Thursday, July 17, 2014

Open Letter to Chris Mooney Over His Faith In Neuro-Cog Just-So Stories

 A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics.

That's a big deal. It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics—upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really change (most of us, anyway).  Chris Mooney: Scientists are Beginning to Figure Out Why Conservatives Are.... Conservative 

Chris, Chris, Chris. For something called "political identity" to have a genetic basis, there would have to be an actual "thing" that was a political identity. The difficulties in determining what a "conservative" or "liberal" is are enormous. Your claim that, "the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology," is a good example of why it is impossible to define those categories. President Kennedy was considered to be a liberal but he was also a major proponent of the military and military spending, he was quite aggressive in military terms. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was the most liberal president of all in terms of domestic policy and he was talked into escalating the war in Vietnam - urged on by, among others, hold-overs from the supposedly more liberal Kennedy administration. I'd argue that the more "conservative" Johnson was, in fact, far more liberal than Kennedy was. Though I would also argue that the even more conservative Eisenhower was the one who warned about the military industrial complex, something that the allegedly more liberal Truman hadn't done. Truman did, however, have a big hand in initiating the red-scare, according to I. F. Stone and he indisputably had a big hand in one of the more disastrous moves by an American president, to create the CIA. Look at the last two conservative popes who were, none the less, opposed to the various wars of the Reagan-Bush administrations, opposed to capital punishment, opposed to cuts in budgets for aid to the poor and oppressed.

You really think you can tease out a genetic basis for that real life existence of those categories "liberal" and "conservative" and come up with some Just-so story to explain how it relates to human cultures in the very remote and lost past? How about people whose political positions change rather drastically, sometimes in a very short time? How does that fit into your genetically fixed political identity. Read Richard Lewontin, someone who actually knows something about genetics and the actual limits of what can reliably be attributed to them.

I think what you're seeing is the thorough ideological indoctrination of those who rise high enough as "behavioral and brain scientists" that produces the far easier to explain and account for why those selected to respond would be in agreement as to what this nonsense means. And the problem of them being selected would be enough to make the alleged significance of their agreement suspect. They would have had to buy that kind of pseudo-science in order to gain any status in the field, already. This stuff isn't science, it is ideological pushing that has a habit of washing away within a few years, sometimes we are lucky enough to not have a lot of people hurt by it, though sometimes, such as in the backlash against feminism, people do get hurt.


I could add that I had been intending to write on this stuff last week when I read this piece of tripe at Alternet.  I will point out that atheists seem to be the ones pushing biological determinism, about which, more in a minute.

One of the biggest problems, other than the kind of stuff I pointed out above, is that it is a total negation of the liberal idea that political progress on the basis of good will and an ability to appeal to our better natures and our reason is even possible. Which could help explain why liberalism has been in decline since the mandatory requirement of college and university students to take psych courses became widespread.  I'd guess the explosion in the popularity of psychology in the late 60s and early 70s isn't unrelated to the cynical sense of futility that fed that decline.

On a related note, and while listening to the BBC's reporting on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, I remembered how Vernon Kellogg warned about the political and military results when a culture buys into biological determinism, which I'd say is an inevitable result of the kind of materialism that is the basis of this kind of thing.   As another aside about the fixed content of "things" called "conservatism" and "liberalism" when Leonard Darwin wrote to the putrid Charles Davenport to bemoan the failure of Germans to adopt eugenics during the Weimar years, he identified their resistance to eugenics as being due to "conservatism".   The champions of eugenics, including those who approved of the Nazi eugenics program, saw it as "progressive" if not actually "liberal".   I doubt that such opponents to eugenics as Franz Boaz would have used those same terms, not to mention those in the civil rights movement who opposed the inherent racism and class bias contained in eugenics.

1 comment:

  1. Eugenics comes to mind; science that is popular, and so "sciencey." The problem, of course, with "popular" ideas; they usually just appeal to prejudices and preferences we already hold.

    Truth is much harder to grasp.

    And so today anything that is to be dismissed is a "myth," according to the wise on the comments boards. "Bronze Age Myths" is a popular dismissal. What, then, of scientific myths like "selfish genes" (which one Dawkins defender told me was not what the great man meant at all; except, of course, it is was the title of his most famous book)?

    It seems myths can only be things we don't like, and disapprove of. Thus does education shrink the mind and reduce the scope of reason. I saw a comment today that said if we could just disabuse people of the notion America was founded as a Christian nation, everything else would fall into place.

    Because once everyone thinks like me, there won't be any problems.

    I'm sure glad TV didn't make us much worse than we already are, or the internets would have done us in by now.