Should Psychologists Just Butt Out of Politics?
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Strictly speaking, a "psychopundit" is William Saletan's term for a scholar who uses psychology to explain what's wrong with people who don't vote for Democrats or recycle or otherwise agree with the pundit's left-wing views. But why limit the coinage to liberal malcontents? "Psychopundit" could nicely denote anybody whose work relates psychological research to policy and politics. In that light, Saletan himself is a psychopundit (one of the best). So are David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell and, I suppose, yours truly. And, among researchers themselves, so are David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and Dan Ariely. What is the public supposed to make of all these guys?
One thing it could do is take the advice of Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, whose cover story rehearses the frequent right-wing complaint that plenty of liberal "social science" is just name-calling with bar charts. Ferguson says the thing to do with psychopundits is simple: Ignore them. The "science" on which they base their sweeping statements about human nature is feeble and rife with unexamined assumptions.
The familiarity of this accusation of left-wing bias doesn't make it wrong. It is, in fact, often correct, as Haidt outlines quite well in his new book, The Righteous Mind. It's also true that plenty of social-science studies use small samples of weird people to test hypotheses, and declare those hypotheses proven without considering alternative explanations (the prosecutor's fallacy). And they often leap to very broad general statements about human nature from very narrow foundations. You can fairly say that Ferguson cherry-picks some particularly absurd-sounding combinations of procedure and conclusion to ridicule. But you can also fairly say finding such studies is not a tough job.
However, what Ferguson wants to conclude from this state of affairs is that psychology and the other mind sciences have nothing to bring to the table when it's time to discuss politics and society. Even excellent, rigorous work that has been replicated (of which there is also plenty in social psychology) will not satisfy him.
Why not? Psychology seeks to find causes of behavior that are not apparent; by definition, it seeks explanations that are different from what people would say about themselves. To Ferguson that means "moral impoverishment." Politics is only meaningful, he writes, if it is discussed in terms that the participants themselves would recognize: "as a clash of interests and well-developed ideas." Otherwise, he writes, "if the appeal of one idea versus another is explained by a man’s biology (interacting with a few environmental factors) rather than its content, there’s really not much to argue about. Politics is drained of the meaning that human beings have always sought from it."
This is an old and familiar argument against any scientific investigation—those researchers will replace the beauty and nobility of yore with ugly, ignoble clockwork, "we murder to dissect," yadda yadda yadda. When science is strong, this sentiment cannot endure. The findings keep coming, building on one another. Eventually, practical people make use of the new insights, and more airy types like me find beauty in the new worlds that swim into our ken.
For example, the beauty of science—a sense of shrugging confusion replaced by lucid clarity—is in this paper by Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa: It plotted judges' parole decisions against the time of day, to show that mercy was most probable right after a meal, and then declined to nearly zero until the next food break. Maybe that result dents the ideal of impartiality, but surely the loss of judicial dignity is a fair price to pay for a better parole system.
Ferguson's hostility to the whole project muffles an better point that's implicit in his piece: Attempting to explain why conservatives are conservative isn't enough. That's not because psychologists ought to leave politics to the politicians, though. It's because the engine of politics is not the fact that conservatives are conservative and liberals are liberal. It is, rather, that conservatives can and do become liberals. And liberals become conservatives. How and why do people change their minds, often enough and in numbers large enough that a country that elected Reagan in 1980 could also elect Obama in 2008? That's a question that demands more psychological research, not less.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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