Links and Comments: Lucky Numbers; Paleo diet; Narratives about Charleston; Pinker on violence, and the news media

First, keying off my earlier post today about the Alan Lightman book, here’s an essay by George Johnson in the New York Times about Humankind’s Existentially Lucky Numbers.

Four fundamental forces rule reality, but why is the number not three or five or 17? Matter is built from a grab bag of particles whose masses differ so wildly that they appear to have been handed out by a punch-drunk God. The proton weighs 0.9986 as much as the neutron, and each is more than 1,835 times as massive as the electron.

These values, like all the others making up the spec sheet of the universe, seem so arbitrary. Yet if they had been slightly different, theorists tell us, the universe would not have given rise to intelligent life.

Rejecting the possibility that this was nothing more than a lucky accident, physicists have been looking for some underlying principle — a compelling explanation for why everything could only have unfolded in this particular way.

With references to Philip K. Dick and Douglas Adams.


Today on Alternet, from The Conversation: Paleo Diet Only Makes Sense If You Don’t Understand Human Evolution

Because humanity has in fact adapted over the past few hundred generations to adapt to agricultural sources of food. We are no longer paleolithic cave-men.


At Psychology Today, David Niose associates the Charleston tragedy with the history of anti-intellectualism in America: Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.

He may be overthinking it. (Not that anti-intellectualism isn’t a long-recognized trend in the US; the famous book on this subject is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, from 1963.) But people have a tendency to interpret events in the context of their personal narratives. Especially those whose narratives rule their world-views and are resistant to counter-evidence, i.e. the religious and the ideological. Thus, from this essay at Salon:

Fox provides a support system for hatred, and in this instance its collaborators include people like Rick Santorum, who in a craven act of opportunism turns a racist attack into an attack on, what else, himself and his political base, the religious right; Lindsey Graham, who argues the same and defends flying the Confederate flag as a sign of Southern pride and defiance; Rick Perry, who called the shooting an “accident” (OK, he has now corrected that — he says he meant “incident,” but what an interesting Freudian slip); and those in the NRA who make this about their cause, the right to own arms. Apparently it’s about everything except race, and, more specifically, white supremacy.

Never mind the shooter’s explicit statements about trying to incite a race war; for Santorum and Graham, it’s all about *their religion*.

As Dan Savage summarizes,

Christians are under attack. Nothing has anything to do with race. Guns don’t cause problems that more guns can’t solve.

Of course the best examples of this tendency to contort every current event into predisposed narratives are those religious scolds who see every tornado and mass shooting as due to God’s wrath because of things those scolds personally disapprove of – typically abortion or homosexuality. Daily examples at Right Wing Watch.


To conclude on a more optimistic note, here’s an interview with Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), at Vox: Steven Pinker explains how capitalism is killing war

[The US is] an outlier among Western democracies along a number of dimensions: the US has a higher rate of violent crime, it gets involved in more wars, it continues to have capital punishment, [and] has high rates of religious belief compared to other Western democracies.

Now, the US is a complex, heterogeneous country. But the more populist southern and southwestern areas are less shaped by the Enlightenment and more by a culture of honor: there are threats, and moral virtue consists in having the resolve to deal with them. A “manliness versus cowardice” mindset.

On top of that American peculiarity, the general style of punditry and analysis both in journalism and the government is event- and anecdote-driven, rather than trend- and data-driven. And we know from cognitive psychology — Daniel Kahneman and others — that people are overly impressed by big, noisy, memorable events as compared to slow, systemic trends. The natural tendency is to go with what you read this morning.

The United States is also in the unique circumstance of having such outsize military power that it has the dual demands of protecting its own interests globally but also being seen in the role of “global policeman.” It’s the only single country that can do that, but it has no official mandate for doing it.

I’ve mentioned the issue of journalism a couple times on this blog. Right-wingers like S**** P***** dismiss the “lamestream media” as politically motivated, but I’m not sure that the media’s most insidious effect. (The public subscribes to whatever media source that confirms their political views, to a large extent.) It’s that ordinary news focuses on outlying events, the occasional mass shooting or horrible traffic accident; no matter how rare such events might be, if there’s one in the world on any given day, the nightly news will focus on that, giving the viewer the repeated impression that things continue to be horrible. Polls have shown that people believe crime is as bad as ever, despite statistics that show major crimes have reduced substantially over the past decade or two… to tie back to Steven Pinker’s book.

This is not to condemn the news media, but to suggest how to understand it. In the long run, however, I’m not sure how this might be resolved. If we reach any imagined utopia, won’t there still be reporters who attract attention (make a living) by identifying the rare events that confound the norm? If not murders and traffic accidents, insults and slights? Imagine a society so perfect, devoid of violence and accidents, where the lead news story is about a subtle insult by one person to another at a dinner party. Utopia indeed.

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