Beware This Kind of Article

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 6.23.01 AM

I want my progressive friends to understand how harmful this kind of headline is. I encourage you to read the article, then come back for my commentary.

If we truly believe in “neuroplasticity,” we recognize that people’s brains can and do change. While our brains are certainly more plastic as children, they continue to be malleable until we die. What, then, does it mean to say someone is “hard-wired” to be gullible? What are we being asked to believe about these conservative Christians referenced in this article?

I am more suspicious of this argument because, as a progressive Christian, I am inclined to agree with it. It gives us a science-y reason to denigrate those awful conservatives who are “hard-wired” to reject reason and believe stupid things, to fret over the way they home-school their children and teach bad science.

While I am not a neuroscientist, I am a rhetorician, and I think this is a misuse of the term “neuroplasticity” in support of an old, old argument that says religious people are taught to be gullible. “Neuroplasticity” generally refers to the way neural pathways become strengthened and the brain physically changes over time through experience. But I question why we’d be using this word instead of just “learning” or “conditioning” in this instance. Do we draw a different picture in our heads if we talk about learning instead of shaping neural pathways? Does one carry more weight or have more authority than the other? 

Now, it may be TRUE that fundamentalists are taught to be gullible, but the claim is simply not supported by the evidence in the article. That it takes effort to disbelieve something is interesting, but that is the *only* research referenced—the extrapolation to how children are taught to be gullible is not directly supported by the research cited. The word “neuroplasticity” also has nothing directly to do with the research; it is thrown in here as window-dressing.

I do think fundamentalist theology tends to encourage people to suppress their own experience and intuition, to quiet doubts and accept authority. These are points made in the article. But you can make those arguments without an MRI, and the scientific observations of brain activity in this article do not directly support the claim that conservative Christians do not develop “the neural pathways that promote healthy skepticism.” That would require a different study with different data.

I believe this is an example of people giving more credibility to lab coats because science.

If we would be less like gullible conservative fundamentalist Christians, as the author of the article suggests, we should take these assertions with a grain of salt, question the use of the phrase “hard-wired,” and be alert for confirmation bias. We already know our brains have a tendency to cherry-pick data that support our beliefs.

This is the kind of article that bots will repost to increase our dislike of our neighbors. It gives us scientific reasons to gin up our contempt and anger.

So let’s be less gullible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s