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A Universal Choice

The choice between two universes: the bleak visions of Donald Trump or the realistic outlook of Hillary Clinton.

This election should remind us. Age of the Sage: “They Saw a Game: A Case Study” details a 1951 American football game between Dartmouth and Princeton, and offers good evidence that different groups actually inhabit different perceptual worlds.

The reception to Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech was one of incredulity—what universe is he living in? And the Trump campaign’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s nomination acceptance claims it was “delivered from a fantasy universe.” A Trump press statement said, “Democrats have been speaking about a world that doesn’t exist.”

So there you have it. Two separate universes, and in November we will decide which one is real. Which one we want to live in.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement. […] I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.


So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable. [¶] Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of police officers, kissing their kids and spouses goodbye every day and heading off to do a dangerous and necessary job. [¶] We will reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

A choice between a universe where criminals lurk in every shadow, where our only option is to be tough as nails, and one that recognizes the psychological bases of a criminal justice system and focuses on improvements.

Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. […] This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.


I’m proud that we put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot – now we have to enforce it, and keep supporting Israel’s security.

A choice between a universe where we work with nations, even when we seem to live in a different universe than them, or we build a wall and train our guns on it.

Next comes the reform of our tax laws, regulations and energy rules. While Hillary Clinton plans a massive tax increase, I have proposed the largest tax reduction of any candidate who has declared for the presidential race this year – Democrat or Republican. Middle-income Americans will experience profound relief, and taxes will be simplified for everyone.


Now, here’s the thing, we’re not only going to make all these investments, we’re going to pay for every single one of them. [¶] And here’s how: Wall Street, corporations, and the super-rich are going to start paying their fair share of taxes. [¶] Not because we resent success. Because when more than 90% of the gains have gone to the top 1%, that’s where the money is.

A choice between a universe where we either increase the debt (or slash the budget) and one where we pay what it costs, including from the wealthy, for what it costs to have the country we want.

I agree that these speeches were delivered on different planes of existence. One in which we should be very afraid, another where we should be determined. One where an authoritarian bully believes he and he alone has got the magic (macamaraca gratagan being his signature incantation used in stage magic) to fix things. Another where a seasoned veteran of government wants to restore regular order and pass legislation to make things better, as the Constitution expects.

I’m going with the latter.

Public Perception’s Role

Our problems are all the same, risk balancing. But emotion and profit cloud our judgments, and we suffer for it.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has finalized their latest report on climate change. It’s a very complex issue, involving a very complex system of input energy from the sun, water in various forms, air and water currents, reflectivity and absorption of electromagnetic radiation, and biological lifecycles. Farming techniques. Transportation and energy generation. Fossil fuel extraction and use. Market economics.

Recently ProPublica ran a series of articles on Acetaminophen (Paracetamol, or Tylenol™) (ProPublica: Series: 20 September 2013: Overdose), regarding the dangers surrounding one of the most commonly consumed medications in the world.

The Affordable Care Act’s exchanges and open enrollment period will begin on Tuesday 1 October 2013. But will it mean the end of the republic? Or a great new day for the health of the people?

Nicotine-containing liquids and cartridges of vaporizers will likely soon be deemed as tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In preparation for the release, 40 attorneys general and a bevy of supposed public health organizations have rallied their mouthpieces to call for tough regulations.

People with guns keep killing people, stoking more and more debate over the role of guns and gun owners in society.

These things have in common one key factor: public perception, or at least the appearance of public perception.

At least in the case of Tylenol™, most people believe it’s safe. They believe it is safer than it is, at least in some instances. So, the argument goes, oughtn’t people be made aware of the exact dangers?

Ah, but the debate counters, it might stop people from using it out of fear, and that could indeed lead to harm, too. For example, someone might forgo a regiment of an analgesic like Tylenol™ when they have a high fever, and that could make matters worse.

And there we have the gist of these issues: risk balancing. Public perception deems some risks unacceptable, others acceptable.

But that’s not the nature of these debates, unfortunately. If these debates were predicated on finding our best tolerance for risks, we would be successful. But these debates are muddied by non-risk issues, such as profits for certain industries, or emotional appeals by people who have been victims or lost loved ones to particular diseases or behaviors.

The result is further muddiment: the side believing that the risk is too high or too low, faced with opposition using emotion or profit motives, slings back. Escalation.

But one of the keys is the tendency to equate property with self, and to equate company or incorporation with family or nation. That is, people will defend land as though it is an extension of the self, and will defend their employer as though it were their kin. To the extent that they put these things above the common good.

This is all seen as rather normal and in some cases laudable.

But the real measure of truth is putting the data forward in as clear a way as possible. Letting people decide their own risk tolerance, where possible. We don’t see that happening as much as it could. We see the opposite: companies trying to thwart the scientific evaluation of climate change. No improved information on the potential dangers of over-the-counter pain relievers. Sad attempts to demonize health insurance reform efforts, rather than the facts about the options for future reforms, including tradeoffs. Efforts to portray nicotine vaporizers as just as bad as smoking, undermining public health. And gun debates that focus on everything except the underlying problems that lead to violence: economics and mental health.

We seem to avoid real solutions in favor of addressing our unhappiness that our problems exist.

Different Minds Have Different Eyes

A look at differences in perception between people.

Young children are unable to determine that an equivalent volume of liquid is equivalent, even when they see it poured directly from one vessel to another.

They also cannot understand that an object concealed by the box must be behind (or under) the box.

There are other cases. Skinner tried to ascribe certain pigeon behaviors associated with random reinforcement to superstition, though others disagree about whether that fits the bill.

Tell a man he’s a guard, or a prisoner, and he will see the experimental world quite differently.

Tell a man he’s got to continue with electric shocks, he sees the world quite differently.

Bill Hicks did a bit in the wake of the trial of the LAPD police officers who were filmed hitting Rodney King Jr. He said something like:

[The officer] looks in the camera and actually says, “Oh, that Rodney King beating tape, it’s all in how you look at it.”


“All in how you look at it, officer […]?”

“That’s right, it’s how you look at the tape.”
“Well, would you care to tell the court how you’re looking at that?”

“Yeah, okay, sure. It’s how you look at it. The tape. For instance, well, if you play it backwards, you see us help King up and send him on his way.”

While Hicks was just making fun of what he saw as a completely ridiculous verdict and trial, the reality of different people looking at the same thing is often nearly this stark.

Eyewitness testimony is far less reliable than you might think.

There was a case study done in 1954, They Saw a Game, by Hasdorf and Cantril. They showed footage of a rough 1951 collegiate American football game between the Dartmouth Indians and the Princeton Tigers to psychology students of the two schools. A week later, the students filled out questionnaires about the game.

There were major discrepancies between the perceptions of the game by students of one school and the other. Effectively, they watched a different game, owing the difference entirely to their perception of the action.

The difference of perception between minds is extraordinary. It is especially relevant these days, between the ongoing anger over perceived grievances against the West, the ongoing anger over disagreements in politics, the ongoing anger over the ongoing financial crises.

You have antagonists that see opportunities in conflict. This includes religious groups that raise funds based on the urgency of religious turmoil. It includes news organizations that make a living off of feeding perception differences. It includes political organizations that feed off the fear of the different perceivers gaining power. It is important to note that they aren’t necessarily aware of their exploitation of the conflict; many honestly believe in the urgency of their cause.

You have people trying to honestly highlight the underlying causes and realities of the conflicts. These are attacked for their trouble, by the partisans who believe they are trying to undermine the cause.

And you have the majority, who are too busy with other things. They perceive conflicts as intractable, beyond understanding.