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
For the first time in modern French history, neither candidate is from a major party.
Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front, is through to the second round of the French presidential election, where she will face Emmanuel Macron, the independent, who won Sunday's first round with 23.7 percent of the vote. Le Pen won 21.7 percent. It's the first time in French history that neither candidate from a major political party is in the second round runoff. It's also the first time a far-right candidate is in the second round since 2002 when Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, lost to Jacques Chirac.
Macron and Le Pen’s strong showings Sunday, which saw an approximately 77percent voter turnout (slightly lower than the 79 percent who voted in the first round in 2012), signaled a rebuke of the political establishment that has dominated French politics for decades. Macron launched his centrist party in August 2016 after he quit his role in President François Hollande’s Socialist government, and despite the party’s youth it boasts a quarter of a million members. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s FN secured the most votes it has ever received in its nearly half-century history, surpassing the 18-percent first-round finish it saw in 2012.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Polls and studies reveal it’s the long, tiring grind that changes opinions about global warming.
We’re facing a week with three environmental news pegs: It’s Earth Day, the March for Science is today, and senior advisors at the White House will soon meet to decide whether the United States will remain in the Paris Agreement.
Because of all three, you will probably soon hear about a number of new and old polls about climate change and the American public.
If you care about climate change, they will be frustrating.
These polls often find that most Americans are worried about climate change. (Six out of 10 Americans are “worried,” according to Yale.) Depending on how firms ask the question, they sometimes even find a majority of Americans are concerned. (Pew finds 45 percent are “worried a great deal”; the same Yale poll found only 20 percent were “very worried.”)
Tracking the controversies, allegations, and investigations into the president and his administration
Donald Trump entered the White House as one of the most scandal-tarred presidents in American history—what his imbroglios may have lacked in depth, they made up in variety, encompassing legal, ethical, and sexual controversies. (In a twist, one of Trump’s few competitors for the crown was his rival, Hillary Clinton.) They ranged from race discrimination to mafia connections, from petty hypocrisies to multimillion-dollar alleged frauds.
Now that Trump is president, some of those controversies have continued to shadow him. But the presidency has also occasioned a whole new set of disputes. Looming largest is the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere in the election, a question being investigated by the FBI as well as panels in both houses of Congress. They also include ethical and legal questions surrounding members of his cabinet, his allegation that Barack Obama spied on him before the election, and various conflicts of interest.
After a quiet start, the demonstrators grew louder as they drew closer to Capitol Hill—mirroring the long arc of the protest itself.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chants that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.
Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
In France, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen advanced to the second round of the presidential election. Germans vote in key elections later this year. The votes are a critical test for establishment candidates and parties.
Establishment candidates and parties will be scrutinized in elections this year in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
A slate of populist parties across Europe have grown in strength since the global recession of 2008. That, coupled with the success of the Brexit movement in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., has incumbents like German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the defensive.
As primaries continue and European voters head to the polls, we’ll follow the developments—from the elections themselves to the populist candidates who will be competing in them.
All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).