Thursday, September 17, 2009

"You have offended my honor, Sir"

By now, you’ve all heard about the ruckus caused by Joe Wilson (whose given name is Addison Graves Wilson), the congressman from South Carolina who called the President of the United States a liar to his face in public. The public place was the United States Congress which eventually included the entire world via television and the Internet.

No one is perfect and people can make major mistakes, like insulting someone. The usual procedure in a civilized society is to own up to the mistake and make a heartfelt apology. This is exactly what Joe Wilson did when he admited his behavior was wrong. Soon after the President’s speech the White House received a call from Joe. He apologized for his "inappropriate and regrettable" comments. Administration officials who took the call expressed appreciation for the apology and commented that this country needs "a civil discussion" to which Joe Wilson agreed.

This is the way we are supposed to handle human peccadillos. That exchange should have been the end of the matter — a regrettable incident put on the shelf and forgotten. Just the opposite has happened. Unfortunately, the apology was not the end of the story but the introduction to a larger story.

Our country once again displayed its amazing propensity for polarization. On one side the majority of people think Joe Wilson had crossed the line. His behavior was unacceptable and a poor model for this country's children. Others believe that Joe Wilson did the right thing. After all, freedom of speech is what makes this country great. In fact, Joe has become a folk hero to some people in this country for his courage in speaking out and representing the thoughts and beliefs of people who are afraid. Not only has he become a hero to some but they have used their pocketbooks to affirm their support. Soon after calling the President a liar, Joe received over one million dollars for his upcoming election.

Maureen Down, columnist for the New York Times, reported that supporters began wearing T-shirts and waving signs with brave slogans such as "Stand with Joe," "Joe 2012," and "Joe was right." What a lovely democratic display of free speech. Other more powerful people joined the applause. A congresswoman from Minnesota publicly declared, "Thank God for Joe Wilson." The executive of the American Liberty Alliance was thankful that finally someone had become brave enough to openly display "a defiant attitude."

These displays of bravado emboldened others to voice their well thought out opinions at an anti-Obama rally in Washington recently. Placards emphasizing civil discussions made such statements as "Trade Obama back to Kenya;" "We came unarmed (this time)" and "Bury Obama with Kennedy." At least we don’t need to be concerned that all this rancor might be tinged with racism.

Predictably, popular Obama-haters quickly became soloists in the choir. Rush Limbaugh threw more fuel on the flames of national loathing and bitterness when he said, "Every sentence out of the president’s mouth is a lie and what’s he [meaning Joe Wilson] supposed to do?" So now we know what the civil discussion looks like that Joe Wilson agreed was needed for our nation.

A disciple of Michelle Malkin’s blog threw his mouth into this civil discussion when he left a post reading, "I’d far rather be in Joe’s company than the presence of gutter-mouth Obama and his thugs." At least it’s nice to finally understand what the new definition of civil discourse means.

It seems this groundswell of support for Joe has given him a slight springiness to his step. He talked with reporters a few days after his heroic behavior and when he was done talking with them, he happily signed his autograph on a picture of his heroic outburst. Some of Joe's Congressional colleagues suggested that he also needs to apologize to them because he not only insulted POTUS but denigrated the dignity and decorum of the Congressional chambers.

Well, this was to much for someone who now believed in his heroic status. Here is what Joe said when asked on Fox news if he would apologize to his colleagues. "I apologized one time. The apology was accepted by the president and the vice president. I’m not apologizing again." Sounds like a hero to me.

Actually, Joe Wilson is carrying on a time-honored tradition in South Carolina politics. For a century and a half, lawmakers from South Carolina have displayed their own version of civil discussion. Historian Lewis L. Gould has written countless books including The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate. He says that Congress has seen these special civil gifts over the years from South Carolina members of this exclusive club in the form of "beatings, fistfights and wrestling matches."

This section of the country began its special contribution to Congressional decorum in 1856. Preston Brooks was a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who took umbrage at a speech made by a colleague, Senator Charles Sumner. Brooks went to the Senate chamber in what onlookers must have thought would be a verbal confrontation. Instead Brooks beat the living daylights of Sumner. Sumner tried to hide under a desk. Brooks attacked Sumner so violently that he ripped the bolted desk from the floor. He continued the attack with his stout wooden cane until Sumner, blinded by his own blood, staggered up the aisle, then collapsed and fell into unconsciousness. Did this stop Brooks? Nope. He continued beating Sumner until he busted his cane. Only then did he stop and walk out of the chamber.

Gould goes on to list other incidents by congressmen from South Carolina. In 1902 a Senator by the nickname of Pitchfork Ben Tillman decided to move debate to another level. He wanted to teach another senator a lesson in civility so he began a brawl by jumping over four chairs and starting a fistfight. In 1964, favorite son, Strom Thurmond initiated a shoving match which quickly turned into a wrestling match that lasted a full ten minutes. More civil discussion.

Those of us who have been parents of young children have dealt with trying to teach our children that violence is not the format for dealing with conflict. I can’t imagine how much harder this is now that our elected leaders, media people, and the rabid rank and file have decided that getting in someone’s face is now the accepted method for managing disagreements. "But Dad, Congressman Wilson called President Obama a liar and became a hero."

Parenting is going to get harder as long as attention and support is given to people in this country for being belligerent, lying, demonizing anyone who disagrees, and accepting uncritically everything they hear. We now have a large segment of our population that is governed and motivated by fear. It takes only a minute or two on the Internet to see and listen to a flag-waver who says, in all seriousness, "I’m so scared because our President is a Muslim and they are taking over our country." When I was growing up, Joe McCarthy (another fine example of an elected official) spread similar rumors and fears through the populace except it was the Communist devil that was spooking everyone.

In one of her columns, conservative writer Kathleen Parker reminded us that congressmen and other men of integrity in the nineteenth century had a specific, civil and honorable method for ending acrimony. In 1882, a gentleman by the name of Mr. John Goode insulted another gentleman, Mr. Bailey by calling him "a liar." Ahhh — such biting language. Ms. Parker then relates what a writer for the New York Times described as the ultimate solution for personal insults among men of honor — a duel. The writer declared that "Nothing but blood can wipe out this insult."

What a great idea. A method to settle disagreements once and for all. President Obama could approach Joe Wilson telling him he demanded satisfaction from Joe for being dishonored. The President would then signal this demand with a time-honored insulting gesture such as slapping Joe across the face with a glove.

Next, the President would pick his weapon and choose the field of honor. The only problem here is that dueling is illegal. Being a clever species, humans in the last hundred years have devised substitutes for dueling and it’s called sports. Can anyone deny that football or soccer are just duels without swords or bullets? Even a baseball thrown at a batter’s head is a form of a duel.

However, one of the more violent sports is basketball. Some commentators believe the NBA is more violent than other sports because the players are in continual contact. To make matters worse basketball players wear no padding or equipment to protect themselves. Some NBA coaches are convinced that basketball is as much of a contact sport as football.

After President Obama slaps Joe Wilson with a glove, he could declare the weapon of choice is a basketball and the field of honor would be the White House basketball court.

So let’s begin a new tradition. We could start it at the highest levels of our nation and use the Trickle Down Theory of Sport Economics to eventually move it to grade schools and kindergarten. It could be used to corral the craziness that has begun to grip our nation. Violence would be short-lived with the results being unequivocal.

The duel between the President and the Congressman would be a game of one-on-one basketball and could be televised nationally. Special uniforms would be designed for the participants with taxpayer’s money. On one side of the gym would be bleachers for the Obama haters while everyone else would be in the opposite bleachers. Naturally, all fans would be screened for other kinds of weapons.

Who would we have for referees? The Supreme Court, of course. All of these smart people would be given a written test on basketball rules and probably all of them would pass. Those who got a perfect score on the rules test would have to shoot free throws. The justice who hit three straight ones from the foul line would be eligible for the referee job. In case more than one justice mastered this heroic feat, they would keep shooting (not dueling) until the one with the most successive sinkers would win. Of course, the referee would not wear stripes but rather a distinguished jet black outfit.

We could hold tryouts for members of Congress to become cheerleaders. They could develop their own cheers that would represent their constituency. One side would have cheers like, "Kill him, he’s a liar." The other side might have a cheer along the lines of, "Money solves all social problems." This new political spectacle might even be bigger than world soccer. Las Vegas could contribute a significant percentage of gambling winnings to help ease the national deficit.

The loser of this faux duel would have to leave his job. Either Joe Biden would be president or South Carolina would be out a congressman (although Joe Wilson could keep all the money he made from being a hero). Does anyone know if Obama or Wilson have played basketball before?

Let the Game Begin.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What Good Is Research...

Someone asked me recently what good is scientific research if "scientists are always changing their minds?" This is an honest question and one that many people wonder about. Unfortunately, the question, itself, is imbedded with several misconceptions about science.

When scientists "change their minds" it is not the same as when the rest of us change our minds. We can change our minds for many reasons. Our emotions might override our reason. This is something we learn to do in childhood. Children will often tell their best friend they "hate" them because the other child may have taken a toy without asking and won’t give it back. Our physical sensations can also take control of our intelligence. Maybe someone who would like to go shopping changes their mind because they are having a panic attack about going.

The influence of others can get us to change our minds. It can be from a trusted friend or family member. People in authority can easily get us to change our minds, especially if they speak with a great amount confidence and certainty. Con artists can get us to part with our money even though we don’t want to.

Science tries to avoid all these methods for mind-changing. Science began and still is dependent on only one source for change. Scientists rely on data or information that is reliable and valid. This information is collected in a highly systematic fashion so as to eliminate other sources of error. A simple example would be finding out the outside air temperature. Whatever instrument a scientist would use to measure temperature would need to be reliable and valid. To be reliable, the instrument must be able to accurately record the same temperature each time it is used. If it were an electronic thermometer and were turned off after every reading and then turned on to a different temperature, this would not be a reliable reading.

A valid measurement means that an instrument reads what it is meant to read. If the electronic thermometer was giving the same reading each time it was turned off an then on (reliable) but the results were really reading air pressure, then the thermometer would not be a valid instrument for deciding what the temperature was.

For an idea to be accepted, a scientist must collect data for a long time, sometimes decades. Then she must make sense of the data usually with complicated statistics. The next step is to turn it into a paper for acceptance in a professional journal. This is not an easy task. The papers are accepted or rejected by experts in the same field who read the article before publication and criticize it unrelentingly. Often the readers send it back to the author asking for corrections of mistakes they have found. When the readers are satisfied the paper contains the correct methodology and has come to conclusions warranted by the data, the paper is finally published in what is called a peer-reviewed journal.

When the article is finally published, the media may pick it up if they think the findings might be of interest to the general public. This can cause problems because the published paper is not the end point. Once it is published, the entire scientific community gets to study it, analyze it, and criticize it as they choose. Can you imagine your most cherished ideas going through a process like this?

Next, other scientists in the same field of interest will collect similar data and analyze it from a different perspective to see if they get the same results. If they do, then the scientific community is a bit more convinced the original ideas are acceptable. The end result is always based on the data, not what the scientists think. Until the data speak loud and clear, scientists will disagree on its meaning. Even then, with time, even newer data may come along and modify the earlier conclusions.

The average person would have difficulty with such a process regarding their most heart-felt beliefs. We often identify with our beliefs so much that our beliefs define who we are. For someone to come along and challenge our beliefs often feels as if they are attacking us personally. Imagine what it would be like if really smart strangers were constantly asking you to validate your beliefs and maybe even asking questions you might not even understand? Having a thick skin is a prerequisite for being a scientist.

Okay — let’s take a look at some of the research that psychologists have conducted recently. Growing older seems to have more disadvantages as the years proceed. Are there any advantages? It seems there might be, namely experience. What could experience possible offer seniors when memory seems to be less efficient and reflexes slow down? Let’s pick an occupation where age would seem to have no benefits over youth. How about being an air-traffic controller? This is a job where being alert, having quick reflexes and a good memory would seem to be paramount. Two psychologists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign decided to look into this question. They compared older and younger ACTs on fairly complicated tasks involved with the job. They also looked at simple mental abilities. What they found was that even though the younger people had an advantage regarding cognitive abilities, the older controllers, because of experience, were able to mentally compensate for mental agility that had declined due to age. It appears the older, more experienced people could do their job just as well at the young 'uns along side of them.

How important are grandparents? Other than spoiling children and being free babysitters, what do they offer to grandchildren? It seems they offer a lot, especially to children who are being raised in single-parent families. There also seems to be an advantage for children in step-family households. A study that looked at 1,315 adolescents found that spending time with a grandparent could offset the negative effects of not living in a nuclear family of origin. Specifically, these adolescents had fewer behavior problems and were more pro-social than teens who were not able to have a grandparent to stay connected with. The researchers suggested that maybe grandparents can offset any negative effects of children struggling with the effects of losing an intact set of parents.

Our DNA is involved in every aspect of our lives. This mechanism that Darwin didn’t know about is being more understood each day. Is it possible that traumatic events can have an effect on our DNA? In other words, can our genetic makeup be effected by what goes on around us? Many lay people think our DNA is like an unchangeable script that determines and drives our behavior. Continued research is showing that this is not so. A study at the University of Montreal looked at the DNA of people who were suicide victims and had also been abused as children. They found these people "exhibited changes in the DNA of the hormonal stress gene NR3CI." These changes had an effect on how the gene operated or how it was "expressed." Similar changes were not seen in a group of people who had not been abused as children or people who had died of natural causes. This is another corroboration of how our DNA can affect us as it is modified by what happens around us and to us.

Sometimes our kids look like one of us. Sometimes they don't. Parents are often at a loss to explain how their kid doesn't even resemble anyone on the family tree. So what, you might say? As I keep reminding you, psychologists love peeking into areas of human behavior that might appear insignificant and trivial. Dutch psychologists wondered if these differences might have any effect on any aspect of family life. We know that some men are overly concerned whether or not a child is really theirs. It seems that fewer women have this concern. When the researchers studied ninety Dutch parents, they found that Dads can indeed be affected by the possibility that they may be raising someone else’s child. It seems that Dads were more emotionally connected with their children if they believed their kids looked like them. Perhaps male brains have evolved this way over time because of a number of issues such as inheritance matters and the continuation of the family line.

"Girls gone wild" is an expression describing the hormonal chase that takes place in college age youth. With nature demanding that babies be made as soon as possible, it is common knowledge that college males are continually prowling for female sexual partners. Enter alcohol. It is an age-old assumption that booze can loosen up the most reluctant female in order to delight a male’s fantasy. How true is this? As with so many psychology studies that explode common myths, research at Loyola University found that college females were way off target in how much they believed their male counterparts expected them to drink. They asked males how much they would like girls who they were dating to drink. Then they asked the girls how much they thought the boys wanted them to drink. The results were surprising. It seems the girls were overestimating how much the boys actually expected. In fact they found out that the majority of the girls overestimated this by as much as fifty percent. This finding was not just a curious case of wrongful second guessing. The researchers also discovered that this inaccuracy can lead to dangerous behavior. The young women who were poorest at estimating how much they were expected to drink were more likely to binge-drink and to experience the associated negative consequences of alcohol.

Impulsiveness is something that many people have experienced. Like all human behavior, the frequency and intensity of this characteristic will vary from person to person. Sometimes, when we see this in young children it can either be cute or drive us to distraction. A study at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center along with the University of Montreal were interested in the following question: what might be the downside of early impulsiveness as these children age? They studied five-year olds and then went back and looked at their behaviors six years later. They found a relationship between early impulsiveness (inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity) and a higher likelihood of involvement in gambling behaviors. The eleven year olds were more likely to play cards, bingo, or video poker. Although these kids were not throwing money at these games, the researchers saw a tendency in that direction because they were engaging in "gambling-related activities." If this research holds up, then it would be even more important to use psychology tools such as behavior analysis to teach children more control over their impulsive behavior.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Civility costs nothing...

Have humans always treated each other like Americans are treating each other? Why have we given up on gently talking to and politely listening to each other?

I was reminded of these questions the other day when I received a comment on one of the past articles posted on this blog. You may not know that when people post comments about articles, I have the ability to reject them or allow them to be posted as a comment. My job is accept all comments that I don’t agree with and would like all comments to automatically be posted.

The only two criteria I have for not allowing comments to be posted are quite reasonable. The first is some form of identification. Public discourse is not possible if you don’t know who you are talking with. Therefore, people who make comments but don’t identify themselves will not see their comment appear on the blog.

Any comments that demean other people are also rejected. This second criteria means that comments must be polite, respectful and reasonably rational. Unfortunately, the most recent comment has violated both of these standards. Before explaining this further, I’m interested in putting this comment into a broader context.

Some people think Americans have become more uncivil and rude than necessary. For example, this summer the media has reported such bad behavior in local town hall meetings. Town hall meetings have a long history in this country. They began in New England and were examples of "direct democracy" in action where people could gather to discuss and decide issues of interest such as politics and health concerns. Each person was respectfully given a chance to speak while others listened and responded.

For the most part, these town hall meetings were courteous except for vocal minorities who believed their point of view was so correct that any means justified their behavior. Shouting, pushing behavior got a few people arrested for assault. I find it hard to believe this could be called democracy in action.
We also see this rudeness on television talk shows and hear similar behavior from the so-called shock jocks. Shouting instead of listening, name-calling, making comments unsupported by the facts are becoming more common. This lack of social graces could be written off if it weren’t for the fact that it improves ratings. It improves ratings because more people are watching.

Why do so many people find this kind of interchange so fascinating? Why not watch professional wrestling or cage fighting? Are we entering a new era where we are redefining what democracy is all about? Have we become a people who want to open our screaming mouths while keeping our minds closed to opinions that bother us?

We have been a nation that has been proud of our ability to settle our differences with civility and respect (oh well, the civil war only happened once). Now, some people have even said publicly that since they have a president they didn’t vote for and don't agree with, then he deserves to die. Our country was founded on the concept of free speech but it seems that freedom of speech only belongs to those who agree with us.

Sociologists are telling us of increased incivility in the work place. This often takes the form of an intimidating boss or supervisor. These people will display angry outbursts, degrade employees publicly, and even threaten them. Research at the Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management at the Technion Institute in Israel found that managers who display public anger and have temper tantrums are perceived as getting better results than those managers who treat subordinates with dignity. This unacceptable bullying behavior may work — and result in promotions — because the corporate ethos often identifies these bosses as people "who gets things done."

Another more recent venue for uncouth and graceless behavior is the Internet. In years past, people would rant by sending a letter to the editor of the local newspaper but they would also identify themselves by signing their name. This way everyone could know who was saying what. Scientists are always disagreeing with one another but they are fully identified as to their speciality and academic affiliation.

With the Internet and the ease of having a platform for anyone to make their thoughts public, we are seeing a new form of rudeness and incivility called "flaming." The website WiseGeek defines flaming as,

the often deliberate act of posting or writing messages on Internet bulletin boards and message groups that have the intent of insulting or creating dissent within a group. An Internet flame is often filled with coarse language and personal insults. It is meant to hurt people’s feelings, get them fired up, and not to further conversation on a personal issue. It is never conversational, but it may be meant to upset an entire group, provoking conversation about someone’s flame
or on the practice of flaming in general.

What can make this even worse is not providing any identification by those who flame. Anonymity increases a person’s capacity for informational mischief. Anyone can put written information that consists of unsubstantiated accusations and bully tactics on the Internet and not have to take personal responsibility. The flamer can hide under a cloak of invisibility.

Even when anonymous people give criticism or feedback it can be done in a way that is not constructive. Some people believe this behavior also offers protection which would be absent if it were done in a face-to-face situation. Internet users who use cyberspace and are mean-spirited are called trolls within the Internet community.

Much more could be said about this but it brings me back to the start of this blog. As I mentioned, anonymous blogs and blogs that are disrespectful are rejected on my blog. Disagreements, no matter how severe, are encouraged. Here is what happened.

Someone who was afraid of being known publicly decided to respond to one of my blogs. They very cleverly signed their name, Anonymous. As if I wouldn’t have known this. To make matters worse, they did not even write a single thought of their own but cut and pasted the opinions of others who had a different perspective from those presented in my blog article. They used about a half dozen different sources to present their comments — I’m assuming, to present their beliefs about the matter.

Here is the disrespectful part. They sent twenty-three (yes, 23) emails beginning at 1:28 in the afternoon and continuing throughout the day into the evening. The last one was sent at 7:49 pm. The first seven were sent within the first hour.
Then twenty minutes later, it started again. Three more the next hour. Another 20 minutes went by and ten more cluttered my inbox the following hour.

Twenty-five minutes later the deluge slowed to a dribble: only two more showed up. Then two hours later the coup de grace was delivered with the twenty-third email.

My immediate reaction was the phrase running through my head about "having a life." Then I was puzzled why someone would take almost seven hours to send me quotes by other people. Talk about double anonymity. First, there is no name and then no thinking. This person is really afraid of something.

I’m still wondering what the point of these twenty-three emails was about. Was it a contest to see who could get the most people to agree on a specific point? This is the way junior high kids argue. Presenting a dissenting case does not rest on how many agree with you. It based on the evidence and rationale a person can bring to bear rather than finding people to quote.

Was this an attempt to overwhelm me with the opinions of Ph.D. writers who we all know are really smart. I was overwhelmed alright, but not as it was intended. My email box was cluttered and I had to waste my time reading this stuff.

Maybe the invisible Anonymous wanted me to feel badly for posting the article. Disappointingly, I did not drop to my knees in chagrin over having written such a bad article.

I’m almost finished with this rant. I don’t know if this person stumbled onto my blog, read one of them and was so incensed that they had to waste half a day trying to overwhelm me with the thoughts and ideas of other people.

Anonymous, if you are reading this, please don’t waste your time and my time again with such foolish antics. If you have something to say, use your own brain, name, and say it. If you are respectful I will put anything you have to say personally (except a lengthy diatribe) in the comments section.

Send me a comment, Anonymous, and tell me who you are and what you think about this article.