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Futuristic approach to electing national leaders: Using functional-MRI to read and reveal what they are thinking

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agarwalvj
agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

The electorate everywhere deserves transparency, truthfulness, integrity, and straight talk from the candidates seeking high political offices. Yet, most candidates, aided by their campaign advisors, are notorious for using the “false” narrative and rhetoric to persuade the voters to vote for their political ideologies. Such practices pose the biggest threat to the democracies like India (the largest) and the United States (the oldest) and all in between. We the people, believers in democracy, must seek evermore transparency in the elections and go beyond what we currently do. One such futuristic approach is using the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) discussed below. We discuss two examples; India and the U.S. but our arguments may apply to other countries.

For example, India’s Prime Minister is not elected through nationwide polls but chosen by the political party after the elections are done for the Parliament members. However, we generally know beforehand who s/he is going to be and is typically elected for 5 years. In the United States, the President is elected for four years and the electorate at large goes to the poll. For example, the next poll is due on November 3, 2020. Therefore, knowing these high-profile candidates anywhere, as best as possible, is critical. Their profile, political views, policies, and promises made during the campaign matter and affect us individually and collectively as nations for the foreseeable future.

We have the right and responsibility to question, not necessarily doubt, whether their promises and policies are for the greater public good and bear the truth. Do they mean what they say? We must elect the most qualified and balanced leaders who can honorably lead their country and maintain relations and build trust with the rest of the world. While each country is bound geographically, its boundaries are blurred with the emergence of the Internet and the democratization and transmission of the news, good or not so good, becoming fast and furious.

Traditionally, the candidates in India, U.S., and other countries hold rallies and make public pronouncements/ promises to sway public opinion, offer media interviews and town hall meetings. The U.S. has an added feature of holding several debates among the Presidential candidates, and typically one between the Vice-Presidential candidates, organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a nonprofit and nonpartisan corporation. Going forward, India and other countries should adopt this best practice of holding face to face debates by a similarly non-partisan and non-governmental organization solely funded by philanthropists and governed by various think tanks/academicians.

The Futuristic Approach to Elections: With the emergence of and advances in the scientific tool called fMRI, known to reveal what one is thinking, the U.S. must take the lead, in collaboration with other countries, in using fMRI to better inform the electorate about their Presidential candidates. I got thinking about it when I saw a recent CBS 60-Minutes episode on September 6. Lesley Stahl showed for the first time in human history how the advancing neuroscience research enables us to peer directly into the brain to read out the physical make-up of our thoughts, some would say to read our minds. Such promising outcomes of fMRI have the potential for the public to know what the candidates are thinking when they make promises and present their campaign narratives. It is about time that the use of fMRI, as a scientific tool, in the election processes be explored and R&D efforts expanded globally to reveal what the candidates are thinking and “read” their minds for the benefit of the electorate. In the U.S., it would mean to empower and strongly encourage the CPD to go beyond the traditional debates.

On one hand, I wish we could use fMRI in the 2020 U.S. elections but it is not realistic because we have only about 3 weeks before the elections. Then why raise the issue now? Frankly, any time is good to think futuristically. I am writing it now because the elections in the U.S should allow us to learn from the personal behavior and character of the current candidates (Trump and Biden). This election, I am afraid, will be judged by history as the most contentious, controversial, confrontational, and ridden with conspiracy. Arguably, there is a lot of public distrust for both, their “old” age and thus the importance and scrutiny of their running mates is critical more than ever before, and the country is highly polarized leading to a very narrow margin for the winning candidate. There is a very high probability that the election results will be contested in the court arguing the conspiracy and misuse of balloting processes and count.

This election is being held during the unprecedented challenges due to COVID 19. For example, Trump refuses to wear a mask himself and discourages others to do so, and does not require the social distance in the campaign rallies. This has clearly led him to test corona positive. Allegedly, his recovery is shrouded by mystery; facts are not being made public. It is only a small part of his own distrust in and continued politicization of scientific facts. Reportedly, the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine, a high impact journal since 1812, has for the first time, wrote an Editorial urging Americans to vote Trump out of office. It goes on to state, “When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent.” Biden, on the other hand, observes the recommended best practices of wearing a mask and maintaining the social distance in the rallies. Thus, their campaigns are characteristically very different. Reportedly, Trump has repeatedly “lied” to the public about coronavirus impact contrary to what he knew and shared with Woodward during an interview for the just-published book titled “Rage.”

While, the U.S. will survive no matter what the outcome is but it is important that the American electorate, policymakers, media houses, researchers, and political pundits are better prepared for the 2024 elections. In fact, India will also be holding elections in 2024. Therefore, we should begin to deliberate on the merits and viability of fMRI in the future elections without delay. It would require time and resources to create consensus and political will. Equally important is identifying the expertise to develop robust questions to reveal candidates’ thoughts which, until now, are considered private, secret, and unknowable by anyone else. The questions must relate to national priorities such as public health, economy, defense, and social wellbeing to the geopolitical global issues like foreign policy, interdependence in the information age, and immigration.

Equally critical is that scientific evidence must be rigorous, reliable, and reproducible. This necessitates brain imaging of diverse human subjects at a different level of the leadership ladder and not limited to just elected officials. We must collect lots of data with many different variables. Knowing that Trump was elected President in 2016 without any prior “political” experience or position, it can happen again anywhere. Equally important to note is that the scientific process is generally time-consuming, expensive, and painstakingly slow. We can’t afford to use fMRI without the credible evidence that the neurons in the brain reveal thoughts on diverse issues with a statistically minimal margin of error. Even the slightest doubt about the integrity and robust nature of science and analysis will be the likely end of fMRI for candidates’ brain imaging.

Let us be forewarned that the emergence of a political novice candidate like Trump is neither the first nor the last anywhere. The reality of politics anywhere is to use the “false” narrative and rhetoric to suit their political ideology even if may mean ridiculing science-based evidence and/or facts, create the fear of the unknown about the opposing candidate, and resort to mudslinging for political gains. There is no crystal ball that the future elections may not have a situation similar to the pandemic like.

Today, the fMRI offers the potential to quantify how astute, transparent, and engaged are the candidates politically, diplomatically, and socially. Therefore, our preparedness for using fMRI to elicit what the high-profile candidates are thinking must be no less than waging a “war” on their private, secret, and unknowable thoughts. The electorate anywhere has no control over coronavirus like situation but a toxic environment of fear, intimidation, and distrust during the election process must be avoided as best as possible. The fMRI may be an objective scientific tool to ensure transparency and integrity to the future election process and the leaders we elect. Let us learn from our past and present and build a better future by electing the candidate who the electorate understands and wants, and not guided by only the political rhetoric.

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agarwalvj
agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.
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