The massively-covered Atlanta and Boulder mass murders took place less than a week apart. Less well known is that the Colorado attack was the seventh mass shooting1 in the U.S. in just 7 days. (The FBI defines mass murder as 4 or more people being killed in the same event.2)  Nowhere else on earth are mass murders, not related to war, occurring at the rate they are in the U.S. What is so different about our country compared to other wealthy countries that have vanishingly low rates of gun violence, such as Japan?3

As usual, the response by some politicians is to declare that guns are not the problem. It’s always something else. This time, as in the past, they say mental illness caused it. No way could it have been the easy, largely unfettered access to high-powered firearms that can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.

But they are WRONG. There is, in fact, a strong relationship, supported by a ton of high-quality, peer-reviewed research studies that show a strong association between gun deaths and easy access to guns.4 

The same old story all over again

I first wrote this common-sense gun control story5 after the Parkland High School mass murders on February 14, 2018. It was published in The Hill and got the usual barrage of angry comments from lovers of the Second Amendment. 

I republished it 18 months later after the El Paso AND Dayton massacres in August 2019. And, here I am again, dredging up this old story that is still relevant today because we have done NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to stop these horrific and predictably repetitive mass murders.

When it comes to gun control, we’ve been asking the wrong question

As the title of my original story indicates, I believe when it comes to our approach to common-sense gun laws, we have been asking the wrong question about who should have guns.

Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question, we should be asking who has demonstrated, via a standardized protocol, that they have earned the right to have one.

We are already using standardized protocols when we implement mandatory background checks to determine who should not have guns, but the screening, often poorly implemented, is based on categories of people (mentally ill, felons, domestic abusers) we think shouldn’t have guns. 

Related story:  The Founders and the Sanctity of Gun Ownership

What I am proposing is we develop stringent and transparent tests of fitness to own a gun and then we apply those tests equally to everyone – first to get a gun and then repeated over time in order to keep the gun. This is not pie in the sky. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the world has been doing this for years. They have proven that it works there. It can work here too.

Here is my op-ed from The Hill:

“Every time the gun control debate is reignited after another mass shooting, the conversation quickly focuses on who should be restricted from purchasing guns, almost always with the suggestion that the solution to our mass shooter problem hinges on preventing people with mental illness from acquiring access to guns. But asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. Its answer will not make a single dent in our dismal standing as the country with the highest number of gunshot deaths in the developed world.6 [Ed. Note: Old link exchanged for newer one] 

It can’t because we have demonstrated over and over that it is impossible to enforce such restrictions dependably.

Unstable people, including mass shooters, such as Nikolas Cruz and others7, have obtained their firearms legally because, at the time they bought them, they did not meet the criteria to be denied gun ownership8 based on their mental health status.

Dr. Amy Barnhorst, the vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at the University of California Davis, explains the challenges:9

The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.


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She points out that posting threatening statements on social media or scaring your classmates is usually not enough to hospitalize someone against their will.

Nor, do we (or should we) require that this type of information be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Reframing the approach to gun ownership

I believe it’s time to reframe the approach to gun ownership from opt-out (everyone who wants a gun can get one unless we can prove they should not have one) to opt-in (everyone who wants a gun must demonstrate, on an ongoing basis, that they are capable and willing to responsibly manage gun ownership).

For those of you who would argue that this is a violation of our Second Amendment right, I ask how is this different from what we do now?

We have already determined that it is legal to restrict certain categories of people10 from owning a gun (e.g., felons, domestic abusers) in the interest of public safety.

Why not go one step further and proactively determine who should be able to have a gun just like we decide who should be able to drive a car, practice medicine, or cut our hair?

Getting a gun in Japan

There is a successful model for this approach. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths in the developed world11, has implemented a comprehensive system for evaluating prospective gun owners with an eye to public safety. This is what you have to do to get a gun in Japan:12

  1. Attend an all-day class organized by the police and then pass a written test
  2. Apply for training at a licensed shooting range a process that requires a certificate of residency, a photo ID, and a list of past jobs and addresses
  3. Pass mental health and drug tests administered in a hospital test and present the certificate to the police.
  4. Pass an in-person interview with a police officer who may ask questions such as “Why do you want a gun?” “What do you do for a living?” “Do any of your relatives have mental health issues?”
  5. Pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record, association with criminal or extremist groups, evidence of instability or domestic strife.
  6. Attend a training session at a licensed shooting range that includes both a gun safety class and test as well as shooting instruction and a competency exam
  7. Obtain the approval of the police who make an unannounced visit to your home and workplace to ask employees and neighbors about your behavior, including such questions as “Do you ever hear screaming voices from their apartment?”

Once approved for a temporary license to have a gun, the applicant can visit a gun shop to select a gun. But you can only buy shotguns and air rifles, not handguns. And you cannot take the gun you selected home until the official license is issued.

The gun owner must then provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun and ammunition in their home, each of which must be locked and stored separately. You have to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Too much, you say? Why should gun owners have to subject themselves to this type of scrutiny? If you take the time to read about the issue, the answer is clear.

It’s because it keeps guns out of the hands of bad guys — even gangsters in Japan don’t have guns13 — as well as irresponsible,  the mentally ill, unstable teens, domestic abusers, and a whole host of other people who most of us would agree should never have a gun.

Why should we do it? Because it works and what we are currently doing does not.”


Related stories:

There is No Better Time to Commit to Reducing Gun Violence

Kristof Asks the Right Questions About the Newtown Slaughter


References

  1. Josh Berlinger. The Colorado attack is the 7th mass shooting in 7 days in the US.  CNN, Updated Mar 23, 2021 https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/23/us/7-mass-shootings-7-days-trnd/index.html
  2. Mass Murder, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_murder#
  3. Gun Deaths by Country 2021, World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country
  4. Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

    Homicide. https://thedoctorweighsin.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=78019&action=edit

  5. Patricia Salber M.D. Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. The Hill. Feb 2018  https://thehill.com/opinion/civil-rights/375217-asking-who-should-be-restricted-from-gun-ownership-is-not-the-right
  6. Gun Deaths by Country 2021.  World Population Review.  https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country
  7. How They Got Their Guns.  New York Times (subscription required).  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/03/us/how-mass-shooters-got-their-guns.html
  8. What You Need to Know about Background Checks for Guns. CriminalWatchDog, Inc. https://www.criminalwatchdog.com/faq/background-checks-for-guns
  9. Dr. Amy Barnhorst.  Mental Health Systems Can’t Stop Mass Shooters, NYT.  Feb 2018 (subscription required) 
  10. Firearm Prohibitions. Gifford Law Center. https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/who-can-have-a-gun/firearm-prohibitions/

  11. Robert Preidt. How U.S. gun deaths compare to other countries. CBS News, Feb 2016 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-u-s-gun-deaths-compare-to-other-countries/

  12. Karl Denzer.  Behold the four-month process of buying a gun in Japan.  Washington Post. Oct 2017  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/behold-the-four-month-process-of-buying-a-gun-in-japan/2017/10/05/72283fea-2375-11e7-b503-9d616bd5a305_story.html?utm_term=.ef8d45c5364b
  13. Jake Adelstein.  Even gangsters live in fear of Japan’s gun laws.  thejapantimes, Jan 2013  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/01/06/national/media-national/even-gangsters-live-in-fear-of-japans-gun-laws/#.Wo3STpM-d-V

This story was initially published in November 2018. Sadly it has been updated to reflect the most recent mass murders – Atlanta and Boulder.

As in other periods in our history, ours is a battleground between two basic views of statecraft: 1) the liberal view of social change for the good of the people and 2) the conservative belief that any “social engineering” is doomed to failure at best and is tyrannical at worst.

Our present-day heated, even venomous arguments, are nothing new. Abraham Lincoln, not a rabid Socialist, had to contend with the reactionary Democratic Party of his time. It was called the “know nothing” party. It was true to its name.

A bit of history

Teddy Roosevelt (TR) fought the big money interests of his time. He also planted the seeds of the progressive movement. His fifth cousin Franklin Delano (FDR) gave us the “New Deal”, a social experiment of profound dimensions. And Lyndon Johnson completed the work of Lincoln, TR, and FDR with his much underappreciated “War on Poverty”.

This seemingly inexorable process of progressivism was punctuated with conservative backlash. The most profound was initiated by Ronald Reagan whose worldview could be summed up by his own pithy phrase from his 1981 Inaugural address:

“Government is the problem, not the solution.”

This conservative trend continued during George Bush’s two terms and assumed its most extreme form in the Libertarian ideology of Ron Paul. A stance that is perpetuated by his son, Senator Rand Paul.

More recently

This was followed by two terms of the progressive, Barack Obama. In addition to digging us out of the economic mess left by the preceding president, he also was able to get the Affordable Care Act signed into law. Although it fell short of the universal coverage that many progressives hoped for, it did significantly increase coverage, particularly in the left-leaning states that expanded Medicaid.

And, then came Republican Donald Trump who has spent his first term trying to undo everything that Obama had put into place. True to his promise, he slashed taxes primarily benefiting corporations and the rich. He also implemented severely restrictive immigration policies.

Other articles by this author:
The Unfortunate Consequences of Disbelieving in Free Will
What is the Science Behind the Spread of Fake News?

However, His biggest coup when it comes to conservative social policy may come on November 10, 2020. This is when the newly lopsided Supreme Court votes on whether The ACA is constitutional or not.

So, who’s right?

The surprising new science of psychological change

An important book by Timothy Wilson, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, reviews the track record of “social change through policy”.

Wilson is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who has made groundbreaking discoveries in the study of intuition and introspection. Who better to judge whether intuition and ideology are sufficient? Although written in 2011, it is still quite relevant today. In fact, it is an eye-opener.

Equally important to read is a review of Wilson’s book in Science Magazine that was written by Geoffrey L. Cohen of Stanford University’s Departments of Education and Psychology. It appeared shortly after the book was published.

Here is what he said,

“When the father of the field, German refugee Kurt Lewin, conducted his seminal studies, the problems of World War II preoccupied him:

      • the power of leaders to shape citizens’ behavior for good and ill,
      • intergroup conflict and aggression,
      • minority groups’ belongingness and adjustment,
      • de-Nazification and cultural transformation (“nation-building” in today’s parlance)
      • and so on.

At the heart of Lewin’s approach rested a novel idea: social problems are amenable to experimentation. ‘The best way to understand something is to try to change it,’ he was fond of saying. Beyond descriptive and correlational studies, Lewin championed experimental manipulation: Introduce an exogenous shock to the system and see how it responds.”

Action research

Cohen goes on to say,

“Lewin also advocated a diagnosis stage in what he dubbed ‘action research’. First, assess the relationships among variables in a system. In doing so, one could identify the pressure points where a small nudge might have large consequences.

For example, to encourage families to eat cheap-cut meats like sweetbreads during the war (because the finer cuts had limited supply), Lewin showed the importance of the gatekeeper, the person who controls the behavioral channel—in this case, the housewife. 

He also demonstrated the impotence of persuasion and the power of the small group. Bring housewives together into a new group supportive of change, freeing them from the grip of their old familial norms, and they would try the novel foods far more frequently than if they were lectured to.

Time and again, Lewin showed that what often seem problems of bad attitudes, lack of information or economic incentives were instead problems of group influence, identity, and social perception.

But most revolutionary was Lewin’s method. There was a combination of optimism and folly in the idea that researchers could, through the experimental method, change reality, and improve social conditions for the better.”

Policies based on ideology and intuition are almost always doomed to failure

In Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson reviews much of this history and revisits the field of social psychology 70 years after Lewin’s pioneering work.

To summarize his findings from this extensive review, it becomes clear that policies based on ideology and intuition are almost always doomed to failure. On the other hand, policies based on controlled studies—employing the best techniques science provides—have an infinitely better chance to succeed.

Such studies start with a limited population sample. Once proven effective, they are scaled up to larger and larger populations. Fortunately, our thousands of municipalities, tens of thousands of school districts, and 50 culturally-diverse states offer an enormous laboratory for such social experiments.

Interventions that defuse blacks’ and whites’ fear of interracial rejection increase their likelihood of becoming friends. And reminiscent of Lewin, there are studies that cleverly manipulate social norms to reduce teen alcohol use and encourage energy conservation.

Now let’s consider the “ideologically-based” policies, such as, for instance, the “ownership society” of George Bush. The idea was basically quintessential conservative:

Give people property and they’ll become conservative. This is because they now have something to lose. Hopefully, they start voting Republican—a not-so-fringe benefit of the policy’s advocates. 

The catastrophic failure of this policy is still reverberating through our economy today and will, I believe, continue to do so for many years to come.

The importance of a scientific approach to social problems

Cohen, the Stanford scientist, concludes:

“Wilson wants society to adopt more of an experimental approach to solving social problems—putting interventions to the test with randomized controlled trials. This is a good idea, at least when the ambition is to disseminate the interventions widely. However, one problem that “Redirect” does not explicitly address concerns limitations in the experimental method itself.

There is nothing better than an experiment for testing causality, whether an intervention A affects a social problem B. However, a positive experimental result risks deluding us into believing that A is both necessary and sufficient to solve B.

But as Lewin taught us, the effect of A will depend on the context into which it is introduced—the preexisting system of variables. Encourage students to see their academic fates as within their own control and they will thrive., provided on inhabiting a classroom that provides them with opportunities for growth, such as committed teachers and quality instruction.

Many of the interventions Wilson reviews act like catalysts. They will not teach a student who cannot spell to spell, but they will encourage the student to seize opportunities to learn how. Because the effects of interventions are context-dependent, there will be no silver bullets.”

Why are such approaches rarely implemented?

Wilson compellingly argues that effective interventions validated by social-science research are rarely implemented. This is a problem. Why are such interventions ignored in favor of ideology and intuition? What can we do to prevent this? What interventions should we be implementing today?

Richard Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. These professors, both with an unimpeachable conservative (in the academic sense of the word) track record, did something unique in our ideology-soaked political environment: They looked at the science.

Specifically, they examined the field of behavioral economics as developed by Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues. And in doing so, they arrived at a surprising conclusion:

When based on science, both a conservative and a liberal approach to social policy can be married.

A nudge instead of a push

In their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Thaler and Sunstein state:

“The libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like and to opt-out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so. On the other hand, ‘it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s  behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.'”

They dubbed this theory Libertarian Paternalism, somewhat of a dissonant contradiction to my ears. Their argument is that you don’t have to compel people to do what’s good for them, rather you can nudge them toward it. For example:

  • Have people opt out of health insurance rather than opt-in
  • have them opt into their employer’s 401K plan rather than actively save for retirement.

You get the picture.

How such an approach would fare with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who detest wearing their facial covering or getting their children vaccinated against deadly diseases, is left unanswered.

Soft coercion

I suspect that part of the answer will not be wholly acceptable to “libertarian paternalists” a la Thaler and  Sunstein; let’s call it “soft coercion”.

Take, as an example, smoking cessation. The science is unequivocal: smoking cigarettes is deadly!

But libertarian ideology says that as a free society we should be free to smoke and if it kills us, well, that was our choice. This argument totally ignores the societal harm done by smoking, such as:

      • second-hand smoking and its health consequences, or
      • the financial burden of caring for emphysema and cancer patients imposed on society at large.

So how did we, as a society that lives in reality rather than in an ideological ivory tower, deal with it? We followed the science and banished smokers from all spaces where people congregate. Further, we limited them smoking to circumscribed spaces (smoking rooms, outside of their office building) that were not always very inviting.

We raised the prices of cigarettes to make them less affordable. We forced cigarette manufacturers to label their products with prominently warning labels. We even made them pay the cost of anti-smoking public service announcements.

This approach did not outright ban smoking, acknowledging our society’s libertarian streak, rather it nudged smokers into quitting this harmful habit.

So when it comes to dealing with the ideological anti-vaxxers school districts may face funding penalties for not mandating children’s immunization. To deal with the anti-maskers, companies could become legally liable if they do not mandate wearing a mask at work. 

Does this tactic sound too coercive? I suggest it is a middle ground between mandates and laissez-faire, between liberal and conservative approaches. And, it was demonstrated to be successful in dealing with the man-made cigarette pandemic that afflicted the world.

I believe that, just as with the smoking problem, at the end of the day we will be forced to acknowledge science and abandon intuition and ideology.

It gives me hope that examined dispassionately through the lens of scientific evidence such seemingly irreconcilable ideologies as Libertarianism and Liberalism can rise above the ideological cacophony and give us enlightened policymaking.

Is it too much to ask? 

In the current environment, probably.


Published 12/28/11. Updated and republished 6/16/17. Updated and republished again 11/2/20 because of the remarkable relevance of the arguments to today’s political environment. We hope it adds to the much-needed conversation about U.S. policy approaches.

The election is just days away, and we’re grateful to Dr. Pat Salber for giving us this opportunity to address you directly. As physicians concerned about the health of the public, we know that the choices we all make for our leaders—at the federal, state, and local levels—have a direct impact on our lives. That’s why we are providing you with resources to help you get out (and protect) the vote.

Because of the critical nature of this election, we’ve boiled down all the wisdom about how to encourage voter participation in 5 big steps. And, we have included a list of active links to trusted resources that will help you do the work. Just scroll down until you get to a step you haven’t taken – and start there!

1.  Vote – and vote early

    •  State by state information on early voting

States vary, allowing in-person early voting, or drop-offs of mail-in ballots; check the resources here for state-by-state information.

  • When mail-in ballots can be counted in each state

It is critically important that you do everything you can to ensure your ballot is counted on election day – or very soon thereafter. This is because of concerns that there could be a push to call the election before all of the mail-in ballots have been counted.

The two sites below provide information about the rules around counting absentee ballots. Use this information to help you decide if you should send your ball by mail or mask up and vote in person. 

Check here for permanent state-by-state policies on counting mail-in ballots. But also check this list for important changes related to counting mail-in ballots made for 2020 only.
  • Special rules in some states about how to properly fill out and mail in your ballot 

Be sure that you thoroughly understand any special rules about preparing your ballot for mail-in. Does your signature need to be witnessed? Do you need to place the ballot in a “secrecy envelope” before placing it in the mailing envelope? Do you have to put a stamp on the envelope. Here are some resources to learn the requirements in your area:

Four states have witnessing requirements:

      • Alabama (2 witnesses)
      • Alaska (1 witness)
      • Virginia (1 witness)
      • Wisconsin (1 witness)

Secrecy envelope rules by state

State-by-state requirements to put postage on your mail-in ballot

  • Know where ballot drop-off boxes are located in your community

Since this can vary community by community, the best way to do this is to do an internet search for “location of mail-in ballot drop boxes in (name of your county).” You can also go to the website of your County Recorder. 

Have a back-up plan if there is some problem with your local drop boxes (e.g., mail it in early, take it in person to your polling place).

2.  Help get out the vote 

  • Persuade at least 3 other people to vote

Try to persuade at least 3 other people who aren’t sure they’re going to vote that they should. Be sure to do the following:

      • Tell them why they should vote
      • Have them tell you how, when, and where they plan to vote.
      • Be sure to ask if they need help – then follow-up by actually helping them  

Only 60% of people who register to vote actually vote, so this is critical. Hearing directly from a friend, family member or someone they respect is the best way to activate hesitant voters.

  • Help get out the vote at scale

When you’ve done that, GOTV (GET OUT THE VOTE) AT SCALE! Phone bank, text bank, or send postcards and letters. One of our friends has sent 60,000 texts so far, and is still plugging away!

3. Volunteer for an election voter assistance hotline

As described above, in many places in our country, voting is now more complicated than in the past (see Rules and procedures have changed, in part, because of COVID 19. Unfounded claims about voting by mail have raised voter concerns, while unprecedented numbers of voters are requesting mail-in ballots.

Voter assistance hotlines are an important means of allaying voter concerns and providing practical information. The best organizations provide short online training sessions for specific states. They will arm you with well-organized information down to the county and polling station level.

4. Recruit a lawyer for voter protection efforts 

To counter voter suppression efforts and provide rapid legal advice and assistance for voters and for poll watchers, join with efforts to recruit lawyers, paralegals, and other experts for voter protection. If you have these skills, volunteer, please! 

5.  Encourage your employees to vote

If you have employees, encourage them to vote – and vote early. Then make it easy for them. Many employers start by offering release time for employees to vote on election day.

As the importance of voting early has emerged, more employers are offering release time for early voting. Some are even providing time for employees to volunteer for voter assistance and voter protection programs.

Now, jump in – and if you’re already supporting this election, double down on your efforts!

Where should you begin?

Where should you begin?  Let us start by saying there is no bad option. The best course is what gets you fired up – so fired up that you will

      • jump in immediately
      • make a stretch commitment
      • bring in your friends
      • double down in the critical days ahead.

Here is a shortlist of the wide variety of ways to support participation in this election.

Note: bipartisan or non-profit organizations are *starred. (And credit to Margaret Laws, our compatriot in preparing this list of resources!)

Resources to help you get the job done

Voting Requirements in Each State, State-by-state:

Get out the vote and protect the vote 

  • Texting

This is painless and so efficient. You can do it from your phone but it’s easier from a laptop.  The training takes < 20 minutes and the technology is turnkey.

Also, it feels great to provide critical guidance like “don’t forget you’ll need a witness when completing your absentee ballot” and “please identify 3 friends you’ll remind to get registered this weekend”.  In one hour you can reach thousands of voters.

Here are some links to get you started:

Ballotpedia – Early voting dates 2020

  • Recruit staff for the polls, ensure adequate PPE, or sign up to work as a poll watcher*

Power the Polls*

Poll observers monitor outside polling locations for 6-8 hour shifts each day. They serve as eyes and ears to report on anything that threatens vote, including: 

      • long lines to
      • late openings to
      • voter misinformation to
      • suppressive or intimidating behavior. 

You do not need to be a lawyer.

Observers are needed as soon as polls open in each state – and needs are especially dire in IA, FL, OH, and NH.

Here is a link to the Biden Voter Protection Program 

And, here are poll watcher requirements, state by state*

  • Nearly 85% of Americans can vote by mail – make sure they know how to do it

NBC News guide to planning your vote – state by state*

  • Poll worker recruitment calls to younger folks who’ve served in the past

The shortage of poll workers is at crisis levels and, if unresolved, will result in poll closings, misinformation, and long lines — particularly for voters of color. 

Pick your state:  WI, MI, or NC 

  • Staff voter assistance hotlines

There is so much voter confusion in this crazy election year (see: pandemic, suppression, misinformation).  One of us (CC) staffs a hotline run by the non-partisan Election Protection coalition and one run by the Wisconsin Democratic Party. 

You can do the same by contacting Biden’s campaign (which will plug you into the swing state of your choice) (no legal background required) or by contacting Election Protection* (lawyers only, although you need not be actively practicing). 

The shifts are 3-4 hours long but you get significant downtime in between calls.  (That will not be the case on November 3!)  Training and a cheat sheet are provided and a captain will back you up if you’re stumped. 

  • Write to voters

While raging at the news, write letters as part of The Big Sends* efforts to prod 15 million infrequent, Democratic-leaning voters in swing states. It’s very easy and very cathartic. 

These will be mailed en masse on October 17. This is early enough to surmount USPS delays, late enough to maximize their effectiveness in prompting turnout.

For teens and studentsCampus Vote* and Rock the Vote*

For womenShe the People*

Lesser-known but critical targets for donations:

  • Making sure that defective ballots are corrected

This is also known as “ballot curing.” This is important because it is expected that mail-in voting will reach historic levels this election. But, a significant percentage of those mailed-in ballots are at risk of being rejected for one reason or another.

America Votes* is coordinating a rigorous multi-state program to identify voters whose ballots are problematic. They then contact them and help them “cure” the problem pursuant to state rules that are varied and complex. 

This is expensive on a cost per vote basis. But, unlike many last-stretch voting programs, we know this will help incrementally. Further, it could be decisive in the razor-thin election scenarios we anticipate in certain states. 

Support this work by donating here.  (And you can also contribute here to ballot-curing calls to NC Democrats who’ve already voted by mail, and are at risk of having their ballots rejected. They’re often unaware and highly motivated to fix their ballots. 

  • Importance of control of the House of Representatives 

In the unlikely-but-far-from-impossible event of an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives would choose our next president. Each state would cast one vote. That vote would be determined by the party in control.

Republicans now hold the majority in 26 states. However, the newly-elected House will cast the deciding vote. 8 House victories would give Democrats the majority needed to elect Biden.  

Give here to support the candidates in these districts. Your contribution will be split among those 8 candidates. All are outstanding leaders in their own right and are slugging it out in very tight races.  

  • Combatting Pennsylvania’s “naked ballot” problem*

PA is now arguably the most important state in the presidential election. This will be PA’s first large-scale vote-by-mail election. Voter confusion is rife.

Further, a state law that requires the discarding of ballots not returned in a special secrecy envelope–the so-called “naked ballot law”–threatens to invalidate over 100,000 votes. The vast majority of them are expected to be from Democratic voters. 

The Voter Project PA, a well-respected 501(c)3 voter education group, will be running a broadcast TV campaign to educate voters on the four steps required to return a valid ballot (including using the secrecy envelope). 

Make your tax-deductible contribution here via their funding partner, Keystone Research, and indicate that your gift is for The Voter Project Fund.

  • Montana Native Vote

Here’s a high-leverage way for you to make a difference in a place with outsized impact. In Montana, native communities are battling for voting rights.

Also, the outcome of Steve Bullock’s race could very well determine control of the Senate. Bullock’s fate will likely depend on how many Native American voters are able to cast their ballots. ~80% of Native Americans tend to vote Democratic.

The same is true for Democrat Kathleen Williams. She is running to flip Montana’s single House seat. She is one of our 8 “break the Electoral College tie” candidates mentioned above.

The pandemic has not only devastated Montana’s seven reservations, but it has also made voter registration nearly impossible. You can make a donation here.  

Final thoughts

It has been so exciting to watch the tremendous, creative, dedicated involvement of citizen activists grow over the summer and early fall. And every time we phone bank, or text bank, or staff a hotline, or send in a donation, we are energized even more. 

There are only a few weeks left – so join us, please, and get out there!!

We can rest after we win.  We must win it all.  Leave it all on the field. 

A few years ago, I was treated to shocking news. One of my own relatives voted for Donald Trump! To protect his identity, I will call him “Z.” What’s so shocking about it, you might ask? It’s because I know that he believes in science. I wondered how on earth can you vote for Trump if you believe in science.

I thought I knew this young man. I have been in his life since his infancy. He has a great disposition and a good sense of humor. He is always optimistic, low-key, and level-headed.

He is also a great husband and father. He believes in education and made sacrifices so his children could attend college. Further, he is an executive in his company where he has to make judgments based on hard facts. In short, he’s a normal guy just like you and me.

And, as I’ve already said, he believes in science. So how could he vote for a president whose relationship with facts and the truth is so tenuous, to put it mildly?

Even more puzzling is that he still supported him even after Trump denounced climate change as a Chinese hoax? At the time, he lived in a state that was hit hard by a terribly angry Mother Nature, for heaven’s sake!

Who is the archetypical Trump supporter?

I have watched the crowds in Trump’s rallies with a mixture of fascination and horror. Why the horror? Because sometime after the 2016 election, I visited a museum in Nuremberg, Germany with the apt, though deceptively antiseptic, name: “The Documentation Center”. The displays in the museum documented, in minute detail, the rise and fall of the Nazi Party.

Although I am not comparing our president to Hitler, the film clips of the huge crowds in the Nazi rallies enthusiastically cheering every utterance of the Führer bore a chilling resemblance to what we witness when we watch the Trump campaign rallies on television.

The hateful chants of “lock her up”, the dog-whistle references to Latinos and Blacks, and the thuggish response to their leader’s incitement against the press are all eerily reminiscent of the German mobs lusting after the blood of Jews, journalists, academics, “degenerate” artists, and intellectuals in general.

Why is this happening? What do we know about Trump supporters?

What causes our American brethren to fall into this odious state of frenzy? Honestly, I am stumped. You can’t paint them with a broad brush as racists. After all, many of them voted for Barrack Obama.

And, they are not all religious fanatics. In fact, I doubt that most of them even go to church. Further, you can’t dismiss them with the euphemism of “low information” because many of them are college graduates, business owners, lawyers, and engineers. Some are even college professors.

So is the common denominator of all these people? What draws them to these events? Of all the myriad theories, spun by psychologists, pundits, and “strategic advisers”(whoever asked those strategists to “strategize”?), none sound convincing to me.

A scientific analysis of how Trump won

An article in Scientific American Mind titled “How Trump Won” by Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam made a light bulb go off in my head. Notably, the authors are both non-Americans.

Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. And, Aslam is a professor of social and organizational psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.

This is interesting because it allows them to examine the evidence more dispassionately than people from America. Given the intensity of emotions surrounding this presidency, I believe it is almost impossible for an American to maintain a purely clinical disinterest. I know I can’t.

More by this author:
What Can We Learn About Fatherhood From Science?
Do Optimism and Pessimism Impact Health Outcomes?
Why Don’t Dogs Get Schizophrenia, But Dogs Do?

Here are the conclusions in a nutshell

  • “Donald Trump’s rallies enacted how Trump and his followers would like the country to be. They were, in essence, identity festivals.”

    Of course! How could I miss it? That’s exactly what I felt watching the German crowds shouting their Aryan superiority and their hatred of anybody who is not.

  • “Trump succeeded by providing a categorical grid—a clear definition of groups and intergroup relations—that allowed many Americans to make sense of their lived experiences.”

    If the Trump rhetoric strikes you as retrogressive, even reactionary, here is the reason. This is tribalism in its purest and most malignant form. Anybody who doesn’t belong to the white Anglo-Saxon tribe has no business living here. In fact, if the lady doth protest too much, she may have no right to live, as events in Charlottesville grimly demonstrated.

  • “Within this framework, he established himself as a prototypical American and a voice for people who otherwise felt voiceless”.

    Or as a Trump supporter once put it to Katy Tur, the MSNBC journalist who covered his 2016 campaign, “he saw us.” The rest of us were simply oblivious to their existence. I can imagine their feelings of insult and rage. Never mind that this new Messiah of the unheard and unseen descended from his golden Trump tower to enthrall West Virginians with promises that he would send the black-lung-afflicted back to the coal mines. His admirers were not looking for a message of hope—they wanted revenge.

  • “His rivals did not deploy the skills of identity leadership to present an inclusive narrative of ‘us’. In that context, Trump had a relatively free run.”

    Sorry, Hillary, your comprehensive analysis misses the mark: That’s what really happened.

It sounds right, but is it?

It’s an astute analysis and even sounds right. Except that Z, the subject of our case study, doesn’t fit in.

None of the theories that I read or heard explain this particular individual’s steadfast support for this bizarre president.

He is not filled with hatred against anybody who doesn’t look like him. He does not fit economically on the “categorical grid” of most Trump supporters. And, I don’t think he is the type to go to any rally, let alone a frenzied Trump rally.

To tell the truth, Z and people like him stump me. I don’t think there is an easy explanation. So, when we don’t have an answer to a difficult question what we do – and what I’ll do here – is to provide a non-answer that sounds credible.

Related content: Conservative vs. Liberal Views of Social Change. Who’s Right?

The cult of personality

What makes people join cults is a problem that has occupied many a psychologist and sociologist. Many answers have been proposed, none all-encompassing or persuasive, but yet here we are: People join cults.

How can they keep believing in false prophets who predict that on a date certain the world will come to an end? And to believe so fervently that they sell all of their belongings. Or, as in the case of the Jonestown massacre, even willingly die for their dear leader?

Remember Trump’s infamous quote that he could kill somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and his fans will stick with him? He was (and is) probably right.

Is this a new phenomenon?

King David (Ecclesiastes 1:9) said it best:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall      be. and that which is done is that which shall be done. and there is no new thing under the sun.

Yes, King David, there is nothing new here. We’ve seen this phenomenon before.

Since antiquity, there have been all sorts of cults, the members of which were not always “low information.” On the contrary, many were highly intelligent, articulate, and even deep thinkers. But they followed a leader, a messiah, a guru, a holy man—all who eventually revealed in time not to be who or what they pretended to be.

More current examples

But we don’t have to dig into the distant past to find examples of brilliant people who believe deeply in things that seem antithetical to the scientific evidence. For example, Dr. Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project. He is also a devout Catholic. I wonder, does he square Catholic dogma of the creation with evolution and natural selection? Why doesn’t he suffer from a severe case of irreconcilable cognitive dissonance?

I also know a geologist who is an expert on the Cambrian explosion (an explosion of new animal species approximately 541 million years ago). He is also a born-again Christian. As such, he believes in the biblical story of the creation of the world that is said to have occurred less than 10,000 years ago.

He is not alone: 37% of Americans believe in Creationism. Coming to think of it, this is also approximately the same number as the percentage of rock-solid Trump supporters until very recently. Coincidence? Is this the size of the cult? If so, pretty disheartening.

But, we still didn’t answer the original question:

What compels otherwise rational, educated, loving, even compassionate people to believe in an obviously psychologically-impaired con man?

Personally, I don’t think we ever will:

What can be done about it?

With respect to the cultists among Trump’s ardent followers, who in my opinion are the majority, there is very little that can be done. Their “mind” is made up, and no amount of fact-based reasoning will change it.

For a while, I thought that talking to Z and people I know who think like him. I wanted to tell them that science has predicted everything that is unfolding every day right in front of our eyes. I hoped I could miraculously help them to see the light, so to speak. But boy, was I wrong!

Dan Kahan and his colleagues from Yale, Temple University, and George Washington University conducted a study to test whether the public knows too little of science to understand the evidence and avoid being misled.

In short, they found no support for this hypothesis. People with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones amongst whom cultural polarization was greatest!

Conflict of interest

How to explain this astonishing observation? The authors suggest it stems from a conflict of interest between the following two perspectives:

  1.  Individuals have a personal interest in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties 
  2. They also have a collective interest in making use of the best available science to promote the common welfare.

Put another way They, like most people, do understand the primacy of scientific facts in ordering our personal and public life. However, a more primal imperative usually wins out—that of tribalism.

If being an avowed Trumpian means denying climate change or proclaiming the pandemic a hoax, then so be it. How naive of me to think that if I could only show them the evidence, they would change their minds.

So what should I do about my wayward relative, Z? Probably nothing. I will never be able to comprehend the puzzle of his choice. So, I’ll just accept him and love him as he is, warts and all. And, hopefully, he will do the same for me. After all, none amongst us is perfect.

Related content: Election Day Reminder to Vote Like Your Life Depends On it

Epilogue

About a week after the original blog post was published, I heard from family members who are very close to Z. These are people who really know him.

Unfortunately, the picture is not as pretty as I painted it. They told me the guy is actually control freak and a bully to his family and employees.

Needless to say, I was disappointed to learn this. But at least the puzzle I posited at the top of the blog is no more: the guy fits the mold of the Trump tribe.


This was first published on 9/24/2017 less than a year after Trump took office. It is, unfortunately still relevant in 2020 just a few short months away from the 2020 election.

For the first time ever, in a very long life of international travel, I was ashamed to be an American. My husband and I went to the profoundly important Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia in Mexico City a few years ago. I have been to many Holocaust museums and genocide memorials around the world (including most recently the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa). I expected this one to be similar. But I was wrong.

 

It was not a typical genocide memorial. Rather, it was a museum dedicated to tolerance. Indeed, there was much emphasis on understanding the antecedents and consequences of many different modern genocides, starting with the Armenian genocide and ending (at least temporarily) with Darfur.

The special exhibit

We spent almost five hours going through the museum and reading everything (in Spanish). Then, at the end of the regular tour, there was a special exhibition by an artist. It was placed in a small room that had large murals painted on walls. The murals were filled with messages of tolerance.

Two video players were also embedded in the walls. One was playing a YouTube video of Trump saying Mexico was sending us rapists—you remember this opening campaign statement from our then President-elect, right? 

Trump on Mexicans 1000 x 563

The other video was equally disturbing. It showed a young man looking at the camera from his truck. He told the viewers that he was going to pick up some men on the street to have them come and help build his deck. He nodded towards a group of obviously Hispanic men in work clothes. They excitedly piled into the back of his truck.

Related Content:
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And then the camera panned to the driver again. He said, “They think I am taking them to my house to help build a deck, but that is not where I am taking them.” No surprise, he drove them to the local immigration office to turn them in.

He then returned to his truck and grinned into the camera. He appeared proud as punch for having scared the bejeezus out of some poor people who were willing to do work for him because they needed the money.

Above the video, the words “Trabajo no es crimen, Trabajo is dignidad” (work is not a crime, work is dignity) appeared.

Ashamed to be an American

We were in the exhibition room with a number of young Mexicans. We looked over at them. Their expressions showed the same shock and disgust that we were feeling. I was mortified.

ADD_THIS_TEXT  

This is not the America that I have been so proud of all of my life. I was ashamed to be a part of this view of America—so ashamed that I wanted to apologize to these young people, but words failed me. I did not believe this is who we aspire to be. I thought it was indeed shameful. 

Unfortunately, recent events related to our Southern border include (but are not limited to) the following government-sanctioned activities:

  • separating young children from their parents
  • deporting parents without their children
  • warehousing children in deplorable conditions
  • denying that blankets and toothbrushes are necessary to keep the children safe
  • children dying while in our custody
  • metering (limiting) opportunities to seek asylum
  • threatening mass deportations

These events make me think that I am wrong about the aspiration part.

There are powerful people (and as the featured video shows some not so powerful people) in this country who think, in fact, that demonizing people from other countries will “make America great again.”

What would you do?

The exhibit clearly showed that the men in the truck video were people who were looking for work. Work is not a crime, it brings dignity. It brings hope. Also, people hoping to seek asylum so they can enter the U.S. after fleeing horrific violence in their home countries is not a crime. Rather, it reflects a deeply ingrained and natural instinct for self- and family-preservation.

I wonder, dear readers, if you were living in a country where it is extremely dangerous to live and the ability to support your family was non-existent, what would you do? It is in our DNA to protect ourselves and our loved ones. If you weren’t born in America and you lived in a place like Tegucigalpa or San Salvador), would you accept your fate and just stay in place or would you do whatever it takes to get the hell out – taking your kids with you?

What should we do instead?

As some of the candidates in last night’s Democratic debate pointed out, instead of chasing down and deporting people, our country should be doing everything in its power to help make all countries safe to live in so people don’t have to leave.

Unfortunately, the stories of the many genocides displayed in the Tolerance museum have demonstrated that, all too often, our government (and that of many other wealthy nations) sides with the oppressors or simply turns a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow man.

This has got to change if we are ever to have a world without displaced people who are just trying to do what all of us would do if we were in their situation: Survive.

La Tolerancia Es La Relacion

If you are ever in Mexico City, please visit the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia. It will change your view of the world. In fact, it would certainly be helpful for the future of the planet if our President, his advisors and cabinet members as well as the leadership of Congress, could spend a few hours there.


Editorial comment: This story was first published on June 27, 2016, with the title, “Remembrances, Tolerance, and Shame.” I wrote it shortly after my husband and I returned from a trip to Mexico City. If you are tracking the increasingly shameful racist events occurring all around the country – like the ones described in this story, you will understand that what I originally wrote in mid-2016 is, unfortunately, is still relevant today. Shame on us!

 

Lest we forget, our species is called Homo sapiens—the “thinking man”. We are supposed to be better than apes because, so the theory goes, we can “get into somebody’s head.” In other words, we know what other people know. We can attribute mental states such as intentions, goals, and knowledge to others.

So, you would think that a person of average intelligence would have no problem watching Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders (this list could go on and on) lying through their teeth—and figure out that they themselves don’t really believe the increasingly bizarre “alternative facts” that they are spinning.

That being said, apparently, about 30% of Americans apparently do believe every word they utter. They are products of our post-factual world. 

How has this happened when understanding false beliefs is supposed to be one of the things that define us as H. sapiens?

Getting into someone’s head

Here is a classic experiment that demonstrates how our minds work in this regard:

It starts by showing children a video of a doll named Sally hiding an item. Then, they see Sally leave the room and another doll comes into the room. The second doll takes the item and hides it in a different place.

When you ask the children where Sally will look for the item upon her return, very young children, less than approximately age four, will pick the new hiding place where they themselves know the item to be.

However, older children, after about age four, understand that Sally doesn’t know what they know. That is that the item was moved from its original hiding place to a new one.

They will answer the question by saying that Sally will look for the item where she originally left it. This experiment demonstrates that even children have the capacity to “get into somebody’s mind.”

Even apes can do it

In psychology, this capacity to know what’s going on in somebody’s mind – not just know but also feel what another person feels (which is the essence of empathy) – is called “the theory of mind”. Initially, it was thought that this was a uniquely human characteristic, but now we know better.

In a series of sophisticated experiments, using eye-tracking technology, scientists repeated the doll experiment with apes (except that the doll was now King Kong instead of Sally). They showed that apes are just as smart as the older children when it came to figuring out a false belief compared to their own knowledge of the facts.

Separating fact from fiction in a post-factual world

So, assuming that the 30% of people who believe Conway and Huckabee’s “post-facts ‘facts'” are more sophisticated than children and at least as sophisticated as the apes, what explains their inability to separate fact from fiction?

And lest I come across as rank partisan, I include as alternative fact believers the leftists and liberals who believe that vaccination causes autism despite the fact that the original publication claiming evidence for it was found to be fraudulent. And that numerous well designed scientific studies have debunked the claim. This includes an /April 2019 study of more than 650,000 children.

I also include in this group those that consider as an almost religious belief that GMO will kill you and that dairy food is toxic.

Not only does science not support these unfounded beliefs, but evidence to the contrary is also in plain sight. Witness the millions of people that eat and drink those ‘harmful’ things and are still alive and kicking and in excellent health. This includes those fanatic practitioners who unwittingly are consumers of GMO, which is in almost every food we consume nowadays, regardless of claims to the contrary.

An intriguing explanation

So, that being said, how do we know what we know? Just think for a moment. Suppose you are totally isolated from other human beings and all you know is from personal observation of your immediate environment. Obviously, your fund of knowledge is going to be pretty limited.

Two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach a cognitive scientist at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business and Steven Sloman a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, write in their NYT article, that all human knowledge is shared. For example, we know that the earth is round, but this knowledge came not from our own observation. It came from scientists and teachers who shared the knowledge.

The evolutionary imperative of sharing knowledge is obvious. Could a stone age hunter have survived very long hunting all alone? Of course not. It took a tribe, with shared knowledge and strategy, to corner fleet-footed prey and overcome ferocious predators.

People who believe non-facts are not stupid

The issue at hand is not that the people who believe non-facts are stupid—they are not. They are simply sharing, knowingly or unknowingly, non-factual knowledge.

In the words of Fernbach and Sloman, mentioned above:

“It is remarkable that large groups of people can coalesce around a common belief when few of them individually possess the requisite knowledge to support it.”

Their solution to the problem? Insist on “expertise and nuanced analysis from our leaders.”

Ha! But they just got through telling us that, individually, we are pretty much ignorami. And that we are naturally prone to believe in whatever falsehoods “leaders” feed us. It takes a great leap of faith to believe that our “leaders” would be honest enough, thoughtful enough, empathic enough, to think of the common good rather than their own.

An alternate theory

I am a bit more cynical. I believe that people act, and vote, according to their instincts, beliefs embedded in their psyche over a lifetime, prejudices, and not necessarily through rational analysis.

They will vote for people that, on a gut level, seem like them. This is either through holding the same prejudices, or using the same language, or coming from a social background that is similar to theirs. These factors are not quantifiable. It is gut level reign supreme.

It is basically Kahneman’s System 1 – thinking system that underlies instinctual behavior. It contrasts with Kahneman’s System 2 which is thinking that drives logical and analytic behavior.

The strengths of these beliefs

Once we form our view of the world, it is hard to change it. As I said above, our mind perceives it as existential. As examples, if we grew up in the Bible Belt, we “cling to our Bible and guns”, as someone once said. But if we live in the deeply blue San Francisco Bay Area, we simply cannot abide by the perceived radical conservatism of the Deep South.

We are tribal by nature. And the common belief in alternative facts is not an accident. It makes the worldview of the true believers internally consistent, hence, its strength.

Related Content by this author: Random Thoughts on ‘The Theory of Everything

Can this change these minds?

I am afraid not by much. Our minds are inherently lazy. Kahneman’s instinctual System 1, mentioned above, rules supreme in the brain. It takes time and persistent counter-experiences to convince us that this system is wrong for us.

In plain language, “to change our minds” requires that that System 2 thinking about an experience must eventually become embedded into System 1 (instinctual).

It will take major outbreaks of polio with its devastating consequences to finally convince the mothers of Rockland County and other high vaccine refusal areas to accept childhood vaccination. Evidently, even the current measles epidemic is not enough.

Remember, during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, it took widespread unemployment and major outbreaks of crack addiction in their own communities for people to realize that “their tribe” is not immune from the “other tribe’s” problems.

The bottom line

Post-factual beliefs are deeply ingrained as a result of our tribal instincts. They are highly resistant to change. It is not going to be easy to break down the walls that tribalism has erected in our post-factual world. 


Originally published in September 2017, this post has been revised and updated for republication.

When we witness the horror of the mass shooting of innocent people who had nothing personal to do with the perpetrator, we wonder: “how could it be?”

How could an individual be so hateful as to extinguish the lives of dozens of people he didn’t know? People who didn’t do anything to harm him. People who were peacefully worshipping in their synagogue (Pittsburg), mosque (Bethlehem in the West Bank, Christchurch NZ) or church (Cairo Egypt, Islamabad Pakistan), to name a few.

The question “how could they?” actually goes deeper than just our generalized disapproving bewilderment. It leaves neuroscientists and social psychologists baffled as well.

Here is the scientific dilemma. Natural selection programmed us to be empathetic.

It endowed us with diverse cultures whose common moral foundation is the instinctual recognition of right from wrong. How could things go so wrong?

Let’s examine what’s happening here starting with how and why humans became empathetic and moral. And, closing with an exploration of the power of hate speech to activate primitive areas of our brains involved in evoking what are now considered to be destructive emotions: hatred, fear, revenge, and disgust.

How and why we became empathetic and moral creatures?

If you are put in an MRI machine and shown pictures or told a story, the MRI results would show something surprising. A picture of a person running, for instance, would activate your own motor cortex as if it is you who is running. If you see a mother crying bitterly over her dying baby, you would be filled with overwhelming sadness. Why does this happen?

It happens because our brains are wired with circuits located in different regions of the cerebral cortex that act as mirrors of the external world. This is the neurological basis for empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. It is sometimes described as the ability to place oneself in another’s position. This, in turn, gives rise to morality. It is the basis of the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Empathy begets altruism and morality

Intuitively, it is easy to comprehend how empathy (“feeling one’s pain”) leads to the generation of the “Golden Rule.” It is noteworthy that the rule is the backbone of virtually all religions and moral philosophies. 

Evolutionary biologists puzzled over the question of why should morality, basically a philosophical construct, survive virtually intact through eons of human evolution and natural selection. It suggests that there must be some survival advantage for a band, or a tribe, or society to behave morally.

There are several theories to explain the origin of morality. We’ll focus on the two that in my opinion are the most relevant.

  •  The origin of morality is based on the concept of reciprocity. 

What is reciprocity? Simply, if your family or band or tribe is bearing gifts to mine, we are more likely to reciprocate and be generous with yours. From this simple concept developed the more philosophically profound Golden Rule.

In its most common version, it states the principle of treating others as one’s self would wish to be treated. So what is the underlying principle of this maxim of all religions and moral philosophy? It is reciprocity!

How does the concept of reciprocity fit into the theory of the origins of morality? Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin attribute the very nature of humans to reciprocity. They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services “in an honored network of obligation.”

There is ample experimental and observational evidence that reciprocity is a strong determining factor of human behavior. It is also a powerful method for gaining compliance with a request because reciprocity has the power to trigger feelings of indebtedness.

But there is a catch: observations of monkeys and apes describe many examples of reciprocity as well. Yet, they cannot be described as moral animals. There must be an additional ingredient that is uniquely human. 

  • Another theory is a close cousin of the reciprocity model. It can be understood through the concept of intentionality.

This theory was proposed by Michael Tomasello, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Basically what it says is that unlike other animals, humans have the ability to flexibly change behavior to achieve a particular goal. This can be directed for the purposes of better competing with others or for the larger good of the group.

If my wife is a better cook that I am (and she really is) than I’d opt for washing the dishes. This is an elementary division of labor and is as ancient as H. sapiens. But as the size and complexity of the social unit increased, so did the nature of empathy, altruism, and morality.

The original bands were hunters (mostly the men) and gatherers (mostly the women). Such collaboration was imperative for survival. As the size of the group got larger (clans, tribes) the collaboration had to increase.

Importantly, the intention to collaborate (the reasons to collaborate) became more complex. For instance, stone age tribes in the jungles of Brazil support the survival of their elderly members for the abstract reasons of gratitude and respect. Not because it increased their own survival.

This, then, formed a fertile ground for the rise of altruism and morality as we know it today. 

Regardless of the theory explaining our better angels, one fact is incontrovertible. Either through genetics, or through epigenetics, or culture, we are an altruistic and moral species. 

The evolution of the brain

So if things are so wonderful, how is it that some individuals ignore their “better angels” and become hateful, revengeful, or even murderous?

The answer, as always, lies in evolution, more specifically the evolution of the brain. Unlike the popular concept that the brain is a wonderfully efficient computer unerringly executing our will in milliseconds, it is actually an inefficient machine. It is the product of eons of ad-hoc additions and fixes.

In the most primitive animals, the brain served mostly vegetative functions: blood circulation, breathing, some primitive aspects of digestion. These functions are located in the brainstem.

As animals became more complex, so did the functions that their brain had to subserve. When animals needed to see farther and in more detail, a large visual cortex evolved. When they needed to hear better, an auditory cortex developed. And so forth.

In order to survive to reproduce, animals also had to successfully react to the many dangers in their environment. This led to the development of a walnut-size group of neurons called the amygdala. This is the areas of the brain where rage, fear, and fight-or-flight instincts are located.

All these additional functions reside in the layer that was added onto the brainstem, called the midbrain. Later, with the appearance of monkeys about 55 million years ago, a new thin outer layer of brain cells developed, the neocortex. Initially, it was very thin only becoming thicker with the appearance of apes about 25 million years ago.

But then something astonishing happened about 200,000 years ago. With the appearance of the first human species, the neocortex began thickening at a rapid pace. It now contains many more neurons, capable of carrying out more and more complex functions, including the abilities to

  • Behave altruistically to kin and to total strangers alike.
  • Develop philosophical concepts of right and wrong, based on the reciprocity inherent in the Golden Rule.
  • Make up your mind, and change it (intentionality)
  • Become self-aware
  • Feel love

The amygdala, hate, and hate speech

There is a constant tension in our brains (and psyche) between our amygdala-based defensive urges of fear, hate, revenge, disgust (demons we all carry) and our “better angels” of compassion, altruism, and morality.

As Kahneman and Tversky have shown, this delicate balance between primitive and enlightened and good and evil is vulnerable to influences of long-forgotten experiences, of unconscious biases, and yes-even to speech. Here are a few examples:

  • When Salafist preachers incited their followers with hateful speeches about the evils visited on Muslims, tens of thousands of young Muslims flocked to Iraq and Syria to perpetrate unimaginable atrocities.
  • In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an avid follower of the racist messianic rabbi, Meir Kahane. entered a mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire. He killed 29 worshippers and wounded 125 more. Kahane continually spewed hatred of Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians so it shouldn’t surprise us that one of his followers would commit such a despicable act.
  • And, where did the killer of the Pittsburg’s Tree of Life synagogue worshippers get his warped ideas? In part, from the hate-filled websites Gab and 4chan, of course.

Over 2500 years ago the Bible already warned us:

“The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).

This ancient wisdom is even truer today: words matter and they can tip the delicate balance in our heads to do good or evil. 

Understanding hate speech

A series of Polish studies showed that repeated exposure to hate speech can desensitize individuals to verbal aggression. This is, in part, because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior.

What happens in the brain when you listen to hate speech? It provokes a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine. It also engages the amygdala, the brain center for threat.

One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act. 

What we can learn from the master of hate speech

Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was a master at understanding how to generate hatred. He called Jews cockroaches and rats. It was not by accident. These creatures evoke disgust. By repeating this name-calling, again and again, he de-humanized the Jews.

This allowed Nazis and their supporters to exterminate millions of Jews with the same moral revulsion that killing a cockroach generates. The moral sense of outrage that such an act would normally evoke was successfully anesthetized.

Fast forward to our own times. In an article on the “Neuroscience of Hate Speech,” psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman points out that President Trump’s rhetoric has been a powerful contributor to our current climate of hate and division. His words are ably amplified by the right-wing media and a virulent online culture.

Although we cannot directly tie the President’s hateful words to a mass murder, one could reasonably wonder – is it only a matter of time?

The bottom line: Political demagogues and peddlers of hate may not know the science of hate, but they do know precisely how to push our amygdala buttons. 

Never Again? Really?         

Related content: Why I was Ashamed to be an American

In an era where anti-science attitudes seem to be running rampant, it is refreshing to learn that most Americans do know something about science after all.

The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy “fact tank,” just published the results of a survey on American’s knowledge of science and scientific processes. Overall, it showed, that we are not as bad at science as I thought.

Yes, we have climate change deniers who refuse to believe it’s happening despite overwhelming evidence that global warming is wreaking havoc on the planet. And, we have measles, mumps, and chickenpox outbreaks because anti-vaxxers cling to the belief that vaccines cause autism. This despite reams of high-quality scientific literature that has debunked this fraudulent theory over and over again. 

But these folks are, in reality, a vocal minority who are able to amplify their messages via social media and clever use of other types of media.

Thankfully, we can find some solace in the results of the Pew survey. It found that more than 70% of those surveyed have medium or high knowledge of science and its processes.

Thank heaven there appears to be a silent majority of people in this country that read about, think about, know about, and maybe even care about SCIENCE!

The survey

The Pew survey was based on a nationally representative sample of 4,464 adults who live in all 50 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia. It was conducted in early January 2019.

It consisted of 11 questions designed to assess basic scientific knowledge. Two of the questions assessed understanding of scientific processes.

Before reading further, click here to assess your own knowledge of science based on the Pew survey. I must say that even though science is my life, I found some of these questions a bit challenging. For example,

Cause of seasons Pew survey 750 x 332

Photo source: Screenshot from Pew Research Center’s publication “What Americans Know About Science”

The findings

The levels of scientific knowledge of the participants varied widely by education, gender, race, and ethnicity. However, overall, they gave more correct than incorrect answers to the questions. The mean number of correct answers was 6.7, the median was 7. 

Almost 40% of respondents answered between 9 and 11 of the questions correctly. They were categorized as having “high science knowledge.”

A third got 5 to 8 answers right. They were considered to have “medium science knowledge.” Thirty percent of people fell into the “low science knowledge group” only answering four or fewer questions correctly.

Impact of education

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Americans with more education scored the highest on science knowledge. In fact, individuals with a postgraduate degree answered approximately four more questions correctly compared to people with a high school degree or less (9.2 vs 5 out of 11).

Another way of looking at this is to determine the percentage of people by educational attainment who are able to score “high” in science knowledge. The difference, although expected, is striking. More than 70% of those with a postgraduate degree answered at least 9 of the 11 questions correctly. This contrasts with slightly less than 20% of those with a high school degree or less

Drilling down further, the survey found that for all 11 questions those with a postgraduate degree are “at least 27 percentage points more likely to choose the correct answer than those with a high school degree or less.

This finding could reflect differences in exposure to science at higher levels of educational attainment (for example., people who attended a health professional school or who got an advanced degree in a scientific field). It also could reflect an increased likelihood to have sought out informal education about science via museum visits, documentaries, reading science news, and so forth. 

Impact of race and ethnicity

There were also significant differences in scientific knowledge as assessed by the questionnaire based on race and ethnicity. Whites were more likely than Hispanics or blacks to score high on the assessment.

Here are some of the findings from the Pew publication:

  • “Whites got an average of 7.6 out of 11 answers correct. Hispanics averaged 5.1 and blacks 3.7 correct answers.
  • Roughly half of whites (48%) are classified as having high science knowledge on the scale. They answered at least 9 items correctly. This compared with 23% of Hispanics and 9% of blacks.”

The survey paper speculates that “differences by race and ethnicity on science knowledge could be tied to several factors, such as educational attainment and access to science information.”  It is noted that “differences between the racial and ethnic groups on science knowledge hold even after controlling for education levels in a regression model.

One of the things that I don’t believe the researchers controlled for was the quality of the education at each educational level. A college education at a for-profit online college may not be the same as one from an Ivy League four-year institution. Similarly, it is known that public elementary and high schools vary widely in resources and money spent per pupil to provide public education. Further, when these discrepancies are addressed, kids in poor schools do better.

Gender

Men score higher than women on the science knowledge scale. Men answered 7.4 questions correctly on average while women averaged 6.0. Almost half of the men scored “high” on the scale compared to 30% of women.

It is important to note that gender differences in the number of correct answers varied by question:

“For example, men and women were about equally likely to identify that antibiotic resistance is a major concern related to overuse of these drugs (80% and 77% respectively). But more men than women (66% vs 46%) recognize that inserting a gene into a plant is an example of genetic engineering.”

This likely ties to education as well. Differences in STEM education between boys and girls are well documented. Efforts to close this gap are underway.

Party affiliation

In general, Republicans and Democrats (and independents leaning those ways) have similar levels of understanding about science (7 vs 6.6 correct answers respectively). 

Interestingly, those at either extreme of the political spectrum (e.g., liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans) scored higher than those in the middle:

“On average, liberal Democrats get 7.8 correct answers and conservative Republicans score 7.4 in comparison. Moderate and liberal Republicans get an average of 6.5 correct answers and moderate and conservative Democrats get an average of 5.6.”

I have no idea how to interpret this. Do you?

Age 

Older and younger respondents had approximately similar scores on the survey questionnaire. Those 65 and older got 7.1 out of 11 correct and those 18 to 29 got 6.6.

But the researchers note that there are no significant differences by age when statistical models that control for gender, race, and ethnicity, and education are used. 

Understanding scientific processes

The survey researchers note that understanding science and “how scientific knowledge accumulates may help people navigate the ongoing debates over science connected with such issues as climate change, childhood vaccination, and genetically modified foods.” 

Because of this, the survey included two questions designed to assess knowledge about scientific processes. These questions were related to the generation of scientific hypotheses and the use of control groups.

They found that 60% of participants recognized that adding a control group was important in determining if a medication is effective. Slightly over half seemed to understand the concept of a scientific hypothesis.

An additional question, not included on the scale, sought to understand participants’ views of the scientific method. Two-thirds believed that the scientific method:

  • “Produces findings that are meant to be continually tested and updated over time1
  • 5% say the method produces unchanging core principles and truths
  • 17% say they are not sure.”

Related Content: Failure to Think Critically Allows Anti-Science to Flourish

The bottom line

Scientific knowledge is mostly alive and well in the U.S. A majority (~70%) of Americans scored “medium” or “high” on their level of scientific knowledge on a recent Pew survey. This is good news. But it is not good enough. We can – and must – do better. 

It’s no surprise that education is key. It’s time to say a resounding “no” to policies that have contributed to the vast educational disparity in America.

Here is my wish list to close the educational gap – we need to:

  • Pay our teachers fairly
  • Ensure that every school is a good school
  • Bring broadband to underserved communities
  • Call out for-profit schools that fail to deliver
  • Implement universal pre-school 

What’s on your wish list?

In this political season of outrageous lies, I sometimes wonder: How can politicians say things with a straight face that they know full well aren’t true? How did it get that way? Are liars born honest and become corrupted later, or are they born to become lying politicians, or businessmen, or even scientists who manipulate data? In other words, is dishonesty hard-wired, or is it a learned behavior? What does science say?

Experimentally, it’s a tough problem. Some studies have involved putting experimental subjects in an MRI machine and instructing them to lie. But that’s akin to telling a subject to cry and then assume that his or her scan revealed anything relevant to a real life situation.

Many liars, some famous, some less famous, but all having gotten caught, trace back the origins of their big lies to a succession of smaller, ostensibly insignificant lies. Which begs the question: Why is it so? Why don’t big liars start with the big lies? What inhibited them in the first place and what allowed them to progress to the point of major deception?

An ingenious experiment

Dr. Tali Sharot and her team of University College London and Duke researchers conducted a series of experiments that start to answer some of these questions. To test for dishonesty escalation and its underlying neurological mechanism, they combined brain imaging with a behavioral task in which individuals were given repeated opportunities to act dishonestly.

The 80 participants in the study were given the task of estimating the number of coins in a glass jar that contained pennies valued at somewhere between 15 and 35 British Pounds (between $18 and $43). Subjects were shown large, high-resolution images of the penny-containing jars for 3 seconds. They were told that their “partner” (actually, a confederate of the researchers) would be shown a smaller picture of the jar for 1 second. The participants were told the partner’s goal was to estimate the amount with the help of their advice. This scenario is neutral, with no incentive to lie, and it served as a baseline for the later studies.

Next, the investigators changed the scenarios so as to give the participants incentives to lie. One scenario would benefit the participant at the expense of the partner; they were told they would be rewarded according to how much their partner overestimated the amount whereas their partner would be rewarded for accuracy. In other words, the participant would be rewarded for lying at the expense of the partner. Another scenario would benefit the partner at the expense of the participant, another would benefit the partner without affecting the participant, and yet another would benefit the participant without affecting the partner. Comparing the participant’s estimates in the different scenarios allowed the team to measure degrees of dishonesty.

Ingenious, yes? But the team didn’t stop there; they repeated the presentations 60 times, thus getting a measure of the effect of lying repeatedly. Furthermore, 25 of the participants conducted the tasks in a fMRI scanner.

Not all lies are created equal

Duh, everybody knows that. We call it “white lies” and “big lies”. How many times have you said “OMG, you look great!” to somebody who is seriously ill? Or on the opposite end, “I never said it” when the evidence is on video for all to see? But, by repeating the experiment 60 times, the researchers were able to see another aspect of dishonesty—its development.

The findings were truly amazing. After the first presentation, the participants in the scenario that allowed them to profit at the expense of the partner had the lowest degree of lying. And in the scenario where both participant and partner stand to benefit from lying, the degree of dishonesty was the highest. It’s as if people’s conscience is bothered when they benefited at the expense of somebody else, but they are much less bothered when both they and the other person benefit.

As Dr. Sharot said, this suggests that

“people lie most when it’s good for them and the other person. When it’s only good for them but hurts someone else, they lie less.”

But then, when presentations of the jar were repeated an additional 59 times, something interesting emerged. The initial level of dishonesty remained the same throughout the repetitions in all the scenarios except one. In scenarios where the participants benefited, the level of dishonesty increased as the number of presentations increased.

In other words, people lie but lies only increase with repetition when the participant benefited. Self-interest is the thing that pushes people down the slippery slope.

The slippery slope in the brain

As I said, 25 of the participants lied while lying in the MRI machine. The area of the brain that “lit up” the most, or showed the greatest enhancement of metabolic activity, was a pair of almond-shaped neural centers called the amygdala. This region of the brain coordinates emotional responses. These can range from fight or flight to anger and aggression. But they also deal with the emotional discomfort we feel when our actions do not comport with our conscience—cognitive dissonance, as it is known in psychology.

This finding was almost predictable. But the interesting aspect of this study was the effect of repetition. As participants repeated the lying, the activity in the amygdala progressively declined. And larger reductions predicted bigger subsequent lies. I find this remarkable. The slippery slope is not just the favorite warning of scolds, it really exists in the brain.

The role of adaptation 

But why did the spikes of activity decline with repetition of the lying? The authors suggest that this is a manifestation of a phenomenon called adaptation. The same process occurs when you repeatedly show people unpleasant images. Remember the picture of the dead Syrian boy on the beach? Or the planes flying into the Twin Towers? The first time we saw them, we were horrified. But when these images were put on an endless loop day and day out, our reactions became progressively muted. We and our brain underwent adaptation.

Before we close, a word of caution: Emotions and behavior, in general, are controlled by several areas of the brain, the amygdala is only one of them, albeit, an important one. For instance, I would be curious to know if the reward system is involved in some way. Does it play an inhibitory role in lying? Or is it just wishful thinking: It could actually play a permissive role, increasing the reward reaction as smaller lies progress to bigger ones. I hope not.


Originally published 11/21/2016, this post has been reviewed and updated by the author.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl Jung

Bomb attacks on Trump critics and the cold-blooded murder of Jewish citizens in a synagogue in Pittsburg make Carl Jung’s warning from 1957 all the more urgent.

Jung is one of the most famous and influential psychiatrists of the last 100 years. He understood that humans know very little about the darkness in their own character. It is the other people who do those horrible things. Our family or our friends would never do such a thing—the very idea!

Yet for all our indignation, we all have a Dark Side. It is an aspect of our nature that few of us recognize, much less acknowledge—and little wonder. The Dark Side exists beyond our conscious selves in the unconscious. It is not easy to see.

Politicians are fanning the Dark Side in America today and it is important that we understand it better.

Most people think that they know themselves

Most people think that they know themselves and what they are capable of. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are unaware of the real psychologic facts. They think that they are incapable of monstrous acts, other people do those things. I wouldn’t do that. My family wouldn’t do that. “They” do that.

“They” are usually people who are different from us in some way-Jews, Mexicans, or black people. But the Dark Side is an equal opportunist. It knows no boundaries of race, religion, nationality, or political party. In fact, the less aware the individual is of the power of the Shadow in them, the darker it is and the firmer the grip on their lives.

Recognizing the Dark Side in ourselves, our organizations and working to tame it is perhaps the most important challenge in life. We are always moving one way or the other, and if we recognize no fault at all in ourselves the battle is probably over, and the Dark Side has taken over. Think Darth Vader.

Jung’s Undiscovered Self

Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self 306 x 499Jung applied all of these ideas to politics in his book, “The Undiscovered Self”. He says that democracy depends on the power of reason found in a single intelligent, educated, mentally stable layer of the population. But the layer is not very thick and includes, at most, 40 percent of eligible voters.

The other 60% of the population contains groups who are susceptible to emotional appeals and have their torches ready to march, chant, and pull others into their dangerous initiatives that threaten democracy itself—think Charlottesville. Big groups like political parties crush the insight and self-knowledge that are possible with the individual. That can lead to authoritarian rule and the death of the constitutional state.

Once the emotional temperature reaches a certain level, rational discussion becomes impossible, and it serves the few who know how to manipulate the system to fan the emotional flames. They demonize the opponents, discredit them in any way possible, bully them, call them names, create alternate “facts”, and lie when it would be easier to tell the truth.

Disinformation

A persistent disinformation campaign is the mark of authoritarian rule. Slogans and fantasies replace reason and the truth. Jung goes as far as this: “a sort of collective possession results which rapidly develops into a psychic epidemic.” Dysfunctional individuals with strong resentments are especially vulnerable to these emotional appeals. There are thousands of people with latent psychoses that politicians can activate with extreme rhetoric. Last weeks’ two assailants are perfect examples.

ADD_THIS_TEXT
 

Germany in the last three hundred years was as “civilized” as any place in the west. It produced the great musicians Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Handel, and Liszt. Germany produced outstanding scientists like Einstein, Schweitzer, Bosch, Planck, Koch, Heisenberg, Roentgen, and Von Braun. It produced the great philosophers Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Goethe. This is quite a record—these men are all giants in their respective fields.

That sophistication did not prevent the rise of Hitler and a monstrous, racist regime with policies of genocide and extermination. Hitler used emotional appeals to whip the German people into a frenzy where reason was impossible. It happened there, and it can definitely happen here.

Black and White photo of Hitler at Nurnberg Nazi Party Rally 800 x 592

Raeder, Göring, Fritsch, Hitler, and Blomberg at a Nazi Party rally in Nürnberg, Germany, Sep 1934
Photographer: Heinrich Hoffmann
Source: ww2dbase German Federal Archive

Carl Jung was born just a few miles from the German border in Switzerland. He witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. He wrote The Undiscovered Self in 1957, very soon after the global disaster that was World War II. He saw these interactions of human nature and politics firsthand.

The dangers of party

Responsible people need to understand both the Republican and Democratic parties are in the hands of extremists. If you are too far to the right or to the left you have no place. George Washington himself warned us about the dangers of party and faction in his farewell address at the end of his service:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty. Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Related content:
Are Political Views Hardwired in the BrFain?
Can You Believe in Science and Still Vote for Trump?

We are reaping the whirlwind

We have ignored warnings from George Washington and Carl Jung and we are reaping the whirlwind. The extreme right-wing demonstrators in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us”, and our failure to confront those chants has now borne its horrible fruit. It is no coincidence that the attacks on Trump critics and the murders in Pittsburgh come right before an election. We have endured dysfunctional government for years and now the terror begins.

Related Content:  Resources to Help You Get Out (and Protect) the Vote

Party extremists fan the flames of emotion and take away our ability to get anything done in the democratic process. Pulling away to our corners while insulting, demonizing, and dehumanizing people who look or think differently is a formula for national disaster.

New science tells us that human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup. We are much more alike than we are different. We are almost literally brothers and sisters. Racism in the face of that knowledge is pure ignorance. Race is an outdated concept.

Marginalizing humans based on national origin, race or religion is totally counterproductive to our national security and strength. It provides opportunities for other countries to divide us. We are all Americans. If we want a government of, for, and by the people, reasonable citizens need to pull us back to the middle and we need to talk.

Failure to participate leads to our current situation where the extremists know how to manipulate the system, they purposely fan the emotional flames to the point that reason cannot function, and we end up with a dysfunctional government, threats, and murder.

Every day responsible citizens fail to constrain extremists pushes the best version of America further away. Failure to act will very likely result in even more violence and horror.

The word VOTE in red, white, and blue 650 x 177

As a physician and scientist, I have a special aversion to the phrase “Enemy of the People,” not to mention that being Jewish, these words raise my alarm hormones (epinephrine, cortisol) to sky-high levels. As the Nazi antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer (whose English namesake The Stormer is alive and well on the internet today) wrote in 1938:

“The Jews don’t want to go to Madagascar.* They cannot bear the climate. Jews are pests and disseminators of diseases. In whatever country they settle and spread themselves out, they produce the same effects as are produced in the human body by germs. … In former times sane people and sane leaders of the peoples made short shrift of enemies of the people. They had them either expelled or killed.”

That was 1938. Two years later, the Jews were indeed killed, first by the thousands, later by the millions.

Why you might be wondering, would the physician/scientist part of me get alarmed when I hear the words “Enemy of the People” being thrown about by the President? He’s “only” going after the press, right?

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it

At the end of the 19th century, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called “An Enemy of the People”. The story revolves around the fate of a doctor in a Norwegian town who discovers that the public baths there were contaminated. The business interests, the civic authorities, and the press tried to muzzle him. When that failed, they labeled him an enemy of the people. The townspeople turn on him, he loses his job, his home is vandalized, and he gets evicted. He loses everything, but the good doctor remains unbowed. And, although he is the ultimate moral victor in the face of this general opprobrium, it is not really a happy ending for this dour Norwegian playwright and his character.

The 21st-century rendition of the play has unfolded in front of our eyes in Flint, Michigan in the past few years. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in town discovered that the water supply was heavily contaminated with lead. She tried to alert the state authorities. Their reaction?

“The state said that I was an unfortunate researcher, that I was causing near-hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers,” HannaAttisha says. “It’s very difficult when you are presenting science and facts and numbers to have the state say that you are wrong.”

We did not invent the notion that scientists who uncover inconvenient facts are cast as enemies of the people. Stalin called the Soviet geneticists enemies of the people because the science of genetics did not conform to Marxist ideology. He sent most (over 3000 of them) to Siberia, and executed their scientific leaders following “show” trials. Fortunately, our climate scientists are not in mortal danger…yet. But check out the manacing venom directed at climate scientists under the cover of a non-committal or even approving government and you’d realize how close we are to a mob rule.

“The formula ‘enemy of the people,’” Nikita Khrushchev told the Soviet Communist Party in a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader. It remained to his great-granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at NYU, to tell us that “the phrase was shocking to hear in a non-Soviet, moreover non-Stalinist setting.”“Her great-grandfather”, she said, “of course also used Soviet slogans and ideological idioms but still tried to stay away from sweeping denunciations of whole segments of the Soviet population.”

No such compunction for our president. His denunciations of the press, TV, and journalists as human beings have an escalating pattern. Here are some choice quotes from his August 2017 only days after the disastrous events in Charlottesville:

“If you’re reading a story about somebody, you don’t know. You assume it’s honest, because it’s like the failing New York Times, which is like so bad. It’s so bad.”

“Or the Washington Post, which I call a lobbying tool for Amazon, OK, that’s a lobbying tool for Amazon.”

“Or CNN, which is so bad and so pathetic, and their ratings are going down.”

“I mean, CNN is really bad, but ABC this morning — I don’t watch it much, but I’m watching in the morning, and they have little George Stephanopoulos talking to Nikki Haley, right? Little George.”
“I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.”
And then, there is this:
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for the country!”
And this from a tweet August 2018:
The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!
Can you discern an escalating pattern?

Where to does all this lead us?

On August 3, 2018, right-leaning NYT columnist Bret Stephens penned an emotional piece entitled “Trump Will Have Blood on His Hands,” which took aim at Trump’s heated diatribes directed at the media. He quotes a threatening phone message, one of many he had received:

“Hey Bret, what do you think? Do you think the pen is mightier than the sword, or that the AR is mightier than the pen?”

He continues: “I don’t carry an AR but once we start shooting you f—ers you aren’t going to pop off like you do now. You’re worthless, the press is the enemy of the United States people and, you know what, rather than me shoot you, I hope a Mexican and, even better yet, I hope a n—– shoots you in the head, dead.”

He repeats the racial slur 10 times in a staccato rhythm, concluding with the send-off: “Have a nice day, n—– lover.”

So, from denial of broadcasting licenses to “unpatriotic” TV channels to incitement to violence against journalists to actual threats of “bullets to the head” -how far are we from Putin’s Russia?
Why should a scientist worry about all that? first, because above all the media is comprised of human beings. But second, because like journalists, scientists are dedicated to finding and reporting the facts. And, like the journalism profession, science, and the truth, in general, is under attack. This is an existential threat to our society.

A ray of hope?

I can’t just end with this jeremiad; it leaves me depressed. So here is a hopeful thought.

Remember Nero! His rule is usually associated with tyranny and extravagance. Tacitus claims that the Roman people thought him compulsive and corrupt (the Roman version of DT?). Suetonius relates that many Romans believed that the Great Fire of Rome was instigated by Nero to clear the way for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea. (Trump tower coming to mind?) According to Tacitus he was said to have seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty (Journalists, scientists, political opponents, take heed).

Nero fled Rome when Rome’s discontented civil and military authorities chose Galba, a civil servant and the governor of Spain, as emperor. He committed suicide on June 9, 68 AD, when he learned that he had been tried in absentia and condemned to death as an enemy of the people. As they say, history does not repeat, but it does rhyme.

So let’s hang in there. There is hope.


*Nota bene: what are they talking about; I loved Madagascar, its people, and its astounding nature, especially the lovely lemurs.

Believe it or not, in some ways science has a lot to say about fake news and in other ways not nearly enough. When it comes to understanding this phenomenon, we can draw on a wealth of information ranging from anthropology, sociology, network theory, to psychology and neurobiology.

And yet, despite the detailed technological, behavioral, and biological armamentarium at our disposal -there is precious little that we can deploy to scupper the attack on our democracy. To understand the reasons for this dismal state of affairs, read on.

The history of fake news.

Truth or accuracy are nothing less than basic to almost every human endeavor. Theories of decision-making, cooperation, communication, and markets all have a common fundamental assumption: trust, based on truth.

Spreading false rumors and muzzling truthful information is as old as the Bible. But in more modern times the use of propaganda during WWI, primarily by Russia and Germany, caught the journalistic, and thus the general public, totally unaware. Thus, the NYT journalist Walter Duranty, who was wined and dined by Russian operatives, reported from Moscow that the 1932-33 famine in the Soviet Union was a lie propagated by a hostile Western press. It took years to uncover the truth. In the meantime, millions died, and many more poor souls were deported and withered away in Siberia. And thus did fake news celebrate one of its early grim successes.

This and numerous other episodes of propaganda manipulation of the press and broadcast prompted news outlets to establish norms of reporting to assure its veracity. But these norms could be observed only in democratic societies. When a despot takes over the press becomes a propaganda tool, truth be damned. A prime example is Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, whose “big lie” was responsible in large measure for the frenzy of hatred against Jews, and ultimately, the Holocaust.

With the advent of the internet, the old order was cast aside. The democratization of information dissemination had its good effects and bad ones. Anybody and anything (I am talking about bots) could open a twitter account in total anonymity and float lies, conspiracy theories, fomenting discord, and incitement to violence. Examples range from ISIS recruitment propaganda to “Infowars” malicious conspiracy theories, to dissemination of a constant barrage of presidential lies.

Related Content:
Fake Health News: How to Spot It and Not Fall for It
Fake Health News: How to Recognize It So You Can Stay Safe

How common is fake news? And, how fast does it spread?

We ‘know’ it’s common. But despite all the talk, scientific studies are surprisingly few. A  2017 study estimated that the average American encountered between one and three stories from known publishers of fake news during the month before the 2016 election. Sounds like a conservative estimate? It is. The study tracked only 156 fake news stories, not even close to the many thousands that were generated by mostly right-wing trolls and the millions of Russian bots. Furthermore, If you live in California or New York you’d think that is an overestimation, and if you live in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania you’d think that’s a laughable underestimation. Reason: these states were targeted by the perpetrators of fake news in the hope of swaying the (euphemism alert) less-informed. Averages, in this case, are akin to drowning in 10 feet of water in a lake whose average depth is 2 feet.

There is another aspect that the study did not deal with: the speed of the spread of fake news. In epidemiology, the phenomenon of spread is well-studied and quantified – albeit by looking at infectious diseases rather than lies and distortions.

Consider a person with the influenza virus. His exposure to uninfected persons will invariably result in a certain spread of the virus. Now, the rate of spread is naturally impeded due to the level of previous immunity in the community, immunization campaigns, and general preventative measures. But what if there was no pre-existing immunity, no immunization campaigns, and only ineffective preventive measures? The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.

Now consider this: the enormous spread of the flu in the 1918 epidemic required some physical proximity between individuals. But what if the spread required only a keystroke, a ‘re-tweet’ or ‘share’ button? You can only imagine that the rapidity of the spread of fake news during the 2016 election must have dwarfed the spread of the Spanish flu by orders of magnitude.

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An article with the title, “The Spread of True and False News Online,” was published in Science by MIT scientists. They investigated the diffusion of all verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The huge database comprised of about 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. the classification of true and false was done by six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95-98% agreement on the classification.

What did they find out analyzing this rich trove of data? Largely a quantitative confirmation of the adage that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (often misattributed to Mark Twain).

Without getting into the data weeds, let me summarize. They found that falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. They found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We have met the enemy, and it is us!

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How much damage?

Some people want to ascribe Trump’s election to the campaign of false news. Who can tell? There were so many ‘confounding factors’, such as an inadequate candidate, poor messaging, FBI director Comey’s intervention at critical points in the campaign, and so forth. But the impression that false news was responsible for a substantial portion of the political content on the internet is borne out by the estimate that 9-15% of active Twitter accounts were bots, and by Facebook’s own estimate of 60 million bots on their platform.

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How much damage can even one rumor cause? Consider the false tweet that Barack Obama was injured in an explosion. It was swiftly found to be false, but not before it caused a loss of $130 billion in stock value. This is one tweet. Consider what 60 million bots, spewing out thousands of false tweets can do to the fabric of society.

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What can be done?

Many proposals have been floated. Facebook and Google are using AI to root out these sites. How good are their algorithms? Facebook removed the Declaration of Independence as hate speech… but let’s assume that machine learning will improve the algorithms. The basic problem is that it’s a game of whack-a-mole. These sites reappear in a different guise faster than you can identify them. Furthermore, as we see from the swift stock market behavior, these efforts are too slow: by the time they are implemented, the fake news has been tweeted and retweeted again and again. And, once the bells tolled, they cannot be un-tolled.

The MIT study found that it is us, humans, who propagate the false news. Sixty million bots could not get to first base if there were no humans eager to spread the fake news.

In my naïvete, I thought that in our country, in our democracy, an educated populace would immunize us against the rapid and far-flung infestation of fake news. How naïve. Consider these relatively recent events:

  • The Texas Republican party 2012 platform opposed the teaching of “higher order thinking skills”(critical thinking, in plain English) because it believes the purpose is to challenge a student’s “fixed beliefs” and undermine “parental authority.”
  • In February 2015 an Oklahoma legislative committee voted overwhelmingly to effectively ban the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. history classes. Yes, U.S. history. Specifically, the bits of our history that might be uncomfortable, unflattering or even shameful — or, as some politicians call it, “unpatriotic.”
  • As the Washington Post reports, Oklahoma is not alone. It seems to be a coordinated campaign.  Policymakers in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Colorado have agitated to scrap or doctor the AP course, citing its “liberal bias” and supposed focus on U.S. “blemishes.”
  • The Republican National Committee likewise called on Congress in 2014 to withhold funding from the nonprofit that developed the course, the College Board, because its AP course “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
  • A lawsuit filed by students in Detroit schools in 2016 argued the schools are in “slum-like conditions” and “functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.” It accused Gov. Rick Snyder (R), the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.

A federal judge, a George W. Bush appointee, has dismissed the lawsuit in part because he concluded there is no right to literacy.

Could you imagine such a bald-faced attack on the very basis of a democratic society in pre-Trump America? You have to wonder, is there a Plot Against America, or am I just being paranoid?

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