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
Passengers on a domestic flight deplaning in New York were asked to present ID by Customs and Border Protection agents—a likely unenforceable demand that nevertheless diminishes freedom.
American citizens had their introduction to the Trump-era immigration machine Wednesday, when Customs and Border Protection agents met an airliner that had just landed at New York’s JFK airport after a flight from San Francisco. According to passenger accounts, a flight attendant announced that all passengers would have to show their “documents” as they deplaned, and they did. The reason for the search, Homeland Security officials said, was to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a search for a specific immigrant who had received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions. The target was not on the flight.
After days of research, I can find no legal authority for ICE or CBP to require passengers to show identification on an entirely domestic fight. The ICE authorizing statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1357, provides that agents can conduct warrantless searches of “any person seeking admission to the United States”—if, that is, the officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the individual searched may be deportable. CBP’s statute, 19 U.S.C. § 1467, grants search authority “whenever a vessel from a foreign port or place or from a port or place in any Territory or possession of the United States arrives at a port or place in the United States.” CBP regulations, set out at 19 C.F.R. § 162.6, allow agents to search “persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof.”
The smartphone’s ubiquity has made it boring and oppressive. A new, retro handset opens the door to a different future.
They weighed heavy in pockets and jackets and bags, for they were thick and bulky, not lithe and narrow. Harried professionals never clutched one ostentatiously to say silently, “I’ve got better things to do than listen to this pitch or order this coffee.” Fashionable youth never dangled one nonchalantly from fingers as a flirty pique. Nothing was less sexy or less useful than a cell phone.
How is it possible, then, that Nokia has announced an updated edition of one of its most popular phones of the early aughts, the 3310? In short, because nothing has become less sexy or less useful than a smartphone.
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First released in 2000, the Nokia 3310 emerged during the Cambrian explosion of mobile devices. Fashionless black bricks crossed the paths of colorful, candy-bar handsets. Slim, black Ericsson flip-phones shared airport security bins alongside silvered Motorola clamshells. WAP-enabled “feature phones” offered rudimentary, useless access to the internet, while the fat fingers of government officials and corporate executives mashed the keys of BlackBerry 957s and Treo 180s. Teens thumb-typed too—but texts instead of emails, on Danger Hiptops. The Nokia N-Gage even tried, and failed, to merge the mobile handset with the portable game system. Over the first half-decade of mass-market mobile devices, everything was attempted and nothing was holy.
Leaked draft legislation of a Republican Obamacare replacement shows a policy that might leave many Americans even farther behind.
The devil’s always in the details, but if the details of a new 100-page leaked draft of a House Republican plan to repeal Obamacare are too dense to parse, here’s a brief snapshot: Millions of people in rural areas where it’s already hardest to find doctors might no longer be able to afford health insurance in a few years.
The basics of that plan, which was unveiled by House Speaker Paul Ryan two weeks ago, and the rough shape of which has the support of new health secretary Tom Price and the Trump administration, are known. The plan removes the individual and employer mandates to purchase and provide insurance, respectively, and it would also repeal most of the taxes that fund Obamacare. It would roll back funding for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and dramatically restructure the Medicaid program’s funding. Further, the plan would replace the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing subsidies and premium tax credits with an age-rated tax credit, all while keeping Obamacare’s popular pre-existing conditions ban.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
The military and older whites are the big winners in the president’s budget proposal, Democratic constituencies and Republican budget hawks are the big losers.
President Trump reportedly wants to exclude Social Security and Medicare from budget cuts while severely retrenching other domestic federal functions. That represents a frontal challenge not only to congressional Democrats but also to Republican budget hawks led by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
From one direction, the administration’s emerging budget blueprint represents a clear generational tilt toward the “gray” over the “brown”: It would elevate the spending priorities of a preponderantly white-and Republican leaning-older population over the needs of heavily diverse, and mostly Democratic, younger generations. But the plan would also prioritize the demands of seniors over the long-running effort by Ryan-led House Republicans to restrain the long-term growth in entitlement spending––which almost all budget experts consider the key to controlling long-term federal deficits.
Is the brash new president bending Washington to his will—or being tamed by the status quo?
Just over a month ago, Donald Trump thundered into the White House with a bold declaration. “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it,” he said. Instead, he contended, “Now arrives the hour of action.”
Trump promised to steamroll the Washington status quo, disrupting both Republicans and Democrats. He would replace the elite consensus of both parties with a new, populist-nationalist philosophy, and bully Congress into submission.
One month in, Trump has certainly succeeded in kicking up a frenzy of news and controversy. It surrounds him at all times, like the cloud of dust around Pig-Pen in Peanuts. But when it comes to taming Washington, the results are decidedly mixed. Instead, it is the Republican Party—in the form of Congress and conservative institutions—that seems mostly to be in charge, and Trump who is being tamed.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
In 1970, the small firm of Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette held its IPO—and fundamentally reshaped the world of finance.
On the afternoon of May 22, 1969, Dan Lufkin, the 36-year-old cofounder of the small research-focused investment-banking and brokerage firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, or DLJ, walked into his first board of governors meeting at the august New York Stock Exchange, then, as now, located at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, carrying with him a copy of a document that he had filed two hours earlier with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It was the first step in the process that would transform DLJ from a 10-year-old private partnership, with its stock owned by the firm’s partners and their friends, into a public company with shares that could be bought or sold by anyone willing to do so. It also would allow DLJ to get greater access to more affordable and badly needed capital than its partners would otherwise be able to provide.
John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. “People think technology + big data + machine learning = science,” says Krakauer. “And it’s not.”