Why "Behavioral Politics" And "Islamic Exceptionalism" Matter

"Behavioral politics” can shed light on terrorism's appeal. And why simple appeals to reason might not work. Indeed rationality doesn't work the way many think it does. What makes us tick must matter for how reasoning works. 

1.1 Can “behavioral politics” explain terrorism? What makes us tick surely must matter for how reasoning works.

1.2 Democracy and economics presume “rational choice” models (to some degree).

1.3 But behavioral economics has updated “rationalist delusions.” Countering unempirical presumptions of self-maximization, it maps the motley logics of “supposedly irrelevant factors” that shape behaviour (Richard Thaler).

1.4 As with products, so with policies...do voters rationally, self-interestedly, evaluate policies?

1.5 Few have the training, knowledge, time, or inclination for rational policy analysis (see Dawkins-like “ignoramuses,” & “few maximize”).

2.1 Reason has 3 distinct parts—ends, means, inputs—each dependent on training and other factors, like morality (—>evolved teamwork-rule processor).

2.2. Consider terrorism using that anatomy of reason. Is it irrational (Caplan)? Nihilistic (Obama)? 

2.3 Shadi Hamid in Islamic Exceptionalism reports that many jihadis just seek entry “into heaven."

2.4. That might sound “stupid or irrational to us… [but, like beauty]... rationality… is in the eye of the beholder.” Paradise-seeking has a logic (“though this be madness, yet there is method in it”).

2.5. Like politics, all logic is local (bound to particular assumptions, methods, aims). Secular rationalists can err in assuming Enlightenment-flavored reason appeals universally.

2.6. Hamid detects "a sense of overarching meaninglessness" in Western democracies, and no guarantee of Muslim nations secularizing—Islam can’t be easily quarantined within a private sphere.

3.1 Dismissing terrorists as “mad or bad” risks error. Given their assumptions and aims, they might “logically” seek “purpose” (Peter Bergen) or glamour (Virginia Postrel).

3.2 Most violence seeks a “moral good” (Pinker) (≠ pathological, ≠ self-interested).

3.3 But Pinker’s conclusion—“The world has far too much morality”—is like complaining of too much insulin. You can’t wish away your pancreas or your moral-emotion generator (we can only alter the triggering context, or retrain triggered moral scripts).

4.1 Sadly, terrorism offers a way to “matter” (Masha Gessen).

4.2 Humans have a powerful “mattering instinct”—our evolved “will to matter” is among our strongest drives (Rebecca Goldstein). Humans “cannot stand a meaningless life” (Jung).

4.3 Has secular rationalism offered good substitutes for religion’s historical role as the most powerful mattering-definer? Connecting you, and your loyalties, to something larger? (—>”All Meaning Is Relational.”)

4.4 Orwell, reviewing Mein Kampf, called “Fascism and Nazism… psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” Hitler knew humans “don’t only want comfort...they... also want struggle and self-sacrifice”... want to matter.

4.5 Extremist economics can preach loyalty only to self-gain, which worsens asocial “meaninglessness.” Its transactional utterly selfish utility maximization (vs. “relational rationality”) easily errs, like mislabelling slowly collectively self-destructive behaviours as “rational”—>“tragedy of the commons,” misnamed.

5.1 Let’s be clearer about what matters, and what drives our deeds. And deploy reason in “psychologically far sounder” ways, mindful of empirically varying assumptions and aims.


Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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