In a particularly eye-catching pull quote in the November issue of The Atlantic, journalist and scholar Robert Wright claims, “The world’s gravest conflicts are not over ethical principles or disputed values but over disputed facts.”
The essay, called “Why We Fight – And Can We Stop?” in the print version and “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” in the online version, reviews new research by psychologists Joshua Greene and Paul Bloom on the biological foundations of our moral impulses. Focusing mainly on Greene’s newest book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Wright details Greene’s proposed solution to the rampant group conflict we see both domestically and internationally. Suggesting that we are evolutionarily wired to cooperate or ‘get along’ with members of groups to which we belong, Greene identifies the key cause of fighting as different groups’ “incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.” And his answer is to strive for a ‘metamorality’ – a universally shared moral perspective (he suggests utilitarianism) that would create a global in-group thus facilitating cooperation.
So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.
With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.
Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.
No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.
We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.
Would you trust a minister of finance explaining how he just fixed the latest euro-zone deal if he came out of the summit chambers tipsily waving a glass of wine? No? What about if he gave a press conference after an all-night session? Most likely nobody would even notice.
Yet 24 hours without sleep has (roughly) the same effect on decision-making as a 0.1% blood alcohol content (six glasses of wine in an hour). You would not be allowed to drive at this alcohol level, but you are apparently allowed to make major political decisions.
The example is from a blog essay (in Swedish) by Andreas Cervenka, where he asks the sensible question: can we trust sleep-deprived political leaders?
When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.
How should a rational person react to this news?
This is a guest post by Dave Frame. Many thanks to him for contributing!
Over the last few years, researchers have pointed out a dimension along which there is an extraordinary lack of diversity in the academic social sciences and humanities. And the response from social scientists has been striking. Usually, statistics like these trigger strident calls to reflect diversity and address systematic bias; in this case – political bias – everyone just smiles and winks. But on what basis should political diversity not matter, given how highly academics prize diversity in regards to gender, ethnicity, religion dis/ability and so on?