Junk science about voting is floating around and you might bump into some this election.
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Political science: the messy room

Junk science about voting is floating around and you might bump into some this election.
Denyse O'Leary | 24 October 2008

In "Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings" (Scientific American, October 13, 2008) Jordan Lite tackles the "hard science" question, "Do genes determine whether you'll be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican?"

What if they did? Then we could dispense with elections in favour of DNA tests. Anyone who doubts that many academic would prefer such measures has not noted the drift to hard core materialism, or naturalism. In a recent study, for example, 78 per cent of evolutionary biologists were pure naturalists -- that is, they maintain that there is no God and no free will. Obviously, if there is no free will, democracy is not clearly a defensible system.

Finding what you are looking for

Of course, "Neat or Messy?" research is not motivated by anything so grubby as politics, right? It's pure hard science... based, in this instance, on surveys and room inspections of 76 college students and 94 professionals ranging from realtors to architects. According to the controversial new study, set to be published in The Journal of Political Psychology, the bedrooms and offices of liberals, who are generally thought of as open, tend to be colourful and awash in books about travel, ethnicity, feminism and music, along with music CDs covering folk, classic and modern rock, as well as art supplies, movie tickets and travel memorabilia.

Well, that implies a high discretionary income, doesn't it?

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to surround themselves with calendars, postage stamps, laundry baskets, irons and sewing materials in their personal spaces, according to the study. Their bedrooms and offices are well-lighted and decorated with sports paraphernalia and flags—especially American ones.

That implies a lower disposable income. And that’s no surprise because a number of studies show that conservatives give more to charity. But notice that the primary conclusion drawn flatters leftist professors. No wonder the study was controversial.

“This is different from putting up an Obama–Biden sticker on your bulletin board," says Sam Gosling, who co-authored the study with Dana Carney, an assistant professor of management at Columbia University's Business School in New York City. Carney informs us that the "behavioural residue" of the rooms shows that liberals incline toward "ambiguity and intellectualism," and conservatives toward "order." It is a hallmark of pseudoscience, of which this is an excellent example, to construct a test that turns up the results we want.

The uninhibited Carney converts subtext to text quite readily: “It's pleasurable for liberals to think more. They gravitate toward art, to things that are not as concrete. Conservatives have a need for order, for there not to be ambiguity. There you see that expressed by being more orderly, having more cleaning supplies, needing to have everything lined up and organized so that one feels one's environment is predictable and therefore safe.”

Lost in the dreamy self-flattery of the liberal arts establishment that Carney caters for is the fact that these supposedly "conservative" qualities are the bedrock of achievement in science and technology. The "liberal" qualities she admires are the bedrock of the famously trivial bo-bo culture.

Personality politics

Jordan Lite notes that these findings are just the latest in a burst of recent attempts to unearth politics in personality, the brain and DNA. Brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and even genetic tests are turning up possible clues to our political origins and behaviours.

Positive personality traits associated with liberalism (self-reliant, resilient, dominating and energetic) and negative ones attributed to conservatism (easily victimized or offended, indecisive, fearful and rigid) appear as early as nursery school and correlate with political beliefs in adulthood, according to a 20-year study published in 2006 in the Journal of Research in Personality. More recently, scientists linked the strength of a person's startle response to their political leanings: conservatives tended to scare easier, blinking harder than liberals when they heard a loud noise.

Lite implies that he knows this is junk science by quoting political scientist Evan Charney, a fellow at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University, saying "There's a lot of bad science here."

Of course.

For one thing, many people, gorged with opinion, do not actually vote. As a result, their opinion is of cultural, not political importance.

Then, as every mainstream politician knows, people vote the way they do for a variety of reasons unrelated to personal style. Many voters do not think much about politics, but vote for a candidate who sounds "reasonable" -- the one they hear the most positive news about.  Others are canvassed at the workplace to vote for, say, the "pro-union" party or the "pro-industry party". In some regions, the region-friendly party routinely wins. Religious figures often suggest a direction for the vote of the faithful. Some voters, having paid little attention to the campaign, vote for an ethnically reassuring name or photo.

Confirmation bias

Some factors are harder to predict. There is the disputed Bradley effect, for example - voters may claim an intention to vote for a minority group member, when they will in fact vote for reasons listed in the preceding paragraph. Also, single issue voters can sometimes decide an election, particularly when politicians have underestimated the strength of opinion on the issue. Elderly people may reward the charming young campaign worker who drives them to the polling station and back with their vote, hence the candidates' scramble to get seniors to the polls on election day.

So the idea that the voter's personality style overwhelmingly influences voting patterns conflicts with a vast mass of information on how people vote. In the present overwhelmingly liberal academic environment, it is best explained by confirmation bias - a tendency to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe.

As Charney told Lite: "Confirmation bias has flooded into this [area of] study. I'm a liberal but I don't believe liberals are superior people or that there's an obvious correlation between personality and political ideology." The studies, he adds, "take the most value-laden language and treat it as if you're talking about a left-spinning or right-spinning neutron. They are invariably going to reflect the value assumptions of a society—in this case, academic liberals."

It wouldn't matter except that these witlessly self-absorbed people are in charge of instructing the next generation.

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based author, journalist, and blogger. She is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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