Edge 256 September 9, 2008
(23,100 words)

THE THIRD CULTURE

WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN?
By Jonathan Haidt

Daniel Everett, Howard Gardner, Michael Shermer,
Scott Atran, James Fowler, Alison Gopnik, Sam Harris,
James O'Donnell, Roger Schank

A SLICE OF SCIFOO
By Frank Wilczek

Lee Smolin, Betsy Devine, George Dyson

THE REALITY CLUB

On "GIN, TELEVISION, AND COGNITIVE SURPLUS By Clay Shirky
"

James O'Donnell, Chris Anderson, David Brin


WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN?
By Jonathan Haidt

...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

THE REALITY CLUB: Daniel Everett, Howard Gardner, Michael Shermer, Scott Atran, James Fowler, Alison Gopnik, Sam Harris, James O'Donnell, Roger Schank

[MORE]


A SLICE OF SCIFOO
By Frank Wilczek

SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention.

REALITY CLUB: Lee Smolin, Betsy Devine, George Dyson

[MORE]



Sep 15, 2008 • 6:30 PM


UNDERSTANDING THE UNIVERSE: AN EVENING WITH FRANK WILCZEK

Location: The New York Academy of Sciences, 7 World Trade Center, 250 Greenwich St. at Barclay St., 40th fl.

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics winner explains the universe, synthesizes the Grand Unification of Forces, and shares his vision of a new Golden Age in physics—all for the layperson in an event celebrating the publication of his new book, The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces.


ON "GIN, TELEVISION, AND COGNITIVE SURPLUS: A Talk by Clay Shirky"

James O'Donnell
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (forthcoming)

Shirky's piece gives more context for our transition away from words that matter. I don't mean we don't speak and write and that words aren't highly functional tools, but the exact framing of sentences and the precise structure of the verbal argument are less and less important. Bullet points on a powerpoint get the conversation going and the group working together gets to the result that matters. The "writer" is less important than he has been since, oh, Herodotus. ...

Chris Anderson
Editor in Chief, Wired Magazine; Author, The Long Tail

To use a computer science rather than economic analogy, what Shirky is talking about is what I call the "awesome power of spare cycles"—the human potential that isn't tapped by our jobs, which for most of us is a lot of it. People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million. ...

David Brin
Physicist; Technical Consultant; Science Fiction Writer; Author, The Transparent Society

Tell me about the sites where really bad assertions go to die—the way phlogiston and witch-burnings died—a well-deserved death that ought to follow the most noxious assertions across our culture, so that truly disproved nonsense can actually go away, making way for new ideas. If you dismiss this as impossible, then I think your hopes for the web are far too timid, since the allegory should be a vivid human mind—and complex human beings, sane ones, can actually drop a bad idea, from time to time. ...

[MORE]



...the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.

WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN?
By Jonathan Haidt

JONATHAN HAIDT is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he does research on morality and emotion and how they vary across cultures. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

Jonathan Haidt's Edge Bio Page

Further reading on Edge: Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion By Jonathan Haidt [9.22.07]

THE REALITY CLUB: Daniel Everett, Howard Gardner, Michael Shermer, Scott Atran, James Fowler, Alison Gopnik, Sam Harris, James O'Donnell, Roger Schank

BLOGWATCH

PERMALINK


WHAT MAKES PEOPLE VOTE REPUBLICAN?

What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

Diagnosis is a pleasure. It is a thrill to solve a mystery from scattered clues, and it is empowering to know what makes others tick. In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger. We can explain how Republicans exploit frames, phrases, and fears to trick Americans into supporting policies (such as the "war on terror" and repeal of the "death tax") that damage the national interest for partisan advantage.

But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.


I began to study morality and culture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. A then-prevalent definition of the moral domain, from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel, said that morality refers to "prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other." But if morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom? There is no rational or health-related way to explain these laws. (Why are grasshoppers kosher but most locusts are not?) The emotion of disgust seemed to me like a more promising explanatory principle. The book of Leviticus makes a lot more sense when you think of ancient lawgivers first sorting everything into two categories: "disgusts me" (gay male sex, menstruation, pigs, swarming insects) and "disgusts me less" (gay female sex, urination, cows, grasshoppers ).

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified Turiel's definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. ("Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family.") From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?


After graduate school I moved to the University of Chicago to work with Shweder, and while there I got a fellowship to do research in India. In September 1993 I traveled to Bhubaneswar, an ancient temple town 200 miles southwest of Calcutta. I brought with me two incompatible identities. On the one hand, I was a 29 year old liberal atheist who had spent his politically conscious life despising Republican presidents, and I was charged up by the culture wars that intensified in the 1990s. On the other hand, I wanted to be like those tolerant anthropologists I had read so much about.

My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me. I watched people bathe in and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine.

It only took a few weeks for my shock to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them (remember that first principle of moral psychology) it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, and fulfilling one's role-based duties, were more important. Looking at America from this vantage point, what I saw now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused. For example, when I boarded the plane to fly back to Chicago I heard a loud voice saying "Look, you tell him that this is the compartment over MY seat, and I have a RIGHT to use it."

Back in the United States the culture war was going strong, but I had lost my righteous passion. I could never have empathized with the Christian Right directly, but once I had stood outside of my home morality, once I had tried on the moral lenses of my Indian friends and interview subjects, I was able to think about conservative ideas with a newfound clinical detachment. They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn't think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to "thicken up" the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men. I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later), and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.


On Turiel's definition of morality ("justice, rights, and welfare"), Christian and Hindu communities don't look good. They restrict people's rights (especially sexual rights), encourage hierarchy and conformity to gender roles, and make people spend extraordinary amounts of time in prayer and ritual practices that seem to have nothing to do with "real" morality. But isn't it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition? Might we do better with an approach that defines moral systems by what they do rather than by what they value?

Here's my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.

First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill's vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other's rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama's calls for "unity") to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.

Psychologists have done extensive research on the moral mechanisms that are presupposed in a Millian society, and there are two that appear to be partly innate. First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him." A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.

A Durkheimian ethos can't be supported by the two moral foundations that hold up a Millian society (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at www.YourMorals.org.) We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.


In The Political Brain, Drew Westen points out that the Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don't understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.

Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group. Durkheim long ago said that God is really society projected up into the heavens, a collective delusion that enables collectives to exist, suppress selfishness, and endure. The three Durkheimian foundations (ingroup, authority, and purity) play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.

The Democrats must find a way to close the sacredness gap that goes beyond occasional and strategic uses of the words "God" and "faith." But if Durkheim is right, then sacredness is really about society and its collective concerns. God is useful but not necessary. The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals—each with a panoply of rights--but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring. Our national motto is e pluribus unum ("from many, one"). Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum. They widen the sacredness gap.

A useful heuristic would be to think about each issue, and about the Party itself, from the perspective of the three Durkheimian foundations. Might the Democrats expand their moral range without betraying their principles? Might they even find ways to improve their policies by incorporating and publicly praising some conservative insights?

The ingroup/loyalty foundation supports virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that can lead to dangerous nationalism, but in moderate doses a sense that "we are all one" is a recipe for high social capital and civic well-being. A recent study by Robert Putnam (titled E Pluribus Unum) found that ethnic diversity increases anomie and social isolation by decreasing people's sense of belonging to a shared community. Democrats should think carefully, therefore, about why they celebrate diversity. If the purpose of diversity programs is to fight racism and discrimination (worthy goals based on fairness concerns), then these goals might be better served by encouraging assimilation and a sense of shared identity.

The purity/sanctity foundation is used heavily by the Christian right to condemn hedonism and sexual "deviance," but it can also be harnessed for progressive causes. Sanctity does not have to come from God; the psychology of this system is about overcoming our lower, grasping, carnal selves in order to live in a way that is higher, nobler, and more spiritual. Many liberals criticize the crassness and ugliness that our unrestrained free-market society has created. There is a long tradition of liberal anti-materialism often linked to a reverence for nature. Environmental and animal welfare issues are easily promoted using the language of harm/care, but such appeals might be more effective when supplemented with hints of purity/sanctity.

The authority/respect foundation will be the hardest for Democrats to use. But even as liberal bumper stickers urge us to "question authority" and assert that "dissent is patriotic," Democrats can ask what needs this foundation serves, and then look for other ways to meet them. The authority foundation is all about maintaining social order, so any candidate seen to be "soft on crime" has disqualified himself, for many Americans, from being entrusted with the ultimate authority. Democrats would do well to read Durkheim and think about the quasi-religious importance of the criminal justice system. The miracle of turning individuals into groups can only be performed by groups that impose costs on cheaters and slackers. You can do this the authoritarian way (with strict rules and harsh penalties) or you can do it using the fairness/reciprocity foundation by stressing personal responsibility and the beneficence of the nation towards those who "work hard and play by the rules." But if you don't do it at all—if you seem to tolerate or enable cheaters and slackers -- then you are committing a kind of sacrilege.


If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns. They should then consider whether they can use more of that spectrum themselves. The Democrats would lose their souls if they ever abandoned their commitment to social justice, but social justice is about getting fair relationships among the parts of the nation. This often divisive struggle among the parts must be balanced by a clear and oft-repeated commitment to guarding the precious coherence of the whole. America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom.

Unity is not the great need of the hour, it is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation. The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.




DANIEL EVERETT
Linguist; Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Illinois State University; Author, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle (November)

The Ties That Bind

I once heard John Wayne say in an interview, "They tell me that things aren't always black and white. I say, 'Why the hell not?'" This is a common sense view of morality and I think that it is fairly widespread. Having spent (in another life it seems) more than twenty-five years as an ordained minister and missionary, I know first-hand that one of the most important messages of many organized religions is that morality is absolute and that there is always a black and white to an issue if you think about it hard enough—grayness is for fuzzy-brained liberals. Or so I was told.

At the other end of the spectrum, Noam Chomsky has often said that the choice between Democrat vs. Republican is about the same as the choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, not much to get hot and bothered about.

I think that Wayne's view is much closer to being right than Chomsky's. Chomsky's perspective seems to be based on a view of politicians rather than of their parties' political platforms—what we know that political figures are likely to do (very little in all too many cases) vs. what their party spells out as its values. Wayne's question, "Why the hell not" is an anti-cynical, pragmatic question that is intended to challenge us to think harder and act more nobly.

So I think that Haidt's view that people share a strong desire for unity and belonging guided by moral rectitude and dealing with violators of the social bonds is surely correct. But he oversimplifies by failing to consider simpler societies, such as Amazonian peoples, in which there are no social hierarchies, no civic leadership, and only ostracism as the enforcement of constraints to promote well-being and societal harmony. His research, if he is to use lofty adjectives (largely meaningless in my experience) such as 'innate' to describe social structures and desires, must encompass a wider range of societies.

Democrats used to be the ones with the monopoly on belonging. In my family, most with backgrounds like those described in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, FDR was a member of the divine quaternity—Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, and FDR. His picture was everywhere in my families' homes. Why?

Because he constructed social ties, based on belonging to the group of the oppressed and depressed, and he offered solutions that respected the concepts of fairness and unity simultaneously. He no doubt was elected four times at least in part because he was perceived by people like my grandmother as satisfying both the Millian and Durkheimian views at the same time—something that we have arguably seen in no other politician or political party since.

Ultimately, reflection like Haidt's is useful and there certainly is a lot worthwhile in it. But, once again, I am skeptical that much, if any, of this is innate. And I doubt that we will ever know whether it is or not without a greater empirical coverage, taking into its scope diverse tribal societies.


HOWARD GARDNER
Psychologist, Harvard University; (currently) Jacob K. Javits Visiting Professor, New York University; Author, Changing Minds

Jonathan Haidt' s analysis seems on the mark as far as it goes but, in my view, it misses half of the puzzle of why much of the American electorate votes as it does. To be sure, the appeal of right wing ideas is clearly due in part to a Durkheimian privileging of the group over the individual; Rick Shweder is to be commended for introducing this perspective into contemporary, overly Enlightenment-oriented analyses of moral judgment.

But at least with reference to contemporary American society, I would posit an equally important part of the puzzle: a combination due to Oscar Wilde and Leon Festinger. Wilde famously quipped that "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue." And Festinger, an important social psychologist during the middle of the 20th century, demonstrated that individuals continue to hold on to views, despite (or even because) the empirical evidence against them mounts.

Consider these facts. The right wing says it cares about groups, rather than individuals; and yet it favors the most rampant form of 'dog-eat-dog' capitalism. The left wing is suspicious of markets and wants to even the playing field across citizens. The right wing claims that its positions will reduce crime and strengthen the families. Yet it is the most left wing states that have the lowest crime rate and the strongest, most stable marriages. Happiness ratings are highest in the socialist societies, while lowest in right wing authoritarian societies. This list could be extended.

Why, then, do right wing partisans ignore this evidence and continue to support policies that are patently dysfunctional? I believe it is because, having stated a position, based on either their own family values or those dictated by their religion, they are loathe to change their minds and declare that they have been wrong. And so, following Festinger, the disconfirming evidence causes them (or at least many of them) to dig in their heels more deeply.

Another element operates as well. Right wing positions are more frequently associated with Protestant evangelicals and with traditional (Reagan) Catholics. Often the leaders of these groups (e.g. television evangelists, sinning priests) epitomize the opposite of the stated values. But both of these groups embrace forgiveness, absolution, being born again. Other groups—atheists, non-fundamentalist Jews and non-fundamentalist Protestants—do not have the option of absolution; they make firmer demands on themselves and are oppressed by their superegos. Note the 'pass' that non-combatants Bush and Cheney received, in comparison to Gore and Kerry who volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War. Note the forgiving attitude toward to Sarah Palin, with her sinning family, which would never be afforded a comparable Democrat. "What we profess is important—not what we have done".

Given that the analyses of Durkheim and Festinger are powerful, and unlikely to disappear, my analysis does not give much solace to those of us who would prefer to see more individuals with progressive Enlightenment views secure office. Still, a greater effort to nail hypocrisy—a so-called hypocrisy watch—might improve the quality of the campaign, if not of the candidates.


MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Why Darwin Matters; and How We Believe

The Conscience of the Conservative

Two cheers for Jonathan Haidt's essay. At long last a liberal academic social scientist has recognized (and had the courage to put into print) the inherent bias built into the study of political behavior—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Thus, Haidt is mostly right when he asks us to move beyond such "diagnoses" and remember "the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats 'just don't get it,' this is the 'it' to which they refer."

I allocate two (instead of three) cheers for Haidt's commentary because I think he does not go far enough. The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim—they don't even notice it. Even the question "What makes people vote Republican?" hints at something amiss in the mind of the conservative, along the lines of "Why do people believe weird things?" As Haidt notes, the standard liberal line is that people vote Republican because they are "cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death." A typical example of this characterization can be found in a famous 2003 paper published in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin by the New York University social psychologist John Jost and his colleagues, entitled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," in which they argue that conservatives suffer from "uncertainty avoidance," "need for order, structure, closure," and "dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity," all of which leads to "resistance to change" and "endorsement of inequality."

It is not the data of these scientists that I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, an inordinate lack of certainty about social issues, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence that culture and environment determine one's lot in society and therefore it is up to the government to remedy all social injustices. As all conservatives know, liberals are a bunch of sandle-wearing, tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, trash-recycling, peaceniks, flip-floppers and bed-wetters.

This is a crass, unfair, and inaccurate characterization, of course, and that's my point. Once you set up the adjectives in the form of operationally defined personality traits and cognitive styles, it's easy to collect the data to support them. The flaw is in the characterization process itself. Two recent examples can be found in the 2008 book The Political Mind by Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff and the 2007 book The Political Brain by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen. The tropes are familiar: liberals are generous to a fault ("bleeding hearts"), rational, intelligent, optimistic, and appeal to voters' reason through cogent arguments; conservatives are stingy ("heartless"), dour, and dim-witted authoritarians who appeal to voters' emotions through threat and fear-mongering. But conservatives win most elections because of their Machiavellian manipulation of voters' emotional brains.

None of this is true. Although Republicans defeated Democrats 25 to 20 in the 45 Presidential elections from 1828 to 2004, in the Senate Democrats outscored Republicans 3395 to 3323 in contesting 6832 seats from 1855 to 2006, and in the House Democrats trounced Republicans 15,363 to 12,994 in the 27,906 seats contested from 1855-2006.

Further, according to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Surveys, 1972-2004, 44 percent of people who reported being "conservative" or "very conservative" said they were "very happy" versus only 25 percent of people who reported being "liberal" or "very liberal." A 2007 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Republicans versus only 38 percent of Democrats said that their mental heath is "excellent." One reason may be that conservatives are so much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours. And it isn't because conservatives have more expendable income. The working poor give a substantially higher percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, and three times more than those on public assistance of comparable income—poverty is not a barrier to charity, but welfare is. One explanation for these findings is that conservatives believe charity should be private (through religion) whereas liberals believe charity should be public (through government).

Why are academic social scientists so wrong about conservatives? It is, I believe, because almost all of them are liberals! A 2005 study by the George Mason University economist Daniel Klein, using voter registrations, found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans among the faculty by a staggering ratio of 10 to 1 at the University of California, Berkeley and by 7.6 to 1 at Stanford University. In the humanities and social sciences the ratio was 16 to 1 at both campuses (30 to 1 among assistant and associate professors). In some departments, such as anthropology and journalism, there wasn't a single Republican to be found. The ratio for all departments in all colleges and universities throughout the U.S., says Klein, is 8 to 1 Democrats over Republicans. Smith College political scientist Stanley Rothman and his colleagues found a similar bias in a 2005 national study: only 15 percent professors describe themselves as conservative, compared to 72 percent who said they were liberal (80 percent in humanities and social sciences).

Why do people vote Republican? Because they believe their lives—and the lives of all Americans—will be better for it. And as often as not they are right.


SCOTT ATRAN
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In Gods We Trust

How Religion Creates Moral Society

"He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad."

—Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew, xii, 30

"And the Lord said unto the servant,
Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."

—Luke, xiv, 23:

Jonathan Haidt argues on the basis of some experimental evidence and anthropological observation that Republicans more than Democrats tap into universal moral passions to foster in-group solidarity over concerns for outgroups. Daniel Everett responds that some of these supposed universal passions, such as respect for authority and hierarchy, may not be universal because small-scale societies (especially foraging societies) tend to be egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Howard Gardner argues that rightwing authoritarian propaganda that champions collective over individual interests is hypocritical, and its leaders Machiavellian, because happiness is actually lower in rightwing societies and groups, including Protestant evangelicals and traditional (Reagan Catholics). Michael Shermer presents evidence that conservatives in U.S. society do report being happier than liberals, and do really believe in helping others, but through voluntary means of private charity rather than government enforced redistributions of wealth.

Haidt's and Shermer's arguments, I believe, are basically sound. Everett has a point, which requires some tweaking of Haidt's thesis: the moral issue of black versus white, us versus them, arises with large-scale cooperation and competition and is not a critical feature of small-scale societies. Gardner's arguments about hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance miss the key point that true believers in (divinely sanctioned) moral values are usually sincere, and that Enlightenment values cannot be successfully advanced (if Haidt is right) unless the moral passions that Haidt talks about are sincerely engaged by Democrats. Only some professional philosophers, jurists, scientists and academics believe that the principal point of political argument (or most any argument) is, or ought to be, truth rather than persuasion, and that an argument's principal appeal should be reason rather than passion. To paraphrase Karl Rove: reason may be fine for studying and analyzing history and politics, but not for living or making them.


Recent economic studies (most notably Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Princeton) show that when Democrats were in the White House, lower-income American families experienced slightly faster income growth than higher-income families, and that the reverse was true when Republicans were in control. If people vote rationally their economic interests, one would expect Democrats to be perennial favorites among working poor and middle class, and especially so in this year of economic downturn. Why then does polling show that the election is so close?

Conservative whites who vote Republican generally cite patriotism and national security as the most important issues in deciding who should be President. Over the last few generations, it is only when these voters perceive economy to be in dire straits, or when a previous Democratic administration has been successful in palpably increasing their prosperity, do patriotism and national security take on slightly less value than usual. Patriotism and national security are about binding and preserving what has become the primary reference group for political identity in the modern world, the nation.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that:

"The rudest savages feel the sentiment of glory… A man who was not impelled by any deep, instinctive feeling, to sacrifice his life for the good of others, yet was roused to such action by a sense of glory, would by his example excite the same wish for glory in other men, and would strengthen by his exercise the noble feeling of admiration."

The official website for John McCain's candidacy uses a quote from his book Faith of My Fathers as his banner:

"Glory is not a conceit. It is not a prize for being the most clever, the strongest, or the boldest. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it."

When Jonathan Haidt says that morality is (pretty universally) not just about treating others fairly, but also "about living in a sanctified and noble way," he's right and that's why John McCain's appeal is powerful.

Among many Republican conservatives, there's one factor that is very strongly correlated with patriotism and national security, is of even more overriding concern in daily life, and stands inseparable from love of country. Religion. A Gallup poll found, for example, that nearly two thirds (65%) of highly religious American white voters would vote Republican, no matter what their interests in other issues are. When Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says that the Iraq war is "a task that is from God," other conservatives may think she is wrong but they honor her sentiment as fundamentally noble and good.

If one looks at recent expression of religious devotion in the USA, as indicated by belief in the Bible and by church attendance, the classic division between the Blue states of the East and West versus the Red States of the South and Middle America is apparent: in the East and West,1 in 4 people believe that the Bible is fable; in the south and Midwest only 1 in 7 believe that.

Also apparent is the difference in education that goes with belief in the Bible (and religious devotion in the United States), where "education" may also be taken as a strong indicator of susceptibility to economic and other "issue-oriented" arguments.

What's Universal about Morality and What's not?

Primatologist Frans de Waal finds that even capuchin moneys have a sense of fairness: if an experimenter offers cucumbers to a pair of capuchin moneys, both eagerly grab the cucumbers; but if one of the monkeys is offered grapes, the other will throw the cucumber in the experimenter's face. This is a primitive version of the "Ultimatum Game" that all human cultures seem to subscribe to. Anthropologist Joe Henrich and his colleagues went to 17 small-scale societies with offers to split the equivalent of days wage between two anonymous players who had done no work for the money. The researchers found that there is always some lower bound that one of the players finds unacceptable, although this varies across cultures (the average cutoff may be close to 50-50 in one society but only 80-20 in another).

Studies by social psychologists Richard Nisbett and colleagues suggest that human cultures fall into two broad categories, individualist (mainly the U.S. and Western Europe) and collectivist (the rest of the world). Richard Shweder argues that for so-called collectivist societies there is also a strong "ethics of community" (authority/respect, duty/loyalty); often there is an "ethics of divinity" (purity/sanctity) as well. Here, too, there is evidence of universal cognitions.

Like other biological systems, moral intuition consists of an imperfect community of jerry-rigged faculties. Societies further combine these universal ingredients in creatively different ways. But in an internet experiment involving thousands of subjects, Haidt shows that even our own society all of these universal elements are not only present but their differential presence helps greatly to explain our current culture wars. Liberals tend to insist on individual rights and are uncomfortable with pronouncements and institutions built on the foundations of "the ethics of community" and the "ethics of divinity" because they often lead to patriotic jingoism (overblown loyalty), inequality (subordination of the weak or disadvantaged) and exclusion (racism, proscriptive nationalism and other forms of purification). Conservatives, however, want a richer, more interdependent social life, which require a regulation of relationships that goes beyond harm and fairness to individuals. This includes limits to sexual relations, management of obligations and authority, and the control of group boundaries and borders. Liberals see Conservatives as "repressive." Conservatives see liberals are "irresponsible."

The combination of moral intuitions into a moral culture is not a natural or logical determination, but an underdetermined product of historical contingency and willful choice. Belief in moral "rightness" or "truth" is matter of faith.

There is blind, closed, reactionary and dogmatic faith, like the Holy Inquisition's faith in the existence of witches and the power of torture to reveal the truth about The Devil. And there is open faith with reason and insight and the belief that cruel punishment demeans everybody's life. Such faith motivated a small band of American colonists to oppose the mightiest empire in the world. It was faith in the good sense and good will of men of reason—a faith supported by "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," which gave them the courage "to pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor."

The American revolutionaries mixed the evolutionary elements of morality in a different way. The "self-evident" aspects of "human nature" that The Creator supposedly endowed us with—including "inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"—are anything but inherently self-evident and natural in the life of our species: cannibalism, infanticide, slavery, racism and the subordination of women are vastly more prevalent over the course of history than "human rights." It was not inevitable or even reasonable that conceptions of freedom and equality should emerge, much less prevail. Nevertheless, the new ideal of individual liberty required upgrading the element of individuality, that is, our innate awareness of individuals as self-motivated agents who can act on their own to achieve goals. The focus of empathy shifted from people as parts of a group to individuals as such.

The Americans also downgraded elements of authority, loyalty and purity current in European politics. The French revolutionaries who followed lowered the emphasis on the individual and raised the importance of the group. That is why whole classes of counterrevolutionaries, rather than just individuals, could be brought to justice and collectively punished regardless of any individual actions or crimes they may have committed. Most modern revolutions and regimes follow more the French example than the American.

Alexis de Tocqueville stresses in Democracy in America, his masterful analysis of our young Republic, that religious conservatism in the United States does not mean sacrifice of individual interest for group interest, or subservience of the individual to the State or any other ruling collectivity. Rather, religion mitigates the selfishness of unbridled individualism and "private animosities," while shoring up free institutions that engage "aspiring hopes" as against "general despotism [which] gives rise to indifference."

"It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits to the world, nevertheless… tends to isolate them from each other, to concentrate every man's attention on himself; and it lay open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification…. Religious nations are thus naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are weak, which shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal….. Thus it is, that, by respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself, and by making use of several of them for her own purposes, Religion sustains a successful struggle of that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous opponent…. As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or feeling which they wish to promote, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found out each other they combine. From that moment they are not longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve as an example, and whose language is listened to."

De Tocqueville surmised, correctly it seems, that religion in America would give its democracy greater endurance, cooperative power and competitive force than any strictly authoritarian regime or unbridled democracy.

Humans often use religion to cooperate to compete. (For example, it was only in the 1950s during height of the Cold War, that the Pledge of Allegiance was altered to include God). As Darwin noted, in competition between groups with similar levels of technology and population size, those groups will tend to win out that favor and transmit willingness to sacrifice some self interest for group interests (that also promote individual interests in the long run). Most cultures celebrate costly collective commitments as morally good and glorious. Many such celebrations are time-worn collective rituals with proven success in fostering cooperation within the group and making it more competitive with other groups. That basic dynamic is still with us and is unlikely to go away. Republicans intuitively get it; Democrats often don't. But Democrats do get more the meaning and message of the Enlightenment, which may allow in a wider world if only they can learn better from Republicans how to gather up the country first.


JAMES FOWLER
Political Scientist, University of California, San Diego; Coauthor, Mandates, Parties, and Voters: How Elections Shape the Future

Why do People Vote at All?

As a political scientist, I see the question "Why do people vote Republican?" and I think immediately of its premise. Haidt and other commenters have focused on the choice between a Republican and a Democrat. But this choice misses half the question. When someone votes Republican, the first question they must ask themselves is "Should I vote at all?" People who vote Republican have chosen not to vote Democratic, but they have also chosen not to abstain. And it is that choice to vote or not that says something deep about political competition and group behavior.

The choice to vote or not hinges in part on our perception of the effectiveness of the activity. Will voting matter? To know this, we need to imagine what happens in a world where we vote and what happens in a world where we do not, and then compare those two worlds. Thinking about the world this way may seem like an impossible task because there are so many possible outcomes. Obama could beat McCain by 3 million votes. Or he could beat him by 2,999,999 or he could lose to McCain by 1,345,267. Or… there are literally millions of possible outcomes.

Of course, there is actually only one circumstance in which an individual vote matters. And that is when we expect an exact tie. To see why this is true, ask yourself what would you do if you could look into a crystal ball and see that Obama would win the election by 3 million votes. What effect would your vote have on the outcome? Absolutely none. You could either change the margin to 2,999,999 or to 3,000,001, but either way Obama still wins. Notice that the same reasoning is true even for very close elections. No doubt some citizens of Florida felt regret about not voting in 2000 when they learned that George W. Bush had won the state (and therefore the whole election) by 537 votes. But even here, the best a single voter could do would be to change the margin to 536 or to 538, neither of which would have changed the outcome.

So what is the probability of an exact tie? One way of looking at this is to assume that any outcome is equally possible. Suppose 100 million people vote for Obama or McCain. McCain could win 100 million to 0. Or he could win 99,999,999 to 1. Or he could win 99,999,998 to 2…. You get the point. Counting all these up, there are 100 million different outcomes, and only one of these is an exact tie. So the probability of an exact tie for a given number of voters is just one divided by the number of voters. Since roughly 100 million people vote in US Presidential elections, that would mean that the probability was about 1 in 100 million. Just to give a sense of scale, the odds of being struck by lightning in the United States are about one in a million, which would make getting struck by lightning 100 times more likely than one person determining the outcome of an election because of an exact tie in the popular vote!

The exact probability is obviously much more complicated than this, since it is unlikely that Obama or McCain would win every single vote. Close elections are probably more likely than landslides. So instead of theorizing about the probability of a tie, we could study lots and lots of real elections to see how often it happens. In one survey of 16,577 U.S. elections for the House and Senate over the last hundred years, not one of them yielded a tie. The closest was an election in 1910 for the Representative for New York's 36th congressional district, when the Democratic candidate won by a single vote, 20,685 to 20,684. However, a subsequent recount in that election found a mathematical error that greatly increased the margin, so there are actually no examples of winning by a single vote, either.

Thus, a rational analysis of voting suggests that the core act of modern democratic government makes absolutely no sense. Economists would literally call voting "irrational" because it violates the preferences of the people who engage in it. For some reason, people decide to vote even though they would not buy a lottery ticket with identical odds, cost, and payoff. Economists typically think that people who vote are making a mistake, or there are other benefits to voting that we have not considered. For example, early scholars noted that people might vote in order to fulfill a sense of civic duty or to preserve the right to vote. Later scholars have also pointed out that people might vote because they enjoy expressing themselves in the same way they enjoy expressing themselves when they cheer for their favorite team at a ballgame. But these explanations beg the question, "Why?" It is a tautology to say that people vote because they feel like voting.

Social Networks and Voting Cascades

In my collaboration with Nicholas Christakis, we have thought about the effect of social networks on voting and several other important phenomena like obesity, smoking, and even happiness. And as it turns out, the rational analysis of voting overlooks important psychological features of human social networks that we have known about for some time. The earliest research on the social spread of political behavior came in the classic voting studies of Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson that took place in the 1940s in the towns of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Elmira, New York. These giants in social science helped invent the survey method and bullied their colleagues into starting the long march towards making the study of politics a science. Their classic election studies eventually became the American National Election Studies that are still conducted every two years.

Although Lazarsfeld and Berelson did not collect information about the whole network that interconnected all their subjects, they did ask people to discuss who influenced them and how, and this gave us the very first picture of how important networks can be. One of the key findings from these studies was that the media does not reach the masses directly. Instead, a group of "opinion leaders"—a coinage they may have invented—usually acts as intermediary, filtering and interpreting the media for their friends and family who pay less attention to politics. In other words, the media appeared to work by getting its message to those who are most central in the social network. Politicians themselves follow a similar strategy, targeting frequent voters who have already made up their minds, rather than trying to persuade those at the periphery of the network who may or may not participate. It's efficient to do this, of course, but it is also, as we will see, unavoidable, and this kind of process arises from the fundamental nature of social networks.

Later research by Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague in the 1970s and 1980s would innovate on these earlier designs. Their voting studies in South Bend, Indiana, Indianapolis, Indiana, and St. Louis, Missouri, would use a "snowball" design, asking people to talk about friends who influenced them and to give the researchers their friends' contact information so they could be in the study, too. Huckfeldt and Sprague found that when it comes to politics, birds of a feather flock together. Democrats tend to be friends with other Democrats and Republicans tend to be friends with other Republicans. In fact, about 2 out of every 3 friends had the same ideology as the respondent. We can even see this on a large scale in recent U.S. elections by looking at the increase in polarization between "Red States" that support the Republicans and "Blue States" that support the Democrats. In other words, people appear to be clustered together politically, acting and believing in concord with the people who surround them.

Nicholas Christakis and I wondered whether this insight could shed light on why people vote at all. We also wondered whether strong similarity in people's local networks could arise from a spread of political behaviors and ideas. Did people choose to associate with those who resembled them or did they induce a resemblance by influencing their peers? Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague showed us the person-to-person effect, but now we wanted to know how and whether it might spread to other people in the network. Could one vote really spur thousands of others to the polls in a "voting cascade"?

In order to find out just how far we could push the idea that voting might spread from person to person to person, we decided to create a computer model to answer the question, "If I vote, how many other people are likely to vote as well?" The results were very surprising. In some cases one person's vote spread like wildfire, setting off a cascade of up to 100 other people voting. In our world of artificial voters we saw some people tell their friends to vote, who then told their friends to vote, and so on, and so on and so on. Moreover, since liberals and conservatives tend to associate more with like-minded individuals, these cascades would yield sizable increases in the number of people voting the way their friends wanted them to. About 60% of the time, one person's vote turned into two or more votes for their favorite candidate. One interesting implication here is that the more polarized we become by befriending only people with similar ideologies, the greater incentive we have to participate in politics. This certainly creates a dilemma for people who think polarization is bad and voter turnout is good!

We were also able to use this experiment to see what factors increase the size of a voter cascade. Not surprisingly, these cascades got bigger when we increased the number of friends each person has, the number of interactions they have with each other, and the probability that that one will influence the other. But we also discovered a complex relationship between the cascades and the degree to which people were socially clustered in tightly-knit groups. When we move from a low to high probability that one's acquaintances know one another, the number of paths between individuals in the group increases dramatically. This increases the number of ways a single decision to vote can be transmitted to other people in the population. However, as the group gradually gets even more clustered, people tend to cut ties to the outside world and focus only on members of their own group. This means there is a sweet spot in the amount of social interconnection that maximizes the likelihood that people will participate in politics. Thus, contrary to Robert Putnam's advice, sometimes more social interaction is not always better.

Interestingly, the number of people voting had virtually no effect on how far the cascades would spread in our computer model. Nicholas Christakis and I originally believed that the size of voter cascades would be bigger in larger populations because of the increased number of people who might be influenced by a cascade. However, instead we discovered that voter cascades are primarily local phenomena, occurring in a smaller part of the population closely connected to an individual. As it turns out, this is exactly what we have been finding in our other studies of the spread of obesity, smoking, and happiness. These phenomena can spread to our friends (1 degree of separation), our friends' friends (2 degrees), and our friends' friends' friends (3 degrees), but not much further. This "3 Degree Rule" suggests that the power of one individual to influence many is limited by the effect of competing waves of influence that emanate from everyone else in the network.

Experimental Evidence of Voting Cascades

Our computer model provided some of the first indirect evidence that voter cascades are real, but direct evidence was not far behind. In 2006, Notre Dame political scientist David Nickerson traveled to neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado and Minneapolis, Minnesota to conduct a novel experimental study of voter turnout. In this study, experimenters walked door-to-door to contact people who lived in two-person households. Each of these households was randomly assigned to receive one of two treatments. In one treatment, the experimenter encouraged the person who answered the door to vote at an upcoming election. In the other treatment, the experimenter encouraged the practice of recycling. Nickerson noted who came to the door to speak to the experimenter, and then waited until after the election to look up who voted and who did not.

Voter contact studies are very common, and it is well-established that get-out-the-vote campaigns actually work. So it was not surprising that the people in Denver and Minneapolis who answered the door and heard the plea to vote were about 10% more likely to turn out than those who heard the plea to recycle. The big surprise, however, was the behavior of the people who did not answer the door. As it turns out, the other person in the household was about 6% more likely to vote. In other words, 60% of the effect on the person who answered the door was passed on to the person who did not answer the door.

Consider for a moment how these indirect effects might flow through a whole network. Nickerson's creative study showed that a single plea to vote can change political behavior and spread from the experimenter to the person who heard the get-out-the-vote message to a person who neither heard the message nor met the experimenter. But why would it stop there? The person who didn't answer the door might pass the effect on to his or her other friends and family, as well. The effect probably won't be as strong when it gets passed along—like the game of telephone when kids whisper a message from friend to friend to friend, the get-out-the-vote message might get lost along the way as it passes from person to person to person. But suppose that the reduction of the effect is the same between every pair of people, decreasing by 60% at every step. If the first person is 10% more likely to vote and the second person is 6% more likely to vote, then the third person would be 3.6% more likely to vote, the fourth person would be 2.16% more likely to vote, and so on. That may not seem like much change, but remember that while the size of the contagious effect decreases at each step, the number of people affected increases exponentially. Thus the decision to vote appears to be an inherently social phenomenon that scholars are only recently coming to terms with.

Doing Your Civic Duty

So where do these results leave us on the question "Why do people vote?" The existence of voter cascades suggests that rational models of voting have underestimated the benefit of voting. Instead of each of us having only one vote, we effectively have several and we are therefore much more likely to have an influence on the outcome of the election.

The fact that one person can influence so many others may help to explain why some people have such strong feelings of civic duty. Establishing a norm of voting with one's acquaintances is one way to influence them to go to the polls. People who do not assert such a duty miss a chance to influence people who share similar views, and this tends to lead to worse outcomes for their favorite candidates. In large electorates, the net impact on the result might be too marginal to create a dynamic that would favor people who assert a duty to vote. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted almost 200 years ago, the civic duty to vote originated in much smaller political settings like town meetings where changing the participation behavior of a few people might make a big difference.

And this norm has taken such a strong hold, that many people are actually dishonest when they talk to pollsters. Typically, about 20-30% of the people who say they voted in an election actually did not. How do we know this? The ballot in America is secret, but whether or not you showed up to cast a ballot is a matter of public record, so we have very good third-party official information about who voted and who did not. The problem of over-reporting voter turnout is very well-known among political scientists and a common subject in college classrooms. One of our favorite moments in Poli Sci 101 occurs when we ask our students to raise their hands really high if they did not vote. Typically only about a quarter raise their hand, but realistically it should usually be more than half the class.

So why do people lie about this? One possibility is that they fear social sanctions. Another is that people believe that others are influenced by their political actions. Consider what happens if you tell everyone you are voting, but then you stay home instead. On average your actions will increase turnout even though you didn't vote yourself. Moreover, since most of the people who decide to vote are likely to share your beliefs, you can increase the vote margin for your favorite candidates without going to the polls. Hence, one explanation for why people vote is that they are connected and that it is rational for them to vote—as a result of this connection. In fact, one begins to wonder why anyone would ever say that they do not vote.

The New Science of Genopolitics

Christopher Dawes and I have also tackled voting from a brand new point of view. Unbeknownst to most political scientists, behavior geneticists began using twin studies in the 1970s to study variation in social attitudes, and these studies suggested that both genes and environment played a role. However, behavior geneticists did not specifically pursue the question of whether or not political attitudes were heritable, and political scientists remained largely unaware of the heritability of social attitudes until 2005. In that year, the American Political Science Review published a reanalysis of political questions on a social attitude survey of twins that suggested liberal and conservative ideology is heritable. Follow-up studies showed that genes did not play much of a role in the choice of a political party, supporting a core finding in the study of American politics that the choice to be a Democrat or a Republican is largely shaped by parental socialization. In other words, one very important reason why people vote Republican is because their parents did. However, other studies have shown that the decision to affiliate with any political party and the strength of this attachment are significantly influenced by genes.

These initial twin studies suggested political ideas are heritable, but they said little about political behavior. That changed this year when we published a new study in the American Political Science Review that examined the heritability of voter participation. We matched publicly available voter registration records to Laura Baker's twin registry in Los Angeles, analyzed self-reported turnout in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and studied other forms of political participation. In all three cases, both genes and environment contributed significantly to variation in political participation. This suggests that at least some of the difference between someone who votes and someone who does not has to do with the genetic lottery.

More recently, Chris Dawes and I turned our attention to specific genes that might be associated with political behaviors and attitudes. In particular, we focused on genes that affect the serotonin and dopamine systems because these systems are known to exert a strong influence on socialization. In the first-ever research to link specific genes to political phenotypes, we established a direct association between voter turnout and monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) and a gene-environment interaction between turnout and the serotonin transporter (5HTT) gene among those who frequently participated in religious activities. In other research we have also found an association between voter turnout and a dopamine receptor (DRD2) gene that is mediated by a significant association between that gene and the tendency to affiliate with a political party. Thus we are beginning to find specific genes that can help us to predict who will vote and who won't.

In our most recent work with Jaime Settle, Peter Hatemi, and Nicholas Christakis, we have brought together social networks and genopolitics. Political liberalism has been associated with the psychological trait of ‘openness' and the gene DRD4 has been associated with novelty-seeking behavior. One might think that these two associations would lead to a direct association between DRD4 and political liberalism, but this misses the important point that novelty-seekers sometimes exhibit anti-social tendencies. They might, for example, be quite interested in climbing a mountain alone. We thus hypothesized that individuals with a genetic predisposition towards seeking out new experiences would tend to be more liberal, but only if they are embedded in a social context that provides them with multiple points of view. Using data from Add Health, we tested this hypothesis and found that the number of friendships a person has in adolescence is significantly associated with liberal political ideology among those with novelty-seeking variant of DRD4. Among those without the gene variant there is no association. This is the first study ever to elaborate a specific gene-environment interaction that contributes to ideological self-identification, and it highlights the importance of incorporating both nature and nurture into the study of politics.

Whether or not this association or any of the others we find will have an impact on the decision to vote for a Republican is an open question. But one thing is clear. We can no longer hide our head in the sands when people whisper that genes and biology might play a role. And we can no longer ignore the important influence of social network structure on how attitudes and behaviors might spread from person to person to person. In the next few years we will see an increasing number of studies that report neurological and physiological differences between members of these two political groups and how they affect the transmission of political information and ideas.

There is obviously still plenty of room to make and manipulate individual choices—genes and networks are not destiny. However, these studies suggest that the divide between voters and abstainers and between left and right is a long-lasting and natural part of our heritage as humans, and therefore political choices are not always amenable to rational analysis or moral suasion. We are not blank slates, and any effort to understand the moral basis for a political action like voting for a Republican must acknowledge that our evolutionary history has endowed us with genetic and social variation that constrains (but does not extinguish) our capacity for self-control. We do not have vicious debates about why autumn winds cause some leaves to turn red and others blue. So why get so worked up about a similar November occurrence, cleaving our states into red and blue?


ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, University of California, Berkely; Author, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds tell us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life (forthcoming).

The Morality of Childbearing

I agree with Jonathan Haidt that philosophy and politics take off from everyday moral intuitions. And I agree there are real and valuable moral intuitions that liberalism doesn't capture, and that motivate many working-class Republican voters. But the moral intuitions I have in mind aren't in Haidt's moral taxonomy either. They are the special moral intuitions that we all have about raising children. This has become particularly vivid with the Republican enthusiasm for Sarah Palin.

For most of us, our children are the source of our gravest moral obligations, deepest moral dilemmas and greatest moral triumphs. But the moral intuitions of childrearing aren't well articulated by the liberal scheme, or any other philosophical scheme for that matter. (There is an obvious reason for this, childrearing has been women's work, philosophy, psychology, theology and politics have belonged to men).

The liberal Enlightenment philosophy that underpins Democratic politics is rooted in intuitions about good and harm, autonomy and reciprocity, individuality and universality. Each individual person deserves to pursue happiness and avert harm, and by cooperating reciprocally we can maximize the good of everyone—the basic idea of the social contract. But individualist, universalist and contractual moral systems, whether they are libertarian or socialist, utilitarian or Kantian, just don't get it about raising kids.

Childrearing isn't individualistic. It doesn't feel like just another moral relation to another person—a neighbor, a fellow citizen, even a friend. When you take on the care of children, you create a moral unit that is larger than you are. As a result there is nothing morally or rationally incoherent in the fact that caregivers regularly, indeed necessarily, sacrifice their own happiness and autonomy for the happiness and autonomy of their children. The good of the baby simply becomes your own good.

Childrearing is particular, not universalist. One of the everyday but astonishing facts of life is that while we choose our friends and our mates, we don't choose our children. Even when we adopt a baby, we don't know how that baby will turn out. And even the most basic features of what a baby is like are beyond our control, a situation that becomes vivid for the parents of children with disabilities.

And yet, with some tragic exceptions, when we care for a child we love that child, not other children or children in general. And we have a moral relation to that child that we don't have to other children. Sometimes we love the neediest babies most of all. Sarah Palin's baby is such a powerful image for many women because caring for a Down syndrome child exemplifies the paradox of all childrearing—I love my children in particular, it doesn't matter what they're like or what they do, I'd sacrifice my own happiness for theirs.

Childrearing also isn't contractual or reciprocal. We may vaguely expect that our children may one day take care of us. But every sane parent appreciates the fundamental and necessary asymmetry of caregiving. Even with mates, and certainly with friends, we expect a certain reciprocity. The neediest of our intimates give us something in return. But every child is needier than the most intolerably demanding friend or lover.

These moral intuitions have their roots in our evolutionary history. Human beings have a longer period of protected immaturity, a longer childhood, than any other species, and human children demand an exceptional amount of parental investment. As a species, we reap great benefits from this arrangement—in fact, it's the secret of our evolutionary success.

The period of protected immaturity allows us to learn flexibly about a wide range of environments, before we actually have to act on them. It depends on the especially profound and protracted commitments of human caregiving. But I'd argue that our moral intuitions about childrearing are right independently of their evolutionary origins. It really is a good thing that we care for children in the way we do.

Empirically, there is sociological evidence that childrearing is especially problematic and challenging for working–class Americans, particularly in the areas that are most likely to vote Republican. Economic insecurity, divorce, the mobility that puts grandmothers and aunts on the other side of the country, all make it difficult for families to thrive. That itself is a reason why "family values" loom so large for these voters. But middle and upper-class blue state voters also share the intuition that childrearing is special, although they can afford to treat the morality of caregiving as a private matter separate from politics.

Of course, subsidies to new parents, family leave, good early childhood education, fewer working hours with higher pay and more flexibility, are much more likely to actually help parents than abstinence education, abortion restrictions, or gay marriage bans. Some politicians have started to realize this—red states like Georgia and Arkansas have been leaders in creating early childhood programs. It's particularly ironic that contraception and abortion which look inimical to childrearing, may empirically actually allow for more thriving, caring and intimate families, and that the drive for gay marriage is motivated in part by the desire of many gay couples to raise children.

But politics is about articulating ideals as much as about formulating policies. The philosophical framework of liberalism makes it hard for Democrats to articulate the intuitions that most people share. Caring for a particular, individual baby, even a "special needs" baby, and being part of a particular, individual family, even a complex, messy family, are intrinsic human goods. Politics should help people achieve them successfully. All human babies are specially needy and all human families are complex and messy, and nobody could ever make a good argument that you love your kids and your relatives because they maximize your utilities.

Democrats use the language of universal entitlement, when they talk about state-supported preschool or childcare, or the language of individual autonomy, when they talk about choice or contraception, or the language of investment, when they talk about the long-term benefits of healthy and well-educated children. But none of these ways of talking about children really capture our everyday intuitions. Of course, there isn't a good alternative conservative language for these intuitions either. The Republican language of traditional religion also doesn't get it, which is why the celebration of Sarah Palin's unwed daughter's pregnancy seemed so paradoxical.

One way we might try to bridge this gap between intuition, philosophy and policy is by appealing to the fact that human childrearing extends far beyond biological mothers.

Psychologically, there is strong evidence that we love the children we care for, not just the ones we bear. As the ethologist Sarah Hrdy points out, when animals make big parental investments they spread the load. In socially monogamous species, including many birds and a few mammals, fathers as well as mothers invest in caregiving, and fathers make this investment even when babies aren't their genetic offspring.

In other species, including lemurs, dolphins and elephants, there are alloparents—animals who help take care of the babies of others. Humans make particularly great parental investments, they are socially though not sexually monagamous (no species is sexually monogamous, not even swans), and they rely on alloparents.

Sarah Palin quite literally presented a picture of a group of committed caregivers, husbands, siblings, boyfriends and grandmothers—a group larger than a mother but smaller than a state. Philosophers and political thinkers could try to articulate an ethics of childrearing that takes off from this sense of a widening circle of parental responsibility and care—an ethics that would capture the particularity of mother love, but extend it to include an entire community or even a country.

The articulation of moral intuitions in liberal Enlightenment philosophy was one of the greatest human intellectual achievements. Not all everyday moral intuitions survive that sort of philosophical scrutiny. I'll bet that if we just counted up the most frequent moral intuition across cultures and historical periods the winner would be that the way other people have sex is wrong (closely followed by the intuition that the way we have sex ourselves is wrong).

In the case of the moral intuitions of disgust that Haidt studies, the best philosophical policy would be to just persuade people to get rid of them. I'd say the same about lots of intuitions about hierarchy and purity. But raising children really is one of the most morally profound human activities, and it would benefit us all, Democrat and Republican, if we could find a philosophical and political way to talk about it.


SAM HARRIS
Neuroscience Researcher; Author, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

Brain Science and Human Values

The human brain is an engine of belief. Our minds continually consume, produce, and attempt to reconcile propositions about ourselves and the world that purport to be true: Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; human beings are contributing to global climate change; I actually look better with gray hair. What must a brain do to believe such propositions? This question marks the intersection of many fields: psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, economics, political science, and even jurisprudence. Understanding belief at the level of the brain is the main focus of my current research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Belief encompasses two domains that have been traditionally divided in our discourse. We believe propositions about facts, and these acts of cognition subsume almost every effort we make to get at the truth—in science, history, journalism, etc. But we also form beliefs about values: judgments about morality, meaning, personal goals, and life's larger purpose. While they differ in certain respects, these types of belief share some important features.

Both types of belief make tacit claims about normativity: claims not merely about how we human beings think and behave, but about how we should think and behave. Factual beliefs like "water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen" and ethical beliefs like "cruelty is wrong" are not expressions of mere preference. To really believe a proposition (whether about facts or values) is also to believe that one has accepted it for legitimate reasons. It is, therefore, to believe that one is in compliance with a variety norms (i.e., that one is sane, rational, not lying to oneself, not overly biased, etc.) When we really believe that something is factually true or morally good, we also believe that another person, similarly placed, should share our conviction.

Despite the remonstrations of people like Jonathan Haidt and Richard Shweder, science has long been in the values business. Scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; it is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that reliably link their beliefs to reality, through valid chains of evidence and argument. The answer to the question, "What should I believe, and why should I believe it?" is generally a scientific one: Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the epistemic core of any scientific mission statement.

But what about meaning and morality? Here we appear to move from questions of truth—which have long been in the domain of science if they are to be found anywhere—to questions of goodness. How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.

Jonathan Haidt appears to exult in this pessimism. He doubts that anyone can justifiably make strong, realistic claims about right and wrong, or good and evil, because he has observed that human beings tend to make moral judgments on the basis of emotion, justify these judgments with post hoc reasoning, and stick to their guns even when their post hoc reasoning demonstrably fails. As he says in one of his earlier papers, when asked to justify their emotional reactions to certain moral (and pseudo-moral) dilemmas, people are often "morally dumbfounded." He reports that subjects often "stutter, laugh, and express surprise at their inability to find supporting reasons, yet they would not change their initial judgments…" But couldn't the same be said of people's failures to solve logical puzzles? I think it would be fair to say that the Monty Hall problem leaves many of its victims "logically dumbfounded." Which is to say that even when a person gets the gist of why he should switch doors, he often cannot shake his initial intuition that each door represents a 50 percent chance of success. This reliable failure of human reasoning is just that—a failure of reasoning. It does not suggest that there isn't a single correct answer to the Monty Hall problem. While it might seem the height of arrogance to say it, the people who actually understand the Monty Hall problem really do hold the "logical high ground."

As a counterpoint to the prevailing liberal opinion that morality is a system of"prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other," Haidt asks us to ponder mysteries of the following sort: "But if morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom?" Interesting question. Are these the same ancient texts that view slavery as morally unproblematic? It would seem so. Perhaps slavery has no moral implications after all—could Abolition have been just another instance of liberal bias?—otherwise, surely these ancient texts would have something of substance to say about it. Or, following Haidt's initial logic, why not ask, "if physics is just a system of laws which explains the structure of the universe in terms of mass and energy, why do so many ancient texts devote so much space to immaterial influences and miraculous acts of God?" Why indeed.

Haidt is, of course, right to worry that liberals may not always "hold the moral high ground." In a recent study of moral reasoning, subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed. It turns out that liberals were very eager to sacrifice a white person to save one hundred non-whites, but not the other way around, all the while maintaining that considerations of race had not entered into their thinking. Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.

Haidt often writes, however, as if there were no such thing as moral high ground. At the very least, he seems to believe that science will never be able to judge higher from lower. He admonishes us to get it into our thick heads that many of our neighbors "honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats." Yes, and many of them honestly prefer the Republican vision of cosmology, wherein it is still permissible to believe that the big bang occurred less than ten thousand years ago. These same people tend to prefer Republican doubts about biological evolution and climate change. There are names for this type of "preference," one of the more polite being "ignorance." What scientific purpose is served by avoiding this word at all costs?

Haidt appears to consider it an intellectual virtue to adopt, uncritically, the moral categories of his subjects. But where is it written that everything that people do or decide in the name of "morality" deserves to be considered part its subject matter? A majority of Americans believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the ancient world (as well as accurate prophecies of the future). Many millions of Americans also believe that a principal cause of cancer is "repressed anger." Happily, we do not allow these opinions to anchor us when it comes time to have serious discussions about history and oncology.

Much of humanity is clearly wrong about morality—just as much of humanity is wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about (and maximizing) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people's moral concerns are frankly immoral.

Does forcing women and girls to wear burqas make a positive contribution to human well-being? Does it make happier boys and girls? More compassionate men? More confident and contented women? Does it make for better relationships between men and women, between boys and their mothers, or between girls and their fathers? I would bet my life that the answer to each of these questions is "no." So, I think, would many scientists. And yet, most scientists have been trained to think that such judgments are mere expressions of cultural bias. Very few of us seem willing to admit that simple, moral truths increasingly fall within the purview of our scientific worldview. I am confident that this period of reticence will soon come to an end.

Unless human well-being is perfectly random, or equally compatible with any events in the world or state of the brain, there will be scientific truths to be known about it. These truths will, inevitably, force us to draw clear distinctions between ways of thinking and living, judging some to better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less moral.

Of course, questions of human well-being run deeper than any explicit code of morality. Morality—in terms of consciously held precepts, social-contracts, notions of justice, etc.—is a relatively recent invention. Such conventions require, at a minimum, language and a willingness to cooperate with strangers, and this takes us a stride or two beyond the Hobbesian "state of nature." But prior to emergence of explicit notions of right and wrong, the concept of well-being still applies. Whatever behaviors served to mitigate the internecine misery of our ancestors would fall within the scope of this analysis. To simplify matters enormously: (1) genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language… (2) which produced increasingly complex cooperative behavior, the keeping of promises, concern about one's reputation, etc… (3) which became the basis for cultural norms, laws, and social institutions whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces.

Some version of this progression has occurred in our case, and each step represents an undeniable enhancement of our personal and collective well-being. Of course, catastrophic regressions are always possible. We could, either by design or negligence, employ the hard-won fruits of civilization, and the emotional and social leverage of millennia of biological and cultural evolution, to immiserate ourselves more fully than unaided Nature ever could. Imagine a global North Korea, where the better part of a starving humanity serves as slaves to a lunatic with bouffant hair: this might, in fact, be worse than a world filled merely with warring Australopithecines. What would "worse" mean in this context? Just what our (liberal?) intuitions suggest: more painful, less fulfilling, more conducive to fear and despair, etc. While it will never be feasible to compare such counterfactual states of the world, that does not mean that there are no experiential facts of the matter to be compared.

Haidt is, of course, right to notice that emotions have primacy in many respects—and the way in which feeling drives judgment is surely worthy of study. It does not follow, however, that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Just as people are often less than rational when claiming to be rational, they are often less than moral when claiming to be moral. We know from many lines of converging research that our feeling of reasoning objectively, in concordance with compelling evidence, is often an illusion. This is especially obvious in split-brain research, when the left hemisphere's "interpreter" finds itself sequestered, and can be enticed to simply confabulate by way of accounting for right-hemisphere behavior. This does not mean, however, that dispassionate reasoning, scrupulous attention to evidence, and awareness of the ever-present possibility of self-deception are not cognitive skills that human beings can acquire. And there is no reason to expect that all cultures and sub-cultures value these skills equally.

If there are objective truths about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then there seems little doubt that science will one day be able to make strong and precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are bad. At time when only 28 percent of Americans will admit the truth of evolution, while 58 percent imagine that a belief in God is necessary for morality, it is truism to say that our culture is not prepared to think critically about the changes to come.


JAMES O'DONNELL
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (forthcoming)

Edge has latterly published two provocative pieces, Jon Haidt's essay on why people vote Republican and Clay Shirky's ruminations and calculations on the cognitive surplus we have at our disposal. To a historian, these pieces dovetail and underscore a fundamental landslip that's taking place around us. I'll comment on Haidt first, then get to Shirky, but no Edge visitor should miss either. Roughly speaking, we are discovering that words don't matter.

Or they don't matter as much as we thought. Take the political question. The underlying fiction of electoral bodies is that the electors make rational choices about (ideally) what is in the best interests of the whole community or (realistically) what is in the best interests of themselves or some group to which they belong.

We know how to accept the results of that kind of thinking, always closing our eyes a bit to the extent to which things don't actually go that way. Corrupt political machines have been influencing votes wholesale for a long time and it's hard to argue that the dead citizens of Chicago really had their own best interests in mind when they voted. But I'm reading just now Livy's description of how the Romans chose their first king, Numa Pompilius, when Romulus died, and it's certainly framed as looking about for the best qualified candidate for the job.

The cynicism of the last years makes it clear that no one in high electoral politics now needs to, wants to, or should think that way if they want to win an election. This came home to me in the aftermath of the 2004 election when I saw a map of who-voted-how coded at a level that made it clear that the counties of the US that produce the wealth and innovation voted overwhelmingly Democratic and the counties of the US that depend on government subsidy or that simply underperform economically voted overwhelmingly Republican.

That's nuts—and it makes perfect sense at the same time. Perfect sense in that the Republican success of the last generation, since Nixon and Reagan cracked the code, has been to exploit irrelevant (to national policy) anxieties. We are at the point where the national maneuvering for office has nothing to do with argument (so much for folks who say that "the economy should be Obama's best argument") and everything to do with positioning a message between now and election day so that pulling the lever or pushing the button or punching the chad for one candidate makes you feel morally satisfied, which is to say, less anxious and guilty and ashamed.

McCain's choice of Palin confirms what the Democrats choice of Obama made clear: the candidate's qualifications for some notional job don't matter at all. What matters is the candidate's qualification for getting you to push the button. After that, it's politics as usual. And for a generation or more now, one party has been better at that than the other, and of course they claim that it's because their message is stronger and truer. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Shirky's piece gives more context for our transition away from words that matter. I don't mean we don't speak and write and that words aren't highly functional tools, but the exact framing of sentences and the precise structure of the verbal argument are less and less important. Bullet points on a powerpoint get the conversation going and the group working together gets to the result that matters. The "writer" is less important than he has been since, oh, Herodotus. (Example? Obama's speech on race earlier this summer. Good work, well-written, seen by almost no one, read by a few, and then blown off the screens by his preacher's TV appearances. Net result, the image and the illogic prevail.) Shirky is one of many voices confirming that this fading of the power of the specific written word is not all bad news and even has good news to it, but the old classics professor in me at least needs to slow down long enough to observe the the humanistic culture of the orator from Demosthenes to Martin Luther King Jr. is decisively gone. We don't fully understand what's replacing it, but it's happening all around us—you might even call it a third culture...


ROGER SCHANK
Formerly Professor, Stanford, Yale, and Northwestern; Latest projects: grandparentgames.com; and an alternative to the existing school systems described on engine4ed.org.

Report From Florida

The Haidt article is interesting, as are the responses to it, but these pieces are written by intellectuals who live in an environment where reasoned argument is prized. I live in Florida.

When I travel, I live the life of an intellectual. In Florida, I hang out with jocks and retirees. I try not to talk politics with them. When, it happens that I have no choice but to hear what they think about politics I take note of it. Here is what I have heard:

Obama is a Muslim. His pastor hates America. In fact nearly everyone outside of America hates America. If you travel outside of America, go on a cruise, so you won't have to eat whatever it is one eats in those places. You don't want to talk to the people either, but that’s not a problem because none of them speak English. And, anyway they all hate us for our freedoms. Obama will put Al Sharpton in the cabinet. Dick Cheney was the greatest Vice President in history. The Jews are running the country anyway.

I am not making this up. This is not a caricature. I wish I carried a tape recorder.

Why do these people vote Republican?

It is common to make the assumption that people are thinking when they vote and they are making reasoned choices. I harbor no such illusion. No argument I have ever gotten into with these people, (despite avoiding talking to them, I sometimes can't resist saying something true) has ever convinced anyone of anything. They are not reasoning, nor do they want to try. They simply believe what they believe. What do they believe?

1. They don't like blacks. Forget the rest. It isn't that they are racists. They will be polite if a black person ever appears. (This doesn't happen much, although I am sure they must live here too.) They just don't like them. They have no reason. If you ask them today, as a result of recent remarks by Michelle Obama and their pastor, they will say that blacks hate America. This is not the reason, but they sound more reasoned in their own minds if they say it that way.

2. They don't like wussies. The Democrats are always nominating wussies,—men who are not men. Obama looks like his wife runs the show at home. Kerry? Gore? Dukakis. Wussies. Not real men. Bad people are trying to kill us. We need to kill them first. Those guys wouldn't pull the trigger. (I am not making this up. I wish I were.)

3. They worry about money. Who wants to take their money away? Liberals of course. They want to give it to the blacks.

Where I live is not redneck country. There is a lot of church going but no talk about abortion or of being born again. There is a just a distaste and distrust for people not like us (which I am sure includes me.)

It is all very nice to come up with complex analyses of what is going on. As is often the case, the real answer is quite simple. Most people can't think very well. They were taught not to think by religion and by a school system that teaches that knowledge of state capitals and quadratic equations is what education is all about and that well reasoned argument and original ideas will not help on a multiple choice test.

We don't try to get the average child to think in this society so why, as adults would we expect that they actually would be thinking? They think about how the Yankees are doing, and who will win some reality show contest, and what restaurant to eat it, but they are not equipped to think about politics and, in my mind, they are not equipped to vote. The fact that we let them vote while failing to encourage them to think for themselves is a real problem for our society.

The scientific question here is how belief systems are acquired and changed. I worked on this problem with both Ken Colby and Bob Abelson for many years. Colby was a psychiatrist who modeled paranoid behavior on computers. The basis of his work was research on how neurotic thinking depends upon the attempt to make inconsistent beliefs work together when the core beliefs cannot change.

Abelson worked on modeling political belief systems. He built a very convincing model of Barry Goldwater that showed that once you adopted some simple beliefs about the cold war, every other position Goldwater took could be derived (and asserted by a computer) from those core beliefs. The idea of a set of unchanging core beliefs is not true of only politicians or psychiatric patients of course. Everyday average Joes behave the same way. Adult belief systems rest on childhood beliefs instilled by parents mostly and by assorted other authorities.

Republicans do not try to change voter's beliefs. They go with them. Democrats appeal to reason. Big mistake.



ON "GIN, TELEVISION, AND COGNITIVE SURPLUS: A Talk by Clay Shirky"

Chris Anderson, James O'Donnell, David Brin

PERMALINK


CHRIS ANDERSON
Editor in Chief, Wired Magazine; Author, The Long Tail

Spare Cycles

To use a computer science rather than economic analogy, what Shirky is talking about is what I call the "awesome power of spare cycles"—the human potential that isn't tapped by our jobs, which for most of us is a lot of it. People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million. 

I am at this moment, somewhat randomly, in a regional airport. It is tiny airport like thousands of others across the country. But, like all the others, it has to meet standard TSA security standards. There is a flight (which I am on) at 2:30 pm. It is the only flight out of this airport for the past hour. There will not be another flight out of this airport for another hour. Yet we need our full TSA apparatus. That includes the local police, who are represented by a sheriff.

I'm watching him right now. He's in his room, labeled "Sheriff". Young guy. He's watching a movie on a portable DVD player. That's fine—he won't be needed for another half hour. But of course "needed" isn't quite the right word. "Required" is closer to it. He will be required by policy to stand by, gun in holster, while I take my laptop out of my nerd backpack. He may, fingers crossed, go his entire career without a terrorist going through that security checkpoint. He may indeed never unholster that gun in the line of duty.

That sheriff is watching a movie because he has spare cycles. Spare cycles are the most powerful fuel on the planet.  It's what Web 2.0 is made up of. User generated content? Spare cycles. Open source? Spare cycles. MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Second Life? Spare cycles. They're the Soylent Green of the web.
 
In Wired we've got a great story about a woman who cyberstalked the lead singer of Linkin Park. She correctly guessed the password to his cellphone account. The rest was easy. She was a technician at a secure military facility, the Sandia National Labs. When eventually confronted, she explained that her job only took her half an hour a day. The rest was spare cycles. She used them to stalk the lead singer of Linkin Park.

Web 2.0 is such a phenomena because we're underused elsewhere. Bored at work, bored at home. We've got spare cycles and they're finally finding an outlet. Tap that and you've tapped an energy source that rivals anything in human history. Solitaire Players of the World Unite!


JAMES O'DONNELL
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (forthcoming)

Shirky's piece gives more context for our transition away from words that matter. I don't mean we don't speak and write and that words aren't highly functional tools, but the exact framing of sentences and the precise structure of the verbal argument are less and less important. Bullet points on a powerpoint get the conversation going and the group working together gets to the result that matters. The "writer" is less important than he has been since, oh, Herodotus. (Example? Obama's speech on race earlier this summer. Good work, well-written, seen by almost no one, read by a few, and then blown off the screens by his preacher's TV appearances. Net result, the image and the illogic prevail.)

Shirky is one of many voices confirming that this fading of the power of the specific written word is not all bad news and even has good news to it, but the old classics professor in me at least needs to slow down long enough to observe the the humanistic culture of the orator from Demosthenes to Martin Luther King Jr. is decisively gone. We don't fully understand what's replacing it, but it's happening all around us—you might even call it a third culture...


DAVID BRIN
Physicist; Technical Consultant; Science Fiction Writer; Author, The Transparent Society

When  Clay Shirky says "here comes everybody" and foresees a rapidly-exponentiating realm for assertive human creativity, I am a fellow-traveler—although with some worries and dour reservations.  

Twenty years ago I wrote about a near future when online communications, agile vision and instant knowledge would unleash individual self-expression in a profusion of hobbies, avocations, side-vocations and ad-hoc interest groups, shattering rigid categories and guild boundaries of the past.  The coming of an "Age of Amateurs" seemed obvious then, for a number of reasons.

And yes, I appreciate Clay Shirky's historical narrative about "getting accustomed to surplus." These revolutions go way back and often require adjustment. I loved his reference to everybody getting stoned in the Age of Gin, and comparing this (simplistically but amusingly) to the way folks became couch potatoes in the era of TV. And yet, Nicholas Carr is right to take umbrage, pointing out that those decades contained plenty of people bent on being more than mere passive content-consumers. The great work of improving society took gumption. Indeed, the personal computer arose out of hobbyists who saw, in the CRT screen, something potentially far greater than a mere glass teat.

Still, I balked when Carr brought up 1968 as a year of shining involvement. I shuddered. But more on that, anon.

As usual, I find myself pointing out the obvious—that things have been a lot more complex than either Shirky or Carr would have us perceive. Both of them are very right and both tragically wrong. For example, even in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan sensed somehow—without actually foreseeing the Internet—that new media would foster a more active way of viewing the world. He had a vague notion of what he wanted, what was needed, but only vaporous hopes for how it might come about.  

Recall how some folks fantasized such a role for Public Access cable TV? Again, desire far exceeded reification. And yet, desire sometimes refuses to be thwarted! Think about the lowly VCR—a Rube Goldberg contraption of such astounding complexity, that it should never have worked, let-alone been mass produced so cheaply and reliably that, soon, nobody even bothered to repair them. Long before the arrival of digital media, people somehow got what they wanted most, an ability to control what they would watch, the purest case of mass desire overcoming the limitations of practical technology.

Key point: Yes, new tools can propel new ways of thinking. But just as often, vision precedes the tools. A theme that I'll return-to.

Getting back to the notion of specialization, I've asserted that the one and only truly monotonic trend of the 20th Century was the professionalization of everything—continuing down a road that began in early farming towns of the Zagros mountains. When agriculture provided a predictable  excess of food production, a top layer of specialists could be supported.  At first, specialist thieves and bullies. Then—after some adjustment—a layer of  specialists who gave value back with literacy (expanded memory) and the perspective from atop a ziggurat (expanded vision.) These vision/knowledge revolutions have happened many times since, and Shirky is right that adjustment is never easy.

And, yes, he can sense that the most recent shift is new and different from all of those that came before. After six thousand years, that trend toward ever-greater specialization has reached both its culmination (in a society filled with highly-trained college graduates) and its ultimate limit.

Demographically, the number of professionals can at-most go through two more doublings before you simply run out of plausible people on Earth to professionalize! Even if the Age of Amateurs had not already been spawned by leisure time and the internet, we'd soon be forced to invent it.

Indeed, given the range of proliferating problems that lie ahead, only such a civilization will have the agility to respond quickly to rapidly varying demands for attention and expertise and critical exchanges of accountability. So, yes, so far I agree with Shirky. But where we part company is over how natural or easy the next step on this path will be, or whether all that eager "involvement" will actually accomplish much.  

In fact, I am far less satisfied than he is with the enabling systems that exist, or seem to be on the drawing boards.  A world filled with assertive amateurs will be better than one of bland consumer-drones, sure. But it will still fall far short of its potential, if those amateurs are effectively lobotomized by software and interfaces and tools that limit what they can ponder, communicate or achieve.

Indeed, there are some failure modes—e.g.  the creation of a myriad super-empowered angry young fanatics—that are likely to be fostered by a primitive fiesta of self-expression. We already see a grand vista, not of discourse but of miniature Nuremberg rallies, with millions coalescing to heil their group totems. And when this goes sour, there will be only two possible solutions. Either a retreat into hierarchical control, or a true continuation down the path of empowered citizenship, to a world where reciprocal accountability and mass/individualist creativity take us to another level.

Clay Shirky's essay prompts a question: "If those past "revolutions" were so chaotic and painful, why are you so blithe about the present one going well?" I look at all the crude socialnet sites, at Second Life, at the blogosphere, and perceive something halfway between his wondrous, self-organizing realm of free citizenship and the cesspool of rancid opinion perceived by Nicholas Carr and the cybergrouches. A lot of good has come out of the new trends... the web and wikis and blogosphere have been (variously) useful and empowering and a lot more potential is there.  But overall, if this is all we can hope for—a Force 5 gale of raw opinion—then the grouches win on points.

Tell me about the sites where really bad assertions go to die —the way phlogiston and witch-burnings died—a well-deserved death that ought to follow the most noxious assertions across our culture, so that truly disproved nonsense can actually go away, making way for new ideas. If you dismiss this as impossible, then I think your hopes for the web are far too timid, since the allegory should be a vivid human mind—and complex human beings, sane ones, can actually drop a bad idea, from time to time.

Show me the synchronous virtual realms where people communicate in units larger than a cutoff sentence. Yes, there are asynchronous realms, like this one, where bright adults do express ideas more complex than a sentence. Terrific. But does anything actually happen? Show me the software that helps really smart mobs to coalesce. To those who say such things already exist, I have to reply "Guys, your standards and expectations are really low! And unworthy of your dreams."

Recall Nicholas Carr's evocation of that dire year, 1968, one that was more exhausting than any decade. A majority of Americans did sit at home, across that awful, compact-epoch, suckling their boob tubes and nursing resentment toward those who had chosen to get involved. Shirky is right that the post-Web world would have overcome some of that passivity and provided more varieties of involvement.  Still, Carr is also right, to suggest plus ca change...

To me, the allegory of that year is far more disturbing.  My father was twenty feet from RFK when he was shot.  I saw the roiling maelstrom of sanctimony and delusion that drenched all sides, in an era when people thought that they were fantastically well-informed by new media and when oversimplifications made caricatures of every good intention.  And I see a chilling reflection of today.



SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention.

A SLICE OF SCIFOO
By Frank Wilczek

FRANK WILCZEK is considered one of the world's most eminent theoretical physicists. He is known, among other things, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, the invention of axions, and the discovery and exploitation of new forms of quantum statistics (anyons). When only 21 years old and a graduate student at Princeton University, in work with David Gross he defined the properties of color gluons, which hold atomic nuclei together.

He is the author of Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces.

Frank Wlczek's Edge Bio Page

Reality Club: Lee Smolin, Betsy Devine, George Dyson

[Photographs by Betsy Devine]

PERMALINK


A SLICE OF SCIFOO

SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention.

George Dyson's marvelous Edge post from last year gives a lively sense of SciFoo "organization" and atmospherics.

I tried to maintain a state of controlled bewilderment, letting the experience wash over me. Now, three weeks later, a few big impressions and ideas have crystallized out. Here they come:

1. Three-Word Autobiography

SciFoo begins with a round of stylized introductions. Since 200 or so people are involved, brevity is a primary virtue. The stated mandate is: name, affiliation, three word self-presentation. Most people interpreted "word" very liberally, in the spirit of the days of Genesis, to encompass "phrase" or "topic". I was among the happy few who literally presented themselves in three words, sat down and shut up. In the process, I discovered both a philosophy of life, an algorithm for creativity, and the title of my fictitious autobiography:

Think, Play, Repeat

Afterwards, Max Tegmark remarked that this actually packs in an infinity of words!



Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek

2. Engines of Information

I've long been fascinated by the possibility of emergent (artificial) intelligence, or rather super-intelligence. While we're not quite there yet, at Scifoo it was hard to escape the feeling that a true world-mind is nascent.

Computer scientists David Blei and Chris Wiggins advertised a session entitled "teaching a computer all of science". The title turned out to be a little joke; what they've done is fed a big chunk of the journal
Science into a computer, and run sophisticated artificial intelligence programs on that material, to find correlations among the words.

A sort of meaning emerges spontaneously, as clusters of words that commonly occur together indicate the existence of an underlying, unifying concept. You can—and this may be the most fascinating result so far—follow the evolution of concepts over time, as specific words enter and leave the defining clouds. (So for example the old vacuum tube technology evolves before your eyes into modern microelectronics.)

At this level, what they've got is a useful tool for scientists and historians. As yet the machines don't actively seek sophisticated connections among the concepts they've discovered—in short, they don't think for themselves. But just having concepts seems a big achievement, as when a baby starts to refer to things in the world with appropriate words, if not sentences.

Game developer Jane McGonical gave a brilliant presentation on the potential of the game-playing world for science, and vice versa. She points out that Wikipedia was created in approximately 108 person-hours, which is equivalent to 5 days of World of Warcraft gaming (or 1 season of American Idol voting). She says that gamers are a resource available for creative use at any task that can be reformulated as play (which covers a lot of ground!).

Astronomers have led the way in citizen science, as in the recent Galaxy Zoo project and the classic [email protected], but McGonical envisions much more. She also wants scientists to solve society's big problems by gaming out future world-scenarios at superstructgame.org. Looks like heavy fun.

For anyone who wants to try their hand at building organs for the world-mind, there's now an excellent, ground-up practical introduction to the toolset: Programming Collective Intelligence by Toby Segaran. I'm getting seduced, myself.

3. The Age of Ageing

There seems to be consensus, among age researchers, that understanding and controlling the ageing process is the problem of applied biology. They would think that, of course (especially if they're of a certain age ... ), but there's a strong objective case for it. As Aubrey de Grey and Tom Kirkwood both emphasized, curing any discrete disease (even such a big one as cancer) will make only a modest contribution to extending life expectancy (two to three years). Senescence—the general deterioration of vitality and resistance to adversity with advancing age—is the real culprit. Why does it occur? What are the prospects for slowing it?

There is a plausible evolutionary explanation, emphasized by Kirkwood. In the wild, animals do not get old—they fall victim to predators, parasites, or nasty accidents prior to senescence. Evolution favors getting in as much reproduction as possible, so it favors maximizing vitality and reproductive power during the lifespan as naturally limited by predators, parasites, and accidents. Repairs or investment in reserves that would pay off later than that are never undertaken, and senescence is the consequence.

If that's right—and there's considerable evidence that in essence it is—then senescence is likely to be a multifaceted complex of problems. But modern biology is powerful, and both Kirkwood and de Grey—though their short-term expectations are wildly different—argue that the time is ripe for a serious assault on those problems. For their respective takes, see Kirkwood and The End of Aging (de Grey and Rae). Given the profound importance of the problem, and the amount spent on what after all amount to relative stopgaps (e.g., curing cancer!), it's hard to resist the argument that much more money and effort should be going into ageing research.

(An interesting specific: One way to defer senescence is well established for many animals, ranging from yeast and simple worms to mice. It is semi-starvation, also known as caloric restriction. It can make really big changes in life expectancy—a factor of two is not unheard of. Kirkwood, however, is not optimistic that it will work for humans. What seems to happen, in response to caloric restriction, is that the organism switches to a state where less metabolic energy is invested in reproduction, and more in repair. That makes evolutionary sense: in hard times, you hunker down and wait for conditions to improve, both for yourself and for your potential offspring. Normally reproductive activity is a heavy burden on mouse metabolism, so relieving it can free up significant resources. For humans, however, the burden is light.

So go ahead and eat.)

4. Planet Mushroom

Paul Stamets is—quoting Michael Pollan—"a visionary emissary from the fungus kingdom to our world". He sees mushrooms as a replacement for chemical pesticides, a natural filter of toxins, and underground network ("nature's Internet") over which information flows—a primitive world-brain with vast growth potential. He also markets caps made from them. We took home a copy of his fascinating, lavish book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which I've been enjoying immensely. (If you've ever had trouble with carpenter ants, you'll savor the Schadenfreude of Chapter 8.) For a free taste of Stamets, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BelfLIJErek.

5. Space Rocks

Former astronaut Ed Lu, now a Google employee, gave a superb talk about earth-impacting asteroids. One killed off the dinosaurs, and another could have our number. Besides the rare ultra-catastrophic collision, there are much more frequent collisions that deliver punches comparable to or larger than nuclear weapons—famous ones produced Meteor Crater Arizona about 50,000 years ago and the Tunguska event in 1908. Today people are gearing up to census the potentially dangerous objects, and thinking seriously about how to divert them. Small asteroids are irregular, loosely bound clouds of rubble, not solid rocks, which complicates matters considerably. You can learn more, and perhaps choose to advance the cause, by following links from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B612 Foundation.

Besides that talk about space rocks, there was a screening of In the Shadow of the Moon—a 2007 documentary about how space rocks, or rather about how the U. S. space program rocked in the 60s and 70s (hosted by David Sington, the director). It features original footage, together with interviews of the surviving Apollo astronauts. The movie is affecting on many levels: as the story of a triumphal adventure, as a portrait of unlikely young heros in their later years, as a memorial of an America familiar and yet startlingly different. I laughed, I cried, I thought. In the Shadow of the Moon is now available as a DVD, and highly recommended.

6. LHC, the Universe, and All That

I organized this hour. Brian Cox, a charismatic experimenter in high energy physics who is also a well-known BBC presenter, described the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) itself. It's our civilization's answer to the Pyramids of Egypt. But better: it's a monument to curiosity, not superstition, and it's grand scale reflects the greatness of the questions it addresses, not the vanity of its overseers. Then I discussed the issues at stake—cosmic superconductivity, unified field theory, supersymmetry— directions in which our present laws of physics beg to be improved and unified. The LHC will (finally!) give decisive verdicts about those ideas.

Turning from the very small to the very large, Max Tegmark gave us a visual tour of the Universe using http://qso.lanl.gov/pictures/Pictures.html. The Universe is pretty big, but fortunately the speed of thought is faster than the speed of light, so we got around pretty well! Martin Rees capped it off by explaining why many of us believe that the known Universe may be only a speck within a much larger Multiverse.

Our understanding of these (superficially) vastly different domains—absurdly small and ridiculously large; concrete and experimental, theoretical and speculative—is, amazingly, all of a piece. The basic laws studied at LHC tell us how the Big Bang worked. And together they encode the emerging multiverse that emerges, including its mysterious dark matter and dark energy. We've made dramatic progress, and the best is yet to come: it's an exciting time to be a physicist.


Lee Smolin, Betsy Devine, George Dyson


GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion

THE DREGS OF SCIENCE?

In one of the final sessions of SciFoo 2008, Kevin Kelly asked his audience whether we thought the days of individual researchers capturing large nuggets of new insight are over, now that large teams assisted by massive computational resources are plowing the frontiers of knowledge ahead of any single one of us. "So it's not the end of science, but the dregs of science," was the closing comment by Danny Hillis, capturing the spirit of good-natured, no-holds-barred questioning of assumptions that permeated SciFoo 2008.

For two days, some 200-plus individuals spontaneously subdivided into roughly 150 sessions covering almost every conceivable topic under the sun (including multiple approaches to solar energy, what to with it, how, and when). Most sessions were well attended, many to overflowing, and, despite the lure of freely available refreshments, few people were to be found mingling in the common areas—there were just too many interesting presentations and discussions going on (see photographs of the schedule boards to get some idea). There were Google people (including Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt) at most sessions, affirming that even when all data are on the network, there is still nothing like sharing insights firsthand.

click to enlarge

Biology (in all flavors), technology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, natural history, social science, and of course some futurology were all well represented, along with areas in between. I could not detect any unifying theme, except the obvious question of how to do science in the age of super-abundant data (answer: pretty much same as we have always done science, but in larger collaborative groups and with rapidly-improving tools). This may be skewed by my choice of the sessions I attended, but I sensed a broad-based realization that Earth now has a pretty good first approximation of a nervous system, but our metabolism needs some work—starting with a shift in the diet of our machines.

Nature/O'Reilly/Google seem to have tuned the mix of old-timers and newcomers just right. There were people and ideas you knew of as well as people and ideas you had never heard of at every turn. To borrow some oddly-appropriate neologisms from Neal Stephenson (who was in attendance) it felt as if Google had gathered a scattered tribe of the Avout into their Math for an all-too-brief Apert.


BETSY DEVINE
Blogger: Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

SCIFOO SESSION ABOUT "SCIENCE 2.0"

My plan to have webfolk give "lightning" talks for scientists ended up in the schedule as 9:30 a.m. "lighting" talks.

Nevahtheless, as Katherine Hepburn would say, an overflow SciFoo crowd showed up in Google's "Damascus" room (seats 22) to hear Tim O'Reilly's own explanation of Web 2.0, followed by stellar short talks by Esther Dyson (EDventure), Chris Anderson (Wired), Barend Mons (WikiProfessional), and Victoria Stodden (Harvard's Berkman Center).

What was the premise here? As posted in SciFoo's wiki for session suggestions:

Science Outreach 2.0? I see proposed sessions to have science "heard" by politicians (Eric W, Adam Wishart), to get more young people to fall in love with science (Chris Riley), and to get non-scientists involved in "spectator science" or "citizen science" activities (Margaret Wertheim, Jack Stilgoe, Karen James, Brother Guy).

Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, social networks, web services) are great ways to reach out to non-scientists. What I'm proposing is a session on this useful subset of HOW-TO (a fairly new set of useful tools), a session where Sci Foo's webfolk (and web-savvy scientists) might give "lightning" talks about "Here is a great web tool useful for scientists doing outreach, here is a quick demo of how it works, here is a URL where you can learn more about it."

— Betsy Devine


Neal Gershenfeld
and Peter Norvig

Here are links to some of the websites that were discussed there:

  • What is Web 2.0?: Original (2005) essay by Tim O'Reilly

  • Tim also recommends "Howtoons" for kids, especially their "infamous marshmallow shooter."

  • Epernicus.com: Science networking site, mentioned by Esther Dyson.

  • 23andMe.com: User-friendly online DNA comparison tools, explained by Esther Dyson.

  • BookTour.com: Science authors can get book-tour information out to the "long tail", explained by Chris Anderson (Wired).

  • Wikiprofessional.org: Wiki-like tool for Medline that combines language tools and authoritative sources with user input, explained by Barend Mons.

  • Victoria Stodden discussed the misfit between what copyright does and what scientists want to have happen to content they put online. To come, I hope, a link to the web-based license that solves these issues.

  • GalaxyZoo.org: Collaboration inspiration, or how people showed up from all over the internet to help Oxford astrophysicists classify millions of computer-photographed galaxies, and a Dutch teacher named Hanny discovered a unique new astronomy object, not explained by Betsy Devine, though I would have done so if we had time at the end of the session.


George and Esther Dyson

At the Wild Palms Hotel, note the wild palm attacking George here.

See Betsy Devine's Blog:

Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar
Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…


LEE SMOLIN
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Phyiscs

What struck me most about SciFoo was the articulateness and passion of the young scientists there. Listening to and chatting with them it was clear that worries about the end of science are 180 degrees wide of the mark. I found myself wondering how much good it would have done me as a postdoc to have gone to something like SciFoo and met and hung out with my peers from other fields-and just to ask the question is to realize how rapidly the world has changed. I really commend Nature, Google and O'Reilly for getting ahead of the curve and acting to put themselves at the hub of a community of scientists on the forefront of their fields.

This time there were a lot more physicists in the mix, but I mostly went to sessions of people and subjects new to me. While there was again a fair amount of systems biology, what I enjoyed most this time was reports of old fashion biology of critters, such as the comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg on dissecting the larynx of a whale to find out how they sing, and Bernie Kraus's bio-acoustic soundscapes.

I finally began to get the point being argued by many young people there about the importance of open source contexts for communicating science. My first response had been to wonder why anyone would want to post their working notebooks and raw data online for all to see, now I begin to get their vision of science done completely in the open. Another thing that struck me was just how good some of the graphics in the presentations are and how essential this is to the work being done.

What got to me most was the presentations by several wise elders who talked about the urgency of the global warming crisis. The presentations of Bill Calvin, Steve Schneider and Don Schrag were downright scary in their conviction that catastrophe is very possible. The most insightful comment I heard at the whole meeting was Danny Hillis pointing out that even if there was worldwide political will to do what was necessary to stem global warming, the scientists do not yet have a consensus on what measures to prescribe. So there is serious work to be done here.

But my overall favorite scifoo moment was when I chanced to drop in on a session on the evolution of music where I got to see Aniruddh Patel's work with the dancing cockatoo Snowball.


 
Paperback - US $10.17, 336 pp Harper Perennial   Hardcover - UK £9.09 352 pp Free Press, UK

What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett

"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal "Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine "Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed "Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

paperback - US $11.16, 336 pp Harper Perennial   Paperback - UK £6.99, 352 pp Free Press, UK

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Steven Pinker Afterword by Richard Dawkins

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London) "A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Paperback - US $11.16, 272 pp Harper Perennial   Paperback - UK £5.39 288 pp Pocket Books

What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Ian McEwan

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book to be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer



Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2008 By Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

|Top|