The Situationist

Archive for October, 2008

The Color of Sex Appeal

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 31, 2008

Theresa Tamkins has an interesting article on, titled “Wearing Red May Boost Your Sex Appeal.”  Here are some excerpts.

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Does wearing the color red give you a sexual edge? Maybe, according to a new study, which found that men find women sexier if they’re sporting a crimson hue rather than, say, blue or green.

However, red won’t make you look smarter or more competent, says study author Andrew Elliot, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.

“We only found the effect for attraction, so males don’t rate females in red as more intelligent, more likable, or as having a better personality; they only rate her as sexier and more attractive,” he says.

Men also were more likely to say they wanted to have sex with a woman and that they would be willing to spend more on a date if she were in red, according to the report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (pdf here).

In a series of five studies, about 150 heterosexual men (homosexual men and those with red-green color blindness were excluded) rated photographs of women framed in red, white, gray, green, or blue, or with the woman in a red or blue shirt.

On a 7-point scale, with 1 being the least sexy and 7 a white-hot sex goddess, the color red added about 1.25 points to the rating, says Elliot.

That’s nice, but given the looming election, one might wonder: Does wearing red make you more attractive in the voting booth too?

* * *

“We actually have other research showing that red on the cover of an IQ test leads to worse performance, so red is actually a negative color [in some instances],” says Elliot.

* * *

Why is red so sexy? The researchers have a couple of theories.

One is cultural: From red roses to Valentine’s Day, red is the universally recognized sign of romance; it makes sense that men may subconsciously associate the color red with sex.

. . . . “There’s also a possibility — a rather provocative possibility — that there’s a deeply embedded sort of tendency for heterosexual men to see red as an attraction cue because that’s what happens in the wild.”

For example, the rumps of some primates turn red during ovulation, so it’s possible that men have some tiny portion deep in their brain that recognizes red as a mating symbol — even though it’s an association that hasn’t come in handy for a few million years.

* * *

However, it’s all speculation at this point. The study can’t determine if red is sexy because we’re all just a bunch of animals running around in business suits, or if red is a culturally determined sex symbol. It also can’t determine if wearing red has an effect outside the laboratory.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Survival of the Cutest,” “Spas and Girls,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”

Thanks to (situationist) Andrew Perlman for sending us this link.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of the Supreme Court

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 30, 2008

Earlier this year, Jeffrey Rosen wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine on how the increase in business-related cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court appears to correspond to ideological changes among members of the Court and in the country. We excerpt the piece below.

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The Supreme Court term that ended last June was, by all measures, exceptionally good for American business. The chamber’s litigation center filed briefs in 15 cases and its side won in 13 of them — the highest percentage of victories in the center’s 30-year history. The current term, which ends this summer, has also been shaping up nicely for business interests.

* * *

Though the current Supreme Court has a well-earned reputation for divisiveness, it has been surprisingly united in cases affecting business interests. Of the 30 business cases last term, 22 were decided unanimously, or with only one or two dissenting votes.

[There has been a recent] ideological sea change on the Supreme Court. A generation ago, progressive and consumer groups petitioning the court could count on favorable majority opinions written by justices who viewed big business with skepticism — or even outright prejudice. An economic populist like William O. Douglas, the former New Deal crusader who served on the court from 1939 to 1975, once unapologetically announced that he was “ready to bend the law in favor of the environment and against the corporations.”

Today, however, there are no economic populists on the court, even on the liberal wing. And ever since John Roberts was appointed chief justice in 2005, the court has seemed only more receptive to business concerns. Forty percent of the cases the court heard last term involved business interests, up from around 30 percent in recent years. While the Rehnquist Court heard less than one antitrust decision a year, on average, between 1988 and 2003, the Roberts Court has heard seven in its first two terms — and all of them were decided in favor of the corporate defendants.

Business cases at the Supreme Court typically receive less attention than cases concerning issues like affirmative action, abortion or the death penalty. The disputes tend to be harder to follow: the legal arguments are more technical, the underlying stories less emotional. But these cases — which include shareholder suits, antitrust challenges to corporate mergers, patent disputes and efforts to reduce punitive-damage awards and prevent product-liability suits — are no less important. They involve billions of dollars, have huge consequences for the economy and can have a greater effect on people’s daily lives than the often symbolic battles of the culture wars.

* * *

This term, the Supreme Court has continued to cut back on consumer suits. In a ruling in January, the court refused to allow a shareholder suit against the suppliers to Charter Communications, one of the country’s largest cable companies. The suppliers were alleged to have “aided and abetted” Charter’s efforts to inflate its earnings, but the court held that Charter’s investors had to show that they had relied on the deceptive acts committed by the suppliers before the suit could proceed. A week later, the court invoked the same principle when it refused to hear an appeal in a case related to Enron, in which investors are trying to recover $40 billion from Wall Street banks that they claim aided and abetted Enron’s fraud. As a result, the shareholder suit against the banks may be dead.

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For the rest of the piece, click here. For other Situationist posts on the Supreme Court, click here.

Posted in Deep Capture, Law | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Hanson To Give (Situationist) Chair Lecture

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 29, 2008

This evening, Situationist contributor and co-creator, Jon Hanson will deliver his lecture, “The Human Animal, Ideology, the Law and other Situational Characters” in honor of his appointment as the Alfred Smart Professor of Law (one day to the the Alan Stone Professor of Law) at Harvard Law School.

This event will take place in Harvard Law Library’s Caspersen Room beginning at 5:00 p.m. with a reception immediately following the talk.

For more information about the lecture, click here.

Alan A. Stone is the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard College in 1950 with a degree in psychology, and earned his M.D. from Yale Medical School in 1955. Becoming interested in the intersection of law, psychology, and psychiatry, he first earned a position as lecturer at Harvard Law School in 1969 before earning a joint appointment with Harvard Medical School three years later. In 1978, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Stone also has an avid interest in cinema, and serves as the film critic for the Boston Review.

Posted in Events, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Us & Them Politics

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on October 28, 2008

In just over a week, we will see a referendum on “Joe Six-Pack” politics. Over the past decade or two, the Republican Party has promoted a political fiction that conflates wholesomeness, independence, tradition, and common sense with anti-intellectualism and suspicion of outsiders. More recently, Sarah Palin has championed the effort to highlight the supposed division between secular liberal coastal elites and “normal” Americans. By her own words, Palin believes that small towns are “the real America” and she has warned that Barack Obama “is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America.” While it might be comforting to dismiss these efforts as a desperate appeal to emotional voters who don’t know or don’t care about the substantive issues in this election, the persistence of these “us vs. them” arguments in our current political paradigm hints at deeper reasons for concern.

Regardless of policy expertise, is there reason to think that makes a difference whether Sarah Palin is a moose-hunting, “Joe Six-Pack” conservative Christian? Yes. Humans are fundamentally social and those distinctions matter – no matter which side of them you may be on. In fact, our affinity for those with similar backgrounds provides an important means of making sense of the world and strengthening ties with others. We have such a natural predisposition for “birds of a feather” to “flock together” that even groups formed with no prior connection among the members (or no meaningful connection at all) can demonstrate a preference for their comrades over those outside the group. Social psychologists call this the “minimal group” paradigm: Individuals randomly assigned to one group over another, absent any rational justification, engage in self-evaluation that favors their new group and strengthens their affiliation with its members. In cultural, family, or political groups, our affiliation with others can provide a comforting means of evaluating the immense, complex web of incomplete information with which we are presented in everyday life. Psychologists have even found that identification of a policy proposal as being from one’s own party can be more determinative of an individual’s approval than the actual content of the proposed policy.

Because our evaluation of policies and political candidates is not purely rational, candidates like Sarah Palin can invoke existing or imagined group affiliations to reframe the political landscape and override other, more rational considerations.

All of this matters because, regardless of who draws the lines in the sand, these tactics do not uniquely manipulate one segment of the country or one end of the political spectrum. Rather they impact all of us by contributing to a situation that alters our perceptions, incites prejudice, and affects behavior across the board. When political tacticians push small town Americans to claim moral superiority over the rest of the country, the resulting climate encourages liberal, college-educated Americans to ignore the complexity in regional and local politics in favor of their own self-serving views. In short, the idea that liberals are more rational or intellectual than conservatives perpetuates a simplistic, partisan view that precludes empathy and interferes with positive change.

It is neither novel nor surprising that this presidential campaign has seen attempts to mobilize support based on identity appeals and false dichotomies. But as we decide which candidate will best face the domestic and international challenges of the next four years, it is worth remembering that our perceptions of those issues and ideas are inherently shaped by how we view ourselves in relation to those with different backgrounds and opposing perspectives. Unless we account for how “Joe Six-Pack” politics manipulate and polarize our political views, Conservatives will never be independent and Liberals will never truly be rational.

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For a related Situationist post, see “Without the Filter.”

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Subtly Sexist Language – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 27, 2008

Pat K. Chew and Lauren Kelley-Chew recently posted their interesting article, Subtly Sexist Language (16 Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 643 (2007) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Sometimes, sexist language is blatant and universally shunned. Other times, it is more subtle and even socially acceptable. For instance, as summarized in this article, substantial social science research has considered the use of male-gendered generics (the use of such words as he, man, chairman, or mankind to represent both women and men) rather than gender-neutral alternatives (such as she or he, human, chairperson, or humankind). This research concludes that male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. Yet, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not be intentionally harmful. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction.

Given this social science research, there is a surprising absence of awareness on the use and effect of these words among lawyers, law faculty, law student, and judges. Based on our original empirical analysis of hundreds of legal documents (judicial opinions, legal briefs, and law review articles), we find that the legal community continues to use male-gendered words even though gender-neutral alternatives exist. Thus, while some judges, lawyers, and legal scholars may not intend to be sexist, they are being subtly sexist. The research reveals a strong general pattern of the dominant use of the male-gendered option in a number of word pairs (four out of the nine word pairs) and substantial use in three other word pairs. In contrast, there is the dominant use of the gender-neutral word option in two word pairs.

Finally, the article offers some proactive suggestions. While the legal community is reluctant to change, it did shift from using the male-gendered option of reasonable man to the gender-neutral reasonable person. We suggest that this change occurred because of the legal community’s heightened awareness of the sexist nature of the use of reasonable man, and that a heightened awareness of the subtle sexism of all male-gendered generics could prompt further changes. The article ends with a useful guide on gender neutral language that can be duplicated for distribution in the legal community and elsewhere.

Posted in Abstracts, Law | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Yale Conference – The Evolution of Social Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 25, 2008

Yale Hosts An Exploration Of The Roots Of Social Psychology

How do we make moral decisions, pick friends and lovers, and develop empathy for the feelings of others? An international group of renowned scientists who study the behavior of mankind’s closest relatives will try to answer these and other fundamental questions at the Evolution of Social Psychology workshop to be held at Yale Nov. 7-9.

The meeting, part of the Yale University Cognitive Science Program’s Interdisciplinary Workshop series, will feature anthropologists, psychologists, primatologists, economists, neuroscientists, lawyers, and philosophers all discussing lessons learned from primate behavior.

“By bringing together researchers from multiple areas of the cognitive sciences we hope to gain novel and important insights into the ways in which primates make sense of their social world,” said Tamar Szabo Gendler, professor of philosophy and chair of the cognitive science program. “We hope to use these insights to understand the origins of human social cognition.”

Provisional Schedule

All events will take place in Lindsey-Chittenden Hall, 63 High Street, New Haven [map].
All events are open to the public. Pre-registration requested [click here].

Friday, November 7, 2008

3:15-3:45         Welcome and introduction

3:45-6:00        Primate Moral Cognition I: Prosociality and Inequity Aversion

Saturday, November 8, 2008

9:00-10:15       Primate Moral Cognition II: Helping

  • Felix Warneken (Leipzig, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Developmental and Comparitive Psychology); Jennifer Barnes (Yale, Psychology); Commentary: Matthew Noah Smith (Yale, Philosophy); Moderator: Lori Gruen (Wesleyan, Philosophy and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies)

10:45-12:00     Primate “System I”: Emotion and Unconscious Processing

12:00-2:00       Lunch

  • Pre-registration for lunch required by November 1 [click here]

2:00-4:45         Primate Decision-Making and Irrationality

  • Louisa Egan (Northwestern, Kellogg School of Management); Michael Platt (Duke, Neurobiology); Alexandra Rosati (Duke, Biological Anthropology); Daeyeol Lee (Yale, School of Medicine/ Neurobiology and Cognitive Science); Keith Chen (Yale, School of Organization and Management/ Economics and Cognitive Science); Commentary: Don Brown (Yale, Economics); Moderator: Joseph Simmons (Yale, School of Organization and Management/Marketing)

5:15-6:30         Primate In-Group/Outgroup Biases

Sunday, November 9, 2008

9:30-12:00       Primate Theory of Mind

Among the topics that will be discussed are how primates make social decisions, how they are affected by emotional and unconscious processes, how they evaluate others’ actions in moral terms, and they reason about the mental states of others.

The workshop begins Friday afternoon at Lindsey-Chittenden Hall at 63 High St. and continues until Sunday at noon. Pre-registration (no cost) is requested at:

* * *

For updates and additional information, go here.

Posted in Events, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 24, 2008

Billy Baker wrote a nice article, titled “She Explores Inner Workings of Bias,” about Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji in last week’s Boston Globe.  Here are some excerpts.

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For two decades, Banaji has been a leading researcher into the nature of our implicit, unconscious biases, particularly as they unfold in a social context. Bias, she has found through her experiments into memory and its associations, is a part of being human. Every person divides up the world in certain ways.

Most of the time, she said, people show an unconscious preference toward their social group. By participating in her own experiments, Banaji has found that she favors women over men, and Harvard over MIT. But there are exceptions to these findings, which is what makes this election so intriguing to her.

“There is an aspect of our minds that operates largely in unconscious mode,” she said. “We can say one thing and behave in a way that’s completely opposite.”

In experiments designed to test our unconscious biases, the experimental psychologist has found that 80 percent of whites show a white preference, while 40 percent of blacks show a black preference. But blacks, much more so than whites, are more vocal in saying that they prefer blacks.

So if we say one thing and do another, what will really happen come Election Day? Is Senator Barack Obama at risk for the so-called Bradley Effect, where people will say they’re going to vote for a black candidate and then won’t? . . . .

“I don’t think so,” she said as she fiddled with her tortoise-shell eyeglasses. This election year has already flown in the face of expectations, she said.

“We might even see some reverse-Bradley”, said Banaji. “Who would have thought we’d have an election where the younger white men all dropped out early?” With a tone of cautious optimism, she adds: “That tells us that, in our conscious minds, we’ve come a long way.” But our unconscious, she has found, is often unpredictable. Banaji uses something called an Implicit Association Test – rapid-fire quizzes based on word and image associations – to study a person’s bias. Every time she develops a new test, she and her colleagues take bets on what they think the results will say. “I’m continually wrong,” she said.

In a recent study, she asked participants to choose a quiz team mate from two candidates: an overweight person and a thin person. The overweight person, they were told, had a higher IQ. The majority chose the thin person.

“Our biases are not rational,” she said. “They lead us to do things that are not even in our own best interest.”

Banaji came to her line of work naturally and, not surprisingly, somewhat unconsciously. She grew up a Zoroastrian – a small religion and philosophy with only about 100,000 followers left in the world – in Hyderabad, India. “It was an unusual upbringing,” she said. “You’re a part of a community of 6,000 living in a city of 6 million and nobody knows about you.”

Still, she said, “It never struck me consciously that I was interested in these questions because of my own experience of being different.”

People like understanding their biases, she believes, just as medical patients want to know their risk factors. Over 7 million tests have been completed on Project Implicit, a Harvard website she helped create to allow people to participate in the Implicit Association Tests – and gives the test-taker an immediate analysis of their biases. (It can be found at

For all her years of research, and her outsider background, Banaji admits that she is not without her own biases. But she thinks that by acknowledging them, people can better attempt to counter them.

She uses the screensaver on her office computer to display images of people from far-flung places, or in unfamiliar roles (a female construction worker, say), in an effort to rewire her associations.

“You can change a behavior even if your attitude doesn’t change,” she said. One example? She encourages people to smile at a random old person on the street.

“And maybe the change in behavior will provoke a change in attitude.”

* * *

Read the entire article here.  Go to Project Implicit here.

Take the Policy IAT here.

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American,’Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Do You Implicitly Prefer Markets or Regulation?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 23, 2008

To find out, you can take the “Policy IAT 1.0” (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

For those of you on IBM-compatible computers, you can now access our new version, “Policy IAT 2.0,”  by clicking here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Rumors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 22, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Election has included a number of false rumors about the candidates.  Jesse Singal of the Boston Globe has an interesting article on how campaigns can use psychology studies to combat false rumors.  We excerpt the article below.

*  *  *

Experts began to look at rumors more analytically in the 1940s and 1950s, in a wave of research fueled by concern about how rumors could be managed during wartime. Though interest waned during the following decades, rumor studies have seen a resurgence in the last decade or so – partly because researchers are now more able to tackle complex, dynamic phenomena, and partly because they’re newly armed with the biggest ongoing social psychology experiment in human history, the Internet, which provides them with terabytes of recorded rumors and a way to track them.

In 2004, the Rochester Institute of Technology psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo and another rumor researcher, Prashant Bordia, analyzed more than 280 Internet discussion group postings that contained rumors. They found that a good chunk of the discourse consisted of the participants sharing and evaluating information about the rumors and discussing whether they seemed likely. They realized, in other words, that people on the sites weren’t swapping rumors just to gossip; they were using rumors as a vehicle to get to the truth, the same way people read news.

“Lots of times people will share a rumor not for their benefit or for the other person’s benefit, but simply because they’re trying to figure out the facts,” says DiFonzo, one of the leading figures in the resurgence of rumor research. He published a book on the topic this fall: “The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.”

Some types of facts seem to be more urgent triggers than others. Rumors that involve negative outcomes tend to start and spread more easily than ones that involve positive outcomes. Researchers sort rumors into “dread rumors,” driven by fear (“I heard the company is downsizing”), and “wish rumors,” driven by hope (“I heard our Christmas bonus will be bigger this year”). Dread rumors, it turns out, are far more contagious. In a study involving a large public hospital in Australia that was in the midst of a restructuring, Bordia and his colleagues collected 510 rumors that could be classified as dread rumors or wish rumors. Four hundred and seventy-nine of them were dread rumors.

* * *

Aside from their use as a news grapevine, rumors serve a second purpose as well, researchers have found: People spread them to shore up their social networks, and boost their own importance within them. To the extent people do have an agenda in spreading rumors, it’s directed more at the people they’re spreading them to, rather than at the subject of the rumor.

People are rather specific about which rumors they share, and with whom, researchers have found: They tend to spread rumors to warn friends of potential trouble, or otherwise help them, while remaining mum if it would be harmful to spread a given rumor in a certain context or to a certain person.

* * *

When it comes to rumors about people rather than events, psychologists have found that we pay especially close attention to rumors about powerful people and their moral failings. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who studies the evolutionary roots of gossip, has found that we’re particularly likely to spread negative rumors about “high-status” individuals, whether they’re our bosses, professors, or celebrities.

* * *

Given what we know about which rumors thrive and persist, the particular rumors that have dominated this campaign season seem almost custom-crafted to replicate themselves and spread to a wide audience: They’re negative rumors about high-status individuals that hint at moral failings.

Conservatives spreading the Obama rumors worry he may be lying about his faith to further his political career, or that his wife, Michelle, is cloaking radicalism in a moderate veneer.

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here.

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Polarization,”  and The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’.”

Posted in Life, Politics, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Without the Filter

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 21, 2008

Governor Sarah Palin wants “to talk to Americans without the filter” of the “media elite.”  As she explained in the vice-presidential debate, she aims to cut out the middleman in conveying information to the public: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Senator Joe Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”

Those statements reflect a radical challenge to our American system: the elimination of an institution—the press—that has traditionally been championed as a vital check on the abuse of power and distortion of the truth by politicians.  In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, historically, “[t]he free press meant organized, expert scrutiny of government.  The press was a conspiracy of the intellect, with the courage of numbers.”  For Palin and her coterie, it is simply a conspiracy: a loose amalgam of distorters, liars, and opportunists.

It is tempting to see the Palin proposal as a tailored response to a particular set of circumstances—after recent criticisms from the press and in the context of declining poll numbers for the Republican ticket, attacking journalists might seem to be nothing more than an isolated political expedient.  In fact, Palin’s call for a purge of the “media elite” is a central part of a broader project of knowledge management that has been practiced for decades and perfected during the Age of Rove.

That expansive approach has borrowed tactics directly out of the playbook of some of the most successful corporate campaigns of the last half century or so and has allowed the Bush administration to forge ahead on weak policies—like the war in Iraq—while stymieing potentially strong ones—like a coordinated effort to fight global warming—by controlling the information the public receives.

For many years, the cigarette industry made billions selling a product they knew to be dangerous to human health, while evading costly regulation and litigation.  They accomplished this improbable feat by keeping information necessary to make educated choices out of the hands of the public, while convincing individuals that they possessed all the relevant data and were, in fact, coming to freely made decisions.  Thus, big tobacco hid evidence of the negative health effects of smoking and spent millions on selling the image of cigarette smokers as empowered, independent-minded, sovereign consumers.  Marlboro Men didn’t need scientists or bureaucrats telling them what they needed to know to adequately assess risks; they had their common sense and their freedom to guide them.  When cancer deaths and outside studies began to suggest the great danger of smoking, cigarette companies fought vigorously in court to prevent insider documents that revealed the full extent of the problem from being released.

The McCain-Palin ticket has taken just such an approach.

Although understanding the sources of a candidate’s income is critical to assessing whether that candidate has acted independently in the past or may have vested interests going forward, for months, Cindy McCain refused to disclose key information about the McCain’s family’s wealth.  In May, after serious criticism from the media concerning the lack of transparency, she finally released part of her 2006 tax returns.  However, only her IRS Form 1040 was released, so there was no reference to the sources of her income.  And even this information was disclosed in a way meant to avoid its dissemination to the public: the release was put out on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.  As Republican strategist Dan Schnur joked, “Christmas Eve would have been ideal, but that would have been a problem given the election calendar.”

Moreover, the ticket has denied members of the media access to the McCain and Palin, except in prepackaged snippets, and has ensured that both of them stick to their vague talking points.  When Palin went to New York City in September to meet with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the campaign initially refused to permit any producers or reporters to go along with the network pool camera recording pictures of the meetings and, after strong objections from the press, relented only slightly, allowing extremely limited and superficial coverage.  McCain, who once decried “stale soundbites, staged rallies, and over-managed messages,” now marches to a metronome.  Between mid-August and the end of September, he went over five weeks without holding a single press conference.

The aim has been to limit severely the information that voters encounter about the candidates and their policies.  Speaking in generalities in the lead up to a general election is standard practice and, in many ways, the Obama campaign provides no exception; yet, the McCain team has taken the practice of evasion and distraction to new levels.  As Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, explained in a moment of candor: “This election is not about issues.  This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”  In the wake of the global financial debacle, a top McCain aid made a similar point to the Daily News: “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

Preventing the public from having the details necessary to make an informed decision has occurred at the same time that the campaign has emphasized how accessible and open it is—and how it remains utterly committed to “straight talk.”  Indeed, in the October 16 presidential debate, McCain went to great lengths to portray Obama as the remote and opaque candidate, emphasizing how Obama had rejected “his urgent request to sit down, and do town hall meetings, and come before the American people.”  Just as with big tobacco, the message from the Republican campaign has been twofold: first, that the campaign has been completely forthright in providing voters with all the information they need to make a knowledgeable choice; second, that Americans are empowered, independent-minded individuals with common sense who don’t need middlemen—like the press—to tell them which way the wind blows.

The strategy has a proven pedigree.  It worked, not only for the tobacco industry, but also, more recently, for the Bush administration, as it duped the American people into invading Iraq by failing to provide the public with the whole picture concerning the potential risks and costs of the war, while acting as if the calculus were utterly clear and that people knew everything they needed to know to make an informed decision.  Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we would be embraced by the Iraqi people as liberators.  The conflict would be cheap and largely bloodless and would help stabilize the region.  Only fools and cowards would wait to act.

The same was true with respect to the administration’s approach to global warming: as Bush appointees publicly declared that they were being utterly candid and that the setting of environmental policy by the administration was transparent, they denied the public access to the facts it needed to assess the causes and destructive effects of climate change and the information concerning the impact of industry lobbying efforts.  Key reports were sanitized of language affirmatively declaring that human activity was causing global warming; administration lawyers battled in court to prevent access to records of energy executives’ private meetings with government decision-makers.  As with efforts to prevent the disclosure of documents in the context of the war on terror (including administration policies on torture, extraordinary rendition, and wiretapping), the Bush team couched its withholding of key information in terms of executive privilege and argued that, regardless, the implicated information was not relevant to anything that the public actually needed to know.

Those who said otherwise, were attacked as not only wrong, but biased and a direct threat to our country: wacky tree huggers who would hurt small businesses and destroy American competitiveness; out-of-touch liberals willing to put American lives at risk in their misguided mission to protect terrorists bent on our destruction; ardent ideologues recklessly disparaging government policy during time of war without a concern that it might endanger our troops.

The strategy of denigration of adversarial information sources in the administration’s management of public information was another proven technique borrowed from big tobacco.  For many years, the industry worked hard to cast public health advocates offering evidence of the destructive nature of cigarettes as meddling nannies who wanted to take away the freedoms of regular Americans.  Similarly, plaintiff’s-side lawyers pushing for disclosure of internal company documents were cast as malingering schemers willing to do anything for a buck.

These accounts of corrupted dispositions and grave consequences had a profound impact on the way that the information coming from these sources was viewed, a lesson that the McCain-Palin ticket has taken to heart.  By repeatedly assailing the “liberal media” as unfair and unbalanced, the campaign has both called into question each and every story critical of the Republican candidates and has forced journalists to be more cautious in their criticisms, even where they are extremely well founded.  The claim of ideological distortion on behalf of the media has also served as an excuse for the McCain campaign to refuse to participate in more open forums, which has proven to be a great boon for the campaign, given that Palin is unprepared, at this point in her political career, to answer unscripted questions where outright evasion is foreclosed.

After Palin’s devastating interview with Katie Couric at the end of September, the McCain campaign realized that they could not afford another free-form session with the press.  Thus, as both a means of damage control and a way to defuse future criticisms of the governor, they had Palin go on the offensive against the CBS News anchor: “I did feel there were a lot of things she was missing in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are that are represented in our ticket . . . . I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also . . . .”  Because Palin is just like you, Joe Six-Pack Hockey Mom, when the biased media attacks Palin, they are really attacking you.  As Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s senior advisors, put it, “She’s not part of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit.  Elite opinion looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world.”

Another central lesson of knowledge management coming from the tobacco industry is that truth and accuracy are irrelevant if what you primarily—or exclusively—care about are “ends.”  You do not have to prove your position; you only have to move the needle enough to make things look like a debate.   Where no information exists to support your position, you simply create it.  Thus, cigarette companies funded rival studies to draw into question arguments that cigarettes were addictive and harmful and hired experts to ensure that there was “credible” counterevidence.

The Bush administration has masterfully followed suit.  With few expert pundits supporting the Iraq war efforts, the administration simply went out and got its own to offer seemingly objective—and uniformly positive—analysis on news programs.  The “message force multipliers” or “surrogates,” as they were referred to in internal Pentagon papers, were used to amplify successes, downplay mistakes, and refocus debates for millions of Americans.  When a study by Seton Hall University School of Law and two lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay was published, finding that just eight percent of detainees were classified as al Qaeda fighters by the military and a majority had not been found to have perpetrated any acts of hostility against American targets, the Pentagon sprung into action, commissioning a counter study from a terrorism research center at West Point that, unsurprisingly, offered a frightening portrait of a detainee population made up of dangerous jihadists.  Explaining the motivation for the rebuttal report, one of the authors offered a candid summary: the Department of Defense “had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study.  They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”

Just as with the tobacco industry, the benefits of such an approach in the context of the war on terror were to forestall any action: with the ultimate verdict still out, it seemed ill-advised to change course or break from the status quo.  Since there was a debate over the dangerousness of the detainees, Guantanamo had to be kept open.  Since there was not utter consensus that coercive interrogation methods amounted to torture, they had to be continued.  Since there was an active dispute over the legality of government wiretaps, they had to remain undisturbed.  Making things look like a debate meant that feet could be dragged for months, if not years.

Nowhere was this truer than with respect to the administration’s policy on climate change.  The aim for the Bush appointees at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere was never to prove that global warming had its origin in natural causes, but rather to sew a seed of doubt so that inaction could take root.  In February 2007, when a report by top climate scientists from 120 nations was released explaining that global warming was unquestionably real, man-made, and required immediate responsive action, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a response worthy of an expert defense lawyer for Philip Morris: “We’re going to see a big debate on [climate change] going forward . . . the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man . . . [It’s] not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that’s going to ‘solve’ the problem.”

For the McCain-Palin campaign, the goal has been to move what should be settled points of fact into the realm of confusion and dispute such that existing negative stereotypes respecting the Democratic presidential candidate can persist.  That status quo is that a black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama is going to be viewed by many with suspicion, fear, and distrust.  Hence, you don’t have to conclusively prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim; you only have to allow your surrogates to repeatedly raise such a claim.  Nor do you need to prove that Barack Obama is an al Qaeda operative; you only have to emphasize, at rallies and in television commercials, that he pals around with terrorists.  You don’t have to prove that Barack Obama wants to mandate teaching kindergarten students how to use a condom; you just have to insinuate it enough that it sticks.  If we aren’t absolutely sure that Obama isn’t an Arab spy bent on corrupting our children, we can’t possibly elect him president.

The same is true with respect to attacks by the McCain campaign playing on existing notions about “tax and spend” Democrats and elitist, leftist professors.  You don’t actually have to prove that Obama would raise taxes; you just have to assert again and again that Obama wants to spread the wealth around, pitting the haves against the have-nots and favoring the latter.  You don’t have to prove that Obama is out-of-touch with mainstream America; you just have to hammer on how he held a campaign event with celebrities in Hollywood and how he believes that rural voters cling to guns and religion out of bitterness.  Given the dire economic situation, if it is an open debate whether or not Obama will take more out of our pay checks, voting for him would be reckless; if there is a chance that he doesn’t understand us, our beliefs, and our struggles, it would be foolish.

As a number of writers have pointed out, this strategy of muddying the waters has been especially effective because of the press’s tendency to try to appear balanced: when pointing out untruths propagated by the McCain campaign, many writers and commentators have felt compelled to also mention significantly less-erroneous claims by Obama.  The result being that members of the public are liable to come away mistakenly convinced that both sides bend the facts equally to suit their needs.

To its credit, in recent weeks, the press has been far more disciplined in calling out McCain and Palin for their deceptive claims and pressing for more details, but much damage has already been done.  With one-third of voters, in a recent survey, sure that Obama is a Muslim or open to the idea that he could be, and over fifty percent believing that he would raise their taxes (despite the fact that his tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans), Palin’s proposal to excise the media from the presidential election conversation is particularly disturbing.

We deserve to know what our candidates think so that we can determine what types of leaders they will be.  Despite Palin’s arguments to the contrary, we are not going to learn those critical facts if we just listen to what they want to tell us.  Filters keep us safe and healthy.  Sure, you can have a drink right out of the East River, but in the end all you’re going to get is a bad pain in your gut.

* * *

To read some related Situationist posts, see “A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part V

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2008

This is Part V of a loose, unofficial transcript of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs‘s remarkable lecture “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  He delivered this lecture on September 11, 2008 at Harvard Law School. You can link to Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.

* * *

Now what are some of the things that we’ll need to solve these problems?  I, of course, don’t have any full list, but let me mention a few things that I think are important to add to the mix.

First, we absolutely have to find ways to reinforce the role of science in society.  And that’s because of the fact that the nature of our problems, the interconnected challenges of the physical environment and human economic activity and survival require a deep understanding of underlying physical mechanisms.  We need to get science deeply embedded in our public policy processes in ways that it’s not right now.  Congress is scientifically ignorant.  The White House, I won’t even go there, but a travesty and a danger for the world.  George Bush, in my mind is the worst president in American history.  Because I don’t have the visceral feeling for James Buchanan, by the way.  He may be the rival, but other than that, and a large part of it is how Bush scoped up precisely the anti-science that we need right now for survival.

My favorite international institution in this regard is the Inter-governmental Panel on climate change.  The IPPC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year, and the reason I like it so much is that it is a constructed model of how to create a public understanding about scientific consensus on a complex topic.  That’s not easy to do.  There’s lots of reasons why the general public has almost no sense of what real science is about.  Of course, general public hears almost no science.  It’s not trained to understand these issues, does not get Science magazine once a week to read – though should.  I recommend it to all of you.  Because even the first half is quite wonderful for non-scientists.  Just to give you a general update about the world of science.  And it’s very important for you to have that.  Because that’s what our world needs to understand right now.

But, more than that, there are obviously deliberately obfuscatory forces the corporate world and the religious world and others that take shots at all of this.  And so the public’s utterly confused even when the scientific community has a rich knowledge and understanding of very complex challenges.  So the IPPC is a process that was designed to bring in a serious methodical – some would say plodding, but still it works – methodical way for scientific knowledge and consensus to the broad public.  And it’s having it’s effect on slowly, grudgingly dragging the world into a recognition about climate change risk.  Because it has a certain authority to the way it has been carefully constructed to be open, transparent, honest, pure review base to deliver that sense of consensus.  We need that on many, many fronts.  We don’t have that kind of process right now.  Congressional oversight doesn’t work.  The administration and the mechanisms of our departments are independent of science.  And so we need to invent new ways to bridge the divide.

Second, we face massive financing problems for global pubic goods and for addressing the needs of the poor.  They’re not massive relative to our wealth or our income.  I’ve estimated that they require between 2-3% of the world’s annual income to address the inter-connective problems of extreme poverty, climate change, energy systems, water, food supply, bio-diversity conservation.  It’s not a lot of money to actually consolidate the future and end extreme poverty and head off the risks on anthropogenic climate change and other massive challenges to our future well-being.  Small.  But it’s vastly larger than what we actually put into any of these things right now.

Our budget on energy research, just to give you an idea, has been running at about 3 billion dollars a year.  We went to war in Iraq because of oil, and have spent about a trillion dollars so far.  It’s just not smart, this imbalance between what we’re investing in real solutions and what we’re ready to invest in bombing and killing people for illusory solutions.  But that’s the kind of trade-off that we’re making.  We’re spending almost 2 billion dollars a day on the military in this country, and for whatever reason both candidates are basically saying “yeah, we’ve got to do that, probably even more.”  Which I think is a huge mistake.  That means that the three billion we spent total on sustainable energy systems each year comes to 1½ days of Pentagon spending.  That can’t be the right allocation for our security.  It just can’t be right.

So I think we need new ways to finance these public goods.  Some, of course, does have to go through our political process each year or Congressional appropriations, but we also need global financing to address global challenges like climate change.  And one of the things I want to work on much in the future is an allocation of some fraction of a global carbon tax or selling carbon permits to mobilizing global financing for public goods.

So we right now are emitting about globally about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.  I’m sorry, it’s about 36 billion tons of which 30 billion is from energy and about 6 billion is from deforestation, and the number is rising because of the growing world economy of course.  But if we devoted $10 per ton to addressing these problems, and the that would be maybe one cent per kilowatt hour implication for electricity, then when you do the arithmetic you see that would be global financing of another 300 billion dollars a years.  Which actually would be enough to address some pretty basic questions of energy transformation as well as poverty reduction.  So creating a mechanism of global financing I think is an important part of solving the global public goods problems.

Third is public education.  Well, it started here in Massachusetts, and I kind of believe you’re going to have to step up to this much more, and we’re all going to have to step up to this.  But we actually will not solve these problems with an American public that is as poorly informed as it is right now.  I don’t have an answer to that.

We’re competing against a very confused, difficult, overloaded environment of sound bites.  But the truth is we’re not having a discussion worthy of our survival in this country.  The newspapers won’t be the ones to do it.  We’re going to have to figure out other ways to do it.  I don’t have an answer to that.  I just want to raise the problem that’s it’s got to be part of our solution, and it’s got to be public education, not only here but internationally obviously, where the issues are at least as urgent.

One of the things we’re doing at Columbia, which I like in the last year and this year is that we’ve created a global classroom where we have 15 campuses on-line, once a week for an hours so that we have an international discussion that includes New York, Keota, Ecuador , Sussex, England, Paris, Mycale, Ethiopia, Abadan, Nigeria, Delhi, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, universities in all those places, and I do believe that somehow we should be able to use technology more effectively t]o spread knowledge, information, understanding, and I wouldn’t mind if you did that between now and November 4 also.  Because we’re just sitting here like sitting ducks, or paralyzed moose, or whatever it is.  And we shouldn’t, we really shouldn’t be sitting here just paralyzed.  So that’s a third area.

Fourth is leadership by all key intellectual sectors including the law.  I would like to see the law school and the legal community step up to these problems more than they have.  We have, for example, international treaty obligations which as I understand it from the Constitution makes those obligations part of our national law.  In climate change, for example.  But international law is such a weak reed in our system that it barely gets any traction at all.  Why is that?

How many of you are going to specialize in international law so that treaties which are going to be vital for international action have a force of law and operational side to them?  Or human rights law, where all signatories to the universal declaration on human rights.  We’re in the 60th anniversary.  Those rights are obviously not observed or operationalized for billions of people on the planet.  And that document is viewed not as an instrument of international law which I believe it should be but as something that Eleanor Roosevelt did nicely 60 years ago.

That can’t actually be the way we’re going to solve problems if we don’t take these issues the legal dimensions of these issues with extreme seriousness.  Seems to me international law should have the same gravity as domestic law.  And the idea that domestic law has real force behind it because of sovereignty and international law does not, I think is actually an exaggerated difference between the two cases, because both of them are sustained by a self-fulfilling belief in their importance.  Nothing more.  Domestic law can be as useless as international law if you don’t believe in it.  And international law can be as consequent as domestic law if you do believe in it.  And so I do think there is a major challenge here that is unfulfilled by legal scholarship, but also obviously, not just the law.  I don’t mean to be picking on you.

My own profession is absolutely, completely 100% captivated in the stock market as the central issue of economic analysis and is really wasting a lot of time and human resources on that and taking issues of poverty or environmental sustainability  as fringe issues that you might take one course and possibly on the side in one’s economics training.  And so I think that there’s also been an abnegation of responsibility and failure of prioritization there as well.

As I mentioned, a fifth point we need to bring ethics explicitly back into our discussion, in a very formal, self-conscious educated, reflective way.  Not just so you stay ethical and stay out of trouble, but the ethics of a global society which needs to exist but doesn’t exist right now.  We’re so interconnected, we can’t go on simply just hating each other or ignoring each other or ready to bomb each other, or making the existence of others the existential challenge of our time.  And so we need to face up to the kind of ethics that can support the things that will keep us safe, which I think is what ethics is really about in an important way.

And finally, and as a general matter, I think that there is an important, not quite new definition, but a new boldness from universities that’s going to be needed.  And I see Harvard taking tentative steps in that direction, but I would like to see Harvard do a lot more than it’s doing.  I think universities actually have a unique role to play in addressing these problems. And that’s not pure university chauvinism from someone who has lived within universities for 36 years.  Yes, it may be biased, but it is also a considered view of what its going to take to address the kinds of problems that I’m talking about this morning.

First, only universities have the scientific knowledge within them, across the various disciplines, to be able to have a coherent knowledge base to the complex challenges that we face.  And that’s a wonderful thing.  Governments don’t for sure.  NGO’s don’t.  The general public doesn’t.  And so if you do believe as I do that understanding the human bio-physical interactions is fundamental for our well-being, universities have necessarily a unique role to play in that.  We have that cross-disciplinary capacity that no other institution has.  I’d like to think that we are unbiased.  Relative at least, to other institutions in society.  We’re not out for the buck, that’s for sure.  This can’t be the way to go if you’re trying to get rich.  And so I think universities have a kind of credibility and a neutrality that does not come if you’re working for the U.S. State department or if you’re working for a business, or most other institutions that are part of this challenge.

Fourth, and Harvard certainly taught me this, institutions are – this institution is – probably almost uniquely here for the long term.  And so the ability of universities  to think for the long term is also very unusual, and Harvard more than anyone, any other institution on our continent, is certainly reflective of that.

And the fifth point that I think is absolutely fundamental, and it’s the reason why I’m so delighted to be here, is that I believe that universities are uniquely inter-generational in ways that are almost not occurring in any other social institutions, of any kind.  Students get younger every year I find, and that’s an absolutely great thing.  There is inherently in the life of the university a rejuvenation of topics, points of view, and capacities every single year.  So you literally, not just figuratively, and not just as a nice word from you, reflect the hopes of Harvard by your very being here.  You are the embodiment of this institution more than its faculty, I might say.  Because you’re the ones that are going to carry all of this forward.  And this intergenerational uniqueness of the universities I think is extraordinarily important.

I know working as an activist on these issues that there is no way that even people of my generation, if I could put it this way, understand it.  Certainly not John McCain’s administration.  That’s not personal, that’s the fact of his age and his upbringing, and his knowledge, and it’s not what we need for the 21st century.  It just isn’t.  But what we do need is a good intergenerational  spread of expertise and an exchange of ideas that’s constant and intense.

You people, I mean when I have need for true understanding of the information age that we’re living in, I go to my 13 year old daughter.  You guys are a little bit out of it.  Already a little bit too old.  Since I have children that range from 13 to 26 I know their relative capacities, and our 13 year old’s absolutely the best at all of this.  But the knowledge that you bring and the perspectives are absolutely vital to this.  What I find evermore thrilling in the university is the chance to share, interact, and work together to solve these problems.

Thank you very much.

* * *

Part VI of this series will include the question and answer session that followed Professor Sach’s lecture.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

Posted in Education, Law, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2008

This is Part IV of a loose, unofficial transcript of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs‘s remarkable lecture “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  He delivered this lecture on September 11, 2008 at Harvard Law School. You can link to Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

* * *

What I’ve argued in my most recent two books, The End of Poverty, and Common Wealth, is that the essential problem, maybe just trying to put myself out of a job.  The essential problem that we face is not the resource problem.  It’s not the cost of solutions.  It’s not the lack of alternatives.  It’s not the hopelessness of these deep, dark forces which compel us to go over the cliff because it’s either that or turning out the lights on our civilization.

There is a view, a dark view which says well this has a great party of the last two hundred years.  We’ve reached peak oil.  It’s really the end of that era of the fossil fuel age, and will necessarily, no matter what we do and how we scramble, revert to a situation of vastly lower material conditions because that’s just the budget constraint for the world.  So that is one view on the environmental far extreme.  On the religious far extreme is the view basically shares the same outlook that the world’s coming to an end.  But for other reasons, and I regard that view as also no joke because it informs foreign policy actually – an apocalyptic thinking and also inability to discuss issues of the next 50 years or 100 hundred years because it’s a mystical view that all of these events are out our control.

Now what I mean by resources not being the basic constraint is that when you actually try to decompose the problems that we face, like the CFC problem which a very interesting one, where you had aerosols and refrigerants that were threatening life on the planet, it turned out it was almost costless to substitute new chemicals in the refrigerators and in the aerosol cans.  It was resisted by industry for many years.  Junk science – this is garbage.  No proof.

All the things that corporate public affairs departments and legal departments do, do not go this way.  Let someone else do that.  That is unworthy of your talents.

By that’s the major initial reaction.  And then, we can’t do it.  It’s going to break the bank.  And then it turns out it’s almost costless actually to address a problem that would have profound risk to the whole plant.  My understanding of the challenges that we face is that they’re more of that character than the character of insoluble problems of the world that is overshot the caring capacity of the earth.

The argument that I’ve been trying to make is that if we act consciously, “collectively” — a word that is very unpopular — consciously and collectively in a shared way harness our scientific and technical knowledge to direct at specific problems through government even.  Even a bigger no no in my profession.  To address problems of hunger, disease control, fertility reduction, voluntary fertility reduction, deforestation, draught, vulnerability and the rest.

We have some great possibilities at hand, some technologies that already exist — that simply by applying them, could save millions of lives and be transformative in human well-being.  My favorite example is the anti-malaria bed net.  Five bucks lasts five years – good for 2 children.  Fifty cents a child per year would save just that maybe half a million lives every year.  But if combined with medicine, which are 80 cents a dose, could save a million lives per year and break transmission of malaria in many places.

And we don’t do it because the people that are on the receiving line of that are utterly impoverished, and blind to us as a result of their utter impoverishment.

And when they’re blind to us they’re also blind to the market because they can’t buy these things.  They don’t have the money to buy these things.  And they’re blind to us politically, and they’re blind to the market and the result is that they die and these problems don’t get addressed.

But there are many, many other technologies like that.  And if we think systematically about the challenges for instances, low-carbon energy and what we know about solar power for example, starting with the fact that incoming solar radiation, several thousand times our use of energy.  And so if we harness even modest amounts of solar radiation in the great deserts of the world, the Mohave, the Atacama, or the Sahara, or the Gobi, one could, with transmission lines carry clean electricity, at rather low cost to very large populations in ample quantity, and good to last least another billion years, and probably about five billion years.

After that I have no solutions, by the way.

But, I’m working on the next hundred years.  So we have many solutions.  We know with automobiles the technology is already at hand.  If harnessed to a clean power grid could reduce by to ¼ or 1/5 of the current emissions even with the same miles driven through plug-in hybrids and other technologies that it would end up being cheaper in present value terms than the ones we have now.  It wouldn’t even be a net cost to society.

So my argument has been that the economics of this are pretty good.  The fear factor could really come down.  It’s not really true we have to break our civilization to address these problems.  But we have to look up from our stupidity.  And our fear, our resentments, our short-sightedness, and we also have to understand that what we teach across the parking lot about the wonders of the market is approximately half the story.

And the other half of the story is why markets don’t work in many key cases.  They don’t work when the people on the receiving line are so poor that they don’t have a market demand.  That’s the first place that they don’t work.  They don’t work when the object is the global commons, the air, the water, the climate.  They don’t work when the problem is demographic choice.  We have some serious areas where self-organizing market-based systems will not solve these problems, even if the technologies and the costs look pretty good actually.  And those are the reasons why politics matters in the end.  Because self-organization is absolutely tremendous.

Markets are great when people really can just look after themselves and they can make their choices when that kind of decentralized self-organizing process works.  By all means, let’s do it.  Because it’s the easiest kind of organization to let people have their own freedom of choice and to do what they want.  But a lot good economics is about the conditions in which such self-organization does not lead to the shared wellbeing of this society.  That’s really what a whole field of public economics is about.  But we don’t even let that into our ideological toolkit.

Fortunately, it’s a large part of your toolkit.  Questions of zoning and eminent domain and regulation are really about areas where markets can’t do their job.  But we’ve not harnessed that kind of knowledge to a political understanding, and a willingness to address these issues.  And we have a relentless disdain for the poor, and a relentless ignorance and neglect of our commons, whether within our country or globally.  And those are precisely the areas where the self-organization is not going to work.  And our political system right now is completely broken – not completely broken, and I admit I could feel a lot better on election day than I do right now.  Maybe you could say the political system is in good shape in a certain way that it could bring forward a former president of the Harvard Law Review.  But he better whop the former mayor of Wasilla, or this thing is really, really in bad shape.

If we can’t bring forward confidence and knowledge reliably, and with a public understanding that that’s important for our survival, and we have no such understanding right now.  We’re in a very dangerous situation.  And that’s partly where your voices are really urgently needed right now.  The rampant anti-intellectualism of our time, the grossness of these attacks on elitism, and all of this bastardazition of democratic politics is very dangerous for us.  This is not a game.  I repeat, this is real life and I believe survival actually.

And so the political system doesn’t do it.  Now what are some of the things that we’ll need to solve these problems?

* * *

Part V of this series will pick up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 17, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall at Harvard Law School in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.” The Situationist is posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  You can link to Part I here and Part II here. The third part is below.

* * *

So what would it take to solve these problems?  I think fundamentally it would take three things to put it in very simple terms.

First, a scientific understanding of what’s happening.  And by that I mean rigorous evidence based quantified mechanistic approach to understanding the links of bio-physical processes, human economic activity, demographic change.  It’s complicated but one would make an effort honestly to talk about the real dynamics of a Darfur or Yemen or Pakistan, not the unbelievably mean-spirited, nasty, non-empathetic and ignorant ways we do.  So we’d start with the scientific approach.

Second, and related, we would actually work hard at understanding what a suitable global-ethics might be for living together on a crowded planet.  I don’t think values just come out of nowhere unlike what economics teaches, I don’t think that they’re not to be discussed.  That tastes are (something Latin, I think) I don’t believe that, that we just take pace as given.  I am more Aristotelian, that values and ethics come from an examined life and from reflection, and I don’t think we do this almost at all systematically.  So we have a very, very hard time being empathetic.  And I actually think it’s a failing by the way of our community, if I could put it that way.

I’ve been part of the Harvard community since 1972, and I still consider myself part of the Harvard community.  And I don’t think we’re really good at this empathetic approach.  I don’t think we’re really very good at understanding the other side in a deep way.  And one of my erstwhile favorite publications The Economist, demonstrates for me the problem not the solution.  It’s a very clever magazine, very witty, very well-written.  It lacks any sense of empathy, with the people that are being written about.  So it’s elitist in the worse sense.  And that’s our problem, and I think it’s partly why we find ourselves so poor at being able to respond to attack.  Though I don’t think that’s Barack Obama’s problem at all.  But I do think it is our community’s problem, that we’re just maybe by dint of privilege and the way that we talk about these problems, unaware of sometimes how divorced we are from ground realities.

I know that in the economics profession.  And I know it from my own life because I was tenured before I knew anything – not quite.  I knew how to write good journal articles.  And they weren’t all wrong by the way.  Not all wrong, but they absolutely did not contain a central truths that I only came to understand by the real act of engagement.

And so I think this is another problem.  So I think that global ethics is a second challenge.

And the third, and it’s related to both of these, both science and ethics, is a capacity to look forward, or a will to try to understand the future that goes beyond the next year, or even your next three years at law school, or the next election.  But actually tries to comprehend a dynamic process and thinks about our world at time scales that we’re not good at thinking about.  What would the world look like and be like in 30 years or 50 years or 100 years?  Very hard questions, obviously not ones that we’re going to get right.  But ones that I think are important to think about at a time when we have a huge risk of getting things terribly wrong.

So what do we actually have right now in this country?  We have an incredibly unscientific, or anti-scientific ethos.  We elect presidents on the basis of God only knows — in the last election cycles, who you wanted to have a beer with.  On this one, the great charge is elitism.

It’s an absurdity that we are talking in these terms at this moment rather than talking about the challenges and the problems and what could be done to actually address them.  So we have a very anti-scientific approach and a deliberate anti-scientific ethos.  We’ve just gone through 8 years of surely the most aggressively anti-scientific and ignorant administration we’ve ever had.  And I think it’s put us and the world at an enormous risk.  Washington is completely incapable of an honest statement, basic arithmetic, problem definition.  The discussions about the drilling right now, absolutely pathetic.  Because you can’t even get an article which defines the oil, the flows, the timing, what it means, the tradeoffs in the kind of scientific discussion that one would want to have.

Everything is lies manipulated and public debate ala American Idol.  And it’s taken as normal and fun by our punditry who are part of it, and as innocent of the knowledge that they need to have as everybody else.  And the world’s treated as a game at a time when it can’t be treated as a game.  And when you have a vice-presidential nominee who professes beliefs that deny climate science or our creationist or anti-environmental conservation, a long record of denying the basic science on conservation biology for her own state.  And this is not even an issue of concern or discussion.  It shows the frivolity that we are living in right now.  At a time when I think we can’t afford that.

So we are anti-scientific.  We’re absolutely tribalist.  We’re at each other’s throats in narrow communities.  And we are so incredibly short-term and short-sighted that there is no discussion anywhere on any side about fifteen, twenty years from now about what kind of world we’re trying to build.

I don’t think, well I think Barack Obama’s policies are vastly better and would stand a much better chance of keeping us alive, which I actually care about, especially for my children.  I don’t think that he’s discussing the future in any serious way right now.  His campaign centered on the tax cut in the next 4 months– by the way, the wrong policy, because we need those revenues for girding up our strength for serious investments in the future, not just to keep blowing holes in a government that is already incapable of doing anything serious on almost any front.

But it’s more the short-sightedness that grab what we can.  Let’s talk about the housing bubble.  Let’s talk about the immediate foreclosures.  Let’s talk about everything except what really is going to count in 10, or 20, or 30, or 40 years, which are the things that we can actually do something about.  So somehow the future is to take care of itself.  And our time horizon has to be the next 6 months.

* * *

Part IV of this series will pick up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Ideology, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall at Harvard Law School in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  To read summaries of  remarkable presentation, see “Jeff Sachs Speaks for the Voiceless at Harvard Law School” or “Jeffrey Sachs urges students to represent the voiceless.” The Situationist is posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  You can link to Part I here.   The second part is below.

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I see three fundamental problems then that need addressing and they’re all interconnected.  The first is that in this interconnected world our tendency to pose questions as us versus them.  And as inherently conflict ridden as our first way of viewing the problem is becoming more and more dangerous.  But it’s a kind of dynamic that has a self-fulfilling prophecy about it.  I think McCain and Palin will raise by several percentage points certainly the probability that we’ll blow ourselves up in the next few years.  That’s not a small matter in my mind.  I think the way of looking at the world that John McCain has for whatever reason of history, background, honor or ignorance, is extraordinarily dangerous.  And the most dangerous statement of all that I know that has come out in recent years is his statement that the existential threat of our time is Islamic extremism.  If you define the existential threat of our time that way, and you pursue that in policy, the chances that we blow ourselves up rise immeasurably.

If we define our problems as us versus them they will become us versus them.  And we have a lot of reason to believe that we’re going to head off in that direction.  Our ignorance, our lack of understanding of the rest of the world, our lack of empathy, our inability to understand anything from another perspective, our fear, the kind of fear that obviously is threatening Obama’s campaign.  The Muslim.  The other.

This is a pervasive feature of the whole world, not just our society.  But it doesn’t matter how sophisticated and rich and all the rest, the capacity to go off in that direction is very, very high.  And in my view, John McCain exemplifies that.  And that’s a big issue.  I’m not intrinsically a partisan person.  I have actually relatively little interest in partisanship per se.  Not after a job in Washington I can tell you that for sure.  But I am worried, very much by what’s happening right now in the way we pose the global challenges.

Second, I believe that we’re seeing, and I see it every month in my work, wherever I am gravely threatening our well-being through resource depletion and destruction, environmental degradation and increasing marginalization of large parts of the world that are facing global environmental threats that have nothing to do from what came locally but end up destroying or threatening those societies.

Haiti is under water now partly because it’s a crowded, deforested environment, but to take a note from Kerry Emanuel at MIT, the great atmospheric dynamicist at MIT.  The frequency of high-intensity hurricanes in the Caribbean is on the rise because of anthropogenic global warming.   And that is not Haiti’s fault. In the places I’m working in East Africa, draught is becoming more and more frequent.

People are dying massively from this.  We don’t read the names.  We don’t read the stories.  When we do, we usually find some way to blame them for these mishaps because we define problems in ways that extricate ourselves and because, unfortunately, the journalists don’t really understand these things any better than anybody else.

But we end up with tremendous threats to large populations as a result of these global changes.  We’ve had massive typhoons that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent years.  More extreme tropical events in South Asia, in East Asia, in the Caribbean.  Massive draughts that carry away vast numbers of children from hunger and immuno-suppression that comes with inadequate food supply.  And I see in many parts of the word such as when I was in Malaysia in Malaysia, Borneo last month.  Truck after truck after truck after truck of big diptocarps, the great trees just being leveled, carried out, the environment de-neutered, and indigenous groups basically thrown off the land to make way for the loggers and then for the palm oil plantations that will follow after the logging.

And this is happening all over the world as well, because weak people and disposessed groups never can claim their rights and never can hold on to informal or traditional or group claims compared to the weight of commercial interest the way we define things in this world.  And so I happen to be in a community of indigenous or [?] populations in Sarawak, and despite the rights that they supposedly have under the Constitution, they are nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be enforced.  And actually we saw the longhouses just literally bulldozed to get people to leave the area so that the logging can continue.

And third, this leads to tremendous violence and instability, which Senator John McCain calls Islamic extremism.  Or we tend to ascribe to the unruliness of some other populations.  In a large swath of the world, really stretching from the dry lands of Senegal through Mali, through Niger, through Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, that whole swath of several thousand miles is a dry lands region.  In general it’s becoming dryer because of the warming of the Indian Ocean, and the consequence drying of this vast belt.  It’s leading to more hunger.  It’s leading to loss of livestock, and livelihoods.  At the same time, the population in this region is exploding.  Because the fertility rates remain very, very high.  There is very little contraception to be found.  We don’t talk about these things, neither do these countries especially with a few examples, the U.S. cuts the budget for family planning, denounces the U.N. Population Fund and all the rest.  And so we have like two blades of the scissors – falling water availability and rising populations.  And this leads to explosions like Darfur.  Or in the most extreme cases in what’s one of the driest places on the whole planet Somalia, where the entire government infrastructure collapses to the point where there is no national government anymore and hasn’t been for the last 15 years.

It would be very surprising if that didn’t provoke instability, violence, basses of terrorism and the like.  And low and behold, of course, it does.  And the U.S. response typically is to set up the African command of the U.S. military.  That’s our newest innovation.  I see American soldiers all over the place when I travel.  We call this Islamic extremism.  We view Darfur not as one of the worst crisis of water and food on the planet but only in the context of our ideological battles with Khartoum.  So we don’t understand the underpinnings of migration from the north of Darfur when the drying occurred of Nomadic populations who then came in and tried to, with the backing of the regime ethnically cleansed, the more sedentary sub-humid, but not as arid parts of southern Darfur.  But at the core this, this is water – it’s food, it’s livelihoods, with the backdrop of burgeoning populations and worsening environmental conditions.

But we label all of this as the enemy.  And every couple of months we send bombers in.  This is the approach that a country with a very high capital issue would take.  We don’t have very many troops as you know.  So we bomb.  More and more when we bomb, we kill women and children, destroy villages, can’t quite understand why people aren’t thrilled with this.  We tell lies so relentlessly, it’s absolutely impossible now to comprehend how dramatically we lie everyday.  Ah.  Anyone under a U.S. bomb is an insurgent.  That’s almost the definition in the newspapers.  And we have a cowardly press that is afraid of losing advertising revenues.  We’ve essentially lost the voice of an independent N.Y. Times, which in my view has become not quite a rag, but almost useless for understanding what’s going on.  Because they’re so conservative that they won’t question these things.  And this is where we are headed right now and that’s why I’m nervous.

So what would it take to solve these problems?

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Part III of this series picks up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

Posted in Events, Politics, Public Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Situation of Polarization

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2008

Bill Bishop has a recent situationist piece in Slate, “Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally.”  Here are a few excerpts.

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College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant.

Social psychologists have conducted scores of these “group polarization” experiments since the ’60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.

Homogeneity creates extremity—or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.

* * *

* * *

What’s going on? The talk-show talk has been that John McCain and Sarah Palin incite this kind of behavior. They certainly haven’t helped, but blaming the candidates misses what’s happening, and why.

Social scientists have proposed several reasons for why like-minded groups tend to polarize. Two have survived scrutiny. The first is that homogenous groups are privy to a large pool of ideas and arguments supporting the group’s dominant position. Everybody hears the arguments in favor of the group’s belief, and as they’re discussed, people grow stouter in their beliefs.

The second reason like-minded groups polarize has more to do with how we see ourselves. We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

* * *

* * *

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

* * *

Those at the McCain or Palin rallies who talk about “hooligans” and “treason,” who call Barack Obama a “terrorist,” “bum,” or “socialist,” aren’t simply responding to speeches from the candidates. They are acting as members of a like-minded group exactly as social psychologists would predict, which is a less-than-comforting thought.

In his textbook on social psychology, David Myers writes, “Terrorism does not erupt suddenly. Rather, it arises among people whose shared grievances bring them together. As they interact in isolation from moderating influences, they become progressively more extreme. The social amplifier brings the signal in stronger. The result is violent acts that the individuals, apart from the group, would never have committed.”

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Read the entire article here.

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’,” History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part V,” “March Madness,” Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 14, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall at Harvard Law School in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.”  To read an article summarizing his remarkable presentation, see “Jeff Sachs Speaks for the Voiceless at Harvard Law School.”

The Situationist will be posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  Here’s the first part.

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Good morning everybody.  What a pleasure to be here.  This is actually a room I know well.  I taught classes here for many years with Roberto Unger, who you know is now minister in the government of Brazil and working on problems of sustainable development.  So, good things happen in this classroom, and I expect many of you to go out and be leaders in the future, and it’s especially a privilege to speak to you at the beginning of your law school experience.

My main message to you is whatever they might do in teaching you in the next three years, don’t let anybody beat out of you the enthusiasm for seeing law as a instrument of social change, and as a mechanism for solving human problems.  That I think is the most important role that we need to play in the coming years, and I believe, as I’ll emphasize, that places like Harvard have unique responsibilities that are not being fulfilled right now, and because of that are putting us at unnecessary risk.  Or to put it another way, Wasilla is just beating the stuffing out of Cambridge right now, and we’ve got to get our act together and to speak out and start working and doing what we believe to be possible, which is the reason why we’re here.  And that is the idea of applying intellect and learning and science and knowledge and history to human betterment, and we’re facing a massive reaction in this country.  It says none of that’s possible, that none of you care, that we’re all a bunch of elitists out to denigrate the rest of the country and the rest of the world.  It’s a bunch of crap, if I can use a technical term.  But we better get our voices together, and we better start acting on our beliefs, and we better start communicating better than we are.

And the reason is, this world’s in a lot of trouble — despite and, ironically in part, because of our wealth and technical capacity.  The world is not reliably running on the rails, or running on the fiber optic cables right now.  The world is at an unusually high risk of spinning out of control.  And I think it’s our greatest challenge to try to help insure that that doesn’t happen.  And it will require special kinds of action and knowledge and commitment – a kind of mix of knowledge and the work that you’re going to learn and the skills that your going to develop in the next three years combined with an ethical commitment which won’t come from your classes necessarily; you’re going to have to find it yourselves and in other ways, although I’m sure your teachers can help to impart it if they’re doing their job properly.

But it’s going to have to come also through a lot of reflection, internally about what you want to do and how you want to use the skills that you’re developing.  My job is to worry you today.  If I weren’t worried, I would not be doing what I’m doing.  There are plenty of other things that I’d like to do more if I felt that it was really possible.  But I feel a little bit compelled to do what I’m doing right now which is trying to understand these challenges of poverty or environmental degradation or profound inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict or a geo-politics that’s gone crazily awry or a country like ours which is seemingly absolutely incapable of serious discussion right now – under almost any circumstances.  I’d rather be doing other things.  But I’m doing these things because I think that they actually are important.

Why am I worried?  I’m worried because I think that the world is in a very dangerous, unprecedented and poorly understood situation and the two concepts that for me are extremely important in thinking about this – one I use in the subtitle of my book Commonwealth: Crowding, Economics for a Crowded Planet.

I think we’re in each other’s faces globally as never before.  We haven’t adjusted to the realities of a global inter-connected society of nearly 7 billion people now.  And with those numbers rising by nearly 80 million a year, and I know that that crowding is leading to incredible marginalization of hundreds of millions of people in an extremely dangerous way.  People you don’t see that we would not naturally think about that are pundits and editorial writers and our government officials no nothing about.

And it’s only because of my accidental luck personally to have gotten involved in very marginal communities and places in the world in marginal and an economic sense that I’ve been able to understand this because I never would have from what I learned across the parking lot in Littauer where I studied or when I was teaching because I didn’t know what I was talking about frankly.  For many, many years of teaching because I hadn’t seen these things with my own eyes.  So one part of this is crowding and that’s a term which for me means a number of things which I’ll explain, but it basically means a world that is not coming to grips with it’s interconnectedness, it’s diversity, and the pressure’s on the weakest and the most vulnerable in the planet which include more than one billion people.

The other big risk, very much interconnected with the first is related to a term that I like very much – coined by an atmospheric scientist who was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the chemistry that underlies the threat to ozone depletion.  A scientist named Paul Crutzen who coined the phrase for our age “the anthropocene.”  That’s a geological sounding term which he means to substitute for the technical term of our geologic epoch which is called the Holocene.  That’s the post ice-age era in which civilization has developed and now 6.7 billion of us live.

And what Crutzen said out of his deep awareness and deep understanding of the science of our time, is that humankind, the Anthropos, has taken over the earth’s physical systems in ways that we barely understand, but which are a profound threat for survival even.  And he should know because it was only by accident that while looking a possible implications of supersonic transport technologies in the early 1970s, he and others started to think about how certain chemicals – the chlorofluorocarbons which were felt to be inert, safe, clever ways to get your deodorant under your arms through aerosols, would actually threaten the planet.  So it was an accidental discovery that CFC’s would actually become chemically active as they rose through the stratosphere and the chlorine atoms then would decompose the ozone level.  And it took brilliant, completely accidental sleuthing by a number of scientists to uncover this.

We happened then to have a massive satellite up in the sky that could take a picture of the ozone hole over Antarctica which became one of the most famous pictures of the second half of the 20th century.  And the combination of the science and the ability to measure it and confirm it led to a series of global agreements that for a change, actually, have more or less delivered what they promised showing that it is possible to reach global agreements on these issues.

I find this example pregnant with all sorts of important meaning.  First, the ability of humankind to fundamentally disrupt the biosphere.  That’s pretty good of us.  That’s not so easy to do.  Second, the fact that massive, major things can happen without any awareness and it’s only an accidental scientific discovery.  Whether it was the chain of effect of DDT through the food cycle but Rachel Carson made famous in Silent Spring, or the far more important effects of CFC’s on the ozone level.  But these were things that were not understood.  There was no search for their effect, they were only accidentally discovered.  And, third, the fact of the matter that what we’re doing ecologically, is at such a massive and growing scale, and so multi-dimentional, so multi-faceted, so far beyond our measuring systems, our technical knowledge right now, so unprecedented in extent, and of course, not exactly the burning issues of our “drill baby drill” campaign right now, that we’re not exactly on top of this.

When you put these two facts together – a crowded world experiencing still massive technical change, and massive increases of natural resource use and an environment already under pervasive threat only poorly understood, and politically almost not in anybody’s focus.  And with most of the world including most of this country are not even aware of it.  I say we’ve got a massive problem, and I think it’s going to be intra-connected set of challenges that will be your generations leading challenges.  Not the ones we talk about every day.  But these are going to be the challenges that will become the centerpiece of the global reality whether they ever become the centerpiece of our politics or not.

I see three fundamental problems then that need addressing and they’re all interconnected . . . .

* * *

Part II of this series will pick up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

Posted in Events, Law, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Being “(un)American”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2008

Shankar Vedantam has written another terrific (situationist) article, “Does Your Subconscious Think Obama Is Foreign?,” published in today’s Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts.

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A few years ago, psychologists [and Situational contributor] Mahzarin Banaji and Thierry Devos showed the names of a number of celebrities to a group of volunteers and asked them to classify the well-known personalities as American or non-American. The list included television personality Connie Chung and tennis star Michael Chang, both Asian Americans, as well as British actors Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. The volunteers had no trouble identifying Chung and Chang as American and Grant and Hurley as foreigners.

The psychologists then asked the group which names they associated with iconic American symbols such as the U.S. flag, the Capitol building and Mount Rushmore, and which ones they associated with generically foreign symbols such as the United Nations building in Geneva, a Ukrainian 100-hryven bill and a map of Luxembourg.

The psychologists found that the participants, who were asked to answer quickly, were dramatically quicker to associate the American symbols with the British actors, and the foreign symbols with the Asian Americans. The results suggest that on a subconscious level people were using ethnicity as a proxy for American identity and equating whites — even white foreigners — with things American.

The psychologists initially assumed that this bias began and ended with Asian Americans and would not apply to other ethnic groups. But in another experiment involving famous black athletes around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they found that the same pattern applied to African Americans. . . .

“The reason this is powerful is it shows our minds will not just distort our preferences but distort facts,” said Banaji, who works at Harvard. “African Americans in their [own] minds are fully American, but not in the minds of whites.”

The experiments, based on tests that are accessible at, have provoked controversy — especially in terms of what they mean. It may embarrass people when they subconsciously associate whites with being American, but does that matter? If people have no trouble distinguishing Americans and foreigners in their conscious minds, why should we care about their subconscious tendencies?

It may matter a lot when it comes to voting behavior, the researchers said.

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election.

* * *

[The article then summarizes Devos’s (and Debbie Ma‘s) latest research indicating (1) that people more quickly associate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and Tony Blair with being American than they do Sen. Barack Obama and (2) that the subconscious associations mattered (that is, that both Republicans and Democrats “who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols”), (3) that although this source of voting bias is subtle, it is still “clearly a drag on Obama’s prospects,” and (4) that it “may help explain why Obama has proved vulnerable to negative messages that question his identity and his loyalty to America.”]

* * *

“We cannot think of him as frightening or a likely criminal — he is the antithesis of that,” Banaji said. “So when the mind goes searching for reasons to distrust him, the first thing it lands on are the foreign connections” — Indonesia and Africa, places to which Obama has ties.

“Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism,” she said. “You can’t say he is black and unfit to be president, but you can say that he is Muslim and therefore unfit to be president.”

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Read the entire Vedantam article here.

Take our Policy IAT here.

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Drew Westen on the Political Brain – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2008

Drew Westen discusses President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s famous 1965 speech calling for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

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Part I is here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Political Psychology in 2008,” Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia,” “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, History, Law, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Drew Westen on the Political Brain, Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 12, 2008

In this two and one-half minute video, Drew Westen discusses the “dispassionate” view of mind and how it has failed Democratic candidates.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Political Psychology in 2008,” Do We Miss Racial Stereotypes Today that Will Be Evident Tomorrow?,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “New Yorker Cover of the Obamas and Source Amnesia,” “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Emotions, History, Ideology, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2008

Benedict Carey had an interesting piece last week in the New York Times, titled “Citizen Enforcers Take Aim.”  Here are some excerpts.

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The public urge for punishment that helped delay the passage of Washington’s economic rescue plan is more than a simple case of Wall Street loathing, according to scientists who study the psychology of forgiveness and retaliation. The fury is based in instincts that have had a protective and often stabilizing effect on communities throughout human history. Small, integrated groups in particular often contain members who will stand up and — often at significant risk to themselves — punish cheaters, liars and freeloaders.

Scientists debate how common these citizen enforcers are, and whether an urge to punish infractions amounts to an overall gain or loss, given that it is costly for both parties. But recent research suggests that in individuals, the fairness instinct is a highly variable psychological impulse, rising and falling in response to what is happening in the world. And there is strong evidence that it hardens in times of crisis and uncertainty, like the current one.

The catch in this highly sensitive system, most researchers agree, is that it most likely evolved to inoculate small groups against invasive rogues, and not to set right the excesses of a vast and wildly diverse community like the American economy. . . .

“The urge to take revenge or punish cheaters,” said Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of the book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct,” “is not a disease or toxin or sign that something has gone wrong. From the point of view of evolution, it’s not a problem but a solution.”

The downside of these instincts, Dr. McCullough added, “is that they often promote behavior that turns out to be spiteful in the long run.”

The urge to punish is not restricted to humans. . . .

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Given the choice, most people prefer that others do the hard work of enforcement, recent research has found. Scientists often study cooperation and punishment by having participants play one-on-one investment games in which each player chooses how much money to pony up in a joint investment, without knowing up front how much the other person will contribute. If both contribute a lot, they maximize their profits. If one snubs the other’s contribution, or “defects,” he or she is guaranteed a good profit and the other gets nothing.

Researchers adjust the costs and benefits of this game, as well as the number of times people play each other. And often another feature is added: an option to punish the other person, say, by spending a dollar to dock his or her earnings by two dollars.

In a series of such experiments, Jeffrey P. Carpenter and Peter Hans Matthews, economists at Middlebury College in Vermont, have found that depending on the costs of imposing penalties and the circumstances, 10 to 40 percent of people will act on their referee instincts.

“The urge to punish seems very strong,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Some people will spend money to punish even if it has no effect on them — if they’re watching players in another game and can penalize people. They’re inequality averse, it seems.” The researchers have found similar results across several cultures, including in Japan and Southeast Asia.

The conscious psychological motive for this behavior, regardless of its effect, is typically not deterrence but what some psychologists call just-deserts retribution. In a landmark 2002 study, psychologists at Princeton University had more than 1,000 participants evaluate vignettes describing various crimes and misdemeanors, and give sentencing recommendations. The psychologists found that people very carefully tailored their recommended sentences to the details of the infraction, its brutality and the record of the perpetrator. That is, people valued punishment for its own sake, as a measured consequence for behavior, not as a deterrent.

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The sense of betrayal Americans feel toward Wall Street, and the financial tumult’s effects on 401(k) accounts and small businesses, has certainly made many people less laissez-faire in their attitudes toward punishment, Dr. [Robert] Kurzban said. And there is nothing anonymous about the debates over the economic rescue plan, whether in Congress or at the water cooler: people are stating their views to an audience, and the collective fairness instinct is stoked to high heat.

Fortunately for the economy, researchers say, a strong countervailing psychological force is also at work: the instinct to forgive, and to cooperate. Punishments are balanced by peace offerings, and in fact researchers have come close to calculating the rough ratio most people employ.

Running thousands of computer variations of the investment game, scientists have found that the strategies that pay off the most are tipped toward cooperation.

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The upshot of all this, researchers say, is that human beings prefer cooperation, both in their individual makeup and in the makeup of their social groups. In a recent study, Dr. McCullough found that the urge for revenge against personal betrayals erodes in the same way some kinds of memory do: sharply in the first few weeks, slowly thereafter.

“The forgiveness instinct is every bit as wired in as the revenge instinct,” he said. “It seems that our minds work very hard to get away from resentment, if we can.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

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