The Frontal Cortex

David Brooks uses neuroscience to criticize Al Gore’s latest book:

[Gore's argument] grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.*

Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Brooks is right about the science – reason often depends upon feeling - but I think he doesn’t fully grasp the nature of Gore’s argument in The Assault on Reason. The main thrust of Gore’s book concerns the ways in which our public sphere has been corrupted by irrationality. Policy debates have been reduced to pithy soundbites. Fear is used to sell war. The media fixates on Paris Hilton. Etc, etc, etc.

Given this degraded public sphere, it’s largely irrelevant how, exactly, our brain makes decisions and forms beliefs. If the inputs are crap, then so are the outputs. It doesn’t matter whether we are rational agents or amygdala-driven beasts: unless our brain is provided with accurate sources of information, we are destined to make bad choices. If we are repeatedly told that Al-Qaeda and Iraq are linked by the Vice-President, then we’ll eventually come to believe that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are linked. So it’s not particularly insightful to criticize Gore’s view of human nature (a view which happens to be endorsed by most economists), since Gore really isn’t talking about human nature. The thrust of Gore’s critique is sociological, not neurological.

*I find it amusing that Brooks, who likes to talk about oxytocin as the chemical source of all human attachments, would suddenly start criticizing others for scientific oversimplification.

Comments

  1. #1 MattXIV
    May 29, 2007

    unless our brain is provided with accurate sources of information, we are destined to make bad choices. If we are repeatedly told that Al-Qaeda and Iraq are linked by the Vice-President, then we’ll eventually come to believe that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are linked. So it’s not particularly insightful to criticize Gore’s view of human nature (a view which happens to be endorsed by most economists), since Gore really isn’t talking about human nature. The thrust of Gore’s critique is sociological, not neurological.

    I think the GIGO point is a bit of a red herring. Both the information in the media and what people chose to listen to in it is primarily a product of what the audience choses to watch/listen to/read. To use the Cheney example, while his attempts to link Iraq and Al-Qaeda are indeed worthy of criticism, Cheney’s insinuations have been infrequent and vague and are about as likely to show up in a major media outlet as a criticisms of them are, so they’re probably not a major factor in why the link seems to be widely believed. Instead, if all you know about contemporary foreign policy is that Al Qaeda are bad guys and we’re fighting a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq, you’ll probably infer them to be linked somehow.

    The reason people are so poorly informed is that most of them don’t want to invest the requisite effort to become well informed. On a certain level this makes sense – public policy has a relatively small impact on most people’s lives. What is the marginal cost of not knowing that the Iraqi government didn’t have any collaborative relationship with Al Qaeda? For most people it’s going to be essentially zero – even if the change led to shortening or eliminating the Iraq war, the actual fraction of the cost of the war borne at the individual level is trivial and indirect for most people.

    Of course, both sides of the argument about reasoning in decision miss the real reason that rational thinking is superior; appeals to reason are based on an objective set of standards that will yield the same results regardless of who is applying them, and hence can be used to process information collaboratively, while appeals emotion won’t necessarily hold outside of the individual.

  2. #2 ron
    May 29, 2007

    brooks cant argue against the main point of the book so he tries to argue a different point. as you well know this is the favorite technique of all these types. creationists try and make teaching their garbage an argument about fairness for example.

  3. #3 tinisoli
    May 29, 2007

    Thanks to Brooks and other dopes who are addicted to false choices, we can now look forward to more myths about Al Gore. I can see thee headlines now…
    ‘Former Vice President Al Gore says we should ban television’
    ‘Gore: Americans are morons’
    ‘The Goracle endorses lobotomies for the masses’

  4. #4 Jorge
    May 30, 2007

    I thought Brooks’s op-ed reeked of bad faith; it was a transparent hit-and-run attack on Gore because he was making far too much sense. What was really galling was the smear about liberals being weirdos who run away from arguments about substance and hide in arguments about process. To accuse Gore of running away from substantive arguments about what policies are right and wrong is ridiculous, especially coming from the guy who calls himself a “comic sociologist.”

  5. #5 James F. Elliott
    May 30, 2007

    I just finished the portion of The Assault on Reason where Gore talks about the neuroscience of fear. Brooks completely (and it has to be deliberately) misconstrues what Gore wrote. Gore in fact makes the exact same point that Brooks does: Reason is influenced by emotion, not the other way ’round. Gore says this explicitly.

  6. #6 Neurozone
    May 31, 2007

    I’m not sure if I’d even throw Brooks a bone about the science. Sure, cognition depends on emotion and embodiment and it’s very trendy these days to point out how your frontal lobes, limbic system, and motor cortex all interact. On a day to day basis, most of us don’t practice the kind of reason that is the cornerstone of Western philosophy.

    But to what extent does this realization modify, or should it modify, our belief in the ideal of reason? Does it undermine our expectation that political discourse should move past the emotional side of human decision making and aim for our ideals of what reason should be?

    I think we could do a lot worse than having a Vulcan finger on the button.