'A magnificent tool for understanding the human mind... a terrible tool for the courtroom'
Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst from the world of psychology and neuroscience. Formerly writing with the pseudonym "Neurobonkers", Simon has a history of debunking dodgy scientific research and tearing apart questionable science journalism in an irreverent style. Simon has written and blogged for publishers including: The Psychologist, Nature, Scientific American and The Guardian. His work has been praised in the New York Times and The Guardian and described in Pearson's Textbook of Psychology as "excoriating reviews of bad science/studies”.
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A few months ago I posted a piece on the alarming resurgence in the use of lie detectors in the UK and the US. A new documentary looks at the use of other neuroscience based methods involving brains scans that have been proposed for use in the court room.
Following the shows, a fascinating panel discussion took place at MIT's McGovern Institute where a panoply of professors debated the potential and the pitfalls of using brains scans for lie detection. Taking part in the discussion were:
Robert Desimone, Director of the McGovern Institute and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Joshua D. Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a founding member of the McGovern Institute, Bea Luna, the Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Stephen J. Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.
The debate considers the fact that the current literature is based on somewhat synthetic experiments. Some positive findings have emerged, but the experiments involved little at stake and this could have a big impact on the implications of the findings. Prof. Nancy Kanwisher sums up her opinion:
"I think it doesn't really work. I think it may be that someday with advances that we can't imagine now, it is remotely possible that could happen, but right now, nobody has shown anything even remotely close to real lie detection. What they have shown and probably (gestures) what he picked up on, on this scan is that if you ask people to say something that's not true versus something that's true, it takes a little bit more mental effort to say something that's not true. That produces very systematic activations in the brain that can be replicated, there is extra mental activity, but it is not diagnostic mental activity. If he had done this experiment and said 'we think that you took that ring and we are going to test and find out if you are innocent or not and what we are going to do is we are going to find if you respond differentially, during that time', in other words if you were suspected and if a lot was at stake, it is quite possible that all of that same brain activity would happen."
Kanwisher goes on to state how "for this to be of any use in the real world you would need to test under those circumstances that could make all the difference in brain scanning. That is major stakes, not fifty bucks in a psychology experiment but life imprisonment. You need to test it where the person believes that this scan could determine their fate. You would need to have a gold standard to determine later if they were telling the truth. I can't imagine how you would ever do that experiment".
The discussion continues along the same fascinating path, discussing ways to experiment with real lies, not artificial lies. Ways to get people to lie of their own accord in an experimental setting, rather than telling people to lie - in which case they would probably respond very differently - a major flaw in much of the literature. One way is giving people a way to cheat on a game and looking at the people with impossibly high scores. Methods such as this still only create minor lies, not affecting Kanwisher's criticisms. We hear how prefrontal activity which has been linked to when people make a special effort to think about something, is activated when people tell an instructed falsehood. However, as much activity was found when people admitted cheating as when people lied - creating a gaping hole for practical uses.
Another stumbling block is that the majority of fMRI research on lie detecting has been done at a group level rather than at the level of an individual. A comparison that is given is that the average height difference between a man and a woman does little to tell us if a short or tall person is a man or a woman. There is so much variation between men and women's height that - even though there is a significant difference between the averages, you can't remove the signal from the noise with any certainty.
Thankfully, US judges have rejected fMRI based lie detection data in the couple of cases so far where it has been brought to trial. But the next question is whether brain scans can be used to determine culpability - a person's state of mind when committing a crime. This is a fascinating discussion, which opens up many more metaphorical cans of worms and unanswered questions that will keep you up at night.
Your can watch the full documentary below.
Panel discussion at MIT's McGovern Institute:
Via @BrainsOnTrial Image Credit: PBS, Dana Busch
Gazzaniga M. et al. (2010). A JUDGE'S GUIDE TO NEUROSCIENCE: A CONCISE INTRODUCTION, SAGE Center, UC Santa Barbara. (PDF)
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.
Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco!
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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