Epistemic Closure Watch

Oct 21 2014 @ 12:42pm

Media Polarization

Pew looks at how conservatives and liberals consume their news:

When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

John Avlon is distressed:

A few decades ago, politicians sent talking points to talk radio hosts. Today, talk radio hosts and online echo-chamber pundits send talking points to politicians. They keep their readers and listeners addicted to anger. The durable wisdom of the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan—“everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”—gets discarded when people come to political debates armed with their own facts.

Justin Elis’ take is more nuanced:

On their face, these findings might seem to lend support to the idea that we’re becoming a country of smaller and smaller filter bubbles, personalized universes of news and people that fit our own interests. But the connection between how Americans get news and their political polarization is not black and white.

Read On

Book Club: Does The Self Exist?

Oct 21 2014 @ 12:02pm


In our discussion of Sam Harris’ Waking Up, I want to try a different tack than in previous Book Club discussions. I want to throw this over to you as quickly as possible, rather than write a review of the entire book as an introduction. And with Sam’s dense but deep little tome, there’s one question I’m eager to ask Dish readers about: were you convinced by his argument that there is no real self as we usually understand it?

Sam makes the case with a dozen little perspective shifts. He cites the fact that the right side of the brain often has no idea what the left side is doing, and vice-versa and asks: how can there be a coherent “I” if that is true? Or he challenges us with Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about the inherently unstable entity called a self “that is carried along from one moment to the next.” Or he notes how much of our lives are lived without our active consciousness at all, where even the task of sipping a cup of coffee is undergirded by

motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters I can’t feel or see. And how do I initiate this behavior? I haven’t a clue. In what sense, then do I initiate it? That is difficult to say.

Much of this argument is entirely by a process of elimination. He merely chips away at a stable notion of the self – even in its most intuitive form – and challenges us to ask what remains:

However one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However its absence can be found – and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. This is an empirical claim.

The key argument, it seems to me, is that we are not identical to our thoughts. Our existence is rooted elsewhere – in fact, in the banishment of thought. It reminded me of the account given by Pope Francis of his experience before he signed the document that would make him Pope:

Before I accepted I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows.

I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it …

For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.

I can read much of Sam’s book, in other words, and yet reach a very different conclusion about what’s really going on. Or am I only projecting what I want to believe onto the experience itself? Feel free to tell me. Not that it usually requires a request.

More relevant: Did Harris persuade you on the question of the self? Where was his argument’s weakest – or strongest – link for you? Email your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com

The First Gentleman Of Fashion

Oct 21 2014 @ 11:40am

Tanya Basu considers the legacy of Oscar de la Renta, who died yesterday at the age of 82:

Before de la Renta’s entrance, American fashion was ruled by copycats: Runway looks from Paris and London were adjusted for American tastes, which strayed towards the practical and First Lady Laura Bush joins Oscar de la Renta during fall 20avoided the cutting-edge risks that defined the European scene. De la Renta changed that—he focused on the American woman, her needs, her cultural outlook, her sense of practicality but desire to be beautiful. De la Renta combined these sensibilities into what became his unmistakable brand of strong lines, very little skin-show, sumptuous fabrics, vibrant single hues, ornate details like lace and bows and pearls that evoked a purity that was at once sultry and innocent, and, most importantly, a tag bearing his calligraphic name, scrolled in smooth strokes both delightfully unexpected and surprisingly expected, just like his line. …

Indeed, de la Renta’s revolutionary designs were, ironically, steadfast in their dedication to classic form and structure, stridently maintaining a fairy-tale quality that gave the women he dressed an ethereal quality. He favored ruffles, billowing tiered gowns that evoked a concoction of Renaissance grandeur with graphic Warholian splashes of color. Unlike some of his peers, de la Renta avoided making political statements or overt experimentation (“Fashion is non-political and non-partisan,” de la Renta said in that same Clinton video while discussing how he dressed then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for a Vogue shoot).

Amanda Wills put together a gallery of first ladies in de la Renta gowns. One very reluctant late addition:

Read On

The Trouble With Religion, Ctd

Oct 21 2014 @ 11:17am

A reader writes:

As a professor of religion, I cannot resist responding to Reza Aslan‘s latest effort to put foolishness in the mouth of “every scholar of religion.” According to him, the “principle fallacy” of “New Atheists” and many other “critics of religion” is that “they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.” It takes only one scholar of religion to refute that claim, and I am happy to be that scholar.

The first problem with Aslan’s view is that it treats “morals” and “religion” as if they exist in two separate boxes. The second problem is that it assumes that “morals” can impact “religion” but “religion” cannot impact “morals.”

It is of course the case, as Aslan argues, that people “bring their values to their religion.” That fact helps to explain why they can read the same texts (the Bible, the Quran) and find in them such divergent plans of action. But it is not the case (as Aslan also argues) that “people don’t derive their values from their religion.”

Aslan is quite good at telling interviewers on CNN or FOX that they are oversimplifying things. But here his own oversimplifying is epic.

Read On

The GOP’s Likely Gains

Oct 21 2014 @ 10:55am

Most of the midterm models expect Republicans to pick up 52 seats:

Senate Forecasts

Chris Cillizza notes that the Republicans’ chances of taking the Senate have improved. But Jonathan Bernstein focuses instead on the diminishing likelihood of a Republican blowout:

Granted, pickups in Iowa and Colorado would be a nice way to put Republicans over the top. But at least so far, they haven’t managed to add potential targets such as Minnesota, Michigan or Virginia to the list of closely contested states, and they remain unlikely to win New Hampshire or North Carolina. The result is that prediction models are converging at 52 Republican seats, not 54 or more.

I’m not playing that down. No matter what the opportunities, I doubt there has been a single point during this election cycle when Republican strategists would not have been satisfied with winning seven seats to reach 52. And just as Democratic hopes to hold a majority are still realistic, so are Republican dreams of an even larger landslide. Still, what’s happening is consistent with Republicans taking advantage of expected opportunities.

Greg Sargent maintains that “Democrats do still have paths to retaining control. But they are increasingly narrow”:

Read On

The Grave Risks Of A Travel Ban, Ctd

Oct 21 2014 @ 10:18am

With Marco Rubio preparing a bill to ban nationals of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone from entering the US, and with vulnerable Dem candidates hopping on the Ebolanoia bandwagon, our political class appears to be warming more and more to an Ebola travel ban. (Ron Paul, at least, has called out such proposals as bad, politically motivated policy). So the point bears repeating that a travel ban is not as commonsensical as its supporters make it out to be. Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman look back at past epidemics in which travel bans proved unhelpful, including the AIDS crisis:

After HIV/AIDS was discovered in 1984, governments around the world imposed entry, stay and residence restrictions on people with the disease. As one 2008 study notes: “Sixty-six of the 186 countries in the world for which data are available currently have some form of restriction in place.” In the US, the ban — instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 — was only lifted when Obama came into office. But HIV/AIDS managed to spread anyway, reaching pandemic proportions by the 1990s. This 1989 review of HIV/AIDS travel restrictions found they were “ineffective, impractical, costly, harmful, and may be discriminatory.” Prevention of HIV worked better than travel restriction, the authors concluded.

And swine flu:

Read On

Light My Fire

Oct 21 2014 @ 9:42am


Mary Pauline Lowry confesses to pyromania:

The constraints of attentive parents kept my pyromania to a minimum for the next few years. I’d light a few matches while my mom was in the shower, or feed scraps of paper to the gas burner on the stove if she stepped out to the grocery store. I told no one about my urge to light things — not even my big sister, whom I usually told everything. My mom would sometimes let me light candles on the dinner table. She would watch me closely and joke about the incident with the advent wheel. I’d feel a twinge of guilt — she wouldn’t have laughed if she knew it wasn’t just a one-time incident, how I yearned for more ambitious conflagrations.

In sixth grade, I was deemed old enough to make the short walk home from school with my best friend and then stay at home unsupervised for an hour or so. This brief window of freedom became a time for me to explore my pyromania more fully. I did most of my fire-lighting in the bathroom, operating under the theory that bathroom tile wasn’t flammable. The first time I lit a match and sprayed the tiny flame with Aqua Net, the ensuing fireball was so big and breathtaking that I felt satisfied — and only a little afraid.

I wondered if these urges would ever be appeased. But even as I hoped I would outgrow my love of fire, I took bigger and bigger risks.

(Photo by Flickr user herval)

Pregnant With Depression, Ctd

Oct 21 2014 @ 8:56am

David Bornstein argues that postpartum depression has been misunderstood:

Postpartum depressions are often assumed to be associated with hormonal changes in women. In fact, only a small fraction of them are hormonally based, said Cindy-Lee Dennis, a professor at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at Women’s College Research Institute, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Perinatal Community Health. The misconception is itself a major obstacle, she adds. Postpartum depression is often not an isolated form of depression; nor is it typical. “We now consider depression to be a chronic condition,” Dennis says. “It reoccurs in approximately 30 to 50 percent of individuals. And a significant proportion of postpartum depression starts during the pregnancy but is not detected or treated to remission. We need to identify symptoms as early as possible, ideally long before birth.”

Regarding treatments, the following passage from Bornstein brings in a recent thread on telemedicine:

Read On

Creepy Ad Watch

Oct 21 2014 @ 8:13am

The above ad for BLAH Airlines – Virgin America’s parody of airline travel – is just a glimpse into the nearly 6-hour commercial tracing a flight from Newark to San Francisco. Jessica Plautz calls the full film “more than boring – it’s nearly Dalí-style surrealism”:

It starts out boring, as you would expect on any flight with nothing but the safety manual to entertain you. Shots go back and forth between the back of the seat and our protagonist, a gaping dummy with a bowl cut. A fasten-your-seatbelts announcement 12 minutes in is so familiar it’s uncanny. At 3 hours and 19 minutes, a dummy appears outside the window, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet style. And then it gets even more Twilight Zone. There are weird small talk conversations throughout that must have been a treat to write and produce.

Full video after the jump:

Read On

Home Sweet Moon?

Oct 21 2014 @ 7:34am

Saskia Vermeylen considers what it might take to own a lunar homestead:

If you just simply occupy a place and no one else can access or use it, aren’t you the de facto owner? Lawyers call this corporate possession (corpus possidendi) and it represents another reason why title deeds cannot be a legal proof of lunar ownership – no one is physically there. In order to possess something, both mind and body need to be involved. Intention alone is not sufficient; possession also requires a physical act.

The difficulty of physically establishing an act of possession on the moon should protect it from private development, but it seems technology is once again outsmarting the law. Back in the late 1990s commercial firm SpaceDev intended to land robotic prospectors on an asteroid to conduct experiments and claim it as private property. The project eventually ran out of funds and was shelved, but advocates of such “telepossession” point to cases of salvage companies claiming undersea wrecks as property after exploring them with robots. …

I get the uncomfortable feeling of a déjà vu. Was it not Locke’s property theory that justified possession over nature and vacant land and eventually led to the colonization of the Americas?