"Reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions,"
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
The more I read about George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin, the more it looks like a national Rorschach test. The usual factions sprang to sanctify or demonize the persons and actions of the individuals involved. This before any semblance of an investigation was complete.
What really interests me about this incident is public reaction to it. The right hand section of the media has started to demonize Trayvon Martin and justify Zimmerman’s actions. Zimmerman’s self-interested claim of assault and self-defense has become fact for one part of the population. There is a mirror image effort underway in other circles. I’m not claiming moral equivalency. It appears (and I’ll wait for a more thorough investigation to come to a firm conclusion) that Zimmerman either mistakenly or intentionally took advantage of a permissive law to shoot a representative of his personal paranoia.
Given the darkness at the time of the shooting and the death of one of the two direct witnesses, those few moments on the street will remain mostly a mystery. As such, I imagine that we will never reach a national consensus about it. There are a lot of issues like this.
I was just reading about a study on motivated reasoning. Some researchers presented information about climate change to two groups of people, both in what the researchers classified as the libertarian hierarchical part of the political spectrum. We might say conservative, but these particular researchers consider that two dimensional spectrum inadequate. One group was presented with the information and told that the problem required government intervention. The other group was told that the problem required more private investment in nuclear power. The nuclear group was more inclined to accept the information as valid.
This study is not unique. Drew Weston, in his excellent book “The Political Brain,” describes an experiment where he told people disturbing things about their favorite political candidates. He put his test subjects in a functional magnetic resonance imager, or fMRI, so he could see which parts of their brains were active. He told each subject about the candidate of choice being caught in an act of self-contradiction and then provided an excuse for that apparent contradiction. Michael Shermer provides a coherent summary in his Scientific American article:
The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning--the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and--once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable--the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," Westen is quoted as saying in an Emory University press release. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Interestingly, neural circuits engaged in rewarding selective behaviors were activated. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones," Westen said.
A professor at Yale presented self-identified college age Republicans and Democrats with two welfare reform plans, one generous and one stringent. As one might imagine, the Dems preferred the generous one and the Repubs the stringent. However, when another two groups of partisans were presented with the same plans they were told that that 95% of Democrats supported the stringent plan and 95% of Republicans supported the generous one. The opinions of these two groups were reversed, with the Republicans supporting the generous plan and the Democrats the stringent one. Tribalism trumped prior opinion.
Do you want to change somebody’s mind? Apparently facts don’t work. Studies show that the more facts you present the more your erstwhile student will entrench in an existing position.
The science is stacking up. Politics is not a sphere of reason. It is a contest of tribes and emotionally satisfying doctrines. I used to say that people’s opinions on abortion and gun control were built into their DNA. A better description would be that people’s political opinions are the result of a lifetime of emotionally charged experiences, accreted like rust and barnacles on a ship’s hull. After a while the removal of the accumulated debris becomes a threat to the original structure and won’t be tolerated.
The exception to this is my set of political beliefs, of course. They were arrived at by the pure, cool reasoning of the calculating engine between my ears.
It brings me back to the quotation from Hume at the beginning of this essay. It also reminds me of the saying of a college friend: You are who you laugh at.