Tag Archives: science

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Can We Trade Trump For France’s Macron?

Remember “Freedom Fries”? Remember those sneering comments about the French? Because after all, we’re Amuricans, so we are clearly superior.

Right.

I watched the French election with interest. It was right after “Amurica” accidentally elected the Orange Ignoramus, and thoughtful observers were worried whether our disastrous election–coming on the heels of the equally disastrous Brexit vote in England–heralded a global spread of white nationalist extremism.

Trump, if you’ll recall, endorsed Marine Le Pen.

Fortunately, Trump’s Le Pen endorsement was every bit as effective as his lukewarm endorsement of Luther Strange and his full-throated advocacy for Roy Moore. The French election was won overwhelmingly by Emmanuel Macron. I’d been rooting for Macron–my middle son’s partner is Parisian and they split their time between Manhattan and Paris, so I had more insight into the French candidates than I would otherwise have had.

My preference for Macron has now been validated. As Reuters recently reported,

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron plans to award multi-year grants for several U.S.-based scientists to relocate to France, his office said on Monday on the eve of a climate summit hosted by the president to raise finances to counter global warming.

Macron unveiled the “Make our Planet Great Again” grants after President Donald Trump in June said he was pulling the United States out of an international accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that was brokered in Paris in 2015.

Macron repeatedly tried to persuade the U.S. leader to reverse his decision. In a statement, the Elysee Palace said 13 of the initial 18 grants will be awarded to scientists based in the United States.

Meanwhile, our dumb and delusional President just dropped climate change from America’s National Security Strategy, in favor of “economic competitiveness.” (I assume we’ll be exceedingly competitive when we’re underfed and underwater..).

Lest you dismiss Macron’s offer to the scientific community as simply a (richly-deserved) middle-finger gesture to Trump, Science Magazine informs us that Macron’s invitation has already borne fruit:

French President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to lure disgruntled foreign climate scientists to France—especially from the United States—has produced its first harvest. France today announced that Macron’s Make Our Planet Great Again initiative has recruited its first class of 18 scientists. Of the new recruits, 13, including a few French nationals, now work in the United States, whereas others are based in Canada, India, and elsewhere in Europe.

It’s hard to disagree with the reaction of the liberal website Daily Kos:

Macron is appealing to shunned U.S. scientists with a simple message: Come do your work in France and we will give you grant money and respect you. What France gets out of the deal is a front-row seat for all of the environmental, energy, and other technical innovation that those scientists will now be producing in their new laboratories. Being on the forefront of new technology has been one of the surest ways to ensure your own workforce is highly skilled and earns high wages. You know, that thing that the United States was once famous for.

You have to wonder just how Donald Trump justifies his daily presidential existence when, at this point, even allies like France are openly mocking him. Donald said he’d be staffing our government with “the best people.” It turns out we got people like Kellyanne Conway while our “best people” take job offers in countries willing to respect their work.

Of course, Donald Trump doesn’t see any reason to “justify” his Presidential existence. He wouldn’t even understand the question.

America has elected an intellectually-challenged and severely mentally ill Chief Executive (casting serious doubt on the mental/intellectual capacities of American voters, but that’s a subject for a different day). Other countries–not just France, which will at least continue to be our ally during this depressing interlude– but China and of course Russia will take advantage of our diminished capacities and our dramatically declining global status.

But hey– Trump voters are happy. They got rid of that black President, brown people aren’t coming here anymore (even as tourists!), and as a bonus, they’re offloading those fancy-shmantsy elitists who do “science” and “facts.”

Happy (White Christian) days are here again….

 

The Roads Not Taken

The other day, my husband shared a great cartoon with me: a lecturer was standing by a whiteboard containing a list of actions to combat climate change, most of which would also result in cleaner air and water. A man at the back of the lecture hall is asking “But what if we make the world better and it turns out the scientists were wrong?”

It is difficult to understand opposition to efforts to ameliorate climate change, since most of the measures being proposed are things we ought to be doing anyway. (I do understand why people who make their living from fossil fuels pooh-pooh climate change, and “explain away” the unusual number of unusually destructive hurricanes, not to mention the droughts,  the fact that it’s the end of October and in Indiana the trees have barely begun to change color…)

The problem with taking a head in the sand approach–or just making outright war on all environmental protection measures, a la Scott Pruitt–is that it is getting costly. Ignore, if you will, predictions of future crop failures and massive numbers of refugees from no-longer-habitable regions. Let’s just look at current costs and those we can predict with confidence.

Thanks to the unprecedented number and severity of hurricanes, FEMA has already had to ask Congress for billions of extra dollars. To the extent the fires in California were connected to that state’s long drought, we can add the costs of that disaster. Those disasters, however, are small potatoes next to the extra costs incurred on otherwise run-of-the-mill projects as a result of climate change.

Take road construction.

When engineers build roads, they use weather models to decide what kind of pavement can withstand the local climate. Currently, many American engineers use temperature data from 1964 to 1995 to select materials. But the climate is changing.

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change asserts that newer temperature figures are needed to save billions of dollars in unnecessary repairs. Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Shane Underwood of Arizona State University and his colleagues show that road engineers have selected materials inappropriate for current temperatures 35 percent of the time over the past two decades.

The researchers concluded that a failure to adapt the engineering to warmer temperatures is adding 3 to 9 percent to the cost of building and maintaining a road over 30 years. Those are tax dollars being wasted at a time American infrastructure is desperately in need of repair and rebuilding.

The research analyzed two potential scenarios, one in which global temperatures rose less than current estimates, and one that reflected current predictions. Their results suggest that somewhere between $13.6 and $35.8 billion in extra or earlier-than-normal repairs will be required for roads now being built if the current predictions are accurate. In the lower-temperature warming model, they calculate annual extra costs of between $0.8 billion and $1.3 billion; in the higher-temperature warming model, they predict annual extra costs between $0.8 billion and $2.1 billion.

Other findings included:

  • A road built to last 20 years will require repairs after 14 to 17 years under these models.
  • In some cases, government transportation agencies are paying too much for materials to withstand cold temperatures that do not currently (and perhaps no longer) exist.
  • Because municipal governments in the United States work on tighter road-maintenance budgets than state and federal transportation departments, the extra financial strain will largely impact cities and towns.

There are undoubtedly other expenses that will be generated by our changing climate–some that we can anticipate, and others that will come as unwelcome surprises. Scientists in a number of fields are investigating likely consequences–everything from the loss of hundreds of insect and animal species to the negative effect on coffee beans.

There will be significant and unpleasant costs to taking the road marked “Science Denial.” Unfortunately, these days–at least, in the United States– that road isn’t the “one less traveled.”

 

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part II)

One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).

This complexity requires informed and thoughtful policymaking, an understanding of how the various aspects of our shared environment interact, if we are to avoid unintended and very harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, we have elected a President and numerous lawmakers who are not up to the task, to put it as delicately as possible. They are supported by voters who dismiss people who do have expertise, people who actually know things, as “elitist.”

A couple of examples: a while back, the New York Times ran an article about automation, addressing a number of likely consequences of new AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies:

A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

I have posted previously about the potential consequences of AI and automation generally for job creation. The number of jobs lost to automation already dwarfs those lost to outsourcing and trade–and yet, activists on both the Right and Left continue to focus only on trade policy.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

If Donald Trump has ever addressed this issue, or suggested that he is even aware of it, it has escaped my notice.

Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was written. What Hofstadter and others who have addressed this particular element of American culture failed to foresee, however, was a time in which the federal government (together with a good number of state governments–Texas comes immediately to mind) would be controlled by people who neither understand the world they live in nor know what they don’t know.

Science Magazine  recently reported on the EPA’s dismissal of 38 science advisors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

Unlike most of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, he is proving effective in his efforts to destroy the EPA–not just by denying the reality of climate change science, but by rolling back regulations that protect air and water quality. He appears to be operating on a theory common to this administration: if a reality is uncongenial, ignore it or deny its existence. If evidence contradicts your worldview, dismiss it.

Yesterday, in a reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I observed that science and reality are true whether or not you believe them.

The worst thing about giving simple and/or corrupt people the power to run a government they do not understand is that complicated realities continue to be realities, and the longer we fail to engage those realities, the worse the consequences.

Making America Sick Again

With the introduction of its proposed budget, the Trump Administration has continued its effort to cut the ground out from under all but the wealthiest Americans–and especially from under the people who voted for Trump.

Fortunately, that budget displays the stunning ineptitude that is a hallmark of this Administration (Hey–what’s a two trillion dollar math mistake among friends..?) and is unlikely to pass.

We often hear exhortations to “follow the money,” or to “put your money where your mouth is.” Those phrases reflect an undeniable truth of human behavior: whatever our rhetoric, where we commit our resources shows our real priorities.  Trump’s budget not only makes his priorities painfully clear; it reflects his callous disregard for struggling Americans, including those who voted for him.

Time Magazine has detailed the consequences of the savage Medicaid cuts proposed by the Trump budget. Nearly one in four Americans–and 42 percent of Trump voters– rely on Medicaid. The budget assumes passage of the deeply unpopular Obamacare replacement passed by the House and currently pending in the Senate; that measure–which the CBO calculates would cost 23 million Americans their health insurance– cuts Medicaid funding by $839 billion over the next decade. The budget proposal reduces Medicaid by an additional $610 billion.

Those cuts endanger medical access for 74 million Americans.

Medicaid reaches far beyond able-bodied adults out of work, despite the proposal’s rhetoric. The elderly and disabled account for around 60% of Medicaid’s expenditures, with the disabled, including the mentally ill, accounting for a full 42% of spending.

The program is the country’s largest funder of long-term care expenses, covering 40% of the costs, as well as more than 60% of all nursing home residents. For Baby Boomers nearing or past retirement age, these funds are crucial: As MONEY has previously reported, nursing homes for the elderly cost an average of $80,000 annually, and those expenditures aren’t covered under Medicare, the health program for seniors over 65. In fact, because Medicaid absorbs high healthcare costs of people with expensive conditions like dementia, it has kept private insurance around 7% lower than they would be.

Slashing funds also disproportionately affects women and children: one-half of births in the U.S. are covered by Medicaid (that varies widely by state—in Louisiana, 65% of births are covered by Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation). The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covered more than 8.4 million children in 2015, would also see its budget significantly reduced, according to Joan Alker, Executive Director of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families. Medicaid also provides essential health coverage for low income women, particularly women (and children) of color.

And of course, the budget continues the Republican war on women and women’s health by defunding Planned Parenthood–effectively eliminating preventive care (pap tests, breast cancer screenings) for most poor women.

Pointing to the cruelty of this proposal is unlikely to move lawmakers for whom tax cuts for rich people are the highest priority, but you would think they might realize that such a wholesale assault on access to preventive care would wildly increase overall medical costs. (The old adage “penny wise, pound foolish, comes to mind.) Trump’s budget would throw people back to the tender mercies of the emergency room, return us to the days when medical costs and nursing home fees bankrupted families, and ensconce a system in which healthcare is simply a consumer good, available to those who can afford it and too bad for the rest of you.

Destroying Obamacare and slashing Medicaid aren’t even the end of the story: the proposed budget also “severely cuts funding for science and public health agencies, including a $1 billion cut to the National Cancer Institute.”

Notably, the National Institute of Health’s budget would be slashed from $31.8 billion to $26 billion. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention would face cuts of more than $1 billion, including a $222 million decrease in funding to the chronic disease prevention programs, which help people with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.The National Science Foundation would face a decrease of $776 million.

Welcome to dystopia.