Beware of ideology masquerading as science.
Remember behavioral economics, a branch of neuroscience, the latest and greatest contribution to human knowledge.
If behavioral economists can persuade you, as they have persuaded themselves, that human beings do not have free will and often make irrational decisions, you would be forced to conclude that most people do not know what is good for them. You might think that people are acting on their own rational self-interest but they are really being manipulated by brain chemistry.
If so, people need a master, preferably working for the government, who will force—I mean, nudge—them toward a good that they will eventually recognizes to be the best for them.
Put all of that in a pot, stir often and you come up with Obamacare. Of course, it is one giant leap toward socializing the insurance market, but its proponents presented it as grounded in scientific fact.
That’s why the remaining few who defend the program insist that once you learn what you get you will not mind losing your insurance and your doctor.
Now, famed Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky offers an opinion on another important matter. He tells us that human males are “pathetic” and “ludicrous.”
I will vigorously defend Sapolsky’s right to an opinion. I would even defend his right to indulge in self-flagellation and call himself pathetic and ludicrous.
And yet, for Sapolsky to offer his opinions as though they were science takes it too far. People who pretend that their ideological prejudices are scientific fact are manipulative. By the way, why isn’t it bigotry to call men pathetic and ludicrous?
Anyway, Sapolsky is intrigued by a phenomenon that he apparently does not understand: College bowl games.
It seems that his neuroscience knows nothing about group pride gained through competition.
Sapolsky doesn’t get bowl games. It’s his constitutionally protected right. I assume that he doesn’t get the Super Bowl and doesn’t get warfare or economic competition, either.
Apparently, his pacifist soul dreams of a world filled with peace and harmony, beyond conflict and beyond winners and losers.
Again, Sapolsky has the right, based on his delicate and guilt-ridden sensibility not to understand manliness. Let’s not call his opinion science.
Thus, he is somewhat perplexed by the latest from neuroscience:
When women are present or when men are prompted to think about women, they act differently, research shows. Well, duh. But in unexpected ways. A 2008 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology showed that in the mere presence of women as witnesses, men become more likely to jaywalk and to wait until the last second to dash on to a bus. This reflects, no doubt, the well-known belief among men that jaywalking means you're a Roman gladiator of irrepressible virility. As I said, pathetic.
Judgmental, don’t you think?
Why should any of these behaviors be “unexpected.” Men like to show off to impress women. Who knew? Men like to draw women’s attention to themselves by performing feats of derring do. Amazing! In particular, single men, the ones who are looking to mate, take more risks and behave more aggressively in order to show women that they can compete in the arena. OMG.
You have to stand in awe of modern neuroscience.
It makes good sense. A man who shows off in front of a woman is auditioning for the role of protector. Apparently, the impulse to protect women is hardwired into the male of the human species.
Nothing about it should surprise anyone. It is perfectly consistent with the science of evolutionary psychology… which, Sapolsky acknowledges.
Yet, Sapolsky places ideology ahead of science and decides that men need to be ridiculed. Again, that is not science.
As an interesting sidelight, Sapolsky adds that the same effect is not present in women:
By contrast, these studies uniformly report that cues about males have no such effects on women.
Surely, this suggests that the difference between the sexes that is hard-wired. Sheryl Sandberg notwithstanding women do not compete for men by showing off their prowess in risk-taking behaviors.
I am not sure that we needed science to tell us that either, but surely it is worth more than the passing glance that Sapolsky gives it.
Bu then there is this. It turns out that the male impulse to show off in front of women extends to the realm of generosity, to charitable giving:
But now comes research carried out by Mark van Vugt and Wendy Iredale and reported last year in the British Journal of Psychology. In the presence of women (but not other men), men became more generous in an economic game: They made more contributions to public goods and volunteered more time for charitable causes. In fact, the size of their charitable contributions increased in the presence of women they rated as more attractive.
Science has now shown that men are not merely programmed to compete in the arena. They show off for women in other areas. It seems that they are also programmed to provide for their families. When they succeed in accumulating money or profit, their impulse is not to spend it on themselves, but on their families or on the neediest. I am not sure why this is news either.
As a fundamental moral principle, generosity or magnanimity goes back to Confucius and Aristotle.
The philosophers were inclined to see it as a moral duty. Now we know that men seem to be hardwired to perform benevolent actions. Happily for them, duty and instinct coincide.
Examining the information gleaned from the latest studies, Sapolsky draws a rather strange conclusion:
The allure of the opposite sex makes men more violent, but only, it seems, in circumstances where violence is rewarded with higher status. When status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way, things work differently. In short, with the right social arrangements, this ludicrous tendency of men can be harnessed not only to encourage a ferocious goal-line stand but to make the world a kinder place.
This paragraph is also not science. Sapolsky is making a value judgment. He does it first by choosing the word “violent.” Were we to examine his first examples, quoted above, we see that male risk-taking involves jaywalking and running to catch a bus. Why are these signs of a violent disposition?
Men are more competitive, they take more risks when they are trying to impress comely women. It is true that men engage aggressive behavior in order to compete for status, but calling it “violent” puts a negative connotation on it.
If human males, like other primates, compete for position on a status hierarchy, this must count as a scientific fact. Wearing his scientist hat Sapolsky has no business pronouncing it “ludicrous.”
Would any scientist say that it is ludicrous that the earth revolves around the sun?
Apparently, Sapolsky dreams of a world where “status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way.” One would like to know who is going to decide what is and is not socially desirable, but we would all agree that college football is more desirable than war. And didn’t William James already suggest that economic competition is “the moral equivalent of war?”
One does not know which kind of social arrangements Sapolsky would favor, but he ought to know, as we all know, that people who renounce aggressive behavior are more than likely to become victimized by those who have not.
If the male impulse to compete aggressively is hardwired into the organism, what makes anyone think that one person’s renunciation of violence or forced replacement of aggressive competition with charitable giving is going to be reciprocated by those who are waiting for just the right moment to take what you have?
Isn’t Sapolsky saying that the nation would be better if people worked and competed less and if the government engaged itself in a grand scheme to redistribute income?
He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but let’s not call it science.