Cultural Psychology

Archive for April 2015

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

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 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)