30 July 2011

Evil? or Broken? -- Part 2 (An Example of Bad Science)

I have just finished reading an article in Atlantic magazine - actually, I read it twice - called The Brain on Trial. I will not link to it, because I believe (for several reasons) that it represents bad science, and don't wish to give it added weight. It took a second reading to find the reasons for the nagging discomfort I had after the first reading. The article has a lot of substantive content about new discoveries related to the functioning of the human brain, and the effects of chemistry (and brain tumors) on it.  It's concluding premise is that there really is no such thing as free will - that we and all our behavior are simply the mechanical play-out of our genes, perhaps with some environmental influences thrown in (abuse as a child is treated as a mitigating circumstance for crimes committed later as an adult).

The article begins with the story of Charles Whitman, the University of Texas Tower Sniper, who killed 13 people (his first victim a pregnant woman) and wounded 32 others. In his suicide note Whitman asked that an autopsy be done on his brain, to find out what had made him do this, because he recognized that something was wrong in his own mind. The autopsy found a glioblastoma 1.5 cm in diameter, pressing against the amygdala. The amygdala lies hear the hypothalamus, and is involved in the regulation of emotions, especially aggression and fear.

This was a sensational starting example, and not unexpected; all writers try to draw you into their writing with something interesting. I should have taken warning from it, however.  The author is an academic; the attribution says he is a neuroscientist at an southeastern university. After reading this exculpatory article I'm reminded of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters saying "Back off, man - I'm a scientist!"

However, in the article the scientist-author does not directly reference any single scientific study, though he does pick and choose - allude really - to certain conclusions here and there. One of these is that a psychiatrist who works with criminals is a poor predictor of future behavior. Instead, statistics ("science") is/are better, because these show that sexual interest in children and "prior sexual offenses" are better predictors of recidivism.

Excuse me, but "Duh!"

The author gives other examples - a pedophile who also had a brain tumor, and when it was removed his "problem" went away. He discusses how teenagers do not have a fully-developed pre-frontal cortex, the moderator of impulsive behavior. Most state legal systems recognize this (as do car insurance actuaries), and people below the arbitrary age of 18 (17 in some states) are treated very differently, with an implicit assumption that they will grow a mature pre-frontal cortex and be different as adults. This age cut-off is very artificial, and requires extra hoop-jumping by judges and prosecutors.

I once visited a 17-year-old in a juvenile detention facility in Fairfax County, Virginia; I went as the counselor to an LDS branch president. The young man was imprisoned because he had been part of a robbery gang, and during one robbery had been confronted by a screaming old woman who owned a little vegetable store. He shot her in the eye and killed her. He showed no remorse, simply snarled when we asked him about it that the "old bitch got in my face." His next sentence was revealing: "get me out of here," he demanded. "You guys are important and rich - you get me out!"

Somehow, I don't think that growing a final lobe on his pre-frontal cortex would qualify him to be released into the general population anytime soon. I know more than one adult with a poorly-developed pre-frontal cortex.

The red flag in the Atlantic article, however, was this cluster of sentences, spread over a paragraph: "If you are the carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes... <you are> 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes." and "By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you've probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you are a carrier, we call you a male."

I find it really hard to believe that the author is unaware of female prisons and female serial killers.

Later on the author states unambiguously that depression, schizophrenia, and mania are all "controlled" by drugs. For starts, that's a gross and unwarranted generalization. More to the point, mixing schizophrenia with the other two is an example of an apples and oranges association - but it appears to be deliberately done to advance an agenda.

That agenda is this: there is no such thing as free will. The author basically states that all humans are broken to varying degrees, we all fit somewhere in a continuous spectrum of disfunction, and therefore no one should be judged as being "blameworthy". The author is quick to point out that he is not advocating turning sociopaths loose on society - but instead advocates that judges follow the "science" - to make statistical judgments of who should be locked up forever (pedophiles and serial killers have an extremely high recidivism rate) and who should be put into a vastly-expanded public system of rehabilitation. His characterizes his preferred solution is "customized sentencing."

I have no issue with rehabilitation, and know of several cases where it seemed to have helped. I have no issue either with treating the schizophrenic who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as not being criminally culpable. What I DO take issue with is lumping schizophrenia with depression, and then by association removing all the rest of humanity from being "blameworthy." The subtlest part of this slight-of-hand is to draw the conclusion from these examples that all humans fit into a broad spectrum of bad-to-good socialization, and that no one can be considered blameworthy of anything - just treated as broken, and either fixed or quarantined forever. There are huge stretches of logic in this sequence, yet the author self-identifies as being a neuroscientist (emphasis mine). To call this loose logic sequence "science" is equivalent to calling trash collection "digital waste engineering." I won't even bother to address the lack of legal rigor in the article.

From all of these apples-and-oranges, rare-anecdotes-represent-humanity, and other logic stretches, the author finally gets to the agenda he is pushing: that there is no such thing as free will. In other words, we never were really given our agency, the greatest gift of all - and none of us are guilty of any wrongdoing. Infidelity? My genes made me do it. Murder? Abuse as a child exonerates me.

As bad science goes, this is a bit more subtle than the homeopathic advertisements I see in the back of Discover magazine.

But only a bit.


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