Birther psychology, lacrosse, and another call to end the war on drugs

by Rob Tiller

Some of the nicest people I know are Republicans, so I say this with all due respect: how is it that 45% of Republicans are birthers? That’s a lot of Republicans! As the NY Times noted this week, not for the first time, there’s overwhelming evidence that the President is a natural born citizen, and so a birther is almost by definition someone resistant to considering evidence and applying reason. The Times got opinions from various academics and pundits about this odd phenomenon, and one by David Redlawske struck me as particularly thoughtful. He observed that feelings often trump facts:

We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

This isn’t groundbreaking, of course, but it’s easy to forget how fragile and subject to failure rationality is, and how hard it is for the reason to overcome prejudice. Major political issues can get invented, distorted, or ignored based on likes and dislikes, without regard to evidence or analysis. We all do this to some extent, but some more than others. And our dysfunctional political process is a result of this resistance to evidence and reason.

Friday night Sally, Diane (Sally’s Mom), and I went over to Durham to see some lacrosse — Duke and Virginia in the ACC championship semifinals. Diane has developed an unlikely passion for lacrosse, and with her encouragement we’ve been to a couple of games this season. It’s a great sport, with some of the speed and fury of hockey and the strategy and finesse of soccer. The evening was cool and drizzly, and we were damp and shivering by the end. The Dukies had their way with the UVa, 19-10.

On the way back, I asked Diane about her views on the war on drugs. She wasn’t familiar with the term. Diane reads the NY Times every day and is extremely well-informed on current events, so her lack of knowledge on this subject worried me. I suspect that a lot of bright people filter out news on the drug issue, because the news is confusing and frequently painful. The drug war is costing billions of dollars, exhausting the capacities of our courts and prisons, destroying lives, financing organized crime, and destabilizing entire countries (Mexico, Afghanistan, Honduras, Nicuragua, El Salvador etc.).

But some good news: there are more and more people ready to talk about our failed drug policy and what to do about it. According to a reliable sounding blog in the Huffington Post (how’s that for sourcing?), the Obama administration invited questions for various “town meetings,” and the most frequently raised topic was drug legalization. Unfortunately the President avoided the issue. But the political tide is moving, and may be turning.

So what’s the problem? Almost everyone knows that many people like mood and perception altering substances. That was true of our remote ancestors, and it’s true of us. But too much media coverage of the drug issue is alarmist fear mongering, which creates fearful beliefs that make it difficult to proceed with reasoned discourse. Thus we’ve had the rise and fall of the crack epidemic — a drug originally reported to be so addictive that no one could use it responsibly and so powerful that it was going to destroy our cities. This was plainly a huge exaggeration. Before that were such stories as the tendency of LSD to induce psychosis (huge exaggeration), and of pot to cause bizarre criminal behavior (Reefer Madness) (a complete fabrication). The fact in plain view that was ignored, and is still ignored: most people that use illegal recreational drugs are functioning just fine.

I say this not to encourage illegal drug use. It’s been many moons since I myself used an illegal drug. I avoid them because I think they’re too risky, both in terms of criminal liability and otherwise. Some people (you? me?) are prone to addiction, which is a serious health problem with multiple dimensions. Also, there is no particular reason to trust an unknown unregulated chemist, and no reason to be confident that his chemical product will not cause either immediate or long-term physical harm. There are plainly many degrees of risk, and individual preferences for risk taking vary. Some people like to jump out of airplanes, and some people like to try new designer drugs. Others, like me, are uncomfortable with such levels of risk.

But as a matter of ethics, there’s just no distinction between most of the intoxicating substances that we’ve legalized and those that we put people in jail for. Alcoholic beverages for most people are pleasant diversions, and for an unfortunate minority they are career-destroying, family-destroying, health-destroying addictions. The same is true of cocaine, and the same is true of recreational use of legal pharmaceuticals. The Times reported this week that Oxycontin abuse is widespread in Ohio, and resulting in addiction and deadly overdoses. These health problems should be recognized and addressed, but not exaggerated. We need to confront fears and assumptions with evidence, and figure out how to make an orderly withdrawal from the war on drugs.