Yale University’s Hélène Landemore: “From crowdsourcing the hunt to crowdsourcing the law?”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

In this blog post, Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political science at Yale University, discusses crowdsourcing, its political advantage, and government involvement: 

Crowdsourcing has become a popular tool to engage people in processes ranging from urban planning to solving complex scientific problems. Yet it had never been used before for a high-profile police operation like the one involved in the Boston bombings. The success of this first attempt begs the question: Couldn’t crowdsourcing techniques be for other governmental tasks? In an age where technologies allow for quick, almost costless multiple-way exchanges between the public and the government, it seems like a waste of opportunity not to tap further the now famed “wisdom of crowds.”

In the case of the manhunt, consider some striking aspects. It was the pictures, videos, and reports shared by the crowd that initially helped the FBI piece together who the bombers were. Then, after the FBI decided to go public with the pictures of the suspects, it was in part the information flowing from the crowd that helped quickly confirm the identity of the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile social media kept the public apprised of the police progress and recommendations while gathering, processing, and circulating the information percolating up from the ground. Ultimately, it was a tip emanating from the crowd, in that case a Watertown resident who happened to own the boat on which the second suspect sought refuge, that brought the hunt to a speedy end.

There is no question that the police did an amazing investigative job of their own going over the mass of information, making difficult decisions at every step, and taking all the physical risks and responsibilities. But it is also apparent that one of their cleverest decisions was to involve the crowd from the beginning, a crowd that deserves some credit in the result. Without the crowd, the criminals might not have been identified as quickly, which could have resulted in their escape and more casualties, or perhaps in the second suspect being discovered dead rather than alive.

Crowdsourcing means less secrecy and more transparency. The FBI’s decision to go that route was a trade-off between the risk of letting the suspects know that they had been identified (thus giving them a chance to change their appearance or go underground immediately) and the cost of not capitalizing on the useful information lying somewhere within the crowd. Crowdsourcing also involves the risks of false rumors and informational cascades. Websites like Reddit, 4Chan, Twitter and others have been rightly blamed for rushing to conclusions and spreading false and damaging information about innocent individuals. 

Let’s not forget, however, that more traditional police operations are not foolproof either. Further, while the crowd can err, as can smaller groups of experts, it is also able to self-correct in ways that experts typically cannot or do not. Within a few hours after the mistake was revealed, the websites that had spread false information apologized and deleted the relevant links. There is definitely a learning curve to using these new technologies safely, but so far the evidence is that the crowd is up to the challenge. Most importantly, there are advantages to involving the crowd, in terms of diversity of perspectives as well as information-processing power, which, in this day and age, simply shift the balance against expertise and secrecy. 

In any case, my suggestion here is not that crowdsourcing should be used in every police operation. It is simply that when it comes to government as usual, where the stakes are generally lower than in a life-and-death scenario like the one Bostonians just went through, there should be more opportunities for regular people who happen to have the motivation, information, and smarts to participate and help along. 

The Obama administration has recently launched a promising Open Government initiative. Yet not much has been done, so far, to harness the power of crowds at the federal or state level. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and many others have been more ambitious in that respect, embracing not just Open Data and Participatory Budgeting but also experimenting with various crowdsourcing techniques. Other countries are also ahead of the curve, as evidenced in Iceland’s recent attempt at crowdsourcing, partly at least, the writing of a new constitution, or Finland’s ongoing experiment in crowdsourcing a contentious legislative process on off-road traffic (full disclaimer: I’m involved in this project). Couldn’t we imagine doing something similar on, say, Wall Street regulations or gun laws in this country? 

One of the many lessons of the Boston bombings, one that shouldn’t go to waste, is that there are many people out there both eager and uniquely able to help leaders, representatives, and the experts they rely on. Better still, they’re willing to do it all for free. If the crowd can help catch terrorists, why couldn’t they help fix the economy, education, healthcare, or the environment? The political problems we face are daunting and complex and we need all the brainpower we can get. I say, let the crowd in.

Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many by Hélène LandemoreIndividual decision making can often be wrong due to misinformation, impulses, or biases. Collective decision making, on the other hand, can be surprisingly accurate. In Democratic Reason, Hélène Landemore demonstrates that the very factors behind the superiority of collective decision making add up to a strong case for democracy. She shows that the processes and procedures of democratic decision making form a cognitive system that ensures that decisions taken by the many are more likely to be right than decisions taken by the few. Democracy as a form of government is therefore valuable not only because it is legitimate and just, but also because it is smart.

Landemore considers how the argument plays out with respect to two main mechanisms of democratic politics: inclusive deliberation and majority rule. In deliberative settings, the truth-tracking properties of deliberation are enhanced more by inclusiveness than by individual competence. Landemore explores this idea in the contexts of representative democracy and the selection of representatives. She also discusses several models for the “wisdom of crowds” channeled by majority rule, examining the trade-offs between inclusiveness and individual competence in voting. When inclusive deliberation and majority rule are combined, they beat less inclusive methods, in which one person or a small group decide. Democratic Reason thus establishes the superiority of democracy as a way of making decisions for the common good.

Can whistleblowing ever be justified? — Edward Snowden exposes NSA’s confidential surveillance program and is said to be hiding in Hong Kong

The National Security Agency (NSA)National Security Agency (NSA) has a secret program that allows the commission to gain access to user information stored by big-name internet organizations. Some of the most recognizable companies include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Skype.

29-year-old Edward Snowden, a mid-level IT worker contracted by the NSA, leaked top-secret NSA documentation about PRISM. PRISM tracks user information such as photos, content of e-mails, live chat, videos, and login alerts. Snowden is said to be hiding out in Hong Kong. All companies involved have allegedly denied allowing NSA to gain direct access to their databases. It is currently up for debate as to whether or not Snowden is a hero to the public or someone that acted recklessly, endangering the safety of all Americans.

PRISM is reported to have been authorized and enforced in 2007. President George Bush passed PRISM along with other changes to the US surveillance rules. President Barack Obama renewed the edict last year.

KQED Forum: Edward Snowden

The Guardian via Getty Images — Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

KQED Forum with Michael Krasny is a live call-in program that presents wide-ranging discussions of local, state, national and international issues, as well as in-depth interviews. On Tuesday, June 11, Krasny posted a session that includes political science expert and author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, Rahul Sagar. Sagar is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University within the Department of Politics. Sagar has taken a firm stance that Snowden was “misguided” and his choice to leak information was ill-considered. He feels that Snowden has acted inappropriately by taking the law into his own hands. By exposing this information, Sagar believes Snowden acted wrongfully from a legal standpoint and should have pursued a safer avenue if he wanted his discovery to be revealed.

To hear more about PRISM and Sagar’s viewpoint on whistleblowing, listen to Krasny’s segment on the NSA leak:

View this recording on the KQED Forum webpage: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201306110900

Secrets and Leaks:
The Dilemma of State Secrecy

Rahul Sagar

Rahul Sagar -- Princeton U: Assistant Professor, Department of PoliticsRahul Sagar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His primary research interests are the field of political theory and include topics in ancient and modern political theory including executive power, moderation, tyranny, and political realism.

Sagar’s first book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, is set to be released in October 2013. Sagar examines the complex relationships among executive power, national security, and secrecy. State secrecy is vital for national security, but it can also be used to conceal wrongdoing. How then can we ensure that this power is used responsibly? Typically, the onus is put on lawmakers and judges, who are expected to oversee the executive. Yet because these actors lack access to the relevant information and the ability to determine the harm likely to be caused by its disclosure, they often defer to the executive’s claims about the need for secrecy. As a result, potential abuses are more often exposed by unauthorized disclosures published in the press.

But should such disclosures, which violate the law, be condoned? Drawing on several cases, Rahul Sagar argues that though whistle-blowing can be morally justified, the fear of retaliation usually prompts officials to act anonymously–that is, to “leak” information. As a result, it becomes difficult for the public to discern when an unauthorized disclosure is intended to further partisan interests. Because such disclosures are the only credible means of checking the executive, Sagar writes, they must be tolerated. However, the public should treat such disclosures skeptically and subject irresponsible journalism to concerted criticism.

Mulgan at the RSA: “I was struck that our debate had lost the capacity to ask how capitalism might evolve into something different”

In case you missed it, Geoff Mulgan, author of the recently published The Locust and the Bee, gave a truly excellent talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) back in March and it has just been made available online!

You can also listen to a podcast of the full event including audience Q&A here.

Isaiah Berlin and European Politics

New editions of works by Isaiah Berlin will be rolling out this spring into next fall! Among the works that will be reprinted is one of his quintessential essays, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History.

Berlin’s work has influenced numerous other scholars and philosophers specifically due to his work on positive and negative liberty on the value of political freedom and value pluralism. Most recently, Berlin’s writings on hedgehogs and foxes have been utilized in a piece examining the state of British politics.

Read the piece from the Wall Street Journal below to see how Berlin’s work still relates to our current events.

The Rise of the UKIP ‘Hedgehogs’

The ‘foxes’ of European politics have presided over a still-ongoing car crash.


A divide has opened in British politics. It is not between north and south, or left and right, but between hedgehogs and foxes.

Isaiah Berlin first popularized the idea (taken from a fragment of the Greek poet Archilochus) that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He used the notion to categorize the difference between various thinkers. But since last week’s local-election upset for the U.K.’s major political parties, it is a way to understand our changing politics.

For some years, in Britain and the rest of Europe, politics has been dominated by foxes who knew (or at least pretended to know) many things. They were of varying quality: some sleek and impressive, others akin to those mangy specimens you find in cities. But whatever their attributes, the foxes also presided over a still-ongoing, continent-wide car crash. So today, in a time of apparently endless and insoluble crises, the attraction of those who know one big thing is very considerable. And if that one big thing happens to be the big thing of your day? Well then perhaps it is right that we’ve arrived at the age of the hedgehog.

Read the complete article here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323372504578464704081223308.html?mod=wsj_streaming_latest-headlines

HP & PUP: Slytherin’s PUP Reading List

This week we have a couple of PUP books for any prospective Hogwarts student seeking placement in the Slytherin house. These students certainly get a bad rap for being evil with alum like Draco Malfoy and Lord Voldemort- oops, I said his name! However, I think the more redeeming quality of these students is that they are fierce in their quest for power. What would a Slytherin read?

1. How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders ed. Philip Freeman- Cicero’s ancient advice could help them climb to the top.

Marcus Cicero, Rome’s greatest statesman and orator, was elected to the Roman Republic’s highest office at a time when his beloved country was threatened by power-hungry politicians, dire economic troubles, foreign turmoil, and political parties that refused to work together. Sound familiar? Cicero’s letters, speeches, and other writings are filled with timeless wisdom and practical insight about how to solve these and other problems of leadership and politics. How to Run a Country collects the best of these writings to provide an entertaining, common sense guide for modern leaders and citizens. This brief book, a sequel to How to Win an Election, gathers Cicero’s most perceptive thoughts on topics such as leadership, corruption, the balance of power, taxes, war, immigration, and the importance of compromise. These writings have influenced great leaders–including America’s Founding Fathers–for two thousand years, and they are just as instructive today as when they were first written.

Organized by topic and featuring lively new translations, the book also includes an introduction, headnotes, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and an appendix containing the original Latin texts. The result is an enlightening introduction to some of the most enduring political wisdom of all time.

2. Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter–and More Unequal by Brink Lindsey- Lindsey explains the growing class divide and how the rich get richer and the poor are trapped in a life of poorness… though the more evil Slytherins may want to keep it this way.

What explains the growing class divide between the well educated and everybody else? Noted author Brink Lindsey, a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, argues that it’s because economic expansion is creating an increasingly complex world in which only a minority with the right knowledge and skills–the right “human capital”–reap the majority of the economic rewards. The complexity of today’s economy is not only making these lucky elites richer–it is also making them smarter. As the economy makes ever-greater demands on their minds, the successful are making ever-greater investments in education and other ways of increasing their human capital, expanding their cognitive skills and leading them to still higher levels of success. But unfortunately, even as the rich are securely riding this virtuous cycle, the poor are trapped in a vicious one, as a lack of human capital leads to family breakdown, unemployment, dysfunction, and further erosion of knowledge and skills. In this brief, clear, and forthright eBook original, Lindsey shows how economic growth is creating unprecedented levels of human capital–and suggests how the huge benefits of this development can be spread beyond those who are already enjoying its rewards.

3. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography by Corrado Vivanti, Trans. by Simon MacMichael- This is the biography of the man behind The Prince which was about how a prince’s aims such as glory and survival can justify the immoral means to get those ends. (Okay, so maybe I think Slytherins are a bit corrupt…)

This is a colorful, comprehensive, and authoritative introduction to the life and work of the author of The Prince–Florentine statesman, writer, and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Corrado Vivanti, who was one of the world’s leading Machiavelli scholars, provides an unparalleled intellectual biography that demonstrates the close connections between Machiavelli’s thought and his changing fortunes during the tumultuous Florentine republic and his subsequent exile. Vivanti’s concise account covers not only Machiavelli’s most famous works–The Prince, The Discourses, The Florentine Histories, and The Art of War–but also his letters, poetry, and comic dramas. While setting Machiavelli’s life against a dramatic backdrop of war, crisis, and diplomatic intrigue, the book also paints a vivid human portrait of the man.

Vivanti’s narrative breaks Machiavelli’s life into three parts: his career in a variety of government and diplomatic posts in the Florentine republic between 1494 and 1512, when the Medici returned from exile, seized power, and removed Machiavelli from office; the pivotal first part of his subsequent exile, when he formulated his most influential ideas and wrote The Prince; and the final decade of his life, when, having returned to Florence, he wrote The Art of War, The Florentine Histories, the satirical play The Mandrake, and other works. Along the way, the biography presents unmatched accounts of many intensely debated topics, including the precise nature of Machiavelli’s cultural and intellectual background, his republicanism, his political and personal relationship to the Medici, and his ideas about religion.

Keep coming back to get your reading list for your Hogwarts house!

Daniel Stedman Jones on Masters of the Universe

Stedman-Jones-at-LSE-3[3]Princeton author Daniel Stedman Jones had a busy day on 16th January promoting his recently published ‘Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics’. In the afternoon he appeared on BBC Radio 4′s ‘Thinking Allowed’ and that evening he was the lead speaker at a public lecture based around the book at the London School of Economics where his respondents were Professor Lord Skidelsky and Professor Mark Pennington. Please follow the links to catch up with both events.

Corey Brettschneider on The Glenn Show, Public Ethics Radio, and more

Political and constitutional theorist Corey Brettschneider has been busy doing a number of interviews to promote his book, When the State Speaks, What Should it Say: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality. His book looks at the quandary often faced by democracies when they are forced to choose between protecting the right of its citizens to engage in hate-related speech, or violating freedom of expression. Brettschneider argues that the state should protect the right to express discriminatory beliefs, but that it should actively engage in democratic persuasion, publicly criticizing or giving reasons to reject such hate-based views. Check out his first interview on Bloggingheads about his book, and his second, a discussion of race and public / private distinction. Corey  also appeared on Public Ethics Radio  (sponsored by Carnegie Endowment) with Christian Barry  to discuss his book, and took part in a New Books in Philosophy interview with Robert Talisse.

For a detailed look at When the State Speaks, What Should it Say, check out the online symposium on Publicreason.net, an ongoing chapter-by-chapter discussion of his book, with contributions by an array of prominent scholars.




It’s a Good Week for Anarchy

In a 1, 2, 3 punch, we’ve seen in quick succession, a review of Two Cheers for Anarchism in the Wall Street Journal, a feature on author James C. Scott in the New York Times, and a review for our UK colleagues in The Independent.

So why is anarchy so hot right now?

Well, one thought that came to mind reading these articles is that we may all secretly be anarchists, or at least benefit from anarchy in our personal lives.

As the feature in the New York Times points out (alongside a delightful photo of the author with his flock of chickens), “To most Americans the term anarchism probably invokes bomb-throwing radicals. But seen through Mr. Scott’s squint, anarchist principles are in action all around us, whether in jaywalking, the anti-SAT movement or assembly-line slowdowns — all examples, he contends, of everyday resistance to the rule of technocratic elites.”

So where are these sites of anarchy? If one is to believe The Independent–small businesses are hotbeds of anarchy, mom and pop shops are run by the true anarchists. Tom Hodgkinson asks, “Are shopkeepers the only true anarchists?”

Prof Scott points out that when American wage slaves, tied down to factory jobs, are asked by opinion polls what sort of work they would prefer, most say they yearn to run their own shop, restaurant or farm. Prof Scott goes on to say that, “the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides, is a vastly under-estimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population”.

Truly, to be a shopkeeper is a revolutionary act. As Prof Scott asserts, “[A] society dominated by smallholders and shopkeepers comes closer to equality and to popular ownership of the means of production than any economic system yet devised.” Yes, comrades, rise up, throw off your chains, open a shop!

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Weiss calls the book “intriguing,” and goes on to say, “Mr. Scott doesn’t pretend to abide by a utopian antigovernment philosophy or to renew the prescriptions of 19th-century Russian anarchists who wanted to overthrow the czarist state. Rather, he argues for a return to “mutuality” and organic human cooperativeness. The bulk of his book is thus dedicated to criticizing the niggling little tyrannies of everyday life in free-market democracies, from superstores that have replaced more humane mom-and-pop enterprises to the attempts of agribusiness to impose factory-like standardization on nature itself.”


Learn more about this book:


Two Cheers for Anarchism
Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play
James C. Scott

Voting matters even if your vote doesn’t: A collective action dilemma

Voting is a good example of the kind of large-scale cooperation among non-relatives that makes our species so unusual a member of the animal kingdom. In their new book Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech explain that cooperation is stymied by two things: coordination problems and collective action dilemmas. In their previous post on this blog, they explained how ballots solve a coordination problem by allowing people to cast their votes strategically, i.e., for candidates who may not be their first choices but who have some chance of attracting enough votes to win. In this post, they take a look at voting as a collective action dilemma: Why do we vote when our chance of having an individual impact is so small?


Why Bother to Vote?

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


On Tuesday, well over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to vote (or will have voted already through early voting options).  They will do so despite the fact that voting takes time, effort, and preparation. They will need to figure out where their polling place is. They will need to find time before or after work or while the kids are at school to travel to that place. They may have trouble finding parking. They may have to stand in line. And they may worry whether they know enough about issues and whether they are making the right choice.

Each voter goes to this effort despite the fact that the chance that his or her vote will affect the outcome of the presidential election is infinitesimally small.  One scholarly estimate puts the chance that a given vote, even in a battleground state, will change the course of an election at 1 in 10 million.  Why, then, does anyone actually bother to vote?

Collective action dilemmas arise whenever everyone in a group would like some public good to be produced while also preferring that others in the group do the work to produce it.  The problem becomes worse whenever the group becomes large and whenever the impact of each individual contribution is low.  Voting in a large, democratic society thus should pose a collective action dilemma in the extreme.  The “paradox of voting,” as described by political scientist Anthony Downs more than a half century ago, asks why voting does not pose more of a collective action problem than it does. Clearly the costs exceed the benefits for the individual voter, and clearly the individual has little impact on the election outcome.  And yet, if no one voted, democracy would collapse.

Fortunately for democracy, many people tend to overestimate their own efficacy. One well-known study documenting this tendency comes from political scientist Terry Moe, who  found that members of the economic organizations he surveyed tended to overestimate the extent to which their own dues and other contributions would help the organizations achieve their goals.

Why do people tend to overestimate their own efficacy?  One possible evolutionary explanation of this finding begins with the simple observation that most people are not particularly good at understanding large numbers. Why would they be? Although the modern world may force us to deal with large numbers every day, for our ancestors, who lived in small groups and had no money, small numbers were the order of the day. Even today, many languages have counting systems that amount to nothing more than “one,” “two,” and “many.” Thus, even something as commonplace and essential to today’s society as voting may rely upon the difficulty we have with large numbers and our resulting tendency to overestimate the impact that our vote will have on an election’s outcome.

Another possible reason why we tend to overestimate our individual efficacy arises from an evolutionary insight regarding the way we make mistakes. Ideally, natural selection would have designed our minds with the ability always to make the right decision, accurately weighing the costs and benefits of our different options. In reality, we make errors, and those errors come with costs. If the cost of making one kind of error is much larger than that of making another kind, selection pressure on how we make that kind of decision will be asymmetrical. A tendency to make more of one kind of relatively low-cost kind of error rather than more of a relatively high-cost kind may be a design feature, not a flaw, of the human mind. This is the idea behind error management theory, developed by evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton and her colleagues. Another evolutionary psychologist, Randy Nesse, explains the idea with an analogy to smoke detectors. You might like to buy a smoke detector that only goes off when there is a true emergency and not simply when you are making toast, but in reality such a perfect smoke detector is impossible to design. Given a choice between a smoke detector that sometimes goes off when there is no real threat of a fire and one that sometimes fails to go off when there is a real threat of one, which would you choose?

Applying this idea to Moe’s observation, it may be that the error of contributing to a public good and having that contribution not bear fruit is often a small price to pay compared to the error of failing to help create a public good from which one would have benefitted greatly. Given that our ancestors lived in small groups, this could easily have pushed our psychology in the direction of erring on the side of participation by overestimating the degree to which our contributions really matter to the success of the collective action. Thus, an additional reason why we vote may be that the cost of voting is so small that it is worth paying on the off chance that one’s vote will actually make a difference. Something to keep in mind on November 6.

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

Airport Paranoia and the De-humanizing Agendum it Stems From

A great number of things have changed in American airlines since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Newer, “safer” procedures have been introduced, and seemingly outdated processes have been cast aside. What’s questionable, however, is if these new procedures really hold much of a benefit or any advantage at all. With the creation of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on November 19, 2001, airlines no longer contracted with private companies for airport screening. The federal government has taken over airline precautions in the form of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA has implemented a number of policies to make the airports and airlines safer places to go. A more watchful eye now oversees our airline’s customers.

Long gone are the days when passengers could enter the cockpit at free will. Flight decks now include bulletproof doors made with heavy duty materials, such as ballistic aluminum armor unified with composite armor laminates to prevent unauthorized access by terrorists or anyone wishing to do harm. While procedures like these seem to bear little negative repercussions in regard to travel safety, there are certainly some security actions on the social side of the spectrum that could be categorized as socially questionable.  Tallying off the list of possible missteps in airline security policy prompts many experts in sociology, law, and philosophy to dissect the newer airline security model. Perhaps there should be some consideration given to the fact that certain regulations have “pushed the envelope” a little too far.

Take for example the case of Nick George, as reported by PBS NewsHour. George was passing through security in a Philadelphia airport on his way back to college in California. While going through the security checkpoint, George had been carrying some 200 flashcards written in Arabic. Around ten of the flashcards had ‘alarming’ vocabulary written on them, such as “bomb” or “terrorist.”

George was using these flash cards for his Arabic language course and had merely been trying to study more about the Arabic media. George’s offered explanation did not prevent him from being meticulously questioned by the FBI and TSA for hours on end. The vocabulary words were not in fact used for sadistic doctrine, as the airport security officials’ actions might have suggested. This raises the question as to whether or not George’s First and Fourth amendment rights were violated. A suit had been filed on behalf of The American Civil Liberties Union and has since been dropped by the federal defendants and is now “proceeding to discovery,” which means further investigation is underway.

So, are basic human rights being violated by some of the more radical regulations instituted by today’s airlines? Harvey Molotch, author of Against Security believes there is a case to be made. Molotch addresses some of the most controversial policies that have sparked heated debates across human rights and political forums across the nation. When it comes to de-humanizing individuals, Molotch believes the movement to ban public restrooms is at the paramount of humiliation and degradation aimed toward the human species. To deprive people of such a basic human function is frightening to anyone who values their freedoms and constitutional rights.

Read more about airport security and what we can do to make travel in our country safer without sacrificing our dignities and the right to live life peacefully:


Against Security:
How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger
Harvey Molotch

PUP author E.J. Dionne Jr. is mentioned as a noteworthy intellectual of liberal Catholicism in a New York Times op-ed

In last weekend’s NY Times, Molly Worthen laments the caricatured, politically right-wing version of Catholicism portrayed in the U.S. Presidential campaign, and argues for increased attention to an all-too-often ignored and ill-understood social justice orientation of liberal Catholicism. The tradition of liberal Catholicism, which is incompatible with the Ayn Randian visions of Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, remains alive and well, and is discussed and defended with eloquence in a recent Princeton University Press book by EJ Dionne Jr. policy making:

If the Democratic Party is not listening to liberal Catholics, it is partly because they are not in a position to speak very loudly. They are dodging the sights of a Roman hierarchy more preoccupied with smoking out left-leaning nuns than nurturing critical thinking.

“Is liberal Catholicism dead?” Time wondered a few years back. The answer is no: in some regards, liberal Catholic intellectuals are flourishing. They are writing and teaching, running social justice initiatives at the church’s great universities, ensconced in professorships around the Ivy League. Yet a cozy academic subculture can be as isolating as it is empowering.

The handful of nationally known Catholic political thinkers who might be called progressive, or at least compassionate and cosmopolitan — like the journalist-scholars Garry Wills and E. J. Dionne Jr., blogmeister Andrew Sullivan, or the feminist nun and blogger Sister Joan Chittister — are far outnumbered by the ranks of prominent Catholic conservatives in the trenches of activism and policy making.

Read more over at the NY Times op-ed pages.


Souled Out:
Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right
E. J. Dionne Jr.



Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:

Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan


Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.