Extremify or Die

In light of Trump’s consistent unpopularity among most of the country and the staggering losses the Republican party has already seen in special elections since the 2016 general, most seem to be anticipating a massacre for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. This is ostensibly good news for anyone who wants to see the downfall of Trump and the GOP, but the GOP’s depraved behavior, Trump-supporting base, and expectation of closing doors will produce a toxic mix of incentives that should worry even the optimists.

Since the 2016 election, the GOP rank-and-file have shown a disturbing lack of willingness to stand up to Trump’s dismantling and reshaping of the federal government, and Trump in turn has made it clear that he will scratch their backs if they scratch his. Three of the four most outspoken Trump opponents in the Senate GOP, John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, cannot be expected to stay in the fray for long, as McCain is dealing with a highly aggressive form of brain cancer and Corker and Flake have announced their intention to retire at the end of their current terms. In Corker’s and Flake’s cases, their decisions were made in large part due to the intense resistance they expected to face in their respective primary races, specifically resistance from far-right challengers. The message for anyone running for the Republicans in 2018 is clear: opposing Trump doesn’t pay. If you don’t back the president strongly enough (and even Corker, McCain, and Flake overwhelmingly voted in alignment with him), you will be beaten by someone who does. Even Paul Ryan, whose flaccid opposition to Trump earned him scorn from both sides, is more than likely passing the Republican torch not to a moderate, but to white supremacist Paul Nehlen.

An incumbent who doesn’t get primaried will still have to face their general election opponent, likely a Democrat. Given the stark divide between Trump’s approval among Republicans (85% as of March 25, 2018) and his approval in the nation as a whole (39% as of the same date), it’s unlikely that a Trump-supporting Republican will be able to convince many independents or conservative Democrats to join his side merely by turning on the president, especially if they were just praising Trump a few months before to avoid getting primaried. There is still no reward for a Republican wanting to reach across the aisle—that time is long gone; contrary to what one might assume, distancing yourself from an unpopular president might actually hurt your chances of getting elected. Republicans are faced with a choice of remaining radicalized (or even becoming more so) and keeping their small-but-passionate base of support, or moderating themselves and losing even the base while gaining nothing.

In light of this, even before the 2018 elections occur, I would expect to see more radicalization, not less, occurring on multiple fronts. For current Republican officeholders, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by opposing Trump. Will Ted Cruz suddenly bring over more independents and conservative-leaning Democrats just by edging away from Trump? There is no reward for a Republican wanting to reach across the aisle—that time is long gone. Republican candidates can either remain radicalized (or become more so) and keep their 35% support, or moderate themselves and lose even that. The only real hope for someone in that position is that their base is so fired up that their participation rate swamps that of their opposition.

Additionally, in certain cases the problem may actually be worse in competitive districts than in comfortably red areas. In districts with a smooth distribution of political views across the population, even if it leans right overall, most people’s views will likely rest comfortably near the center of that distribution, meaning that a leftward shift from a right-wing candidate still could appeal to much of the population on ideological grounds, even if the candidate has already burned goodwill for supporting Trump. Compared to that kind of district, one with a more powerful left wing will probably have fewer people residing in the center (especially if the district is red overall, indicating polarization). In this instance, there will be much fewer people brought over due to ideological agreement—probably less than can be gained by pushing even harder to the right.

polarization diagram
The candidate in the first box (who appeals to the population between the two vertical lines) will lose votes by shifting rightward, and may gain some by shifting leftward. The candidate in the second box has no such incentives–he will clearly lose by shifting leftward and may still gain some by shifting rightward.

This pressure will also manifest itself in a sort of political FOMO—officeholders who feel that their time may be running out, especially if they moderate themselves, may push extreme legislation much harder than they would if they felt comfortable in their chances of re-election. Again, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by extremifying yourself in a situation like this. Shifting rightward to shore up your base will increase both your chances of re-election and your chances of successfully accomplishing your agenda.

Those who are truly desperate may resort to increasingly dangerous measures to hold on, especially if the Mueller investigation threatens to bring down more than just Trump and his inner circle. Consider the decision-making process for someone who believes that they will face worse consequences from GOP losses (their own or someone else’s) than they will by using illegal or questionably-legal tactics to win. It might seem outlandish to predict such authoritarian maneuvers, but the if the incentives are aligned correctly, it’s not a ridiculous prospect at all. The Economist, in fact, has already reported that multiple Republican governors are blocking Democrat-leaning special elections until conditions are more favorable for the party:

Mr. Walker reacted [to a court ordering a special election] by asking Republican legislative leaders to recall lawmakers for an extraordinary session on April 4th, so they could pass a bill that would no longer allow special elections after the state’s spring election in even-numbered years. (This year’s spring election is on April 3rd). […]

[…] Two other Republican governors, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Rick Scott of Florida, are stalling on special elections. Mr. Snyder has decided to wait until November to replace John Conyers, a Democratic congressman who resigned in December because of allegations of sexual harassment, as well as Bert Johnson, a Democratic state senator who resigned after pleading guilty to charges of corruption. Mr. Scott, who like Mr. Snyder is term-limited, is refusing to hold special elections for two seats in Florida’s legislature.

There are still reasons to be optimistic about the 2018 election, as it seems unlikely that the handful of measures mentioned here will outweigh the overwhelming Democratic momentum, but it’s important to fight complacency. Equally important to avoid is a sense that America just needs to wait for the 2018 elections and everything will be fixed. A lot of damage can still be done between now and November, and carelessness and stupidity are unacceptable luxuries that will only speed it along.

Miscellanea: April 2018

Links

The Working Person’s Guide to the Industry that Might Kill Your Company – Hamilton Nolan at Splinter

In Praise of Conspiracies – Ryan Holiday at The Observer. A followup to Holiday’s article on Silicon Valley, which I linked to in last month’s Miscellanea.

What is Your Tribe? The Invention of Kenya’s Ethnic Communities – Patrick Gathara at The Elephant

The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’ – Olga Khazan at The Atlantic

The Real Origins of the Religious Right – Randall Blumer at Politico.

Are We Seeing the Start of a Liberal Tea Party? – Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight

The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper – BJ Campbell

Facebook: The Cambridge Analytica thing wasn’t a ‘data breach,’ it’s just totally how our platform works – Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab. I hate to keep pounding the Facebook drum so incessantly, but it cannot be emphasized enough that none of the incentives currently at play will allow Facebook—or just about any other social media company—to prioritize privacy, autonomy, or security. If knowledge is power, what does it mean to give out knowledge about yourself? And on that note:

China waging ‘psychological warfare’ against Australia, US Congress told – Ben Doherty at The Guardian. The genie is out of the bottle. This was never going to just be a vulnerability that got exploited once and then fixed immediately.

Why we should bulldoze the business school – Martin Parker at The Guardian

 

Videos

Basic Income Explained – Siraj Raval on YouTube

 

Books

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (4/5): This was the final volume of Morris’ three-part study of Theodore Roosevelt, collectively the best biography I’ve ever read. The trilogy peaked with the masterful first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but the two following volumes are well worth the reader’s time as well.

 

Music

Black Stone Cherry – Soul Machine

Chevelle – An Island

Evergrey – The Grand Collapse

Les Discrets – L’echapee

Ne Obliviscaris – And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope

 

Movies

A Quiet Place (5/5): Wildly suspenseful and surprisingly heartfelt. The casting of real-life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt was a wise choice, as was casting a deaf actress for their daughter Regan.

Truth or Dare (2/5): It’s a Blumhouse movie.

Miscellanea: March 2018

Links

It’s Time to Get Real About Power in Silicon Valley – Ryan Holiday at The Observer. This essay shook me more powerfully than anything I’ve read since Meditations on Moloch. An unflinching look at what makes the wheels of the world turn.

My Life as a Tunnel Rat – Jim Marett at The New York Times

A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm

Russia ‘arming the Afghan Taliban,’ says US – Justin Rowlatt at the BBC. The circle completeth.

In the Trenches of the Facebook Election – John Herrman at The Awl. See also How Facebook plans to become one of the most powerful weapons in politics – Philip Bump at The Washington Post. Note the publication dates on both.

The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing – Christopher Freiman at Aeon.co

I Got a Story to Tell – Steve Francis at The Players’ Tribune

Is Big Business Really That Bad? – Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind at The Atlantic

Videos

A Real Life Haptic Glove (Ready Player One Technology Today) – Smarter Every Day 190 – YouTube

Learned Helplessness – YouTube

Books

None this month.

Music

Alice in Chains – Stone

Amplifier – Matmos

Nightwish – Ghost Love Score

 

Movies

Icarus (5/5) (Netflix): Worth every bit of the hype it received. Starts out as a self-experiment in sports doping, takes insane left turn, leaves viewer feeling overwhelming sense of dread.

Miscellanea: February 2018

Links

(Don’t) Be the Gray Man – Patrick Steadman at Ribbonfarm. “While it’s fun to make fun of the dynamics of virtue signaling on social media, a society where many people have ‘gray’ identities and belief systems is quietly primed for chaos.”

Life Is Hard; Get Drunk on This – Brett McKay at The Art of Manliness

‘Never get high on your own supply’—why social media bosses don’t use social media – Alex Hern at The Guardian

How Skyscrapers Can Save the City – Edward Glaeser at The Atlantic

Heroes are not Replicable – Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution

He Was a Crook – Hunter S. Thompson at The Atlantic. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself 13 years ago this February. The Atlantic published his vicious obituary of Richard Nixon, originally written for Rolling Stone. “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin. These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern — but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.” Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Today’s Impeach-O-Meter: Democrats Unveil Worst Campaign Idea Since “Pokemon Go to the Polls” – Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate. Democrats: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since 1828.

With all of the negative headlines dominating the news these days, it can be difficult to spot signs of progress. What makes you optimistic about the future? – /u/thisisbillgates at /r/AskReddit. In which Bill Gates descended upon the teeming masses of reddit to inspire optimism and change.

How Manafort’s inability to convert a PDF file to Word helped prosecutors – Timothy B. Lee at Ars Technica. Also, Paul Manafort’s Password was “bond007,’ Making Him the Worst Unregistered Foreign Agent Ever. We really are living through Stupid Watergate.

Current Affairs’ “Some Puzzles For Libertarians”, Treated As Writing Prompts For Short Stories – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, demolishing an embarrassingly stupid critique of libertarianism.

With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen – Steven Lee Myers at The New York Times.

Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy, and Privacy? – Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron at Lawfare. Their colleague Herb Lin offers a more optimistic perspective here.

This Mutant Crayfish Clones Itself, and It’s Taking Over Europe – Carl Zimmer at The New York Times.

Videos

Cardinal Conversations – Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel on Technology and Politics – YouTube

LIVE DEBATE – Swipe Left: Dating Apps Have Killed Romance – YouTube

The Incredible Sounds of the Falcon Heavy Launch (BINAURAL AUDIO IMMERSION) – Smarter Every Day 189 – YouTube

The Bayesian Trap – YouTube

Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty-Four – YouTube. While a huge fan of both works, I continue to find 1984 a more compelling and relevant work, a fact that I’m actually somewhat puzzled by. Even I have to admit that our society more closely resembles that of Brave New World, at least on a superficial level, and it seems like the recent trend among the smart people I follow has been to regard BNW more highly than 1984. Perhaps this will be a good topic for a future essay, after I’ve examined the two works more closely and tried to figure out why I remain so closely attached to Orwell.

Deepmind AlphaZero – Mastering Games Without Human Knowledge – YouTube

Ian Morris | Why the West Rules — For Now – YouTube

Waking Up with Sam Harris #109 – Biology and Culture (with Bret Weinstein) – YouTube

Books

Outer Dark, by Cormac McCarthy (2.5/5): This was the fourth McCarthy book I’ve read, and the earliest one chronologically speaking (the others are Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road). I’ve concluded I’m not as much of a fan of early McCarthy. I think the later you go in McCarthy’s bibliography, the less McCarthy’s style completely dominates the experience. In Outer Dark, the opaque language, static characters, and sparse action that McCarthy is known for are such a chore to get through that I nearly gave it up. It almost read like a McCarthy parody at points. However, his strengths—gorgeous turns of phrase and a thought-provoking ending—were also present.

The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin (4.5/5): This was my third reading of this book, and I got more out of it this time than any of the previous times. I’ll be writing a more thorough analysis of this book in the coming weeks.

Letters from the Earth, by Mark Twain (4/5): A short, clever deconstruction of the Bible written from the perspective of Satan after being put in the time-out corner for excessive cheekiness. I’m amazed it’s not better known among secular activists and the like; Twain puts his sharp eye and devastating wit to good use without being heavy-handed or unfair.

Music

Above and Beyond – Tri-State

Breaking Benjamin – Feed the Wolf

Grabbitz – Follow Me

LRKR – Morning Rain

A Perfect Circle – The Doomed

A Perfect Circle – TalkTalk

Pop Evil – Waking Lions

 

Movies

Black Panther (4/5): I thought it was a bit overhyped (is it really 97-percent-on-Rotten-Tomatoes good?), but still excellent—definitely better than any of the comedies-with-superheroes that Marvel’s been releasing lately.

The Shape of Water (3.5/5): I thought it kind of jumped the shark in the third act (there is such a thing as being too weird), but it was still a sweet, well-made movie.

My Scientology Movie (3.5/5) (Netflix): Less about Scientology itself, and more about the process Louis Theroux went through even trying to make the movie to begin with. Quirky and fun to watch without detracting from the gravity of the subject.

Analysis: Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel

The psychology of learning is one of those fields where many have opinions, but few have facts. The good news—not that you’d know it from the way people talk—is that an enormous amount of research has been done over the last several years on the topic, and while there’s still plenty more to be done, scientists have identified many strategies the help people learn more effectively. Having delved into more than my fair share of that research, I can confidently say that Make It Stick is the single best resource for the layman wanting to improve their ability to learn. It’s practical, thorough, and concise, and it uses its own principles to help the reader internalize its message.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 30: Prior knowledge doesn’t hinder creativity or problem-solving, it aids them

“The frustration many people feel toward standardized, ‘dipstick’ tests given for the sole purpose of measuring learning is understandable, but it steers us away from appreciating one of the most potent learning tools available to us. Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

Page 55: Memorization of basic facts of a subject is necessary to advance to higher-level application of that subject

“To paraphrase a conclusion from one of these studies, recall and recognition require ‘factual knowledge,’ considered to be a lower level of learning than ‘conceptual knowledge.’ Conceptual knowledge requires an understanding of the interrelationships of the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together. Conceptual knowledge is required for classification. Following this logic, some people argue that practicing retrieval of facts and exemplars would fall short as a strategy for comprehending general characteristics that are required for higher levels of intellectual behavior. The bird classification studies suggest the opposite: strategies of learning that help students identify and discern complex prototypes (family resemblances) can help them grasp the kinds of contextual and functional differences that go beyond the acquisition of simple forms of knowledge and reach into the higher sphere of comprehension.”

Page 72: Learning occurs in a three-step process of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval

Encoding: […]

“[…]The brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed…We call the process encoding, and we call the new representations within the brain memory traces. Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory. […]

“[…] Consolidation:

“The process of strengthening these mental representations for long-term memory is called consolidation. New learning is labile: its meaning is not fully formed and therefore is easily altered. In consolidation, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces. […]

“[…] Retrieval:

Learning, remembering, and forgetting work together in interesting ways. Durable, robust learning requires that we do two things. First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely. Second, we must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked. The task is more than committing knowledge to memory. Being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important.”

Page 76: Memory is (virtually) limitless—it’s retrieval that’s the bottleneck

“There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember as long as we relate it to what we already know. In fact, because new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning. Our retrieval capacity, though, is severely limited. […]

“[…] Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory. How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth.”

Page 141: Individual differences may help or hinder learning, but they may not be the differences you think

“Each of use has a large basket of resources in the form of aptitudes, prior knowledge, intelligence, interests, and sense of personal empowerment that shape how we learn and how we overcome our shortcomings. Some of these differences matter a lot—for example, out ability to abstract underlying principles from new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures. Other differences we may think count for a lot, for example having a verbal or visual learning style, actually don’t.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 20: Retrieving material from memory—not simply re-encountering it—aids in learning

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval—testing—interrupts forgetting.”

Page 47: Making retrieval more difficult aids in learning, despite our intuitions

“While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.”

Page 87: Trying to answer a question or solve a problem will solidify your memory of the material, whether you’ve encountered it before or not

“The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation. Even if you’re being quizzed on material you’re familiar with, the simple act of filling in a blank has the effect of strengthening your memory of the material and your ability to recall it later. In testing, being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still. Overcoming these mild difficulties is a form of active learning, where students engage in higher-order thinking tasks rather than passively receiving knowledge conferred by others.”

Page 152: Use dynamic testing to improve your weak spots

“Dynamic testing has three steps.

“Step 1: a test of some kind—perhaps an experience or a paper exam—shows me where I come up short in knowledge or a skill.

“Step 2: I dedicate myself to becoming more competent, using reflection, practice, spacing, and the other techniques of effective learning.

“Step 3: I test myself again, paying attention to what works better now but also, and especially, to where I still need more work.”

Page 160: Distill the key principles from your material and incorporate them into a structure

“If you’re an example learner, study examples two at a time or more, rather than one by one, asking yourself in what ways they are alike and different. Are the differences such that they require different solutions, or are the similarities such that they respond to a common solution?

Break your idea or desired competency down into its component parts. If you think you are a low structure-builder or an example learner trying to learn new material, pause periodically and ask what the central ideas are, what the rules are. Describe each idea and recall the related points. Which are the big ideas, and which are the supporting concepts or nuances? If you were to test yourself on the main ideas, how would you describe them?

What kind of scaffold or framework can you imagine that holds these central ideas together?”

Top 5 Disagreements

Connections to Other Works

Outgoing Connections:

  • Deep Work, by Cal Newport
    • “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.” (pg. 3)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
    • “In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes our two analytic systems. What he calls System 1 (or the automatic system) is unconscious, intuitive, and immediate. It draws on our senses and memories to size up a situation in the blink of an eye…System 2 (the controlled system) is our slower process of conscious analysis and reasoning. It’s the part of thinking that considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control…System 1 is automatic and deeply influential, but it is susceptible to illusion, and you depend on System 2 to help you manage yourself: by checking your impulses, planning ahead, identifying choices, thinking through their implications, and staying in charge of your actions.” (pg. 105)
    • “To sum up, the means by which we navigate the world—Daniel Kahneman’s Systems 1 and 2—rely on our perceptual systems, intuition, memory, and cognition, with all their tics, warts, biases, and flaws. Each of us is an astounding bundle of perceptual and cognitive abilities, coexisting with the seeds of our own undoing. When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled.” (pg. 123)

Incoming Connections

  • Die Empty, by Todd Henry
    • “I call this state of mind the ‘curse of familiarity.’ Because of my awareness of something, I am often falsely under the impression that I understand it.” (pg. 65)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
    • “One of the dials measures cognitive ease, and its range is between ‘Easy’ and ‘Strained.’ Easy is a sign that things are going well—no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Strained indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilization of system 2. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain. Cognitive strain is affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands. The surprise is that a single dial of cognitive ease is connected to a lage network of diverse inputs and outputs…The figure suggests that a sentence that is printed in a clear font, or has been repeated, or has been primed, will be fluently processed with cognitive ease. Hearing a speaker when you are in a good mood, or even when you have a pencil stuck crosswise in your mouth to make you ‘smile,’ also induces cognitive ease. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain when you read instructions in a poor font, or in faint colors, or worded in complicated language, or when you are in a bad mood, or even when you frown.” (pg. 59)

Closing Thoughts

If I had to summarize Make It Stick with one sentence it would be this: active learning is more effective than passive learning, even when it doesn’t feel like it. The importance of exerting effort is hammered throughout the book; in virtually every instance cited in Make It Stick, increasing the level of cognitive effort required to understand something—short of making it literally impossible by, for example, writing it in a different language—also increased the level of long-term comprehension.

As with everything else that has to do with our minds, we have to be wary of relying on our intuition to guide us. Intuition can be a helpful servant but a terrible master, and only after a long time of deliberately using System 2 thinking—controlled decision-making—does intuition start to become dependable. Make It Stick provides ample evidence that this holds just as true for metalearning as for the rest of cognitive psychology. Many of its solutions are counterintuitive, but they’re backed by solid research going back decades.

As I’ve mentioned before, you should be suspicious of advice that enables you to do what you’d like to do anyway. It may be technically true that “creativity is more important than knowledge,” as the authors quote Einstein saying, but it’s easy to use that platitude as justification for not having to do that hard work of learning the nuts and bolts of your chosen subject. Likewise, passive strategies like rereading (which is done by 80 percent of college students, according to studies cited by the authors) allow you feel like you’re learning effectively without putting forth much effort, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s simply not a good strategy.

It’s certainly possible that there are exceptions to the rule, and that you’re one of them, but in keeping with the book’s theme of using objective measures of competency, why would you assume that you’re the exception to the rule without hard evidence? Given the mind’s innate tendency to self-deceive, even among the well-intentioned, there simply is no substitute for testing yourself against reality. Luckily, open-minded self-experimentation carries no downsides; whether you’re right or wrong, you will always either get on track or stay on track.

Final Score: 5/5

The Greater of Two Evils: Weaponized Investigations

Many deep ideological fault lines have formed in the American political landscape over the decades; issues ranging from tax policy to immigration have set brother against brother to a degree unseen in recent memory. But no matter how strongly people disagree on these topics, they can disagree while still acting and arguing in good faith. Sometimes, however, such benign interpretations are simply not viable. When two factions radically diverge in behavior, it may not be out of differences in vision; it may be that one is just plain worse than the other—more authoritarian and hungrier for power, less honest and easier to corrupt. When a wave of sex scandals broke in late 2017, there was consistently more evidence of worse crimes against Republicans when compared to Democrats, though right-wing partisans relentlessly muddied the water by claiming false equivalency between the two parties. There was wrongdoing on both sides, but that certainly did not make the two sides equal.

This trend continues with one of the more frequent political spectacles of the modern era: governmental investigations. Not since Iran-Contra and possibly Watergate has the country’s attention been focused so intently on congressional committees and internal probes, with Hillary Clinton’s two investigations concerning the Benghazi attack and her private email server taking up gargantuan amounts of media attention in the early- to mid-2010’s, and the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government potentially turning into the biggest scandal in American history. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct, it’s easy at first glance to draw parallels between the two parties and how they’ve handled their members being investigated, but a closer look reveals a deep asymmetry in how far each party has gone to protect their own.

The ongoing investigation of Trump has raised many hackles in the Republican Party and its associated media outlets, with some saying it was an attempt to discredit the President by the Democrats, the Deep State, or other forces aligned against the Trump agenda. Trump himself went even further:

This echoes what people said in defense of Hillary Clinton during her investigations. Writers in outlets ranging from The New Republic to The New York Times to The Huffington Post used the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the inquiries into both Benghazi and the private email server. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct covered in the previous installment in this series, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” applied to both sides. But to twist the metaphor a bit, the investigations into Clinton’s conduct produced a lot of heat and not a lot of light—and the investigation into Trump has done the exact opposite.

In the wake of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Clinton accepted responsibility for the attack, saying “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world.” In May 2014, the House of Representatives voted 232-186 to create a Select Committee on Benghazi chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). For the next two and a half years, the Committee investigated the events surrounding the attack and placed special attention on the role played by Hillary Clinton, who appeared before the committee in October 2015 and was questioned for more than eight hours about her role in the Benghazi attacks. By the time the committee wrapped up, it had spent more time investigating the Benghazi attacks than Congress had spent investigating 9/11, Watergate, the JFK assassination, and Pearl Harbor.

However innocent or sinister Clinton’s conduct in the Benghazi affair may have been, the investigation into it was anything but a pure search for truth. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), on the friendly turf of Sean Hannity’s FOX show, let slip an ulterior motive on September 29, 2015:

“What you’re going to see is a conservative Speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?

 “But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”

McCarthy later insisted he hadn’t really meant that the committee was politically motivated, but another GOP Congressman, Richard Hanna (R-NY), agreed that the investigation was designed to attack Clinton and suggested that McCarthy was only walking back his statement because he had committed “the biggest sin you can commit in D.C.”—telling the truth.

When Clinton became embroiled in yet another scandal—this time surrounding her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State—it occurred in conjunction with her ferocious race for the Presidency against Donald Trump. While the FBI ultimately recommended against filing charges, the issue dogged her entire campaign, with the Columbia Journalism Review finding that her private server scandal, as well as other email-related scandals such as the DNC and Podesta hacks, accounted for more sentences of news coverage than all of Trump’s scandals combined. A particularly harsh blow was dealt when FBI Director James Comey, with less than two weeks to go before the election, publicly announced he was re-opening the investigation in light of new evidence. Clinton’s lead diminished from 11 points to 4-5 points after the announcement. When Clinton supporters complained of the effect this announcement had on the campaign, Sarah Huckabee said of them on November 3:

In the following months, Sarah Huckabee (now Sarah Huckabee Sanders) found her new boss doing exactly what she decried in that tweet. Donald Trump called the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government a “witch hunt” no less than five times on Twitter between January 10, 2017 and Jan 10, 2018, escalating that criticism on the latter date by calling it “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history…”

While the Republican Party maintained some distance from the investigation for most of 2017, it began to circle the wagons in early 2018 with the controversy surrounding Devin Nunes’ memo alleging abuses of the national surveillance apparatus by the FBI against the Trump campaign. Nunes’ memo was privately doubted by many of his Republican colleagues and ended up containing virtually nothing of substance, but that didn’t stop a Republican (and Russian) hype campaign from pushing the narrative that federal law enforcement had been illegally and unethically attacking Trump since he had started campaigning.

Meanwhile, the FBI actually came under scrutiny during the election for supporting the Trump campaign, with multiple FBI personnel publicly backing Trump and sometimes offering inside knowledge of information that ended up damaging Clinton (such as the Comey announcement). Comey himself was a Republican who worked for administrations of both parties in various roles. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the other major figure in the Russia investigation, is the last person one would expect to be a Democratic partisan—he is a registered Republican, a George W. Bush appointee, and a USMC veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart from the Vietnam War.

None of this has stopped Republicans or their media mouthpieces from undercutting the investigation at every turn. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is controlled by the Republicans, has only assigned seven full-time staffers to the task, far fewer than were assigned to many other major intelligence investigations, including the one on Benghazi, which had 46. Newt Gingrich initially called Mueller a “superb choice” for the special counsel, only to reverse his position once the investigation made progress and call him “the deep state at its very worst” on Sean Hannity’s show. Hannity himself has attacked the Special Counsel and become one of the most commonly cited sources for Russian botnets aiming to control the narrative of the investigation.

The use of internal investigations to punish political opponents shouldn’t be a political issue—it’s not as though we’re discussing taxes or drug policy, where there may be legitimate ideological disagreements between different factions that otherwise act in good faith and agree on the importance of fairness and objectivity. This is about the abuse of a powerful tool in the governmental arsenal, one that is intended to correct injustice but can be wielded to crush enemies. One can naturally expect bias to seep into any investigation, because all investigators are human. For instance, the ongoing debacle surrounding disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok has been framed by many conservatives as clear-cut evidence that the inquiry into the Trump campaign has been irreparably tainted by partisanship and personal antipathy toward Trump, but while Strzok’s texts certainly show his distaste for Trump, one element that’s been suspiciously absent from this whole discussion is any evidence that Strzok’s personal feelings actually influenced the investigation in a substantial way. Indeed, Strzok was removed by Mueller immediately after the texts were released, and Strzok reportedly even pushed for the reopening of the Clinton investigation, which pushed the election in Trump’s favor.

In contrast, we have clear evidence from top officials in the Republican party itself that their investigations into Hillary Clinton were designed to drag her down in the public eye, and indications that, intentionally or otherwise, the Congressional investigation into Trump has been denied the resources granted to other operations of much lesser significance. When it comes to the government’s power to investigate, the Republican Party has consistently and openly weaponized it against its enemies, and no amount of comparatively trivial examples from the Democrats can counteract that evidence of systematic abuse.

Miscellanea: January 2018

Links

Google Maps’ Moat: How Far Ahead of Apple Maps is Google Maps? – Justin O’Beirne

The Talk – SMBC Comics. “Wait. You guys put complex numbers in your ontologies?” “We do. And we enjoy it.” “Ewww.”

What is the best book about each country? – Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Artificial Intelligence is Going to Supercharge Surveillance – James Vincent at The Verge

Conflict vs. Mistake – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex

Which was more technologically advanced, the Roman Empire or Han China? – Hoang Nghiem at Quora. A brilliant, 18,900-word exploration of the relative technological levels of two powerful contemporary civilizations.

Videos

Unresolved: America’s Economic Outlook

Dystopian Fiction: How Stories Transform Your Mind

Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (52 to 49 B.C.E.)

Books

Deep Work, by Cal Newport (analysis here)

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer

Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (analysis here)

Tribe of Mentors, by Tim Ferriss

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Music

Junkie XL – Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack

Hans Zimmer – Blue Planet II soundtrack

Harakiri for the Sky – Heroin Waltz

Avatar – King’s Harvest

Damjan Mravunac – The Forbidden Tower (from The Talos Principle soundtrack)

Skyharbor – Blind Side