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We have seen some spectacular examples of herd behavior in 2020. They remind one of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841, Charles Mackay’s account of four infamous financial manias. But the 2020 versions, such as anti-mask, actively endanger others.

Popular delusion is indeed the operative term but let me start with crowds and build up to this everyday pathology.

The most familiar example of herd behavior can be seen by looking up at birds flying in flocks. All it may take to organize that flock formation is an inborn tendency to stay surrounded by others that look like you. Those birds out on the edges of the flock are more exposed to predators, so natural selection promotes the gene variants that provide stronger centering behavior. …


Contributed by Will Howard

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Many of the things that Trump says off-script do indeed sound incoherent — the ideas just don’t hang together, though he sounds more normal in a well-rehearsed two minutes of debate, as in reading a prepared answer. Here’s a transcript from early September that far exceeds the political norm for mere rambling:

If you get the unsolicited ballots, send it in and then go, make sure it counted, and if it doesn’t tabulate, you vote. Just vote. And then if they tabulate it very late, which they shouldn’t be doing, they’ll see you voted and so it won’t count. So send it in early and then go and vote, and if it’s not tabulated, you vote, and the vote is going to count. You can’t let them take your vote away. These people are playing dirty politics — dirty politics. So if you have an absentee ballot, or as I call it a solicited ballot, you send it in, but I would check it in any event. I would go and follow it and go vote — and everyone here wants to vote — the old-fashioned way. …


The Climate Emergency and the Medical Mindset

Our climate problem has turned into a climate emergency, largely because of surges in extreme weather a decade ago.

Next I focus on the mindset of emergency medicine physicians that we will need to adapt for addressing climate action.

The finale is about urgency, the timescale now needed for a climate fix, one fast enough to prevent the collapse of civilization. We have been insufficiently ambitious.

In emergency medicine, the initial focus is not on the root cause of the patient’s problem. It is about knock-on problems: immediate life threats, such as internal bleeding and shock. While our climate problem has fossil fuel emissions as its root cause, it also has secondary threats such as extreme weather. …


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Under what circumstances are you likely to be infected by a Covid carrier? The advice has changed since last March when, lacking experience with the Covid virus, the experts were giving generic advice based on what was important for the yearly influenza virus. Ten months later, we know that half of new Covid infections come from asymptomatic “carriers” that temperature-taking misses, that most of the spread is via aerosol microdroplets rather than surface transfers, that preventing super-spreader events is an important strategy, and we accept family-sized pods as exceptions to the six-foot rule (shared responsibility to keep the others healthy). …


Contributed by Will Howard

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Clearly, the chief instigator of the outrageous invasion of the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting presidential votes was Donald Trump. And, because he can still use the Insurrection Act to create martial law, impeachment is far too slow to protect us (even though it could ban Trump from elective office in the future).

That leaves the 25th Amendment on Presidential disability, where the Vice-President and a majority of Cabinet members can send a document to Congress that would suspend Mr. Trump’s Presidential powers and allow Mr. Pence to be Acting President until January 20th.

Cognitive impairment was the big problem after President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919; he fired his Secretary of State for calling a Cabinet meeting to discuss the matter. [Calvin: I wrote about that almost 40 years ago.] If Donald Trump is not delusional, he is certainly imitating delusional behavior very effectively. Delusion is a psychosis, as is schizophrenia (characterized by hallucinations: false images and voices). Some delusions (false beliefs) are so impossible or counterfactual as to called bizarre — say, “being possessed.” Bizarre, however, excludes widely shared beliefs in the individual’s culture — in, say, an afterlife — because there would be too many false positives for identifying real delusional patients. …


The next time that a public figure or a reporter explains emissions reduction as the fix for our global overheating, consider asking them, “How much does zero emissions cool us off?”

This is considered an unkind question; I would not ask it, except that it is currently important — in the sense of civilization surviving until mid-century.

The proper answer is “It will not cool us at all.” Even a thousand years from now, 19% of the CO2 emitted this year will still be hanging around. And until the rate of CO2 removal exceeds the annual anthropogenic emissions, we will not cool off even a half-degree from the present surface temperature — and that is what it will likely take to back out of the recent surges in extreme weather. …


The Trump Mess and a quicker TrumpExit

Contributed by Will Howard

A post-election “throw him out now” impeachment could quickly end his lame-duck status. Is that even possible? Worth the effort? After Trump fails to get re-elected, some Senate Republicans might not remain faithful followers of a Lame-Duck Loser, one whose opportunities for retaliation were shrinking every day.

GOP senators might blame their party’s downsizing on Trumpism, perhaps painting themselves as fellow victims and citing that super-spreader event of top Republicans at the White House as an example.

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PACKING THE ROSE GARDEN: Too close for comfort — and safety. Crammed in too close, for too long, and with most potential victims mimicking their host’s disdain for masks that protect others from their viruses. (For spreading the virus, only prolonged kissing is a better setup.)

Trump’s public health advisors must have explained super-spreaders to him a dozen times since March. Yet Trump likely caused several dozen Covid-19 cases, thanks to wedging his guests in, shoulder-to-shoulder, at his Rose Garden party for celebrating the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court. Pictures show his guests packed even tighter than in the cheapest coach class. Furthermore, most guests took off their masks, so as to mimic the Presidential recklessness. …


The judges and pardons to come

Contributed by Will Howard

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There would be 61 lame-duck days after losing the election, days when President Trump’s lifetime judicial appointments could still be confirmed by the current Senate. For anyone worried about prosecution by a post-Barr Justice Department, it will be tempting to lobby Trump to pack the courts with friendly judges while he can. They would likely become known as the TrumpPack judges.

Judges are also a big issue among religious conservatives, and likely the reason they’ve chosen to hold their noses for so long about Trump’s moral lapses and his repeated dog-whistle promotion of hatred. …


A Lame-Duck Loser Like No Other

Contributed by
WILL HOWARD

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What with the Trump Train Wreck, Halloween has never been so scary.

Scary? President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. He seems to think that, if he doesn’t win, it could only be because of fraudulent mail-in voting. That’s a puzzle because such voter fraud has become almost nonexistent, so Trump’s obsession raises the possibility of presidential paranoia.

Scary #2. War usually serves to rally voters around the current commander-in-chief. …


thanks to the power of former slave-owning states and their current allies.

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The 19 free (blue) and 15 slave (red) states, as of 1860 just before the American Civil War began. Gray shows territories which later became states. From 1787’s “Great Compromise” until the 1850s, the slave states were able to insist that for every additional free state admitted, there had to be another slave state. The Electoral College is another holdover from pre-Civil-War days, in need of being overhauled.

Asked to define a democracy, most people would start with “One person, one vote.” Yet we have had two presidential elections, 2000 and 2016, where the Democrats lost despite winning the popular vote — in 2016, Mr. Trump lost by a margin of 3 million votes, yet won in the Electoral College by a comfortable margin. That is because more than thirty states still maintain winner-take-all electors.

It is part of the heritage of slavery, one that we have not yet set right. Because the 1787 Constitutional Convention gave every state two senators, whatever their population, Wyoming with 0.6 million people gets two senators, and so does California with 40 million. If the U.S. Senate were to escape pseudo-democratic status by ensuring that each of the 100 senators represented about 3.3 million people, then California would have 12 senators. Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota would have to share one senator. …

About

William H. Calvin

Professor, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle. Author, “The great climate flip-flop” in The Atlantic, 16 books. President, CO2Foundation.org.

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