Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is the debate over guns pointless?

The matter of guns, gun violence and the endless gun regulation debate flares up after each mass murder. The body count this time is nine innocents. This debate is now routine. A massacre occurs, both sides reiterate their arguments, the press moves on, emotions cool and nothing changes very much. Meanwhile, about 31,000 Americans die each year from gun violence (11,000 homicides and 21,000 suicides) and another 71,000 are injured. Like it or not, empty debate followed by little or no change has been society's response over the last decade or two.[1]

Given that, it is fair to argue that the current debate over the slaughter in Charleston, SC is mostly pointless. To the extent any societal response occurs, changes are at the state level and new state laws tend to expands guns rights more than restrict. Despite the NRA and gun advocates belief to the contrary, federal law under President Obama has expanded gun rights. Meaningful new regulation, e.g., universal background checks to try to prevent insane people from getting guns, is nowhere on the horizon. That appears to be a consequence of deep public distrust in the federal government coupled with a polarized, corrupt congress.

Since congress is hopelessly gridlocked on this and most other issues, it is unrealistic to expect reasonable new federal legislation that might have some impact, assuming there is anything that can be affected for the better. With hundreds of millions of guns in American society, criminals, haters and most insane people can usually get guns if they want them. Maybe it is too late to do anything in service to the public interest. If that is true, calls for any additional gun regulation are pointless.

Gun advocates, the NRA and gun manufacturers use every mass killing incident as a rationale to reduce gun restrictions so that good guys with guns can shoot bad guys (with guns) who are doing bad things. That logic will probably never be dislodged, especially by the endless arguments the two sides ineffectively throw at each other. On this issue, as most others in politics, the two sides are simply talking past each other with little or no policy impacts.

Where's the data?
There is a discouraging aspect of this issue. Federal funds for research on the public health impact of gun violence cannot be obtained in practice. Researchers fear career damage from venturing into the political morass. Research is at a standstill and has been halted since 1996 due mostly to conservative opposition. The American public cannot truly know or assess the overall impact of guns on public health. This situation reflects the profoundly corrupt nature of politics[2] under the two-party system. Special interests including the NRA and gun manufacturers have effectively blocked federal funding for gun violence research since 1996, presumably because they fear the data may show guns and gun use to carry costs that are far higher than the benefits. Some of limited data that is available suggests that at least in domestic settings guns are a harmful influence: "Rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance."[3]

Under the circumstances, the current debate over gun violence is pointless on three grounds: First, both sides in the gun debate point to the same data and draw opposite conclusions about what policy choices make sense - neither side budges. Second, even if most Americans were to prefer an arguably reasonable new law, e.g., universal background checks, special interest money effectively blocks that. Finally, since rigorous, unbiased research is not available to the American public and policy makers, the debate is based on assumptions about public health impacts that are simply not known.

1. Dissident Politics (DP) is not arguing here for any additional new gun law or restriction. DP is arguing (1) that the current debate is empty and pointless and (2) for an honest debate that is based on transparent research, unspun facts and unbiased logic to fairly assess the good and bad public health impacts of guns in American society. It is possible that even without the corrupting influence of gun money on the two-party system, most Americans would want to keep the laws more or less the same despite the knowledge that the costs, about 31 thousand deaths and about 71 thousand injuries plus associated medical and law enforcement costs, are acceptable. That could be true even if unbiased research shows the costs are high and the benefits amount to very few or no lives saved, very little or no crime prevented and much personal satisfaction or feelings of security with gun ownership. That is a possible outcome. Americans more or less now accept about 88,000 alcohol-related deaths and about 480,000 cigarette-related deaths each year, so logically, Americans might be willing to accept a high-cost, low-benefit gun situation.
2. Dissident Politics defines political corruption to include serving special interest demands at the expense of the public interest. That definition accords with U.S. laws that were passed over 100 years ago. Corruption of governments by special interest money is a millennia-old phenomenon. Under the current two-party system, special interest money has sufficiently more influence than service to the public interest that the system is fundamentally corrupt, in DP opinion. Research supports the opinion that special interest money in politics has far more influence on policy than what the American people want or the public interest would reasonably require: “Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”
3. Calls to restart federal funding on this issue are likely to fail. That too, reflects the domination of the public interest by special interest money. Given the power of the NRA and gun manufacturers, it is very unlikely that federally funded research can be restarted any time soon. Maybe the best that can be done is to identify public interest funding for rigorous, unbiased research on the true costs (murders, injuries, suicides, etc.) and benefits (personal security, psychological well-being, bad guys shot dead or incapacitated, etc.) of gun ownership and use in American society. Only that kind of analysis will reveal the scope of the public health impacts, good and bad, of gun violence. If the costs are shown to be very high relative to the benefits, which is probably the case, that just might foster an informed, but commensurate, societal response.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Hard wired for false reality and bad choices

A central Dissident Politics criticism of two-party politics is its constant reliance on spin[1] to paint false realities, distract the public and win policy arguments and public support. Differences in how the left and right see facts and apply logic are vast. One reflection of that are accusations of lying each side levels at the other (dems lie, dems lie, reps lie, reps lie). Fact checking groups suggest spin is routine in political rhetoric (PolitiFact, FactCheck). As argued before, spin is constitutionally protected free speech and it is subtle (mostly unconscious) but very effective. Spin leads to vast waste, creates false realities, ineffectively serves the public interest and is used to serve special interests[2] with little or no regard for impacts on the public interest.[3]

Presumably most or essentially all hard core partisans on the left and right would deny that they are subject to distorting reality or logic. In view of what modern science knows about the frailties of human cognition or perception and human biases, that assertion is simply false.

Humans and apes succumb to "framing spin"
The framing effect, a cognitive bias, tends to lead people to choices that can be objectively wrong or bad. For example, people are more inclined to buy a diet product that is asserted to work 40% of the time than when the same product is framed to fail 60% of the time, even though the product may not work at all. In other words, a choice framed positively, i.e., people are told (spun) that the glass is at least half-full, is tends to be accepted even when the actual choice without framing is negative, i.e., the glass is actually less than half-full. That's just human biology.

Recent research demonstrates that primates are also susceptible to the framing cognitive bias. Apes presented with choices presented in a positive or negative frame tended to choose the choice if it was positively framed, even though both choices led to the same outcomes. That suggests that susceptibility to this form of spin is hard wired in both humans are apes.[4]

Political framing: Deceiving or informing the public?
Framing in politics is a well-known tactic for manipulating perceptions of reality or deceiving the public. Politicians, partisans, the media and other players in the two-party system frame their desired policy choices or stories to attain the desired outcome. Typically, this involves description of only one frame for a given issue and the frame is presented as positive for the public interest, even when the actual unframed scenario or choice is actually neutral or negative. That's where some spin damage comes from.

Although some argue that framing should be used to inform the public, there is nothing in the law or the U.S. Constitution that prohibits this form of spin from being used on the American people in service to special interests. What is the net effect of framing in politics, more good than bad? Used only by one side and not the other? Answers to those questions boil down to how one sees the two-party system. Most or all partisans on each side will probably accuse the other of routinely using this form of spin while rarely or never using it themselves. In Dissident Politics' opinion, that is solid evidence that both sides routinely employ this spin tactic. For the most part, neither the left nor right has the self-awareness and/or moral courage to be honest with the American people, which is a reflection of its failures and corruption.

1. Spin includes lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, usually unconsciously, the use of fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest. Distortion of reality and logic by ideological bias, e.g., confirmation bias, self-interest or both, is common and has been documented by years of research. For example, strongly-held political ideology or values appear to facilitate or cause false perceptions of fact (reality). People routinely act on the basis of those false fact. Dissident Politics sees no way to spin that fact as a good basis for doing politics that efficiently and effectively serves the public interest. It is a very good basis for deceiving the public while serving special interests, but it cannot be good for the public interest.
2. Special interests in two-party pay-to-play politics include both parties, most or all of their higher-level politicians, their partisan supporters, partisan media outlets, lobbyists and people or entities that are major funders of political operations.
3. Research shows that politically active 'economic elites' are far more influential in determining policy choices compared to average Americans. Special interest money in politics is a much more powerful a determinant of policy choice than public opinion or the public interest. That situation fits Dissident Politics' definition of political corruption and how political corruption has been seen for over a century.
4. Being hard wired for framing effect spin does not mean that humans have to always succumb to it. As the ape study researchers put it: “Although susceptibility to framing is in our blood, being aware of the bias can help us avoid making poor decisions. Next time you encounter a well-framed ad, try figuring out what the negative framing would be and see if you are still tempted. Chances are, you can use your brain to outwit your biology.” That is not a message one can reasonably expect to hear from the two-party system. One can expect to hear the opposite.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Constraints on the limits of knowledge can be changed

Most partisans on the left and right are usually certain that they are right and that the evidence, presumably facts and logic, strongly supports their perceptions and opinions. One self-aware observer puts it this way: “no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.” Such observations go back centuries.[1]

Despite sincere belief behind those opinions, common sense logic suggests that both sides cannot be mostly right all of the time or maybe even most of the time. Perceptions of reality and policy preferences of the left and right are mutually incompatible. In most cases, both sides cannot be mostly correct at the same time, but it is possible that both sides can be more wrong than right for some issues, i.e., both can be mostly wrong.

For the most part, these consistent differences of perception and opinion stem from the biology of human cognition or how humans perceive reality and apply logic to it. The phenomenon is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is very powerful and it operates mostly or completely unconsciously. Because this is a matter of innate human biology, the bias applies to politics, politicians, partisans and special interest advocates. Unfortunately, in politics biases can be and are routinely manipulated.[2]

The biology of bias: Intuition and emotion on, reason or logic off
What differs now from astute observations from centuries ago is modern science and its capacity to literally look at the human brain when it is at work. For partisan politics, what is observed is no surprise. When political partisans on the left and right are confronted with contradictory statements by a politician on the left and the right, each side lets the politician on their own side off the hook, but reacts negatively to the opposing politician. In these partisans, brain imaging showed that the part of the brain associated with reasoning was inactive, but parts of the brain associated with emotion and moral judgment were active. In other words, logic was not at work. Emotion, intuition and psychological comfort dominated how partisans saw hypocrisy (or honest mistakes) differently in their own side compared to the opposition.

It is clear that human cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, constitute a severe limit on knowledge. The question is whether that can be changed. The clear answer is yes, if one has (i) the moral courage to acknowledge these things in themselves and (ii) the work ethic to try to deal with it. It literally requires effort to apply logic and moral courage to face unspun fact and unbiased logic because the results often undermine a person's ideology and values.

The easy thing to do is to let biases distort fact and logic into something psychologically acceptable. The moral courage to do this arguably is in very short supply. On top of that, the two-party system relentlessly applies spin to obscure the situation. The obvious point of relentless spin is simple: It helps keep average people distracted and deceived about how poorly both parties, their politicians and their pay-to-play system of politics has failed and betrayed the American public and the public interest. Instead of beating up on both parties, their politicians and corruption, average Americans just keep beating up on each other, knowing that they are 100% right and the opposition is 100% wrong.

1. The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises ... in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.  Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620.
2. Spin in politics, an ever-present curse, is inviolate, constitutionally protected free speech. Spin is routinely used by the two-party system to enhance bias-based self-deception. Players in the two-party system are acutely aware of the fallibility of human cognition and they ruthlessly exploit that. It facilitates players quietly getting what they want while deflecting public attention into the ancient, endless, unresolvable disputes that polarizes average Americans on the left and right.