Monday, October 25, 2010

Politics on the Brain

The impulse to call one's opponents not just wrong but stupid or crazy seems hard to resist, especially for people who should know better. We’ve grown to expect armchair bloggers (ahem) to carry on like this, but it doesn't take much of a search to find the same insults from publications and pundits with more respectable pretentions. Nor are they in any way one-sided. Try these.

From Scientific American:
"Positive personality traits associated with liberalism (self-reliant, resilient, dominating and energetic) and negative ones attributed to conservatism (easily victimized or offended, indecisive, fearful and rigid) appear as young as nursery school–age kids." Who exactly attributed those traits to each?


Dr. Lyle Rossiter, author of The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness:
"Like spoiled, angry children, they rebel against the normal responsibilities of adulthood and demand that a parental government meet their needs from cradle to grave…The roots of liberalism – and its associated madness – can be clearly identified by understanding how children develop from infancy to adulthood and how distorted development produces the irrational beliefs of the liberal mind." Whose minds in particular, Lyle?


Sarah as "Psychopath" by Deborah King in Psychology Today:
"Sarah Palin is a classic 'psychopath' as defined by Lowen psychodynamics, a system that analyzes the inner forces that affect behavior."


The pithy but highly debatable Irving Kristoll remark, “A neoconservative is someone who has been mugged by reality.”

It is safe to say there will be no surcease to this sort of silliness, but it is worth pointing out that none of it changes anyone's mind. It just makes the opposition angry. Perhaps that is the real idea. Plenty of people are stupid and a fair number are crazy, true enough, but, regrettably, no single political movement has a monopoly on them – or on brilliant people either. Political differences are philosophical, not pathological. One fundamental question, as an example, is “What is the proper legal relation of the individual to society?” There are brighter and saner (irony intended) ways to debate this and other questions than calling each other morons and psychos.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wormholes and Money Pits

I’m a science fiction fan. I write the stuff too. (Four paper-and-ink books are on Amazon, and a free online collection of stories at .) Accordingly, I’ve read or watched a lot of it, including the flawed but enjoyable movie Stargate (1994) and its spinoff TV series Stargate SG-1. In both presentations, the “stargate” is a device that opens traversable wormholes between planets.

When I recently spotted a passing reference in a science magazine to an actual Stargate Project, I couldn’t resist investigating further. Regrettably, the project had nothing to do with wormholes to distant planets. It was something scarcely more likely. The real Stargate Project was an investigation of military and intelligence applications of psychic phenomena. Conducted first by the Pentagon and then by the CIA from the 1970s through the 1990s, it produced nothing useful in all that time but paychecks for parapsychologists. Or at least that’s the cover story. How did ESP enthusiasts sell this idea to the Pentagon and CIA in the first place? The same way any enthusiast sells any kind of silly idea to anyone: by exploiting the listener’s desire to believe.

We all remember the plethora of TV gurus back in 2006 urging us to become “real estate millionaires” by purchasing properties “with no money down!” How many people took their advice (after buying the gurus’ how-to books and dvds) only in 2010 to owe 35% more than the value of those properties? The buyers who put 5%, 10%, or 20% down (as most, in fact, had to do) arguably fared even worse: their investments are gone and they still are underwater on the loans. You might think the gurus would be in hiding, but no. They are back. They never really went away. Now they are promoting buying foreclosed properties “for a fraction on the dollar!” (Just a mathematical note: 5/4 is just as much a fraction as 4/5.) They find eager listeners.

Actually, for all the concerns in the news this week raised by sloppy foreclosure paperwork at banks, there is a kernel of truth in this round of TV exhortations. Prices are down, interest rates are low, and there are opportunities in foreclosed properties. But a quick reality check is in order: there exists no handy list of foreclosed houses which buyers can snap up and then immediately resell at $200,000 profit apiece. Most of the new customers coming in my real estate office door these days are convinced by TV pep talks that such a list exists, and they are annoyed when I don’t produce it. You’ll have better luck finding this list using those unemployed Stargate psychics fired by the CIA. The banks that own foreclosed houses are the same banks that pick our pockets at every turn. They are the banks that charge $2 for using an ATM, $20 for letting a checking account fall below $2000, $10 for writing too few checks per month, $30 for writing too many, and $50 for being overdrawn. They do not then turn around and give away $200,000 to any passerby. They sell each foreclosed property for the highest price the market will bear. This is not much less than a private individual could get for it.

Once again, there are bargains to be found among foreclosures. Banks have no emotional stake in their ownership of these properties and they take rational account of future carrying costs if a house doesn’t sell. So, the opportunities for making a good deal are real, but I have yet to see anything like the sort of windfall on which so many customers have set their hearts. Heck, I’d buy it myself. The typical foreclosure opportunity is a distressed property which, after a year of repair and hard work, might net you $20,000 for your trouble. $20,000 is nothing at which to sneeze, and some people do make a living by buying and fixing one house after another, but it is no get-rich-quick scheme and there are no guarantees.

Think there is a winning infomercial in “the slow and hard way to modest profits?” I don’t think so either.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Germ

The typical human body contains about 100 trillion cells. Only 10 trillion or so are technically part of the body. The other 90 trillion are hitchhikers. A particularly cozy home for bacteria is provided by the intestinal tract, where most of the foreign residents do far more good than harm by aiding digestion and absorbing toxins.

In an age when almost every household and personal care product brags “kills germs!” it is worth noting that killing germs is not always a good idea. The anti-bacterials in our soaps and cleaning products overwhelmingly kill benign or harmless bugs while helping to breed chemical resistance in dangerous ones. What is more, many scientists blame our highly sanitized modern Western lifestyle for the ever growing numbers of children’s allergic disorders, which have doubled in the past ten years alone, and for the steady rise in asthma rates in the past thirty years. Christopher Lowry, professor of physiology ay the University of Colorado, remarks, “The hygiene hypothesis is widely accepted among immunologists. It suggests that we have less exposure to certain organisms in the soil and water than we used to.” Lowry believes this may not only make us wheeze but may increase depression and anxiety as well, since these are exacerbated by immune response inflammations. It seems if we don’t give our immune systems something useful to do, they will find something inappropriate to do. Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology at Tufts University, even suggests that “deworming the population… is one factor that led to the rise in immunological diseases.” (He probably is right, but I plan to skip the worms and take my chances.)

No one is suggesting we ignore basic hygiene. There are, as we know, potentially lethal diseases that can be spread by improper sewage disposal or by unsafe drinking water. Washing your hands is still the best way to reduce the number of colds and infections you catch. As with anything, however, there can be too much of a good thing. Whether we like it or not, we are one tiny part of a biological world full of organic grime and microbes. We do ourselves no good by being overly fussy about it. As Ella Gudwin, director of strategic initiatives at AmeriCares, so charmingly puts it, "The whole world is covered in a small film of fecal matter. Just get used to it."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Barbie the Mammoth-Slayer

Fashions come and go in social sciences as in popular culture. Fashion is broadly cyclical, but is best pictured as a wheel in motion rather than as one spinning on an axle in a fixed location, because nothing ever returns to exactly the same spot it was before. Hemlines may rise and fall, lapels widen and narrow, hair lengthen and shorten, trouser leg bottoms balloon into bells and straighten to tight openings, but the total look is never quite identical to the earlier one.

In social sciences the cycle is largely between the ascendency of cultural determinists (nurture is everything) and of biological determinists (nature is everything). In truth, few people are entirely one or the other. Nearly all acknowledge that both nature and nurture are something. However, the mostly-nurturists and the mostly-naturists alternate in their dominance very much according to fashion. It is hard not to see a political dimension to the swings, though leftists and rightists can be found in each camp. Once again, the turns of the wheel never return us exactly to where we were, so social sciences do manage to evolve over time.

The mostly-nurturists, who argue the newborn human mind is largely a blank slate that can be acculturated in almost any imaginable way, have dominated academia for quite some time. In the past decade the mostly-naturists have made a comeback, at least in the published literature. This time around they call themselves evolutionary psychologists.

One of the pop stars of evolutionary psychology is Satoshi Kanazawa, who teaches at, of all places, The London School of Economics. He co-authored with Alan Miller the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters and blogs as The Scientific Fundamentalist. His basic point is that humans have instincts that evolved to suit our ancestors 10,000 years ago, and these continue to motivate us today, regardless of our particular cultural milieu. He calls it the Savanna Principle.

Much of what he has to say is not only obvious to an average reader, but blindingly obvious. For example, he tells us most men find attractive a woman who approximates a Barbie doll and most women would like to look like one. He tells us the economic burdens of parenthood, which now last for two or more decades instead of just one, often make people unhappy. He tells us men are motivated by sex. He tells us women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners and that they take social and economic status into account. (Zsa Zsa Gabor: “I want a man who’s kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”) This hardly is startling stuff. He stirs controversy when he attributes these preferences to evolution instead of childhood training.

Take Barbie dolls and the exaggerated muscular physiques of action figures, often criticized for indoctrinating kids to desire unrealistic body types. Kanazawa specifically argues that Barbie did not create an impossible ideal, but merely embodied an impossible ideal that existed long before Ruth Handler designed the doll for Mattel in 1959. The ideal came first and is rooted in instincts suitable for the reproductive success of cavepeople.

Momentum is currently on the naturist side, and Kanazawa and his colleagues definitely are worth a read. We can be sure, however, that the nurturists will be back. After all, once again, training may not be everything, but it certainly is something.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Toddler and the Ferrari

The decline in birth rates in advanced countries continues even though most women throughout the West tell pollsters they want to have more kids (quite a lot more) than they actually have. Pundits offer various theories to explain this “fertility gap,” but the family budget seems the most likely reason.

The Department of Agriculture reports that families earning between $46,000 and $77,000 spend over $200,000 per child from birth through high school (i.e. without college costs). The Wall Street Journal estimates that households earning over $118,000 spend an average of $800,000 per child through high school: "Add in luxuries like private school, a nanny and a flat screen TV set in a kid's bedroom, and the figure climbs to $1.6 million."

A person might tell a pollster he or she would like a Ferrari, while in practice considering the price prohibitive.

The ZPG (Zero Population Growth) people made their case to my satisfaction 40 years ago when they were louder than they are today. I think lower birthrates are an overall benefit to the world, even though they make for a bumpy demographic ride as the population pyramid alters shape. All the same, the costs of child-rearing are eyebrow-raising. It is amazing folks have as many kids as they do.