Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity

Over 20,000 scientists from 184 countries have now signed on to the second warning by scientists to humanity to dial down its profligate destruction of the ecosystems and environments upon which we all depend. In a short paper, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice, the writers of the second warning (the first was in 1992 and had little effect) initially garnered nearly 15,000 signatures of scientists endorsing the paper. Soon, the total number of scientists signed on exceeded 20,000. So, What’s the big deal?

Scientists and Politics

Most scientists prefer to stay in their labs or out in the field collecting data for the purpose of better understanding some facet of the domain in which their research specializes. Typically, they are not all that political. But things have gotten so far out of kilter in the relationship between science and public policy that the dangers of governments continuing to do next to nothing about the converging crises of our time spurred some scientists into action. Now, their warning is getting a great deal more attention than most publications of scientific origin.

Altmetric tracks the mentioning of scientific reports in diverse media. The paper was published in 2017 in the journal BioScience, not exactly a top favorite of social media. However, Altmetric reports that ‘the warning’ ranked within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric

Scientists Second Notice Graphic coverThe “altmetric attention score” is a measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. The score for the warning paper is 7382, which is in the 99th percentile of over 10 million research outputs Altmetric has tracked. It is the number 6 top paper published since global Altmetric records began, first of similar age. Most papers in the top 100 score below 600. In other words, people are paying attention, as well they might.

The warning paper is subtitled “A Second Notice,” because a first such warning was issued by scientists in 1992. The new Warning is short and to the point. As I mentioned above, the first notice was widely ignored. Things just kept getting worse as governments and some corporations gave obligatory lip service to “going green” in their business-as-usual operations, while dodging any serious policy questions.

Social psychologists have struggled with the difficult issues of how it is that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, so many people avoid or deny the reality of increasing climate instabilities. Of course, confirmation bias plays a big role for the individual who is part of a social group whose ideology or world view conflicts with the facts of climate science. However, the power of corporate media, which dominate most public channels of communication, from talk radio and cable TV ‘news’ to social media, steers how the little public discussion of the topic is framed and circumscribed. The corporate state frames the issue as “controversial,” as does the propaganda of the fossil fuel industries and their political allies and agents in Congress and the White House.

Messengers of scientific fact are generally sidelined; they do not get a seat on the Sunday talk shows. Discussion of the most urgent confluence of crises humanity has ever faced is stifled. Perhaps the exposure of this powerful document via online channels may be able to draw the attention it deserves.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: You Can’t Train a Psychopath to be Compassionate, But You Can Destroy a Good Man’s Compassion

The continuing surge of news stories about highly questionable police killings of unarmed civilians, is shocking enough on its own account. The victims are mostly young black or brown men but also women and even children. It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of police violence did not start with the advent of smart-phone video or police body or dashboard cameras. A new awareness of a problem is sometimes confused with the idea that it is a new problem. Understanding that police violence is a long-standing problem is made that much more disturbing by the plethora of video evidence streaming across social media on a daily basis.

New media do not create new problems, except for problems of unprecedented exposure or changed patterns of communication. They just facilitate greater awareness of problems we had been less aware of. The line between legitimate police enforcement of the law and illegitimate police use of power has always been blurred. But now, that blurry line is getting exposed in ways never before contemplated.

I have watched countless videos of violent and near violent police-citizen encounters on social media over the past year or two. The most common element that comes through is a widespread emotional distancing of police from citizen – a distinct lack of empathy. Also, an apparent need to intimidate citizens expresses an effort to demonstrate absolute authority and control by officers. A near universal police disdain for persons of color detained on the street or in their vehicles, is routinely displayed. One of the most remarkable factors is what appears to be the unawareness by police of the impact that video exposure of their behavior may have.

Professional Pathology

As in any profession, you have good cops and you have bad cops. The good ones were good before they became cops. The bad ones may have started out bad, but others only became bad after years of disenchantment with humanity along with being socialized by their senior peers. What many critics of police do not understand is the impact over time that the experiences of being a peace officer can have on a person of good will. Years of exposure to the absurdity and depravity of some human behavior can taint an officer’s outlook on life.

That officer may increasingly come to see every citizen through the lens of all the perverse situations he may have experienced in his career. In the course of time and action, compassion is lost and cynicism is gained. The process is reinforced by interaction with fellow officers with similar experiences and some who were psychopaths from the start.[1] This is very similar to the experience of the war-fighter of an invading force who is confronted daily with situations where he has no basis for distinguishing the enemy from the civilian population and quickly learns to treat everyone as the enemy. For the police officer, of course, the experience is not nearly as intense or concentrated in time.

It is common sociological knowledge that in every profession a certain “in-group” mentality develops from the specialized work and common experience of the members of the profession. We have certainly seen this phenomenon in the medical profession, among lawyers, and even restaurateurs. The consequences for each profession are different, some much more dangerous than others. If we don’t like the patronizing attitude of a restaurant owner, or a poorly prepared meal, we simply don’t go back next time. Not so in our relations with the police officer.

Among doctors and lawyers the concepts of “patient management” and “client management” suggest an attitude where the “professional” believes his special knowledge makes him superior to the person for whom he is supposed to render his professional services. The reluctance of some doctors to fully explain the details of a medical condition or procedure may have as much to do with retaining authority as with maximizing billable hours. This is reinforced by the patronizing attitude that assumes that the patient is not smart enough to understand the arcane knowledge of the physician. Such attitudes and practices are often amplified by communication with colleagues within the profession. Some “group-think” can even rise to the level of social contagion in any profession. Social contagion in police work can easily lead to violence.

Self Selection in the Psychopathology of “Enforcement”

As shown in police body and dashboard cameras or bystander smart phone videos, the behavior of citizens subjected to police violence most often posed no threat to the officer. Well, certainly no physical threat. The sure-fire way to stimulate police aggression or even violence upon yourself is to challenge an officer’s sense of his own authority. In most cases that escalated to violence, the traffic stop was typically for something trivial. In many cases, any indicator of a lack of total subservience of the civilian to the officer is absolutely not tolerated. It becomes the basis for an escalated aggressiveness by the officer(s) followed by unjustified violence and too often, death. Even subsequent submissiveness or subservience is often not enough to satisfy the officer’s threatened sense of power, and he may just keep beating the victim until another officer pulls him off. What gives?

A student in an undergraduate sociology class I taught maybe twenty years ago reported in a classroom discussion, an observation I will never forget. I’ve mentioned this in other posts related to police. This young Black potential officer noted that in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy most of the cadets who he knew from high school, “loved to beat people up.” Even at my advanced age, I too remember the guys in high school who looked for easy targets for their violence. Most of them expressed an interest in either the military or police as career choices. The process by which violence-prone individuals are self-selected into police work remains almost entirely ignored in the recruitment of candidates for law enforcement. It is even common for recruiters to seek out the most aggressive of candidates. The administration of law enforcement across this nation, instead of rooting them out, protects violent officers from discipline, dismissal, or prosecution. A police officer, of course, must be prepared for violence, but he need not prefer it. Too many do.

That brings me to the topic of the psychopathic personality. While some disagreement exists as to the exact components of this condition, certain elements, when present, are extremely dangerous to have in a police officer. One is a total lack of empathy with other human beings, combined with a learned capacity to feign empathy. Another is the pleasure the psychopath gains by inflicting pain on others – it’s a matter of exerting total control over another living being. Serial killers are psychopaths; they exert absolute control by torturing and killing their victims without remorse. I see a similarity here with the behavior of the cop who escalates his aggression at the slightest hint of “insubordination” in the civilian he has detained, continues well beyond any modicum of reason, and sees nothing wrong in his behavior.

High Standards and Critical Functions

Some experts who have used Robert Hare’s checklist [2] to score politicians and chief executive officers of corporations for psychopathic traits have concluded that a disproportionate number of persons in authority are in fact psychopaths. The argument goes that some of the traits of the psychopath are quite useful in climbing the ladder of power in an organization, and in establishing and keeping control. Psychopaths are fixated on their own power and seek to expand it, unrestrained by any moral principles. That results in a higher proportion of psychopaths in such positions than in the general population. In a somewhat different way, police officers are in positions of authority, less so within their own organization than over an entire population. They are allotted great power and great discretion in exercising it. Since police officers carry weapons as “tools of the trade,” and psychopaths enjoy hurting people, maybe we should carefully screen candidates for police academies to eliminate psychopaths. I fear just the opposite has been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, too many rookies who start out as problem-solving peace officers, gradually lose much of their compassion and take on psychopathic behaviors.

In the company of skilled psychopaths and under conditions of high stress and occasional mortal danger, it is not so difficult for an initially good man or woman to become cynical, ruthless, and uncaring. A compassionate rookie cop can become a practicing psychopath even though he was not so in terms of his original personality. Much of such a transition to “bad cop” is perceived as a survival adaptation to terrible conditions. But in a police department, such collective behavior results from a contagion of violence. How else can we explain blatant cold-blooded murder committed with full knowledge of the fact that it is being videotaped? Many idealistic youth were trained to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back quite disturbed by their experience. Those who easily took to killing were probably closer to the psychopath end of the scale. As with the high-school bully, neither should end up as police officers.
[1] Typically, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe the same general personality disorder, a pathology characterized primarily by a ruthless desire to exert absolute control over, and inflict pain on living beings, a lack of empathy or compassion, little if any sense of right and wrong, and a learned skill in masking these traits. Psychopathy is sometimes linked with narcissism and Machiavellianism, and several other traits. See Wikipedia for Robert Hare’s diagnostic Psychopathy Checklist.
[2] An amusing, if disturbing, account of the struggle to understand psychopathy and the industry that has grown up around it, is told by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Racism and Climate Denial Are Positive Feedback Loops

Learning is usually an exalted concept – in the abstract. But the practice of learning does not often measure up to the ideal. That is clear in the way we treat our schools. Social learning reflects the failures and deficits in personal learning. Power fears truth. Institutions perpetuate the prejudices and magical thinking of their members, who take their direction from the elites upon whom they depend. People too often believe what is convenient for protecting and maintaining their wealth, position, or other form of power. This is called ideology: language constructed to justify power.

Political and economic elites are able to promote their ideologies, which in turn are deployed to promote their political or economic power. The process is a closed positive feedback loop. That is why the public interest is so rarely represented in the actions of government institutions and corporations. It is also why we so often hear subjugated or exploited populations repeat the very propaganda that elites use to oppress them. What is the matter with Kansas? The Big Lie repeated over and over again, in the absence of contrary facts, is believed. Critical thinking is in short supply.

Police Racism Denied
Positive feedback loops between power and language reinforce power while excluding any language or meanings that might diminish power. “The rich get richer.” Any conflict that may threaten power is framed as a question of “us” versus “them.” The powerful are, ideologically, right by definition. Anyone who challenges the ideology of power is by definition wrong and a threat to “law and order,” or “public safety,” or “economic growth,” or “family values.” The public interest is not represented by elites, who do not represent the public as they seek greater power and wealth.

The head of New York City’s biggest police union publicly berated the mayor because the mayor publicly acknowledged the problem of racism among police. The mayor had “crossed the line,” having violated the traditional ideological unity of mayor and police. The outrage at a revelation of the “us vs. them” police ideology had nothing to do with the truth. The mayor had offered negative feedback disrupting the closed loop of authoritarian police ideology. The truth was what every Black parent knows. The mayor publicly stated that his Black son had been given the same warnings that other Black children are given by their parents about the dangers of experiencing police racism on the streets of New York City.

Social media – mostly communicating smart-phone video – has now publicly exposed racist police brutality all across America. Most Americans already knew at some level but may not have directly witnessed it. Formerly silent, many citizens now demand that police crime be prosecuted without bias, because what they knew all along is now publicly exposed and intolerable to anyone with a shred of compassion. Negative feedback has broken into the positive feedback loop.

Climate disruption Denied
Climate denial has the same ideological structure as racism; it is just applied to another population: scientists. Here again, widely distributed ideological propaganda funded by power elites wielding great wealth, such as Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, dominates the mass (corporate) media. Racism dehumanizes and demonizes its victims, facilitating brutal violence against them. Climate scientists are characterized as greedy research-grant seekers who produce results that some government conspiracy with unclear motives dictates. The fears of large segments of uneducated and poorly educated citizens are exploited by the power of propaganda.

The solid facts of biology demonstrate that race is a social construction having little to do with genetics and everything to do with social definitions. Statistical differences are explained by social-economic conditions. Similarly, the solid facts of climate science demonstrate that the earth is warming to dangerous levels and that the only explanation supported by facts is anthropogenic carbon emissions during the industrial age. Massive and diverse data sets are collected and analyzed by thousands of independent scientists around the world. That work leads to clear findings that have catastrophic implications for human survival. This means little to the climate deniers.

Why do climate deniers seem so irrational? They are irrational because they live in a cognitive positive feedback loop that excludes negative feedback. Their magical thinking helps them stay there, since a key element of magical thinking is a high degree of comfort with ignoring facts that conflict with one’s rigidly held belief. Climate deniers participate in a “universe of discourse” that only allows consideration of statements that provide positive feedback to support their beliefs. Their sources of information are limited to the corporate media that sustain the ideology of the fossil fuel industry. Those same sources purvey magical thinking to replace any critical thinking that might attempt to enter the loop.

Living in the Real World
The kinds of magical thinking and intellectual positive feedback loops that exclude negative evidence that characterize racism and climate denial have been around for a long time. But conditions have changed. The costs of catastrophic social and earth-systems failure loom ever larger as our complex systems break down and become increasingly unsustainable. The Internet is littered with magical thinking and all sorts of ill logic and fakery, along with just plain goofy stuff. But social media also offer a channel of communication that provides vividly real facts.

The pervasiveness of the culture of police racism is increasingly harder to deny. The growing availability of information on increasingly unprecedented weather events, and related disruptions of earth systems, makes climate denial more difficult to sustain. But the converging crises of our times grow rapidly more urgent. The race to a great transition is on. Will we make it or will it unmake us?