Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Richard Dawkins’s 80th birthday party

March 25, 2021

Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries). 

Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.

I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.) 

This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.

I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.) 

Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.” 

But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun. 

Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply. 

Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments. 

Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.

Europe’s covidiocy

March 23, 2021

During 2020, Europe put America to shame regarding Covid, as our president willfully refused to treat it seriously, even encouraging flouting precautions, surely responsible for our outsized half million death toll. Now the tables have turned. 

The European Union is botching vaccination, epitomizing all the EU’s weaknesses. It is overly bureaucratized and rule-obsessed, gumming things up. Aggravated by a need to coordinate all 27 member countries, and prioritizing nitpicking about fairness over speed. Worse yet, the EU wasted precious months dickering with vaccine makers on price. Well, they did finally win lower prices than America. But those savings were surely swamped by the vast costs associated with more people hospitalized and dying — preventable by quicker vaccination. It was penny wise and pound foolish.

The Biden administration, in contrast, is acting aggressively to get shots into as many arms as possible, as fast as possible. Realizing this is a race against the virus, especially with new and more dangerous variants proliferating.

We’re undermined by some states prematurely lifting restrictions aimed at curbing the spread, giving us Spring Break crowding sure to cause innumerable infections and deaths. President Biden caught hell for calling that “Neanderthal thinking.” Horrors, a president using strong language! “The former guy” never did. But of course Biden was right. “Neanderthal” was actually mild. It was reckless disregard for human life.

Still, America is way ahead of Europe in vaccination rates and thus in ultimately beating Covid. Thank you, President Biden (and the 81 million with the sense to vote for him).

And meantime, already way behind, Europe has compounded its misfeasance with its AstraZeneca stupidity. It seems that out of five million receiving the AZ shot, 30 reported blood clots. So in what they described as “an abundance of caution,” at least 16 European countries suspended AZ jabs.

The blood clot rate is less than 0.001% of vaccinations. Five million of which surely saved thousands of lives. For that, 30 blood clots would have been a minuscule price to pay. Vaccines always have occasional side effects. But again Europe is being penny wise and pound foolish.

Yet it’s even dumber than that suggests. Because out of any five million people, how many normally get blood clots? The answer, it turns out: more than 30! If anything, the AZ vaccine may somehow prevent blood clots.

How many times must we repeat so elementary a mistake? Confusing correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Assuming that if one thing follows another, the former caused the latter. When they may be unrelated. Remember the huge ruckus over women getting sick after silicone breast implants? Well, hello, people get sick all the time, for a million reasons. It was finally proven that implanted women’s ailments occurred at a rate no greater than for women generally. 

The Europeans say they’ll research the blood clot issue and then maybe re-authorize AZ use. They say this will help instill public confidence in vaccine safety. Excuse me, on what planet? The bare fact of the suspension needlessly gives credence to irrational fears about all covid vaccines (not to mention all others). If authorities originally authorized AZ, then changed their minds, and then change their minds again, that will hardly promote confidence among millions of people inclined to be skeptical toward both those Eurocrats and vaccines. And what of the legions of people who will suffer and die for lack of vaccination while authorities dither? 

I hate to say this: Brexit, otherwise disastrous, has been fortunate for Britain in at least this one way, removing it from the EU’s covidiocy. Britain’s vaccination rate is far higher. 

Get your shot — please

February 22, 2021

Millions around the country struggle with non-user-friendly systems, desperately trying to schedule their covid vaccinations. While millions of others refuse the shot.

First, about those scheduling systems. Forcing people to battle for appointments, which are often distant, or unavailable, is simply crazy. Disadvantaging those not computer savvy — and especially, as ever, the poor and minorities. Instead, let’s have everyone just register, with their details. Then let the system dole out appointments, as available, in some rational order, and notify people by phone or email. Problem solved. Why aren’t we doing it that way?

Part of it is that while Trump was all self-praise about the rapid vaccine development, he totally flubbed planning for its distribution. The Biden administration seems to be doing far better getting shots into people. It’s a race against the virus, with new strains more contagious and likely more injurious, thus threatening a lot more carnage before it’s beaten.

The more people who are vaccinated — or immune after infection — the slower the spread will be, because each virus in the air has fewer potential victims. If it doesn’t find one, it dies. At some point available targets become so scarce the disease is stymied. That’s “herd immunity.” The quicker we attain it, by vaccinating enough people, the lower the death toll will be, and the sooner we can renormalize.

This is why your vaccination is crucial. Not only protecting you personally, but helping our whole country defeat this problem. Masks and social distancing are also very important, likewise blocking covid’s ability to infect people and hastening its end.

We know about the covidiots sabotaging us by refusing to wear masks. Claiming an infringement of their freedom. Like obeying a Stop sign infringes your freedom. You don’t have “freedom” to behave in ways that endanger others.

Now we’re also seeing too many people shunning the vaccine, especially in minority communities. This is a very serious problem that threatens us all — delaying herd immunity and a return to normalish life, it will needlessly kill many thousands.

First of course you’ve got anti-vaxxers who oppose vaccines altogether — their views are scientifically bunk. One corner of the wave of internet craziness that’s so ruinous. But covid vaccine resistance goes far beyond those loopy precincts.

Partly it’s that the messages we get from experts may seem confusing. They’re naturally cautious and try to properly hedge what they tell us, creating an unduly convoluted picture. One key thing is being told that vaccinated people may still be infectious so still must take precautions like masking. Leading some to think (wrongly) there’s no point in getting the vaccine.

Here’s the story. Vaccination won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting infected, or infecting others, but it will drastically reduce them. And when we’re told a vaccine is, like, 90% effective, that’s also easily misinterpreted. It does not mean simply that 90% of people getting the shot are protected, and 10% aren’t. Instead, it means that comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, the latter are about ten times likelier to get infected. But even that understates the benefit, because those few vaccinated people who do get infected have much milder symptoms, compared to the unvaccinated average. Their chance of dying is virtually nil. And furthermore, if you do infect another person, they too would likely suffer much less than otherwise.

Another concern is vaccine safety. Some people distrustful because of the rushed development. It was indeed done remarkably fast — but only because the urgency was so extreme, hence enormous resources were devoted to it. That should instill confidence in the result. And these vaccines have been tested thoroughly — those responsible could not have dared risk the repercussions of cutting corners. Nor could the government authorities approving vaccine use.

So are the risks zero? Of course not, nothing ever has zero risk. But one must rationally weigh risks against benefits. Here, clearly, the chances of a serious adverse reaction to a covid shot are exceedingly small. By now millions have been inoculated and there don’t seem to be any cautionary stories. Surely any dangers from vaccination are vastly smaller than the threat of serious illness or death from covid, against which the vaccine provides much protection.

Don’t be a covidiot. Get your shot. Please.

Wear a mask — please

January 26, 2021

It’s not something being forced on you. It’s being asked of you. For your own health and safety, and everyone around you. Nobody has “freedom” to do as they please if it endangers others. That’s not “freedom,” it’s irresponsibility. Mask wearing is good citizenship. Good humanhood.

Do we really, at this point, still have to persuade anyone covid is no hoax? Where did that idea come from anyway? Over 400,000 American corpses disprove it. Many of them believers in the “hoax” lie, who didn’t wear masks, and paid for that mistake with their lives.

On one recent day I counted nine obituaries in the local paper citing covid as cause of death.

And this is not merely like the flu. I had that wrong idea myself at the beginning, but facts quickly changed my opinion. This is much deadlier than flu — and even many who survive go through hell first. And/or then suffer long term health impairments. Covid is also more contagious. Especially the more virulent British strain that recently evolved.

Developing vaccines so quickly is a fantastic achievement. However, it will take time to manufacture enough vaccine and inject enough people to achieve the “herd immunity” to finally defeat the virus. And that will be impeded, if not derailed, by many people refusing vaccination. Which makes no sense, because whatever you imagine (wrongly) are the vaccine’s risks, covid’s are surely far greater. As evidenced again by that mountain of corpses. No way could a vaccine kill that many people.

So that mountain will grow during the coming months. Probably by a lot. The time ahead could be the deadliest.

Masks can help tremendously. Our 400,000+ death toll would already have been far lower had America been more sensible about masks. They can still save a huge number of lives. One October 2020 study calculated that universal masking would prevent 130,000 U.S. deaths in just the ensuing three months.

It’s true that in the beginning experts gave mixed messages about masking. A big reason was a mask shortage raising concerns that widespread everyday use could cause health workers to go without. That’s no longer an issue. And the benefit of masking isn’t rocket science. We know now that covid is transmitted mainly by droplets coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other noses and mouths through the air. Masks help to block them both ways.

Okay, masks are no fun. A bit uncomfortable, a bit of a nuisance. But the notion of masks being somehow bad for your health is simply nonsense. To the contrary, they can literally save your life. Hundreds of thousands are walking around now because they did wear masks and thus didn’t get covid. Given that, calling mask wearing an  imposition is pretty silly. Death is a much bigger imposition.

America’s record on covid is much worse than most other rich countries. Of course that’s mainly because our government leadership was so abysmal — indeed, missing entirely for the last months while infection and death rates accelerated. The most obvious avoidable failure was the refusal to push masking — indeed, doing the opposite. Insane, really. The tragic legacy still bedevils us. A New York Times reporter recently wrote of a long road trip, with masks everywhere notable for their absence. Many places having signs up requiring masks, but they’re widely ignored. Violators getting no pushback. In fact there’s still much pushback when people are asked to wear masks. Bleating about their “freedom.” To be covidiots.

The good news is that most Americans — despite Trump — have been masking. But the bad news is that the minority who refuse are the cause of nearly all our covid infections and deaths. President Biden is asking for 100 days of masking. If every American complied, then by the end of that time, the virus would actually have virtually died out, being unable to infect anybody. Every non-masker will make it take longer. Please wear a mask. Please.

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

Covid-19, Trump, election integrity, masks, schools, and everything

November 20, 2020

Covid is surging in virtually every state, worse than ever, a million U.S. infections a week, a quarter million dead and rising fast, hospitals overwhelmed — and national leadership is out to lunch. Not even trying, or pretending to, any more.

Remember the task force Mike Pence headed? Whatever became of that? And Trump has not met with disease experts in months. Real ones he’s shut out, elevating instead this crackpot Scott Atlas, with no epidemiology background, who’s helpfully advising Michiganders to “rise up” against their governor’s anti-covid measures.

Trump campaign e-mail blasts tout vaccine progress. While he actually sabotages the vaccine rollout by refusing cooperation with the incoming administration. Based on the absurd lie that Trump actually won the election. But claims about a big conspiracy to steal it from him, massive fraud, dead people voting, observers kept out, ballots mishandled, etc., are all simply made up nonsense, devoid of evidence, laughed out of court. Giuliani’s appearances there (billing the campaign $20,000 a day) shred his reputation’s last dregs.

Trump would have to somehow flip at least three states with five-digit Biden margins. That being impossible, now his grift is to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to brazenly override popular votes and appoint Trump electors regardless. Never done in our history. Talk about a conspiracy to steal the election! After all Trump’s past false accusations of a “coup” against him, thisis a real coup attempt.

Farcical though it might seem, this is no joke. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney. People around the world are shocked by such banana republic shenanigans. And even if he can’t overturn the election, Trump’s baseless fraud claims — 77% of Republicans polled believe this insanity — 86% in another poll — aim to destroy the next administration’s legitimacy and hence its ability to govern. Aided by continued Senate control by a morally bankrupt and intellectually deranged Republican party that, shamefully, nearly half of Americans still support.

By the way, did you know that, on top of everything, a mid-December government shutdown looms?

*   *   *

After eight months’ experience with covid, we actually know what’s needed. But we’re not doing it. Indeed, Trump continues to fight against doing it. Much of the U.S. is keeping restaurants, gyms, and other public venues largely open, but schools closed. Much of Europe does the opposite — with better results.

Because it’s indoor adult gatherings that most commonly spread the virus. That’s what Europeans are cracking down on. This does create much economic hardship, but reflects an understanding that we can’t get past all this and restore economies while covid continues running amok. This doesn’t seem to penetrate enough American skulls.

Arizona covid chart

We’ve done some locking down, but haphazardly, so incurring the pain without getting the benefits. The New York Times cites Arizona’s example, with a big June covid spike, prompting harsh restrictions. They worked splendidly, but then were eased in August, and infections shot back up. With that happening all over now, another round of restrictions is underway, but often again falling short of what experts say is needed. Many rules seem just weird. New York recently announced that venues can stay open til 10 PM, if they have a liquor license. Huh??

Masks and social distancing help tremendously. It isn’t rocket science. We know the virus spreads mainly via droplets in the air, coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other people’s noses and mouths. Your mask blocks droplets both going out and coming in. And because droplets tend not to travel far before falling to the ground, people keeping some distance apart also reduces ingestion.

Most Americans have acted accordingly, only 15-20% refusing. It’s those 15-20% responsible for causing most infections and deaths. With Trump’s insane encouragement. Literally insane, because for all his obsession with re-election, he destroyed his chances by encouraging anti-maskers, so covid predictably exploded in his face.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, research shows the one type of indoor gathering least risky is school, especially elementary school (with social distancing and other precautions). While, on the other hand, closing schools has long-range consequences far more dire than closing restaurants, bars, or gyms.

Millions of students are being switched to remote learning. But for too many, it’s more remoteness than learning. Indeed, what we learn in school is far more than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. A key part of educational development is socialization — how to negotiate relations with other people. (I missed some of that, being out of school a lot, and still feel handicapped by it.) But even for the more academic stuff, there’s much evidence that learning together with others in a classroom setting works better than solitary study. Particularly for reading and math, surrounding kids with letters and numbers. And one key thing a classroom provides is feedback — children “need people to see what they are doing, to cheer them on, to rally them to care and respond,” says literacy expert Lucy Calkins, quoted in a Times report.

What this means is that we’re raising a cohort of future adults who will never fully make up for lost classroom time, going through life less educated than would otherwise have been the case. A disaster when a solid educational grounding is more vital than ever for flourishing as a member of modern society. The cumulative hit to GDP, over decades, will be astronomical.

Affluent families, with parents who are themselves well-educated and capable, riding herd on their kids, with good home infrastructure and resources, can be expected to mitigate the damage somewhat. But less so as you descend the socio-economic ladder. Many poor kids lack basics of computer equipment and connectivity.

It’s long been a huge scandal of American society that whereas education might ideally be a great equalizer and engine of upward mobility, instead, for those who start out disadvantaged, our educational system actually worsens that. Affluent kids go to decent schools; underprivileged kids to lousy schools. Widening the inequality.

Covid-induced school closures widen it yet more. The whole remote learning thing is largely new, that educators weren’t trained for, and they’re scrambling to adapt. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s going better in schools in affluent suburbs than in poverty-ridden inner cities. And here again, strong parental partnering helps a lot. But parents in less affluent homes — often single parents — have too many other problems of their own.

Just getting kids engaged with schoolwork at home is a challenge. A study by ParentsTogether, an advocacy group, found low-income parents ten times likelier than those with $100,000 incomes to report their children doing little or no remote learning. Indeed, The Times quoted an administrator in a high school full of low income and immigrant students saying many are just disappearing — quietly dropping out of school altogether. It’s no mystery that remote learning feels remote to them, in contrast with a classroom experience.

Yet in many places we’re closing schools but letting bars stay open. UNICEF says school closures are creating a “lost generation” of students while doing little to curtail the virus.

*   *   *

Two months to go with Trump. Throughout, I’ve kept on saying, “it will get worse.” It always has. And so it will still.

Choice 2020: The final word, by The Economist

November 1, 2020

In 2016 we plunged into a political and societal crisis, which I’ve tried to chronicle and analyze. You’ve probably had your fill of it. Me too. But now finally (one hopes) comes the denouement.

The Economist, my favorite publication, is a British-based news magazine of highest reputation. Its editorial stance embodies Enlightenment liberalism (the classical 19th Century kind). It has now published its presidential endorsement, together with in-depth reviews of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy records.

In keeping with their scrupulous fair-mindedness and objectivity, they give Trump credit for some things he’s done. (Much of which I disagree about; as with some of their past presidential endorsements.) Nevertheless, whatever the positives may be, they’re overwhelmed by the negatives. The Economist emphatically endorses Biden.

It’s a lengthy, judicious, compelling editorial. I’ve condensed it, below:*

Why it has to be Joe Biden

Trump has desecrated the values that make America a beacon to the world

THE COUNTRY that elected Trump was unhappy and divided. It now is more unhappy and more divided. With a pandemic that has registered almost 230,000 deaths amid bickering, buck-passing and lies. 

Joe Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again.

Trump’s tax cuts were regressive. Some of the deregulation was harmful, especially to the environment. Health-care has been a debacle. He cruelly separated migrant children from parents, and limits on new entrants will drain America’s vitality. On the hard problems— North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace — Trump has fared no better than the Washington establishment he ridicules.

However, our bigger dispute with Trump is more fundamental. He has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world. To breezily dismiss Trump’s bullying and lies as so much tweeting ignores the harm he has wrought.

It starts with America’s democratic culture. Instead of seeing toxic partisanship as bad for America, Trump made it central to his office. Never seeking to represent the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Faced by an outpouring of peaceful protest after the George Floyd killing, his instinct was not to heal, but to depict it as an orgy of looting and left-wing violence — part of a pattern of stoking racial tension. Today, 40% of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.

The Trump presidency’s most head-spinning feature is his contempt for the truth. Nothing he says can be believed — including calling Biden corrupt. Trump voters like his willingness to offend. But America’s system of checks and balances suffers. This president calls for his opponents to be locked up; uses the Department of Justice to conduct vendettas; commutes the sentences of supporters convicted of serious crimes; gives his family plum jobs; and offers foreign governments protection in exchange for dirt on a rival. When a president casts doubt on the integrity of an election, he undermines the democracy he has sworn to defend.

Partisanship and lying also undermine policy. Look at covid-19. Trump had a chance to unite his country around a well organized response. Instead he saw Democratic governors as rivals or scapegoats; muzzled and belittled America’s world-class institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; sneered at science, including over masks; and has continued to misrepresent the evident truth about the epidemic and its consequences. America has many of the world’s best scientists. It also has one of world’s highest covid-19 fatality rates.

Alliances magnify America’s influence in the world. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognize the place they admire.

That matters. American ideals really do serve as an example to other democracies, and to people who live in states that persecute their citizens. Trump thinks ideals are for suckers. The governments of China and Russia have always seen American rhetoric about freedom as cynical cover for the belief that might is right. Tragically, Trump confirms that.

Four more years of a historically bad president would deepen all these harms — and more. In 2016 American voters did not know what they were getting. Now they do. They would be voting for division and lying. Endorsing the trampling of norms and the shrinking of national institutions into personal fiefs. Ushering in destructive climate change. Signaling that the champion of freedom and democracy should be just another big country throwing its weight around. 

Mr Biden is a centrist, an institutionalist, a consensus-builder — an anti-Trump well-suited to repair some of the damage. He could begin to lay down a path toward reconciliation. He is no revolutionary. His tax rises on firms and the wealthy would be significant, but not punitive. He would seek to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, give more to health and education and allow more immigration. His climate-change policy would invest in research and job-boosting technology. He is a competent administrator and a believer in process. He listens to expert advice. He is a multilateralist: less confrontational than Trump, but more purposeful.

Trumpism is morally bankrupt. America faces a fateful choice. At stake is the nature of its democracy. One path leads to a fractious, personalized rule, dominated by a man who scorns decency and truth. The other leads to something better — something truer to the values that originally made America an inspiration around the world.

In his first term, Trump has been a destructive president. He would start his second affirmed in all his worst instincts. Mr Biden is his antithesis. He would enter the White House with the promise of the most precious gift democracies can bestow: renewal.

* Here’s the full text: www.fsrcoin.com/Econ.html

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

A dozen daffy delusions

October 17, 2020

1. Urban rioting is scarier than Covid-19.1

2. Only Trump can fix it.2

3. Face masks infringe on freedom.3

4. Immigration is bad for us.4

5. Foreign trade costs jobs.5

6. Gun ownership makes people safer.6

7. Whites are better than blacks.7

8. 2016 Russian election meddling was a hoax.8

9. Trump tells it like it is.9

10. He can only lose the election by fraud.10

11. He’s making America great again.11

12. He’s chosen by God.12

Footnotes:

1. Covid’s human and economic toll is literally thousands of times greater.

2. Trump stokes the societal divisions that lead to such violence. And he’s screwed up horribly on Covid.

3. Science is clear that masks curtail the spread of disease. Nobody has “freedom” to endanger others.

4. Immigrants contribute workers and skills we need, creating wealth, paying taxes, and adding consumer demand that means more jobs.

5. Trade enables consumers to buy things cheaper, leaving them with more money to spend on other things, which in turn creates more jobs, not fewer.

6. A gun in the home is way more likely to injure a family member than an intruder. America’s gun violence far outstrips other countries, because of less regulation and more guns.

7. Anyone believing that proves their own inferiority.

8. Major Russian subversion was conclusively proven by evidence.

9. He’s the biggest liar ever (also proven).

10. He can only win the election by fraud, because sensible Americans are fed up with his freak show.

11. His mishandling Covid and the resultant economic fallout hugely damages America. His disgusting behavior degrades our global standing.

12. There is no God. But if there were, he’d be a fool to rely on Trump.