Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Where does Trump fit into the political system?

Even though many of the Founding Fathers were opposed to the idea of political parties due to their adversarial nature, the United States has, from its second president onward, been a nation of political parties. Typically, the president has been elected as a member of one of two major political parties, although at times additional parties have fielded candidates. From their beginning the two major parties, no matter what they called themselves, have been polarized concerning the idea of states rights. In the early days, the Federalist party wanted a strong central government. The Democratic-Republicans wanted most issues left up to the individual states. This has carried through to today, with the Democratic Party's position that the government should lead the way in helping the poor and sick while the Republican Party believes that states should determine their own policies in social matters.

Conservatives, who generally side with the Republicans, believe that the federal government should mainly be  involved with setting and implementing defense policy. Pretty much everything else should be left up to the states. Most do support a social safety net and Social Security, but they believe this safety net should be limited. Many believe that private corporations should somehow be involved in implementing Social Security as well. Conservatives believe that individuals should be rewarded according to their productivity. They believe wealth is accumulated through hard work and intelligent money-handling skills. They are concerned that too many Federal programs that aid the poor only serve to keep the poor in poverty and offer little incentive for the downtrodden to better themselves. Some view the poor as lazy, willing to live at the subsistence level on government handouts rather than to better themselves. Republicans tend to believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality of condition.

Progressives (or liberals) are usually Democrats. They believe that the Federal Government should set policy in all but local matters, and that these policies should be implemented at the federal level. Democrats believe that wealth stems not only from hard work and good money-managing skills, but just as importantly, from random situational dynamics - something most people have no control over. A person can work very hard for years, trying to save as much as possible, but random situations may prevent that person from becoming wealthy. On the other hand, someone can inherit money or win a lottery, providing enough seed capital to insure a better chance at turning their windfall into wealth. Others just simply happen to be at the right place at the right time, talking to the right people. So, since random situations do not provide everyone with equal opportunities, it is up to the government to make sure that those who have been hampered by the luck of life at least have the means to support themselves. They look at the poor not as lazy or unmotivated, but as productive citizens who need a hand up. They also believe that there are certain things that are so important to national well-being and society as a whole that the Federal Government should be in the business of supplying it. National defense is one of these things, something the Republicans agree with. But Democrats also believe that education and health should be included. Republicans think these should be state issues.

But where does Donald Trump fit into this political situation? He ran as a Republican, but earlier in his business career he spoke and acted more like a Democrat. Trump, basically, is an opportunist. He is very wealthy, but he had a large infusion of seed money from his father to get him started in business. Many of his businesses failed. He filed for bankruptcy multiple times. Regardless of how much money he has amassed over the past 50 years, some analysts believe he could have had much more had he simply invested his initial contribution from his father in a more shrewd manner instead of using it to start businesses that eventually failed.

Trump is an egomaniac and narcissist who has learned how to make people like him. He says what they want to hear. He surrounds himself with people who will fawn over him. He is the ultimate elitist. His world is decorated in gold, literally. He becomes angry and incoherent when things do not go his way. He usually gets what he wants, because he has the money to buy it. He became president by identifying the people he could persuade, due to their situation. And like all salesmen, he told them exactly what they needed to hear and made them believe him. In that sense he is charismatic - he can charm an audience. But unlike the mega church preachers, he is not very eloquent in his delivery. In a way, that helps the poorly educated identify with him even more. He says what they need to hear in a manner that they are used to. In other words, to some, he seems much more sincere, due to his limited speaking skills, than he actually is.

And now that he is in office, and is officially the leader of the Free World, even despite not having won the popular election, he is facing self-inflicted crises galore. His base is sticking with him for now because they still hold out hope he can help. But as time goes by and he is unable to deliver on his promises, because he doesn't know how to do the job, his base will fracture. Mainstream Republicans will then determine that Trump is more of a hindrance than a help, and they will start deserting him. It's already starting to happen. Since his party controls both houses of Congress he is probably safe through his first term, but that depends on the results of the several investigations that are currently going on. At the very least, Republicans in the House will start distancing themselves from Trump before the midterm elections for the sake of their own political survival. And if enough of them develop the backbone before 2018, Trump could very well be impeached.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Do So Many People Disagree with Me?

I have spent some time since Trump's inauguration following the news about his activities as president so far, what he has done and said. And I have divided my time watching the reporting of his antics between CNN and Fox News almost equally, with a healthy dose of CBS and NBC mixed in. Of all those sources, the broadcast networks, CBS and NBC seem not to dwell on the more polarizing aspects of his presidency. They report them but don't dwell for long on them. The big takeaway for me comes from the different emphases CNN and Fox News place on their respective reporting of Trump as president.

I don't watch the evening punditry on Fox News because I know for sure how it goes. There is nothing at all fair and balanced about the Hannity show. CNN seems to be closer to what is reported on the broadcast networks but it tends to dig a little deeper, since it is a 24-hour news network. I don't watch MSNBC because for some reason Comcast puts it in a higher tier that I don't subscribe to.

What I have come away with after a week of Trump as president is a clearer understanding of why some people continue to stick with Trump despite some really outrageous things he has said and done since being elected. The bottom line is that Fox reports on the same stories as do the other networks, but they don't report the entire story. CNN is guilty of the same thing. For example, on Fox News, there's the story about Trump's threat to sanctuary cities to withhold federal funding if they continue to shelter their undocumented immigrants. Fox asks its viewers, "What's wrong with that?" Then it goes on to list crimes committed by these undocumented immigrants in various cities. Trump just wants to protect Americans. Bill O'Reilly (yes, he's an evening pundit - so sue me) and others get this puzzled look on their faces and wonder out loud how liberals can possibly want sanctuary cities to protect this sort of criminal element. And if this type of reporting is all I ever saw, I would probably be a Trump supporter, too.

But there is, of course, more to the story. There is the human aspect. City governments know that the vast, vast majority of these undocumented immigrants are a contributing part of their workforce. And they know that the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their families didn't have a choice in being here. Most of them grew up in America and, except for their place of birth, are just as much American as Trump. These people need protecting from the long arm of the federal government.

It strikes me as odd that the federal government wants states to decide about education policy or about whether to grant women the right to choose to have an abortion. But when it comes to things like rounding up DREAMers or even lately threatening federal action if local officials (Chicago) don't clean up their act, it's ok to force federal action on local governments.

I think what all news consumers should do as much as time will permit is to watch the news from multiple sources in order to get a fuller picture of what is really going on in the world and how this news affects average Americans. The same stories are reported on all networks, but the emphasis is almost always different. I think people have gotten used to tuning in to only the news channels that reflect the opinion they already hold, and thus their worldview is strengthened. But the country is severely polarized. And there are two sides (at least) to every issue. It wouldn't hurt if more people were open to the opposing views. That can start by forcing oneself to watch the news channel you hate more often. And it would also help if all of us would spend more time reading and watching news from more sources that don't report news with a slant but only report the actual facts, even if those facts have been analyzed. BBC News and NPR come to mind. It might not change your worldview, because people clearly resist changing their worldviews, but at least it will enhance your understanding of why so many people disagree with you on the issues.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Why do Those Who Don't Understand Science Attack It?

Evolution is "only a theory." If we evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys? The climate may or may not be changing but if it is it's not the fault of humans. How can there be global warming when we're having such a cold winter? I am convinced that vaccines can cause autism. Gluten is unhealthy for a lot of people to eat.

I have heard the above statements, and many more like them, over and over for many years. The drumbeat doesn't seem to be waning at all as the body of evidence continues to grow that should debunk every claim of the science deniers. But why should that be so? Why do people who are otherwise mature, intelligent adults continue to deny the evidence in front of them? Why do so many people deny science?

First, let's start with a definition of science to see what it is they are denying. Science is actually two things: 1) Science is a methodology used to discover, through the use of empirical data, reasoning, experimentation, and logic, how various facets of nature work, and what predictions can be made by applying the discoveries to new situations. 2) Science is also the body of knowledge obtained from such methods and discoveries.

Most science deniers don't have a big problem with the first definition. But if those scientific methods lead to discoveries that conflict with their worldview or religious beliefs, then we have a problem. People, even smart people, have gathered throughout their lives personal data and experiences that have led them to formulate a set of beliefs. Many of these beliefs have been drilled into their heads by their parents, pastors, relatives, and peers. Those beliefs form their worldview - a mindset that governs their perspective on such things as politics, religion, and even their personal philosophy of life. Most of the time when new facts are presented they are accepted without problem because the new information does not conflict in a major way with a person's worldview. If you had always understood that matter exists in three states - solid, liquid, and gas - because that's what you learned in school and it conforms with your observations, you might be skeptical if someone tells you that there are actually four states of matter. But if that person then defines plasma to you and gives you examples of where you might find plasma, you won't have much trouble assimilating that new information. It hasn't altered your worldview tremendously.

On the other hand, if you grew up believing that God created the world in six literal days and that every living species on the planet was created by God personally, then any new knowledge that tells you that that belief isn't true becomes problematic for you to assimilate. That's partly because it represents a major change in your understanding of how life got here. But more importantly, it injects uncertainty into your view of what happens to your immortal soul when your life on Earth ends. For some people, it takes a leap of faith too big to make; never mind that science is not based on faith.

The actual term for a person's feeling of intense uneasiness when confronted with new information that contradicts his established worldview is cognitive dissonance. This generally elicits behaviors that tend to undermine and reject the conflicting evidence, leading to cognitive dissonance reduction. The mental uneasiness is sometimes so great that facts and evidence no longer really matter. Something must be wrong with the way the evidence was obtained or interpreted, because it just can't be true. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is so great that it actually leads to a hardening or firming up of the already-held worldview. This is one reason why after a tragedy the faith people have in their personal god is increased.

Another very strong influencer of people's wrongly-held beliefs is anecdotal evidence. Since anecdotal evidence seems rational and since it is usually quite easy to understand, it leads to widely-held beliefs that are scientifically unfounded. Remember, in the definition of science, I said that science makes discoveries using empirical evidence, not anecdotal evidence. Empirical evidence is the type of evidence that can be measured and repeated. The earth's average temperature is rising. That can be measured independently by climatology labs all over the world. Caron dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. The evidence for this comes from the direct measurement of CO2 by labs in many countries. Carbon dioxide gas traps heat given off by the earth. The evidence from this comes from experiments that directly measure the temperature of the air above a heat source in a controlled environment where CO2 has been elevated compared to an environment where it has not. The logical conclusion would be that the earth's temperature, on average, will rise and fall as a function of the amount of CO2 present. Of course there are other factors but you get the idea of how a hypothesis in science is created.

Anecdotal evidence doesn't work this way. There are no measurements and no experiments. Anecdotal evidence comes only from the stories, or anecdotes, that people tell based on their own perceptions or the perceptions others have related to them. For example, "I've personally noticed that the winters here have been getting colder over the past few years. My grandfather told me that he remembers often going to school in December wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. My kids always require a coat, or at least a jacket in the winter. Therefore, global warming must be a hoax."

That sort of evidence does not pass scientific muster and cannot be used to make accurate predictions about what is likely to happen in the future. Being able to throw a snowball in the winter does not mean that global warming isn't real. The fact that you have heard of more than one child developing autism after having a vaccine doesn't mean that vaccines cause autism. The fact that you and your friend got sick after eating a gluten-laced piece of cake doesn't mean that gluten is a bad part of your diet. Just because you know of people who get headaches every time they drink a diet pop doesn't mean that sugar substitutes cause headaches.

Empirical evidence that has been gathered in controlled experiments always indicate that the anecdotal evidence against climate change, gluten, and vaccines is completely erroneous. More than a century of empirical evidence gathered about evolution supports the conclusion that life on earth got here through the process of evolution by natural selection and completely debunks the notion it arrived all at once through the action of special creation.

If you believe in special creation or the detrimental effects of gluten or vaccines, then when you are confronted with loads of empirical evidence that debunk those beliefs, your cognitive dissonance reduction behaviors kick in and you start denying the hell out of the real science. And, like kicking the smoking habit or losing weight, it's very hard to stop the denying. But just like those other bad habits, stopping the denial will turn you into a better, more informed, and less angry person. Give it a try.