A research team, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has published results from a study (“Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits,” Science, 19 September 2008, Vol. 321, no. 5896, pp. 1667-1670) that claims to show that physiological traits such as blinking and flinching correlate to political beliefs. Of course, those folks in the study who were strongly identified with conservative political beliefs are said to respond more strongly to stimuli by blinking harder and flinching.
If the claims are true that conservatives blink harder and more frequently, how do the study’s authors explain this?
Where do I begin? The sample size that led to this sweeping generalization? 46 people. So, the research team is saying that the reactions of 46 people can predict the behavior 6.7 billion people? Right…. Then, using that line of reasoning, one could hypothesize that 19 Muslim highjackers predict the behavior of all Muslims. I can hearing the howling about stereotyping and profiling and racism as I type these words.
According to the article, the team used
“physiological equipment, making it possible to measure skin conductance and orbicularis oculi startle blink electromyogram (EMG) response”
to conclude that
“Our data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes…. political attitudes and varying physiological responses to threat may both derive from neural activity patterns, perhaps those surrounding the amygdala.”
Of the eight researchers whose names appear on the article, only one – Mario Scalora – is a psychologist. The remainder are political scientists. There’s not a biologist, a neurologist, or a clinical physician in the lot. Not even a physiologist. You might think that adding a physiologist to a team that’s trying to draw conclusions about physiological reactions would be useful, if not obvious. If anyone has info on the specific equipment and tests used, please pass it along.
The article also states:
“political and social attitudes are heritable”
The proof they use for that conclusion: two articles published in the American Political Science Review. Since when are political scientists qualified to draw conclusions about genetics? Wouldn’t you want a geneticist to weigh in on that one?
While the Science article is careful not to draw conclusions about “liberals” and “conservatives,” the inference is obvious. And, the media is running with it. From the Toronto Star
“a new study in the prestigious journal Science says that people with right wing views blink and flinch far harder than liberals”
“on the level of physiological reactions in the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may = spiders = gay marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces.”
Lead author Doug Oxley told The Star
“What we’re introducing to the field of political science is this notion that there is a physical basis to these beliefs…”
If you want to introduce science to political science, why don’t you consult some actual scientists? All the team is doing is introducing and propogating another false meme.
So what’s next? Will folks be staring at faces, counting blinks, so that they can ferret out the evil conservatives from the nice liberals? I know! Bill O’Reilly can add a new segment to The O’Reilly Factor to complement his body language expert and media coach.
Ace of Spades has a nice retort to nitwit social scientists, Wherein I Do My Part to Aid the Social Sciences
Are you born conservative (or liberal)? L.A. Times
Left, Right; Obama, McCain: It might not be what you think University of Nebraska-Lincoln Press Release