Cultural Psychology

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Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)


Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

10 Reasons to Vote Third-Party

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10 reasons vote third party

Top Ten Reasons to Vote for Third-Party Candidates

10. Wall Street owns Republican and Democratic parties.

9. At 5% mark, third parties start getting federal campaign funds.

8. Winning not the only purpose of voting

7. Benefits future generations

6. If third parties affect outcome, big parties may change platforms.

5. Won’t be a ‘useful idiot’

4. Public debate of real issues

3. Maintains & expands third-party ballot access

2. Your name not on US bombs

1. Signals hope to other Americans

Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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One of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim be universal,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes all others should do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.

How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.

Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two. Then why not opt out and vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close. Each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning. Defecting to a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of an Obama or a John McCain winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?

Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their ballots for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.

What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to your true beliefs, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. The possibilities are endless. (For example, if everybody voted for a peace candidate, we’d could stop the current program of endless wars.) Therefore, without question: voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.

The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — perhaps something even sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.

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Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency

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vote-your-ideals-ralph-nader ELECTION 2016 can be a tragedy or not, depending on how we approach it.

I mean ‘tragedy’ here not so much in the colloquial sense of simply something bad, but in a more technical sense associated with game theory: a terrible outcome that develops almost inexorably, though it might have been easily avoided. (One example of a tragedy in this technical sense is the prisoner’s dilemma, about which I’ve written previously.)

The tragedy of 2016 would pit Hillary Clinton against some yet-unnamed Republic opponent, in a bitter struggle in which Hillary would win a close race, and where 99% of voters would vote Republican or Democrat, neglecting third parties (as in the previous two elections). The real loss would be to further engrain the two-party (and Wall Street) hegemony of American politics, with the result of further degradation of our economy, foreign policy, and quality of life. And, because nothing would change, in the 2020 and 2024 elections the same thing would happen again, and so on ad nauseam.

Let’s be honest. Hillary, while she might be arguably be marginally better than a Republican opponent, is per se not a good candidate for President of the United States (as even many more enlightened Democrats would agree). Beneath a veneer of concern for the welfare of the community is a huge amount of personal ambition, egoism, and arrogance. She is also beholden to corporate special interests, and eager to use war to benefit US commercial interests (as evidenced by her support for the vicious military ouster of Qaddafi in Libya).

Please understand, the point here is not to bash Hillary. Hillary, personally, is incidental to the main point. But her defects must be honestly noted in order to substantiate the real issue here: that many Democrats will vote for her knowing and despite these things.

What prompts this article is that the other day it occurred to me, in a sort of flash of insight, how this impending tragedy could and should be avoided. The concept relates to how we view what an election is, and what our duty and role as voters are.

The Power Theory of Voting

What I would propose is that there are two possible models or theories about what voting for a political candidate is all about. The first model corresponds to the status quo — what has happened in recent years and what will potentially happen again in 2016.

We’ll call this the pragmatic theory or power politics model of voting. By this view one sees voting as a means to exert ones personal force in an arena where all other voters, with various value systems, do the same. To the extent that this is a strictly pragmatic activity, it is a-moral: the end justifies the means. Such is characteristic of a Hobbesian society: the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of each with all.

While at first glance this may seem a normal and obvious way for one to promote ones preferred social agendas, its basic wrongness — or wrongness in principle — can be easily shown by carrying the same principle to more extreme levels. If voting is supposed to be a pragmatic exercise of personal power, then one should logically use any means possible to sway an election towards ones desired end (so-called political realism). Mudslinging, propaganda, lying, or even cheating — casting two votes, bribing others, ballot-box tampering — are fair game. And, in fact, all of these have been used by both parties and justified based on the end justifies the means principle.

Yes people instinctively know these things are wrong. And this common knowledge calls into question the underlying principle: whether the legitimate and intended purpose of an election is in fact for people to attain an end or to exert selfish power.

I grant that the reader may not see where I’m headed at this point and the preceding statement may seem puzzling, but it will become clear momentarily.

The Idealism Theory of Voting

I wish to suggest that there is another viable and plausible approach one may take to voting. We’ll call this the Idealism theory. According to this view, an election is like a vast national opinion poll or referendum, in which each individual is asked, “What do you believe should happen? What are your true beliefs concerning fundamental political and social principles?” One then expresses ones true beliefs by endorsing the candidate whose platform is most similar to them.

Let’s note the great virtue of the Idealism model: unless voting is approached in this way, there is virtually no other means by which the collective Ideals of a society can find themselves ultimately expressed in political institutions and programs.

Voting is arguably the one and only chance you have as an individual to bring your deepest hopes, aspirations, and instincts to bear on the deeply important issue of constructing, however gradually, a more Just, Good, True, and Beautiful world. It is the only means by which the common moral vision of humanity can contest the juggernaut of blind social forces, Wall Street, and government corruption.  This voting your Ideals is an incredibly important, even a sacred task. You are God’s emissary in the social sphere, your vote a divinely appointed task.

But voting is mere egoism if conducted at the level of selfish pragmatism.

What would the Idealism model imply for the 2016 presidential election?

For Democrats, I believe those who vote according to Ideals and conscience would find the Green party candidate the best choice. For Republicans, the Libertarian or possibly Constitution party candidate would be the true and honest choice. Voting for these candidates, then, would manifest true Ideals, and contribute to the long term common good; voting expediently, against ones principles, for the Republican or Democrat status quo, Wall Street, pro-war candidates would be unethical.

Most of all, anyone who rejects US militarism in principle should not vote for any candidate who does not publicly denounce war. War is insane. Any candidate who does not publicly denounce war publicly announces their moral derangement. It is immoral in the utmost to vote for a morally deranged presidential candidate!

The Practical Value of Idealism

By Idealism here we don’t mean the starry-eyed, Pollyanna kind. Idealism in its finer sense — that which expresses our greatest aspirations and hopes — is the highest form of pragmatism. It is by the actualization of our Ideals that we become most happy and satisfied. Mere practical considerations, when detached from Ideals — and even more when they are antithetical to them — are self-defeating, because they ignore, deny, or even oppose the integral connection between moral virtue, truth, and happiness.

As tangible evidence of the practical value of Idealism in this context, consider this. If third-party presidential candidates, collectively, gained as little as 5% of the popular vote (in 2012 the number was 1.7%) , then in the next election we’d say greater respect paid to third parties. It would create pressure to include third-party candidates in the televised debates. The range of issues and options discussed during the campaign would be greatly widened. Suddenly, ideas like clean air or peace would become topics for public discussion again!

Further, if any individual third-party candidate received 5% of the vote — far from an unattainable result — that party would become eligible for federal campaign financing in the next election. A snowball effect would commence.

Thus, even beyond its moral implications and consequences, the level at which your vote becomes numerically meaningful — or even individually decisive — is much lower than you suppose. Yours could be the vote that pushes a candidate over this critical 5% threshold.



The Risk of a Nuclear Reactor Disaster

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pdf version

Utility companies, to support their claims of nuclear reactor safety, present artificial risk estimates — such as no more than one core meltdown per 30,000 years of reactor operation — that are based on faulty assumptions, guessing, and unvalidated theoretical models. Our most solid source of information on reactor risk is the historical record. According to the International Atomic Energy Commission (2013), as of 2012 a total of 581 civilian reactors had logged 15,247 years in operation. There have also been three major reactor accidents: Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three-Mile Island (counting the three reactor accidents at Fukushima as a single event). This yields an estimated rate of 3/15247 or 0.000197 such accidents per reactor-year. That number may seem small, but, as we shall see, it actually indicates extreme danger.

The number calculated above is an empirical rate based on a limited sample. What we really seek is the true or long-run average population risk rate. (Similarly, we might flip a coin three times and observe heads each time, making the empirical proportion of heads 1.0, but the true rate is 0.50.)  Standard statistical methods can be used to appropriately adjust a sample estimate.

Because the numerator of our fraction, 3/15247, is a count, one can use the Poisson distribution to compute a confidence interval to identify the range of likely population risk rates around the historical risk rate. Such intervals vary in width according to how conservative we wish to be. A non-conservative approach would simply accept 0.000197 as the population rate. A minimally conservative estimate would be the value for which the chances of underestimating true risk are only 20%. Moderately and strongly conservative estimates make the chances of underestimation of true risk 10% and 5%, respectively.

Using a well known method (Garwood 1936; Soper 2015), we obtain variously conservative estimates of the population risk of a major reactor accident per reactor-year as shown in Table 1 (Column 2).

Table 1. Risk of Reactor Meltdown Disaster for a Single Site and Total Risk in US Over 25 Years

Level of Conservativeness

Risk (Reactor/Yr)

Total  Risk (25 Yrs, 1 Site)

Total Risk (25 Yrs, All Sites)

Total Risk (40 Yrs, All Sites)

Nonconservative 0.000197 0.49% 38.9% 54.5%
Minimal 0.000362 0.90% 59.5% 76.5%
Moderate 0.000438 1.09% 66.6% 82.7%
Strong 0.000509 1.26% 72.0% 92.8%

Example. For an observed count of 3, the 90th percentile estimate of the expected long-range average count is 6.68. Dividing this by 15247 gives 0.000438, the moderately conservative estimate of risk of a major meltdown per reactor-year.

While the risks per reactor-year may look small, the problem is that we have to consider the Total Risk in operating a reactor over time, and, on a national scale, many reactors over time. Total Risk is the probability of at least one major event happening in a certain length of time. For a single reactor, this is given by the formula:

Total Risk (%) = 100 × (1 – (1 – Risk))Years

where Years is the window of time. So, for example, the Total Risk of at least one major meltdown accident at a given reactor (say, Diablo Canyon) over 25 years ranges from a minimum, nonconservative estimate of 0.49% (about one chance in 200), to more appropriately conservative estimates of about 1% to 1.25% (or one chance in 100 or 80, respectively). These values are alarmingly high. (Ask yourself: would you eat a jellybean from a jar of 100 knowing that one contains cyanide?)

The danger becomes even more apparent when we consider Total Risk nationwide. Here the formula becomes:

Total Risk (%) = 100 × (1 – (1 – Risk))Reactors × Years

Assuming that 100 reactors operate in the United States for an average of 25 years each, the conservatively estimated Total Risk of at least one meltdown accident ranges from about 60% to 72%. (Over 40 years, even the nonconservative estimate is above 50%.) These estimates are consistent with other recent analyses (e.g., Ghys 2011; Smythe 2011; Lelieveld et al. 2012; Ha-Duong & Journé 2014).

One can easily imagine a utility company looking at these results and countering: “You can’t go by past events. The industry learns from mistakes. Reactors today are better designed and safer than those at Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island.” However it is unlikely that today’s American reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima. Further, more complex designs supply new opportunities for malfunction. And human error is always a danger.

In short, if we base risk estimates on the historical record — our best, most objective, and perhaps only reliable source of data — it is more likely than not that a serious accident will occur at one or more US reactors within the next 25 years. The unacceptability of this risk becomes even more salient when we consider that we are all neighbors. An accident that happens anywhere in the country is not “the other guy’s problem.” We’re all in this together.


Garwood, F. Fiducial limits for the Poisson distribution. Biometrika 28.3/4 (1936): 437–442.

Ghys E (2011). Accident nucléaire: une certitude statistique, un article de Libé, Images des Mathématiques, CNRS. Published online 2011-06-05. Accessed 20 June 2012

Ha-Duong, Minh; Journé, Venance. Calculating nuclear accident probabilities from empirical frequencies. Environment Systems and Decisions 34.2 (2014): 249–258.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). ‘Nuclear Power Reactors in the World.’ Vienna, 2013.

Lelieveld, Jos; Kunkel, Daniel; Lawrence, Mark G. Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 12.9 (2012): 4245–4258.

Soper, D.S. Poisson Confidence Interval Calculator [Software]. 2015. Available from

Smythe D. An objective nuclear accident magnitude scale for quantification of severe and catastrophic events. Physics Today (‘Points of View’). December 12, 2011.

John S. Uebersax PhD •  • 31 March 2015 (rev. 19 April 2015)

Open Letter to US Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA): Stop Inciting War in the Ukraine

with 3 comments

23 March 2015

Dear Representative Capps:

I am disappointed that you voted ‘yea’ last Friday on the House resolution calling on President Obama to provide military assistance to the Ukraine:

  1. It is widely reported, plausible, and probably true that the US, via the CIA, helped instigate the crisis in the first place, actively seeking to separate the Ukraine from the Russian orbit.
  1. It is further common knowledge that Germany, for its economic gain, is also responsible for instigating the crisis.
  1. The text of the resolution is fallacious. It implies that whereas a “prosperous Ukraine” is “in the national interest of the United States” that we have some right — if not indeed a moral obligation — to supply military assistance to the Ukraine. Such reasoning is worthy of Machiavelli: it assumes without question that we have a right to make war merely for the sake of promoting our national interest — rather than, as our Founders wished, only to protect our national *security* interests. It is also fallacious to assert that our unquestioned goal should be to help other countries be prosperous — as though material wealth were the purpose of human existence, and that higher values (like peace and friendship) are not our true goals.
  1. It overlooks the potentially reasonable position that the Ukraine itself is ethnically divided, with the eastern Ukraine being more culturally Russian, and therefore having a valid wish to remain within the Russian sphere.
  1. We have had enough war, and enough of shipping arms around the world!
  1. When will the Congress recognize that it is not only possible, but better to cultivate peace rather than to pursue war?

John Uebersax

San Luis Obispo

Written by John Uebersax

March 24, 2015 at 3:54 pm

NRC Statistician Comments on Nuclear Reactor Risk Assessment Models

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The Diablo nuclear power plant in Avila, CA.

I had a long chat with an NRC statistician to discuss their methods for estimating the probability of a reactor accident. He confirmed what I already knew: no existing statistical methods can accurately predict such events. Rather, their theoretical mathematical models only indicate which parameters, out of hundreds, have the most influence on net risk (sensitivity analysis); but the models do not supply accurate net estimates for the risk of a critical reactor incident.

Bottom line: nobody really knows the probability of a meltdown or major radiation release at Diablo Canyon.

Historical evidence (number of actual reactor failures) might suggest a probability somewhere between 1/100 and 1/500 during its term of operation.

Two revealing quotes:

Kaiser 2012, Empirical Risk Analysis of Severe Reactor Accidents.

time to the next accident among the world’s 441 reactors … is estimated to 11 years.

Raju 2014, Estimating the Risk of Nuclear Accidents

The existing record of accidents … [and] their probability distribution is sufficient to rule out the validity of the industry’s analyses at a very high confidence level.”

A database (Excel spreadsheet format) on all US reactors is here:

Written by John Uebersax

March 15, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Divided We Fall

with one comment


HERE’s my take on the ‘state of the union’ as we appear to be headed towards another 10 years (at least) of war: Our domestic politics is nothing more than a lot of highly circumscribed but fierce battles being fought by indignant special interests, and equally indignant groups that oppose them: gay marriage, Obama-care, fracking, etc.

Now if I were gay, sick and poor, living amidst fracking, etc., no doubt I would have similarly strong feelings about these issues. That’s normal human nature. And all of these are, in any case, legitimate social issues we should be trying to address. BUT the reality is that we are ALL being hurt MORE by having a failed society generally than by any one of these issues, or even by all of them put together!

It’s a matter of priorities. Things will get worse for everyone UNTIL more people place social unity and the ‘bonds of mutual affection’ AHEAD of these more limited interests.

“I demand gay marriage! And immediately! And everything else must come to a standstill until I’m satisfied!”
“Because I want my rights!”
“Because I deserve to be happy!”
Certainly. But would having gay marriage, but all other conditions unchanged, produce happiness?
“Well, I might be happier, relatively!”
Would it reduce the cost of living, create more jobs, end war, cure cancer, solve the environmental catastrophe, improve schools?
Would you be happy, gaily married, if all these other problems remain unsolved; or would it be more likely you’d experience the same ambient level of unhappiness, malaise, discontent, poverty, frustration, ill-health, stress, pessimism, and near-despair as those who are heterosexually married or single evidently experience today?
“In honesty, the latter.”
Another question. Which would be better? (1) To substitute “civil union with the same rights as marriage” for “gay marriage” as an acceptable, if perhaps temporary, compromise, but with the results of achieving national unity and ending war; or (2) to have “gay marriage”, disunity, and perpetual war?
“The former, of course.”
Can we end war, or solve any of the other desperately urgent social problems already mentioned, without greater social unity?
“It would seem most unlikely.”
But if we were to achieve social unity, would it be likely we could solve these problems?
“There’s a good chance.”
And is it *possible* to achieve social unity?
“I don’t see why not. It seems in human nature to do so.”
If everyone placed as their *highest* social priority the achievement of unity, without abandoning their commitment to their individual interests, do you think it could happen?
“Seems likely.”
“Yet I must ask: why do you choose gay marriage as your example to illustrate this principle?”
Partly the choice is arbitrary. And partly because it seems to me that, unlike these other issues, the whole essence of “gayness” involves love and affection; so that, on the assumption that gay people have love and affection more salient in their minds generally, they should more readily grasp the importance of unitive, communal love.

united-we-stand~ * ~


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