Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Feckless London

Three nights of rioting and destruction, and this is the response by those in charge of maintaining public safety:

 Hand wringing over use of water cannon:

The Home Secretary appeared to rule out sending water cannon or the Army onto the streets of the capital, despite a third night of violence.

Speaking on Sky News, she said that police intelligence and the support of local communities would help quell the disturbances.

"The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon," she said. "The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities."
What in the Wide Wide World of Sports is a-goin' on here?

I venture to conjecture Madame, that your 'communities' would 'consent' to the use of water cannon to quell the yobbos.

This fecklessness is a pattern with the Home Secretary. From last year, during a spate of student protest, brought on by tuition hikes:

The Home Secretary faced similar calls last year following the violent student protests.

Initially she appeared to open the way for their use when she said it was right to look at “all options” and that using them would be a police “operational” decision.

But within 24 hours, she backtracked and told MPs: “I don’t think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain because we have a different attitude to the culture of policing here. We police by consent and it depends on that trust between the police and the public.”
No better way to build trust between yourselves and the public than by standing by while London burns.

Not that the water cannon are ready to hand, mind you. Even if they took the perilous step, they'd first have to ship them in from Northern Ireland:

The Home Office last night insisted that there were no plans to approve the use of water cannon.

“Water cannon are not approved for use on the mainland by the Home Office,” a spokesman said. “A range of measures is available to the police to tackle disorder and we do not believe water cannon are needed.”

A Scotland Yard spokesman said officers did not have any water cannon. If their use was approved, they would have to be brought over from Northern Ireland.
One wonders if the various shop owners in the beleaguered sections of town would have profited by more liberal gun control and licensing laws, like those held holy by the gun fetishists across the pond.

At any rate, water cannon are great for putting out fires.

The 'People of No' and the 'People of Yes.' According to Scientific American

Here’s another psychological study that supposedly shows that there are innate differences between political conservatives and liberals, innate differences of fundamental attitudes toward the world. These fundamental orientations supposedly color everything we humans do or think and in some way also account for variations in our political beliefs.

What are the political manifestations of these differing fundamental attitudes? Well, according to the article, differing attitudes toward, (take your pick here): ‘social experimentation,’ ‘trying something different in policy,’ 'nudging', governmental running of larger swathes of our lives,', 'social welfare programs run by government,' you get the idea.

OK. How does the study show that there are fundamental attitudinal variations, hardwired into human beings, and how does it show its alleged correlations? The study deals with aversion and attraction reactions to visual stimuli, and was undertaken in concert with some sort of questionnaire that asked the subjects to describe their political leanings. A correlation of affect with reported political leanings was found.

Sanka Freeze-dried version of the experiment, as reported in the SciAm piece:

1. Show American college students images of nasty stuff (garbage for instance) followed invariably by a certain set of Chinese characters (with which they have no prior acquaintance).

2. Show the same kids some pics of nice stuff (puppies for instance) followed invariably by a certain second set of Chinese characters.

3. Afterwards, show the kids the Chinese characters and ask them to rate how much they ‘like’ them.

4. All students tended to give lower ratings to the characters that had been associated with the nasty stuff. All of them also tended to give higher ratings to the characters that had been associated with puppies, fluffy bunnies, flowers and the like.


         A. Some of the students had stronger positive reactions to the characters that had been associated      with nice stuff than the average.

         B. Others had a less positive reaction than the average.

6. Others had stronger negative reactions to the characters that had been associated with nasty stuff than the average.

7. When correlated with self-reporting on political inclinations it was found that the kids that fit 5B and 6 were conservative.

[At least this is what I can garner from the SciAm article in question. Also, it would seem, although not directly reported in the piece, that 5A folks tended to self-report as liberals. Were their corresponding mirrors for 5B, i.e., less negative than average folks? Were these self reported liberals? We don’t see in the study, at least as reported in the piece.]

So, we can infer the following:

Re the 5B group: Their less-positive-than-the-average-positive reactions to puppies and bunny rabbits correlate with their caution with regard to traditional liberal agenda items.

And, closely related, if not identical:

Re the 6 group, (identical to the 5B group we can assume): Their more-negative-than-the-average- negative reactions to garbage, slime molds and the like, correlates with a generally pessimistic outlook on human nature and government, traditionally held as good common sense by conservatives.

The implicit theory, stated (as the story does), with regard to the conservative personality type, is that these ‘people of no’ generally react to their social and material environment in a more negative way than the average. Call this bunch of folks the knee-jerk pessimists.

The implicit theory stated, (as the story does not), with regard to the liberal personality type, is that these ‘people of yes’ generally react to their environment in a more positive way than the average. Call this bunch of folks the knee-jerk optimists.

Lessons to learn? We should be aware of our preset attitudinal biases as we go about evaluating political policy and the like. The article and its title focus on the knee-jerk pessimist. But, the implication is equally valid for liberals. They too are to a similar extent knee-jerk, if the study is valid. Their knees just happen to jerk in the opposite direction. Notice that in the piece, when presented with what is in effect, positive propaganda, the knee-jerk optimist is ready to jump into an aid project:

For example, if viewing two hypothetical television ads—one featuring an impoverished village in shambles after a failed food distribution program, and one showing clean, happy children after a successful well installation—liberals may be more likely to be convinced of the potential success of future aid programs.
We can presume, though it is not directly stated, that the knee-jerk pessimist would react with strong skepticism of said aid program if presented with a piece of negative propaganda, and also reacts with less enthusiasm when presented with the positive propaganda.

This is all, of course, old hat, and nothing new with this study. It is well worn sage advice that we should appeal to empirical data, to track records, when evaluating policy options. For instance, when considering aid programs, have they been effective in bringing about the desired change when undertaken in ways that are substantially similar to the way being proposed? People should ask that question, regardless of which way their knees jerk.

Once again, nothing profound, and nothing new here.

What did Socrates say about knowing oneself? Yep. Good advice for all. Not just for the ‘people of no.’

We all have knees.

Questions with regard to the implicit psychological theory, and experimental follow-up:

1. Can experiments be designed that show correlations between other sorts of personality traits or attitudes and political inclinations? This particular experiment showed correlation between aversion/attraction and political attitudes. What are some other potential correlations? It seems the more of these correlations one can establish, the stronger the case can be made that some aspects of our political attitudes are knee-jerk, or hardwired.

2. This will all depend, of course, on how much consensus we can attain with regard to which attitudes are indeed positive and negative. If there is disagreement about these, then one study could conceivably show an attitude’s correlation with liberalism, where another would show that same attitude as correlated with conservatism. (I suppose that is the attraction with using the relatively simple and universal aversion/attraction reactions that all humans share). If we have lack of consensus, and get these sorts of results, the correlation claims suffer.

3. Ditto, if there is lack of consensus on what constitute conservative or liberal political outlooks. (Consider that an Iranian conservative is quite different than the American conservative in what he advocates).

4. Can similar correlations be established between personality traits/attitudes and ethical perspectives? For instance, do people of Kantian bent evince more knee-jerk optimism, or do they tend toward knee-jerk pessimism?

5. Is there some other competing explanation for the correlation, assuming it does exist? Is there something other than fundamental underlying personality traits that can account for it? Are their indeed, separate explanations for the political beliefs on the one hand, and the fundamental aversion/attraction reactions on the other, such that, they end up showing a correlation, and giving the appearance of an underlying connection, when indeed there is none? How would you go about experimentally testing for this latter sort of possible explanation?

6. A fundamental cognition we humans gain relatively early in development is a distinction between those things we can control and those things we cannot control (Call it the Stoic’s insight?). To stress things; this is not a personality trait, but a cognition. Might the strength with which that fundamental cognition grips individuals account for political differences? If it does, then how do we square that supposition with the correlation found in this study? Why should aversion/attraction and political attitudes align?