Monday, February 22, 2010

Sociopaths and climate change

Here's an interesting review of Superfreakonomics:
The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed. (The subtitle of “Freakonomics,” published in 2005, is “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”) In this way, Levitt and Dubner claim to have solved the mystery of why crime, after soaring in the nineteen-eighties, dropped in the nineteen-nineties. (The explanation, they say, is the legalization of abortion, some eighteen years earlier.) They also have proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that names like Ansley and Philippa will be popular for girls in the coming decade, that reading to your kids doesn’t matter, and that drunks should be encouraged to drive rather than walk.
Their proposed climate-change solution:
“Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write. All we need to do is figure out a way to shoot huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere on our own. This could be done, they say, by sending up an eighteen-mile-long hose: “For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better."
A solution which causes this reviewer to seethe:
But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier.
* * *
Though Levitt and Dubner . . . manage to anticipate [Al]Gore’s position. The two argue that his views are the ones that rest on magical thinking. “If you think like a cold-blooded economist instead of a warm-hearted humanist, Gore’s reasoning doesn’t track,” they write. “It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price.” Here the two have a point. By the end of [Gore's book] “Our Choice,” it may be clear that we possess the tools needed to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, but the book has also shown—intentionally or not—that deploying them would require a lot from us. It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves. It is the difficulty of imagining such changes that makes schemes like Levitt and Dubner’s at once so alluring and so dangerous.
"Alluring and dangerous"? Changing "how we see ourselves"? "terrifyingly cavalier"? When I first read this, I was surprised at how someone could react with such emotion to climate change -- and what a unique and interesting venue for taking the moral high ground! Kudos!

Full disclosure, I don't really believe the depth with which one feels emotions or the capacity for empathy actually improves logical analysis. I am actually a fan of dispassionate, statistically minded thinking. Maybe if we had more of that we would have nuclear power everywhere instead of pumping carbon into the air by burning gas and coal. But of course we wouldn't do that, because nuclear power is somehow wrong -- and not really the problem here! Stop distracting from the fact that big corporations killed the electric car! And people refuse to buy produce from local farmers! Demonize! Idealize! I do think we could stand to eat less meat and stop certain agricultural subsidies, but because it makes sense to me -- not because I think they are morally wrong. I guess this is just one of those moral outrage things I will never really get (see also Octomom).


  1. m.e. you seem to need reminding that logical and/or rational thought is not a primary trait of the psychopath. Are you out of 'neuraldiversity rights for psychopaths, paedophiles and serial killers!!!'
    .....and into self-aggrandizement mode "we are dispassionate, logical...nothing worse. Like Data or Spock but more Tom Cruise in 'Interview with the Vampire'!"
    m.e. let's remind ourselves what you are really like...

    Glibness/superficial charm
    Grandiose sense of self-worth
    Pathological lying
    Lack of remorse or guilt
    Emotionally shallow
    Callous/lack of empathy
    Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
    Factor 2
    Socially deviant lifestyle
    Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
    Parasitic lifestyle
    Poor behavioral control
    Promiscuous sexual behavior
    Lack of realistic, long-term goals
    Juvenile delinquency
    Early behavioral problems
    Revocation of conditional release

  2. Anonymous above, you are committing the same sin that you're accusing M.E. of, namely, summarizing the existence and experience of a person (or a group of people) by means of features "typically" associated with *one* aspect of their personalities. Whereas M.E. implies that sociopaths should all be rational, dispassionate judges, you say they need to be superficially charming, etc.

    That said, I agree with you that dominance of reason is not a necessary trait of the sociopath. I would argue that the sociopath, like any other person, will espouse and internalize a value system. Due to his lack of empathy, he is more likely to internalize a value system that does not rely on moral or sentimental principles (e.g., tradition, religion). Ideals such as economic efficiency are attractive to sociopaths seeking a holistic value system, because they relate to their mode of operation and thinking.

    However, a sociopath is not born with any ideals, and might internalize alternative value systems. As a matter of fact, the wrong value system might cause him to be locked up behind bars. Free from the bindings of conscience, he *can* in fact pursue his own value system and principles unobstructed.

  3. where does he say logical and/or rational thought is a primary trait of the psychopath, or even imply it?

  4. I think our anonymous friend was referring more to the fact that M.E. has invented his/her own version of sociopathy. I.E. "I don't fit the symptoms, but that's me, and this is what I'm really like!"

    In other words, nothing M.E. says has any relevance to sociopaths unless he/she admits that he/she does, in fact, meet those criteria, which would invalidate half of what he/she says anyway.

    Personally, it reminds me of the vampire fads. "Actually, I'M a vampire, and vampires don't actually drink blood! I mean, you know, they don't have to to live. And they can die normally. Actually, you know, everything you know about vampires is wrong. Because I am one. Because I said so."

    I thought about replying earlier, but I didn't think it would be necessary. M.E. is so erratic with his/her alternating between sick/superpowered, defending that list with positive version of the same thing, and denying it outright with fairytales about perfect control and logic. Every now and then, he/she even throws in some emo shit like, "I WILL MAINTAIN CONTROL THIS TIME!!!"

    So uhm, yeah. I agree with anon. M.E. has no fucking idea what he/she is talking about... or does, and is just lying through his/her teeth.

  5. And Tyler, "Sociopath" is not a person. It's a classification, like "Black" or "Male." By its very nature, yes, anyone it applies to must have those characteristics.

    I know what you're thinking. "Hey, black construction paper doesn't have to be black!" Well actually, sir, it does. Otherwise it's not black construction paper.

    I mean sure I could write a blog about myself and be like, "Hey everyone! Guess what? I'm a dog! Yeah, I'm a dog! Everything you know about dogs is wrong! Actually, guess what? Dogs can talk! Yeah, I'm talking. It's proof! And dogs have jobs, and some of them look like humans! It's crazy, you might not even know someone is a dog! Gosh, people really need to learn! Dogs rule! Fuck all you wannabes!

  6. full disclosure, i don't really believe the depth with which one feels emotions or the capacity for empathy actually improves logical analysis.

    But one who is connected to the Collective Unconscious, so to speak, would - I believe - be able to construct conjecture that is more meaningful and closer to correct than a detached statistician. But I'm not really a fan of any conjecture, by anyone. Unless, of course, it is found on a blog and written by Sarah. And concerns who could provide the most meaningful interpretations of, at best, incomplete data points. Full disclosure.

  7. Peter,

    It's a classification with no fixed definition. But a lot of social implications that are so solid that one would think there was agreement on what a Sociopath IS.

    So, to use your example, the Dog Blog would seem strange and delusional because 'Dog' has been defined and accepted by every imaginable resource we depend on to sort out these sort of things for us. But so far, the only resource that currently has a fixed definition of Sociopath is a television show. Not really apples to apples.

  8. I mean sure I could write a blog about myself and be like, "Hey everyone! Guess what? I'm a dog! Yeah, I'm a dog! Everything you know about dogs is wrong! Actually, guess what? Dogs can talk! Yeah, I'm talking. It's proof! And dogs have jobs, and some of them look like humans! It's crazy, you might not even know someone is a dog! Gosh, people really need to learn! Dogs rule! Fuck all you wannabes!

    Yo quiero!

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