Obama-Fan Ruins the Moment

November 5, 2008

I know I’ve been silent for a while, but I have a good excuse… which I won’t tell you.  Suffice to say that the end of the election has something to do with it.

Nevertheless, after a one of the happiest nights of hugging strangers that I’ve ever had, I was driving home and listening to some woman on NPR going on about what the Obama victory means for America. It went a little something like this:

“Never thought I’d live to see, etc… and this is a victory against bigotry.  Against sarcasm.  Against….uh… against atheism.”

I almost drove off the road.  Leave alone the fact that that last comment doesn’t make a lick of sense politically (yeah, all us Sarah Palin-loving atheists!), but how exactly does your perception of reality become so twisted that you can possibly work waxing poetic against the evils of bigotry into the same speech that you smear non-belief and non-believers? Isn’t that a form of bigotry?

Anyway, I shouldn’t too hard on the woman: maybe, like so many others, words fail her in what is a tremendously emotional time.


The Playing the Race Card… Card

September 19, 2008

We all know that the hyper-media age is a brave and bizarre new place, where “meta-” counts for far more than meat. Marc Armbinder has the latest dispatch from the front lines: Playing The “Playing The Race Card” Card.

Once upon a time, the rules were simple. Republicans, who usually have to scramble to find one or two African American faces to highlight in their conventions (including having to resort to using stock photography of them), have the temerity to actually include African American politicians like, say, Barack Obama (coincidence? I think not!), in their political attack ads. Someone, somewhere (and just about anyone anywhere will do) complains that the usage was racist: meant to subtly play on racial discord and feelings of otherness. The Republicans would then lean back, hands in the air, eyes rolling, and accuse all Democrats and Presidential candidates everywhere, whether they had actually complained or not, of “playing the race card.” This response is devastatingly effective, primarily because it allows the very same people who definitely aren’t moved by subtle racist appeals to have the same response to the ad/controversy as if they were moved by them. You see, they don’t hate African Americans, they just hate how those African Americans are always whinily pointing out that they are African Americans, and having the temerity to exist in a universe in which some people find some things potentially racist.

Wait, did I say that the rules were simple? What I meant was that they were totally insane.

But anyhow, now we have another meta-layer to add to the whole thing: as Armbinder points out, there’s a possibility that Republicans could now be deliberately using African Americans in their ads so that they can start off the “race card” chain.

Case in point: a newly minted (and laughably implausible) attempt to link Obama for the current financial crisis by pointing out that he knows former and talks to Fannie Mae employees. Specifically, the ad uses a supposedly sinister African American as its example, despite the fact that a former Fannie Mae CEO, and noted white male, is far more closely connected to the Obama campaign. And then there is a sad, obviously pained, white woman thrown in for good measure.

Is the ad racist? Ye gods, I have no idea anymore!

But here’s the thing. It’s very hard to imagine the McCain ad-meisters who came up with this ad not having a very conscious discussion over how the ad would be perceived, and whether it would spark accusations of racism, and whether that would be politically advantageous. Dial us up a white granny and see if they’ll fall for it!

So are non-racist guys who consider exploiting people’s non-racist anger over allegations of racism… racist? Ye gods, I still have no idea, but now I have a headache!


Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.


Oprah Boycott: All Kinds of Stupid

September 7, 2008

Oh good grief. If you’ve been following drudge and a host of conservative pundits, you may have noticed an odd story crop up, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming that Sarah Palin had been denied a place on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The story then turned into drudge’s usual fallback: there had been anonymous debate behind the scenes as to whether Palin should be invited onto Oprah’s show. The whole thing appeared to be a bid to win Palin a free media spot.

But far from letting the sneaky bid drop once Oprah herself had denied the already substance-free rumors, people are actually serious about this. As in, they’re actually acting all outraged about it. The Florida Federation of Republican Women is even calling for an Oprah boycott.

The whole thing has a canny, stiffly staged air: an embarrassing spectacle of joiners playing to a campaign script, rather than people doing anything on principle. Oprah, for her part, seems to have a very reasonable and fair principle: no active, headline candidates during the campaign. She openly supports Obama, but since declaring so, has not invited him or his surrogates on to campaign. I don’t see any unfairness there. I see a media figure with a laudable policy of neutrality. Oprah owns her own show: if she wanted to use it to promote Obama constantly, she could have (within the limits of FEC regulations). But she hasn’t.

We’re 60 days out from the election. Sarah Palin is apparently going to spend the next two weeks in an undisclosed location, refusing questions from actual reporters, rejecting what would also be free media spots on countless news programs… but she’s somehow entitled to what amounts to a free campaign spot on Oprah’s (private) television show… when no other candidate, not even other female candidates like Hillary herself, is given such airtime. And that’s… unfair? Especially biased?

Nope. It’s all an act or profoundly cynical posturing: another out of the blue bid for attention. And the fact that people can promote it with a straight face, let alone use bombastic rhetoric about entitlement and desert, is simply astonishing.


Religious Freedom Under International Islamic Attack

September 4, 2008

Some American innovations are so deeply embedded in our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how any other country could forgo them. But reject them they do, and now the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seems to be moving, with objections from around the globe, to further formalize U.N. resolutions against “defamation,” primarily against Islam. Critics have pointed out that the language gives further cover for the persecution of minority voices in already undemocratic and illiberal Islamic regimes.

“This [language] destabilizes the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”

We don’t really have a culture war in the U.S.: we have a impolite scuffle, mostly exaggerated for the benefit of political fundraising. The real culture war is between the liberal West and theocratic/ideological regimes who enforce conformity in their societies with the threat of violence and persecution.


Conscience For Me But Not For Thee: The Case for Pro-Life Docs and Pharmacists

August 22, 2008

In two recent threads over at Pharyngula, one about a poll and the other about some recent comments from HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, I’ve gotten myself caught up in some pretty heated exchanges over the issue of pro-life doctors, and their impact on reproductive choice and access to health care.

This controversy has been building for some time, as legislatures and now licensing boards are increasingly confronting the question of whether, and to what degree, the consciences of anti-abortion doctors should be protected. More and more women are startled to find local doctors and pharmacists refusing what they had assumed were basic and perfectly legal prescriptions.

Now, as far as the original issues go, most of the things that anti-abortion docs, pharmacists, and their advocates are currently pushing for are indeed overboard. The idea that a doctor can refuse to refer a patient to another doctor, or refuse to even give them information, is unjustifiable. And if a CVS pharmacy wants to offer the pill to its customers, then it has all the cause in the world to only hire and retain staff that are willing to dispense it. It’s simply not unjust discrimination to fire someone if their conscience prevents them from doing what the employer needs done, and no reasonable (reasonable on the employer’s terms) accommodation can be found.

Unfortunately, many of my pro-choice compatriots have, I think the wrong idea themselves, asserting principles of their own that go far beyond the right of employers to set the conditions of employment. When it comes down to it, it seems that many people believe that doctors who refuse on ethical and/or religious grounds to prescribe birth control pills, pharmacists that refuse to fill such orders, or even, it seems ob/gyns that resist performing elective abortions should either ignore their consciences or essentially leave their chosen professions. But the justifications given for this harsh ultimatum are, I think fatally flawed.

Two principles in particular are, I think twisted or misapplied to this situation: the idea that pro-life doctors are forcing things on their patients, and the idea that pro-life doctors and pharmacists aren’t doing “their job.”

Doctors Have No Right To Force Their Choices on People

As general principle, this idea Is central to most cannons of medical ethics and medical license boards. And justly so. It’s based, first and foremost, on the idea that people of sound mind have an absolute right to accept or refuse medical care, and to pick the treatment plans they are comfortable with under the advice of the physician. It’s based on a laudable ethic of not forcing something on someone without their consent.

The problem is that this ethic seems to fall by the wayside whenever people start considering the views of people they don’t like. Or it gets implausibly twisted, so that the “forcees” are claiming to be the victims. It takes a true mangling of language to assert that someone not doing something for you constitutes forcing you to do anything. But that appears to be precisely what it going on here.

Consider the common assertion that doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control, especially when they practice in far-flung areas and stats that offer little choice in doctors to begin with, are “forcing” their own preachy choices on the patient. But are they?

When a family doctor sets up a shingle in a small town, people’s access to health care improves in real terms. But now suppose that the doctor refuses to prescribe birth control or perform elective abortions. Has the doctor actually “forced” anything on anyone? His or her values? His or her services?

In virtually all routine situations, no. The people in the town are certainly no worse off than they were before the doctor arrived. The doctor’s existence provides some benefits, but perhaps not all the benefits they’d want. Demand that the doctor violate his or her conscience or else find another profession, and you might well end up with no nearby doctor at all. The same goes for a hypothetical “pro-life” pharmacy.

Yes, people in that situation lack access to things they want and need, and are protected by law. But that’s the exact same situation they were in before the anti-abortion/anti-pill doctor set up shop.

So what’s the solution? Well, if we really care about access to birth control, if that’s really something we consider to be a moral value or even an assured, positive right, who has the responsibility to supply it? Does that responsibility fall almost entirely on the doctor who thinks it’s immoral, just because he happens to be the most local? Or does it fall on all the people who think it’s a basic right? If you answered the former, I have to admit that I’m simply flabbergasted.

The situation here is a little like the often confused outrage at “scalpers” who, during a disaster, offer things like water bottles for sale at ridiculously inflated prices. These people are routinely condemned as greedy, and they certainly are. But somehow it never occurs to all these outraged moralists that, if people in a disaster have some sort of positive right to receive water (free or cheaply), that this right cannot possibly be a burden and a responsibility that falls on some people more than others. At least the scalpers are offering water for sale at all. Rarely have any of the outraged people rushed over to offer even a drop of their own water, at any price. If the scalpers are as greedy as their inflated prices, then the moralists shaking their heads are themselves infinitely greedier.

Blaming the scalpers for a lack of available water, or blaming pro-life doctors for lack of available abortion services and birth control, is, in the end, nothing more than crude scapegoating. It takes the focus, rather conveniently I might add, off of the collective failure for which the moralists themselves are implicated.

And the further irony is that the moralists’ proposed solutions often wouldn’t really help anyone overall. Scalping only works when there is an extremely limited water supply: i.e. there’s too little water to go around in the first place. If scalpers simply gave away all their supplies for free, there would still be too little water: in fact, in the end, there would be exactly the same number of people with and without water. All that would be different is the method by which these people would be chosen (and the usual alternative, first come=first serve, is arguably no more “fair” than rationing the supply by price, which at least has some built in mechanism for assessing people’s relative need for the water).

Likewise, if anti-abortion/anti-pill physicians and pharmacies left the business, as their foes seem to suggest they should, there would still be the same shortage of medical care and lack of access to birth control that we started with.

From where I sit, that makes this issue look a heck of a lot more like an act of partisan revenge than a sound policy or pro-patient principle.

If They Don’t Want to Do What (I Say) the Job Entails, They Should Find Another Job!

This second principle, uttered as if it were an obvious truism, is in fact an utterly bizarre essentialism. Obviously, if we are talking about an employer defining what “the job entails” and finding someone wanting, there’s no problem. But this isn’t the sense in which some people mean “the job.” They mean it in a more cosmic sense: turning mere convention into Platonic form.

Who says that the role of being an ob/gyn, a family doc, or a pharmacist must involve prescribing or dispensing contraceptives? What defines that role such that it’s supposedly essential to this or that specialty? Is this some sort of immutable law of the universe? No. To the extent that they are set and regulated at all, the required roles of various professions (and the permitted variations) are set by committee or political process, not fate. And those debates have to deal with the very political and ethical questions we’re already considering.

Thus, asserting that elective birth control must be part of the role of certain doctors is little more than a begged question. If you regard a fetus or even a fertilized embryo to be a being with moral rights, then harming it without dire need would not legitimately be part of the role of any physician. Reject that idea, and it’s a legitimate part of reproductive health and choice. I certainly have my opinions, but I also have a respect for the importance of social pluralism. And we cannot simply presume anyone’s opinion from the get go when determining what medical ethics demand or deny.

A more reasonable question is: can anti-abortion doctors be reasonably accommodated into our medical system with their existence causing serious additional harm to anyone? I think the answer is yes.

My opponents disagree. They imagine Jehovah’s Witnesses as ER docs who then refuse to transfuse blood to car accident victims. But these examples are absurd. No one would hire such a doctor to such a position in the first place, and if one did, it’s unlikely it could be licensed to accept emergency patients (who are often in a very different situation than a person seeking a physician or going to a pharmacy). On the other hand, plenty of people in the United States not only would have no problem with seeing an anti-abortion ob/gyn, but would favor going to one. Is denying the possibility of this choice even in keeping with the respect for autonomy that underlies pro-choice politics in the first place? I think not.

The early pioneers of reproductive choice knew that making it a reality meant actually physically and financially getting doctors and products out to women everywhere. If choice is a positive right and not just a negative one (i.e. not merely something that the government cannot ban, but something that must actively be ensured, presumably by society itself) then it’s going to take a tall order of money, time, and resources to supply it. Butting heads with anti-abortion doctors and pharmacists, or demanding they conform or go out of business, isn’t even remotely the same thing.


Miracles and Medical Care

August 18, 2008

Via CNN comes this story detailing the ways in which people’s religious faith and belief in otherworldly intervention colors the way they deal with medical care. This issue raises some really hard questions when it comes to dealing with religion vs. science, belief vs. the lack of it. Take this case:

Pat Loder, a Milford, Michigan, woman whose two young children were killed in a 1991 car crash, said she clung to a belief that God would intervene when things looked hopeless.

“When you’re a parent and you’re standing over the body of your child who you think is dying … you have to have that” belief, Loder said.

Do you though? And does it really help in the long run to truly believe things like that?

We often imagine that these sorts of ideas are obviously comforting, but in my experience, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Unrealistic expectations can lead to bitterness. They can stall acceptance and take you out of a situation right when loved ones need you the most.

And in some ways, these sort of “comforting beliefs” don’t necessarily seem to bring the comfort they would logically imply. Heaven, objectively, should be an absolutely comforting idea that essentially solves the fear of death and heals all hurts. But in practice, the human psyche just seems to grieve no matter what one believes: beliefs are errant trivialities don’t really reach down into the deep, animal well of loss.

On the other hand, these sorts of reactions are, for many people, unavoidable. They can’t really be fought or regulated or even argued with.

The other issue here is that of the way a belief in miracles distorts people’s medical decisions, making them postpone taking loved ones off futile life support, and in countless cases, continuing pointless treatments when comfort, hospice, and simply preparing for death are more important.

It is true that there are occasional cases of so called medical miracles (though rarely are they without explanation and underlying causality). But as the CNN survey shows, beliefs about medical miracles are sort of like people playing the lottery: extremely unlikely occurrences are coloring and altering the decisions of masses that are, in the aggregate, probably not worth it. Should an incredibly unlikely, 1 in a million chance that someone who has been coded for hours will come back with any sort of brain function at all really be a gamble worth, well, millions of other futile medical efforts that only traumatize the family, cost millions more (that could be used instead to save the more likely savable), and sometimes even just make a patients final moments all the more agonizing? Probably not.

The problem is simply that its very easy to see futility in the aggregate, where likely outcomes seem inevitable, but simply not accept it in specific, where ideas of heroic salvation and turning a corner can never be fully dismissed.

And that’s sort of the bizarre part. If miracles could really happen, intentional miracles directed by a being like God, then it hardly seems to make sense to debate whether or not to keep someone on life support indefinitely. An all powerful being would be able to work its miracle on a person no matter what amount of medical care had been given or withheld. The idea, indeed, of “waiting” for a miracle, as if to give it more chances to happen, seems, in the context of a theism than envisions and all-knowing, all powerful God, utterly bizarre.

Update: Here’s an all too common outcome of many heralded medical miracles: while unexpected persistence can surprise, it just drags out the inevitable further, as with this premie who appeared to rally after being declared dead and then chilled (which slowed its remaining metabolism, only to die for real a day later.


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