Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Neuroscience and society: Emotional harm?

Here is an effort to quantify emotional harm:

“Two potential legal applications are advanced in this paper: (1) that science can provide empirical evidence of what it means to suffer emotional distress, thus helping to validate a claim that has always been subject to greater scrutiny; and (2) that this evidence may allow us to move away from the sharp distinction between how physical and emotional injuries are conceptualized, viewing both as valid types of harm with physiological origins.”
I find this "move away from the sharp distinction" stuff appalling, because – if accepted - it will surely become an instrument for tyranny.

Look at it this way: If a street perp breaks my arm trying to wrench my backpack away, I must wait hours in the triage line at the local hospital to get my arm reset. I can have whatever opinion I want, but my arm needs expert resetting regardless.

But, speaking of "emotional injuries": If I won’t leave the house for eighteen months because of that incident, even though I live in a generally safe neighbourhood or, if not, am free to move – it’s not the same thing, okay?

Sure, I would need help, but mainly psychological help with learning how to assess risk and take normal precautions. That's a choice, whereas getting a broken arm set is not.

The perp may be a miserable SOB who deserves to do time, but he is not directly responsible for my inability to cope.

Hence the law’s reasonable distinction between physical and emotional injuries. It's a question of how much control we have over how much we suffer. But, of course, those who do not believe in the existence of the mind or of free will would be attracted to views of the type noted in the abstract above.

My view: Instead of changing the law, how about free, non-violent self-defense courses for women? I’ll dig deep for that. I think non-violent self-defense courses should be part of a normal education anyway, like drownproofing and fire safety. We feel better about ourselves when we learn to access all the self-protection strategies available to us.

More "Neuroscience and society" stories. (Note: You must scroll past this story first.)

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Neuroscience and society: Hate Area of Brain Identified?

According to Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor, whose work was reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. (October 29, 2008)
New brain imaging studies show that people who view pictures of someone they hate display activity in distinct areas of the brain that, together, may be thought of as a hate circuit.
Hate circuit? This sort of thing makes me feel like giving up on neuroscience.

Why? Well, here's the scary part, courtesy Zemir Seki of University College, London:
“Interestingly, the activity in some of these structures in response to viewing a hated face is proportional in strength to the declared intensity of hate, thus allowing the subjective state of hate to be objectively quantified. This finding may have legal implications in criminal cases, for example.”
Yes, that is just what I had feared.

The problem is that subjective states of hate are a poor predictor of actions. Many people impoverish their lives by hating others for decades, but take no action. No doubt some signature can be detected in their brains. But if this fad spreads, thosse people could be falsely convicted of crimes.

That is precisely why criminal law makes the critical distinction between intent (= she was caught on security video plunging a knife into that guy) and motive (maybe she was angry about his government's policies?).

Here is an example of intent caught on camera:

Motive can provide useful background information, of course. Particularly, it can help determine whether the accused is insane, and thus not fit to stand trial. Here, neuroscience might be of use. Assume, for example, that the accused insists that "voices" inside her head tell her that she is chosen to save her society by committing assault with a deadly weapon on some airport employee. Perhaps neuroscientists can identify a physical disorder that inhibits reason-based thinking, and thus help a just resolution of the case.

But that is an example of neuroscience staying close to medicine and away from a variety of more suspect causes that try to co-opt it.

In general, motive (one's reason for taking action, as opposed to evidence of the action) may be useful in mitigating a sentence. Assume, for example, that a woman stabs a guy at an airport because he ended their affair, dumping her for a wealthy fashion model - leaving her pregnant and in big trouble with her relatives. Stabbing is still a crime, but ... a humane and intelligent judge would take motive into account when determining a sentence.

Alternatively, if, when she discusses her motives, she turns out to be under the control of a local terrorist, going after the terrorist would be the next key logical step. He is probably training others.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Other Neuroscience and society stories here.

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How much attention should we pay to pundit predictions?

Maybe not so much. Jonah Lehrer, contributing editor at Wired, and blogger at The Frontal Cortex writes,
In the early 1980s, Philip Tetlock at UC Berkeley picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends" and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits were asked to rate the probability of several possible outcomes. Tetlock then interrogated the pundits about their thought process, so that he could better understand how they made up their minds. By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.

After Tetlock tallied up the data, the predictive failures of the pundits became obvious. Although they were paid for their keen insights into world affairs, they tended to perform worse than random chance. Most of Tetlock's questions had three possible answers; the pundits, on average, selected the right answer less than 33 percent of the time. In other words, a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals. Tetlock also found that the most famous pundits in Tetlock's study tended to be the least accurate, consistently churning out overblown and overconfident forecasts. Eminence was a handicap.
Lehrer worries that bad expert advice can "reliably tamp down activity in brain regions" that monitor errors and mistakes.

Rest here.

For Tetlock, go here.

I am skeptical of the mechanistic, brain-based explanation Lehrer offers. People often believe things because the social rewards of belief are greater than the social rewards of disbelief.

For example, if I said that I didn't believe that polar bear numbers are drastically decreasing (see also here), some people out there would assume that I enjoy torturing kittens on my break, and would not accept my view as a considered judgement. And if they can find a pundit to back them up, that is all they need. The problem is that they then vote for public policy that might not work out the way they hope.

Here is an example:

The United States now bans the import of polar bear skins, to protect the bear. I am sure many New York socialites toasted the decision. Maybe prematurely. The former practice of Inuit (Canadian Eskimos) was to sell their bear tag (the ancestral right to kill a bear) to a wealthy American hunter, an important source of income for communities much poorer than the socialite's.

The American, much of the time, never shoots a bear and just goes home. Then the tag is forfeit. So the number of tags in circulation is not equal to the number of dead bears, and is a poor predictor of population size. However, with no American market, the local hunter keeps his tag and keeps on trying until he shoots a bear. For more on this and related issues around counting bears, see this Maclean's article. (Maclean's is our national news magazine.)

I suppose it is some consolation that at least the number of tags in circulation will now more closely correlate to known bear deaths. Of course, more bears will die, but that is a small price to pay for the opportunity to be guided by the pundit.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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