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Whose finger on the button?

September 10, 2007

A report in the Guardian today by their “science correspondent” runs under the sensationalist heading of: Brain type may dictate politics. Now this form of neo-determinism is common at the popularisation end of the science writing spectrum; there is nothing some people would like more that to absolve people of moral responsibility for all actions by reference to their brain types. It all smacks of Victorian pseudo-science involving calipers and prenology in general.

As it turns out, the experiment that underpins the report involved just 43 volunteers who were given a simple response test in which they press a button if X happens, and don’t if Y. The experimenters then threw in more Xs in than Ys to create an habitual response. Now the finding from this extensive and comprehensive research (How can one be sarcastic in HTML?)was that liberals were more likely than conservatives to withhold the habitual response and had more activity in the part of the brain associated with conflict monitoring. They also had higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity and were less likely to need order, structure and closure.

Now you can’t draw any conclusions from that sort of experiment and I think the Guardian really needs a new science correspondent (or possibly sub-editor, you never know what happens to the reporters original text on the editing screen). That said, I was re-reading some material on the Cuban Missile Crisis the other day and chatting about it with my son. We were on a 600km round trip from Caen to Nantes at the time with overnight ferry crossings at each end, and I think the current generation have little idea of just how scary the whole nuclear debate was 30-40 years ago. At that time we were hours away from buttons being pressed that would have ended life as we know it.

Given that Kennedy did not press the said button we may have some historical support for the findings on habitual button pushing! I dread to think what we might have got in the same circumstances with the current administration in the US. Maybe we should just get rid of the buttons?

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