Thursday, March 22, 2012

Irrational Exuberance

Are you optimistic, hopeful about the future? It turns out you are not alone; roughly 80% of the population expects things to get better. The reason? You’re biased.

Below I offer a 19-minute explanatory video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).
Why are we so terrible at predicting what will make us happy? How do we maintain such stalwart optimism about our future in the face of so many modern threats?

Psychologists have long been aware that most people maintain an often irrationally positive outlook on life. Now it looks as though optimism may, in fact, be crucial to our existence. But does unrealistic optimism also threaten it as well?

Acclaimed neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s experiments and research at The Social Brain Project in cognitive science have shed new light on the biological basis of optimism, and she visits the RSA to take an in-depth look at how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails.
As a Skeptic, I find optimism (or pessimism, for that matter) equally disquieting, particularly if either position is based on incorrect or biased assumptions. For me, I would much rather deal with the facts of a situation; this gives me a more accurate basis on which to act or proceed and thereby expect a more optimal outcome. I have long felt that religious belief is popular because it affords people an optimistic viewpoint regardless of the realities of one’s situation.

But our media and culture are often bombarded with optimistically appearing messages. Over the last month, for example, media reports that the Consumer price index rose 0.2% or home sales rose 3% or unemployment dropped 2% leave the implication that these trends are linear and will continue their positive progression. In fact these figures rise and fall with regularity – precisely what statistics of these measures routinely do.

A reported drop in unemployment does not explain how many people have permanently given up looking for work, how many have returned to work at much lower wages. The underlying concept of "productivity" actually equates to more products or services using fewer people and/or at lower cost. Less people accomplishing more does not bode well for an increasing population all wishing to thrive and prosper.

Still I speak with friends who just assume that things will be getting better; housing will rebound, employment will rally. And in the short run, at least,they probably are correct.

Maybe it’s just me, but in the grand scope of things I don’t see things getting better. As I have often repeated in this blog, I believe my generation has seen the best times Man has, and ever will, on this planet. The truth is the middle class has shrunk, college graduates are increasingly finding it difficult to earn a decent living, and the tenor of political discourse makes me feel like there are those among eager to return society back to the 19ths century.

During a recent exchange with one of my commenters I came across this quotation: "You believe easily that which you hope for earnestly." – Terence 185–159 BC

I believe Terence's simple statement more than adequately sums up the conclusions drawn from Sharot's research at the Social Brain Project.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Angry (or Fearful) White Men

I am always interested in why we humans perceive and respond to the world the way we do. How is it that our brains are comfortable with attaching significance to one set of facts, yet conversely be dismissive (or even ignorant) of contradictory information?

No where do these perceptual differences appear so pronounced (or have such effect directly on our lives) than in the political arena. Here we have candidate Rick Santorum stating with absolute certainty that Global Climate Change is a “hoax” or that a college education essentially amounts to nothing more than Liberal indoctrination. The latter a remarkably absurd statement coming from a religious adherent … religion quite literally wrote the Book on indoctrination!

Liberals certainly are not immune to thinking errors or political gaffs, but why do we associate the prevalence of apparent rational-less ideology so strongly with Conservatives? It sometimes seems that Conservatives are almost living in their own separate reality.

Recent research, it turns out, is revealing that this may indeed be the case. A multitude of psychological studies reveal that Conservatives tends to hold more of a “defensively based” ideology; or more to the point, Conservatives view political issues on an emotional level within a context of threat.

I recently read a news article suggesting that the GOP party establishment is attempting to encourage their candidates to shift the campaign focus less on threatening and fear-inducing commentary and instead more toward what the party visions as their platform for the future. Indeed, the 20-some odd public debates seem to be all about demonizing Obama and each other rather than laying a foundation for sound governance. The GOP's menacing portrayals regarding social issues such as gay marriage, access to contraceptives and religion in politics, appear to be running headlong into a wall not shared by most Americans... even among many other Conservative voters.

The data in these studies show that Conservatives tend to have strong adverse reactions when presented with negative images. "The aversive in life is more physiologically and cognitively tangible to some people and they tend to gravitate to the political right."[1]

Liberals, on the other hand, appeal more to an open, exploratory philosophy; trying things out and seeking multiple and contradictory information in comparison. Liberals feel less visceral responses to stimuli because they question whether it is true or if there may be another different or more complex explanation. This philosophic approach has the effect of dispelling fear by considering other possible information.

I notice this fear-based response to topical issues is common among strong religious adherents as well. Evangelicals, who tend to view issues in stark black-and-white terms generally tend to also be Conservative in their thinking. For these folks, belief in god is based on fear of reprisal (hell) for not following the rules, fear of death, even fear of being ostracised by one's peers, all of which plays into acceptance of dogma, or comfortable rationalism, to assuage the threatening consequences.

Back on the political spectrum, this is probably why unsubstantiated, not clearly defined and scary adages such as “redistribution of the wealth”, “Socialism”, “entitlement society”, and “Big Government” to name but a few, seem to resonate as somehow meaningful to Conservative minds.

The down side of acknowledging this theory, regarding the psychology of fear and belief, has the discouraging implication that it may be difficult or impossible break through to minds which appear to be "hard wired" to view the world through the context of fear or threat.

To these folks, as Stephen Colbert has suggested: "The truth has a Liberal bias".


1. "The Left and the Right: Physiology, Brain Structure and Function, and Attentional Differences", Chris Mooney, The Intersection (, Feb. 28, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

Deja Vous all over again

In their pandering to sway the voting public to their side and opposing granting another four more years to President Obama, the Republican candidates are campaigning on a dangerous position of "saber-rattling" with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As I mentioned in my previous post regarding how Conservatives rely mainly on fear as a motivation, they are attempting to position themselves as (macho) brash enough to stand up to Iran’s nuclear ambitions versus Obama’s more (wimpy) calculating and realistic stance. Well after all, as Obama has orchestrated the removal of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the country needs a new Boogieman to rally and the frighten the gullible voter.

To further this objection, Iran is being presented as an irrational rogue state, crazed with idealism and poised to strike Israel before the paint is even dry the moment their new nukes roll off the assembly line. Whoa, now just hold on a moment says, Joint Chief of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey who recently came under fire from Congressman Tom Price (R- Georgia) when the general said “Iran is a rational actor… the alternative is that we attribute to them [that] their actions are so irrational they have no basis of planning. The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality, that’s a very dangerous thing for us to do.” In other words, the General was warning the Conservatives that Iran is not acting in a manner which indicates that they are completely oblivious to the consequences of their ambitions, policies and actions. The Conservatives, of course, are not happy the general is not doing a War Dance and want him fired. Video Here.

I recently listened again to a decade old broadcast of NPR’s This American Life, “Why We Fight”, specifically Act III of the broadcast titled "Realism 101" which was an analysis of the reasons behind our ramp-up to go to war against Iraq and take out Saddam Hussein. My friends, listening to this broadcast was “deja vous all over again”originally broadcast back in December 2002, I was overwhelmed how closely history may be poised to repeat itself.

The main impetus for whipping up public frenzy for going to war against Iraq was we needed to stop Saddam Hussein BEFORE he got his hands on nuclear weapons. Sound familiar? The incessant drumbeat was that Hussein was an irrational unpredictable megalomaniac who would do anything without regard for the consequences. Actually Hussein cooperated with UN inspectors allowing them into his country and made any number of concessions apparently fully fearing he would be invaded by the US. Actually I think is cooperation pissed the Bush Administration off even more... the result, as we say, is history.

Interviewed in the This American Life segment, Kenneth Pollack, author of the book “The Threatening Storm: the Case for Invading Iraq” spells out in greater depth the (real) reasons for the Bush Administration's eagerness in invading Iraq, among them:
  1. Taking Iraq was doable, his army was no match for the might of the U.S. military.
  2. The belief that Arab cultures respect the show of force and doing so would change the political climate in the Middle East.
  3. Taking Iraq would allow the U.S. to establish bases in Iraq and thereby allowing us to close the Prince Sultan Air Base inside Saudi Arabia. (which did close in 2003).
  4. Establishing a friendly government in the region (Iraq) would then appear to promote other U.S. interests in the area including:
    a.) Reduce the dependence on obtaining oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
    b.) Imply tacit support to pro-Democracy movements in Iran, Egypt and cause the government of Syria to fall.
    c.) Place additional pressure on Saudi Arabia and Egypt to crack down on Islamic extremism.
I remind you, this interview was conducted in 2002 before we attacked Iraq. Applying 20/20 hindsight, how many of these predictions have come true?

Fast-forward again to today where John McCain just recently grilled Defense Secretary Leon Panetta regarding the Administration’s reluctance to take an aggressive military position regarding the “threat” posed by Iran and involve ourselves in the conflict in Syria. McCain, in criticizing Panetta’s admonition that we proceed cautiously before committing American lives, said “... let me tell you what’s wrong with your statement... you don’t mention American leadership”.

Of ALL people, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war McCain should know better. Idealistic posturing regarding idealism and our nation’s honor can, as it has in the past, been paid for with the lives, the limbs and the blood of real people.

As for the GOP candidate's disgusting posturing regarding this extremely serious topic, they can well afford their nonchalant rhetoric… none of those Bozos are the Commander In Chief – yet!
I highly recommend you listen to the short 19-minute segment of link posted here. I think you might agree that we are poised on the brink of having history repeat itself.

Audio Link:
This American Life, Why We Fight, Act III: Realism 101.
Runtime: 19 min
After composing this entry, Meir Dagan, former chief of Israel's Mossad, was interviewed on last night on CBS 60 Minutes. For the last 30 years Dagan has been specifically charged with counteracting Iran's nuclear weapon development. Dagan stated that Iran is capable of acting rationally and fully understands the consequences of any potential actions they may consider. Dagan emphasized in the strongest terms that military action against Iran is ill advised at this time. View the CBS interview here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Poltics of Fear

My wife and I recently had dinner with two other couples at their home. During the course of the evening the discussion turned political. At one point one of the husbands asked if we would go around the table and reveal who we would likely vote for in 2012. The three wives and I indicated we would likely again vote for Obama; one of the guys was leaning toward Ron Paul. The third guy said he had voted for Obama in 2008 but he would now vote for whoever the Republican nominee was. Clearly the character, experience, or the political platform of the final Republican candidate did not matter whatsoever to him; his vote will simply be “Not Obama”.

During the course of the discussion, Third Guy dropped a few key phrases such as: “Socialism”, “redistribution of the wealth”, “entitlement reform” and finally how Obama’s policies were blatantly “anti-business”. Stereotypical (and mythical) opinions regarding Welfare, Unemployment and Food Stamps were also bandied about. Having personal career experience in administering those programs, I was quick to point out their thinking errors… though I had a sneaking suspicion my facts did little dislodge any already congealed ideas in their minds.

I’m not the best at thinking on my feet and, of course, one often thinks of more salient responses long after the fact. Recalling the previous night’s conversation, the nagging suggestion that Third Guy was a regular consumer of Conservative Talk Media came to mind. Given the opportunity to go back in time to the previous evening, I might have offered the following in reply:

As in publicly run institutions for the greater good such as public schools, municipal water supplies, air traffic control? Third Guy had already revealed he was waiting until he reached 65 to retire so he would not be without medical coverage… you know, in order to quality for that Socialist of all social programs – Medicare.

Redistribution of the wealth:
Is he talking about fearing what he thinks WILL happen; or is he completely ignorant that we have already seen the LARGEST REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH IN OUR NATION’S HISTORY? I am talking about the monumental transfer of ownership from the Middle Class to the upper few percent. There is no shortage of data to confirm this has happened already.

Obama is “anti-business”:
Really? I am curious if the employees of GM, from the highest compensated CEO down to the assembly line, think the government guaranteed LOAN he orchestrated to keep the auto maker from closing, is anti-business. (Conservatives dismiss this as him merely to pay tribute to Unions) The Obama administration even facilitated millions of taxpayer dollars investment in (non union) solar technology company Solyndra, only to have their corporate management squander Our investment and declare bankruptcy. Let’s make this abundantly clear: this private company dropped the ball, not the government.

I find it discouraging to attempt to have any sort of meaningful discussion with people who have surrendered their thinking for mindless parroting of simplistic, and often outright false, propaganda from Conservative handlers. When faced with such doltishness, facts unfortunately become completely irrelevant.

I'll leave you with this little gem I stumbled across on Reddit:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Power to the People

While we were in Hawaii we flirted with the idea of buying a second home, maybe a condo on the Big Island. In the real estate ads we noted several references to properties that had photovoltaic panels.

Later over dinner with friends of ours who live on the Big Island we asked about the prevalence of solar panels. They revealed that their electric bills were extremely high; averaging around $600 per month. This last Christmas when he had holiday lights on their house, the electric bill rose to $800. Homes in Hawaii generally do not require heat or air conditioning, so we are talking about just powering lights, refrigeration and hot water.

Hawaiians who can afford it have been availing themselves of State and Federal energy programs to subsidize installation of solar panels and photovoltaic panels on their homes. Another person we were talking with revealed that his photovoltaic conversion cost $47,000 a third, of which, was his cost after government subsidies. At these electric rates, he expected his photovoltaic installation to pay for itself in reduced electric bills in roughly five years.

As chance would have it, the very day following our conversation, an article appeared in the West Hawaii Today newspaper detailing that, due to the increase in home photovoltaic panel installations, Hawaiian Electric Co. has lost significant revenue. As a result, the HEC would be raising it’s rates to make up for the loss in revenue. In other words, sell less electricity at higher cost. Renewable energy, it seems, is bad for business and the rate payer is expected to pick up the tab.

As I outlined in my two previous posts, the trend is clear: Corporate America will continue to find ways to suck more of our individual income and give us less in return.

“Hawaii solar savings spark higher electric bills”, West Hawaii Today, Feb.6, 2012.