Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Unchangable political beliefs

Neuroscientists at the University of Southern California have published a paper, Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence (Scientific Reports, 6, No. 39589, December 2016; ), describing brain responses to evidence that contradicts personal political beliefs. Areas of the brain that are activated by contrary evidence include the amygdala and insular cortex. Those areas are associated with emotion, decision-making, threat perception and feelings of anxiety.

When self-described political liberals were presented with evidence that contradicted eight strongly held political beliefs, the amygdala and insular cortex were more activated than when they were presented with evidence that contradicted eight strongly held, but non-political beliefs. When asked to rate their beliefs after seeing the contrary evidence, people’s beliefs about the non-political topics decreased in strength, but they didn’t significantly change the degree of their faith in their political beliefs. The contrary evidence was five statements of fact that contradicted each of the political and non-political beliefs.

According to the paper: “People often discount evidence that contradicts their firmly held beliefs. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that govern this behavior. We used neuroimaging to investigate the neural systems involved in maintaining belief in the face of counterevidence, presenting 40 liberals with arguments that contradicted their strongly held political and non-political views. Challenges to political beliefs produced increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world. . . . We also found that participants who changed their minds more showed less BOLD* signal [detectable brain activity] in the insula and the amygdala when evaluating counterevidence. These results highlight the role of emotion in belief-change resistance and offer insight into the neural systems involved in belief maintenance, motivated reasoning, and related phenomena.”

* BOLD: blood oxygen level dependent

                                  The amygdala are the green areas in the brain scan

The amygdala and insular cortex are brain areas associated with thinking about personal identity and abstract or deep thinking that disengages from present reality.

The paper puts the research into context: “Few things are as fundamental to human progress as our ability to arrive at a shared understanding of the world. The advancement of science depends on this, as does the accumulation of cultural knowledge in general. Every collaboration, whether in the solitude of a marriage or in a formal alliance between nations, requires that the beliefs of those involved remain open to mutual influence through conversation. Data on any topic—from climate science to epidemiology—must first be successfully communicated and <em>believed</em> before it can inform personal behavior or public policy. Viewed in this light, the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance. Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”

Other observations from the paper: “It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterevidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true. . . . One model of belief maintenance holds that when confronted with counterevidence, people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information.”

The human mind very much dislikes uncertainty. It is extremely adept at quickly and unconsciously removing uncertainty via rationalization and just making stuff up until uncertainty goes away. 

The paper raises some obvious questions. Is an inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed, a significant social problem? Is it more ethical or moral to retain one’s core beliefs, even when faced with evidence that those beliefs are factually wrong? In other words, is it better to stand on ideological or moral principle, or, is cognitive and emotional flexibility (pragmatism) a more ethical or moral mind set?

ScienceDaily also discusses this paper:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The awakening: The mainstream media and post truth politics

In the last 6 months or so, and especially the last month, the number of references to social and cognitive science in politics and politics-related mainstream media articles and broadcasts seems to have skyrocketed. That’s based on the MSM sources mostly relied on for information cited as truth here at B&B.[1] The reason behind the new interest in the intersection between cognitive and social science with politics is clearly being driven by the explosion of fake news and the rapid rise of post truth politics that coincides with the rise of Donald Trump and American populism.


If interest in the biological science of politics is real, it’s arguably literally the best thing that has happened to both American politics and the MSM since the founding of the Republic. Obviously, there’s a pro-science bias behind that opinion. Maybe B&B is seeing something that’s not there, but it sure is a convincing illusion.

Getting to the point: The clearest and most pointed and detailed acknowledgement of the role of science in post truth politics comes from the December 22, 2016 broadcast of Warren Onley’s program To The Point (the 51 minute podcast is here, Barbara Bogaev guest hosting for Olney). The program’s title is The year in (fake) news. Some of the program’s comments and their location in the podcast are described below.

The program is in 3 parts. The first part is irrelevant. The second is the 32 minute core fake news broadcast (The way forward in a post-truth world) and the last 10-minute segment, Talking point, describes (i) some of the science behind the human mind, (ii) it’s hard wiring to be irrational, and (iii) it’s susceptibility to fake news via social media.

0:25 to 1:00: The rise of post truth politics coincides with the rise of the power and influence of social media and its algorithms, which have ‘supercharged’ fake news and its potency. Fake news has sometimes caused violence. It’s now nearly impossible for opposing partisans to agree on facts. This new free speech technology represents a new threat to democracy. The role of the MSM, technology companies and educators will have in untangling the bogus from the real is unclear.

8:20-9:00: Fake news is as old as “news itself.” What’s new is social media technology and the speed and potency it confers on fake news. Ad sales and algorithms help spread false stories, e.g., Trump won the popular vote.

9:35-10:48: Fake news needs to be defined because it’s in the eye of the beholder. Despite a long fake news pedigree, it’s now different in terms of its power and speed. The modern version of fake news differs from old fake news by the difference in (i) it’s degree of intensity and speed, (ii) it’s reality distorting and persuasive power, partly due to its ability to present one plausible sounding partisan view without a counterpoint.

10:54-12:22: Fake news is also driven by the conflation of entertainment and news. People now have a hard distinguishing news from entertainment. News and entertainment are now more or less the same thing. Donald Trump is a natural result of the conflation.

13:19-13:50: One effect of fake news is its power to portray a sustaining image of the goodness of your side and the evil of the other side. The data indicates that the effect applies to both sides but is more pronounced for the conservative side, led by Fox News, than for the left, meaning that people on the right tend to be more susceptible to fake news compared to liberals.

14:27-15:34: Cultural change is also relevant. General distrust of the MSM has risen, especially on the right. Since the 1950’s, conservatives have been accusing the MSM of liberal bias. Conservatives now tend to evaluate or weigh news based on its ideology, not its objectivity. That opens the door for fake news that fits their ideological beliefs.

15:57-16:40: Some people run fake news web sites for ideological-political purposes and some do it for money (discussed previously).

16:48-18:00: Motivated reasoning (a powerful unconscious fact and reason distorting bias, discussed previously), generates (i) a susceptibility to believe what fits personal ideology and world beliefs, and (ii) reject what doesn’t fit. That biology feeds into why people go to and believe in the content that fake news sites generate, even if the belief is factually wrong. This happens to both liberals and conservatives, but is more prevalent among conservatives.

19:05-19:33: Media literacy means being more critical and skeptical, but calibrating those responses via personal judgment. [A point of frustration: Once again, no one has any answer to the critical question of who to trust. Everyone keeps throwing that responsibility back on the individual. That ask is both unreasonable and literally impossible for most people. It’s not going to happen now, or probably ever.]

19:39-20:36: Some recent studies suggest that students through college level have trouble with distinguishing fake from real news stories, especially for things you really want to believe. 


20:50-21:48: One danger of fake news is that it effectively makes all news fake whether it’s fake or not. Fake news is a real threat to all news organizations. One upside is that real news outlets like the New York Times are seeing an uptick in subscriptions, which seems to be a response to the rise of Trump and fake news.

The rest of the podcast continues in this vein. Incredible as it may seem to some people, one topic touched on is discussing why true facts matter and how easy it now is to find ‘facts’, real or not, to support just about anything that a person wants to believe.

1. B&B’s most relied-on sources for information: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, NPR, and NPR affiliate broadcasts, e.g., Warren Olney’s To The Point program that’s broadcast by KCRW in Santa Monica.

Social science & mainstream politics

Central themes here at Dissident Politics include the intractable irrationality and incoherence of politics and the lack of impact by modern social and cognitive science on the situation. In the wake of Donald Trump's shocking election, that just might be starting to change. This is something worth following to see if it's temporary, like a cat coughing up a hairball, or if something new in political thinking is beginning to coalesce into some meaningful mind set change.

Southern Steenbok

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on December 22, 2016, Hoover Institution senior fellow John H. Cochrane sounded like he was beginning to wake up to the reality of how democracy really works in the real world. The Hoover Institution is an influential, hard core conservative think tank at Stanford University. Cochrane, an economist, was refreshingly candid about his learning moments:

“I have learned some deep lessons from this election and especially its aftermath. Like most policy-wonk types I supposed that people care about policies, and about results, and vote accordingly. And are amenable to sensible discussion about policy, and sensible negotiation. . . . What has become very clear to me since the election is a fact probably blindingly obvious to real students of politics—that’s not at all how it works. Most people vote by cultural affinity, brand, values, and a sense of personal identity. To the extent policy matters at all, it’s part of the buzzwords, propaganda and tag lines thrown back and forth. These things are related to where you live and who you interact with on a regular basis, which is why geographic polarization is such a problem—and why measures like the electoral college, which push our democracy to have more even representation of tribal and partisan alignments and identities are so important.”

That’s an indication that what social and cognitive science, including political science, have been saying about politics and how it works is beginning to sink in with at least some members the punditocracy. Those folks are serious and principled about reality-based democracy and rationality.

Of course, pundits who are in it to win at all costs have been aware of the science for decades. They successfully used the knowledge to deceive and manipulate to get what they want. In 2016, that crass class of players finally got what they have been angling for. They have created the new world of post truth politics that’s now threatening American democracy and other Western liberal democracies. For that crowd, truth is irrelevant. Winning is everything. Deceit and lies are key ingredients.

What’s new is that some principled pundits and members of the mainstream media are beginning to wake up to the threat. A period of trial and error to figure out how to deal with the lies and deceit has started. Depending on which side of the truth you’re on, that’s either good or bad.

All of that raises some questions. Are we really in a new era of post truth politics, or has it always been post truth? Does the situation seem different only because of the rise of fake news sites and sources? Or, is it meaningfully different because social media and online propaganda sources have risen in influence? Or, is post truth politics nothing to be concerned with since lies and deceit in politics are constitutionally protected free speech?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tyrants, the new cold war and opportunities lost

December 20, 2016

In a Wall Street Journal opinion (December 17-18, pg. A13), former chess champion Garry Kasparov describes his experiences as a citizen of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan during the period of Soviet Union disintegration in the early 1990’s. The fall occurred a series of events that included the resignation of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991. Kasparov saw Gorbachev’s resignation as the result of “a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive.” Kasparov was optimistic that “the Soviet Union would be forced to liberalize socially and economically to survive.” Kasparov was filled with optimism that change would bring a better future for people of Russia and the former Republics.


Writing 25 years later, Kasparov laments the lost opportunity with the rise of the new dictator, Vladimir Putin and his intentional erosion of democracy and freedoms in Russia and the former republics. He see an attitude change where “citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.” That attitude change contrasts with John F. Kennedy observation in Berlin in 1963: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” He argues that Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” might be an understatement in view of recent changes in Western democracies.

Kasparov argues that “Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. . . . . Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all. Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past. There were no truth commissions, no lustration—the shining of light on past crimes and their perpetrators—no accountability for decades of repression. Elections did nothing to uproot the siloviki, the powerful network of security and military officials. The offices and titles of the ruling nomenklatura changed, but the Soviet bureaucratic caste remained as power brokers with no accountability or transparency.”

As Kasparov sees it, “the reforms in Russia enacted by a dream team of national and foreign economists were piecemeal and easily exploited by those with access to the levers of power. Instead of turning into a free market, the Russian economy became a rigged auction that created an elite of appointed billionaires and a population of resentful and confused citizens who wondered why nothing had improved for them.”

That somewhat sounds similar to the opinion that many Americans have about their own democracy (as discussed before).

In 2000, Putin took power with few “obstacles capable of resisting his instinct to remake Russia in his own KGB image. He also found a Russian public that felt betrayed by the promises of democracy and afraid of the violence and corruption we saw all around us. Mr. Putin’s vulgar rhetoric of security and national pride would have worn thin quickly had the price of oil not begun to skyrocket in the new millennium. A rising cash flow enabled him to negotiate a Faustian bargain with the Russian people: your freedoms in return for stability. . . . . Outside Russia, at every turn, Europe and the U.S. failed to provide the leadership the historic moment required.”

Compared to right-wing dictatorships transitioning to democracy, Kasparov criticizes socialism and communism. “Left-wing regimes have had a far harder time, as if socialism were an autoimmune virus that destroys a society’s ability to defend itself from tyrants and demagogues.” 


Given the state of politics in America and Western liberal democracies, the autoimmune virus seems to have established an infection there as well. How it plays out in liberal democracy hosts remains to be seen. Support for tyrants and demagogues is on the rise. Regardless of how it plays out, the opportunity the West had after the U.S.S.R.’s fall was squandered and is irretrievably lost. Any new opportunity for peace and freedom in Russia and other countries ruled by kleptocratic tyrants and demagogues looks to be at least two generations in the future, assuming another opportunity ever comes along.

The West blew it’s chance. We are beginning to see the ramifications of the failure of short sighted, distracted Western political institutions and thinking.

Questions: Is Kasparov right to argue the West should have played a bigger role and therefore failed in what they did do after the Soviet Union collapsed?

Monday, December 19, 2016

The scope of presidential power

December 19, 2016

Since the election, what’s been going on with conservatives and Trump populists is not clear. Conservatives are talking about constitutional conventions and amendments. Given the lack of coherence, it’s hard to know what populists, or at least Donald Trump, are talking about. 


The tyrant usurper: A major complaint from conservatives has been that president Obama has abused and unconstitutionally applied or expanded executive powers by unilateral action. One reason for that is, as one observer puts it, Obama was trying to “circumvent congressional inaction or opposition.” That raises the narrow question of whether a president facing a hostile congress has a duty to try to govern via executive action when congress is broken. It also raises the broad question of what the constitutional scope of executive power actually is. Maybe Obama wasn’t a usurper at all and had a duty to act in the face of an AWOL congress.

Given the constitution’s lack of detail on many matters, including the scope of executive power, the question cannot be conclusively resolved. Opinions on the various sides will be dictated mostly by social identity, personal ideology and a personal rational that supports personal belief. There’s no surprise since that’s the basis for most political beliefs and the historical record is almost always open to various interpretations. Put another way, most political beliefs, including ones about the scope of executive power, are mostly personal and subjective.

The case for the unconstitutional executive: Writing in the Wall Street Journal (December 17-18, pages C1-C2), Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the non-partisan National Constitution Center and professor of law at George Washington University (Yale law school graduate), argues that executive powers “have ballooned far beyondtheir constitutional bounds.” Coming from a bona fide non-partisan constitutional scholar, that’s a striking claim.

Rosen’s essay, The Over-Inflated Presidency, argues that the debate centers on whether constitutional executive powers are limited to what the constitution explicitly authorizes. One interpretation, the ‘conservative’ view, is that executive power is limited to those explicitly enumerated. The powers include power to command the armed forces, at least in times of war, if not always, veto of congressional legislation, pardon for certain offenses, power to convene congress to declare war and power to make executive appointments and treaties with senate advice and consent.

Another interpretation, the ‘populist’ view as Rosen sees it, is that the president has the authority do whatever the constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid. Rosen fears that president Trump will have this mind set. 

A third view, one that Rosen doesn’t mention, is a pragmatic, public service-focused view holding that although executive power is flexible or ill-defined, it falls short of imposing tyranny as described by some reasonably acceptable conception of presidential power, e.g., no unreasonable or unnecessary infringement on (i) constitutional personal freedoms, (ii) state powers and (iii) congressional powers. For the pragmatic view, the devil is in the details, e.g., what’s the definition of unreasonable and unnecessary? Those concepts have meanings that vary with the observer’s mind set.

Of course, the conservative and populist views also have their own devils. The constitution does not say that the president is limited to only enumerated powers, or that the executive can do whatever the constitution doesn’t expressly forbid.

Rosen, a believer in the conservative narrow scope vision of presidential power makes the following observations. They illustrate the practical difficulty in attempts to definitively define constitutional limits on executive power.

Rosen points out that since the constitution doesn’t specify if the president has powers beyond what was enumerated, “it fell to George Washington to fill in some of the gaps—establishing, for example, the president’s power to recognize foreign governments . . . .” That’s an explicit statement that executive powers include at least some matters the constitution is silent about.

There’s nothing surprising about the existence of “gaps” in the constitution because the constitution would have to specify every possible act a president would need to undertake, which is an impossible task. President Washington ran into the limits of express powers regarding the constitutionality of chartering a national bank. That led to the birth of the concept of constitutional flexibility and that some powers are implied to exist because they are necessary and proper for the normal functioning of government. The courts continue to recognize implied powers ( that are not explicitly named in the constitution.

Rosen argues that Franklin D. Roosevelt “exercised extraordinary powers across many domains: detaining Japanese Americans in California prison camps, trying and executing accused Nazi saboteurs, disregarding U.S. neutrality by implementing the Lend-Lease program and ultimately constructing the New Deal administrative state. He did all of this, it should be noted, with the tacit or explicit approval of Congress and the Supreme Court.”

That raises the question of why neither congress nor the courts acted at the time of FDR and any time thereafter to restrain executive actions that are far beyond constitutional bounds. If some of what FDR did was blatantly unconstitutional, why do most or all of his illegal actions still stand today? The situation makes no sense, unless one assumes that what FDR did was arguably within the scope of executive power.

Alternatively, one could argue that once an illegal executive action has been taken and not timely challenged, it becomes legal by default of the legislative and judicial branches. There’s no constitutional or logical basis to believe the latter option applies, so the former best explains the situation. Even today in 2016, congress or the federal courts could repeal or strike down FDR’s illegal acts if they were in fact illegal.


When congress is AWOL: We are in a time when congress doesn’t function properly. Partisan disputes have displaced regular debate, compromise and legislating. Maybe that will change when the new congress convenes in 2017. Maybe it won’t. Regardless, president Obama had to work with a hostile congress that has not functioned normally at least since republicans took control of the House after the 2010 elections. Under the circumstances, should the scope of presidential power be as the conservative view sees it even if congress is dysfunctional?

Two fundamental problems: The constitution could have included language specifying that the president either had powers not otherwise reserved to the other branches of government, the states or the people. It could have stated the president had no powers beyond those enumerated. Instead, the constitution is simply silent.

Given the long history and continued judicial and congressional acceptance of some flexibility over the scope of presidential powers, it’s reasonable to believe that the president has some powers that are not enumerated and those powers can include ones far beyond the constitutional bounds that some experts like Rosen see. If nothing else, that’s how American politics have in fact operated under the constitution. That alone should count for something.

A second problem is that arguments for a scope of presidential power limited to the enumerated powers plus some “gaps” are rarely or never accompanied by any vision of what needs to be changed, how that would be done and what effects on the American people that would likely impose.  Rosen’s criticism is no different. He gives no vision for how government would work differently and why or how that would be better.

He also says nothing about what effects on society a narrow powers scope president would have or how America and society would have been different and better if all presidents going back to Washington had strictly adhered to only enumerated powers and no more. If nothing else, Americans deserve to know how government action would have been different and how that might have changed America.