Junk Neuropsychology

The Left has historically co-opted science to benefit its political causes. Margaret Mead is a classic example, gaining enormous attention to promote the "Free Love" movement. Her  methodology has come to be deeply suspect. We've had Alfred Kinsey. We've had Darwin as a justification for Eugenics and Nazism (Darwin`s son was president of the Eugenics Society). We've had Darwin used as a model by Karl Marx.

We've also had numerous dubious environmental scares; Dioxin, Alar, DDT, etc. We've had the Nuclear Winter Theory, used to justify the nuclear freeze movement. We now have Anthropogenic Global Warming.

In all of these examples the Left has either subverted, or outright manipulated, science for their purposes. Back in 2003 a group of researchers did a psychological hit-job on Conservatives. Their press release makes it quite clear that they considered Conservatives cretins:
"Four researchers who culled through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include: Fear and aggression Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity Uncertainty avoidance Need for cognitive closure Terror management"
This study was so over-the-top (they compared Ronald Reagan to Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were men of the Left) that nobody took it seriously (except a few people at Berkeley and other radical leftist enclaves). This study  was clearly intended to belittle conservatives -- take a look at the abstract.

Now two of the authors of the `03 study have done it again, this time with a cognitive study, based on a stimulus-response task and EEG, which allegedly shows that liberal brains are more capable neurologically of seeing and dealing with conflicting information. In other words, liberal brains work better than conservative brains.

The researchers gave 45 college student volunteers (I'd like to know exactly who and why someone would waste time volunteering for such a study) a political questionnaire, then had them watch a screen where the letters W and M would flash. The subjects were to push a button designating either go or no go based on what they saw while an EEG studied their neural responses. These students' political viewpoints were evaluated on a scale of between -5 (very liberal) to +5 (very conservative) with 0 being neutral. M meant go and W meant no-go, and the subjects were to press the appropriate button. The researchers were studying Event Related Potential (ERP) which occurs when a stimulus is applied, and Error Related Negativity (ERN) which occurs with the realization of a mistake by the subject.

Much to their surprise (I'm sure) the researchers found that Liberals blew Conservatives out of the water in terms of accuracy. Obviously, Liberal brains are more sensitive to ambiguity and conflict resolution than Conservatives! In the 400 easy trials almost everyone got the right answer, but in the 100 hard trials Conservatives botched it 44 times while Liberals just 34 times.

But what does this tell us, and what were the methods employed? From what I can find, just 7 of the 44 subjects were self-described Conservatives while 34 claimed Liberal pedigree. Can this be a statistically valid sampling? It seems likely that these were young people in the same age bracket, since they were students. Were ancillary factors taken into account such as levels of sleep, levels of fatigue, eyesight, health issues such as diabetes? When had the subjects last eaten? Were some of them hung over?

According to the Supplementary Text and Figures page, the subjects were first given the political questionnaire and then put through the tests, so they knew politics was at issue. And why, pray tell, did the experimenters choose M and W? Given Bush Derangement Syndrome and the Left's tendency to call the President W, they might logically be more sensitive to the W queues. Their brains had been primed for this, while Conservatives would not necessarily be as attentive.

Furthermore, the questionnaire measures what the subjects think of their political position, and at a radical institution like Berkeley it is likely that conservatives would hide their political views, lest they come to the attention of some communist masquerading as a professor. One wonders if many of the neutrals were in reality Conservatives. Also, it should be pointed out that Libertarians had no place on the scale, and that suggests to me an ambiguity that should have been addressed in the methodology.

What does pushing a button prove, anyway? This experiment tests eye/brain coordination, and might be outstanding to test video game players. But it strikes me as of dubious use for understanding a person's cognitive abilities. Will Saletan, writing in Slate.com, raises this and other valuable questions.

Even if it the study's methodology were bulletproof, what would it actually tell us? To me it says Liberals are more concerned with minutiae and useless detail (and this test is a monument to useless detail) than Conservatives, and that their thinking is likely to bog down in wonkism and circular logic. Conservatives are better at filtering the intellectual wheat from the chaff.

The authors are trying to downplay the politics of this study; that is wise given that their last efforts landed them in such hot water. Still, it's fairly obvious that this is purely junk science, intended to advance a political viewpoint. People are not hardwired; they change their views all of the time (look at David Horowitz). This reminds me of the research done in Nazi Germany "proving" the inferiority of Jews, or the work done in Soviet Russia to illustrate the insanity of reactionaries. It is ideology masquerading as science.

Timothy Birdnow blogs at Cubic Birdblog