Science vs. Blatherskite
Gary Greenberg’s rant on David Brooks’s newest book [“The Dumbest Story Ever Told,” June 6] is another in the long line of sarcastic, culturistically fundamentalist diatribes against what is in fact valid and factual information essential to understanding human behavior. What are Greenberg’s credentials that he can repudiate so facilely all neurological, evolutionary and cognitive science?
I find Brooks generally annoying in trying to tie conservative “values” to this subject, but the science he has attempted to understand is not the problem. To sneer at the extraordinary new insights the discovery of mirror neurons has given us is sophomoric. Mirror neurons, oxytocin and empathic functions that underlie the emergence of conscious feelings and cognitions are important components that help us understand who we are—not through reductionist, pat answers but through descriptions of somatic and neural system components that in interaction with external environmental systems, cultural and physical, within which we are situated, give us a handle on some of the baffling complexities of which both religion and cultural anthropology are deeply ignorant and dismissive.
It’s time the left, like the right, started respecting the recent findings of science and adapting their ideals to them. Science is not a religion to be repudiated, à la fundamentalists, but important knowledge to be accommodated and applied. It is of course embedded in cultural and political forces, but that is not a reason to deny its validity. That form of reasoning is notoriously right-wing. Nothing in science requires a moral reset in order to acknowledge it. It requires us to take the effort and have the courage to constantly re-evaluate and re-understand an infinitely perplexing world.
Through the use of fMRI brain-scanning machines, neuroscientists are making some amazing, if tentative, discoveries concerning the political aspects of the human mind:
§ Democratic and Republican biases regarding political information (Kaplan), as well as their differing disgust reactions to Abu Ghraib (Hamman);
§ Liberals and conservatives as to tolerance and perceived threats (Kanai);
§ Aggression and bullying (Decety);
§ Empathy (Iacoboni);
§ Roles of reason and emotion in political thinking (Westen);
§ Racial biases based on skin tone (Ronquillo).
But instead of incorporating those findings into their work, psychoanalytic professionals (this time, Gary Greenberg) respond with nonscientific, sarcastic (shame-based) attacks on the whole fMRI endeavor. It seems they intend to preserve the dark ages of Freud, which not only provide them with personal and professional sustenance but are conjured out of their roots in Western religion/philosophy. They would extend their reign as the experts on the human condition. But their work has become “so last century” (Freeman).
Meanwhile, the hard sciences will still be sliding human beings into fMRI machines, stimulating them, observing the brain’s responses, for more hard data. They will do so without much regard to their findings being hijacked by us politicos to pursue our pre-existing agendas (this time, David Brooks of the right and Greenberg of the still largely psychoanalytically guided left).
In this, the right has an advantage over the left. It was never much influenced by the psychoanalytic construct and its cobweb confusions. It may turn out that it is in the nature of conservatives to avoid family therapy, even when they (Newt Gingrich) and their loved ones would clearly benefit from it. Meanwhile, many on the left (Oliver Stone) seem to bathe in it, even to the point of making movies based on it rather than empirical reality. News flash: we abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq for oil, not because of a president’s daddy complex.
Yet the left is ultimately a product of, or at least the protector of, science culture. From its beginning it has largely existed in opposition to religion (Galileo). And it will ultimately embrace neuroscience’s new findings in the face of the attempts of the psychoanalytic professionals to reach beyond their licensed expertise in family relationships to explain politics, which is instead based on power processes and product.
Science will never quite find truth, but it will sideline many falsehoods. It’s just that neuroscientists, with their heads in the data, might not pay us politicos, left or right, much mind.
I greatly appreciated the review of Brooks’s book. It is so seldom that a word like “blatherskite” rises spontaneously to mind.
KATHARINE W. RYLAARSDAM
Science is one thing, scientism something else entirely. The one is a method, a way to inquire into the workings of the world; the other is an ontology, an understanding of the nature of being. To note that oxytocin is secreted when mothers nurse their infants or that certain neurons are activated when people watch others doing familiar tasks—that’s science. To claim that these observations mean that empathy is in our nature and that we have located its secret springs, and then to conclude that this means we should run our world in a particular way—that’s scientism.
Scientism hinges on the notion that complex living systems can be understood entirely in terms of their constituent parts and that the knowledge thus gained is beyond ideology or metaphysics, produced by experts who possess some bedrock, indisputable understanding of who we are and what we should aspire toward. It turns fMRI snapshots of the blood rocketing around in our brains into depictions of the essence of the human. In another domain, this kind of literal reading is known as fundamentalism.
To point this out is not to say that the science itself is incorrect or poorly reported. (I perhaps should have mentioned in my essay that Brooks is a faithful science writer who cherry-picks no more than any other, including me.) Nor is it necessarily to deny that the findings Brooks reports and the human nature they depict signal the end of the human-centered worldview that arose with the Enlightenment and its replacement by a molecule-centered view. It may well be that the fMRI and other scanning technologies are for us what Galileo’s telescope was for seventeenth-century Copernicans: the instrument that confirms the theory that the human mind (as opposed to the brain) is not really the center of human life.
But the jury is still out on that question, and before we reach a verdict, it’s worth remembering that we and the heavens differ in at least one way. The stars and their movements don’t seem to change as a result of our observations of them. We do. A mere 500 years ago, we hadn’t yet invented ourselves as the kind of people who think our job on earth is to figure out who we are and what our world consists of and how we ought to live. We didn’t yet value freedom and equality and justice. If we let science turn us into the people of the molecule, it will not necessarily be because it finally discovered our true nature in our neurotransmitters. It may instead be because ambitious scientists and their scribes furnished us a story that suits our current purposes—or the purposes of those who stand to gain the most from turning us into the expert consumers Brooks envisions.
Freud got many, perhaps most, things wrong. But he captured a moment in our history, the moment when it made sense to think that everything—our bodily aches and pains, our dreams and mistakes, the banalities of everyday existence—meant something, that our lives were a mystery that we were compelled, but unable, to solve; that we were, inexplicably and yet undeniably, more than the sum of our parts; and that therein lay both our folly and our dignity. Brooks may also have captured a moment—the moment when it made sense to abandon tragic humanism for something altogether more agreeable. I think we live on the cusp of that revolution, and those of us who resist that change may only have as comfort our mortality, and its promise that we may not survive to see blatherskite turned into the gospel truth.