Links and Comments: Bruni on Cruz; Flip-flopping presidents are most effective; political persuasion; Republicans’ economic narrative; Lisa Randall, a new Trek

From last Sunday’s New York Times: Frank Bruni on Ted Cruz’s Laughable Disguise

He emphatically recalls how his father’s embrace of Jesus Christ led him back to his mother — and to him — after his parents had separated.

He tends to skip over the part about his parents eventually divorcing nonetheless. It was his father’s second failed marriage. That detail doesn’t fit Cruz’s moralizing on the subject of holy matrimony. It doesn’t buttress his extravagant lamentations about the tradition-shattering, God-insulting unions of two men or two women.

But then his education and his station in life don’t exactly buttress the disdain he heaps on intellectuals and the affinity he claims with the hourly laborers of the world.

During the most recent debate, he twice disparaged the people in Washington who set monetary policy as haughty, disconnected “philosopher-kings.”

From such cunningly chosen, strategically deployed words, you’d never guess that Cruz was known at Harvard Law School for a reluctance to “study with anyone who hadn’t been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale,” according to a 2013 profile of Cruz in GQ by Jason Zengerle.

One of Cruz’s law-school roommates, Damon Watson, told Zengerle: “He said he didn’t want anybody from ‘minor Ivies’ like Penn or Brown.”

My impression is that conservative politicians rely on idealistic narratives, even moreso than liberal politicans do. This also explains why Ben Carson has been so adamant about the veracity of his story that, in his youth, he tried to stab someone. Because his narrative is that Christianity saved him, and informs his entire life since then, and thus justifies all the nonsensical things he’s been saying recently.


Also NYT, Adam Grant on The Virtue of Contradicting Ourselves. Politicians get accused of being ‘flip-floppers’ if they ever change their minds– but people open to new evidence *should* be allowed to change their minds; it’s a sign of intellectual integrity.

Essay discusses cognitive dissonance, with the odd effect that sometimes it doesn’t bother people at all to hold inconsistent beliefs. New studies show

that inconsistent beliefs really bother us only when they have conflicting implications for action. People have little trouble favoring both abortion rights and tax cuts. But when it comes time to vote, they confront a two-party system that forces them to align with Democrats who are abortion rights advocates but against tax cuts or Republicans who are anti-abortion but for tax cuts. If I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and I want to vote for a candidate with a decent shot at winning, my beliefs are contradictory. One way to reconcile them is to change my opinion on abortion or tax policies. Goodbye, dissonance.

Flip-flopping turns out to be a predictor of presidential success.

When historians and political scientists rate the presidents throughout history, the most effective ones turn out to be the most open-minded. This is true of both conservative and liberal presidents. Abraham Lincoln was a flip-flopper: He started out pro-slavery before abolishing it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a flip-flopper, too: Elected on a platform of balancing the budget, he substantially increased spending with his New Deal.

One person’s flip-flopping is another’s enlightenment. Just as we would fear voting for candidates who changed their minds constantly, we should be wary of electing anyone who fails to evolve. “Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw observed, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”


And then this week’s “Gray Matter” column, The Key to Political Persuasion, by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg.

You persuade people by appealing to their values, not yours, but how hard this is to do. Examples about liberals and conservatives asked to write persuasive arguments for some issue — same-sex marriage, making English the official language of the US — that would appeal to the other side, and most fail.

Maybe reframing political arguments in terms of your audience’s morality should be viewed less as an exercise in targeted, strategic persuasion, and more as an exercise in real, substantive perspective taking. To do it, you have to get into the heads of the people you’d like to persuade, think about what they care about and make arguments that embrace their principles. If you can do that, it will show that you view those with whom you disagree not as enemies, but as people whose values are worth your consideration.


Fascinating interview, on San Francisco’s KQED’s “Forum” program, with Lisa Randall, Harvard theoretical physicist and author of new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. The specific subject is how the solar system’s wobbling passage through a presumed disk of dark matter (Randall says a better term would be ‘invisible matter’) lying along the plane of the galaxy might explain the periodic mass extinctions throughout Earth’s history. More generally, she’s very well-spoken, and I particularly noticed her comments about appreciating the scope of reality not readily available to human experience, how the expanses of reality are so much more interesting than any ancient tribal myths.


Reality check, at Vox: Republicans think America is doing terribly, but it isn’t, by Ezra Klein.

Anyone watching the fourth Republican debate would be excused for thinking America is mired in a deep recession — that the economy is shrinking, foreign competitors are outpacing us, more Americans are uninsured, and innovators can’t bring their ideas to market.

Example quotes from Trump, Cruz, Fiorina, Rubio.

They would be surprised to find that unemployment is at 5 percent, America’s recovery from the financial crisis has outpaced that of other developed nations, the percentage of uninsured Americans has been plummeting even as Obamacare has cost less than expected, and there’s so much money flowing into new ideas and firms in the tech industry that observers are worried about a second tech bubble.

Narrative trumping reality, in the service of human nature and tribal identity.


Science Daily: Yet another study that demonstrates that people are reluctant to change their minds, even when facts don’t match what they believe


Cool video at Business Insider: This 3-minute animation will change your perception of time.


Podcast show Thinkery has Episode 18, with several speakers (including Paul Fidalgo of Morning Heresy fame), discussing the potential of a new Star Trek series, perhaps starting from scratch. How would cultural assumptions now differ from those 50 years ago? Could a new Trek be used to advance the idea that ‘gods’ are obsolete and the reality of the vast universe is so much more interesting? And so on.

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