Red, blue and grey matter

In their on-going search for neurological explanations of everything we do, researchers have found that liberals are smarter than conservatives, at least in the US, at least in New York. Writing in Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA report that political liberals are better able to handle "informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty", while conservatives "show more structured and persistent cognitive styles".

While this doesn't show that liberals necessarily have higher IQs than conservatives, who is going to hire a rigid, unimaginative square for anything higher than emptying trash bins -- let alone running a war in Iraq? The article was a condescending dismissal of anyone dumb enough to vote for George Bush.

Although their experiment didn't involve anything more complex than keystrokes, the scientists predict that it opens up the possibility of making politics into a sub-field of neuroscience. They conclude that their investigations demonstrate "how abstract, seemingly ineffable constructs, such as ideology, are reflected in the human brain". In other words, justice and injustice, right and wrong, good and bad, are nothing more than discharges of electrical impulses in the brain. This is revolutionary stuff, overturning two millennia of philosophical reflection and human rights. It is far more ominous than taunting conservatives.

How was this shattering conclusion reached? 

Here's what they did. College student volunteers rated themselves on a numerical scale ranging from "extremely liberal" (-5) to "extremely conservative" (+5). The researchers did not provide much information about their subjects, but presumably they lived around New York University, which is in Greenwich Village, which is a fortress of American liberalism. In fact, it is surprising that any "extremely conservative" subjects were found  to participate.

The test consisted of tapping a keyboard when an M appeared on a screen and refraining from tapping when they saw a W. M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning the participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter. Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, but they were equally accurate in recognising M.

(Why "W", I wonder? Google the letter "W", and you will be sent straight to a site about George W. Bush. Was that why liberals found it easy to refrain from tapping the presidential key? Does that bias the data?)

Dr Amodio understands that being a liberal may not be better than being a conservative simply because they are better at pressing Ms and Ws. Other factors, such as education and income, affect political orientation, too, he notes. In fact, he says, some liberals have been known to oppose higher taxes and some conservatives to favour abortion rights. Strange but true.

Does an experiment like this really show that liberalism and conservatism are located in the anterior cingulate cortex? Of course not. In fact, the most disturbing feature of this entertaining research is that people with PhDs have taken it seriously. People die for their politics. They don't die for a W. The researchers have spent too much time putting mice through mazes and not enough time studying philosophy.

First of all, the framework of the article incorporates some very dubious political assumptions. "Liberalism" and "conservatism" have ceased to mean much in an age of political cross-breeding which has produced compassionate conservatism and tough-love liberalism. Their definition varies enormously from state to state. Even "left-wing" and "right-wing" have outlived their usefulness. These were first used as short-hand for the Feuillant and the Montagnard factions in the French Revolution. What was the anterior cingulate cortex doing before the Louis XVI lost his head?  Probably lighting up the brains of the "Big-endians" and the "Little-endians" in Gulliver's Travels. Neurocognitive reactions have little to do with the substance of politics. 

Second, Amodio and his colleagues assume what neuroscientists have assumed for decades: "the astonishing hypothesis" that, in the words of Harvard scientist Steven Pinker, "our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain". But this is far from proven and hardly seems plausible.

Third, there's not much complexity, ambiguity and novelty in their own thinking. In fact, it just gives a fresh coat of neurocognitive paint to the theories of one of the co-authors, John T. Jost. He wrote a major article in 2003 which stated forcefully that "right-wing conservatism is positively related to dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance, fear of threat, loss and death; system instability..." Amodio's research merely locates the conservative death wish in the anterior cingulate cortex.

Finally, amazingly, Amodio and his colleagues seem blissfully unaware of how scary their research is. If brain waves regulate politics, drugs in the drinking water could turn red states into blue states, or vice versa -- depending on who controls the drinking water.

Rather than wasting his time on the neurocognitive causes of fuzzy political convictions, Amodio should turn his hand to something useful. Why not do some research on which area of the brain switches Islam on? No doubt he could get huge petrodollar grants to develop a drug which will turn American infidels into Muslims.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. He is not a conservative. 


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