Thursday, February 25, 2016
Steven Pinker "Better Angels" Provides Limited Disclosure of Human Psychological & Animal Experiments
In my previous review of Steven Pinker "Better Angels of Our Nature" I explained how he ignores most important root causes of violence; in addition to that he also disclosed a fair amount of research that may not follow reasonable ethical standards using both animals and people. He cites Peter A.D. Singer, one of the most widely know academic ethical experts in the academic world in his book on at least one occasion and makes a few references to ethical guidelines in his book; but most of it doesn't pay much attention to it. Some of the biggest problems my not be reviewed by many if any academics at all.
It is generally claimed that research is done for the benefit of all of society; or at least that is the impression that most academics and the media often try to give us. Unfortunately the research is controlled by a small segment of society and whether they use it to benefit society or for other reasons is also controlled by that same small percentage of society despite the impressions they try to give the majority of the public.
There is no reason to take my word for this when you consider how the benefits of a large amount of research is used. Medical research is often accompanied by patents which drive drug or medical expenses up so that a shocking percentage of the public can't afford it, even when the research is subsidized by the government or drug companies spend more on deceptive ads than research.
Research about psychological manipulation are distributed in locations where the majority of the public will never see it, so they can't learn how to avoid it; but those that want to use it to manipulate the public, including the media, political advisers, and advertisers among others, have much more access to it in the academic world. I have done several previous posts about a variety of these examples, some of which are listed at the closing of this article. If people search for this it is often available in bits and pieces that take enormous amounts of time so organize.
A close look at some of Peter Singer's previous work, including "Practical Ethics" and "Animal Liberation" might indicate that he raises numerous ethical problems about some of the research cited in Steven Pinker's book assuming standards are consistent. He attempts to argue logically that they should at least try to ensure that the potential benefit outweighs the cost of experimentation and that animal rights should be protected as well as people's including the poor. He is a strong opponent of research that harms animals to create more cosmetics which doesn't provide improvements in the quality of life and is based mostly on hype.
Unfortunately his review of Pinker's book, Is Violence History? By PETER SINGER OCT. 6, 2011, doesn't express any concern bout the ethics of experiments discussed in the book; instead it seems more like a summary or promotional piece, than a critical review. This is very common among book reviews which often seem to be marketing attempts for books, not sincere reviews, especially those in the mainstream media. If you agree with some of the following points that I attempt to make you should do so based on the merits not the credentials of the critic since Both Peter Singer and Steven Pinker have better credentials, officially than me.
In one of the most in depth discussions of ethics in his book, Steven Pinker writes, "Let me tell you about the worst thing I have ever done...." ("Better Angels" additional excerpts) and goes on to confess about when he was a student and was told to use a rat who was a runt, and not useful for other experiments, for a different one which winds up accidentally torturing the rats with little or no scientific benefit. He more or less admits this, and closes by saying, "The reason I bring up this blot on my conscience is to show what was standard practice in the treatment of animals at the time." He also discusses some research that was even more outrageous from previous centuries, but there were no ethical guidelines in those times and at least one of them was to demonstrate that tactics during the inquisition were ineffective, and an argument, for better or worse, can be made that it saved more lives than it cost.
This book isn't primarily about the ethics of the research that he cites and some of these ethics are discussed, at least to some degree elsewhere, so that might be part of the reason why Peter Singer doesn't express concerns about them. However the majority of ethical decisions seem to be made by people who are in the academic world or chosen by them so consideration of these ethics by the rest of the world should be worthwhile especially since the people in the academic world aren't the research subjects of their riskiest research projects.
That is usually animals, or poor people that don't have the academic background to participate in ethical decisions. This won't change until a much greater effort is made to educate the public about a large amount of scientific research and who benefits from it. This won't happen without major educational reform enabling people to access the information they need to make decisions. This will almost certainly involve reviews of copyright laws which effectively make the knowledge obtained by research the "intellectual property" of the researchers or those that finance it to be used as they wish, as I discussed in previous posts including, Copyright violators are thought criminals and Copyright Bureaucracy.
In one of the experiments that might shock many people Steven Pinker writes, "We saw how neuroscientists can implant an electrode into the Rage circuit of a cat, press a button, and set the animal on attack mode." ("Better Angels" additional excerpts) He also goes on to explain that these experiments were done with rats as well. This is the kind of research that might give some people the impression that scientists are creating a potential Frankenstein monster. This type of research is almost certainly discussed very rarely even in the academic world and even more rarely in the mainstream media which practically never mentions it at all. If it were mentioned in the mainstream media they might imply that it is a part of a bizarre conspiracy theory, and if theorists went much beyond what is publicly disclosed there might be some justification for this.
Whether conspiracy theories about the possibility that they might use these experiments on people are justified Steven Pinker goes on to say, "When certain parts of the medial hypothalamus or striatum are damaged, the animal is more likely to attack a prey animal or an unwitting experimenter, but less likely to attack another male. And as we shall see, giving an animal (or a man) testosterone does not make him testy across the board. On the contrary, it makes him feel great, while putting a chip on his shoulder when he is faced with a rival male.58 One look at a human brain and you know you are dealing with a very unusual mammal. Figure 8–2, with its transparent cortex, shows that all the parts of the rat brain have been carried over to the human brain, including the organs that house the circuits for rage, fear, and dominance: the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the periaqueductal gray (which is found inside the midbrain, lining the cerebrospinal canal running through it). The dopaminefueled striatum, whose ventral portion helps set goals for the whole brain to seek, is also prominent."
Clearly using this type of experiments on people would be considered outrageous by any rational person; however they still try to use the experiments on animals to understand rage in people as well by comparing what they can, presumably within the ethical guidelines established by ethical review boards, assuming all academics abide by them. However, as disclosed with declassified Project MKUltra documents as well as experiments conducted by both South Africans and Nazis there have been academics that don't abide by these guidelines and they've done so with the approval of their own governments.
As I said experiments during the Inquisitions were even worse. Those with enough political power might be able to do some but those without often found themselves the targets of Inquisitions since scientific research challenged the power of the Church. Steven Pinker cites a couple of the exceptions in the following excerpts:
As I said, thanks to the irrational behavior of the Church at that time, some justification can be made that these desperate experiments prevented more torture than they created. Steven Pinker agrees that current ethical guidelines for these experiments would never allow them. Fortunately we no longer need to replicates these experiments since they have already proven to be false.
Yes, of course it is right since we have adequate knowledge to know that this type of techniques doesn't work therefore it should be banned.
You would think so, but there are still numerous examples where intimidating techniques are being used over and over again and law enforcement often argues in favor of them claiming they're a necessary investigation tool. The Innocent Project has numerous articles about False Confessions or Admissions, putting those words in their search engine turns out well over three hundred additional articles. Occasionally the mainstream press reports on one or two here and there like, Robert Davis receives pardon (12/21/2015) but they fail to report on how common they are and the "Justice" system often argues against changing policies that might prevent them. And worst of all they're often quickly forgotten by most people so that few changes are made and the get tough on crime attitude often results in making the same mistakes.
The Robert Davis was featured recently on a true crime story which probably didn't get much ratings. The officer who obtained the false confession wasn't held accountable, he was only pardoned, not exonerated and is still on probation for a crime he didn't commit and they refuse to ban this type of interrogation.
Steven Pinker, is of course not responsible for this and partially discloses it with his writing but he doesn't consider it as one of the potential contributing causes to violence. He cites increased police presence as a deterrent in his book without acknowledging much of the problems with the police. Some of his tweets seem to provide mixed messages on this issue; a couple of them The real #blacklivesmatter movement (gun control and racist cops aren't the significant issues). and Data: Police don't shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings. downplay impact from gun control or police racism, whether the articles he cites support his conclusions or not. However another one, There's no excuse for US's refusal to keep & report data on police killings & police deaths: It would reduce both. argues for better records which many police have been opposed to. From a scientific point of view this should be an easy argument; and if anyone's interpretation of some of the data is biased then other can review it and make their case.
As I said before availability of guns is almost certainly not a leading contributing cause but it is part of it. His acknowledgement of police racism seems to downplay it; and he fails to adequately address long term contributing causes of violence like early abuse or abandoned inner cities, as I pointed out in the first part of this review.
Steven Pinker also reports on relatively early efforts to form standing armies, or revived efforts when he writes, "But during the military revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, states began to form professional standing armies. They conscripted large numbers of men from a cross section of society rather than just from the dregs at the bottom. They used a combination of drill, indoctrination, and brutal punishment to train them for organized combat. And they instilled in them a code of discipline, stoicism, and valor. The result was that when two of these armies clashed, they could rack up high body counts in a hurry." ("Better Angels" additional excerpts)
This improved understanding about how to maintain disciplined standing armies is something that actually goes back thousands of years including the standing armies maintained by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Angkors, Chinese, Mayans and many other civilizations. However this knowledge has repeatedly been lost when the civilizations that used them eventually collapsed since they were expanding empires without protecting the majority of their people and corruption and war eventually causes them all to self destruct.
Records for many of the techniques to maintain these armies are sporadic; but in the past century they have improved, although these records aren't presented to the majority of the public in a manner which they would understand. As I explained in a couple of posts about the most widely known psychological experiments, Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, Stanford Prison Experiment and Eli Roth’s and Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiment much more extensive than most people realize, when they researched why people obey authority they claimed they were doing so to prevent another World War. However this research was financed by the military and as my previous posts on the subject indicate instead of using the research to prevent blind obedience they seem to have used it to obtain blind obedience from their recruits.
Steven Pinker mentions Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments in his book, however he only repeats the same uncritical descriptions that are made in many other social psychology books and articles without pointing out that it could be used for the opposite of what they claim it is being used for. This type of research enables authoritarian sources from either side to ensure that they have armies ready to fight against each other. Eugene Debs once correctly said, "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives." The psychological research that Milgram and Zimbardo did enables them to indoctrinate their recruits, yet neither Steven Pinker or many if any other academic sources with political clout mention this as a contributing cause to violence that enables the ruling class to maintain a permanent state of war if they think it suits their purposes. Hermann Göring also explained how the public could be fooled into war in the following excerpt:
Neither Steven Pinker, Stanley Milgram, Phillip Zimbardo or many other psychological researchers attempted to explain to the public how this research could be used to indoctrinate military recruits; however there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, if not hard evidence, to indicate that it was almost certainly used to do the opposite of what they claim, as I explained in the posts about Milgram and Zimbardo cited above.
This is just one of many examples where the research he cites could be used to research manipulation tactics that might enable advertisers, military recruiters, union busters or political pundits and advisers to indoctrinate large portions of the public. Most of the research that he cites isn't quit as straight forward as some of the political tactics that people like Frank Luntz openly disclose on occasion but they help develop the tactics Luntz uses. the following are some of the additional research projects that could be used to study methods of controlling the public:
Steven Pinker made a point of explaining how much more ethical research standards are now than they used to be, yet many of these research projects continue and as far as I can tell they're considered ethical.
If the majority of the public was reasonably well aware of this would they agree?
Why wouldn't Peter A.D. Singer who is considered one of the leading experts on ethic have more to say about these experiments and their ethic in his review?
More importantly a close look at some of this research could enable many people with conflicts of interest to develop more effective propaganda tactics for a variety of reasons including advertising, promoting war, often based on lies, political propaganda to get candidates elected that serve the interests of one corporation or another. This isn't just a fringe conspiracy theory; the news is full of political pundits and advertisers doing just that.
Where is the effort to inform the majority of the public about how this research is being done in a manner that could enable many political operatives to corrupt the democratic system?
When people like Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Robert McChesney and other sources try to warn the public about at least part of this, they're often portrayed as radical fringe elements, even when their research is well documented and stands up to scrutiny better than the claims made by many traditional media or politicians.
One of the most blatant experiments that could be used to manipulate people might be research into oxytocin described in the following excerpt:
The media may have had a field day at one time, but when I read it here it was the first I heard of this. Like many other news stories they may have reported it through a news cycle for a few days then quickly forgot it. It is unlikely that everyone forgot it quite so quickly. there could be additional research being done on this without much disclosure for all I know. This could clearly be used to manipulate people for one reason or another. If there was more public discussion on this the public could be warned about how to avoid being manipulated and they might even consider regulating the use of oxytocin and other potentially mind altering drugs and research into it. Or at least warning people so they're less likely to be taken by surprise.
this sounds very similar to the experiments done by the CIA in their MKUltra experiments which included psychological manipulation as well as attempts to use drugs like LSD to control their subjects. There are also large amounts of other research into potentially mind altering medications like anti-depressants which could be using the public as research subjects without full disclosure as I mentioned in the first part of this review. If there is potential for some of this drug use to be used to control the public in a real live version Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" where drugs were used as part of a process to control the public then it should be fully disclosed to the public and they should be warned about how they could potentially be manipulated. In order for this to happen properly we need a much better education system available to all so they can fully understand it, not just those from the upper classes that study how to manipulate and control lower and middle classes for their purposes.
Steven Pinker also subtly tries to echo an argument in favor of torture while misrepresenting the background when he writes, "In 2001 the legal scholar Alan Dershowitz addressed this hypocrisy by proposing a legal mechanism designed to eliminate sub rosa torture in democracies.243 The police in a ticking-bomb scenario would have to get a warrant from a disinterested judge before torturing the lifesaving information out of a suspect; all other forms of coercive interrogation would be flatly prohibited. The most common response was outrage. By the very act of examining the taboo on torture, Dershowitz had violated the taboo, and he was widely misunderstood as advocating torture rather than seeking to minimize it.244 ...." ("Better Angels" additional excerpts)
I went into this same example cited by Alan Dershowitz previously in Torture as the first resort! One of the sources I cited was Alfred McCoy author of “A Question of Torture” who also went into it. Steven Pinker's claim that Alan Dershowitz trying to bring it out in the open is clearly partly true since that is what he did; but his claim that he was trying to minimize it was clearly false. Alan Dershowitz made this hypothetical designed to create a scenario where he would justify torture and under this scenario the torture would obtain the information that they need in the nick of time like an episode of "24." After this claim was made many other people took it to new extremes trying to use it to justify many other examples of torture. To the best of my knowledge Alan Dershowitz hasn't made any attempt to warn against this and in some cases encouraged it. These have repeatedly been proven not to work. Even one of the examples that he cited in his book which I cited above about torture being used during the inquisition indicates that it is a flawed hypothesis.
Steven Pinker clearly should have known better than to distort this example.
Alfred McCoy went into further detail in “A Question of Torture” where he reviewed an enormous amount of history and found that in the real world torture has never led to finding the information they need to stop a terrorist attack and has often led to false leads and incited more violence. Some of the terrorist attacks including the Boston Bombing, Paris attacks and the San Bernardino attack were almost certainly at least partially retaliation to aggressive behavior including reports of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
I doubt if he did this so that sociologist would have an opportunity to study how the public would react and how it could be used to further manipulate them by appealing to their emotions but that is being done any way.
Steven Pinker and other academics that try to downplay or justify this could potentially contribute to reversals in the reductions in violence if more people act on it.
The current political discussion is a clear indication that it might just be happening right now with candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump promising to "carpet bomb them into oblivion," or "bring back waterboarding and worse," and a shocking percentage of the public is cheering them on even though these promises are clear violations of the Geneva Convention and will only lead to more retaliation.
Would they agree that it is justified for our enemies to torture our veterans for the same reason?
Of course not, which means that Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Alan Dershowitz, Steven Pinker and a shocking number of other academics and politicians are advocating for a blatant double standard which is guaranteed to backfire and lead to escalating violence if it is put in practice.
This is just a small sample of the research that could potentially be used to manipulate the public. Some of the most refined research is often done by political pollsters like Frank Luntz; but they almost certainly take advantage of the large amount of research from other sources when they develop their techniques. Anyone that takes the time to look at a significant amount of this research might think that efforts to educate the public about how they're being manipulated might be in order, assuming they want to preserve a sincere functioning democracy.
A close look at the current absurd political debate indicates that there is an insane obsession with using as many manipulation tactics to elect a candidate that will betray the public without fixing many of the most important issues.
Steven Pinker writes, near the end of his book, "There is a reason that I made reason the last of the better angels of our nature. Once a society has a degree of civilization in place, it is reason that offers the greatest hope for further reducing violence. The other angels have been with us for as long as we have been human, but during most of our long existence they have been unable to prevent war, slavery, despotism, institutionalized sadism, and the oppression of women. As important as they are, empathy, self-control, and the moral sense have too few degrees of freedom, and too restricted a range of application, to explain the advances of recent decades and centuries." ("Better Angels" additional excerpts)
He's right on this one but there are good reasons to question whether he is actually taking his own advise. Reason doesn't mean only acknowledging beliefs that suit any given ideology ignoring research that raises doubt about it. Selectively addressing only the research that one agrees with, without accurately refuting claims they disagree with, assuming the disagreement is justified, is not scientific. Many secularists routinely criticize religious people and fringe theorists for selectively acknowledging facts and ignoring those that don't support their beliefs, and rightly so, but all to often some of them do the same thing themselves.
Steven Pinker does this at times including his defense of Capitalism, which should include more review of the flaws that he declines to acknowledge. He cites Capitalism as helping to reduce violence when he says, "Capitalism saved the world, and there is even a heretical theory now, moving up from the level of individuals to countries: countries that trade more and have more open economies are less likely to fight wars and less likely to have genocides." Steven Pinker quotes However this is, at best, only partly true and it ignores many way that Capitalism, as it is currently practiced in an extreme manner leads to unnecessary violence and could lead to much more if it continues. I don't know if this quote is from this book but the book makes similar claims and cites data, including that nations that trade together are less likely to fight each other, which he claims to support it. However trade often leads to conflicts when there are disagreements about who receives the most benefits. It also leads to enormous amounts of oppression when the dominant economic power support tyrants that oppress their own people possibly leading to future conflicts.
There are a long list of additional problems which Steven Pinker declines to acknowledge; a long biography of books could be presented that goes into details, which he ignores, including "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, "Days of Destruction Days of Revolt" by Chris Hedges, "Blue Gold" by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, "Who Stole the American Dream" by Hedrick Smith and many more. These authors expose how capitalism is relying on military force, often suppressing democracy which traditional academics including Steven Pinker often try to associate with Capitalism, in many cases to preserve their economic system. they also write about the growing number of sacrifice zones and how quality of life is falling apart for a growing percentage of the public as a result of the economic system Steven Pinker claims is saving the world.
Neither the traditional media or Steven Pinker fully reports on the enormous amount of economic inequality created by this system or the growing amount of environmental destruction that is destroying many innocent lives. Steven Pinker and the traditional media refuse to acknowledge that these abandoned Sacrifice zones are a breeding ground for what they often call "terrorism." Some of the religious extremism that they associate with terrorism is accurate, however what they fail to acknowledge is that some of their grievances are also legitimate and they're using religious beliefs to distract from those issues.
Epidemic problems with getting clean water and natural resources are inevitably going to escalate causing more threats to security which are a result of the economic system he is defending even though it doesn't try to fix what they call "negative externalities."
We should think carefully about how research is being used to benefit who. Steven Pinker and many other researchers often disclose a large portion of it in low profile places where the majority of us never look. It may seem absurd to think of us as being used as research subjects by a bunch of rats acting as mad scientists, but something just as bad might be true, even if this clearly isn't. However ironically it isn't that far off, since marketing researchers have convinced people to pay ridiculously high prices for flavored or colored water which is mostly just sugar water hyped up with deceptive advertisements.
The epidemics in Flint Michigan and Chrystal City Texas are just a small sample of the environmental destruction in our own country getting so bad that even the traditional media has to report it but there is much more where that came from. As I explained in the post about Human research subjects, which cited different examples of field research that wasn't planned, listed below this is also another example of a research being done using the public as research subjects as a result of neglect. they ignored the escalating pollution until it was so bad they couldn't ignore it any more than the researchers came in and started studying the problem with the residents as research subjects and in Flint Michigan they've already admitted many of the children will live with lead poisoning for life.
As long as we continue to allow the political establishment to control all the most powerful institutions without disclosing either the environmental damage or psychological manipulation then it could inevitably lead to increases in violence. Also we need to acknowledge how demagoguery is routinely used to scapegoat all the wrong causes like what Trump, Cruz and even Clinton are doing now. Renewed increases in crime may inevitably lead to scapegoating of minorities instead of addressing the real root causes of crime starting with child abuse leading to escalating violence and abandoned inner cities.
For more extensive context about some of the quotes that I based this review on see, Steven Pinker "The Better Angels of Our Nature" excerpts
There's plenty of research about how maintaining a threat of violence or at least the appearance of a threat can be used to appeal to emotions and enable draconian tactics like torture or mass incarceration that have been proven not to work.
The following are a few additional reviews followed by some of my past posts about other psychological manipulation research:
more book reviews
John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war 03/13/2015
Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong 06/11/2013
Fundamentals of Psychology
Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, Stanford Prison Experiment
Corruption or Bias in the American Psychological Association
Eli Roth’s Milgram/Obedience experiment much more extensive than most people realize
Political Psychologist Are Suppressing Democracy
Human Research Subjects
Anti-violence social experiments could be part of a slippery slope
Roy F Fox on unethical targeting of children by marketers
Roy F Fox Harvesting Minds, Channel One Indoctrination of Kids
Wal-Marts unethical marketing to children
Michelle Obama pushes token advertising restrictions while ignoring research that calls for more