Thursday, May 13, 2010

Two Ringing Bullshit Meters

1) Vaughan Bell chides certain psychologists for erroneously claiming that cortisol rises during crying can be damaging to the brain:
I have a bullshit switch. It gets triggered when I hear certain phrases. 'Neuroplasticity' is one, 'hemisphere' is another and 'raises dopamine' is a regular button pusher. That's not to say people can't use these phrases while talking perfect sense, but I find it useful that they put me on my guard. Most recently, I've found the phrase 'raises cortisol' to be a useful way of alerting me to the fact that the subsequent words may be a few data points short of a bar graph - potentially some poorly understood drivel....

These claims both reflect one-dimensional thinking about how the brain works. Yes, stress tends to raise cortisol levels and there is good evidence to suggest that chronically high levels of stress and cortisol may be detrimental to brain, but this conclusion is typically drawn from people who have been through some fairly serious shit, wars, deprivation, trauma, or have specific hormone problems. There is remarkably little research on cortisol, everyday stresses in young children and none to suggest normal variation damages the brain in any way.

2) Andrew Sullivan elucidates his qualms about US supreme court nominee Elena Kagan:
Her life, so far as one can tell, is her career, and her career has been built by avoiding any tough or difficult political or moral positions, eschewing any rigorous intellectual debate in which she takes a clear stand one way or the other, pleasing every single authority figure she has encountered, and reveling in the approval of the First Class Car Acela Corridor elite....

Kagan strikes me as the Democratic elite's elitist: free of any conviction that is not caged in a web of Clintonian caution, punctiliously diligent in every aspect of her career, motivated by a desire never to offend those with power, and rewarded in turn by the protection and praise of these elites. Here is Walter Dellinger's almost comically balanced, well-polished, piece of bullshit.... David Brooks calls this generational elite pattern - which is far broader and wider than Kagan's lone example - "disturbing." I find it depressing.

One question is whether these people are deliberately attempting to fool others or are merely deluding themselves. In the case of the cortisol experts, sure they might be telling only their side of the story, but might not they also merely be the victims of confirmation bias? In the case of Kagan, might not she have convinced herself that she merely didn't hold any stances on controversial opinions?

In achieving one's own ends through nefarious means, there is a spectrum between the extremes of total self-delusion and total intentional fooling. Fall closer to the self-delusion side, and you'll seem stupider. Fall closer to the deliberately fooling others side of the spectrum, and you'll seem eviler. Ah, the quandaries and trade-offs of careerism.