, related neuroscience, etc.  This is work in progress.  Hopefully I will have more to say about it next year.
  • I found Sister Y’s views on nature very insightful.

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Racial resentment

Political science professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University wrote a paper which, among other things, claims that ‘racial hostility’ is a significant predictor of Tea Party support.   His conclusion was based on results from a survey.  The information on attitudes about race came from a  four-item ‘racial resentment’ scale.    Here is the first item that makes up the racial resentment scale:

Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with this statement?

Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

How can one answer something like this?  What if you reject the premise of the statement?  For example, the two  sentences imply that many minority groups have overcome prejudice without any special favors (whatever that means).  It also implies that blacks have not worked their way up so far, with or without special favors.  What if you think that Italians and Jews worked their way up with special favors?  What if you think that Irish have not worked their way up?  What if you think that blacks already have worked their way up (they’ve come along way since the days of slavery)?  Plus, there is a possible false equivalence here.  Not all obstacles are of the same size.  If blacks ‘work their way up’ without ‘special favors,’ that does not mean that that is ‘the same’ as what other minority groups accomplished.

Special favors

The phrase  ‘special favors’ makes it sound like blacks would be getting some extra goodies from the government that is only available to them (it’s ‘special’).  Well, a lot of people with very little racial resentment would object to any minority group getting special favors.  That’s especially true for people who prefer small government (like Tea Party folks).  As Bob Somerby pointed out, there is no shortage of blacks who would agree that blacks should not get special favors (apparently resenting themselves).

Racial resentment=resentment of blacks

All four items making up the racial resentment scale have to do with resentment of blacks.  For example, the fourth item is:

Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with this statement?

It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

I suppose it’s not surprising that the Tea Party looked like they had a lot of racial resentment when you measure it in this way (since people who identify with them tend to be white conservatives).

What if some of the questions tried measure resentment of whites?  For example:

Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with this statement?

Part of the reason that income inequality in this country is so extreme is because there is still an exclusive club among rich white people.

Based on responses to that question, perhaps Democrats would look like they have a lot of ‘racial resentment.’

I’m not saying that racism is not more prevalent among people who identify with the Tea Party, but let’s do a better job of measuring these things.

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Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.  -Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

We value social skills

Yesterday David Brooks gave a talk at Penn.  He said that he tries to interview 3 politicians a day.  He said one thing that stands out in talking with them is how extraordinary their social skills are.  I’m sure this does not come as a surprise.

It’s clear that we not only value those social skills, but we punish people who do not have them.

Bob Somerby commented:

People frequently make extemporaneous remarks which sound imperfect, odd or unfortunate. If you want to play the fool, you will wait until some such remark is uttered by some pol[itician] you aren’t supporting. You will then rise up in outrage. You will begin to paraphrase freely, mind-reading the speaker’s motive and outlook. You will thus establish yourself as a fool—and you may win a top spot on cable.

One unfortunate extemporaneous remark can ruin a career.  We expect politicians’ social skills to be perfect.  If they ever make a mistake, we mock them until they hide in shame.

Similarly, people with poor social skills are often laughed at and/or taken advantage of, regardless of how honest and talented they might be.  As Robin Hanson theorized, people pretend

“to mainly value overtly useful skills, while really greatly valuing covert conniving skills. Nerds tend to be much better at the former than the latter, and are often unaware that the latter skills exist. So the fact that nerds think well of themselves for their overt skills, but are largely unaware of how poor they are at covert conniving, is just hilarious.”

So, given that people value social skills so much, perhaps we should emphasize the importance of social skills to children.  However, an alternative to the we need to teach kids more social skills movement is to teach kids to value social skills a little less.  Perhaps valuing social skills to the extent we do has been to our detriment.

But should we?

One of my friends says she prefers socially awkward people, because she tends to not trust people who are too polished socially.  People with poor social skills are probably not skilled enough to be successfully manipulative.

The same skills are involved with both positive and negative social contact:

negative social contact takes skill, too. Do you want to intimidate someone? Insult them where it hurts? Figure out what they’re feeling, and how to use that to make them feel horrible? Seduce them into your car and murder them in your basement? You’re still going to need social skills. My stepfather, for example, who is a textbook sociopath…, knows exactly how to “push people’s buttons” to create a great deal of misery in the people around him, to intimidate people. When I lived at home, he was very perceptive that I was frightened of being worthless; so he called me worthless a great deal. When he wanted to be liked, he was. The neighbors thought he was a great guy, because he wanted them to think that. His social skills are highly refined; his morality is not.

Sure, you can accidentally say something that hurts someone. You can accidentally say something amusing that makes them laugh; you can accidentally say something that confuses them, frightens them, or comforts them. I’ve done all of those, purely accidentally. But, if you have clumsy, unpracticed social skills, you’ll have just as much trouble intimidating people deliberately as you have trouble deliberately charming them.

As a society, we seem to not like it when attractive people with fewer job-related skills are hired over less attractive people with more skills.  We know that we are biased in favor of attractive people, and, to some extent, actively try to prevent it.  I don’t see much difference between attractiveness and social skills.   It’s clear to me that we are very strongly biased in favor of people with strong social skills.  Maybe we should actively try to fight that bias.

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It’s not unusual to hear people describe soldiers as heroes.  I am not talking about a particular soldier who performed a heroic act, but soldiers in general.  This always struck me as odd, since there are good and bad people in every occupation (just as people who do something heroic one day might do something anti-heroic another day).

When I was in High School, one of my classmates was planning to enlist in the military after he graduated.  He said to me “don’t you want to go kill some Iraqis?”  Not every soldier is out there doing heroic acts — some just want to kill.

It makes sense that there would be a fitness advantage to having patriotic feelings and admiring soldiers. However, it’s an adaptation that can have a negative impact on rationality.

I wonder, though, if there is more to it than just signaling group devotion.  Consider the following facts about the American military: it’s volunteer; paid for with tax revenue; not high paying; dangerous and/or unpleasant at times; likely beneficial to powerful interests.

We know that people will trade money for status.  By constantly telling soldiers they’re heroes, and thanking them for their service, we are elevating the status of their occupation.   Consequences of the status elevation are that we can keep salaries low (not have to pay more taxes) and not have mandatory service for all young people.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good way to test whether this consequence is a motive of the action, since soldiers seem to be the only members of the reference class.  Public school teachers are sometimes called heroes, but aren’t given as much praise as soldiers.  However, I don’t think public school teachers benefit the ruling class as much as soldiers do (and the job isn’t as dangerous).

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Why? times two

Why are some so passionate in their belief that global warming isn’t anything to be concerned about?

Can someone explain to me why these people hate this climate science so much? I mean, I get that they don’t like gays and think women should stay barefoot and pregnant. I understand that they hate taxes that pay for things that help people they don’t like. Evolution — yeah, that’s obvious.

But global warming? Why? Is it all about their trucks or what? I just don’t get where the passion comes from on this one.

I don’t know if global warming is happening, if it’s caused by human activities or if it’s something we should be worried about.  The evidence seems to indicate that it is.  But if the planet isn’t getting warmer that would be great.  I just want to know the truth. Why isn’t everyone like that?  Why are some people so convinced that there is nothing to worry about and so passionately against the scientists who have a different opinion?

My other question  for today is why won’t politicians or newspaper columnists publicly acknowledge that Israel is a nuclear power?  Given all of the conflicts in that region, and given our heavy involvement, it seems like a relevant fact that the public should be aware of.  But here is Feingold dodging the issue:

Question:  “Senator,  do you know of any country in the Mideast that has nuclear weapons?”

Feingold: “I’m not free to comment on that.”

Question: “Why can you not say that Israel is a nuclear power, Senator?”

Feingold: “I basically think it is, but I’m not somebody who is privy to all the details on that. Pakistan clearly is, Pakistan concedes it, admits it.”

Question: “Do you have an estimate as to how many nuclear weapons Israel would have?”

Feingold: “I do not.”

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