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The liar they can believe

June 22, 2018

The recent border issues had Trump tweeting one lie after another, from the claim that Democrats made him do it to the claim that immigrants in Germany are increasing crime there (crime is down there). Yaschka Mounck describes some interesting research (cite, pdf) that proposes an idea of how Trumpistas can view their leader as somehow authentic:

When the political system is widely seen as doing its job, somebody like Trump, who violates its basic norms, is seen as illegitimate. A politician who blatantly lies doesn’t stand a chance. But this changes when more and more people come to believe that the system is rigged and that most politicians don’t have their best interests in mind. Amid such a “crisis of legitimacy,” voters don’t particularly care whether a politician plays by the rules of the game. Instead, they long for somebody who bluntly states how rotten the system really is. In this kind of context, voters no longer abhor detectable lies, or even racist statements, in quite the same way as you’d expect. On the contrary, they start to see such visible violations of basic norms as proof that their favorite candidate really is different from everybody else.

The authors propose we are experiencing two kinds of crisis of legitimacy:

A “crisis of legitimacy,” Hahl and his co-authors point out, can take two forms: In a “representation crisis,” large segments of the population feel that the political establishment doesn’t govern on their behalf. Meanwhile, in a “power devaluation crisis,” a once dominant group resents the fact that politicians increasingly seem to pay attention to new, formerly less powerful groups. The United States is currently suffering from both crises. Many minority groups understandably feel that the current government doesn’t have their best interests at heart. At the same time, many members of the shrinking ethnic majority have good reason to believe that their power will keep on dwindling. In other words, the legitimacy of the American political system is increasingly in doubt on both sides of the partisan divide.

What that narrative omits is two things. First, there is an asymmetry in the politics of deceit. Sanders is usually held up as the outsider who ran on the left, and he did not practice that. To the extent that Stein is an example, she also was marginal.

Second, Trump did not create that politics of deceit. That was done by a host of right-wing media personalities, from Alex Jones to Rush Limbaugh. Their techniques now learned and repeated by third-rate bloggers. Trump just saw that movement there, waiting for its leader.

The explanation above may indeed be part of why so many can overlook so many lies. But it takes more than that to explain how a political movement gets built around conspiracy theories.


“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”

June 21, 2018

Nietzsche famously said that.

Italian researchers provide some science to back that up. Using mice, they found that restricting load bearing exercise “can influence not only the motor and metabolic systems but also the nervous system, altering neurogenesis and the interaction between motoneurons and muscle cells.” (Cite.)

Of course, we are not mice. There have been quite a few human studies also suggesting a connection between exercise and brain health. The problem with using people in these experiments is that you cannot make them finish the experiment. Volunteer dropout throws a kink into many of these studies.

Modern work and dating

June 20, 2018

If you lean Trumpista, the White House is looking for help. Be forewarned: it’s a dysfunctional environment, where workers leak info to the media just to get Il Donald’s attention, with a revolving door, that may not lead to much future opportunity. On the bright side, a conservative man living in DC won’t be distracted by the social scene. A reporter for a right-wing publication who views himself as merely a moderate conservative complains that:

The policies and these things that are attached to the right whether or not you’re a supporter of Trump have been pre-supposed on you, and it’s like a black mark.

A liberal woman says there is more nuance:

If you’re dating someone and they say ‘I think we should have lower marginal tax rates,’ that’s different than dating someone who doesn’t think a woman should have a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. There’s a spectrum there.

Meanwhile, on the left coast, engineers have to be wary whether job recruiters and dates actually are undercover for James O’Keefe. I will shed no tears, if he ends up at the bottom of a bay.

What you see on TV is not nature

June 19, 2018

moustached-kingfisherMost who profess a love of nature don’t much know nature. They are like the devoted fans of a movie star whom they have never met. Many are nature blind. Young Americans’ view of animals is shaped by years of animated entertainment, and maybe by owning some domesticated animals.

Even those of us who spend some time in the field are influenced by what we see in our relative few years of active life:

The people of each generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal and natural. When wildlife is depleted, we might notice the loss, but we are unaware that the baseline by which we judge the decline is in fact a state of extreme depletion.

It takes not just some time in the field, but also some study of biology, to appreciate how ecosystems are changing and sometimes disappearing in front of our own eyes, due almost entirely to human destruction of habitat. Environmentalists are in a constant rearguard struggle against that. So it is quite disheartening to read the story of Christopher Filardi, a learned ornithologist doing good environmental work, driven from public view, largely by those whose vision of nature is Disneyfied.

PETA is not an environmentalist organization. It’s far from clear that concern for natural environment is compatible with their peculiar view of animal rights. Every field biologist understands that animals in the wild live much closer to the edge than popular presentations show. Every drought causes many to starve. Early snap freezes kill migratory birds too late to take wing. Every cute animal either survives by eating other cute animals, or by living under the constant threat of that fate themselves, those deaths painful and horrid. The moustached kingfisher shown above is a predator, living on big insects and small vertebrates. All wild animals suffer parasites. Indeed, parasitic species may outnumber the rest of us. The wild mammal or bird that lives through a few mating seasons is the rare success, and still faces an inevitable cruel fate. None die peacefully in old age. Rather, their first frailties turn them quickly from yesterday’s fine specimen into tomorrow’s meal. It might well be that the only way to significantly lessen animal suffering would be to convert the earth entirely into human landscape, all predators eliminated, and only the compatible species kept. That, of course, is precisely what the environmentalist are trying to prevent.

Trying to preserve ecosystems and species in the modern world can feel quite a bit like tilting at windmills. California plans to build wildlife crossings over Hwy 101, motivated partly by the evidence that panther populations are isolated and inbred. How much will that help? Hard to say. We worry about the panther perhaps because it is an apex predator, and certainly because it is large and visible and iconic. For each visible species at risk, there are hundreds or thousands of others going extinct, bugs and invertebrates and other small animals not much noticed, without making the news. Our knowledge is so meagre we can only make estimates. As to how microorganisms are changing, we hardly know at all. When we lose a beetle species, that means we lose the parasitic wasps dependent on it. Are there specialized flora dependent on those? Who knows. Who knows.

Hostages and negotiation

June 18, 2018

Trump put millions of Dreamers in the lurch by ending DACA. To create a a bargaining chip. That hasn’t yet worked. So he separates thousands of refugee children from their parents, and puts them into concentration camps. For use as another bargaining chip.

Both of these wrongs could be largely alleviated in the same way they were created, by Trump just directing the appropriate federal agencies to do differently. There are several ways Trump can enforce border law without purposely separating families seeking asylum. While the misery created by his current policies is heart-rending, the background fact to keep in mind is that Trump will have plenty of future opportunity to generate human misery for political leverage. His pattern is simple: 1) Target a group his base demonizes, such as undocumented immigrants or refugees. 2) Create a humanitarian crisis, through his own unilateral action. 3) Falsely blame it on the Democrats. 4) Promise to alleviate it in return for what he wants.

If the Democrats give into that, it tells him that tactic wins. And therefore is worth accelerating. They need to resist it.

DACA was in response to Congressional failure to pass the DREAM Act in 2011, after Republican filibuster in the Senate. That legislation is sorely needed, and Democrats should be and are ready to pass such today.

In contrast, legislative attempts to prevent Trump from separating refugees and their children seem silly. He will veto them. He has plenty of other opportunities to create this kind of pain. Just writing law that says “don’t do X” is a futile game of whack-a-mole. What Trump wants, of course, is to use his hostages as political leverage. His message is, “Give me the wall and less legal immigration and other things I want, and I will let some of the hostages go safe.” That needs to be resisted. Every time the Republicans bring up such “solutions” as a part of the legislative bargaining process, Democrats need to remind Americans this all is on Trump and the Trumpistas, and that there is good reason not to reward purposely taking hostages as bargaining chips.

The most disappointing thing I see in response to this is how often I see the Trumpistas repeat the standard authoritarian line: these children deserve what is done to them because their parents broke a law.

Brainy by hook and crook

June 14, 2018

Trying to discover how we evolved our large brains, researchers from KU Leuven did a search for genes thar are unique to humans, that were generated from duplication events, and that are active in the developing brain. They found dozens, includin a handful, the NOTCH2NL genes, that resulted from one original that had been duplicated multiple times over the last three million years in our ancestral line. (Cite.) Unsurprisingly, additional duplication or loss of these genes can cause problems from microcephaly to schizophrenia. Our intelligence is “not some golden benchmark,” as Robert Ford so well puts it, but a cobbled product of biology, more full of quirks than we see.

Cheetolini turns from Korea

June 13, 2018

Jennifer Rubin writes the editorial that every conservative pundit would write, if any Democratic president had just given Kim Jong Un everything he wanted, in return for nothing more than bland words. Trump knows Un’s promises are worthless. That just doesn’t matter to a publicity opportunity: “I may be wrong, I mean I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.” Well, Fox News will make any excuses he needs.

I must confess I am more sanguine about the results of this diplomacy than Rubin. It doesn’t bother me that North Korea wins what it wants. I am relieved that Trump did not start a war, and has now turned his attention to less dangerous things. I think we are lucky in a way that Trump is not the fascist leader the Trumpistas want, but just a conman playing it for money and attention.

More broadly, it’s hard to say what the lasting consequences are in the Koreas, from a bit of US disengagement. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where there is long-term benefit from that. Of course, those scenarios are easier to imagine if that disengagement were done purposefully and in coordination with our allies rather than as the unintended result of politics practiced in the manner of reality TV. The largest disappointment is that Trump gave more than tacit approval to Kim’s human rights violations. But that was fully expected, given Trump’s own history and the nature of his base.