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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

another study proves liberals smarter than conservatives

The LA times reported on a study:

"Participants['] ... politics ranged from 'very liberal' to 'very conservative.' [This was according to their own descriptions of themselves.] They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M."


Both liberals and conservatives have made the same mistake in interpreting the study, saying that this explains why conservatives want to maintain the status quo and why liberals want change. In addition some have argued that the study, rather than demonstrating an advantage that liberals have, shows that liberals are apt to be more rash than conservatives in decision-making. These misinterpretations demonstrate substantial ignorance of neuroscience (which happens to be a hobby of mine.) The study only examines a very specific neural pathway. It compares the recognition of new information, and has nothing to do with the kind of thinking that goes into, say, opinions about public policy. Abstract reasoning is done with the cerebral cortex, which was completely bypassed in the task the subjects were asked to do. What the study does show is liberals are more likely to notice a new datum, to go "hmmm", and then send the information to the cortex to analyse it. The conservative is more likely to ignore it.

Conservative William Saletan, in his four point essay in Slate, begins by correctly arguing that the idea that the study proves that conservatives "have more habitual ways of thinking" is wrong. He is right for the same reason I discussed above: the study does not study thinking. But his beef with the author of the study he cited is really just semantic. The author probably meant "thinking" as any activity that happens in the brain; he probably knows the difference between instinct and cognitive thought, being a neuroscientist and all.

Point Number Two: He asks if a W flashed for a millisecond is "information". Why, yes it is, actually.

Point Number Three: He responds to "Liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty" with, "Complexity and ambiguity weren't tested." "Participants were shown an M or a W. No complexity, no ambiguity." Does he know what "informational complexity and ambiguity" are to a neurobiologist (emphasis mine)?

Point Number Four: He thinks that the scientists designed the study on purpose to make conservatives look dumb (the essay is subtitled "Rigging a Study to Make Conservatives Look Stupid"--talk about a conspiracy theory!) He gets all confused when the scientists said that liberals were better at "detecting when a habitual response is not appropriate for a new situation" and "detecting conflict between an ongoing pattern of behavior and a signal that says that something's wrong with that behavior and you need to change it." He thinks that the scientists skewed the study on purpose, by inventing a study that "presume[d] that the habitual response was wrong," since conservatives, I guess he guesses one would guess, being more likely to stick to the stauts quo, would be more likely to do badly on a test designed to reward change. That's a whole lot of guessing. Isn't guessing precisely what we are trying to avoid by doing science? He goes on to make the mistake I discussed above. He asks what if the old way of doing things was better and the new information is irrelevant?

When the scientist say that liberals are better at detecting that "something's wrong with that behavior and you need to change it", they're not talking about, for example, the second ammendment or the secret bombing of Cambodia, they are talking about a specific, measurable behavior that the study defines as "wrong", here, pressing a key. The study shows that liberals are better at reacting to novel information, not by, for example, advocating gun control laws, but by not pressing the key. Being able to not press the key indicates that the subject is more capable of perceiving information and sending it on for further processing, as opposed to ignoring it.

Saletan asserts, "Maybe what you saw—what you think you saw—will turn out to require a different response from the one that has hitherto served you well. Maybe it won't. Maybe, on average, extra sensitivity to such conflicting cues will lead to better decisions. Maybe it won't. Extra CM sensitivity does make you more likely to depart from your habit. But that doesn't prove it's more adaptive." He is assuming that liberals will always opt for change, which is not what the study shows. The study shows that liberals are more likely to be able to change if change is needed.

The study does not show that liberals always do the right thing. It just shows a very specific thing that liberals are able to do better than conservatives. Period. That thing is very narrowly defined. Cuz that's what they do in science.

Saletan becomes unhinged toward the end of the essay, switching to second person, addressing the scientists, "You've manufactured a tiny world of letters, half-seconds, and button-pushing, so you can catch us in clear errors and keep out the part of life where our tendencies correct yours. And now you feel great about yourselves. Congratulations. You haven't told us much about our way of thinking. But you've told us a lot about yours." Ooohkay.... I'm going to guess that that's not his cerebral cortex speaking.


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