The Conservative Brain and the Laws of Motion

by John Holbo on September 11, 2007

I went and downloaded that Nature Neuroscience [subscribers only – sorry] paper that’s been written up and linked around: “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism”.

Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation. Stronger conservatism (versus liberalism) was associated with less neurocognitive sensitivity to response conflicts. At the behavioral level, conservatives were also more likely to make errors of commission. Although a liberal orientation was associated with better performance on the response-inhibition task examined here, conservatives would presumably perform better on tasks in which a more fixed response style is optimal.

Here’s a full description of the experiment in the paper, for you unlucky non-subscribers:

Participants watched a computer screen that displayed the letter “M” or “W” for a split second in rapid succession.

The researchers asked half of the group to press a computer key whenever they saw “M” but not “W.” The other half of the group got the opposite assignment – press the button for “W” but not “M.”

Most of the time, participants saw the letter that was supposed to prompt them to press the computer key. But 20% of the time, they saw the other letter and were supposed to refrain from pushing the computer key.

Compared with conservatives, liberals were more likely to refrain from pressing the computer key when the wrong letter appeared. Liberals also showed more activity in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in monitoring conflicting information, note Amodio and colleagues.

The paper is short. Only two pages (supplementary materials comprise another six.) They only had 42 subjects, only 8 of whom – if I am counting the little dots on Figure 1 aright – self-identified as conservatives of some stripe. (Four more are right on the line between left and right.) I’m no social scientist, but that seems like a low number, although the 42 point graph as a whole is quite striking.

The symbolism of sullen conservatives going for ‘W’ again and again, even when it is explicitly counter-indicated by the earnest technicians, is rather rich. I suppose.

One moderately interesting conceptual point is that the experiment reminds us that common jibes against conservatism are insufficiently … Newtonian, you might say. Russell Kirk starts off The Conservative Mind, quoting the likes of F.J.C. Hearnshaw: “It is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.” And here’s one from my files:

conserv.jpg

But, from a Newtonian perspective, the flip-side of ‘a body at rest tends to stay at rest’ is … well, doubling-down again if you have lost the last several bets; starting a couple more wars if that is what you’ve been up to for a while; these things count as not changing anything, ergo they are in a sense ‘conservative’ although they may hardly count as restful or sedentary strategies.

I don’t mean just to be snarky. Beyond that, it’s an interesting question: how do you define ‘conservative’, in the relevant sense? It’s supposed to be: doing what has been proven to work. But, then again: it’s supposed to be, doing what you were doing before.

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{ 101 comments }

1

LizardBreath 09.11.07 at 2:34 pm

I do wish people hadn’t linked to this so much. Cute though the results are, it’s exactly the sort of tiny little study that doesn’t mean much, but sounds all excitingly scientific because it has brain scans in it.

2

thag 09.11.07 at 2:39 pm

I used to think that the essence of conservatism was the stage in Chesterton’s parable where the defender of the gate prevents the rash reformer from thoughtlessly pulling it down. The defense of the tried and true against the unseemly enthusiasm of untried schemes.

The more I look at conservatives, however, the more I think their most characteristic move comes at the next stage, in which Chesterton’s conservative is incapable of offering any rationale for the gate himself.

Oh, sure–he sort of hints that the gate does some important job. That it provides some good, and was put up in pursuit of some reasonable goal.

It’s just that the conservative won’t tell you what it might be.

Because he has no idea himself? Well, yes; in part.

But not in whole. The main reason that the conservative has to lapse into smug playground recitations of “if you don’t know then I won’t tell you,” is because he must avoid rational discussion at all costs.

The proferring of a reason–a genuine consideration in favor of the gate’s continued existence–would immediately shift the debate into the consideration of costs and benefits, of empirical experience and likely outcomes: all of the terrain on which liberal reformers are happy to operate.

If the conservative actually *had* a good argument for the existence of the gate, then the liberal would be happy to hear it, respond to it, and endorse it. If the value of the gate is greater than the value of any replacement scheme, then of course the liberal will be happy to leave it in place–for solidly liberal reasons.

But all of that is anathema to Chesterton’s hero. No rational discussion. No giving and receiving of arguments and reasons. Just smug obscurantist obstructionism.

That’s the essence of conservatism.

3

sd 09.11.07 at 2:42 pm

“They only had 42 subjects, only 8 of whom – if I am counting the little dots on Figure 1 aright – self-identified as conservatives of some stripe. (Four more are right on the line between left and right.) I’m no social scientist, but that seems like a low number…”

Ya think?

I’m not sure what the biggest hole is in this “study.” The fact that the “n” is absurdly low, the fact that subjects were all college students (the soft underbelly of much “empirical” social science research), the fact that those same college students were pulled from those bastions of political representativeness – UCLA and NYU, or the fact that the the driver variable was based on an effing self assessment.

4

thag 09.11.07 at 2:47 pm

Oh–and I agree with LB and SD that studies like this get far too much play.

There was some nonsense last week about a speed-dating study showing *scientific facts* about how we choose our mates.

Again–small n, college kids, results blown way out of proportion, etc.

5

aaron_m 09.11.07 at 2:51 pm

Liberals are smarter than conservatives

Utilitarians suffer from brain damage

:)

Are there any neuroscience studies showing liberalism to be indicative of a comparative mental deficiency?

6

dsquared 09.11.07 at 2:53 pm

42 people isn’t that small for an experimental psychology paper. And it’s not as if the phenomenon that they’re measuring (the correlation between authoritarian politics and low tolerance of ambiguity) isn’t something that has showed up time and again in all manner of experimental contexts.

7

Gsnorgathon 09.11.07 at 3:02 pm

What does conservatism “conserve”? Wealth for the wealthy, power for the powerful, privilege for the privileged. It’s about comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

Anything else?

8

sd 09.11.07 at 3:10 pm

dsquared:

“42 people isn’t that small for an experimental psychology paper.”

The question is not whether this study has a low “n” compared to the universe of low budget, student-as-subject studies that populate the psychology literature, but rather whether the “n” is sufficently high to draw any defensible conclusions about a complex phenomenon.

also:

“the correlation between authoritarian politics and low tolerance of ambiguity”

“Authoritarian” eh? The last time I checked there were both right-leaning and left-leaning flavors of authoritarianism (seemed to have come to blows around about Stalingrad a few years back), as well as many flavors of right-leaning and left-leaning politics that are not authoritarian at all. In the modern US context people who self-identify as “conservatives” tend to have a deferential attitude toward some traditional institutions (churches, etc.) and the greater use of military power to control forieign countries, but people who self-identify as “liberal” tend to have a deferential attitude toward other traditional institutions (universities, etc.) and the greater use of government power to control the economy.

9

John Holbo 09.11.07 at 3:28 pm

dsquared, I agree that the results are potentially significant, despite the low n. (What they signify is a bit harder to say.) But it is surely true that such a low n = conservatives is cause for concern. I’m no statistician.

10

Aulus Gellius 09.11.07 at 3:42 pm

(disclaimer: I’m not a social scientist, and am probably about to say something horribly ignorant)

42 might not be so low — but 8 conservatives is pretty low, right? I mean that’s roughly on the scale of “I informally surveyed my friends, and. . . .” Of course, the reason is probably that you don’t find a ton of conservatives among UCLA students, but that just raises another problem: conservative students at liberal universities are their own particular minority, with their own set of oddities, not necessarily the same as those of conservatives in general.

11

Neil 09.11.07 at 3:44 pm

nothing wrong with the study, except for the neuroscience. The headline should be “brain involved in behavior, report scientists”. Given that the neuroscience is irrelevant, this simply counts as a replication of well-known phenomena.

BTW, for many (though not at all) purposes, self-reporting of political orientation is a valid measure, since it correlates very well with voting behavior.

12

dsquared 09.11.07 at 4:02 pm

The question is not whether this study has a low “n” compared to the universe of low budget, student-as-subject studies that populate the psychology literature, but rather whether the “n” is sufficently high to draw any defensible conclusions about a complex phenomenon

and it is. There have been one or two statisticians working with experimental psychologists you know. Above 30 subjects, you’re really into diminishing returns, unless the effect you’re looking for is small.

But it is surely true that such a low n = conservatives is cause for concern

depends on the size of the effect. I haven’t seen the chart so I can’t say definitively, but it doesn’t seem to me that one can just chuck the study out on that basis alone. Particularly given Neil’s point above – I mean, how could conservatism versus liberalism not have any neurological correlate?

13

abb1 09.11.07 at 4:18 pm

Students who think of themselves as ‘conservatives’ don’t know M from W. Yeah, what a shock. Tell me something useful…

14

Bobcat 09.11.07 at 4:24 pm

Regarding comments 2 and 7:

While conservatives often get described as people who want to conserve things, I think that’s much more true of conservatives influenced by, say, MacIntyre, rather than of American “conservatives”, who often speak of radical reform of institutions (e.g., abolition of this and that department, originalism in constitutional interpretation, significant decrease in the size of the non-military parts of the government).

As for the authoritarianism aspect, which as dsquared pointed out, gets confirmed time and again in psychological studies, perhaps that has to do with the fact that many (but not all, of course) people who are socially conservative reach their conclusions on the basis of disgust for certain practices, and are more willing than liberals to let their disgust for something serve as a basis for policy-change? (Note: when I write, “has to do with”, I have no idea which way the causal arrow goes.)

15

jayann 09.11.07 at 4:28 pm

“Authoritarian” eh? The last time I checked there were both right-leaning and left-leaning flavors of authoritarianism

‘authoritarianism’ etc. because the original investigations studied — for good historical reasons — fascism. But on both ‘flavours’ see _The Open and Closed Mind_ (Rokeach). (I can’t find a good account that doesn’t require JSTOR access.)

16

Jack 09.11.07 at 4:33 pm

So, conservatives will choose “W” right or wrong! Wasn’t there a recent study with much larger n?

This seems to confirm my working assumption that a liberal was someone with a tendency to worry too much and a conservative someone with a tendency not to care enough. It also provides an amusing explanation for people getting more conservative as they get older.

Of course that interpretation and some of the comments above highlight one of the major problems with the Bayesian model of learning — priors determine facts as much as facts determine priors. That is the tendency to suspicion of the statistical basis of an empirical study is inversely proportional to the extent to which you agree with it. Of course the study above suggests that this is a bigger problem for conservatives and accounts for the well known liberal bias of reality.

17

bi 09.11.07 at 4:33 pm

sd:

“The last time I checked [...] people who self-identify as ‘liberal’ tend to have a deferential attitude toward other traditional institutions (universities, etc.)”

Which explains why liberals tend to defer to biochemistry professors such as Michael Behe, and Harvard professors such as David Kane, right? Right?

(It’s the good old “let’s practise science as if it’s a religion so we can call it a religion” game all over again. Which is the hallmark of an authority-worshipping mindset — I guess authoritarians find it very hard to grasp that not everyone “defers” to other people.)

18

Grand Moff Texan 09.11.07 at 4:56 pm

Which explains why liberals tend to defer to biochemistry professors such as Michael Behe, and Harvard professors such as David Kane, right? Right?

Idiots and hacks don’t count.
.

19

sd 09.11.07 at 5:15 pm

dsquared wrote:

“and it is. There have been one or two statisticians working with experimental psychologists you know. Above 30 subjects, you’re really into diminishing returns, unless the effect you’re looking for is small.”

The issue is not the overall “n” of 42 – its that the study seeks to compare the properties of 2 populations, one of which has an “n” of 8. This presents two problems:

1) That’s just a teribly low number. I would never advise one of my consulting clients to act on customer research with an “n” of 8, and the types of customer behaviors that my clients need to understand are a helluva lot less complicated than political preference formation.

2) It suggests that the survey population is not at all representative of the population as a whole. After all, over long period of time the US electorate has been more or less evenly divided. The fact that the study authors could only draw 20% of their survey sample from self-described conservatives suggests that the self-identification of 18-22 year olds* isn’t a an especially reliable predictor of later-in-life voting behavior, and that maybe (and I know that this is a **shocking** possibility) college students following the herd mentality of their peers self-identify as liberal unless they are are outside of the social mainstream.

In other words, I have no confidence whatsoever that you’d see the same result if the study were repeated at Brigham Young.

* BTW – I don’t know the age breakdown but I suspect its mostly on the low end of that range. Its common for intro psych courses to either offer extra credit for participating in surveys or to require participation for a passing grade.

20

Seth Finkelstein 09.11.07 at 5:27 pm

I love it!

Someone should collect these, for satirical rebuttal of “The Bell Curve” and the like. Maybe even eventually make them into a book!

You must not stop SCIENCE, we must have research program to find out if being a right-winger is a mental disorder, perhaps it can even be cured by technology – you wouldn’t want to impose political correctness now, would you? A large research grant must be given, immediately, else the relativists have won!

21

cerebrocrat 09.11.07 at 5:32 pm

The fact that the study authors could only draw 20% of their survey sample from self-described conservatives suggests that the self-identification of 18-22 year olds* isn’t a an especially reliable predictor of later-in-life voting behavior

My understanding is that political self-identification of 18-22 yo college students, is, in fact, a fairly good predictor of later-in-life voting behavior. I recall a study that I’m too lazy to google for that is often brought up in the context of “those crazy liberal professors are going to brainwash our youth” conversations, the implication being that all that the academy’s best efforts at Marxist indoctrination don’t seem to have much effect.

22

cerebrocrat 09.11.07 at 5:50 pm

per 11, there is actually an interesting neuroscience angle to this, though not one you could take away from this study alone. Michael Gabriel at U. of Illinois has a career’s worth of animal data regarding anterior and posterior cingulate participation in stimulus discrimination learning. Briefly, if you give an animal two stimuli with the task of learning which one will predict a reward/punishment, the anterior cingulate seems to do the work of learning the predictive stimulus, while the posterior cingulate does the work of retaining that stimulus for comparisons against others in future trials where the stimulus pairs are changed. These animal studies considered alongside this finding offer an interesting interpretation of conservatives’ seeming commitment to fixed narratives: low sensitivity to newly predictive stimuli in favor of previously acquired associations. What’s more, the effect in animals is highly context-dependent: Using the same pair of stimuli, make one predictive in one context, but not another, and the anterior cingulate will discriminate between the exact same stimulus in the two different contexts – unless contextual information from the hippocampus is cut off via a lesion, etc.

Had these authors done the experiment using fMRI instead of ERP, they’d be able to ask whether the conservative tendency they describe is the result of lower sensitivity in the anterior cingulate, higher activiation in the posterior cingulate, or low modulation by context.

Of course, it would still be a whole lotta story out of not much data.

23

diogo 09.11.07 at 6:23 pm

42 people isn’t that small for an experimental psychology paper.

That is a big understatement. 42 people is actually a huge N for a brain imaging paper.

I think the problem is with the logic of the study. It’s a between subjects design, and they interpret the result as being a strong correlation between “political liberalism/conservatism”, when it could be all kinds of other things, such as head size, skin conductance, sex difference, or any other kind of individual differences that spuriously happened to be co-linear with the amplitude of the ERN response.

A couple of attempted replications would be very useful in addressing this concern.

In most kinds of brain imaging studies, because there is just so much inter-individual variability, it is the within-individual relative difference to two or more experimental treatments that is informative.

24

c 09.11.07 at 6:25 pm

Most people who call themselves conservative aren’t. Too often the term signals either massive chip-on-the-shoulder self-pity (e.g. Rush Limbaugh’s free-floating ressentiment) or blithe readiness to blow things up (Iraq, social security). So who knows what the study picked up.

25

Grand Moff Texan 09.11.07 at 6:45 pm

So who knows what the study picked up.

Insecure suburban entitlement tantrums, most likely. They wear baseball caps in order to appear human.
.

26

dsquared 09.11.07 at 7:28 pm

The fact that the study authors could only draw 20% of their survey sample from self-described conservatives suggests that the self-identification of 18-22 year olds* isn’t a an especially reliable predictor of later-in-life voting behavior

why on earth would “Later voting behaviour” be relevant to this study? You seem to have read the title of this paper as something like “Why Republican Voters Are Loony Loony Loonyheads”, which it wasn’t. It’s saying that there are measurable differences between the psychology of right wing and non-right-wing people (which is a commonplace, well proven stylised fact) and that these psychological differences have correlates in the broad anatomy of the brain (which is not completely surprising either).

27

lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 7:40 pm

these psychological differences have correlates in the broad anatomy of the brain

Really?

So if I take a group of 42 people and separate out 8 of them at random, what is the chance that the group of 8 will have significant differences in brain function in some area of the brain while performing a given task? Pretty close to 100%, I’d imagine, no?

28

LizardBreath 09.11.07 at 7:44 pm

26: I wouldn’t say that the study’s worthless — I don’t know enough about neuroscience to know what the actual point of it was. But I would say that generalizing loosely about conservatives on the basis of the study, that is from eight college kids (probably eight college kids enrolled in Psych 101) at two universities is pretty silly. It’s just not any kind of representative sample of rightwing people generally.

29

bi 09.11.07 at 7:51 pm

Grand Moff Texan:

“Idiots and hacks don’t count.”

There are, by definition, no idiots and hacks within the Institutions of Authority(tm).

30

Grand Moff Texan 09.11.07 at 7:52 pm

There are, by definition, no idiots and hacks within the Institutions of Authority™.

I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with Saturday morning cartoons in decades.
.

31

dsquared 09.11.07 at 8:41 pm

So if I take a group of 42 people and separate out 8 of them at random, what is the chance that the group of 8 will have significant differences in brain function in some area of the brain while performing a given task? Pretty close to 100%, I’d imagine, no?

believe it or not, there is a field of human knowledge that can answer this seemingly intractable question and it is called “statistics”. Although I haven’t read the paper, it presumably dealt with the significance of the results, and if the differences passed the significance test then the answer to your rhetorical question is “no”.

32

cerebrocrat 09.11.07 at 9:16 pm

continuing from 32 (nicely said, btw), it’s pretty unlikely that the paper would have passed review at Nature Neuroscience if they hadn’t done the basic inferential tests competently. (Not that the big journals don’t publish stupid stuff, sometimes). Furthermore, the authors’ question wasn’t about differences in “some area of the brain,” it was about differences in one particular area of the brain that already had a hypothesized function associated with it. The experimental hypothesis here was something like, “if liberal conservatives are different like we think they are, and if the anterior cingulate does what we think it does, then we should be able to see a difference between liberals and conservatives in the anterior cinglulate.” Which they did. Although the liberals vs. conservatives hook is no doubt what got the paper into NN, the interesting part is really what the result says about anterior cingulate.

And just to clear up something that keeps getting repeated in the thread: this was not an imaging study, it was an ERP study. We don’t know what was going on in the rest of the brain.

33

rvman 09.11.07 at 9:32 pm

Social science tends to ill-use statistics. All significance says is that there is a 95%(or 99, or 90, or whatever percent) chance that an ‘insignificant’ random sample would be less ‘extreme’ in the measured dimension that the result seen. You would more or less expect to see at least one spurious 95% significant effect, even if no real effect exists, if there are 20 different ways to ‘stack’ the data. (for example, using different cutoffs for political orientation, like using only 4 and 5 as ‘conservative’, or (3,4,5), (2,3,4,5) etc., or breaking the data out as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ or as ‘conservative’, ‘moderate’, and ‘liberal’ and on ad nauseum) Ideally, researchers wouldn’t data mine, but in reality, they do, and peer-reviewers don’t always call them on it.

Also, just because 43 is a reasonably large sample for brainwave studies isn’t evidence that it is statistically desireable to use studies that small, it is just evidence that doing studies that would be really reliable would cost too much. (Medicine is the worst offender in this – it is frightening how many highly publicized ‘studies’ in weight loss, health care, drugs(especially ‘off-label’ usage, or herbals), and so forth, are based on ridiculously small sample sizes. It just costs too much to do big samples.) I don’t doubt the brainwave part – it isn’t exactly a great shock that people with highly functioning brain part ‘x’ do well on tests of activities related to ‘x’, while lower-functioning brains do less well. Identifying the right ‘part’ of the brain for this type of experiment is interesting, real science. It is the significance of the covariant (political orientation) which is doubtful, especially without knowing how many potential covariants they checked out.

34

notsneaky 09.11.07 at 9:33 pm

42’s enough (or at least it should be barring screw ups elsewhere). Also http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075500/.

Having 8 “conservatives” just means that there’s less variability in the data than there would be if you had more. But that’s just gonna show up in your inferential statistics (whatever they’re using. I haven’t read it). Basically the 42 and the 8 just mean that the standard errors (again…) will be bigger but if they’re getting significance with these bigger standard errors then they’re getting significance.

I’d worry more about the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” that these folks are using. Perhaps “authoritarian” and “non-authoritarian” might work better. Also I do think the sample selection bias potentially matters in the sense that this is a sample from population of students not from the overall population. So perhaps “authoritarian college students” and “non-authoritarian college students” would be even better. And yeah there could be omitted variables which correlate with these “liberals” and “conservatives” particularly if these defined sloppily. A philosopher would have argued long and hard about why he was measuring the right thing in the right way. Maybe they did.

35

lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 9:40 pm

the authors’ question wasn’t about differences in “some area of the brain,” it was about differences in one particular area of the brain that already had a hypothesized function associated with it.

Well, that’s the issue. If this is true, then yes, significance tests are meaningful. If it’s not true — if they were observing a large number of brain areas — then conventional significance tests are meaningless. The linked summary doesn’t say which is the case.

If you know that in fact the study was conducted to test a specific hypothesis about reduced anterior cingulate cortex activity among self-described conservatives, then I stand corrected. But in general it’s certainly not smart to assume that a result that passes significance tests is necessarily meaningful. And from my perspective as an educated layman, neuroscientists seem willing to make wildly exaggerated claims about links between brain anatomy and behavior. So I’m not going to take Nature Neuroscience on faith.

(Especially after just finishing the Trouble with Physics. Is there any field in which scientists are willing to say “we just don’t know”?)

36

lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 9:47 pm

or as rvman says, if they tried out various specifications, different ways of grouping the students according to political beliefs, etc., then, again, the significance test loses its power. Strictly speaking, for a significance test to mean what it claims to mean, you need to formulate your hypothesis and then run exactly one regression.

Also, lets separate the possibly real results here (self-described conservative -> worse performance on letter-matching test -> reduced activity in a certain brain area) from the purely speculative bit about tolerating ambiguity. That part has the same epistemic status as “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

37

lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 9:51 pm

I’d worry more about the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” that these folks are using. Perhaps “authoritarian” and “non-authoritarian” might work better.

Or “religious” and “non-religious,” or “economics majors” and “liberal arts majors”, or “immigrants” and “American born” or “men” and “women” or “seniors” and “freshmen” or “white” and “non-white”. We don’t know ANYTHING about these students except they self-described as conservatives. Which correlates with thousands of other potentially demographic variables that — given the sample size — it was absolutely impossible for them to control for. Which is why it’s silly to draw any conclusions from the study except for the correlation between this particular task and activity in this particular part of the brain.

38

cerebrocrat 09.11.07 at 10:12 pm

36, how’s this:
Conflict monitoring is a general mechanism for detecting when one’s habitual response tendency is mismatched with responses required by the current situation, and this function has been associated with neurocognitive activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)… We proposed that differences in conservatives’ and liberals’ responsiveness to complex and potentially conflicting information relates to the sensitivity of this general mechanism for monitoring response conflict. To test the hypothesis that political liberalism (versus conservatism) would be associated with greater conflict-related ACC activity, we recorded electroencephalographs from 43 right-handed subjects (63% female) as they performed the Go/No-Go task.

You said: But in general it’s certainly not smart to assume that a result that passes significance tests is necessarily meaningful.
This is certainly true. The only argument you’ll get from me on this point is that, just as this study is not sufficient for the authors to claim they’ve explained the difference between liberals and conservatives, blog comments noting what seems intuitively like a small sample size do not constitute mortal critiques of this study.

neuroscientists seem willing to make wildly exaggerated claims about links between brain anatomy and behavior.

I have no way of knowing what’s given you this impression, so all I can say in my profession’s defense is a) this is, sadly, sometimes true, but not that often in my experience; b) articles in high-profile, general-discipline journals where authors are likely to be selling their stuff hard just to get into the journal are not the best indication of what the authors really think; c) reports of scientific results in the mainstream press are *definitely* not the best indication of what scientists really think; and d) when you say “neuroscientists,” you’re painting with an awfully big brush. Now, if you just want to make fun of cognitive neuroscientists, I could maybe get behind that. Be sure to use the term “lightbright science” a lot, it really gets ‘em steamed.

39

lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 10:17 pm

Cerebrocrat-

Thanks. I remain skeptical but you’re right, some of the criticism here (including some of mine) looks to be off-base.

40

Gil 09.11.07 at 10:25 pm

Hi,

Just some words about the original posting.

Probably my opinion is grounded on the fact that I’m European and some kind of socialist (social-democrat maybe). My experience with my natural political fellows of the left is that they are conservative. Sometimes I feel that most interesting questions come from what in europe is called the right (not the extreme one, though they express real fears). To think that liberals are the only ones capable of arguing seems limitating.

41

Neil 09.11.07 at 10:53 pm

Typically good analysis by Chris over at Mixing Memoryhttp://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/09/liberal_and_conservative_anter.php. Chris summarises it like this:

political differences in thought happen in the brain. At least that’s what a new study published in Nature Neuroscience(1) purports to show, though I hear that the next issue of the journal will contain critical responses from Descartes, Malenbranche, and Eccles.

42

diogo 09.11.07 at 11:01 pm

from 33: Furthermore, the authors’ question wasn’t about differences in “some area of the brain,” it was about differences in one particular area of the brain that already had a hypothesized function associated with it.

That is absolutely right. In my opinion the study is not criticizeable as a ‘fishing expedition'; they did not go into it trying to find a difference between two arbitrary groups of people, they had a pretty clear hypothesis about a pretty well understood brain response.

The problem I have with it is that inter-individual analysis of brain data is a messy subject. They did their stats on difference waveforms, so in a way their data was sort of normalized, but still, I’m not so convinced that a simple correlation is enough.

I have some experiments that show spurious group effects that are pretty arbitrary (race, gender, institution where you run the study), and I’m sure I can find more if I look for them. The problem is in the interpretation of the group effect.

Now, the authors didn’t bin the participants, but rather let them vary in the liberal-conservative axis and ran a simple correlation of their self-reported political orientation and their ERN amplitude as measured in their electroencephalograms.

What I would like to see is whether or not other variables other than “political leaning” could also be found to be strongly correlated with the ERN amplitude; if there are, then I wouldn’t put too much stock on their findings.

If it is replicable, though, then they have an interesting result.

this was not an imaging study, it was an ERP study

Not to be difficult or anything, but EEG is a brain imaging technique.

43

Neil 09.11.07 at 11:06 pm

Not to be difficult or anything, but EEG is a brain imaging technique.

Um, no. It doesn’t pretend to picture the brain; it measures electrical activity at the surface. If your point is that it gives us an image – a print out – which is supposed to depict activity in the brain, then you’re not disagreeing with cerebrocrat, who was using the terminology with the standard meaning (a meaning which is not only technical, but reflected in popular use).

One problem with true imaging studies is that they never give us the equivalent of the standard deviation: the degree of variation of activation across studies. The averages can hide a huge degree of variation. But this is not a criticism you can level at this study, precisely because it isn’t an imaging study. It doesn’t depict the state of the brain as a whole, but electrical activity at a specific site.

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robertdfeinman 09.11.07 at 11:35 pm

The error (standard deviation) goes as the square root of the sample size. So in this case it would be about 7. I haven’t seen the data, but I assume the authors know how to do the calculation and they should list the probability that the results are non-random in their paper.

The thing that is “new” in this paper is to tie the behavior to observations on the brain. Psychologists have been making connections between inflexibility of belief and a “conservative” social view for a long time.

I suggest reading the recent online and free book by psychologist Robert Altemeyer. He has been doing his experiments for over 40 years and has used hundreds of subjects. He defines something he calls the “right wing authoritarian” personality type. There is a strong correlation between this type (believes in a strong leader and a hierarchical social structure) and “conservative” social attitudes.

Here’s the link:
The Authoritarians

It doesn’t matter what “conservative” means, the subjects have their own understanding of the term and they chose to apply it to themselves. It means what they wish it to. What it denotes varies from time to time and place to place, but right now, in the US, there is a pretty fair agreement on what the term indicates.

The fact that there are arguments on the right as to who is a “true” conservative shows that the term is undergoing a change in meaning.

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lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 11:54 pm

In my opinion the study is not criticizeable as a ‘fishing expedition’

Fair enough. However, the study may well be part of a fishing expedition. To be convincing, it’s not enough to show that this particular relationship was statistically significant in this study, you also need a strong theoretical reason to think that this particular relationship is plausible and important. The Mixing Memory post linked above argues that the theoretical justification here is weak. And given the huge number of studies like this that are performed, statistical significance itself is not that … significant.

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lemuel pitkin 09.11.07 at 11:56 pm

What I would like to see is whether or not other variables other than “political leaning” could also be found to be strongly correlated with the ERN amplitude; if there are, then I wouldn’t put too much stock on their findings.

And given the universe of plausible variables and the size of the sample, there pretty much have to be, right?

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Down and Out of Sài Gòn 09.12.07 at 12:11 am

I’d really like this test reproduced in other countries. I want to see how Australian Liberals (the Party, not the tendency) and British Tories stack up against American Republicans. Throw in a few Chinese Communists as well.

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Elliot Reed 09.12.07 at 12:35 am

Why are people acting as though this is news? On its own, this result means nothing about anything except as a tiny piece of data for psychologists and neuroscientists to work with. The way it’s reported, it’s nothing but an invitation for people to take this as “evidence” for their preexisting stereotypes. Reporting about studies of gender is the same way: remember how an insignificant study of color preferences got turned into “science proves that blue is for boys, pink is for girls”?

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diogo 09.12.07 at 1:27 am

Me: Not to be difficult or anything, but EEG is a brain imaging technique.

Neil: Um, no. It doesn’t pretend to picture the brain; it measures electrical activity at the surface. If your point is that it gives us an image – a print out – which is supposed to depict activity in the brain, then you’re not disagreeing with cerebrocrat, who was using the terminology with the standard meaning (a meaning which is not only technical, but reflected in popular use).

Again, this is not a big point and it wasn’t a big disagreement to begin with, but “brain imaging” does not refer to hemodynamic tomographic techniques only, which is what you guys seem to be implying.

The technical definition of “brain imaging” does indeed include EEG.

You are absolutely right to point out that EEG just measures the modulation of electricity at the scalp, and that this is not, by itself “a picture of the brain”.

However, this pattern of activity does allow you to make inferences about the source of that activity. It’s called source localization, the authors of the study did perform such an analysis (with only 29 electrodes, which is very few), and EEG source localization is pretty bad in terms of spatial resolution, but it is in principle possible, and people regularly do it.

Call it a “brain imaging technique with poor spatial resolution” or even a “bad brain imaging technique”, but the fact remains that the technical use of “brain imaging” does include EEG.

sorry for the prolixity.

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Brett Bellmore 09.12.07 at 1:32 am

I would think the obvious problem is that, given that their subject pool didn’t remotely replicate the distribution of liberals and conservatives in the general population, there’s no particular reason to think that “conservatives enrolled in psych classes” are representative of “conservatives in the general population”. They may be, there’s just little reason to be confident of it. This is just basic sampling.

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cerebrocrat 09.12.07 at 2:11 am

I don’t know exactly what you mean by “technical use,” and I’m sure there’s some sense in which I’d be willing to concede the point, but I’ve never heard EEG described as an “imaging” technique, which is unsurprising, because it doesn’t create an image. Imaging isn’t just hemodynamic/tomographic – most of the imaging I do is of single neurons, so that’s neither – but in all cases there is, at least, an image. You could use EEG source localization to create a kind of image, if you wanted, but that image wouldn’t tell you if your subject had a tumor the size of a baseball in his head. “Poor spatial resolution” doesn’t quite capture the difference; EEG can only tell you where activity is coming from, not what anything looks like.

The only reason it’s worth boring everyone else with this neuro-geek pissing match (okay. it’s not really worth it.) is that in this study, functional imaging data would be informative in a way that broad localization of activity isn’t. They can’t look, offline, for activity anywhere else, with their EEG data, and they can’t look subcortically. All they can do is ask whether an area decided upon beforehand (gotta know where to put those electrodes) was active relative to others.

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cerebrocrat 09.12.07 at 2:25 am

Allright. A bit of googling forces me to admit that people do, apparently, sometimes use “imaging” to describe EEG. I think that’s nutty, for reasons expressed above, but it does seem to be the case. (credit! I want credit! For intellectual honesty, or something. grumble.)

The point that motivated me to bring it up in the first place, however, still stands: if they’d stuck these people in a magnet, we could see what else was happening. EEG/ERP only lets you ask a subset of questions.

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diogo 09.12.07 at 3:11 am

Allright. A bit of googling forces me to admit that people do, apparently, sometimes use “imaging” to describe EEG.

Ha, that is great! Now listen to what just happened to me:

I decided to casually ask some colleagues whether they would consider EEG a brain imaging technique, because I was left wondering whether or not I was insane to keep insisting that it was, and then half of them said yes and half of them said no, without blinking. Then they looked at each other with that “wtf!?” look on their faces…

So, for what it is worth, there does seem to be some sort of disagreement even amongst practicing researchers about this issue.

if they’d stuck these people in a magnet, we could see what else was happening. EEG/ERP only lets you ask a subset of questions.

True. But I think the point of the study was to use a brain response for which they had a pretty good functional (or cognitive) interpretation, regardless of its anatomical substrate.

It is in a way unfortunate that they decided to bring anatomical vocabulary to their argument, since EEG does have a very poor spatial resolution (and I have never seen anyone trying source localization with 29 electrodes!!), but I guess the anatomical substrate of the response is probably already known from previous studies.

In other words, I think the source localization is there as a sanity check, rather then trying to pinpoint the exact area that is differentially driven by the experimental treatment. If they had localized the source on, say, the occipital lobe, they would be in trouble; if it is on the general vicinity of what previous (probably fMRI) studies have shown to be the actual source, then it is plausible.

But at this point I’m just speculating, since I don’t have the study in front of me.

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eudoxis 09.12.07 at 5:16 am

Weird, their EEG source localization overlay on the image shows up at the ventral posterior cingulate, not the anterior cingulate. Anybody know of error likelihood or conflict monitoring in that area?

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bad Jim 09.12.07 at 6:00 am

You know why the blonde quality control inspector lost her job at M&M? She was rejecting all the W’s.

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Keith M Ellis 09.12.07 at 6:40 am

“I mean, how could conservatism versus liberalism not have any neurological correlate?”

Well, unless you’re a dualist, every expression of cognition has a neurological correlate.

It’s interesting that the test implicitly detects a defect in conservative cognition relative to liberal. I suppose that if you turned the test around to be time-critical with very few “refrains”, then liberals would refrain too often. Which validates the conservative idea that liberals are ditherers.

But, as other have said, this really isn’t a surprise, is it? Conservatives go with their gut response which is obviously going to be a more conditioned response than one carefully thought out. Liberals try to look at various possibilities.

What’s always been curious to me is how conservatives tend to think of themselves as the thinking group while (sneeringly) claiming that liberals are the feeling group. Although I have lots of problems with this, I think there is some truth to it, though I have to work at it to get to that point. (How liberal of me!) At first glance, their self-view seems exactly wrong to me, per how I characterized the results of this study and just my sense that conservatives are often angry and contemptuous and that motivates their beliefs. And liberals do seem to try to talk things our more, see different sides.

But I think a possible resolution of this contradiction is that conservatives mean something slightly different when they talk about thinking and feeling than it appears they are. I wonder if conservatives don’t include intuition, or gut instinct, as “feelings”, and rather see it as the postulate of thought. For them, instinct is truth, which they start with, and then they make “hard” choices, thoughtful choices, on its basis.

And for them, when liberals reject what they know to be true on an instinctual level, then their only explanation is that our “emotions” have swayed us from recognizing what our gut supposedly knows. Usually, in their opinion, sentimentality. The wishful seeing of the world as filled with puppies and flowers. To them, we just have a sentimental feeling and we choose whatever it indicates. So, to them, we’re not thinking. What do they think we’re doing when we apparently dither? Well, I suspect they believe that we’re being pulled in competing directions by our sentimentality. Our emotions. They, on the other hand, having one strong gut instinct, aren’t pulled in different ways at all. Which also tends to make them feel as if they’re not being emotional about it because, for them, being emotional also has inner-conflict connotations.

In the end, in real-world situations of complexity, I’m not convinced that either side is doing more or less thinking than the other. But I do suspect that the way in which each side reasons from first principles may, in fact, be quite distinct. And, as banal as it sounds, it might be just as simple as that conservatives began with a gut instinct that what has worked before is going to work again. Liberals are not as trusting of that instinct, they are more fearful of failure (emotion?), they look at alternatives.

Conservatives jump from the frying pan into the fire. Liberals burn to death while trying to decide which way to run.

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John Holbo 09.12.07 at 6:43 am

“At the behavioral level, conservatives were also more likely to make errors of commission.”

Now how did I manage to forget to make a joke about ‘neurocons have taken over the Republican party.”

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Keith M Ellis 09.12.07 at 6:43 am

(And, incidentally, getting all just-so EP about this, a mix of these two traits in a population is a pretty robust response to a partially unpredictable environment.)

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bad Jim 09.12.07 at 8:22 am

The mix of traits is only useful when they’re both expressed. Disaster may ensue when they aren’t. For example, the Vikings in Greenland seem to have decided unanimously that they couldn’t eat the local seafood, leading inexorably to their eventual demise. (What could be more unthinkable than Scandinavians eschewing fish?)

The old time religion isn’t always good enough.

It’s been suggested that fear inclines people to authoritarian responses. It might be instructive to run the same experiment with the subjects under stress, perhaps with the threat of an electrical shock. (I participated in one such study circa 1970; do they still do this?)

After September 11, the American populace seemed for a while to press the key no matter which letter was displayed. There are signs that we’re getting better at distinguishing the W.

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reason 09.12.07 at 10:28 am

keith m. ellis..
interesting viewpoint. But that surely implies that conservatives are anti-science, since science always tries to remove bias (gut-feel) from what it accepts as evidence?

I see it somewhat differently. I see thought and emotions as having distinct roles. You can’t make a decision on the basis of reason alone you need emotion (“logic has no imperitives”). But the difference is how you see the problems (what aspects you consider). So liberals are looking at the problem from more perspectives. Both are deciding in the end emotionally.

Conservatives see only THEIR perspective as being valid. Good example, immigration versus natural increase as a way to fill a country. The conservative will say we need more children to fill the country, to grow the market etc. The liberal will ask, whether children from other countries could fill the role, and whether us favouring our own decendents is morally justified. Different perspective and moral view, not different interpretation of emotion and thought.

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ralph 09.12.07 at 10:49 am

Man-o-man, yea, “silly study” and all, but are there really so FEW people reading CT who know anything about research design, sampling theory, etc…ya know, like science n’ s#$t? We really are in a new dark age aren’t we?

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Mark Dorroh 09.12.07 at 2:44 pm

Let us deconstruct the concept of the “fixed response style” conservatives

I have just such a fixed response when I trip on my own two size 13 feet: I do whatever is necessary to prevent me from falling down.

I have a fixed response when a mad dictator such as Saddam, who was responsible for two wars of agression within 10 years (Iran-Iraq and the invasion of Kuwait) pretends the terms of the 1991 armistice his government was forced to sign after being kicked out of Kuwait do not have to be honored for the subsequent 12 years.

I suppose this limited flexibility in my response to pretty standard, easily understandable stimuli keeps me from seeing the folly of attempting to hold the mad dictator to the terms of the armistice which never would have been necessary had he not fought and lost a war of agression on Kuwait.

This same limited flexibility in my response style also keeps me from some nasty spills.

For the record, I am a Goldwater/T.R./Lincoln Libertarian Conservative who (obviously) read too much Ayn Rand at an impressionable age.

But you know, A really is A, no matter how cleverly one attempts to deny the law of identity and substitute the laws of dialectic materialism. Honest, look it up.

Yer buddy,
Larry “Boots” Dorfman
AKA Rarmcwa@aol.

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Mark Dorroh 09.12.07 at 2:48 pm

Bad Jim wrote:

“You know why the blonde quality control inspector lost her job at M&M? She was rejecting all the W’s.”

Q: How does a white man say “f___ you”?

A: “Trust me.”

Larry “Boots” Dorfman strikes again!

Deal with it, you silly person.

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Mark Dorroh 09.12.07 at 2:56 pm

reason wrote:
“I see thought and emotions as having distinct roles. You can’t make a decision on the basis of reason alone you need emotion (“logic has no imperitives”). But the difference is how you see the problems (what aspects you consider)… Both [Liberals and Conservatives) are deciding in the end emotionally.”

Precisely! And therein lies the rub.

A clever, dispassionate L or C will consider all data and make a judgement in which the least amount of emotion is involved.

A doctrinaire L or C will toe the party line to a greater or lesser extent, secure in the knowledge that his opinions will be appreciated by at least half the folks he meets.

It is this emotional, social imperative – to be liked by one’s fellows – which drives most irrational thought.

Emotions are great stuff for making art and making love. For formulating real remedies to real world problems, they’re not so useful.

In fact, they can get a lot of people pointlessly killed. Stalin’s emotional contempt for all middle-class elements in Russian life, especially the kulak peasent farmers, not only got families lynched by mobs, it subsequently eliminated the kulak’s extremely efficient farming tecniques and forced the USSR to be a net importer of foodstuffs for decades, despite vast streches of arable land and a willing farm worker population.

Ditto Hitler and world Jewry, but that one’s so obvious I saved it for last.

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Neil 09.12.07 at 2:59 pm

The study isn’t bad, but the reporting! One can forgive the mainstream press for stuffing it up, but look what the popular scientific press does. From Scientific American :

Are We Predisposed to Political Beliefs?
Brain scans show that liberals and conservatives may be neurologically wired to lean politically left or right.

Unfortunately, the inference from it’s instantiated neurologically to its innate is all too common, but is entirely fallacious. All psychological properties are instantiated neurologically.

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cbisquit 09.12.07 at 3:04 pm

Jokes aside, doesn’t the idea of one whole philosophy’s followers being mentally deficient say something ominous about the usefulness of representative democracy?

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abb1 09.12.07 at 4:23 pm

@64 I have a fixed response when a mad dictator such as Saddam, who was responsible for two wars …

Now, see, if you were indeed a conservative in this “gut feeling” sense you would’ve never tried to rationalize you fixed response. You would go for the explanation offered in Thomas Friedman’s infamous essay:

But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world.

That would’ve been a perfect illustration of the “gut feeling” vs “analysis” thing. And what did you do instead? You came out with this tortured rationalization that won’t withstand any kind of close examination.

I blame Ayn Rand.

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Grand Moff Texan 09.12.07 at 5:10 pm

doesn’t the idea of one whole philosophy’s followers being mentally deficient say something ominous about the usefulness of representative democracy?

Yes, but either Heraclitus or Xenophanes already said it. I can’t remember which.
.

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lemuel pitkin 09.12.07 at 5:11 pm

Neil @ 67,

Right. That’s why I have such a negative reaction to this stuff. It may or may not be good science (I still have my doubts) but it is definitely an attractive nuisance.

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philosopher 09.12.07 at 6:01 pm

I heartily agree with the general kind of worry (about bad inferences from neural to innate) you voice there, Neil… but that Scientific American text you quote doesn’t seem to me to be making that mistake.

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bi 09.12.07 at 6:13 pm

abb1:

_A_ is _A_, ergo Mark Dorroh is obviously an idiot^H^H^H^H^Hanti-idiotarian. Quod erat demonstratum.

(Alternatively, I can reach a conclusion after a long deliberation over the facts of the case. No doubt I’ll reach the same conclusion — in fact, I just did while writing out this longish thing. But if I don’t decide every matter within the same split second as the instincts that keep me from tripping over my own toes, then the terrorists will have won.)

(Wait, did Dorroh just trigger Godwin’s Law?)

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Neil 09.12.07 at 6:52 pm

Philosopher, I see your point. I interpreted the quote in light of having read the article. In that light it is clear that predisposed means ‘innate’ and ‘neurologically wired ‘ means ‘hard wired’. So maybe the quote isn’t properly illustrative, but the inference is explicit.

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lemuel pitkin 09.12.07 at 7:20 pm

Christ, and now here’s a TAPPED Post using this study to “explain” why there are more right-wing op-ed columnists than liberal ones.

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engels 09.12.07 at 7:30 pm

Are you sure that many people really did press “W”? Were they using Diebold machines, by any chance?

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 2:02 am

I’m pasting a comment I first made at a post on “Neuroeconomics, Law and Emotions” by Professor Peter H. Huang over at “Biolaw: Law and the Life Sciences” (part of Jim Chen’s delightful Jurisdynamics Network) and, then again, over at a Concurring Opinions post on this paper:

From some perspectives in philosophy of mind, the ways in which the literature from neuroscience is being exploited is troubling. Anyone in the legal profession enchanted by such literature would be well-served by a dose a scepticism, and better served by acquaintance with more philosophically sophisticated appraisals of this literature, especially if it is thought to be relevant to the law and public policy questions in general. Among the titles one might read: M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), Sunny Auyang, Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), Vincent Descombes, The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), as well as many of the books Hilary Putnam has written since Reason, Truth and History (1981). I think it is very important that we understand that the mind is not reducible to the brain (or at least that there are strong reasons for not believing in mind/brain identity and/or being crystal clear as to the sorts of inferences [i.e., circumscribing more strongly than has been the practice to date] that might be drawn from inductively discovering strong “correlates” between neural activity and mental states). To be sure, not a few philosophies regnant today are more or less “scientistic,” but there are philosophical viewpoints on the mind and brain that question in the first instance some of the claims coming from neuroscientists about the relevance of their findings, let alone the claims of those outside neuroscience proper who are eager to apply these findings to their own intellectual fields of inquiry or socio-economic and political worlds. For instance, and briefly if not paradigmatically, to speak of “wanting” and “liking” in terms of the brain (or ‘brain systems’) makes no sense whatsoever, for the brain neither wants nor likes. (This elementary fact is thoroughly explored in the Bennett and Hacker volume; the former is an esteemed neuroscientist, the latter is a distinguished philosopher.)

Incidentally, the fact the literature in an area is burgeoining, becoming something of a cottage industry, is not a testament to its plausibility or worthiness. There’s an enormous amount of literature in the field of Evolutionary Psychology, and much of it is of dubious or little scientific merit (cf. critiques by Dupre, Buller, Fodor): the claims are often extragavant, and the philosophical (philosophy of science) presuppositions and assumptions are often tenuous or eminently arguable in a way not routinely acknowledged or understood by many of its foremost or well-known practitioners.

So, again, before we get too excited about the findings from neuroscience, let’s take a deep breath and delve a bit more deeply into some of the philosophical issues that are sometimes hidden, forgotten or otherwise worthy of address….

With regard to the research above, and although I’m hardly a conservative (well, in some cultural sense I’m a bit conservative), I think conservatives (and liberals for that matter) can safely ignore this nonsense.

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cerebrocrat 09.13.07 at 2:35 am

Pardon me if I’m mistaken, but while your long and carefully-crafted comment above raises some issues worthy of discussion, I don’t think I see anything in there that addresses the Amadio study at all, much less that supports concluding that it can be safely ignored. If you can justify characterizing it as nonsense, then I’m sure you have something interesting to contribute to this conversation.

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philosopher 09.13.07 at 2:53 am

To slightly sharpen cerebrocrat’s point, you write, “I think it is very important that we understand that the mind is not reducible to the brain.” So noted. However, no one in this conversation has made this mistake, and certainly not Amadio or the editors of _Nature: Neuroscience_.

(The Bennett and Hacker is a _terrible_ book, btw.)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 3:07 am

cerebrocrat,

I appreciate your efforts at conversational gatekeeping, but you might read my comments in the careful manner you attributed to their construction. My remarks apply to the “Amadio” study insofar as it shares the troubling methodology, unwarranted inferences and eminently contestable if not simply mistaken philosophical presuppositions and assumptions of other such and similar studies (it’s a member of a larger class, so what I said about the class applies to one of its members). It is from that perspective that I characterize it as nonsense, and you’re perfectly free to think otherwise based on your belief in the soundness of the methodology, the warrantability of the inferences and the plausibility if not veracity of the philosophical presuppositions and assumptions as discussed in the philosophy of mind literature.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 3:37 am

BTW, the Bennett and Hacker volume is brilliant.

The conclusions of the study suggest Amadio does in fact conflate or confuse the mind with the brain or else he would not be able to draw the sorts of conclusions he does from brain activity (the correlates thereof) to political orientations. “The neuroscientists’ mistake of ascribing to the constituent parts of an animal attributes that logically apply only to the whole of the animal is…’the mereological fallacy’ in neuroscience. Human beings, but not their brains, can be said to be thoughtful or thoughtless; animals, but not their brains, let alone the hemispheres of their brains, can be said to make decisions or to be indecisive.”

“[P]sychological predicates apply paradigmatically to the human being (or animal) as a whole, and not the the body and its parts. There are a few exceptions, such as the application of verbs of sensation like ‘to hurt’ to part of the body–for example, ‘My hand hurts,’ ‘You are hurting my hand.’ But the range of psychological predicates that are our concern–that is, those that have been invoked by neuroscientists, psychologists and cognitive scientists in their endeavors to explain human capacities and their exercise–have no literal application to parts of the body. In particular, they have not intelligible application to the brain.” Belief, for example, is not an attribute of brains. For most psychological predicates or attributes “it makes no sense to suppose that they are identical with neural states or conditions [or that we can make inferences from correlates to such predicates], inasmuch as a neural state or condition could not conceivably have the logical consequences of such attributes.” [emphasis missing]

For the full argument, read the book.

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lemuel pitkin 09.13.07 at 3:43 am

Patrick S. O’Donnell-

Too many words, friend, too many words.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 3:57 am

lemuel pitkin,

My, my, I shudder to think what you do when confronted with a journal-length article, or a book for that matter. Put away your iPod, video game and cellphone for a moment and return afresh to the written word. Or perhaps you simply prefer sutra-like aphorisms or maxims to make a point, but I’m no Nietzsche, and it seems you’re not either.

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engels 09.13.07 at 3:57 am

Yes, Patrick, but all the authors of this study seem to be claiming is that they have observed a correlation between high levels of certain type of brain activity and someone’s belonging to a particular political category. Why does making such a claim involve confusion about the grammar of any psychological predicates?

83

bi 09.13.07 at 4:02 am

From the quotes above, I conclude that Bennett and Hacker obviously hate science. Just like creationists, except instead of referring to an unanalyzable, untestable, opaque entity called “God”, they refer to an unanalyzable, untestable, opaque entity called “mind”.

84

Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 4:05 am

The correlations were intended to license inferences about political beliefs (on which, see above).

85

bi 09.13.07 at 4:07 am

“… intended to …”

Patrick S. O’Donnell, that’s the “I insist on reading illogical stuff into a study so that I can complain about how illogical it is” methodology.

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cerebrocrat 09.13.07 at 4:08 am

My remarks apply to the “Amadio” study insofar as it shares the troubling methodology, unwarranted inferences and eminently contestable if not simply mistaken philosophical presuppositions and assumptions of other such and similar studies

I feel sure that some illustrative examples could help me to see how your remarks apply, if you would be so kind.

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engels 09.13.07 at 4:08 am

See where above, exactly?

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.13.07 at 4:17 am

From the back cover: “M.R. Bennett AO is Professor of Physiology and University Chair at the University of Sydney. He is the author of many papers and books in neuroscience…. He is President of the International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience, Past President of the Australian Neuroscience Society and the recipient of numerous awards for his research in neuroscience, including the Neuroscience Medal, the Ramaciotti Medal and the Macfarlane Burnet Medal.”

So, yes, bi, display your acumen in all its glory by concluding Bennett and Hacker “obviously hate science.” And by all means make any manner and number of inferences about their thoughts on and beliefs about “the mind” without having read the book.

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philosopher 09.13.07 at 6:30 am

First of all, the mereological fallacy isn’t a fallacy. Mostly the problem is that their argument rests entirely & uncritically on a pretty much discredited form of Wittgensteinianism. But even if we must insist on speaking in Wittgensteinian terms, then it’s important to keep in mind that words can have more than one home, and thus the important question is whether the systematic usage of mentalistic terms in neuroscience (and the cognitive sciences more generally) succeed in providing a home for those terms. I think they do, but it is a point that one could easily debate. But B&H duck that debate altogether, by leaning on this ‘fallacy’.

Second of all, even if it were, nothing at all in the study in question would be committing it. Not even close. (Or, in short: ditto to what engles said at 84.)

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goatchowder 09.13.07 at 6:35 am

So, conservatives will choose “W” right or wrong! Wasn’t there a recent study with much larger n?

Yes, I believe it was in 2004. And the methodology, sample bias, and instrumentation involved in that study, and along with a similar one conducted several years prior to that as well, have been shown to have had some difficulties which called the results into question.

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philosopher 09.13.07 at 6:37 am

(Sorry, that may have gotten too elliptical as I wrote it. That last part should be understood as “Second of all, even if the mereological fallacy were a fallacy, nothing at all…)

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bad Jim 09.13.07 at 7:13 am

I have just such a fixed response when I trip on my own two size 13 feet: I do whatever is necessary to prevent me from falling down.

The “wide stance” argument. We’ve heard that before.

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MetaEd 09.13.07 at 1:59 pm

The paper can be viewed online here in Adobe format.

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perianwyr 09.13.07 at 8:43 pm

I think someone is trying for an Ig Nobel.

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quidnunc 09.14.07 at 9:26 am

Bennett and Hacker actually is relevant here but their discussion of parts and wholes is problematic. They fairly point out the latent cartesianism in the way that researchers had been reasoning (or rather assuming ridiculous consequences from its falsity) a while ago (e.g. Wegner and Libet) but they prove too much and make many of the same mistakes. There are a lot of articles that make the same points sans silly assumptions about parts and wholes.

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Sam C 09.14.07 at 11:19 am

OK, people including neuroscientists often apply terms like ‘belief’ to brains instead of people, oddly on the currently-standard usage of such terms. But as we find out more about the ways people are embodied, the meaning and use of such terms changes. What’s wrong with that? In other words, why should the current usage of ‘belief’, which makes ‘this brain has a belief’ a weird thing to say, be assumed to be permanent or normative?

[I haven't read the Bennett/Hacker book, so I'm just going on what Patrick O'Donnell said].

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Mark Dorroh 09.16.07 at 1:55 am

” … we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world.”

“That would’ve been a perfect illustration of the “gut feeling” vs “analysis” thing. And what did you do instead? You came out with this tortured rationalization that won’t withstand any kind of close examination.

“I blame Ayn Rand.”

Ahh, I get it. A dozen years of Iraqi noncompliance with either the terms of the Operation Desert Storm armistice or, for that matter, 17 UN Security Council resolutions, had nothing to do with Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Odd, the Security Council, in voting to authorize the use of force, thought otherwise.

As did the US Congress.

Saddam did in fact have scientists who told the post-invasion weapons inspectors that they were indeed involved in WMD research and development (every bit as illegal as the missing WMD, required records of the destruction of which Saddam also withheld from the UN).

According to what those inspectors told Newsweek Magazine in 2003, with what they had already accomplished, Iraq could have ramped up production of VX gas and weaponized anthrax spoors any time it wanted within six weeks three meonths.

Silly me. I keep thinking that when Hans Blix’s final report to the Security Council mentioned Saddam’s 12 years of failure to provide adequate documentation of the destruction of the WMD left in his care in 1991, that may have stirred a member or two to get a trifle truculent.

Yep, I’m an idiot. We LibCons keep assuming people who read widely-available news reports from solid sources can remember their contents and the implications thereof for months, even years after they read or heard them.

Santayana and Ayn Rand were both right.

We either learn from out mistakes or keep making them, and A is A. No amount of hafl-baked dialectic deconstruction or vituperative, semi-coherent wordplay will change those facts.

But thanks for trying! It made a rattling good read!

Yer eternal pal,
Mark Dorroh,
A.K.A. Larry “Boots” Dorfman
Warrior Poet
Sandhurst Class of ’74
B.S., M.S., Ph.D., B.M.O.C., S.O.B., Q.E.D.

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bi 09.16.07 at 5:57 am

Mark Dorroh:

Yeah, the UN is always right… except when it isn’t (like, you know, when it does anything opposing Israel) — in which case we realize it has always been like the KKK. Same for the US Congress. Same for _Newsweek_, which has suddenly transformed from the anti-American perpetrator of the “urinate on the Koran” news fiasco, into a “solid source”. Hey, _A_ is _A_ indeed!

And yeah, use the word “facts” to describe conservative talking points, but use the phrase “hafl-baked dialectic deconstruction or vituperative, semi-coherent wordplay” to describe a scientific experiment. You hate science.

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bad Jim 09.16.07 at 8:11 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our women are strong, our men good-looking, and all our children above average.

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abb1 09.16.07 at 10:10 am

Mark. War, killing millions of people – that’s not a good response to a failure to provide adequate documentation, everybody knows that.

Just say that your gut tells your that it was a good war, that’s all; don’t try to explain. Why waste everybody’s time? Seriously.

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bi 09.16.07 at 11:01 am

Remember, abb1, this thread was about “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism”…

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