Category Archives: Well Being

Vaccines and Life Expectancy

In the US, there is a positive correlation between the development of vaccines for different diseases and an increase in life expectancy. This positive correlation holds from the development of the polio vaccine to Covid. But Covid vaccine resistance has ended this positive trend.

Watch Vaccines & LIfe Expectancy to learn more.

Human Food and Agriculture

Dr. Anth Talks released several videos that form an important collection.  The topics discussed include what humans are meant to eat and how the development of agriculture created major changes to ecology, diet, and human health.

Those videos are collected in this post for ease of access and viewing.

Check out the Dr. Anth Talks You-Tube Channel for all the Dr. Anth Talks videos.

Dr. Anth Talks YouTube Channel

Greetings, Everyone,

Between March 2, 2021 and April 19, 2021, I published 15 short videos on my Dr. Anth Talks Channel. Each week, 2 short videos are published on topics related to being human in a complex world.

Dr. Anth Talks

Check out the past videos and make sure not to miss any in the future by subscribing to my Dr. Anth Talks Channel.

Thank you!

Bridges or Walls

I just finished reading Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us by Avi Tuschman, an appropriate topic for this election year.  While well-written, this  heavily-researched, scientific analysis of where and why individuals fall on the political spectrum of left to right might not be everyone’s idea of summer reading, so I will give a very brief summary of its main points.

Conservatives are extremely concerned with protecting their in-group from all those who are in the out-groups, which is the vast majority of the rest of the world.  Fear drives their ideology, leading them to want to build walls, both metaphorical and actual, to protect their in-group from ‘invasion’ and change.

Liberals are open to new experiences and groups.  They are drawn to those who are different from themselves and don’t really see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups.  Rather, they see everyone’s humanity.  Because of their desire to connect, liberals build bridges.  They view change as a virtue rather than as something to fear.

As with all traits, physical and behavioral, genes and environments interact to produce a bell-shaped distribution curve.  Most individuals fall in the middle: they are conservative in some ways and liberal in others.  In political terms, this means that compromise is possible.  However, as one moves towards the tails (i.e. ‘right-wing’ and ‘left’wing’), individuals become more ideologically rigid and less compromise is possible.  In fact, at the extremes, compromise is disdained and vilified.

The ideologies of the extreme right (rigid hierarchies, extreme inequality, little individual freedom) and the extreme left (extreme equality, much  individual freedom, little hierarchy) are utopian in nature: both believe that they are creating the perfect world.  However, both become authoritarian regimes where the rulers are treated as semi-divine.  Tuschman considers communist regimes as exemplars of the extreme left.  Although he does not explicitly state this, it appears that he would place the social democracies of Europe more within the liberal section of the curve than the extreme left.

Our Political Nature was published in 2013, well before the current election cycle, so I am extrapolating from Tuschman’s analysis for the remainder of this essay.  While the US has yet to devolve into either extreme form of authoritarian control, the current US House of Representatives is under the sway of individuals who express an extreme right-wing ideology.  Compromise is evil and their patron saint is the semi-divine Ronald Reagan whose name has been plastered everywhere.

Until this election cycle, the US has not had an extreme-left candidate who managed to obtain national prominence, but this changed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders who has a utopian, leftist ideology of revolution leading to extreme equality.  As with right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists are unwilling to compromise.  Their ideology is right and just; therefore, compromise is not possible.  I imagine this is why Sanders and his staunchest followers are finding it almost impossible to accept defeat.  It also explains the cult of personality Bernie has engendered.  If he somehow became president, I would expect that his name would be plastered everywhere.  Fortunately for the US, Bernie Sanders will not be president as, according to Tuschman,  the extremes always lead to an authoritarian government no matter what their utopian intentions were.

Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is what enables liberals and conservatives to work together to create a functioning, democratic government; one where there can be tariffs (walls) to protect the country while also having treaties (bridges) to bring differing groups closer together.

 

 

Criminal Injustice

I recently read a book that presents a disturbing analysis of the criminal justice (actually, injustice) system of the United States.  Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is extremely well-written and well-reasoned.  It can also be viewed as the companion volume to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy which I reviewed in a prior post.  This post will include a number of direct quotes from Unfair.

Criminal InjusticeUnfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

We want “…to see the world as a fair place where people receive their just deserts.  When confronted with an example of a seemingly ‘good’ person, like a virgin, suffering a terrible outcome, we experience a strong dissonance.  And we eliminate that discomfort–and maintain our perception of justice–by finding fault with the victim.” p. 17

Benforado discusses research about why cops see threats where there are none.  The research study showed that research subjects who were holding a gun were more likely to perceive an individual shown on a screen as threatening (no matter what the individual on the screen was doing) than research subjects who were not holding a gun.  “…having a gun at your fingertips can make the world seem a far more threatening place, with potentially deadly consequences.” p. 61

Later, Benforado analyses the flaws of police lineups. “…studies of actual police lineups show that eyewitnesses select innocent people more than 30 percent of the time.  Would we as a society tolerate the sale of a car whose brake lights malfunctioned on every third trip, or a hospital that handed out the wrong medicine to every third patient? Obviously not; we would demand immediate change. So why do we accept the claim that the legal system works just fine as it is? p. 129

Judges lack training in analyzing expert testimony and don’t grasp the importance of scientific literacy.  “Federal and state judiciaries should commit to rigorous training of judges in assessing expert testimony…A lack of proficiency can bring devastating consequences…making scientific literacy mandatory doesn’t demean judges; it’s a testament to the importance of what they do.” p.155

Why do we punish those convicted of crimes? “[T]here is a growing scientific consensus that it is a desire for retribution–not deterrence or incapacitation–that has the strongest influence on why we punish. [T]he motive to deliver payback to the perpetrator operates as a sort of automatic default.” p.191

“[W]e often seem to be driven to punish first and seek justification second.” p.194

“[O]ur desire to find a culprit and reset the moral scales by inflicting punishment may sometimes override our commitment to fair treatment…[R]etaliatory acts look far less like accidents, anomalies, and collateral damage.  They look like reflections of our true nature–who we really are.”  p 196-7

Punishment that is meted out differs by the ‘race’ of the perpetrator and the ‘race’ of the victim.  Example [p. 197]: Pete murders a woman who spurns him. If the woman is white, Pete is more likely to face than death penalty than if the woman is black.  If Pete is black, his odds of facing the death penalty are far higher than if he were white.  Black men “…also receive higher bails, face a greater incarceration rate, and are subject to longer sentences than white defendants.”  They “are also more likely to actually be executed.”  p. 197

Research has shown that stereotypes and bias affect views of guilt and punishment.  Study participants read a story about a boy with prior juvenile convictions who committed a violent crime.  “The texts given to the groups were identical, aside from one word: for the first group, the defendant was described as black; for the second group, he was described as white. Participants who had read about the black teenager express more support for the severe sentence and for the notion that kids are as blameworthy as adults.” p. 198  That is: white boys are boys, but black boys are men.

“It’s not just whether you are black; it’s how black (italics in original) you are. The broadness of a defendant’s nose, the thickness of his lips, and the darkness of his skin have all been correlated with capital punishment decisions: in cases where the victim is white, the more stereotypically black a defendant’s facial features, the more likely he is to receive the death penalty.” p. 199

Religious views also affect the severity of punishment meted out by the judicial system. “[I]f you believe in the existence of pure evil…you will tend to support harsh punishment and view efforts at reforming offenders as pointless.”  p. 203   You will be more likely to support the death penalty and less likely to appreciate nuance and “…the various forces outside of an offender’s control that may have led him to commit a terrible act.” p.204

Slavery existed in what became the United States since the 1600s. The US is still dealing with the effects of enslaving millions of its residents.   “A country that abolished slavery 150 years ago now has a greater number of black men in the correctional system than there were slaves in 1850 and a greater percentage of its black population in jail than was imprisoned in apartheid South Africa.” p.209  The US prison system is essentially a continuation of slavery.

“[I]n every state, we imprison people for relatively minor, nonviolent crimes–like using drugs or passing a bad check–that would receive a slap on the wrist in other countries.  While no more than 10 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany and the Netherlands are sentenced to prison, in the United States it’s 70 percent.” p.209

Solitary confinement is more cruel than corporal punishment.  “The notable thing about isolation, of course, is not the infliction of direct suffering; it’s the withholding of the things people need in order not to suffer–in particular, human contact.” p. 217  In addition, solitary confinement “…frequently aggravates the symptoms of mental illness.  More egregious still, when that person’s psychological condition deteriorates–leading him to throw food or feces or act out against guards–we punish him with more isolation, adding years or even decades onto his sentence.” p. 220

“If we really wanted to deter crime, we would stop wasting our time with harsh mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and life without the possibility of parole, which have a minimal or nonexistent impact on offending…A punishment needs to be distasteful, but it doesn’t need to be long.” p. 226

Harsh treatment by guards and warehousing with little or nothing to do is a prescription for violence within correction facilities.  “In Georgia between 2010 and 2014, for example, there were thirty-four murders that occurred inside [italics in original] state prison.  Our correctional facilities are incubators for brutality.” p. 228

“Depriving people of normal human contact does not eliminate criminal behavior; it eliminates the capacity to engage in normal human contact…it leaves them unprepared to get a job or interact with the outside world when they are released.” p.229

“[T]he extreme harshness of our punishments may actually increase the likelihood of malfeasance because they suggest that the law is not worthy of respect.  If a couple of garage break-ins over the summer and a stolen car can land a nineteen-year-old in prison for life, then it is hard to trust the system, believe in its rules, and rely on its processes and officers.” p. 230

“The total bill for our correctional system is some $60 billion each year…The irony is that spending money on education–in particular to keep male high school students from dropping out–appears to be a far more effective way to combat crime.” p. 231

There are solutions to the unfairness of our judicial system. Norway has a far-more-humane way of treating its prisoners.  “A monstrous prison will create monsters. And what is the point of that?”  p. 232

Germany is also concerned about the humanity of its prisoners.  “Germany’s Prison Act, for example, makes rehabilitating the inmate the sole aim of incarceration; protecting the public is simply a natural outgrowth of ensuring the inmate’s successful transition back into society upon release.” p.233

What and who we choose to protect or punish is wildly unfair.  “We will fight tirelessly to protect the rights of those who spew hate in the public square, stockpile weapons capable of wiping out classrooms of children, and flood our airwaves with lies to sway elections, but we draw the line at permitting a man convicted of stealing videotapes a door to his toilet, the chance to spend a night with his family, or the experience of preparing his own dinner in his own shirt.  If ensuring freedom for those who may harm us is worth the risk when the costs are high, that must certainly be the case when protecting their rights leaves us safer.” p. 235

“[P]owerful individuals and institutions are already exploiting the weaknesses in our legal system for their own gain.  What does that mean in practice?  If you are rich and connected, you go free.  If you are poor and uneducated, you go to prison.”  p. 248  As Bryan Stevenson has said, “The opposite of poverty is justice.”

“There’s a reason that this book about unfairness hasn’t talked about white-collar crime: those who engage in corporate self-dealing, illegal accounting schemes, and securities fraud get more than a fair deal.

For those at the bottom, by contrast, the lack of access initiates a devastating downward cycle.  You can’t stop losing, because every time you return from prison, you are in a worse position to gain the help you need…And you pass on the curse to your children…Entire inner-city communities become locked into this self-reinforcing inequity, while gated ones across the river are able to secure wealth and success for generations to come.”  p. 252

A major part of the problem in policing and justice is implicit racial bias. “[I]mplicit racial bias puts unarmed blacks at a significantly greater risk of being shot than unarmed whites…One successful approach [to reduce implicit bias] is to show people images of well-known blacks with strong positive associations (like Martin Luther King Jr.) and well-known whites with strong negative associations (like Charles Manson) in order to disrupt racial stereotypes.”  p. 258

Trials do not necessarily achieve a just outcome.  Prosecutors can tilt a trial in their direction by failing to give the defense team all the evidence.  As a solution, “…we could have forensic reports automatically sent from the crime lab to the prosecution and defense at the same time, or have all police reports entered into an open-access file with no input or revision by the prosecution.” p. 261

There are a number of methods that are being used in some jurisdictions to ensure that crimes are properly investigated and that negate reliance on faulty witnesses, intuitions, and biased memories.  These methods include cameras that are triggered by gunshots and record the scene.  Panoscan which records a complete view of the crime scene that allows detailed inspection even months after the fact.  Smartphone apps that give responding officers details about any prior incidents at that address.  To reduce deaths, officers should have trauma kits and know how to use them.  This could save thousands of lives each year.

In order to reduce judicial bias and replace self-serving amicus briefs, Benforado suggests the creation of an independent panel that would provide neutral data on the relevant points in a particular case.  “This simple fix could combat judicial tunnel vision and ensure that all of the justices have access to the same data, which would make it harder to ignore conflicting evidence. ” p.264

Surgery errors and pilot errors  have been dramatically reduced through the use of checklists.  A smartphone app that guides officers through the proper steps of managing a crime scene would also reduce errors and the chance of a wrongful conviction.  “[I]t seems misguided to fret about the impact of such technology when the consequences of a mistake are so high.” p. 266

Benforado proposes a radical, but sensible idea: trials should be virtual with neutral avatars representing all involved individuals. This would eliminate all biases based on an individual’s behavior or appearance.  If juror’s don’t know what a person looks or sounds like, their focus is then directed solely to the evidence.  Lawyers and judges wouldn’t know anything about the jurors and so would also have to focus on the evidence and witness statements.  Witnesses wouldn’t have to worry about their safety. Trials would be more efficient, rapid, and cheaper.  Therefore, more cases could go to trial rather than being pleaded out, which would benefit poor defendants, many of whom, although innocent, plead out in order to avoid remaining in jail, sometimes for years, until their case is tried. The current system may make for high drama, but with limited justice.

Another proposal by Benforado is the creation of a virtual corrections environment in which “[t]hose convicted of crimes might continue to live in their homes and work at their jobs but be required to spend two hours every day in an immersive online space tailored to serve whatever ends we deemed best, whether deterrence, rehabilitation, or something else.  The eventual payoff could be enormous.  For one thing, we would no longer have to house, feed, and clothe most inmates, which would drastically reduce correctional costs.  More critically, only the convict would experience the punishment, not his children, spouse, parents, and friends, as in the current system, and it would be only the punishment that we directly intended, not the assaults that plague today’s prisons.” p.271

“We need to stop viewing the people we arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison as evil and less than human, for that toxic combinations drives us to hate and hurt, makes our brutish treatment seem justified, and does little to make us safer.  We must challenge the structures that prevent us from seeing our commonalities, hide our shared goals, and dampen our empathy for our fellow human beings.  And we must build new mechanisms that encourage us to understand the perspectives and situations of others.” p. 271

“The arc of history does not bend toward justice unless we bend it.” p. 286

 

Hobbit-Based Resolutions for 2016

Each year, I read dozens of books.  The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith was the final book I read in 2015.  As it happens, Hobbit wisdom provides us with advice which makes for great resolutions for 2016 and every year beyond.

The Wisdom of the Shire

Smith first read Tolkien as a child and adored the books so intensely that he re-read them all many, many times.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he took life advice from the Hobbits who seemed generally happy and content.  While living a Hobbit lifestyle may seem odd, Smith does a great job of detailing how Hobbits take pleasure in life and what this can mean for us non-Hobbits if we follow their advice.

Since I want you to read the book,  I will  present just a smidgen of the Shire  Wisdom here.

The first step to contentment is that your home must be a ‘snug’ place.  If your home does not feel warm and welcoming when you open the door, it is difficult to be happy there. *

Eat well of a wide variety of good food when you are hungry while also taking pleasure in your meals.  It is hard to feel content or to think clearly when you are hungry.

Get plenty of exercise, especially by walking everywhere you can.  Walking a wooded trail is a great source of contentment.

Grow a vegetable garden.  This provides you with good food along with exercise.  Pulling weeds can be quite meditative.

Sleep is vital to well-being.  After hard work, it is necessary to sleep long, dream-filled hours in order to process the day (through dreams) and recuperate and refresh your spirit along with your body.

Be open to new ideas and great adventures.  As my grandmother used to say when we were lost or something unexpected happened, “We are having an adventure!”  This puts a positive spin to life’s events.

In addition to his advice, Smith also includes in each chapter relevant tidbits from the Tolkien lore.  He concludes the book with a ‘quiz’ to determine how much of a Hobbit you are.  This quiz is really  for the deep-dyed Hobbit and LOTR fans who’ve read the books multiple times and seen the movies over and over.   I’ve seen the movies (once) and read the books (once, when I was 14), so I do not qualify.  But we can all use the Wisdom of the Shire to make 2016 a year of happiness and contentment.

*Advice in another book I read recently will help increase contentment in your home: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.