Common Sense, Data, Vax-Hesitancy, and Maybe Politics

July 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Would a message from Trump persuade the vaccine-hesitant? People who think so are calling on President Biden to reach out to Trump. I first heard this idea from a journalist on the left, Martin Schram., who imagined it this way:

Biden really announces that from now on he’ll be calling all three the “Trump Vaccines.” . . .Imagine Biden asking his predecessor to deep-six politics and campaign coast-to-coast to help convince Trump’s true-believers to safeguard themselves and their loved ones by being vaccinated by a lifesaving Trump Vaccine. It would be Trump’s one and only chance to salvage his legacy. It would be Biden’s best chance to save Americans from dying.

The idea has also gained supporters on the right. At a press conference this week, Fox’s Steve Doocy floated the same idea:
Would President Biden ever call former President Trump and say, “I need your help. Let’s cut a PSA and tell people to go do it.”?
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was not enthusiastic, but she put it this way:
Well, first, I would say that what we’ve seen in our data is that the most trusted voices are local officials, doctors, medical experts, civic leaders, clergy. . .
A few minutes later, another reporter pushed the same idea.




Here’s the transcript of the second clip:

Q: In my follow up, even if the administration doesn’t partner with the former President, would it consider highlighting or acknowledging, in a greater way, his role in creating the vaccines to assure the rural voters who still support President Trump and are hesitant to get the vaccine?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re — do you have data to suggest that that’s the issue that’s preventing people from getting vaccinated?

Q: Well, we’re seeing that the communities — the communities that have the lowest vaccination rates did seem to vote for President Trump.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. But what I’m asking you is if information related to whether or not the former President got credit is leading people not to get vaccinated, or is it information like microchips in vaccines and it causing fertility issues, causing health issues. Because you’re drawing a few conclusions there that I haven’t seen in data, but maybe you have that information to provide.

Q No, but I think it’s just — it’s a — I think it’s an issue — I mean, I think it’s a common sense that these are people who supported him. These are people who are hesitant to get vaccinated. I don’t think it takes a lot to draw the conclusion.[Emphasis added]

My first reaction was that this was another case of “common sense” vs. data. As I said in a post twelve years ago (here), when someone says, “It’s only common sense . . .” it means that they have no systematic evidence. (“We don’t need studies to tell us . . . .” means the same thing, or worse, that the evidence goes against what they’re saying.)

Against the conservative reporter’s common-sense conclusion, Psaki cites the evidence from actual research: vax-hestiant people are most likely to be persuaded by people they are socially close to; and that they are hesitant not because Trump isn’t being credited but because they’ve heard all these lies about the vaccines. And she asks the reporter if he has any evidence to support his idea, which of course he doesn’t. *

Psaki added that “our objective is to ensure all Americans will get vaccinated... We’d love that. Democrats, Republicans, independents — it’s not a political issue to us.”

On second thought, it seems that the Administrations Trump-hesitancy is more than just a matter of evidence and public health. True, the PSAs our other former presidents made might not be changing anyone’s mind. But Trump is different. The connection between him and his followers is different. If Trumpism is a cult of personality, then the cult members would listen to the personality.

So I’m a bit skeptical about Psaki’s claim that it’s not political. But what would be the political effects if Biden were to make a flattering request to Trump. Would his supporters see it as caving in and pleading abjectly to the Worst Person in the World, or would they see Biden as masterfully manipulating Trump’s narcissism for the public good.

 If we have little relevant data on the public health impact of such a request, we have even less on the reactions it would get from people at different places on the political spectrum, As for the effects on public health — i.e., vaccination rates — it’s like the chicken soup in the old joke: it wouldn’t hurt.

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* Why is it always the conservatives who are on the “common-sense, we-don’t-need-studies” side? It might be that in the liberal world, evidence and science are more persuasive while for conservatives, values and common sense outweigh factual evidence. Or it could be, as someone has said, the facts have a liberal bias, so values and common sense are what conservatives are left with.



The Russians Diagnosed Trump Accurately

July 15, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Psychiatry in Russia often lagged behind trends in the West, even when the Soviets weren’t using it as part of the punitive state. I was reminded of this by the story in this morning’s Guardian.  According to the Guardian, a leaked Kremlin document revealed Putin’s reasons for helping Trump in the 2016 election.

The document allegedly offers more detail on what Kremlin leaders thought of Trump before he became president and why they wanted him to win. It reportedly describes the future president as an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex,” and, therefore, the “most promising candidate.” [Emphasis added. The Daily Beast]

“Inferiority complex” has a nice retro feel to it. It soared into fashion in American psychiatry nearly a century ago but then fell from favor. In a 2020 post (here), I suggested that its newer version is “impostor syndrome.” Here’s an online description I found of inferiority complex:

Most Common Symptoms Symptoms of inferiority complex go beyond occasional bouts of low self-esteem or worries about your abilities; they are persistent. Some common symptoms include:
  • Feeling insecure, incomplete, or unworthy ∙
  • Withdrawal from everyday activities and social situations
  • Comparing yourself with others

It certainly sounds like impostor syndrome. What it does not sound like is Trump. But wait, there’s more. Some people with feelings of inferiority react with vigorous denial and overcompensation. The same Website continues.
That sounds more like Trump. But we now have a newer diagnosis for this reverse side of the inferiority complex — “narcissistic personality.” Google nGrams shows the trends for these terms as they appeared in books.



Whichever psychiatric label might be preferred, the Kremlin’s picture was accurate. It’s not a difficult diagnosis. What’s dismaying is how well the Russians predicted the results of a Trump election. “the destabilization of the U.S.’s sociopolitical system.”

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* Most of the headlines were discreet.
Kremlin Leak Appears to Confirm Existence of Trump ‘Kompromat’
said The Daily Beast. Only Raw Story  laid it on the line “‘The pee tape is real’” though it hedged by using a quote from someone on Twitter.        


It’s Getting Better All the Time. . . Or Is It?

July 7, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes you find ethnocentrism in unexpected places.

Ezra Klein, in interviewing anthropologist James Suzman, says that he’s sure that “there’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.” (See the previous post.) I would have thought that a liberal and well-read intellectual like Klein would know about the cultural diversity, especially since Suzman had been describing to him a culture where not wanting to share is unknown and would be thought of as unnatural.

Klein offers another comment with overtones of ethnocentrism.

Klein’s skepticism comes across more clearly in the audio clip. But here’s the transcript.


EZRA KLEIN: So there’s a trend in recent “history of human civilization” books of making farming sound really bad. So you work more. You have a less diverse diet. You’re more vulnerable to drought and to famine. You get pressed into these settlements. There’s more disease. I mean, honestly, if you read books — and yours is not a heavy one necessarily, but it is there. The question that begins to arise is, well, why did human beings ever do this? If farming was such an unpleasant lifestyle compared to foraging, then for the people on the border of those two lives, why farming? What accounts for the human move into this, you know, apparently, much more toil-filled and unstable existence?


Klein seems uncomfortable with the idea that hunter-gatherers had it much better and that life in agricultural societies was worse. Basically, he’s saying, “Hey, if hunting and gathering is so great, how come hunter-gatherers all changed over to agriculture?”
    
I think the unstated assumption is that people choose what’s better. Agricultural societies chose to become industrial and then post-industrial society because our society is better. So hunter-gatherers must have chosen  to switch to agriculture for the same reason.

Klein can’t refute the recent history-of-civilization books, so he chalks their views up to intellectual “trendiness.” These fancy paleontologists with their fancy ideas instead of common sense (“I mean, honestly, if you read books. . . ” )

Klein is not alone among liberal intellectuals in clinging to idea that foraging was inferior to what came after.  Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers make the claim as though it’s fact: “For pretty much the last million years, people were hunter-gatherers living a hand-to-mouth existence. The main focus of life was finding enough food to eat.” (See my blog post, “Dissing Hunter Gatherers.”    

I e-mailed Stevenson calling her attention to this error. Her brief reply expressed no interest in correcting the mistake.    

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The audio of the interview is here or on any podcast site.
The transcript is here.

Back to the Sandbox

July 3, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things that we think of as “natural” or part of human nature are often the product of human invention. That was the point of the previous post, “Culture Masquerading as Nature.” I took that title from something anthropologist James Suzman says in his interview with Ezra Klein.

The Ju/’hoansi, the hunter-gatherer tribe Suzman ran with, were, like all hunter-gatherer societies, “fiercely egalitarian.”  But while the Ju/’hoansi assume that humans are by nature sharing and egalitarian, to Klein, thinking sociologically, it’s obvious that their egalitarian society is possible only because of their “extraordinary” practices like “demand sharing” and “insulting the meat.” Their equality is a product of culture, not nature.

But when it comes to his own society, Klein discards this sociological perspective. Immediately after Suzman makes his “masquerading” comment, Klein says

I was thinking when you were saying that the Ju/’hoansi see it as strange when somebody doesn’t share as unnatural, I mean, I’ve got a two-year-old. There’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.

Is selfishness natural? Or is it the product of extraordinary cultural practices? I blogged about this question in 2010. Obviously, Ezra Klein did not read that post, and most likely, neither did you. So here’s a briefer version.

The title was  “Sandbox Sociology,” inspired by a conversation with another parent at the playground when my kid was just a few years old. In the sandbox, a child of two or three was strenuously holding on to a ball or truck or some toy that another child wanted to play with. I don’t recall how strenuous the tussle was or whether it involved tears. But I do remember the comment of the woman I was chatting with: “They’re just so possessive about their toys at this age. I guess it’s human nature.”

I nodded, but then I thought of how much effort we parents spent on inculcating in our children a concept totally alien to the Ju/’hoansi but crucial to our own society: private property. Of course, we liberal parents didn’t think of it this way, but how many times had I heard parents say things like
  •     That’s Cody’s truck. If you want to play with it, you have to ask him.
  •     That’s not your doll, that’s Emma’s doll.
  •     Yes it’s your backhoe, but it would be nice to let Alex play with it too.
Many parents had written their child’s name in permanent marker on toys just so their would be no confusion about ownership.

We encouraged our kids to share. Boy, did we. But the whole concept of sharing was premised on the prior principle of private ownership. And while ownership was taken for granted, sharing was voluntary.  I never saw a parent force a kid to share. What parent would dare take a toy out of the hands of their own tearful child and offer it to another toddler? After all, the toy did belong to the kid. It was her property — hers and not the parent’s  — and property rights prevailed. It was her possession to do with as she pleased.

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I know nothing of how Ezra and his wife Annie interact with their son. But I would guess that the Klein household is not much different from those on Manhattan’s Upper Left Side. I would also guess that the Ju/’hoansi would see all these practices based on the concept of individual autonomy and ownership as “extraordinary” customs designed to make selfishness so basic and universal that it seems like human nature.

Culture Masquerading as Nature

July 2, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post about the arrogance of economics, I said that economists seem to treat ethnographic evidence as an inferior form of knowledge, an interesting diversion but not really necessary to understanding what people are all about. Now anthropologist James Suzman, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein,* says that the basic assumptions of economics, assumptions that economists and most of the rest of us take as universal truths, are merely arbitrary, a matter of cultural construction.

Central to those economic assumptions is scarcity. One definition of economics in fact is that it is the study of the distribution of scarce resources. But what if there is no scarcity? What if scarcity is a social and cultural construction?

We now have a fair amount of evidence about a variety of hunter-gatherer societies, and it turns out that people in these societies act as if there is no scarcity. One reason for this is that they have enough food. Food production — hunting and gathering — occupies about 15-20  hours of their week and provides a rich and varied diet. Hunter-gatherers are well-nourished.

Demand Sharing and Insulting the Meat

In addition, these societies are, in Richard Lee’s phrase, “fiercely egalitarian.” Suzman, who  has been studying the Ju/'hoansi hunter-gatherers in Namibia/Botswana, describes two customs that sustain their equality. One is what anthropologists call “demand sharing.” (Suzman notes that “one anthropologist who didn’t like it much called it ‘tolerated theft.’”)

Demand sharing means that pretty much anybody in a society can go to anybody else and demand something from them. So if, for example, I have a bag of tobacco, somebody else is perfectly entitled to come and demand some of that tobacco from me. And it would be considered extremely rude — in fact, it would be considered offensive — if I don’t give him some of that tobacco. At the same time, it’s not considered at all rude to make that kind of demand.

The other important mechanism dampening inequality is “insulting the meat.” Meat is much prized, and it is scarce. It might be a source of competition, jealousy, and anger. After all, some men are just better at hunting. They are the ones who can bring in a large animal — a giraffe of bull eland. Such a man might acquire more social capital or power. In our society, people like this reap huge material and social rewards.


We might expect that the  Ju/'hoansi would  praise the best hunter and try to ingratiate themselves. Instead, they do just the opposite.

The hunter is mocked and insulted. And it’s done in a kind of lighthearted way, but also with a little bit of an edge. And the hunter for his part is expected to behave with great humility. They’ll say, “the meat smells like urine. Ah, it’s not enough to even feed my mother-in-law.” They do this to avoid the hunter accruing any unnecessary hierarchy and any socially destructive authority over others.

Their Customs are Extraordinary. Ours Are Natural

At this point in the interview, Ezra Klein comments that demand sharing and insulting the meat are “extraordinary structures” for maintaining equality. “What you have in hunter-gatherer societies is a pretty extraordinary system for keeping people’s desires under control.” Klein assumes that the desire to have more for oneself is “natural” — a built-in element of human nature.

You talk about it as extraordinary because you’re looking at it from the perspective of the United States. They [the Ju/'hoansi] don’t view it as extraordinary. They found* it extraordinary that people want to accumulate wealth, that people might not want to share. They responded with that same kind of visceral surprise that others respond to them.

This is the telling thing about how the power of culture and experience really shapes our sense of what is normal, what is natural, what is good. As far as Ju/'hoansi are concerned, not sharing is something that is unnatural. . . . What we often assume is nature is just culture masquerading as nature.


The Ju/'hoansi live in a world with no scarcity and much equality. They do not see what is obvious to us — that their ideas about the world and the structure of their society are cultural creations.

Though we obviously have much more than do the Ju/'hoansi, we live in a world of scarcity. We compete over everything because everything is scarce, not just material goods but less tangible “goods” like recognition, pleasure, even love. We are constantly made aware that others have more, so of course we want more as well. We do not see that our desires and our assumptions about the world are sustained by, in Ezra Klein’s phrase, “a pretty extraordinary system” that rewards striving, aspiration, and inequality just as extraordinarily as the Ju/'hoansi discourage them.                

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* You can listen to the interview here or get it from any podcast site. It runs to more than an hour but is well worth listening to. If you’re in a hurry, the transcript is here.

** Suzman uses the past tense because the Ju/'hoansi have seen our world, flown in our planes, worn our clothes, and drunk our delicious cold sodas, and they still think we’re nuts. You can see this in the trailer for the 2016 documentary “Ghostland.”