Back in the days when there were only three major networks and news was something you got by reading a newspaper or listening to the radio, figuring out what was going on depended on who you trusted.  I grew up in Chicago in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  My family read the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times for newspapers and we watched Huntley and Brinkley or Cronkite on TV.  That was all we needed.  We drew conclusions about what was going on based on what these trusted sources of information told us and what we saw before our very own eyes.

infomation_sourcesNowadays, there are thousands of sources of “information”, some of which are just plain malarkey and some of which have basis in fact.  There are all kinds of talking heads out there, and as a “consumer” I am expected to sort through the dross and find the golden threads of truth.  More and more we are expected to rely on our own judgment and draw conclusions without adequate information. And here is where the problem lies — let’s face it — human beings are notorious for drawing wrong conclusions.

I had a professor when I was in grad school who taught us that the scientific method is all about observation, measurement, and then drawing conclusions.  He used the following experiment to illustrate these principles.  This experiment was designed to see how far a frog can jump.  No animals were actually harmed in this experiment.

scientific_methodTitle:  Measures of stimulus and response in determining normative distance covered by Anura Neobatrachia in a controlled condition.

Step 1:  Weigh and measure frog.  Place frog in jumping area.  Say, “Jump! Froggy Jump!” and measure how far the frog jumps.

Step 2:  Remove front left leg.  Place frog in jumping area.  Say, “Jump! Froggy Jump!” and measure how far the frog jumps.

Step 3: Remove front right leg.  Place frog in jumping area.  Say, “Jump! Froggy Jump!” and measure how far the frog jumps.

Step 4:  Remove rear left leg.  Place frog in jumping area.  Say, “Jump! Froggy Jump!” and measure how far the frog jumps.

Step 5:  Remove rear right leg.  Place frog in jumping area.  Say, “Jump! Froggy Jump!” and measure how far the frog jumps.

Here’s how the experiment was written up:

  1. Initial measurement frog jumped 330 centimeters.
  2. Second measurement frog jumped 150 centimeters (veering left).
  3. Third measurement frog jumped 120 centimeters (no veering).
  4. Fourth measurement frog jumped 8 centimeters (veering left).
  5. Fifth measurement frog jumped 0 centimeters with following notation:  Instructions repeated 3Xs.  No response noted from frog.

What do you imagine the conclusion of this experiment was? I won’t keep you in suspense:  Conclusion:  Frogs with no legs are deaf.  And this, dear readers, is the dilemma we currently face.

I was reading a respected news source that was talking about how old most of our politicians are.  Average age in Congress is 58 for the House and 64 for the Senate.  That doesn’t seem old to me!  The conclusion this source drew was this:

A case can be made that this once energetic, generous, problem-solving American Republic is displaying signs of becoming an intolerant, reckless, regressive Gerontocracy. Our borders are closing, hate crimes are rising, markets are chaotic, the environment is ignored, allies are shunned and enemies embraced. Our leaders, our electorate and our government are aging — it shows, and it’s worrisome.. . .

There’s a reason we should care about an overabundance of elderly decision-makers at the top of our government, and it boils down to biology. On average, human cognitive functioning declines dramatically after age 70, and the types of intelligence that decline most sharply are “the capacity to absorb large amounts of new information and data in a short time span and apply it to solve problems in unaccustomed fashion. (Daily PNut, 09/05/2019, American Gothic: Reverse Ageism in American Politics).

I think this is a case of concluding that frogs are deaf.  One of the challenges of making a statement such as “On average, human cognitive functioning declines dramatically after age 70 . . .” is that it implies that that old people are cognitively unfit.  I suggest this has more to do with ageism and stereotyping than actual evidence.  This is concluding that frogs are deaf.

Aging_BraubThere is no doubt that older brains do things differently and may take more time to accomplish some tasks.  But that doesn’t mean they are deficient.  I can think of any number of politicians who did not have high levels of functioning before they were elected and haven’t improved over the years.  I can also name older pols whose capacity for comprehension and ability to synthesize huge amounts of information and COME TO A REASONED CONCLUSION based on their experience and knowledge base remains intact.

The question comes down to what are we measuring?  If it is speed, then you can put money on younger brains doing better.  But you can also put money on higher error rates.  If you are measuring accuracy, older brains will more often be “right”, but will take longer to achieve the answer.  Quite frankly, in terms of making decisions, I prefer the latter approach.

The problem is when Americans go to the polls, we do not have access to any information on the cognitive functioning of those who want to represent us and make decisions on our behalf.  We elect folks based on sound bites, personality characteristics, and our own habitual ways of thinking, including our prejudices and preferences.  Nowhere in that decision-making process will you find data that would indicate whether your elected representative actually is capable of doing the job you are asking him or her to do. When you stop and think of that, it is downright scary!

Our Founding Fathers did not have access to the methods of evaluating competence or “fitness” for office that we do today.  They identified a minimum age for running for office, but little else, trusting (I believe) on the collective wisdom of those who were voting to identify an able representative.

Founding_FathersThere was no consideration of how an “older brain” worked, since folks on average didn’t live that long.  Notable exceptions, however, were Benjamin Franklin (84), John Adams (90), and Thomas Jefferson (83).  My point here is that we will always find “notable exceptions”.  Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill both ran a very tight ship in the House of Representatives when they served as Speaker of the House, and they were both pretty old.  My point is using age alone is not an accurate predictor of cognitive functioning. I rest my case.

So what can we do?  Since there is little likelihood that voters will have access to cognitive evaluations of those running for office, I suggest the following metric when evaluating the fitness of who you are voting for:

  • Don’t vote for someone just because you like the way they look and sound.
  • Check their track record and see how consistent they are.
  • Remember, they are running for office for a reason.  Find out what that is!
  • What kind of jobs have they had and how long have they had them?

Once you get your answers, watch out for jumping to the wrong conclusion.  You might just find that you jumped farther than a deaf frog.


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