Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Response to the "Leftists and Conservatives have Different Brain Structures"

A Response to the "Leftists and Conservatives have Different Brain Structures" 

I would like to say that the idea where people with different political affiliations have different chemical and physical brain structures is new, but unfortunately this idea has been pushed since the late and post-World War II era. The Authoritarian Personality was written in 1950 by a group of sociologists from the University of California at Berkeley. Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick,  Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford were all psychologists at the university, and together they performed a series of sociological studies that were aimed to identify what characteristics or environmental factors cause an individual to follow authoritarian or fascist ideologies. 

"The research to be reported in this volume was guided by the following major hypothesis: that the political, economic, and social convictions of an individual often form a broad and coherent pattern, as if bound together by a "mentality" or "spirit," and that this pattern is an expression of deep-lying trends in his personality. 
"The major concern was with the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda. We say 'potential' because we have not studied individuals who were avowedly fascistic or who belonged to known fascist organizations."
The idea is that if one can identify social factors that have potential to cause an attraction to fascist or anti-semitic sociopolitical ideologies, then a global treatment could be procured so that one would be able to prevent future cases of fascist or authoritarian regimes taking control of a nation's political system. The studies were done primarily using questionnaires from different institutions in California, although the majority of the data collected came from college campuses, trade unions, military servicemen, and prisons from the surrounding area near UC Berkeley.

"In order to study potentially antidemocratic individuals it was necessary first to identify them. Hence a start was made by constructing a questionnaire and having it filled out anonymously by a large group of people. This questionnaire contained, in addition to numerous questions of fact about the subject's past and present life, a variety of antidemocratic statements with which the subjects were invited to agree or disagree. A number of individuals who showed the greatest amount of agreement with these statements—and, by way of contrast, some who showed the most disagreement or, in some instances, were most neutral—were then studied by means of interviews and other clinical techniques. On the basis of these individual studies the questionnaire was revised, and the whole procedure repeated."
Now, anyone who is knowledgeable of the scientific method should immediately become skeptical of these studies. When it comes to experimentation, first a hypothesis is formed, and then the experimenter looks for variables that can be manipulated to create consistent results. In the case of The Authoritarian Personality, these variables don't exist. To assume that one can find variables that can be manipulated to create an individual with strong authoritarian or fascist beliefs means that the researchers believe that there is a control factor when it comes to a person's social and political ideologies; therefore, the study itself has determined certain beliefs which are pathological and certain beliefs that are non-pathological. This implication of a pathological belief creates implicit political bias, especially when considering the inherent sampling bias for which the studies have been criticized heavily. For example, the writers of The Authoritarian Personality identified democratic beliefs with Marxist beliefs. For authoritarianism, the researchers used an odd mix of different ideologies.

"Opinion-attitude scales were used from the start in order to obtain quantitative estimates of certain surface ideological trends: anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, politico-economic conservatism. Later, a scale was developed for the measurement of antidemocratic tendencies in the personality itself."
Antisemitism is obviously a factor that could be attributed to a fascist regime, but historically it has not always been the case. For example, Adolf Hitler was clearly an antisemitic leader, but Mao Zedong's cultural uprising in China had little to do with antisemitism; Mao an adamant believer in racial equality, and he even wrote articles that supported anti-discrimination laws in the United States. This however does not subtract from the fact that Mao Zedong's communist regime was one of the most deadly in history, killing more than Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin combined.

Ethnocentrism is the judgement of a culture based off of an individual's own preconceived culture. Although this ideology often leads to racist tendencies, the use of ethnocentrism as a faucet of fascism is to say that the idea for me, an American College student, to say that the heavy presence of female genital mutilation in Somalia is morally wrong would be implicitly fascist or culturally insensitive by this definition. Perhaps the reason that ethnocentrism was used for the study's definition of fascism was due to the rise of nationalism in Germany while Hitler was taking power. Nationalism by definition is to have pride in one's nation, and many believe that pride in one's nation requires that their nation's culture must be compared to the cultures of other nations. This of course is a ridiculous assumption since pride doesn't have to do with comparisons, and a nation is not the same as a nation's government. For example, if a man is proud of his 1994 Ford Taurus, that does not mean that he believes his car is better than all other cars; his pride solely means that he feels a deep satisfaction of the quality of his vehicle. As another example, someone from the US can love his country and its beauty and culture, but he can also despise the grand canyon since its nothing more than a bunch of big holes in the ground. This man is still feeling a sense of pride in his country, which is in essence nationalism.

For politico-conservatism, it depends on which definition the writers were using. Over the years the definition of "conservatism" and what it means in regards to political theory has changed. The term was first used in France in 1818 to describe French politicians who wished to return to the governmental system from before the French Revolution. After Napoleon Bonaparte's dictatorship fell in Paris in 1814, a period of national rebuilding occurred called the Bourbon Restoration. During this time, many French politicians wished to return to the constitutional monarchy that had existed before the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power. This period of course was halted by Napoleon's return in 1815. So, to bring that to the modern day context, conservatism is a wish to return to older forms of governments, or in essence to return to "the way things were." For The Authoritarian Personality, the use of conservatism to describe authoritarianism doesn't exactly make sense; to explain, one must look at the history of the United States before the study had taken place.

1950 was an interesting time for the United States, since the nation had just entered the post-WWII era, Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued in his "new deal," and the African-American Civil Rights movement had entered its genesis with national demonstrations being held in the 1930's and 1940's as a reaction to several democratic policies, including Woodrow Wilson's laws that induced racial discrimination of federal hiring and segregation of the military in 1913. During this time, conservatism held a wide variety of views, but to get a general view of the political ideology in the US, one can turn to Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot which was published in 1953. Kirk's book goes into great detail of the different types of conservative political beliefs that were practiced throughout American history, going all the way back to the American Revolution. In the first chapter, he lays out six characteristics that would later govern the evolution of conservatism into modern day politics. Those characteristics are as such:

  1. Belief in some form of higher power that governs morality in society and people. In the world, there is truth and what is right, and there is falsehood and what is wrong. There is an unchanging standard of morality in society.
  2. Affection for the variety and mystery of human existence. This is in contrast with "radical" views of the time which promoted egalitarianism and uniformity amongst the people. An example of this would be multiculturalism which pushes to meld different cultures under one identity instead of allowing multiple distinct cultures to retain their distinct identities. 
  3. Convictions in a rule of law and a middle class, as opposed to a middle class society. The conservative's definition of equality would be a meritocracy: all men deserve an equal opportunity at success, but this does not mean all men are guaranteed equal outcome from their efforts since not every man will give an equal effort in his respective opportunity. This way of thought promotes individual freedom, and its origin can be attributed to classical liberalism. 
  4. Freedom and property are linked, and without private property the state is unstoppable. The redistribution of wealth through taxes and nationalization of private corporations provides the government with complete control over its citizens, meaning that human rights can be stripped away. As an example, if the state nationalized news media as a way to provide equal pay for reporters, then the right to freedom of press will be taken away by policies of these government news media organizations. 
  5. Distrust in those who wish to radically rebuild governmental and societal systems with abstract designs. The conservative believes that some things are the way they are for good reason. These customary traditions provide a check on both anarchy and man's lust for power. 
  6. Recognition that change may not always be the best option. Potential change should be carefully investigated and debated before its implementation. Hasty political progressions have as much power to destroy as they do to improve, and therefore new policies or ways of government should be thoroughly analyzed in a public forum. 
The American politico-conservative view focused on limiting government power and protecting human rights. This is in sharp contrast of the fascist ideology which promotes authoritarian regimes as opposed to democratic processes derived from the Founding Father's classically liberal beliefs that hold great significance in conservative views. One could argue that since some of the researchers that contributed to The Authoritarian Personality are using the definition that would better suit post-WWI Germany when many wished to return to a constitutional monarchy, but if this were the case then the methods outlined by the book would be ineffective in analyzing many different conservative outlooks throughout the western world. Even if the methods were considered sound, which I will discuss soon why they are not, then they would only be usable for the analysis of the various political parties that formed during the post-WWI reconstruction period and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. In contrast to the post-WWI German conservative ideology, the beliefs as described by Kirk are a reaction to the Democratic party's cultural shift from classical liberalism to more socialist and Marxist ideologies, such as the redistribution of wealth by government mandate. 

After identifying the beliefs used by the researchers of The Authoritarian Personality to describe authoritarianism, one must wonder why these ideologies were used to identify individuals who were subject to anti-democratic propaganda. The use of antisemitism is obvious when considering two of the authors' histories; Adorno was a German composer and philosopher that was living in the United States in exile, and the US's conservative anti-Nazism and anti-communist positions placed immigrants like Adorno in a class of regulating policies for "enemy aliens." Frenkel-Brunswick was a Polish woman who fled to Austrian and then later to the United States during the Nazi's anti-Jewish persecution. Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, and Sanford were also all researchers of ethnocentrism, and they argued that ethnocentrism in a general sense can lead to antisemitism, which in turn caused the rise of Nazism in Germany. This argument ignores the history of post-WWI Germany and the 1918 German Revolution. One of the forces during this civil war was the Social Democratic Party of Germany which was led by a group of Jewish politicians that held strong Marxist and communist views. The SPD's revolution sparked an international conspiracy theory that the Bolshevik Revolution was also started by a secret group of Jews that were determined to take over the world through a communist uprising. It was easy for the German people, who were convinced that the Jews had created the USSR and led the German people into WWI, to blame the Jewish people for the economic struggles through harsh reparation payments and a loss of national pride. The rise of antisemitic ideologies in Germany was a response to the SPD's efforts and the Jewish conspiracy, and after the revolution there were already multiple antisemitic and fascist parties campaigning for dominance in the Weimar Republic. 

Another explanation of The Authoritarian Personality's political bias can be explained by the nature in which the research was funded. The authors of the book were working together with a group known as the "Frankfurt School of Critical Theory," which was a collective of German researchers that had fled Europe during WWII. Many in the Frankfurt School were Jewish Germans who previously conducted research at the Institute for Social Research, a predominantly Marxist school of philosophy that was terminated after Hitler's rise to power. The book was funded by the American Jewish Committee's Department of Scientific Research as a book series called "Studies in Prejudice." These were communist philosophers applying Marxist theories to psychology in order to explain how Germany could have allowed a man like Hitler to rise to power. 

In today's scientific community, the book is heavily criticized for its sampling bias, inherent political bias, and its pseudo-scientific attempt to link mental pathological symptoms with the "right wing." Sadly, as an unexpected product of the United State's national shock of the Holocaust as uncovered by the Nuremberg TrialsThe Authoritarian Personality began to shape the next two years of psychological research, and a psychologist's ability to link certain political beliefs with pathology became considered acceptable to a scientific community.  There are dozens of "scholarly articles" that go out of their way to link both conservative and liberal ideologies to various mental illnesses, yet all of them are unsound in their findings by the definition of the scientific method (which is a common trait in psychological research). 

The Authoritarian Personality is nothing but an analysis of different surveys and questionnaires. The problem with this kind of research is that there is no control, no accountability for different variables, and no ability to construct an experiment that would produce similar results. Surveys should never be used as scientific fact, since the only thing that a survey can provide for scientists is that there may be a correlation between two variables. Correlation does not mean causation. Correlation can be affected by virtually an unlimited different factors, whereas causation must provide a testable reason as to why an experiment under similar conditions will produce similar results. As an example, if there was a survey that sampled 20,000 Alaskans asking what they thought the weather was like today, the survey would not be able to prove that 99% of Americans think its too cold outside. 

If one were to account for other philosophies that came from the Frankfurt School, another incentive for writing a book such as The Authoritarian Personality arises that is far more sinister than just an innocent explanation of fascism in Nazi Germany. Herbert Marcuse was another philosopher who fled Europe during WWII and joined the Frankfurt School. In his infamous essay "Repressive Tolerance," which was released in collaboration with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moor, Jr. in a collection titled A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Marcuse argued that it is morally just to eradicate opposing opinions by force. 
"Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery."
This way of though directly contradicts the theory of the free market of ideas, a philosophy that inspired classical liberals to classify the freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental human right. This belief of "intolerant tolerance" was a dominating belief throughout the Frankfurt school, and The Authoritarian Personality was written as a way to seek out individuals that could potentially think in the wrong way. To quote the book again:
"Opinions, attitudes, and values, as we conceive of them, are expressed more or less openly in words. Psychologically they are "on the surface." It must be recognized, however, that when it comes to such affect-laden questions as those concerning minority groups and current political issues, the degree of openness with which a person speaks will depend upon the situation in which he finds himself. There may be a discrepancy between what he says on a particular occasion and what he "really thinks." Let us say that what he really thinks he can express in confidential discussion with his intimates. This much, which is still relatively superficial psychologically, may still be observed directly by the psychologist if he uses appropriate techniques— and this we have attempted to do.
It is to be recognized, however, that the individual may have "secret" thoughts which he will under no circumstances reveal to anyone else if he can help it; he may have thoughts which he cannot admit to himself, and he may have thoughts which he does not express because they are so vague and ill-formed that he cannot put them into words. To gain access to these deeper trends is particularly important, for precisely here may lie the individual's potential for democratic or antidemocratic thought and action in crucial situations."
The Authoritarian Personality sought to classify not only political beliefs as formations from certain pathological factors, but also to create a way to identify and prevent potential political beliefs under the guise that these pathological factors are clear indicators of a fascist individual or a fascist individual in development.

A more modern example is to state that someone who is against gay marriage most likely suppressing his own homosexuality in fear of his father figure's infantilization and castration. Since the modern liberal considers an opposition to gay marriage as an opposition of human rights, those who are opposed to gay marriage are fascist by nature, and the cause of this fascism is a suppression of homosexual desires. This clearly cannot be the case since there have been a numerous amount of homosexuals that have infamously been against gay marriage, thus rendering the argument mute. In The Authoritarian Personality, the researchers do actually attribute suppressed homosexuality and a fear of castration from an individual's father figure as a key factor in determining the potentiality of one's fascist ideological development.

One quick note: I whole-heartedly support gay marriage, but I won't deny that there are arguments against gay marriage that are not homophobic. For example, there is a classically liberal stance which argues that there shouldn't be government involvement in marriage at all; furthermore, if the government's regulation of marriage expanded to the homosexual community, it would only allow the government's power over love to grow as opposed to fighting for no government involvement in marriage whatsoever. The Authoritarian Government would still classify this stance as homophobic even though it has little to do with a fear of homosexuals; the stance is more centered around the fear of the inherently evil government. 

So what about Gail Saltz?

"So I think what’s really fascinating is that there have been a number of recent studies looking at brain structural differences between liberals and conservatives. And what’s been found in several studies is that liberals tend to have a larger anterior cingulate gyrus. That is an area that is responsible for taking in new information and that impact of the new information on decision making or choices. Conservatives tended on the whole to have a larger right amygdala. Amygdala being a deeper brain structure that processes more emotional information - specifically fear based information. So it’s really responsible for the flight or fright response." 
To begin to deconstruct Gail Saltz' explanation of the physical differences between the Liberal and Conservative brain, there needs to be a little discussion about this quote. Gail Saltz is falsely assuming that a single part of the brain has only one singular job. The cingulate gyrus has many different jobs, including:
"An important part of the limbic system, the cingulate gyrus helps regulate emotions and pain. The cingulate gyrus is thought to directly drive the body's conscious response to unpleasant experiences. In addition, it is involved in fear and the prediction (and avoidance) of negative consequences and can help orient the body away from negative stimuli. Learning to avoid negative consequences is an important feature of memory."
"The anterior cingulate cortex presumptively regulates blood pressure reactions to behavioral stressors."
For the right hemisphere of the amygdala, it not only processes negative emotions, but it also plays a major role in memory:

"The right hemisphere [of the amygdala] is also linked to declarative memory, which consists of facts and information from previously experienced events and must be consciously recalled. It also plays a significant role in the retention of episodic memory. Episodic memory consists of the autobiographical aspects of memory, permitting you to recall your personal emotional and sensory experience of an event. This type of memory does not require conscious recall. The right amygdala plays a role in the association of time and places with emotional properties."
To further discredit Saltz' claim, the idea that right wing and left wing political beliefs are caused by physical differences in brain structure would require her to know two crucial things: there are only two political ideologies in the world that people associate themselves with, and that neuro-scientists actually know enough about the mechanics of the different areas of the brain to the point where they are able to find causation of certain beliefs and thought-processes. Of course, neither of these things are the case. In reality, across the globe there are vastly different political ideologies, including inside the United States. Its also important to note that neuroscience is a relatively new science, and so far there has been very little discovered when it comes to the brains mechanics. 

To go into further detail about the data from Saltz' claims, the study consisted of 82 test subjects undergoing a BOLD-fMRI scan while playing a gambling game that the researchers call "Risky-Gains." Of the 82 selected for testing, 60 were Democrats having an average of 22 years in age, and 22 were Republican having an average of 28 years in age. Women were over-represented by 57.32%, and Democrats were over-represented by 73.17%. In terms of determining ideology, the test subjects were linked to their publicly available voter histories. 

This study doesn't have a large enough or diverse enough sample size to be able to accurately depict future results using similar conditions. It downplays the roles of different factors that could have interfered with a subject's voting pattern; as an example, someone who is twenty-eight years old may have single issues related to their workplace or their specific assets, whereas someone who is twenty-two years old may either still be in college or university or may be dealing with a various number of issues that solely relate to the younger, non-college educated generation of the United States. The study is also based around the concept of risk-taking in an individual, so to say that a Liberal is more likely to accept new information and make decisions based off of said information because he is likely to have a anterior cingulate gyrus (the part of the brain that scientists believe controls the mind's processing of emotions, negative emotions and experiences such as fear, predictions based off of fear and negative emotions, blood pressure, and other possible unknown behavioral processes) because a majority of 60 liberals tested to have this trait is a very, very far reach. 

To conclude, neuro-political science and neuropolitics are pseudosciences at their very best. 

So what about Johnathan Haidt?

I may or may not go into further detail about Johnathan Haidt's TED Talk in a later post, but ultimately the post will be investigating his argument in two areas: what does he personally view as a conservative belief system and a liberal belief system, and is it really plausible to divide every person in the world into two different categories? Honestly, this way of political discussion does nothing but divide people by driving this concept that its always "left versus right" and there's no other way to view the world. This way of thought ignores an infinite number of political affiliations that don't align with modern liberalism and modern conservatism, while also leaving out the individuals that may switch based off of personal factors. 

What is the deal about these pseudoscientific "intellectuals" trying to push this false idea that when people disagree, its caused by a physical difference in their brain structure or by an environmental upbringing? Well, as I pointed out with the Frankfurt School and The Authoritarian Personality, these studies that try to pin political beliefs on physical construction or traumatizing personal events are always going to be factually unsound. The only purpose for this kind of discussion is to push an idea that American Citizens are divided not only by political ideology, but now by physical structure and social upbringing. 

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