Sunday, September 6, 2015

Biopolitics: The biology of politics

IVN (Independent Voter Network) published a Dissident Politics article describing the biology of politics. Because the human brain sees and thinks about the world subjectively through a lens of political and/or religious ideology (values or morals), vast differences between believers in different ideologies arise easily and unconsciously. Because ideology distorts reality (facts) and defines common sense (logic), differences of opinion about reality and policy choices are usually impossible to resolve. The article is here.
Biopolitics summarized: Ideological corruption
In politics, the human mind operates in a way such that facts and logic are largely trapped by, or limited to, perceptions of reality and logical conclusions that are acceptable to personal ideology, i.e., one's own values, morals or faith. Although it is counter intuitive, fact and logic are secondary to the dominance of intuitive or subjective values. In other words, personal political ideology masks fact and distorts logic. If one is of the opinion that fact and logic should dominate political reality and reasoning, the role of ideology in politics is at least as corrupting an influence on politics as is special interest money.

That is not an argument that intuition or emotion, i.e., subjectivity or personal bias, is always bad or needs to be completely removed from politics. That is impossible. Human memory (facts), emotion and decision-making are processed together in a brain structure (the amygdalae). It is not possible to fully separate objective fact and logic from subjective ideology, faith or values. Basic human biology precludes that kind of operation - people can strive be close to objective and rational, but they can never be perfect.

The two-party political system fully understands this aspect of human biology. It ruthlessly plays on the biology personal ideology as a means to distract, deceive, misinform and polarize the American people into irrational status quo support. Meanwhile, the two-party system quietly serves its own ends, primarily sustained political power with minimal meaningful opposition, with little or no regard for the public interest as Dissident Politics argued before.

Some examples exemplify and clarify how this aspect of human biology routinely plays out in real wold two-party politics.

Example 1: Research makes it clear that misinformation (spin) is common, “sticky” and hard to correct. Whether conscious or not, politicians and partisans routinely rely misinformation or spin in their political rhetoric and logic. In this context, misinformation includes denying, distorting, hiding and irrationally weighting relevant facts and arguments. It is much easier to accept or accord undue persuasive weight to information that agrees with a person's pre-existing ideological beliefs or values. Critically assessing truthfulness or to objective persuasive weight is much harder and most people are unwilling or uncomfortable with that. 

Even retraction of unintended false information often fails and attempts to fix rhetorical or fact errors can strengthen incorrect beliefs. Researchers have observed that simply retracting a piece of misinformation "will not stop its influence". The two-party system is fully aware of the power of misinformation and this aspect of human biology. That knowledge is applied with a vengeance against the American people to serve narrow interests, e.g., both parties and their politicians.

Example 2: Dr. Michael Shermer, a libertarian and editor of Skeptic magazine, described the impact of this aspect of human cognitive biology on his personal assessment of a political issue. His understanding first required self-awareness of his own biological nature. He described the impact of his own libertarian ideology on how he saw and applied logic to the gun control debate: “Take gun control. . . . Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn't fit my creed [i.e., his ideology]. In several recent debates . . . . I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in.” 

In this case, a thoughtful person who considered themselves to be rational and solidly grounded in reality (facts) realized that his own subjective ideology, libertarianism in this case, led him to ignore or distorts facts and, in part, that affected his logic as applied to the gun control debate. In this case, personal political ideology led to ignoring or distorting facts that tended to contradict or undermine the ideology. 

Example 3: Consider this experiment using a hypothetical brother-sister incest scenario. The short interview transcript shows conflicts between uncomfortable facts and ideology or morals playing out. It is obvious from the transcript that subjective ideology struggles against accepting objective facts that undermine or contradict ideology. The experimental subject is simply unaware that he or she is trying to pound a round subjective peg into a square objective hole. The effort just doesn’t make sense, not even to the person involved. Unspun facts keep getting in the way of the logic needed to rationalize disapproval of the incest incident used in the experiment. If this was a political situation, the facts would be spun (denied, ignored, distorted or logically underweighted) and the rationalization would be much easier. In that case, the fact spinning would be done by the politician or partisan speaker and/or by the listener.

Fact and logic vs. ideology conflicts like this play out for all or essentially all issues in politics. If there are exceptions, they are rare.

Being rational is affected by human physiology, e.g., blood sugar levels, physical fatigue and being sleepy. Perceptions of reality and logic are subject to an astonishing array of unconscious biases, e.g., priming effects, framing effects, halo effects, anchoring effects, confirmation bias and the powerful but easy to invoke “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) bias.

Political rationality varies with intellectual engagement and open mindedness. People who are mentally engaged are “less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers [and] more skeptical about their intuitions.” A political mindset where the slow, hard to use rational brain has conscious impact is more rational than a mindset that relies on the easy, comfortable, subjective political auto-pilot that people normally rely on. Objective politics is neither easy nor for the faint of heart.

Example 4: Some people do see this aspect of human biology in human affairs and a need to guard against it. In the context of the law, see, e.g., Brooklyn Law Review, vol. 79, issue 1, pages 107-174, 2013, quoting Justice Sonya Sotomayor on judging: "We have to know those moments when our personal bias is seeping in to our decision-making. If we’re not, then we’re not being very good judges. We’re not being fair and impartial." Some judges criticize others for pretending their biases are not there at all, e.g., Justice Scalia claims to be an unbiased textual originalist, but to support his conservative views on abortion, states’ rights, guns, and other issues, he relies on subjective (ambiguous) rules of legal interpretation that allow him to rationalize his conservative legal opinions. Objectively, Scalia's biases could not be clearer, but to Justice Scalia, such an accusation is pure nonsense.

The same is true for politicians and partisan pundits - they need to when personal bias distorts laws facts and logic. Unfortunately, they rarely know bias because seeing it is uncomfortable and requires moral courage.

No comments:

Post a Comment