A Good Week For Science -- and Insight into Politics

the past couple of weeks, the NY Times has been
reporting on results from the cognitive and brain sciences that confirm
past research in those fields partly by me and partly by my community
of colleagues. What makes this of general, not personal, interest is
that the scientific results are especially important for understanding
what has been going wrong for the Obama administration and for liberals
generally, and what has been going right for conservatives. I'm going
to start out with some science, and get on to the politics after brief
discussions of three important NY Times articles and what they mean

It's always satisfying for a scientist
to see his or her predictions proved right experimentally (which happens
often) and actually discussed in the press (which happens rarely). As
a cognitive scientist and linguist, it's been a good couple of weeks
for me and my colleagues, especially in the NY Times. Experiments
are hard to do and I celebrate all the experimenters cited. Experiments
are also hard to report on, and I praise the journalists at the Times
for a fine job.

Metaphor and Embodiment

Back in 1980, Mark Johnson and I, in
Metaphors We Live By
, demonstrated the existence of metaphorical
thought and argued that metaphor and other aspects of mind were embodied.
That book, and our 1987 books, my Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things
and Mark's The Body in the Mind, helped to start a cottage
industry in the study of embodied cognition.

The experimental results confirming
our theories of embodied cognition have been coming in regularly, especially
in the area of metaphorical thought. Natalie Angier, on February
1, <www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02angier.html>
summarized some of the recent research very clearly.

  • A University of Amsterdam
    study showed that subjects thinking about the future leaned forward,
    while those thinking about the past leaned backward. This was
    predicted by the 1980 analysis of common European metaphors in which
    The Future is Ahead and The Past is Behind. This is not just a matter
    of language, but of thought, as Johnson and I showed.
  • At Yale, researchers found that subjects holding warm
    coffee in advance were more likely to evaluate an imaginary individual
    as warm and friendly than those holding cold coffee. This is predicted
    by the conceptual metaphor that Affection is Warmth, as in She gave
    me a warm greeting.
  • At Toronto, subjects were
    asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or
    socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the
    room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered
    being coldly snubbed.
  • Subjects asked to think about
    a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more
    likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those
    who had thought about good deeds. The well-known conceptual metaphor
    Morality is Purity
    predicts this behavior.
  • Students told that that a
    particular book was important judged it to be physically heavier than
    a book that they were told was unimportant. The conceptual metaphor
    is Important is Heavy.
  • In a parallel study with heavy
    versus light clipboards, those with the heavy clipboards were more likely
    like to judge currency to be more valuable and their opinions and their
    leaders more important.
  • And in doing arithmetic, students
    who used their hands to group numbers together had an easier time doing
    problems that required conceptual grouping. This is predicted by the
    analysis of mathematics in Where Mathematics Comes From by myself
    and Rafael Nunez where we show how mathematics from the simple to
    the advanced is based on embodied metaphorical cognition.

These results don't happen by magic.
How can these results be explained?

Johnson's and my 1999 book, Philosophy
in the Flesh,
incorporated a neural theory of how embodied metaphorical
thought works. What a child is regularly held affectionately by its
parents, two distinct brain areas are activated simultaneously - one
for temperature and one for affection. The synapses in both areas are
strengthened and activation spreads along existing pathways until the
shortest pathway between the areas is found and a circuit is formed.
That circuit is the neural realization of what is called a "primary
metaphor" that is embodied. Hundreds of such cases are formed
unconsciously and automatically in childhood.

My Berkeley colleague, Srini Narayanan
has shown what computational properties such circuits must have. In
still unpublished work, he has shown that the relative timing of first
spikes across a synapse predicts the directionality of elementary metaphors
in all known cases. The very idea that such low-level phenomena
at the level of neurons can result in the vast range our metaphorical
thought is truly remarkable.

A crucial part of the story of embodied
cognition comes from the neuroscience of the 1990's, which showed
that the same brain regions used in actually moving and perceiving are
used in imagining and remembering moving and perceiving. These results
led Jerome Feldman to the crucial idea that meaningful thought expressible
in language is mental simulation that uses the neural structures of
the sensory-motor system to imagine what is embodied, usually below
the level of consciousness.

These are experimental findings and theories
based on considerable evidence. Taken together they explain the results
of the experiments: Primary metaphorical thought arises when a neural
circuit is formed linking two brain areas activated when experiences
occur together repeatedly. Typically, one of the experiences is physical.
In each experiment, each subject has the physical experience activating
one of the brain regions and another experience (e.g., emotional or
temporal) activating the other brain region for the given metaphor.
The activation of both regions activates the metaphorical link. Thus,
if the metaphor is Future Is Ahead and Past Is Behind, thinking about
the future will activate the brain region for moving forward. If the
metaphor is Affection is Warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the
brain region for experiencing affection.

Angier did not seek out the theoretical
studies that allow these explanations - and led to the performance
of the experiments in the first place. That's too much to ask of a
NY Times article. But it was nice to see some of the relevant experiments
reported on in the NY Times, even if the explanations were left out.

These cases don't have any direct political
implications in themselves, but they are indirectly important, as we
shall see.

Words and Polls

The past week in the NY Times was also
pretty good for me with respect to predictions.

There was a CBS/NYTimes poll that showed support for ending "Don't
Ask Don't Tell" varied considerably depending on whether "homosexuals"
or "gay men and lesbians" was used in the question. "Gay men and
lesbians" gat a lot more support - in the ball park of 15% more,
which is a HUGE difference on a poll.

Those of you who've read my Don't
Think of an Elephant!
and The Political Mind will be familiar
with the basic results of frame semantics, developed by my Berkeley
colleague Charles Fillmore and others within the cognitive and brain

    The first basic result: The meaning
    of every word is characterized in terms of a brain circuit called a
    "frame." Frames are often characterized in terms of the usual
    apparatus of mental life: metaphors, images, cultural narratives -
    and neural links to the emotion centers of the brain. The narrow, literal
    meaning of a word is only one aspect of its frame-semantic meaning.

    The second basic result is that
    this is mostly unconscious, like 98% of human thought.

On the inherent link between semantic
and emotion, see my discussion in the Political Mind (Chapter 1) and
the excellent books by Antonio Damasio (Descartes' Error) and
Drew Westen (The Political Brain).

"Homosexual" is simply defined
via a different frame than "gay men and lesbians." Professor Geoffrey
Stone of the U. of Chicago, writing in the Huffington Post on February
13, describes the difference:

    "Homosexual" conjures
    up dark visions of filthy bodily acts that arouse deeply-rooted feelings
    of disgust and ancient fears of Sodom and Gomorrah and hell and damnation.
    "Gay men and lesbians," on the other hand, increasingly reminds
    us of people we know -- sons and daughters, cousins and classmates,
    nieces and nephews, coworkers and neighbors.

In short, there is a big difference in
meaning - the framing difference between the thought of gay sex and
the idea of the civil rights of people in your community. The consequences
are political, as Professor Stone observes:

    When we hear religious leaders
    or politicians referring to "homosexuals in the military,"
    "homosexual marriage," or "special rights for homosexuals,"
    we must recognize what they are doing. Especially for the 15% of Americans
    who react so viscerally to the term "homosexual," they are
    trying to chew their way into the worst parts of our psyches in order
    to manipulate our beliefs and values and make us worse people than we
    really are.

I've been writing for years about
how effective the right wing has been at framing, and how progressives
often use right-wing language, even in polls. I have had numerous discussions
with well-known pollsters who did not get the point and could not distinguish
commonplace language from commonplace language that activated right-wing

The cognitive science matters here.
The CBS/NYTimes poll results were to be expected given our current understanding
of how words get their meaning by being neurally linked to frame-circuits.

Blinks, Worms, and Spankers

Nick Kristof, in his February 14 column, discusses three experiments distinguishing
conservatives from liberals.

  • In one experiment, the strength
    of blink reflexes to unexpected noises was measured and correlated with
    degrees of reactions to external threats. Conservatives reacted considerably
    more strongly than liberals.
  • Another experiment was based
    on the fact that disgust reactions create glandular secretions that
    change skin conductance. Subjects were shown disgusting images (like
    some eating a handful of worms). Liberals reacted mildly, but conservative
    reactions went off the charts.
  • A third study showed a strong
    correlation between attitudes toward spanking and voting patterns: spanking
    states tend to go Republican. The experimenters correlated spanking
    preferences with what they called "cognitive styles." As Kristof
    reports it, "Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white
    terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable and under attack, tend
    to make strong distinctions between "us" and "them," and emphasize
    order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel
    more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority
    groups - and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating

All three results follow from a cognitive
science study called Moral Politics, which I published in 1996
and was reprinted in 2002. There I observed that conservatives
and liberals had opposite moral worldviews structured by metaphor around
two profoundly different models of the ideal family, a strict father
family for conservatives and a nurturant parent family for liberals.
In the ideal strict father family, the world is seen as a dangerous
place and the father functions as protector from "others" and the
parent who teaches children absolute right from wrong by punishing them
physically (painful spanking or worse) when they do wrong. The father
is the ultimate authority, children are to obey, and immoral practices
are seen as disgusting.

Ideal liberal families are based on
nurturance, which breaks down into empathy, responsibility - for both
oneself and others, and excellence: doing as well as one can to make
oneself better and one's family and community better. Parents are
to practice these things and children are to learn them by example.

Because our first experience with being
governed in is our families, we all learn a basic metaphor: A Governing
Institution Is A Family, where the governing institution can be a church,
a school, a team, or a nation. The Nation-as-Family version gives us
the idea of founding fathers, Mother India and Mother Russia, the Fatherland,
homeland security, etc.

Apply these monolithically to our politics
and you get extreme conservative and progressive moral systems, defining
what is right and wrong to each side.

There is no moral system of the moderate
or the middle. Because of a neural phenomenon called "mutual inhibition,"
two opposing moral systems can live in brain circuits that inhibit each
other and are active in different contexts. For a nonpolitical example,
consider Saturday night and Sunday morning moral systems, which coexist
in the brains of many Americans. The same is true of "moderates,"
who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others, though
there may be variations from person to person.

Kristof doesn't mention Moral
, though he got a copy at a Democratic Senate retreat in
2003, at which we both spoke. If Moral Politics is still on his
bookshelf, I suggest he take a look. I also recommend it to anyone who
wants to understand the difference between conservative and progressive
moral systems.

Conservative Populism and Tea Partyers

After the Goldwater defeat of 1964,
conservatism was a dirty word and most Americans wanted to be liberals,
especially working people who were highly unionized. Lee Atwater and
colleagues, working for the 1968 Nixon campaign, had a problem: How
to get a significant number of working people to become conservative
enough to vote for Nixon.

They intuited what I have since called
"biconceptualism" (see The Political Mind) - the fact that
many Americans have both conservative and progressive views, but in
different contexts and on different issues. Mutual inhibition in brain
circuitry means the strengthening of one weakens the other. They found
a way to both strengthen conservative views and weaken liberal
views, creating a conservative populism. Here's how they did it.

They realized that by the late 60's
many working people were disturbed by the anti-war demonstrations; so
Nixon ran on anti-communism. They noticed that many working men
were upset by radical feminists. So they pushed traditional family values.
And they realized that, after the civil rights legislation, many
working men, especially in the South, were threatened by blacks. So
they ran Nixon on law and order. At the same time, they created
the concept of "the liberal elite" - the tax and spend liberals,
the liberal media, the Hollywood liberals, the limosine liberals, and
so on. They created language for all these ideas and have been repeating
it ever since.

Even though liberals have worked tirelessly
for the material benefit of working people, the repetition of conservative
populist frames over more than 40 years has had an effect. Conservative
ideas have spread in the brains of conservative populists. The current
Tea Party movement is an attempt to spread conservative populism further.

Sarah Palin may not know history or
economics, but she does know strict father morality and conservative
populist frames. Frank Rich, in his February 14 NY Times column, denied
David Broder's description of Palin as "perfect pitch populism"
and called it "deceptive faux populism" and a "populist masquerade."
What Rich is missing is that Palin has a perfect pitch for conservative
populism - which is very different from liberal populism. What she
can do is strengthen the conservative side of bi-conceptual undecided
populists, helping to move them to conservative populists. She is dangerous
that way.

Frank Rich, long one of my heroes,
is a perfect pitch liberal. He assumes that nurturant values (empathy,
social and personal responsibility, making yourself and the world better)
are the only objective values. I think they are right values, values
that define democracy, but unfortunately far from the only values. Starting
with those values, Rich correctly points out that Palin's views contradict
liberal populism and that her conservative positions won't materially
help the poor and middle class. All true, but ... that does not contradict
conservative populism or conservatism in general.

This is a grand liberal mistake. The
highest value in the conservative moral system (see Moral Politics,
Chapter 9) is the perpetuation and strengthening of the conservative
moral system itself!! This is not liberal materialism. Liberals decry
it as "ideology," and it is. But it is real, it has the structure
of moral system, and it is physically part of the brains of both Washington
conservatives and conservative populists. The conservative surge is
not merely electoral. It is an idea surge. It is an attempt to spread
conservatism via the spread of conservative populism. That is what the
Tea Party movement is doing.

False Reason and Real Reason: The
Obama Mistake

It was entirely predictable a year
ago that the conservatives would hold firm against Obama's attempts
at "bipartisanship" - finding occasional conservatives who were
biconceptual, that is, shared some views acceptable to Obama on some
issues, while keeping an overall liberal agenda.

The conservatives are not fools. Because
their highest value is protecting and extending the conservative moral
system itself, giving Obama any victory at all would strengthen Obama
and weaken the hold of their moral system. Of course they were going
to vote against every proposal and delay and filibuster as often as
possible. Protecting and extending their worldview demands it.

Obama has not understood this.

We saw this when Obama attended the
Republican caucus. He kept pointing out that they voted against proposals
that Republicans had made and that he had incorporated, acting as if
this were a contradiction. But that was to be expected, since a particular
proposal that strengthens Obama and hence weakens their moral view violates
their highest moral principle.

Such conservative logic explains why
conservatives in Congress first proposed a bipartisan committee to study
the deficit, and then voted against it.

That is why I don't expect much from
the President's summit with Republicans on February 25. Why
should they do anything to strengthen Obama's hand, when it would
violate their highest moral principle, as well as weakening themselves
electorally. If Obama thinks he can shame them in front of their voters,
he is mistaken again. Conservative voters think the same way they do.

During the 2008 presidential campaign,
Obama used framing perfectly and articulated the progressive moral system
(empathy, individual and social responsibility, making oneself and the
world better) as well as it has ever been done.

But he changed after the election.
Obama moved from real reason, how people really think, to false reason,
a traditional view coming out of the Enlightenment and favored by all
too many liberals.

We now (finally!) come to the point
of going through all those experiments in the cognitive and brain sciences.
Here are the basic differences between real and false reason, and the
ways in which all too many liberals, including Obama during the past
year, are wed to false reason.

Real reason is embodied in two
ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our
bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises
from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious. False
sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied,
yet somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based,
metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians

Empathy is physical, arising from mirror
neurons systems tied to emotional circuitry. Self-interest is real as
well, and both play their roles in real reason. False reason is supposed
to serve material self-interest alone. It's supposed to answer the
question, "What's in it for me?,"which President Obama assumed
that all populists were asking. While Frank Luntz told conservatives
to frame health care in terms of the moral concepts of freedom (a "government
takeover") and life ("death panels"), Obama was talking about
policy minutia that could not be understood by most people.

Real reason is inexplicably tied up
with emotion; you cannot be rational without being emotional. False
reason thinks that emotion is the enemy of reason, that it is
unscrupulous to call on emotion. Yet people with brain damage who cannot
feel emotion cannot make rational decisions because they do not know
what to want, since like and not like mean nothing. "Rational" decisions
are based on a long history of emotional responses by oneself and others.
Real reason requires emotion.

Obama assumed that Republicans would
act "rationally" where "rationality" was defined by false reason
- on the logic of material self-interest. But conservatives understood
that their electoral chances matched their highest moral principle,
strengthening their moral system itself without compromise.

It is a basic principle of false reason
that every human being has the same reason governed by logic - and
that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right
conclusion. The President kept saying, throughout Tea Party summer,
that he would just keep telling the truth about policy details that
most people could not make moral sense of. And so he did, to the detriment
of all of us.

All politics is moral. Political leaders
all make proposals they say are "right." No one proposes a policy
that they say is wrong. But there are two opposing moral systems at
work in America. What moral system you are using governs how you will
see the world and reason about politics. That is the lesson of the cognitive
science behind Moral Politics and all the experiments since then.
It is the lesson of all the research on embodied metaphor. Metaphorical
thought is central to politics.

Finally, there is the lesson of how
language works in the brain. Every word is neurally connected to a neural
circuit characterizing a frame, which in turn is part of a system of
frames linked to a moral system. In political discourse, words activate
frames, which in turn activate moral systems. This mechanism is not
conscious. It is automatic, and it is acquired through repetition. As
the language of conservative morality is repeated, frames are activated
repeatedly that in turn activate and strengthen the conservative system
of thought - unconsciously and automatically. Thus conservative talk
radio and the national conservative messaging system are powerful unconscious
forces. They work via principles of real reason.

But many liberals, assuming a false
view of reason, think that such a messaging system for ideas they believe
in would be illegitimate - doing the things that the conservatives
do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people
really think is seen as emotional and hence irrational and immoral.
Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to
real reason.

Take Paul Krugman, one of my heroes,
whose economic sense I find impeccable. Here is a quote from a recent

    Republicans who hate Medicare,
    tried to slash Medicare in the past, and still aim to dismantle the
    program over time, have been scoring political points by denouncing
    proposals for modest cost savings - savings that are substantially
    smaller than the spending cuts buried in their own proposals.

He is following traditional liberal
logic, and pointing out a literal contradiction: they denounce "cuts
in Medicare" while wanting to eliminate Medicare and have proposed
bigger cuts themselves.

But, from the perspective of real reason
as conservatives use it, there is no contradiction. The highest conservative
value is preserving and empowering their moral system itself. Medicare
is anathema to their moral system - a fundamental insult. It violates
free market principles and gives people things they haven't all earned.
It is a system where some people are paying -God forbid! - for the
medical care of others. For them, Medicare itself is immoral on a grand
scale, a fundamental moral issue far more important than any minor proposal
for "modest cost savings." I'm sorry to report it, but that is
how conservatives are making use of real reason, and exploiting the
fact that so many liberals think it's contradictory.

Indeed, one of the major findings of
real reason is that negating a frame activates that frame in the brain
and reinforces it - like Nixon saying that he was not a crook. Dan
Pfeiffer, writing on the White House blog, posted an article called
"Still not a 'Government Takeover'," which activates the conservative
idea of a government takeover and hence reinforces the idea. Every time
a liberal goes over a conservative proposal giving evidence negating
conservative ideas one by one, he or she is activating the conservative
ideas in the brains of his audience. The proper response is to start
with your own ideas, framed to fit what you really believe. Facts matter.
But they have to be framed properly and their moral significance must
be made manifest. That is what we learn from real reason.

The NY Times is home to a lot of traditional
reason, often based on false principles of how people think. That is
why the reporting of those experiments brightened my day. Perhaps
the best way to the NY Times mind is through the science of mind.

Kudos once more to the Times' science
reporting on those experiments.

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