Posts Tagged ‘mind’


Mark Tansey, “Coastline Measure” (1987)


I’ve been over this before.

But I continue to be amazed at the ubiquitous, facile references to science, evidence, and facts and the derision that is directed at the proposition that we live in a post-truth world. On topics as diverse as climate change, globalization, and the role of the working-class in electing Donald Trump, commentators invoke Truth, with a capital t, as an obvious, unproblematic characteristic of making statements about what is going on in the world.

To me, they’re about as silly—and dangerous—as attempting to measure the coastline using a tape measure.

This is the case even in studies, such as those conducted by Tali Sharot [ht: ja], about the supposed diminishing influence of evidence and the existence of confirmation bias.

The very first thing we need to realize is that beliefs are like fast cars, designer shoes, chocolate cupcakes and exotic holidays: they affect our well-being and happiness. So just as we aspire to fill our fridge with fresh fare and our wardrobe with nice attire, we try to fill our minds with information that makes us feel strong and right, and to avoid information that makes us confused or insecure.

In the words of Harper Lee, “people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships.

At one level, this makes sense to me. There’s a great deal of confirmation bias when we try to make sense of various dimensions of lives and the world in which we live.

But. . .

I also think people are curious about things—information, experiences, and so on—that don’t seem to fit their existing theories or discourses. And, when they do attempt to make sense of those new things, their ideas change (and, of course, as their ideas change, they see things in new ways).

Perhaps even more important, while people like Sharot acknowledge that people often “accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye,” they never consider the possibility that the people who are conducting the research concerning confirmation bias are themselves subject to that same bias.

Why is it always people out there—you know, “the ones who are thinking about health, wealth, and relationships”—that cherry-pick the facts. What about the so-called scientists, including the ones who invoke the Truth; why aren’t they also subject to confirmation bias?

Sharot invokes “the way our brain works”—without ever acknowledging that she and her coinvestigators also use one theory, and ignore or reject other theories, to make sense of the brain and the diverse ways we process information. Others rely on the “scientific evidence” concerning climate change or the gains from globalization or the existence of a resentful white (but not black or Hispanic) working-class, which in their view others deny because they don’t believe the obvious “facts.”

What’s the difference?

I can pretty much guess the kind of response that will be offered (because I see it all the time, especially in economics): the distinction between everyday confirmation bias and real, Truth-based stems from the use of the “scientific method.”

The problem, of course, is there are different scientific methods, different ways of producing knowledge—whether in economics or cognitive neuroscience, political science or physics, anthropology or chemistry. All of those forms of knowledge production are just as conditioned and conditional as the way nonscientists produce (and consume and disseminate) knowledges about other aspects of the world.

As for me, I can’t wait for this period of fake interest in capital-t Truth to pass. Maybe then we can return to the much more interesting discussion of the conditionality of all forms of knowledge production.


We’ve long known there is a strong correlation between growing up in poverty and low academic achievement. Thus, for example, children living in poverty tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, lower grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to college.

Now we’re learning that that there is a correlation between poverty and children’s actual brain development.

According to Mike Mariani, the results of studying the “neurocognitive profile” of socioeconomic status and the developing brain are startling. For example, according to one study, kids from poorer, less-educated families tended to have thinner subregions of the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain strongly associated with executive functioning—than better-off kids. Moreover, according to the data from another study:

small increases in family income had a much larger impact on the brains of the poorest children than similar increases among wealthier children. And [Kimberly] Noble’s data also suggested that when a family falls below a certain basic level of income, brain growth drops off precipitously. Children from families making less than $25,000 suffered the most, with 6 percent less brain surface area than peers in families making $150,000 or more.

Noble is one of the pioneers in this area and, in order to go beyond correlation to causality, she’s now proposing a randomized controlled trial of giving some mothers a $333 monthly income supplement or others a $20 monthly income supplement.

I am all in favor of giving cash to members of poor households—as against, for example, taking over poor people’s lives by using brain science to promote more effective “executive function skills” such as “impulse control” and “mental flexibility” of the sort proposed by the Crittenton Women’s Union (pdf).

However, as I see it, there are two problems inherent in the way these new poverty-brain trials are proceeding.

First, the trial that Noble proposes is another instance of the kind of work we’re now seeing in development economics (associated especially with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), which conducts experiments on poor people. One “treatment” group is assigned randomly to receive an intervention, and the other is randomized to receive the “control” experience, enabling the investigators to assess the impact of one intervention or another—in this case, on brain development. In other words, poor people are being used as human guinea pigs to conduct scientific experiments.

What’s the alternative? Set up programs, with the participation of poor people, to analyze the causes and consequences of poverty and identify changes that need to be made in the system in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.

Second, the focus is on the brains of poor children, which in Noble’s language are “at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development to eventually become the three-pound wonder able to perform intellectual feats, whether composing symphonies or solving differential equations.”

What about the brains of rich children—why are they presumed to go through “the paces of normal development”? I’m thinking, for example, of the new psychological research on the “pathologies of the rich,” which involves studies of “social class as culture” and “sharing the marbles.” And, of course, there’s the infamous 2013 manslaughter trial of Ethan Couch, whose defense included a witness saying the teen was a product of “profoundly dysfunctional” parents who gave him too much and never taught him the consequences of his actions.

The issue here is not just the continued existence of obscene poverty, but also grotesque levels of inequality—which affect both poor and rich children, albeit in different ways. In my view, we need to be worried about an economic and social system that generates extreme levels of both poverty and inequality and that alters the brains of all children.

There’s nothing normal not just about the minds of children who are born into such a system, but the system itself.