Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: Critical Thinking – How can it be taught and/or learned?

How can democracy function if the public lacks the ability to think critically about what it sees and hears and reads? This question, along with the fact that critical thinking skills are crucial to many of today’s well-paying jobs, has led to an explosion of interest in teaching critical thinking skills at all levels of education. Our current political crisis has led many to wonder if a lot of Americans are incapable of thinking critically and whether such abilities as they do have an be unlearned or turned against them with skilled propaganda.

Penny asks, is it realistic to believe that critical thinking is a stand-alone skill that can be taught to kids or even to adults? What about to those Americans that either grew up in environments that discouraged independent truth-seeking or as adults self-marinate in political or social propaganda that is untethered to objective truths?

American schools are all over this issue in recent years. They are said to spend a lot of time and resources emphasizing the teaching of basic critical thinking skills. (Of course, education content is highly decentralized in the USA, so generalizations are hard. On December 16th we will discuss the Common Core educational standards that were create as de facto national edu standards. They heavily emphasize teaching critical thinking and analytical skills.) How are they doing? Can successful techniques be used on adults? See the discussion questions, below, for more.

To make this meeting meaningful and relevant to our times, I believe we must be willing to discuss honestly one thing above all else: The effectiveness of the deliberate assault on citizens’ ability to judge facts and arguments of the last 20 years. Especially, of course, in the last three hundred years of the Trump presidency.

My short remarks to open our meeting will just ty to introduce and frame this vital issue. Then we can debate. As with any topic related to education, there is a TON of stuff on the internet about it and how to teach it. I link to a few, but it is hard for me to judge their quality.


  1. What does “critical thinking” really mean? Are there different definitions? How do they define it for pedagogical (teaching) purposes?
  2. How does critical thinking ability relate to (1) intelligence, (2) psychological makeup, and (3) age and experience?
  3. Teaching it: How can critical thinking be taught to young people that lack the factual or experiential context to help them? How do they measure or observe progress in learning critical thinking?
  4. Bubble dwellers: Many of us live in “epistemological closure,” closed circles where questioning revealed truth is discouraged (some religious communities, Fox News junkies, bigoted families, etc.  Liberals are not immune.) As we discussed in our mtg on cognitive bias, others find learning contrarian or conflicting information uncomfortable.
    — How can their bubbles be penetrated?
    — What will make them listen or at least be open to new facts?
  5. Propaganda: How much damage has fake news and deliberately deceptive propaganda done to our:
    — Critical thinking skills.
    — Democracy? Does a functioning democracy require a consensus on a common set of facts and trust sources of information?


Related CivCon mtgs –

  • 2019: Fighting fake news.  2016: The “Fox News effect.”
  • 2019: The power of cognitive bias. Key concepts.
    2016: What should kids be taught about U.S. history?

Critical thinking and its teaching –

NEXT WEEK: Time travel: Where/when would you like to visit and why?

Monday’s Mtg: Causes and best ways of dealing with racism and other chauvinisms.

As we watch a president self-immolate by committing impeachable offenses on the White House lawn, it is hard to focus on the deeper roots of what’s happening. But, as we’ve discussed many ties, the forces that gave rise to Trumpism – and to chauvinistic feelings and political movements in other democratic countries – will not go away when/if he does.

(Disclaimer:   Support for Trumpism in 2016 was not all about racism, of course. But honestly, three years of hate-mongering later and the other explanations for his strong core support, like economic anxiety and anti-Washington feeling, are wearing thin. Studies have shown strong correlations between racist and other chauvinistic attitudes and core support for Trump and his policies. Still, we can still distinguish between those in Trump’s personality cult and other conservatives that support more traditional conservative moral and political values like small govt, competitive markets, etc.)

(Disclaimer II: It’s also not clear that there was any big increase in the prevalence in the population of racism before Trump’s election. One theory is that Trump’s election – for whatever reasons it happened – has since caused a “Great Dis-inhibition” in which bigotry has just become more acceptable to say out loud and act on and use as a basis for political organizing. The failure of centrist political parties to solve social problems might bear some of the blame for the rise of these phenomena, too.)

Discussing the forces of bigotry is not new for Civilized Conversation. We did a similar topic to this one in August: How tolerant we can afford to be of intolerance?   We also have debated specific kinds of bigotry, like anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, the paranoid political style, and the resurgence of hyper-nationalism/fascism abroad and/or here. But, we can still make Peter’s idea for this week’s topic work, I think, by adopting a different focus from August. Peter asks two questions:

  1. What causes people to think like this? and
  2. What are the best strategies for dealing with chauvinisms’ seeming resurgence?

I’m no expert, but I will open our meeting on Monday with a quick summary of what I know about the various theories of the origins of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other chauvinisms. I will also talk a little about what sociology has learned about what conditions lead people that hold these beliefs to become politically activated and electorally successful. Then I will turn it over to Peter to begin our discussion of that and how to combat the problem.

One idea: Maybe we can harken back to an old mtg we did on “how to talk to the other side” about politics. How might we discuss bigotry with people we think might be motivated (esp. unconsciously) by it without provoking a defensive response? Or, should we even care about such people’s tender fee-fees?


Old mtgs

Chauvinisms –

NEXT WEEK: Impeachment scenarios. How will this end?

Monday’s Mtg: How does modern porn affect sexual maturation and real-life intimacy?

We did a version of this topic in 2015.  We focused on what was then brand new: Universal, worldwide access to free explicit hardcore porn. In 2007 a company called PornHub was formed to mimic the way YouTube streams videos: Free to users, with helpful suggestions for watching other videos you might enjoy based on your viewing history, paid for by selling personalized ads. It was wildly successful and profitable. Now PornHub’s parent company has gobbled up almost every major porn site in the world . Hey, it wouldn’t be a modern industry if it weren’t a virtual monopoly!  And free universal-access porn is not news anymore.

Yet, its impact on society remains a gnawing concern.  Further, as Peter just pointed out on-line general discussions don’t really get at the controversy here. It is hard to really grasp what today’s porn has morphed into without viewing some of it, or at least reading honest descriptions of how graphic and aggressive and violent it can be.

So, the first few links this week do just that. A few caveats:

  • Don’t click if you don’t want to.
  • Not ALL porn is the worst porn.
  • How harmful this all is seems intuitively obvious, but not every moral panic is appropriate. And, research into our new porn-for-all world’s effects is still in its infancy.

Many of the same questions we used to guide our discussion in 2015 still apply. So here they are, modified a bit. I will give a brief opening and then give the first opportunity to comment to Peter.


  1. How much: How ubiquitous is porn today, really? Does “everyone” really use it? What about women? Teens? Other groups?
  2. How bad: Is porn “worse” than it used to be? Can anybody, even kids, really view the worst of it?
  3. How mainstream: Is porn widely accepted in our culture now?
    1. Are there any holdouts?
    2. Are porn themes/POV surfacing in other parts of popular culture? Is that bad?
  4. How studied: How do experts study pornography’s impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors? Is there any consensus on major findings yet?
  5. Impact on adults views of sexuality:
    1. Men’s view of women? Women’s views of men? Expectation in a relationship?
    2. What are normal sexual expectations/behavior and what is deviant?
    3. Do users suffer a downward spiral effect in their viewing habits?
  6. Children/teens: Same Qs, but also –
    1. Which other influences matter in developing sexual attitudes?
    2. How can parent combat porn’s influence?
  7. Violence: Does porn promote misogyny and sexual violence, reflect them, or both?


What is modern porn like? (Warning: Graphic descriptions and images.)

  • Direct link to PORNHUB’s “Categories” page. Explicit sex warning. Notice grosser ones; Gangbangs, Rough Sex, Fetish, Baby Sitter, urination (sorry)…
  • What types of porn women watch might surprise you. (h/t Peter.)

Analyses –

Next Week:  What if the USA had 4-5 major political parties?  What would they stand for?

Monday’s Mtg: The case for and against corporate social responsibility

Good timing. As Ed pointed out at the Meetup site, the second largest industry trade group in the country, the Business Roundtable, just issued a new policy statement calling on its 200 member corporations to alter their core purposes to include more social responsibility.

Corporate social responsibility (CRS) can have two distinctly different meanings. The first is a purely voluntary private business model that links the economic and environmental welfare of society—or specific segments within that society—to a business’ own welfare. This is what the Business Roundtable’s statement called for. Member companies will be “encouraged” by the trade group to deemphasize shareholder value (stock price and quarterly profits) as the sole corporate objective. Instead, they will be asked to adopt a more “stakeholder based” model; one in which firms take more seriously their obligations to fairly compensate their own workers, treat contractors justly, adopt a more long-term focus for their companies’ futures, and operate in an environmentally sustainable way.

It is very easy to be skeptical about the Roundtables’ sudden change of heart. First, it may just a preemptive strike in case the Dems take control of the govt again next year and try to pass a law mandating some of this The Roundtable has not uttered a word of protest as the Trump Administration gutted regulation after regulation that served the public good, including last week when it basically nullified the Volker Rule, that Obama-era, rule that would have limited banks’ ability to make risky trades for their own benefit with federally-insured deposits. Other business groups, like the Chamber of Commerce and all of those dark money suppliers want nothing to do with any corporate responsibility movement.

Skepticism that corporations will ever voluntarily serve the public good has led progressives to use the moniker corporate social responsibility to mean something quit different. They want to mandate socially-responsible corporate behavior by law and enforce it with regulations. As some off the articles below explain, some on the left would go even farther and rewrite the rules of American capitalism so that corporations are mandated to advance the public interest and serve the public good.

So, on Monday we can discuss a few key matters, such as:

  1. What does it mean for a corporation to act responsibly? There are many different ways of defining corporate responsibility, from how they treat employees and contractors and customers to their actions pertaining to the environment, undocumented immigrant labor, etc.
    à How about their political donations and support of plutocratic laws and policies?
  2. Why should corporations be expected – or forced to – act his way? What if do-gooderism endangers profits, spooks investors, lowers growth, etc.  What is a corporation’s “job” in 21st century economy and who is to say?
  3. Should corporate social responsibility be voluntary and encouraged by boycotts and such, or codified in law and regulation and be enforced?
  4. What about “rewriting the rules of capitalism” to fundamentally alter corporations’ role in our society?

Here are some background readings arguing for and against whether we can ask (or compel) private, for-profit companies to act as agents of social change, including both sides’ of the debate and the Business Roundtable’s letter.


NEXT WEEK: Does U.S. history show us to be a melting pot or a mosaic?
(A great topic for Labor Day.)

Monday’s Mtg: “Bro’ Culture:” What is it and what can we learn from it?

Dude. Peter suggested we talk about modern American masculinity. Or, more accurately, a subset of it that is frequently labeled, Bro’ culture.” Peter said he noticed this odd cultural phenomenon when he came over from Germany a few years back.

Civilized Conversation has noticed, too (if awareness and cultural observations can be attributed to a meetup group). We’ve done these two meetings:

The 2014 meeting focused mostly on the question of whether cultural expectations of masculinity were changing, and their causes. Suggested background readings included:

In 2017 we also talked about changing norms. But we also looked at:

For Monday, Peter suggested we be more clear about what bro’ culture is and what makes it so objectionable. But, he also want us to consider whether we can learn something from it – including something about ourselves and why we react so strongly to it. I, of course, feel we cannot avoid the toc of why Donald Trump appeals so readily to believers in a particular strain of aggressive and sorely aggrieved masculinity.

Peter suggested we read:

  1. What do we mean when we say “Bro’ culture” even though the term is a little bit ill-defined? Recommended.
  2. A portrait of your basic obnoxious bro.  Recommended.
  3. Regional variations on bro-ism.
  4. How do we change a bro-dominated culture?
  5. UPDATE by DavidG:  Read this on the “Incel” movement.  Excerpt:
    “Men, like women, blame women if they feel undesirable. And, as women gain the economic and cultural power that allows them to be choosy about their partners, men have generated ideas about self-improvement that are sometimes inextricable from violent rage…In the past few years, a subset of straight men calling themselves “incels” have constructed a violent political ideology around the injustice of young, beautiful women refusing to have sex with them.”

NEXT WEEK: The fight against fake news.

Monday’s Mtg: The science and social effects of good looks.

A lot of scientific research has been done on the biological and cultural bases of physical attractiveness and on the day-to-day advantages and disadvantages of good looks. A google search on the science behind attractiveness yields 11 million results. A separate query on good looks’ benefits and costs returns millions more.

Certainly there are a lot of fundamental questions to answer. Like, say:

  1. What is the biological/evolutionary basis for standards of attractiveness; e.g., symmetrical features, youthful appearance, physical strength, rounded hips?
  2. Cultural basis; Effects of race and ethnicity, pop culture, peer pressure, parental and friends’ standards, etc.
  3. Unattractiveness: Same questions.
  4. Whose opinion/standards about human beauty do you think influenced you the most? Are you proud of that?
  5. How do perceptions of what’s good looking change with age and historical period, etc.? Effects of new things, like on-line dating?
  6. Benefits/costs of good looks in:
    — School and growing up.
    — The workplace.
    — Romance.
    — Friendships.
    — Happiness?
  7. How would being better looking have changed your life? Why?

Out of these millions upon millions of articles on the science and reality of god looks, it I hard to know which to read.  Here are a few promising ones.

I need to post a few group photos of CivCon for the meetup site.  I think this might be  good mtg for that!  Look sharp.


NEXT: How to fight an anti-democratic Supreme Court.

Monday’s Mtg: The power of cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases are a huge deal in the behavioral sciences these days. A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from the norm of judgment or the rationality of judgement. They are the way we take shortcuts in thinking that trick us into believing things that are not true but sound true, based on our cognitive wiring or prior experiences.

We have never done cognitive bias as a separate topic. But the concept has come up over and over in many meetings. For example, cognitive biases contribute to racism in law enforcement; how people view federal spending; and why so many Americans believe that the over-simplified models presented in Econ 101 classes really describe how the world works.

But, nowhere does cognitive bias seem to play a more prominent – and dangerous – role than in today’s polities. Much political rhetoric seems intentionally designed to play on people’s unconscious biases and faulty ways of thinking. This is a major reason why all of it – The cynical propaganda, the systematic lying, and the fake news – works.

The Wikipedia entry on cognitive bias lists over 180 different ones. But, they fall into three broad areas: Decision-making and beliefs, social biases, and memory errors and biases.

Please read some of the material, below about cognitive bias, especially the first article at the Atlantic Monthly that sparked my interest in this topic. I will open our meeting with the usual brief summary of the topic idea, and I also will describe some of the more common cognitive biases that obviously have been playing an outsized role in our politics of late. Depending on time, these might include:

Decision-making biases –

  1. Availability cascade.
  2. Confirmation bias.
  3. Declinism
  4. Dunning-Kruger effect.
  5. Illusory truth effect; i.e., “truthiness.”
  6. Social desirability bias
  7. Motivated reasoning.

Social biases –

  1. Authority bias.
  2. Fundamental attribution error and Group attribution error.
  3. Just-world hypothesis.

Memory errors –

  1. Bizarreness effect.
  2. Hindsight bias.
  3. Illusion of Truth effect.

If these terms seem boring, well, they were coined by social scientist, after all. But click through a few of them, or read one of the articles listed below (esp. the first link) and you’ll begin to see how important cognitive bias is to understanding today’s American social and political zeitgeist.


NEXT: The unitary executive theory – A recipe for tyranny?

Monday’s mtg (4/1/19): Does mental illness get the acceptance and attention it deserves?

Civilized Conversation has discussed many different aspects of health and health care. But we have never done a meeting on mental health and mental illness. After 15 years and 500+ weekly meetings, that makes such a meeting long overdue. Mental health is also a great issue for us because it intersects with all sorts of societal and political issues: Public health, criminal justice, the social safety net, education, etc. We also could get personal a bit, discussing lessons learned dealing with mental health issues in our personal lives should people wish to share them.

To open our meeting I will give a very brief portrait of mental illness in America, based on the broad numbers. In short, about one in five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness and about one in five of them are “substantially impaired” by their conditions in any given year. Common illnesses include depression bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety and panic disorders, and schizophrenia.

These are chronic, serious, but poorly understood and supported illnesses. They often require a lifetime of treatment and support from family, the medical community, and heath care providers. Nearly one-half of people with severe mental illnesses do not receive any treatment and many that do have gone undiagnosed for years and/or are undertreated. Many develop substance abuse or other social problems. All of this makes mental illness not just a personal and family tragedy, but an issue for communities and government.

Below are a few basic articles on the prevalence of mental illnesses, the stigma surrounding it, the difficulties in dealing with it, and related issues. This will be a good one.

This will be a large meeting, too. Let’s remember to keep our remarks on-point and relatively pithy.


NEXT: Will regional differences tear America apart?

Monday’s Mtg: Is there a “culture of poverty” in the United States?

It is important for Civilized Conversation to address the concerns of political conservatives. Think of it as a part of the mandate inherent to the group’s name. One very common belief concerns the causes of America’s persistent high poverty rate and the limits of our ability to reduce it:.  Call it the “culture of poverty” explanation.

To quote the Wiki entry the culture of poverty, it is “a concept in social theory that asserts that the values of people experiencing poverty play a significant role in perpetuating their impoverished condition, sustaining a cycle of poverty across generations.” Allegedly, poor people – especially those that live in areas of concentrated poverty – are said to have adopted a poverty-perpetuating value system. This system prizes attitudes and actions that make escaping poverty almost impossible. These include a focus on the short-term and on immediate gratification; acceptance of crime, violence, and drug and alcohol as coping strategies; disparaging the value of educational achievement and hard work, etc.

Thus, this theory of poverty holds that it is mainly a problem of personal morality and a lack of personal responsibility. Many, many Americans share this POV in whole or in part. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a version of it uttered in discussions of poverty (and especially race!). Most progressives are contemptuous of the notion. It’s just blaming the victim and an excuse for inaction, they say.  But, is there anything to it?

Based on my experiences there are basically two versions of the culture of poverty theory. One is simplistic and, frankly, kind of dumb. It holds that poor communities and individuals do it to themselves. All they need is to adopt “middle class” values of hard work and honesty and the (few) remaining societal barriers to making it in America can be overcome. America’s enormous poverty problem is just the sum of millions of individual bad choices.

Giggity. There’s a more nuanced version, however. It says that yes, poverty has deep structural causes. They include poor job opportunities for people with little education, racial segregation, deindustrialization and rural stagnation, and a threadbare social safety net. Yet, enough time living under these conditions can produce such stress and feelings of helplessness that people begin to act in ways that help to perpetuate the poverty. Poverty has behavioral roots that, while not as deep as the structural problems that created them, still should be treated as a separate problem requiring its own creative solutions.

So, let’s examine the problem (or “problem,” if you prefer). Below are some optional readings on the culture of poverty theory. Most but not all blow big holes in it. I will introduce the topic quickly to open Monday’s meeting and then we can get down to discussion. Remember, all POVs are welcome in CivCon. They just don’t have to be welcomed with open arms!


NEXT: A bullet train to nowhere? Mass transit in California.

Monday’s Mtg: What makes people happy?

“Happiness studies” is an academic field, it turns out. And an active and popular one. For decades bookshelves have groaned under the weight of endless self-help books full of strategies for attaining happiness, personal growth, and emotional well-being. Now we have on-line happiness studies scholarly journals and hundreds of popular websites providing advice on how to get happier, improve your emotional well-being, self-actualize, etc.

What do they say?  Interestingly, a lot of this literature claims that hard science is starting to reveal the keys to how happiness – much more so than did the old tools of philosophy or religion or personal experience. Last year we discussed a piece of th happiness puzzle: Whether a good life needs to have a purpose. We were pretty careful not to simply equate a good life with a happy life, so, our discussion was a bit different from and broader in scope than this one.  Moreover, in that meeting we got into our personal experiences a bit, which was very helpful, IMO.  As the group gets larger and more diverse I wish we did this more often. Maybe Monday is a chance.

What does being “happy” mean? Does it mean different things to different people? Is a tendency to be happy a character trait, a cultural trait, or a product of experience and wisdom? Can one become happier through effort? How important are the quality of our personal relationships with others? How does happiness relate to other components of well-being; e.g., success, respect, and physical/emotional security?

Beyond science and intellectualism, what about you? What have you learned about happiness by living your life, finding/losing love, raising your kids, working with other people, or through other experiences? Lots to talk about.


NEXT:   The future of national healthcare in America.