Archive for June, 2014

Facebook Study and Open-mindedness

June 30, 2014 Comments off

As a middling Facebook user, I was interested to read about a recent study conducted whereby it was demonstrated that readers’  mods were affected by the news feeds they received. Those receiving upbeat news feeds were demonstrably happier than those who received negative news feeds. While many news outlets engaged in hand-wringing over this, Cathy O’Neill aka The Mathbabe was elated:

It’s got everything a case study should have: ethical dilemmas, questionable methodology, sociological implications, and questionable claims, not to mention a whole bunch of media attention and dissection.

By the way, if I sound gleeful, it’s partly because I know this kind of experiment happens on a daily basis at a place like Facebook or Google. What’s special about this experiment isn’t that it happened, but that we get to see the data. And the response to the critiques might be, sadly, that we never get another chance like this, so we have to grab the opportunity while we can.

Of course she’s right about the fact that this kind of study happens daily: it HAS happened for decades in advertising agencies who are trying to find ways to connect with consumers and was a source of deep concern for George Orwell in his analysis of Hitler’s rise to power. I think the study overlooks a paradox of technology: the more media outlets there are the less people are willing to consider another individual or group’s perspective. That led me to make the following comment:

Here’s another hypothesis this study might support: the customization of news feeds has contributed to the polarization of politics in our country. There was a time when there were only three major news sources available to people on a daily basis and the news they provided was governed by a fairness doctrine. The segmentation that began with cable TV has increased with the internet making it possible for people to get, for example, “Christian News”. This segmentation leads to a situation where one’s world view is constantly reinforced making it harder for open-mindedness to prevail.

Her short post has links to the study itself, which was an interesting read. The bottom line from my perspective is that we need to include mindfulness in schools as soon as possible so people can gain a clearer understanding of how their mind works.

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Krugman Reports on ALEC

June 30, 2014 Comments off

At last a “headline” columnist is making ALEC’s exploits known! Today Paul Krugman’s column, “Charlatans, Cranks and Kansas” deals with the insidious impact ALEC has had and is having on the national, state and local economies, shifting public funds away from the government and into the pockets of the oligarchs. Krugman looks deeply into the KS tax cut debacle (see my post yesterday on this topic) and reaches a broader conclusion:

There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think. Yes, the Kansas debacle shows that tax cuts don’t have magical powers, but we already knew that. The real lesson from Kansas is the enduring power of bad ideas, as long as those ideas serve the interests of the right people.

Those “right people” are the folks who bankroll the American Legislative Exchange Council- or ALEC- whose shenanigans have been widely reported in progressive blogs but mostly overlooked by the main stream media. Krugman succinctly describes ALEC and the folks who underwrite it:

And what is ALEC? It’s a secretive group, financed by major corporations, that drafts model legislation for conservative state-level politicians. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian, who acquired a number of leaked ALEC documents, describes it as “almost a dating service between politicians at the state level, local elected politicians, and many of America’s biggest companies.” And most of ALEC’s efforts are directed, not surprisingly, at privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

And I do mean for the wealthy. While ALEC supports big income-tax cuts, it calls for increases in the sales tax — which fall most heavily on lower-income households — and reductions in tax-based support for working households. So its agenda involves cutting taxes at the top while actually increasing taxes at the bottom, as well as cutting social services.

I felt compelled to elaborate a bit more in the comment section by offering the following:

Here’s the rest of the ALEC playbook: when revenues fall short raid the pension funds of public employees; privatize public services replacing union workers with lower-wage at-will employees thereby rewarding the shareholders while racing to the bottom on wages for those providing services; deregulate so that the privatizers do not have to meet the same standards as the agencies they replace; and make sure the media outlets controlled by ALEC repeat the mantra that government is the problem and the marketplace will solve all problems.

Sunlight is the best antidote to secrecy… and MAYBE if people realize that the economic ideas promoted by ALEC are designed to expand the wealth of the top .05% at the expense of the rest of us they MIGHT change their thinking… and if that happens the enduring power of a host of bad ideas might be diminished.

Pre-K is Too Late

June 29, 2014 Comments off

“Inequality Begins at Birth”, Jeff Madrick’s New York Review of Books blog post earlier this week, describes carefully researched evidence demonstrating how the vicious circle of poverty adversely affects children before they enter school. In short, the “toxic stress” experienced by children under the age of three has a devastating effect on their ability to learn and the behaviors of parents experiencing poverty cause their children to experience more toxic stress:

Under stress, the body produces two hormones that are protective, adrenaline and cortisol. But when stress becomes excessive—what the field now describes as “toxic stress”—the excessive hormonal activity damages neural connections, undermines immune responses, and changes the parts of the brain that directly affect memory, learning, and emotional control.

These studies generally concur that persistent neglect and inadequate nurturing are primary causes of brain deterioration. Evidence based on a wide variety of studies of children, including children in foster care around the world, clearly shows, usually with the use of MRIs, the detrimental consequences for neural connections and brain size of seriously inadequate nurturing.

Sociological research, in turn, shows how common child neglect is among the poor. Poor parents are fraught with anxieties about providing adequate food and transportation, and often the safety of their communities and the stability of their families. Some may simply be irresponsible, or use drugs, but numerous ethnographies of the poor, by the Children’s Defense Fund, independent scholars, and others, show that these parents, including single mothers, care about their children as much as parents of greater means. The issue is rather that they often can’t get jobs that allow time for them to spend with their children and lack the resources, time, or freedom from anxieties to cope. Studies also show that the quality of prenatal care can affect early childhood development and that pregnant women on drugs or in depression can also affect the newborn child’s neurological growth.

Madrick’s article is full of detailed descriptions of research supporting his conclusions and decries the failure of political leaders to face up to the scientific evidence regarding the effects of poverty and their failure to accept evidence that government anti-poverty programs CAN make a difference. When the scientific evidence and careful research shows something is true, why isn’t there a groundswell of support for legislation to use that evidence to move forward?

A recent blog post by Paul Waldman in the American Prospect has the answer to the question. The post, titled “What Americans Think of the Poor” provides some insights into voters’ ideas about poor people based on a recent poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust. Dividing respondents into seven different ideological/demographic groups ranging from “Steadfast Conservatives” to Solid Liberals”, the poll shows that over 77% of the identified “conservatives” believe the poor have it easy and over 55% of the same group believed a lack of effort was more responsible for their lot in life than “circumstances beyond their control”. For all intents and purposes the American public was split down the middle on these questions.

The fact remains that 25% of the children under five in this country are poor… and none of them are poor because of a “lack of effort” and none of them “have it easy”. Madrick concludes his post with this paragraph:

The research is now undeniable. Inequality in America begins at birth, or, for those born to women who are ill during pregnancy or do not have adequate prenatal care, even before. Through no fault of their own, up to one quarter of American children start off well behind, and another quarter live in families that earn only twice the poverty line—about $48,000 a year for a family of four. Armed with the unambiguous findings of twenty-first-century neuroscience, we can no longer just tell children raised poor to study harder and find jobs as they grow up. A nation that needs all its citizens to be productive workers, and that promises a fair and dignified life to all, regardless of race or color, must now turn its attention to its enormous pool of poor children.

I keep hoping someone running for a political office somewhere in this country will take up this issue and MAYBE help the public understand that poverty is neither a choice nor an easy life for children.