TJ | 13th Apr, 2010

Can Magnets Alter Morality?

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As America tried to work its way through the current Era of Bad Feelings, one quote really had me worked up. It comes not from a politician or one of those ranting voices at Faux News, but from someone who should know better–a scientist. Now maybe the quote was taken out of context, but after a fairly extensive search I found the same quote at multiple sites. Also had it been taken out of context you would think the person who said it would correct the misquote.

The quote arose in news reports of an experiment purporting to alter moral judgment by placing magnets behind people’s ears (this is a bit of an oversimplification–we’ll get to the actual experiment in a minute). As the reporters bit on the press release issued on the publication of the research, they interviewed scientists to get their comments on what is admittedly a thought-provoking experiment that has as serious implications for our future as anything I have read over the past year.

The quote comes not from the researchers at MIT but from a colleague down the Charles River at Harvard. Psychologist Joshua Greene told National Public Radio (which usually gets its sources right):

Moral judgment is just a brain process. That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.

Liane Young, the postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences who was the lead author of the paper issued a slightly more nuanced version of the same quote in MIT’s press release:

You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.

Back when I took freshman biology this was known as reductionism and even then we were taught it was an overly simplistic view of reality (more on this in a minute).

To show how far this can go, the “This Saith the Lord” Ministries site had this comment:

COMMENT: James 4:17 “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth [it] not, to him it is sin.” Now the question to be asked is, “What affects do small but constant exposure to magnets cause? Take for instance, a computer, cell phone, other electronic devices, latches on doors, and many other unsuspecting locations for magnets.

So as if we didn’t have enough to worry about the Ministries site is suggesting that magnets which are ubiquitous may be altering our moral judgment. Put your cell phone to your ear and you may do something nasty. This is a new take on the Era of Bad Feelings: maybe it is all due to excessive cell phone use. Could we see a new temperance movement arising dedicated to destroying magnets?

The Study

By now readers of this blog know that I am not going to take someone’s word for it, but will go read the study, something most folks in the mainstream press did not bother to do. Like so many scientific papers today this one has a virtually unreadable title and questionable prose. If science wonders why a significant percentage of Americans discount evolution or think the moon is a planet, it might look in the mirror.

There is frankly no excuse for scientists who are unable to write decent prose. By that I don’t mean they need to dumb things down or leave out necessary scientific terminology. All I ask is that they follow the rules for good writing any fifth grader knows. Maybe we need a new TV show for scientists, “Can You Write Better than a Fifth Grader?”

Take the title: “Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” Let’s first just rearrange the words: “Transcranial magnetic stimulation of the right temporoparietal junction reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” You can cut the disruption part because the magnetic stimulation is a disruption.

Now what about that word “transcranial?” It means “passing through the cranium–i.e. your skull. Since any stimulation of the tempoparietal junction will by definition be transcranial, we can cut that also. So now we are down to: “Magnetic stimulation of the right temporoparietal junction reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” The only difficult words left are “temporoparietal junction.” A junction is where two regions come together, in this case the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain. So for the public it might read easier if the title said: “Magnetic stimulation of the junction of the right temporal and parietal lobes reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” Now do you have a better idea of what the article is about.

Here are a few gems from the report:

Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible.

To analyze the effect of TMS site on participants’ moral judgments, we conducted a 2(belief:neutral vs. negative) × 2(outcome: neutral vs. negative) × 2(TMS site:RTPJ vs. control) repeated measures ANOVA.

What Is In the Report

Because of gems like the above, I cannot fully claim to understand the protocol for the study or the results, but that is the fault of the authors. If they have a ground-breaking study that has policy implications for the public they need to speak to the public even if that means issuing a separate paper or an explanation in plain English.

Based on what I read here is my understanding of what of the study. The study involved presenting the subjects with two scenarios:

(i)the protagonist acts on either a negative belief (e.g.,that he or she will cause harm to another person) or a neutral belief and (ii) the protagonist either causes a negative outcome (e.g.,harm to another person)or a neutral outcome.

In experiment one the subjects received twenty-five minutes of magnetic stimulation while reading and responding to various moral scenarios while in experiment two the magnetic stimulation was delivered in short bursts at the time the person reached the point in the scenario where they had to make a moral judgment.

Luckily the conclusion of the study is in relatively plain English:

Disrupting RTPJ activity has the selective effect of causing participants to judge attempted harms as more morally permissible than they would normally.

In plainer English, the study is saying that by using magnetic stimulation the subjects were more likely to accept immoral harmful behavior than they would have without the magnets. The chart below explains the imaginary situation the subjects faced:

The subjects were asked to judge each of the four possibilities: although the container is labeled toxic Grace thinks it is sugar and it is or she is mistaken and it is poison, Grace thinks the toxic label is right and serves her friend poison which in one case is sugar and in the other really is poison. In our moral universe we would class the four actions as accidental harm, no harm, intentional harm, intentional harm but no harm is done.

Now here is where the press totally misread the study. The study plainly says:

TMS did not disrupt participants’ ability to make any moral judgment.

What the authors mean by this is that if we know Grace intended to poison her friend then the magnets did not have an impact on the outcome. It is only when we do not know intent or intent is ambiguous that the magnets have an impact.

Here is where the beliefs part of the article title enters the picture. The press misinterpreted the study as meaning moral beliefs, but the study authors meant “belief information,” that is what the subjects believed about Grace’s intent. This leads to a far different scenario than what the media portrayed. If we know that Grace is going to murder someone our moral judgment is not swayed. It is only when there is ambiguity about Grace’s intent that the magnets have an impact.

Reading the actual study also enables me to contradict some additional outlandish interpretations floating in the ether, such as the one from the Ministries. The impact of the magnets is limited to the time the magnet is in place, which in this case was mere seconds. Curiously the authors did not study or posit what might be the impact of a magnet left in place for longer periods of time. Nor did they ask the obvious question of whether the impact was cumulative: that is if you had magnets placed numerous times would their effect linger? Could magnets “train” the brain to make certain moral judgments?

The Quotes

This is where the quotes from Young and Green come in. The difficulty in reading the study–and the fact many in the media did not read it–magnifies the impact of the quotes. As with so much else these days the soundbites become reality. The language in the quotes is unambiguous and the implications quite clear. Both view morality as nothing more than a physiological process.

The quotes strike me as some of the dumbest statements I have ever heard from researchers. Of course morality is a physiological process! Everything humans do is ultimately physiological because that is the way our bodies work. The only thing I can figure is that the quotes are yet another case of scientists trying to dumb down their findings for a public they think is too ignorant to understand them.

The danger in misjudging the public is that it produces quotes like those from the magnet study. For most of the world that study will come down to a few soundbites which in essence say scientists believe they can turn morality on and off.

Think about that for a minute. If Arthur C. Clarke were still alive I can imagine the science fiction piece he would write around that assertion. Gene Roddenberry would have wrapped a great Star Trek plot around it. Actually he did.

A society has a device that looks like a hair dryer called The Teacher that you place on your head. The device is connected to the mother of all supercomputers that is filled with knowledge about everything. But this is not any knowledge; it is knowledge equivalent to what we might know a thousand years from now.

Dr. McCoy decides to put on The Teacher in order to perform some some futuristic brain surgery that enables him to operate at warp speed. In the end McCoy saves the patient, but the machine has so overloaded his brain that when he takes off The Teacher he falls into a coma because the device has overloaded his neurons. Initially McCoy thought the device might help save the world, but as with so many similar plots in this case the unintended consequence is that it has the potential to kill anyone who uses it.

The Quotes

While The Teacher may be science fiction, the quotes are not. Their reductionism is why science is in such trouble. Green’s remark especially has an offhand, know-it-all quality to it. “Don’t you idiots know the brain is a physiological process,” he seems to be saying as if he were talking about an automobile engine. Our metaphors of the brain seem to reflect our times, so in this era we have the brain as computer with hotshot programmers claiming they will someday make a machine that will outthink the brain.

Green clearly would not only find the Star Trek brain as hairdryer plausible, but he would believe that it would not have the unintended consequence of almost killing Dr. McCoy. But there is another dimension which is what the religious site is trying to get at–what about spirituality and yes, what about the soul?

All of us know values are not shaped merely by circuits in our brains but by the complexities of life. Faced with difficult moral situations, no two people react alike. I think I have told this story before, but if so it is worth telling again. In my local county park there is a memorial to World War II Medal of Honor winners. All of them received the nation’s highest decoration for throwing themselves on live grenades to save the lives of their comrades.

None of those men had time to think about or analyze what they were doing, they reacted to some moral values deep in their souls. It is easy to say any of us would have done the same thing, but I do not know if I would have reacted so quickly and decisively. No one can know what they would do until they are actually in that situation. This is why the reductionist view is so absurd.

Ethical Questions

This is why brain studies, particularly those involving behavior, are a huge ethical question mark. Most of you have probably heard of the famous “shock study” in which people apply electric shocks to someone under various pretenses. In the studies no shock is given– the patients are actors– but the subjects do not know this. The moral that has been drawn from the shock studies is that in the right context people will harm others if they think it might help them.

Since the shock studies were conducted decades ago, ethical review boards have made it all but impossible to conduct such experiments for several reasons. One is informed consent. If you are going to “trick” a subject into thinking they actually are administering the shocks, that is not informed consent since what the subject thinks is going on is not real. Second, the study inflicts a questionable trauma on its subjects since many of them had guilt feelings after the experiment about what they had done.

But the MIT review board approved the magnet experiment. Let us assume, as the MIT Board must have, that there is no potential for harm and let us also assume magnets can impact certain types of moral decision-making. Looking to the future let us say the procedure can alter moral judgments.

What behavior would we want to alter and who decides this? The Review Board? Would the patient have to approve the procedure or could physicians and the state proscribe it for people like violent criminals? Imagine the TV commercials for the morality magnet. Kept awake all night because the boss has asked you to do something questionable like hustle a few loansharking mortgages? No problem. Just wear the morality magnet and your anxieties will disappear.

The Nature of Morality and the Era of Bad Feelings

Even if morality were a switch in the brain, some of the greatest historical decisions are still the subject of hot debates. Take Harry Truman and the bomb. I once had the honor of sitting in on a seminar where Truman was asked about the decision. All of us have read about or seen documentaries about it, but to actually sit across from Truman and look him in the eye is a different matter. After that experience I have little doubt Truman believed he did the right thing.

The hottest moral issue of recent years involves the use of torture. Dick Cheney believes it was justified. Many of us have doubts, especially because it is unclear whether torture “works.” But with the moral magnet qualms about torture disappear. You could even have the equivalent of the SS whose members would be issued the magnets so they would willingly do unspeakable things. In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury posits a squad of book burners, what about a similar squad of torturers?

Now remember, the study said that it could only have an impact if the situation were ambiguous, but in the above situations the perpetrators add ambiguity by providing a rationale for their actions. The magnet study has not yet explored this scenario, but it needs to.

This brings us to the current political mess. Sometimes I think that for all their condemnation of scientists who see morality as reductionism that many contemporary moralists have just as simplistic and mechanistic a perspective. Take that political lightning rod abortion. The rigid moralists believe that even in the case of rape a woman must be forced to bring that child to term. Some also believe that if the life of the mother is at stake abortion is still murder.

In an interesting way this is a view of morality not that different than one expressed in the quotes for it sees moral judgments as a simple switch, “yes” or “no.” Some believe abortion is wrong, no matter what the circumstances. To believe otherwise is to start down the proverbial slippery slope for to allow it for incest means that maybe someone can find another reason.

This “switch” view of morality finds its way into our political debates where everything is black and white (and for some that is true in racial terms as witness the latest comment I received from someone who thinks Bill Clinton approved the scuttling of Glass-Steagall for racial reasons).

Now I am not a moral relativist who believes in situational ethics. Some things are wrong. Period. Genocide is wrong. Torture is wrong. Mortgage ripoffs are wrong. Others may have different views. So here we come to the very nature of a democracy.

In a democracy moral decisions are and should always be the subject of intense public debate. We are not a monarchy where a king or aristocrats say what is moral. We are not a theocracy where religious leaders, no matter what their denomination say what is moral. We are not an oligarchy where business people or some other small group decide what is moral. In America the people decide.

Now there are a lot of folks in the past and in the present who like to run around saying they know what the American people think which is a bit like some saying they personally talk to God. If you hear someone from Alaska saying she knows what the American people think, meaning folks in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont or up by the end of the road in Northern Minnesota or down in the Louisiana bayous, head for the exits.

The Perils of the Press

Ironically the story about the morality magnets becomes not a lesson in the perils and pitfalls of science but in the perils and pitfalls of the media. Their distortion of the story helped to inspire hundreds of pages of comments and condemnations from people who never bothered to read the study. The media owe us more.

It is their twisting of the facts that has caused so much trouble during the Era of Bad Feelings. The result is that there is no source of information that people trust, if they ever did. But if we are to continue in this post-Fairness Doctrine era with the theory that the market will take care of the problem then we need to have what the Supreme Court called an “open marketplace of ideas” and right now we do not have that open marketplace.

Like the economic marketplace the marketplace of ideas is dominated by a few voices. Unless that changes that study about magnets may seem prophetic, for the voices of the media are like those magnets. They have the ability to alter our beliefs about actions by framing them in ways that cause us to sway our moral judgments. The scary thing is those magnets are already there.

The Knowledge Dilemma

As for the study itself, the argument has waged for centuries about what is permissible in the search for knowledge. Leonardo’s famous sculptures and his scientific work were based on the dissection of corpses which many people at the time found barbaric. In the last century we believed it was OK to experiment on prisoners or other populations such as the infamous Tuskegee experiment. Then there was Mengele.

I once wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine that asked whether it was ethically justifiable to experiment on the dying since that situation made informed consent difficult (if someone says they have something that might save your life would you say no?). The subject was the artificial heart. By reading the medical literature I learned that Barney Clark suffered a horrible death many times worse than if his heart condition had merely been allowed to take its course. It is questionable whether Clark really knew he could die such in such agony.

So we have always set limits on science and always science has found ways around the limits. Today we worship Leonardo. Robert Jarvik does television commercials. And what will be the fate of the morality magnet people?

That is something all of us need to ponder because ultimately we decide what is permissible.

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