The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives

    Posted on March 27th, 2011 Helian 3 comments

    Jonathan Haidt is one of the most coherent thinkers in the social sciences today. A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he specializes in the study of morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He describes himself as an atheist, and embraces the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature,” in the sense that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions. For that alone he would have suffered the anathemas of his fellow experts in the behavioral sciences a few short decades ago. Until quite recently they were still in thrall of the collective delusion that human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture and education. But Haidt doesn’t stop there. His work focuses on our moral nature, and he is of the opinion that moral reasoning is not the basis of moral judgment. Rather, he supports what he calls the social intuitionist model, according to which moral judgments are the result of quick, automatic intuitions, including moral emotions. Moral reasoning commonly only appears after moral decisions have already been made, serving to rationalize them after the fact. Innate, evolved traits play a significant role in the process. In Haidt’s words from the paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,”

    The social intuitionist model… proposes that morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture. Moral intuitions are therefore both innate and enculturated.

    Obviously, we have come a long way since the 60’s and 70’s, when the entire orthodox scientific establishment was defending the cherished but palpably absurd dogma that “human nature” was almost entirely the result of education and culture, and the effect of innate predispositions of the kind Haidt refers to on human behavior were insignificant. In one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in scientific history, they have finally been forced by the weight of evidence to abandon that delusion. For all that, they have shown a remarkable resistance to facing the obvious implications of the truth they have finally embraced. Nowhere has that been more true than in the field of morality.

    If what Haidt says is true, then human morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. As such, it cannot be other than subjective in nature. Objective good and evil cannot exist because there is no legitimate basis for their existence. Morality has no purpose, nor does it serve any higher end. It exists purely and simply because it has increased the odds that carriers of the genes that give rise to it would survive and reproduce those genes. In spite of these seemingly elementary facts, no human illusion is as persistent and resilient as the belief in objective good.

    Haidt explores some related issues in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a good read, consisting of a collection of interesting ideas, insights and recent research results and concluding with an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of life.” According to Haidt, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” really consists of two sub-questions: What is the purpose of life? and What should be our purpose within life? He does not attempt an answer to the first, but focuses on the second, noting that it refers to what we should do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life. Haidt devotes the final portion of the book to the question. There is something rather striking about his answer. It requires acceptance of the theory of group selection.

    Why is that striking? Back in the day when, as noted above, virtually the entire orthodox scientific establishment was proclaiming the dogma that “human nature” was almost exclusively the result of education and culture, the most influential and significant writer insisting that the establishment was wrong, recognized as such at the time by proponents of both points of view, was Robert Ardrey. Well, it so happens that Ardrey, a brilliant writer with a profound grasp of the big picture, was right and the establishment was wrong about the role of the innate on human behavior. Yet today his name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Galileo, or any of the other great destroyers of false orthodoxies in the sciences for that matter. Rather, he has been almost entirely forgotten. It happens, you see, that Ardrey was outside the academic pale. He was, in fact, a playwright for much of his career, and it would be too painful for the guild of “experts” to admit that a mere playwright like Ardrey had correctly insisted on an abundantly obvious truth at a time when they were still collectively defending a cherished but palpably false delusion.

    Eventually, when the delusion collapsed, resulting in one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of the sciences, the “experts” constructed an entire alternative reality, exemplified by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, according to which, incredibly, Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” and the real hero had been the more respectable and palatable E. O. Wilson, no matter that the ideas he set forth in books like Sociobiology and On Human Nature were no more than a reformulation of Ardrey’s thought. Now the chances that Pinker ever actually read Ardrey before dismissing him as “totally and utterly wrong” are vanishingly small, but he cited Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene as the basis of his claim, as if Dawkins were as infallible as the pope. Dawkins, in turn, based his entire criticism of Ardrey on some remarks he made in his book The Social Contract about a theory that was of no particular significance whatsoever as far as the fundamental question of the role of the innate on human behavior is concerned. And what was that theory? Why, none other than the theory of group selection, without which Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” evaporates in the mist. It appears that Dawkins was somewhat premature in announcing its demise. Such are the narratives that occasionally pass for “history” in the sciences. Meanwhile, Ardrey remains an unperson. I should think he deserves better.

  • Fukushima and the Battle of the Hysterical Headlines

    Posted on March 15th, 2011 Helian No comments

    I’ve seen some wild disinformation about the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in the British and U.S. media, but the Germans take the cake.  Here’s the headline and byline that just appeared on the site of Focus, Germany’s second leading news magazine:

    A Super Meltdown is Imminent at Fukushima

    50 workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are fighting a hopeless battle – it appears that a super-meltdown is now just a matter of time. The operators anticipate explosions in the last two intact blocks.

    You’ll find a more sober assessment of what’s going on here.  I suspect it’s moot as far as the U.S. is concerned at this point.  For the time being, our nuclear industry is dead, and I will be very surprised if it experiences a resurrection any time in the next decade.  The Chinese will likely be the biggest beneficiaries of the disaster in Japan.  That country’s leaders aren’t stupid enough to be taken in by the hysteria mongering in Focus and Der Spiegel, and will likely proceed with the building of a series of new reactors as planned.  They will probably find the cost of fuel to be significantly lower than anticipated.

    UPDATE: Today’s (March 16) Wall Street Journal has a nice graphic of the six Fukushima reactors on the front page, showing the spent fuel cooling ponds all neatly ensconced above the primary containment vessel near the roof. It boggles the mind that it never occurred to the apparently brain-dead designers that maintaining the coolant levels in the ponds might be problematic in the event of an environmental disaster.

  • Libyan Insurrection and German Jingoism

    Posted on March 7th, 2011 Helian 1 comment

    Back in the day, coverage of U.S. military operations in the German media consisted mainly of a melange of self-righteous posing and predictions of imminent doom.  For example, according to Der Spiegel, Germany’s number one news magazine, in an article published less than two weeks before the fall of Baghdad, the U.S. Army was “stuck in the sand,” it faced a “worst case scenario,” the Iraqis were fighting “much harder than expected,” and the war was likely to last “for months,” and then only if the troops already on the ground received “massive reinforcements.”  Unabashed when all these prophecies of doom turned out to be so many fairy tales, Spiegel immediately shifted gears to the usual fare comparing Iraq to Vietnam that Americans became familiar with in their own media.  Inevitably, as well as being another Vietnam, Iraq was a “quagmire.” By 2006, Spiegel was confidently assuring its readers, in lockstep with the NYT and WaPo, that, “The Iraq strategy of the Bush Administration has failed.”

    Fast forward to the next President.  The winds of insurrection are blowing in the Middle East and North Africa.  In Libya, however, the revolutionary wave has been checked, at least for the time being, by the stubborn refusal of Muammar Qaddafi to play his assigned role and bow out gracefully.    Meanwhile, the U.S. President seems in no hurry to take any “unilateral action,” and seems to have a distinct aversion for any action more forceful than declaring that Qaddafi’s bloody massacres of his own people are “unacceptable.”  Oddly enough, Der Spiegel seems to have changed its tune.  According to the headline of an interview with delegate to the European parliament Martin Schulz, the “opportunism (Taktiererei) of the European states is a scandal.”  Schulz thinks that “a military intervention in Libya may be considered as a last resort.”  Spiegel has a long history of expressing its editorial opinion via such “expert” mouthpieces.  It would seem the Schulz interview is no exception.  For example, according to the bolded opening paragraph of another article under the headline, “Qaddafi’s Counteroffensive puts the West under Pressure,” we read,

    Intervene or watch and wait? After ever more violent battles, Libya threatens to sink into civil war, and with it into chaos. There is increasing pressure to intervene, and it is falling above all on western states. Meanwhile, Germany, the EU, and the USA are standing idly by.

    All this sounds harmless enough by US standards.  For the German media, though, it’s positively jingoist.  In the past, their MO has always been to wait until we actually do take action, then print a stream of articles about civilian casualties, bombings of hospitals and old folks homes, allusions to Vietnam and “quagmires,” the selfish motives of the U.S and its evil corporations which, in this case as in Iraq, would undoubtedly be oil, etc., etc.  But Obama isn’t playing along.  By all appearances, it’s starting to get under their skin.  A byline of the above article refers to the U.S. as the “Helpless World Power #1.”   The U.S. military is portrayed as “skeptical” about intervention, and “playing for time” to avoid it.  Pentagon spokesman is using the excuse of Libyan air defenses “more effective than those of the Iraqis in 2003,” to explain this “stalling.”  In a word, Der Spiegel is positively egging us on to send in the cavalry.

    Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that the German media, along with the rest of that of “old Europe,” would turn on us with a vengeance as soon as the first boot of the first U.S. GI touched Libyan soil.  I have a better idea.  Let’s just stay out of it.  Give peace a chance!  If the Europeans are so worried about the fate of the Libyan people, I’m all in favor of letting them have a go at saving them, but without our assistance.  There are occasions when I feel positively comforted by the fact that Barack Obama, and not John McCain, is our President.  This is one of them.

  • Of Karl Radek, Communism and Human Nature

    Posted on March 3rd, 2011 Helian 1 comment

    In 1935, a collection of essays by the Soviet journalist Karl Radek was published under the title Portraits and Pamphlets.  Radek was, by all accounts, a brilliant man.  At the time he was one of the editors of Izvestia, a frequent writer for Pravda, and was reputed to be the foremost propagandist in the Soviet Union.  He had been connected with various workers movements since the age of 14, and had become editor of The Red Flag, the organ of the Social Democratic Party in his home country of Poland, at the age of 20.  The book was published near the apogee of the love affair of public intellectuals in the “bourgeois” democracies with Communism.  Impressed by the Soviet Union’s apparent success in realizing its bold economic aspirations in the midst of a lingering Great Depression, mainstream journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The American Mercury were publishing articles that were unabashedly pro-Communist, marked by the tacit assumption that a transition to socialism was inevitable.  The only question remaining was how that transition would occur.  The book reflected this state of affairs.  In an introduction contributed by the normally phlegmatic historian A. J. Cummings we read,

    The Soviets have proved beyond any reasonable doubt not only the stability of their regime, but their capacity, in the face of an incredulous world, to carry into effect a large part of their gigantic economic conceptions. They have also made abundantly clear their intention to keep the peace and their desire to organize an international peace system. The entrance of Russia into the League of Nations, more even than her series of agreements with individual states, marks a turning point in European history.

    Five years later, of course, the Soviets demonstrated their “abundantly clear intention to keep the peace” by invading and seizing large parts of Finland, annexing the Baltic states, and partitioning Poland with Nazi Germany.  No matter, all that belonged to the future.  Radek’s essays began with a groveling panegyric dedicated to Stalin.  At the time, “The Great Helmsman” had already begun to bare his teeth.  Former leading Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev had been arrested as early as December, 1934, and were soon to appear in the second of the carefully rehearsed show trials that would lead to their execution.  The Great Purge Trials were only a few years off.  Radek was much too astute not to sense what was in the air.  He knew he was at risk because of an earlier flirtation with Stalin’s bete noir Trotsky over the issue of socialism in one country.  The tone of the essay was accordingly abject and fawning.  In keeping with the spirit of the times, all this was neatly rationalized by English Communist Alec Brown, who provided notes to the essays.  In his words,

    We mostly see only what we have been trained to see by upbringing, environment and habit. Thus, the average British reader of Radek’s paper on Stalin is, until he gives it more thought, bound to be inclined to see hero-worship, and to be quite blind to what Radek really is about. But as this paper on Stalin turns on the essential harmony between communism and individuality – on the way the one necessitates and breeds the other – it is worth while drawing attention to the basic feature of the Marxist-Leninist Party, ignorance of or misunderstanding of which leads to the rather comical confusion made by the average non-Marxist student of the civilization of the future… Further it cannot be made too clear that this Marxist non-individualist scientific approach to social problems does not stultify individual life… And it follows that since the ‘man at the top’ owes his position not to any ‘personal magnetism’ or sex appeal, but to the very same qualities which make a great leader of science, plus tested personal courage, it makes possible really honest praise of a great man, a praise which is the very opposite to hero-worship.

    Be that as it may, Radek’s “really honest praise” didn’t sway Stalin.  He was arrested and tried for “treason” two years after the book was published, and was shot by the NKVD in 1939.  How is it that seemingly grownup, sober people could be taken in by these deadly charades over and over again?  The same way they have always been taken in – by virtue of ardently believing in something that is palpably untrue.  Historically, that something has typically been a religion.  “Scientific” Communism was, for all practical purposes, a religion as well, and has been easily recognizable as such from the earliest days.  Astute observers have likened Communist and socialist bigwigs to so many cardinals, bishops, and popes since long before the days of Lenin.  The fact that Communism was different from its more traditional analogs by virtue of being secular rather than spiritual altered nothing in its fundamental nature.  That fact was appreciated as early as the first half of the 19th century by the brilliant British essayist, Sir James MacKintosh.  It happens that the ideology of “class struggle” was already highly developed in his day, well before the time of Marx.  Presciently, he pointed out that such doctrines were eventually bound to fail, because they promised an illusory paradise on earth, rather than in the hereafter.  Having the advantage of not being dead, the “liberated” people were bound to eventually look around and take notice of the fact that the promised paradise was nowhere to be seen. 

    Eventually, that’s just what happened in the Soviet Union, and its demise meant the end of Communism as a messianic world view, although the name lingers on.  The paradise went bankrupt.  We are left with the question of why, if an astute Englishman could see it all coming almost two centuries ago, so many seemingly intelligent and highly educated people were so completely taken in by Communism for so long, in spite of purge trials, mass slaughter, and human misery on a vast scale.

    The answer lies in human nature.  Of Communism as a framework for social organization, E. O. Wilson once famously quipped, “Great theory, wrong species.”  That was certainly true as far as its outcome and practicality are concerned, but far off the mark in terms of its power as a messianic world view.  Indeed, its compelling power in the latter capacity was a reflection of its perfect harmony with human nature. 

    Specifically, Communism was extremely effective at exploiting those aspects of human nature we associate with morality.  Its adherents sought to achieve the ultimate “good,” in the form of the future felicity of mankind, or, as latter day architects of the latest moral systems might put it, “human flourishing.”  They achieved all the emotional satisfaction that human beings have always derived from serving a cause they believe is noble and good, in company with other, like-minded individuals, the fellow members of what one might call their tribe, or ingroup.  They derived an emotional satisfaction just as powerful by opposing the ultimate “evil,” which, in their case, was represented by the bourgeoisie.  Any opposition outside the ingroup or heresy within was associated with the bourgeois outgroup.  No matter if the enemy of the moment had no perceptible control over the social means of production.  In that case, one merely added a qualifier, such as “petty” bourgeoisie, and the association with evil was complete.  Eventually, the whole movement came under the control of the ultimate high priest in the person of Stalin, who disposed of his rivals, including Radek and all the rest of the old Bolsheviks of any talent who had actually carried out the “proletarian” revolution, by transmuting them, in turn, into “bourgeoisie.” 

    And therein lays the fundamental fallacy of most of the modern cobblers of novel, revamped, and refurbished moralities.  In spite of the fact that all human history dangles it in front of their faces, somehow they always seem to manage to ignore the dual nature of human morality.  Every good implies an evil.  Every ingroup implies an outgroup.  Their fond hopes of “dialing up the knobs” controlling who we include in our ingroups to all mankind are doomed to failure because they ignore these fundamental truths about human nature.  There will always be a “bourgeoisie.”  Its identities are legion.  The Jews, heretics, global corporations, racial and ethnic minorities by the score; all these and many others have played the role of outgroup at one time or another.  Our nature predisposes us to identify an outgroup, and to treat those we identify with it with all the scorn, spite, and contempt that human beings have always reserved for outgroups.  We’ve been running a repeatable experiment that has abundantly confirmed this easily falsifiable fact for the last 5,000 years.  It’s called history.  Communism is merely one of the most recent of a mountain of data points that all point to this same fundamental truth.  Great thinkers like Arthur Keith, Konrad Lorenz, and Robert Ardrey have all pointed to this seemingly obvious aspect of our nature, and suggested that, instead of trying to wish it away, we seek to understand and control it.  I would suggest that the clever young scientists in fields such as evolutionary psychology and neuroscience who have already brought about a paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in recent years heed their advice.  We would do well to learn to understand ourselves.  Failing that, I expect there will be a great many more Karl Radeks in our future.

    Karl Radek

  • Of Statistical Mirages and Public Employee Compensation in Wisconsin

    Posted on March 2nd, 2011 Helian 1 comment

    It has never been advisable to take the statistics thrown out in the heat of political battles other than with a grain of salt.  As the old saying goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”  There are many ways to slip in the lie.  For example, one can introduce variations in the way that common terms are understood, or compare apples and oranges, or simply imply that facts have a significance that lacks any reasonable justification.  The battle between the Left and Right in Wisconsin over public unions has generated some interesting examples. 

    One of the most egregious comes from the left, although the right is hardly without sin in these matters.  Specifically, Ezra Klein of Journolist fame is citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that purportedly “proves” that Wisconsin public workers are actually under-compensated compared to their counterparts in the private sector.  The basis for his claim is a nice graph included in the study comparing public and private sector compensation as a function of educational attainment.  In all these comparisons except at the high school level, the public sector workers seem to be taking a huge hit, amounting to a deficit of anywhere from a quarter to a third compared to the private sector.  However, Ezra’s post quotes a couple of paragraphs from the EPI source document citing some caveats regarding this rather striking graph.  For example, at the very end of the quote, which appears in somewhat finer print than the bulk of the post, we learn that,

    Controlling for a larger range of earnings predictors—including not just education but also age, experience, gender, race, etc., Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.

    There is no explanation of why these controls weren’t factored in when the bar graph referred to above, which seems to show that public sector workers make a much greater sacrifice in order to serve the people of Wisconsin, was created.  It happens that one can find some possible reasons for the discrepancy if one “Googles” the EPI.  It turns out that Ezra somehow forgot to mention that the organization describes itself as “non-partisan but progressive.”  For those who happen not to be astute followers of US politics, those who deem themselves “progressives” are rather more likely to be found on the side of the public sector workers than the Republican party in Wisconsin.   Ezra also forgot to mention that the source of a big chunk of the EPI’s funding is unions.  Perhaps he thought it was too insignificant to mention.

    The cost to the state of public pensions is, of course, one of the major bones of contention between Wisconsin governor Walker and the public sector unions.  It would, therefore, seem a matter of some importance to calculate this cost with some rigor, and to explicitly document the method used in any document citing that cost.  Unfortunately, the EPI source document does not do so.  It merely states that,

    Retirement benefits account for 8% of state and local government compensation costs compared with 2.5% to 4.9% in the private sector.

    It is unfortunate that the details of the method used to arrive at this 8% figure are not described.  It seems rather dubious on the face of it.  For example, Wisconsin teachers who retire after 30 years service will draw 48% of their top pay in pension for the rest of their lives.  It would seem plausible to assume that “top pay” is rather larger than “average pay.”  A teacher hired at the age of 25 would reach retirement age at 55.  At this age, the average life expectancy for US males is about 25 years, and for females about 28.  Any way you figure it, the cost of providing a pension of 48% of top pay for over a quarter of a century dwarfs the 8% figure cited by EPI.  Throw in the fact that this figure does not include retiree health and other non-cash benefits, and the discrepancy gapes even wider.  On the other hand, the average teacher will likely work for less than the required 30 years.  The EPI article does not mention how these and other seemingly salient factors are included in the data.  Apparently, its figure is based on the amount of money the state is currently setting aside to fund the pensions, a wildly inaccurate metric for determining what they will eventually actually cost.  Given that the organization is anything but an unbiased third party, this would seem to be a rather prominent red flag to anyone tempted to cite them as a source.

    In a word, dear reader, to credit statistics thrown out by ideologues is to skate on thin ice.  Their main value lies in pointing the way to source material.  Should you really be so bold as to seek to isolate a small fragment of something as evanescent as the truth, you will have to endure the tedious task of sifting through a great deal of that source material on your own.