Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Looking to Science for Help in Understanding the Modern Republican Party

"Reality has a well-known liberal bias," they say. 
Is the Republican Party in fact less rational than the Democratic Party? Indeed, the modern Republican Party is a strange beast. It's leaders deny that climate change exists, that tax cuts for the wealthy is the way to tackle income inequality, that fiscal spending at a time when interest rates are effectively zero causes inflation, that saddling students with huge college loans is the right thing to do, and that a commitment from Iran not to develop nuclear weapons and a rigorous inspection regime makes Iran more dangerous than no commitment and no inspection.  Its adherents believe that polio vaccines infringe on liberty and don't work, that the answer to school shootings is more guns in the hands of more people... that background checks for gun ownership are an affront to liberty, and that an increase in the minimum wage is a reason to vote for the other guy.  Don't get me started. 

Is there a statistical difference in the crazy-quotient between our two political parties? Are Republicans more prone than the Democrats to deny facts, make up facts, or to adopt an irrational program?

Psychobabble you say? Looking at the world through a partisan lens you say? Well, consider this. Brain scientists suggest that we are all prone to make stuff up in order to make sense of the world. They also say that we approach the world differently depending on whether we are thinking with a factual mindset or with a religious values mindset. If one party is more given to view the world through a religious values mindset, then science may help explain a statistical difference in the crazy-quotient between the parties—i.e. why Republicans seem to be less reality based.

Our left-brain observes things and then makes up a story to come up with a narrative that is coherent to us. We all do this. In order to make the story coherent our left-brain is prone to ignore facts, or make up facts, as needed in order to make sense of the world. [The right-brain, scientists say, doesn’t seem to care about providing the narrative—or at least we don’t have a good way to access its narrative] This “explainer” function of our left-brain was noticed, among others, by split brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga.

Consider a typical experiment described in Gazzaniga’s book for laypeople, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” Split-brain people have a severed corpus callosum: a broad band of neural tissue that contains more than 200 million nerve fibers and that normally connects the two halves of the brain. The corpus callosum is sometimes cut, on rare occasions, to prevent epileptic
seizures. It allows for interesting experiments. If an image is presented to only the right-brain, a split-brain patient can see and respond emotionally to the image shown, but the patient is not conscious of the image and cannot explain what the right-brain has seen. On the other hand, if an image is presented to only the left-brain, the split-brain patient is conscious of that image and can articulate it.

Here is Gazzaniga describing what happened when researchers flashed the word bell to the right-brain of a split-brain patient, and the word music to his left brain:

“[T]he patient reported that he had seen the word music. When asked to point to a picture of what he just saw, our patient chose the bell, even though there were other pictures that better depicted music. Then we asked him: ‘Why did you pick the bell?’ He replied, ‘Well, music, the last time I heard any music was the bells banging outside here.’ (He was referring to the bell tower) His speaking left brain had to concoct a story to explain why he had pointed to the bell.”  Kindle loc. 1320.

Rather than explain honestly that he did not know why he chose a picture of the bell (which was the actual fact), the patient’s left-brain readily made up a plausible story about it. See 10 min video here. In short, the left-brain engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, and to fit everything into a neat story. It hypothesizes about the structure of the world and it will readily discard facts, or make up facts, in the service of a good story as needed. We all do this.

What does this fact say about us humans. Can this help explain why some people deny the existence of climate change, the benefits of vaccinations, or come to vote Republican in this day and age? Well, since we all do this to make sense of the world, that would not by itself seem to account for a difference between the parties.

However, there seems to be evidence that this tendency to make stuff up is exacerbated if we throw religion into the mix. Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, has an intriguing short piece in the April 19, 2015 New York Times Sunday Review section.

A broad cross-section of scholars, she says, are demonstrating that we reason differently with a “factual mindset” than with a “religious mind-set.” 

“First … the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings…. [T]hey think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” … You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. … We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with … different “cognitive attitudes.”

Second, … the truth of a religious belief … matters more than … the facts. … If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. [But w]e evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. …

Third, … religious and factual beliefs play different roles in interpreting the same events. Religious beliefs explain why, rather than how. People who understand readily that diseases are caused by natural processes might still attribute sickness at a particular time to demons, or healing to an act of God. …. [P]eople use both natural and supernatural explanations in this interdependent way across many cultures.

Luhrmann suggests that there is some evidence that thinking about sacred values may involve different neural signatures in the brain!  She does not define “sacred values” in her article, but she suggests that rationality deteriorates when we approach the world with a religious mind-set. Considering that our brain has a fast and loose relationship with the truth to begin with, that’s a problem. The problem can be dangerous when we act on irrational beliefs, and this, suggests Luhrmann is most likely to occur when we identify with religious values in groups.

This is all a bit vague… but intriguing. We all seek a narrative and are prone to interpret things in ways to make our sense of reality coherent. But if our grounding points are more religious, this may require more fudging of the facts from our left-brain “interpreter” in order to make our reality coherent. If a religious mindset makes us less rational, and banding together with co-religionists makes us darn-right dangerous…, well, it could explain a lot about the modern Republican party.

Note:  This post has benefited from valuable input from Richard Ivry, PhD, professor focusing on cognition and action at UC Berkeley

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