Monday, September 27, 2004

Cyanotic and Cynical

I could not decide whether to make the background for this post green or make it blue. Green is for science posts; blue for political posts. Actually, this is a common problem at The Corpus Callosum. Much of what is posted here pertains to both. Perhaps I should start using a cyan background for those.

Cyan is an interesting word. It refers to the color that lies halfway between green and blue on the color wheel. The sound of it brings to mind the word "cyanotic," which is a medical term referring to the color of blue that a person gets when he or she is not getting enough oxygen. Usually, people who are cyanotic die fairly soon. It also brings to mind the word "cynical." Cynical and cyanotic are two adjectives that describe what politics does to people.

Anyway, I have been on call all week, not getting a lot of sleep, and not doing much blogging. This weekend, I saw enough tragedy that is directly attributable to failures of the social services "safety net" that I need to unwind. Not wanting to spend a lot of time, I went to Blogpulse  to see what everyone else is writing about.  I decided to write about this item:

7. washingtonpost.com - (citations)
    .... The Washington Post carries a couple of articles worth looking at today:Anti-Terrorism measures delaying immigration, which gives you a startling look at the post 9-11 backlog that's built up. With yours truly stuck somewhere in the backlog.Bush flip-flops, but Kerry wears the label, a nice little list of times the President has changed tack. So why's Kerry the one who's accused of constantly doing ....

I read the article, which basically points out that for every documented instance of Kerry changing his mind, there is at least one example of Bush doing the same. 

The flip-flopper, Democrats say, is President Bush. Over the past four years, he abandoned positions on issues such as how to regulate air pollution or whether states should be allowed to sanction same-sex marriage. He changed his mind about the merits of creating the Homeland Security Department, and made a major exception to his stance on free trade by agreeing to tariffs on steel. After resisting, the president yielded to pressure in supporting an independent commission to study policy failures preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush did the same with questions about whether he would allow his national security adviser to testify, or whether he would answer commissioners' questions for only an hour, or for as long they needed. [...]

Once such a popular perception becomes fixed, public opinion experts and strategists say, virtually every episode in the campaign is viewed through that prism, while facts that do not fit with existing assumptions -- such as Bush's history of policy shifts -- do not have much impact in the political debate.

Why these impressions became so firmly fixed in the first place is a source of debate. [...]

I truncated the article where I did, because that is where the author and I diverge.  The author, John F. Harris, goes on to explain the positions taken by the Bush campaigners and the Kerry campaigners on the flip-flop label.  In my opinion, the author goes astray by not addressing his the opening sentence, "Why these impressions became so firmly fixed in the first place is a source of debate."  I do wonder why that is.  The answer is not in the specifics of this campaign.  The answer, at least the interesting answer, lies in the domain of human psychology. 

The human mind is always looking for shortcuts.  Having limited processing power, it is adaptive for people not to have to think through everything carefully.  Rather than remember all the bits of evidence that add up to a conclusion, then review all the evidence every time that conclusion is used to make a decision, people merely remember the conclusion and forget the evidence.  Also, a lot of people have trouble telling the difference between an observation and a conclusion.  Another factor is this: most people don't want to be bothered with the details.  They just want someone to tell them what to think.  They look to whomever they think of as an authority, and take their word for it.  The problem there is, that most people seem to decide on their authority figures the same way high school student decide who is the most popular, which is the same way that dogs decide who is the alpha male. 

If you what people a lot, which I tend to do, since that is what I get paid to do, you notice that most people are more influenced in their thinking by conclusions.  This is particularly true for conclusions that people draw about topics that have a social significance.  For example, if you are a Wolverines fan, you tend to think that the Michigan quarterback is better than he really is.  When you decide to be a Wolverine, you are, in part, defining your social network.  People are reluctant to change their sense of self.  This is true to such an extent that people will ignore evidence that contradicts whatever conclusions they have drawn on topics that define their social status. 

A good example of this is that subgroup of persons who define themselves as fundamentalist Christians and who identify themselves as Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents.  Despite mountains (literally, mountains) of evidence to the contrary, they gleefully point to a few scraps of circumstantial evidence of some minor hypothesis, and categorically reject the obvious conclusion.  I won't go into that any further here, but interested readers (all four of you) can go to the Panda's Thumb (link in sidebar) to see what I mean.

As it happens, one's choice for President is a decision that has profound social implications: it is part of what defines your identity in a social context.  Being too lazy to examine the evidence themselves, people look to their role models and see what conclusions the Authorities have drawn.  They remember the conclusions, and ignore the evidence. 

If it sounds like I'm complaining, I am.  But the politicians we have now, are doing a lousy job; as a result, I spent most of the weekend away from my family, trying to fix the problems that the politicians have caused.

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