The Nice Guy

A nice guy, finishing last.

Although I do not endorse every XKCD strip (www.xkcd.com), many of them point out an irony of our postmodern world, and proceed to poke us in the eye with it.  The comic here is one of them.  The three characters need some initial explanation:

  • The Nice Guy is merely trying to nurture a relationship with someone he is actually in love with.
  • The Jerk is the typical strong-willed, over-confident guy who wouldn’t dream of committing to an actual relationship; he’s too busy having a good time with the next woman.
  • The Woman is a normal young American female, raised by our current culture of entertainment and sex.  With this constant emphasis on having a good time, the Woman of course chooses to date the jerk.  He offers more of the pleasures of life.

(Or course, not all people fit into exactly one of these three categories, but without some categories, we can’t discuss trends in our society.  I know that not all Nice Guys are as innocent as the one here, not all women want to date jerks, and so on.  But I’ve seen the scenario depicted here enough times to know that it’s real and common.)

While there have always been men fitting the Nice Guy profile, the above scenario didn’t play out nearly as frequently as it does today.  A hundred years ago, Nice Guys got married like almost everyone else, because society guided everyone in that general direction.

Marriage rates today are lower than at any other time in American history.  While it is true that divorce rates are lower than they were in the 1980’s, they are still higher than any time pre-1940’s.  These are connected for the simple fact that those who do not marry cannot become divorce statistics.

Instead of a culture that guides young people down tried-and-true paths in life, what we have today is best described as anarchy:  no rules, no expectations, and no guidance (except from Hollywood—and their “guidance” is not not worth the celluloid it’s printed on).  The strongest men get their first pick of the women, but have no intention of settling down.  Women go along, because the Jerks are the most manly men around, and that makes women feel good, at least for a time.

So how does this scenario turn out?  While young people may play around with love for a time and then get happily married, other possibilities are becoming more common:

  • The Woman has been hurt by so many Jerks that she simply gives up, becoming cynical or bitter in the process, and ends up alone.  At the very least, her ability to trust other people is reduced permanently, creating yet another rift our society does not need.  (Women’s hearts are not designed to withstand multiple painful breakups.  Why did we stop protecting them?)
  • The Jerk eventually ages and runs out of women he can fool.
  • The Nice Guy ends up alone, having failed at the only strategy he seemed to have left (i.e., trying to contrast himself with the Jerk).

Would anyone argue that this sytem produces more happiness and satisfaction for a greater number of people than our former ways?

Trust Me

Interpersonal trust is a fundamental aspect of our society that is essential for liberty, prosperity and the smooth operation of all aspects of life. It simply costs more in terms of time, effort, emotion and money if we have to protect our interactions against betrayal.

Sociologists and psychologists (and those in between) study trust, and have found some disturbing things. The World Values Survey (www.worldvaluessurvey.org) has been measuring interpersonal trust since 1981, and finds that trust in the United States is in decline. Other surveys have found similar results.  (See [1].)  WVS itself puts current (2015) US interpersonal trust levels in the upper 30’s.

Decline in US interpersonal trust

This trend is not surprising, given all that is going on, culturally speaking, in the US:

Unfortunately, cultural diversity seems to work against trust. From Jonathan Haidt (here) “A recent study by Robert Putnam (titled E Pluribus Unum) found that ethnic diversity increases anomie and social isolation by decreasing people’s sense of belonging to a shared community.” People simply need a certain amount of cultural (and hence moral) homogeneity to feel that they can trust others. To state it the other way around, greater cultural and moral diversity makes it harder for people to predict what others will do, which is the essence of trust.

Of course when anyone suggests that cultural diversity might have a downside, there will be pushback. In particular, it will be tempting to look more deeply at the World Values Survey to find other nations with greater cultural diversity than the US, yet where interpersonal trust is higher. But I would caution the reader that—despite what WVS may claim—it is not valid to compare trust levels across national or linguistic boundaries. (See here for the reasoning, which would also apply to questions of trust.) The same survey question, sincerely translated into another language or asked in another nation, will not have exactly the same meaning, no matter how diligent one is. And cultural expectations of how one “should” answer the question will also vary from place to place. Therefore, the only valid use of such trend numbers is comparing them over time within a single nation.

The increasing amount of information we have about each other also seems to degrade trust. The internet, which was supposed to smooth cultural differences and promote understanding, is actually doing the opposite. (See here and [2].)

Higher divorce rates, and the fragility of our relationships in general, give us less experience with trusting relationships. To avoid being repeatedly hurt, we insulate ourselves, which means being less trusting as time goes on.

Lastly, we are clearly in a time of extremely rapid social change—as are most prosperous nations (see here). This makes it difficult for older generations to trust the younger, because it is difficult to see what boundaries the young won’t cross. Younger generations likewise cannot relate to the old.

Sadly, we should expect levels of trust to slip further, as none of the above trends are showing any signs of reversing.

[1] The declining trust graphic is from “Trust in people over time: Interpersonal trust among US public, 1960–1995”; 1960 data from Civic Culture Survey; 1962-1994 data from National Election Surveys and General Social Surveys, 1995 data from WVS. This is from the chapter entitled “Trust, Well-Being and Democracy” by Ronald Inglehart, which appears in Democracy and Trust, edited by Mark E. Warren.

[2] “Less Is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt”, Norton, Michael I., Frost, Jeana H., and Dan Ariely, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2007, Vol. 92, No. 1, 97-105.

Discussing Politics

Under most circumstances, I do not care for discussing politics. (You can see this by how few conversations I initiate on the subject.) This is due not only to today’s acrimony, but because we don’t discuss politics correctly.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, we argue the top-level issues of the day: pending legislation, the latest riot, scandals, welfare, foreign policy. This is not our fault; these are the subjects that TV and the internet put under our noses. But disagreeing over them is a waste of effort if we actually disagree on the underlying issues, things such as human nature, what our goals as a nation should be, how we define fairness, and so on. Our stances on high-level issues arise out of these fundamentals, so it is here that any real discussion should begin.

Below, I share my stances on the fundamentals. By way of introducing them, let me say that no nation has, or ever will, realize them perfectly. That is simply not possible. They are a vision, the ideals toward which I think humanity should continue to strive. I realize that other nations and cultures may not share them, but I would argue that they are among the noblest ideals that mankind has at least tried to bring together in one place.

The rule of law. We should all live under the same set of fair laws, justly enforced. Nobody should be above the law—not even a politician who is advancing a goal I favor.

A personally-held right to life. By implication, we must have the right to personally take part in protecting that right, which directly implies the right to own reasonable means of self-protection.

A personally-held right to liberty, and by extension, a personal right to act to protect that right. Liberty is not mere freedom—the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want. It is rather freedom coupled with self-restraint out of consideration for others. Liberty requires that a people have a sufficiently similar set of morals (and sufficiently high morals at that), for if they do not, then the conflicts that will arise will be too great for liberty to survive.

An individual right to own property. People must earn life’s rewards through performance, and be able to enjoy them. Otherwise, there is no incentive to work and achieve. This implies capitalism, with all its benefits and problems. (In contrast, centrally-planned, command economies provide demotivation and poverty for almost everyone.)

A fundamental right to self-determination (i.e., the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness”).

Our representatives should be elected by secret paper ballot. (And by the way, we should implement some of David Chaum’s ideas for verifiable-yet-secret ballots. And keep voting off the internet.)

Government must be limited. It is better when limited by a document than by a person, because individuals are more easily corrupted than systems. Therefore, political power is best when spread out among many people.

On the negative side, I oppose anarchy, and I oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.

As a result of the above, I support the Constitution of the United States in its original interpretation, and the Declaration of Independence, and the fundamental principles they lay down. Our Founding Fathers had a better understanding of human nature and the nature of government than anyone since, and deserve our respect for that achievement. Not only did they give us the blessings of liberty that we still largely have, but they accurately predicted the ways in which a nation could/would go off the rails when in decline.

Up or down?

Jonathan Haidt has done some fascinating research into how people arrive at their stances on moral issues. His findings bear directly on the problem of our divided society, explaining much of the gap between Left and Right. At the core, Haidt postulates a set of foundational but largely subconscious values, where individuals place differing amounts of importance on each particular area. Haidt’s value areas (the first 5 anyway), are the following:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

We each have our visceral feelings on care, fairness, loyalty, etc. Subsequently, our actual moral stances on specific political and cultural issues arise out of these low-level views. This is an important psychological/sociological finding in and of itself.

One might wish such research could provide solutions to the issues that divide us, but so far none have emerged. This hasn’t stopped some follow-on researchers from trying their hand at synthesizing solutions however. For example, Kate Johnson and Joe Hoover comment on the sanctity/degradation axis here: Do conservatives value ‘moral purity’ more than liberals?

The sanctity/degradation axis is significant, as it is a primary separator of liberals and conservatives in the United States. From moralfoundations.org, Haidt’s definition of this axis is:

“[The sanctity/degradation axis] underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

In describing this axis, neither Haidt nor anyone else can avoid invoking images of higher versus lower, clean versus dirty, noble versus base. And despite the question in Johnson and Hoover’s title, Haidt’s research proves that conservatives do care more about sanctity and purity than liberals.

So what is Johnson and Hoover’s suggestion for bridging the growing divide in America? Their quote:

“Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.”

There it is: avoid the purity rhetoric. Sounds simple. Of course the burden of changing would fall on conservatives, as they are the ones that care about this particular value.

Aside from the fact that Haidt himself has observed that people rarely budge on their fundamental values, this suggestion unfortunately fits well with the spirit of our age: At an individual level, the very idea of striving upward to some higher standard has never been less popular. (After all, that would require the existence of a higher standard, and that idea is becoming anathema also.) We lack shared, noble goals for our country’s future. This lack of any uniting vision is a key part of why we are fracturing into groups that cannot relate to each other.

But consider the alternative, which Johnson and Hoover did not propose: What if our leaders lifted up those now unconcerned with personal purity, showing them the advantages of living a life that strives for higher things? This could be in areas such as the arts, entertainment, our general level of discourse, or education. What if we were led to care more for others—not just for their mere economic status, but for their personal lives, perhaps even building back some of the social capital our society has lost?

Just a thought.

Letdowns for Radicals

In these polarized times, it is tempting to right wrongs by any tactic that will succeed. A master of this ends-justifies-the-means approach was Saul Alinsky, a community organizer of the twentieth century. He pioneered methods of agitating for social change, publishing his advice as the book Rules for Radicals. Two notable students of his tactics were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many radical groups to this day use his tactics to attempt to force change.

Two of his planned protests are illustrative of his general approach. (Note that these were only threatened protests; they were not actually carried out. But he was always prepared to follow through, because if anyone called his bluff, he stood to lose credibility.) Both quotes that follow are from Rules for Radicals. (I have bleeped one word in each quote.) First, a threat against the city of Chicago via its airport:

O’Hare Airport became the target…we tie up the lavatories. In the restrooms you drop a dime, enter, push the lock on the door — and you can stay there all day. What are the police going to do? Break in and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? An intelligence study was launched to learn how many sit-down toilets for both men and women, as well as stand-up urinals, there were in the entire O’Hare Airport complex and how many men and women would be necessary for the nation’s first “sh**-in.” … The consequences of this kind of action would be catastrophic in many ways. People would be desperate for a place to relieve themselves. … O’Hare would soon become a shambles. The whole scene would become unbelievable and the laughter and ridicule would be nationwide.

Regrettably, another of his protest threats had a similar theme:

I [Alinsky] suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall — with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip — so be it!) … The one thing that all oppressed people want to do to their oppressors is sh** on them. Here was an approximate way to do this.

His tactics were effective in certain circumstances because they harnessed the destructive energy of the disdain of one group for another, coupled with the simplicity of ninth-grade tactics. But in threatening to shut down a city’s airport or stink up its symphony, the protesters would not make any friends, nor would they build trust or community with anyone. It might be said that these were not Alinsky’s goals, nor those of the groups agitating for change. And in fact, he considered his opponents to be actual enemies, couching his advice in the language of war.

At a deeper level still, Alinsky had figured out that it was far easier to threaten or commit harm, than to do something positive. It’s easier to rally people to occupy airport restrooms than to organize them to pass out food and drink to tired travelers. It takes only one day to ruin a symphony—but 90 lifetimes to create one.

Such methods of protest thus rely on the same fundamental asymmetry between creation and destruction (i.e., good and evil*) that success in war depends on: the side willing and able to be the most damaging is the side that wins.

People who want change can choose their methods. One should always ask what sort of world we would have if a particular side wins. In comparing Alinsky’s world with, say, that of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think the choice is obvious.

*It’s probably not a coincidence that Alinsky devoted his book to Lucifer.

Why Science is Broken – Highlights

For those of us with an idealistic streak, we like to think of science as one of our purer institutions: Solely focused on seeking truth, Spock-like people in white lab coats carefully sidle up to reality’s secrets, share them freely with the rest of us, and make our lives remarkably better in the process.

If only that were the whole story. Oh sure, scientists on PBS do their best to continue the idealistic narrative. But science today is a far different beast than it was even 70 years ago. A number of factors have conspired to take it off-course, and I have compiled the following list. Although whole books have been written about particular problems below, my compact summary is a good splash of cold water for those willing to see how things really are.

For most of the points below, a simple internet search will return plenty of results confirming the problem. In fact, for many of these, there is published meta-research that confirms it. Yet the pressures involved conspire to keep the problems alive, with no solutions in sight.

Money. Of course money is necessary for science to happen, but is also the chief problem. There are currently more scientists than the market can comfortably bear, so there is intense competition in science for funding. This leads to falsification of data (or just stretching the truth), and attempts to game the system in order to secure limited funding.

Money also influences what research can be done at all, because the source(s) will nearly always have a desired conclusion in mind before the research is begun. This is particularly pernicious in the pharmaceutical industry, where billions of dollars are at stake. A researcher who publishes results contrary to those desired by the funding source could easily find themselves out of a job.

Politically-correct conclusions are much more common than those that go against a prevailing cultural narrative. Research that agrees will have an easier time getting funding from the government or academia (the two guardians of what is politically correct), and will be more acceptable to reviewers when it comes time to publish.

Private companies frequently require researchers to delay or withhold publication in order to protect data that could form the basis of trade secrets or patents. This can keep negative findings away from other researchers, causing them to waste time and money that could be better used elsewhere.

Job security. Scientists are people too, with house payments to make and kids to put through school. Once a researcher has staked out a position in a particular paradigm, it is essential to stay in that paradigm in order to hold a job and get further research money. It would be career suicide to suddenly claim that one had been wrong all along. (This is a completely different dynamic than the scientific paradigms spoken of in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Today’s paradigms are in more detailed areas of science, sub-fields actually, and live on based on funding. Kuhn spoke of major paradigms which really could be overturned based on counter-evidence.)

Consequently, “peers” reviewing papers for possible publication are ruthless in enforcing adherence to the current paradigm, because their jobs are also on the line if there is a paradigm shift. (Careers and reputations are built around being a major figure in a particular paradigm.)

Publish or perish. To get tenure and keep a job in academia, or to secure subsequent funding, it is necessary to publish, and quantity means more than quality. This pressure to publish is enough to cause researchers to alter or fabricate data.

Papers are far more likely to get published if they contain positive results than if they contain negative (i.e., that something doesn’t work, or that a previous paper’s results could not be confirmed). Positive results are far more interesting to readers, and less likely to rock anyone’s boat than negative results.

Peer review is broken. Reviewers sometimes squash papers that would get to press ahead of research they are working on. They will sometimes give a thumbs down to a paper by someone they don’t like if they can identify a competitor in their field. (Peer review is supposed to be anonymous, but authors can be unmasked somewhat easily.)

Some journals and conferences require submitters to pay to get a paper published, and then don’t actually submit the paper to honest peer review. Some conferences are shams, charging to let people speak, but having no checks and balances on what is presented.

Research papers are retracted far too often. (See http://retractionwatch.com/.) Whether papers needing retraction have always been out there, or whether more are needing retraction nowadays is an open question.

The replicability crisis. Researchers don’t seem to have enough controls on experiments to make them replicable in a reliable fashion. Problematic areas, such as medicine and psychology, have too many factors to allow accurate control of all of them. (Human beings are incredibly difficult to measure.)

Research that merely replicates other research is very valuable for establishing truths, but is far less likely to get published than research that plows new ground.

The p-value controversy. Even without fudging any of the data, an incorrect conclusion will be reached some small percentage of the time, just by luck. If you couple this with the fact that positive findings are easier to publish, you have a recipe for wrong findings to gain a foothold.

Sexual harassment, particularly of younger female researchers working under males. This is utterly reprehensible and inexcusable, but continues to happen.

Mid-career researchers, who have more to lose by not finding the results they are seeking, are motivated to overrule younger researchers working for them. Younger workers, more idealistic by nature would otherwise be free to reach less-biased conclusions. (Having said that, it is possible that researchers nearing retirement could be more trustworthy, as they have less to lose by pointing out major problems. Unfortunately, there is no good way to reliably employ this heuristic in judging research, as individual character varies too greatly.)

This list is probably not complete. Sadly, the points above mean that nearly any scientific conclusion published today deserves to be questioned. I’m not a luddite, and am not saying that we should ignore the conclusions science reaches. But we must be very careful when we latch onto any particular finding.

Art as randomness

Objective meaning anyone?

Blue Poles, by Jackson Pollock, Wikimedia

If you have viewed any quantity of art, you are aware of the tectonic shift in style that the 20th century saw. From recognizable forms, themes and objects, much of art shifted to meaningless shape and color. Pollack and Rothko are just a few artists who led the graphic art world into the new way.

Having become accustomed to the newer forms, and not wanting to be seen as old fashioned, most do not criticize this shift, but merely accept it. I am not able to be quite so accommodating.

Meaning?

No. 61, by Mark Rothko, Wikipedia

Of course art should have deeper purposes beyond mere design and decoration. Any medium that can depict the events of our past, the realities of our present, and our hopes and vision for the future is too important a thing to waste on meaninglessness. To succeed, art must communicate, which implies that it must depict things having real objective meaning for the viewer. (Artists today will assert that their works do indeed have meaning, but the very fact that you could mix up the titles in a postmodern gallery and nobody would be the wiser proves that such works do not really have inherent meaning.)

So how did such a radical change come about in art? Several factors are responsible.

In the twentieth century, art went from something largely available only to the elite, to something everyone could own. The overall increase in prosperity, coupled with the decrease in the cost of printing, made sure that everyone could own copies of art if they desired. Art became common. In that environment, artists had to branch out quickly and radically to differentiate themselves. That created a race to the bottom, as the available forms and styles that could still be distinguished were quickly exhausted.

(Many artists would say that it was the old, classical forms that were exhausted, and so modern and postmodern art simply had to forge new trails. This required that artists desiring to be successful push the envelope of what was considered “art”. I don’t accept that this was the only choice, if it meant that art had to lose touch with reality.)

Wedded

Wedded, by Lord Frederic Leighton, Google Art Project

Coupled with this was the discovery that in a postmodern world, art could be marketed with skillful words substituting for skillful art. This enabled artists to create far more works in the same period of time than a classical artist every could. Whereas Bouguereau or Leighton would take weeks to paint a canvas, Picasso could finish one per day. By wrapping a hasty work in a veil of obscure postmodern language, one can still be successful.

It will be said of me that I “just don’t get” postmodern art, or that I’m a neophyte, or worse. And thus we come to the next leg upon which art stands today: elitist snobbery, art prices, and the guru effect. To be in the club at the highest level, you have to agree that the avant garde is where it’s at. Coincidentally, the people defining club membership are those who happen to own the avant garde works. They have no choice but to protect the value of the works they have bought. And who wouldn’t want to own a Picasso? After all, it’s…a Picasso! The emperor’s clothed state must be defended!

Maternal Admiration

Maternal Admiration, by William Adolphe Bouguereau, Wikipedia

Lastlyand this is certainly not an original thought of mine (see How Should We Then Live, by Francis Shaeffer for more), it is quite possible that too many artists have nothing visionary to say. This aligns with my concerns for the future of Western civilization in general, as artists can be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, culturally speaking. As we seem to be rudderless in general, so did art presage this by getting itself lost in a dense fog with no apparent direction or purpose. (Of course there are artists attempting to backfill the art landscape by painting in more traditional styles. But they are not considered members of the club.)

Where can the graphic arts go from here? Not much farther in the direction of nihilism and randomness. That area is already filled with an undifferentiable melange of color and shape. Might I suggest instead a return to depicting some noble ideals, or a lofty vision or two—with all possible skill? Until that happens, I’ll be browsing the art here: http://artrenewalcenter.org/pages/search.php