Month: November 2016

How Trump could shock a divided nation back to life as collaborator-in-chief

“Partnership, not conflict,” were the words spoken by President-elect Donald Trump during his acceptance speech. That collaborative approach is what my scholarship on good governance shows is required for effective public administration.

That is also what effective and sustainable leadership demands of the Republican Party, which is now in a position to govern with a majority in both the House and Senate. Some of Trump’s recent actions, such as the selection of Stephen Bannon for White House strategist and his urge to respond to critics on Twitter, have continued to elicit concern among his detractors. Nevertheless, he has shown signs that he’s willing to work out differences by mending fences with his most vocal critics such as Mitt Romney and Nikki Haley.

Perhaps the president-elect can create the newly structured Republican Party that GOP faithfuls hoped for, but were not able to achieve in the last two election cycles. Perhaps these efforts signal a more collaborative framework at the national level of governance in a country that has been divided by political rhetoric and administrative stalemate for well over a decade.

Could the next four years of Trump presidency be just what the doctor ordered for the GOP and a divided country?

Shock to the system

Interest-based negotiations within Republican ranks, as well as between Republicans and Democrats, may follow the initial shock to status quo. From my experience as a mayor,  council member, and a professor at the Bedrosian Center on Governance, I have learned successful governance is all about the quest for the win-win.

This strategy focuses on the integration of needs, desires, concerns and fears that are important to each side. Take for example, the governance model of the Lakewood Plan in Lakewood, California – a city of just over 81,000 people outside of Los Angeles. The motive behind the plan, which was put forth in 1954, was to retain local control over local services. Residents wanted to eliminate duplication and rely on more efficient and cost-effective government service providers.

Public and private organizations collaborated to solve public policy and administration problems based on interests. This manifested in a number of ways: for example, a trash hauler in the private sector collecting municipal waste; a county fire department providing fire service to smaller cities; private lawyers acting as city attorneys; private arborists trimming city trees; citizens using a smart phone application to report a dangerous condition on the road.

This innovative plan became the model for hundreds of communities in California to deliver municipal services through collaboration.

During this unusual election cycle, the American people similarly asked their leaders to search for common interests and common good among urban and rural interests. Working-class women in blue states gave Trump double-digit margins. This imbalance in the blue states pierced the Democratic “blue wall” at its most vulnerable place. According to reporting by The Atlantic, Democratic voters in blue states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana simply voted for “self-preservation.” They voted to preserve what is left of their jobs. They voted to bring back lost jobs to preserve their local communities.

Reconciling urban politics with those of rural America is not a new problem, but the Trump administration needs to focus on the integration of rural needs and urban America.

In the postmortem of this highly contested and polarized elections, President-elect Trump and the GOP alone can decide if they will become irrelevant through ideological competition or succeed through collaboration.

These Rust Belt voters expect to be “great again.” But four years isn’t much time to change the fate of neglected Democrats and Republicans living in the Rust Belt. If the city-educated elites and urban global politics remain the priority, I believe the Rust Belt will vote for change again in 2018 and 2020 in larger numbers.

President-elect Trump appears to be hinting at this when he said in his acceptance speech:

It’s time to pledge to every citizen of our land [urban and rural] that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

As an outsider, Trump is not burdened by GOP party ideology. I believe this makes him well suited to set the tone for interest-based negotiations to address both short- and long-term goals set during the campaign. A simple page out of local collaborative governance may serve this presidency and the American people.

-Professor of the Practice of Governance, University of Southern California

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mathematics of urban environments

By Matt Johnson

I remember when I was in grade school, Jr. high, and high school, my fellow students and others told me that math was useless. As they put it, “You’ll never use that stuff in real life.” So sure of themselves, and ignorant of thinking any differently, I took their word for it. But as I learned later in life and my training, boy were they wrong.

Today, mathematics is one of the most important tool kits I use to analyze, study, and make predictions about urban environments. The forms of mathematics I use probably would sound like ancient Greek to the untrained ear and stating them here isn’t useful for this discussion. Just know that the entire foundation of our civilization is based on mathematics, and this is why I can use math to analyze and understand cities and the people who live in them. This is why I can endeavor to find solutions to complicated, urban problems.

As a consequence of mathematics and the scientific method, I have been able to unlock some very interesting behaviors and patterns in depressed parts of cities. For example, the city I study and draw my systems hypotheses from is Minneapolis and the city has shown some interesting systems’ behaviors with respect to its subsystems.

Like most American cities in the United States, Minneapolis has evolved in such a way that there are parts of the city which are predominantly occupied by those who are of African ancestry; and there are parts of the city which are predominantly occupied by those who are of European ancestry.

And as plenty of studies and news articles have pointed out, there are many socio-economic discrepancies between these two groups and their respective subsystems. In fact, this blog has illustrated these discrepancies in the form of data analysis on several occasions. But these sources, although useful, still don’t get to the behaviors of the systems and how they interact with these respective groups. This is why mathematics is desperately needed.

I have been able to use math to analyze crime data from different perspectives. That is, I have analyzed crime as a time series over a one year period, and compared multiple years to each other. As a consequence, crime overall and at the very least has been decreasing in the city of Minneapolis over the past few years.

In addition, I have also analyzed crime in a non-linear format; that is, I have analyzed the behavior of crime in different parts of the city in a spatial context (a space that is multidimensional and probabilistic). What I have not been able to do yet is predict how crime will behave going forward in time series and spatial modes. This will take a combination of additional advance mathematics and game theory. But what should also be considered is how crime adversely affects traditionally disenfranchised groups, both in utility and incarceration rates.

And this is just one variable. This doesn’t account for housing issues such as foreclosures and condemned and vacant buildings, nor does it account for unemployment and education level. And it certainly doesn’t account for how all of these socio-economic factors interact with each other in these depressed systems.

As you can see, this stuff gets complicated very quickly. But it also lends a little light to why these socio-economic discrepancies can be so difficult to find solutions for, and why the mathematics of urban environments is so important.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist, and a mathematical scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist


The mathematical ignorance of journalism continues

By Matt Johnson

Ben Kamisar of The Hill posted an article on November 25th. And right out of the gate, his lack of statistical understanding is glaring.

As I explained in The mathematical ignorance of the mainstream media, it was never the case that it was impossible for Donald J. Trump to become the 45th President of the United States, 80 percent does not equal 100 percent, and just because a coin lands on heads one-hundred times in a row doesn’t mean it will land on heads on the one-hundred-and-first flip. But that’s exactly what Kamisar believes.

As his article starts off,

Pollsters who missed Donald Trump’s surprise electoral victory are headed back to the drawing board.

He continues from there by illustrating in great detail how the polls heavily favored Clinton. He pointed out, and rightfully so, that the vast majority of polls favored the former Secretary of State all across the country. For example, he noted

Clinton swept all 19 polls conducted [in Wisconsin] since June, according to RealClearPolitics.

Remember what I said about the one-hundred-and-first coin flip? Yeah. About that.

But instead of trying to understand basic probability, Kamisar unfortunately continues on the path of mathematical ignorance that many of his peers have done before him by putting forth a complicated expose of causal explanation. But the polls and the projections were never causal. They were probable, and the explanation was rather simple.

As Kamisar illustrates in his piece, polling methods could have been improved. But again, most of the polls favored Clinton. And in probability theory if multiple samples drawn from a population are approximating a similar result, then the odds are in favor of that result. In this case, that result was tending towards Clinton. But again, this never meant Trump didn’t have a chance to win. That was the illusion.

Unfortunately, many in journalism and the mainstream media believe that polls are a causal prediction. Polls and forecasts are probable predictions. But apparently, the term “prediction” is the problem, not the mathematical ignorance of journalists and the mainstream media.

Look, the article is a mess. The ignorance of probability is glaring and at no point did Kamisar interview a statistician or mathematical scientist. Instead, he stated incorrectly

FiveThirtyEight pollster Nate Silver, who preached a healthy skepticism about the models that predicted a certain Clinton election, had Clinton with a 71 percent chance of winning.

This sentence doesn’t make any statistical sense. First, he seemed to have missed the part that Nate Silver isn’t a pollster. He is a mathematical scientist who is using Bayesian statistics to make political predictions with information that was changing on a daily basis. In contrast, the pollsters were conducting polls for who would have voted for Clinton or Trump on that day, not on November 8th.

In addition, Silver’s models never “predicted a certain Clinton election.” Again, his predictions were probable. But as the quote clearly illustrates, Kamisar believes 80 equals 100,

Nate Silver, who preached a healthy skepticism about the models that predicted a certain Clinton election, had Clinton with a 71 percent chance of winning.

One final thought, there is an argument to be made for critiquing how the polls were conducted. But that’s not this author’s main problem, nor does it change the fact of a probable result from flipping a coin or rolling a die. His problem is that he just doesn’t understand basic probability.

I’ll address bias and error in a future article. But just know immediately that those writing in the mainstream media and journalism in general more than likely don’t understand these two probability concepts either. Why? I haven’t read anything thus far to lead me to believe they do.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist, and a mathematical scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist






From Obama to Trump, a voter’s journey

By Katherine Gunderson

How do you square so many people who voted democrat their entire lives – including twice voting for Obama – and this year voted for Trump? They clearly weren’t racist before so did they suddenly become racist just because they desperately wanted change? Hillary was just more of the same, except she was terribly unlikable and brought way too much baggage. Although a few people were diehard Trump fans, most voters faced a “lesser of two evils” decision.

Trump had his own problems but he wasn’t constrained by establishment politics and could shake things up. For those whose economic situation has worsened, it seemed to be worth a gamble on a guy who actually listened to their concerns and promised jobs.

Hillary has been criticized for focusing on Trump’s comments and deficiencies (of which there are many), and not having an economic message like Bernie’s. Lumping anyone who was considering Trump in her “basket of deplorables,” calling them names and acting as if anyone who wasn’t voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) as if they were morons or rednecks eventually shaming them into silence; they told friends and pollsters they were undecided but made their voice heard in the ballot box.

Most ordinary people, myself included, did not want either Clinton or Trump. We looked at 3rd party candidates and some landed with Jill Stein. Others wanted to choose Gary Johnson but his interviews showed he was not ready to be a prime time player. And there was always the fear that a vote for Stein or Johnson might get the “greater evil” candidate elected. Clinton was so intensely disliked that people felt they had no real option but to choose Trump or stay home.

There was another voter – the conservative Christian who may have been a democrat at one time but cannot vote for a democratic candidate because of their abortion stance. They knew the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hung in the balance and Trump promised judicial appointments in the mold of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. They felt SCOTUS was legislating from the bench, taking laws voted on by a majority of people in a state and tearing them up.

They were disgusted by Trump’s comments and sexual activities. And they did as many progressives did. They held their nose and voted for the party platform, not the candidate. Progressives voted for the democratic party, not Hillary; and conservatives voted for the republicans (GOP), not Trump.

Bottom line, I think people who planned to vote for Trump were shamed into silence and still are. I would suggest that Trump might actually get some good things done because he has worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle. He says he wants a huge infrastructure jobs bill which could have much more support from the democrats than the GOP.

I hope people can wait to see what he does. And I hope he rises to the position to which he was elected and actually tries to do the right thing for our country, instead of acting out of selfish motives. Most of all I hope he apologizes for some of the awful things he said and disavow those who are saying and doing horrible things to others – supposedly emboldened by Trump’s win.


Katherine Gunderson is a guest writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with her directly in the comments section, and follow her on Facebook

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Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

The seeds of the alt-right, America’s emergent right-wing populist movement

In recent months, far-right activists – which some have labeled the “alt-right” – have gone from being an obscure, largely online subculture to a player at the very center of American politics.

Long relegated to the cultural and political fringe, alt-right activists were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump. Earlier this year, executive Steve Bannon had declared the website “the platform for the alt-right.” By August, Bannon was appointed the CEO of the Trump campaign. In the wake of Trump’s victory, he’ll be joining Trump in the White House as a senior advisor.

I’ve spent years extensively researching the American far right, and the movement seems more energized than ever. To its critics, the alt-right is just a code term for white nationalism, a much-maligned ideology associated with neo-Nazis and Klansmen. The movement, however, is more nuanced, encompassing a much broader spectrum of right-wing activists and intellectuals.

How did the movement gain traction in recent years? And now that Trump has won, could the alt-right change the American political landscape?

Mainstreaming a movement

The alt-right includes white nationalists, but it also includes those who believe in libertarianism, men’s rights, cultural conservatism and populism.

Nonetheless, its origins can be traced to various American white nationalist movements that have endured for decades. These groups have historically been highly marginalized, with virtually no influence on the mainstream culture and certainly not over public policy. Some of the most radical elements have long advocated a revolutionary program.

Groups such as the Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator have preached racial revolution against ZOG, or the “Zionist Occupation Government.” Many were inspired by the late William L. Pierce’s “Turner Diaries,” a novel about a race war that consumes America. (Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, had pages from the book in his possession when he was captured.)

But these exhortations didn’t resonate with most people. What’s more, after 9/11, many of the revolutionary right’s leading representatives were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism statutes and sent to prison. By the mid-2000s, the far right appeared to have reached its nadir.

Into this void stepped Richard Spencer and a new group of far-right intellectuals.

In 2008, conservative political philosopher Paul Gottfried was the first to use the term “alternative right,” describing it as a dissident far-right ideology that rejected mainstream conservatism. (Gottfried had previously coined the term “paleoconservative” in an effort to distance himself and like-minded intellectuals from neoconservatives, who had become the dominant force in the Republican Party.)

William Regnery II – a wealthy and reclusive publisher – founded the National Policy Institute as a white nationalist think tank. A young and rising star of the far right, Spencer assumed leadership in 2011. A year earlier, he launched the website “Alternative Right” and became recognized as one of the most important, expressive leaders of the alt-right movement.

Around this time, Spencer popularized the term “cuckservative,” which has gained currency in the alt-right vernacular. In essence, a cuckservative is a conservative sellout who is first and foremost concerned about abstract principles such as the U.S. Constitution, free market economics, and individual liberty.

The alt-right, on the other hand, is more concerned about concepts such as nation, race, civilization, and culture. Spencer has worked hard to rebrand white nationalism as a legitimate political movement. Explicitly rejecting the notion of racial supremacy, Spencer calls for the creation of separate, racially exclusive homelands for white people.

Different factions

The primary issue for American white nationalists is immigration. They claim that high fertility rates for third-world immigrants and low fertility rates for white women will – if left unchecked – threaten the very existence of whites as a distinct race.

But even on the issue of demographic displacement, there’s disagreement in the white nationalist movement. The more genteel representatives of the white nationalism argue that these trends developed over time because whites have lost the temerity necessary to defend their racial group interests.

By contrast, the more conspiratorial segment of the movement implicates a deliberate Jewish-led plot to reduce whites to minority status. By doing so, Jews would render their historically most formidable “enemy” weak and minuscule – just another minority among many.

Emblematic of the latter view is Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor at the California State University at Long Beach. In a trilogy of books released in the mid to late 1990s, he advanced an evolutionary theory to explain both Jewish and antisemitic collective behavior.

According to MacDonald, antisemitism emerged not so much out of perceived fantasies of Jewish malfeasance but because of genuine conflicts of interests between Jews and Gentiles. He’s argued that Jewish intellectuals, activists, and leaders have sought to fragment Gentile societies along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender. Over the past decade and a half, his research has been circulated and celebrated in white nationalist online forums.

A growing media and internet presence

Cyberspace became one area where white nationalists could exercise some limited influence on the broader culture. The subversive, underground edges of the internet – which include forums like 4chan and 8chan – have allowed young white nationalists to anonymously share and post comments and images. Even on mainstream news sites such as USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times, white nationalists can troll the comments sections.

More important, new media outlets emerged online that began to challenge their mainstream competitors: Drudge Report, Infowars and, most notably, Breitbart News.

Founded by Andrew Breitbart in 2007, Breitbart News has sought to be a conservative outlet that influences both politics and culture. For Breitbart, conservatives didn’t adequately prioritize winning the culture wars – conceding on issues like immigration, multiculturalism, and political correctness – which ultimately enabled the political left to dominate the public discourse on these topics.

As he noted in 2011, “politics really is downstream from culture.”

The candidacy of Donald Trump enabled a disparate collection of groups – which included white nationalists – to coalesce around one candidate. But given the movement’s ideological diversity, it would be a serious mischaracterization to label the alt-right as exclusively white nationalist.

Yes, Breitbart News has become popular with white nationalists. But the site has also unapologetically backed Israel. Since its inception, Jews – including Andrew Breitbart, Larry Solov, Alexander Marlow, Joel Pollak, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos – have held leading positions in the organization. In fact, in recent months, Yiannopoulos, a self-described “half-Jew” and practicing Catholic – who’s also a flamboyant homosexual with a penchant for black boyfriends – has emerged as the movement’s leading spokesman on college campuses (though he denies the alt-right characterization).

Furthermore, the issues that animate the movement – consternation over immigration, national economic decline and political correctness – existed long before Trump announced his candidacy. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama opined, the real question is not why this brand of populism emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to manifest.

Mobilized for the future?

The success of the Trump campaign demonstrated the potential influence of the alt-right in the coming years. At first blush, Trump’s victory in the Electoral College seems substantial. But his margin of victory in several key states was quite slim. For that reason, support from every quarter he received – including the alt-right – was vitally important.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that they were among his most avid foot soldiers in getting out the vote in both the primaries and general election. Moreover, the Trump campaign provided the opportunity for members of this movement to meet face to face.

Shortly after the election, Richard Spencer said that Trump’s victory was “the first step, the first stage towards identity politics for white people.” To some observers, Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist confirms fears that the far-right fringe has penetrated the White House.

But if Trump fails to deliver on his most emphatic campaign promises – such as building the wall – the alt-right might become disillusioned with him, just like the progressives who chastised Barack Obama for continuing to prosecute wars in the Middle East.

Unlike old-school white nationalist movements, the alt-right has endeavored to create a self-sustaining counterculture, which includes a distinct vernacular, memes, symbols and a number of blogs and alternative media outlets.

Now that it has been mobilized and demonstrated its relevance (just look at the number of articles written about the movement, which further publicizes it), the alt-right is likely to grow, gaining a firmer foothold in American politics.

-Professor of Criminal Justice, Westfield State University

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Do conservatives value ‘moral purity’ more than liberals?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the overwhelming response among progressives was “how in the world did this happen?” Those of us who study the rise of political and moral polarization in the United States, however, were less surprised.

Think of the people you choose to spend time with – your romantic partner, your close friends. What is it, exactly, that draws you to them? And, what is it about the people you don’t like, the people you actively avoid – the self-righteous uncle you unfriended on Facebook during the presidential election or the acquaintance whose number you “accidentally” misplaced – that repels you from them?

On a case-by-case basis, the answers to these questions seem to vary widely. You do not love your boyfriend for the same reasons that you love your friends, and there could be myriad reasons why you dislike that self-righteous uncle. And yet, if you step back and consider all of the people you spend time with, you would likely notice something peculiar – these people are remarkably similar to you.

They probably share your political views, come from similar cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and have the same amount of education. As uncomfortable as it might be, this phenomenon can be explained largely by a single tendency: We tend to like people who are like us. This tendency, known as homophily, or love of the same, plays a large role in determining whom you like across a wide range of identity-defining characteristics. This includes race, ethnicity, age, social class, education and political beliefs.

Our moral values also have a powerful influence over whom we are close to and whom we avoid. In fact, we are even more likely to avoid people who hold different moral values than us than those of different racial backgrounds.

We are social psychology doctoral students who study group differences in moral values. Through interdisciplinary research, we have found that moral homophily – or a preference for people who share our moral values – also determines whom we prefer to spend our time with and which political party we endorse.

Liberals value sensitivity; conservatives value purity

According to the Moral Foundations Theory Framework, cultures build moral systems on a few basic intuitive foundations:

  • Care/harm (sensitivity to the suffering of others)
  • fairness/cheating (reciprocal social interactions and the motivations to be fair and just when working together)
  • loyalty/betrayal (promoting in-group cooperation, sacrifice, and trust)
  • authority/subversion (endorsing social hierarchy)
  • purity/degradation (promoting cleanliness of the soul and body over hedonism).

While most people agree that values from all of these foundations are at least somewhat relevant to morality, people differ, often dramatically, in the degree to which they make each foundation and its associated values a priority.

For example, liberals tend to primarily endorse upholding the virtues of fairness and care, while conservatives endorse all five of the foundations, including loyalty, authority, and purity.

We wanted to know if people group together into communities of shared values, are there some values that lead us to distance ourselves from dissimilar others the most? We find in our research that a specific class of moral values related to concerns about purity – our spiritual beliefs, definitions of the soul, what we perceive to be “dirty” or “clean” and which baser instincts we feel we must transcend – plays a central role in homophily.

Purity as the moral divider

For our research, we collected tweets from 220,000 Twitter users during the 2013 United States government shutdown. Using a new big data computational method for automatically analyzing text, we measured how much each Twitter user talked about each of the five kinds of moral concerns in their tweets.

Then, we investigated their social networks – the people they follow – up to five degrees of separation. We found that people who are closer to each other (friends or friends of friends) talked about purity concerns more similarly compared to people who are further away.

How similar a Twitter user was to another person in the way they talked about things that are “dirty” or “clean” (metaphorically or otherwise) predicted social distance more strongly and reliably than similarity in how they talked about any of the four other moral domains.

Even when we share similar political ideologies or religious backgrounds, similarity to others in the words we use to talk about purity concerns (for example, “religious” versus “spiritual, “lewd” versus “sexually empowered”) predict whether we are friends with someone or not.

As a follow-up, we tested whether perceptions of moral dissimilarity and similarity have a causal effect on social interactions.

In both studies, we measured people’s moral values in the five domains by having them read scenarios such as “You see a girl saying that another girl is too ugly to be a varsity cheerleader” (harm) and “You see a woman burping and farting loudly while eating at a fast food truck” (purity) and then rate whether or not the action was morally wrong.

Finally, we told them that they had to work with another participant who had responded either differently (study 2) or similarly (study 3) to them on these questions for one of the five moral value domains. We then asked them to tell us how close they were willing to be to that other person both physically (how close would you sit on a bench to this person) and socially (would you be willing to have someone like this person marry into your family).

Language says a lot

Our results were remarkably consistent with our first study. When people thought the person they were being partnered with did not share their purity concerns, they tended to avoid them. And, when people thought their partner did share their purity concerns, they wanted to associate with them.

As on Twitter, people were much more likely to associate with the other person when they had a similar response to the moral purity scenarios and to avoid them when they had a dissimilar response. And this pattern of responding was much stronger for purity concerns than similarities or differences for any other moral concerns, regardless of people’s religious and political affiliation and the religious and political affiliation they attributed to their partner.

There are many examples of how moral purity concerns are woven deeply into the fabric of social life. For example, have you noticed that when we derogate another person or social group we often rely on adjectives like “dirty,” and “disgusting”? Whether we are talking about “dirty hippies” or an entire class of “untouchables” or “deplorables,” we tend to signal inferiority and separation through moral terms grounded in notions of bodily and spiritual purity.

However, as our research indicates, purity homophily does not simply reflect avoidance of dissimilar others; rather, it likely arises from a dynamic push-and-pull process in which people’s social ties are a function of both wanting to be closer to similar others and avoiding different others. And, this seems to be the case both in the tightly controlled context of laboratory experiments and in the messy, real-world wildlands of social media.

Moral values and the political divide

Beyond affecting our daily social interaction preferences, we also believe that purity homophily likely plays an important role in sociocultural domains like politics and religion. For example, our preferences for certain political candidates might be partially driven by the perception that those candidates share our purity concerns, regardless of their stances on other potentially more relevant issues. Similarly, we often use purity-related language to motivate our group against the “dirty” political candidate we oppose.

Further, the tendency to surround ourselves with people who share our moral purity concerns and avoid those who don’t share them likely contributes to social and political polarization. This, in turn, can facilitate the emergence of extreme and harmful behavior, ranging from refusing to vaccinate children to bombing abortion clinics.

As our country has become more polarized and we have self-sorted ourselves into political and moral enclaves, we have lost the ability to see past our moral differences. We aren’t even using the same language as each other to talk about our social issues anymore. To bridge the divide in our government, we must first learn to bridge the divide among ourselves.

Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.

, Doctoral Candidate, Psychology, University of Southern California and

, Doctoral Candidate, Psychology, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences


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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The mathematical ignorance of the mainstream media

By Matt Johnson

Since Donald J. Trump clinched the presidential nomination early Wednesday morning on November 9th, several mainstream publications and writers have been claiming that pollsters and forecasters got this election wrong. Politico, Fox News Insider, and USA Today, just to name a few media sources, have attempted to claim this in their articles. USA Today claimed the following

Donald Trump’s victory dealt a devastating blow to the credibility of the nation’s leading pollsters, calling into question their mathematical models, assumptions and survey methods.

In most of the articles that were read by this author, the prevailing hypothesis was the accusation that the sample drawn from the population was not sufficient for predicting the final outcome of the 2016 presidential election. That is, the samples of participants polled did not reflect the final outcome. Thus, the pollsters were wrong. But they weren’t wrong.

The most likely explanation for why the polls appeared to have been wrong is because many in the mainstream media did not understand probability, i.e., mathematical statistics.

As Scott Adams argues in his book God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, probability is a force of nature. And this argument is prescient and correct. The natural world, which the social world belongs to, is indeed probabilistic. And so the question to ask is, “What is probability?”

081220-N-7090S-110 Washington D.C. (Dec. 20, 2008) The referee conducts the ceremonial coin toss before the inaugural Eagle Bank Bowl between the Navy Midshipmen and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jhi L. Scott/Released)
Washington D.C. (Dec. 20, 2008) 

The best way to understand probability is not by its definition, but rather by its process.

If you were to flip a coin, you would have a 50 percent chance of getting heads or a 50 percent chance of getting tails. If you were to flip a coin again, you would have a 50 percent chance of getting heads or a 50 percent chance of getting tails. And finally, if you were to flip a coin a third time, you would once again have a 50 percent chance of getting heads or a 50 percent chance of getting tails. In other words, no matter how many times you toss a coin, you have a 50 percent chance of getting heads or 50 percent chance of getting heads.

This is the most simplistic example of a probabilistic system and explanation of probability.

Now scale this up to a pair of die, where each die has six sides. This example illustrates how probability can become very complex, very quickly. It becomes quite difficult, for example, to predict one two and one five when tossing two die. This is because a pair of die are a much more complex system than flipping a coin. And so what would be the odds of predicting two ones or two sixes?

There is a three percent chance that a roll will produce two ones or two sixes. What’s very interesting about this fact is that Donald J. Trump’s odds of winning were better than rolling two ones or two sixes, although two die are a much more simplistic system than that of predicting a presidential election. And so there are two important revelations from this reality of probability.

First, it was never the case that Donald J. Trump would not become the president of the United States. It was assumed he wouldn’t become president because many of the purveyors in the mainstream just didn’t understand how the polls worked. And second, the polls never suggested such an outcome, nor were they wrong. They suggested he probably wouldn’t win.

Some polls that were conducted by NBC/WSJ, ABC News, Fox News, and others measured who the participants would vote for on that very day. In no way did those polls predict what would happen on November 8th. That assumption was perpetuated by those, a good number of pundits in the mainstream media, who didn’t understand basic probability. In other words, they didn’t, at the very least, understand the coin flip experiment. Again, journalists are the purveyors of information so understanding basic probability is important, especially during a presidential election; and it is reasonable for the public to expect some sort of mathematical and scientific competency from journalists and pundits.

Other polls conducted were Nate Silver’s 538 and Princeton. In both cases, their polls were much more sophisticated. And in both cases, their polls were continuous projections based on mathematical statistics. And although 538 and Princeton were scientifically rigorous, at no point did they convey or pretend to convey a Clinton win with a 100 percent certainty. Rather, they conveyed she would more than likely win. And this was the case up until the night of the election. But as the conditions (the information in the system) changed during the evening of the election, their projections changed.

2016-11-18And so what happened? How did the pollsters get it so wrong?

To be frank, they didn’t get it wrong. As mentioned before, the first set of polls measured the current state of voters. But of course a poll is only as good as the methodological process – how the poll is conducted – and those who are able to understand and explain them. And the second set of polls forecasted the most likely outcome based on current information.

At no point was there a 100 percent chance of Clinton becoming president. 538 at times computed an 80 to 90 percent chance of her winning. But 80 never equaled 100, and it still doesn’t. What probably happened was the purveyors of information became convinced that she would win because the polls and projections so heavily favored her.

So then isn’t it 100 percent? No!

Just because a person flips a coin and it lands on heads one hundred times in a row doesn’t mean it will land heads on the hundred-and-first flip. And that’s the disturbing but yet beautiful and fascinating nature of probability. Heads one hundred times in a row, although extremely unlikely, can create overconfidence and an illusion of absolute certainty. This explanation best explains why the polls appeared to be so wrong. And this is the point.

We will never hear many in the mainstream media say they are ignorant of science or mathematics. That wouldn’t fit the media narrative. Besides, that would take some remnant of integrity and honesty to perform such an act, and acknowledgement of their own mathematical ignorance. And this is why statements like that of USA Today are so concerning. Their very statements perpetuate inaccurate information to the public.

Instead of asking questions like “What is a mathematical model? What is an assumption? And what survey methods did the pollsters and forecasters use?” and then forwarding that information to the readers, many mainstream outlets went straight to “Donald Trump won; the polls said Hillary Clinton would win. Therefore the polls were wrong.”

That’s the mathematical ignorance of the mainstream media.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist, and a mathematical scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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