Monday, July 25, 2011

Consciousness and Anxiety are Linked

Being Wrong, a new book by Kathryn Schulz, is an enjoyable look at epistemology, or “what do we know?” The most important thing she does is to help the reader see that error and being wrong is not the unmitigated disaster that we usually envision it to be.

Error is unavoidable because we do not perceive the world directly. Our sense perceptions are processed in our brains to form a mental model of the world, built up from beliefs about how the world works. No one’s model matches reality, and this mismatch results in errors. Ms. Schulz refers to this as a gap between our mind’s image of reality and reality itself, and shows how this gap is actually a source of great pleasure to us, through its expression in comedy, art, and magic. Ms. Schulz writes,
The Incongruity Theory of Humor posits that comedy arises from a mismatch—specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief—and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is—give or take a little pleasure—the structure of error.
Our love of optical illusions, magic, and puzzles show how much we actually enjoy the experience of being wrong.

Error also arises as an inevitable byproduct of our brains’ efficient use of assumptions. Our minds work through inductive reasoning, which means we extrapolate to general conditions from a small, particular sample. This is a very powerful analytic tool, for example, when we learned English we learned that adding –ed to the end of a word made it past tense. We didn’t have to learn every single word and every tense-variation individually. Of course that meant we made errors, like saying “sended” instead of “sent.” But the few errors were worth the time saved overall. Ms. Schulz writes,
We tend to think of mistakes as the consequence of cognitive sloppiness—of taking shortcuts, cutting corners, jumping to conclusions. And in fact, we do take shortcuts, cut corners, and jump to conclusions. But thinking of these tendencies as problems suggests that there are solutions: a better way to evaluate the evidence, some viable method for reaching airtight verdicts about the world…there are other ways to reason about the world, but those other ways aren’t better. The system we have is better. The system we have is astonishing…our mistakes are part and parcel of our brilliance, not the regrettable consequences of a separate and deplorable process.
But I think Ms. Schulz veered off the track when she came to the end of the book and made conclusions about what these propensities to error mean. She asserts that being wrong about reality is actually the best thing for us; it’s what makes up optimists, it’s what keeps us from being depressed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Anarchist Wing of the Republican Party

Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes, editor of the Nation magazine, were guests on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week. Hayes mentioned that his mother was a government employee, and Coulter said, “She’s a drain on society.” Coulter and fellow guest and British author Amanda Foreman went on to say that government employees contribute nothing to society and in fact just suck from those who do:
MAHER: We want you to know that. Your mother is a drain on…

COULTER: Well, you asked.

HAYES: Ann Coulter thinks you’re a drain on society.

FOREMAN: What Ann means, she’s not a revenue producer. She’s not a revenue producer.

COULTER: Right. She’s a revenue taker.

FOREMAN: No, she’s gainfully employed, but she’s not a revenue producer.

COULTER: No, it's worse than not having a job, having a government job, because you have somebody doing something nobody wants, taxpayers pay for it, and they can never get rid of them.
Amazingly, (and typically for a liberal) Hayes just sat there and allowed this slander of government (and his mother) to stand.

[Transcript is from a conservative blog, you can see his take on this exchange here.]

The rejection of large government is perhaps the most defining element of the right-wing, but pre-Ronald Reagan Republicans were moderate, even liberal by today’s standards, in their approach to governing. For example, during Eisenhower’s administration the U.S. built the interstate highway system, and Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Then came Reagan and his famous anti-government aphorisms, for example, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language? I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In the last thirty years we’ve seen an acceleration of this anti-government attitude, and it seems to have gone into overdrive since Barack Obama’s election as president.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reinventing Feminism

A Facebook friend posted a TED video by blogger Courtney Martin called “Reinventing Feminism.” That really wasn’t the subject of her talk, but as a 30-year-old feminist who contributes to the website ("an online community for feminists and their allies" according to their website) she did have some comments about her generation’s attitude towards old-school feminism.

In particular she seemed to confirm my observation in the blog post below, “Twenty-first Century Feminism,” about the way feminists dressed in the 1970s and 80s. Ms. Martin said she became a feminist when she saw a woman, who was a famous feminist, lecture at her college wearing fish-net stockings. “Aesthetics, fun, and beauty matter,” Ms. Martin commented. All she had seen of what feminism meant up to that point was “man-hating and Birkenstocks.”

This was the legacy of Erica Jong’s generation. I don’t think modern-style feminism is any better, justifying the sexualization of women’s bodies as “liberating.” A true liberation of women will celebrate the natural beauty of the female body without needing spike heels or face paint or push-up bras.

Cooperation and Fairness are Driving Forces of Human Social Evolution

Social Darwinism is a philosophy, developed in the late 1800s, that applied Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human society. If it’s true that competition is the mechanism of physical evolution and that today’s species are the winners of earlier struggles to survive, wouldn’t the same principles be true for societies and their structures? By applying this thinking to politics and economics Social Darwinists concluded that the reason white European societies were dominant in the Victorian era was because white Europeans were superior; they had won out in the dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest contest and come out on top. Subjugation of the lesser races was just and right.

Social Darwinism argued that biology was destiny and that a broad spectrum of socially undesirable traits, ranging from ‘pauperism’ to mental illness, resulted from heredity. Rich people were successful because they were superior. Poor people were failures because they were inferior. Thus social policies to help the poor were a waste of time.

This philosophy naturally gave rise to the "science" of eugenics, which was devoted to improving the human race by getting rid of the “unfit.” It was just a short step to Hitler and the Holocaust.

Social Darwinism isn’t talked about much today, yet it still underlies many people’s thinking: it justifies laissez-faire economic policies, for example. Modern-day conservatives love the idea that science proves that the rich and powerful deserve to be rich and powerful because they are inherently more “fit” in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. Look at the success of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that racial differences in intelligence could be genetically based.

How much of our thinking about our interactions with each other, both in our individual relationships and in the larger societal sphere of economics and politics, has been warped by this pseudo-scientific thinking that competition is the sole basis for life?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Twenty-first Century Feminism

Erica Jong published an essay in the New York Times last weekend about modern attitudes towards sex, entitled “Is Sex Passé?” Basically she says that young women of today have turned their backs on the freedom her generation won. Jong argues that these women want to regress to a 1950s ideal of motherhood and monogamy, and/or want control more than passion.

I'm a woman born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom and am thus an heir to the feminism of Jong. I've considered myself a feminist since I was 12, (although I have long since abandoned that for humanism, by which I mean liberation for both sexes—men needed to be freed from cultural ideas of manhood).

Jong’s article sounded to me like the standard cliché of a crotchety old woman blaming the younger generation for not being as good as hers.

Ms. Jong speculates that the reason today’s women feel this way is because they are, like every generation, doing the opposite of whatever their parents did. I believe Jong is evading the responsibility of the legacy of her feminism.

Short-Termism is Harming Our Nation

Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC since 2006, is ending her five-year term with a bang: this last weekend she's on the cover of the New York Times magazine with a long interview and she published a 4-page (web-length) op-ed in the Washington Post.

Ms. Bair has been portrayed as the “difficult” member of the White House economic team (for instance in the movie "Too Big to Fail" by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin) because not only did she see the problem in advance and warn about it before it happened, giving the lie to the revisionist “no one saw/could-have-seen-it beforehand,” she argued against the pro-bondholder slant of the rest of the financial team. She believed that depositors/taxpayers should be the ones protected and that "market correction," in other words investors losing money, is what the bondholders needed. They needed to learn a lesson about risk management.

The main message of her op-ed is that our country is suffering from "short-termism." The financial industry and our political system focus almost exclusively on improving short-term profits and avoiding short-term losses, completely ignoring the long-term effects on our nation. If this doesn't change we are doomed to suffer, at minimum, another major financial crisis. That's as far as Ms. Bair goes in her article, but it is clear to me that this short-termism is hastening the decline of the United States.

Both articles are very worth reading to help understand what happened to cause the Great Recession, and what the policies enacted in response have accomplished. But for convenience here's the opening of her op-ed:
The nation is still struggling with the effects of the most serious financial crisis and economic downturn since the Great Depression. But Wall Street seems all too ready to return to the same untenable business practices that brought it to its knees less than three years ago. And some in government who claim to be representing Main Street seem all too ready to help.

Already we have heard rationalization of the subprime mortgage debacle and denigration of those of us who have advocated long-term, structural changes in the way we regulate the financial industry. Too many industry leaders, as well as some government officials, compare the crisis to a 100-year flood. “Who, us?” they say. “We didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody saw this coming.”

The truth is, some of us did see this coming. We tried to stop the excessive risk-taking that was fueling the housing bubble and turning our financial markets into gambling parlors. But we were impeded by the culture of short-termism that dominates our society. Our financial markets remain too focused on quick profits, and our political process is driven by a two-year election cycle and its relentless demands for fundraising.

I’ve had a unique vantage point during my five-year term as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., from the early failure of IndyMac Bankto the implementation of reforms designed to ensure that no conglomerate ever again is deemed “too big to fail.”

Now that I’m stepping down, I want to sound the alarm again. The common thread running through all the causes of our economic tumult is a pervasive and persistent insistence on favoring the short term over the long term, impulse over patience. We overvalue the quick return on investment and unduly discount the long-term consequences of that decision-making.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Radical Acceptance

My spiritual practice is based on the concept of radical acceptance. In every moment of now, accept the way it is. Embrace reality.

My mantra is “bend like a willow,” which means, “bow to the reality of whatever is before me.” This phrase came to me after reading the following passage about acceptance in Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity: “The principle of the thing is clearly something like judo, the gentle (ju) way (do) of mastering an opposing force by giving in to it…[Taoism] showed how the supple willow survives the tough pine in a snowstorm, for whereas the unyielding branches of the pine accumulate snow until they crack, the springy boughs of the willow bend under its weight, drop the snow, and jump back again.”

Bend like a willow is my visual representation of acceptance: as a willow bends in the wind so I can bend with the events that flow my way and allow them to move through and past me without breaking me. In flexibility there is strength.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I accept everything all the time! But the feelings of irritation and unhappiness that I experience when I’m not accepting reality are the cues that I am off balance and need to come back into harmony with what is.

Marsha Linehan, a psychologist in Washington, uses radical acceptance with her suicidal patients suffering from “borderline personality disorder,” a condition worse that its name implies. One of the characteristics of this disorder is powerful self-destructive urges. Dr. Linehan, who suffers from the disorder herself, counsels her patients to not only accept their condition, but to accept the associated feelings of despair as appropriate for a person with this condition. Instead of rejecting their feelings, they accept them.

An article in the New York Times describes the process by which she discovered the concept of radical acceptance:
It took years of study in psychology — she earned a Ph.D. at Loyola in 1971 — before she found an answer. On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.
That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.

But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering.

But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.

Dr. Linehan found that the tension of acceptance could at least keep people in the room: patients accept who they are, that they feel the mental squalls of rage, emptiness and anxiety far more intensely than most people do. In turn, the therapist accepts that given all this, cutting, burning and suicide attempts make some sense.
This sounds like a dangerous prescription in the case of a suicidal patient, but Dr. Linehan’s technique works:

In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere tracked the progress of hundreds of borderline patients at high risk of suicide who attended weekly dialectical therapy sessions. Compared with similar patients who got other experts’ treatments, those who learned Dr. Linehan’s approach made far fewer suicide attempts, landed in the hospital less often and were much more likely to stay in treatment. D.B.T. is now widely used for a variety of stubborn clients, including juvenile offenders, people with eating disorders and those with drug addictions.
Alan Watts gives an explanation for why this works (This Is It): “Before a man can change his course of action he must first be sincere, going with and not against his nature, even when the immediate trend of his nature is toward evil, toward a fall...One turns the front wheel of a bicycle in the direction in which one is falling. Surprisingly, to the beginner, one does not lose control but regains it. So, also, to recover himself the automobile driver must turn in the direction of a skid.”

The complete acceptance of reality sounds like a dangerous prescription for being a doormat to many people. Are we to “accept” a person who attacks us? Does acceptance mean that we let anyone do anything they want to us? Do we just let bad things happen without taking any action?

These common prejudices about acceptance are wrong. Radical acceptance is not fatalism. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean we stay stuck; it doesn’t mean we don’t change beliefs and behaviors that are harmful. In fact, radical acceptance makes it easier to change!

Acceptance of reality greatly enhances our ability to act in the world. When we accept reality it means that we perceive reality more accurately, thus our ability to appropriately interact with it is enhanced.

This is the philosophy behind martial arts, and particularly Aikido, a non-aggressive system of self-defense. Aikido training involves learning to perceive, accept, and exploit reality to your survival advantage. By objectively seeing the dynamics of an attack you have the ability to use the energy of your attacker to move him or her beyond you while expending as little of your own energy as possible. The more accurately you perceive and accept the exact configuration of an attack, the easier it is for you to deal with it.

Radical acceptance is an incredibly empowering attitude towards life.