Don’t let your babies grow up to marry Republicans

Nice piece from Tom Edsall examining the political science research on how Democrats and Republicans are growing ever farther apart.  This infographic about how you would feel about a child marrying someone of the other political party really captures it:



And a long excerpt that hits the key points:

In an email exchange, Iyengar speculated on a number of reasons for the increase in polarization:

Residential neighborhoods are politically homogeneous as are social media networks. I suspect this is one of the principal reasons for the significantly increased rate of same-party marriages. In 1965, a national survey of married couples showed around sixty-five percent agreement among couples. By 2010, the agreement rate was near 90 percent.

The result, according to Iyengar, is that “since inter-personal contact across the party divide is infrequent, it is easier for people to buy into the caricatures and stereotypes of the out party and its supporters.”

Iyengar’s findings are backed up by a 2014 Pew Research Center study that revealed that “the level of antipathy that members of each party feel toward the opposing party has surged over the past two decades.” Fully 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats believe the opposition party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,” Pew found…

More recently, a group of four scholars working with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Thomas Talhelm, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Virginia, have developed a new line of inquiry into the causes and nature of polarization. Their paper, “Liberals Think More Analytically Than Conservatives,” was published online in December. It argues that

partisans on both sides believe different facts, use different economic theories, and hold differing views of history. But might the differences run even deeper? Do liberals and conservatives process the same set of facts with different cultural thought styles?

The answer, according to Talhelm, Haidt and their colleagues: “liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures.”

These researchers argue that liberals share a propensity for analytic thinking and have

a stronger preference for deep thought and a rejection of simple solutions. Liberals are more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, and they have less of a need for order, structure and closure.

Analytic thinking, in this view, “emphasizes slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced from context — much like scientific analysis requires thinkers to separate complex phenomena into separate parts.” Talhelm elaborated in a phone conversation: The analytic thinking typical of liberals is “more conscious, more focused on the rules of logic.”

Conversely, these researchers define holistic thinking – which they consider more typical of conservatives — as “seeing scenes as a whole and seeing people as a product of situations.” Talhelm described this style of thought as “more automatic, caught up in emotions, and in some ways less adherent to the rules of logic.”

As for any of this ending anytime soon.  Don’t count on it:

This is not an easy problem for politicians to solve. Republican andDemocratic leaders are struggling to moderate their parties’ most extreme ideological positioning. But if polarization reflects primal aspects of the human condition, particularly when we are under stress, it isn’t going anywhere. However much they might want to pitch themselves toward the center, politicians will feel the need to tap into the energy, not to mention the primary votes, that ideological purity provides. It is this contradiction between purity and pragmatism that will shape the political landscape for the foreseeable future.



The unfortunate politics of vaccines

Oh, we would be so much better if Republican presidential candidates didn’t all of a sudden start pandering to the anti-vaccine crowd.  Because Obama is for vaccines?  Chris Christie called for “balance.”  I like this from Alexandra Petri:

And Paul Waldman takes on Christie’s abdication of responsibility:

And it gets worse: Christie said, “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official.”

No, no, a thousand times no. It’s great that Christie vaccinated his children, but it’s also completely irrelevant. And what he thinks as a parent is absolutely not more important than what he thinks as a public official. Want to know why? Because he’s a public official. That means that he has a responsibility for the health and welfare of the nine million people who live in his state. I am so tired of politicians who say, “My most important title is Mom/Dad.” It isn’t. When you decided to run for public office, you accepted that there would be times when you’d have to act in the public interest regardless of your family’s interest, or your friends’ interest, or the interest of the town you grew up in. When you took the oath of office you made a covenant that you’d work on behalf of the larger community. The fact that you’re a parent can help you understand other parents and their concerns, but it doesn’t change your primary responsibility.

Yeah, that.  A Times piece places into the broader category of distrusting science:

The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives.

It is a dance Republican candidates often do when they hedge their answers about whether evolution should be taught in schools. It is what makes the fight over global warming such a liability for their party, and what led last year to a widely criticized response to the Ebola scare.

But, it is really, really bad for this to become politicized. Nice piece from Chris Mooney:

If at some point, vaccinations get framed around issues of individual choice and freedom vs. government mandates — as they did in the “Christie vs. Obama” narrative — and this in turn starts to map onto right-left differences in American, then watch out. People could start getting political signals that they ought to align their views on vaccines — or, even worse, their vaccination behaviors — with the views of the party they vote for. [emphasis mine]

Granted, I’m not saying we’re there now. Christie’s backtrack suggests he himself doesn’t want to go there. But it’s a scary thought. Just as we lament how polarized and partisan the climate issue has gotten, we should also pray that the same never happens with vaccines.

Mooney also includes this helpful graph that shows– to this point– it has not really been an ideological issue:

Finally, Brendan Nyhan on what we should and should not be doing:

Moreover, the outbreak has fueled a backlash against the anti-vaccine movement that is likely to be counterproductive. Dr. James Cherry, an infectious disease specialist at U.C.L.A., for instance, labeled parents of unvaccinated children “selfish” and “dumb,” while a Los Angeles Times columnist, Michael Hiltzik, called for treating “the anti-vaccination crowd” as “public enemies.” If we’ve learned anything in politics over the last few decades, it’s that this kind of language is likely to be polarizing, driving people away rather than persuading them…

Research on social norms campaigns has likewise found a risk of boomerang effects if messages inadvertently normalize undesirable behavior like binge drinking.

In fact, the social consensus in favor of vaccination is overwhelming. Even after recent increases, for instance, only 3 percent of kindergartners in California had an exemption from vaccination. The evidence suggests we should strengthen and reinforce this norm, not create an uproar that calls it into question.

A more proven approach is to work in a more targeted fashion to help health care providers identify at-risk patients and communicate with them more effectively. Likewise, we could support community, business, educational and health groups in areas at greater risk of outbreaks and help them promote the importance of vaccination within their communities. Trusted friends and neighbors can be more effective advocates than government health agencies.

Finally, it may be time to reconsider overly lenient state exemption policies that fail to strike an appropriate balance between public health and personal autonomy. The Disneyland outbreak may not change most people’s minds about vaccines, but if it causes policy makers to re-evaluate the status quo, this episode might do some good after all.

This is too important to all of us for politicians to come in and ruin it.  Here’s looking at you prominent Republicans and Fox News.

Photo of the day

From a Popular Science gallery:

The European Southern Observatory released this image of the God’s Hand cometary globule. It’s generally pretty hard to see, which makes this image taken by the Very Large Telescope important for figuring out more about the fairly mysterious nebula.

You must obey this blog post

Most everybody is familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in which subjects were verbally coerced into providing extreme (but unknown to them, fake) electrical shocks to other people.  If you are somehow not familiar, youtube is a great place to familiarize yourself.

Milgram’s book on the experiments is actually one of the best books I read as an undergraduate.  It is basically a master class in how to do thoughtful, experimental social science.  There was round after round of experimentation as each time Milgram sought to isolate a different factor which may be accounting for the results.  And the substantially different effects of the variations are quite interesting (e.g., conducting the experiment away from the institutional authority of Yale, holding down somebody’s hand to a shock plate, etc.).

I bring all this up now, as there was a nice piece in the Atlantic recently about how modern psychologists are re-thinking the meaning of Milgram’s work.

In recent years, though, much of the attention has focused less on supporting or discrediting Milgram’s statistics, and more on rethinking his conclusions. With a paper published earlier this month in the British Journal of Social Psychology, Matthew Hollander, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, is among the most recent to question Milgram’s notion of obedience. After analyzing the conversation patterns from audio recordings of 117 study participants, Hollander found that Milgram’s original classification of his subjects—either obedient or disobedient—failed to capture the true dynamics of the situation. Rather, he argued, people in both categories tried several different forms of protest—those who successfully ended the experiment early were simply better at resisting than the ones that continued shocking…

It’s a far cry from Milgram’s idea that the capacity for evil lies dormant in everyone, ready to be awakened with the right set of circumstances. The ability to disobey toxic orders, Hollander said, is a skill that can be taught like any other—all a person needs to learn is what to say and how to say it.

I love that point because I’ve always felt that simply knowing about the Milgram experiments makes me far less likely to shock anybody up to 450 volts (or, the metaphorical equivalent, of course).  And I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Anyway, as to what we are supposed to make of all this today…

He [Stephen Reicher] and his colleague Alex Haslam, the third co-editor of The Journal of Social Issues’ Milgram edition and a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, have come up with a different answer. “The notion that we somehow automatically obey authority, that we are somehow programmed, doesn’t account for the variability [in rates of obedience] across conditions,” he said; in some iterations of Milgram’s study, the rate of compliance was close to 100 percent, while in others it was closer to zero. “We need an account that can explain the variability—when we obey, when we don’t.”

“We argue that the answer to that question is a matter of identification,” he continued. “Do they identify more with the cause of science, and listen to the experimenter as a legitimate representative of science, or do they identify more with the learner as an ordinary person? … You’re torn between these different voices. Who do you listen to?”

The question, he conceded, applies as much to the study of Milgram today as it does to what went on in his lab. “Trying to get a consensus among academics is like herding cats,” Reicher said, but “if there is a consensus, it’s that we need a new explanation. I think nearly everybody accepts the fact that Milgram discovered a remarkable phenomenon, but he didn’t provide a very compelling explanation of that phenomenon.”

What he provided instead was a difficult and deeply uncomfortable set of questions—and his research, flawed as it is, endures not because it clarifies the causes of human atrocities, but because it confuses more than it answers.


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