Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

Good arguments by Coyne on resisting descending to the gutter, even if hard to do so:

All in all it’s been a fine season for the tu quoque.

As America’s nervous breakdown continues apace, there has been a sudden outbreak of concern for the decline in civility, particularly among supporters of President Civility, Donald Trump.

The signs, it seems, are everywhere: the Homeland Security secretary was hounded out of a restaurant by protesters. The White House press secretary was asked to leave by management at another. Here in Canada, things have gotten so out of hand that several Ottawa dignitaries declined to attend this year’s 4th of July party at the US ambassador’s.

All of which has been fodder for yet more vituperation on social media, where incivility has been the norm since day one. Critics, particularly on the left, have scoffed at the suggestion there is anything particularly new or over the line about the insults lately offered members of the Trump administration, not least given the constant stream of insults spewing from the gold-plated spigot in the Oval Office.

Surely, they ask, the people first to decry the chilling effects of political correctness on free speech have not suddenly themselves turned into snowflakes? To which the right replies: wait, so now the left is in favour of free speech? You mean now it’s OK for a business to refuse service to someone on the basis of certain deeply held beliefs? To which the response from the left, inevitably, is: you mean you’re no longer defending their right to do so?

And everyone has had a perfectly marvellous time calling each other out for their hypocrisy. These days, that’s the only sin anyone bothers with, since it requires no judgments, but only comparisons.

It does seem a bit late in the day to be fretting about the absence of civility in American public life. Nor would rudeness, as such, rank among the more pressing of the Great Republic’s problems at the moment. Whatever discomfort the Homeland Security secretary might have endured on her night out, her critics are surely right to say it is nothing compared to the suffering the administration she serves has imposed on, oh, immigrant children, for example.

So no, I’m not particularly moved by sympathy for Trump officials. Nor am I of a mind to scold the protesters for their bad manners. I would only ask: what purpose are they trying to achieve? Because if the intent is actually to persuade anyone who is not already opposed to the president and his policies, this is the very worst way to go about it.

The argument for civility in debate is an old one, and not much heard these days. In the online world it tends to be regarded as an affectation, a luxury only the privileged can afford.

But the case for civility is not grounded in a concern for mere decorum. It’s really one of self-interest. Treating opponents civilly — listening to their arguments, rather than shouting them down; presenting them fairly, without caricature; addressing them squarely, without ad hominems — isn’t just good manners. It’s smart strategy.

Yes, much harm is done to the general climate of debate when it descends into shouting and name-calling. But the worst harm done by such behaviour, in my observation, is to the cause of those engaging in it.

Because if you want people who do not already share your views to listen to you — not your opponents, necessarily, but the broad mass of people who are typically somewhere in between — if that matters to you, they won’t do so if you’re shouting. And the louder you shout, the less they’ll hear you.

This isn’t just a matter of sticking to facts and arguments; as important as that is, it’s frankly secondary in the real world of how opinions are formed. Rather, people often judge matters of controversy in the light of their impressions of the combatants.

We are hard-wired to be more persuaded by people who themselves seem open to persuasion: who are led by facts rather than preconceptions; who have understood the opposing view and can rebut it, not in caricature, but on its most reasonable possible construction; and, perhaps most importantly, who treat us as if we were reasonable people ourselves — who talk to us as adults, rather than shouting or talking down to us.

The “rules” of debate, that is, are there for the disputants’ own good. When people don’t follow the rules, we tend to conclude, not that their position is so obviously superior as to absolve them of such petty constraints, but rather that they have something to hide — either that they haven’t fully understood their opponents’ arguments, or worse, that they have, and cannot answer them.

But, you’re saying, what has this got to do with Trump? This might be good advice in normal times, against a normal opponent, but these are not those, and he is not that. Aren’t I just “normalizing” Trump?

There is a danger of that, admittedly. Anybody in the persuasion game soon learns of the danger of being equally outraged by everything. You have to keep a “high C” in reserve that you can go to when things get truly outrageous.

The difficulty Trump presents is that he says and does about six things a day that would normally call for the coloratura treatment. Do so, and you risk people tuning out. But fail to do so, and you are effectively giving him a volume discount.

But you don’t escape this dilemma by ignoring it. The thing that would truly “normalize” Trump is if everyone got down in the gutter with him. The one true weapon that decent people have against him is decency, and the power of the opposite example.

It is the path not just of reason, but I dare say cunning.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

Fighting fire with fire: Rudeness can be as contagious as a common cold, research shows

While I fully understand the impulse for replying or acting in kind to the Trump administration and their enablers, this only further coarsens societal norms.

The sound advice below is hard to implement but it starts with greater self-awareness:

“When you experience incivility, it’s important to take a step back and not act on your impulses. Do things that help you recover your ability to self-regulate, like exercise or taking a break,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged, “Our research shows people are often not even aware of their reactions and the way they spread negativity. So some of these recommendations for how to stop it are easier said than done.”

So try to develop a reflex of asking whether a proposed remark or tweet is likely to coarsen or improve tone and substance:

These are rude times we live in.

And many people find themselves struggling with how to respond. Do they fight fire with fire or try somehow to take the moral high ground?

Scientific research has surprisingly quite a lot to say about it all.

Trevor Foulk, who researches organizational behaviour at the University of Maryland, likens rudeness to the common cold: It’s contagious.

“When it comes to incivility, there’s often a snowballing effect. The more you see rudeness, the more likely you are to perceive it from others and the more likely you are to be rude yourself to others,” he said.

The debate over civility kicked into high gear after a Virginia restaurant asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because employees didn’t want to serve her. That followed the outright heckling of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate at a D.C. Mexican restaurant. Some people, like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif, have called for more such confrontations with Trump officials. Others warn of a race to the bottom and plea for an end to the boorishness.

Trump opted for insulting the restaurant, Waters and others.

Trump tweeted “The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”

Such cycles — now repeated on a weekly or even daily basis and spreading quickly online — are driven in part by our unconscious reactions, experts say.

In a 2016 study, Christopher Rosen, an organizational scientist at the University of Arkansas, tracked employees over the course of their work days. He and fellow researchers found that individuals who experienced a perceived insult earlier in the day would later strike back at co-workers. Using psychological tests, the researchers linked that reaction to lowered levels of self-control.

“When someone is uncivil to you, it forces you to spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what’s going on, what caused the rudeness, what it means,” Rosen said in an interview Monday. “All that thinking lessens your capacity for impulse control. So you become more prone to be rude to others… People in a way ‘pay it forward.’”

In recent years, rising concerns over incivility — insults, condescension, dismissiveness and the like — have led to increasing research on the topic by social scientists and psychologists.

In a series of experiments, for example, Foulk and others showed that the more that people witness and experience rudeness, the more they are predisposed to interpret an action as rude and then act toward others in rude ways.

“Rudeness is interesting in that it’s often ambiguous and open to interpretation,” he said. “If someone punches you, for example, we would all agree that it’s abusive. But if someone comes up to you and says in a neutral voice ‘nice shoes,’ is that an insult? Is it sarcasm or something else?” The more someone has witnessed rudeness, “the more likely you are to interpret ‘nice shoes’ as deliberately rude.”

In one study, workers were shown videos every morning before work. On the mornings when those videos included an uncivil interaction, the workers were more likely to interpret subsequent interactions throughout their day as rude.

In another study on negotiations, Foulk found that if someone experiences rudeness from a person on the opposing side, the next person they negotiate with is highly likely to perceive them as rude, too. Even when the two negotiations took place seven days apart, the contagion effect was just as strong.

“What is so scary about this effect is that it’s an automatic process — it takes place in a part of your brain that you are not aware of, can’t stop, and can’t control,” Foulk wrote in a summary of his findings.

Other studies also suggest incivility by top brass — whether immediate supervisors or CEOs — has an outsized influence on the uncivil behaviour of those below them.

But perhaps most worrisome is the effect of all this growing incivility. Mounting research shows rudeness can cause employees to be chronically distracted, less productive and less creative. Researchers have shown how incivility can lower trust, spark feelings of anger, fear and sadness, and cause depression. One study found increased incivility at work had personal life implications, such as less marital satisfaction.

And two studies in 2015 and 2017 found that doctors and nurses in neonatal intensive care units who were scolded by an actress playing the mother of a sick infant performed much more poorly than those who did not — even misdiagnosing the infant’s condition.

“The results were scary,” one of the authors told the Wall Street Journal. “The teams exposed to rudeness gave the wrong diagnosis, didn’t resuscitate or ventilate appropriately, didn’t communicate well, gave the wrong medications and made other serious mistakes.”

Researchers have struggled in vain to come up with ways to stop the spreading effects of rudeness. Those who studied the hospital neonatal staffs, for example, tried having the doctors and nurses write about their interaction from the perspective of the rude mother. Doing so made no difference.

Rosen has a simpler suggestion. “When you experience incivility, it’s important to take a step back and not act on your impulses. Do things that help you recover your ability to self-regulate, like exercise or taking a break,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged, “Our research shows people are often not even aware of their reactions and the way they spread negativity. So some of these recommendations for how to stop it are easier said than done.”

Source: Fighting fire with fire: Rudeness can be as contagious as a common cold, research shows

Opinion | The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience – The New York Times

As I am working on an article on possible guidelines for panelists and presenters on immigration, found this commentary by Bryan W. Van Norden of interest. His distinction between free speech and being given a platform is valid, and his examples compelling:

On June 17, the political commentator Ann Coulter, appearing as a guest on Fox News, asserted that crying migrant children separated from their parents are “child actors.” Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?

Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has complained that men can’t “control crazy women” because men “have absolutely no respect” for someone they cannot physically fight. Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of “himpathy” in supporting misogyny?

We may feel certain that Coulter and Peterson are wrong, but some people feel the same way about Coates and Manne. And everyone once felt certain that the Earth was the center of the solar system. Even if Coulter and Peterson are wrong, won’t we have a deeper understanding of why racism and sexism are mistaken if we have to think for ourselves about their claims? And “who’s to say” that there isn’t some small fragment of truth in what they say?

If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s argument for near-absolute freedom of speech is seductively simple. Any given opinion that someone expresses is either wholly true, partly true or false.

To claim that an unpopular or offensive opinion cannot be true “is to assume our own infallibility.” And if an offensive opinion is true, to limit its expression is clearly bad for society. If an opinion is partly true, we should listen to it, because “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” And even if an opinion is false, society will benefit by examining the reasons it is false. Unless a true view is challenged, we will hold it merely “in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”

The problem with Mill’s argument is that he takes for granted a naïve conception of rationality that he inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. For such philosophers, there is one ahistorical rational method for discovering truth, and humans (properly educated) are approximately equal in their capacity for appreciating these truths. We know that “of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed,” Descartes assures us, because “even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect never desire more of it than they already have.”

Of course, Mill and Descartes disagreed fundamentally about what the one ahistorical rational method is — which is one of the reasons for doubting the Enlightenment dogma that there is such a method.

If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound. What harm is there in people hearing obvious falsehoods and specious argumentation if any sane and minimally educated person can see through them? The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone knew that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.

Historically, Millian arguments have had some good practical effects. Mill followed Alexis de Tocqueville in identifying “the tyranny of the majority” as an ever-present danger in democracies. As an advocate of women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, Mill knew that many people then regarded even the discussion of these issues as offensive. He hoped that by making freedom of speech a near absolute right he could guarantee a hearing for opinions that were true but unpopular among most of his contemporaries.

However, our situation is very different from that of Mill. We are seeing the worsening of a trend that the 20th century German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned of back in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” This form of “free speech,” ironically, supports the tyranny of the majority.

The media are motivated primarily by getting the largest audience possible. This leads to a skewed conception about which controversial perspectives deserve airtime, and what “both sides” of an issue are. How often do you see controversial but well-informed intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Martha Nussbaum on television? Meanwhile, the former child-star Kirk Cameron appears on television to explain that we should not believe in evolutionary theory unless biologists can produce a “crocoduck” as evidence. No wonder we are experiencing what Marcuse described as “the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda.”

Marcuse was insightful in diagnosing the problems, but part of the solution he advocated was suppressing right-wing perspectives. I believe that this is immoral (in part because it would be impossible to do without the exercise of terror) and impractical (given that the internet was actually invented to provide an unblockable information network). Instead, I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.

There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. When Nathaniel Abraham was fired in 2004 from his position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because he admitted to his employer that he did not believe in evolution, it was not a case of censorship of an unpopular opinion. Abraham thinks that he knows better than other scientists (and better than other Christians, like Pope Francis, who reminded the faithful that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand”). Abraham has every right to express his ignorant opinion to any audience that is credulous enough to listen. However, Abraham does not have a right to a share of the intellectual capital that comes from being associated with a prestigious scientific institution like Woods Hole.

Similarly, the top colleges and universities that invite Charles Murray to share his junk science defenses of innate racial differences in intelligence (including Columbia and New York University) are not promoting fair and balanced discourse. For these prestigious institutions to deny Murray an audience would be for them to exercise their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse. We have actually seen a good illustration of what I mean by “just access” in ABC’s courageous decision to cancel “Roseanne,” its highest-rated show. Starring on a television show is a privilege, not a right. Roseanne compared a black person to an ape. Allowing a show named after her to remain on the air would not be impartiality; it would be tacitly endorsing the racist fantasy that her views are part of reasonable mainstream debate.

Donald Trump, first as candidate and now as president, is such a significant news story that responsible journalists must report on him. But this does not mean that he should be allowed to set the terms of the debate. Research shows that repeatedly hearing assertions increases the likelihood of belief — even when the assertions are explicitly identified as false. Consequently, when journalists repeat Trump’s repeated lies, they are actually increasing the probability that people will believe them.

Even when journalistic responsibility requires reporting Trump’s views, this does not entail giving all of his spokespeople an audience. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” set a good precedent for just access by banning from the show Kellyanne Conway for casually spouting “alternative facts.”

Marcuse also suggested, ominously, that we should not “renounce a priori violence against violence.” Like most Americans, I spontaneously cheered when I saw the white nationalist Richard Spencer punched in the face during an interview. However, as I have noted elsewhere, Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us that nonviolent protest is not only a moral demand (although it is that too); it is the highest strategic cunning. Violence plays into the hands of our opponents, who relish the opportunity to play at being martyrs. Consequently, while it was wrong for Middlebury College to invite Murray to speak, it was even more wrong for students to assault Murray and a professor escorting himacross campus. (Ironically, the professor who was injured in this incident is a critic of Murray who gave a Millian defense of allowing him to speak on campus.)

What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers.

Neither is true: These views are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists. The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.

via Opinion | The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience – The New York Times

Ignore the alarmists, there is no language crisis in Quebec, economists say

Interesting and pertinent analysis of Census language data, using the different measures, and the resulting complexities of mixed linguistic unions:

Quebec’s June 24 Fête nationale is a celebration rooted in an impulse for preservation. Behind the parades, concerts and bonfires across the province this weekend lays a reminder of the ever-present need to defend the French language.

It is a message regularly reinforced by the media and politicians, from reports highlighting a decline in the proportion of Quebecers with French as their mother tongue to dismay over Montreal merchants embracing English with a ‘Bonjour-Hi’ greeting.

In fact, it is hard to imagine a Quebec without a serious language issue. But according to the author of a new economic study for a Montreal think tank, that Quebec already exists.

Analyzing the supply and demand of English and French in Quebec over the 40 years since the language law known as Bill 101 was introduced, the study by Université de Montréal economics professor François Vaillancourt finds the law and other measures have done their job.

Knowledge of French has increased despite a drop in the share of French mother-tongue speakers. Francophone employers dominate the Quebec economy. And speaking only French is no longer a brake on earning power.

“Quebec language policy will always face challenges, since Quebec is surrounded by anglophones,” the study for the CIRANO research group concludes. “But considering the picture presented in this paper, we must set aside language policies that regard English as the language of conquest and not the language of international openness.”

He is an economist, but Vaillancourt is intimately familiar with Quebec language law. In 1977 he was recruited to work as a consultant to Parti Québécois cultural development minister Camille Laurin in the drafting of Bill 101.

Forty years later, he decided it was time to assess the impact, and his paper published last month is the result.

Quebec Premier Rene Levesque tries to hush supporters at a Parti Quebecois rally in Montreal, Nov.15, 1976, following his party’s victory in the provincial election. The PQ victory led to the landmark Charter of the French Language, more commonly known as Bill 101, which became law on Aug. 26, 1977.

“Essentially, we are told two things,” Vaillancourt says in an interview. “There are fewer Quebecers with French as a mother tongue, and at the same time Montreal is becoming more English. That is true, but it is not the whole story. There are other things going on.”

For one thing, the percentage of the Quebec population able to speak French rose to 94.5 per cent in 2016 from 88.5 per cent in 1971, before Bill 101 was adopted. Because of the province’s selection criteria, more than half of immigrants to Quebec today already speak French, and Bill 101’s requirement that their children attend French school has ensured future generations become fluent.

To an economist’s eye, this is an increase in the supply of French speakers, and it has coincided with an increased demand, as francophones took control of the Quebec economy and workplaces became more French.

Vaillancourt has found that French is more common in the workplace when the ownership is francophone, and he notes that between 1961 and 2003 — the last year for which data is available — francophone-owned companies went from employing 47 per cent of workers to 67 per cent.

Using census data, Vaillancourt documents a steady increase in the income of unilingual francophones in comparison to their unilingual anglophone counterparts. For example, in 1970, a unilingual anglophone man earned on average 10 per cent more than a unilingual francophone man with comparable education. By 2010, the advantage had flipped to the unilingual francophone, who was earning 10 per cent more than a unilingual anglophone — and eight per cent more than a bilingual anglophone.

Economists Vincent Geloso and Alex Arsenault Morin have also written a paper challenging the commonly held view that French is in decline in Quebec.

The reality, they say, is that language-usage patterns have become much more complex as a result of immigration and “inter-linguistic marriages.” Their 2016 paper says that while census data shows a slight decline between 2001 and 2011 in the proportion of people speaking French at home, it is compensated for by an increase in those using French at work.

“In other words, 88 per cent of the population of Quebec have French as their most often used language at home, at work or in both spaces. The apparent decline of French in Quebec is then a consequence of a rise in multilingualism,” they write.

Statisticians struggle to keep up with evolving behavior that muddies once reliable measures such as mother tongue and language spoken at home.

“Before, if you were a French speaker, you married a French speaker, you worked in a French job and that was it,” Geloso, an assistant professor at Bates College in Maine, says in an interview.

“Now you may be a French speaker who marries an English person and works a French job. … It’s not because somebody uses English 30 per cent of his life instead of zero per cent that French is in a crisis, especially if some English speakers in the process start speaking more French on a daily basis.”

Vaillancourt says language has practically become a matter of faith in Quebec, with people worshipping at the altar of Bill 101 instead of the Catholic Church. But he thinks it is time to challenge the language-law orthodoxy.

He notes that the majority of people affected by Bill 101’s schooling restrictions are francophones, because they are prevented from sending their children to English school.

“That’s fine, but I don’t think having a common language necessarily implies depriving ourselves of understanding another language,” he says.

In 2011, just 38 per cent of Quebec francophones were bilingual, according to census results, compared with 61 per cent of Quebec anglophones. Vaillancourt proposes a mandatory one-year English immersion program for all students in French schools. He acknowledges there could be an increased “risk of assimilation” but says Quebecers’ economic potential would grow.

In parallel, with a view to ensuring all employees are able to provide service in French, he recommends that anglophones should be obliged to have part of their schooling in French, either in an immersion program or in French schools.

Quebec should draw inspiration from the Netherlands, where 90 per cent of the population speaks English, 71 per cent speaks German, and no one worries about he disappearance of the Dutch language, Vaillancourt says.

And if ever a widespread knowledge of English in Quebec led to the disappearance of francophone Quebec hundreds of years from now, “it would have to be understood that this is the result of the choice of francophones themselves and not a forced assimilation,” he concludes.

Source: Ignore the alarmists, there is no language crisis in Quebec, economists say

Analysis Finds Geographic Overlap In Opioid Use And Trump Support In 2016

Interesting correlation with nuanced explanation and analysis:

The fact that rural, economically disadvantaged parts of the country broke heavily for the Republican candidate in the 2016 election is well known. But Medicare data indicate that voters in areas that went for Trump weren’t just hurting economically — many of them were receiving prescriptions for opioid painkillers.

The findings were published Friday in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.Researchers found a geographic relationship between support for Trump and prescriptions for opioid painkillers.

It’s easy to see similarities between the places hardest hit by the opioid epidemic and a map of Trump strongholds. “When we look at the two maps, there was a clear overlap between counties that had high opioid use … and the vote for Donald Trump,” says Dr. James S. Goodwin, chair of geriatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the study’s lead author. “There were blogs from various people saying there was this overlap. But we had national data.”

Goodwin and his team looked at data from Census Bureau, the 2016 election and Medicare Part D, a prescription drug program that serves the elderly and disabled.

To estimate the prevalence of opioid use by county, the researchers used the percentage of enrollees who had received prescriptions for a three-month or longer supply of opioids. Goodwin says that prescription opioid use is strongly correlated with illicit opioid use, which can be hard to quantify.

“There are very inexact ways of measuring illegal opioid use,” Goodwin says. “All we can really measure with precision is legal opioid use.”

Goodwin’s team examined how a variety of factors could have influenced each county’s rate of chronic opioid prescriptions. After correcting for demographic variables such as age and race, Goodwin found that support for Trump in the 2016 election closely tracked opioid prescriptions.

In counties with higher-than-average rates of chronic opioid prescriptions, 60 percent of the voters went for Trump. In the counties with lower-than-average rates, only 39 percent voted for Trump.

A lot of this disparity could be chalked up to social factors and economic woes. Rural, economically-depressed counties went strongly for Trump in the 2016 election. These are the same places where opioid use is prevalent. As a result, opioid use and support for Trump might not be directly related, but rather two symptoms of the same problem – a lack of economic opportunity.

To test this theory, Goodwin included other county-level factors in the analysis. These included factors such as unemployment rate, median income, how rural they are, education level, and religious service attendance, among others.

These socioeconomic variables accounted for about two-thirds of the link between voter support for Trump and opioid rates, the paper’s authors write. However, socioeconomic factors didn’t explain all of the correlation seen in the study.

“It very well may be that if you’re in a county that is dissolving because of opioids, you’re looking around and you’re seeing ruin. That can lead to a sense of despair,” Goodwin says. “You want something different. You want radical change.”

For voters in communities hit hard by the opioid epidemic, the unconventional Trump candidacy may have been the change people were looking for, Goodwin says.

Dr. Nancy E. Morden, associate professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, agrees. “People who reach for an opioid might also reach for … near-term fixes,” she says. “I think that Donald Trump’s campaign was a promise for near-term relief.”

Goodwin’s study has limitations and can’t establish that opioid use was a definitive factor in how people voted.

“With that kind of study design, you have to be cautious in terms of drawing any causal conclusions,” cautions Elene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The directionality is complicated.”

Goodwin acknowledges that the study has shortcomings.

“We were not implying causality, that the Trump vote caused opioids or that opioids caused the Trump vote,” he cautions. “We’re talking about associations.”

Still, the study serves as an interesting example highlighting the links between economic opportunity, social issues and political behavior.

“The types of discussions around what drove the ’16 election, and the forces that were behind that, should also be included when people are talking about the opioid epidemic,” Goodwin says.

Source: Analysis Finds Geographic Overlap In Opioid Use And Trump Support In 2016

It’s Easier To Call A Fact A Fact When It’s One You Like, Study Finds

Interesting nuanced study:

Study after study has found that partisan beliefs and bias shape what we believe is factually true.

Now the Pew Research Center has released a new study that takes a step back. They wondered: How good are Americans at telling a factual statement from an opinion statement — if they don’t have to acknowledge the factual statement is true?

By factual, Pew meant an assertion that could be proven or disproven by evidence. All the factual statements used in the study were true, to keep the results more consistent, but respondents didn’t know that.

An opinion statement, in contrast, is based on values and beliefs of the speaker, and can’t be either proven or disproven.

Pew didn’t provide people with definitions of those terms — “we didn’t want to fully hold their hands,” Michael Barthel, one of the authors of the study, told NPR. “We did, at the end of the day, want respondents to make their own judgment calls.”

The study asked people to identify a statement as factual, “whether you think it’s accurate or not,” or opinion, “whether you agree with it or not.”

They found that most Americans could identify more than three out of five in each category — slightly better than you’d expect from random luck.

(You can see how your evaluations stack up in Pew’s quiz.)

In general they found people were better at correctly identifying a factual statement if it aligned with or supported their political beliefs.

Republicans and Democrats more likely to correctly identify factual news statements when they favor their side

For instance, 89 percent of Democrats identified “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” as a factual statement, while only 63 percent of Republicans did the same.

Republicans, however, were more likely than Democrats to recognize that “Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. budget” is a factual statement — regardless of whether they thought it was accurate.

And opinions? Well, the opposite was true. Respondents who shared an opinion were more likely to call it a factual statement; people who disagreed with the opinion, more likely to accurately call it an opinion.

Pew was able to test that trend more precisely with a followup question: If someone called a statement an opinion, they asked if the respondent agreed or disagreed with that opinion.

If the opinion was actually an opinion, responses varied.

“If it wasn’t an opinion statement — it was a factual statement that they misclassified — they generally disagreed with it,” Barthel says.

Some groups of people were also more successful, in general, than others.

The “digitally savvy” and the politically aware were more likely to correctly identify each statement as opinion or factual. People with a lot of trust in the news media were also significantly more likely to get a perfect score: While just over a quarter of all adults got all five facts right, 39 percent of people who trust news swept that category.

But, interestingly, there was much less of an effect for people who said they were very interested in news. That population was slightly more likely to identify facts as facts — but less savvy than non-news-junkies at calling an opinion an opinion.

Political awareness, digital savviness and trust in the media all play large roles in the ability to distinguish between factual and opinion news statements

The results suggest that confirmation bias is not just a question of people rejecting facts as false — it can involve people rejecting facts as something that could be proven or disproven at all.

But Barthel saw a silver lining: In almost all cases, he said, a majority of people did classify a statement correctly — even with the trends revealing the influence of their beliefs.

“It does make a little bit of difference,” he said. “But normally, it doesn’t cross the line of making a majority of people get this wrong.”

Source: It’s Easier To Call A Fact A Fact When It’s One You Like, Study Finds

Reevely: Carleton loses fight to keep survey of Jewish students secret

Amazing. No matter what the findings, the bigger story becomes Carleton’s efforts to hide them:

Carleton University has to stop hiding a survey of Jewish students meant to find out how they feel about life on campus, a panel of senior judges says. Well, how they felt about life on campus at the beginning of this decade. Carleton’s been fighting for five years to keep the survey from public view.

When the case finally made it to court this week, three judges of Ontario Divisional Court took one day to laugh the university’s arguments off. They heard the case last Tuesday and told Carleton to stop screwing around on Wednesday, in a ruling that observes that Carleton’s lawyer could point to no precedents for its secrecy and had no evidence supporting its more outlandish claims about what might happen if it lost. (Full disclosure: I have a degree from Carleton. Fuller disclosure: About once a year, Carleton as an institution does something so at odds with the values it teaches that I cringe.) This survey was done for an internal commission set up by then-president Roseann Runte in 2010 to look at how various minority groups were treated at Carleton. The point of striking a commission — this one included several dozen people, from students to senior administrators to outside volunteers — is usually to get to the bottom of a serious problem in the most open way possible. Air all the dirty laundry. Get everything out there so we can start fixing problems.

The commission’s work was a bit of a mishmash, since the “inter-cultural, inter-religious and inter-racial relations on campus” it was supposed to look at are incredibly diverse and complicated. But its report in 2012 highlighted some standout problems on campus: legitimate debates about Israel too often spilled over into anti-Semitism, or into discussions where they didn’t belong both in classrooms and faculty meetings; and Indigenous students felt stereotyped and sometimes didn’t have help they needed adapting to university life.

The commission’s most important data-gathering came in surveys — one campus-wide one and narrower followups to dig into the first big survey’s findings. The final report includes a detailed summary of the big survey, including what questions it asked, what the response rates were (barely 10 per cent among students, and 30 per cent among Carleton staff), how members of particular groups found their Carleton experiences more satisfactory or less.

The report didn’t do the same for a follow-up survey of Jewish students and staff. “Respondents to the survey (of Jews at Carleton) participated on the condition of anonymity and therefore the results have not been distributed,” the commission report said. That’s it. This is a non-standard definition of “anonymity.” You can release results of a survey without revealing who said what. A university, of all places, should have this capability.

In 2013, someone (the person’s name isn’t in the court decision) filed an access-to-information request for the commission’s materials, including the raw results of the surveys and details of how they were conducted, and minutes from the commission’s two years’ worth of meetings.

“The university submits that the requester seeks the information to challenge the findings of the commission,” this week’s court ruling says. Which is neither here nor there — if documents are public, they’re public. A government institution doesn’t get to keep public information back just because it doesn’t like what a member of the public might do with it.

The survey is research, Carleton argued. The minutes of the commission’s meetings are related to research. We don’t have to give out research. Among other things, it wouldn’t release “the survey (of Jewish students) and its results, and an explanation of the survey methodology, who designed the survey, who approved the survey, how it was conducted, who analyzed the survey results.”

Ontario post-secondary institutions are covered by provincial public-information law but they can hold back material “respecting or associated with research conducted or proposed by an employee of an educational institution or by a person associated with an educational institution.” The idea is that if every lab note from every PhD student were open to public release, competitors would spend half their time nosing around each other’s work and answering requests instead of researching.

The law covers academic research, not stuff a university does that’s like any other corporation, the judges decided: “(T)he survey results and associated information are akin to market research which is not particular to universities and is not subject to the specific concerns of academic freedom articulated by the legislators.”

The university’s lawyer “was unable to provide a single decision where information gathered internally by a university for its own purposes and unrelated to academic research was covered by (the) research exemption,” the judges pointed out.

The university argued that releasing this information will make all university research harder and harm Carleton’s competitiveness. “No evidence was adduced to substantiate this claim,” the judges observed, using legalese for “Lawyer, please.”

Carleton’s conduct here is embarrassing for a public institution that set out to address problems on campus by talking about them openly. The fact it took five years for Carleton to get slapped down is embarrassing for Ontario’s access-to-information system. Both need to work better than they have.

Source: Reevely: Carleton loses fight to keep survey of Jewish students secret

The Problem With Wokeness: David Brooks

Valid, and good recognition that this is an issue for both the right and left, as are labels such as snowflake and virtue signalling:

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on “Meet the Press” that for all the horror of the recent school shootings, we shouldn’t be scaremongering. There’s much less gun violence over all in schools today than in the early 1990s. Four times as many students were killed per year back then than in recent years.

This comment elicited a lot of hatred on social media, of a very interesting kind. The general diagnosis was that I was doing something wrong by not maximizing the size of the problem. I was draining moral urgency and providing comfort to the status quo.

This mental habit is closely related to what we now call “wokeness.” In an older frame of mind, you try to perceive the size of a problem objectively, and then you propose a solution, which might either be radical or moderate, conservative or liberal. You were judged primarily by the nature of your proposal.

But wokeness jams together the perceiving and the proposing. In fact, wokeness puts more emphasis on how you perceive a situation — how woke you are to what is wrong — than what exactly you plan to do about it. To be woke is to understand the full injustice.

There is no measure or moderation to wokeness. It’s always good to be more woke. It’s always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. To point to any mitigating factors in the environment is to be naïve, childish, a co-opted part of the status quo.

The word wokeness is new, but the mental habits it describes are old. A few decades ago, there was a small strain of Jewish radicals who believed that rabid anti-Semitism was at the core of Christian culture. Any attempt to live in mixed societies would always lead to Auschwitz. Segregation and moving to Israel was the only safe strategy, and anybody who didn’t see this reality was, in today’s language, insufficiently woke.

This attitude led to Meir Kahane and a very ugly strain of militancy.

In 1952 Reinhold Niebuhr complained that many of his fellow anti-communists were constantly requiring “that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor.” This led to “apoplectic rigidity.” Screaming about the imminent communist menace became a sort of display art for politicians.

These days we think of wokeness as a left-wing phenomenon. But it is an iron law of politics that every mental habit conservatives fault in liberals is one they also practice themselves.

The modern right has its own trigger words (diversity, dialogue, social justice, community organizer), its own safe spaces (Fox News) and its own wokeness. Michael Anton’s essay “The Flight 93 Election” is only one example of the common apocalyptic view: Modern liberals are hate-filled nihilists who will destroy the nation if given power. Anybody who doesn’t understand this reality is not conservatively woke.

The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation — building a wall between you and the problem — not a solution.

There’s a debate on precisely this point now surrounding the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is, of course, well known for seeing the problem of racism in maximalist terms. The entire American story was and continues to be based on “plunder,” the violent crushing of minority bodies. Even today, “Gentrification is white supremacy.”

Coates is very honest about his pessimism and his hopeless view of the situation. But a number of writers have criticized his stance. Cornel West has argued that it’s all words; it doesn’t lead to collective action. In The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney argues, “Afro-pessimism threatens no one, and white audiences confuse having been chastised with learning.”

I’d add that it’s a blunt fact that most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat.

The greatest danger of extreme wokeness is that it makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time. For example, it is certainly true that racism is the great sin of American history, that it is an ongoing sin and the sin from which many of our other sins flow. It is also true that throughout history and today, millions of people have tried to combat that sin and have made progress against it.

The confrontation with this sin or any sin is not just a protest but a struggle. Generalship in that or any struggle is seeing where the forces of progress are swelling and where the forces of reaction are marching. It is seeing opportunities as well as threats. It is being dispassionate in one’s perception of the situation and then passionate in one’s assault on it.

Indignation is often deserved and always makes for a great media strategy. But in its extreme form, whether on left or right, wokeness leads to a one-sided depiction of the present and an unsophisticated strategy for a future offensive.

via Opinion | The Problem With Wokeness – The New York Times

What Silicon Valley Could Use More of: Inefficiency – The New York Times

Worth reflecting upon:

Hypocrisy thrives at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley. This is where Google executives send their children to learn how to knit, write with chalk on blackboards, practice new words by playing catch with a beanbag and fractions by cutting up quesadillas and apples. There are no screens — not a single piece of interactive, multimedia, educational content. The kids don’t even take standardized tests.

While Silicon Valley’s raison d’être is making platforms, apps and algorithms to create maximum efficiency in life and work (a “friction-free” world, as Bill Gates once put it), when it comes to their own families (and developing their own businesses, too), the new masters of the universe have a different sense of what it takes to learn and innovate — it’s a slow, indirect process, meandering not running, allowing for failure and serendipity, even boredom.

Back in 1911, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” By that metric, Uber and Google and Amazon Prime have given us a whole lot of civilization. And there’s no doubt our lives are better for it. (Ordering Chinese takeout in 30 seconds on an app might not be up there with Shakespeare or the incandescent light bulb, but it’s pretty great.) This unrelenting drive for efficiency has, however, blotted out a few things we all know intuitively but seem to be forgetting.

To create a product or service that is truly efficient often involves a lot of inefficiency — more like learning to knit than pressing a button. Likewise, gadgets built with a single-minded focus on efficiency can often backfire, subverting their purpose. Algorithms designed to dish up the news and information we most prefer end up blinkering us to all but a narrow slice of political and social reality. Our smartphones untether us from the office, saving us energy on travel, but also allow our lives to be interrupted nearly 24 hours a day, chewing up any productive idle time.

This all seems fairly obvious. But, as Edward Tenner writes in “The Efficiency Paradox,” “we sometimes need to be reminded of the obvious.” Tenner has made a career worrying about unintended consequences. His 1996 book, “Why Things Bite Back,” dealt with phenomena like the overuse of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria and the introduction of football helmets causing an increase of neck and spine injuries. In 2003, he published “Our Own Devices,” in which he turned to what he called body technologies — sandals, office chairs, computer keyboards — and how they had impaired as much as enhanced us. In short, for every three steps forward, he sees the two steps back.

With the internet now a dominant social force, Tenner is ready with his wet blanket. But he is not a cyber-pessimist or a fetishizer of the analog. He is, instead, a staunch moderate: “Silicon Valley’s mistake is not in developing efficient algorithms from which we all benefit, but in encouraging the illusion that algorithms can and should function in the absence of human skills.”

The dehumanizing effects of big data are well known and Tenner adds no groundbreaking insight here. (Books like Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” and Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here” were more pioneering on this front.) But what Tenner brings is a new frame. Unlike critiquing the denizens of Silicon Valley for deepening social and economic inequality, destroying our brains or helping to undermine democratic norms (issues that seem to matter to us more than them), questioning efficiency is truly kicking the geeks where it hurts.

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Drawing on an eclectic bunch of anecdotes and studies, Tenner makes his way through four sectors in which “intuition, skill and experience” have been effectively crushed by “big data, algorithms and efficiency”: media and culture, education, transportation and medicine.

A few of his examples:

Search algorithms have extended the ability to find scientific journal articles and books dating to the 19th century. In principle, this means scholars may encounter a broad range of research and discovery, dredge up forgotten work and possibly connect important dots. But in reality, as one sociologist found after studying citations in 35 million scientific journal articles from before and after the invention of the internet, researchers, beholden to search algorithms’ tendency to generate self-reinforcing feedback loops, are now paying more attention to fewer papers, and in general to the more recent and popular ones — actually strengthening rather than bucking prevailing trends.

GPS is great for getting from one point to another, but if you need more context for understanding your surroundings, it’s fairly useless. We’ve all had experiences in which the shortest distance, as calculated by the app, can also be the most dangerous or traffic-clogged. Compare the efficiency of GPS with the three years aspiring London cabdrivers typically spend preparing for the arduous examination they must pass in order to receive their license. They learn to build a mental map of the entire city, to navigate under any circumstance, to find shortcuts and avoid risky situations — all without any external, possibly fallible, help. Which is the more efficient, ultimately, the cabby or Google Maps?

In the early 2000s, electronic medical records and electronic prescribing appeared to solve the lethal problem of sloppy handwriting. The United States Institute of Medicine estimated in 1999 that 7,000 patients in the United States were dying annually because of errors in reading prescriptions. But the electronic record that has emerged to answer this problem, and to help insurers manage payments, is full of detailed codes and seemingly endless categories and subcategories. Doctors now have to spend an inordinate amount of time on data entry. One 2016 study found that for every hour doctors spent with patients, two hours were given over to filling out paperwork, leaving much less time to listen to patients, arguably the best way to avoid misdiagnoses.

Faced with all these “inefficiently efficient” technologies, what should we do? Tenner wants more balance. Let’s not put the brakes on the drive for efficiency. These tools are good. But they should give way a bit to human sensibility, to our own instincts and insights, which could help them work even better. “Analog experience can enhance digital efficacy,” he writes. “Digital tools can improve analog access. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

His recommendations are sensible, if hard to imagine actually coming to pass. He wants us to spend more time in the physical world, in the “terrain” of our cities or between the paragraphs of a printed book. We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” He likes the idea of systematically educating high school students in the skill of online searching, so they can make the algorithms work for them rather than slavishly accepting their results. He wouldn’t mind if we returned to the days of the dial-up modem, when we waited patiently for the pixels to materialize on the screen one by one. Instant gratification has dulled our senses. He’d put us all in Waldorf schools if he could.

If this sounds like Tenner is a man impassioned, I should be clearer: This is no manifesto. There is not much blood flowing through this book, which reads more like a report issued by a concerned think tank. Maybe it’s just that preaching moderation doesn’t lend itself to writing that pulls your face to the page.

But it would be unfortunate if Tenner were dismissed as just a cranky man in his 70s who thinks we spend too much time on our phones. What he is asserting is something we all know to be true. It’s bigger than the tyranny of efficiency. What he’s really asking is that we remember that the tools we’ve invented to improve our lives are just that, tools, to be picked up and put down. We wield them.

via What Silicon Valley Could Use More of: Inefficiency – The New York Times

Heterodoxy Academy: Encouraging diversity of thought

Rubin Friedman flagged this initiative to me that aims to increase diversity of thought within the academic community (primarily social sciences). Although I sense a slight balance to the right (might reflect my bias!), the principles and approach of the Heterodoxy Academy are broadly applicable.

During one of my executive development programs, considerable emphasis was placed on being able to ask open-ended questions as a learning and engagement technique, rather than leading questions to advance one’s position.

I particularly like the OpenMind exercises to increase awareness of one’s biases and develop techniques to broaden one’s perspective and engage and understand the perspectives of others. These are particularly useful when engaging in polarized political discussions such as immigration.

The five steps are below but I would encourage readers check it out (for the useful “life hacks” you need to do the exercises, each step takes between 10-20 minutes in my experience):

First step: See what you’ll gain from viewpoint diversity

  • Viewpoint diversity helps you get closer to the truth. In order to fully understand an issue, you need to challenge your assumptions and consider it from multiple angles.
  • Viewpoint diversity will help you be more persuasive. By engaging with people with whom you disagree, you can understand where they’re coming from, and craft arguments that will more likely appeal to them.
  • Viewpoint diversity will open up opportunities for growth and learning. Realizing that your views and opinions have evolved over time is a sure sign of intellectual development.
  • Therefore, it’s ideal to talk to both people with whom you agree and disagree, and try to learn from them why they believe what they believe.

Second step: Cultivate intellectual humility

  • In order to prevent our certainty from blinding us to other ideas, we must develop intellectual humility: the value espoused by Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Buddha, and many others. We can become wiser by recognizing the limits of our knowledge.
  • But doing so isn’t always easy. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is set in stone. This often causes them to prioritize looking smart at all costs, which makes it harder to learn and grow. Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can develop. As a result, they often relish accepting new challenges, which makes it easier for them to learn and grow.
  • In order to inject more growth into your mindset, you can: acknowledge that your abilities are fluid; view each mistake as a learning opportunity; and challenge yourself to do things you haven’t already mastered.

Third step: Explore the irrational mind

  • Our minds are divided into two parts that sometimes conflict: the elephant represents our quick, automatic intuitive thinking; the riderrepresents our slow, effortful reasoning. (You saw these two processes in action when you read the colors out loud effortlessly and then struggled a bit when naming the colors after.)
  • We often fall prey to post hoc reasoning, the process in which our elephant makes a snap moral judgment, and our rider works to justify it. (You might have used post hoc reasoning to justify your response that it’s acceptable to hit the switch on the trolley, and it’s acceptable to push the worker off the bridge.)
  • A common form of post hoc reasoning is when we seek or interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs, which is called confirmation bias.
  • Our reasoning becomes even less reliable when we are motivated to reach a particular conclusion, especially when a moral issue is at stake. (We explored this in the different cases about the unintended economic and environmental side-effects of the president’s new program.)
  • As a result, it can be difficult to convince other people to change their minds, especially on moral issues—because their brains, just like ours, are wired in these ways.

Fourth step: Break free from your moral matrix

  • We all live within a moral matrix: a consensual hallucination that we believe represents objective reality. Many different moral communities exist, each with its own set of shared values, and each convinced that its group alone sees truth as it really is. (You saw a metaphor for this with the optical illusion of the young woman and old woman.)
  • The moral mind is like a tongue with six different taste receptors. We all share these same foundations, but we build upon them in different ways to create our own moral matrices. The six moral foundations are: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty.
  • Many disagreements can be attributed to the application of different moral foundations. There are also cases when different people apply the same moral foundation in different ways. When someone disagrees with you, it’s probably not because they’re evil. It might be because they have constructed a different moral matrix and they rely on the moral foundations differently than you do.

Fifth step: Prepare for constructive disagreements

  • We can engage in constructive disagreement by seeking to learn, rather than to be right. The key to constructive disagreements is mastering the language of the elephant (automatic, intuitive thinking).

  • Sometimes, our automatic thoughts (generated by our elephants) aren’t accurate, and these cognitive distortions can cause negative feelings. Our riders can rein in our elephants by examining our initial thoughts, and—over time—training them to be more accurate

  • We can also hone our ability to communicate effectively with other people by focusing on their elephants. We can: respect their elephants (don’t criticize people or make them feel stupid); understand their elephants (learn about what other people care about and why); and appeal to their elephants (convey your thoughts in a language that will resonate with them).