The Scientism of Extremism

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Today, I ran into an article that, in the days before alternative media, would have been very upsetting. Now, with the loosening of the death grip of the liberal establishment on news and opinion, it is mostly amusing. The article is titled, "Is This Column Futile?" and, in a step towards openness and honesty, CBS News, the former employer of Dan Rather, had the good grace to label it as commentary.

The article starts off with a pair of questions. "Is political persuasion mostly useless? Is the percentage of people essentially immune to rational argument about political things increasing?" Since this is a liberal news outlet and the left no longer controls all three branches of the government, I doubt anyone will have any trouble guessing which three-letter affirmative adverb starting with "y" the answer will be.

(Although the article labels all "extremists", left or right, as irrational, this is a red herring. Many media figures, including Rather himself, regard themselves as not especially liberal. See also link on Rather below.)

What is more interesting are the pseudoscientific trappings that author Dick Meyer comes up with.

A psychologist in Atlanta and a business school professor in Syracuse, N.Y., have interesting observations on these sorts of questions from the entirely different perspectives of neuroscience and public opinion research. The good news may be that the partisan lout in your office who absolutely will not listen to reason may not be at fault; he may just be a slave to his ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The bad news is that these louts may be becoming more prevalent -- and more loutish.
Hmmm. CBS, home of Democrat operative Dan Rather, who once described the New York Times as "middle of the road", is getting ready to talk about "partisan louts". Get ready, boys and girls! It's time for a round of conservative-bashing! And this one appears to come with a built-in excuse for itself failing to convince any non-liberals who happen by, which happens to be insult them as well.

Meyer kicks off by, in his own words, "rap[ing] and pillag[ing] ... science" with his layman's explanation of a recent scientific study of what parts of the brain might participate in the evaluation of political data.
When 30 self-described partisans were presented with contradictory quotes about the candidates (President Bush supporting, then denouncing Ken Lay; Sen. John Kerry supporting, then denouncing a Social Security overhaul), it was the portions of the brain that process emotion, not rational thinking, that became active. "The thinking caps went off and the feeling caps went on," is how Westen put it to me.

Normally, Westen says, a brain faced with contradictory information will fire up the zones where reason or rational thought happens. The 30 partisans in this study were presented with contradictory quotes from Bush and Kerry, but also from Hank Aaron, Tom Hanks and the writer William Styron. They processed the information about the non-politicians with the reasoning centers of the brain. It was politics that short-circuited them. ("This is your brain; this is your brain on politics.")

It would be reasonable to ask whether all brains -- not just partisan ones -- respond to political information emotionally. Westen says the answer is clearly no, that research does demonstrate that centrists or independents are more able to process rational and non-emotional political information.

But Westen's MRIs [magnetic resonance imaging --ed, and see below] show that is clearly not the case with political contradictions processed by a partisan brain. That process is almost entirely emotional, heating up regions of the brain that govern things like forgiveness, relief and pleasure. The reasoning zones stayed ice cold.
First of all, to get a minor point out of the way, the study (which was presented in January, but has either not yet been published or was published too recently to show up anywhere) was performed with a more sensitive variety of MRI known as "functional magnetic resonance imaging" (fMRI). I do this, not to belittle Meyer for using the term "MRI", but because it might be worthwhile to consider just what, exactly, this technique really tells us about what is happening in a brain. (And the more correct technical term gets used below.)
The fMRI technique that has been used most frequently in cognitive neuroscience research is the BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) method. The assumption that underlies BOLD is that neural activation is correlated with changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation and that the magnetic properties of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood are not the same (4). Banich (4) has referred to a "veritable explosion of research" that has appeared using the BOLD method of fMRI.
So Westen probably measuring which areas of the brain received more blood flow. fMRI can do this at a very impressive degree of resolution for a non-invasive technique. Nevertheless, despite a high degree of scientific excitement over the possibilities presented by the technique, it has many potential pitfalls.
... There have been a growing number of cautionary voices that are beginning to appear in print that address the limitations of fMRI. Specific, technical concerns are about what conclusions can be made about the relation between fMRI and neuronal activity, and how neuronal activity, blood flow in the brain, and fMRI signals are connected (7). For example Heeger and Ress (7) point out the fMRI is an indirect measure of brain activation (brain cells firing) and address some of the weaknesses of the "linear transformation model". This model uses a mathematical formula to interpret fMRI results, and states that the strength of the fMRI signal is proportional to local neuronal activity that has been averaged over a space of several millimeters and over a time period of several seconds. Although Heeger and Ress conclude that the linear transformation model is a "reasonable and useful approximation" for what is actually taking place in the brain, they qualify this conclusion by stating that it applies to only some recording sites, in only some brain areas, and only when using select experimental protocols.

Heeger and Ress also cite several factors that may influence the relationship between the variables of the neural activity, the fMRI signal and the blood flow in the brain. These include the fMRI acquisition technique (BOLD results sometimes differ from other non-BOLD methods), the behavioral and stimulus protocols that are used (one working memory task may produce different fMRI results than another working memory task), the data analysis method that is used, and lastly how the neuronal activity itself is quantified and measured.

A recent article (8) refers to the "growing controversy over fMRI scans" and quotes several prominent neuroscientists who cite a range of concerns about the use of fMRI, the limitations of the method, and the reliability and validity of the conclusions that have been made on the basis of fMRI data. The initial excitement over fMRI and the great expectations may have been in part due to the fact that it does provide both spatial and temporal improvements in image resolution when compared with the older and more expensive PET scan (4). More than one researcher has referred to fMRI data as "gross" claiming that the localization of cognitive functioning is not consistent with the notion that brain activity for even simple cognitive activities is distributed in neural networks (8). This search for the localization of function has led some critics of fMRI to dismiss it as a 21st century variety of 19th century phrenology (8). There is also speculation that some of the false confidence in fMRI results may be due to the fact that the vivid, colorful graphics that fMRI produces, suggest a level of precision in measurement that is misleading (8).

Others have voiced concerns over fMRI's imaging power, the ability to make generalizations about individual brains when using fMRI data that are based on group averages, questionable forensic applications (using fMRI results as evidence in a court of law), as well as neuromarketing applications (using fMRI results to tell how consumers respond to certain products) that raise a host of neuroethical concerns (9). For example, in one study where six different people were given the same spatial memory task to perform, the fMRI scans for each of the six yielded extremely varied patterns of activation (8). In another study that looked at the findings of 38 different fMRI studies that purported to locate the region in the brain responsible for "executive functioning" the areas that were identified varied considerably from study to study (8). Therefore fMRI results cannot be generalized to entire populations, as each individual's result is different.
I am no expert in fMRI, so I will have to let the above speak for itself on the matter of how much faith to place in the fMRI results. What I will do is come up with quite a few other interesting questions about this study and about how its results could be interpreted. How long was each participant given to consider each pair of quotes and the "exculpating information"? Did the participants believe everything they read? I am not denying that useful data were gained from this study, but I regard the sweeping claims made by Meyer with great suspicion.

Let's consider what the participants were reacting to. The Emory press release for the study is far clearer than Meyer's description of what the participants read.
During the study, the partisans were given 18 sets of stimuli, six each regarding President George W. Bush, his challenger, Senator John Kerry, and politically neutral male control figures such as actor Tom Hanks. For each set of stimuli, partisans first read a statement from the target (Bush or Kerry). The first statement was followed by a second statement that documented a clear contradiction between the target's words and deeds, generally suggesting that the candidate was dishonest or pandering.

Next, partisans were asked to consider the discrepancy, and then to rate the extent to which the person's words and deeds were contradictory. Finally, they were presented with an exculpatory statement that might explain away the apparent contradiction, and asked to reconsider and again rate the extent to which the target's words and deeds were contradictory.
The first thing that jumps out at me is this: If I were a strong supporter of a candidate and heard that he was dishonest, for example, I might be very upset. There can be many very good reasons for being upset that do not preclude someone having chosen to support his party or candidate for some perfectly rational reasons. Among them: a feeling of betrayal, worry about whether the alleged contradiction is indeed true, indignation that his man is being slandered, and shock at having discovered something like that for the first time.

And, concerning the "ability to detect contradictions".... I can think of at least two perfectly valid ways to explain that without deciding that partisans are necessarily making all their political decisions by whim.

(1) If you heard something disappointing about a family member or a friend, might you, too, be upset? (Hearing something about a politician might be similar to a partisan.) And might you experience a period of denial before it all sank in? Might Westen have seen the behavioral and blood flow correlates of denial, a normal psychological phenomenon, among at least some of our partisans?

(2) The study provided the partisans with "exculpatory statements" that might explain (away) the initial contradiction. Might the strong partisans, many of them political junkies, have already known about the exculpatory information for the man they supported? In that last case, our partisan might feel anger that his man's electoral chances are being hurt by a slander he thinks many people believe (and so will have his emotional areas lit up). And, since he already knows about the extenuating circumstances, he will "miss" the contradiction on its initial presentation.

More troublesome about how these data are being interpreted is the fact that the short period of a brain scan is being taken as representative of all the thought processes of the partisans. This overeagerness, even on the part of the scientists in the study, is alarming. Did they control for some of the factors I have brought up or answer the questions I raised? Or are they practicing "21st century phrenology"?

I am not denying that many strong partisans might have chosen the candidate to support for irrational reasons, but a few fMRI scans is a very thin reed upon which to base the conclusion that one's whole politics has been formed in this way. This would be the case even if the conclusion that these partisans reacted solely on emotion when they read the quotes about their man turned out to be true.

Furthermore, the interpretation of the study seems to make the common and incorrect assumption that emotions and reason are completely unrelated. Considering, for example, Ayn Rand's conception of emotions as lightning-fast evaluations of new data using previously-reached conclusions, the usual assumption completely misses many interesting ways to evaluate the data and so form new questions to ask. Might the sudden jolt of discovering that someone one supported whole-heartedly make it possible for that person to ultimately reject that man and his political philosophy? (Consider that it was the shock of witnessing murders committed by men shouting "God is great", after all, that ultimately lead Wafa Sultan to reject a deity and the religion that went with him. I doubt that an fMRI would have shown her emotional areas dormant in favor of the reasoning ones at that very moment. If this can happen in religion, why not politics?)

Meanwhile, the CBS writer runs with his conclusion that partisans always emote their way into strongly supporting one candidate or another and misapplies it to some surveys about how people identified themselves politically. His profound conclusion follows.
This is not evidence that America is becoming more polarized or that we are fighting a culture war. While it may be evidence that the numbers of extremists are increasing slightly, and that their extremism and intolerance is increasing, it is not evidence that the huge, moderate middle -- that part of the population able to process political information with cold reason [like the author, no doubt --ed] -- is substantially shrinking or becoming more bitterly divided and less tolerant.

All this research may be evidence that some shifts in how we process political information and argument are becoming hard-wired -- in brains, in culture and in media. It seems obvious that the people who hang around blogs, talk radio, cable shout shows and the Congress of the United States are both extreme and emotional. Now we can see it on MRIs.
"The people who hang around blogs, talk radio, cable shout shows and the Congress of the United States"? Who's using emotionally-loaded terminology here? And about what? Discussing politics, the activity that must occur at alternative media outlets because the established one are too wed to their own ideology to tolerate dissent? Who just insulted any reader who uses alternative media or has strong convictions? Who just lapped up an fMRI study without asking even questions an intelligent layman like myself could come up with? And who just asked whether his column was "futile"?

And who is going to soothe himself with science, misapplied like a salve to his inflated ego, that "Anyone who doesn't agree with me isn't thinking rationally and can't help it"? (Which really means, "I can't help it if some irrational subhuman isn't swayed by this column." Heh!) Gosh. Why couldn't everyone have just shut their traps in '04 and used "cold reason" to "dispassionately" support John Kerry, the Candidate of Reason?

Columns fail for many reasons, one of which is the assumption that your reader is an idiot if he doesn't already agree with you. This is a variant of the same old notion. So, yes, the column was futile, but not for the reason its author hopes.

-- CAV


SN said...

"the partisan lout in your office who absolutely will not listen to reason ...may just be a slave to his ventromedial prefrontal cortex."
The logical next step is to send these crazy louts to a mental asylum or to some deprogramming camp. Stalinism is alive in spirit.

Gus Van Horn said...


Excellent point! I wish I'd made it myself!


Apoplexy said...

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