Always Shuck your Tamales: on the rationality of voting

Two recent essays treat the issue of the rationality of political affiliations from very different methodological angles. Both are short pieces intended for lay readers, so it’s probably unfair to take potshots at their simplicity… but I’m going to anyway.

Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) wonders here whether perhaps brain chemistry can explain the tendency of “liberals” to be more sensitive than others to human suffering and more averse to retributive justice: Democrats, a study suggests, “think more” with the amydala (part of the limbic system), the seat of the emotions. Right away, my balderdash-detector buzzes: I can think of many leftist positions (Whig progressivism, Marxism) that we associate with the denial of emotionalism in favor of analytical calculation, and many rightist tendencies that prefer strong, “gut feelings” to logic (nearly all forms of fundamentalism, for instance). Correlating amydala activity to political positions seems quixotic, at the least, to me. But what Johnson giveth, he quickly taketh away: “One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes.” This would seem to retract much of the explanatory power Johnson promised, and we are left with the somewhat tautological conclusion that emotional people’s brains are emotional, however they got that way. At this point Johnson retreats to this position: perhaps people choose their political party by sensing temperamental commonality between themselves and peers of their party, which is interesting but again strongly reductive. As with much neuropsychology, my sense is that the levels of complexity intervening between neurological and social phenomena need far more elaborate treatment.

Louis Menand, in this piece, comes at the issue from the perspective of an intellectual historian reviewing sociological analyses of voting behavior. Menand refers extensively to the work of political scientist Philip Converse, who concluded in a 1964 article “that ‘very substantial portions of the public’ hold opinions that are essentially meaningless.” Menand then provides more figures that bespeak the utter insufficiency of rational choice theory to account for voting behavior: “In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted. …Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman.” Adducing various theories (election results are arbitrary, they are oligarchical struggles amidst the “elite”), Menand finds one with the potential to salvage some civic belief, namely, that voters may respond to irrationally chosen cues, but that these cues are nonetheless accurate heuristics ( a primary example being Mexican-Americans’ support for Carter in ’76 after Ford tried to eat the corn husk of a tamale – a different kind of gut response, I guess). Menand rightly is skeptical of the rather Panglossian heuristic theory, but follows with a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion: “For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.” Surely the political is always a subset of the social, unless by social Menand means the restricted sense of immediate interpersonal relations. Oddly, in begging the question, he has arrived at a similar black box to Johnson, that of the social roots of behavior, only from the opposite epistemological starting point.

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Let’s Go To Mars

After the last space shuttle blew up some people got conservative and some people got misty eyed. I think it is time to start feeling intrepid again. The chance that NASA will try and get a manned mission to Mars is probably slim. Still, recent successes in the private sector have been pretty inspiring and there are always the pictures from Mars and the surrounding neighborhood to keep the heart jumping. In the end, we may have to rely on some grad students from Texas to get the job done. Such would be the ironies of it all.

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August 24, 2004

There is a tide in the affairs of men…

Holidaying at the seaside last week I became obsessed with the local bay beach. At low tide we walked endlessly on the ocean floor, marvelling at the bounty of life teeming in the tidal pools; and then the entire scene would transform into a raging sea of crashing waves on a windy evening at high tide. As I described this to my brother later, he wondered why we have never channeled the immense energy of diurnal tides to generate power. Here are some explanations and more about tides.

And speaking of the bounty of tidal flats (we had some phenomenally delicious oysters) and the effects of the full moon on ocean tides, here’s a quote from Worldwide Gourmet about oysters: “In love, you know, shellfish are your allies,” said Brillat-Savarin. Full of iodine, phosphorus and trace elements, oysters are stimulants and have always been a symbol of femininity. It is said that at the time of the full moon, oysters secrete an aphrodisiac hormone – but do you dare ask your fishmonger if he knows when his oysters were collected?”

I wonder what the oysters are like in the Bay of Fundy where the highest tides occur in the world.

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Richard Pena does it again

This year’s New York Film Festival will assemble a pretty great lineup, including new movies from Almodovar, Alexander Payne, Hou Hsou-Hsien, Zhang Yimou, Mike Leigh, Agnes Jaoui and, for good measure, Jean-Luc Godard. Catch some at the one of the best places to see a flick in the city, the Walter Reade Theater. Here’s a review of what’s coming.

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Mapping your ethics on a moral philosophy scale, sort of

In keeping with Battleground God, there’s this. This Ethical Philosophy Selector offers a set of questions. “These questions reflect the dilemmas that have captured the attention of history’s most significant ethical philosophers. Answer the questions as best you can. When you’re finished answering the questions, press ‘Select Philosophy’ to generate your customized match of ethical philosophers/philosophies. The list orders the philosophers/philosophies according to their compatibility with your expressed opinions on ethics.”

My results, which left me horrified at least by the position of Ayn Rand (too high), Bentham (too high), and the Epicureans (too low):

1. John Stuart Mill (100%)
2. Kant (99%)
3. Prescriptivism (78%)
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (71%)
5. Aquinas (68%)
6. Ayn Rand (66%)
7. Jeremy Bentham (63%)
8. Aristotle (61%)
9. Epicureans (60%)
10. Spinoza (45%)
11. Stoics (45%)
12. Ockham (40%)
13. St. Augustine (38%)
14. Nel Noddings (34%)
15. Plato (33%)
16. David Hume (26%)
17. Nietzsche (24%)
18. Thomas Hobbes (13%)
19. Cynics (3%)

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Judging what’s most untranslatable

Today Translations’ site lists the most untranslatable words, as measured by a poll of a thousand professional translators and interpreters it conducted for the BBC. “Plenipotentiary” won as the most untranslatable English word. The winner among foreign language words is “ilunga [a Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire].”

However, Lanuage Log is skeptical. “The thing that puzzles me, though, is where Zilinskiene [head of Today Translations] turned up 1,000 linguists who know Tshiluba vocabulary. I’m beginning to get the feeling that this survey might have been a class project in one of Zilinskiene’s Problematics courses…”

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August 23, 2004

Battleground God

“Can your beliefs about religion make it across our intellectual battleground? In this activity you’ll be asked a series of 17 questions about God and religion…The aim of the activity is not to judge whether these answers are correct or not. Our battleground is that of rational consistency.” To test whether or not your religious belief cuts the logical mustard, click here.

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Review of Eqbal Ahmad’s Between Past and Future

A collection of Eqbal Ahmad’s writings on South Asia has recently been released. You can find reviews of Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia here and here.

Eqbal Ahmad was a remarkable figure who lived a phenomenal life. A brief biography and selected articles are available here and here.

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Quiz Department

“In May, the White House announced that George W. Bush would deliver five weekly speeches intended to shore up support for his Iraq policies. How many of the five did he deliver before abandoning the effort?

(a) One.
(b) Two.
(c) Three.
(d) Four.

Answer: (a)”

One question in an amusing if predictable Bush quiz from the current New Yorker. Also check out this obliquely related but fairly thrilling profile of the Olympic experience of the Iraqi soccer team, from the same organ.

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Musical Travelling Theory

I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately and this has provided an occasion to reappreciate the Avalanches’ 2002 record, Since I Left You. It is a modern classic, and one of the few pieces of music I’ve heard that uses the potential of sampling technology as the basis for a new formal art. As with most formally brilliant aesthetic output, repeat auditions reward the listener with previously unnoticed features. Their sound has tremendous density and a symphonic tendency for elements to fade in and out of conscious hearing: the horse’s whinny that has structurally replaced the hip-hop horn, the sunken counterpoint to a haunting piano riff, the celebrated use of the bassline from Madonna’s “Holiday.” Additionally, I love the Avalanches’ internationalism: they’re Australian djs who happily circumnavigate in search of cool sounds. They also invent a space in which the listener (temporarily) becomes a global citizen, travelling the world and thinking contrapuntally. In short, a work of genius. If you want an accurate review try here.

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August 22, 2004

August 21, 2004

muslims and stuff

I’m not sure if they have quite captured the full humor potential here but it is worth taking a look at the first Islamic version of Onion Magazine. By the way, this site was brought to my attention by Alan Koenig of Doghead. If there is a better place for analysis and insight into the policy twists and turns of the Iraq war I don’t know what it is, though Ackerman’s Iraq’d is always worth reading. And, if you don’t know of Juan Cole you have your head in the sand on the matter.

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Benjamin Lee Whorf Resurrected?

In 1956, Benjamin Lee Whorf published Language, Thought, and Reality, which he concluded with the following.

“Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is shown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person’s thought are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is conscious. These patterns are unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language–shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in another language–in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese.”

A year later, Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures and launched the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and, well, a bunch of fields, effectively destroying claims such as Whorf’s and inaugurating one of the most successful research projects in modern science.

But now comes this.

“[A]re there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?

No one has ever definitively answered that question, but new findings by Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, strongly support a “yes” answer. [Details of the study will appear in the Thursday, August 19, issue of the journal Science.] Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Pirahã, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond “one,” “two” and “many.” Even the Piraha word for “one” appears to refer to “roughly one” or a small quantity, as opposed to the exact connotation of singleness in other languages.

What these experiments show, according to Gordon, is how having the right linguistic resources can carve out one’s reality. ‘Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories,’ Gordon said. ‘Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality.’

When given numerical tasks by Gordon in which they were asked to match small sets of objects in varying configurations, adult members of the tribe responded accurately with up to two or three items, but their performance declined when challenged with eight to 10 items, and dropped to zero with larger sets of objects. The only exception to this performance was with tasks involving unevenly spaced objects. Here, the performance of participants deteriorated as the number of items increased to 6 items. Yet for sets of 7 to 10 objects, performance was near perfect. Though these tasks were designed to be more difficult, Gordon hypothesizes that the uneven spacing allowed subjects to perceive the items as smaller ‘chunks’ of 2 or 3 items that they could then match to corresponding groups.

According to the study, performance by the Piraha was poor for set sizes above 2 or 3, but it was not random. . .” (read on)

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images of others

Amidst the twaddle and bilge written about modern “media culture” (e.g., bad academese, exhibit one , and bad academese, exhibit two ) some serious and insightful commentary on the role of images in everyday life still somehow manages to get written. One of the many morals of the past century must surely be that “we” have a weird fascination not only for images of celebrities and of the “lifestyles” of the insanely wealthy, but also for photographs of “Others” – preferably when they are compromised, suffering, in pain, and /or dying. However disturbing, this fascination is nothing new (e.g., Goya’s “Disasters of War” ).

The photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, the internet broadcast of beheadings, and the lynching of American soldiers have collectively posed some truly basic but interesting and knotty questions: should pictures of the dead and dying be published? Should we even be looking at these kinds of images (and if so, to what end? and if not, what is lost? – is it better to see these kinds of military engagements from afar, as cinematic fireworks raining down on some far away city, or to see the casualties see up close, made to face the mutilated bodies of the dead…)? and finally, the big question: why are we so drawn to such things, anyway? Luc Sante wrote one of the most compelling essays on the Abu Ghraib scandal, which can be found here . The indispensible thoughts of Susan Sontag on “regarding the pain of others” can be found here. If you want to read an intelligent critique/commentary on Sontag’s book, (it’s an email conversation b/w Luc Sante and novelist Jim Lewis), you can find it here . Rightly or wrongly, no iconic images seem to have emerged from 9/11 (unlike the Abu Ghraib scandal, which produced at least one remarkably iconic image, the one you no doubt know, which can be found here . Art critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau has written a brilliant essay on one image that might fit the bill. That weirdly beautiful image is a photograph of the falling body of a man positioned precisely between the two towers, plunging Icarus-like to the pavement far below. Although this photograph was initially reprinted widely (the NY Times, for example, published it), it was quickly taken out of circulation, and has rarely been seen since. You can find that photograph, along with an essay by the photographer, here . There clearly IS something unsettling about finding images of catastrophe and suffering somehow beautiful (although one wonders about how an image like this will be viewed in the future…we seem to require an icon to suggest national trauma: one thinks of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother). Anyhoo, all discussions about what images mean tend to hinge upon (economic, social, aesthetic, or historical context); if you want to indulge in the rare pleasure of viewing photographs some guy found and put up on the internet (i.e., photographs with no context whatsoever), you can find some great ones here .

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