Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fear leads to political view? Bunk.

Researchers writing in Science report that the political orientation of test subjects who have strong views is linked to how easy they are to startle. They found that subjects who were more fearful were more likely to have right wing views, such as being in favor of capital punishment and higher defense budgets. The researchers suggest that this psychological difference is why it is so difficult to change people's minds in political arguments.
I wish the researchers would just shut up. They've got worse than nothing. They've got junk. There are so many holes in this research, there's nothing left but hot air. Let's add a little information from the Science article.
The authors first conducted a random telephone survey of Lincoln residents to find some who held strong political opinions. Then 46 selected respondents were invited to come in to the lab and fill in questionnaires to reveal political beliefs and personality traits. Participants were then given two types of tests to measure physiological responses to threat.
Let's list the sampling problems:
  • There was a preliminary phone survey
    selection bias - who a. has a landline phone not a cellphone, b. answers the phone when the researchers call, and c. takes the time for a survey)
  • Local residents with "strong political views". Define strong and decide what kind of people will come over that way in a survey. You will note that the researchers eliminated those who did not react strongly politically but were very afraid. That group is an important control.
  • Local means Lincoln Nebraska, hardly a bastion of liberalism in a red state ... would the same results come from a group in Chicago?
  • They were all white and elderly, living in an Urban Area. How about white elderly rural? Or perhaps some other color or age group?
  • They invited 46 to come into the lab. First, a very small number. Second they were invited to come in for research. This took them for the day - what, no job? What of the people who declined to come in?
Now, I'm all for research but you need proper research before you go trumpeting your results. Otherwise it's interesting only to researchers but much more needs to be done to make it important to society. Publishing it in Science, which is fairly well read, gives it traction in society as a whole. The fact that it leads directly into a Liberal stereotype of the Conservative ("they're just old, white, and afraid of their shadows.) will simply help this myth along.

Let's invent a response: "It is simply to let wishy-washy liberals feel good about themselves by denigrating those who are smarter and more self-assured than they. Notice that there were no Special Forces or conservative veterans in that sample? There were no young capitalists? There were no football players? There were no Hispanics or Blacks or Asians? It was all old white people who were afraid and who were old therefore conservative."

That last part was written to illustrate how quickly this kind of research can generate spin on both sides by being too limited in scope and sample, by being too limited in it's results, and by being too limited in imagination. I think this area of research shows some promise but so much more must be done. I think Dr. Fowler, below, needs to tone it down and stop pretending.
"These findings are extremely important," says political scientist James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, who has been doing research linking certain gene variations to political activity.
They may be important to you, Doc, but not to anyone else at this point. Just because they fit your specialty doesn't make them true or important. If they contradicted Dr. Fowler, would he have declared them "extremely important?" Probably not.
"In essence, the authors have filled in a 'missing link' between genes and brains on the one hand and psychological personalities and political attitudes on the other."
Actually, they haven't filled in anything. They've only scratched a surface and opened a door that will require a lot more work before anyone can say anything with certainty. I'm not surprised that the following information was left until the end.
He adds that the subject pool is limited to "a handful of white subjects from Nebraska, ... but many great ideas start with a simple test."
And so do the lousy, wrong, spiteful, and stereotypical ideas, Doc. Remember Tuskegee?


  1. Yeah, I'll trust your evaluation of this study over the actual scientists who reviewed it and deemed it a significant contribution to knowledge. PEER REVIEW, BITCH. It's good science, and you're an idiot.

  2. Ha!

    I had to okay this comment. It's too funny not to.

    BTW, anonymous, peer review consists of doing more research and finding consistent results with different samples. It means that you try to refute the research with more data and find that you can't. It means not taking anything at face value. The key word is REVIEW and it doesn't include merely reading it and nodding in agreement.

    I might be an idiot, but from the tone of your comment, I wouldn't trust you to notice or be able to judge.

    Bottom line ... If the problems with research are this noticeable, then peer review should point them out. It would be irresponsible not to. If you want to believe that all people have the political views they have because of fear, I certainly can't stop you. If you feel that one group of college students and their professor examining 46 elderly white people from Nebraska is any indication of the US as a whole, then I can't help you either.

    But then, I don't care what you think.

    Have a nice "Talk Like a Pirate Weekend, anyway."