Science Should Never Be Used as an Ideological Bludgeon

A critical response to Dr. Lucas' post on healthcare reform

Posted Jun 27, 2012

Dear Dr. Lucas,

Like anyone who frequents these pages, I occasionally encounter Psychology Today blogs with which I disagree. Sometimes a blog post even annoys me. But it is rare that a posting is so objectionable that I am compelled to pick an argument with its author. I have only done so once, back in the days when Satoshi Kanazawa was routinely announcing that Group A is neurologically, intellectually, or selectively (read: genetically) superior to Group B.

His was repugnant stuff. I’m sorry to stay that I find your recent posting, Healthcare Reform: It’s “We,” People, residing in nearly the same category. It seems that your post can be boiled down to this thesis: those who oppose the Affordable Care Act are neurologically impaired and less evolved than those who support it. It is little more than doctoral-level name-calling and, in my opinion, an abuse of scientific literature.

I realize that may sound like a hot-headed assertion so please allow me to respond to your essay point-by-point, beginning with your discussion of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

You correctly explained that that ACC helps to moderate between cortical and subcortical brain regions, and you correctly pointed out that a group of researchers has noticed a correlation between ACC volume and political orientation.

You incorrectly explained that, “having a plumper and more active ACC [which is associated with liberalism] means you’re integrating your brain’s various areas and functions better, applying reason in collaboration with your emotions.” You were clearly implying that those who disagree with you about the Affordable Care Act are less capable of moderating emotion, and that their opinion can be explained in terms of a neurological shortcoming.

In so doing, you made the fundamental error of assuming that greater volume in a given area of the brain leads to an increase in the behaviors associated with that region. That’s like saying people with bigger feet run faster.

In fact, the very same researchers you cited (Kanai et al.) have suggested that relatively large volume of a given brain structure may actually inhibit the behaviors associated with that region. We simply don’t know enough to support your conclusion about the role of a single structure in a person’s societal behavior. This is such a rookie mistake that I’m forced to conclude that your interpretation of the data is hopelessly colored by your ideology.

Next, you discussed ratios of left-to-right prefrontal activity, explaining that those with relatively more activity in the right hemisphere are more likely to dwell in negative emotions. I’m unsure of your point in this passage, but in light of your general thesis you seem to be offering this as another piece of evidence that wrong-headed opinions are the result of an unfortunate neurological imbalance. Perhaps you can clarify your intended meaning.

Next, you cited the work of Frans de Waal, clearly asserting that those who oppose the Affordable Care Act lack compassion for others, placing them in violation of both evolutionary principles and evolved thinking. I will return to this shortly.

Finally, you took Justice Antonin Scalia’s “don’t obligate yourself” statement entirely out of context. You painted him as something of a monster by suggesting that he advocated for Social Darwinism during oral arguments.

Informed commentators, who know much more about legal proceedings than I, have interpreted Justice Scalia’s statement as a quick (and perhaps quick-tempered) retort to an underhanded and disingenuous rhetorical tactic employed by a faltering and desperate Solicitor General. Your implication that Scalia was advocating for a dog-eat-dog society was a cheap shot. I am certain that no Supreme Court Justice – liberal or conservative – would make such a sneering, low-brow wisecrack while on the bench.

Yet, you not-so-subtly suggested that Justice Scalia was advocating for a “kill or be killed state” or a “live-and-let-die nation.” Setting aside the histrionic rhetoric, I suspect that your characterization of Justice Scalia exposes the lens through which you view ideological opponents: they are unenlightened; they have a bent wire in their ACC; they are evolutionary regressives.

Let me offer an alternate thesis: reasonable people can disagree. Perhaps your ideological opponents, rather than being intellectually or constitutionally inferior, have weighed the evidence and simply arrived at a different conclusion. In your worldview, Dr. Lucas, is it just barely possible that those with whom you disagree are every bit as human and intelligent as you, that they care about their fellow humans, and that they just happen to see things differently?

Look, I don’t care if you call people names or impugn characters. You can go for the gold in the Ad Hominem Olympics and that’s fine with me. But I am unwilling to silently abide the misuse of scientific findings to paint those with whom you disagree as genetically, intellectually, or neurologically inferior. We’ve seen that sort of thinking in the past with consistently disastrous results whenever and wherever it has been put into practice.

Before posting this response to your essay, I thought long and hard about the implications. I’m sure you are a nice person, and I don’t enjoy writing in such harsh and humorless tones. But mostly, I wrestled with this question: do I really wish to suggest that a colleague is dehumanizing people with whom she disagrees?

No, I do not, but it is hard to draw a different conclusion from your essay. I hope I’m wrong about your intentions. Perhaps you will be willing to clarify.

About the Author

Shawn Smith is a licensed psychologist in Denver, Colorado.

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