Friday, December 21, 2012

Stereotype Politics

A friend linked me to this research article:

The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives: Exaggeration of Differences across the Political Spectrum

Not surprisingly, the research found that both liberals and conservatives exaggerate the political extremity of their opposition. Perhaps less obvious, both groups also exaggerate the extremity of their own side's views. Also less obvious, liberals were least accurate in assessing the extremity of liberal and conservative beliefs.

The introduction opens with these ridiculous quotes:
“The national Democratic Party is immoral to the core. Any American who would vote for Democrats is guilty of fostering the worst kind of degeneracy. The leaders of this party are severely out of touch with mainstream, traditional American values. They are crusaders for perversion, for licentiousness, for nihilism and worse.”
—Joseph Farah [1]World Net Daily
“Republicans don't believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don't give a hoot about human beings, either can't or won't.”
—Michael Feingold [2]Village Voice
The article talks about how, in some cases, people tend to downplay the stereotypes they believe. For example, people may be less willing to admit the stereotypes they believe about racial minorities, because they don't want to seem racist. In other cases, though, people are are not only comfortable with stereotypes, but even exaggerate stereotypes. The liberal vs. conservative dichotomy seems to cause that kind of reaction.

The research here focused on five foundations for moral virtues:

  1. Harm/care (sympathy, compassion, and nurturance);
  2. Fairness/reciprocity (rights and justice);
  3. Ingroup/loyalty (patriotism and "us vs. them" thinking);
  4. Authority/respect (traditions, maintaining social order); and
  5. Purity/sanctity (moral disgust, spiritual concerns about treating the body as a temple).
The first two groups are called the "individualizing" foundations because they're usually with respect to individuals. The other three groups are called "binding" foundations because they usually involve people in connection with larger groups. Apparently studies show liberals tend to value individualizing foundations more, and conservatives tend to value binding foundations more. 

But how much more? It's not as if conservatives are totally indifferent to compassion or justice. It's not as if liberals completely dismiss traditions or spiritual concerns. Is it? Are there huge chasms between us, or are these differences more subtle?

In this research, participants identified their political leanings and then answered questionnaires. Questionnaires asked participants to give their own views, the views of a "typical liberal," and the views of a "typical conservative." The researchers could then compare how liberals and conservatives actually answer to how people think liberals and conservatives would answer.

  1. In general, people understood that liberals value the harm/fairness more, and conservatives value ingroup/authority/purity more.
  2. While people understood who valued what more, people exaggerated the differences. The actual answers "typical" liberals and conservatives gave were not as different as people thought they'd be. Heck, the actual answers "extreme" liberals and conservatives gave were not as different as people thought they'd be.
  3. Everyone underestimated how much conservatives care about harm/fairness; liberals underestimated it the most, followed by moderates, then conservatives. That's kind of expected; conservatives more accurately predicted themselves. However conservatives also more accurately predicted how much liberals care about harm/fairness. That is, liberals seriously overestimated how much liberals care, whereas conservatives only slightly underestimated liberals' views. Moderates underestimated liberals' views too, and more than conservatives did.
  4. Everyone overestimated how much conservatives emphasize ingroup/authority/purity. Liberals overestimated it the most, followed by conservatives, then moderates. Everyone underestimated how much liberals emphasize ingroup/authority/purity foundations. Again, liberals underestimated it the most, followed by conservatives, then moderates. In other words, when it comes to the ingroup/authority/purity thing, liberals are the least accurate, moderates the most.
  5. Overall, liberals exaggerated moral differences the most, particularly when it comes to underestimating how much conservatives care about harm/fairness.
The authors say it would be interesting to examine the effect of social exposure of liberals to conservatives and vice-versa. How well can we predict our oppositions views if we have friends that think differently than we do? They also mention doing a similar study but assessing libertarians along with liberals and conservatives. That'd be cool. I bet people have a much less accurate picture of libertarians, because the group isn't nearly as well-known.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2D Religious Belief

How people approach religion goes well beyond whether they believe in the supernatural or don't. Here's a more detailed perspective:
I'm sure you can get into a lot more detail than that, but at least this gives a continuum: a 1-7 scale of belief:

But, as with any viewpoint, I find there are at least two components: (1) your perspective, and (2) how much you care about the topic. 

I think some people tend to still see religious views as kind of one-dimensional anyway. Maybe religiosity correlates to passion, so people think of it something like this:

Or maybe certainty correlates to passion, so people think of it like this:

Personally, I don't find either of those quite right (although I think the 2nd one is closer to the truth than the 1st). I think it's more like this:

I've met strong atheists who are very passionate on the subject, and de-facto theists who don't seem to put much thought into it at all. Personally I'd say usually I'm somewhere between Pure Agnostic and Weak Atheist, and probably about two notches up toward the Care Passionately side. And I've noticed that I tend to be more satisfied with people on the Care Passionately side almost no matter where they are on the belief scale, compared to Strong Theists, Strong Atheists, and everyone in between that tends toward Completely Indifferent. 

Although, come to think of it, I don't think I've personally met a Strong Theist who is Completely Indifferent. I suppose that makes sense. If you're 100% sure there isn't a god, you probably have less reasons to care about religious belief at all. If you're 100% sure there is a god, you may have a lot of reason to care about what that means in your life.

And then of course there's one more factor you can add to just about any topic: are you able to discuss it in a respectful way, or are you a jackass about it?

I was going to say there seems to be some correlation between how much people care and how much they act like jackasses, but I immediately thought of several exceptions, both theists and atheists. I suspect the respectful/jackass scale is more a function of personality than passion.

So really my favorite people to talk to are going to be anyone on the Respectful and Care Passionately end, but anywhere along the belief scale.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Great Gun Exchange

I just think the wide range of reactions to Sandy Hook is interesting:

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, some Americans are turning in their guns as part of local government buy-backed programs.
Residents in New York City, New York, Camden, New JerseyBaltimore, Maryland, and San Francisco, California, sold hundreds of weapons back to the government no-questions asked, with some attributing their decisions to the Connecticut tragedy.
“After the incident yesterday, it was time to get it out of the house,” Sonia White, a 65-year-old Baltimore County grandmother said. A man in San Francisco explained, “I’ve got kids, man.” “Kids are curious. Kids don’t know any better. I had it locked in a toolbox, so I don’t know. … I just know it had to go.”
 From CBS Denver:
The day after the shooting in Connecticut a lot of people in Colorado tried to buy a gun.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation says it received 4,154 requests for background checks from potential buyers on Saturday.
That was so many the CBI couldn’t process them all and the backlog grew to nearly 18 hours. The Unit could only process 3,001 checks on Saturday.

It's strange to me that people would think about what happened at Sandy Hook and then associate that with curious kids who don't know any better. Personally, if I had kids I would want to have a gun in the house all the more, the better to protect them with. To each their own, I guess.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politicizing a tragedy?

Basically as soon as stories of the CT school shooting came out, people started talking about gun control. And other people started talking about how it's too soon to talk about gun control, that we should first mourn the victims, and it's wrong to use such a terrible tragedy to advance a political agenda. I disagree.
Aside: Let me preface this by saying that I am pro-gun ownership. I've owned a handgun for over 10 years. I've already mentioned I think it'd be better if school teachers could carry concealed weapons (provided sufficient training first).
However, I am not necessarily anti-"gun control." I think many people hear "gun control" and think "take away all private ownership of guns." Most people are against that. But when you ask people about specific gun control policies (e.g. requiring background checks, disallowing felons or mentally ill people to own guns, etc.), there's a lot more support. It really depends on the policy and how it's implemented, but I think it's reasonable to expect some restrictions on such a grave responsibility. We have restrictions on who can drive, drink, or even vote. I'm okay with certain restrictions on who can own guns, too.
Anyway, everyone has different ways of coping with grief and tragedy. For some people, trying to figure out how to prevent similar tragedies in the future is a way of coping. And many people who want stricter gun control are doing just that--trying to figure out how to prevent future tragedies. Now, I don't typically agree with them that the policies they advocate would actually help, but I believe they believe the policies would help, and that they are just searching for solutions.

Additionally, I don't really see why advancing a political agenda is necessarily an inappropriate thing to do anyway. For a lot of people, their political agendas reflect their morality and their ideals and the ways they think we can best improve our communities and our country. A lot of people advance political agendas because they care and, again, because they hope it will help prevent future problems. I may not agree with their theories about what will help, but I can still recognize their intentions.

I was thinking about this in comparison to the abortion debate. On the horrible occasion when stories of abortion-related infanticide come about, pro-lifers are very likely to suggest the defense of abortion makes infanticide seem more of a moral gray area; the same pro-lifers will renew their calls for abortion restrictions. People could just as easily tell pro-lifers to first mourn the victims, and stop trying to advance a political agenda.

I don't know. Seems like the difference between coldly advancing a political agenda and sincerely calling for solutions is whether or not people agree with the policies you're advocating.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Power of Prayer?

I saw this picture in connection with the CT school shootings:

I also saw many, many statuses in which people offered prayers.

I also saw some atheist statuses complaining about the uselessness of the prayer statuses. And that really pissed me off.

People have many different ways of coping with stress or heartbreak. Some people drink or go on medication. Some seek out the company of family and friends, some seek time alone to reflect. Maybe you journal more, maybe you write a poem or paint something or garden. And guess what? Some people pray.

So two things:

1. As long as they don't hurt others, I don't care what people do to get through the hard times in their lives. If they've found something that helps them, I'm glad for them. Do I believe God answers prayers? I don't even necessarily believe God exists, and no, I don't see a lot of evidence that people get what they pray for. So what? I also don't think alcohol and poems and paintings will magically make your problem go away, but that's not really the point, is it? They are all different methods of processing emotions, of working through grief. I'm not such an asshole as to tell grieving people "This doesn't work for me, and therefore it's useless for you to try it." Wow.

2. Prayer actually does help people. Maybe not in the "If I pray long enough, I will win the lottery" way, sure. But research has found that prayer can be a psychological balm, much like meditation. I get not believing that prayer can stop bullets, but it's just incorrect to say that there's no "power" in prayer. For those who believe in prayer, it can be quite powerful. And I'm glad those that believe in prayer have one more tool to help them help themselves and each other during really difficult times.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Ideal America: Gun Control

These "My Ideal America" posts aren't really "ideals" because, for example, ideally no one would ever need a gun for self-defense. These are really just musings about what I think is technically possible but actually extremely unlikely. They're just daydreams.

So in my ideal America, schoolteachers (and anyone who works with kids, really) would want to and be permitted to have concealed weapons. It would be considered a form of professional development--like first aid and CPR training--to better prepare you to protect the children you watch over. You wouldn't have to do it (I usually have an aversion to new laws forbidding or requiring things); it would just be something many people do, and something that shows your commitment to doing your job well.

And in order to have a concealed weapon around children, you would first undergo extensive background checks and training, moreso than what is currently required for a concealed carry in some places. You'd be very comfortable and familiar with your weapon. Then perhaps I'd feel the same way at an elementary school that I do at the shooting range: safe.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stupid Political Conversations, Part 2

When people give an argument and then do the equivalent of running away with their fingers in their ears:

Version 1: 
Person A: I think X.
Person B: Well you're wrong for these reasons, but that's just my opinion*.
Person A: I don't think your reasons make sense because of these other factors.
Person B: Hey, I can have my opinion.
Person A: That's true. I see now that because your opinion is an opinion, it can be totally illogical or based on false facts and I can't ask you to defend any of that because, as you mentioned, it's your opinion. As we all know, opinions are impervious to critique.

*Alternative versions:
"Just sayin'."
"We can agree to disagree."

Version 2:
Person A: I think X.
Person B: Well you're wrong for these reasons.
Person A: I don't think your reasons make sense because of these other factors.
Person B: I don't have time to argue about this. I have a life.
Person A: Well I guess I should count myself honored that you took time out from your life to start the argument in the first place. Thank you for gracing me with your presence and poor reasoning skills.

Version 3:

Person A: I think X.
Person B: Well you're wrong for these reasons. End of story*.
Person A: Oh, "end of story!" You've said the magical phrase that prevents anyone from disagreeing or continuing the conversation. I wish I'd thought of saying "end of story" before you--then I could've cleverly won the debate.

*Alternative Versions:
"That's just all there is to it."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Connecticut School Shooting

It just happened a few hours ago. Reports are still coming in, but certainly there are elementary school kids among the dead. It's horribly sad.

I've never had anyone really close to me die. Sometimes I wonder whether, statistically speaking, I am just incredibly lucky. I know it's only a matter of time--as it is for everyone--but I wonder if that time is coming much sooner than I think.

Of course I've already seen several people start talking about gun control. And I see why they would. I haven't seen any information yet on whether the shooter owned his gun legally, but I'm not sure how much it matters in this case. I mean there are lots of legal gun owners and any one of them could just snap one day and go shoot a bunch of people. Gun control advocates think gun control could prevent that, and in some cases I imagine it could. Anytime you make something more legally restricted (in this case, owning guns), less people will do it.

The thing is, of course, that unless we banned guns throughout the country and got an amazing lock down on our borders, people will still be able to obtain guns illegally. Presumably more unsavory type of people will keep getting guns, while responsible people will get guns less often. You've heard all this before, I'm sure.

So then the idea is to make guns easier to access for the responsible people, partially in the hopes of balancing out the criminals (or psychopaths). What if elementary school teachers all carried guns? Would the death toll have been as high this morning?

But who are we kidding? Even if it were legal for school teachers to bring guns to school, how many of them would choose to? ...I don't know, I think I would. I once had a job working with lots of children, and I actually thought a lot about what I would do if some crazy person just came in and started shooting, and I don't know what I'd do. There's no way we were allowed to bring guns to work, but if some guy did come in shooting there would be little helpless targets everywhere. Good lord, I hate to see my morbid, concerned daydreams become reality.

I agree that the image of everyone with guns--school teachers, bus drivers, ER nurses??--is unsettling, and I know it isn't about to happen. But what I understand of the alternative (making it harder for law-abiders to get guns) doesn't seem helpful to me. Indeed it seems like it would make it worse. I don't know.

I've seen a lot of people say versions of "my heart goes out to those families," which is kind. But I wish I could do more than think sad/nice thoughts for them.

EDIT: One friend suggested donating or volunteering at charities dedicated to working with mental health issues. Perhaps helping organizations that deal with domestic violence would also be a good step.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Reason for the Season

Last Thanksgiving I saw this cutesy photo on Facebook:

Underneath it someone had linked to this:
One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers. 

Then the other day I saw this:

Ok, so here's the thing.
For most people, Thanksgiving means talking about what you're grateful for, spending time with your family, and eating a lot. Christmas is similar, but with the addition of buying each other gifts, and, for Christians, rejoicing that their savior came to earth in the first place. 

That's the meaning of those holidays for most people. You can insist that the holidays "really" mean whatever you want, but it's not like there's some objective arbiter to enforce the meanings you've chosen to insist on for all cultures throughout all history. 

You can tell people all you want that when they eat a bunch of turkey and candy yams and talk about how grateful they are for their jobs that really they are celebrating genocide--but they're not. It's not like as long as you insist that's what people think and feel, it'll be true. It's not like you can instill in them a secret happiness at the deaths of others just by insisting that's what it means to hang out together and bake pies.

And you can tell people all you want that when they hang their kids' Popsicle-stick ornaments on their Christmas trees and give each other presents that really they are worshiping Babylonian idols--but they're not. As the cartoon itself shows, traditions are mixed, mingled, adjusted, and evolved over time and geography and so on. Why should the person co-opting Charlie Brown get to decide which time in history versus all other times is the most relevant to modern-day Christmas? In the distant future I doubt someone studying the American Christmas tradition would insist it's based on Babylonians.

This is just another version of telling people what they think and how they feel, and then decrying the thoughts and feelings you've assigned that they haven't embraced. Plus, to my mind, this attitude comes off as at least as self-righteous and obnoxious as the very behavior you're complaining about.

I actually am not a big fan of genocide, and I'm still going to celebrate Tday every year because I love being with my family. I don't believe in fertility gods and I'm still going to put up a Christmas tree because they fill me with a happy nostalgia for my childhood. 

You can just get over it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Being gay isn't genetic, but it is biological?

At least, according to io9's understanding of an upcoming study.
A team of international researchers has confirmed that there's no such thing as a ‘gay gene.' But that doesn't mean biology is off the hook in terms of explaining why homosexuality exists in the human population. It's not about genetics, say the researchers, it's about epigenetics — the process in which the expression of DNA is influenced by any number of external factors. And in the case of homosexuality, these factors are happening inside the womb.
I don't pretend to know anything about epigenetics, but I'm interested to learn, and I'm interested to see what reactions the rest of the scientific community (and the community at large) will have to the study once it's released.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Aging Gracefully

I've always admired graying women who don't bother to dye their hair. We all get older. I'd rather embrace it and focus on other parts of my life then try so hard (desperately, in some cases) to hold on to my youth.

Maybe that's easy for me to say now, because I am still young. I like the way I look (overall) and that's probably partly because I'm in my 20s.

But I see all the "anti-aging" products (mostly marketed toward women) and I see some of my older female relatives feel down about wrinkles or stretch marks or less distinct curves. And I understand the desire to be appealing, I do. If there was a way to stay in a youthful body I probably would, too. But there's not.

Now, I'm all for being healthy and for staying fit to the extent reasonable for your age group. I think that's awesome. But we're all going to lose some color and get some wrinkles and I'd rather just accept it and be happy with who I am.

That's kind of why, by the way, even now I very rarely wear make up, I don't color my hair, and I try not to let myself dwell on what outfit I'll wear today for more than a few moments. I want to be healthy and hygienic and feel good about my body image, but outside of that I try to de-emphasize my looks and focus on other qualities. I don't want to feel hideous leaving the house without make up--I think my face is fine. I don't want to feel depressed as I inevitably get older--I like myself and want to continue to like myself.

Anyway, I was thinking about all of this partially because I recently saw some before and after photos like this:

I think these women are pretty good-looking for their age, and certainly in great shape. It's kind of sad and embarrassing to see how much they need to be artificially touched up to impress people. I much prefer something like this:

Helen Mirren

She seems lovely to me. And because it's not (ostentatiously, anyway) photoshopped, she seems confident too. Maybe I project too much.

Of course women of all ages are pressured a lot to focus on looks and reach a certain (ridiculous) standard of attractiveness. (See?) I don't like it for any age group, but I guess it bothers me a bit more for older women. Trying to achieve the Crazy Hot "Ideal" 23-Year-Old thing seems more sad and desperate from women in their 40s and 50s then women in their 20s, although I don't think it's a good standard for any of us.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"It is of interest to note that..."

Ugh, no!
  1. First, awkward language, guys! You could just say "It's interesting that..."
  2. Also, empty words. You could just say the supposedly interesting thing and let the reader decide whether it's interesting or not. If it's interesting do you really need to point out that it's interesting?
  3. But mostly, cowardly and dishonest. That is, I notice people often use this phrase when they want to believe some correlation is a causation, but they don't have the evidence to show it. So for example:
"It is of interest to note that criminal defence witnesses whose evidence failed to meet the relevant statutory evidence standards were more likely to suffer complete exclusion, rather than limitation, of their evidence." - Forensic Identification Science Evidence Since Daubert
In other words, defense expert testimony gets thrown out more than prosecution expert testimony. Why this is true is unclear--it could be some insidious conspiracy by the courts to side with law enforcement, or it could be something simpler, like defense people overall have smaller budgets and can't hire as many high-quality expert witnesses. Or it could be any number of other things. We don't know, at least not just from this study.

People do this all the time. Right after the election I saw a lot of people use captions like "interesting" and "hmm" accompanied by this photo:

Obviously the photo tries to imply a correlation between the (racist) slave states and Republican voters. Of course correlation doesn't mean causation (C'MON PEOPLE) but this photo doesn't even show correlation--and it didn't take much Googling to find that out. If you look at voting trends with any kind of detail beyond state-level, the above correlation disappears. Here:

America 2012
Source here.

"Oh. Hmm. Interesting." 

"Hmm"? "HMMM"?! Stop hiding behind non-committal ambiguity and either back up what you think is true or don't say anything to begin with.

End rant.