Sunday Reads … and now for something completely different

or not…

I’ve spent some time wondering how a few segments of our population seem to have lost track of reality.  We all have access to libraries and the world’s combined knowledge on our little laptops these days.  Still, we seem to be surrounded by folks that are reading books in some alternate reality.  So what’s the deal? Can you point to some one like Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum and then find something in their brains or their genes that’s not like ours? Or, did something go horribly wrong with them at some point in their life so they just prefer to live a life of fact denial?

Scientists have been looking at brain chemistry and composition and genetics and have found that certain traits tend to run in certain kinds of individuals that tend to do things a specific way.   Take this example from Crime Times linking brain dysfunction to the traits of risk-avoidance or thrill-seeking and criminal behavior.  Many of these kinds of behaviors have been linked to genes and certain regions of the brain.

Richard Ebstein and colleagues, at Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, studied 124 unrelated Israelis. The researchers administered a test, devised by C. Robert Cloninger, which evaluated four personality traits: novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence. They found that many subjects with high novelty-seeking scores had a slightly longer form of the D4 dopamine receptor (D4DR) gene than deliberate, reflective subjects. According to Ebstein, “this work provides the first replicated association between a specific genetic locus involved in neurotransmission and a normal personality trait.”

Jonathan Benjamin and colleagues, at the National Institutes of Mental Health, conducted a similar study involving 315 subjects who were evaluated on five personality measures: extroversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. None of these traits showed any association with the D4DR gene. Novelty-seeking, however, was again associated with the long version of the gene.

Behavior researchers note, however, that the D4DR gene variant accounts for only about 10 percent of the variation in the trait of novelty-seeking. Cloninger suggests, also, that each personality trait is modified by other traits; thus, a thrill-seeker who is also biologically inclined to be reward dependent, persistent, and optimistic may be a successful business executive, while a thrill-seeker who is low in both reward dependence and anxiety may turn to criminal pursuits.

Are there similar kinds of things at play in the brains and behavior of Bachman and Santorum?  Here’s a preview of a book by Chris Mooney in a MoJo article titled “Diagnosing the Republican Brain”.  Mooney shows some of the more looney tune entries in Conservapedia.  It’s the right wing answer to Wikipedia and it’s just full of baloney science.  There’s even some arguments that against the theory of relativity. Is absolute belief in absolute nonsense a medical or mental condition?

Take Conservapedia’s bizarre claim that relativity hasn’t led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity works—if it didn’t, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.

Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity “counter-examples” and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of “facts” about the world than modern science, it also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it “strengthened my faith. I don’t have to live with what’s printed in the newspaper. I don’t have to take what’s put out by Wikipedia. We’ve got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better.”

You might be thinking that Conservapedia’s unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and 9-11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one’s view, is something we find all around us today.

Kevin Drum also looks at the idea that “conservatives” are just plain wired differently from the rest of us.  I have always been at a loss for words for the number of stubborn believers in things that have been completely disabused by facts.  The worst examples are the number of republicans that insist that Obama is a foreign born Muslim despite all evidence to the contrary. Drum thinks there has to be more than that because it seems that most of are worst examples appear to be American.  Is there something uniquely nutty about our American Nuts?

I’ve long been sold on the idea that liberalism and conservatism are at least partly temperaments, and it’s those temperaments that lead us to different political conclusions rather than any kind of rational thinking process.

But the problem I have with Chris’s piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it’s Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don’t. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don’t generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.

I’m going to keep this post short because, as I said, I haven’t read the book. Maybe Chris addresses this at greater length there. But in the MoJo piece, at least, he doesn’t really address the question of why differences in brain wiring have produced such extreme anti-science views in American conservatives but not in European conservatives. So consider this an invitation, Chris. Is your contention that American conservatives are unique in some way? Or that American brains are wired differently? Or am I wrong about European conservatives?

So, in another vein of conservative thought, what would our sex lives and marriages look like if we stuck to strict biblical terms?

Let me tell you a secret about Bible believers that I know because I was one. Most of them don’t read their Bibles. If they did, they would know that the biblical model of sex and marriage has little to do with the one they so loudly defend. Stories depicted in the Bible include rape, incest, master-slave sexual relations, captive virgins, and more. Now, just because a story is told in the Bible doesn’t mean it is intended as a model for devout behavior. Other factors have to be considered, like whether God commands or forbids the behavior, if the behavior is punished, and if Jesus subsequently indicates the rules have changed, come the New Testament.

Through this lens, you find that the God of the Bible still endorses polygamy and sexual slavery and coerced marriage of young virgins along with monogamy. In fact, he endorses all three to the point of providing detailed regulations. Based on stories of sex and marriage that God rewards and appears to approve one might add incest to the mix. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.”

Furthermore, none of the norms that are endorsed and regulated in the Old Testament law – polygamy, sexual slavery, coerced marriage of young girls—are revised, reversed, or condemned by Jesus.

Yup. Polygamy is the norm.  Most of the big patriarchs had concubines which are basically sex slaves.  Is that what literalists like Pat Robertson see as our proper path?

Biblicalpolygamy.com has pages dedicated to 40 biblical figures, each of whom had multiple wives. The list includes patriarchs like Abraham and Isaac. King David, the first king of Israel may have limited himself to eight wives, but his son Solomon, reputed to be the wisest man who ever lived had 700 wives and 300 concubines! (1 Kings 11)

Concubines are sex slaves, and the Bible gives instructions on acquisition of several types of sex slaves, although the line between biblical marriage and sexual slavery is blurry. A Hebrew man might, for example, sell his daughter to another Hebrew, who then has certain obligations to her once she is used. For example, he can’t then sell her to a foreigner. Alternately a man might see a virgin war captive that he wants for himself.

In the book of Numbers (31:18) God’s servant commands the Israelites to kill all of the used Midianite women who have been captured in war, and all of the boy children, but to keep all of the virgin girls for themselves. The Law of Moses spells out a purification ritual to prepare a captive virgin for life as a concubine. It requires her owner to shave her head and trim her nails and give her a month to mourn her parents before the first sex act (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). A Hebrew girl who is raped can be sold to her rapist for 50 shekels, or about $580 (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). He must then keep her as one of his wives for as long as she lives.

Rape, incest, sexual slavery, and polygamy are all biblical values.

So, let me go back a moment to the widespread Republican notion that President Obama is some kind of Muslim Manchurian Candidate. TruthDig features an article on this by writer John Feffer.  Once again, we have evidence that points to something completely different.  More brain chemistry perhaps?

Despite right-wing charges, Obama has maintained a tight relationship with Israel and the Israeli leadership. As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart concludes, “The story of Obama’s relationship to [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence.”

It’s no surprise, then, that surveys in six Middle East countries taken just before and two months after the Cairo speech in 2009, the Brookings Institution and Zogby International discovered that the number of respondents optimistic about the president’s approach to the region had suffered a dramatic drop: from 51% to 16%. A 2011 Pew poll found that U.S. favorability ratings had continued their slide in Jordan (to 13%), Pakistan (12%), and Turkey (10%).

And yet, perversely, the hard right in the U.S. maintains that the Obama administration has behaved in quite the opposite manner. “There’s something sick about an administration which is so pro-Islamic that it can’t even tell the truth about the people who are trying to kill us,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich typically said while campaigning in Georgia.

Pro-Islamic? That’s news to the Islamic world.

But it’s nothing new to the world of the U.S. right wing, which portrays Obama as anti-Israel and weak in the face of Islamic terrorism. At best, the president emerges from these attacks as a booster of Islam; at worst, he is the leader of a genuine fifth column.

Although the administration’s policy on Iran is virtually indistinguishable from those of his Republican challengers, they have presented him as an appeaser. The president who “surged” in Afghanistan somehow becomes, through the magic of election-year sloganeering, a pacifist patsy. Although Obama never endorsed the location of the “Ground Zero mosque,” his opponents have suggested that he did. Although he was slow to withdraw support from U.S. allies in the Middle East like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, Republican candidates have accused the president of practically campaigning on behalf of the Islamist parties that have grown in influence as a result of the Arab Spring.

Barack Obama, the right wing has discovered, does not have to be Muslim to convince American voters that he has a suspect, even foreign, agenda. They have instead established a much lower evidentiary standard: he only has to act Muslim.

So, we’ve had some discussion about the relationship between Republicans and worship of Ayn Rand. George Monbiot insists that Rand wrote “A Manifesto for Psychopaths”.  Ah, it’s the brain chemistry argument once more.

Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed. Yet, as Gary Weiss shows in his new book Ayn Rand Nation, she has become to the new right what Karl Marx once was to the left: a demi-god at the head of a chiliastic cult(4). Almost one-third of Americans, according to a recent poll, have read Atlas Shrugged(5), and it now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

Ignoring Rand’s evangelical atheism, the Tea Party movement has taken her to its heart. No rally of theirs is complete without placards reading “Who is John Galt?” and “Rand was right”. Ayn Rand, Weiss argues, provides the unifying ideology which has “distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose.” She is energetically promoted by the broadcasters Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli. She is the guiding spirit of the Republicans in Congress(6).

Like all philosophies, Objectivism is absorbed second-hand by people who have never read it. I believe it is making itself felt on this side of the Atlantic: in the clamorous new demands to remove the 50p tax band for the very rich, for example, or among the sneering, jeering bloggers who write for the Telegraph and the Spectator, mocking compassion and empathy, attacking efforts to make the world a kinder place.

It is not hard to see why Rand appeals to billionaires. She offers them something that is crucial to every successful political movement: a sense of victimhood. She tells them that they are parasitised by the ungrateful poor and oppressed by intrusive, controlling governments.

It is harder to see what it gives the ordinary teabaggers, who would suffer grievously from a withdrawal of government. But such is the degree of misinformation which saturates this movement and so prevalent in the US is Willy Loman Syndrome (the gulf between reality and expectations(7)) that millions blithely volunteer themselves as billionaires’ doormats. I wonder how many would continue to worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand if they knew that towards the end of her life she signed on for both Medicare and Social Security(8). She had railed furiously against both programmes, as they represented everything she despised about the intrusive state. Her belief system was no match for the realities of age and ill-health.

So see, Kevin, there are some of these nuts over on Monbiot’s side of the pond.  Maybe they just haven’t gotten as well funded or well organized as our nutters.  Which reminds me, there is some of this poor little oppressed-by-the-government me narrative that really bothers me.  I can’t for the life of me figure out how the death of Trayvon Martin has been turned into a whining opportunity by white people who think that are really oppressed by pointing out institutional racism.  It’s kind’ve like those silly people on Fox crying over the US having THE highest corporate tax rate while ignoring the effective corporate tax rate is THE lowest in the world.  It’s  the same with the people screaming about how every one is persecuting the faithful of the majority religion.  Facts completely bear witness to these falsehoods, yet we can’t get rid of them and their silly hairshirts.

I guess they have a complete news channel and a lot of AM radio time to shill and recruit.  Plus, there is all that Koch Money floating around just dying to fund phony science and economics.  Maybe it’s because many of our nutters have air time and money.  So, is it brain chemistry and genes? Vulnerability to hype?  Mental Illness?  Rational or irrational ignorance?  I have no idea.  But, I am getting tired of it.  Oh, and btw, that’s a bacon cup, sauce and spoon up there at the top. It’s there to remind me that I need to read a few escape novels and think about something completely different for a change.

What’s on your mind, reading, and blogging list today?


27 Comments on “Sunday Reads … and now for something completely different”

  1. ANonOMouse says:

    Reading your post this morning is a breath of fresh air. Thank you, I needed that.

    • dakinikat says:

      I am filling in for minx today. I had some big shoes to fill so I worked hard to think up something novel. BB and I had discussed some of these thoughts last week. Since its her field, she should be able to add some more interesting tidbits.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        Thank you so much for filling in Dak! I love this post.

        Which reminds me, there is some of this poor little oppressed-by-the-government me narrative that really bothers me. I can’t for the life of me figure out how the death of Trayvon Martin has been turned into a whining opportunity by white people who think that are really oppressed by pointing out institutional racism.

        It bothers me too…

  2. Interesting discussion of the new “JOBS” bill on Up! this morning. Rep Carolyn Maloney defending it & her vote & William Black, economist, and Alexis Goldstein of Occupy the SEC explaining how it’s a continuation of the dismantling of regulations and following the footsteps of the S&L scandal, Enron & the Wall Street crash/derivative disaster. After the discussion, Carolyn Maloney agreed to offer amendments to the bill based on Goldstein’s input. I don’t hold out hope that Congressional Republicans will allow those amendments to pass.

    After reading your post, focusing on brain chemistry & genetics, my thoughts turned to George Lakoff. I’ve only read Don’t Think of an Elephant & several of his HuffPo posts, but he has written several books. One of those is Moral Politics: How Liberals & Conservatives Think. You can peek inside the book at Amazon and there’s an excerpt of his discussion of an Op-Ed by William Raspberry. Reading both, I’m drawn back to the nature vs nurture concept. IMHO, my thoughts are taking me to defining that as Mother Nature vs Strict Father, within the patriarchal structure. I think some folks are more influenced by the Strict Father, which to me is embodied by Fox News, evangelical preachers & even Ayn Rand. Repetition & constant reinforcement works and doesn’t foster independence. Mother Nature, the natural world, OTOH is about raising the young to become independent. Guess I’ve got the makings of another blog post germinating.

    Anyway, thanks for jump starting my brain this morning. I was having a hard time waking up after having trouble getting to sleep last night. Who needs coffee when we have wonderful posts like yours first thing in the morning?

    PS – MHP will be discussing who has the monopoly on God (I may have gotten the phrase wrong since I’m thinking, typing & listening to the TV in the background at the same time). And Bill Moyers will be speaking with representatives of the 99% Spring movement on his show today.

  3. RalphB says:

    I think it’s freakin’ amazing what 40 years of largely not refuted propaganda from the Right has Americans believing or maybe not believing. The Republican Right has been pushing abject nonsense most of my life, while the Democratic Left has been trying to be “reasonable” and gotten themselves ran over.

    One anecdote in that I had lunch this week with a former co-worker who was always a staunch Republican but no more. He now thinks his former party is insane and will have nothing to do with them any longer. I wonder how many other people will decide that if the insanity is really publicized for all to see in it’s wingnutty glory?

  4. RalphB says:

    This is satirical genius and a must read op-ed.

    New York Times: A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney

    THE recent remark by Mitt Romney’s senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom that upon clinching the Republican nomination Mr. Romney could change his political views “like an Etch A Sketch” has already become notorious. The comment seemed all too apt, an apparent admission by a campaign insider of two widely held suspicions about Mitt Romney: that he is a) utterly devoid of any ideological convictions and b) filled with aluminum powder.
    […]
    But the Romney candidacy represents literally a quantum leap forward. It is governed by rules that are bizarre and appear to go against everyday experience and common sense. To be honest, even people like Mr. Fehrnstrom who are experts in Mitt Romney’s reality, or “Romneality,” seem bewildered by its implications; and any person who tells you he or she truly “understands” Mitt Romney is either lying or a corporation.

  5. janicen says:

    Fascinating read, dak. I’ve always wondered about people who cling to notions that get debunked compared to people who take an interest in new information even if it’s contrary to what they previously believed. It’s not just politics, it’s in everyday things as well. My FIL is a very smart man who loves his Ambien. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve told him about the dangers and side effects of the drug, he insists it’s all “bullshit”. He’s convinced my BIL to take it and he was until he switched doctors and the new doctor would not prescribe it because of the side effects. What did he do? He went back to the old doctor! How many people insist that eating a piece of candy will make your kids hyper? That’s been debunked and you can tell them that and they’ll listen politely and then repeat the same nonsense the next time you see them. (Of course I’m not advocating stuffing your kids with sugar.)

    I find it interesting that there is a physical component to personality traits. Anyone who has had children knows that it the case just from observing our own kids. When my daughter was a toddler my husband worked out of town Monday through Friday and I worked locally so she spent most of her day in preschool and the rest of her day with me. I was always amazed to see her display traits and behaviors identical to my husband’s. He was around her so little yet her personality and behaviors mirrored his in many ways.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Most personality traits are known to be influenced by genes. Extraversion and Openness to Experience are two that are highly genetic.

  6. bostonboomer says:

    Hi Dak,

    Thanks for including some psychology reads today! I definitely want to read Chris Mooney’s book ASAP. The Crime Times article is a little confusing, because they seem to be conflating thrill seeking with novelty seeking, and they are actually different traits.

    Thrill-seeking is a subset of the Big Five trait of Extraversion (E) (which is misspelled in the article), and novelty-seeking would fall under the trait of Openness to Experience (O), which has been shown in many studies to be associated with political ideology. People who are high in O tend to be liberal and those low in O are more likely to be conservative.

    Thrill-seeking was originally classified by Eysenck as a subset of “psychoticism,” which later researchers haven’t continued to study. I still think it’s an interesting idea for a trait that could help explain narcissistic and criminal behavior. Keep in mind that these traits are not scientific “facts.” They are the creations of human beings backed up by statistical analysis.

    But I need to read the articles more carefully and go back to the original research. Like you with economics, I tend to get annoyed when non-psychologists try to interpret research without having the necessary background to do so.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Kevin Drum’s post is a perfect example. He doesn’t seem to understand that culture interacts with genetics and experience as personality develops. You simply can’t separate these factors in looking at human personality. Humans are too complicated to be looked at in simple-minded ways.

      I guess this is why I tend to throw up my hands when I read psychological interpretations from people who at the most probably took psychology 101.

      • I bow to your expertise, bb. My comment re nature vs nurture was a shortcut to what you mentioned above: “culture interacting with genetics and experience”. Put simply for the barely informed like me: humans are born with certain inherent behaviors/traits and others are learned. For example: humans have the ability to speak. Depending upon where one is raised, or how their parents speak, they generally develop the accent they are exposed to. I’m basing my understanding of this on my love for ethology, my favorite branch of science.

        I would love to know more about the traits you briefly mentioned above.

  7. RalphB says:

    Heh…

  8. RalphB says:

    Is that a proton in your pocket?

    First evidence for string theory at the Large Hadron Collider

    A bug in the software used to model the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider could have been covering up evidence for extra space time dimensions.

    Complex software models are used to understand the results from the Large Hadron Collider. These include simulations of the particle physics in the proton-proton collisions, as well as of the material and geometry of the detectors and the strength of the various magnetic fields. As more data are accumulated, the required precision of this software increases.

  9. Although this is nearly 4 months old, I think it’s worth sharing: http://georgelakoff.com/2011/12/11/words-that-dont-work/

  10. quixote says:

    Flying off on a tangent here, this is for all those who sense that there’s something just “Not Right” about Romney. Finally, the real explanation: it’s because he’s quantum!

    (Apologies to Terry Pratchett. The article is doubly hilarious if, like me, you try to read explanations of modern physics and know they’re written in English … but not much else.)

  11. NW Luna says:

    “may be a successful business executive, while a thrill-seeker who is low in both reward dependence and anxiety may turn to criminal pursuits.”

    These days there’s not much difference between “successful” business executives and criminals. Except the execs haven’t been charged yet.