Friday, October 31, 2014

Risk and the Ape

It's no secret that a sizable number of people are very concerned about the risk of Ebola and that either as part of the cause or part of the effect, the media are obsessive in their coverage, grasping for any aspect of the disease, its history and its treatment, that can be talked about by an ever-changing cast of experts as well as the same familiar faces.  They may pause to cover a plane crash, a shooting, but the business of the day is Ebola: those who have it, those who may get it and those you might get it from whether you're in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana or Braggadocio, Missouri.

How do we choose what we worry most about?  What scares us the most?  Psychologists like Slovic, Lichtenstein and Fischoff  have done studies about the public perception of risk.  The public, they argue, will assess  the danger of death from disease as equal to death by accident as being equal, but disease is 18 times as likely to kill you as a gun or a car or certainly a policeman.  Death by lightening seems less likely to those in their studies than the risk of death from botulism, although lightening is 52 times more likely to get you.

"The Lesson is clear:"  Says psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. "estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage. The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy.  The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but are also shaped by it"  

Rare and unusual occasions make good press in the competitive news and entertainment game and when the supply runs low and the demand high, the more commonplace or quotidian may be dressed up for the prom.  Have you turned on CNN recently?

"The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality"

says Kahneman, understating the obvious. People make judgements and assessments of risk by consulting their emotions and not by examining the numbers.   A scary and unusual or gruesome thing looms larger than the Flu which may be millions of times more likely to kill you than Ebola. That Tylenol overdose accounts for 33,000 hospitalizations every year and hundreds of deaths simply doesn't enter the equation when we hyperventilate about the "risk" of Ebola or international terrorism or disease-carrying Mexican immigrants. And we don't feel fear when taking it or even read the label. 

Enter affect heuristics, the snap judgement mode under which we asses risk based on quicker, emotionally biased and less accurate calculation. .As Psychologist Jonathan Haidt said:
 "The emotional tail wags the rational dog."
If this doesn't seem pertinent to you, consider the studies of Antonio Damasio with people who do not, usually because of brain damage or abnormality,  display "appropriate" emotional responses.  They tend not to make decisions as well or as beneficially as others.  Indeed one's feelings do seem to enter into decisions we think of as truly rational. Asked to assess risk Vs. reward for specific technologies, one's feelings toward technology seem to determine the outcome. If you don't see genetic engineering as having any benefit at all, if you see danger in using Ammonium nitrate from the factory over  nitrates from manure, it's probably because of your bias against or lack of knowledge about science. If you tend to overlook real dangers from nuclear power, you probably already enjoy and understand technology and science. 

Is this a terrible thing?  Does it spell some disaster in that humans cannot expect to make the right decisions based on objective reality?    The public, says Slovic, actually makes finer distinctions than  the experts who assure us that you won't get Ebola from a certain person or by breathing the same air.  Finer distinctions between random, unpredictable fatalities and fatalities, like automobile accidents, that come from voluntary decisions. From this he concludes that  we should resist the "rule" of experts. 

Others look at examples where relying on experts might have prevented  popular excess, popular emotion from entering into public policy as with the expensive fiasco in 1989 about Alar and apples, where people were so afraid of apple juice they were taking it to toxic waste dumps and making terribly unreasonable claims of conspiracy based on nothing. Popular sentiment quickly snowballed or cascaded out of hand and beyond the universe of fact and reason.

Some psychologists like Timur Kuran and Cass R. Sunstein speak of  an Availability Cascade, A  mechanism through which biases flow into public policy, a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective beliefs, when explaining things from the Love Canal incident which somehow didn't kill us all or even some of us, yet had a colossal affect on public policy and public spending.   Does it explain demonstrations that insist that "we can't go the movies any more" because there was an isolated shooting?  In truth, choking on milk duds poses a greater risk but our minds see some qualitative difference between those deaths. 

Can it be part of human nature that we either ignore small risks because they are small risks -- or invest them with incredible imminence and attach tremendous fear to the point where we abuse the innocent, the non-dangerous as though we were running from a burning theater with evey man for himself?  We ignore or we panic and there are no other choices.

So perhaps we're overreacting in a predictable and intrinsically human way when we see immense danger from someone who might have been exposed to Ebola but who, we are assured, isn't contagious?  Are we asking ourselves for something we are not really capable of: a rational nature?  We evolved in a world where overreacting or reacting without much thought can save our lives but doesn't do much harm if the danger was less than expected. So if this is not exactly a critique of pure reason,  I'm still  not arguing that we should or even can throw out our inbred nature and I'm suggesting that  we accept the ape even while we keep him under close supervision.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Irrational Nation

Is it really possible to have any faith in the things people believe, the things they support or vote for or go out in the street with signs to protest?   Perhaps we can imagine that in our democracy of sorts, the craziness at the extremes will cancel out their opposite numbers leaving some sort of rational center like the fluffy stuff in a Three Musketeers bar -- but perhaps it's no more than that: fluff. Perhaps delusion, blindness and an inability to apply what we know to what we think. Perhaps the whole idea of a center is illusory.

Perhaps the very idea of sides, like the left and right we seem to be consumed with,  is just another irrational belief or worse, a fallacy designed to
reduce the choices, the possibilities and probabilities the way trial lawyers or preachers or politicians do. Is everything binary?  Do we really have to acquit if the gloves shrank when they dried?  But we're dishonest enough with our own decisions that it's not fair only to blame people who try to manipulate us. After all, how many people go out looking for information to test their faith and creeds and political affiliations.  How many indulge in some sort of fugue of denial and assertion when faced with refutation? We fool ourselves better than anyone else can fool us. We indulge in motivated reasoning.  Hey, I'm talking to you!

Ask yourself how much chatter we hear about free spending, irresponsible Democrats who are giving away our (always hard earned, even if your last name is Koch or Walton)  money.  The debt is killing us and it's Obama's fault even if  Obama has been reducing it steadily after his predecessor's thrifty "policies" made it explode. I mean you can't go to a movie theater or send your kids to school any more even though the rate of such rampage shooting is half of what it was 20 years ago. Some of us need to believe things are getting worse and nothing is being done even though the facts are otherwise.  

Facts don't actually matter even when we have all of them and far less so when we have few or choose only the few that support our opinions.  But evidence seems to show that we strongly pick positive links and ignore negative ones.  Negative observations like all the horrifying predictions about explosive inflation, double-dip recession and a host of others we've wet our pants about have never come true at best and have happened in reverse at worst don't matter at all while some shaky or fallacious or fictitious positive link between, say immigration and everything from STD's to universal drug dependence are defended more than we will defend our country.  All the data correlating laws to their effects or lack of effects will take a back seat to firm conviction based on ignorance or stubbornness. No evidence whatever to support Reagan's economics or God's anger or the total failure of  the Affordable Care Act? Ignore that -- talk about  the theory and talk loud.

Media vita in morte sumus

In the midst of life, we are in death, and for weeks of blazing heat and tropical humidity the front porches and Ficus hedges in this manicured neighborhood have been festooned with gigantic fake cobwebs and plastic tombstones and ghosts like tattered laundry sodden in the hot air.  There's nothing intrinsically spooky about an October evening in Florida.  No bite to the air, no naked tree limbs groping at the sky like bony fingers.  It's still a midsummer evening and it smells of flowers and often there's a faint sweet incense of burning cane fields far away. 

We bring these things, the detritus of  alien and Northern cultures with us when we come here from places that get cold, places that have distinct seasons that have been mythologized for ten thousand years.  It takes forever to give up trying to force reality into our ingrained myths and many of us don't seem to try.  We want to feel afraid of the creeping death called autumn, although we tend to confuse it with movie characters meant to be frightening and we've forgotten the old meaning of  that hallowed evening when we might just see the dead again in the midst of life.

Autumn is the season of renewal here, it's when you plant things, rearrange the patio furniture, open windows, paint the porch and wash the car, but it's when the vultures return from wherever they went to avoid the Summer heat, roosting in trees, sitting on fences and sometimes congregating around roadkill to remind us that even in the abundance, the exuberance, the blooming of life -- even in the midst of plastic tombstones, cardboard witches and bedsheet ghosts, in the midst of chaperoned toddlers in princess costumes seeking candy, death awaits 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

As it happeneth

As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? 
-Ecclesiastes 2:15- 

For a long time after I began to write here, it was enough to enumerate the foolishness of the "other side," the Tea Party, the NRA, Fox News. . . and as the man said, the danger is in becoming the monster you oppose, because one gets used to the other side being not only wrong but demonic and at best, foolish.  It does not follow that if mine enemy is wrong, I must be right. It's a vanity we all share. The model of the world we form in our heads; the model we nourish and prop up with facts, with truisms and tropes, with axioms and articles of faith, is not the real world any more than the Tao we can discuss is the real Tao. Can it be that our cherished wisdom is no more than a vanity? 

Watching Bill Maher's panel of the wise the other night was like being at the same circus you've been watching for too long.  When the clown car pulls into the ring, you already know the names and number of the clowns and when the discussion turned to the Washington State school shooting I knew it was only a matter of time until every last one climbed out, from the NRA to Drone Strikes.  But even a circus car can hold only so many.  There's hardly room for objective truth and no part for him in the show.  Why drone strikes When Muslim armies are raping torturing and beheading innocents?  Because the drone strike clown is part of the circus crew and the mission of the crew is assigning blame, prescribing from the official pharmacopoeia as well as to blame everyone but the perpetrators,  and of course he's a distraction, a way of substituting an answer we have, an argument we favor to any real discussion of what happened, its relation to other happenings and a way of attaching blame to what just might be random.

Last out of the clown car was the editor in chief of The Daily Beast to tell us that "surveys show" the people want background checks, which might have prevented this and the NRA was opposed. Facts are that we have had mandatory checks for decades, the gun in question was bought pursuant to one and was registered to a legal owner. But it's a small car and the clown has to stretch his legs.

So it happeneth to the fool and I'm getting tired of it happening to me.  Just what is the risk to any one of us from Ebola, from ISIS insurgents,  Central American child refugees,  racist police -- and how does it compare with the risk of heart disease,  urban street gangs and soccer moms texting while driving?  Don't ask because you'll become the enemy yourself, the enemy of those who insist on there being trends and conspiracies and the ever growing risks of living in America today.  Yes, the subject of drone strikes came up (Cornell West) as supporting evidence of Western sin along with the details of how "we"  arbitrarily created countries to our benefit and thus earned the enmity of the Muslim world.  Did anyone bother to ask if this mechanism made thousand year enemies of Japan and Germany after we conquered and occupied them?  No because that would challenge the model of Islamic innocence.  Do we examine the possibility that the media circus surrounding any of the events CNN chooses to obsess about every week or so, has made it glamorous for disturbed teenagers to become a bright shining star and go out like a supernova?  No, that distracts from the need to obsess about the NRA and to reenact our passion play about weapons of war, spraying high caliber, armor piercing, cop killer bullets and the total absence of all gun control measures. The chess board is set up and only the official pieces can be played.

And how then are we wise?  How do we decide what's true and what the risks are and who is to blame?  There is much written about this question and related questions of  how we see the world as we are, through rose colored or dark glasses.  The psychologist Paul Slovic's oft quoted article in Science, about risk perception theory and what he called affect heuristics, the particular heuristics and biases people invent to interpret the amount of risk in their environment.  Is the risk of Ebola running rampant to be compared with the existing risk of the flu, (about 2.5 million deaths per year) much less all infectious diseases still endemic in the US?  How many die because enlightened people oppose vaccinations?  Indeed fear of science rides in that clown car as it does in the Tea Powered version. Is the NRA opposition to study of gun crimes any different than the steadfast refusal of their opposition to discuss ( or to read or admit the existence of)  gun laws and their statistical correlation to positive results?

Did Florida's revised self defense laws really "Make it illegal for black people to go outside" as one pundit said about a case that did not, by his own admission, involve that law, or is that the result of vision through a bias darkly?  Did a  "gentle giant" really commit a robbery and assault a police officer or is his innocence to be presumed and to the extent that we need no fair trial to hang the policeman?  The answer was in the bias, the affect heuristics of the observer and the judgement to which he is accustomed to snap.  Does the fact that over 90% of the shootings of young black men are by young black men enter into the equation and cause wonder about the lack of  media circuses when that happens?  Can we really not go to the movies any more, or send out children to school where they are statistically safer than they are at home or driving with mom and her smart phone?

Can we see current events and the surrounding hoopla as anything but a cosmic frame shop, selling framed reproductions of  paint by the numbers reality?  Should we look at the news of the day as another day's entry in the logbook of the ship of fools?  Will our inherent nature ever let us be the rational beasts we pretend to be?  

 "For there is no remembrance of the wise more than that of the fool forever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten.  And how dieth the wise man?  as the fool."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nothing ever changes

Even when it does.

Oh goodie, we can stop obsessing about Ebola and the Ottawa shooting and renew the obsessive hysteria about school violence until something else happens.  Of course something else is happening constantly, but there's no money in discussing it when you compare it to the blockbuster ratings boost from red-eyed, glued to the tube, round the clock repetition of the same damned video clips under the rubric of "breaking News!"

I suppose there will be little or no comment on the likelihood that the massive coverage will produce copy-cat incidents of suicide by shooting spree and the usual refusal to attempt perspective by noting that such things seem to clump, but all in all have been declining significantly - over 50% - for more than 20 years. It's more profitable to claim that schools aren't safe although impartial statistics seem to show it's more dangerous at home and that any one American school can expect to have a gun or explosives incident only about once in 12,800 years.  People are demonstrably terrible at assessing risk and news providers get rich by helping them panic while other institutions of reform and anti-reform distract and misinform to promote their programs, all of them so convinced of their rightness and righteousness, truth can be damned as an obstruction and lies praised as noble.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bring in the McClowns

It seems I write the same things over and over again because the Republican pattern repeats indefinitely.  It's OK when we do it or say it or demand it, it's anti-American, tyrannical, too little, too late, too much, too soon when they do it. Even if Republicans invented it or pioneered it or used it until yesterday it's different when "they" do it.

How long ago was it that John McCain and  Fox News and the rest of the merry bunch made a circus act with all three rings full of how Obama is a "tyrant" for appointing all those Czars?  "More Czars than the Romanovs," tweets the funny man.  So where's the big red nose and oversize pants when John McCain tells us that hapless weakling Obama isn't appointing the Czars we need?  That's right, John McCain has joined Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), sponsor of H.R. 3226 (111th): Czar Accountability and Reform (CZAR) Act of 2009  in condemning the administration for this egregious failure, invoking the "if it's bad, it's Obama" clause in the Party rules. 2009 is when George W. Bush left office -- just coincidentally -- and of course George had 33 of them, but let's keep that quiet.

Of course there's no public office with the title Czar on the door as far as I know. It's a media epithet that began in the 1940s and of course there's nothing unconstitutional about the President appointing "other public ministers" no matter how much they chuckle and chortle and lie in the Fox newsroom.
But quoting history and public record never seems to have much effect on the magic thinkers and pea-brained partisans of any stripe.  The public's eyes are always on the jugglers and clowns and what they're doing now, not what they did ten seconds ago.

"No one knows who's in charge," says McCain, his face revealing nothing of how his party, with the help of the NRA has blocked the nomination of a Surgeon General, an office designed to take control and coordinate the process of informing the country of what's being done.  Yes, the NRA, because the Surgeon General might just get involved in gun policy.  Can't have that. Better a plague than risk a gun grabber liberal doctor commie near our weapons. Better this country perish from the earth.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Florida falls into autumn
the way you grow old:
with a sense of change you
may not see in the weather
or on your face in the mirror 
or in the falling of leaves
or ripening fruit,

but you feel in an easing, 

a thinning of the still hot air,
a pause in continuity.

The odor of this morning is different.

Something is changing.

Black vultures in a tree.
An osprey on white wings
screams down at us.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

And they wonder why they're hated!

Said the man taking a video of a police "incident" from his front porch in Tallahassee, Florida.  Apparently a woman walking down a narrow residential street with no sidewalks had inquired something of a police officer, one of a great many who had congregated, their cars lining a narrow suburban lane with lights flashing to arrest three people for being suspicious.  Apparently there was a complaint about a drug deal, but of course no one would know except the officers.  Why not ask about an operation of that size in front of your house? 

But we're only citizens.  Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to obey, to be chased away or be tased in the back while calmly walking from the scene, as requested,  face smashed violently into the pavement,  dragged away in chains for not responding submissively enough to suit a cop assuming the right  to chase her away from a public place she had the right to be.  Sounds suspiciously like a case of the right to stand one's ground against an armed attacker Liberals love to hate.

But of course we don't have the right when it comes to the police.  Ignoring the traditional copscreaming, the verbal abuse and threats we associate with the swashbuckling and bullying style of public relations some cops practice, the woman simply jerked her arm when someone behind her grabbed it -- perhaps something either you or I might have done as a reflex.  After all, there was no "stop, you're under arrest" nor any cause for one.

She wasn't a young woman, perhaps old enough to be your mother or even your grandmother.  She was no threat to anyone, or at least no threat to any sane one -- anyone not in an ecstatic froth of  arrest frenzy so common to police action. Is it an act to justify the systemic disrespect for the citizens they're supposed to serve? Is it necessary to work up courage before shoving women into a police car, like Viking berserkers, like headhunters before a raid?  Are they cowards or do they just love the art of the tantrum? 

And they wonder why they're hated.

Ask yourself  if the constitution and rules of common decency gives a policeman the right to shoot your mother in the back because she isn't walking fast enough to please him -- perhaps because he doesn't want witnesses to what he's doing?  Ask yourself why a cop can assume the right to talk to anyone in such a fashion -- someone not even a suspect.

I think there are bigger questions than the issue of racism. I think we need to remember, before we fools rush in to frame this only in terms of racism, that if they can do this to anyone whether it's because she is black, or lives in a less than affluent neighborhood, or asks an inconvenient question or for no damned reason at all other than he's a cop and he has a gun and he can get away with it -- we need to remember that if he can do that to her, he can do that to you.  It's a crime against all of us. It's a crime against liberty and justice and what ought to be the American way.

Yes, the officer has been suspended, but would he have been without the video?  It's been said countless times that God didn't make all men equal, Sam Colt did.  True or not, the pocket video recorder has made our word the equal or superior word to that of authority.  Video can exonerate, it can damn, it can set us free. It can shine light on ugliness and falsehood as well as on truth.  I wholeheartedly support equipping the police with cameras, but I'm starting to believe that there should be a recognized, guaranteed right to keep and bear video cameras because they are necessary for the benefit of a free society.