The False Hope of Compromise

Researchers into how people organize their thoughts have discovered a strong correlation with political leaning. They use a simple test that goes as follows. Subjects are presented with three images: a scarf, a mitten, and a hand. Then they are asked which two objects are most closely related.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct modes of thought. Holistic thinking is oriented toward context, basing choices on situations and circumstances. Analytic thinking detaches objects from contexts and uses categorical rules. In this test, holistic thinkers choose the relational pairing — mittens are worn on the hand — while analytic thinkers choose the categorical pairing — the scarf and mitten are items of winter clothing. Which did you pick?

People tend to think holistically when they hold an interdependent, connected view of the self, emphasizing harmony over self-expression. Analytic thinkers believe in autonomy and self-direction, with the stress being on personal responsibility. Of course each person can and does switch between these modes of thought, although one usually dominates.

The correlation which this research has revealed is that liberals tend to think holistically while conservatives tend to be analytical. Moreover this divergence appears most strongly at the outer fringes in both groups.

This goes a long way toward explaining the different world views of each political camp and why there is constant misunderstanding between them. It is often asserted that their conflicts primarily stem from differing values, but this research seems to indicate that it is even more basic than that. It isn’t the conclusions by which they differ as much as how they reach them. They simply think differently. Both modes of thought are sound and practical, but in specific circumstances each group would believe that the other ignores realities that they find obvious.

We Agree

So, anyone expecting either convergence or compromise is unrealistic. This does happen, but in such cases each side is simply putting up with some of the other’s ill-informed beliefs for the sake of some greater good. There is actually no agreement at all. What is worse is that each such arrangement fails to build trust that might lead to further compromises.


Useless Presidential Campaigns

RUnutsIf you are not distracted by urban riots and Mideast crazies, you may have noticed that the political season is upon us. Pretty soon there will be a dozen or more Presidential hopefuls trying to grab the spotlight in the nightly news and omnipresent social media. Predictably, all will parrot familiar phrases that encapsulate their plans and platforms. But their campaign managers seem to be unfamiliar with a psychological phenomenon called semantic satiation.

This arcane term expresses a simple and well-known effect in which constant repetition of a term reduces it to meaningless jibberjabber in the ears of the listeners. Try it yourself. Say any familiar phrase over and over again quickly. Its meaning will disintegrate as you speak. The effect is supposed to be temporary, but only if the repetition stops.

So, endless repetitions of Republicans saying “no new taxes” and Democrats saying “income inequality” will shortly have no useful impact as the meaning just fades away. At least that is my prediction. What will be left of most campaign rhetoric? In most cases, certainly not concrete plans for the future by which we voters could make a sensible selection. I hope I am wrong.

Citizens United Strikes Again!


superpacWhile not yet an announced candidate for 2016, Jeb Bush is reportedly breaking new ground for how a campaign will be run. If he follows through, this will change things forever. His idea, widely reported in the press, is to delegate much of what campaign organizations traditionally do to his super PAC, Right to Rise. This will skirt very closely to the prohibition against coordination between a campaign and outside organizations, but with discipline he might pull it off.

In essence, the official campaign will concentrate on activities that require the direct participation of the candidate. Essentially anything else could be delegated, like phone banks, get out the vote operations, direct mail, TV advertising, etc. The advantage is money. The super PAC can raise unlimited cash from people, corporations, and advocacy groups, and its reporting requirements are illusory. The strictly limited campaign can then undertake activities that are less expensive. The difficulty is to avoid conflict between these parallel organizations and to present a cohesive message. However, from what I hear about the way staffing is planned, this has a real chance of succeeding. Law suits are likely but at the worst Bush can delay them in the already sluggish courts until their effects are moot.

This is the logical consequence of the Citizens United decision, which opened the spigots of unrestricted campaign money by corporations, unions, and other such associations. If it succeeds, others might try it this time but everyone will in 2020 and beyond. We will see campaigns run directly by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and the like. In a sense, this is more open and forthright than the current farcical masquerade that pretends that super PACs are independent expressions of citizen participation. But it also exposes Citizens United for what it does to our political system, and perhaps that might lead to reining it in. I hope so.

Search for Extraterrestrial Life

For decades now we have been actively searching for evidence of life not of Earthly origin. Our motivation is curiosity, both scientific and otherwise. As tools and techniques have improved, we are getting much closer to our goal, although failure to find life elsewhere would not be probative. It might mean that we aren’t looking in the right place or even that we haven’t recognized the signature of life because we are blinded by our preconceptions.

What is lagging in this effort is a serious analysis of the potential consequences of success. Scientific curiosity has ethical and practical limits. The search itself is probably harmless and is at worst a questionable investment of time and resources. But what if we find life, not just fossils of primordial life but actual living beings? It is very unlikely, some would say virtually impossible, that we would discover intelligent life where we have the current capacity to investigate. Anywhere within our solar system is within practical range, but none of the candidates seem likely habitats for evolved life. Beyond that the immensity of space and sparsity of viable habitats greatly limit feasible investigations. At best we might detect recognizable signatures of life, like the presence of free oxygen on a planet in the habitable zone. This would be intriguing but hardly definitive.

But our solar system harbors several candidates for simple life forms, most notably amongst Jupiter’s moons and even conceivably in subsurface Mars.


We could, and mostly likely will, mount unmanned probes to test these possibilities in the not too distant future. So, back to the question at hand. What if we find life? If we do, it will likely resemble familiar Earthly life in most respects. Why? Because that’s what we would be seeking. Sufficiently foreign life forms would be unrecognizable unless they walked up to our probe and knocked on its door. So, what would be likely consequences to us back on Earth?

Initially, I expect denial and outrage amongst some in the non-scientific community. Life elsewhere challenges many religious beliefs. Personally, I find that odd because surely God could create life anywhere and even divinely inspired scripture could have been deliberately tailored to the intellectual limitations of its receivers. Even for the non-religious, the existence of alien life can be frightening, even if it takes only simple forms. For one thing, we know that simple forms can evolve and that evolution may have occurred beyond our current detection capabilities. Is this a threat, if not now perhaps in the foreseeable future? A special concern is if our probe is sufficiently versatile that it can return samples to Earth for detailed investigation. Should we do this even if we can? What are the risks and are they acceptable for the benefit derived?

My point is that scientific investigation has a life of its own. Once it progresses sufficiently down a path with some evidence of success, stopping it may be very hard. So we should make a serious attempt to answer the questions now. I am no Luddite, but I do harbor concerns that we may not have yet evolved sufficiently to react sensibly to discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The Overprotected Child

cottonwoolkidsA new study shows that early exposure of children to peanuts makes it less likely that peanut allergy will develop later. This completely reverses current medical practice where children are protected from exposure until they are at least 3 years old. But isn’t it obvious? The way infants develop protective defenses is precisely by controlled exposure, either through inoculations or through diet. If you put an infant in a bubble it will grow into a defenseless adult.

The way that researchers came to perform the study was due to an interesting observation of Jewish children. In Israel, for dietary reasons I don’t understand, early exposure is the norm. But for Israeli Jews who have migrated to the UK where that is apparently not the practice, their children have far greater incidence of peanut allergy. Now these researchers have done a large and well-regarded clinical trial that confirms this effect is not confined to Jews. They are currently extending this to other types of food allergies.

Anecdotally, I have noticed that children of previous generations seem to have far fewer food allergies than is now common in the U.S. They were not protected from potentially adverse exposures because their parents weren’t warned that it was necessary.

I suspect that this is not the only way in which well-meaning protection has unanticipated adverse consequences. Both physical and psychological problems may result from the way we often restrain children’s play and interactions.

A Coronation Walk?

unopposedWhat if no one challenges Hillary for the nomination? These are early times, but running for President requires a long-term commitment to build the infrastructure, staff and commitments of people and money. The door for a serious contender will be open for no more than a few months, if that. So far, only a handful of weak opponents have timidly raised their hands, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT), and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. The other obvious possibilities are Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State and 2004 nominee John Kerry, and the great liberal hope, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. None seems to be making serious moves. So, it could happen.

The consequences are interesting. There would be no debates leading toward the nomination, unless Hillary decides to pull a Clint Eastwood and addresses an empty chair. Debates are big audience draws and give candidates an unequaled opportunity to make their case to the undecided and rally the troops This would be a sharp contrast to the Republicans who have the complete opposite problem, a plethora of hopefuls. Indeed they face real problems in organizing workable debates without appearing to have picked sides. The national news will predictably be filled with Republican events together with comments and speculations about their horse race. Hillary will have to fight just to be heard.

A tough primary season has contradictory consequences for the eventual winner. On the one hand, debating skills are honed, messages are sharpened, and there is time for recovery from the inevitable missteps. On the other, the candidate carries scars from the fight and reveals vulnerabilities to the opposition, while it is physically exhausting. Thus a coronation walk to the nomination is a mixed blessing. Moreover having only one target greatly simplifies the task of Republican candidates, who can tailor their message during the primary season toward the election to come.

A minor advantage is that Hillary would have the time and energy to pick her running mate very carefully. This has often not been the case for harried candidates and campaign staff, with the result being no help, at best, and quite possibly disaster. Who can forget George McGovern’s choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton in 1972? That lasted only 17 days before revelation of his depression problems forced the DNC to replace him with Sargent Shriver. Probably nothing could have helped McGovern anyway, but this mess surely didn’t.

One big advantage for Hillary would be finances. By all reports her campaign will be overflowing anyway, but not having to fight through tough primaries will preserve resources for the real fight to come. It is quite possible that her Republican opponent will be scraping the bottom of the barrel by then and have to spend scarce resources of time and energy rebuilding his bank account.

Homeland Insecurity

The recent incursion on the Capital lawn by an old gent flying a gyrocopter raises a troubling question. Was it handled properly and, if not, what should have been done? My underlying concern is beautifully captured by this cartoon.


An official involved admits that this reveals a hole in our defenses, but he hastened to add that their rules of engagement wouldn’t allow use of deadly force to prevent this kind of event. He pointed out that anyone could see that this was “just an old man” and that there was no visible evidence that he was carrying explosives or other ordnance. Further, he added, what if we shot him down and he really had explosives and blew up some nice tourist lady from Bakersfield?

angry_manTo say the least, this response troubles me! Osama bin Laden was an old man, and in fact he looked a bit like this pilot. Moreover, hiding bars of Semtex explosive or even a rocket launcher isn’t very hard. But not to worry, there was no sign on the gyrocopter saying “Death to America”. I think we are entirely too squeamish for our own good. Fear of hurting some deranged geriatric is no excuse for lax protection of our vital interests. And in any case, the next deranged geriatric might not be so inoffensive.

If IGTs (Islamic Gyrocopter Terrorists) still don’t concern you, how about small, undetectable drones? If I were an ISIS commander I would be ordering my minions to bone up on this technology pronto. Joking aside, this is going to happen. And we better hope that the first attack is on a small scale so that we can get serious about the electronic jamming technology that could be an effective defense.