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Many Americans are actually centrists—in theory, anyway

America is polarized, but not as much as you might think.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels
  • A new study finds that Americans aren't as politically polarized as you might think.
  • Respondents generally agreed on the issues of climate change, free speech, and the value of international agreements.
  • The study also found that majorities want a smaller government that provides more services.


If you haven't been living under a rock for the last few years, you might notice that the United States seems politically polarized lately. There is widespread disagreement about major issues, some rather nasty rhetoric going around, and some debate over the nature of reality.

While this seems pretty definitive, political scientist William A. Galston argues that these differences are not quite as vast as they seem and that the American center is much, much larger than people are giving it credit for.

The study

Glaston, in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal, explains the findings of a just-published survey undertaken by The New Center policy institute.

The findings of the study suggest that the American center is more extensive than most people would expect, with 43% of survey respondents placing themselves there when asked to put themselves on a left-right spectrum. Amongst those who identify as independents, a full 60% of them opted for the centrist label.

On the other hand, 65% of Republicans identified themselves as being on the right, with only 27% of them claiming to be in the center. Among Democrats, 42% of respondents claimed to be on the left. Another 42% of Democrats identified as centrists. The study suggests that the elected members of the two major parties are more polarized than the people they represent.

The study also shows that there is broad agreement on several issues, with respondents agreeing on the need to fight climate change, work with other countries to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and on the value of the freedom of speech.

How does this explain what we see in the election so far?

The finding that "42% of Democrats identify with the left, and the same share with the center" does explain the current standings of the Democratic candidates reasonably well. A look at the most recent polls shows that there has not yet been a break for any one candidate and that voters are still spread over several choices with a diverse range of opinions.

If one treats Warren and Sanders as being the candidates of the left-wing of the party and takes Biden and Buttigieg to be more representative of the American center, the numbers in the study show up rather clearly.

At the same time, the finding that a majority of Republicans identify themselves as being on the right would help explain why the centrists currently running against Trump for the 2020 Republican Party nomination are getting little traction—the votes to get them over the line don't exist.

The study also touches on points raised by Dr. Robb Willer and Jan Voelkel in The New York Times. The scientists argued that sociological data supports the idea that presenting progressive policy proposals using centrist or even conservative rhetoric increases support from study participants, further suggesting that there is a capacity in the United States for a board agreement on certain policy issues despite our seeming partisanship.

What this study misses

This study, as explained by Mr. Glaston, does leave a few questions unanswered and has a few glaring issues.

First of all, asking people if they consider themselves centrists is not proof that they hold positions that are actually in the center of mainstream political opinion or would vote for a centrist candidate any more than how North Korea officially being the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" makes it democratic or a republic. Centrist is a very loosely defined term.

The study also found that majorities of respondents both support a smaller government and want that smaller government to provide health care and income for the retried, protect the environment, protect public health through more regulations, and introduce more robust customer protections.

Where that puts the actual consensus is anyone's guess. What this apparent contradiction means for the robustness of the opinions expressed by the respondents is equally in the air.

Glaston also admits to the existence of counterexamples to his rosy thesis when he explains that "polarization remains strong" on issues relating to same-sex marriage and the right for LGTBQ individuals to go about their business without facing discrimination. It may be telling that these, very concrete and easily defined, issues inspire polarization while the vague idea of "doing more" in healthcare is widely endorsed.

The study itself also shows considerable polarization being visible on the issue of gun control, another issue with clear and obvious implications.

Despite the potential faults with the study, the claim that there is more agreement on many political issues than many Americans think remains true. In today's highly polarized and increasingly tense environment, the idea that there are some issues where a majority or near majority of voters are agreed is refreshing.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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