Sammy Greene learns to argue better (she hopes)

As many of you know from reading about me in Dead Air and Devil Wind, I graduated college a few years ago and have been working in Los Angeles at a small progressive talk radio station. To me this is an ideal forum for public dialogue and a vehicle for change. But it can be frustrating when I can’t get through to some of the people who call into my show Sammy Greene on the LA Scene.

Recently I started hearing about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – free university level courses taught by the best professors from the best schools. As  someone who considers herself a lifelong learner, I decided to check out one recommended to me called Coursera.org. I signed up for a course in critical thinking called Think Again: How to Reason and Argue jointly taught by Duke (Walter Sinnot-Armstrong) and UNC (Ram Netta).

I have to say- not only are both profs entertaining, they have really educated me about the power of critical thinking. And they’ve taught me to understand that you can present an argument for which every premise if absolutely true and in which every conceivable flaw in your argument can be negated and still not persuade everyone in the audience. Unfortunately, there are those (not among most of my listeners, thank goodness) who either misunderstand the argument presented or just blindly choose to believe the opposite of a premise in the face of facts.

As one of the students taking the course wrote in a discussion forum: “Human beings are not always logical. They don’t always believe scientifically proven cause and effect. Religious and cultural beliefs can be too hard to overcome. Even the best arguments have disbelievers.”

I get it now. A valid, strong and sound argument in and of itself may never persuade or convert someone to adopt a different way of thinking.

What a strong argument should do is communicate a point of view clearly and logically, providing reasons (evidence) to support the conclusion (s).

We all need to be more open-minded.

Anyone who blindly refutes an idea is not engaging in an intellectually honest exchange (you know who you are).

By taking this course, I’m learning to construct better, more thoughtful arguments. I know not everyone is going to  agree with me, but I hope they will be willing to hear and consider what I have to say. And I am listening much more intently to others views.

So thank you, Drs. Sinnott-Armstrong and Neta. For those of you, interested in this course, I hope it will be taught again. Look for it!!

- Sammy

Why pople vote against their own best interests (from BBC 2010)

I just read this 2010 article written after the election that swept in so many rigid, right wingers  and  thought I’d just pass it along. With only days before the 2012 election, when our country needs real leadership, it is sad to think that people will once again be so easily manipulated and vote against their self-interests. This article tries to explain how politicians who understand psychology manage to pull off this amazing trick:

WHY PEOPLE VOTE AGAINST THEIR OWN BEST INTERESTS

(BBC-01/30/10)

The Republicans’ shock victory in the election for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts meant the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate. This makes it even harder for the Obama administration to get healthcare reform passed in the US.

Last year, in a series of “town-hall meetings” across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.

In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no cover at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.

ANGER

Instead, to many of those who lose out under the existing system, reform still seems like the ultimate betrayal.

Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?

Why are they manning the barricades to defend insurance companies that routinely deny claims and cancel policies?

It might be tempting to put the whole thing down to what the historian Richard Hofstadter back in the 1960s called “the paranoid style” of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington.

But that would be a mistake.

Drew Westen argues that stories rather than facts convince voters

If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.

STORIES NOT FACTS

In his book The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen, an exasperated Democrat, tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side.

He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:

Gore: “Under the governor’s plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he’s modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries.”

Bush: “Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.

“I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math. It’s trying to scare people in the voting booth.”

Mr Gore was talking sense and Mr Bush nonsense – but Mr Bush won the debate. With statistics, the voters just hear a patronising policy wonk, and switch off.

For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: “One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious.

“Obama’s administration made a tremendous mistake by not immediately branding the economic collapse that we had just had as the Republicans’ Depression, caused by the Bush administration’s ideology of unregulated greed. The result is that now people blame him.”

REVERSE REVOLUTION

Thomas Frank, the author of the best-selling book What’s The Matter with Kansas, is an even more exasperated Democrat and he goes further than Mr Westen.

He believes that the voters’ preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.

The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Thomas Frank thinks that voters have become blinded to their real interests

Thomas Frank says that whatever disadvantaged Americans think they are voting for, they get something quite different:

“You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.

“It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”

As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.

And the ultimate sin in modern politics is appearing to take the voters for granted.

This is a culture war but it is not simply being driven by differences over abortion, or religion, or patriotism. And it is not simply Red states vs. Blue states any more. It is a war on the entire political culture, on the arrogance of politicians, on their slipperiness and lack of principle, on their endless deal making and compromises.

And when the politicians say to the people protesting: ‘But we’re doing this for you’, that just makes it worse. In fact, that seems to be what makes them angriest of all.

Preppers surge, replacing Y2K survivalist movement

Everyone should read Emily Matchar’s piece on “preppers“, the newest version of survivalists. According to her article, the end-times movement which had been relatively quiet since 1999′s Y2K freak-out (READ: DEVIL WIND to learn more about that), has resurged in the last three years as more and more people feel the social stresses brought on by globalization and the economic downturn. My question to all of you:  is this really the answer to our problems – build individual shelters, stock them with food and guns and bulletproof perimeters to keep out our neighbors when times get tough? Is an “every-man-for-himself” really the kind of America we want to live in? Not me. But  your thoughts are appreciated.

-Sammy

In the last few years several big pharmaceutical companies have paid huge fines (literally billions of $) for failing to disclose the potential dangers of some of their drugs. This time it’s J&J and their antipsychotic Risperidol. Last November it was GlaxoSmithKline’s diabetes drug Avandia. I remember how in 2007, Congressman Darryl Issa tried to intimidate the cardiologist whistleblower who reported the heart damage some of his patients had experienced after taking the pill. Issa asked the doctor if he knew how much his “accusations” had cost the stock price!

In the novel “Dead Air”, an unethical pharmaceutical company continues a vaccine study using students at my fictional university knowing it was literally killing the subjects. Just like these real pharma companies, the fictional Nitshi Corporation put profits before people. Several reviewers have called the book “eerily timely”. Frankly, I wish it was just a good thriller. Here’s today piece in the New York Times

Sammy

2012 elections, FUD and “Devil Wind”

As many of you know, one of the themes in the novel “Devil Wind” by Deborah Shlian and Linda Reid is how a rogue CIA operative (Albert Miller) plots to influence the 2000 presidential elections. We had just passed through the Clinton years feeling good about the country – especially the economy. Corporations were making lots of money. It was OK to be outwardly materialistic. “Greed is good” was not just Gordon Gekko mantra. People were willing to vote for someone like Bush who was characterized in the press as “fun”, “a party-boy”, “someone who didn’t make us look at anything too seriously”, “someone you’d like to have a beer with”.

I (Sammy Greene) had lost my CNN job in Washington after trying to expose Congressional corruption (the Senator I targeted was a fishing buddy of the station’s CEO). It took months of sending out resumes (hundreds), going for interviews (very few) and not getting callbacks before I landed the job at a tiny progressive radio station in Los Angeles. Ever the activist, I still wasn’t willing to go after easy “feel good” stories, I wanted to stir up the issues of corruption in local Southern California politics. Little did I know that by uncovering the shenanigans of an Orange County congressman (Neil Prescott), I’d stir up a hornet’s nest of trouble- for me, my estranged father, my boyfriend Reed and in fact, the whole country.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot, because I hope you’ll read the book. But let’s just say that there are parallels to the current election in that there are those who want to keep us afraid of everything. I don’t know who made up the term FUD, but it stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt- a tactic (according to Wikipedia) used in sales, marketing, public relations, politics and propaganda. As applied to the 2012 elections, FUD is great fodder for those who would like to steer us away from the real issues of our time (e.g. the basis for the economic mess, how we moved from capitalism to crony capitalism and real solutions, the continuing loss of privacy, the extension of the patriot act, need for election reform, need for true healthcare delivery reform, and on and on)

Now that my radio station was sold, I don’t have the platform I had to sound the alarm. So you all need to pay attention. This is another important election year.

Good luck!

Happy reading!!

 

 

 

 

- Sammy

 

“Dead Air” wins another award!

What a way to end the year! Another award for “Dead Air”. The book won Honorable Mention in the New England Book Festival. 

More congratulations to my creators, Deborah Shlian and Linda Reid. Hope all of you who have a Kindle downloaded the book for free. The offer ends at midnight December 31st.

Happy New Year!!

-Sammy

“Dead Air” bioweapons premise is a frightening reality

Today the New York Times reported that a virologist in Rotterdam (Ron Fouchier) was able to  genetically tweak one of the deadliest flu viruses to create an airborne version in the lab with surprising ease . My first “adventure” in the novel “Dead Air” by Deborah Shlian and Linda Reid involved a foreign pharmaceutical company altering the AIDS virus. Ironically, that’s the virus Fouchier had originally studied. However, after switching  to the H5N1 virus, a type of bird flu, he was able to alter the genetics with only a few mutations and transform it into a supergerm that could cause a deadly pandemic if ever released. This has renewed debate about the ethics of some kinds of medical experiments. The Dutch government and the US CDC approved the laboratory and the NIH gave the center where the work was done a 7 year contract for the flu research. Now the government is recommending that Fouchier not publish any details of his work that could reveal how it was accomplished.

My question: is the cat out of the bag? What do you think? Let me know. I welcome your comments. In the meantime, “Dead Air” is still FREE as a Kindle download until the end of December, 2011.

-Sammy

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