Can a machine tell whether you are liberal or conservative? There have been a lot of articles lately, revealing the light that science has shed upon the way personality and even brain architecture correlates with your politics. This article by Chris Mooney is very informative: “We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things… It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently.”
These results span a wide variety of technologies from brain scans to chemistry. Especially interesting (to me) is how eye-tracking technologies zero in on levels of aversion and arousal that correlate with this “whig versus tory” or liberal versus conservative personality divide. Do any of you recall my forecasting exactly this use of eye-tracking methods, way back in SUNDIVER (1980)?
Mooney writes: “Hibbing isn’t the only one to have found a relationship between conservatism and stronger disgust sensitivity—this result is also a mainstay of the very influential research of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies how deep-seated moral emotions divide the left and the right.”
In contemplating this, one has to wonder why these studies have been glommed-upon by liberal media and evaded or denounced by conservative pundits. After all, the fact that liberals and conservatives think differently is value-neutral, on its own. (Note, for example, that this article I’ve cited is in Mother Jones. Still, the science is real and unambiguously telling.) Have we stumbled upon one of the underlying reasons for the “war on science” itself? Notably, one of the top researchers in brain-personality-values – Jonathan Haidt – cautions against leaping to premature conclusions.
All of this seems ironic, since liberalism usually pushes against generalizations that portray human behavior as involuntary, resulting from differences of human type. (The great exception heretofore has been Gay-ness, which liberal dogma proclaims to be entirely genetic and compulsory-predestined, by type.) While conservatives tend to accept systematic inner difference as a compelling reason for variation among kinds of people (but vehemently deny it with regard to homosexuality.) One might have expected them to be shouting these results, rather than repressing them.
Yes, the Mother Jones article ends on a hopeful note… that understanding these differences might be one more step toward reciprocal tolerance and returning the the gently positive art of negotiation. But in order to view things that way, using science to help understand each others’ differences… well… that goal already shunts you toward one side of the divide.
I will offer you my own model of what I consider to be the deepest difference underlying our modern politics… having almost nothing to do with superficial issues or the silly “left-right axis”… in another posting.
== Or could disease be a major factor? ==
The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship and all your cherished beliefs, by Ethan Watters: Studies have compared cultural groups on the individualist-collectivist spectrum with data collected from the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network. They confirm that collectivist cultural norms coincide somewhat with in-group paranoia and exclusion of outsiders who might carry pathogens. (So much for the inherent niceness of socialism.)
Further, researchers made a prediction: that regions with a balkanized landscape of localized parasites would in turn display a balkanized landscape of localized customs and conspicuous cultural differences among human populations—dialects, unique religious displays, distinctive art and music, and the like.
Ethan Watters writes: “Thornhill and Fincher, however, didn’t stop for a breath. By the time the two published a major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, they had marshaled evidence that severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior. Moreover, these pathogen-avoidant collectivist tendencies, they wrote, coalesce over time into repressive and autocratic governmental systems.”
Read this fascinating article till you get to this amazing hypothesis: “Conservatives (with their collectivist values emphasizing religion, tradition, and regionalism) and liberals (with their individualist values of openness, anti-authoritarianism, and experimentation) have spent the better part of 10 years now manning their battle lines over the issue of universal access to health insurance coverage. If Thornhill and Fincher are right, conservatives may have had more reason to oppose the Affordable Care Act than they currently understand. Might an effective health intervention such as Obamacare move the country, on some deep psychological level, away from conservative values and toward more liberal ones? Is it possible that there are utterly unacknowledged stakes in this battle?”
On the other hand: “Higher temperatures, elevated sea levels, and increased precipitation in some areas—all predicted to accompany climate change—are expected to bring tropical diseases to higher latitudes and elevations in the coming decades. Pathogens that once perished in cold climates and dry soils may find new congenial zones of heat and moisture, and new host populations.”
== related bits of news… ==
Can we drive our own evolution? Specific examples of human cultural adaptations driving gene changes include lactose tolerance among peoples who raised milking cows and sickle-cell disease as a response to malaria. Not mentioned in this interesting article, but described in Christopher Wills’s fascinating Children of Prometheus: The Accelerating Pace of Human Evolution, is the way advanced clothing and shelter methods enabled humans to colonize the Tibetan Plateau, necessitating major changes in blood chemistry that give Tibetans their vaunted tolerance of the thin air at high altitudes. I have my own theory… that the discovery of beer caused huge changes in the human genome, enabling us to be among the few species who can — (though tragically not always) — control our appetites for addictive substances.
A suite of health-monitoring apps could make monitoring conditions such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, diabetes, kidney disease, and urinary tract infections. Colorimetric tests are widely used for medical monitoring, drug testing and environmental analysis because of their portability, compact size, and ease of use.
The thymus, which is critical for immune function, becomes smaller and less effective with age, making people more susceptible to infection. A team at the University of Edinburgh managed to rejuvenate the organ in mice by manipulating DNA.
=== The end of science and progress? ==
Joel Mokyr is a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University and author, most recently, of The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution. I cite him in my article “Singularities and Nightmares,” as having been active in scholarly work refuting the “end of progress” meme that has been spread by cynics like his fellow Northwestern professor Robert J. Gordon and by Journalist John Horgan.
In The End of Science, (1996), Horgan declared that “the modern era of rapid scientific and technological progress appears to be not a permanent feature of reality, but an aberration, a fluke. . . . Science is unlikely to make any significant additions to the knowledge it has already generated. There will be no revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick.”
Mokyr’s latest salvo, The Next Age of Invention, in City Journal, is well-worth reading: “Technology’s future is brighter than pessimists allow.” Mokyr is no unalloyed polyanna. He knows that we face “headwinds” and that there will be many problems. But the answers lie ahead of us, in confident problem solving, not in a romanticized past. One passage I found especially telling:
“As Edward Tenner pointed out in his pathbreaking book Why Things Bite Back, the history of technology is permeated with unintended consequences and negative side effects of innovation. How could it not be? After all, if every possible implication of a new technology was known beforehand, it would hardly be an innovation. Some cases of technology creating an unexpected mess are notorious, such as asbestos (originally touted as a fireproof and totally safe new building material) or adding lead to gasoline to prevent engine knock. To deal with such negative effects, we need not less but more innovation—to clean up the mess of earlier technological change where something went awry. Much like medication, technological progress almost always has side effects, but bad side effects are rarely a good reason not to take medication and a very good reason to invest in the search for second-generation drugs. To a large extent, technical innovation is a form of adaptation—not only to externally changing circumstances but also to previous adaptations.”
Have a read. Regain your confidence. We’ll need it. Every drop of it – any day of pragmatic negotiation and collaborative-competitive problem solving – is more valuable than any cynic’s entire year.