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In April of this year, a report appeared in the scientific journal Cell which claimed that there are significant quantifiable neurological differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives.

Specifically, the report shows that political conservatives have larger amygdalas, which mediate emotional reactions such as fear and aggression.

This report got picked up all over the mainstream press, as with this article in The Atlantic headlined Are Liberals and Conservatives Hard-Wired to Disagree? and another article over on Raw Story titled Brain structure differs in liberals, conservatives: study, which says "Liberals have more gray matter in a part of the brain associated with understanding complexity, while the conservative brain is bigger in the section related to processing fear, said the study on Thursday in Current Biology."

From a purely sociological standpoint, this may have some element of truth, at least in the sense that repeated sociological studies have shown conservatives to be motivated by fears of collapsing social order, loss of social hierarchy, and social disorder.

But qualifying conservatives as fearful and liberals as optimistic is really kind of silly, seems to me. Liberals, in my experience, are just as likely to be driven by irrational fears, and to make decisions based on poor evaluation of those fears, as conservatives are.

Take, for example, the nearly universal fear among those on the political left of nuclear power. Despite the fact that nuclear power is by far the safest form of large-scale electrical generation yet invented (coal power kills more human beings every year, primarily from air pollution but also from coal mining accidents, than nuclear power has killed in the entire history of its use combined--including Chernobyl), liberals are nearly universal in their stark raving terror of all things "nuclear."

Liberals like to mock conservatives as ignorant, uninformed, and anti-intellectual, but the reality is that across the United States, anti-intellectualism is extraordinarily popular; its cause is championed by people of all political stripes. It manifests differently, sure; conservatives tend to oppose pure science, particularly biological and geological science (but even physics is not immune; there are some highly vocal nutjobs on the right who claim that Einstein's theory of relativity is a sinful attempt to undermine public morality by embracing moral relativism), though quixotically they tend to embrace technology.

Liberals, on the other hand, claim to champion science, at least when they can be arsed to learn enough to be able to separate it from pseudoscience; but they reject technology, in forms ranging from vaccination to food processing. Liberals are particularly frightened of life sciences; their terror of genetically modified food is second only to their terror of nuclear power as a common source of fear.

I've been chewing on this for a while, and as I often do, I've made a chart.

The things that will actually kill you tend, by and large, not to be the things you're afraid of. Conservatives fear terrorism, which is stunningly unlikely to kill you; the number of Americans who lose their lives to terrorists every year is roughly on par with the number killed by sharks and bears, and is dwarfed by the number of people killed by falling off stepladders. On the other hand, as small as this number is, it's still mountains bigger than the number of Americans killed by nuclear power every year, which tends to hover year after year at somewhere around zero.

How ironic, then, that the billions spent fighting these fears and the work done on both sides to advocate for these fears, and it's actually driving to the office or not getting away from the TV to exercise that will do you in.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 28th, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC)
Cell phone radiation's a big buagboo on the right, too.
And you're grossly simplifying the issues with nuclear power, the huge costs & subsidies and the waste are bigger issues for many than the repeated & obvious safety threats. The lies of the industry & blithe dismissals rather than rational discussion of the issue makes it worse. :-)
Oct. 29th, 2011 04:53 am (UTC)
And you're grossly simplifying the issues with nuclear power, the huge costs & subsidies and the waste are bigger issues for many...

Actually, no. The huge costs, subsidies, and waste are rationalizations. People have an emotional response to nuclear power, then look for reasons to validate that response.

It's easy to demonstrate that this is true. Many political liberals who oppose nuclear power advocate solar and wind power. Yet wind power is so incredibly heavily subsidized that if the same subsidies were applied to other forms of power generation, nuclear power would be free...and the government would pay you for each kWh of coal-generated electricity you used! And solar? Don't get me started; the subsidies on solar are so eye-wateringly high that even thinking about it without proper protective gear is likely to give you a nosebleed.

With prodigious subsidies comes prodigious waste; look at the recent bankruptcy of Solyndra, which went bust right after receiving a half-billion-dollar loan guarantee from the government.

If subsidies and waste were actually REASONS to oppose a power generating technology, then people who opposed nuclear power on those grounds would also oppose solar and wind. Since they don't, it is obvious that those aren't reasons; they're rationalizations.

...than the repeated & obvious safety threats.

And again, nuclear power has a better safety track record per mWh of power generation than any other form of large-scale power generation, solar, wind, and geothermal included.

The initial response is fear. The arguments--cost, safety, subsidies, and so on--are ex post facto rationalizations for the fear.
Oct. 29th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
I've gotta take some exception to your generalization. I don't oppose nuke tech at all, but do oppose the kind of power centralization nukes require. Anyone, including myself, can buy a solar rig and profit from the power it generates; I must buy the power a nuke puts on the grid. I have no control over that power, not at all. I oppose nukes for the same reason I think building a hydroelectric dam without a viable fish ladder is flippin' insane.

Yes, wind and solar subsidies are high; but they are also inconsistent. The US was a wind turbine leader in the 80s. Wind subsidies, designed to encourage the industry, were revoked and restored (IIRC) four times in a decade. By contrast, Denmark held steady with its subsidies, and is now the largest wind turbine producer. The US industry just gave up, since it didn't know if the subsidies would be there next year.

The same is happening with solar. Yes, you mentioned Solyndra; but in the same loan guarantee a proposed nuke plant got an eight billion dollar loan guarantee. Solyndra went under not because of guarantees, but largely because China's massive solar subsidies dwarfed the US's, making the company less competitive.

I do agree that many exhibit knee-jerk reactions against the stuff you list. I beg you to consider that many of us more liberal types have very different reasons to oppose. The decentralization of the power grid rates very high on my personal list.
Oct. 31st, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
People love to bring up decentralization these days, whether it's power or food growth and distribution.

However, no matter how you slice it, this is ONLY a good idea in a world with expensive, dirty power. Winthin the next 75 to 200 years we as a species will HAVE to find a clean, cheap, abundant source of energy or risk loosing the ability to function as a global community.

At best decentralization is a stop-gap measure that MIGHT help insure that it's closer to 200 years than it is to 75 years. However, once clean, cheap, abundant source of energy is found, decentralization will be effectivly meaningless.

Oct. 31st, 2011 03:20 am (UTC)
However, once clean, cheap, abundant source of energy is found, decentralization will be effectivly meaningless.

That assumes one will be found. I have serious doubts about this. We've been looking for decades and are no closer to a fuel to replace petroleum than we were 100 years ago.

Furthermore, wouldn't it be prudent to move in two directions at once, looking for that still-unknown future energy source (perhaps in vain), while at the same time we increase the resilience of our built environment to better withstand energy shocks?

It might just take an additional 125 years to find something as elusive as a new energy source. I'm actually thinking it will take longer.
Oct. 31st, 2011 04:05 am (UTC)
If we don't find a new energy source, decentralization won't make much difference. The global economy will still fully colaps and everyone that's not Omish will be screwed. With decentralization it will take longer, but it will still happen. That's the fatal flaw in decentralization.

So what's more prudent, splitting our resources and attempting a plan that will require enourmous resources and a complete resturcturing of our economy, knowing that at best it will only have a short term effect. Or do we focuse 100% of our resources on the ONLY path that will give us a long term solution to the problem?

Even in the short term it may very well fail. Converting our very centralized economy to a dispeperced economy may end up costing us more resouces in the short term than it will save us. It's entirely possible that attempting this stop gap messure will only agrivate the problem.
Oct. 31st, 2011 05:08 am (UTC)
I'm afraid I agree only with your conclusion, that the global economy will collapse in time. We can and should learn from the Amish.

I'm further afraid that I regard much of the construction of our society (our built environment, including transportation, manufacturing and housing) as being as misguided in the US as the French's focus on building the Maginot Line after WWI, only bigger in scope. As Jim Kunstler noted, our suburban society may prove the biggest mis-allocation of resources in all of human history.

I'm still further of the opinion that focusing our resources in only one area may prove the most disastrous approach at all. By contrast, I agree with John Michael Greer, that we must work through dissensus, to go in as many directions as possible in the hopes that someone finds a few that work.

All that said, while I find talk in this vein entertaining, perhaps we shouldn't clog tacit's LJ with stuff that really doesn't deal with his OP. Come on over to my LJ. You should find lots of grist for the mill over there, especially under the tag "The Erections Around Us" and "Just Peaking!"
Oct. 31st, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
Decentralization of power (photovoltaics or small windmills) does have the practical advantage of letting us get away with a lower-capacity main grid. That makes it cheaper than it first looks, although not really for any one person looking to buy equipment.

Other than that, photovoltaics don't seem to be remotely as good as thermal solar. Nuclear is good, too, but we have to stop storing the waste on-site at the plants itself. Glassifying and dropping it into ocean subduction zones might be the only option that gets past NIMBY objections.
Oct. 31st, 2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
I've gotta take some exception to your generalization. I don't oppose nuke tech at all, but do oppose the kind of power centralization nukes require. Anyone, including myself, can buy a solar rig and profit from the power it generates...

Well, kind of. Anyone who's a reasonably wealthy middle-or-upper-class homeowner can buy a subsidized solar setup and profit by selling the power back to the electric company at above-market rates, but the economics don't really work out long term.

First, most such solar rigs have no backing store. When you buy one, you're counting on the grid to do your load balancing for you, and to provide you with power when the sin's not out. This increases the difficulty of the load balancing problem for the electrical company. It's not a big deal if only a few people do it, but it becomes a very big deal if, say, half the houses in the city are doing it.

Worse, that transfers cost onto people who don't live in solar-equipped houses--which will likely be disproportionately those living in apartments or without the means to install solar (read, the poorest socioeconomic segments). They end up footing the bill for the electrical utility's increased cost of load balancing and for the premium the utility pays for that solar power.

Now, you could give everyone who has point sources of solar some sort of backing store as well, so they're entirely off the grid...but that drives up the cost of going solar (a lot), and now you're trucking huge lead-acid or LiIon batteries all over the place, which is a nontrivial source of risk. The failure modes of lead acid batteries can be pretty bad; the failure modes of LiIon batteries tend to be catastrophic. And if you use a centralized backing store, which is economically more efficient...well, then you're right back to centralized power distribution again.

And all that before we even talk about the environmental impact of solar cell manufacture, which historically has been a very dirty industry.
Oct. 31st, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
A few points. As for backing the excess, using lead or LiIon would be cost prohibitive, I agree. These chemistries simply don't last long enough. Nickle Iron (NiFe), on the other hand, are cheap, reliable and durable.

These batteries have more internal resistance than LA, but more energy storage capacity. As a result they work well in low peak load situations (like back up hardware). Most every ancient brand of all-electric cars were NiFe powered. Use as SLA (starter-lighting-accessory) batteries proved their demise; their higher internal resistance led to electrolyte loss when prolonged cranking was required. (That's the reason most SLA are LA batteries and are rated at Max Cranking Amps; the last thing they'll be used for is trickle discharges.)

Edison NiFe batteries were nicknamed "Ironclad" over a 100 years ago, given their reliability and method of manufacture. Off-grid farms and homes used to have banks of these to back up the wind turbines. If we bring decentralization to bear (called by many distributed generation), bringing back NiFes will be useful, along with developing a minute-to-minute energy market utilities can use to balance loads on the fly.

Ah, but the most beautiful thing about the NiFes has to be their long life. Restorers of old electrics (like the Detroit Electric and Baker Electric) have found old cars parked in barns with their batteries able to take and hold a charge 80 years later.

Let's also remember that solar cell manufacture is new, relatively. It hasn't been cost effective because so many other technologies are so darned cheap . . . at least the fuel for them. The energy extracted from coal peaked in the mid-90s (though we are still increasing the amount burned just because the stuff left is such low-energy crap), so that cost is bound to rise. At the same time, some solar panel makers have dropped the sale price below $1/watt. (This kind of competition is the reason Solydra went under; they couldn't keep up with the market on price.)

Subsidizing any industry is historically done to promote development of that industry. When done properly, it does exactly that. The US has a bad track record of this, I admit; that's because (with the exception of autos and oil) we do it wrong here. We tend to support the industries that show the most payoff promise and ignore those that take time to nurture to maturity. Many other industries, however, would not exist in their form today were it not for the financial intervention of sponsoring governments, including steam power and wool in Britain, and more recently wind power in Denmark and solar in Germany.

For the grid, the ability to synchronize small producers has only been technically possible for a few decades (thanks to grid-intertie inverters) so it's not surprising the utilities are wary about having the currently small number grow.

Which brings us to the economics. Washington State got burned in the '70s with a grand nuclear development plan that became the largest bond default in US history. Out of seven plants, only one got built to completion; the taxpayers and bondholders got stuck with the rest. This might be why I am still hesitant to invest whole hog on plants that only produced after billions are spent, as opposed to spending in small increments through tax payer subsidies. Once bitten, twice shy.

Currently, I can get $.54/kilowatt hour over and above the utility rate from the state (if I install in state-built panels and inverters). The rate payer doesn't subsidize this; the state tax payer does, so the burden on the poor is less than you state.

Opinions are cheap, however, be they yours or mine. I would suggest looking into Germany's program with solar. They note that the program is as cost-effective as their nuclear plants, the reason they tried the 1999 subsidy program in the first place. They're up over 10% solar since starting. If there are any major issues with load balancing and banking, they would know all about it. Last I heard, though, their subsidy program is continuing, and their economy seems to be doing very well.
Nov. 1st, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
History & I disagree with you, Franklin, and these blithe dismissals and false assertions about nuclear critics were quite literally written in the 60's & 70's by spinmeisters for the industry as a playbook for dismissing valid concerns about the waste & its disposal, poor maintenance and safety checks at the plants, water contamination from the cooling process, and more... not to mention the extent of damage from Chernobyl, which you will only see if you read non-US sources as there's been an almost complete media blackout about it here for years.

There're real, genuine issues of several sorts with nuclear and they need to be discussed before it's considered viable or safe... to start, probably 90% of the world's current reactors need to be decommissioned and a method to dispose of all the waste found.
Oct. 28th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
There are politically motivated emotional reactions to the things that kill a lot of people, but fear generally isn't one of them. They tend to be forms of disgust, hatred, or anger instead. Who is more in support of bans on smoking in restaurants, the Left or the Right? I'd guess the Left. If so, they're not afraid of it, but disgusted by it. Which political side is doing something about lack of exercise? The Left more than the Right, at least now. Why? They're probably angry about it. I could go on and on.

As for fears, these dangers attack people on the Left and Right equally. There's no partisan political advantage to be had by exploiting them. On the other hand, the irrational low-risk fears tend to be things associated with the "other side." They're very good for ginning up each side's partisans.
Oct. 29th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)
"icked up all over the mainstream press" I'd turn that into a meme so fast!

Good info, as usual.
Oct. 29th, 2011 04:40 am (UTC)
Oops! That should be "picked up," though icked up is pretty funny. Fixed now.
Oct. 29th, 2011 04:55 am (UTC)
Ok, so I'm a Pagan germaphobe [MRSA] who uses a cell phone, with an allergy to insect stings....yay im not insane!

Oct. 29th, 2011 05:44 am (UTC)
Fear, like most emotions, is rarely rational. I know several people who are deathly afraid of cockroaches. One of them will call her husband, wherever he might be at the time, to come and kill a roach if she finds one in the house, because she's too terrified to deal with it herself. She's an extremely intelligent, well-educated woman. She knows, intellectually, that a roach cannot kill or even harm her. It doesn't change her fear.

I can't speak for the items on the conservative side of your list, but as a liberal, I would say that many of the items you mention are *concerns* of mine, but not fears at all. (Also I'm liberal bordering on socialist but I am opposed to fluoridated water--are you sure that's a conservative thing?)

For example, the overuse of fertilizers in mass agriculture is leading us to a global shortage of phosphorus. In addition, fertilizer runoff has been shown to pollute water sources, creating algal blooms that kill off other life forms. Am I afraid of fertilizer? Well, no, but I do think that it causes a lot of problems and I would like to see policies limiting its use to protect the environment. It's a rational opposition based on the science we have available.

But these concerns don't really make me feel afraid, in the way that, say, small, enclosed places make me feel afraid.

I'm concerned about cancer, heart disease and diabetes, too, because I know they are major killers, and that's *why* I question things like pesticides and HFCS. If these things are contributing to those diseases, we should do something to rectify it.

Another thing about fear, though. Fear isn't usually just about death. I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of pain and suffering and horror. That's why people fear things such as nuclear plant meltdowns or the flesh-eating virus. It doesn't matter if these things are rare. They are horrifying. We all know we're going to die sooner or later. But we all would prefer it happen with minimal pain and maximum dignity. Things that cause us long-term suffering and a horrible loss of dignity frighten the hell out of us.

I also think that things out of our own control frighten us more than things we believe are within our control. My husband is terrified of flying but not driving. Why? He isn't in control of the plane. Rationally, he knows that the pilot is qualified and he also knows he's not *really* in control on the road (there are all those other drivers after all). But emotionally he prefers to *feel* that he has some measure of control. So things that other people (or "the government," or "corporations") do are much more frightening than the risks we subject ourselves to.

I will comment on one liberal fear that I think is perfectly rational, however. That of "religious extremists." I'm a woman who is still capable of reproducing. I have a career. Not only do I work, but I *have* to work to support myself and my son. Religious extremists are trying to take away my ability to control my fertility. Even if my husband agreed to be celibate with me (which I think is unreasonable), I could get raped. Religious extremists would like to force me to bear a child if I become pregnant. Even if it threatened my life. Even if it threatened my livelihood. That fills me with a LOT of fear. I know of several women who were perfectly healthy before pregnancy and had to be put on bedrest for the entire 9 months. They lost their jobs. My close friend's sister recently, and unexpectedly, *died* in childbirth. She was young and perfectly healthy. I'm not all that young and I'm not currently in the best of health, and getting pregnant would be hugely taxing on me. It's not a risk anyone should force me to take, but people out there want to. So yeah, I think it's 100% rational that these people scare the shit out of me.
Oct. 29th, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC)
Interesting how science (or pseudo science) is being seen through the lens of a two party political system. How does this theory hold up in countries (like Canada) with a three or more party system?
Oct. 29th, 2011 06:35 pm (UTC)
Oct. 30th, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)

I guess I missed the leap of logic that suggests that having 'more grey matter to process complexity' is automatically associated with optimism.

Both groups are human and have (usually) all the same biological pieces. All I get from that data is that it is more likely that a conservative will allow fears to drive their decisions while it is more likely that a liberal will apply reason. It doesn't mean that a conservative can't reason or that a liberal doesn't fear.

And it certainly does not mean that either group can't be swayed by propoganda.

Oct. 31st, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
Diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure are all related to bad diet. High fructose corn syrup and other fast-digesting carbohydrates are one of the most common variations on bad diet.

Suicide seems like a strange thing to fear, since it's your choice to at least some degree. Fearing depression might make more sense, and suicide would be the mechanism for how it could kill you.
Nov. 1st, 2011 04:39 am (UTC)
Interesting all the discussion about why nuclear power is bad, when I'm jealous of France because they have so much of it. As for what energy source will get us through the next couple centuries, the French (and soon the rest of Europe) will fare just fine on nuclear and renewables after the oil and coal run out, while sit here I watching my fellow Americans do everything they can to be caught with their pants down.

PS - It's not irrational to fear HFCS when one is allergic to corn. :p

PPS - This chart is spot-on IMHO
Nov. 10th, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
It's not just nuclear power that people are irrational about. Look at the opposition to the pipeline from Canada: the oil we'd get from Canada would be replacing oil from the Middle East, and not only are pipelines a considerably safer way to transfer petroleum than supertankers (see: Exxon Valdez, etc), I for one would much rather be sending my petrodollars to Canada than Saudi Arabia, where women are much better treated and gays aren't killed.
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