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Should Voters Have to Pass a Test Before Pulling the Lever?
Six years ago, in a mock presidential election held in my daughter's pre-K class, Barack Obama was the clear winner. Of the 18 children, 16 voted for Obama. ("Superman" and "Mommy and Daddy" each received one vote; John McCain was shut out.) There is a good reason this was just a "mock" election: four-year-olds are not equipped to register an informed, rational perspective on who should occupy the oval office. But that raises a more difficult question: should only those adults who are informed and rational be trusted with the franchise? When Americans head to the polls one week from today, should they have to pass a test of voter competence as a condition for receiving a ballot?
In 2007, libertarian economist Bryan Caplan identified what he takes to be several pernicious biases that individuals tote with them into the voting booth and suggested that we the people are to blame for the mess that is Washington, D.C. Americans, he thinks, are irrational and vote accordingly. In addition to their wrong-headed views on economics, 64 percent of Americans are hard-pressed to name the three branches of government, and fewer than 40 percent can tell you which political party controls each house of Congress. What to do? Caplan begins with these suggestions:
But what — if anything — can be done to improve outcomes, taking the supremacy of democracy over the market as fixed? The answer depends on how flexibly you define “democracy.” Would we still live in a democracy if you needed to pass a test of economic literacy to vote? If you needed a college degree?
Since Caplan is asking, I'll give an answer: no. It is not consistent with any conceivable conception of democracy—a form of government founded on discussion and deliberation among free and equal citizens—to limit the franchise to college-educated, economically literate adults. The Supreme Court's rulings on access to the polls and the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 would certainly preclude these solutions. But Caplan isn't joking. Knowledge of basic economic principles and a college education would, he writes, “raise the economic understanding of the median voter, leading to more sensible policies." While literacy tests of yore were mere expressions of racism, Caplan urges us to consider the idea in a new light:
Franchise restrictions were historically used for discriminatory ends, but that hardly implies that they should never be used again for any reason. A test of voter competence is no more objectionable than a driving test. Both bad driving and bad voting are dangerous not merely to the individual who practices them, but to innocent bystanders.
A quick look at this analogy exposes its central flaw. Bad driving is objectively identifiable: if you drive over the speed limit, change lanes without looking or run a red light, you are breaking the law and can fairly be labeled a poor driver. But bad voting is harder to pinpoint—much harder. Partisans on either side can claim with equal justification that it's crazy to vote for candidate X rather than candidate Y. You can argue with your friend's decision to support a candidate based on his environmental record when, in your view, his terrible stance on corporate taxes disqualifies him from office. So it seems that voting mistakes are truly in the eye of the beholder.
Contrary to Caplan's claim on p. 52 of his book, errors of logic or misapplications of rules of probability are quite unlike votes based on misunderstandings of economics. Economists disagree among themselves, for one. And they can be quite spectacularly wrong. Consider the survey question on p. 77 as an example. "Over the next five years, do you think the average American's standard of living will rise, or fall, or stay about the same?" Economists answering this question were about 50% more optimistic that standards of living would rise than were members of the general public. But the Great Recession a year after the publication of The Myth of the Rational Voter sent the average American's standard of living south for the next half-decade. Economists, on this measure at least, were the true fools.
Despite his elitist disdain for a central principle of democracy—and his facile assumption that economists have all the right answers, all of the time—Caplan may still have a point. Voting does impact everyone, and bad decisions by an electorate will cause the entire polity to suffer. Maybe better informed and wiser voters entering the voting booth would have a positive impact on the country, or at least limit the damage. But imagine how things would go if voters were asked, on a Caplanian voter competency test, to draw a supply/demand curve, rehearse the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing and identify the percentage of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid before they pull the lever. I shudder to ponder the passing rate such a quiz would yield. And I wonder how much better off we’d be if all voters really were screened in this way.
One of Caplan’s own contentions casts doubt on even a deflated hope that tests could improve electoral outcomes. Voters, Caplan claims, are “rationally irrational”: since individuals do not pay much of a price for their foolish political views, but love believing them and relish those "I VOTED!" stickers on their lapels, a cost-benefit analysis counsels in favor of holding on to them. It is rational (from a self-interested point of view) to be irrational about politics. The same isn’t true of shopping or driving. If you buy organic milk at the corner store for $6 when you could just as easily get it for $4 at the grocery store, you literally pay a price. If you drive recklessly, you risk getting yourself into an accident. By contrast, if you vote based on an “antiforeign bias” (that is, you “underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners”), say, you would experience your foolish, reckless voting as costless (since the marginal effect of your vote is so slight) while opting to deprive the polity of the advantages of trade with other nations. But no matter how deep your knowledge and how sophisticated your training in economic theory, your incentive to apply these smarts to your vote is effectively nil.
Beyond this, of course, the proposal is a non-starter politically. Whether or not the principle of one person, one vote is irrational according to Caplan, it is a very well entrenched principle of American democracy. Caplan seems to acknowledge as much when he moves on to an alternative proposal:
A more palatable way to raise the economic literacy of the median voter is by giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy. Remarkably, until the passage of the Representation of the People Act of 1949, Britain retained plural voting for graduates of elite universities and business owners....Since more educated voters think more like economists, there is much to be said for such weighting schemes.
I’m not sure how much more palatable this would be. In a country where anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism are campaign strategies, proposing extra votes for Ivy League graduates seems just as far beyond the pale as Caplan’s other suggestions. So that leaves Caplan’s mildest proposal: “reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout.” That's right: exactly the opposite strategy of Rock the Vote. Caplan might, then, applaud Republican efforts in several states to require voters to show photo identification, moves that will disproportionately disenfranchise many minority and left-leaning voters, including up to 600,000 in Texas.
But stripping so many people of the right to vote is blatantly inconsistent with the American political tradition of widening, not shrinking, the electorate. Caplan's inclinations are decidedly retrograde, and unfortunately he is far from alone this election season. Forces in Hong Kong and the United States alike are deeply suspicious of the capacity of voters, particularly those with limited resources, to register a rational preference at the polls.
Image credit: Shutterstock
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.