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Environmental Polylogism
March 26, 2010 — 7:04 pm

Does cognitive brain function determine your belief in anthropogenic global warming? Or, rather, do your political beliefs determine your cognitive brain function? George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley would like you to believe so.

Over a span of several articles on the subject, Professor Lakoff attempts to explain what he calls global warming denial as problem of ‘framing’ the discussion; meaning, well…several things:

In a May, 2009 article on the Huffington Post titled, “Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters: An Evaluation of the EcoAmerica Summary Report,” Professor Lakoff says:

How the environment is understood by the American public is crucial: it vastly affects the future of our earth and every living being on it.

The technical term for understanding within the cognitive sciences is “framing.” We think, mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called “frames.” Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

That is why it matters how we talk about our environment.

It’s worth it to read the entire article to really see what Professor Lakoff is driving at, here. Framing is a ‘big deal’ because it is basically the storage space where ‘input’ is translated into ‘output’. Apart from the first sentence, regarding the environment (I’ll get to that in a bit), I have no particular argument with this line of thinking since, admittedly, my knowledge of cognitive scientific theory is spotty, at best.

I do, however, know a little bit about praxeology, being a rational person (in an economic sense) who voluntarily interacts with other rational people (a society!). Where Professor Lakoff looses me (and veers off into dangerous nonsense) is when he abandons hard science for pseudo-Freudian theory.

In February, 2010, Professor Lakoff wrote the following in: A Good Week for Science (Or, What Eating Worms Reveals About Politics):

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 are a couple of ideas put forth here that strike me as wrong-headed. We of ‘conservative’ political ideology (I’m assuming Professor Lakoff is lumping anyone who is not ‘progressive’ into this realm, which, in effect, is a false dichotomy, and rather meaningless as there are plenty of Republicans who don’t have a conservative bone in their body) tend to believe that Liberalism* is a philosophy that cannot help but lead to overly patriarchal forms of government. (Communism, Socialism, Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc… are all movements from the Left). That, essentially, is what we are always railing against.

*The word Liberalism is used here to describe a leftest ideology. I do notice, however, that Professor Lakoff has cleverly ‘framed’ his own language throughout his writings. He consistently refers to Liberals as Progressives (never the left-wing). Conservatives are still conservatives and often the “right-wing”. Historically aware people may find this a bit curious as the term “Progressive” was once proudly used by the most racist, war-mongering, intolerant group of people our country has ever witnessed. 100 years ago, “Progressives” got us into World War I, outlawed dissent, outlawed alcohol, banished African Americans from federal employment, purposely starved to death thousands of Germans after the November 11 armistice was signed, censored newspapers and the mails and generally acted like the worst kind of abusive parent. Not to mention their “enlightened” view on eugenics, an idea supported by a majority of scientists and politicians of the day (sound familiar?). A policy so repugnant, it led directly and irrevocably to the gas chambers in Hitler’s Germany.

I would be wary to hitch my wagon to such a term.

Secondly, this strikes me as an example of polylogism; the “belief that different people or groups of people have different forms of logic.” This is a collectivist idea most famously used by Karl Marx when he referred to proletarian logic vs. bourgeoisie logic.

Ludwig von Mises addresses this form of polylogism in Chapter 2 of his book, Human Action:

Marxian polylogism asserts that the logical structure of the mind is different with the members of various social classes. Racial polylogism differs from Marxian polylogism only in so far as it ascribes to each race a peculiar logical structure of mind and maintains that all members of a definite race, no matter what their class affiliation may be, are endowed with this peculiar logical structure.

There is no need to enter here into a critique of the concepts social class and race as applied by these doctrines. It is not necessary to ask the Marxians when and how a proletarian who succeeds in joining the ranks of the bourgeoisie changes his proletarian mind into a bourgeois mind. It is superfluous to ask the racists to explain what kind of logic is peculiar to people who are not of pure racial stock. There are much more serious objections to be raised.

Allow me to rewrite that last paragraph in more modern terms, with apologies to Lugwig von Mises:

There is no need to enter here into a critique of the concept political belief as applied by these doctrines. It is not necessary to ask the Progressives when and how a leftist who succeeds in joining the ranks of conservatism or libertarianism changes his liberal mind into a conservative/libertarian mind. It is superfluous to ask the Progressives to explain what kind of logic is peculiar to people who are not of pure progressive thought. There are much more serious objections to be raised.

In any case, this is all a pretext. To get back to the original intent of this article, what astonishes Professor Lakoff the most is the simple fact that there are individuals out there who are skeptical (he uses the blanket term ‘deniers’) of anthropogenic global warming.

Professor Lakoff is further quoted in this article:

“It relates directly (to global warming) because conservatives tend to feel that the free market should be unregulated and (that) environmental regulations are immoral and wrong,” Lakoff said.

“And what they try to do is show that the science is wrong and that the argument is wrong, based on the science. So when it comes back to science, they try to debunk the science,” Lakoff said.

On the other hand, he added, liberals’ cognitive process allows them to be “open-minded.”

“Liberals say, ‘Look seriously at the science and look at whether people are going to be harmed or not and whether the world is going to be harmed,’” Lakoff said.

Lakoff, however, said that “99.999 percent of the science is final” on global warming and, in fact, the term “climate change” should be changed to “climate crisis” to more accurately describe the phenomenon.

“Climate crisis says we had something to do with it and we better act fast because that’s the reality,” Lakoff said

There are plenty of excellent reasons to be highly skeptical of Professor Lakoff’s claim that “99.999 percent of the science is final”. (How do you empirically come up with such a statement about science, anyway?). Trying to explain all this away by claiming conservatives and liberals are cognitively different smacks of metaphysical desperation.

[Cross-posted at The Lesson Applied.]

— Justin M. StoddardComments (1)

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  1. […] at Shrubbloggers.] Filed under: Economic Theory and Environment Comments: 3 […]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » Environmental Polylogism — March 31, 2010 @ 1:20 am

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