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Cato and the Kochs
I used to work at Cato, so lot of people have asked me about the ongoing battle for control of the institute. Here's what I think. What I think is that so far the rhetoric around the controversy illustrates Tyler Cowen's dumbifying principle: "Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more." I don't think Ed Crane and the Cato incumbents are especially good. I don't think the Kochs are especially evil.
It seems clear enough that the Kochs are trying to take over by stacking the board. I have no idea what they're up to, but judging from their board nominees and appointees, it doesn't look at all good. On the other hand, the hand-wringing over the new Koch-nominated board members--Ted Olson, Andrew Napolitano, Nancy Pfotenhauer, and Kevin Gentry--strikes me as overwrought. It's worth noting that David Koch has been on the Cato board for years, the whole time I was employed there and more, and I don't remember anyone once suggesting he was an ideological or strategic danger to Cato's mission. But suddenly he's an existential threat! Cato and Cato's chairman Bob Levy didn't seem to have a huge problem with Ted Olson, a Solicitor General under G.W. Bush, when he was at Cato arguing for gay marriage on constitutional grounds. Andrew Napolitano is a stout libertarian who put a ton of Cato guys on Freedom Watch, his recently cancelled show on Fox Business. Cato executive VP David Boaz seems to get along pretty well, ideologically and otherwise, with Napolitano in this recent clip. Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former G.W. Bush and John McCain campaign operative, strikes me as a classic right-leaning fusionist, of which there are not a few at Cato. That she was married for a while to Cato senior fellow Dan Mitchell I think suggests that she does not inhabit an ideological/institutional universe foreign to Cato, as does the fact that the Independent Women's Forum, of which Pfotenhauer was for years the president, is currently run by Cato alum Carrie Lukas. Kevin Gentry is a hard-core Virginia Republican Party operative with whom I worked back when I was at the Institute for Humane Studies and the Mercatus Center. He's a fundraiser.
And, hey, what about IHS and Mercatus? I'll get to that in a second. One more thing about the board. The new members, except maybe for Napolitano, are indeed both Koch and GOP operatives. They certainly represent a bid for control. And they displaced several of Cato's most generous and involved long-time donors. I can understand why the current management is outraged. My point is that the new board members' brand of odious right-fusionist politics isn't obviously incompatible with Cato's mission, or significantly different from David Koch's.
The way Cato has so eagerly jumped on the Koch-bashing bandwagon in its hour of crisis strikes me as both transparently opportunistic and damaging to the broader libertarian movement. Charles Koch is the chairman of the board at the Institute for Humane Studies which as far as I can see has not become a whit less libertarian in orientation over the past several years. When I worked there, Charles Koch was also chairman of the Mercatus Center's board and he's on the board currently (but I can't tell from the Mercatus website who the chair is, if they have one.) A number of Mercatus' policy staff once worked at Cato and they don't seem to have changed their ideological orientation at all. Is Cato's management now arguing that Mercatus' scholars labor under a cloud of partisanship which threatens the independence and integrity of their work? Is Cato's management arguing that IHS's libertarian principles are now suddenly threatened by Charles Koch's money and leadership? Cato has worked closely with IHS for decades, and has long been a proud host each summer of a number of IHS Charles G. Koch Summer Fellows. Cato's worries about Charles Koch's baleful un-libertarian influence are completely new to me! That CGK is a partisan threat to an independent libertarian perspective is now a very popular idea at Cato that coincides exactly and suspiciously with the onset of CGK's attempt to capture control of the institution he co-founded. If David Koch is such a danger, why wasn't he one last year? As John Stossel used to say, "Gimme a break!"
I like the old Cato board members more than the new Cato board members. And I do suspect that a Koch-controlled Cato would work more closely with the Republican Party, which I don't at all like. Yet I've seen very little evidence that a Koch-controlled Cato would look a lot different ideologically than Cato does currently. However, there's every reason to believe that most of the current management would be pushed out of a Koch-controlled Cato, which I suspect is really the current management's biggest worry. The argument that widespread knowledge of actual Koch control would delegitimize Cato's work seems to me quite weak. The facts that Charles Koch co-founded Cato and that David Koch has been on the board for years and years was more than proof enough for anyone inclined to write off Cato as a Koch-run organ of the oligarchy before the coup attempt. Should the Kochs succeed, nothing much will change in this regard. The right way to look at the PR question is that the takeover attempt is temporarily a huge PR win for Cato, scored at the expense of other Koch-affiliated institutions. If Crane and Co. succesfully thwart the takeover, they'll be able to enjoy the PR boost for a good while longer.
The argument that Koch control of Cato would threaten the intellectual independence of Cato scholars also seems weak to me. This is in part because I don't know of any such problem at Mercatus, the most closely analogous Kochtopus institution, and in part because I doubt that the intellectual independence of Cato scholars is among the current management's main priorities.
All that said, I think it's better for libertarians if some prominent libertarian institutions remain outside the Kochtopus and that Julian Sanchez's presignation letter doesn't kick into effect. Still, this isn't a battle between good and evil, and the stakes are probably lower than you think. Of course, nobody likes to be on the wrong side of creative destruction's wrecking ball, but it can be indispensable and revitalizing, even for ideological movements.
Picture courtesy of the author.
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
This is going to force a major shift in the way we see these early hominids. Researchers had thought that Neanderthals were profoundly primitive, and just barely human. This cave in France's Aveyron Valley changes all that: It's suddenly obvious that Neanderthals were not quite so unlike us.
According to The Atlantic, Bruniquel Cave was first explored in 1990 by Bruno Kowalsczewski, who was 15 at the time. He'd spent three years digging away at rubble covering a space through which his father felt air moving.
Some members of a local caving club managed to squeeze through the narrow, 30-meter long tunnel Kowalsczewski had dug to arrive in a passageway. They followed it past pools of water and old animal bones for over 330 meters before coming into a large chamber and a scene they had no reason to expect: Stalagmites that someone had broken into hundreds of small pieces, most of which were arranged into two rings—one roughly 6 meters across, and one 2 meters wide—with the remaining pieces stacked into one of four piles or leaning against the rings. There were also indications of fires and burnt bones.
Image source: Etienne FABRE - SSAC
A professional archeologist, Francois Rouzaud, determined with carbon dating that a burnt bear bone found in the chamber was 47,600 years old, which made the stalagmite structures older than any known cave painting. It also put the cave squarely within the age of the Neanderthals since they were the only humans in France that early. No one had suspected them of being capable of constructing complex forms or doing anything that far underground.
After Rouzard suddenly died in 1999, exploration at the cave stopped until life-long caver Sophie Verheyden, vacationing in the area, heard about it and decided to try and uranium-date the stalagmites inside.
The team she assembled eventually determined that the stalagmites had been broken up by people 176,000 years ago, way farther back even than Rouzard had supposed.
There weren't any signs that Neanderthals lived in the cave, so it's a mystery what they were up to down there. Verheyden thinks it's unlikely that a solitary artist created the tableaux, and so an organized group of skilled workers must've been involved. And “When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that's not proven," Verheyden told The Atlantic.
Whatever they built, the Bruniquel Cave reveals some big surprises about Neanderthals: They had fire, they built things, and likely used tools. Add this to recent discoveries that suggest they buried their dead, made art, and maybe even had language, and these mysterious proto-humans start looking a lot more familiar. A lot more like homo sapiens, and a lot more like distant cousins lost to history.
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.
- Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
- Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
- The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
A year ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate warned of the parallel pandemics — the biological contagion of COVID-19 and the social contagion of misinformation, aiding the spread of the disease. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, anti-vaccine accounts have gained 10 million new social media followers, while we have witnessed arson attacks against 5G masts, hospital staff abused for treating COVID patients, and conspiracists addressing crowds of thousands.
Many have refused to follow guidance issued to control the spread of the virus, motivated by beliefs in falsehoods about its origins and effects. The reluctance we see in some to get the COVID vaccine is greater amongst those who rely on social media rather than traditional media for their information. In a pandemic, lies cost lives, and it has felt like a new conspiracy theory has sprung up online every day.
How we, as social media users, behave in response to misinformation can either enable or prevent it from being seen and believed by more people.
The rules are different online
Credit: Pool via Getty Images
If a colleague mentions in the office that Bill Gates planned the pandemic, or a friend at dinner tells the table that the COVID vaccine could make them infertile, the right thing to do is often to challenge their claims. We don't want anyone to be left believing these falsehoods.
But digital is different. The rules of physics online are not the same as they are in the offline world. We need new solutions for the problems we face online.
Now, imagine that in order to reply to your friend, you must first hand him a megaphone so that everyone within a five-block radius can hear what he has to say. It would do more damage than good, but this is essentially what we do when we engage with misinformation online.
Think about misinformation as being like the coronavirus — when we engage with it, we help to spread it to everyone else with whom we come into contact. If a public figure with a large following responds to a post containing misinformation, they ensure the post is seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people with one click. Social media algorithms also push content into more users' newsfeeds if it appears to be engaging, so lots of interactions from users with relatively small followings can still have unintended negative consequences.
The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology.
Additionally, whereas we know our friend from the office or dinner, most of the misinformation we see online will come from strangers. They often will be from one of two groups — true believers, whose minds are made up, and professional propagandists, who profit from building large audiences online and selling them products (including false cures). Both of these groups use trolling tactics, that is, seeking to trigger people to respond in anger, thus helping them reach new audiences and thereby gaming the algorithm.
On the day the COVID vaccine was approved in the UK, anti-vaccine activists were able to provoke pro-vaccine voices into posting about thalidomide, exposing new audiences to a reason to distrust the medical establishment. Those who spread misinformation understand the rules of the game online; it's time those of us on the side of enlightenment values of truth and science did too.
How to fight online misinformation
Of course, it is much easier for social media companies to take on this issue than for us citizens. Research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch last month found that 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media is linked to just twelve individuals and their organizations. Were the platforms to simply remove the accounts of these superspreaders, it would do a huge amount to reduce harmful misinformation.
The problem is that social media platforms are resistant to do so. These businesses have been built by constantly increasing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Getting rid of the creators of engaging content that has millions of people hooked is antithetical to the business model. It will require intervention from governments to force tech companies to finally protect their users and society as a whole.
So, what can the rest of us do, while we await state regulation?
Instead of engaging, we should be outweighing the bad with the good. Every time you see a piece of harmful misinformation, share advice or information from a trusted source, like the WHO or BBC, on the same subject. The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology. In the attention economy that governs tech platforms, drowning out is a better strategy than rebuttal.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.