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Why facts are worthless in politics

Much of what I’ve been saying lately in regards to politics is that people do not make political decisions based on cold, rational logic. They make decisions based on emotions, particularly emotions like fear. If a politician can make the electorate fear his or her opponent, he or she has gone a long way to getting elected.

OK, so people make political decisions based on emotions. What should they be basing them on? Well, the cliche idea is one of an informed electorate who thoughtfully research the issues and come to a sound decision. That is the model for beautiful democracy. Of course, it’s total horseshit. Very few people do that.

So why is this? I think partly because many of the issues facing us are pretty difficult to figure out. Let’s take a popular one: illegal immigrants. You can approach this problem from various angles; let’s just ask a basic question: Does illegal immigration lower wages for everyone?

About two months ago I would have said, yes, and clearly yes. Let’s say you have two hundred unemployed people in a town all competing for whatever jobs are available. Then, suddenly 50 new immigrants arrive (illegal or not). Doesn’t that mean employers can get even pickier about who they hire and demand lower wages?

It would seem so. But I read up on this and it’s not so simple. The addition of 50 new people does mean that there’s more competition for jobs, but these new people also create new jobs. It’s 50 more people who need dry cleaning, who need groceries, who want to catch a Saturday matinee. So the dry cleaner, grocery store and movie theater all need to add an extra shift.

So, do immigrants add enough jobs to make up for their negative effect on wages? I dunno… I looked into it for about an hour and got a sense that I could research this stuff for years an never really know. The data is dense and complex and clearly biased by the political beliefs of its presenters etc. On top of that, it’s seems likely that the answer would vary by territory. Some towns might suffer under the influx of immigrants while others prosper.

Of course there’s also a moral framework to this. Some would say we should accept illegal immigrants no matter what their effect on the economy. Others would say we should look after Americans first.

So you throw all that into a stew and it becomes, in my mind, very difficult to know what the “right” answer is.

Let’s consider a related issue: Trade Agreements. The past 15 years have seen various trade agreements that allow for more fluid trade between the U.S. and other countries. These agreements have lowered tariffs and protections for various industries. All lot of people, including both Trump and Sanders, argue these agreements have cost American jobs as factories are moved to cheaper locales. Other people including Clinton (though she’s a bit waffly) argue that these agreements create cheaper goods for Americans as well as create a different class of jobs.

Again, I looked into this issue for about an hour. Jesus that shit is complex; it’s worse than the illegal immigration debate. I really have no idea who’s right. (Read here if you want to get into this morass.)

Let’s consider Syria. What the best course of action there? Fuck if I know. To really address the situation would require months of studying the local politics, the history of the middle east, the psychology of the main actors etc.

So you see where I’m gong with this. A politician running for office has two choices. One is to try and impress his or her audience with his broad command of the facts of all these issues. The other is to appeal to people’s lizard brain and rile up their emotions. People mock Trump for his lack of knowledge about political issues but, frankly, that shit just gets in the way. He could bore people to death with a two hour dissertation about why illegal immigrants ultimately take more jobs than they create (whether of not that’s true) but what’s actually effective is reminding voters that the guy who just killed 50 people at a gay nightclub was Muslim.

This is why democracy basically sucks (though I agree that there’s no better system.)

Is Trump running a con?

As I say with almost every post, I’ve been following Scott Adams assertions that Donald Trump is using techniques of master persuasion to rise to power. Adams ideas align with this New Yorker article from a few months ago, “Donald Trump, Con Artist?

One of Adams arguments is that Trump’s political ideas are merely window dressing, a way of attracting attention and standing out from the crowd. The New Yorker piece states…

If Trump were a con artist, he would be interested in politics only as a means to some other end. He wouldn’t believe in his political opinions; instead, he would see those opinions as convenient tools for gaining what he actually desires. Insofar as he believed in any of the policies he espoused, that belief would be purely incidental.

Another of Adams’ conceits is that Trump’s policy proposals are deliberately ill-defined so that his fans can fill in the details with what they would like to see. Additionally, Trump has garnered his following using appeals to the emotional side of the brain. As the New Yorker piece says…

Trump’s promises are often deliberately vague. He meets demands for specifics with another tool from the con artist’s arsenal: emotion. People who are emotional are not logical.

I would posit that Trump is a con man and he has pulled off one of the great cons of political history early in his campaign. Recall that he started out at the back of the horse race. I think he devised a plan of making seemingly unbelievable political statements (“Mexicans are rapists,” “Let’s build a wall,” etc.) knowing the media would turn their cameras on him bemused with his seeming desire for self-destruction. Thus they gave him unmatched air time to make his case to a certain segment of the population (what used to be called the silent majority.) And make his case he has, with a complicit media that is only now realizing they were grifted.

5 reasons lists are awesome

I often deride the list-based blog posts and articles that have overtaken the internet, things like “6 Cat Photos That Will Have You On The Floor With Laughter.” That said, I stumbled across this semi-recent New Yorker piece that explains lists’ effectiveness.

One point of appeal is that we have an easier time remembering the content of lists, partly because we think spatially. So we remember a list bullet point partly because we recall where it was in the list. It’s not just a ethereal piece of info, it’s something that was halfway down the page.

As the article intones…

When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.

Also, lists let you know what you’re getting into; they tell you how much time you’ll have to commit to read them. (This is probably why articles like “786 Reasons to Vote for Hillary Clinton” would never fly.)

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again.

Is it best to watch debates with the sound off?

As should be obvious, I continue to ruminate on Scott Adams’ argument that our judgement of politicians is based less on reason and rumination and more on emotional gut reactions. Adams argues that what matters is not what a person says but how “well” they say it. And Adams argues that Donald Trump is a master of this kind of persuasion.

Now, I admit this can be a tough argument to buy. I often find Trump’s words to be totally devoid on any substance and meaning. But I’m starting to observe how the content of a person’s message takes second chair to how they express it.

Recently I was watching some video of a English right winger, Milo Yiannopoulos*, arguing with a feminist woman about equal pay in the workplace. Milo made at least one statement that was, I’m pretty sure, completely false. He was lying, as Trump is prone to do.

*For some reason, after I watched a bunch of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones videos, youtube started throwing Milo videos at me and I finally broke down and watched a few.

But, Milo is an entertaining and effectively public speaker. He has verve, you might say. And he projects utter confidence in what he is saying. (It reminds me of the old Seinfeld line: “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.”) Meanwhile, the woman spoke with this kind of flat, passive tone and generally seemed on the verge of falling alseep. Her words may have been true, but that’s not really what stuck in my head. After I watched the video, what I remembered was how they spoke (e.g. with confidence and flair, or not) as opposed to what they said. If I had to rank them, I would say Milo “won” the argument although I’m not convinced of his point.

You can watch the video here. Ignoring what is actually being said, I think you’ll find this Milo guy comes across as more engaging, albeit in a very smarmy kind of way. I’m guessing he trained himself in this style of presentation.

It then struck me that there’s a simple way to see who is the more compelling speaker in a debate: turn the volume off. Just watch how the speakers present themselves. Who projects the most confidence and charisma? I would argue that, if you turned off the volume during the Republican primaries, you would see Trump clearly defeat his opponents, fellows like Bush, Rubio and Kasich. I have a sense Cruz might have a fighting chance and he was the strongest of Trump’s opponents.

If you like, watch the Milo video again with the sound off. The contrast between the two debaters is profound. It’s also interesting to watch the anchor at around the 4:40 mark. Note how she seems to find Milo amusing but also isn’t buying his schtick.

So, what I’m saying is that winning candidates use how they look and other cues to project a confident attitude and that counts more than their actual arguments. I vaguely recalled a recent psychological study that seemed to provide details for this argument. This New Yorker article provides info.

When people are asked about their ideal leader, one of the single most important characteristics that they say they look for is competence—how qualified and capable a candidate is. Todorov wondered whether that judgment was made on the basis of intuitive responses to basic facial features rather than on any deep, rational calculus.
….
In other words, when we think that we are making rational political judgments, we could be, in fact, judging someone at least partly based on a fleeting impression of his or her face.
….
Starting that fall, and through the following spring, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates.

Obviously, many things affect voting decisions, from political platforms to sexting scandals. But if we control for the underlying factors, the research suggests that a thin-slice judgment retains its predictive validity, and it emerges as the single strongest predictor of victory beyond external factors such as broad economic data, like the unemployment rate; personal data, like age or gender; or any other single political measure, like whether someone is an incumbent or how much has been spent on the campaign.

So, this “voting by looks” method isn’t perfect, it doesn’t always predict the outcome. But it’s clearly a major factor.

The obvious question here is who projects more confidence: Clinton or Trump? I have to confess I really haven’t watched any of their speeches so I have a hard time deciding. There’s something about Trump I find so smarmy, but maybe others would interpret that as confidence. I’ll have to wait to watch the debates with the sound off.

Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.

Is Miles Davis the music of atheism?

Readers may recall my classic post in which I postulated that as our minds have gotten more stimulated over recent centuries we’ve had less ability to focus on art. Baroque music was dense and complex because listeners of the day had the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Modern music is less complex (and usually shorter in length) because we don’t have the free cognitive processing power (because we’re too busy with the bullshit of life, the media, etc.) to pay attention.

There’s a knock against minimalism inherent in this theory. Minimalism is about using less—less musical notes, less colors and shapes etc—to make a point. If, according to my argument, complex art forms have lots of elements then art forms using less elements must be simpler and easier to grasp. And to some degree I do think minimalism became popular because —on one level—it’s easier to digest. But I also think minimalism is pretty sophisticated. When Miles Davis or Chet Baker used silence in a solo they were actually focusing our attention on that silence, kind of saying, “this nothing is actually something.” A lot of other modern composers and visual artists applied similar ideas. So what sounds empty and barren is kind of rich. But I freely admit, many people, myself at times, don’t get this richness and let minimalistic music’s use of space allow it to fade to the background.

There’s another interesting angle to approach this from. At the end of this article I commented on an idea of Jaron Lanier’s. He has a notion that modern communication technology (the internet, texting and so on) infantilizes us because it allows us to maintain a constant umbilical-cord-like connection to our fellows. We never have to be alone with ourselves. You could say this allows us to avoid confronting our essential aloneness, our separateness, not just from Mom but from the big guy, God. Is the music of Miles Davis asking us to confront our essential aloneness, even embrace it?

Can Trump grab Sanders’ supporters?

Politico has an article entitled “Why Trump Won’t Get Sanders’ Supporters” which makes a seemingly credible case. And yet I find myself wondering if Trump might be able to grab enough Sanders folks to make a difference.

I raise this question partly because of a few choice quotes I’ve seen in news articles from Sander’s supporters who do say their second choice is Trump. And recent polls show Sanders would have a bigger lead over Trump than Clinton would over Trump (making the point that Sanders would be taking Trump voters.) I also note while browsing through facebook that I see a fair amount of people making comments that they are at least considering Trump as their second choice.

You often hear people argue that the left/right divide, as presented by the media, is incorrect. And mostly I don’t buy that—it seems a pretty consistent way of predicting people’s beliefs and voting patterns. But in this case, maybe there’s something interesting going on.

I think that it is true that the media, academic and the political classes definitely missed the very real anger about trade deals that shuttered factories and the influx of illegal immigrants that (may have) cost American jobs. (The reason these groups probably missed this anger is because their jobs were never threatened.) And Sanders and Trump basically share positions on these issues.

The article linked above argues that synchronicity on trade and immigration issues is not enough for Sanders supporters to go Trump. But the media has a pretty poor record on Trump predictions so far.

More good news for wine and coffee lovers

A while back I began pointing out news reports that touted the health benefits of wine and coffee and other often slandered drinks. Frankly, those reports started coming so fast and furiously that I lost interest. But I recently stumbled across this report that argues wine and coffee have benefits specific to how they relate to our gut bacteria. Specifically…

Foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, yogurt and buttermilk can increase the diversity of bacteria in a person’s intestines. And that diversity can help ward off illness, said Dr. Jingyuan Fu, senior author of one of the studies.

Now another idea I’ve talked about is the idea that carbs are bad. The report notes…

On the other hand, foods containing loads of simple carbohydrates appear to reduce bacterial diversity in the gut, Fu and colleagues found. These include high-fat whole milk and sugar-sweetened soda.

That’s a bit of an odd statement about milk. To my understanding, milk’s “high fatness” has nothing to do with its carb content which appears to be the problem. But I could be wrong.

Also advised: be wary of antibiotocs.

Johnson added that medicines can have the same effect, and antibiotics actually can kill off some important strains of gut bacteria. “One dose of an antibiotic may disrupt your gut bacteria for a year,” he said.

Now, I’m the first to admit that we don’t really understand the gut biome and they may be reversing all this advice in a few years, but this is what’s being said right now. And as an avid coffee and wine drinker, I couldn’t be happier (unless I had more wine.)

Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.