Sunday, April 27, 2008

We believe what we believe

Steven Pinker, a man whom I greatly admire, has written a wonderful book, The Blank Slate, which reads like an adventure story. In it, at one point, he mentions evidence I have alluded to earlier, a massive study which indicates that, in the U.S. at least, where citizens have guns there is less crime. Makes sense to me; after all, if I'm a mugger and I think that citizen X is likely to be packing, I'm more inclined to leave him or her alone. If I'm drugged, crazy, or desperate, then all bets are off, of course.

My point here, though, is that Steven Pinker, very rational person, burster of bubbles, can't quite bring himself to accept the evidence. He says something to the effect that , well the evidence is there but I'm not sure I can accept it.

And why not? What is it that makes people of sound mind shy away from accepting certain propositions? Not only about guns, of course, but about all sorts of things - lifestyle choices (euphemism alert!), religious beliefs, life after death, no life after death, UFO's, conspiracies, you make it. You are usually either for it or agin it. The stand seems to come before the evidence. That is, you believe in something and then you search for evidence to support what you believe in. Counter evidence is either dismissed or seen as somehow "flawed."

Case in point. For years now there has been mounting evidence that the first Americans didn't come across a land bridge from Siberia, but coast-hopped along the North and South American continents all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The opposition to this theory has been vigorous, voluminous, and sometime vitriolic (sorry, hit the alliteration button on my computer). Aside from the fact that tenure and fame are at stake, I think that some scholars simply believe in the land bridge, even though the evidence indicates that it wasn't there.

In my down days I think that nothing can change such beliefs. I think they are buried too deeply in our theory of the world to be rooted out and changed. On my up days, I think that perhaps people can change deeply rooted beliefs. Today, I'm kinda drawn to the words of Matthew Arnold:

Charge once more then, and be dumb
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall
Find thy body by the wall.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Frothing subjects

I'm reading a fascinating book on the early history of migrations in America. The thesis of the author is that Native Americans took a shoreline route from Asia to Tierra del Fuego, and not the land-bridge route that was formerly the received wisdom. When he talks about opposition to the shoreline route, he makes it clear that they are wrongheaded, pigheaded, and headed for a fall, but he is still respectful. Only one time does he blow his stack, and that's when he's talking about a group of people who think at least some of the Native Americans were Caucasian (an idea that has been around for a long time, by the way). He speaks of their arguments as "spewing venom," and gets kinda nasty about the whole thing.

He's right, I think. The "Europeans in America in 13000 BCE" idea is a little much. But why the fury? Why the names, the insults, the rancor? After all, they are no more wrong than the land-bridge people.

It's because these people have hit one of the froth-at-the-mouth buttons: race. The author of the book can't help himself. He has to come unglued. There are a number of such buttons, on both left and right sides of the aisle. Race is one, of course. Abortion, guns, sexual identity are three more. When folks light on these topics, they cease being rational beings and become robots. As soon as the topic of guns comes up, people rush to the ramparts to do battle on one side or the other. Our own Salt Lake Tribune weighed in today on guns, for example. They decried a move to make Utah's concealed carry permits good in other states. "Oh, sure," they opined, "that will make us safer." Well, actually, it will. And that's not just me talking. That's dyed in the wool, rock solid, brass plated, academic research. More guns equals less crime. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, "An armed society is a polite society." Have I quoted that before? I'm having a burst of deja vu here. But that's not the point. The point is that if I rubbed the corporate nose of the Tribune in the facts, smothered them with data, their editorial position wouldn't change. Guns are the devil and that's all there is to it. Gays are perverts and that's all there is to it. All races are entirely equal and that's all there is to it. Sex except to make children is evil and that's all there is to it. Don't be smug, liberals, you do it too. Don't be cocky conservatives, you do your fair share. And me, so do I.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Veep as sidekick

All this speculation about a veep for Hillary, Barack, or John has got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the sidekick. The sidekick has always been an important literary and/or dramatic figure. The sidekick tells the hero’s story or serves as the foil so that the hero can show off (“What’re we going to do now, Roy?” “Elementary, my dear Watson.”).

Turns out there are actually three types of sidekicks. The most populated category is the sidekick who is an “inferior” (please note the quotes) social, racial, or cultural specimen. I call this category the Tonto. The job of the Tonto is to scout around, fetch food and water, hold the horses, occasionally get beat up, and to ask the right questions. A smaller category is the Watson, a sidekick who is the social and ethnic equal of the hero, but who is kind of a dim bulb. Pat Buttram for Gene Autrey, Gabby Hayes for Roy Rogers, Watson for Holmes. Finally, there is the smallest category of all, the Jeeves, usually used in comic situations. This sidekick is the social inferior of the hero, but the intellectual or moral superior. It’s so small that I can think of only two people: Jeeves and Sancho Panza.

In our pc times, the first type of sidekick is disappearing. Instead, we get the buddy system, in which two ethnically diverse types find common ground. Riggs and Murtaugh, Jackie Chan and Chris Rock. It all started with Starsky and Hutch, don’cha know.

So, what is our new veep going to be? Keeping in mind that we have to “balance the ticket,” I think I’ll have to propose a new category: the shadow. It’s a sidekick whose job is to stand around and support the president until the president either 1) kicks off, 2) serves eight years and then gets out of the way, or 3) has to resign. Given the fact that any politician has a brass-bound super-sized ego, this is a hard role to fill.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Are you a racist?

Been thinking about being a racist. Not whether I should become one, but whether I am one. Part of the problem is that "racist" is a created category, like noir movies, and not a category that is inherent in existence. Thus, a racist is what the definers say it is. F'rinstance, there might not even be such a thing as race according to some thinkers. Humans are so closely linked genetically that suggesting some sort of division based on physical characteristics is specious. There is some merit to this. On the other hand, we are nearly identical to chimps genetically, but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one. If the random hand of evolution has shaped some people with noses different from mine, and color different from mine, I am willing to accept that it has also shaped people with brains different from mine. Would that make me a racist? And that's the crunch. For although it is allowable to talk about genetic differences in color and dentition (because you can't ignore them), it is verboten to even breathe that there might be genetically determined differences in intellectual or spiritual makeup. This is an article of faith, not an empirically derived, data-driven stance. Any genetic difference in any intellectual capacity whatever (even a heightened ability in spatial consciousness) always carries with it the possibility that some people are (gasp) better than others. But what if it's true? What if some genetic groups are better at finding their way in the wilderness than others? What do we do if it's so? And does considering the possibility make me a racist?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Election outcome

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been using the online card game "Hearts," to predict the outcome of the presidential election. I figure it's as accurate as anything. Here's how it works: I assign myself as a player, and then Hillary, Barack, and John as opponents. Now, this means that there are games within games, as Hillary and Barack are playing against each other as well as against John, and I'm the electorate (So, I should, in theory win every game, right?). The whole thing is a wonderful metaphor for the electoral process. The beauty of it is that it's like a horoscope (Even if you get the wrong one, you can still make sense of it).

So, tonight, we started out with Hillary dumping on me big time. She knows about my conservative leanings, I guess. But it was John who jumped into the lead by stabbing me in the back. In the end, Barack won the nomination handily, but John won the election by a small though comfortable margin. And the electorate? He got the shaft.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The primaries (yawn)

More and more Hillary and Barack are looking like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, making it seem that the choice is between an African-American and a woman rather than between policy positions. This is the ultimate liberal existential dilemma. I can kind of picture the inner conversation: "I'd really like to vote for Barack, to sort of make up for our shameful behavior to his ancestors. Wait, no. His ancestors weren't slaves. His father is an honest-to-goodness African. So, maybe I should vote for Hillary to sort of make up for our shameful behavior to women. On the other hand, Barack really is African-American, I mean literally. Hillary, though, has had her own non-denominational cross to bear (WJC), so perhaps I should vote for her. Barack, though, had to sit through those awful sermons."

Once it all shakes out, though, and the election process begins in earnest, then we will have two genuinely different positions. Won't the fur and mud fly then.

I've discovered the only sensible way to pick a presidential candidate. I've been playing the on-line card game Hearts, with three opponents: Hillary, Barack, and John. So far, Hillary is a tough and tenacious opponent, while Barack delights in giving me the queen of spades at odd intervals. John is kinda quiet and never gets in trouble. When the election gets down to Republican and Democrat, I'll have to factor in Nader. I wonder how he will play?