Are You As Mentally Acute As the Leader of the Free World?

President Txxxx has been bragging about how well he did on a test that measures cognitive decline.

The president of the United States, has insisted that a cognitive test he took recently was “difficult”, using the example of a question in which the patient is asked to remember and repeat five words. . . .

Txxxx went on to explain the test, saying that after several questions, the doctor returned to the list of words, asking Trump to repeat them. “And you [remember them and] they say, “That’s amazing. How did you do that?”.

Txxxx has repeatedly referred to the cognitive test in recent interviews. Speaking to Fox news host Chris Wallace on Sunday he insisted the last five questions of the test were hard.

“I’ll bet you couldn’t even answer the last five questions. I’ll bet you couldn’t, they get very hard, the last five questions,” he said. “I guarantee you that Joe Biden could not answer those questions.”

Here’s a version of the test:

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We shouldn’t make light of people who suffer from dementia or other forms of cognitive decline.

On the other hand, it’s fair to make light of people who (1) exaggerate the test’s difficulty, (2) repeatedly brag about passing it and (3) lie about how the doctor reacted when they answered a question, especially (4) when they occupy a position formerly known as “leader of the free world”.

They Really Are Different From Us, Part 2

What should a humble blogger do when there is only one subject that seems worth writing about, but it feels like there’s nothing new to say?

I could call attention to the latest offenses, but don’t we already know enough to realize how important it is to vote against Republicans at every opportunity? And that giving Democrats some control over Congress next year is crucial?

Does it do any good to remind ourselves that a meager 70,000 votes in three states gave that terrible person an Electoral College victory, and that to win he needed an illegal Russian social media campaign, the illegal Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign and the improper (and probably illegal) efforts of Cambridge Analytica to poison the internet, as well as the FBI’s seriously improper intervention in the election? Will it help to know more about the millions of dollars that appear to have been illegally donated to the National Rifle Association by a Russian oligarch so that the NRA could spend more than they ever had before in support of a presidential candidate?

Do we really need to be reminded, in the words of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, that our president “hates criticism; must continually pummel his opponents; never bothers to learn about subjects on which he expounds; thinks everyone in government owes their personal loyalty to him; means what he says for only a fleeting instant; confounds allies with policy zigzags; bullies and blusters; lies continually; and, despite his bravado, cannot take on those to whom he apparently owes his presidency (e.g., the National Rifle Association, the Kremlin)”?

Will it make a difference if we learn more about the Trump family’s corruption, his cabinet’s misbehavior, the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico or how many more civilians we’re killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria? At this point, it shouldn’t make any difference at all to the support we give Democratic candidates.

So this humble blogger doesn’t see the point in writing about our political situation, even though our political situation feels like the only thing worth writing about. I mean, if you’re falling from the roof of a very tall building, is there any point in calling for help? If there isn’t, is there another topic that deserves your attention?

For now, therefore, I’ll leave you with a followup to last month’s “They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us”. It’s been shown in various studies that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. This is from an article in the Washington Post last year:

… Over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals.

This helps explain why conservatives who live in small towns in almost empty places are more worried about terrorist attacks and immigration than liberals who live in big cities that have actually experienced terrorist attacks and are filled with immigrants.

The author of the article, a Yale psychologist, goes on:

And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

These psychologists at Yale had groups of Republicans and Democrats answer survey questions about political topics like immigration:

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

The article mentions other demonstrations of this phenomenon. And I assume that any changes made to the conservatives’ thinking were temporary. But understanding the fundamental fearfulness of our right-wing friends helps explain how strangely they behave. It also helps explain why right-wing media is awash in stories meant to terrify. To conservatives, the world outside their control and filled with strangers is a scary place, full of danger and disruption, so politicians who tell them how bad everything is but promise to protect them (“Only I can protect you”) win their support. I don’t know if it’s possible to make these people less fearful, except temporarily. Eventually some will get used to new realities and older people tend to die off. Meanwhile, we all have to vote every chance we get.

Trump the Projectionist

Seeing that Trump often refers to Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” got me thinking about projection. Not the kind of projection that used to happen in movie theaters, but the psychological kind. It’s theorized that people sometimes defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others. It’s an old idea that was later developed in detail by Sigmund Freud:

Freud considered that in projection thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that cannot be accepted as one’s own are dealt with by being placed in the outside world and attributed to someone else. What the ego repudiates is split off and placed in another. [Wikipedia]

So let’s consider the principal criticisms, i.e. insults, Trump throws at Clinton.

(1) Hillary is crooked.

Of course, Trump might be the most crooked, corrupt person ever to win the presidential nomination of a major party. It’s been documented that, as a New York City real estate developer, he had links to organized crime. He’s accused by the attorney generals of various states of committing fraud. He’s bragged about paying politicians to do his bidding and the evidence indicates his contributions or bribes have paid off. He’s been sued thousands of times. He’s been fined by the IRS. He has a habit of not paying people who work for him, such as subcontractors who worked on his buildings. His bankruptcies have made it impossible to borrow money from American banks, so he’s borrowed large sums from Russian lenders who have connections to Putin and his brand of criminal capitalism. Trump says he’s contributed millions to charity, and probably taken tax deductions for those contributions, but in many cases he didn’t make those contributions at all or he made them with other people’s money. Plus he won’t release his tax returns. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been investigated over and over for years and years and nobody has found real evidence of any corruption at all.

(2) Hillary is a liar.

Every respectable commentator and fact-checker has pointed out that Trump lies more often than any other presidential candidate ever. He lies about being against the Iraq War, for example, when he wasn’t. He lies about contributions he’s made. He lies about statistics. He lies about who he knows and what he’s done. He has built his whole campaign on lies and bullshit. Clinton is a politician who says self-serving or misleading things sometimes, but less than most politicians do. You can look it up.

(3) Hillary can’t be trusted.

When people say this, it’s never clear what she supposedly can’t be trusted to do. Given her long public record, it’s undeniable that she would govern as a center-left Democrat, more liberal on social issues than some, and less liberal on military or foreign policy issues than others. Trump, on the other hand, has a history of not paying his debts. That’s why he’s sued so often. Certainly, his ex-wives and business partners shouldn’t have trusted him. Furthermore, he regularly flip-flops between policy proposals. Aside from a general animus toward certain groups and a vague promise to make America great, it isn’t clear what he thinks about anything, aside from how wonderful he is and how much he loves money. As many have said, there’s no telling what he would do as President, because he doesn’t know himself.

(4) Hillary is trigger happy.

Trump criticizes Clinton for voting for the Iraq invasion and for supporting our intervention in Libya. Yet he was in favor of both those actions until he was against them. Trump himself, however, has advocated war crimes, such as killing the families of terrorists and seizing Iraq’s oil. He also advocated bringing about regime change in Iran after their disputed 2009 election. Most recently, in response to provocations from Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf: “When [the Iranians] circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.” Quoting Chas Danner of New York Magazine:

So in one day, Donald Trump said that he both supported regime change and didn’t support regime change (even though he has always supported regime change), and then later suggested he’d go to war with one of the countries he is still willing to publicly support regime change in, just as soon as they … give us the finger from a little boat?

(5) Hillary is running a disgusting, issue-free campaign.

Every sentient being with any interest in American politics knows by now that Trump’s campaign has been in the gutter since he announced his candidacy. Aside from his amazing ability to lie in the face of all evidence, he’s insulted entire classes of people, as well as specific individuals, on a daily basis. Hillary Clinton has said she regrets saying that half of Trump’s supporters are deplorable (although many observers have pointed out that 50% or more of his supporters do indeed hold deplorable views). 

Regarding the issues, nobody has ever accused Hillary Clinton of being short on issue statements or policy proposals. She’s been criticized instead for being too caught up in the details of policy. Trump, on the other hand, has rarely said anything concrete about anything, including his signature proposals to build a very big wall, deport lots of people and keep out Muslims. Not surprisingly, one of his more specific policy proposals was to enact a tax cut that would theoretically save him and his children millions of dollars (assuming we know roughly how well he’s doing). Anyone doubting that Clinton has been more issues-oriented can visit their respective websites. Clinton’s features a wide-ranging discussion of lots of issues. Trump’s doesn’t.

On the issue whether Trump is projecting his serious inadequacies onto Clinton, it can hardly be said that the jury is still out.

Lies and Damn Lies, But No Statistics

The philosopher Gerald Dworkin got a big response when he wrote about lying earlier this week. He listed ten situations in which someone might or did tell a lie and asked his readers how they felt about each case. Dworkin himself thinks we all lie more than we realize and that lying is generally more acceptable than we think. It isn’t possible to respond to Dworkin’s list online anymore, but here’s the article. It includes some prefatory remarks. As for the lies, they’re listed below, followed by my thoughts on their acceptability.

Are the following lies permissible (yes) or not (no)?

1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.

2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger. 

3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.

4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”

5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.

6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a press conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey. 

7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family.

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation. 

9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.

Dworkin thinks all ten of these lies are justifiable. I think half of them clearly are. It’s acceptable to lie:

(1) to hold a surprise party;
(3) to calm down an Alzheimer’s patient;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing; and
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman.

Lie (8), the one about telling people they had an operation when they really didn’t, is a bit problematic. To be acceptable, two conditions would have to be met. First, the patients would have to fully understand that some of them would be receiving, in effect, a placebo. Giving a placebo is acceptable in medical research if the experiment’s subjects understand they might receive a placebo and won’t suffer significant consequences from not getting the real thing. Dworkin mentions the first condition, but not the second.

I would add a third condition: every patient should receive the real surgery, not the fake surgery, if the study showed the surgery to be beneficial. Since these other conditions aren’t mentioned, I wouldn’t put lie (8) in the clearly acceptable category. But if forced to choose, I’d say it’s all right to “lie” in this case. Telling someone you will tell them a lie is more like playing a game than real lying.

Lie (10), the one regarding exaggerated praise for children, is also a little problematic. It’s acceptable to sometimes give children exaggerated praise, but the praise shouldn’t be extravagant. Praise should also leave room for improvement (if a drawing is perfect, there’s no reason to do a better one next time). But lie (10)  also goes in the “yes” column.

I have more trouble with lie (7). Should a prospective employee lie about their desire to have children if an interviewer inappropriately raises the subject? Instead of lying, I think a better response would be to politely ask the interviewer whether it’s appropriate to ask a prospective employee about having children. Not answering the question while mildly calling attention to its inappropriateness would be more acceptable than lying, so I give lie (7) a “no”.

The last two lies, (2) and (6), are easy to reject. In both cases, giving a vague or non-committal answer would be better than lying. Lie (2) might stop the injured little boy from worrying about his parents. But why open the door to a future revelation: “Remember when I told you that your parents were doing fine? I lied. They were already dead.” If you couldn’t think of a sufficiently vague answer, you could at least tell a lie that was closer to the truth: “Your parents were hurt, but the doctors are trying to make them better.” Then change the subject back to the child’s needs. Eventually learning the truth wouldn’t be as much of a shock.

Finally, in the case of (6), the only non-hypothetical lie in the list, it’s fair to say that all government leaders sometimes have valid reasons to keep a secret. Perhaps President Kennedy had a good, non-political reason not to tell the truth about his talks with the Russians. But he didn’t have to absolutely deny that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed. Kennedy could just as easily have told the press that various issues of national security always come up when dealing with the Russians. This time was no different. Next question, please.

So, giving a “no” to (2) and (6) leaves me with seven acceptable and three unacceptable lies. Professor Dworkin, who said all ten were justified, promises to write about this further. I’ll do the same. But keep in mind that you can trust me, because I’m not lying. Whether this clearly untrustworthy professor returns to the subject is a whole other question.

A Neutral Observer Might Detect a Pattern Here

Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle writer, has been tweeting “Don’t Do That and They Won’t Kill You” advice since yesterday. New York Magazine helpfully provided an annotated list of the fatal encounters she’s described.

Much too often, the apparently dangerous and criminal behavior at issue seems to have been “Being in Public While Black”.

Do many cops really see black Americans as so much more lawless and threatening than the white Americans they meet up with?

Today I saw a link to the video below. It shows how unreliable direct perception can be. It’s called the McGurk Effect in honor of the scientist who discovered it. From Wikipedia:

The effect was discovered by accident when McGurk and his research assistant … asked a technician to dub a video…. while conducting a study on how infants perceive language at different developmental stages. When the video was played back, both researchers heard a third phoneme [a perceptually distinct unit of spoken language] rather than the one spoken or mouthed in the video.

A couple weeks ago, in Cleveland, two cops responded to a 911 call, which can be heard here. The person who called 911 said that someone in the park (“probably a juvenile”) was scaring people with a gun (“probably fake”). 

It isn’t clear yet what the 911 dispatcher told the two officers to look for, but the black 12-year-old with the authentic-looking pellet gun was shot as soon as they arrived on the scene. From the New York Times:

Tamir Rice was killed by a rookie Cleveland police officer who quit a suburban police force after his supervisors determined two years ago that he suffered a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training and was emotionally unprepared to cope with stresses of the job. The officer, Tim Loehmann, 26, shot the child within two seconds after his patrol car pulled up next to the boy.

The Cleveland police said the child, who had what turned out to be a replica gun that shoots small plastic pellets but looks like a semiautomatic pistol, was told to raise his hands, but instead reached to his waistband for the object. Surveillance video of the killing that was released last week showed, however, that the shooting happened so fast it was hard to know whether the officer issued any real warnings or whether the boy could have understood them if he did.

I wonder what the young cop who had been fired by another police department saw when he and his veteran partner drove into that park. I wonder what the more experienced officer saw. It’s possible, even likely, that they didn’t see the same thing. Whatever each of them saw, however, it’s clear that one of them shouldn’t have arrived in that park with a gun in his hand, ready to use it, given what he apparently perceived.