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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What makes liberals so smart?

Liberals are more agile of mind than conservatives, according to a new brain study conducted at NYU and UCLA. The report of the study is another wedge between those who call themselves liberals and those who prefer the conservative label. It suggests that political orientations are a matter of thinking style, not the result of a thinking process.

The conclusions are not new. This latest study was a neurological study. Previous studies of the rhetoric of the lliberal-conservative camps have produced much the same conclusions. Liberals tend to accommodate much more ambiguity and respond to more nuance with their rhetoric, while conservatives tend to be more rigid and hard-wired in their expressions of thought. However, one commenter on the study pointed out that it is not easy to distinguish between a person who is rigid and unresponsive and one who is principled.

There is a semantic problem in labeling thinking styles conservative and liberal. And that problem concerns what the defining characteristics of thought are that make up a liberal style or a conservative style. Are these substitute terms for what may describe degrees of dimness and brightness? Do they take into account the differences between people who are quick of thought as opposed to those who are more deliberate and methodical?

Back when I was a full-time journalist, the state editor whose office was next to mine said that political orientation was a matter of examined experience. He pointed out that most journalists were social liberals and fiscal conservatives. They got that way, he explained, because of the observations and reports they made each day on how the world works. This accounted for the perception by the public that the press tended toward a liberal bias. Reporters and editors tended to believe in openness and justice, and their social attitudes grew out of their experience and knowledge of makes society good and what makes it bad.

Similarly, professors gravitate toward liberality in social issues. As someone who had to administer budgets, I can attest that many professors were fiscal incompetents. But that is because they did not concern themselves with much outside of their own research and study. But dealing with a multitude of students, each with individual personalities, one tends to draw liberal conclusions about the makekup of society.

What is disturbing about the recent study is that it suggests that thinking styles are inborn, a matter of genetics. People think the way they do, it suggests, because they are genetically programmed to think as they do. That premise denies one of the basic reasons for education. Educators believe that cognitive skills can be built and developed and information fed into them, and educated people will produce thoughts and actions that lift the human race. The fact that American democracy grew out of the Age of Enlightenment is often cited as proof of that assumption about education.

Anyone who has been in education can verify that there are some people who cannot develop critical thinking skills and process information, but most people can. It just takes more time with some than others.

If people are, in fact, wired to a certain mode of thought from conception, politics seem to be a matter of dividing up territory between conservative thinkers and liberal thinkers, rather than engaging in exchanges of viewpoints which enable compromises in sharing the land and the planet.

If one looks at blogs and particularly reads the comments posted on them, however, there is good cause for hopelessness

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States