The Troglodyte Strikes Back

Originally posted in September of 2007 in response to a specific study that became “all the rage” for a moment, particularly in the liberal media.  It serves an another example of how there is a lack of critical thinking in the MSM.

The Study

You may have heard by now that another study has been published that alleges, if the MSM were to be believed, that there is further proof that the liberal mind is…um…better? That is, of course, not what they say outright, but one can almost see the gloating faces of the LA Times as they report on the study, and while the study authors themselves are appropriately demure about their conclusions as befitting “objective scientists” (Dr. Amodio, the lead author, is quoted in the LA Times article as cautioning against concluding that their results are to be interpreted as indicating the superiority of one over the other), the words chosen to discuss the data and conclusions are sufficiently suggestive that there is little question what was on their minds.

The Translation

The full reference is Amodio, et al., “Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism,” Nature Neuroscience (2007), 10 (10): 1246-1247. Here’s the [annotated] abstract:

Political scientists [Politics is a science? Hmm. Does that mean we are the experiment?] and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles [translation: conservatives are troglodyte stick-in-the-muds], whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty [translation: see how smart and flexible and innovative we are?]. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity [and we can use big words! (OK, that’s not quite fair; it is a neuroscience journal after all, and they seriously should expect the reader to have some knowledge of the subject. Sorry about that.)], suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern [we’re more sensitive and responsive than conservative oafs!].

Then in the introduction, the paper’s authors state (again, with [annotations] as an aid to translation):

Across dozens of behavioral studies, conservatives have been found to be more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making [inflexible neanderthals] as indicated by higher average scores on psychological measures of personal needs for order, structure, and closure [See how paranoid those troglodytes are? The babies need order, structure, and closure!] Liberals, by contrast [See?! We’re different!], report higher tolerance [Yeah! We’re tolerant (of everyone except conservatives)!] of ambiguity [See how secure we are?] and complexity [and we’re smart, too!], and greater openness to new experiences [Wow! Bring it on! We can handle it!] on psychological measures.

Then in discussing their conclusions:

This association suggests that a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change [those dummies can’t learn from experience or admit when they’re wrong, but we can].

Stronger conservatism (versus liberalism) was associated with less neurocognitive sensitivity to response conflicts [conservatives are insensitive and can’t deal with conflict; liberals can].

Critique of the Design

Now that we’ve had our little fun with the language, let’s get serious about the flaws with this study. The primary deficiency in this experiment has to do with the population studied. I’ve already discussed this aspect of statistics in some detail here [sorry, this post didn’t make it into my Best of… series, but what follows is based on the principles elucidated in that post]. Aside from the relatively low sample size (only 43 are reported as being studied and it would appear that only 41 data points are shown on the graph of Political Orientation versus the EEG metric of neurological activity), the population source is hardly representative of conservatives versus liberals. For one, the participants are college students, a body who, in this day and age, are still quite immature and in the process of being heavily influenced by the liberal ideologies of their professors. This is borne out by the highly skewed nature relative to political orientation, a matter the LA Times gets totally wrong. Of the 41 data points on their graph, 29 are on the liberal side of the spectrum (that’s 71%, or nearly 3/4, for those of you who went to public school), and they do, indeed go all the way to “extremely liberal,” i.e., the farthest value one can attain on this metric (the scale is -5 for extreme liberal to +5 for extreme conservative, with zero as neutral). In contrast, only 8 out of the 41 (21%) rank themselves as conservative, and the highest political orientation score is a 3. It is what may be expected of a population of college students, but the paucity of data on the conservative side calls the conclusion into serious question. In addition, it is a better experimental design for such studies to have matched populations in which other variables such as age and gender are matched in order to remove them as confounding variables in the analysis. This was not done here.

Furthermore, and this is getting rather technical, it appears that the political orientation metric is what is known as a categorical variable rather than a continuous variable. If this is so, the type of correlation analysis done is inappropriate and statistically invalid.

Now, I am not opposed to the fundamental idea that liberals and conservatives have different cognitive processes that may be reflected on the molecular level in different sites and amounts of brain activity. But it should be demonstrated by good science rather than flawed design and analysis. Moreover, even if such differences are demonstrated, the old chicken and egg question rears its head: do the brain differences cause the differences in behavior and thought, or have consistent choices in such behavior and thought caused the differences in brain processes? It is not apparent how to dissect this out, and it is certainly highly questionable that a simple Go-No Go response of the type used here is readily extrapolated to the complexities of thought processes required in the cogitation on the issues in which both liberals and conservatives engage.

Some Thoughts on the Language Chosen

Much is made of conservatives being “more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making.” This is apparently complemented by their “needs for order, structure, and closure” and being less “responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty.” First, I would ask, how much of reality is structured and quite unambiguous and lacking in novelty? Answer: the majority of people have lives that are quite mundane and very structured regardless of their political orientation. Liberals and conservatives alike get up in the morning, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, feed the dog/cat, send the kids off to school, go to work, goof off at the water cooler (or whatever equivalent location you have in your office), eat lunch, eventually go home, yell at the idiot who cuts them off in traffic, arrive home, walk the dog/feed the cat/play with the children (as appropriate to their circumstances), eat supper, read the newspaper, talk to their significant other, watch TV, and then go to bed, to repeat the same the following day. Yes, various crises spice things up occasionally. Johnny loses a tooth, the dog gets sprayed by a skunk, the car falls apart….

Questions: in this context, what is the difference between embracing structure and persistency and, say, loyalty, discipline, determination, commitment? If one bases one’s life on unchanging principles, dare I say, a specific morality, would that not lead to consistent/persistent judgments and approaches to decision-making? Who do you want working for you, someone who faithfully fulfills his duties as consistently described, or someone who works when his undisciplined thought pattern says maybe he should? And how much of responsiveness to novelty and ambiguity should be calm and rational consideration that simply blunts a “responsive” emotional reaction?

Questions: in this context, what is the difference between being “more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty” and being incapable of being decisive or of employing a constantly shifting relativity in making inconsistent decisions? And what kind of response is truly appropriate to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty?

Comparison to Reality

The proof of any theory is in how well it can predict or explain observations, in this case, relative to behavior. So liberals are more tolerant of ambiguity and complexity, and more open to new experiences? How well does this match up with the behavior of liberals in the public arena? Does this describe their words and actions to current events?

I think the best answer is that provided by Dr. Sanity in her post which describes this study’s predictive value as Craptacular Nonsense. She notes:

How well has the left been able to tolerate the ambiguity that is Iraq? Can you hear their screeches and hysteria over the Petraeus testimony to congress? Or their childish attacks on the man? Or the scientific ambiguity that exists about global warming and its etiology? For that matter, how well has the left been able to tolerate differences of opinion within their own ranks (ask Joe Lieberman, for instance).

She continues along lines with which I totally concur (remember, she is a clinical psychiatrist herself; emphases are hers):

I am full willing to believe that there are biological differences in information processing between liberals and conservatives, but I suspect that it has more to do with choosing to give precedence to emotions and wishes far more than those emotions and wishes deserve. The left, to put it bluntly, don’t merely tolerate ambiguity, they worship it– and even deliberately seek it out even in situations where it doesn’t exist! Just listen to those 9/11 Troofers who will not be dissuaded from their conspiracy theories by any rational argument. In a way, ambiguity means never having to face reality.

Narcissists, psychopaths, and paranoids are ‘tolerant of ambiguity’ in pretty much the same way.

In conclusion, what we really have here is another example of “manipulating science and the scientific method,” taking advantage of the ignorance of the public regarding good and necessary matters of experimental design, to pat the left on its collective back and narcissistically assure themselves that they really are OK, it’s those nasty conservatives that are the problem. For a report that alleges to demonstrate cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives, it is deliciously ironic that the liberals doing the data interpretation do so in a way that only emphasizes their inability to cogitate clearly.

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