Australian politics is in a mess: backstabbing, corruption, sexting, disloyalty. It’s impossible for party leaders to predict the evil lurking inside the brains of all those fresh-faced backbenchers. But there may be a solution: give all prospective ministers a brain scan to see how likely they are to misbehave.

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For years Dr. Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen has been peering into the minds of hardened German felons seeking to unlock the complexities of the criminal mind. And now, he claims to have answered the ultimate question: What is the source of evil in these offenders? According to the doctor, It’s a little dark spot at the front of their brains.

Evil, claims Dr. Roth, is a function of deficiencies within the frontal cortex.  “When you look at the brain scans of hardened criminals, there are almost always severe shortcomings in the lower forehead part of the brain”, Professor Roth said in an interview with German newspaper Das Bild earlier this week.

“There are cases where someone becomes criminal as a result of a tumour or an injury in that area, and after an operation to remove the tumour, that person was completely normal again.” “Or,” he continued, “there are physiological deficits, because certain substances such as serotonin in the forebrain are not working effectively. But this is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.”

Dr. Roth argues that evil behaviour is largely determined in criminals. Hence he says “When I look at young people, and I see there are developmental disorders in the lower forehead brain, I can say that there is a felon in the making with 66 per cent probability. It is easy to spot this anti-social behaviour from very early on.”

So. How about it? What better way to root out all those Machiavellian politicians? In the 2011 NSW Labour election report ethics classes were recommended for current and prospective Members of Parliament. But why not add in a brain scan as well?

Alas, the minds of scheming villeins aren’t that simple. Human action is far more sophisticated than the crude model painted by professor Gerhard Roth. And brain scan with 66% accuracy doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence of evil behaviour. Even when combined with consideration of environmental factors, people still seem fairly free to chose their path in life.

In the world of science and philosophy, a deterministic view of morality is not uncommon. In psychology, Roth joins the ranks of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner in arguing for a kind of moral determinism. And in philosophy, eminent philosophers such as Patricia Churchland and Galen Strawson are adamant that moral behaviour is determined by the ‘way we are’ (genetics and general environmental factors).

But others rail against this approach, arguing that human autonomy plays a far more significant role in behaviour. They draw upon a fundamental intuition - shared by most people - that at least some of the time people are personally responsible for the misdeeds they commit.

Indeed, even if the accuracy of Roth’s tests were exceedingly better, we would still be reluctant to force scans and treatments on people showing ‘early symptoms’ of criminality.

Perhaps it may be useful for some more serious cases where, after committing a crime, someone is suspected of having a severe mental illness. But there is a fine line between identifying genuine mental illness and underestimating free will. Such hard determinism is far too prescriptive for our indeterminate world.

Unfortunately, then, giving our politicians EEGs will not solve our political woes. Alas, the desperate search must continue a for solution to the mess in our parliaments.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDT.

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    • Tedd says:

      06:45am | 13/02/13

      I think you started off onto something - “Evil, claims Dr. Roth, is a function of deficiencies within the frontal cortex.  ‘When you look at the brain scans of hardened criminals, there are almost always severe shortcomings in the lower forehead part of the brain’ ..” but shyed away from objective assessment by referring to human autonomy, ‘personal responsibility’, and “free-will”.

      Making objective assessment ‘prescriptive’, especially for roles such as politicians’, seems to be only a small hurdle of perception.

    • gof says:

      06:53am | 13/02/13

      “What if we could weed out bad eggs before they hatched”
      If only we could!
      What if the NLP/LNP/PIG party could have weeded out that bad egg at the top “the opposition leader” or all the bad eggs in the Howard Government, some of whom still hang around today waiting for their time at the trough. Imagine if we had effective opposition to push this great government ever further sans bad eggs. The NLP/LNP/PIG preselection process should only allow those to enter the hollowed Coalition halls who can put a round peg into a round hole, then again that test would wipe out their entire front bench.
      Their is a rotten gas smell emanating from the bowls of NLP/LNP/PIG party it must be from all those bad eggs!

    • Ben says:

      08:02am | 13/02/13

      >>Their is a rotten gas smell emanating from the bowls of NLP/LNP/PIG party it must be from all those bad eggs!<<

      It could also be that the bowls haven’t been washed for some time. Keep us updated and watch out for those mixed metaphors.

    • Andy says:

      08:18am | 13/02/13

      Ben, a writing lesson from someone who can’t spell ‘there?

    • Steve of QBN says:

      10:34am | 13/02/13

      @Andy, Ben quoted from gof’s rambling diatribe.  The use of >> and << should have been the clue.  Please read the last sentence in gof’s tirade again and note the “their” instead of “there”.  They’re often misused.

    • Zed says:

      01:02pm | 13/02/13

      They say Craig Thompson often smells of cheap perfume.
      I wonder why ?

    • maria says:

      07:02am | 13/02/13

      Australian politics is in a mess: backstabbing, corruption, sexting, disloyalty.

      This is what is happening when you sign a blank cheque to the mob, you become irrelevant and shit happens.

      A democracy is a society in which the citizens are sovereign and control the government

      So. How about it? What better way to root out all those Machiavellian politicians?
      Direct democracy is a way to check political power.
      It allows benevolent and enlightened citizens to oppose laws made by crooked politicians.

      Direct democracy would stimulate government to do the job it was elected to do and not to impose what the mob thinks what we ought to have as it under our phony democratic system in which we are irrelevant.


    • stephen says:

      07:43am | 13/02/13

      ‘Benevolent and enlightened citizens’ will do things that is in their own interest, (middle class, anyone ?) just like anyone from Logan might do.
      Currently, both sides of politics pander to the middle earth, and direct democracy is useless for any change that does not concern money.
      And money is the primary concern for all classes.

      ps still hot in benalla ?

    • SAm says:

      08:12am | 13/02/13

      I love you Maria! So dedicated to the cause
      Stephen, thats exactly what we need, more pandering to Middle Earth!

    • Jack says:

      08:31am | 13/02/13

      If the new group CANdo under David Flint ( who also runs Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy) is promoting direct democracy as the best system is because our system is flaw in every angles .
      “CANdo is about, in the first instance, seeking appropriate debate on these outcomes and then, quite simply, making it happen.”
      LINDA SILMALIS CHIEF REPORTER From: The Sunday Telegraph December 16, 2012.

      Direct democracy is the best solution to get rid of preferences and to keep the bastards honest.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      09:15am | 13/02/13

      @maria- No, No, what we need is a benevolent dictatorship with me as head of state. Sort of a Southern NK with nukes and lots of secret police. No more handouts for the greedy bastards…..

    • Al B says:

      10:19am | 13/02/13

      Democracy is too much like majoritarianism so there are still risks with direct democracy. But if applied at the local level (services, real govt) and not so much at federal or state via the nanny statism and tax theft of our type of democracy…it would be an improvement.

      Govt just needs to be ringfenced to specific roles, otherwise it only ever grows and expands as a natural tendency. And we end up with what we have now! A nation of takers and economic illiterates that will rob us of the prosperity that makes the freedoms we do have in the West possible to begin with.

    • Jenny says:

      11:11am | 13/02/13

      @Al B says
      Govt just needs to be ringfenced to specific roles, otherwise it only ever grows and expands as…..

      How ?
      Do you know a better system than a direct democracy?
      If it’s work in Switzerland than it should work here too as Maria is telling us.

      If Tony is honest why does he refuse to RECTIFY the faulty system?

    • Al B says:

      11:34am | 13/02/13

      I agree Jenny the swiss system would be better. I guess the way to define our country’s system is with a new constitution. We are overdue for it arent we? Our own version incorporating swiss, singapore and some US influence, at least from their founders not what it has morphed into now.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      11:45am | 13/02/13

      @maria and Jenny, and what happens in direct democracy if the majority votes for genocide? At least in our system there is the potential for MPs to counter a potentially destructive policy.

      All we need is the removal of the ability for parties to force MPs to vote along party lines and have each policy voted on based on personal choice.

    • R White says:

      01:48pm | 13/02/13

      Maria is entitled to her opinion -  no more and no less than anyone else.  Like any opinon, to be judged on it’s merits.

      The plain fact is that repeatedly, on any and every topic,  Maria repeats the same deceptively over-simplified, inaccurate summary of Swiss democracy.

      The Swiss are unique in their system. It is extremely complex, with its various votes for members, laws/referendums, and officials. The details vary across the country and in some cantons voting is compulsory. As they still have a parliament of elected members, and still have political parties, their method is, at best, a sort of “half-direct” democracy.

      There are about 6 million Swiss voters.  They are called out to vote up to four times a year,  sometimes at the beck and call of pressure groups of as few as 50,000 activists. I’ll repeat that: they vote up to four times a year. Not once or twice every three or four years - four times a year.

      The result? Commonly, less than half of them bother to turn out or lodge a vote. *Less than half* . A “direct democracy” that works so poorly that not even a simple majority of voters can be bothered to take part.  That’s nothing like the democratic Utopia that Maria endlessly, uncritically and inaccurately parrots as her opinion.

      Might be better to actually consider the real implications of such a system. They range across a spectrum, from mob rule through to paralysis. The difficulties are well-summarised in this even-handed and comprehensive article:

      Frankly, we’d be far better off simply bending our attention to something we can in fact readily achieve: raising the standard of public political debate. It’s not rocket science. One way to do it is to take the time to call to account sloppy, misleading and deceptive arguments, like Maria’s. It doesn’t take a lot of work.

      So let’s have more open, vigorous debate on things that actually matter.  Let’s debate policies and peformance, Left, Right or Centre, fairly and vigorously. Let’s check for facts vs factoids. Let’s hold *all* Parties to the same standards. Let’s hold *all* partisan,  single issue, astro-turfing bloggers peddling shrill,deceptively over-simplified, too-cute misinformation to those standards too.


    • Jack says:

      05:27pm | 13/02/13

      @R White
      Maria has been spot on on every comments she has made by showing how corrupted is the system we have in which the political parties are supreme and we the people are irrelevant in every debate.

      So let’s have more open, vigorous debate on things that actually matter.

      What that actually matter is to have some democratic rights a la Switzerland enshrine in the constitution something we don’t have you fool.

      The plain fact is that you can’t tell us where do the political parties get their absolute power?

      Please tell us instead of repeating your nonsence comment that we are a democracy.

      By the way if direct democracy is working well in Switzerland why not here?

      In a meantime Maria has all my support.

    • Tell It Like It Is says:

      07:47am | 13/02/13

      What if they don’t find ANYTHING on the brain scan?

    • Mick S says:

      08:10am | 13/02/13

      Then the subject is endorsed as a National Party Senator for Queensland.

    • Mick S says:

      08:12am | 13/02/13

      Then the subject is endorsed as a National Party Senator for Queensland.

    • KimL says:

      08:02am | 13/02/13

      I don’t know about a brain scan but they a good dose of dignity..  I think everyone is sick of them behaving like cranky 3 year olds. When Abbott starts with all the aggression I just switch him off and I bet other Aussies do too, and its not only Abbott many of them are childish

    • SAm says:

      10:13am | 13/02/13

      Maybe forcing pollies to become Eunuchs would be a good solution. Solve the agression, and prove that they only are there for the greater good. Or to be a gossip girl

    • Borderer says:

      09:16am | 13/02/13

      Here’s the thing from a sampling standpoint, scanning the brains of serial killers may yield results where they all have a common difference. Have they then scanned a sufficent number of the rest of the population and determined how many non-offenders have the same difference. A bit like “All dogs have four legs but not all creatures with four legs are dogs.”

      Here’s the thing, I’m capable of great and terrible things but it is the choices I make each day that define me, not some genetic predisposition. Such a notion only further divorces responsibility even futher from the individual and onto other factors, it’s your life, perhaps you should try and own it…

    • PsychoHyena says:

      12:49pm | 13/02/13

      @Borderer, but that’s only true to a degree, say the reasoning centre of your brain is unable to determine the difference between right and wrong or in the case of my son, his form of epilepsy causes him to mentally and physically fit, I strongly suggest people check out Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and if you want to go even further have a look at Grey-matter Heterotopia.

      My son’s life is hell because he is unable to control his body during seizures and he has to deal with his own and others’ emotional fallout every time. And yes he is on medication to help with the seizures, the anxiety caused by what happens when he has them and a number of other aspects.

      But you keep thinking that everyone has the option of choosing their actions.

    • Tim the Toolman says:

      01:49pm | 13/02/13

      ” I’m capable of great and terrible things but it is the choices I make each day that define me, not some genetic predisposition”

      You make the choices because of your genetic predispositions and your experiences.  The experiences you undergo are a result of your genetic predisposition and previous experiences, all the way back down to when you had no experiences and were making decisions with no conscious or rational capacity.  Everything from then on…you’re just there for the ride.  The foam on a wave of conscious experience.  You’re going where the wave goes.

      There’s no such thing as free will.

    • Borderer says:

      04:44pm | 13/02/13

      That is true of involuntary muscle spasms but premeditated crime is more than a bit of a stretch. My nephew has a condition that makes his impulse control somewhat weak, it doesn’t mean he is allowed to hit his siblings and blame the condition, he must struggle with it more than other people, the fact that he can means he isn’t helpless.
      @Tim the Toolman
      Sorry but you are wrong, free will is possible, some people chose to drift through life as per your example, others chose their own path. Some choices are non-choices but others are ripe for the taking, I think you’re painting with too broad a brush.

    • Spikey says:

      09:37am | 13/02/13

      Wow!  Not to downplay the poor behaviour of some politicians, but if such a test were effective, surely it could be put to better use detecting potential murderers and rapists…not poor-taste texting and a penchant for hookers or fraud.

      To suggest that there is “evil” lurking in our Parliaments is just a bit much and casts terrible aspersions on our elected representatives - many of whom are there because they do want to make a contribution to society.

      Now, if there was a test to detect unbridled greed, propensity to corruption, and overwhelmingly selfish motives that might be helpful in weeding out to Obeids, Thomsons and Slippers…. but to suggest they are hannibal-lecter-type evil is a bit of a long bow. 

      The level of “pollie bashing” these days is hardly likely to raise standards - what genuinely decent, hardworking human being wants to throw their lot in with all those evil pollies?

    • Gerard says:

      06:16pm | 13/02/13

      “if there was a test to detect unbridled greed, propensity to corruption, and overwhelmingly selfish motives that might be helpful in weeding out to Obeids, Thomsons and Slippers”

      There is such a test. Joining a major political party = fail.

    • punch drunk says:

      09:39am | 13/02/13

      “What is the source of evil in these offenders? According to the doctor, It’s a little dark spot at the front of their brains. Evil, claims Dr. Roth, is a function of deficiencies within the frontal cortex.”

      Hmm, you mean the kind of deficiencies that might occur from a series of violent blows to the head?  Like, for example, the kind of blows that a young boxer might suffer?  You know, when he was a boxer, say, at School and University?  Even if he then went on to become a politician? 

      This might explain a few things…

    • marley says:

      12:52pm | 13/02/13

      Was Eddie Obeid ever a boxer?

    • St. Michael says:

      01:27pm | 13/02/13

      Oh, you must be talking about Tom Uren, Gough Whitlam’s deputy PM, who was a professional boxer before going into politics.  Even challenged for the Australian heavyweight title, according to his bio.

    • Timinane says:

      09:40am | 13/02/13

      Criminality can not be diagnosed many things put a person in prison. Harsher laws for starters. Also I’d like to point out Dr. Roth and the university he is part of have said his interview has been misrepresented when producing the argument that we have found a source of evil. I don’t think scientists would use that word but I’m more familiar with physical sciences than psychology. Considering this article made the Daily Mail I’m inclined to believe it was a poor interpretation written for the Mail’s audience. Who like simplistic explanations

    • gof says:

      09:50am | 13/02/13

      In the above image, I need to ask, is this what the NLP have resorted to in keeping their leaders trap shut? Extreme sure but maybe they are onto a winner there.

    • marley says:

      12:53pm | 13/02/13

      I thought that was one K. Rudd in the mask.  My mistake.  Or Julia’s dream.

    • gof says:

      01:50pm | 13/02/13

      I believe it’s actually one M. Tunbull in the mask, to stop him from coming back and biting one T. Abbott on the backside?  Or is that just in Tony’s dream.

    • Gerard says:

      06:21pm | 13/02/13

      @ Marley

      Nah, Rudd’s the one that wears the black cloak and shoots blue lightning from his fingers.

    • Gordon says:

      10:50am | 13/02/13

      Attempts at correctling social problems “scientifically” have a long history of failure.  Not because science doesn’t work, but because criminals are us, not some distinct “other” that can be discovered and treated like a virus. You can’t wipe out criminality without wiping out humanity. Crackpot schemes are however very easy to sell to the public under a law & order banner, which is why they should be examined very critically at every turn. If a very specific pathology is shown to exist in very specific cases of crminality, and a treatment can be found, then this is science at work. But extending this to pre-diagnosis of criminality generally is witch-doctor stuff.

    • St. Michael says:

      11:52am | 13/02/13

      The other issue is that “criminality” sometimes has a moveable definition, particularly when it comes to concepts like “treason”, “sedition”, or “dissent”.  In those instances, it is arguable at least that the “crime” involved is merely the holding of a different viewpoint.

      This article smells like hydroponic eugenics: a better, more satisfying world, but still really, really bad for you.

    • Gordon says:

      01:54pm | 13/02/13

      yes. Homosexuality was “a crime” until quite recently, and various bozos have tried to come up with physiological & neurological triggers and what-all for that too.  Offending people is a bit near the bone too, I’m told.  I wonder if internet trolls have a little dark spot on their frontal lobes too?

    • my pencil might charged with treason or is it my g says:

      11:26am | 13/02/13

      Donkey vote..Hee Haw…It is the only way to give the message back to the polliesand those crackpots who place an emphasis on authoritarian strategies for governing

    • Austin 3:16 says:

      11:52am | 13/02/13

      Sounds like the ‘science’ here is one step short of phrenology

    • gof says:

      12:25pm | 13/02/13

      #my pencil might charged with treason or is it my g says:
      “Donkey vote..Hee Haw”
      Isn’t that just another term for a LNP supporter casting their ballot.

    • Someone says:

      12:38pm | 13/02/13

      The biggest problem with this approach is that the neurological science simply doesn’t exist yet that allows us to completely comprehend how the brain actually works, and how consciousness / free will is then derived from it (if it comes from the brain at all).
      This stuff’s almost exclusively in the realm of metaphysics and/or speculative theory at this point time. Until it’s squarely in the realm of solid science, the best we’ll probably be able to do is a 66% correlation (which still isn’t causation).

    • pencil sharp versus learner plate says:

      01:10pm | 13/02/13

      It’s a valid choice for poor quality of product,which makes the manufacturer go back to the drawing board, to actually establish what the electorate want….......enough.

    • Gordon says:

      01:59pm | 13/02/13

      I wonder if Stephan Landowsky & Clive Hamilton have this Dr Roth’s phone number?

    • stephen says:

      05:59pm | 13/02/13

      If Dr. Roth said that it is a faulty brain - the physiology, as such - which can explain bad behaviour, as you imply, then I do not agree with him.
      But I do not agree with your description of Freud’s ideas when you say that he also suscribes to this same thesis.
      He didn’t.
      But though F. was right on so much, his psychoanalysis, which he used as a method for therapy, well, it does not work.
      Psychoanalytic Associations world-wide have dwindling members, and the British version has maybe 80% of its members over 65 years of age.
      Ten Percent would be under 35 - something close, (I got this from an American Journal recently.)

      I don’t trust genetic explanations for symptoms whilst throughout our whole lives, from childhood to old age, we are very social.
      We interact all the time with others, and it is the internet and social media forms which keep us talking ; I’m not saying that this is necessarily bad, (not here, anyway) but with so much interaction, and subsequently, so much of our personality being simply response, immediate articulation, brief thoughts, visual impressions, self-conscious bodily movements, is it a wonder then that our minds are losing connections of a higher order : those which are deep, and those that are, simultaneously, far ranging.

    • ol matey says:

      06:57pm | 13/02/13

      Sounds interesting, but you’ll have a tough time using an argument from a German to propose a kind of behavioural determinism based on genetics however smile

      Sociopathy has been pretty well narrowed down to a genetic defect, but it has also been noted that it takes a kind of selfish/narcissistic/dog-eat-dog society to bring it out in full force.  Research is still in its infancy, but cultures with a stronger emphasis on community/cooperation/deference like Confucian cultures have an estimated 0.1% sociopaths in their population, whereas the U.S., being the pinnacle of individualism and “social Darwinism” (in the conventional, misused sense of the term), have up to 4%.

      Keep in mind most sociopaths aren’t criminals - they are simply people with zero capacity to feel any empathy for their fellow human beings.


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