The Casual Blog

Tag: Scientific American

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

The virus is still here, except in Trump’s fantasyland

Having watched almost the entire Democratic Convention, I wanted to give equal time to the Republicans, so I watched their Convention.  Well, I should say, I tried, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I read about it the next day.  My tolerance for the alternative reality and fear mongering in real time was generally about 20 minutes.    

Though I don’t understand it, I accept  that there are people who are going to vote for Trump, and I was hoping to get a better grasp of why.  I assume a lot of Trump voters are decent and well meaning, with things in their life experience and psychology that net out to belief in MAGA.  

At the Convention, there were many normal-looking, normal-sounding people singing the praises of Trump.  Some told anecdotes about Trump’s being helpful to particular industries or being nice to particular people, some of which could have been true, though after four years of his nonstop lying, who knows?

I felt like I’d somehow wandered into an alternative universe, where the last four years hadn’t happened.  Everything Trump had done was kind and good, while his cruelty, corruption, and incompetence had disappeared.  It was disorienting, but somehow familiar.  Then I realized where I actually was:  the Fox News universe, a media bubble where Trump  is a god-like being receiving unquestioning adoration, and his impulsiveness and crack pot ideas are lauded as genius.

Some of the character references could have been viewed as ordinary political puffery.  But there were some claims and positions that were dangerous and so flagrantly false that it’s difficult to see how anyone could agree to say them, much less believe them.

A prime example is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Trump and other speakers spoke of in the past tense as having been successfully addressed by Trump.  It pushes the limits of the human capacity for denial and delusion to think either that the pandemic is over or that Trump did a good job handling it.  

As of this writing, the United States is seeing around 40,000 new cases per day, with a total of around 180,000 deaths so far.  The US is the world leader in active cases and total deaths.  Many of these deaths would not have happened under an ordinary, competent president, as shown by the lower infection and fatality rates in other countries.  Trump still has no plan for handling the pandemic, other than trying to distract attention from it and promoting miracle cures, like ingesting bleach.  

In fact, Trump continues to push in exactly the wrong direction by discouraging masks, modeling non-social distancing, and encouraging people to get back to work.  For his speech at the White House on the final night, he showed his profound selfishness and recklessness by having thousands of worshippers crammed together, with no testing and almost no masks.  They may have believed the lie that the pandemic was over.  In any case, with the President’s encouragement, they effectively risked their lives.  What kind of person would do that to his followers?  

As with the pandemic, in other areas the Republican Convention challenged America:  are you going to believe us, or your lying eyes?  With millions unemployed and thousands of businesses shuttered, the Republicans praised Trump for a fantastically successful economy.  He claimed to have kept every promise, and declared victory on health care, job creation, building the wall, foreign relations, building new infrastructure, and other areas in which he has accomplished almost nothing.  He did not attempt to defend his support for Russian interference in our affairs, his energy rules that will worsen the climate crisis, his tax cuts for the wealthy, the criminal conduct of his close advisors, or his own corruption.  

With police shootings continuing and Black Lives Matters protesters still calling for an end to racist police violence, Trump persuaded a few Black supporters to say he’s not a racist.  But he continued to claim that Black people are threatening to burn down our cities and invade the suburbs if he loses.  He did not explain his proposed solution to this imaginary problem, other than to keep repeating the phrase law and order.  Based on his recent activity, this seems to be shorthand for meeting protesters with tear gas and bullets and locking them up.

All this was unsettling, especially when combined with fear mongering about liberals.  Trump and his acolytes warned loudly and absurdly that Joe Biden and the Democrats embodied a dangerous alien ideology (such as communism or socialism) and would turn America into a hellhole.  There were a few quick nods to non-white people, but no acknowledgement or apologies for Trump’s ongoing support of white supremacists, his tear gassing protesters to get a photo op, his Muslim ban, and his putting immigrant children in cages and then losing them.  At least he didn’t threaten to lock up Joe and Kamala — yet.  

How do we know what is reality?  In general, we have a look at the people around us and try to figure out what they agree on.  This usually works well enough for us to stay out of big trouble, but as the Republicans have shown, not always.  Last month, Naomi Oreskes, a history professor at Harvard, wrote a short piece in Scientific American about the intellectual foundations of science, which I thought was so intriguing that I bought and read her new book, Why Trust Science?    

In the SA piece, Oreskes noted that one common reason for rejecting scientific knowledge is that people don’t like information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.  Thus there are many people who deny scientific consensus findings on climate change because they require responses that are inconsistent with their faith in markets and opposition to government, or just with their rosy picture of the world.  

In her new book, Oreskes argues that what is distinctive about science is not that it is always correct (it isn’t), but that it involves a social methodology involving trained and specialized experts that in the usual course corrects errors and leads to improved understanding.  She points out that when we need specialized knowledge to fix a problem, we turn to experts, whether they are plumbers, electricians, or doctors.  Scientists are our experts on the natural world, and they assist and correct each other.  Like all other experts, they sometimes get things wrong, but on the whole they do better than non-experts.  

Anyhow, it isn’t surprising that Trumpists often don’t care to engage when scientists are trying to communicate unwelcome news.  But that’s a big problem with the coronavirus pandemic.  Many if not most of us know people who have been seriously ill or died from the virus.  Adopting the Trump position that the pandemic is no longer of serious concern is a mistake of epic proportions that will lead to a lot more deaths.  We’re at a new frontier in propaganda and politics:  a presidential message that all those deaths are of no consequence, with a political party prepared to advance it.    

Scary stuff: Dracula, the ballet, and Ebola, the hysteria

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In general, I have very little interest in ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, and suchlike. There are enough truly scary things in the world that are real (e.g. global warming, thermonuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and tainted food from factory farms, to name a few). So it puzzles me a little that people spend mental energy scaring themselves with made-up monsters. Maybe it’s something like the fun/fear of riding the thrill rides at the fair (which I’m also over).

So, as much as I adore the Carolina Ballet, I was not eagerly anticipating Dracula, which we saw Saturday night. It is certainly not pure ballet. But boy, is it sexy! There was a good amount of stimulating vampire vamping, and even some touching dancing.

Marcelo Martinez was muscular and mesmerizing as Count D, and Lara O’Brien was a delicate, then demonic, Lucy. The marvelous Pablo Javier Perez played perhaps the scariest character, Renfeld the lunatic, who eats flies, prowls, and watches with superhuman intensity. The Twisted Sisters (Dracula’s harem, I guess) – Randi Osetek, Sarah Newton, Elizabeth Ousley – were naughty and highly exotic. I also particularly enjoyed the dancing of Elice McKinley and Nikolai Smirnov as Colette and Jack — sweet, innocent, loving mortals.

The other work on the program, The Masque of the Red Death, is based on the E.A. Poe story about a ball in a time of plague. The costumes for the costume ball were particularly sumptuous. Richard Krusch was the Red Death. He is a really fine dancer, but of extremely serious mien; he usually looks like he isn’t having any fun at all. But this was not a problem in this role, in which he wears a skull mask.

The dance of death/plague theme seemed timely, and a little jarring, after weeks of daily headlines about the Ebola virus in Africa, and also (a couple of cases) in the U.S. It is sad for the victims and their loved ones, but it strikes me that the media frenzy is out of all reasonable proportion. How many more people are dying daily of AIDS? Or the flu? Or car accidents, for that matter? Plainly, this is a dangerous bug, and we need to watch and take care, but why try to get more scared than necessary?

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to spend a few minutes every day doing mindfulness meditation. The basic idea, which is well described in this short infographic is to sit quietly, focus on breathing, and observe what’s happening with your thoughts. It’s simple, but not easy.

By coincidence, Scientific American, which arrived this week, has a cover story on the neuroscience of meditation. The headline is that there is substantial research showing that it improves focus, reduces stress, and has other positive health effects. It also can boost feelings of well-being, and improve empathy and compassion.

The story doesn’t mention this, but I’m hopeful that if meditation helps us understand our thought processes, it might improve our ability to distinguish between imaginary threats and real ones, and apply our energy to problems we might be able to solve.
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A forced break from piano playing, and thoughts on autodidacts and other learners

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After work on Friday I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to check on the flowers and insects. The rose garden was gone – nothing there but dirt. But there were still plenty of things growing, and bees and other insects hard at work. I particularly liked this uninhibited butterfly.
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It’s been a whole month now that I’ve been unable to play the piano. I’ve been following my hand doctor’s orders and keeping my fingers taped up, hoping that the torn ligament serving the middle finger of my right hand will heal. Practicing the piano every day is a habit of many years. While I wouldn’t say I’m going through withdrawal, I certainly don’t feel as happy and balanced as usual. Piano music is a big part of my life, and I miss it.

But I’m trying to stay positive. The hand will get better eventually, probably. And I’ve used some of the time freed up from practicing to do ear training exercises that should make me a better musician. I had some exposure to these in my student days, and learned enough to pass the theory course, but not enough to feel really competent. The reason I didn’t do more was, it’s more work than fun. But I see now how a richer understanding of intervals and harmony could help me as a sight reader and interpreter.

Anyhow, I’m learning something. It feels normal to me to continually be learning new things. I tend to think that being curious and having the stamina and gumption required to take on new intellectual challenges is itself a gift, bequeathed by my parents and their ancestors, and also a product of my friends, teachers, and the books and other information that shaped me. But how it works, and why not everyone gets it, are mysteries.
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There was a piece in Slate this week about education that suggested folks like me were outliers, “autodidacts,” and part of a minority able to learn without teachers, classrooms, and surrounding students. I suppose that’s possible. But I did not agree with the author’s premise that schools as they currently exist are optimal learning environments for most people. I suspect that as often as not schools destroy kids’ natural love of learning and at the same time fail to give them the tools they need to pursue their own learning paths.

So what is the best way to learn? Scientific American this month had a piece on recent research on this. The central idea was that we’ve done very little research into the most effective methods of helping people to learn. Instead we simply keep repeating traditional methods. The field of science-based education methods is still in its infancy, but there’s already enough to suggest that a lot of our methods are not very effective, and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
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Sleepwalking and critical thinking

Some weeks ago I hurt myself sleepwalking when I wandered into the shower in the middle of the night. I remember not knowing where I was. I felt confused and frightened. Then I fell and hit my head on the tile, gashing my forehead, and woke up.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen evidence a handful of times that I must have been sleepwalking in a fairly benign way, such as lights left on that I’d turned out the night before. On one occasion, I started to take off for a drive in the middle of the night and backed into a parked car. These incidents have been mildly or very unsettling. They make you wonder about what else is going on in your brain that you aren’t aware of.

Back in college, I enjoyed listening to a comedy album by Firesign Theatre titled Everything You Know Is Wrong. Earlier this week I checked out the first few minutes on in video form on YouTube, and verified that it still seems funny and disconcerting. The title has rattled around in my head for decades now ike a verbal Escher drawing, impossible either to forget or resolve. Lately it has seemed to me increasingly resonant as I’ve read more about neuroscience and consciousness. It’s inherently interesting, at least to me, and by moments I think it could lead toward a fuller, better understanding and a happier life. But if Everything I Know Is Wrong, this could also be wrong.

Speaking of sleepwalking, last month’s Scientific American had a somewhat sensationalistic but still interesting article on recent sleep research by James Vlahos titled The Case of the Sleeping Slayer. As you’d expect, it describes some violent and tragic cases, such as persons who commit murder while asleep, and also describes a new theory about the nature of sleep.

According to Vlahos, sleep is not a whole-brain phenomenon, but rather “a scattered, bottom-up process. ‘The new paradigm views sleep as an emergent property of the collective output of smaller functional units within the brain,” according to James Krueger of Washington State University. Krueger and other researchers think that individual parts of the brain “go to sleep at different times around the clock depending on how much they have been taxed recently.” What we think of as sleep (stillness, closed eyes, slackened muscles) happens when most of the neurons are in the sleep condition. Apparently parts of the brain may be snoozing without our looking like that.

There’s good evidence that other animals have modular sleeping habits. Vlahos’s article notes that dolphins sleep with half of heir brain at a time and keep an eye open for the non-sleep part. I’ve also read that birds also rest their brains in this modular way so they can always keep an eye out for predators. The theory seems promising. I occasionally note waking behaviours in myself, like forgetting where I parked, that could be explained by the partial wakefulness approach. It would explain not only sleepwalking, but other odd behavior, like people who sit on airplanes without reading anything.

When I get to thinking about thinking, I sometimes have flashbacks to the my days as a freshman at Oberlin College, where amidst the midwestern corn fields I got a hard blast of serious philosophy and critical thinking about social issues. It would be an understatement to say it was humbling. The air was dense with intense ideas. No matter how hard I worked, I usually had the feeling there was a lot I was missing, along with the feeling that some of my fellow students were getting a lot more. But by moments I felt real excitement as I wrestled with an idea and managed to pin it.

In retrospect, I think that learning the skill of wrestling with challenging ideas was more significant than any particular idea. A significant amount of what I learned was eventually superseded by new and better understandings. An example: we all took Freud seriously as a scientist, but now do not consider him as such.

But my teachers drilled into me the habit of testing an unfamiliar concept rather than simply swallowing it. It’s related to the scientific method in its insistence on evidence and logic, and its use of thought experiments. This habit of mind is sometimes called critical thinking. Once you start doing it, you tend to think it’s the best way to think.

My liberal arts education inspired me to be curious and to explore new ideas. But to some extent it may also have led me down the garden path. My recent reading in neuroscience and evolutionary biology has called into question some of my deeply held beliefs about the power of reason. It’s exciting, though: Its helping me understand various oddities about my own subjective experience and the observable lives of others.

If this sounds interesting, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. You may recall that I wrote about this book some months back; I’ve been re-reading it and getting more out of it. Haidt, a professor at University of Virginia, (my law school alma mater) has a style that is accessible and friendly, but he challenges our usual was of thinking about thinking. The heart of his message is at odds with most of what I learned in my undergraduate years and have mostly assumed ever since.

There are a lot of big ideas in Haidt’s book, but probably the biggest is that the primary driver of our behavior is not rational conscious thought, but rather our unconscious system of feeling and emotion. It’s the system that tells us quickly what needs to be done. (Freud was right in guessing that there was subconscious, but he didn’t figure out much about what it did.) Haight compares our moral intuitions to an elephant, and the rational mind to the rider of the elephant. The rider developed to serve the elephant. The elephant usually goes where it wants to go, although the much-less-powerful rider can influence the elephant. This understanding of our nature leads Haidt to focus closely on the nature of our moral perceptions and beliefs.

Some of Haidt’s research relates to differences in moral systems among different communities. In one study, he used a questionnaire with narratives intended to invoke disgust (like incest and cruelty), but structured to defy an easy explanation for the disgust (no one was hurt). In the face of such dumbfounding problems, people came up with explanations for their feelings — but the explanations didn’t make much sense. This suggests that some of what our reasoning mind is doing is pretending to understand things it doesn’t, and making up post hoc rationalizations for feelings that start elsewhere.

Haidt contends that emotions are a kind of cognition — intuitive, rather than rational, but not inferior to reason. Intuitive processes are essential to our lives; we couldn’t possibly reason about the hundreds of decisions we make every day. We like or dislike things instantly and decisively, and adjust our behavior without noticing the process. Our conscious reasoning processes are along for the ride, and only get involved with explaining our behavior when there’s some anomaly or challenge.

Another theme of Haidt’s book relates to human cooperation. He observes that we are the best species in the animal kingdom at cooperating outside kinship groups. Haidt investigates this from an evolutionary perspective. In the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we had to form effective groups in order to defendant against predators and find food. This involved development of intuitive cognitive skills, including the ability to easily track the emotions of other human beings.

Haidt suggests thinking about the most successful human groups not just as collections of individuals, but as superorganisms. Humans have evolved the ability by moments to lose their individuality and merge with a group, whether it be hunters, warriors, or dancers. Some of our peak moments come when we lose ourselves in such groups.

Looking at ourselves as having two natures, individual and group members, explains some of our apparent contradictions, such as how we can be both deeply selfish and deeply altruistic. Looking at emotions as driving reasoning explains a lot of political behavior, not to mention personal decisions that are from a rational standpoint inexplicable. It might even help us avoid some bad decisions.