TIME Opinion

I Don’t Love Lucy: The Bad Science in the Sci-Fi Thriller

Maybe if the screenwriters had used 20% of their brains...

You use a whole lot more than 10% of your brain—but a common fallacy that says otherwise is nonetheless the central premise of a new movie

Now there are three Lucys I have to keep straight: The 3.2 million year old Australopithecus unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974; the eponymous star of the inexplicably celebrated 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy; and, most recently, the lead character—played by Scarlett Johansson—of the new sci-fi thriller straightforwardly titled Lucy. Going by intellectual heft alone, I’ll pick the millions-year-old bones.

The premise of the movie, such as it is, is that Lucy, a drug mule living in Taiwan, is exposed to a bit of high-tech pharma that suddenly increases her brain power, giving her the ability to outwit entire police departments, travel through time and space, dematerialize at will and yada-yada-yada, cut to gunfights, special effects and a portentous message about, well, something or other.

The movie poster’s teaser line? “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”

Let’s forgive the poster its pronoun problem (the average person—as in just one of us—uses 10% of their brain capacity), because the science problem is so much more egregious. The 10% brainpower thing is part of a rich canon of widely believed and entirely untrue science dicta that include “Man is the only animal that kills its own kind” (tell that to the lion cubs that were just murdered by an alpha male trying to take over a pride) and “A goldfish can remember something for only seven seconds” (a premise that was tested…how? With a pop quiz?).

No one is entirely sure where the 10% brainpower canard got started, but it goes back at least a century and is one of the most popular entries in the equally popular book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. There is some speculation that the belief began with an idle quote by American philosopher William James who, in 1908, wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” an observation vague enough to mean almost anything—or nothing—at all.

Some people attribute it to an explanation Albert Einstein offered when asked to account for his own towering intellect—except that Einstein never said such a thing and even if he had it would not make it true. Still others cite the more scientifically defensible idea that there is a measure of plasticity in the brain, so that if the region that controls, say, the right arm, is damaged by, say, a stroke, it is sometimes possible for other parts of the brain to pick up the slack—a sort of neural rewiring that restores lost motion and function.

But none of that remotely justifies the 10% silliness. The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs. At birth, babies actually have up to 50% more neural connections among the billions of brain cells than adults do, but in the first few years of life (and, to a lesser extent, on through sexual maturity) a process of pruning takes place, with many of those synaptic links being broken and the ones that remain growing stronger. That makes the brain less diffuse and more efficient—which is exactly the way any good central processing unit should operate. It also allows it to use up fewer calories, which is critical.

“We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

Added Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, “The thing that’s really astonishing might not be that we lose so many connections, but that the brain’s plasticity and growth are able to continue for as long as they do.”

OK, so the Lucy screenwriters aren’t psychologists or directors of cognitive studies institutes. But they do have the same 100 billion neurons everybody else’s brains have. Here’s hoping they take a few billion of them out for an invigorating run before they write their next sci-fi script.

TIME Business

The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream

The End of the Suburbs
The End of the Suburbs Courtesy Penguin Press

Engineer Charles Marohn worked his whole life trying to make his community better—until the day he realized he was ruining it.

If you looked up “Minnesota nice” in the dictionary you might see a picture of Charles Marohn. Affable and mild-mannered, Marohn, who goes by Chuck, grew up the eldest of three sons of two elementary school teachers on a small farm near Brainerd, the central Minnesota city best known as the backdrop for the movie Fargo. Marohn (pronounced “mer-OWN”) graduated from Brainerd High School, entered the National Guard on his seventeenth birthday, and went on to study civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. He now lives with his wife, two daughters, and two Samoyeds in East Gull Lake, a small city north of Brainerd. Marohn, forty, likes the Minnesota Twins, reads voraciously, and is a proud Republican. He’s the friendliest guy you’re likely to meet. He’s also a revolutionary who’s trying to upend the suburbs as we know them.

After graduating from college, Marohn went to work as a municipal engineer in his hometown and spent several years working with the small towns around the greater Brainerd area, putting projects together that would build roads, pipes, storm drains, and all kinds of infrastructure. It was the mid-1990s, the area was booming, and Marohn was laying down the systems that helped the area grow. “I built sprawl,” he now says.

Often his work required him to knock on the doors of residents, many of whom he knew from growing up, and tell them about changes that might impact their property. In order to make the town’s roads safer, he would explain, engineers were going to have to widen the road in front of their house or cut down a tree in their yard. When his neighbors would get upset and ask why or try to protest—the roads were hardly trafficked at all, and sparse enough to almost be rural, they would point out—he’d explain that the town was required to make these changes in order to comply with the book of engineering standards to which it had to adhere. The code, put in place by the town but derived from state and national standards, dictated that roads must have an ample “recovery zone,” or a wide berth to accommodate cars that veer off the road, and that drivers have improved “sight distance,” the distance a driver needs to be able to see in order to have enough room to be able to react before colliding with some- thing in the roadway. When residents pointed out that the recovery zone was also their yard, and that their kids played kick ball and hopscotch there, Marohn recommended they put up a fence, so long as it was outside the right-of-way. He was sorry, he told them, but the standards required it. The trees were removed, the roads widened, the asphalt paved and repaved. “I never stepped back from my own assumptions to consider that I wasn’t making anything safer,” Marohn says. “In reality, I was making their street more dangerous, and in the process, I was not only taking out their trees, I was pretending I knew more than them.”

In 2000, Marohn found himself assigned to fix a leaky pipe in Remer, a small town north of Brainerd. It was a routine project, but it would ultimately lead him to an epiphany. A sewer pipe that sat under a highway had a leak that was allowing clean groundwater to flow in. That meant that the clean water was getting pumped out to sewage treatment ponds, which were exceeding their capacity and would soon overflow. It was easily fixable, but it would cost $300,000, a hefty sum considering the town’s total budget for such projects was $120,000 a year; sure enough, the town said no. But the pipe was going to cause the sewage ponds to overflow, undermine the dike, knock down its wall, and pour into the neighboring river “in like a catastrophic way,” Marohn says. So he decided to find a federal grant to pay for it.

He discovered that the project was too small; grant agencies didn’t seem to be interested in a $300,000 renovation, he found, presumably because it wasn’t worth the time in administration costs. So he expanded the project, proposing the government pay not just to fix the pipe but also to extend the sewers, expand the size of the pumps, and more, at a cost of $2.6 million. The grant agency gave the green light; the state and federal government put up all the money except for

$130,000, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture financed at below-market rates over a forty-year time period. Marohn was hailed a hero. “Everybody was super thrilled with me because I got this project approved out of nowhere,” he says. And since the project would connect more homes, it would allow the town to promote the fact that it was creating capacity for the city to grow.

But over the next several years, as Marohn went back to Remer to do additional work—he had by then gotten a degree in urban planning—and saw that the town was in the process of doing a similar project with their water system, he realized he had created an unsustainable financial situation. Thanks to the leaky pipe he fixed, the town now had to bear the maintenance costs of a system that was double the size of the one it had before. “I bought them time,” he says, “but I gave them a giant unfunded liability.”

Marohn started questioning the rationale of this kind of system. The government paid the up-front costs of the massive project, but there was no accounting for the significant cost to maintain the system. The town’s property taxes wouldn’t come close to covering those costs, which meant the city would ultimately need to take on more debt. And the system was likely to need replacing well before forty years were up—the duration of the financing he’d procured—which would require an investment of equal or larger size. Marohn began to wonder whether all the work he’d been doing to supposedly help the city grow was really necessary or whether it was going to end up hurting it and, on top of that, whether the roads he was helping to “improve” were designed to accommodate the way people lived or were that way simply because the planning books said that was the way they had to be built.

He connected with a few friends in the local planning community who shared his concerns. In November 2009 they started a Web site called Strong Towns to start raising questions about America’s approach to land use and the financial impracticalities suburban sprawl encourages. Rich in case studies and educational materials, Strong Towns lobbies for communities that are financially productive and grow responsibly. But it’s also a screed against what Marohn sees as development patterns that go against the logic of design, finance, and the best interests of residential communities and everyday Americans.

One night soon after he started the Web site, Marohn wasn’t sure what to write about, so he composed a blog post on his experience tearing down trees in his neighbors’ yards, an idea that had been bouncing around in his head for a while. Declaring his work “professional malpractice,” he described how the wider, faster streets he was sent to build weren’t only financially wasteful but unsafe. “In retrospect, I understand that it was utter insanity,” he wrote in the essay, which he called “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.” “Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people,” he wrote, referring to statistics of traffic deaths each year that, in his view, were a direct result of poor design. He penned the piece in less than an hour and went to bed. When he got up, his in-box was full of comments from people in the planning community with whom his words had resonated.

The Web site soon became a nonprofit, which became a series of podcasts, videos, and live neighborhood events around the country called the “Curbside Chat.” A local nonprofit threw in three years’ worth of funding, and in mid-2012 Marohn quit his job to focus on Strong Towns, which is now a robust site packed with in-depth articles, podcasts, a Curbside Chat companion booklet for public officials, and a “Strong Towns University” section with instructional videos featuring Marohn and his partners discussing things like the ins and outs of wastewater management. Marohn’s work has brought him attention within the planning community; he now travels all over the country speaking at conferences, hosting Curbside Chats, and spreading his message. But all, he says, for the greater good. “We’re not bomb throw- ers,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as intellectual disruptors.”

Marohn primarily takes issue with the financial structure of the suburbs. The amount of tax revenue their low-density setup generates, he says, doesn’t come close to paying for the cost of maintaining the vast and costly infrastructure systems, so the only way to keep the machine going is to keep adding and growing. “The public yield from the suburban development pattern is ridiculously low,” he says. One of the most popular articles on the Strong Towns Web site is a five-part series Marohn wrote likening American suburban development to a giant Ponzi scheme.

Here’s what he means. The way suburban development usually works is that a town lays the pipes, plumbing, and infrastructure for housing development—often getting big loans from the government to do so—and soon after a developer appears and offers to build homes on it. Developers usually fund most of the cost of the infrastructure because they make their money back from the sale of the homes. The short-term cost to the city or town, therefore, is very low: it gets a cash infusion from whichever entity fronted the costs, and the city gets to keep all the revenue from property taxes. The thinking is that either taxes will cover the maintenance costs, or the city will keep growing and generate enough future cash flow to cover the obligations. But the tax revenue at low suburban densities isn’t nearly enough to pay the bills; in Marohn’s estimation, property taxes at suburban densities bring in anywhere from 4 cents to 65 cents for every dollar of liability. Most suburban municipalities, he says, are therefore unable to pay the maintenance costs of their infrastructure, let alone replace things when they inevitably wear out after twenty to twenty-five years. The only way to survive is to keep growing or take on more debt, or both. “It is a ridiculously unproductive system,” he says.

Marohn points out that while this has been an issue as long as there have been suburbs, the problem has become more acute with each additional “life cycle” of suburban infrastructure (the point at which the systems need to be replaced—funded by debt, more growth, or both). Most U.S. suburbs are now on their third life cycle, and infrastructure systems have only become more bloated, inefficient, and costly. “When people say we’re living beyond our means, they’re usually talking about a forty-inch TV instead of a twenty-inch TV,” he says. “This is like pennies compared to the dollars we’ve spent on the way we’ve arranged ourselves across the landscape.”

Marohn and his friends are not the only ones warning about the fix we’ve put ourselves in. In 2010 the financial analyst Meredith Whitney wrote a now-famous report called The Tragedy of the Commons, whose title was taken from the economic principle that individuals will act on their own self-interest and deplete a shared resource for their own benefit, even if that goes against the long-term common good. In her report, Whitney said states and municipalities were on the verge of collapse thanks in part to irresponsible spending on growth. Likening the municipalities’ finances and spending patterns to those of the banks leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, Whitney explained how spending has far outpaced revenues—some states had spent two or three times their tax receipts on everything from infrastructure to teacher salaries to libraries—all financed by borrowing from future dollars.

Marohn, too, claims we’ve tilled our land in inefficient ways we can’t afford (Whitney is one of Marohn’s personal heroes). The “suburban experiment,” as he calls it, has been a fiscal failure. On top of the issues of low-density tax collection, sprawling development is more expensive to build. Roads are wider and require more paving. Water and sewage service costs are higher. It costs more to maintain emergency services since more fire stations and police stations are needed per capita to keep response times down. Children need to be bused farther distances to school. One study by the Denver Regional Council of Governments found that conventional suburban development would cost local governments $4.3 billion more in infrastructure costs than compact, “smart” growth through 2020, only counting capital construction costs for sewer, water, and road infrastructure. A 2008 report by the University of Utah’s Arthur C. Nelson estimated that municipal service costs in low-density, sprawling locations can be as much as 2.5 times those in compact, higher-density locations.

Marohn thinks this is all just too gluttonous. “The fact that I can drive to work on paved roads where I can drive fifty-five miles an hour the minute I leave my driveway despite the fact that I won’t see another car for five miles,” he says, “is living beyond our means on a grand, grand scale.”

Marohn is one of a growing number of sprawl refugees I encountered during my reporting—people who at one point helped enable the building of modern-day suburbia but now spend their days lobbying against it with the zeal of religious converts. Some, like Marohn, focus on the unsustainability of the financial structure. Others focus on the actual physical design of the suburbs and point to all the ways it’s flawed. Most of them argue for the development of more walkable communities closer to public transportation. But their unifying criticism is that our spread-out development pattern was manufactured, packaged, and sold to Americans as part of an American Dream that fails to deliver on its promises.

Leigh Gallagher is an assistant managing editor at Fortune and a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among other national television and radio news shows. She lives in New York City. This article is excerpted from Gallagher’s book, The End of the Suburbs, out now in paperback.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 28

1. Hamas doesn’t want to beat Israel in the current battle of Gaza, they want to beat Fatah for the hearts of the Palestinian people.

By Hicham Mourad in Al-Ahram

2. The State Department is fighting a losing social media war with terrorists.

By Jacob Silverman in Politico

3. We shouldn’t need a guide: When to use ethnic slurs.

By Eric Liu in the Atlantic

4. Beyond producing more scientists, STEM education gives us creative problem-solvers who thrive in business and leadership.

By Jonathan Wei in Quartz

5. Giving while living: Americans should engage in philanthropy when they’re young.

By Christopher Oechsli in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME psychology

Creativity at Work: 6 Ways to Encourage Innovative Ideas

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Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, says there are three components to creativity at work:

  • Expertise (People who aren’t any good at physics rarely come up with relativity theory.)
  • Creative thinking skills (Are you even trying to think outside the box?)
  • Motivation (Personal interest like curiosity beats monetary bonuses.)

Her research produced 6 things that companies and managers can do to support and inspire creative work:

 

1) Challenge

It’s all about assigning the right person to the right project — but most companies don’t bother to get to know their employees well enough to do that.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Of all the things managers can do to stimulate creativity, perhaps the most efficacious is the deceptively simple task of matching people with the right assignments. Managers can match people with jobs that play to their expertise and their skills in creative thinking, and ignite intrinsic motivation. Perfect matches stretch employees’ abilities. The amount of stretch, however, is crucial: not so little that they feel bored but not so much that they feel overwhelmed and threatened by a loss of control.

That final sentence, I think, is key. Amabile doesn’t reference the word, but it sounds like what this does is help engineer “flow“.

creativity-at-work

 

2) Freedom

Companies should define goals but let workers have some autonomy in how to get there.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

When it comes to granting freedom, the key to creativity is giving people autonomy concerning the means–that is, concerning process–but not necessarily the ends. People will be more creative, in other words, if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn’t let them choose which mountain to climb. In fact, clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity.

 

3) Resources

Too little time or money can both dampen creativity at work.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones. The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout. In either case, people feel overcontrolled and unfulfilled–which invariably damages motivation. Moreover, creativity often takes time…They keep resources tight, which pushes people to channel their creativity into finding additional resources, not in actually developing new products or services.

 

4) Work-Group Features

Companies kill creativity by encouraging homogenous teams.

These groups do find solutions more quickly and have high morale–but their lack of diversity doesn’t lead to much creativity.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

If you want to build teams that comes up with creative ideas, you must pay careful attention to the design of such teams. That is, you must create mutually supportive groups with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. Why? Because when teams comprise people with various intellectual foundations and approaches to work–that is, different expertise and creative thinking styles–ideas often combine and combust in exciting and useful ways.

 

5) Supervisory Encouragement

Support and recognition by bosses isn’t just nice, it’s essential to creativity at work.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Certainly, people can find their work interesting or exciting without a cheering section–for some period of time. But to sustain such passion, most people need to feel as if their work matters to the organization or to some important group of people.

 

6) Organizational Support

Companies that mandate information sharing and collaboration while discouraging politics will see creativity thrive.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

Most important, an organization’s leaders can support creativity by mandating information sharing and collaboration and by ensuring that political problems do not fester. Information sharing and collaboration support all three components of creativity… That sense of mutual purpose and excitement so central to intrinsic motivation invariably lessens when people are cliquish or at war with one another. Indeed, our research suggests that intrinsic motivation increases when people are aware that those around them are excited by their jobs.

 

Final Note

Of the three big factors in creativity that Amabile calls out, where most companies go wrong is motivation.

They either ignore it or try to achieve it by money — a very inefficient mechanism at best.

The best employees are motivated from inside and companies that nurture that passion see the best results.

Amabile calls upon Michael Jordan as a perfect example.

Via The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next:

And Michael Jordan, perhaps the most creative basketball player ever, had “a love of the game” clause inserted into his contract; he insisted that he be free to play pickup basketball games anytime he wished.

For more tips on creativity from “Family Guy” writer Andrew Goldberg sign up for my free weekly email update here.

Related posts:

Creative companies: What are the 10 secrets of innovative offices?

Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be more effective at work?

What seven things can geniuses teach us about being more creative?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME politics

An Economic and Moral Case for Legalizing Cocaine and Heroin

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Drug user's stash Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Criminalization comes at a large cost--elevated prices, impurities, and the vagaries of black markets--and does marginal good for the few very abusive users.

We’ve come a long way since Reefer Madness. Over the past two decades, 16 states have de-criminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 22 have legalized it for medical purposes. In November 2012, Colorado and Washington went further, legalizing marijuana under state law for recreational purposes. Public attitudes toward marijuana have also changed; in a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization.

Yet amidst these cultural and political shifts, American attitudes and U.S. policy toward other drugs have remained static. No state has decriminalized, medicalized, or legalized cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. And a recent poll suggests only about 10 percent of Americans favor legalization of cocaine or heroin. Many who advocate marijuana legalization draw a sharp distinction between marijuana and “hard drugs.”

That’s understandable: Different drugs do carry different risks, and the potential for serious harm from marijuana is less than for cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Marijuana, for example, appears incapable of causing a lethal overdose, but cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine can kill if taken in excess or under the wrong circumstances.

But if the goal is to minimize harm – to people here and abroad– the right policy is to legalize all drugs, not just marijuana.

In fact, many legal goods cause serious harm, including death. In recent years, about 40 people per year have died from skiing or snowboarding accidents; almost 800 from bicycle accidents; several thousand from drowning in swimming pools; more than 20,000 per year from pharmaceuticals; more than 30,000 annually from auto accidents; and at least 38,000 from excessive alcohol use.

Few people want to ban these goods, mainly because while harmful when misused, they provide substantial benefit to most people in most circumstances.

The same condition holds for hard drugs. Media accounts focus on users who experience bad outcomes, since these are dramatic or newsworthy. Yet millions risk arrest, elevated prices, impurities, and the vagaries of black markets to purchase these goods, suggesting people do derive benefits from use.

That means even if prohibition could eliminate drug use, at no cost, it would probably do more harm than good. Numerous moderate and responsible drug users would be worse off, while only a few abusive users would be better off.

And prohibition does, in fact, have huge costs, regardless of how harmful drugs might be.

First, a few Economics 101 basics: Prohibiting a good does not eliminate the market for that good. Prohibition may shrink the market, by raising costs and therefore price, but even under strongly enforced prohibitions, a substantial black market emerges in which production and use continue. And black markets generate numerous unwanted side effects.

Black markets increase violence because buyers and sellers can’t resolve disputes with courts, lawyers, or arbitration, so they turn to guns instead. Black markets generate corruption, too, since participants have a greater incentive to bribe police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards. They also inhibit quality control, which causes more accidental poisonings and overdoses.

The bottom line: Even if hard drugs carry greater health risks than marijuana, rationally, we can’t ban them without comparing the harm from prohibition against the harms from drugs themselves. What’s more, prohibition creates health risks that wouldn’t exist in a legal market. Because prohibition raises heroin prices, users have a greater incentive to inject because this offers a bigger bang for the buck. Plus, prohibition generates restrictions on the sale of clean needles (because this might “send the wrong message”). Many users therefore share contaminated needles, which transmit HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. In 2010, 8 percent of new HIV cases in the United States were attributed to IV drug use.

Prohibition enforcement also encourages infringements on civil liberties, such as no-knock warrants (which have killed dozens of innocent bystanders) and racial profiling (which generates much higher arrest rates for blacks than whites despite similar drug use rates). It also costs a lot to enforce prohibition, and it means we can’t collect taxes on drugs; my estimates suggest U.S. governments could improve their budgets by at least $85 billion annually by legalizing – and taxing – all drugs. U.S. insistence that source countries outlaw drugs means increased violence and corruption there as well (think Columbia, Mexico, or Afghanistan).

It’s also critical to analyze whether prohibition actually reduces drug use; if the effects are small, then prohibition is virtually all cost and no benefit.

On that question, available evidence is far from ideal, but none of it suggests that prohibition has a substantial impact on drug use. States and countries that decriminalize or medicalize see little or no increase in drug use. And differences in enforcement across time or place bear little correlation with uses. This evidence does not bear directly on what would occur under full legalization, since that might allow advertising and more efficient, large-scale production. But data on cirrhosis from repeal of U.S. Alcohol Prohibition suggest only a modest increase in alcohol consumption.

To the extent prohibition does reduce drug use, the effect is likely smaller for hard drugs than for marijuana. That’s because the demands for cocaine and heroin appear less responsive to price. From this perspective, the case is even stronger for legalizing cocaine or heroin than marijuana; for hard drugs, prohibition mainly raises the price, which increases the resources devoted to the black market while having minimal impact on use.

But perhaps the best reason to legalize hard drugs is that people who wish to consume them have the same liberty to determine their own well-being as those who consume alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else. In a free society, the presumption must always be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.

Jeffrey Miron is Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University and Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute.

TIME Science

Note to Science: The GOP’s Just Not That That Into You

Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it
Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it Orlando Sentinel; MCT via Getty Images

Fla. Gov. Rick Scott is the latest Republican to play the scientific ignorance card. It's a game that's gotten old

Every dysfunctional relationship proceeds though the same stages: from promise to problem to crisis and, ultimately, to repetitive farce. There is one more embarrassing public scene, one more fight that disturbs the neighbors—a lather-rinse-repeat cycle that becomes more tiresome than anything else. That final stage is where the hard right of the GOP has at last arrived in its tortured pas de deux with science.

The most recent Republican to get into an ugly dust-up with the scientific truth is Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Running for re-election against former Gov. (and former Republican) Charlie Crist—and currently trailing in polls—Scott was asked by a reporter whether he believes climate change is real. Depressingly but predictably, he went for what is becoming the go-to dodge for too many in the GOP when pressed on a scientific fact that they dare not acknowledge for fear of fallout from the base, but can no longer openly deny for fear of being called out for willful know-nothingism. “I’m not a scientist,” Scott thus began—and there he should have stopped.

The device, of course, is meant to suggest that the issue is just too complex, just too abstruse for people without advanced degrees to presume to pass judgment on. It was the bob-and-weave used by Fla. Senator Marco Rubio when GQ magazine asked him the age of the Earth. “I’m not a scientist, man,” he said—adding the “man” fillip because it presumably suggested a certain whew-this-stuff-is-hard fatigue.

It was used as well by House Speaker John Boehner when he was pressed about proposed EPA regulations intended to curb greenhouse gasses. “Well, listen,” he began, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

There’s something not just risibly dishonest about this reg’lar-folk pose, it’s flat-out unseemly too, which is why less disingenuous Republicans, whatever their views, tend to find a defter way to phrase things. Boehner, Scott, Rubio and the like are seeking to have things two incompatible ways—they deny the science, even ridicule the science, and then they seek to hide behind the skirts of the science, recusing themselves from answering questions because it’s all just too dang complicated.

Never mind that if you take them at their word—if you say, okay, let’s see what the eggheads in the labs say, and it turns out that the eggheads in the labs all but universally agree that global warming is dangerously, frighteningly real—they neatly flip the script. The scientists—the ones to whom they pretend to defer—are suddenly dismissed as “grant-grubbing” hoaxsters, conniving with liberal politicians to “expand the role of government.”

But, okay, let’s pretend the politicos are sincere. If the Speaker, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to debate climate change, fine, he’s excused from the conversation—and he should be expected not to offer further opinion on the matter. This, however, is a dangerous game to play. If being a scientist, man, is a threshold requirement for taking a thoughtful, honest position on climate change, then the same is true for being an economist or physician or astronomer if you presume to offer an opinion on the federal budget or the health care law or NASA funding.

The “both sides do it” faux equivalency game is hard to play on this one, since science denial is simply not endemic in the Democratic party the way it is in the GOP. But that hardly means all Dems have covered themselves in glory. West Va. Sen. Joe Manchin literally shot a hole in a copy of the cap and trade bill in a 2010 election ad, a crude symbolic twofer that signaled yes to guns and no to climate regulation in his rural, coal-producing state. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle, has consistently blocked climate action, opposing tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, because, she says, “Requiring [the plants] to use technology that has not been proven viable in industrial settings is completely backward,” a good argument if what she says about the technology were remotely accurate—which it isn’t.

But the hard truth is Manchin and Landrieu are outliers among the Democrats, while the counterfactual voices are among the loudest within Republican ranks. The time really has come for the GOP to fix its relationship with science—or just break up for good. Either way, they should do something soon, because the rest of us are getting sick of the fighting.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 30: The Opening

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

The most often-recited chapter of the Qur’an by the Muslim faithful is first chapter appropriately named “The Opening” (Al-Fatihah in Arabic). It is recited at least 17 times a day just through the five daily ritual prayers. And, The Opening is recited often at the beginning and end of religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, and other important life events. The chapter consists of 7 lines that offer the pre-text to the rest of the Qur’an. Commentators have pointed to The Opening as a summary of the entire Qur’an. In the Islamic tradition this chapter is known as “Mother of the Book” (Umm ul-Kitab) because of its stature in the Qur’an and in the life of devout Muslims.

Since this is my last post for the 30 days, 30 reflections of Ramadan series, I thought it appropriate to offer some insight into this commemorative chapter of the Qur’an — hoping that the end is just the beginning of many conversations and openings. These insights are just a glimpse into the extraordinary commentary that exists in the Islamic tradition on The Opening.

The Opening begins with what becomes the opening phrase of all of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an [except chapter 9 since it is a continuation of chapter 8]: “In the name of Allah, The most gracious, The dispenser of grace” (1:1). Alternatively, you will often find this phrase being translated simply as “…The most merciful, The most compassionate.”

The Opening begins by introducing the author. God is introduced as Allah, which is the Arabic word for God. Allah is a unique name that by its linguistic nature cannot be gendered (unlike goddess) and cannot be pluralized (unlike gods). Allah is the name for God that unites all divine names and attributes into One unlike other names and attributes that point to an aspect of God. To clarify, Allah is not “the Muslim God.” Allah is described in the Qur’an as the creator and sustainer of the heavens and the earth and everything that exists in between — the God of every living reality. As such, when the Torah or Gospel is translated into Arabic, God or its equivalent from another language is translated as “Allah.”

Then, God’s chief attributes are introduced — The most gracious, The dispenser of grace. Both attributes (Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem) share the same linguistic root — R-H-M. The root word in Arabic means “womb.” So, the attributes are really expressing the mother-like mercy and compassion that God has for the creation. Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad would often teach people about God using mother-like metaphors. Once the Prophet saw a woman endearingly holding her child and told his companions that God is more merciful to the creation than this woman is toward her child. Mercy or Grace is really seen, in Islamic theology, as the basis for all of God’s work in the universe. And, the devotees of God are those who adorn themselves with this characteristic such that they should strive to become “Servants of The most merciful” (Qur’an 25:63 — 76).

The next line reads, “All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds” (1:2). Here the creations relationship to God is introduced and another essential attribute of the divine is revealed. The Qur’anic logic is based on the premise that if God is One, The merciful, The compassionate — then all praise or thanks that comes from the creation should properly be directed toward God. The second part — “the Sustainer of the worlds” — reveals this understanding of God as being the originator and nurturer of everything living thing that exists, the One who takes every living being from its immature and weakest form to its mature and strongest form.

The chief attributes of The most gracious, The dispenser of grace are reaffirmed in the third line of The Opening (1:3).

Then, in the fourth line, another of God’s attributes is revealed and an important theme of the Qur’an is mentioned for the first time: “Master [or Owner] of the Day of Judgement” (1:4). The idea of human accountability of the beliefs held and of the lives lived by human beings is one of the most central teachings of the Qur’an. It assumes a life of the soul that continues well after death. Death is not the end of the soul’s journey; death is what marks the next phase of the soul’s journey — just as when the baby is expelled from his or her mother’s womb to come into the life of this world, death expels the soul from the womb of this world into the next. And, ultimately, every human soul will be asked about how they used the gift of free will in this world. And, God is the Master or Owner of that Day [which really means period of time] in which souls will either be forgiven or taken to task. Interestingly, the word for judgement is related to the word for debt in Arabic. As such, some of the commentators say that this is the “Day in which debts are due” — meaning the debt of life and its blessings. And, since God is the Master or Owner of these debts, God can just as easily and justifiably forgive as God can take to task.

The relationship between the human being and God is really crystallized in the next line: “You alone do we serve, and You alone do we turn to for help” (1:5). Having established our complete dependency, in reality, on God in the previous lines — the central Qur’anic theme of servanthood to and trust in God is introduced. Servanthood does not simply require the life of prayer and ritual devotion — though important. Rather, serving God is about living life in the most beautiful and ethical way in accordance with the teachings of God and in accordance with the divine attributes that the servant seeks to acquire as part of his or her own character. Relying on the help and assistance of God is a natural state of servanthood and it is a profound affirmation of God’s power and majesty.

In the next line, The Opening turns into a prayer and the recitation reaches its climax: “Guide us the straight path” (1:6). This asking of God to be guided is an acknowledgement that God plays an active role in the seeker and servant’s life. God is not aloof nor has God abandoned creation after creating it. Rather, God guides through scripture and prophets and sages. And, God guides every heart that is humble enough to ask for guidance. Interestingly, the next chapter of the Qur’an begins, “This is the Book wherein there is no doubt, a guide for those who are mindful of God” (2:2). In essence, indicating that the rest of the Qur’an is an answer to the devotee’s asking God for guidance.

Finally, the very last line offers a peek into what this guidance is: “The path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not of those who have been condemned nor of those who go astray” (7:7). Much of the Qur’an is recounting of stories of people and communities from the past who received God’s good graces. The Qur’an also offers prescriptions and proscriptions to achieve spiritual and ethical success. And, much of the Qur’an is also a relaying of past peoples who transgressed the boundaries set by God and who worshipped other than God — all as a way of warning and redirecting readers and believers to a life of devotion to what is good and right and to an absolute and pure monotheism in which nothing and no one is taken as a god besides God.

This is a brief insight into The Opening and into the major themes of the Qur’an. Ramadan, which will end on Sunday at Sunset, comes every year to remind Muslims of the gift and responsibility of the Qur’an. It is my deepest prayer that more contemplation of the Qur’an will lead to greater openings in the mind and heart that manifest in the world as new rays of light in the midst of darkness.

TIME Religion

Immigration Laws Should Serve People, Not Politics

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody on July 22, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody on July 22, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas. John Moore—Getty Images

Was the law made for people or people for the law?

Throughout both legal history and Judeo-Christian scripture, there has always been tension between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law. In the gospels, Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for focusing too much on legalism instead of grace. He famously said, “The Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath.”

In light of what’s been happening in our political systems, it’s clear that we need to ask: “are our laws made for people?” Or do we believe that people were made for our laws?

I have worked alongside many Republicans who have helped lead the battle for immigration reform. These Republicans care about the 11 million undocumented people in this country who have gotten stuck, stranded, marginalized, and jeopardized in a broken immigration system. These are Republicans who don’t want to deport millions of hard-working, law-abiding immigrants and who don’t want to break up their families. These are Republicans who believe that legalizing those immigrants would be good for the country and the economy and support an earned path to citizenship for those who want to wait at the back of the line to become American citizens, pay a fine for breaking the law, submit to complete background and criminal checks, learn English, and pay American taxes for the good work they do. These are Republicans who believe that helping vulnerable children supersedes ideology. And these are Republicans who want their party to be open and inclusive and ready to welcome the Hispanic American community into their party.

But then there are Republicans who have blocked immigration reform even though a majority of Republican party members across the country now favor it, who want to physically deport or make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they will “self-deport,” and who either themselves accept or are willing to accommodate to what even other Republicans call “racial factors” in their white constituencies. And there are, cynically, Republicans who simply refuse work with the President or Democrats on any issue. And there are some Republicans who are helping to fuel the alarmists that are rising up across the country to attack immigration and immigrants, and now even children from Central America who have recently come as desperate refugees.

The same voices that have blocked immigration reform are now trying to distort a very serious refugee crisis of children fleeing for their lives from the escalating violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador into an immigration problem, and are using those desperate and vulnerable children as political pawns in the debate around immigration reform. That is morally reprehensible. In Congress, with their consistent commitment to block anything President Obama proposes, the GOP is refusing to spend the money necessary to care for and carefully process the children who are seeking safety and asylum in America. Children are sitting alone away from their families in processing centers without the adequate resources to care for them.

And most shockingly—and absurdly—instead of doing what’s right and working to address the crisis we’re facing at the border, the leader of the Republican party would rather sue the President over failing to execute the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After a year of political maneuverings and a shutdown of the government in protest over the ACA, Speaker Boehner preferred to sue the president for not enforcing the letter of a law he opposes, than to vote on immigration reform which might have humanely addressed the crisis at the border. I fear the actions on health care and the inaction on immigration reform proves that in Congress scoring a political victory is far more important than alleviating the suffering of people. This is a matter of moral leadership and doing what’s right that should transcend ideology.

Because Congress has defaulted on its moral leadership in favor of political maneuvering, President Obama is considering what options his administration can take to fix particular aspects of our broken immigration system or at least reduce the suffering. But any steps he takes will far fall short of the ideal – because the only sustainable solution is legislative. We should the support the President’s attempts to offer compassion until Congress has the courage to act. He should start with ending the deportations of law-abiding people that would break up their families.

While any action the President takes will certainly be within his constitutional and legal authority, the fact that it will be the executive branch providing relief instead of the legislative branch enacting reform again raises the age old question of what purpose the law is supposed to serve? Too many of our supposed leaders seem to have forgotten that they were elected to serve people not politics and parties. This is a moral test of leadership that John Boehner needs to retake.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 29: Death and Dying

Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad
Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on July 25, 2014. Amit Dave—Reuters

Many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One of the most difficult experiences that we as human beings experience in our lives is the pain of losing someone near and dear to us. This separation, either through our own departing or the departing of our loved ones, is as inevitable as it is saddening. The Qur’an states in no unclear terms, “Every soul tastes death” and “We shall try you with something of…loss” (3:185 and 2:155).

The separation that death causes, no matter how we look at it, brings great grief to the heart. The Prophet Muhammad would often console people when they experienced loss and would encourage them to bear patiently and would give them glad tidings of the hereafter. The Prophet himself experienced a lot of loss of loved ones in his own lifetime. He was orphaned at a young age. His greatest supporters in his uncle and his first wife passed away in the same year. He lost many companions in battles and war. And, the Prophet buried five of his six children with his own hands — only one of his daughters, Lady Fatima, living longer than he by six months. When one of the Prophet’s two sons passed away in his own arms as a child, the Prophet was inconsolable as tears rolled down from his eyes. Some of the companions with him were taken aback, thinking that crying was not consistent with bearing loss patiently. But, the Prophet reminded them that these were “tears of compassion” and that God has compassion for those who have compassion.

To have patience in times of loss does not mean that we do not grieve; it means, that we do not lose faith in God and in our own capacity to endure. Patience means that we understand all blessings are a gift from God and must, eventually, return to God — just as we too, one day, must return to the Source of Life. The Qur’an says that those who are patient say upon experiencing loss, “Truly, from God we come and, truly, to God is our return” (2:156).

From the perspective of a believer, the painful separation from our loved ones, is ultimately a temporary separation. The Prophet would visit the graveyard often and would say aloud, “Peace be upon you, O inhabitants of the graves, believers and Muslims. Verily we will, God-willing, join you [in the near future]. I ask God for well-being for us and for you.” The Prophet assured his companions about the hereafter saying, “You will be with those whom you love.”

No matter how long we live or experience life with our loved ones, it can feel so short. The memories of a lifetime can feel like just a few fleeting moments. The Islamic tradition says that when the Angel of Death comes to take the human soul and asks, “How long were you on earth,” the soul replies, “A day or two.” In the Islamic ritual tradition, when a child is born the Call to Prayer (known as the adhan in Arabic) is gently chanted in his or her right ear, but this adhan is not followed by prayer. When a person dies, there is a funeral prayer but no adhan. Muslim sages point out that, in reality, the adhan at birth suffices for the funeral prayer at death — for that is how short life truly is.

In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there is great virtue attached to visiting those who are dying. It is said that the Angels of Mercy surround a person from the time that they set foot on their journey to visit the dying till the time they leave after visiting. To be there as a source of comfort and compassion to the dying and their family is in and of itself a blessed deed. As a chaplain, I have been called at times to be with the dying. It is one of the deepest, most profound human experiences to see the breath of life slowly journeying out of the human body into another realm.

These moments cause deep reflection on the life that is lived and how to make it all meaningful. The Prophet Muhammad taught that when we go into the grave, everything we worked so hard for — wealth, children, and so on — leave us behind. But, there are three things that accompany us into the grave and continue to bless the soul: beneficial knowledge that we leave behind for others to benefit from after we leave this world; sustainable charity that continues to help people well after our lifetime; and, children — whether our own or others — who pray for us after death. These are some valuable prescriptions for living a meaningful life.

In an often-cited line of poetry, Mawlana Rumi — the 13th century poet and philosopher — says that the lives of the righteous can be summarized as such: When they are born, they come out of their mother’s wombs crying while everyone around them is happy. When they die, they go into their graves happy while everyone around them is crying. When the Prophet’s great companion and scholar, Salman al-Farsi, passed away people said they felt the heavens and earth weep for his loss.

Today, many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

In these final nights of Ramadan it is especially appropriate to pray for those who have passed away — those we know and those whom we do not know. And, it is a blessed time to honor their memory by committing to an act of charity in their names. May all who have passed away in the years past find rejoice in their returning to God, and may all who are experiencing the painful loss of a loved one find strength and patience through prayer, Amen.

TIME psychology

Knowing Yourself: 3 Keys to Leveraging Ancient Wisdom

“Know Thyself”

The Oracle at Delphi said “Know thyself.” And that is deep and profound.

It’s also a pain in the ass because as with every cliche, the difficulty is in the execution and nobody ever bothers to tell you how to do it properly.

I guess they’re too busy brainstorming new fortune cookie wisdom while we sit around thinking they’re smart for coming up with it and we’re dumb for not being able to follow through.

Knowing yourself is the hardest thing in the world because nobody lies to you about you more than you do.

We need answers. Good answers. Ones we can achieve simply — without a PhD, a wrench or elective surgery.

What does “knowing yourself” really take?

 

What “Knowing Yourself” Means

It’s amazing to me how much real insight about life is coming from business books and business schools these days.

In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Pete Drucker, probably the most influential thinker on the subject of management, says to be successful throughout your entire work life — one that will likely span numerous jobs, multiple industries and wholly different careers — it all comes down to knowing yourself.

And knowing yourself, in terms of achieving what you want in life, meansknowing your strengths.

But the reason I like Drucker is because he doesn’t stop there or just bury you in self-help platitudes. He gives a definition:

What are you good at that consistently produces desired results?

It’s not necessarily what you enjoy or what a test says you have aptitude for, it’s the things you do that result in crossing the proverbial finish line.

These are your strengths. Other research I’ve posted shows they’re tightly tied to happiness and fulfilling work.

You need to know what your strengths are to make the right choices.

 

Ignore Weaknesses. Double Down On Strengths.

If you’re one of those people who is skeptical about change, or who find it really hard, Drucker is for you.

He doesn’t believe we can overhaul who we are, turning introverts into extroverts and thinkers into feelers.

He believes in doubling down on the areas where you’re strong, bringing up the areas that get in the way of executing your strengths, and utterly ignoring the places where you show little aptitude.

There’s no sense striving for mediocrity in multiple categories. Figure out what you’re naturally good at and go all in.

Via Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

…do not try to change yourself — it is unlikely to be successful. But work, and hard, to improve the way you perform. And try not to do work of any kind in a way you do not perform or perform poorly.

It’s only by having a clear vision of your strengths that you can make good decisions.

You know those people we’re all jealous of who can confidently pick something, say they are going to be awesome at it, and then calmly go and just be awesome at it?

This is their secret: They’re not good at everything but they know where their strengths lie and choose things that are a good fit.

Via Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

(This) enables people to say to an opportunity, to an offer, to an assignment: “Yes, I’ll do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way my relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”

 

How To Do It

Drucker calls it “Feedback Analysis” but I think that’s way too formal and intimidating a term.

From now on when you undertake projects, write down what you expect to happen, then later note the result.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned time and again, notebooks are powerful. They are a shield against poor memories, rationalization and outright lying to yourself.

Just as a great first step for networking is to trace back your relationships to the handful of “superconnectors” you know, looking at successful and unsuccessful projects will tell you what makes you achieve and fail.

Review the results and think about 3 things:

  • What your strengths are.
  • Under what conditions you perform well.
  • What your values are.

 

Knowing Yourself Helps Everything

That vague Oracle was right. Knowing yourself benefits your whole life.

And while Drucker’s method is only focused on career, you’d be smart to extend it to romantic relationships, happiness, friendships, etc.

  • HappinessI’ve noted the things that make me happy over time. I’ll schedule time to do them more often.
  • RelationshipsMy good dates/great relationship moments all had these things in common so I’ll make those things deliberate from now on.
  • FriendshipsAll my close friends have these things in common. I’ll use that to know who to spend time with.

So what’s the next step? Get that notebook.

Then develop your strengths with Cal Newport’s expert advice.

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Related posts:

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What do people regret the most before they die?

What five things can make sure you never stop growing and learning?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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