Monday, February 6, 2012

Brains, grammar, and sacred values

This article is less exciting if you read it than if you only read news stories about it. When I first read about it the findings were said to be that brain-research shows that people think about sacred values in a deontological rather than a utilitarian way, and that such thinking is like thinking about grammar. Cue Wittgensteinian thoughts about "the grammar of value" and so on. And yet...  

In the paper sacred values are defined as those for which individuals resist trade-offs. "Deontic processing" is understood in terms of "an emphasis on rights and wrongs" while utilitarian reasoning is understood as economic, having to do with trading and bargaining (see footnotes 18-22). So it isn't surprising that the reasoning involved when sacred values are at issue counts as deontic. This outcome seems almost predetermined by the definition of "sacred" and the identification of the activities associated with "utilitarian" thinking.

Unless I'm missing something, file under "much ado about nothing." Oh well. Here's my favorite economics-related song:


  1. I think this happens a lot. Here's the last sentence from the abstract of a psychology paper on self-control and aggression, to which a colleague recently alerted me:

    "Advances from social-affective and cognitive neuroscience suggest that the neural mechanisms involved in emotion regulation and cognitive control mediate the relationship between deficient self-control and aggression."

    As far as I can tell, this says that the neural mechanisms involved in emotion regulation and cognitive control are also somehow involved in breakdowns of emotion regulation and cognitive control. Some advance...

    Of course, the media always overstate "hot" findings in science, too. I think that's very bad.

  2. Perhaps the charitable thing to say is that science progresses by small, seemingly insignificant, steps. But I wonder whether proposed experiments should have to pass a logic committee as well as any ethics committee before they are deemed worth doing.

    The media don't help, but when a paper is called "The price of your soul" it's pretty much asking for its importance to be exaggerated.

  3. I suppose you're right about the title. (But in a certain way, I don't mind "fun" titles...)

    Small steps. Sure. And I'm guessing that that sentence I picked on isn't representative of the actual quality of the research reported in the article. At the same time, you're surely right that conceptualizing experiments (as well as results) is tricky, since experimenters have to operationalize...

  4. It's probably all some combination of fun (OK), hype (bad), small steps (OK), and misconceived pointlessness possibly driven by when-you-have-a-hammer-everything's-a-nail syndrome. But the bad parts of that cocktail make me wary.