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Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886 (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2164844/Racism-hardwired-human-brain–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/02/mail-race-nature-neuroscience, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/what-racism-hardwired-headline-daily-mail

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is http://beautifulnightmare-killumbus.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/jewish-scientist-nears-physical-cure.html – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

References
Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012
At http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948
At http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738
at http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/cunningham/pdf/phelps.jocn.2000.pdf

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758
At http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/papers/03_PP_V24No4.pdf

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2 responses to “Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

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