Why Opinion Polls Aren’t As Scientific As Claimed

My previous attempts to elucidate this theme in various blog-comments postings don’t seem to have had any effect, so let’s go through it all one more time. There is a fundamental misrepresentation, a basic exaggeration, being perpetrated by companies doing telephone opinion polling, which makes their claims of “accuracy” false and meaningless.

Modern opinion polling rests on several assumptions that generally have enough validity that nearly all scientific observers agree on them. However, one of the most basic of assumptions is, I hope to show, simply not capable of being realized in the field, given certain basic behaviors and attitudes in the American public as a whole.

The first basic assumption that the modern polling industry relies on is the idea of measuring a population by the technique of “random sampling.” To put it as concisely as possible, the idea is measuring a whole population by measuring a small part of the population; the scientific assumption that’s being made is that you are getting a “random sample,” a small part of the whole that can serve as a valid example of the whole.

Let’s take the example of loose socks in a big drawer, hundreds of loose socks, some of them white, some of them black, and some of them red. You want to get an idea of how many socks you have of each color, without counting all the socks. Now, if all the socks are thoroughly mixed up, you can just close your eyes, reach in and grab a big handful, and that’s a “random sample.” There was no attempt to get more of one color than another, The socks were all mixed up and not sorted in color-groups in various areas already, there was no “I’m reaching two inches more to the right and not to the left because it looks like more white ones over here,” no bias of any kind in your selection, and again those socks really were thoroughly mixed, so your sample of the entire sock drawer is indeed a truly random sample.

The second assumption is that you can then count your random sample, figure out that you have 40% white socks, 35% black socks and 25% red socks in your sample, and that this is a good representation of your total sock drawer. Knowing your statistical theorems very well, there are then formulas you can apply to compare your sample size to your total “population” of socks, and say, based on these formulas (sorry, it was 35 years ago I studied this stuff in college, we both need to hang out at websites like this), “I have confidence that percentages found in my random sample will match the percentages in my total population, plus or minus 2 percent, 95% of the time.”

Now look carefully at what we’re saying here at the end of the previous paragraph. The sample population is never going to be a perfect representation of the total population. However, based on various experiments that have been done with physical objects which can be mixed up pretty randomly, our formula tells us that with a total population of X and a sample population of Y, in 19 times out 20 that we pull a sample of that size, the percentages we find in the sample will be within Z% of the percentages in the total population. However, because our samples are truly random, 1 time out of 20 that we pull a sample of size Y from a population of size X, we will get a whacky, strange distribution, and the percentage we find in the sample will NOT be so close to the percentages in the total population.

This is glossed over in the typical reporting on polling, where at the most they’ll say something like “847 adults were contacted by telephone for this poll, with a margin of error of +/- 5%.” When you go to the official report of the poll, they will have the more scientific language like “the margin of error for the total sample is +/- 4.5% at the 95% confidence level,” and they assume you know what that means, which is what I tried to explain in the previous paragraph. 19 times out of 20, IF THEY HAVE GOTTEN A TRULY RANDOM SAMPLE, data from a sample of this size should come within a range of 9 points of what we would find if we could truly interview everyone in America. The 20th time, the sample data could be even farther from the total population.

However, the whole problem is they just can’t get a truly random sample by telephone. The official report of a typical poll will say “based on 1007 interviews with adults August 8th to 11th 2010.” The number they need to tell us that they don’t tell us, is how many calls they had to make to get 1007 valid interviews.

Have you ever made 100 or more “cold calls” to the general population for any reason? I’ve done it at least five time, using lists of varying quality, for different political causes since 1994; especially in 2006 and also in 2008, I tried to be an avid caller for the phone banks organized by MoveOn-dot-org, which would typically give us lists of registered Democrats to call in states across the country.

Polling Company workers in Nevada, 2010

Polling Company workers, Nevada 2010, copyright Las Vegas Sun

On the West Coast, in making 100 calls, you might typically get 35 answering machines, 20 busy tones, 5 non-English speakers, 5 grumpy immediate hang-ups, 5 undoubtedly sweet old grandmas & grandpas with very little connection to the world of current politics, and 2 or 3 whackos of indeterminate age and background with absolutely no connection to the world of reality. That’s over 70% of your calls wasted, and if you got 20 or 25% of your calls to a competent adult who allowed you to give your message, that’s pretty good.

When MoveOn had us calling New York it was over 50% answering machines and in Connecticut it was over 70% with answering machines, many of which had threatening messages for non-approved callers, and less than 10% of calls answered by actual human beings. By contrast Texas was relatively full of talkative people, and Indiana was practically a land of “Leave It to Beaver”stereotypes minding their landlines, something like 60 to 70% of calls to Indiana Democrats found competent adults ready to talk.

Overall, in the average American phone poll, you’re going to be very lucky to get 30% of your calls to be picked up by a competent adult, even at that rate you have to call something like 3300 numbers to get 1000 interviews, and it’s much more likely that to get to 1000 completed interviews, they’re having to make 4000 to 5000 calls. And it is in those 3 to 4 thousand calls that don’t result in completed interviews, that the perfect randomness needed to achieve the stated margin of error is being lost.

Some people are concerned that survey calls are only being made to landline phones, not cell phones, and that there would be significant differences in the two populations. Many survey companies, however, are trying to reach cell phones too (using computer-generated random phone numbers, in the hope a certain percentage will reach valid cell numbers). What I’m trying to say is that there are probably subtle yet not-insignificant differences among all the types of situations you reach in trying to use telephones as a survey tool. On a given day, the answering machines, busy tones and not-at-homes may not be evenly distributed among Republicans and Democrats, and the care that the survey company’s interviewers take to be patient with the marginally coherent seniors will have a huge effect on the results obtained from that 5 or 10% of the population. When 60 to 70% of American adults are just not available to even hear you say “would you like to participate in our survey today?,” you just can’t say that you are actually getting a random sample of the public. The “tail” of people who will talk to you is wagging the “dog” of the people who can’t/won’t talk to you, there are scores of psychological and sociological self-selection factors which make it highly unlikely that the minority you can reach by telephone is representative of the majority you can’t reach by telephone.

The biggest problems come with the “refuse to take the survey” segment – which can get up to 20% or more of your total calls, including the “grumpy immediate hang-up”response. I say it is extremely problematical to assume this segment is evenly distributed among all political feelings, and that depending on the season and the region and persons depressed or optimistic about their political tendency’s prospects, there can be all sorts of social and personal dynamics which cause liberals, or conservatives, or other identifiable subgroups, to disproportionately refuse to take the survey – or to disproportionately volunteer to take the survey – in other words, making the whole sample not actually random. And finally it’s almost certain that the 3-5% who manage to live in this modern world without telephones at all have very different characteristics than the majority who do have telephones; however, this group may also be a group with very little voting participation as well.

This failure of telephone surveys to reach a truly random sample is easily visible, I believe, in the published results of public opinion polls in the relatively few cases where there are multiple companies reporting on the same election races (Presidential races and high-profile Senate and Governor races). If these various companies were all reaching truly random samples, the reported results should be much closer to each other’s results than the published findings we see, which is that different companies can report results that differ by 5 to 7 points or more – in other words, differences that are equal to or greater than the claimed “margin of error.” And when we track the results of different companies on the same question over time, and we get more than 20 published results where the highest and lowest results, even on similar dates, are 8 to 10 points apart, all on polls which supposedly have scientific margins of error less than that range, then we have clear, empirical evidence that these companies are not actually getting scientific results which fall within the claimed margin of error 19 out of 20 times. They aren’t getting truly random samples, and their true margin of error is much higher than claimed.

I do believe that the variations from true randomness that are experienced in telephone polling are themselves highly variable from one day to another: the busy-tones and refuse-to-answers may be tilted to conservatives one day, and toward liberals on another, and that these variations are actually helping the polling companies stay close, in their results, to the trend in the population as a whole (which, remember, is the “unknown” value that polling is attempting to measure).

Yet when we consistently see that differing companies trying to measure the same election race or issue find results that differ by 5 points or more, it should be clear that the claims of a “scientific” calculation of “margin of error at the 95% confidence level” are simply not being achieved in telephone polling, because they are not actually achieving a random sample of the population. Yes, we can regard the results of a particular poll as a “snapshot in time” of the public attitudes – but when they claim a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 points, or 5 points, the problems of lack of randomness in their sample means that the true margin of error is probably 2 or 3 times what they claim – when they claim a 4% margin of error, it’s probably an actual margin of error or plus-or-minus 8 to 12 percentage points.

So please, readers and writers, don’t treat poll numbers as if they are dependable, closely accurate or God-given. There is a reasonable chance that the polling company got it right – IF you mentally double the stated margin of error. Yet always remember, the claimed margins of error in American public polling are not being achieved, because no polling company can actually achieve a truly random sample of the public in the age of answering machines, and the prevailing social and personal attitudes that lead 5 to 20% of the Americans you can reach to say, “no thanks, I won’t answer your questions today.”

Posted in 2010 Elections, American Politics, cell phone, landline, opinion polling, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Arguing About Morality is like, so Useless …

Various threads on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish over the last month or two, and the much-quoted opinion of Judge Vaughn Walker in the California gay marriage case, are calling me to put on my philosophical hat, to set out some philosophical drinks and snacks and a metaphorical water-pipe to try to entertain and inform my guests, on the subject of morality. Morality is one of the most human of concepts: every society has one or more, nearly everyone across the globe in all eras has been pretty sure that they understand what it is, and nearly everyone believes they use, hold or embody a significant piece of it in their lives.

Just mentioning the word morality tends to send our minds up into the heights of abstract thought. Judge Walker gets us back down on the ground, and headed on the right path, by reminding us that thoughts of morality are not a sufficient basis for denying people their rights, in a modern constitutional democracy. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”

I would just like to pound the point a little further and deeper: morality is not a great basis for any kind of civic discussion or rational argument in a diverse democracy, because in the final analysis morality is always subjective. As I first wrote 30 years ago, morality is a classic case of a “mental event,” an event that occurs only within the minds of human beings. You may believe that your morality comes from a Holy Book, or from a Divine Judgement or some other source beyond the human mind, yet as a historical-philosophical kind of guy, I will forever argue that morality – just like several other abstract concepts that are near-universal in human thought such as beauty or justice – cannot be found in the real universe in any place but inside human heads, and I defy you to show me any other physical location where morality exists.

It’s actually a touching tribute to our creativity, to our ingenuity in finding reasons to justify that which we already prefer, that so many people vaguely believe that there is some abstract ideal of morality that could be found if we would all just look for it nicely. This Platonic ideal of a universal morality is a strong enough stereotype to recur again and again in all types of utopian philosophies, but it just doesn’t exist, as far as I can tell, in any type of reality. Even in societies much less diverse than our own, in which all individuals seem to follow one particular religious-ethical-moral set of beliefs, individual A can never be fully sure that individual B understands every situation calling for a moral judgement precisely the same way that A understands it. Even though their main beliefs may come from the same set of social institutions, from the same proverbs and the same books or traditions, their individual development and experiences brings about subtle or large differences in understanding.

Morality is essentially your own belief about which persons and what behaviors should be honored and respected, by you and by others, in a “proper” social order.

These differences in moral understanding, among individuals in a homogenous society, may not amount to much in the ordinary course of peaceful life. However, it’s always in moments of crisis, in times of testing, that the differences in interpretation of the same tradition – and/or the willingness of B or C to sacrifice their goods or social positions, or other desired values, as morality may demand in moments of crisis – demonstrate the subjective basis of morality in human life, as individuals take actions that create individual and/or social conflicts. In short, even when everyone supposedly shares the same morality in societies much less diverse than our own, people find reasons to do things, and others find reasons to yell and scream and fight, because they say those things the first people did are immoral. This is one of the basic dynamics of both small-group and large-group historical action, in all lands and in all times.

On the other hand, the strength of social systems of morality is shown by the vast majority of individual cases, in which individuals do accept the dictates of the dominant moral system of their group, even though it “gores other parts of their ox,” to alter the old proverb, and individuals do feel great regret for their lapses in being able to follow the dominant morality. And haven’t we all known cases of people who are so prepared to accept a negative judgement on themselves, that it seems they are blaming themselves for self-imagined moral faults that no one else even noticed?

Despite the subjectivity of morality, and the slipperiness of individuals in choosing whether or not to be bound by social systems of morality when push really comes to shove, concepts of morality are deeply rooted in human thought, and will never disappear from human thought. If you understood my system for analyzing the four simultaneous, overlapping social sciences that each of us are creating in our every moment of choice in our every day of human action and interaction, you would find it easy to understand how thoughts of morality are oh-so-basic and constantly self-generated in the average human animal, since morality essentially arises from the intersection of the two most social of the four simultaneous, overlapping social sciences. These would be what I call “the science of explanations,” which you would probably call by one of its more common names such as philosophy/ science/ religion/ ideology, in which humans are constantly creating and distributing explanations of what our world is about and how it works, and what I would call the science of politics, which begins on the most basic level with humans creating and distributing systems of what other persons they accord honor, status and rank to (which gives a foundation to the extreme elaboration and institutionalization of governmental structures in modern society, which house the narrow range of behaviors that are commonly called “politics” in American democracy in the era of idiotic electronic media).

You follow all that? In short, you (and everyone else) are constantly creating and distributing explanations of how the world works, and you are constantly creating and distributing ideas of persons and behaviors that you respect and honor. Morality is basically a combination of the two, a set of explanations of how the world works which depends on honoring and respecting certain behaviors in certain situations (and disrespecting other behaviors in those situations). Morality is essentially your own belief about which persons and what behaviors should be honored and respected, by you and by others, in a “proper” social order. You can’t be much of a human being if you aren’t constantly giving and receiving these two types of ideas, the philosophical and the political, if you aren’t deeply affected by the explanations you choose to use and the social behaviors that you choose to respect or disrespect. To have and hold and use concepts of morality is a very, very deeply rooted structure in human personalities.

Yet despite how deeply they may be rooted in our personality structures, concepts of morality remain fundamentally subjective as well. I cannot get into your skull and understand your sense of morality in the same way you understand it; you cannot get into my skull and understand my sense of morality in the same way I understand it. In the typical society of a few hundred years ago, one could generally be sure that one’s neighbors and acquaintances in a city would be members of one’s same culture that shared the same basic moral postulates: the prevailing religion, an understanding of the local kinship systems and beliefs, and so on. In such circumstances, there’s a small point in arguing about morality: while you and your interlocutors are unlikely to convince each other of your rightness, at least you might clarify differences in your interpretation of your overall shared moral system, or even find areas of contradiction or ambiguity in the moral system your society has evolved.

In today’s diverse societies, however, while you may believe that your own morality is founded on the finest principles and supported by the most divine angels, you never know about your neighbor, your co-worker, the guy in the next car on the freeway or the passenger in the next seat on the transit system: she may believe herself to be a devotee of Cthulhu or Cheney, or any other variant of a bloodthirsty ideology which believes you should be cut down mercilessly if you get in their way. A modern American Christianist Palinite’s moral system has little or no relation to the diverse sources and experiences that create and define the many subgroups of the American cultural left, for either side to make arguments based on their vision of “morality” and expect the other side to accept it, is to admit and announce that the speaker has no understanding of what drives the cultural opposition to their program.

We’re going to have arguments: but let’s try to keep them on sounder grounds than the subjective terrain of morality. Do argue about philosophy, about the explanations that we use to make sense of the world (and remember, I use the word “philosophy” to include all of the content implied by the words “science” and “religion”). These arguments aren’t likely to be highly fruitful either, yet presumably there is an underlying reality that each side can claim to provide better explanations for, and over the centuries we might be able to say “the bulk of the evidence favors this particular side of the argument.” Do argue about politics, about which persons and personality types should be respected, about what behaviors should be honored and rewarded and what behaviors should be dishonored and punished in various ways. This argument may often degenerate into arguments based on competing moral systems, yet again, keeping the focus on the basic question of political science in human societies, which persons are we respecting and why, may in time help clarify the issues and choices and improve people’s decision-making skills, and improve the outcomes for human societies as a whole.

Morality may feel, inside our minds, as if it is supported by outside forces larger than human beings; the moral choices we make (even if we do not “make “ those choices consciously) may seem, inside our minds, to be at the very core of our persons, of our self-images of who we are and who we wish to be. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s the way our human minds have evolved. Yet society has also evolved, and in a multi-cultural melange such as our modern United States, morality is so subjective and so non-transferable among individuals, there is simply no ground to be gained by arguing that “morality demands we do this and that.” (Quibbling digression: among today’s right-wing Palinites, it’s part of their ideology to claim that their moral system is the only possible moral system that can ever be, so that when they say “morality demands we do this and that,” it’s a defensive, self-isolating maneuver that reinforces cultural attitudes within their own camp. The maneuver does defend that particular ground within their camp, but gains no ground outside their already-existing territory.)

Even in the less diverse societies of the past, morality was always a subjective value, a mental event that existed only within the minds of human beings (even if they claimed that their morality had divine or eternal foundations of some sort). In today’s society, morality has become so completely subjective, it is really quite useless to argue about it, or from it, in any way. The basic science of explanations, philosophy/science/religion, has itself been shattered into a million apparently subjective shards which give no compelling guidance to a diverse, even self-contradictory, social system we barely understand (and in which our major media channels seem to be actively trying to prevent understanding). Until we can come to a better consensus on basic explanations of reality – something we can hopefully do before we totally destroy the planet that supports our human lives – we won’t have any hope of convincing anyone of anything based on concepts of what we call morality.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

The Power of Voting Against

Is this a summer of discontents? It certainly seems less than satisfactory to me, mainly because of what management is doing to me in my first job situation, yet also for a certain lack of vigor, of spirit, in the progressive political landscape. Most major features of the progressive political landscape remain largely as they have been for a number of years: our government is captured by the war machine that relentlessly wastes the taxpayer’s treasure in ill-defined adventures of foreign war, our “mainstream” or “lamestream” media can be counted on to pick up right-wing narratives with ease while burying progressive truths, and approximately 70% of Democratic Party elected officials at all levels are fearful corporate whores who cannot be counted on to advance a progressive agenda. The specific scenes of this summer are mostly disheartening: the constant outrages from the Fox/Breitbart arm of the media, the Gulf Oil spill that seems to symbolize our collective guilt in the slow-motion murder of Mother Earth.

The major new feature in the landscape is Obama and his administration; without trying to summarize the millions of words of arguments that have graced progressive websites since his emergence, it’s best to say that his description depends on your own point of view. For optimists, he is a glass half-full, and for pessimists he is glass half-empty; he’s either a bulwark we can build upon, or an obstacle impeding progress. And since progressives have not acted, for a million individual reasons, to create our own political organizations of sufficient strength to make the Obama administration and/or the Democratic Party react to us, we continue to be forced to react to their needs and agendas, sometimes serving as their cheering section, and sometimes harassing their guarded flanks.

Thus the major narrative of the late summer and fall is already set: the battle of Democrats and Republicans for Congressional (and statehouse) seats, and the question of how the Democrats may act – or tell stories – to energize the progressive base, which, if we turn up sufficiently at the polls, may and should hold the power to stop any advancing Republican tide. (Author’s update: oh well, the Democrats and ourselves failed spectacularly. In round numbers, overall voting turnout fell from 125 million in 2008 to about 75 million in 2010.)

My modest proposal here is that each of us on the progressive side protect our own most cherished goals and ideals by a simple act – resolving to vote in November, AGAINST those candidates and parties which you fear the most. The rhetoric and bandwagon effects of political campaigns want you to have positive reasons for voting for their candidate – that’s in their interests, not in yours. Protect your own ideals, your own most favored causes, by searching out and voting against the candidates and parties that most threaten your causes – acting in your state and locality, according to your ballot choices, using your best judgement as you see fit.

I have generally been on the left margin of the Democrats since the 1960’s, generally supportive (and loving the rhetoric in most convention speeches), yet well aware of the corporatist/security-state allegiances of most establishment Democrats, and ready to bolt for any rational leftist alternative. I have also practiced voting against in the vast majority of my choices on local and national ballots since I was first old enough to vote (in 1972, for McGovern, taking a long bus ride in my janitor’s uniform to get to the polling place, on the West Coast and people on the bus already had radio news that the networks were calling it for Nixon).

Indeed, some of the cases where I was most involved in voting for a candidate – Carter in 76, Clinton in 92, Nader in 00, Kerry in 04 and Obama in 08 to list the nationally known cases – have been the most personally and politically disappointing to me in their longer-term results. By contrast, my patient habit of voting against what I considered to the be the most evil and inimical choices presented in all those dozens of now-forgotten local government and state legislature and Congressional races through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and into the present, has, I believe, contributed to the modest defense of the modest freedoms and democracy we continue to enjoy in the corporatized, global-security-state-empire of the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century.

And to digress just a bit, let’s consider the two biggest drop-offs in our dwindling freedoms and democracies. The first in my opinion, was the Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision of Dec. 12, 2000, handing the Presidential election to G. W. Bush. I’ve long held that both the Democrats and Greens shared some culpability for that monstrosity, as we both ignored how determined the Republicans were to steal that election. And in retrospect, both Dems and Greens should have come together to vote against Bush, and that was a big failure of progressives that I’ll take my share of responsibility for.

Unfortunately, the second biggest drop-off in our freedoms and democracy took place under the last six years of the Clinton Administration, as establishment Democrats eagerly embraced corporatist free trade policies, corporatist-elitist modes of political organization, the relentless expansion of the national-security-military empire, and other Republican/elitist policies and ideas. This trend did send me away from the Democrats in those years, and while the vehicle I chose to organize and vote against these policies (the Green Party) has so far been a disappointment, at least I was sincerely working for what seemed the best and most promising choice at the moment – even as I accept that the very-long-term judgement of history on the wisdom of my choices is yet to be made, and will rest on long-term outcomes that lie still in the future.

On your ballot this November, in your locality, you won’t have any clear-cut national-crossroads choices; at most you’ll have a Senatorial or Gubernatorial race with some national dimensions, or maybe a Congressional race that draws some interest outside the district. You’ll have state office and local office races in which, most likely, all candidates are non-progressives at best, and at worst all candidates are known elitists and/or corporatists, if not ranting racist neocons or tea-partiers. You’ll have to consider carefully your choices: which one do you dislike the worst? And what is the best vehicle for voting against that choice? Each of us will have to come to our own conclusions, as best we can.

In my voting history of “against” over the last four decades, in 19 cases out of 20 I have come to the conclusion that the Republican candidates are most frightening, and that the Democratic candidate is, often despite many known flaws, the best way to vote against the Republican. But not always! I remember voting against Feinstein (for mayor) and Boxer (for Congress) back in California in the 80’s over specific issues I found important, I have voted for third party candidates on occasion and for about 10 years I worked really hard to help organize a third party.

So maybe you too will find, as I am finding in 2010, that most Republicans are the most fearful, and that most Democratic alternatives will be the most effective way of voting “against.” Perhaps some of you will find 3rd party candidates on your ballot to be an effective vehicle for “against;” and a few of you may even be so alienated from corporatist politics that you embrace the “Leninist” theory of voting Republican to “make things worse” in order to cause some reformative convulsion in the future (although in my historical opinion, this almost never works out). And if you do even up marking a candidate’s box for “against’ reasons, always be sure to write several letters and make several phone calls letting that candidate know, what their own flaws may be and why you can only support them in a “voting against” stance. Somebody may actually be listening, once in a while.

Whatever choice you may end up making, let me be a small voice reminding you not to get caught up in bandwagon effects that cloud your judgement, in the dubious-but understandable desire to be part of something positive, something positive in a larger movement of progressives and liberals that can be emotionally-satisfying in these dis-satisfying, discontent-filled times. Keep your own counsel. Protect your own most deeply-help values. Don’t get too caught up in day-to-day mainstream media mudslinging. Most of the choices on your local ballot will probably be unsatisfying and conflicted; decide who you hate the most, and how you can most effectively protect yourself. Use the power of voting against.

Posted in 2010 Elections, American Politics, Democrats, Greens, Republicans | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Introducing the Next Revolution

Hello, I’m Ron Brandstetter, and I’d like to thank you very much for clicking on my advertisement. This is my website, I’ve written everything on here, if you’d like more information on me and this site, please go here for a brief overview. When you have the time, I’ve got a 14-page article for you to read, I think you’ll find it useful in your understanding of why human beings do the things we do.

I’m not a professor, I’m not a researcher with a white coat and a clipboard. Yet I am the guy who went looking for the truth, starting back 50 years ago, and I never took the easy answers, I never got completely discouraged by the confusions of our human lives, I never gave up despite all the people telling lies to somehow get some money or attention out of it. I’ve been looking for the truth of our human lives in the streets, on busy city sidewalks, and out on rural roads, I’ve been looking for the truth in the faces of the people I meet in all kinds of situations. And I did manage to get a “Highest Honors in History” degree from a good school along the way.

And while I’ve never found one truth that works for all human situations, I have managed to pick up a set of basic questions that help one get, relatively quickly, to a better understanding of what people are doing, what they might be thinking, and why they might thinking and doing those smart and silly things they do.

If you are ready to start on the serious matters now, please go here and read my article. Otherwise, bookmark this page or go ahead and copy or download the article and save it so you can read it later. This is all original material, it is very different than any other scientific analyses of the human being that I am aware of, you will not find this material anywhere else. It is my intention to get a much longer and more thorough version of this material out to you in book form, as soon as possible.

The ideas that I present are not an ideology, not a dogma. I am not telling you what to think. I do have my own strong opinions in politics and economics, and you can find them on the other pages and posts of this website, yet for the most part I try to keep them out of this 14-page article introducing my re-booting of the social sciences for the 21st Century. I am not going to be telling you what politics you must have, or what economic ideas you must have, I am not trying to hurt or change whatever ideas you may have now about religion or science. However, I will be talking about you and your neighbors — and all of humanity through all of time — and how and why it is that we do carry around ideas of politics and religion and economics and science.

I don’t claim that I have all the answers to all the questions. I do claim that I have a scientific framework for looking at the questions, which makes it more easy — compared to today’s many differing, and confusing, ways of considering the social sciences — for YOU to find out YOUR own answers to the questions YOU find most important about this world of humanity that we live in.

So please, find a little time to read and consider my article, “The Experience of History in the 21st Century: Welcome to the Omelet,” which summarizes this new framework for understanding the social sciences. If you’re a fast reader in English, you might be able to read the article in 15 minutes. Yet it is a relatively “thick” article that covers a lot of material using a lot of complex sentences, so please do go as slowly as you need, in order to read and understand the material I’m presenting. I am trying to say things that are true, about ALL OF HUMANITY — and I do want you to think about what I’m saying, and how it relates to the people you do know of in your direct experience, and how it relates to what you know about all the world and all the people in it, from your education and what you learn from newspapers and television and radio and internet and everything else. So please do take your time to read this piece, it’s fine if you have to go over some sentences and paragraphs two or three times or more, I want you to think about what I’m saying and how it relates to your life, how it relates to your experience.

The ideas I’m presenting grow out of a very simple concept: every human being is important. Every single human being who lives now, or who has ever lived, is important in the story of all human beings.

And furthermore, every single human being is also important in the creation of the human sciences, every single human being is involved in the creation and distribution of these things we call psychology, philosophy, politics and economics. Indeed, I will be arguing that every single thought and action that you may have, is involved right now in creating the science of psychology, as well as in the creation of religion, science, and philosophy. And your thoughts and actions are also creating politics and economics, right now, right “here” wherever you are.

So it’s time that you got more involved in all of this — the future of your world does depend on your thoughts, your actions, your responses to the many challenges we’ll have to face. And it all starts with clicking here and reading my article. Thank you very much, we very much need to get busy building a better humanity to live in a better world.

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The Experience of History in the 21st Century: You’re in the Omelet

Congratulations — we’ve made it deep into the world of the 21st Century of the Christian Era. The human population keeps growing in numbers, and it also keeps growing, as far as we can tell, in complexity: new subcultures, new political movements, new wrinkles in the old existing complexities.

And perhaps like the man who never realized he was already speaking in prose, you may not always be conscious of how your every moment, your every choice, contributes to the creation of what we call History — The Story of People, and What Happened to Them. You, your life, is a part of History, now and then and every moment forward.

It’s all very hard to keep up with at times, and I’ve tried to define myself as a historian — one who keeps up with it, and tries to make sense of it for you — even though I’ve never gone, academically in the field of History, past my own college degree.

I’ve had a busy normal life, mostly working as a self-employed businessperson, I’ve enjoyed enough failures and disappointments of my own incredibly high standards that I can admit I’m not the best at keeping up with it all. I am a news junkie and have been since 1958, and I’ve essentially made a living as an adult by being a (hard-working) know-it-all, so I do have pretty good idea, I hope, of the major trends, yet I’ll admit that a lot of the details have passed in and out of my brainspace, never to return. You can and will find me wrong on a detail of history if you let me start lecturing on any of my favorite themes without doing any research first.

Nevertheless, I do believe that I’ve had some success in creating a formula that helps make sense of things — and it’s a democratic, open formula that allows each person to be their own social scientist in understanding and making sense of the human reality we find ourselves enmeshed in. If other folks like it, it could even be the beginning of the Democratic Revolution of the Social Sciences. If you can take a few minutes, I’d like to try tell you about it. (Please continue reading here.)

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Doubly Damned: Nepotist and Libertarian

The big buzz the day after the May 19th primaries is the victory of Senatorial candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky: huzzah, huzzah the tea party has scored a victory over the Republican establishment, and particularly over smarmy Mitch McConnell, the senior Senator from the Bluegrass State.

There was a short period in the 70’s when I tried to be a “left libertarian,” but it was pretty hopeless against the hordes of right-wing libertarians. And while I still do highly value political liberty and admire the spirit of the libertarians in defending that principle sometimes to the extreme, I have really had it with the stupidity of the “free market” economic ideology. Writing The Get-Ready Man in ‘79 and ‘80, I actually feared Marxism more, as I perceived it stronger on ground than the free-market wingnuts. From today’s perspective, however, that shifted pretty decisively with the victory of Reagan in America, the Gorbachev era in the soon-to-disappear Soviet Union, and China’s conversion to capitalism under Deng Xiao Ping. Today the nonsense that is free-market ideology seems as powerful, and as out of control in wrecking actual operating economic systems – like right here in America over the last 4 years – as Godzilla raging through Tokyo in one of those cheesy old movies.

I wrote it in 1980, I’ll no doubt be writing it in 2020: there is no such thing as a “free market” and there has never been an actual society that survived or evolved with anything approaching truly free markets. Prejudice and taboo have governed buyers and sellers in every land, as far back as we want to take the historical evidence. Marshall and the other late Victorian economists who first theorized on the “free market” defined it by a number of conditions that practically never appear in reality, such as equal information among buyers and sellers. Maybe there are markets in anarchic modern Somalia that approach Marshallian freedom in that the ignorances of buyers and sellers are equalized or offsetting; but in more advanced societies than that – in other words, nearly all societies – markets are fundamentally relationships of power. This power most often rests with sellers in stable times; there are however markets where buyers hold the majority of power.

And I’m not even going to get into the arguments for the superiority of regulated capitalism over unregulated capitalism in the actual performance of capitalism as an economic system.

So I have no sympathy at all for that side of libertarianism. And if the tea partiers and libertarians wanted to totally lose all my respect for their charms, they would choose their hero by nepotism rather than by merit, thus demonstrating that all their “anti-elitist” rhetoric is mostly “anti-smart-people” rhetoric, since the first thing they do in creating a movement is to exalt a new elite based on the principle of nepotism.

OK, sure, nepotism was part of the family/tribal structure of tradition that held civilization together in the prehistoric era: but today, in modern America, it fundamentally represents a laziness of leadership and journalism that is indeed busy installing a new elite that directly contradicts the ideals of democracy. I hate nepotism in the Kennedys and the Bidens and lousy Landrieus, I’m sure not gonna put up with it in any Pauls or Palins.

Somewhere in the files of TPM comments in the last few years is a long rant I wrote on the anti-nepotism Constitutional Amendment, which rigorously defined nine varieties of family relationship for which a second family member could not hold the same Federal, state or local office as a first family member. Even that amendment, though, would still not stop the attempted creation of family political “dynasties” – in American democracy, remember! – with the assistance of lazy members of the media. A second family member would just have to be careful not to run for exactly the same offices as their relative; a Rand Paul would be perfectly free to run for the Senate in a different state than his father represented serving in the House.

Since then, however, I’ve thought of a common law reform that would hopefully be even more effective in striking at the essential ally of the would-be family dynast: the lazy or dense journalist who gives the unqualified relative credibility as a candidate, just because of his family relationship.

This would be a simple change that created new grounds for a lawsuit: any person who felt herself qualified for an office could sue any journalist who mentioned the relative of any serving or recently-serving politician as being qualified for an office, without also mentioning ALL OTHER persons who might also be qualified for that office. This would effectively stop the lazy journalists from dropping the hints of powerholders regarding their sons or nephews; and without that advantage in name recognition and sheer repetition from the journalists, persons who are NOT related to current politicians would have a fairer chance to compete in the unfair, unfree circus that American politics most often seems to resemble these days.

Libertarianism, despite its faults, is as American as apple pie. Nepotism, unfortunately, is something much older and deeper that can and will, if given a chance, strangle America’s relatively recent and high-minded ideals of democracy.

Posted in -KY, 2010 Elections, American Politics, Libertarian | 2 Comments

Breaking News – Government Endorses Ron’s First Book!

Using the logic of the advertising and public relations industries, it can now be said that the American government unofficially endorses Ron’s first great book, The Get-Ready Man (1980).

In a public service announcement promoting college assistance programs available from the federal government, heard recently on KPOJ radio in Portland and other stations, the announcer recites how many outcomes you may think to be ‘impossible’ – like going to college with government assistance – are in fact ‘possible.’  Towards the end of the announcement, the narrator clearly says “Change your belief systems!”

As well-informed readers will know, this tagline amounts to an unofficial endorsement of Ron’s first book The Get-Ready Man, which opened to a detailed explanation of the concept of belief systems in Chapter 1, gave the first version of “Ron’s omelet of the social sciences” in explaining how belief systems come to occur in individuals and societies in Chapters 2 and 3, tried to analyze belief systems of the present world in Chapters 3 through 9, and confronted the necessities of changing belief systems as we move into the future in the two final chapters 10 and 11.

Indeed, through the present day, Ron is not aware of another contemporary book that has dealt so explicitly and comprehensively with the problems and promises of  human belief system.  (Of course, as an old married man busy making a living, Ron’s reading of History and Philosophy have fallen off since the 1980’s).

Ron heartily welcomes this endorsement of his work by the government of the United States, and looks forward to the day when he joins hundreds of millions of Americans in convincing and/or forcing that government to take its own advice and change several of its own highly disfunctional and unsustainable belief systems.

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Why I Won’t Be tweeting

I think it’s great that in addition to being saved by the National Security Agency, your Twittering and tweeting will now be saved by the Library of Congress as well.  I am the historian who wants a History of every single human being in our world, and Twitter is obviously a huge step on the path of recording the thoughts and actions of every individual in today’s world, and tomorrow’s world, and on and on into the future.

Yet if you wish me to be Twittering and tweeting — outside of an appropriate song — then you need to visit this blog a lot and tell all your friends to visit it a lot and buy my offerings and help make this blog a big success, so I can hire an assistant who will be in charge of  tweeting to you.   Because it’s just not going to happen if it depends on me.

In the first place, I can’t even use a cell phone.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate them, I help pay for two of them for my wife and son, but the tiny little buttons just do not work for my big old fingers.  Nor can my tired eyes read the tiny screen very well.  And the lightness of them, that everyone else loves, is just for me just an invitation to juggle, jiggle and drop the damn things.    And maybe my life has been too stable, yet I haven’t yet really needed one, or been able to get one to work when I have needed it.

Last year there was business errand where I had to meet some associates at a truly remote location (where we shared a booth at the big Oregon fair), my wife was so happy to set me up with her cell phone.    Except she forgot to teach me, patiently, which of the inadequately labeled tiny buttons needed to be pushed to actually receive a call.

So there I am out in the middle of nowhere at the fair site, the phone rings and I’m sitting there pushing buttons without any good result, never did actually get the call.  Five minutes later my associates show up, one of them understands how to retrieve the message, it was my wife just wondering how everything was going — in other words entirely un-productive and un-necessary anyway.

Not a great moment in the history of wireless communication, yet it sums up for me how much I want a cell phone.  Not very much.

And the idea that my big fingers, and my brain that loves the English language, is going to murder that written language to send out bleeps of 140 lousy characters several times a day?  One of my worst habits as a writer, is that I have need to immediately correct all my keyboarding errors, before I even get to the end of the sentence, and sometimes it does interfere with my train of thought.  For me to look at texting dialect of written English and think I’m going to approve that as my writing, frankly it curdles something in my soul.

And the idea that I’m going to be able to read all your little tweets in murdered English and ever get anything else done, when I’m finally realizing what a distraction my addiction to computer-based news has become?  It  isn’t going to happen.

I won’t even get into the roots and associations of the word “twit,” the whole thing simply isn’t going to happen.  As you’ll come to understand, I hope, I find a few hundred words as “just getting warm” if I’m trying to accurately describe the intricacies of a real human situation.   140 characters to express a thought of mine, that’s not the way to attract me to your media.

I don’t hate it, if it gives you something you can have it and love it,  and I’ll be glad to serve you in that way if you demand it … just make me successful enough that I can hire somebody else to actually do it for you.    It ain’t comin’ out of my big fingers on one of those little pieces of made-to-be-dropped plastic.

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Will the Republicans Ever Stop Lying?

There was a time when leading Republicans told something like the truth.   While there have been moments approaching clarity from individuals, in general the Republican party machine’s message has not followed this path since somewhere around Goldwater in ’64 or Nixon in ’68.

And why should they change, when it works so well for them?  Their base believes each absurdity in turn, the media never calls them on their lying but rather gives their lies the credence of being half the national story.

Trying to understand their psychology, their explanations, and what they give honor and status to, the only conclusion I can reasonably reach is that they will  never stop lying until they are forced to stop by a power greater than themselves.

Posted in American Politics, Republicans | Tagged , | 1 Comment

History — It’s Happening Every Second!

This blog is dedicated to the work of Ron Brandstetter.

Here’s a quick guide for newcomers. My deepest work, my unique — and comprehensive — philosophy of history, which leads to my effective re-formulation of the social sciences, is here. (This is a long piece, a summary of my next book, I’m trying to cover the breadth and depth of the human experience with a new scientific vision. It will take you 20 minutes or so to read it, so please, bookmark this article and come back to it later if you don’t have the time right now. I’ve tried to make this article as easy to read as possible and I do hope you’ll enjoy taking your time to read it.)

In other pages on this site, my forward-looking political thoughts, based on decades of practical participation in American activism, are here. My unusual path to spiritual understanding, and some of the conclusions I’ve come to with this, is outlined here. Some of my most concise and hard-hitting writings and speeches, meant to emphasize a point, are here. And finally, a not-so-brief biographical sketch of this wonderful life I’ve enjoyed is is over here. The page you’re on is the current postings page, scroll down for varied and sundry reflections on politics, culture, and whatever else I feel I need to tell you about. I haven’t put up much in the last year, I enjoy a complicated life, and I like to say things of significance only. Some new ideas for postings are brewing, yet please, read the deep material I’ve placed here, dig into it. Just for example, the December 2010 post on “Presidential Politics” has remained valid through the Occupy Movement and the 2012 elections, I have updated it in Feb. 2015 to hopefully remain valid through the 2016 elections and beyond. The “Hope Vs. Advertising” post remains far ahead of the conventional wisdom. As a writer, I have always wanted my readers to find my work both entertaining and profitable to their total life experience.

My mission, in all of this work, is to help people think better thoughts.   I’m not going to claim that this always or ever brings instant success and happiness; most of the time we humans are quite happy with our dysfunctional thought, and if that thought fits into a dysfunctional subculture, it can be successful in that context.  Getting to better thoughts can be slightly or greatly painful, and I myself hate it when a better thought forces me to change one of my deeply-ingrained personal habits or preferences.

Yet I believe that if you are an intelligent human being, you have to be able to see the evidence that we as a 7-billion strong global society, in today’s time, are spitting off too much pollution from too many sources — including huge amounts of intellectual pollution from our advertising and public relations industries — to be able to sustain our current modes of ‘civilization’ for too many more decades.

Thus the mission of this website: to help us plan and achieve positive social change to create a better world for ourselves and our grandchildren.   I do believe my effort at re-defining the social sciences to help each human being become their own best social scientist in understanding the motivations and actions of all other human beings — popularly known as “Ron’s omelet of the social sciences” or “the democratic revolution of the social sciences” — can be a helpful step in this process.

For more about who I am and my qualifications for this work, please see the About page on this blog.   For more about the new thoughts we’re going to have to think, and the work that we’re going to have to do to provide a sustainable future for our human race and the planet we live on, please follow this blog as it develops and grows, hopefully, into a force that moves the world.  I can’t do it without you.  You, perhaps, can do it without me, yet it is my goal to prove to you that moving the world will be slightly easier if we can do it together.

A comment on comments:  Please do comment on my posts, all comments will be read and considered.  However, for the short-term future while this blog is getting established, and I am still working at my demanding day job, and still working at my family-business job in which everything needs to be done immediately, no comments will be published immediately on this blog.  It’s my blog, and I want to control it.  All reasonable comments are now being published after review and approval. In the spring of 2014, the ferocious onslaught of spam comments (which are all being deleted by my hosting service) has multiplied tenfold, from hundreds per week to thousands.  99.9% of it is just awful illiterate ungrammatical junk referencing a few consumer products,  however the filters are not perfect and some real comments may be lost in the flood of spam.   Yet if you’re a real person with questions or comments on anything in this website I do VERY MUCH wish to hear from you. To help make sure I don’t mistake you for a spammer, it would help if you’d say a word or two about yourself, and show that you have actually read one or more of my pages.

Because of all this, commenting here may be a little slower process than you’re accustomed to on modern websites: it will almost certainly be 2 or 3 days after your comments, and maybe as much as a week or more after your comments.    Nevertheless, I do wish to eventually make this a typical modern website where registered users have an open and lively discussion in real time, as we’re all familiar with from many fine modern websites.   If you the readers start providing scores and hundreds of intelligent comments on all our discussions here, you will accelerate my process in getting the website to that status, as I simply won’t have the time to read and approve all your comments individually.

Posted in Ron Brandstetter | 3 Comments