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Monday, September 10, 2007

Politics on the Brain

Occasionally, Pencils Down strays away from its math education mission statement and ventures into the world of politics. I don't see any way to avoid this, since part of being sentient is having one's own opinions and part of being a blogger is voicing them. My own position on the political continuum is roughly at the midpoint. I tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I am a registered Independent and have happily voted for members of both major parties and several third-party candidates. I have friends who fall to the far right and far left of the field, and I argue with all of them.

Curiously, one of the most common arguments is of what exactly defines a Liberal and a Conservative. Many people choose to define it by what positions they take on certain issues, but that doesn't speak to controversies yet to be unveiled. Others use those political labels and the names of their party interchangeably, despite the fact that the party platforms have slid up and down the spectrum, even flip-flopping over the years. I read definitions in a political science textbook once that have stuck with me for both simplicity and accuracy. In short, a to be conservative means to look for the solution to a problem in the past. When faced with a new dilemma, they will attempt to apply the solution that has always worked with similar issues before. A liberal, when confronted with a new problem, will tend to dream up an entirely new solution. They prefer the untested to the status quo.

There is nothing to stop people for employing both methods in differing areas of life. I have already admitted to doing so. But what exactly causes a person to be one way or the other. It's the age-old nature vs. nurture argument, and nature has recently released some new results. Some psychologists at New York University have employed a simple test to investigate political persuasion. Test subjects were first asked to rate their political persuasion, 1 being conservative and 5 being liberal. Then the were each shown a different series of two letters, M and W. Regardless of the pattern, one letter was always more prevalent, showing up 80% of the time. The researchers found that when asked to match letters with the computer, subjects identifying with conservativism were more likely to "incorrectly" choose the dominant letter even when shown the other one. Liberals had a slightly "better" results, showing a greater ability to choose the "correct" letter even though it appeared far less frequently.

It is important to note that even if this experiment can be repeated, it doesn't imply that one position is evolutionarily more adaptive. There have been plenty of times in history when the combined selection pressures have favored either a liberal or a conservative approach, so one can not be said to be more adaptive than the other. I suspect that applying a healthy dose of both is the most pragmatic way to go about it.

1 comment:

Darren said...

I disagree with your definitions completely. In today's American political environment, conservatives generally believe in individuals and liberals believe in collectivism. That seems a much more useful yardstick than "look to the past" and "make something up".

I'll agree, though, that looking to the past allows us to determine that collectivism (socialism and communism) aren't good for humans and other living things :-)