Skeptics As A Progressive Force In Society

Here is the prerequisite reading:

(Scientific American)  The Political Brain.  By Michael Shermer.  July 26, 2006.

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises ... in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. --Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

Pace Will Rogers, I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a libertarian. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position. 

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men--half self-described as "strong" Republicans and half as "strong" Democrats--were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning--the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and--once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable--the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure. 

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," Westen is quoted as saying in an Emory University press release. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Interestingly, neural circuits engaged in rewarding selective behaviors were activated. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones," Westen said.

Now for the main course:

(Lian Yue's Eighth Continent)  Skeptics are the progressive force in contemporary society.  By Lian Yue (连岳) in Southern Weekend (July 27, 2006)

"The truth becomes clearer through debate" is obviously treated as truth by people.  Actually, anyone who has observed the demise of the art of debating may have sensed that the truth can become more muddled through debate and more like untruth.  Even if debate competitions disappear hereafter, its form can be treated as a modern parable -- that is, you can randomly draw a position on any topic and you can articulate views without stopping; one way or the other, you can always find large amounts of evidence to support whatever position.

Debate is the most common path by which consensus is reached in contemporary society.  Even if the conclusions are sometimes pre-ordained, the process can bring up other issues.  In the presidential elections of many countries, the path to power is to go through a series of debates.  This suggests to people that debate can allow people to understand better and hence select a more appropriate leader.

In the July 26 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer published a short article that presented some research results from the Emory University: during the 2004 US presidential contest, the research team studied 30 Democratic and Republican Party loyal supporters and unsurprisingly found out that the Bush-Kerry debates only solidified the positions of their supporters.  The more heated the debates got, the more loyal the supporters in each camp became.  

Michael Shermer ran similar experiments among his own circle of friends and discovered that those who hold clear political positions are generally more likely to magnify evidence that support their side and ignore evidence that are unfavorable.  Thus, the Democrats become more Democratic and the Republicans became more Republican and they can never reach compromise.  The Emory University research team used brain scans to identify the brain process by which people succumb to their biases.

This research result seemed to be very dispiriting.  This means that as soon as you have strong likes and dislikes, you are going down the dark path of prejudice with nary a doubt because you are looking only for supporting evidence along the way.  But when you recall that the world is not just restricted to the two emotions of love and hate and the majority of people are politically 'unfixed,' then the research result is actually a good thing.  That is to say, the public can remember this piece of knowledge: when someone speaks up and his status is a member of a political party or a firm adherent to a certain political position, then you know that his words are intentionally or unintentionally excluding all information unfavorable to him.  Therefore, his credibility is low.  The essential nature of debate is now apparent -- debate cannot move those solid supporters, but it can be used to convince those neutral elements who have not made up their minds.

The greatest accomplishment of contemporary society is to have created a large group of skeptics who are neutral.  This is a large group of "unfixed" people who make up their minds right before they cast their votes.  Because this group of people far exceed the number of people in any political camp, it is therefore possible to recall a president who once had high popular ratings, or give power to a politician who is independent and unafraid of reform.  For the sake of social progress, let all of us each become a skeptic, a neutral person and an "unfixed" person.  Let us not give our deep love  only to one person such that we become the slave of bias.

As bonus, here is the report on an extraodinary debate between two politicians (from the same party, no less). 

(New York Times)  Angry Exchanges in Debate by Two Republican Hopefuls for Senate.  By Michael Cooper.  August 10, 2006.

The two Republicans seeking to unseat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton clashed ferociously last night in a debate that centered far more on questions of marital infidelity, nepotism and other personal attacks than on what either candidate would do if elected.

Kathleen Troia McFarland, a former official in the Reagan-era Pentagon, repeatedly hammered John Spencer, a former mayor of Yonkers, for having an extramarital affair with a city employee while he was mayor, having relatives on the city payroll, and raising property taxes. Mr. Spencer fought back, accusing her of distorting his record with “lies and innuendos and half-truths” while ignoring her early pledge to run a positive campaign.

“She’s insulted my wife, she’s insulted my children, she’s insulted my military record, criticized my service in Vietnam,” Mr. Spencer complained when he was asked about the tenor of the race. “I do not think that my personal life, or Mrs. McFarland’s personal life, or problems that she may be having, are part of the dialogue that the state and the people of New York care about, or the nation.”

Ms. McFarland responded that the issues her campaign raised were fair game.

“You brought up your wife, and I must tell you that that’s not a personal issue,” she said. “That’s a professional issue. Because when you were mayor of Yonkers, you had an affair with your secretary while you were married to somebody else. You tripled her salary and made her your chief of staff. You were living with her. You doubled your own personal income. You got financial gain from that. And you had two children.”

Their debate, at Pace University in Manhattan, was the latest flashpoint in a primary campaign that has, at times, more closely resembled reality television than a Senate race.

At one point, Ms. McFarland turned to Mr. Spencer and said, “You taxed and spent like Hillary, and you’ve behaved like Bill.”

Mr. Spencer retorted: “That was probably worked on for months by her staff. To say, let’s get the sound bite, you know? Let’s get the sound bite, let’s get the headline. What nonsense.”

He bristled at the onslaught, saying that the woman he had gone on to marry had not been a secretary but “a career professional with 22 years working for three former mayors and city managers.” He asked how Ms. McFarland, as a woman, could insult “another woman’s career and her children.”

“I say to you, Mrs. McFarland: Shame on you,” he said. “Shame on you as a mother of children and a woman yourself to talk about my wife and my family like that when we have such a serious campaign. I am at peace with my God and my loved ones.”

The Democrats exulted. “This was more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon than a Senate debate,” said Blake Zeff, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

Between the heated exchanges, a few areas of policy disagreement did emerge. Ms. McFarland expressed her support for abortion rights, while Mr. Spencer said he opposed abortion unless the life — and not just the health — of the mother was at stake.

Ms. McFarland said she would revive the upstate economy by remaking it as a center of “renewable energy,” while Mr. Spencer said his experience as the mayor of a troubled city would help him assist upstate mayors.

In a round of yes-or-no questions, both candidates agreed that Gov. George E. Pataki, a fellow Republican, had not been an excellent governor, and said he would not be re-elected if he were running this year. Mr. Spencer, noting that he is already the Conservative nominee for governor, said he would not support Ms. McFarland if she wins the Sept. 12 Republican primary.

Their race pits two wings of the state’s Republican Party, Ms. McFarland representing the more moderate branch and appealing to party elites, and Mr. Spencer running as an unabashed conservative.

Ms. McFarland said several times that she had worked in “the administrations of three Republican presidents” while Mr. Spencer said she had been a “Washington bureaucrat 25 years ago.”

After she mentioned working with Henry A. Kissinger and near Donald H. Rumsfeld during the Ford administration, and said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman was “an old college friend of my husband’s,” Mr. Spencer said there was “more name-dropping going on here than — I don’t know what.”

The debate was televised in New York City on NY1 News and on other channels across the state. It was also broadcast on several radio stations.

The campaign was bitter long before the debate.

“I don’t think that anyone expected this to devolve into a cross between ‘Dr. Phil’ and ‘Days of Our Lives,’ ” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist working for the state’s Conservative Party, which is backing Mr. Spencer.

The Spencer family was not the only one drawn into the campaign. Ms. McFarland’s was, too. New York magazine published a letter she wrote to her parents saying why she had cut off contact with her brother Michael, who was gay and died of an AIDS-related illness.

“Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him, although we live only 15 minutes away from each other?” the letter says. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.”

The publication of the letter led Ms. McFarland to announce that she had been physically abused while growing up.

But when Ms. McFarland was asked about her family issues at the debate, she declined to respond.

Then came the night’s one peaceful moment. Mr. Spencer had nothing to say either, except, “ I wish her well, and guess what, at night I’ll say a prayer for her.”

Ms. McFarland said, “And for that I thank you.”