You won't find ISIS in the brain or genes. The Daily Beast tries to sell you an imaginary Brooklyn Bridge - blog by Gurdur


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You won't find ISIS in the brain or genes. The Daily Beast tries to sell you an imaginary Brooklyn Bridge
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Posted 17-Mar-2015 at 07:01 PM (19:01) by Gurdur

Some people have big problems living with uncertainty, so they like to drastically amputate parts of reality till they find a vision they can live with. Perhaps in line with that, David Ewing Duncan (@Duncande) has written an article on the Daily Beast, in which it is generally opined you may find ISIS in the brain, or the genes, or both. No cliché remains unspurned in it, but it's the theology of the article that is the main problem. He starts off by saying:
"Call it a tale of two brains: the extreme dichotomy of human behavior that runs the age-old gamut between evil and good. ... ISIS ... One worldview wants to burn people alive, the other to regenerate damaged cells, engineer advanced artificial limbs, and send tourists to the moon. Put another way, it’s Homeland versus TED."
This is a stunningly Manichean view of it all, and it's all simply wrong. I refuse to put up with any apologetics for Islamist terrorism or ISIS as one of its manifestations; however Duncan paints the world far too black and white. He then cites a scientific study on Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA), which has nothing to do with anything, since it has no significant effect by itself in prompting antisocial behavior or murder. Moreover, if it plays any real secondary role by itself, it's in impulsive situations - not in cases where someone makes solid plans and carries them out to fly over and join up with ISIS.

Other similar citations by Duncan carry even less weight. He finally gets onto fundamentalist religion in the brain, only there he makes huge mistakes by ignoring all the evidence. Do you think you will find anything useful in a brain scan of some immature boy who goes off to join ISIS, but first orders a copy of "Islam For Dummies", since he has no real knowledge of the religion he's supposedly fighting for?

Duncan, after admitting neuroscience can't tell you who is a terrorist, ignores that inconvenience, and goes on, "I have no doubt that various national security agencies are working in secret to better understand the genetics and biology of extremists". The worst thing about Duncan's worship of his idea of science is that he ignores science. We have a far better way than neuroscience of looking at complex human behaviors - it's called psychology. Duncan has flatly ignored psychology in pursuit of the fad of dreaming that MRI's can tell you about complicated attitudes.

When customs official view you as you stand in queues at large airports in first-world countries - and they do - they look for psychological signs. Having sweat on your upper lip may well get you much more scrutiny at the customs desk. It's a nice, simple sign of anxiety which they can look for.

Terrorism is not a simple context like importing too many Rolex's. If you put up a neuroscanner at say one of the London airports to examine people leaving the country, and you looked at the kind of vague signs that might indicate an aim towards terrorism, you would garner far, far more British young males off to enjoy a cheap, drunken holiday on Spain's beaches, than you would collect would-be terrorists. The parallel is not arbitrary; there are some important similarities. Both a British lad off to join ISIS and one wanting simply a holiday in Spain share wanting to gain a sense of meaning, combined with wanting to have some fun. The would-be terrorist may well have more narcissism in his baggage of attitudes, but that's not something you can catch with a neuroscanner. You can only find that out by long questioning - and then with essential observation in daily life - of the person. Once there, getting used to the brutality and bloodshed of ISIS daily life is just a matter of habituation and lack of relevant ethics, not of neuroscience.

Without a single shred of evidence, Duncan tries to portray terrorism as a genetic thing. The only studies he cites are to do with very small groups of people who have nothing to do with terrorism. The whole thrust of his article seems to be only to give a very rosy and utterly fake idea of science, and then to posit that as one pole of a dichotomy, with the other pole being fundamentalist terrorism. Duncan of course ignores that terrorists are quite happy to use science when it suits them. His whole article is built on a completely unsupported view; that people are only machines that carry out genetic instructions. This view is called psychological determinism, the idea that your whole mind is totally determined at all times in the most simplistic possible way by your (genetic) past. It's utter tripe that completely fails to explain how we ever managed to come down out of the trees, build skyscrapers and develop science. He also fails to bring up one interesting possibility: if you could build a good neuroscanner, would it be any better than a polygraph, the so-called lie-detector? The polygraph is very controversial; David T. Lykken's book, "A Tremor In The Blood", and many later papers and texts, detail the incompetent usage of the polygraph, and how people can beat the machine. Why doesn't Duncan mention psychology and the polygraph? Because it's all fashion, and the real purpose is just to push an impoverished theology: believe in this fake idea of science, and you will be safe from the ignorant demons of terrorism. Duncan and the Daily Beast are trying to sell you an imaginary Brooklyn Bridge to a promised heaven that doesn't exist.

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