Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Brains, Science, and Political Positions

Recently I was sent an article by my old friend (literally, on both attributes) and theology teacher from seminary. The article was by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at Berkeley, and titled, "Obama, Tea Parties, and the Battle for our Brains."[1] The grand theolog rightly sniffed-out that something was fishy about this article, but he couldn't quite identify the problem.  (Since I was his T.A. some decades ago, he apparently thinks he can still simply assign me tasks at whim and I'll drop everything and jump right on them. Dang it -- apparently he's right!)

At the general level, the article is not too surprising: that the metaphors we use to mentally frame issues are often tied to how our brain processes bodily states. And since conscious mental states are also processed by the brain, it's not surprising that there would be shared processing structures, or similar processing structures involved in both mental processes and body-monitoring processes.

Again, that people use different metaphors to frame common issues, and then fight to understand one another is also well known. People have preferred metaphors, and words are not limited to strictly defined or precisely understood meanings. Yet, happily, metaphorical language can be decoded into less-metaphorical or even non-metaphorical language, the latter being what scientists do when they utilize mathematics and logic to explain and predict phenomenon. Reasoning with analytical languages give us the precision, understanding, and control of concepts that would otherwise be unavailable with natural languages.

Mr. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and reports on studies that are well attested, and there's no reason to suspect his accuracy in recounting of those results. However, he seems to be defending a troublesome argument:
  1. The vast majority of political reasoning by people is by metaphorical framing.
  2. And those people who reason with metaphorical framing are people who are hearing only what they want to hear. Whether affirming or denying how they've framed the issue, the very re-statement of their frame simply reinforces it.
  3. Therefore, the argument goes, people on the liberal and conservative sides of political issues are generally hearing only what they want to hear.

Furthermore, as an additional argument, he thinks conservatives of one brand or another are committed to eliminating any contrary positions, and any riding-the-fence positions, thus leaving their ideology as the only one around. After all, on Mr. Lakoff's analysis, conservatives think their position is the only one that "should" be around.

What can one make of all this? On my view, Mr. Lakoff draws a false dichotomy between what he misleadingly labels "real" reason and "false" reason, where the former is how people (allegedly) really think, and the latter is what is traditionally associated with Enlightenment ideals of reasoning. I would point out straightway how suspicious one should be of this bifurcation, as if somehow humans didn't use metaphorical framing during the Enlightenment era, or that humans are not deeply engaged in using the traditional kind of reason in science everyday. (Recall my math usage observation earlier.) Although I think the argument above is often an accurate portrayal of how the general populous operates, premiss one allows for other kinds of thinking (which Mr. Lakoff himself is doing), and premise two is plainly too strong; that people use metaphorical framing does not mean they are locked into it; it's just that people are generally ignorant, unwise, and easily manipulated -- a view of the citizenry that our U.S. founding fathers, themselves Enlightenment figures, mind you, were quite happy to maintain.

Mr. Lakoff wants his readers to think that there is a direct, uncomplicated circuit between metaphors and words in our brains, and even that "every word is neurally connected." This is complete poppy-cock. First, that every word has a location for a convenient connection has not been shown, not even partially, not even remotely. (Where is the word 'trinity' stored in my brain, or 'infinity'? Is 'stairway' stored as one word or two?) This is idle speculation tossed about as good science. Second, even if there were found circuits between metaphors and words, there would be a host of other branching circuits modulating and interfering with how that information is exchanged. Indeed, the average single neuron has 7,000 connections to it, so I hardly think that a simple, on/off mutual inhibition of brain circuits explains why, in Mr. Lakoff's words, "There is no moral system of the moderate or the middle." This claim is laughably simplistic, and all the more surprising coming from a scholar of Mr. Lakoff's level. Contrary to what computerniks wish, neurons are not like on/off switches, but fire in analog fashion and modulate the signals among one another with great subtlety and by means of complicated, even recursive feedback loops.

Granted, people can be pig-headed and stubborn, but they are not merely slaves to stimulus-response conditioning when it comes to abstract philosophical matters like politics. On the supposition that humans do have some level of free will, they can chose to reason using several different modalities, not just by their metaphorical framing. Oh but that they would pause for a while and recognize (or learn) that traditional reasoning has it's place in politics too, and can be beneficial for everyone in the political community!


[image] ABC news

[1] George Lakoff, "Obama, Tea Parties and the Battle for Our Brains" Feb. 22 2010 Truthout (Accessed Feb. 27, 2010)

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At 11:47 AM, Blogger JJC said...

I think you're right- the connections in our brain, neural pathways etc - may not work like that and he's a little hasty in claiming they do-would have been nice for him to include citations to those studies. I think his general idea is correct though-is that Obama is trying to rationalize politics and is straying from the moral messages that got him elected. I would guess Obama sees elections and day-to-day politics - or the function of government as practical and rational- whereas conservatives see it as a constant battle for votes and popularity. In which case, Obama has forgone his moral language, and conservatives still use theirs. So for Obama to be more affective in what he's doing he has to learn how to morally frame the health care debate.

I think Lakoff is right and I think he knows he is right - the problem he runs into is when he tries to scientifically explain what occurs in the brain to support WHY he is right. He explanations and examples of framing are much more persuasive than when he jumps into this embodied circuity discussion - but I suppose he's trying to figure out why our frames exist as they do and what triggers them so he can stimulate that mechanism for liberals....or progressives as he so appropriately frames them.

ps. Lakoff, not Lakeoff.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Sherri J. (Ide) Hendrix said...

To Prof. Sherri Hendrix's Composition II 1213-04 students (Spring 2011):

Note how Dr. Montgomery uses language to tie his thoughts together - the transitions, the pointing words, repeating key terms and phrases, repeating ideas but with a difference. Note his use of formal and informal writing. Note the metacommentary. We will be using this blog in a class activity on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011 to identify these components of good argumentative writing.

At 12:10 AM, Blogger Sherri J. (Ide) Hendrix said...

A Note to Prof. Sherri Hendrix's Composition II class, Spring 2011:

Note the elements of Dr. Montgomery's writing found in chapters 8, 9 and 10 of They Say / I Say. From chapter 8, note the connections he uses with tranitions, repeating key words and phrases, pointing words, repetition of ideas with a twist. From chapter 9, note how he mixes academic and colloquial styles of writing to make his argument more effective. From chapter 10, note the metacommentary, or clarifying language, he uses to reinforce understanding of his points. We will be working in class on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011 with activities related to these ideas.

Prof. Sherri Hendrix


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