Thursday, August 31, 2006

Politics as Science- Part 3: Packs and Pachyderms.

Humans are pack animals. Did you know that? We’re kind of like wolves. We naturally develop a hierarchy of dominance and, most importantly for this discussion, determine who is part of the in crowd, and who is part of the out crowd. Howsoever is part of the out crowd is automatically hated. They aren’t with us, so they’re against us, to steal a phrase from our illustrious leader.

These are not the functions of the reasoning human. They belong to the primal parts of our brain that evolved with our ancient ancestors. Those same ancestors didn’t care too much about whether we need tort reform or not. They were much more concerned with surviving, and being in a group is a much better way to survive. As such, it’s really no surprise people get so heated about politics. When someone attacks a person’s political party they are attacking their in crowd. The response is emotional, not logical, and now we have proof.

In a recent study done at Emory University, researchers used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging on the brains of 15 men self-reported as either strongly democratic or strongly republican. Both groups were shown videos of their preferred presidential candidate, this was just before the 2004 election, blatantly contradicting themselves. Both groups let their own candidate off the hook while being highly critical of the opposing candidate.

The brain imaging helps to explain. Areas of the brain most associated with logical reasoning were dark, whereas areas of the brain most associated with emotion, conflict resolution, moral judgment and accountability, and, once a conclusion had been reached, areas associated with reward and pleasure. There was absolutely nothing associated with logical reasoning in these people’s conclusions. It was all irrational emotion.

These people were literally getting a high from confirming their own candidate’s superiority to themselves. And absolute none of us can say “Oh, well I’m different.” No. No you’re not. Unless parts of your brain are missing or in different locations, you are exactly the same. We can all fall victim to this kind of bias. All of a sudden, and very easily, the correct answer becomes immaterial as we desperately try to rationalize our preexisting conclusion.

The importance of this simple study is far reaching. We now have a neurological base to help explain how so many people can ignore evidence that is seemingly self-explanatory to outsiders and reach illogical conclusions which they then defend vocally and sometimes violently. And what seems obvious to me and doubly depressing is that scientists have been well aware of these biases for hundreds of years.

Science has a strong self-correction mechanism whereby biases are put into the bright light of raw, logical criticism for exposure. Yes, some of the opponents of some particular research will be biased, and this bias will be the true basis of their opposition. But they, as must all scientists, must develop criticisms within the framework of logical thought and argument.

So, ironically, in science, your most vocal opponent is your most trusted cohort because you can rest assured that if there are problems in your work, they will find them. In politics, since this isn’t the case, your opponent is someone whom you consider having whacked. You do not rely on your opponent to find problems in your thought to allow you to develop and ever more refined law, or bill, or whatever. You want to have the right answer, and have it now, and anyone who says otherwise must be beaten to a pulp.

I do not entirely blame the politicians for this. Politicians are, by the nature of politics, some of the savviest people to have ever walked the Earth. They are keenly aware of what people want of them because, if they aren’t, they will get voted out before you can say governator. They not only want an answer and they want it now, they know that if they don’t get an answer now another politician will rise up with the answer to the electorate’s problems, right or wrong. Because, remember, people don’t care about the answer being correct.

Politicians are, in many ways, forced into this in-crowd/out-crowd conflict because people so naturally fall into it. People want to fall into it. It easily defines who is part of your group and, most importantly, who you are. Self definition is a strong drive. While the population must put politicians’ feet to the fire, so must politicians do the same to those they lead.

People are stupid. We’re all stupid. We naturally and easily fall into irrational and emotional thought. As in the world of science, we must all work together to catch ourselves. We must teach logical thought from an early age. We must remind politicians and allow ourselves to be reminded by them. We must literally force ourselves, regardless of how bad it can feel sometimes, to recognize that we can be wrong, and our group may not be defined as we would like.

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