Meyer and the Futility of Political Debate – UPDATED

Well, Dick Meyer at CBS has done it again! I’m not kidding, this fellow manages to find the most interesting things to write about – stuff no one else is looking at because most of us (and 99% of the press) run like lemmings to whatever breathless headline has been deemed “important,” like Birdshotgate…

Today Meyer is wondering whether is political ruminations are worth putting to paper, or is political debate a futile and dead thing?

He wonders about it because of a scientific study which suggests that the brains of political partisans are so chemically overwhelmed as to render most partisans…well…impotent to the allures of reason might be a good way to put it (indulge me, I’m still on a Bryn Terfel high.) It’s not merely that partisans will not listen reason, it’s that reason fails to elicit a productive response.

This is a very interesting piece, and I highly recommend that you read it. Here’s a teaser:

It would be reasonable to ask whether all brains — not just partisan ones — respond to political information emotionally. Westen says the answer is clearly no, that research does demonstrate that centrists or independents are more able to process rational and non-emotional political information.

But Westen’s MRIs show that is clearly not the case with political contradictions processed by a partisan brain. That process is almost entirely emotional, heating up regions of the brain that govern things like forgiveness, relief and pleasure. The reasoning zones stayed ice cold.

Your response, I imagine, is “duh.” Partisans are emotional; stop the presses, get me rewrite. Perhaps. But I find the graphic clarity of colorful brain scans to be sobering. It’s one thing to know that some people get obnoxious during political arguments; it’s another thing to see that 30 adult men who read candidates’ quotes while strapped down in MRI machines didn’t even fire up the thinking parts of their brains.

Sounds alarming, doesn’t it? It might be, too…except I think the study is flawed, or based on an incorrect foundation.

I’d like to see a study that compares these reactions to reactions concerning religious beliefs. I believe you would see very similar chemical reactions in the brain – both politics and religion come down to what you “believe” and that’s what brings in the emotional, whacked-out and unreasonable result. For more and more people in this country politics and religion have become enormously commingled. And I’m not only talking about Evangelical Christians on the right. The secular humanists have their own “religion” as do those who worship at the altar of “political correctness” which clearly has its own list of commandments and sins. Our very polarized, very fragmented society encourages this, largely (sadly) because our education system has spent so much time vaunting “self-esteem” that people have become very protective of whatever belief they’ve decided to hang their hat on; what I think must be right, must be valuable, must have worth, because I am special! And because I am so special, I do not have to be reasonable.

Interesting as this study is, and Meyer has written on it very well – I think a great deal of the blame for this phenomena can also be traced to two bodies: the Christian Coalition of the 1980s and the Clintonistas of the 1990′s. The Christian Coalition, in looking to put prayer back in schools and teach creationism – among other things – began to put politics and morality together, but in a limited way, but I know that many on the left found even those limits to be threatening and troubling, because I was on the left, and I was finding it threatening and troubling.

The Clintons however stepped it up a notch; they were the first and only politicos I ever heard of, in all my years of watching politics, who talked about their opposition not as men and women with differing views but as “evil” people with “morally evil” views. If you did not agree with them, you were suspect; you were evil. This was much more than a simple, “let’s get their people out and our people in” this was a means of taking a large chunk of the Democratic electoral base, and finding a means by which they could be appealed to on a strictly emotional level. Stay on this side, because the other side is morally eeeevil. They want to starve children, kill grandmothers and send women to the back alleys for abortion.

The day I knew I could never vote for Al Gore was the day I watched him campaign – close to the end of the 2000 run – and I heard him shout out, “this is a battle between good and evil.”

And yes, the religious right reacted to that – “we’re evil? No, YOU’RE evil…”

Thus were a thousand scientific explorations of poisonous partisanship and unpersuadability (is that a word) founded.

People like to point to the right and say “they started the religious/political thing.” That might be true, but the Clintons were the one to turn our political process into a ongoing passion play where both sides take turns being Jesus or Judas, depending on the rhetoric and the perspective, and they have never abated from that maneuver.

It is destructive. It is doing terrible things to our country, all of this, because it is obscuring reason and creating a very, very narrow sliver of space in which politicians may operate – which serves the electorate not at all. And it’s creating these scientific reports that appear – on the surface – to mean and measure something. In fact, the report misses the point. It’s not about politics. It’s about what you believe – and these days that means if it’s about politics, it’s about faith.

Now, the real question is, interesting studies aside, how do we FIX this? Let us assume for a second that journalists are as affected by this political/faith knot as other human beings, and that bloggers are too. Journalists tell us they are at the service of our nation, that they hold a public trust, are essentially the Fourth Estate; many bloggers on both sides of the aisle feel that they, too, are working for the cause of their country. How do we help the country get off this destructive mobius strip?

I don’t have an answer. But I suspect that the only way we can even begin to heal this national sickness is to elect into office (particularly into the White House) people who are less polarizing, who have less of a grip on the national heart and the national psyche – people we can look at without feeling that emotional faith/ideology chemical zing. And the only way such people can ever hope to ascend to those offices will be if politicians stop the demagoguery and reporters start actually reporting, again – even if it means reporting “negatives” on candidates they like.

If the press would do its job, political demagoguery would be more difficult to get away with – emotions will eventually, slowly, drain from the political fever swamps and we might once again see reason, debate and substance brought to the fore of our political dialogues.

It will be difficult, but I think we’re running out of opportunities, here. We must try.

UPDATE: Shrinkwrapped takes this on as a psychologist. Maxed Out Mama also has a thoughtful response to all of this with interesting links.

The days fun ended, Meyer has graciously linked to this post over at the Public Eye, so you might want to head over there and watch the bloodletting, er, discussion. :-)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://maxedoutmama.blogspot.com MaxedOutMama

    Probably one of your best pieces ever.

    I don’t think we can wait for the press to get sane. I think we have to build up our own independent press, which bloggers are, in some cases, trying to do.

    The problem is the electorate. We have to stop responding to nonsense and start demanding at least a diminishment of problems.

    The absolutist approaches to life don’t work. They never have.

  • http://benningswritingpad.blogspot.com/ benning

    As long as the MSM is fighting to retain their power they’ll never pull back. They will hurl themselves over the precipice if they think it means pushing thier agenda.

    I would like to see that study done on religious types, too. Could be very revealing.

    I always wonder at the hypocrisy of those who stand, and clap, while the Dems speechify at Churches, but feign horror at the Repubs also speaking from a place of faith.

    “If it was good for you, why is it bad for me?”

  • http://cbsnews.com DickMeyer

    Your honor, I rest my case.

    Anchoress’ response was eloquent, as always, honest and chock full o’intellect — but it was virtually instantaneous. Being smart and writerly, you are able to make an emotional gut response appear as reason mixed with self-conscious belief. You have a massive rolodex of political reference points, concepts and theses; your emotional brain races through them to find information to “down-regulate” the brain pain acceptance of some my observations would cause you. So you respond with quick counters and move on.

    For example: you say the study is flawed. Well, you haven’t read it. You only flew through my unprofessional summation of one aspect of it. My use of the study may be flawed in your mind, but you have no information to rationally declare that Westen’s study is flawed. You just feel that it is. You want it to be. Part of that entails ignoring other information, like Brooks’ research which is what the second part of the column is about. Part of it is blaming — you blame the press, the Clintons, the Christian Coalition.

    Your instant-react — voting the study off the island, declaring it the weakest link — is an act equivalent to something you decry, in your post,”It is destructive. It is doing terrible things to our country, all of this, because it is obscuring reason and creating a very, very narrow sliver of space in which politicians may operate – which serves the electorate not at all.”

    I’ll move on. I sense a tension between your desire for politics to be both rational and belief-based. That is rational — politics are both, of course. But those who attempt to analyze poltiics should also attempt to know the difference.

    But you raise an interesting big picture point: is politics entirely an emotional process? Westen and common sense say no. Westen studied moderate, unaffiliated, independent — you pick the word — and found that are much more able to process information with reason while engaged in political assessments. I think most people observe the same thing here on the regular planet.

    Now, on the Clintons and the Christian Coalition — are they important causes of a) emotionalism in politics and b) extremism? I’d say they are but symptoms.

    There are lots of causes involved — assuming my basic thesis is indeed true, which is debatable. Among the more foundational, in my mind, are the decline of community and the rise of fast information.

    When politics happens outside of organic communities, it tends to be artificial, and that i s alienating. Further, when people do not live in communities they are alienated, they have less “social capital.” They become more susceptible to thinking that their values and lifestyles are endangered, and often they demonize groups as the sources of endangerment — be they the Clintons, the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the ACLU, the Communiost Party, the MSM, CBS, or the Trilateral commission. As always in human history, some people prey on this — Father Coughlin, George Wallace, Al Sharpton — most of modern talk radio.

    Next, fast information — it changes the way brains work. We know this now for fact, not theory. The human brain will respond to a tv show or a blog post differently than a printed newspaper or a live speech.

    I think there some some to improve the situation. The steps would be to eliminate the primary system and limit the duration of campaigns to less than six weeks.

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  • TheAnchoress

    Wow, that’s a great response, Dick, and a fast one, too. Funnily enough, it was a fast – nay – instantaneous one, which makes it both kind of ironic and fun!

    Alrighty, then, I’ll plead guilty as charged, you got me sheriff, I didn’t actually read the report myself – I merely took your interpretation and bare-bones representation and ran with it, feeling free to opine upon that which I was only superficially acquainted, but I plead invincible ignorance due to a lifetime of conditioning! After all, I’ve been trained by “instanewsbreaks” and 22 minute network news programs to take a piece of thin information – or a soundbite – digest it quickly and comment upon it with a room-shaking burp of opinion. It’s a bad habit, I suppose, and one I’m glad you called me on. I must find more time in my day to read more thoroughly…in order to – most of the time – burp up that same opinion! :-)

    You’re suggesting that this rabid and twisted partisanship we’re experiencing as a nation has its roots in the breakdown of communities and in the fast infusion and distribution of information. We’ve talked about this before in a brief sort of way – it needs a whole book (one I wish you’d get cracking at)- and I don’t deny that there is something to be said for your thesis that said breakdown is a large contributing factor to this miserable effect. But I think you might have missed it when I offered up my own thoughts on cause and effect which named the “everyone is special” mindlessness under which we’ve allowed several generations to sprout and grow. I wasn’t only focusing on effect, but offering cause – and it could be argued (and will be because I’m loaded up on caffiene just now) that even the destructive diminishment of communities can be partially traced to the “self-esteem” movement. When “I” and “Me” and all of my “specialness” are the whole focus of my being, then I am moving away from family, I am settling elsewhere and choosing my very insular circle – increasingly there is little thrust upon me that is not predictable and “safe.” When you move into small, like-minded communities, you pull yourself away from waht is surprising, unexpected, varied. You render yourself immune to the vagaries of life in many – not all – ways. You cocoon. And all of that contributes to the “rightness” of one’s partisanship and outlook – it contributes to the “deposit of faith” one builds within one’s life.

    So, I would argue that the breakdown in communities – in association with the ill-advised and over-played “self-esteem” movement – and the zap of instant information (upon which several generations have been raised, since Sesame Street, at least) all play a role. I think we’re BOTH on to something.

    But I don’t know about that 6 week campaign idea. 6 weeks is just enough time to roil emotions into a fever-pitch. We do not do our best work while feverish, and electing a government when emotions are blasting off sounds very unwise to me. Imagine what sort of isolationist policies, for example, could be put into place were the DPW deal alive during a 6 week political campaign? Imagine how a glib Elmer Gantry like Bill Clinton could steamroller anyone if he only had to do it for 6 weeks. Shoot, 6 weeks? He’d just be getting warmed up! :-)

    Three years of campaigning is too freaking long. But I think a solid 6 months is long enough to allow several emotional pitches to be batted about before people need to settle down and vote. These days we might need that – if for no other reason than to test the mettle of the men and women running for office.

  • smmtheory

    One way to start setting things aright would be to stop using the word feel for the word think.

  • Sigmund Carl and Alfred

    Slam dunk post- and interesting responses.

    If I were a member of the MSM, I might be asking the same questions. Mr Meyer assumes that Americans see the MSM as engaged in a ‘debate’ of sorts- and that is where he is sadly mistaken.

    The only real debates in this country are had between neighbors. The MSM, politicians and the vast majority of bloggers serve an agenda. They have no intention of coming to terms or compromise. Why should they? Their interest and concerns revolve only around themselves and their ideologies. They are accountable to no one and there are no repurcussions if they ‘stir the pot’ in an orgy of self indulgence.

    Neighbors, on the other hand, have to come to compromise and make concessions so that life does not revolve around the self absorbed, self important and utterly useless an dendless debates.

    We need to watch out for each others kids, homes and property- in other words, we need to get along.

    That isn’t a reality for politicians or journalists and ideologues/activists- and that is why they are held in such low esteem.

  • http://none Darrell

    Mr. Meyer, did You read the actual study? The original paper was presented in late January 2006 at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif, and the proceedings are not yet available. The paper is not available on the Emory Univ. website either: the “unpublished manuscript” is listed as being “under revision.” I don’t see any links to the actual study in your piece. Did you base your article on the NYT’s treatment? Do you consider yourself an expert on the scientific method to make judgments in that regard? Do you understand the difference between qualitative and quantitative? Between science and pseudoscience? Can you see where researcher bias could have played a role?

  • gcotharn

    This “study” was discussed in this post at neo-neocon, here.
    `
    Just like a poll which asks loaded questions, this “study” uses questionable methodology:
    `
    “In 2004, the researchers recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession.
    `
    The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled. Moments later, the participants read a remark that showed the candidate reversing his position. The quotes were doctored for maximum effect but presented as factual.
    `
    The Republicans in the study judged Mr. Kerry as harshly as the Democrats judged Mr. Bush. But each group let its own candidate off the hook.”

    neo-neocon commented:
    “Actually, come to think of it, I’d like to look at those statements. I wonder what was actually said. It’s possible that there truly might have been some difference in how much each candidate reversed himself in the statements the researchers presented.”
    `
    Exactly. Also, I follow politics pretty closely, and I believe I can recall Pres. Bush’s public statements about Ken Lay pretty accurately. I believe I would have a good chance of recognizing when Pres. Bush’s statements were being cut up and edited in an unfair way – or “Dowdified”. Further, I know, from watching Tim Russert, for instance, that the MSM frequently Dowdifies and mischaracterizes Pres. Bush’s words. Therefore, when presented with an alleged “accurate” quote from Pres. Bush, my innate reaction is “Bullshit. Let me go to the internet and see if that’s actually what he said.” If I were in that MRI study, my innate preference for truth would’ve likely been interpreted as overemotionalism which implied irrationalism.

    [Edited by administrator to insert link]

  • http://cbsnews.com DickMeyer

    Okay, I’m back.

    A footnote to your touche on instant-react: yeah, but I’ve been thinking about the column for weeks so I’d mulled quite a bit on the themes you brought up.

    I’m very reluctant to get into what you wrote about the causal force of the self-help, self-esteem, boomer-narcissism thing — the “triumph of the therapeutic” phillip rieff called it, I think in the late 60′s. Again, I think it’s an effect not a cause. It is one response, one gerry-mandered belief system, to deal with a bundle of dispiriting alienations, like the loss of community. Another symptom. Essentially, I agree with your description of the symptom though.

    More basic, to me, is a line from “Sigmund Carl and Alfred’” prior post: “The only real debates in this country are had between neighbors.” It’s a caricature, but kind of a brilliant one. Neighbors have an organic community. There is nothing artificial about their debates. That’s a good little metaphor. I do hope that blogger reads my column and not just your snapshot. (How does blogging fit in? Is ‘blogging alone’ like ‘bowling alone’?)

    There are lots of reasons why we should be more content than ever: we’re better fed and sheltered, healthier, longer-lived, wealthier, shoes are more comfortable and plagues are way down. Why aren’t we then? Basic of self-esteem books, bad politcians or political movements? I don’t think so.

    Also, in politics, most of the maladies are atthe left and right edges. The middle can still pass a pretty thorough political stress test.

    Dick

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  • gcotharn

    So, Mr. Meyers reliance on the “study” strikes me as almost a Rather/Mapes reaction, insofar as Mr. Meyers is saying: “you can’t prove the study is wrong.”
    `
    I say
    1) I’ll wager that minimum investigation, by reasonable laypersons, could raise questions about the “study’s” validity.
    2) The real question is not whether we can prove the “study” is wrong, but whether Mr. Meyers can show the study has validity. The scientific, and statistical, structure of that “study” is extremely shaky.
    `
    I find it somewhat remarkable that Mr. Meyer would have confidence in such a “study”. He seems to have confidence in it simply because it was conducted by persons with titles beside their names. I highly suspect those persons had agendas, just like many pollsters do. I fail to see that that “study” is unrelated to a push poll.

  • TheAnchoress

    You’ll excuse me while I dash out – I have St. Patrick’s Day cards to mail out and I gotta eat. I’d be very interested to see if Neo-Neocon rings in, here, among others.

  • TheAnchoress

    Alright, semi-refueled (no breakfast and 20 oz of coffee was making me giddy). I can’t believe no one commented while I was gone.

    First off, hold on thar, cowboy! I didn’t mind that – in your first response, you hinted that my fast comment represented some dazzling-but-shallow footwork suggesting I possessed cleverness over smarts. I never said I was smart! :-) But I have to pull on your reins a little when you suggest in this response that YOUR quick response was somehow more valid than mine merely on the basis of your having pondered the study and these matters for a few weeks.

    I may not have had a study to focus on, but I think you’ve read me enough to know that I ponder this issue of extreme partisanship and its various causes all the time, and so the ability to reason and question the whole premise of the study was not wholly a clever twirl of my mental rolodex. I have some 3,000 posts here and the vast majority of them are essentially me pondering the same question – so when you came at the study from one angle, it was, I think, quite legitimate for me to analyze it from another, and given my primary focus, my relating it to religion is hardly a fast bit of footwork, but quite a reasonable and valid perspective. Ahem. Don’t you think I realize that one of the reasons you and I are dialoguing on this right now is because you knew you could count on a swift-and-provocative response from me? Either that’s a respectable way to be, or it ain’t. This blog is a high-class joint, and I’m respectable!

    Okay, playful retort aside – on “snapshots” – my experience is that most bloggers who try to engage in honest debate take the time to read your (as it were) “primary source document”. While they might link to me, they do so assuming that an interested reader will in turn click over to you to read what it is I’m actually responding to. It’s not always true. Sometimes you’ll click to a “PSD” and find some droning prose that you can’t abide – but you’re not a droner, and I talked up how well-written your piece – in blogger code that means “go read this.” Heh.

    You contend that we should be happier than we are. Why? Why should an increase in material goods and an longer life equal an increase in happiness? Material things are empty, and anyone who has any sort of spiritual life understands that. The house, the car, the boat, the clothes, they are illusions and they are, in the end, meaningless – because they can’t love you back. A longer life? Alright, more people are making it to their 80′s than used to (my paternal grandfather lived to 93, I think) but the feat of making it to 80 is not unheard of. What was it the psalmist said: “Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years or eighty for those who are strong, and most are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone.” That’s as true today as it was 3,000 years ago, and why is that? Well, because the idea that life has become easier is also an illusion – as you well know. With our instant communications, our unisex work force, our craving for possessions and the sort of “perfect” lives we are told we should be persuing, we are more put upon than ever – things are more complicated, we increasingly hear that people feel like they are running in place or are unable to get off the racetrack. Families are no longer intact units, dependable “roles” no longer exist and each “progressive” move away from stability, nuclear families and the sort of culture and community that used to grow around local churches, the more ungrounded and more insecure, anxious and miserable we become.

    Life was hard 3,000 years ago. It is hard, today. Life has a way of sucker-punching you and breaking your heart in between the times of joy. 100 years ago, “children were seen and not heard” and the rod was never spared. Now children are esteemed like the sun about which we parents revolve, and the rod is never applied – everyone is just as miserable, only in new ways. We’re not “happy” because we perhaps have distorted ideas of what “happiness” is – or because perhaps the ideal life of contentment and peace is itself an illusion. None of that can be fixed by self-esteem movements or social programs. For damn sure, the government will never make us happy. In the end, I think, it comes down to how much love you let in and give out, and the rest is all – frankly – fakery and bullcrap. Happy Schmappy! You want happy? Focus on loving others more than you love yourself. That is the great secret, and the narrow path.

    Speaking of narrow – you may be correct that the “middle” can still navigate through the slender path that still exists in our political process. But there are very few of them left, if elections are to be believed.

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  • http://none Darrell

    What makes “moderates” superior? Is there something inherently preferable in thinking that “they’re all crooks” and neither side is preferable? Or that politics doesn’t matter? I find moderates generally un-or under-informed, not putting the effort into doing the research necessary to form a defensible, informed, intelligent opinion. Some time, there are clear choices and reasons for fully choosing a side and committing to it. Intelligent people listen to what the other side is saying. But each new fact or opinion is just considered with all of what has come before. I see nothing wrong in believing in the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” The people that get lost in shades of gray lead a murky existence.

  • http://benningswritingpad.blogspot.com/ benning

    Anchoress, what is missing here, right now, is a chat room for you two!

    The log of your discussion would make some interesting reading!

  • http://cbsnews.com DickMeyer

    I brought up the happiness deal (see Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox)underline a point about community and its ills — the same ones you do. It’s not that I really think we SHOULD be happier, but it is ironic at the least, so that so much physical well-being doesn’t float our boats. Why? You said it:”Families are no longer intact units, dependable “roles” no longer exist and each “progressive” move away from stability, nuclear families and the sort of culture and community that used to grow around local churches, the more ungrounded and more insecure, anxious and miserable we become.” So we can done with that thread.

    That is far afield from the original column and points. I guess my goal was sort of an anti-”Blink” project: in political judgement, there appear to be heightened impulses toward emtion-based information processing and demonization. I hoped one or two readers would be inspired enough by the column to look at their own cognitive process.

    Example: your commenter Darrell. Why would he so aggressively suggest I hadn’t read the original Emory study? I did; you can get it online if you get the password from Emory. It’s pretty technical so I didn’t understand it that well. So Dr. Westen walked me through it on the phone.

    Similar point concerning gcotharn. I can’t vouch for the study; I’m not a scientist. i don’t think the team that did it would say it’s anything but one interesting study that suggests further projects. But it’s interesting to ponder its implications. Yet gcotharn would rather demonize be and associate the whole thing with memoGate at CBS.

    Again, I rest my case.

  • TheAnchoress

    I’ll look up Easterbrook’s piece – it sounds interesting. As to the rest – well, you’ve proved your point, unfortunately we still have not gotten beyond pondering and noting and come to a conclusion as to how this trend might be thwarted, and I’d really like to hear your thougths on that. How do we fix this? Is it fixable at all? After all the words, have we simply engaged in a day of mental self-gratification, or can we find something substantial to say beyond, “this is happening.” That it’s happening is interesting. Whether it is happening strictly because of partisanship or if faith (or reason) plays into it is interesting too. But how do we heal all this? And what roll does the Fourth Estate play in all of this, if any?

    I think it would be fun, too, if you now went to the KosKidz and gave them a chance to prove your point again, so that there is some partisan balance! :-)

    That said, I give you all sorts of props and credits for being willing – as always – to engage. It’s so healthy…and so rare on blogs! As I said here your objectivity is too much the exception instead of the rule.

    I wonder, when you first read the report, what was your initial response to it? Did your knee jerk a bit, at all?

  • gcotharn

    You know, I’ll plead guilty to demonization, in the matter of inserting “Rather/Mapes” into the conversation. If I could go back in time, I would not insert their names. I apologize.
    `
    I maintain my stand, as a reasonable observer, that the study’s methodology is eyebrow-raising. I would not want to vouch for it’s scientific validity. Mr. Meyer is effectively saying “can you prove the study isn’t true?”* This is an inappropriate standard. Mr. Meyer’s comments:
    “My use of the study may be flawed in your mind, but you have no information to rationally declare that Westen’s study is flawed. You just feel that it is. You want it to be. Part of that entails ignoring other information, like Brooks’ research which is what the second part of the column is about. Part of it is blaming — you blame the press, the Clintons, the Christian Coalition.
    `
    One could just as easily accuse Mr. Meyer of wanting the study to be true, and of ignoring information which might call the study into question – not that I would accuse anyone of such things, as I don’t wish to be unfair.
    `
    Another issue: Mr. Meyer wants to be able to say that someone who looks at the study with skepticism is making an emotional, knee-jerk response. I respectfully disagree. I believe someone who, for instance, looks at polls, and looks at edited video snippets, can immediately see potential problems with the study’s methodology. For such a study to have scientific validity would require extremely rigid methodology. Based on what I have read of the study: the NYT article, the neo-neocon comments, the Meyer article, the Anchoress post and comments, I see warning signs that the methodology was less than rigid. I base my misgivings on the general scientific and polling and video-editing knowledge of a layperson. It takes little time for me, as a reasonably well-informed layperson, to formulate those suspicions. I reject Mr. Meyer’s assertions that my type of suspicions equate to knee-jerk emotionalism.

  • Joseph

    I would like to add one other point which I think is missed by everyone, except Darrell, though it is only latent in his comments.
    /
    The point of politics is policy. At the end of the political day you have to do something: start a war, stop a war, pass a law, defeat a law, repeal a law, confirm a judicial candidate, reject a judicial candidate, elect a candidate to office, or reject that same candidate.
    /
    A partisan is somebody who wants something specific done. What is less important than the steam they blow off wanting it is the philosophy behind why they want it done. This is why brain studies of this kind, however accurate, are irrelevant.
    /
    Partisans are not immune to reason–whatever party they belong to, they use reason quite well, by and large, to put forth that philosophy. What they are immune to is reconsideration of their premises. I find a similar immunity to reconsidering premises of moderation, by and large, among people who hold “moderate” premises.
    /
    I know a Moderate, courteous, fair, and balanced Centrism is very dear to Mr. Meyer’s heart. But, as a set of political premises, it leads to no coherant philosophy about government except to be Moderate, courteous, fair, and balanced when you do it. It gives you no basis to want to do anything, or to have anything done. And, in most cases in politics, it is
    not obvious on the face of it what should be done.
    /
    Nobody ever made a revolution merely by keeping their temper. It takes a Vision, and the passion to cleve to it. And nobody ever made a choice by telling themselves, “Well, there’s much to be said on both sides.”
    /
    There are lots of reasons why we should be more content than ever: we’re better fed and sheltered, healthier, longer-lived, wealthier, shoes are more comfortable and plagues are way down. Why aren’t we then?
    /
    Why? Because philosophies really matter. Because a moral point of view on the world really matters. You cannot make decisions except from a philosophy. You cannot make moral choices except from a moral point of view. And you have to make decisions and moral choices simply to exist. Moral choices hurt. Always.
    /
    If you pretend that you can do so, you merely operate from an implicit [and critically unexamined] philosophy and you make moral choices from an unconscious [and thus essentially egotistical and superstitious] moral point of view.
    /
    Don’t worry? Be happy? Be Centrist? Be Moderate? Remember always that there is much to be said on both sides? Are these your real premises, say, when you encounter something that actually annoys you, as I know from your writings, Paris Hilton has annoyed you.
    /
    If they are not your premises, what are your premises? Unquestionably, you have them. But have you really examined them?

  • http://maxedoutmama.blogspot.com MaxedOutMama

    A couple of things: First, I would like to second the Anchoress’ comment that she was continuing a consistent theme in her blog. This is true, and it is one of the reasons I like her blog so. For another thing, I think the content of her post itself does a pretty good job of rebutting Meyers’ comment “Anchoress’ response was eloquent, as always, honest and chock full o’intellect — but it was virtually instantaneous. Being smart and writerly, you are able to make an emotional gut response appear as reason mixed with self-conscious belief. You have a massive rolodex of political reference points, concepts and theses; your emotional brain races through them to find information to “down-regulate” the brain pain acceptance of some my observations would cause you.”

    I cannot see how that comment is justified based on the post itself. First, she is not avoiding pain but rather disclosing her concern and worry over the development. Meyers is explicitly asserting something that he cannot know to be true. Second, the Anchoress attributes the growth of this attitude partly to the Christian Coalition. How that is her “emotional brain” racing around “to find information to down-regulate the brain pain acceptance” is beyond me. Most of the time I find Meyers well worth reading, but this made me blink and sit up straight. After rereading the post, article and the comments I found myself wondering if Meyers was “down-regulating brain pain” himself. The use of jargon alone is suspicious.

    Second, I’m in my 40′s. When I was a kid, newspapers printed far, far more factual content than they do now, and stayed rather far away from this sort of “analysis”. I recall even the dinky local papers printing the entire platform of each party, for example. Important political speeches were printed verbatim and whole. It seems to me that the publicity given to the party programs helped to keep debate about policy rather than emotions.

    Third, I suspect after reading through what I can find about the study that the “rapid response” factor played a role in the findings. Then there’s another problem. Since they were doctoring the quotes, they should have gone all the way and made up parallel quotes. There is a difference between a reversal based on new facts and a contradiction of oneself with a static set of facts.

    Furthermore, they should have used no-name politicians if they wanted to really assess how people processed information. By that time into the campaign, people (especially “partisans”) have seen a lot of the candidates. They have built up their own likes, dislikes and overall assessments regarding the personalities. I recall the press and ads covering Kerry’s “flipping” substantially, and likewise the Enron issue was well covered and had become a campaign theme.

    It seems to me that the “quotes” were designed to appeal to the campaign themes and thus the body of accumulated opinion and probably ire on either side. The study authors really didn’t offer new facts – they drew on tired themes which the subjects had already analyzed with whatever objectivity they possessed.

    If you ask me what 2 + 2 is, I will not have to use my brain’s calculating software to respond with 4. If you ask me what 293 + 836 is, you would see different areas of my brain lighting up. For this reason, I don’t think the study was properly designed.

    Let’s be realistic here. If you were a supporter of Kerry, you would have an emotional reaction to yet another situation in which he was implicitly being accusing of flip-flopping. And the constant drumbeat that the GOP is only out for the rich is another well-worn cliche which probably had generated a stored reaction in the study participants. Both sides would have been retrieving a conclusion they had already reached rather than processing new information, and the emotions generated would likely have been associative rather than reactions to new information.

    I would love to see a similar study done posing quotes related to an issue of fact that is genuinely new. My bet is that you would get remarkably different results.

  • http://none Darrell

    Mr. Meyer…

    Why did I think you did not read the full study? Hmmm. Well, when I refer to a paper I cite it in my line of work…

    UNDER REVISION: Westen, D., Kilts, C., Blagov, P., Harenski, K., & Hamann, S. (unpublished manuscript). The neural basis of motivated reasoning: An fMRI study of emotional constraints on political judgment during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004.

    If I was using it as a basis for an article on the Web, I would give readers a “heads-up” that it is not generally available;perhaps just say what you said above. I could guess that other bloggers would like to see the entire document themselves. People that work with research are always interested in the details—like the methodology and the experimental design. It’s all part of the peer review process, a necessary element of the scientific method.

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  • TheAnchoress

    Joseph – excellent comments. I know you can never like hearing this, but once again, you’re on a Limbaughian wavelength.

    Not to say two men at polar opposites of the spectrum can’t have the same sensibilities. But I had to point it out! :-)

  • Joseph

    I am perfectly comfortable with this, Anchoress.
    /
    What I think about Rush is that he is in the grip of a bad philosophy: That people inherently know the difference between “right” and “wrong”, and that every personal choice that does not suit his taste is a willful and deliberately evil choice of the “wrong”.
    /
    This is simply a disconnection from the inner reality of human life: moral choices are not obvious and mere good habits are not the same as moral choice. Making and sustaining a real moral choice is hard work, as you well know.
    /
    His succumbing to the demons of Oxy-Contin is a classic case of what results when you do not understand the nature of moral choice. It is why the Lord’s Prayer says “lead us not into temptation” and links it to “delivering us from evil”.
    /
    It is what I mean when I say, on occasion, that religious doubt is just as religious as religious belief, and that religious certainty ["knowledge" which needs no faith] is a chimera no matter how strong your faith is.
    /
    Rush’s life was [and is] an unexamined life. Rush’s moral view is a classic case of a fundamentally egotistical and superstitious point of view. This is why he was led into temptation.
    /
    And this is why, when I say [as I have said here] that Rush is still the public face of “conservatism”, any morally conscious conservative should deplore that fact.

  • TheAnchoress

    Actually, Joseph, being a former liberal democrat, “I” am the face of modern conservatism, and like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I’m a g-g-gas. :-)

    I am not horrified to see Limbaugh as the face of conservatism, if you choose to regard him as such. I frankly think we “former liberal democrats” are a better barometer, and I don’t know if I feel comfortable making a moral judgement on him. As with your soul, I don’t know the condition of his.

    Everybody needs to lighten up. Everybody.

    Meanwhile I will leave it to others to decide WHO is the face of modern liberalism and if that person’s “morality” should be a cause of shame for thinking liberals.

    In the end…yeah, everyone needs to lighten up. Maybe I’m just feeling festively Irish a day early. If you would like, you can pass me over your the links on your meditative discourse on the horror of people like me and neo-neocon moving from left to right, and I’ll post it and we can have ourselves a day!

  • Joseph

    You may be right Anchoress. After all, though I have much Irish in my family, it is the type of Irish more likely to wear Orange than Green and more likely to be pugnatious than merry. And, really, if the truth were known, more likely to wear a coat of many colors around the loins and over the shoulder.

    As to my writings on political conversion, they have their own place but it is certainly not at the bar of the local pub with a pint of stout.

    Moreover, I am still convalescing from surgery and have already knocked out too many colorful words on the keyboard for my own good in the past 24 hours.

    So I’ll wish you the complements of tomorrow and ask you to hoist a pint for me, since I can no longer do it for myself.

  • TheAnchoress

    As to my writings on political conversion, they have their own place but it is certainly not at the bar of the local pub with a pint of stout.

    That is precisely where they DO belong – in a pub with a pint is precisely where these long, ongoing and futile arguments belong. Like I said, lighten up! :-)

    Meanwhile, I wish you a speedy convalescence!

  • Sigmund Carl and Alfred

    Joseph, let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.

    The reason Limabugh is so effective is that he appeals to so many people- accross the board. They may not like him, he may not be perfect but for the most part, he’s on the money and everybosy knows it

    In addition, Rush does what no liberal big whig has ever done- he owns up to his mistakes and corrects himslelf and his errors. Most of liberal media is far too self absorbed and filled with tremendous hubris, to ever admit an error.

    When Joseph comments on Rush’s oxy issue and theby negates him is hypocritical. Teddy Kennedy drinks. Countless dems too, are alkys and have had drug problems.

    We all have failings and shortcomings.

    In the end I don’t think Joseph wants wants to play the comparison game.

    Something to do with glass houses.

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  • pst314

    “this is a battle between good and evil.”

    Speaking of which, does anybody have a link to the text of the speech in which Gore ranted “Republicans are evil, evil”? I cannot remember where and when he said it.


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