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Jumpstarting the Intersection With a New Focus—The Biology and Psychology of Politics

And Introducing Some New Contributors: Andrea Kuszewski and Everett Young

You may have noticed that this blog went very quiet late last year. Simply put, I  overbooked myself with traveling for talks and science communication trainings, and with finishing the new book. With all of these obligations and unending planes to catch, something had to give—and so the blog really slacked.

However,  there was no intention to discontinue it, and indeed, with the start of this year my plan is to enliven it dramatically.

For nearly a decade now, the Intersection has been ground zero for coverage of the…intersection between science and politics. But recently, and more specifically due to my research for The Republican Brain, I’ve realized that there’s one aspect of this topic in particular that is little understood, but has the potential to revolutionize how we think—namely, the science of politics itself.

Writing the new book has convinced me that a dramatic merger between previously disparate fields—biology (broadly speaking) on the one hand, and political science on the other—is now underway. For a brief précis, see this 2008 essay by political scientists James Fowler and Darren Schreiber, entitled “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”

The Republican Brain is my attempt to apply this emerging science to the crucial question of why the political right today is in such denial about scientific, economic, and just plain factual reality. And I think that application does indeed yield a lot of insight—but it’s only the beginning.

Psychological research, brain studies, evolutionary psychology, and even genetics are increasingly being used to explain anything from voter turnout to the intensity of partisan attachment. We’re on the verge of a dramatic new way of thinking about politics—but it’s a terrifying one for many folks, because it suggests that despite what we all like to think, philosophy and ideas may not actually be the real drivers of our political behavior. Rather, much of politics is  emotional, and indeed, appears to be driven by automatic responses that we’re not even aware of.

Accordingly, the political mainstream likes to conveniently ignore this new body of knowledge. But here, we won’t. And to that end, I’m bringing in two contributors who can help to advance our thinking:

Andrea Kuszewski.  Andrea is a penetrating writer on psychology and the brain, and focuses on understanding autism, intelligence, and creativity. And, well, politics. She’s the author of the brilliant and much cited guest blog post at the former home of the Intersection, entitled “Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives.” And as I worked on the book, her input has been invaluable. With Andrea, I’ve also organized a session at ScienceOnline 2012 entitled “Covering Political Neuroscience in the Blogosphere,” which will be on January 19 at 4pm.

Everett Young. Everett is a recent political science Ph.D. from Stony Brook, whose thesis was entitled “Why We’re Liberal, Why We’re Conservative: A Cognitive Theory on the Origins of Ideological Thinking.” It is quite long, but I seriously suggest you give it a read, because I think you’ll be fascinated. (I certainly was.) More recently, Everett designed an experiment, at my suggestion, to test liberals and conservatives on their tendency to engage in motivated reasoning—and the results (which were surprising!) are reported in a co-authored penultimate chapter of The Republican Brain. Suffice it to say that thanks to Everett, I have a much deeper understanding of why conservatives today seem so misaligned with reality—and in fact, the core reason does not appear to be what I originally thought it was. But more on that as the book publication date nears.

I still remain the chief blogger here, of course. But both Andrea and Everett will be chiming in from time to time and sharing their expertise. In addition, Jon Winsor will also continue to write here—his expertise on the intellectual history of conservatism and is deep and in fact, he has a new item in the hopper about the Tea Party and anti-intellectualism. Stand by for that.

So to summarize: I’m reshaping this blog to carry forward its original expertise, but also to push into a critical area that, in my view, very few (if any) political commentators know how to handle. And that has to change.

Every couple of weeks–and sometimes more frequently than that–a new paper comes out in a peer-reviewed journal about the science of our politics. Sometimes these create temporary media blips–like the conservatives-amygdala/liberals-ACC paper, co-authored by the British actor Colin Firth (!), did. But there is very little sustained discussion of what it all means, in large part because few know how such a discussion ought to be carried out.

If anything, we instead see a vast number of fundamental misconceptions. Many people seem to think that studying political neuroscience leads to reductionism or determinism, for instance (it does not). And they still think of “genes” and “environment” as being in opposition with one another, failing to realize that they work together, in intricate ways that are barely beginning to be unraveled, to shape who we are.

Here, then, I hope we can help to shape a much more fruitful and informative discussion. One thing is certain: The science of politics is a topic that can no longer be ignored.

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