Posts Tagged ‘American Exceptionalism’

Beliefs: Necessary but Dangerous

February 13, 2018

Most of our actions and behaviors are produced by habits and beliefs. Both are necessary and are what Kahneman terms System 1 processes. That is, they occur almost automatically. But we can have bad habits and erroneous beliefs.  Correcting these requires attention to correct via System 2 processes. And this can take significant time and effort.

When we are growing up the default setting for beliefs is to accept them. If we consistently questioned what we were being told, our growth would likely be retarded. Later when we see or hear something that is discordant with our beliefs, the brain notices it. We are aware that this is something new and perhaps wrong. Usually we just ignore the discordant information and go on with what we’re doing. Resolving the discrepancy can take quite a bit of effort to resolve.

The older we get, the more our actions are determined by our beliefs. And our beliefs become more hard set. The term used here is hardening of the categories. We do not question why things happen attributing them to God’s will or nature taking its course.

Beliefs can be dangerous to a democracy. Too be sure, some beliefs are necessary, such as“All men are created equal” and the beliefs as expressed in the constitution. Some people might argue that “all men are not equal,” or what about women? What the phrase means is that all men are equal with respect to rights. At the time it was written, women were not included because they could not vote and did not have rights. Matters have improved as women can vote, but there is still some distance to go. Slaves certainly were not equal. Although slavery has been abolished, civil rights issues remain. The intended meaning of the phrase is that all human beings should have equal rights.

However, with respect to lawmaking beliefs can be pernicious, as they constrain thinking. For example, consider the proposition that the government should provide health care to all residents of the country. The immediate response of some will be to shout “socialism,” cutting off further discussion. One can try to continue the discussion by asking, do you like Social Security, isn’t that socialism? Some would answer they don’t like Social Security. Others might confess to liking social security but claim that it is not truly socialism.

One could also begin a discussion by stating that the United States is the only advanced country that does not provide effectively free medical care to its citizens. This could be followed by the facts that the medical statistics in the United States are much worse than the statistics in the other advanced countries, and their medical costs are much less. All these countries have single payer systems and that payer is the government. So why should the United States not emulate these other countries? Here “exceptionalism” would likely be shouted. The notion here is that the United States is an exception to the other countries of the world. This is a tad similar to Hitler calling the Germans the master race. Exceptionalism is nothing but a belief—an incorrect belief. Stupidity can be readily substituted for exceptionalism.

Some beliefs are good, but they can be compartmentalized. The Christian teaching is to “love they neighbor as thyself.” So one might conclude from this that Christians would strongly be in favor of providing effective medical care for everyone in the country. But many do not because of another belief, that government should be as small as possible. Apparently in cases like these the less inconvenient belief is taken.

Another belief is in the universality of market forces. Now, there is no argument that free enterprise is very good. But one problem is that free markets tend not to last long. Monopolies develop and small players are pushed out. Government needs to intercede here, but bad connotations about government might preclude this. The problem with people seeing the role of market forces to all problems is analogous to the person who only has a hammer and sees all problems as nails.

The common complaint is that the United States has become polarized and that this polarization is precluding us from solving problems. Political parties exacerbate polarization and political parties are based almost solely on beliefs.

Political parties might be necessary for some functions of government, but the best way to lubricate a democracy is to preclude the expression of beliefs in political discourse. Participants would be told that before entering into the discussions they should role up all their beliefs into a ball, and insert it as far as they can up their keister. Courses of action could be argued, but the arguments would need to consist solely of data and logical arguments. When questions arose regarding the validity of the data or the soundness of the arguments, then studies could be done and experiments conducted to resolve the issues. Were we to do these, then we would indeed be worthy of the title homo sapiens. Currently titles such as homo stupididus or homo blow hardidus might be more appropriate.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Could a Trump Triumph? — Part One

February 6, 2018

The question posed in this post is identical to a chapter title in “Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump” by Allen Francis, MD. There needs to be multiple parts to this post.

Let’s begin with the campaign theme, “Make America Great Again.” The implicit assumption here is that America is no longer great. However, by all indications America was great having been brought back from an economic crisis by President Obama. When he became president, we were on the verge of a depression. He rescued us from that fate where all objective indicators indicated that the United States was already great again, if, indeed, it had ever fallen from greatness. The free nations of the world admired the United States and looked to it for leadership. However, dictatorial oligarchies like Russia, looked at the United States as a rival that needed to be defeated.

It is true that some people were unhappy. But HM would argue that in democracies, people are usually unhappy. This is true even when one’s favored party is in power. It is unlikely that they’re doing everything individuals want. There are also shortfalls due to the economy and what the government can deliver. HM has been unhappy his entire voting life regardless of which party was in power. All other advanced countries are way ahead of us with respect to medical care, many advanced countries offer less costly educational opportunities, and yet other advanced countries offer more freedoms. The term “American Exceptionalism” is frequently invoked to explain why we are different. HM argues that “Stupidity” can be readily and more accurately substituted for “Exceptionalism.”

It is true that since 1970 real wages in the United States have declined. When HM was in elementary school it was unusual for women with children to work. Now working spouses have become the norm. The question here is why have so many married women joined the workforce. Do they have to or do they want to? After all, there are still women who prefer to be full time mothers. But a very large number would be extremely unhappy if they were denied careers.

Middle-aged whites without a college degree (Trump’s most solid base) feel that a they are worse off then their parents. When they think that African-Americans and Latinos are somewhat better than they are, they become angry. So an ethnic factor exacerbates the problem. And, indeed, election time presents an opportunity to correct the situation. But it appears that whites who are not college educated do not widely read, if, indeed, they read at all. Otherwise, they would have realized that Trump’s solution was faulty. The loss of jobs was attributable primarily to automation. Other industries like coal were going out of fashion. Moreover, breaking trade agreements will likely have an adverse effect on the economy. So Trump will likely make the jobs problem worse, not better. Time will tell.

The preceding accounts were from the text. But more recent research questions the belief that job or income losses led to Trumpism. A 2016 study of 125,000 American adults by Gallup’s Pablo Diego-Rosell found that Trump voters had slightly higher incomes than others and were no more likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition from trade and immigration.

Terrorism is a factor exploited by Trump. Since 9/11, an average of only 9 people a year in the United States died from terrorist acts by radical Islamists; while each year more than 250,000 die from medical mistakes, 50,000 from drug overdoses, 37,000 from car accidents, and 33,000 from guns (not wielded by terrorists). Nevertheless, people are worried about terrorists. HM was in high school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He remembers saying good-bye to his classmates at the end of a school day wondering, along with his classmates, whether we would ever see each other again. In those days, nuclear annihilation was a distinct possibility. At worst, terrorism is a minor nuisance. Even the detonation of a dirty bomb pales in comparison to nuclear annihilation. However, whenever people see a terrorist event on television, they feel threatened. Moreover, most mass killings are the result of the number of guns readily available, and not Islamists. Nevertheless, Trump capitalized greatly on these fears. He went beyond terrorists to immigrants in general.

The world is changing rapidly, and many people have difficulty coping with this change. It’s almost like stop the world, I want to get off. So the campaigning on the theme of “Making the World Great Again” promises a return to the quieter, good old days, if they, indeed, ever truly existed.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Misers and Democracy

February 17, 2016

Cognitive misers are people who do not like to exert the effort involved in thinking.   In addition to entering “cognitive misers” into the healtymemory search block, you can also enter “System 1” or “Kahneman.”  Cognitive misers like to believe in things because questioning beliefs or principles or learning new things involves cognitive effort and thinking.

A short while back I read a poll that I found extremely discouraging.  The question asked what was more important to voters, a politician’s willingness to compromise or to  principles.
Here is a breakdown of the responses by political party.  Note that they do not add up to 100% as some respondents refused to answer.

Group                   Principles        Willing to Compromise
All Voters             40%                  50%
Republicans        54%                   36%
Independents     40%                  47%
Democrats           23%                  68%

I guess that the good news is that with the exception of one group, the remaining groups a larger percentage indicated a Willingness to Compromise.  In only one group did this percentage reach 50% and only one other group indicated a slightly greater than a two to one preference.  If the results are representative, then I argue that these beliefs present a far greater existential threat to the Democracy in the United States than does ISIS.

Before addressing cognitive miserliness per se, let me remind readers what a democracy is supposed to be..  A democracy is a system in which people vote for candidates and the candidates try to vote for what they think are the correct policies, but negotiate when the need to get the most palatable policy that they can accept.  There will be times when the vote goes against them, but they accept the result.  They do not threaten to shut down the government or actually shut down the government.  As you know this has already happened at least twice.

It is unfortunate that “politician” has negative connotations.  Using “politician” in a pejorative sense, “he’s a politician,” or he is doing this for “political reasons” is both unfair and wrong.  The first requirement of a politician is to make the political system work.  Sometimes that might correspond to political beliefs, sometimes it will not.  But beliefs or principals should not be the driving factor.

The advancement of mankind has been in direct proportion to the advancement of science.  Key to science is thinking.  Cognitive miserliness is anathema to effective science.  Whatever beliefs science has are beliefs that are subject to change.  It that is not the case, then the enterprise is not science.  There have been enormous changes in science during my lifetime.  There is not a single subject matter that has not changed.  Until fairly recently science believed that humans could not generate new neurons.  In other words there was no such think as neurogenesis.  Had I argued to the contrary as a graduate student I would have quickly been booted out of graduate school.  It was not until close to the end of the 20th century that neurogenesis was accepted and the notion of neuroplasticity  was advanced.

I become particularly annoyed when I hear reporters accuse politicians of flip flopping.  It seems like this is the stock in trade for many reporters.  This reminds me of the response the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes gave when he was accused of a statement that was in conflict with previous comments.  He responded,”when the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir.”  An argument can be made that opinions are not being changed by facts, but by political considerations.  Here I would refer you to the remedial exposition on democracy I offered above.

I also argue that cognitive miserliness is a problem for the Supreme Court of the United States.  There are two views of the Constitution.  One is that it is supposed to be a dynamic document that has been written that is expected to change with the times.  The other, originalism, is that the Constitution needs to be interpreted in terms of what the authors intended.  We need to remember that when the Constitution was written, slavery existed, black people were counted as three-fifths of a human being, and women could not vote.  It should also be remembered that one of the most advanced scientists of the time, Benjamin Franklin, did not know what current high school physics students know.  Moreover, I am virtually certain that if the framers of the constitution knew what we do today, they would have written a different constitution.  I am upset when the Supreme Court Justice who recently passed away is described as having a brilliant mind.  He was an originalist.  He believed that what the framers of the constitution believed at that time should provide the basis of judicial decisions.  I regard such individuals as intellectual runts.

The results of cognitive miserliness are readily apparent in the United States.  Realize that the United States is the only advanced country that does not have a system of national health insurance.  What we do have is the country with the most expensive medical costs with results comparable to third world countries.  We are the only advanced country that has no control over the cost of prescription medications.  And we are the only country that has a major political party that refuses to believe in global warming.  We also have a major TV network that insists on always having a denier of global warming on a show where a scientist is presenting data bearing on global warming and its ramifications.  This is in spite of the fact that this is a small minority of scientists, some of whom are paid scientific guns to counter the overwhelming evidence.

The reason that is often presented is one of American Exceptionalism.  This exceptionalism is a product of cognitive miserliness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.