My own thoughts--for me.
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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Should We Pillory Lance? 

After a year hiatus from this blog, it's sports again that moves me to post. I'm not even a serious sports fan, although I've gotten into cycling in the last few years, just about the years Lance has been winning the Tour de France. In the last few days, Le Equipe, a French newspaper has claimed that there are positive tests for EPO in urine samples of Lance's from 1999. EPO is a blood agent that boost the red blood cell count, as if one were breathing more oxygen-rich air. There was no test for it in 1999, but it was banned anyway. There were remaining samples from that year, and now there are good tests, and so the old urine was tested with the new test.

I'm not married to the idea that Lance is innocent, but it's a very interesting question how someone could defend themselves against a charge like this. I'm just watching Lance on Larry King Live, and he raises a few points that seem to me to raise the kind of reasonable doubt that should prevent us from supposing he is guilty given the evidence we've seen.

The first point addresses the reasons people have, before seeing these latest charges, for thinking it's likely that he doped. Critics have said that there was no way he could perform the way he did in 1999, after his devastating battle with cancer, unless he'd used performance enhancing drugs. Lance responds to that background suspicion this way: there were tests for EPO beginning in 2000 (though not officially approved until 2001). He was tested with those new tests in those years, and proved clean. If his performance in 1999 was owed to the use of EPO, then how could it be even better, not worse, in those succeeding years when we know there was no EPO in his system? I think this is an important point. It doesn't respond to the purported scientific evidence we're hearing about now, but I'll come to that. What it does do is effectively remove any real basis for thinking his 1999 performance was too good be true. Even if we forgive those who said that in 1999, when he came back and performed even better year after year when no one is claiming he was using drugs, there is no longer any basis for thinking the 1999 performance is fishy in any way.

Still, if they have lab results they have lab results, right? Wrong. They may have lab results, but there are very serious questions about whether they should be trusted. To judge him guilty on the basis of this evidence, a person would need to have good confidence in the evidence. But this urine sample was (evidently--we'll learn more as time goes on) not performed according to the protocols that presently govern drug testing in cycling. The samples were tested by researchers, not people enforcing drug rules in cycling. The clearest missing check on the process is the absence of any separate control sample--a "B" sample--that could be tested to confirm results obtained on the first sample. If the first sample was mishandled or contaminated in some way there would be no way to discover that.

It's true, on the other hand, that most samples aren't contaminated, and so there is no particular reason to think this one was. There is this caveat, however. The French press and public have been shockingly hostile to Lance ever since 1999. The very newspaper reporting this story in France editorialized, upon his retirement, that this was the most welcome retirement of a champion ever. He was rated in a poll as the third most hated sports figure in France. We have no evidence that the urine sample was intentionally tampered with, but it is not a normal run of the mill scientific sample. There are journalists and others who are highly motivated to bring this guy down. I think that can't be ignored in a context where there was no adequate oversight or confirming sample, no reason to think his performance needed a special chemical explanation (since it only got better later), and more drug tests from this man's boday than any athlete in the history of sports without a singe one ever being positive.

Unfortunately, this doesn't prove him innocent. What's a fan to think? I think there are really three different questions the fan faces here: First, does this latest story (speaking of the evidence we have today) make it more likely that Lance indeed used EPO in 1999. I think the answer is yes. Second, considered all together, does the evidence we have now make it more likely than not that he used performance enhancing drugs. My own judgment is no. Others, though, might feel that there is not enough reason to discount this latest lab result, and that it points toward drug use. It's a tough call.

But, third, does the evidence warrant any of us in publicly judging that he is probably guilty. I think this is a separate question from simply asking whether he is probably guilty, and here's why. Public opinion, in a case like this, is a massive coercive power over Lance. It is not a legal punishment like jail, but it is no less devastating in many cases. There is a question of justice about how it is to be used. There can't be a question about justice about what we are to believe. If we're interested in the question, we should believe what seems most likely to be true, I think. But it's not clear that we should weild the great power of what I'm calling public judgment just as freely.

The analogy with legal punishment is useful. Almost everyone agrees that we should not legally judge (so to speak) that a person is guilty just whenever that seems more likely than not. Even if we should believe, based on the evidence, that the person is guilty, we need a much higher standard of proof before we can justly sentence him or her to jail. If you agree, then you should agree that there is a parallel issue about the justice of publicly judging Lance guilty, an issue that is not settled simply by deciding whether it is more likely than not that he is guilty.

Of course, Lance is just an example. If this is right it would matter for lots of uses of our opinions in public. Often we should withold condemnation even if we think it more likely than not that the person is guilty of whatever accusation is in question. A person should be presumed, in public opinion, to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't mean that this standard of reasonable doubt is as demanding in the public opinion context as it is in the context of legal punishment. My point is simply that there is the very same kind of issue of justice that goes beyond the mere question of whether the person is probably guilty.

So, even if you think the evidence overall makes it slightly more likely than not that Lance used drugs, that is not enough to justify a public judgment and condemnation that treats him as if he were guilty. I know this is tricky. And I don't mean that we should lie about our opinions. But unless we are in a place where these distinctions can be carefully made, if we're asked whether we think Lance is guilty, we should say no. If given more time we might go on to explain that we mean no, at least not beyond the sort of reasonable doubt to which he is entitled.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Good as Gold 

I've missed a lot of the Olympics, but I've been thinking about the controversy about Paul Hamm. I'm especially interested because he's from my home town (Waukesha, Wisconsin), the nephew of a good high school friend of mine. So all the news about him catches my eye.

Paul Hamm was awarded the gold medal for the all-around competition in gymnastics. The all-around involves combining the gymnast's scores on all the events, and so it is generally taken to be a contest for the best gymnast in the world. Two days after the completion of this event, the South Korean team contested the scoring, and it was established that there was a judging error. If not for that error the South Korean gymnast would have gotten the gold medal, not Paul Hamm.

I saw some intitial reaction in the press suggesting Hamm should do the right thing and give up the medal. This sounded sensible to me. We all know the scores were incredibly close, there is a margin of error, he is just as good a gymnast as the South Korean. And by doing this he and we can all live with the knowledge that the medal is in the hands of its rightful owner. That sounded like the high road. I now think this is a mistake.

Recently, the president of the FIG, the leading international gymnastics federation, has sent a letter asking Hamm to give up his medal voluntarily. The FIG seems to be responsible for hiring, and lately firing, the judges. They are not the Olympic authorities, though. It is pretty unclear to me who has authority over the decision about the gold medal. The U.S. Olympic Committee angrily reacted to the FIG's letter to Hamm. And the International Olympic Committee was not consulted by the FIG. Complicated. What interests me is not who has the authority to order him to give it up. No one has tried that yet. What interests me is the suggestion that he should give it up voluntarily.

It is a mistake to suggest that Paul Hamm should give up his medal for several reasons. The most important one is that the athletes do not, and should not, have the power to give up a medal. If the Olympic officials determine that Hamm has the gold medal, then he has it. He might not be holding the actual medal in his hands. He might give it to his father (who was a terrific diver at Waukesha's South High by the way), or to his girlfriend, or to a South Korean gymnast he feels bad for. But this doesn't change who won. The winner is the one the judges say is the winner after legitimate avenues for dispute are exhausted. Judges make errors of various kinds, of course, as they do in all sports. Umpires sometimes call a strike when the pitch was simply not in the strike zone. But that doesn't mean the batter didn't strike out. If the umpire says it is a strike, that is final. Should the pitcher have the power to override the umpire, and confess that it was not a strike? The players are not the umpires.

The South Korean team lodged its objection two days later. The rules only allow such protests to be lodged during the competition. So too late. End of story. There is no alternative to this basic model. Disputes can't be allowed without any time limit. A decision must be made so that life can move on. If someone thinks the deadline for objections is too short, then they should try to get it changed. In the meantime, them's the rules.

There are analogies to this point in politics. Consider the presidential election pitting Bush v. Gore. We now know that an error was made. The actual popular vote in Florida should have given that state to Gore. But since it was scored in Bush's column, Bush won the election. Now you will say, he didn't win. He was put in office erroneously. But you would be wrong. Bush is the legally legitimate president, an office which is held by the... umm... winner. Bush did not win the popular vote in the country or in Florida, but those are both different questions from whether he won the presidency. It is much like the case where the referee says "strike" but the pitch was not really in the strike zone. The proper response to that is, tough luck. Let's make sure things are done better next time. In the meantime, yer out.

Here's another analogy in politics, one close to my heart. Suppose congress sets your income tax rate at 25% of your gross income. Now suppose, just bear with me, that this is very unfair. Your income is only $12,000 per year, and 25% is really inappropriate given that so many millionaires are paying hardly anything. The details don't matter, but suppose it is unjust. Yes, but... it is still the amount that you owe the government. At least supposing the law, unjust though it may be, was passed without lies or bribery (again, bear with me and just imagine it) the fact that a just law would only have levied a 15% tax on you is neither here nor there. Better luck next time. Or maybe the speed limit on your street should really be 45, not 25. Tough luck, it's 25. A law does not need to be just or correct in order to be a law that the state has every right and obligation to enforce, and a law that citizens have a duty to obey. I say this point is close to my heart since it is a point that I have pressed in a number of contexts in political philosophy. It is really much like the case for Paul Hamm's counting as the victor. The judges made an error, just as legislators do. The result is nevertheless the one that everyone, including Hamm himself, must live with. He is the legitimate winner, the beneficiary, perhaps, of one of the countless errors than go into judging and scoring athletic competitions, and making laws. Join the club.

I shouldn't even bring up this next point, since it will seem as though what I have said so far is not enough without this extra bit. I think it is. But there is also this extra bit: the South Korean was also mis-scored. The TV coverage a few days later demonstrated, a few days later, that the judges neglected to dock him .2 for having four "hold" moves instead of the maximum three that are allowed. That would have knocked him out of the medals. Now, if you haven't been listening you might think that he is not the legitimate holder of his medal. My point is that he is. He is the beneficiary of an error, just as Paul Hamm is. And also George W. Bush. But even if the South Korean had not been mis-scored, Hamm now deserves to keep his medal. The reason is that it is his according to the rules, and the rules are perfectly reasonable. Congratulations Paul. (Go Blackshirts!)

There's been lots of discussion of whether gymnastics is simply too hard to score in a fair and reliable way. It is too subjective, many are saying. There is some misunderstanding of all this. It is not as if the judges look at a gymnasts routine and score it according to how cool it was. A Russian on horizontal bar recently brought the house down with a really cool routine, but one that scored lower than a less cool routine, and so he lost. The house nearly came down from the boos and hisses directed at the judges. Competition had to be halted because of the disruption. And, the commentators say, this shows that the scoring is too subjective. Hmmm. We know it is subjective because it conflicted with the opinion of the crowd of people in the audience, most of whom probably don't have the first idea about how gymnastics routines are scored according to the rules? I'm not convinced.

I think maybe the crowd was wowed by a routine that included a bunch of cool things that just don't count for more according to the rules. It is like a basketball team who plays with great flourish, spinning in the air on the way to their dunks, etc. The crowd goes crazy. Then they notice the scoreboard. The referees have decided that this beautiful team loses! And why? Because there's some rule about the total number of points. As if that's all that matters. Well, if you don't like the rules try to get them changed. In the meantime, you lose. The crowd is not the judge.

Gymnastics scoring is largely objective, but there is an explicitly subjective element to the score. The Hamm case is one in which an error was made according to the objective elements of the score. The South Korean's routine was mistakenly thought not to have the full level of difficulty. That was a mistake. It did. Nothing subjective about it. So the Hamm case should not be lumped with the Russian case to condemn gymnastics as a subjectively judged sport. Perhaps the subjective element in gymnastics should be removed. Perhaps the cap score of 10.0 should be relaxed, allowing bonus points for special accomplishments such as more release moves (where one is completely out of contact with the apparatus) than the other guy. I think the problem with gymnastics scoring is not mainly that it has a subjective component, but that the scores are all jammed into the tiny corner just below 10.0. There's room for improvement in the scoring, but it is an insult to the athletes to suggest theirs is just an aesthetic display, judged for its beauty or for it's coolness factor.

Monday, July 12, 2004

A Documentary and Moore 

I'm listening to a BBC interview with Michael Moore. You can't watch his new film, Fahrenheit 9/11 without wanting to ask Moore some pointed questions: Why depict pre-war Iraq in idyllic terms? What is the Bush/Saudi connection (admittedly important to know) supposed to have with the war in Iraq? Couldn't any president be made to look silly and stupid if you dig up footage not meant for public display and show only that? Moore is making himself widely available to the press to answer such questions, though so far I can't find any substantial interviews on the web. I heard an excellent one last night on the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Moore was extremely forthright and persuasive.

But there are interesting questions about what genre of film Fahrenheit 9/11 belongs to. Is it a documentary? Why does the question matter? Would it be automatically less valuable or less reputable if it is not a documentary? Well, in any case, I think it plainly is a documentary.

Some say it is not really a documentary because it makes no pretense of offering both sides of the question. That won't work as a criterion for documentaries, though. Documentaries often have a point of view, airing the other side of the argument in order to be more persuasive. Erroll Morris's The Thin Blue Line builds a case for its thesis, including fictional reenactments of events, as the director believes they happened. Hoop Dreams builds a powerful impression, not exactly an argument, meant to make us uneasy about the lure of big-time basketball among poor black teenagers. These films don't try to present both sides equally.

Can documentaries be funny? Trekkies is a documentary, and is very funny. Are Moore's films better lumped with the so-called "Mockumentaries?" Obviously, not, since those films, such as This Is Spinal Tap do not purport to present any facts. They are pretend documentaries. Moore's films are nothing like that.

One thing Moore's films are not is journalistic reporting. Some documentaries are. The fantastic series Frontline on PBS airs documentaries, often with sharp and unbalanced points of view, but with an emphasis on investigative journalism. It is a common mistake to think that journalism ought to be balanced, objective, or neutral. Some journalism is like that, reporting the time and date of a robbery, or reporting the latest unemployment figures. But tons of journalism is not like that. There is nothing unjournalistic about putting together facts and quotations in support of the hypothesis that the president has, say, tried to cover up a criminal break-in of the opposing political party's offices, as in the legendary Watergate reporting.

So having a strong point of view is not what makes Moore's films different from journalism. It is that the techniques employed go well beyond the presentation of facts and arguments. Moore says it is like an Op Ed piece, but it is even less journalistic than that. The closest analogy between Fahrenheit 9/11 and some form of journalism would be the analogy with political cartoons. There is a long tradition in newspapers of brutal and hilarious satire of political figures in cartoons, often with a political point of view, and based more or less indirectly on the facts. The renderings of the people involved are often at least as vicious and funny as Moore's.

Moore has said he is a satirist, and that term resonates with the tradition of political cartooning. But it is too dismissive at the same time. The Onion is satire, as is the work of Mark Russell, but Michael Moore is doing something of more political importance than that sort of thing.

Some people have compared Moore to Rush Limbaugh, but the analogy seems to me very weak. Limbaugh presents himself as a pundit, with no evident effort to be funny. He claims to present the facts and answer all the liberal arguments, and so he needs to be judged by a different standard. (The quality of his facts and arguments is so weak, that I find him to be worthless at every level.) Moore's films are nothing like that. Al Franken is a sort of mix of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. He's extremely funny, like Moore can be, but he also addresses himself to all sorts of arguments and objections from the other political side, something Moore's films do not purport to do.

Why are we hearing so much of "it's not really a documentary?" The suggestion seems to be that it presents itself as some kind of journalism, but it is really just a one-sided piece of persuasion. That would be a serious criticism. If an purportedly investigative piece on, say, the origins of the war in Iraq, failed (as Moore's film does) even to mention Iraq's repeated failure to comply with U.N. resolutions, or Saddam's sickening butchery of political opponents. But Moore's film could never mislead anyone about its intentions.

It is another matter if it makes false factual claims. There is some dispute about this, but I have not so far seen any successful indictment of any of the film's facts. Michael Moore's webpage meticulously documents a large number of the movie's claims. It also matters if it is highly misleading, even if not factually inaccurate. This is trickier. Is it misleading, as many critics claim, to show only happy scenes from pre-war Iraq? I suppose that depends on whether any viewer might think that Moore is seriously suggesting that pre-war Iraq was largely a happy and care-free place.This would be a ridiculous interpretation of Moore's intentions. In the BBC interview he said that everyone knows the sad facts about life under Saddam. But at the same time, there really were kids flying kites, young people getting married, and lots of other innocent things going on. Why put them in the film? Because U.S. bombs have killed hundreds or thousands of these innocent people, often without succeeding in any military aim. Many of the kite-flyers and young lovers are now dead or maimed, not by Saddam, but by America. Does he mean that this simple facts settles all the questions? Surely he doesn't. But have these uncomfortable facts been largely missing from Americans' thinking about the war? Yes, they have been. Until now.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

No Fear (Hardly) 

I know you're worried about me. There's no need, really. I hope I convinced you that the risks of flying to Israel are tiny. Of course, there's still the risk on the ground, with all the news of suicide bombings. Some say Jerusalem is a dangerous place. It's probably true that no other city outside Baghdad poses as great a risk of suicide bombers. If you're primary goal in life is to avoid being the victim of a suicide bomber, then you might be wiser to choose another destination. But does that make it dangerous? No states poses as great a risk of tornadoes as Oklahoma and Texas. Does that make them dangerous places to visit? (hint: no)

There are several different ways to look at questions like this. One is to grant that there is an increased risk of injury, and then try to put that risk in the context of other things that raise our risks. Then we can see whether equally risky things are well thought of as dangerous or not. For example, people often say things like, "You think doing X is dangerous? It's safer than driving your car to the store." That's a fair point if it's true. On the other hand, as we saw last time, driving your car is extremely safe, at least with respect to the chance of being killed in an accident. If the store is less than 6 miles away your chance of being killed in an accident is less than 1 in 10,000,000. I don't think visiting Jerusalem for 6 days will be as safe as a trip to the store. So the question is, how safe is it?

There were 213 deaths in Israel from terrorist attacks in 2003. Many of these were outside Jerusalem. On the other hand, the year before there were about twice as many victims. So let's exaggerate the apparent risk by supposing 365 people will be killed by terrorists in Jerusalem in 2004, averaging one per day. The population of Jerusalem is over 6 million, plus there are always tons of tourists there. But let's use the figure of 6 million, again slightly exaggerating the real risk. So in a 6 day visit, that would make your risk 6 out of 6 million, which is 1 in a million. But remember, I've used numbers that substantially exaggerate the risk as far as we can tell. So, my risk of being a victim of a terrorist bombing during 6 days in Jerusalem seems to be well below 1 in a million. This is not as safe as driving to the store. And driving to the store is not as safe as huddling under the bed. But some things are more fun than others too.

[Note July 7, 2004: In the above paragraph I meant to state the population of Israel, not Jerusalem, resulting in a risk assessment for a trip to Israel, not specifically a trip to Jerusalem. The reason for this is that I could not find figures for bombings specifically in Jerusalem.]

That settles that, I think: a visit to Jerusalem is not very dangerous. Well, wait. What counts as dangerous? Let's find some other 1 in a million risks of death and see if we think of them as dangerous.


OK, I found some. On this website about calculating risks, we find these on a list of 1 in a million risks of, apparently, death. The first two are apparently risks of death from cancer, and the others are explained:

- smoking two cigarettes
- drinking 30 diet sodas with saccharin
- eating one hundred fifty (1/2 lb) charcoal broiled steaks (aromatic hydrocarbon risk)
- eating four tablespoons of peanut butter every 10 days for person without hepatitis B1
- drinking seventy pints of beer per year (alcohol cancer risk)
- one quarter of a typical chest X-ray
- traveling 100 miles in a motor vehicle
- dying from a lightning strike in a 6 year period

The beer one is not clear. I'm guessing it means that seventy pints of beer per year gives you a one in a million lifetime risk of dying of alcohol cancer, but it's not clear. I do know that I'll think twice the next time I'm tempted to eat 150 charcoal broiled steaks.

Really, this is not a very informative list. It doesn't let us compare the safety of beer and diet soda, because it is only listing one of the risks that each one poses. Alcohol comes with health risks other than alcohol cancer, along with some benefits. But a few of these do seem to give us useful comparisons to the risk of spending 6 days in Jerusalem. The terrorist risk is about the same as the fatal cancer risk from two cigarettes. And about the same as the risk of dying in a 100 mile car trip.

Again, notice how tricky this is. I might very well take a 100 mile car trip when I'm in Jerusalem. I did the last time I was there. Now what? This doubles my risk of death. That sounds bad. Well, it's not bad. It puts the risk of dying at the same level as the risk of a fatal crash on a 200 mile car trip in the U.S. And we have seen that this is an extreeeeemely small risk.

I'll be fine. But just to be safe, while I'm away, I'll lay off the steak.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Fear Itself 

I'm scheduled to travel to Jerusalem in early June. Nah, I'm not worried. Well, not about being harmed. I am a little worried about being a victim of terrorism though. The vast majority of victims are not harmed. That's the point of terrorism: they're terrorized. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks I've been telling anyone who'll listen how important it is for people to educate themselves about the risks, in order to appreciate how tiny they are. They're tiny. I'll come back to that.

But I admit I do understand the fear of fear itself. We all fear some things that we know are either not dangerous at all or very, very unlikely to hurt us. Most phobias are like that, but we all experience it in milder forms. I was once building a tree fort a little too high up (never finished it...too high up). The extension ladder was secured to a branch. And climbing the higher rungs on the ladder is very much like climbing the lower ones, pretty easy really. But taking the last three steps to get up onto the tree was almost impossible for me. Also, by the way, for everyone else who tried it, which included about six people who wanted to come up and see how it was going. No one but me and the neighbor guy who was helping me ever took that last few steps. They couldn't do it. They were too afraid, even though they knew the next step was just like the first one, and nothing was going to happen. So you don't avoid the next step to avoid getting hurt. You avoid it to avoid being afraid, even though you know you're not going to be hurt.

The fear of being harmed by terrorists is like that. Imagine that your are flying into Tel Aviv (wait, that's me). Even though you know (or you will soon, when I get to that part) that there is (almost) no way you're going to be hurt, you might get scared anyway. And then it makes a certain amount of sense to change your plans if it's not worth it to be that afraid. So, maybe it's been unfair of me to chastise the public for changing their travel plans and harming the economy, causing unemployment, instilling even greater fear at the power the terrorists seem to have to harm the economy, etc. Hmm, nope, I don't think it was unfair. The reason is that the fear is a lot less bad if you get your mind around the probabilities of you or someone very close to you actually being hurt by a terrorist. And add to that the fact that the terrorists' biggest weapon is exaggerated fear. Conclusion: think about the risks and don't give in to irrational fears. That'll show em.

Now, probability suggests something precise, but there is no precise probability of anyone's being hurt by a terrorist. So, some people say, this whole probability thing is no way to show people are too scared. But the problem is that much of the fear is itself the result of some beliefs about the probability of being hurt. So, if probabilities are simply not available in this area at all, that would be enough to show that much of the fear is all confused and irrational. But, actually, probability applies. Not in any precise way, but well enough to help undermine some of our frightening beliefs. There's this kind of analogy: are you more or less likely to be harmed by a terrorist on a flight to Israel than you are to be struck dead by lighting playing 36 holes of golf? The answer is much, much less: they get you AFTER the flight, in the airport, in Tel Aviv.

Wait, that's not my point. Let's throw in the flight and the passage through the airport. To be fair, then, we'll include a beer at the clubhouse along with the golf game. No, we can't really do that. No data. The truth is, there's not enough data anyway. There is tons of data on the risk of being struck by lightning playing golf. But terrorist downings of planes going into or out of Israel are virtually nonexistent. That doesn't mean there's no risk. The risk is probably higher now than at many other times. But there are no good numbers to play with, because it just hasn't happened.

We can say this much: suppose you think one plane into or out of Israel will be attacked in the next year. The truth is, of course, that this is not at all certain to happen. But suppose it were. How much risk are you at if you take a trip to Israel? Well, there seem to be about 10 million passengers passing through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in a year (as of 2000). If a plane goes down, let's suppose it has about 100 people on board. Each of the 10 million passengers has a 1 in 100,000 chance of being on that plane. This is about the same as the chance of being killed on a 600 mile drive. There is about 1 death for 60,000,000 miles driven, which equals .00001 deaths for 600 miles driven, or 1/100,000.

How does this help? I find it helps in two ways. To be honest, driving on long trips makes me nervous. Vaguely, in the back of my mind, I fear that there's a significant chance of a fatal accident. (Actually that fear is right at the front of my mind after a six-pack. Just kidding.) It has to help to find out that the chance is really very low. A 600 mile trip is about a 10 hour trip, and it is a very pleasant surprise to know that chances of a fatal accident are only about 1 in 100,000.

The second way it helps is that, even before I learned how low the risk really is, the risk in driving never stopped me from taking long car trips. (I drive about 900 miles to Nova Scotia every summer with my family.) This seems to be true for most people. A ten hour drive is hard work, but very few people chicken out or plead with loved ones not to take the chance. Even if I think terrorists will down a plane into or out of Israel this year, flying there doesn't put me in any more danger of being one of the victims than the risk of dying in a 10 hour car trip. It is the kind of risk we do, and should, take in stride. Especially, when it is someone's nefarious goal to make us exaggerate the risk and change our behavior. More on that soon.

And you might be wondering about the risk of dying in a suicide bombing during a 5 day stay in Jerusalem. I'll get to that.

What? Me worry?

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Mental Muscle 

I'm looking forward to seeing "Touching the Void," the story of two mountain climbers and their harrowing near-death experiences. I can't imagine bearing the pain that mountain climbers willingly bear. Hearing the publicity has put me in mind of a remark by Lance Armstrong about how his training is not the fun that people often think it must be, but is rather about learning to grapple with as much pain as possible. The amount of pain involved in Tour de France cycling, ice mountain climbing and many other sports at the highest competitive levels raises lots of interesting questions. One of them is the relation between physical and mental prowess.

I ride a racing bike as a hobby. I don't race, but I've worked at it a fair amount in the last few years, and I've gotten a lot faster and stronger (though still not in any real competitive kind of shape). Now Lance has a body made for that kind of biking, or so I've read. But suppose I had that same body. He has something else that I don't. I notice this when I work on hills. This can be painful, and at a certain point you can even feel your body give out. But that's pretty rare for me. The reason is that I don't push my body that hard. This idea of pushing one's body suggests a kind of strength that I don't hear much discussed or appreciated. When we push our bodies, that pushing comes from our minds. It is a mental pushing, and so if we are capable of pushing very hard this is a mental kind of strength. It is a kind of mental strength that people who have made themselves very strong, or physically very capable in any area, are very likely to have in large amounts. What kind of mental strength is this?

It's similar to the vague class of things we call "will power." But I'm particularly interested in the ability to make oneself continue a difficult and uncomfortable activity even as the difficulty and discomfort increases to extreme levels, even when you could stop and relieve the pain without any serious costs.

As an experiment, you might try a few push-ups. After some number of them, doing more will become quite difficult. Then if you continue they will become painful, or if pain is too strong a word, then very uncomfortable. This is as far as I would normally go before quitting and congratulating myself on a good effort. But the truth is I could still do some more (I'm not telling you which (smallish) number we're talking here). I know for a fact that if I had the mental strength to keep going I would soon reach a point where I could not physically lift myself again no matter how hard I might try. But--and here is a lack of a certain mental power on my part--I'm not sure I've ever gotten to that point. The sheer agony of push-ups at or near that point has always struck me as a perfectly good reason not to do more, and so I stop. Voluntarily. Not because I physically could not go on, but because I don't--or can't--push myself any further.

Now consider someone with my pretty average physical capacities and desire for athletic achievement, but with more of the mental strength it would take to keep doing push-ups even through that level of pain that has always led me to stop. Suppose we start out at, say, age 18, and then check back with each of us 10 years later. He will be much physically stronger than I am. People will look at his physical prowess as if it is the main difference between me and him, or between themselves and him. What they're missing is the mental prowess, the brand of will power, that led him not to stop the push-ups, pull-ups, etc. when it got painful. So start me with Lance's body, and I would not become a championship cyclist, even if this is something I very much want. The other big advantage Lance has would be more apparent: he has a ferociously strong mental power to push his body through pain that most of us would not be able--mentally, that is--to bear.

It is tempting to chalk this up to something we might call Lance's desire. So, we might think, if I wanted to be a winner as badly as he does then I would endure as much pain in order to achieve it. I'm not sure, but this doesn't sound right. I suspect there are plenty of cyclists who want just as badly as Lance does to win the Tour de France. They want it so badly it is impossible to believe that Lance's advantage is that he simply wants it even more. I think, instead, that he has this third thing in addition to his bodily endowments and the strength of his desire: the mental power to push his body harder than most others. There are many more factors than these few that go into being the champ. My point is this: Between the guys with the same body, same desire, same background and environment, some will still become better athletes by virtue of this mental power. Many of us with more or less normal healthy bodies, could, I believe, be seriously good athletes if we really wanted to, I mean better than the weekend warrior level, except for our lack of this certain mental capacity. Or, in a closely related point, no matter how hard we want it and how physically capable we are, given that we lack that mental power, we cannot become seriously good athletes. We lack the ability, but it is not a physical lack.

What's interesting to me here is not the banal point that great physical achievement has a large mental component. That's obvious from the planning, ingenuity, rapid flexible response, aesthetic sense, etc. that is so clearly a part of many physical skills. The interesting thing to me is that there is this thing that is so much like a kind of muscular strength, so integral to the development and employment of great muscular strength, but which is itself psychological.

It also doesn't matter here if, in some sense, the psychological is all really physical because the mind is, suppose, really the brain, or some such thing. Even if that's so, there are some physical abilities that are mainly mental and some that are not. For example, my arms will give out after too many pushups even if I push myself without limit. That's a mainly physical kind of strength, or in my case weakness. But there's this other kind which is not physical in that way: the mental power to make my arms keep pushing as hard as they are physically capable of pushing.

If I ride for 90 minutes on a moderately rolling, but largely flat route, my average speed will be under 20 miles per hour even if I push it. We let ourselves off the hook a little too easily when we hear that Lance has just averaged well over 20 miles an hour for 10 hours in 90 degree heat, riding much of the time up very steep mountain roads, and we marvel at his physical strength. Sure enough, by now, his physical strength is profound. But all along there has been something else, and it is still a large ingredient in each race, a strength that his not physical, and one that we--OK, I--lack. It is the ability to push my body through great pain closer toward its physical limits. I'm not just physically weaker than Lance, I'm mentally weaker too, and that might even be the primary difference, the more powerful explanation of why I couldn't, even if I dearly wanted to, come anywhere near his performance up a hot mountain road.

Finally, I can't believe there isn't some similar counterpart to this mental pushing power that enters into much intellectual achievement. Take two people with the same intelligence, or the same strictly intellectual ability defined over some very difficult and time-consuming cognitive task. And let them have an equal desire to solve it or to perform at the highest possible level. One might yet have a mental power that the other lacks, the power to push herself through great psychological discomfort to the full limits of her intellectual capacity. Just as some can push their bodies harder even given the same physical strength, some can push their minds harder even given the same intelligence. I wonder how much of great intellectual achievement is accounted for by that mental power that is not itself either intelligence or desire. Finally, since I suspect this power can be developed and cultivated in both its mental and physical versions, I wonder if training in in one realm enhances it in the other. Does the developed capacity to push your body through pain enhance your ability to push your mind through psychological discomfort?

This is getting difficult. Time to quit.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Run, Don't Swing 

I just heard Ralph Nader announce that he's running, this morning on Meet The Press. I've been hoping he wouldn't run. I've confessed my mistake of voting for him last time in a previous entry. And now I hear Ralph, and I waver. The problem with Nader is the combination of two things: on one hand, if too many people vote for him, Bush wins. On the other hand, just about everything he says is right.

Here's a central theme of his that's worth pondering. Nader did not say today that it would be fine with him if he ended up tipping the election to Bush. What he said was that it is absurd and dangerous for everyone to the left of George W. Bush to assume that there should not be any progressive challenge to the Democratic Party. The consequences of this for our political discourse are profound. Nader mainly defends his candidacy in terms of broadening the political spectrum. There is, I think, no serious counterargument to this. The range of left-leaning opinion is unrepresented in presidential politics as conducted by the two biggest parties, and Nader is an extremely effective advocate of progressive causes.

When Tim Russert asked Nader if there would be a difference between Bush and a Democrat on foreign policy, tax cuts, etc. Nader said yes, there would be. In 2000 he really minimized these differences, and I suspect that he must be surprised by how toxic the Bush presidency has turned out to be. But that question, the one about how much worse Bush is than any likely Democratic nominee, is only pertinent if there is a substantial chance of Nader swinging the election. Surely it is too early to know that, and so too early to count this as a serious reason for Nader to not even run. The general principle behind this objection to Nader's candidacy is this: whenever the Democratic nominee would be significantly better than the Republican, then no one who would tend to draw from the Democrats should run. There is no mention in this principle of the chance of swinging the election, information that no one has until much closer to election day. So, in effect, no Democrat or anyone to the left of Democrats who accepts this principle would ever think that a left-of-center candidacy other than the Democrats themselves would ever be justified. If they say, "no, we just mean now, in 2004, now that Bush has turned out to be SO bad," then look back to 2000, when they had no idea he would be this bad, and notice that they still said Nader should not run. But the principle is a very bad one, because its effect is to try to pull the whole range of left opinion to the right. The Democratic Party, is, it is fair to say, on the right wing of leftism, and the principle says there should never be a challenge from any other part of the left unless the Republican candidate is not significantly worse than the Democrat, something I have never heard from a Democrat about any Republican nominee in my adult life.

Yes, Bush is pretty bad. So was his dad. So was Reagan! So was Nixon! When, exactly, would a progressive challenge to the Democratic Party be appropriate? (I must say, I expect the following utterly inadequate answer to recur in the countless discussions I will have between now and November, and probably in every election for the rest of my life: "I don't know, but not THIS year.")

Still, it would be a disaster if Nader swung the election to Bush, as it would be a disaster any time a progressive challenger swung an election to the Republicans. That simply does not show there should never be a progressive challenge. I propose this different principle on the matter of spoilers. Progressive challengers should run with vigor, but throw their support to the Dems if it becomes too likely that they could swing the election without any serious chance of winning.

Here's a conundrum: if I can't be sure Nader would follow this principle and throw his support to the Dems in a pinch (he didn't last time), then could I support him in the meantime? This would be to gain followers for him, followers that he might hold onto and swing the election. But could he possibly say in advance that he will throw his support to the Dems if there is a danger of swinging the election? Well, he was asked about this today on Meet The Press. He said in the unlikely event that it comes to that, "you can invite me back on the program, and I'll give you my answer." He's not saying he wouldn't. I wish he would say that he would. If he did, I could support him. Otherwise, I would have to be fairly sure that there's little chance of his swinging the election, and it's just too early to say. In the meantime, I can't help but be glad he's back in the press. He knows that the right-wing of the left will do their best to vilify him and marginalize him, as political opponents do. My best guess is that they will be pretty successful, and that his fraction of votes will be insignificant. But what I hope for is this: that he's successful enough to scare the Dems, but not successful enough to lose them the election.

In the meantime, it was great to see him before a huge national audience this morning. It conjures fairy-tale images of a political system in which people who agree with him could put a candidate forward for president and be taken seriously.

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