Human Exceptionalism

Stupid Science Studies: Political Persuasion Claimed to be Hard Wired in Our Brains

NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes today about another one of those “conservatives are from Venus, liberals from Mars,” kind of studies that come along from time to time.  Supposedly, we are hard wired to our political persuasions, as evidenced by our reactions to various stimuli. From his column, “Our Politics May All Be in Our Head:”

We all know that liberals and conservatives are far apart on health care. But in the way their brains work? Even in automatic reflexes, like blinking? Or the way their glands secrete moisture? That’s the suggestion of some recent research. It hints that the roots of political judgments may lie partly in fundamental personality types and even in the hard-wiring of our brains.

Researchers have found, for example, that some humans are particularly alert to threats, particularly primed to feel vulnerable and perceive danger. Those people are more likely to be conservatives…That makes intuitive sense: If you are more acutely sensitive to risks and more fearful of attack, you also may be more aggressive in arming yourself and more wary of foreigners…

Scholars also measured changes in the electrical conductance of research subjects’ skin, after they were shown images meant to trigger disgust — like a person eating a mouthful of worms. Our bodies have evolved so that when we’re upset, glands secrete moisture to cool us down, and that increases conductance. Liberals released only slightly more moisture in reaction to disgusting images than to photos of fruit. But conservatives’ glands went into overdrive.

Except, in the 1930s, it was the conservatives who were generally the isolationists in the face of Hitler’s threat, and the liberals like FDR, that raised the alarm and prepared for war.  Moreover, to a large degree, it was progressives who accepted the pernicious racial and other discriminatory attitudes inherent in eugenics, which was based on irrational fear of human degradation.

The whole theory doesn’t hold water. Take my pal Ralph Nader as a good example: You will find fewer people in public life who look at things as starkly black or white.  He also worries a lot about threats to public well being from unsafe products and environmental threats. He seeks to protect the weak against the powerful.  Indeed, under the theory Kristof discusses, Nader should be an arch conservative!  And believe me, he is anything but.

Moreover, people often change their political stripes over time. Look at me.  I was very left wing (a reaction to Viet Nam) in my younger years. My first vote was for McGovern. I was considered such a Lefty when I was a fill in talk show host on KGIL 1260 AM  in LA–for example, for publicly opposing Iraq 1–that some listeners tried to get me fired. I wrote four books with Ralph between 1990-1996, the last being No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. The title tells you where we were–and both still are–on issues such as tort reform (about which I have had some minor adjustments in my thinking), and the comparative power of trial lawyers and their corporate counterparts.

Then, I moved to San Francisco.  Over time, living in The Special City–as Secondhand Smokette often calls SF in her columns–changed my perspectives considerably. It began with the horrible AIDS calamity, which was at its height when we moved north from LA in 1992.  The suffering and grief were beyond anything I had ever witnessed, and it was everywhere to see.  While the city mounted an admirable level of support services–official and voluntary, in which I participated–I believed (and believe) that the reigning hyper liberalism that runs this area with an iron hand made the epidemic worse. Some will also tell you that being married to Debra, a moderate political conservative, impacted my thinking, and I would say there is some truth to that.

But the real game changer occurred when I came out against assisted suicide, starting in 1993. I believed–and still do–that opposing AS should be a liberal priority.  But the Left mostly (with the exception of the disability rights movement) goes the other way.  Then, after 9/11–and the Left’s reaction to it–I found that I had very little in common with many of my old comrades in politics.

I don’t mention the above to discuss the substance of the issues: I really don’t want to get into those matters at all, particularly since some are beyond our scope here.  Rather, it is clear that whatever changes took place in my political persuasion, were caused by events, not neurons.  And I think the same is true of liberals who once considered themselves on the political right.

On the other hand: I still consider myself a Martin Luther King liberal.  In other words, I haven’t changed so much: What is now considered a Leftist viewpoint has.  And many now-liberals, once on the right, have said the same thing about conservatism (the religiosity of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, for example, driving some to the Democrats).  Huh: There might be some credence to the theory of hard wiring, after all.