So people are talking about conservative brains again…

This is a topic I find simultaneously fascinating and annoying. There is some evidence that conservatives and progressives- as defined in the U.S. – have differences in brain function that match differences in thought and behavior. Basically, conservatives seem to have a stronger threat response, and the related portions of the brain tend to be a bit bigger. According to the scientist in the video clip below, conservatives are also less likely to respond to strong emotional reactions with the kind of self-assessment that might help them spot misinformation designed to provoke those strong reactions. We don’t know if brain differences cause conservative thinking, or if the patterns of conservative thinking cause the brain differences.

I want to note that the language I’m using IS biased – I am quite certain that conservatives are wrong about the things on which we disagree, and I’m also reasonably certain that most of my readers are not conservative. I am writing from my own perspective on this, but one could just as easily switch this around and talk about “liberals” having a less developed amygdala or overdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

I think it’s good to know this stuff about ourselves as a species, and some of what Azarian says about how to deal with that is fine. I think he’s right about needing to put more effort into encouraging self-assessment and introspection as a way to build up the parts of the brain that might temper a threat response with what Terry Pratchett might call “second thoughts” – a meta-assessment of not just the thing that created the initial emotional reaction, but also of the reaction itself.

Where he loses me is when he starts talking about focusing on the things we agree about, rather than our differences, and using that as a starting point to have us all getting along, and uniting humanity under a materialistic understanding of reality. My objection is not because of the goal. I am firmly convinced that material analysis of our circumstances is vitally important, and the lack of that on the political/religious right is a serious problem.

But.

There’s an anecdote I saw a while back about a neuroscientist who was studying chicken brains, found that they don’t deal with smell the way we do, and concluded that chickens don’t have nostrils. This was rebutted by chicken farmers, who pointed out that a lifetime of working with chickens had left them quite certain that chickens do, in fact, have nostrils. The neuroscientist had focused entirely on the chickens’ brains, and hadn’t looked at the entire creature.

I couldn’t find where I initially read that account, and at this point I think it may well be false, or I’m mis-remembering it, but it gets at a reasonably common problem among those who have put in the effort to become experts in a particular specialization. It seems that becoming an expert – especially in a field known to be “difficult” – sometimes leads people to believe their expertise covers subjects in which they are not specialists.

In this case, I think that Azarian’s “plan” is hampered by an ignorance of sociology and politics.

To begin with, I think it’s strange that he talks as if getting everyone to agree on how the world works is a new idea. It’s also strange to me that he believes we can change how people think by applying a Bayesian system, as though the people whose minds he want to change are going to happily go through HIS process, unlike every previous attempt at something similar. He’s right about the problems caused by overstating certainty, but he seems to ignore the way right-wing propagandists have exploited the honest assessments of uncertainty that are the norm in scientific literature (evolution and climate science being possibly the most famous examples). He also seems to have no idea about the material factors in society that lead to misinformation campaigns designed specifically to confuse and obscure not just the truth, but also our processes for determining the truth. In a lot of ways, this feels like someone saying “We need to solve climate change by replacing fossil fuels with a mix of nuclear and renewable energy”, and then acting like the work is done.

It would be nice if everyone took a rational approach to analyzing every situation and claim, but that’s an end goal, not a plan for getting there. This makes Azarian just another voice in the chorus of people convinced that they could save the world if only everyone agreed with them.

But I think it’s actually a bit worse than that. Azarian says we should focus on our areas of agreement to avoid the emotional chain reactions that come with confrontation and disagreement. Again, this feels like a very surface-level analysis. Yes – we all get along better when we all suppress those parts of ourselves that cause conflict. And no – that has never been a viable path to changing people’s opinions or thought patterns. To begin with, if your primary approach to change relies on changing how hundreds of millions of people think, then the best-case scenario has your process of change taking several generations to really take effect. Humans don’t live in “the long term”. We can and should make plans for the long term, and work for the long term, but we’re stuck living in the present. Saying that the solution is to focus on areas of agreement also means that people who are being hurt by the way society works today should shut up about it for the sake of getting along.

This is as irrational an expectation as saying that people will always react calmly and thoughtfully when you tell them they’re wrong.

Take the example of Schrödinger’s Douchebag; that guy who will say something that sounds bigoted, and then decide whether they meant it based on the reaction of the group. If anyone pushes back, “it was just a joke!”, and if no one does, then everyone agrees it’s true. If you also push back on the idea that their bigotry is “just a joke”, then you’re the one causing conflict, because you can’t take a joke.

The fact is that there are people who like the world as it is, and they tend to be people who have a lot of power and material wealth. This is where you get twisted narratives like this one, demonstrated by Stephen King:

This is all wrong. The bill that Sinema and Manchin are obstructing is already a compromise – it’s already less than 70%, and the two “moderates” who are blocking everything are the ones refusing to accept anything less than 100% of what they want. For weeks now people have been blaming progressives for what’s going on. More recent tweets indicate that King may have gained a better understanding about what’s happening, but it’s not just an accident that he came to tweet that – it’s a deliberately false narrative of a kind that comes up every time U.S. progressives actually fight for something they want. Failing to concede to all right-wing demands is consistently framed as starting trouble and being unreasonable, and without real confrontation, what we get is movement to the right on economics and political power, over and over again.

This notion that we can just convert conservatives to rationality and material analysis by helping them reason through things is not a new one. What stands out in my mind is a sort of “Logic Bro” power fantasy found in the fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The basic premise is “what if Petunia had become a college professor and married another college professor, and they both raised Harry as a scientific child prodigy?”, and basically uses the shallowness of J.K. Rowling’s worldbuilding to allow Harry to perform feats of science-inspired magic and cleverness that astound and baffle all the greatest wizards, while he also uses the titular “methods of rationality” to reason Draco Malfoy out of his bigotry. Full disclosure, I enjoyed this story when I first read it. I also find it mostly unreadable now, but there’s something catchy about the idea that if we could just get the people we disagree with to just sit down and walk through everything with us, they’d see that of course they couldn’t be right.

I’m fond of saying that our brains are basically meat computers vulnerable to some level of reprogramming by anyone with access to our senses, including ourselves. Changing minds via one-on-one exploration of ideas is absolutely possible, if both parties are approaching the project in good faith. Changing minds on a larger scale through media is also possible.

But that’s not the same as changing how society works, or how power is exercised. It also doesn’t account for those – like fascists – who are less interested in what is or is not true than they are in the assertion of power over others. Unfortunately, all the reasonableness and non-violence in the world won’t help much if someone wants everyone who believes what you do dead, and they have the power to make it happen.

There is no silver bullet here. There’s no “weird trick” or “scientific technique” that will unite humanity under a common purpose. Worse, Azarian’s idea of focusing on a “common enemy”, even one as abstract as climate change or poverty, strikes me as downright irresponsible.

First, agreeing on climate change as a common enemy is unlikely to happen so long as the capitalists funding misinformation and obstruction retain the power to do so. They have no reason to change their minds, because the way things are is working just great, as far as they’re concerned. In the words of Rex Tillerson, their philosophy is “we’ll adapt to that”, so let’s keep drilling.

Second, and more importantly, agreeing on common problems and common enemies is a very dangerous approach. For example – fascists and socialists in the early 20th century agreed that capitalism wasn’t working, and that the people in charge were doing things wrong, and focused on the wrong goals.

Common enemy, common problem.

The solution was the difference that mattered. Socialists wanted to find a way to democratize the economy, and fascists wanted to return to a nonexistent golden age, and murder the bad people who were making the bad things happen. For all the Nazis actively pursued privatization and further empowerment of capitalists, their version of agreeing that capitalism had a problem can be found in the works of Gottfried Feder, whose work “Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft“, or “Breaking Interest Bondage” advocated against the “collection” of capital (particularly through charging interest), as different from “creation” of capital which was done by fine, upstanding German workers and businessmen.

This was just a repurposed version of the same kind of antisemitism found in “A Merchant of Venice”, and meshed very well with the broader Nazi movement to blame all the world’s woes on a global Jewish Conspiracy. It was also Feder’s justification for seizing the property of Jewish Germans.

If your focus is on finding agreement, and especially if you ignore issues of social justice and injustice, then what you have in Weimar Germany is a left that hates capitalism, and a right that hates capitalism – they agree on a problem! And in observing that, you are no closer to achieving any form of universal understanding. Having a “common enemy” is useless if one group wants to radically change how society works to reduce our contribution to the problem, and another group wants to murder people who’re different until the problem goes away.

Let’s break it down further – we know that climate change is going to cause food shortages. It’s already hurting agriculture, and that’s only going to get worse as the temperature rises. My solution would be to invest heavily in weather-proof food production on a global scale, without regard for profit. Things like edible algae and bacterial cultures (usually sold in powder/flour form) aren’t necessarily the most delicious food, but they are something that can act as a backstop on famine. Further, having such facilities in every part of the world means that even if several areas are hit by  problems that shut down both conventional agriculture and food factories – wildfires, storms, war, etc. – it’s far more likely that the rest of the world will have the resources to both feed themselves and to provide food to those in need.

What’s the fascist solution? We’ve already seen some of it. When refugees came north from Guatemala fleeing both violence and drought, they wanted not just a wall that would stop the refugees, they wanted that wall electrified, and they talked about the refugees as an invasion that should be met with military force. The fascist solution is to kill people so there will be more food to go around for those who remain. This is both wholly unacceptable, and entirely useless for solving the problem.

Uniting against a common enemy is all well and good when that enemy is a group of people who are attacking. Despite the rabid anti-communism in the U.S. government (remember – the “Allied Powers” invaded Russia in 1918 in an attempt to prevent the Bolsheviks from holding power), the Americans joined with the U.S.S.R. to defeat the Nazis. The problem is, that unity only lasts as long as the enemy, and it only works if it’s an actual enemy who can be defeated through force of arms. Insofar as that applies to climate change, who’s the enemy?

I’ve been clear that I think the enemy is the capitalists who are working to maintain the system that keeps them in power. My solution is to take their power away as soon as possible, so that they can’t spread misinformation and buy politicians to prevent action on climate change that might hurt their profits. My preference is to do that nonviolently, but I’m not particularly optimistic; history has shown that capitalists generally prefer murder to losing their wealth. The fascist solution is to give all that power to an authoritarian, so he (and it always does seem to be a “he”) can “do what must be done”, which invariably means “do violence to the right people”.

To be clear, I do not think that Bobby Azarian is a fascist. I think that his work on brain differences is good, and useful. His thoughts on how provoking genuine self-analysis can “strengthen” the relevant parts of the brain are also good and useful. What’s lacking is a deeper understanding of how human thought manifests as behavior within a society. Even that, by itself, is not that big of a problem – specialization is a good thing overall – but in developing his “solution” to the problem of conservative thought, I think he has shown the failure of his own system – he thinks his analysis is good enough to be presented as a solution, when in reality he’s missing data at the “input” end, and he doesn’t even seem to know those data exist to be analyzed.


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How rich nations take their wealth from poorer nations

I’ve recently run into a number of people who aren’t aware of the fact that the prosperity of rich countries and the illusion of a “good” economic system experienced there is funded by poor countries. Getting people in wealthy nations to understand that dynamic is, in my opinion, important for building the global solidarity we’ll need to survive climate change and the death throes of Neoliberal capitalism. I’m going to try to post various articles on topics like that more regularly, just to help increase the circulation of ideas that need to spread. In that spirit, this Guardian article from 2017 is worth your time:

What they discovered is that the flow of money from rich countries to poor countries pales in comparison to the flow that runs in the other direction.
In 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3tn, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. In other words, developing countries sent $2tn more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $16.3tn – that’s how much money has been drained out of the global south over the past few decades. To get a sense for the scale of this, $16.3tn is roughly the GDP of the United States

What this means is that the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.

What do these large outflows consist of? Well, some of it is payments on debt. Developing countries have forked out over $4.2tn in interest payments alone since 1980 – a direct cash transfer to big banks in New York and London, on a scale that dwarfs the aid that they received during the same period. Another big contributor is the income that foreigners make on their investments in developing countries and then repatriate back home. Think of all the profits that BP extracts from Nigeria’s oil reserves, for example, or that Anglo-American pulls out of South Africa’s gold mines.
But by far the biggest chunk of outflows has to do with unrecorded – and usually illicit – capital flight. GFI calculates that developing countries have lost a total of $13.4tn through unrecorded capital flight since 1980.

Most of these unrecorded outflows take place through the international trade system. Basically, corporations – foreign and domestic alike – report false prices on their trade invoices in order to spirit money out of developing countries directly into tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, a practice known as “trade misinvoicing”. Usually the goal is to evade taxes, but sometimes this practice is used to launder money or circumvent capital controls. In 2012, developing countries lost $700bn through trade misinvoicing, which outstripped aid receipts that year by a factor of five.

Multinational companies also steal money from developing countries through “same-invoice faking”, shifting profits illegally between their own subsidiaries by mutually faking trade invoice prices on both sides. For example, a subsidiary in Nigeria might dodge local taxes by shifting money to a related subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, where the tax rate is effectively zero and where stolen funds can’t be traced.
GFI doesn’t include same-invoice faking in its headline figures because it is very difficult to detect, but they estimate that it amounts to another $700bn per year. And these figures only cover theft through trade in goods. If we add theft through trade in services to the mix, it brings total net resource outflows to about $3tn per year.

That’s 24 times more than the aid budget. In other words, for every $1 of aid that developing countries receive, they lose $24 in net outflows. These outflows strip developing countries of an important source of revenue and finance for development. The GFI report finds that increasingly large net outflows have caused economic growth rates in developing countries to decline, and are directly responsible for falling living standards.

The article goes on to discuss solutions, but I think one of the biggest mental hurdles that people in predominantly white, wealthy nations need to get over, is the notion that poverty is due to some moral failing by poor people, both at a national scale, and at a global scale. We need to work together to deal with climate change, or the death toll will completely eclipse the worst atrocities in history. That means we need to let go of ideas about who “deserves” what – though to be clear, reparations are definitely owed – and focus more on using the resources we have as a species to deal with our needs as a species, including our need for a healthy global ecosystem and a stable climate.

We can’t afford to keep listening to the whines of the wealthy who think they deserve to keep their power, no matter the damage it does. Trying to maintain this system of global inequality will drive us to extinction.