Celebrate the Facts!
Depressive realism, the concept that depressed people are more accurate in their judgments, is provocative. Many historians advocate that great political and social leaders became great not instead of their depression but because of it and that happiness is an intentional state of self-delusion. This week's column investigates the possible presence of a positive aspect in the dark abscess of the world's most miserable human affliction.
Depression, otherwise known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a severe mood disorder. Depressives experience persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. In addition, depressed people exhibit irritability, brooding, obsessive rumination, anxiety, phobias, excessive worry over health, and chronic pain.
Major depression is a complex disorder that does not result from either genetic or environmental influences alone but rather from a combination of both. Genetic studies and evaluation of resultant treatments are in their infancy, but there is strong evidence of genetic predisposition to depression. In addition, research confirms a strong relationship between childhood maltreatment and depression.
Relapses and recurrences following major depressive incidents are common. Results indicate that after discontinuation of acute-phase treatment, about 29% of people relapse within one year and about 54% within two years. These facts suggest that depression may often be a chronic condition requiring ongoing management.
Depressive realism hypothesizes that depressed individuals tend to be more accurate or realistic than non-depressed persons in their judgments. An optimism bias is a mistaken belief that one's chances of experiencing adverse events are lower and one's chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of one's peers. Research suggests that non-depressed people are vulnerable to cognitive illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimating themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events.
Robust scientific evidence about depressive realism is sparse. Studies are small in sample size and often poorly conceived. The largest this investigation uncovered was a 2012 meta-analytic review that included 75 relevant studies representing 7,305 participants from across the United States and Canada and England, Spain, and Israel. Results indicated a small overall depressive realism effect. Cherry-picking from the group of small studies, one can find results to support a variety of conclusions.
One of the other problems with studies of depressive realism is that they rely on elementary models, such as predicting when a green light will come on when the subject pushes a button. Human interactions are often complex, and so these models are unlikely to translate into accuracy in those endeavors. Imagining a research protocol to measure such seems well impossible.
Depressive realism presents a challenge to cognitive theories of depression. The cognitive-behavioral approach advocates that depressed people think differently than non-depressed people. It is this difference in thinking that causes them to become depressed. According to cognitive-behavioral theories, depressed individuals assess themselves negatively and develop unrealistic, extreme, and unsound self-narratives. Following the cognitive credo, these mistaken beliefs then lead to depression. The way out, according to those same people, is a new, more positive narrative.
Another exciting concept, at least for depressives, is that depression can lead to creativity, and it is hard to argue that many creatives are not also depressives. Unfortunately, although the belief that invention is related to psychopathology is prevalent, studies are difficult to come by. There is good empirical evidence that cognitive therapy works to alleviate depression, but it may work by training patients to construct optimistic misconceptions about themselves rather than by coaching them to think more credibly.
Regardless of the murky evidence of the hypothesis of depressive realism, chronic depressives have played an outsized role in history, literature, and art. Thus, it seems possible the 'illness' may not be an illness at all, but properly managed can contribute to extraordinary lives and accomplishments.
A 2005 work, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, made an argument that depression fueled Abraham Lincoln's performance as President. Lincoln, perhaps the most consequential President in the United States history, was also a chronic depressive. Lincoln had two known depressive breakdowns at age 26 and 31, which included suicidal statements that frightened friends enough to form a suicide watch. The book describes Lincoln's history of depression in detail and discusses two other depressives, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Sherman invented modern warfare with his March to the Sea through Georgia in 1864. In this campaign, Sherman unleashed his own self-loathing on the Confederate armies and civilian populations, gutting the Southern part of the Confederacy and its capacity to supply its war effort. Retrospective diagnosis of mental illness is problematic, but Sherman was a depressive and likely also had manic phases.
Grant, a chronic depressive who medicated his issues with alcohol, was a Union general known for leading the knockout blow in Northern Virginia in 1864 and 1865 to force the Confederate surrender. In 1854, Grant had to resign from the Army in California because of excessive drinking. The Union Army reabsorbed Grant into its ranks in 1861 as it was desperate for experienced soldiers. Sherman’s quote about Grant – ‘Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other’ – wraps the conditions of both into a neat package. After a failed Presidency and financial ruin, Grant died of throat and tongue cancer, likely attributable to his drinking.
Consequential figures known to be depressives include:
Facts to substantiate the idea that depression is associated with particularly sharp insights or creative abilities are hard to come by. Research would be exciting, but as results would be difficult to monetize, it appears such efforts will continue to be small and somewhat prone to self-reporting by subjects, thereby altering the outcomes and making conclusions specious.
Located deep in the heart of Kentucky, a former slave state neutral in the Civil War, is a Christian Fundamentalist shrine known as Ark Encounter, an 800-acre multimedia complex centered around an ostensibly actual-size replica of Noah’s Ark. The fundamentalist Christian pilgrimage site, partially funded by public money, documents the recent creation of the world by a Christian God, provides Christian ‘talking points’ to convince doubters of creationism, and provides elaborate detail about the care and feeding of the animals, including the dinosaurs, housed on the boat.
Fundamentalist Christianity is a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literal words of the Christian Bible are accurate. In the United States, about 31% of the adult population feels the Bible is the literal word of God. Generally, those people use the King James Bible as the authoritative reference, a translation commissioned by the Church of England in 1604 under the sponsorship of James VI and I, hence the name.
In the Book of Genesis in this Bible, an all-forgiving and ever-loving God allegedly said ‘I will destroy from the Earth the people I have created. And with them, the animals, birds, and creeping things,’ in response to his displeasure with their wickedness, and chose to flood the Earth to rid it of this pestilence. However, God found a few people who were not utterly irredeemable – a 500-year-old man named Noah and his family and instructed them to build a giant ship, or ark, to house animals to seed the newly purified Earth.
After the flood receded, according to the account, God allegedly said, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man or send a flood to destroy all living things, even though mankind’s heart is evil from childhood.’
Enter the Ark Encounter, a Christian pilgrimage site located in Williamstown, Kentucky. Answers in Genesis, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization quartered in Hebron, Kentucky, developed and peddled the project to the state and locality as an amusement park, worthy of state money because of sales tax and spinoff tourism revenue.
The State of Kentucky offered $18 million in sales tax rebates, and the City of Williamstown, a city with a population of 3,925 people, issued $62 million in bonds to help fund the park. Despite this financial support, Answers in Genesis has continued to litigate to minimize tax costs.
Ark Encounter attempted to dodge a 50-cent Williamstown ticket tax, intended to fund the local fire, EMS, and police services, by selling the property to an affiliated nonprofit for $10. The state of Kentucky annulled that transfer suspending the $18 million in sales tax rebates because the law requires the reimbursements only to a for-profit company. The local school district is also in court, alleging the property is undervalued and should be paying about $460,000 more a year in property taxes.
Ark Encounter is one end of a Fundamentalist Christian tourism corridor with the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky the other. The Creation Museum is a 75,000-square-foot facility with about 150 exhibits, a 200-seat theater, a state-of-the-art planetarium, a petting zoo, and nature trails to substantiate accounts of Biblical literalism.
A 65-year-old Australian named Ken Ham is the brain behind both endeavors and the driving force behind Answers in Genesis, a company ostensibly intended to enable Christians to defend their faith and attack scientific evidence of evolution and the age of the Earth and universe. Aside from his fervent belief that the Earth is 6000-years-old and created by a Christian God in 6 days, he also disbelieves in climate change and feels homosexuality is a sin.
As a condition of employment, the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. Oddly, despite public co-funding of the endeavor,
The Ark Encounter is not a theme park, despite the zip lines and the petting zoo. Instead, industrial buses transport visitors one mile from colossal parking lots to the admissions center, where they pay a $40 fee to enter the park. The centerpiece is a replica of Noah’s Ark, built, of course, to the specific dimensions documented in the Book of Genesis. The massive model includes three decks of exhibits accompanied by a soundtrack to enhance the experience, along with plastic replicas of animals, including dinosaurs, in cages.
Included within the exhibits are depictions of a young woman falling away from a Christian God, of course then into a life of drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity, ultimately redeemed by her acceptance of Jesus Christ. Large portraits of people coexisting with dinosaurs along with technical discussions of how this occurred. Series of murals instruct visitors with arguments to frustrate those dogmatic science types and convince them of the error of their ways.
It is easy to throw rocks at these odd beliefs as they are impossible, but they are also dangerous when mobilized in the public realm. Such endeavors as the Creation Science movement and the later evolution called Intelligent Design have been pervasive movements and have corroded primary and secondary education textbooks for years. There is evidence that primary and secondary school teachers have trimmed their discussion of evolution and presented some information on Creation Science or Intelligent Design.
More prominently, belief in fables does matter. It is not a difficult stretch to go from the idea of a Godhead creating a world from nothing then flooding it to kill everything and start over to a concept of an international elitist liberal political organization trafficking underage children for sexual purposes. About 27% of white evangelical Protestants say the claim that Donald Trump has been fighting a group of child sex traffickers is mostly or entirely accurate. About 62% of white evangelical Protestants believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, about 55% believe the ‘Deep State’ was undermining the Trump administration, and 49% believe Antifa was primarily responsible for the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
United States President Joe Biden will meet this coming Wednesday, June 16, 2021, with Russian Federation President Putin at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This neutral territory location provides the meeting for two leaders who do not want to show any deference to the other. President Joe Biden will use this encounter to substantiate himself as a strong world leader capable of mastering America's favorite punching bag, Vladimir Putin.
Unlike former President Donald Trump, who showed a groveling subservience to Putin at a joint press conference following a similar meeting, President Joe Biden will not appear on the same stage with Putin, so not allowing Putin the opportunity to appear as an equal, a trademark snub for the newly minted President. Biden similarly downgraded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, bypassing him to communicate instead to his doddering father Saudi King Salman, and slighted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making him wait weeks for his initial telephone call.
Topics on the agenda for the meeting appear to include cybersecurity, election interference, the Ukraine and Crimea situation, and a possible prisoner exchange in return for reforms. The post-meeting press conference will allow Biden to describe his thorough slapping around of Putin. In addition, Biden will inform the audience of his formidable new stance, zero-tolerance, and willingness to negotiate only from a position of superiority.
Despite the propaganda, the Russian Federation poses little in the way of a military threat to the West, especially the United States, and its economy, the 11th largest in the world, is smaller than either Italy or Canada. The real risk is its immense stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The Russian Federation's gross domestic product (GDP) figures are flat, as depicted in the above chart. The comparison to the United States and China GDP values shows its advancing irrelevance as a world power.
Corruption plagues the Russian Federation economy, and political reforms have stalled in recent years. The Russian Federation has a predominantly statist economy with a high concentration of wealth in officials' hands, particularly in the energy, transportation, and banking sectors. As one of the world's leading producers of oil and natural gas, the Russian Federation is vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles, and its dependence on revenues from fossil fuel sales is a significant weakness.
Aside from the cyclical nature of fossil fuel revenues, future declining world use of fossil fuels will reduce this revenue base, further imperiling an already delicate economic situation.
As depicted in the above chart, the Russian Federation population growth has been flat, posing ominous potential issues, including an almost inevitable decline in world relevancy. In 2021 there will be about 9.71 births/1,000 population and about 13.4 deaths/1,000 population, for a negative population growth rate. Life expectancy at birth is about 72.2 years, the 159th in the world, indicative of complex social and medical delivery problems. The infant mortality rate is about 6.51 deaths/1,000 live births, with a rating of 169th in the world, another indicator of economic and medical issues.
In addition, the Russian Federation faces an aging-out of the working population and will be losing as many as 600,000 workers annually over the next six years. Actuarial calculations predict the Russian Federation is likely to go from around 146 million population today to about 135 million in 2050, a 7.5% decrease.
As depicted in the above chart, the Russian Federation's military spending has been small, although it composes a relatively percentage of its gross domestic product. As detailed in a previous investigation, the Russian Federation's 2018 expenditures were only about 9.5% of the United States and about 3.9% of a relatively small economy (the 11th largest economy in the world).
Russia maintains nuclear forces as artifacts of the former Soviet Union superpower Cold War engagement with the United States. The Russian Federation has about 6,375 nuclear warheads for delivery by air, naval, and ground forces, with more than 1,500 warheads deployed on missiles and bombers capable of reaching the United States.
The Russian Federation's intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force has 318 missiles with about 860 warheads deployed and available for use. Over half of these missiles are Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV), meaning they carry multiple warheads.
The Russian Navy operates 11 nuclear-powered nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) of three classes which form its primary nuclear deterrent. Russia flies two 50 nuclear-capable heavy bombers - the Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95MS Bear, and both are aged platforms.
The Tu-160, more commonly known as the Backfire Bomber, was designed in the 1970s and delivered in the 1980s, and 16 are in service. The Tu-95, the Bear, first flew in 1952 and is the only propeller-driven bomber still in existence and is an artifact of aviation history. Penetration of United States airspace by either plane is highly doubtful.
The United States has 19 aircraft carriers, including 12 large-deck aircraft carriers and seven smaller carriers. The Russian Federation's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has lurched from one embarrassing episode to another, and the floating wreck has to be accompanied by tugboats when it takes to the sea.
In many ways, Vladimir Putin is the best solution to the United States Russia problem:
Size appears to matter:
In the ‘just the facts category,’ there are some thought-provoking items:
The bad and the ugly include:
It is often about the finish:
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.