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Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy


"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." With that tweet, Jon Huntsman set himself apart from every other candidate in the Republican primary field. Despite his phrasing, Huntsman, who is barely registering in most polls, was clearly hoping that the public would believe most other candidates to be a bit loopy by contrast. (…)

Questions about evolution work in this manner on multiple levels. Obviously, on a scientific level, the evidence for evolution is extremely compelling. If you would rather defer to expertise than study it yourself, every scientific society out there that has voiced an opinion on evolution has supported the science and its place in the biology classroom. Finally, the US court system has determined that creationism and its milder cousin, intelligent design, are inherently religious and therefore cannot be taught as “science” in the public school system. (…)

On the climate side, a number of the candidates have never accepted the expertise of groups like the National Academies of Science; a few others have done so (Gingrich and Pawlenty have both supported policies to limit CO2 emissions) but have since disowned that position. Mitt Romney is no longer sure that the planet is warming at all. And Rick Perry has once more staked out the most extreme position, saying that it’s all just a fraudulent attempt to get grant money. “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he has said. “And I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

Actually, the consensus about anthropogenic climate change doesn’t appear to be changing; the argument that scientists are in it for the money is transparently bogus.

So, what have we learned from this? With the exception of Huntsman, the candidates don’t know science, haven’t bothered to ask someone who does, and, in several cases, don’t even know anything about the settled policy issues (judicial precedent and investigation of claims about fraud). Why would we want these traits in a president?

Actually, some people do

However, the fact is that Huntsman is barely registering in most polls, and the leading candidates in the Republican party are successful in part precisely because they are voicing an opinion that runs counter to expertise. For many in the US, expertise has taken on a negative cultural value; experts are part of an elite that thinks it knows better than the average citizen. (This is accurate, for what it’s worth.) Very few object to that sort of expertise when it comes time to, say, put the space shuttle into orbit, but expertise can become a problem when the experts have reached a consensus that runs against cultural values.

And, for many in our society, scientific expertise has done just that. Abstinence-only sex education has been largely ineffective. Carbon emissions are creating a risk of climate change. Humanity originated via an evolutionary process. All of these findings have threatened various aspects of people’s cultural identity. By rejecting both the science and the expertise behind it, candidates can essentially send a signal that says, “I’m one of you, and I’m with you where it counts.”

This is not some purely partisan phenomenon. On other issues, rejection of scientific information tends to be associated with the political left—the need for animal research and the safety of genetically modified foods spring to mind. These positions, however, are anything but mainstream within the Democratic Party, so candidates have not felt compelled to pander to (or even discuss) them, in most cases. That’s created an awkward asymmetry, one where a single party has a monopoly on public rejection of scientific information and certain kinds expertise.

For Jon Huntsman, that’s a problem. In an ABC News interview, he argued that the leading candidates’ stance would make them unelectable. "The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party—the anti-science party—we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science—Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position." (…)

My biggest concern is that, ultimately, Huntsman may be wrong. We’re in an environment where economic concerns will almost certainly dominate the election. And the campaigns will be covered by a press that cares more about the strategy of what a candidate said than its accuracy, a press that thinks it achieves balance by pretending there are two sides on every issue that merit serious consideration. In that environment, it’s entirely possible that the US electorate may not recognize or care much about the implications of a few scientific questions.

Besides, a candidate who rejects science can apparently use that position to attract the support of somewhere above a quarter of the electorate. That’s not a bad start for a presidential campaign.”

John Timmer, a Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry at Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy (and why it scares me), ars technica, Sep 5, 2011

"The universe doesn’t care what you believe. The wonderful thing about science is that it doesn’t ask for your faith, it just ask for your eyes."

xkcd, Oct 2011

See also:

☞ Chris Mooney, How liberal and conservative brains are wired differently. Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently, they think differently
Paul Nurse, Stamp out anti-science in US politics, New Scientist, 14 Sept 2011
☞ Chris Mooney, Why Republicans Deny Science: The Quest for a Scientific Explanation, The Huffington Post, Jan 11, 2012
☞ John Allen Paulos, Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?, NYTimes, Feb 13, 2012.
Study: Conservatives’ Trust in Science Has Fallen Dramatically Since Mid-1970s, American Sociological Association, March 29, 2012.

"Trust in Science Has Also Declined Among People Who Frequently Attend Church (…) While trust in science remained stable among people who self-identified as moderates and liberals in the United States between 1974 and 2010, trust in science fell among self-identified conservatives by more than 25 percent during the same period, according to new research from Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

“You can see this distrust in science among conservatives reflected in the current Republican primary campaign,” said Gauchat, whose study appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. “When people want to define themselves as conservatives relative to moderates and liberals, you often hear them raising questions about the validity of global warming and evolution and talking about how ‘intellectual elites’ and scientists don’t necessarily have the whole truth.” (…)

“It also provides evidence that, in the United States, there is a tension between religion and science in some contexts. This tension is evident in public controversies such as that over the teaching of evolution.”

As for why self-identified conservatives were much less likely to trust science in 2010 than they were in the mid-1970s. (…)”

Republican congressman, member of House science committee Paul Broun says evolution, Big Bang theory and embryology are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell’, The Guardian, 6 Oct 2012
Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium notes


The Pursuit of Happiness. People who take part in their communities and governments are happier than those who don’t

"Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We’re left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. (…)

Economists and leaders have begun to search for alternative ways to value the lives of individuals and evaluate the success of nations. Since many of the questions they’re raising are philosophical, voices from the past may be helpful.

The Greeks, for instance, were very interested in well being. Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply “Eat, drink, and be merry,” or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn’t depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence.”

For the Greeks, excellence could be manifest only in a city or a community. Since human beings were political animals, the best way to exercise virtue and justice was within the institutions of a great city (the polis). Only beasts and gods could live alone. A solitary person was not fully human. In fact, the Greek word “idiot” means a private person, someone who is not engaged in public life. It was only in a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human—and happy.

This is what the American Revolution was all about. Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for the word “property,” which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that “property” was too narrow a notion.

But what exactly did “happiness” mean to the colonists? It was a topic of lively discussion in pubs, public squares, broadsheets, and books. Was happiness individual prosperity, or something else?

Conservatives argue that the American Revolution exalted the individual. Certainly, the colonists didn’t want the British Crown telling them what to do. But the Revolution wasn’t just about getting the government out of people’s lives so the Founders could pursue their private desires.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had nice houses. They could have enjoyed contented private lives. But it was not just about their property. They believed that you attained happiness, not merely through the goods you accumulated, or in your private life, but through the good that you did in public. People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.

The American revolutionaries wanted to have their voice heard and to participate in government. After all, their slogan was not “No taxation”—which is such a popular rallying cry today—but “No taxation without representation.” Representation was critical to happiness. The Founders’ long recitation of grievances set out the numerous ways in which they couldn’t control their destiny. They were subject to England, while they wished to be citizens of America. As citizens, they were able to take control of their government and create a just state where the rule of law was respected, domestic tranquility assured, and defense maintained.

As political animals, human beings need a city, a nation, in which to flourish. People can develop their talents only in society. The good society nurtures many talents, and the political system makes that possible by what it rewards and encourages. (…)

This brings me to jobs. After the crash of 2009, banks have been saved, corporations are prospering, and people are still unemployed. My father would have seen something wrong with this picture. He believed having a good job was the key to happiness. “The root problem,” he said, “is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do, which means nothing to do with the rest of us. To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizens, is to be in truth the invisible man of whom Ralph Ellison wrote.” (…) “I helped to build this city. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I count.”

It’s not only through our jobs but through participating in public life that we help build the city. In fact, research shows that people who take part in political activities such as voting, advocating for laws, and helping to make government work for themselves and their community are happier than those who don’t. (…)”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as Maryland’s first woman lieutenant governor. She now works in finance in Washington, a member of the Kennedy family, The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn’t, The Atlantic, June 20, 2011 (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

See also:

☞ Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, What Makes Life Worthwhile? GDP Won’t Tell You, The Atlantic, June 13, 2011
Get Politically Engaged, Get Happy?, Miller-McCune, Feb 14, 2011


Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational

                       Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, (1799)

"The art of war," Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “is certainly the noblest of all arts.” In every culture, war is considered society’s most noble endeavor (recent threat of nuclear war and mass annihilation has made a slight dent in this universal passion), although what is considered good and noble in one society may well be considered evil and bad in others. War is usually much better than peace at defining who is the group, what are its boundaries, and what it stands for. War is also more compelling and effective in generating solidarity with something larger and more lasting than ourselves. War compresses history and dramatically changes its course. There is urgency, excitement, ecstasy, and altruistic exaltation in war, a mystic feeling of solidarity with something greater than oneself: a tribe, a nation, a movement, Humanity. That’s also why cable news so loves it.

War is what most clearly defines who we are, for better or worse. And it has always been that way.

The key justification that President Obama evoked in going to war in Libya, and anywhere else around the globe where America’s survival and safety are not directly threatened, is that failure to act “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” The message, to remind ourselves and the world, is that America protects people who are menaced with annihilation for wanting freedom.

Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, Senator John McCain, countered that while this moral imperative may be laudable, “the reason why we wage wars is to achieve the results of the policy that we state.” And that policy, as the president himself proclaimed, is that “Gaddafi must go.”

Politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum intone that the military mission remains murky, even contradictory, because as Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it: “the goals of this [military] campaign aren’t… about seeing [Gaddafi] go. It’s about eliminating his ability to kill his own people.” So what is the sense of fighting to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his people if, as Adm. Mullen conceded, “certainly, potentially, one outcome” is that the dictator remain in power, potentially to kill again?

Yet the inconsistency between war as a moral imperative versus political policy runs way wider and deeper than the Libya conflict. It goes to the heart of human nature and the character of society. For despite the popular delusion that war is, or ought to be, primarily a matter of political strategy and pragmatic execution, it almost never is. Squaring the circle of war and politics, morality and material interests, is not just Obama’s or America’s quandary, it is a species-wide dilemma that results from wanting to believe with Aristotle that we humans are fundamentally rational beings, when in fact recent advances in psychology and neuroscience strongly indicate that Enlightenment philosopher David Hume was right to say that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”

Models of rational behavior predict many of society’s patterns, such as favored strategies for maximizing profit or likelihood for criminal behavior in terms of “opportunity costs.” But seemingly irrational behaviors like war — in which the measurable costs often far outweigh the measurable benefits — have stumped thinkers for centuries. The prospect of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths doesn’t necessarily sway people from their positions on whether going to war is the right or wrong choice. One possible explanation is that people are not weighing the pros and cons for advancing material interests at all, but rather using a moral logic of “sacred values” — convictions that trump all other considerations — that cannot be quantified.

As Darwin noted in The Descent of Man, and Sun Tzu millennia before in The Art of War, the brave person is the one who is often intensely moral, undismayed by danger and demonstrably willing to kill and die for his beliefs. In the competition between groups of genetic strangers, such as empires and nations or transnational movements and ideologies, the society with greater bravery will win, all things being equal. Consider the American revolutionaries who, defying the greatest empire of the age, pledged “our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor” in the cause of “Liberty or Death,” where the desired outcome was highly doubtful.

How many lives should a leader be willing to sacrifice to remove a murderous dictator like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein? Most of the theories and models that researchers use to study conflicts like the Libyan or Iraq wars assume that civilians and leaders make a rational calculation: If the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But recent studies by psychologist Jeremy Ginges and myself, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest those models are insufficient. Our surveys of people confronted with violent situations in the US, Middle East and Africa suggest that people consistently ignore quantifiable costs and benefits, relying instead on “sacred values.”

In one study, we asked 656 Israeli settlers in the West Bank about the dismantlement of their settlement as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides their willingness to violently resist eviction, the subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. If the settlers are making the decision rationally, in line with mainstream models, their willingness to engage in a particular form of protest should depend mostly on their estimation of its effectiveness. But if sacred values come into play, that calculus should be clouded.

When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, the rational behavior model predicted settlers’ decisions. But in deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers defied the rational behavior models. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers’ willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be. We found similar patterns of “principled” resistance to peace settlements and support for violence, including suicide bombings, among Palestinian refugees who felt “sacred values” were at stake, such as the recognizing their moral right of return to homes in Israel even if they expressed no material or practical interest in actually resettling.

In a series of follow-up surveys among U.S. and Nigerian participants, we confronted subjects with hypothetical hostage situations and asked them if they would approve of a solution — which was either diplomatic or violent — for freeing the prisoners. The chance of success varied in terms of the number of hostages who might die. For example, in one version of the survey, when told that their action would result in all hostages being saved, both groups endorsed the plan presented to them. Told that one hostage would die, however, most “diplomats” became reluctant to endorse the proposed response. Those opting for military action had no such qualms. In fact, the most common response suggested that they would support military action even if 99 of 100 hostages died as a consequence.

These and other studies suggest that most societies have “sacred rules” for which their people would fight and risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. If people perceive one such rule to have been violated, they may feel morally obliged to retaliate against the wrongdoers — even if the retaliation does more harm than good.

Ongoing neuroimaging studies by our research group led by Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team at Emory University indicates that sacred values are processed in those parts of the brains that deal with rule-governed behavior (rather than cost-benefit analyses), and are associated with greater emotional activity consistent with sentiments of “moral outrage” when participants perceive a violation of sacred values. In the hostage situation, the abductors were threatening to violate the sacred rule against killing innocent people. That rule was so strong for the participants that they felt morally obliged to meet violence with violence, regardless of the outcome. This is little different from Mr. Obama’s seemingly heartfelt sentiment that “as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Every military strategist understands that even the most thought out military plan usually dissolves upon contact with the enemy, and that war generally carries a high measure of uncertainty and likelihood of “unintended consequences.” But even the decision to go to war is never just a product of reason and rational calculation, and thus never just “politics by other means,” despite what von Clausewitz famously stated in his classic study On War. This, the sentiment of a Prussian regimental officer in the post-Napoleonic era of state interests and strategies to rearrange “the balance of power,” disastrously misguided European elites into believing that wars could be started and pursued to a desired end by careful planning (while granting that in the fog of war events sometimes spin out of control). Many of our political and military leaders still believe in this Clausewitz delusion: it’s a mainstay in the curricula of U.S. war colleges and the international relations departments of top U.S. universities, and of most military and foreign affairs staffs in the world.

In truth, war is almost always an emotional matter of status and pride, of shedding blood and tearing the flesh of others held dear, of dread and awe and of the instinctual needs to escape from fear, to dominate and to avenge. But war is most profoundly an expression of that peculiar aspect of human nature that expresses our animal origins but which also distinguishes our species from all others that struggle and fight for survival: it defines “who we are” in the search for significance in an otherwise uncaring universe.

Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill and die not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea — the conception they have formed of themselves. Call it love of group or God, it matters little in the end. This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’” of which Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. It is a human trait that likely will not change, and which political leaders must learn to manage — however inescapably murky — so that their people will endure in a world where an end to war is no more likely than unending day. But to insist that war make perfect rational sense, where means cost effectively lead to clear and practical political ends, may impose an inhuman task that any leader can only sidestep or fudge.”

Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, is the author of Talking to the Enemy, Why War Is Never Really Rational, Huffpost, March 29, 2011.

See also:

☞ Scott Atran, God and the Ivory Tower. What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us, Foreign Policy, Aug 6, 2012.
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya
The Psychology of Violence (a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it), Lapidarium notes
The Philosophy of War, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Jacek Żakowski, How to live with evil - dilemmas in politics (google translation)
Colman McCarthy, Teaching Peace, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, August 30, 2011
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes

Where is America’s debt (foreign held treasury securities, in $US Billions)

Where is America’s debt (foreign held treasury securities, in $US Billions)

Who is coming to America? | Department of Homeland Security 
Immigration may have taken a back seat during the financial crisis, but the issue still needs resolving. While illegal immigrants sneaking over the border is still a primary concern. This is a look at the 20 countries from which the most people came to America in 2008, how many immigrants already had family here, and how many recieved asylum when they arrived.

Who is coming to America? | Department of Homeland Security

Immigration may have taken a back seat during the financial crisis, but the issue still needs resolving. While illegal immigrants sneaking over the border is still a primary concern. This is a look at the 20 countries from which the most people came to America in 2008, how many immigrants already had family here, and how many recieved asylum when they arrived.

The Best Jobs In America | US Bureau of Labour Statistics

The Best Jobs In America | US Bureau of Labour Statistics