Wednesday, October 17, 2012

PoliSci

For those of you who don't know, I've decided to channel my passion for politics into a PhD. I've gone back to grad school, folks, and I'm looking at five more years studying politics. Yikes and/or hooray.

I'm primarily interested in political ideology and how people come to believe what they believe. I want to know why people believe in completely separate (and conflicting) versions of reality. I live in a totally different world than Glenn Beck, and I need to understand how and why that happened. I just don't think that the division we're seeing in society today is solvable until we understand why it exists. That answer, for me, lies in three places: frame analysis, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

In political science, frame analysis looks at how political issues are presented, especially in the media, and the effects of this presentation on belief. For example, Jamie Druckman at Northwestern (my academic idol: http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/) studies whether people change their political opinions depending on how information is presented to them. If someone gives you news about immigration, for instance, and they first tell you a story about the hardships and eventual triumph of an immigrant, are you more likely to be sympathetic to immigration issues? Well, it turns out you are. And vice versa for negative messaging. This kind of understanding is critical in an age where most people form their political beliefs by watching TV or reading online blogs. How we talk about issues matters. A lot.

This kind of research is what first piqued my interest in cognitive psychology. If we believe certain things based on how issues are presented to us, on what basis do we make political decisions? If our entire understanding of politics is based on information that may be framed in a way to make us believe a certain thing, even if it isn't true, how do we make political decisions? To this end, I am interested in looking at the heuristics (the cognitive "shortcuts" our brains take) involved in political decision-making. It's fascinating to me that rather than weighing the pros and cons of a situation in order to make decisions, which is what we all think we do, people rely on cognitive shortcuts. We make decisions based on the information available to us, based on what we already believe.We make decisions using the automatic functions of our brains, not the deliberative functions. In fact, research shows that our brains actually make decisions up to six seconds before we are even aware of a decision being made!

And this line of research leads me to neuroscience. Ultimately, I want to look inside the brains of people as they process political information, have political discussions, and make political decisions. What's going on up there when we watch Jon Stewart, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or read the New York Times? Depending on our political persuasion, what information are we processing? How does emotion affect which pieces of information we remember (and thus what we can access in the future)? What do our brains look like when we argue with people about politics? Can we map the neural connections involved in political ideology and political decision-making? Do the brains of low-information voters use the same processes as high-information voters? I want to see inside.

So, there you have it. That's basically what I'd like to work on for the foreseeable future. I'm also incredibly interested in open source science and information sharing, so I'll probably write more as I learn more... Stay tuned. This is going to take forever.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Some thoughts on Mitt Romney's speech, which I wrote down as he gave it...

  • Golly gee, Mitt, it sure is swell here in the 1950s.
  • What a dick--he's using a teleprompter!
  • Freedom theme? Really?
  • These white people chant "USA!" with disturbing intensity (and atrocious rhythm).
  • Mitt Romney attempting to connect with the middle class by telling stories of hardship. Really?
  • Going to the moon = awesome! Funding NASA...not so much.
  • Let's just love one another more to solve our problems. (But not those people. They're brown/Muslim/feminists/from any other country/speaking another language/learning from books, etc...)
  • Attempting feminism now. Really?
  • Cried four times. Might have been overkill. Try just one next time...
  • Finance is not public policy. Business does not equal government.
  • Theme of the RNC this year seems to be: "We're old and disturbingly patriotic!"
  • Statistic quoted: more than one in six Americans living in poverty. Tell me more about how cutting social programs will help that...
  • "Energy independent" = fuck the environment
  • "School choice" = fuck public education
  • MILITARY!!! WAR!!! IRAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BE AFRAID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OBAMA! SATAN! OBAMA! SATAN! GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! USA! USA! USA! USA!
  • "Let's just come together as a country, guys. Why can't we all just be friends?"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Disagree with Me, Please.*

* Just make sure you do it with facts.

For the past few years, I’ve discovered that the only way I can become a better person is if I continue to challenge my own assumptions about the world. My husband’s 94-year-old granddaddy tells us all the time, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and he’s right. If I believe only what I think, I’m missing out on a wide range of knowledge and experience that I haven’t encountered before. That’s why I really enjoy learning: I love testing my assumptions and walking away with more information. I love honing my ideas about the world with new information. I love change and the beautiful, awe-inspiring feeling of discovery.

I even appreciate being wrong. I can’t say I love the feeling of social embarrassment or the ridicule that comes along with being proven wrong, but I certainly appreciate the course correction that follows. And course correction absolutely must follow! If I’m wrong, why would I hold on to an incorrect belief simply to save face or simply because I’ve always believed something to be true? In the face of evidence to the contrary, I must change my opinion on the subject. End of.

Now, as an avid follower of all things political, I enjoy having a serious policy discussion on what to do about a specific problem. And I enjoy talking to people who disagree with me. That kind of productive discourse goes something like this: given that the problem is x, I offer solution y, you offer solution z, and we weigh the pros and cons of each. We may not even agree in the end, but the beauty is that we’ve identified a problem and at least two potential solutions. That is productive. That is the first step toward progress.

In the US today, this kind of productive discourse in the public sphere is being degraded for private gain. I don’t think many people realize how their opinions are shaped and manipulated by lobbyists, marketers, political handlers, and sensationalist journalism. Billions of dollars are spent every single year in this country to make sure that we don’t talk about some of the huge problems we’re facing, just because the solutions to these huge problems would be inconvenient to private interests. So, rather than starting from a common base of understanding, this hijacked political discourse has us debating x itself. We are now somehow in disagreement over what is a problem and what is not. When I see that x is a problem, but millions of dollars have been spent to convince people that x is not, in fact, a problem, how are we supposed to have a dialogue? How can we solve government deadlock when many Americans aren’t even aware of the facts up for discussion? In the words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” How tragic for democracy.

But here’s the rub: it is critical that we start talking about what’s really happening because what’s really happening is fucking terrifying. We have real problems in the real world that need to be solved.

With facts.

Through honest, open discussion.

Without the corruptive influence of money.

Without the mind-numbing sensationalist media frenzy.

Just you and me—agreeing or disagreeing—with the facts laid out on the table for all to see.

Otherwise, we’re fucked.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Crazytown

Is it just me?

It isn't, right? I can't be the only person who feels like something's going terribly wrong here. Because (not to be hyperbolic or anything) I feel like the human race is driving itself off a massive cliff into Crazytown. 

I mean, is this what it felt like right before the Dark Ages? Maybe magnified in intensity due to our global connection to each other and the fact that there are more of us now... But don't you have the sense that people in contemporary society are incredibly apathetic and lazy about their own information? Careless, even reckless, with the future? What must it have felt like right before the fall of Rome, right before so much knowledge was lost, when Europe regressed into an anti-intellectual, paranoid, ├╝ber religious, economically stratified, ethnocentric, xenophobic society for like a thousand years...? Am I feeling it? And if the US doesn't want to end up like Europe (as our politicians are so fond of saying at us) then perhaps we should take some notes from their history books, eh? Maybe stop this train before it gets away from us?

I look around me and all I see is self-obsession. On the individual level, we're obsessed with our own stories. My job, my house, my car, my wife, my kids... On a national scale, we're obsessed with being on the right side of our own artificial boundaries. USA is number 1 motherfuckers !!!!!1! And perhaps fundamentally, on what seems to be a universal scale, I am bewildered by and disgusted with our profound arrogance at simply being born human. We're so proud to be human, so proud of human "accomplishment," especially when we compare it condescendingly to the puny accomplishments of other lifeforms. We're just so certain that we belong on top of everything. We are the Most Important Species. Just look at how awesome our stuff is! I mean, our religions say that we are created in the image of a god! How self-serving of us to imagine such a vaunted status for ourselves!

I guess I think the best part about this kind of human-centric worldview is that the people who understand the least about what literally makes us human are the very people who are proudest to be so. The people who are the least likely to be involved in the actual science of human innovation and technology are the ones who are loudest when we dare suggest (based on centuries of scientific research) that humans aren't just naturally superior to other forms of life.

I'm not saying all of this because I'm angry; I'm really not. I'm just truly dumbfounded. We have figured out so much over the span of human existence, but there are people in this world who don't want to learn anything about it? And people who actively campaign against it? How can that be? What kind of culture have we built ourselves that it is more important to seek wealth and beauty than it is to seek knowledge?! How is it that we're not out there teaching as many people as possible everything we know so that they can then go out and discover even more?! Why would we want to believe anything other than what can be proved? I just don't get it.

I heard a quote the other day that really struck a chord with me. It was just some guy on a travel show making a random comment about ancient paintings in an Aboriginal cave in Australia, and he said, "the more you look, the more you see." But I think that should be the new human motto.

Let's continue seeking, learning, discovering. Let's make truth our goal, no matter how inconvenient it may turn out to be. Please, I beg you. Go out and find something to investigate. What interests you? Politics? Volcanoes? Insects? Cancer? Poverty? Flowers? Mars? Find it. Then look closer. Be willing to give up your preconceived notions and find something you weren't expecting. Open your mind and read what the experts (not the journalists) in your field are saying. Discover a new way of looking at it. Use your past experiences to shape what you study, and allow what you study to shape you.

Please do this. And then encourage others to do this. Do it for yourself. Do it for all of us. So that we don't end up driving ourselves right off that cliff.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Big Questions

How and why is there a universe?

If god created the universe, who created that god? If your answer is “god is self-creating” or “it isn’t necessary to create god” or “god just exists”, then why do we need a god in order to explain the creation of the universe? Can’t it simply be that the universe is self-creating or that the universe just exists?

And, at this point, isn’t it more likely that the answer to the question “how and why is there a universe?” is “we don’t really know (yet)”?

From what we do know of pre-human and human history, our ancestors started thinking about the larger universe and the question of existence once they invented civilization. In other words, as soon as our need to hunt and gather for subsistence was replaced by agriculture and cities and organizational structures, our generous brains were free to think about more than just survival.

The first thing we need to realize here is that physiologically we are still the exact same species we were when we first started cultivating the land and using primitive tools. We are still humans, just as our ancestors were when they invented wheels. I think that’s something that gets lost when we talk about our great human intellect: it hasn’t changed. We still use the same methods in the same basic brains to come to ever-sharpening conclusions. And one thing that human brains do very well, then as now, is imagining future scenarios so that we might plan for them. So, when humans started freeing up time in their schedules to sit and think, they started asking these larger questions about the meanings behind the things in our observable reality. Why is it this way and not that? What is this stuff? Who am I? And these early humans came to some very interesting conclusions. Our imaginations paired up with our built-in need to prepare for the future, and early humans invented science and philosophy.

What is science? Put simply, science is evidence. Just as Law and Order needs evidence to put a killer in prison, human ideas need evidence in order to make meaningful statements about reality. But science is also corroboration, collaboration. To put a killer in prison, you need corroborating evidence. It isn’t enough to say that the accused killer was near the scene at the time of the murder; if Hollywood is any guide, you also need to provide other kinds of evidence such as the murder weapon, fingerprints, an eye-witness, probable cause, etc. You have to prove to the jury by providing multiple forms of evidence that the accused is the killer in order to get a sentence. Just as you have to prove to the world by providing multiple forms of evidence that a specific idea is true. That isn’t to say that science (or a trial) is infallible. (Historically, it’s been quite the opposite.) But in science, we are constantly going back over the evidence, asking new questions, finding new evidence, and trying to refine our ideas in order to get closer to defining reality.

So what is philosophy? I like to think of philosophy as looking at what we know so far (science), putting it all together, and finding new questions to ask. And if we look at what we know right now and ask ourselves what we need or want to know next, our questions will always be based entirely on current knowledge. We cannot ask a question about something we haven’t yet discovered. So, what we put into our minds (what we learn and already know) affects directly what can come out. In all times, in all places, human beliefs and ideas will always be limited by what we already know. This means both (1) that philosophy necessarily changes as we learn more and (2) it, like science, is not infallible.

Because science and philosophy are co-dependent, sometimes philosophies need to change in order to accommodate new evidence. When we all learn that something is true—the world is flat, for example—we tend to believe it. When new evidence surfaces that this belief could be wrong—the idea that you could sail around the world and land where you started, for example—people tend to be skeptical. And skepticism in science is good! Skepticism is how we ask for more evidence. When we’re skeptical, we are the unconvinced jury, and we demand proof. But skepticism must also yield to the evidence or it risks becoming cynicism, or blind disbelief.

And that brings me to my main point: as evidence mounts for particular ideas, the likelihood increases of those ideas being true. Gravity is one such idea. We’ve gathered lots and lots of evidence and refined our thinking about gravity to the point that we can now make good predictions about reality based on our understanding of gravity. We’ve launched people and satellites into space based on our understanding of gravity, so we can observe that it seems to be working. That doesn’t mean we won’t come to understand even more about gravity in the future; it just means that, for now, we have a workable idea that gravity exists and works in a specific way. We also have a workable idea that all life on Earth evolved from less complex life forms, including us. And we’ve created flu vaccines and pesticides and DNA testing and loads of other useful everyday tools based on our understanding of evolution, so that idea seems to be working too. And there are countless other examples about how ideas get closer and closer to describing reality and solving problems more effectively the more we learn. We have a very robust understanding of the universe now. And because we know more, we can ask more precise questions. This is the cycle of science and philosophy that is constantly refining, constantly updating, constantly correcting.

This is why I am such a huge advocate for science and evidence-based problem solving. When we practice skepticism and demand proof, when we then adopt new ideas into our philosophies and allow evidence to shape our worldviews, the world opens up. In other words, when we learn more, we ask more and better questions. It’s an exhilarating ride of discovery and curiosity, asking and answering, that keeps scientists going.

But what’s happening today in the United States, as elsewhere, is an erosion of scientific understanding and a proliferation of cynicism in society. Science is becoming so complex that our outdated educational system isn’t keeping up with the need to understand it. Fewer and fewer people understand the science behind the tools they use in everyday life. And everyday life has suffered because of it. How can we make policies to mitigate damage in the future if the population doesn’t understand the evidence?

So that brings me to my final thought: it’s time to change the zeitgeist. If our questions have gotten larger, to the point that we may be able to one day actually answer the question “how and why is there a universe?”, we need to educate ourselves accordingly! Scientific literacy is a must if we want to answer the big questions. Scientific literacy is a must if we want to be able to solve the problems we’ve created! We must make it a social imperative to teach people how to think critically, how to employ the scientific method, how to ask questions, how to weigh evidence. And we must teach people how to let go of old philosophies when all evidence is to the contrary. It’s time for the Renaissance, Part II (which I'd really, really prefer to Idiocracy).

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120312.html

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pushing Pause

I think it's time to suspend this blog for a bit. It's been a diary of sorts when I needed to explode about policy issues, politics, and ideology. But I think it's gotten a bit too snarky, a bit too much of a rant. It's less of a helping hand and more of a brick to the face, which I think I'll leave to Bill Maher... There are certainly times and places for rants, and I may come back every once in a while to vent, but I've come to think of ranting as the easy way out. It's time for me to get back to the real work of social theory and policy analysis.

To that end, I'm working on a more science-driven project with my husband, which we'll launch soon. I'll post here when it's up and running. In the meantime, I hope you liberals are out there kicking proverbial ass and making babies to combat the idiocracy that surely cometh!

Peace and love,
The 'Stache

Friday, March 30, 2012

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

I think the saddest parts about American life are the ways we sell ourselves out and then make selling out a virtue. I can't tell you how many times I've heard Americans say "you're only worth what someone will pay you." As if that were true, as if someone who owns capital and the means of production is "worth" more simply by virtue of owning, as if someone else should be able to decide how much you are "worth", as if this could possibly justify the inequity we see in contemporary American society…

I think it's incredibly sad what the rest of us are doing to ourselves by adopting the values of our bourgeois oppressors, buying into the argument that humans are naturally selfish, and meekly accepting their winner-takes-all worldview. For me, the ultimate shame of human society is that we have placed monetary value on ourselves and the resources we need in order to survive. It makes me sick to think that people are born into this world who will always have a difficult time merely surviving because others have placed value on and claimed ownership over things which should be freely available to all.

This is why capitalism is so utterly destructive: it has a never-ending need to generate profit for the owners. We take for granted that certain people own the land, own the resources, own the things we all need in order to eat and drink and live. But why is this a given? When you step back and really look at how we, an intelligent group of apes, have ordered ourselves in society, there is nothing inevitable about it. Society did not have to evolve as it has, to the point that a few hundred people out of billions own almost everything there is to own. And it is changeable. And it must be changed.

We tell our children (and we were told as children) that in the United States, we can be anything we want to be. But what a lie to tell! In the United States, we've actually convinced ourselves that dissatisfaction is "hard work." We think of work itself in terms of money. Can't we just all step back and think about our jobs? Think why the hell am I doing this? What purpose does this serve? Just because I wasn't born into a family that owns land or large amounts of capital wealth doesn't mean I have any less right to survive than the bourgeoisie. I am fully capable of work, I want to work. I just don't want to do a job that doesn't mean anything, doesn't provide a meaningful service, and doesn't solve any of the myriad problems we're currently facing as a planet. And that's what people who don't get the Occupy Movement or Karl Marx or David Harvey or sociology just don't understand. It's not about envy or jealousy. It's about equity. It's about life. It's about rethinking society itself. It's about stepping out of the rat race, getting off of the hamster wheel, and coming together to change a system and a society that is so horribly skewed.

We can start by redefining work itself. I don't want to sit for a living, doing menial tasks all day every day for someone else's pocketbook. That's not hard work, that's not perseverance, that's not earning my due. Doing meaningless tasks with the majority of my own time so that someone else can make money isn't hard at all. It's boring as hell and it's a waste of life! And this isn't how it has to be! I am worth more than anything anyone could possibly pay me because work shouldn't be about money. We need to decouple these terms. Work should be about real-world goals. Work should be doing something that needs to be done, something that both fills a need and satisfies. We need to coordinate with each other, stop taking for granted that work has to suck or be tedious, figure out what truly needs to be done, and do it! We already know what our problems are as a planet (and the only people who disagree on the problems themselves are selling something), so let's figure out what needs to be done, let's educate the masses, and let's solve them together!

I'm tired of hearing that social change is impossible or that I am too idealistic. Frankly, I'm tired of not hearing the utopian perspective in the media. Why should we wait until it all comes crashing down on our heads? Why should we wait to act, to change? Why can't we rekindle the spirit of the 60s and light our bras on fire again?

We can change, and we must.

Occupy Spring is coming.