America's Political Language Is Objectively Becoming More Polarized, Says New Study

A new study reports that political language is becoming more partisan and polarized. How is this new and what effects might this have on our republic? 


If you were given a one minute long transcript of a Congressional speech, could you determine the political party of the speaker?

According to researchers from Stanford, Brown, and Microsoft, the answer is yes, and quite easily. By studying Congressional speeches from 1873 to 2009, the researchers were able to determine that the use of language itself has become more polarized to go along with our politics.

By paying attention to the most unique, relevant, and often spoken words and phrases, the study showed a dramatic increase in the use of partisan language over the last one hundred and forty years. With the increase over the last twenty two years being the most impressive, due in large part to the introduction of media savvy campaigns and the use of more effective rhetoric.

If you were to make that guess in 1873, you would have a 54% chance of getting it right; not bad for a two party system. In 1990, those odds had only increased to 55%. However, that guess in 2009 comes with a 83% chance of success, with most of the gains in your odds coming after 1994.

The study also showed a fundamental difference in the way language was partisan then and now. In 1887, if you discussed the tariff on the floor of Congress you were probably a Southern Democrat. If at the same time you even mentioned a fishing treaty with Canada, you were probably a New England Republican. This tendency continued for most of the last century: major partisan divisions on language reflect entirely different topics of discussion, often more in debt to sectional interests than ideological purity.

But the way that the language is polarized has changed. In 2009, if you heard a Congressperson say “undocumented workers” they were probably a Democrat, if they discussed “illegal aliens” they were probably a Republican. The topic of discussion is the same, immigration, but the language used carries rhetorical and partisan weight to it. The study shows this to be true for many issues, ranging from education to taxes and even to the state of the post office. While differences in issue choices still exist, the use of such remarkably differing language is new.

Is this important? After all, liberals and conservatives would probably still disagree on the issues if they happened to use the same language. However, questions of language go beyond politics and into many other realms which affect us all in our daily lives.

The introduction of Catalan-language education has helped strengthen a the Catalan identity within Spain, which continues its attempts at independence. The likelihood that you save for the future, smoke, or use birth control are all affected by what language you speak, according to the famous study on language and behavior by Keith Chen (and his TED Talk). More politically, when asked if they support “The Affordable Care Act”, more Americans will respond positively than if you ask them about their support for “Obamacare”, despite those options being the same.

While polarization in American politics has existed before at even higher levels than we see today, the polarization of language is a relatively new phenomenon. Given the prevalence of partisan media, it is also easy to presume that the use of polarized language goes out beyond the halls of Congress and into the homes of all Americans. Given the effects of the use of particular language on our behavior, how can we hope to understand one another if we are not even speaking the same language?

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SOURCES:

CNN Political Unit. "Poll: 'Obamacare' vs. 'Affordable Care Act'" CNN Political Ticker RSS. CNN Political Unit, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 31 July 2016.

Chen, M. Keith. 2013. The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets. The American Economic Review 103(2): 690-731.

Gentzkow, Matthew, Jesse M. Shapiro, and Matt Taddy. Measuring Polarization in High-Dimensional Data: Method and Application to Congressional Speech.Http://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/politext.pdf. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.