Sunday, November 27, 2011

Me and My Brain

As a longtime sufferer of depression, I've relied on pills designed to treat chemical imbalances in my brain.  These pills are controversial, with conflicting opinions on whether they are really more effective than placebos.  Millions of people swear by them, many claiming that they have clearly been effective in treating their depression.  Of course, such data is anecdotal, as would be any that I could offer.  I can say anyhow, that my depression has been somewhat reasonably managed for years.

When I first began taking the medication, about seven years ago, I did recall a significant feeling that my conscious state had been altered.  Almost impossible to describe, it was as if a kind of numbness came over me, taking "the rough edges" off of things.  My psychological history in the subsequent years was complicated.  In some ways I did seem to feel a certain sense of relief.  Yet a couple of years later, shortly after my first daughter was born, I attempted suicide.  I had certainly entered a deeply depressed state, one in no small part induced by geographic and social isolation, as well as the stress of being the primary caregiver for a colicky infant, all while suffering from devastating chronic neck pain.

So in one sense the medication failed me, or at least was not effective enough to prevent suicidal depression.  But the trouble with measuring the efficacy of antidepressant medications is that the population being treated suffers from an illness that is very difficult to properly diagnose, properly quantify, and much less understand the pathology of.  To what extent was my depression and my behavior driven by brain chemical imbalances, and to what extent was it driven by my habit of mind, or cognitive framing of the world?

Philosophically, the debate over what consciousness is, or to what degree we can understand it, is contentious.  Much of conscious human experience is not well understood, and little data exists to support hypotheses as to either what causes it, or what it even is.  Thomas Metzinger, director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group and current president of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, defines consciousness as "the appearance of a world".  It is a good start, but doesn't offer much of a clue as to where it comes from or what it in fact is.

There are many phenomena that we can't really explain very well, and yet must start somewhere if we are to hypothesize - especially if there are real-world consequences of our assumptions either way. Critiques of materialism usually see people as assuming too much, relying too readily on a physical framework as a best guess. Critiques of the opposite - immaterialists? - see people as ignoring what seem to be perfectly reasonable logical conclusions drawn from our knowledge of the physical world.

I tend to fall into the latter camp. I'm reminded of the old creationist thought experiment, the clearly "designed" phenomenon in the natural world, such as Mt. Rushmore or a house in a desert, in which physical processes are assumed to be incapable of such complexity. This can be contrasted with a thought experiment designed to illustrate Occam's Razor, where a broken, blackened tree is found in a field - in the absence of clear evidence, one might assume any number of explanations, some more fantastic than others. Yet the most likely, the most reasonable explanation would be that lightening has probably struck it down.

Surely, many biological processes - certainly those involving the brain and/or consciousness - are lacking in a great deal of evidence. But there is also much that we do know, and would be remiss in not taking into full account, if not inferring even further material hypotheses.  For my part, I look forward to advances in this exciting area of science.  Not only for what medical breakthroughs it might provide in the treatment of psychiatric illness, but for what it might tell us about broader, older philosophical assumptions about human behavior and the social structures they inform.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Politics, Language and Thought

As I look at conservative and liberal politicians, pundits and lay commentary, a pattern begins to emerge in which certain attitudes and cognitive "styles" seem to be more common to one side or the other.

The right seems to like certainty - as opposed to nuance, "masculine" forceful presentation and domineering conviction - as opposed to "feminine" softness and passive listening, or "openness". These seem strongly associated with traditional versus progressive social identities.

My guess is that many conservatives might disagree with that framing. Would they see any truth to it, though? Just by looking at the type of personal styles and approaches to governing and speaking, are there any patterns that they might see between liberal/conservative attitudes and personal presentations, especially that have policy consequences?

I think I see evidence for my framing. I also think you can find a lot of the language both partisan sides use that supports it as well. Conservative and liberal citizens seem to have divergent ways they see and talk about the world. 

George Lakoff, a liberal linguist who has done much to popularize this discussion, at least on the left, identifies a set of words significant to partisan politics, drawn from speeches and writings.  Among conservatives, the following words are given primacy:
character, virtue, discipline, tough, strong, self-reliance, self-reliant, individual, responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard, work, enterprise, property, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, traditional, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, [and] lifestyle.
And among liberals:

social, forces, expression, human, rights, equal, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, dignity, oppression, diversity, deprivation, alienation, corporations, corporate, welfare, ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, [and] pollution.
However, a study of the actual use of these words in political ads failed to find much of a correlation between the identified conservative language and conservative ads.  However, there did seem to be a correlation between identified liberal language and liberals campaign ads.  The author hypotheses that this need not undermine Lakoff's thesis, but rather illustrate the different dynamics involved in the efficacy of political advertising.

I've been reading this paper that looks at how psychologists and sociologists have tried to examine the issue over the past half century. However I'm pretty skeptical of their findings. For instance, they seem to want to suggest that there are personality types that lead to conservative or liberal thinking. Yet the personality types they identify are rather vague: conservatives = more conscientious, liberals = more "open to new ideas". But it would seem that conservative or liberal thinking leads to these dispositions. Furthermore, the tribal, identity-driven aspects of liberal and conservative communities reinforce norms that foster these dispositions. For instance, in one part of the study they cataloged the possessions of self-identified conservative and liberal grad students, and found correlations, such as more liberal students having more ethnic music in their CD collections. Yet are these students really more "open" people, or are they part of a liberal identity that has pushed them to go out and explore ethnic music? This normative pressure may indeed result in them being more "open" to different ideas, either cultural, political, etc., and thus seem to be more "open" people, but it doesn't necessarily tell us anything about an innate personality. Likewise, their findings that conservative rooms tended to be cleaner and have more sports memorabilia would seem to be evidence of conscientiousness and preference for tradition, yet these too are cultural, normative artifacts.

I'm curious how conservatives would see the issue. The psychological and sociological research appears to have been dominated by liberal researchers. Yet there is something to culture, ethnicity, normal and political partisanship. If not innate (likely), there do seem to be quite different normative pressures involved. Especially as society seems to have become more polarized, I think it is an important issue to investigate. As people become more politically polarized, both in community networks and even geographically, these norms would seem to be even more self-reinforcing. There almost seem to be many structural inevitabilities at work. Is this pattern a natural evolution of a heterogenous, democratic, wealthy nation, in which people's natural, tribal inclinations are perpetuated by their ability to self-select into political and cultural tribes?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Elephant In the Room

To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.
I was astonished when I read this quote in today's NY Times.  It's from Thomas Friedman, someone you might have little reason to believe would make a claim so far outside the current neo-liberal/conservative alliance on education reform.  The full column, titled How About Better Parents?, points out that the real culprit in student achievement is not poor teaching, but poor parenting.  This is not a call for breaking the teachers unions, nor a call for higher standards, nor a more market-based emphasis on charter schools and teacher accountability.  It is a head-on call for a change in the national debate about what really drives the achievement gap.

Looking through the comments to his piece, one gets the impression that his claim is obvious.  Of course it is the parents - we all know this!  Yet why does the education reform debate ignore this issue.  One the one hand, it assumes that all poor parents need is more choice in where to send their children, as if a better school is all that is needed.  On the other hand, it sees schools as the primary factor in student achievement, and thus the solution to closing the achievement gap, and inevitably solving poverty in America.

I think there are two historical reasons for this schizoid thinking, one each from the left and  right, and they account for why parenting has been so long ignored.  The right has never had a problem with blaming parents.  It is the first to blame all social ills on culture and ethnicity (even, at times, genes).  Its primary interest, the security of the white middle class against the barbaric poor, not to mention its fear of the secularism of the state, drove it to embrace vouchers as a way to allow middle class families to remove their children from public schools (and the children in them).  Yet it found that dropping the issue of vouchers for a much less controversial, yet in many ways similar, call for charters was good politics. 

Charters could be promoted without ever having to engage in the sort of victim-blame that was such red meat for the base, yet turned off the majority of American voters.  In fact, charters were a sort of win-win: not only were they a way of breaking unions (and big-government democratic ambitions), but they could be held out as quasi free-market solutions to poverty and the achievement gap.

The left, for its part, has never been comfortable with blaming the poor.  It's been too busy trying to argue the structural issues with a capitalist economy, as well as fighting for multiculturalism and the right wing notion that other cultures and ethnicities - even immigrants, brown people! - are as important and have as valuable a place at the American table as any.  So the idea that the low success rates for poor students can be traced to their poor home environment and lack of quality parenting, and not racism, discrimination, or exploitation, the idea that the poor are to blame for their own lack of academic success, would seem to undermine everything they've always fought for.

Yet this doesn't have to be the case.  What both sides are missing is the scope of the problem.  While the left wants to ignore the contemporary, active dysfunction among the poor, the right wants to ignore the historical social and economic structures that have conspired to create, and actively perpetuates a population which has been leeched of its human and social capital, and thus its ability to leverage in the world.  The children, the students of this population are simply the current inheritors of what is essentially our collective failure to establish an equitable distribution of human and social capital. 

My desire is that Friedman's words will not fall on entirely deaf ears.  He surely isn't alone.  The words he speaks will make intuitive sense to any who reads them.  Yet what must be transcended is our fear of embracing a difficult and messy truth about America, both past and present.  The problem - nothing less than poverty and social disadvantage itself - has always been humanity's greatest challenge.  Solving it will require a serious reckoning not only with what kind of institutions and governmental structures we seek, but, and more fundamentally, with how we perceive human agency itself.  This is the elephant in the room.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Give Us Our Freedom Back

Kevin Drum reflects on a NY Times article on the pattern of economic segregation and polarization over the last few decades.
    "It was similar in my neighborhood. My father was a university professor. Our neighbor on one side worked at a local factory. Our neighbor on the other side owned a machine shop that made airplane parts. Our neighbor across the street was career Navy. My best friend's father was a Caltrans engineer.
    "You don't see that kind of thing as much anymore. Today the middle and working class folks have stayed or perhaps moved down, while the dentists and stockbrokers and professors and engineers all live together in upper middle class neighborhoods with great schools and great services. And this self-segregation works in other ways too. I remember reading once that if you have a college degree, the odds are that virtually all your friends do too. So I tested that once. At a party with about 20 of our friends, I mentally went around the room and ticked off each person. Sure enough, all but one of them had a college degree, and about a third had advanced degrees of one kind or another. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the report finds that 65% of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 1970 and today only 44% do."
He finishes his piece without any suggestions for either what might have caused the problematic phenomenon, or what we might do about it.
It's a toxic trend, and it's one that's increasingly reflected not just in our social lives, but in our economic lives and our political lives too. It's not clear what, if anything, can slow it down.

I don't know that I can do much better.  There have obviously been major shifts both in culture and the economy in this period.  The right wing explanation for the phenomenon, as usual, avoids structural critiques and pins the blame on secularism, progressive loosening of mores, and well-intentioned yet ill-conceived government interventions, and of course, a basic lack of personal responsibility.  Government, it is claimed, has contributed to this breakdown in traditional values by removing moral hazard from personal responsibility, via welfare or other forms of social safety netting.

Charles Murray, darling of the right, and infamous author of the Bell Curve, which argued that some races are genetically superior in IQ to others, thus explaining disproportionate poverty rates, is coming out with a new book on the issue.  At a recent talk at the American Enterprise Institute, he expanded upon his thesis.  Conservative blogger Roger Selbert outlines Murray's description of the problem:
"Marriage: In 1960, 88% of the upper-middle class was married, versus 83% of the working class, a negligible 5% gap. Today, 83% of the upper-middle class is married, but among the working class, marriage has collapsed: only 48% are married. That’s a revolutionary change, as is the percentage of children born to working class single women (from 6% to nearly 50% in the last 50 years).
Industriousness: The percentage of working class males not in the workforce went from 5% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Among those with jobs, the percentage working less than 40 hours a week increased from 13% in 1960 to 21% in 2008.
Religiosity: The percentage of Americans saying they have no religion increased from 4% in 1972 to 21% in 2010. A substantial majority of the upper-middle class (58%) retains some meaningful form of religious involvement, whereas a substantial majority of the working class (61%) does not.
Honesty: The great increases in crime and incarceration over the past decades have overwhelmingly victimized working class communities, while hardly touching upper-middle class communities."
It's hard not to see this outline as a portrait of traditionalist, authoritarian values.  If people, it asks, were simply married, more industrious, religious and honest, they would be more successful.  What's missing, however, is a larger picture of social and economic realities.  While it is true that marriage is a valuable form of social capital, it isn't necessary for life success.  Divorce rates have obviously increased, especially among the working class, but this could just as well be explained by an increasing social consciousness and individual cultural independence that fosters dynamism.  Think of the added value successful women have brought to the workplace.

It isn't at all clear that iIndustrious as measured by declining work hours represents a lack of industriousness.  It is a well-known fact that many businesses purposefully limit their employees hours and rely on temporary labor to maximize profits.  This has had a devastating impact both on salaries and eligibility for health care.

While religion can be a powerfully motivating and empowering social institution, it can also severely limit free thought, again acting as a bulwark against the dynamism and social progress that is fundamental to economic growth.  A strong case can also be made that it is a fairy tale.  Useful maybe, but a fantasy nonetheless.

As for honesty, it isn't at all clear that working class people have become less honest.  If anything, crime is a function of social debasement and perceived lack of opportunity.  Blaming poverty on crime is like blaming a cold on a runny nose.

What seems to be at the root of this analysis his less an attempt to find explanations for rising inequality, and more about an attempt to reinforce and define traditionalist values and identity.  Amanda Marcotte speaks eloquently to this authoritarian obsession:

I won't pretend to have any good answers as to why income inequality and geographic and cultural isolation is happening, much less give anything more than an off-the-cuff prescription. But I would begin with looking at human social capital - those elements upon which real social mobility is always leveraged, and then look at structural issues that our system faces.  People have not chosen to become less successful, less honest, or less industrious.  Marriage as an institution has certainly weakened, but only as horizons for personal identity and ambition have risen.  Traditional careers, especially those in low-skill yet high-paying areas of the economy have disappeared.  Cultural, social criticism has grown, and people are less credulous.  We are less provincial, more expansive, less likely to have as much in common with our neighbors than we once might have.  Our system of property values has steadily solidified geographic "classification".

As I said, I'm not comfortable assigning causality, less comfortable prescribing solutions.  Yet we can ease these modern burdens: family planning, child care support, better access to health care, cleaner streets, parks, libraries, differentiated public schooling - all paid for with more progressive income taxes.  Each of these, while not a solution, is a clear path to increasing the equal distribution of social and human capital.  We cannot stop progress, whether for good or ill, but we can strive to fashion it into more of what is really important.  Instead of vainly crying for a nostalgic, rosy vision of the past, we must look to our core values of liberty, equality and egalitarianism, and embrace solutions that truly aid in their revivification.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Freedom Emerges

The free will debate continues in yesterday’s NY Times.  The author argues a compatibilist view, choosing to define free will as
“a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.”
This framing of the issue has always been somewhat bothersome to me.  Because what he describes is not actually free will, but rather the process of will itself, the process of choosing which actions to take.  The mere act of choosing is not necessarily free at all.  My computer makes choices every time I touch the keypad.  

Yet what apparently makes choice free is that it be free from “unreasonable external or internal pressure”.  What the heck does that mean?  One imagines being forced at gunpoint, or suffering some physiological imperative.  Yet must we understand the complexity of human thought and feeling in such black and white terms?  We know for instance, that the unconscious is a profound influence on human behavior.  Is the unconscious an unreasonable pressure?  We also know that our cognition – the way that we think, is largely learned and thus limits the structure of our thought.  Is that unreasonable pressure?

It seems that what free will really is about is our attempt to rectify our conscious perception with our ability to choose.  We experience ourselves as deliberative creatures.  Yet we know that a vast degree of our thinking is subjected to unconscious, or cognitively constrained pressures.  The real question is whether any of our thinking is free from those pressures at all.  And considering that it is very difficult to determine what pressures have been applied to any given conscious thought, we should have little reason to believe that those thoughts are free at all.  We can't simply assume they are free because we don't know much about how they have arisen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Whole Story

Matt Yglesias points out something interesting that is often overlooked when we discuss important people: place.  He refers to a concept in the economics of cities known as "agglomeration externalities", "basically the idea that individuals and firms obtain productivity boosts by clustering together."  He sees the ways in which a Steve Jobs could not have existed outside of his particular place and time.
"As a sophomore in high school, for example, Jobs worked at an electronics store called Haltek that Isaacson describes as “a scavenger’s paradise sprawling over an entire city block with new, used, salvaged, and surplus components crammed onto warrens of shelves, dumped unsorted into bins, and piled in an outdoor yard.” The presence of an excellent electronics stores is helpful to the young Jobs as he builds his skills. But there would be no gigantic electronics specialty store except in a place with an unusually high concentration of people interested in electrical engineering. The presence of the engineers creates the market for the store, which drives the interest of the younger generation of engineers."
These patterns exist throughout history.   Often emerging organically, serendipitously, they tend to gain their own momentum, as others are attracted to what has become something important.  Aside from no small element of happenstance, this process can be best explained by the interaction of human and social capital.  In Silicon Valley, individuals with the human capital - the educated, success-minded parents, combined with the concentration of technological resources, created a tinderbox of creativity and enthusiasm for building new technologies.

In America there seems a curious resistance to this notion of social collectivity.  There seems a preference for the vision of solitary genius and individualism.  One wonders how much this has to do with the immigrant experience, and the forced severance of connections to our past.  Of course, despite the attractive notion of the immigrant going it alone, succeeding on his own merits, this is rather the exception to the rule.  The history of immigrant communities is one of networking, cooperation and group goal orientation.  Where individuals have succeeded without family help, they have done so despite the odds.

And yet, the fact remains that America is incredibly heterogeneous, with great generational mobility, and a national character defined in no small part by communal isolation.  A number of known cognitive biases could contribute to this tendency to see American success in isolation, removed from communal context.  A basic impulse of the sentiment could be a desire to deflect the painful experience - the anxiety, the stress - of "going it alone", by remembering events as not just better than they were, but as positively productive.  In this sense, one's trials and tribulations are not seen merely as unfortunate handicaps, but actual necessities for personal success.

This is certainly not a valid model of social activity.  Success is almost always built from human and social capital resources.  To the degree that it is not, more often has to do with good fortune.  Now, there certainly is an element of success-inducing tribulation.  Being forced to make do with little can be profoundly inspiring of creativity and tenacity.  But tribulation alone does not equate with success - that is surely absurd.  A crucial component in leveraging tribulation is sufficient human and social capital to allow for both its weathering and subsequent creative transcendence.  To a large degree, this capital is formed by an individual's family - how he is raised, but also by community resources and availability of alternative options.  Where there is success, no matter how devoid of opportunity an environment may appear at first glance, there will always exist an underlying story of human and social capital.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Good Old Days

Mark Kleiman has an interesting post on things that had once been considered acceptable, but that are now not.  He comes up with:
1. Spitting on the sidewalk.
2. Drunk driving.
3. Wife-beating.
4. Most indoor smoking.
5. Ethnic denigration.
6. Not cleaning up after your dog.
7. Not wearing seatbelts or bike/motorcycle helmets.
8. Coming back to work drunk after lunch.
9. Taking sexual advantage of workplace and classroom power.
10. Purchasing sexual services.
One of his commenters observed that many of these could have been ripped straight from Tea Party-Republican-Limbaughian talking points.  Considering how much progressivism is about social change, and conservatism is about the opposite, it's a profound insight.

I imagined the right-wing list would be things that are not now acceptable because of wimpy political correctness, and that should be acceptable again.

It made the list a little easier:
  1. Treating women as mere sex objects.
  2. Defining masculinity by how “tough” a man is.
  3. Acknowledging that there are many valuable non-European cultures in America.
  4. Treating gays as decent human beings.
  5. Accepting that atheists or non-believers, or God-forbid… Muslims(!), can be moral, decent people.
  6. Caring for and respecting the environment.
  7. Recognizing that foreign citizens have human rights.
  8. Making accommodations for the disabled.
  9. Acknowledging that might does not make right, and that expressing one’s feelings is often the clearest path to peace.
  10. Peace.
  11. The idea of the unconscious.
  12. The concept that tradition isn’t an argument by itself.
This could go on for quite a while.  An item surely to be included on the list ought to be corporal punishment, something the right has been pining to return to for decades, and upon the lack of which it blames all manner of ills.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Not Free to Bully

The Michigan senate's passage of an amendment to an anti-bullying bill that allowed for a religious exemption is drawing criticism.  The full ammended text is as follows:
“This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”
I'm not as convinced as others that this gives open season to bullying.  But I do agree it is very dangerous.  However, Neal McCluskey at CATO apparently doesn't.  He thinks it's an issue of free speech.
"[A]s odious as one might find the religious beliefs of many people, they are entitled to freedom of speech the same as anyone else. That is a basic American right, and all the desire in the world to protect kids from hearing things that might make them feel badly must not change that. Abridge that right, and any speech becomes imperiled if a majority simply deems it unacceptable."

Actually, students aren't as entitled to free speech as anyone else.  Kids in public school do not have the right to say whatever they want to anyone.  It isn't a black/white issue, but courts have consistently found that schools have considerable authority to limit student speech.  It's worth remembering that students are required by law to be in school, and would thus in a sense be "required" to listen to speech that they otherwise would be able to avoid. 

It's also worth remembering that kids can be downright evil to each other, and do things to one another that would get them serious jail time as adults.  Therefore we must have the utmost respect for the vulnerability of innocent students, who often face great peril on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, the worst bullying goes on out of sight of adults, and thus any kind of hate speech has a good chance of merely being the tip of a much more brutal and dangerous iceberg. Allowing verbal bullying to continue is not only cruel to individual students, but it paves the way for the escalation of much worse.