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The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism
Modern campaigns have rarely focused on the issues, but in the 2012 election the level of moral outrage and anger is unprecedented. Even before the campaign, America was divided, but come next year, if President Obama is re-elected he will likely face a country more polarized than at any time in more than a century.
In a new article at The Breakthrough Journal titled ”The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism,” Dietram Scheufele and I investigate how all of us together – liberals and conservatives, intellectuals and journalists – have managed to so deeply damage our civic culture and to lose sight of a common purpose in American politics.
As we detail, extreme polarization serves well the goals of conservatives, but by adopting similar political strategies, liberals have unwittingly jeopardized their own electoral and policy ambitions.
Over the past decade, the creation of liberal think tanks, media watchdogs, billionaire donor networks, and cable news programs to match the Right has turned political discourse into an outrage industry and governing into a form of trench warfare.
Relentless ideological confrontation has also done deep damage to our civic culture, driving moderate leaders from politics, and promoting feelings of cynicism, inefficacy, and distrust among the public. Those especially affected are young people and minorities, core constituencies that Democrats depend on to play an active role in politics and to vote on Election Day.
Rebuilding Our Civic Culture
In the aftermath of the November election, we write that it is time for liberals to “turn more attention and resources to rebuilding our civic culture….re-forming our civic and political institutions in ways that create some possibility for moderation, deliberation, and crosscutting discourse,” recognizing “that without a functioning civic culture, there can be no progressive governance.”
We argue for reforming the Congressional primary system in a manner that allows a greater number of moderates to run for and win office. We also suggest ways to reduce the demand for money in election campaigns. Yet fixing our electoral system is not enough.
Our most critical need is to rebuild our civic infrastructure, investing in institutional reforms that enable interaction with people who are politically not like ourselves. This includes promoting greater ideological diversity within academia and across intellectual forums; investing in new models for independent journalism especially at the regional level; and expanding civic education and service learning programs.
Most importantly, we encourage liberals to adopt a new mindset and approach to politics, arguing that civility, respect, and compromise are more effective strategies than relentless ideological confrontation. As we write: “For better or worse, as the party of government, liberals have greater incentive than conservatives to reach across the aisle and pursue pragmatic solutions to America’s problems.”
The Public Square: A New Blog
The publication of The Polarization Paradox also marks the launch of The Public Square, my new blog hosted by the Breakthrough Institute. Drawing on research, expert voices, and feedback from readers, my main focus at The Public Square will be on identifying and evaluating investments that enable Americans to once again understand and negotiate our political differences.
Also contributing blogs to the Breakthrough Institute’s redesigned web site are Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth program at the New America Foundation, and Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Read the Article:
Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2012). The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69.
About the Journal:
Launched shortly after the death of heterodox sociologist Daniel Bell, the Breakthrough Journal embraces Bell’s view that “A new public philosophy will have to be created in order that something we recognize as a liberal society may survive.” The journal publishes long-form and shorter essays “aimed at challenging conventional progressive and environmental wisdom in service of creating a relevant and powerful new politics.” Previous contributors include Dalton Conley, Vaclav Smil, Bruno Latour, Dan Sarewitz, Peter Kareiva, Mark Sagoff, and Steven Hayward.
The journal is published by the Breakthrough Institute, a West Coast think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st century. Founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough’s mission is “to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.”
About the Authors:
Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication and director of the Climate Shift Project at American University. He has published over 50 peer-refereed studies, book chapters, and monographs examining the communication dynamics of policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, the environment and public health. This work has been cited more than 800 times in the peer-reviewed literature and in over 300 books. Nisbet is a past Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is an inaugural member of the Google Science Communication Fellows program. He is currently a visiting Shorenstein Fellow in Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Dietram A. Scheufele holds the John E. Ross Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is Co-PI of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. He has published over 130 peer-refereed articles, book chapters and monographs dealing with public opinion and the political effects of mass communication and currently co-chairs the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists, a joint committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Bar Association. Scheufele has been a tenured faculty member at Cornell University and a Shorenstein visiting fellow at Harvard University, and is currently a DAAD Visiting Professor at the Institut for Communication Research, Technical University Dresden, Germany.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.