One hundred years ago this month, two intrepid explorers returned from the Arctic reaches and declared that they had reached the North Pole. Not together, but on competing expeditions to become the first person and team to the Pole. Robert E. Peary led one expedition, and Frederick A. Cook led the other. And each declared the other's claim to the Pole untrue.
Today, of course, that kind of controversy could be settled far more easily. At the very least, we would expect a GPS track record showing that the Pole had been reached, and airborne photographs or other corroborating evidence might be required, as well. Without that technology, however, the claims were a little harder to confirm. It's not like there was an exact marker at the spot, because nobody had been there before. And unlike the peak of Mt. Everest, the landscape at the precise location of the North Pole doesn't look distinctly different from the rest of the terrain--for hundreds of miles in any given direction.
So the controversy has raged for a full century. But here's the interesting part. As more data about the expeditions, and about the North Pole, have emerged, it seems more and more likely that neither man actually reached the Pole. As John Tierney wrote recently in the Science Times, Peary supposedly took no celestial navigation readings on his final push to the Pole, until one day he took a single reading, looked very disappointed, and then declared that the observation--which he showed to no one--confirmed that he'd arrived at the North Pole, exactly. Cook had neither a trained celestial navigator nor the skill to make the observations himself. Without that skill, how on earth (so to speak) could he have reached the Pole, or known precisely when he was there? The modern-day consensus, according to Tierney, is that Peary got closer than Cook, but that neither man got closer than perhaps 100 miles away.
Yet a full century and much more advanced data analysis and evidence later, Peary and Cook still have ardent supporters who adamantly believe that their hero told the truth. They suggest that it might have been possible for either explorer to have found the Pole without clear celestial sightings, by studying wind patterns in the snow, or observing shadows, or even by compass, even though a compass needle gets extremely erratic near the Earth's poles. Apparently, some of the Peary/Cook advocates are more comfortable with contorted logic than simply acknowledging that, given more data, it appears their initial impression of things was ... ummm ... wrong.
Peary and Cook are not the only explorers to have die-hard believers who have clung to a set vision of their heroes' lives despite the emergence of countering evidence. David Roberts, an editor at National Geographic Adventure, encountered a startling backlash of anger and even threats after writing a feature article last spring (which he's expanded into a soon-to-be-released book) that solved the mystery of a young adventurer's disappearance--but not the way some of the adventurer's admirers wanted it solved.
In 1934, at the age of 20, Everett Reuss left civilization to go live in the wilderness ... and was never heard from again. A whole folk myth movement sprang up around this young man who seemed to have slipped so completely into the wild that he eluded discovery for the rest of his life. An annual art festival in Escalante, Utah, is even named in his honor. But Roberts, who researched the case for 10 years, finally discovered evidence that Ruess had been murdered by two members of the Ute tribe almost as soon as he'd begun his journey. There was a witness to the murder, an unearthed skeleton, and DNA tests that were compatible with other family members.
The mystery, it seemed, had been solved. But the hue and cry surrounding Roberts' piece was both angry and loud, catching both Roberts and the Reuss family by surprise. "We all want our heroes to succeed," Reuss' nephew Brian surmised, in an attempt to explain the uproar. (A couple months ago, I wrote a longer essay about the Reuss controversy.)
Perhaps. But I now think there's more to the equation; tendencies that affect how we view information about not just heroes and adventurers, but also issues and events that affect local and national policy and action.
How is it that people can cling to an opinion or view of a person, event, issue of the world, despite being presented with clear or mounting data that contradicts that position? The easy answer, of course, is simply that people are irrational. But a closer look at some of the particular ways and reasons we're irrational offers some interesting food for thought.
In a recently published study, a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel HIll, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College found that people often employ an approach the researchers called "motivated reasoning" when sorting through new information or arguments, especially on controversial issues. Motivated reasoning is, as UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman put it, the equivalent of policy-driven data, instead of data-driven policy.
In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create "cognitive dissonance"--discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence--selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic.
That's not a news flash to anyone who's paid attention to any recent national debate--although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions.
Needless to say, these findings do not bode well for anyone with hopes of changing anyone else's mind with facts or rational discussion, especially on "hot button" issues. But why do we cling so fiercely to positions when they don't even involve us directly? Why do we care who got to the North Pole first? Or whether a particular bill has provision X versus provision Y in it? Why don't we care more about simply finding out the truth--especially in cases where one "right" answer actually exists?
Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is "the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little." And, he adds, "there is no more destructive force in human affairs--not greed, not hatred--than the desire to have been right."
So, what do we do about that? If overcoming "the desire to have been right" is half as challenging as overcoming hate or greed, the outlook doesn't seem promising. But Kleiman, who specializes in crime control policy and alternative solutions to very sticky problems (his latest book is "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment"), thinks all is not lost. He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because "it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead."
A liberal education, Kleiman says, "ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one's current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right." Easy to say, very hard to achieve. For all sorts of reasons. But it's worth thinking about. Even if it came at the cost of sacrificing or altering our most dearly-held opinions ... the truth might set us free.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Lanz, photolib.noaa.gov, Wikimedia Commons
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
The singer’s violent revenge fantasy was intended to provoke outrage, and to get people to talk about her. It succeeds on both counts.
Of all the scandalized reactions to Rihanna’s music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” my favorite comes, as is not surprising for this sort of thing, from the Daily Mail. Labelling herself in the headline as a “concerned parent” (a term to transport one to the days of Tipper Gore’s crusade against lyrics if there ever was one), Sarah Vine opens her column by talking at length about how so very, very reluctant she was to watch Rihanna’s new clip. Then she basically goes frame-by-frame through the video, recounting her horror at what unfolds. “By the time it had finished, I wondered whether I ought not to report [Rihanna] to the police,” Vine writes. “Charges: pornography, incitement to violence, racial hatred.”
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The outcome of Sunday's referendum was as much a rejection of an ongoing policy as it was disapproval of the Eurogroup's bailout proposals.
Greece is now in uncharted territory. The final tally of Sunday’s referendum had 61 percent of Greeks voting“no” and 39 percent “yes” on whether or not to approve the current bailout plan from Eurogroup leaders. The outcome was a victory for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who had strongly urged citizens to reject the deal—but now Greece must return to the negotiating table to discuss a new plan with its creditors.
On Monday, Greece’s finance minister Yanis Varoufakis quit, believing that negotiations might proceed more smoothly if he was absent. He will be succeeded by Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece’s deputy foreign minister who also served as the coordinator of the negotiations between Athens and its creditors. Varoufakis posted a statement on his blog that makes clear what Greece is looking for from its creditors: “It is, therefore, essential that the great capital bestowed upon our government by the splendid NO vote be invested immediately into a YES to a proper resolution—to an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favor of the needy, and real reforms.”