Requiem for a brainiac

Are we ScienceBloggers just wasting our time when it comes to politics? While I'm sure that none of us are operating under the delusion that anything we write has a significant influence on the outcome of pivotal events like presidential elections, could it be that the scientific, rational approach to running this country is completely irrelevant? Do Americans, by and large, actually distrust intelligence and reason to the point where they prefer their candidates be ignorant and simple-minded? In other words, was George W. Bush more than an aberration?

Ten days ago on NPR's All Things Considered, reporter Robert Siegel visited Columbus, Ohio -- presumably a surrogate for much of middle America -- and asked residents there what they looked for in a leader when it comes time to consider whom to support in an election. Integrity, decency, and courage were all common themes. But not a single interviewee mentioned "intelligence."

The closest the segment came to mentioning the need for intelligence was a reference to a time past when leaders knew enough to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. But no one mentioned actually voting for a candidate was smarter than the voters themselves.

A similar theme appeared over the past weekend in the Washington Post. In "Dems, You Gotta Have Heart" Drew Westen reminds us of the old adage that "Reason is the slave to the passions." The author, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, suggests that too many Democrats haven't figured out that the reason they lost the 1988, 2000 and 2004 elections was their presidential candidates appealed more to voters' brains than their guts.

..perhaps you're sure you're a rational voter and you think that it's just uneducated people who vote with their gut. Well, listen over the next few days to your most educated friends' explanations of why they prefer one candidate over another. "I find him inspiring," they gush about Sen. Barack Obama. "He tells it like it is," they say about Edwards. "He's boring," they sigh about Gov. Bill Richardson. "She knows her stuff, but I just don't like her," they mutter about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now those are reasonable arguments.

There is nothing profound about pointing out that people react better to passion than logic. But after listening to the All Things Considered segment, I fear there is something darker at work -- a prevailing zeitgeist, likely fostered by the mainstream media's inability to cover complexity, that would sideline those with intellect in favor of simpletons and demagogues.

It wasn't always this way. The United States of America has plenty of intellectual presidents and other leaders in its history. It started off with men like Thomas Jefferson and the populace even managed to elect some clever folk right into the 20th century. Bill Clinton, while adept at playing up passion, never hid his intellectual powers. So why now is it that every time someone tries to emphasize science over faith, they get trounced at the polls?

Westen, ignoring early American history, writes:

The dispassionate vision has guided much of the strategy that has reliably cost Democrats winnable elections over the past four decades, and it could do so again in 2008. It suggests that the way to convince voters is to offer them the portfolio of issues, policies, facts and figures that most appeals to their self-interest.

But this vision flies in the face of everything we know about how the mind and brain actually work. It flies in the face of 40 years of social science research. And it flies in the face of modern American political history.

It is true that behavioral and neurological research tends to suggest that we are much more instinctive than intellectual beings. Consider this excerpt from a recent New Scientist feature on the importance of gut reactions:

WE HUMANS suffer from an advanced case of self-delusion, according to Alex Pentland. We like to see ourselves as free-willed, conscious beings, self-governing and set apart from other animals by our capacity for reasoning. Yet watch people closely, says Pentland, and you find that we are more instinctual and a lot more like other creatures than we care to think.

At the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pentland and his colleagues are doing just that. By fitting custom-made electronic "black boxes" to students, researchers and visiting executives at MIT, they can monitor people going about their day - working, meeting, eating, going out and sleeping. The devices record where the wearers go and how fast, their tone of voice, and subtle details about their body language. What they have revealed is that a good 90 per cent of what most people do in any day follows routines so complete that their behaviour can be predicted with just a few mathematical equations.

Maybe. But even if most people are creatures of instinct, It seems patently false that we've always actively distrusted scientists and logical argument. We may not be smart, but we're weren't so stupid that we didn't want smarter people making the decisions. Not so long ago, scientists, engineers and astronauts were heroes. Now they'd fodder for the tabloids. We seem to be in a phase of history in which people choose leaders according to how good a beer-drinking companion they'd be, instead of how intelligent they are.

I recognize that the naive enthusiasm for all things plastic and high-tech has waned. And good thing, too. But instead of maturing into skeptical citizens, the people have become cynical and distrustful of people smarter than they are. And that seems a recipe for disaster.

How do we turn back the clock?


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I think it is based on mistrust, particularly from the right. Two institutions, media and universities, are dominated by self-described liberals. This situation lends itself to mistrust. These two institutions, one the repository of knowledge and the other a means through which knowledge can be spread are not trusted due to their political makeup. Given how mistrust in society can be contagious, it is not surprising that voters in general do not trust intelligence.

"How do we turn back the clock?"

Improving our education system should help.

The whole of advertising, political campaigning, and much of media is set up to appeal to things other than intellect, and to sometimes actively discourage the target from examining the claims too closely. "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV. I'm one of you, and I'm giving you the straight scoop. Don't listen to that egghead mumbo-jumbo and just buy X."

After exposure to few hundred hours of anti-intellectual flattery, what sort of society can we expect?

As to turning back the clock, If we do, then advertisers can move schlock by pretending to be intellectual and dilute the value of intellect. Tell me what you think of when you hear "Four out of five dentists..."

"Are we ScienceBloggers just wasting our time when it comes to politics?"
Yes, when you confine your discussion to the USA, not all of us who work in science or read blogs on this site, work or live in the US.

By Ian Findlay (not verified) on 30 Jul 2007 #permalink

What is interesting about Mike's comment is that the two "liberal" institutions don't really trust each other. As a reader of ScienceBlogs, I have seen umpteen [justifiable] rants about how much journalists screw up scientific topics, hence a wariness by scientists about getting their findings into the media. I would also contest that the media is actually liberal - they appear to be more mainstream, reinforcing the status quo more than trying to change it. Most of the media will not do nuance, caveats and probabilities - they are looking for simplification and headlines. One need look no further than the comments in the blogosphere about the MSM.

So much of the problem is perception, which is base of people's gut feelings. The real key, at least for the short term, is how to change perceptions.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 30 Jul 2007 #permalink

An angle I am interested in is how it looks like participation has fallen in elections, at least here in the UK, and how I think that relates to mere popularisation. It is also important to recognise that universal suffrage is a relatively modern thing, only becoming widepsread in the 20th century. Beforehand, in the period between high corruption and universal suffrage, we had a large section of society which was actively involved in government in a way that is not possible today, thanks to the necessities of bureacrats and experts.

Society has grown and changed since the period when people fought for the vote, and were more directly involved in important issues of the day. So there is less opportunity or apparent need for real intellectual involvement in elections, because someone else will do it for you.

POlitics as a whole seems to have devolved into supporting the status quo, and since it is usually quite hard to differentiate between the candidates on intellectual grounds, you end up doing so on emotional grounds, which are more easily messed about with by the powers that be.

Surely Non-compulsory voting is the curse of the United States, when the Bible Belt can potentially force its parishioners to vote in large blocs for those it slimes up to (or who slime up to it, more to the point)? Surely the only way to dilute its power is to ensure that every American over the age of 18 vote?

Fail to exercise your democratic responsibilities, and people will begin to assume you don't want the right. What was the percentage-of-eligible turnout for the last two US Presidential elections?

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 01 Aug 2007 #permalink

How exactly would forcing people to make a vote help anything?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 01 Aug 2007 #permalink