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"Rigging A Study to Make Conservatives Look Stupid":
Over at Slate, William Saletan takes a critical look at recent studies that purport to show liberals are smarter than conservatives.
FantasiaWHT:
Hey, if it fits the template, the mainstream media will run with it.
9.15.2007 5:07pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
Btw, is this blog considered to be "conservative?" Either self-identified or maybe by others? (Putting aside blogs which claim anyone who doesn't agree with their version of liberalism is a fascist.)

If this blog considered to be "conservative" then political appellations have lost their meaning.
9.15.2007 5:17pm
cirby (mail):
David Sucher:

If this blog considered to be "conservative" then political appellations have lost their meaning.


Don't worry - the modern Left stopped being "liberal" some time before Kennedy became President.
9.15.2007 5:21pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
I thought this was pretty stupid myself (despite being a liberal). If you'll forgive the self promotion for a second I wrote up a fairly long blog post about the whole matter.

The short summary of what I said is that while the science done in this study seems to be sound (but pretty uninteresting) it was presented in a particularly misleading way. Not only did it make use of the bias that perfectly unremarkable facts seem way more significant once you stick on the fact that they correlate with brain activity in some region (as all differences in behavior do) but the newspaper reports and even the original study to some extent went out of their way to state in the results with a particular slant.

After all one could have just as accurately described the result as "conservatives are more principled than liberals" rather than "liberals are more tolerant of complexity and ambiguity". That is not very accurately at all.

Remember while saying someone is tolerant of complexity and ambiguity is always good in natural language when you try to form this into an objective scientific notion it is no longer the case. This is just an artifact of the fact that anything we think is unreasonable tolerance of ambiguity (not realizing that you can't both believe in catholicism and not think that Hinduism is dead wrong and imperiling people's chance of salvation) we call it a logical fallacy rather than "tolerance of ambiguity". Of course none of this should be relevant to this study since as Slate points out it is really testing unconscious inhibition but even if it was it would still be misleading.
9.15.2007 5:39pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
Let me correct that last point in my post.

It is possibly (I don't know) the case that when we talk about someone being tolerant of ambiguity in some senses scientific it is an unalloyed good. For instance there is a common cognitive error induced by people's need for "cognitive closure" that is the desire to eschew uncertainty/ambiguity and settle on a particular answer even before they have sufficient evidence. We unfortunately see this all the time from both the left and the right. What I meant at the end of my last post is that we should not assume that the way the term might generalize to a scientific concept is an unalloyed positive just because the natural language term tends to be used that way.
9.15.2007 5:45pm
LizardBreath (mail):
Yeah, the reporting of the study was godawful, but that's probably no reason to think ill of the original researchers, just the reporters. I can see a study showing that some high-level cognitive quality like political affiliation correlated well with some measure of low-level neurological functioning being interesting, good science, it's just the reporting on it as if the conclusion to be drawn were 'conservatives are stupid' made sense.

On the question of whether this is a conservative blog -- if you're going to use 'conservative' to draw distinctions within the Republican party, I couldn't help you. But I'd expect that most of the commenters here generally vote Republican, and that it would be more likely to be true of commenters that generally agree with the posts rather than of those that generally disagree. Someone who divided political blogs into only two groups, conservative and liberal, would be oversimplifying, but if those were the only two available options, I'd say conservative rather than liberal.
9.15.2007 5:57pm
frankcross (mail):
This is pretty cheesy. The "study" was not rigged to make liberals look smarter. The study was designed to test whether "conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty" as hypothesized. It confirmed that. The implications are open for debate.

The press discussion of the study may have been biased against conservatives, but the critique of the study itself is entirely unfair.
9.15.2007 6:24pm
LongSufferingRaidersFan (mail):
Liberals used to be more intelligent. That was back in the days of Edmund Burke, though...
9.15.2007 6:29pm
MacGuffin:
The study was designed to test whether "conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty" as hypothesized. It confirmed that.

Not really. Saletan is correct that the study was designed to eliminate rational thought. Instead it focused on almost reflexive responses that were definitely pre-rational or pre-cognitive. To then conclude that the study says something definitive about liberal or conservative cognitive or rational styles is clearly out of bounds. Very few self-identified liberals or conservatives would also claim that that identification is based purely on their reflexive, pre-rational reactions. Rather, most tend to think of their ideology as decidedly rational. The study's finding that liberals' pre-rational impulses are responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty, and that conservatives' pre-rational impulses show more structure and persistence may be interesting in its own right, but it doesn't directly lead to the conclusion that either liberals' or conservatives' more considered, reflective, and rational thoughts share similar characteristics with their pre-cognitive reactions.
9.15.2007 6:44pm
PersonFromPorlock:
There's a cart-before-the-horse problem here: unless political beliefs affect intelligence, the proper conclusion (assuming the study is otherwise valid) is that smarter people become liberals, not vice versa. But that may simply reflect the (typically) greater exposure of smart people to the college environment and their subsequent adoption of its liberal values.

Soldiers live or die on how adaptable they are: I'd be interested in seeing this study done again using combat veterans and liberals.
9.15.2007 6:46pm
LizardBreath (mail):
Suggesting therefore that liberal combat veterans are the cognitive elite!

But seriously, given that all the subjects were college students, I don't think the difference can come down to greater exposure to the 'liberal academy'.
9.15.2007 6:59pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
I was going to pooh-pooh the whole study but then I ran across this video of one of national leaders at
http://tinyurl.com/2nh7a3
(scroll down a bit)
and I wonder if maybe the study is dead-on correct.
9.15.2007 7:01pm
Brian K (mail):
Rather, most tend to think of their ideology as decidedly rational.

But as we're taught in psychology, you never take the individuals description of one's self as the truth. What they say doesn't matter...only what you observe matters. Just because people say their choice of ideology is rational doesn't mean that it is.
9.15.2007 7:13pm
theobromophile (www):

The study was designed to test whether "conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty" as hypothesized. It confirmed that.

Well, if that is the case, why would the study not include some element of "informational complexity" that goes beyond the kindergarten level? Maybe conservatives are worse at following directions, preferring to act upon their own volition.

I really want to know how this study started. Did the researchers ask students about every facet of their lives and conclude that political orientation was the only variable which explained, to a statistically significant degree, the varying results? Given how the results were analysed, however, I can't help but think that the entire thing was designed to give certain results. (It is quite possible that conservatives out-performed liberals on other tasks, which were promptly filed in the trash bin.)

Eternal proof that "social science" is an contradiction in terms.
9.15.2007 7:17pm
wfjag:
When I read the LA Times article I couldn't figure out what the hell the study was supposed to be about. Even filtering out the LAT's "conservatives bad" bias, the article made no sense, and I chalked it up to the fact that most "science reporters" have little to no science training. I then read Dr. Novella's comment at Neuro Logica. Since he teaches Neurology at Yale Medical School, he at least was able to explain the study's conclusions -- which are different than the LAT's assertions. See,
http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php?p=4

It may also reflect "publication bias" - only studies with statistically significant results are published, and if a study is done enough times, by chance, a few will show statistically significant results. However, no one knows about all the other studies since they aren't published or reported anywhere.

It can also reflect a cynical joke I learned studying statistics: "Q. How much is 2 + 2? A. What do you want it to be?" When you've spent time and money to do a study, and getting future grants depend on publication, and receiving tenure and promotions depend on getting future grants, there's a lot of pressure in academia to "salvage the results" of a study -- i.e., play with the numbers until you can report statistically significant results, so you can get the study published. Unless the full experimental methodology and raw data are released, it isn't possible to determine how the data were statistically manipulated or whether appropriate statistical methods and analysis were done.

What does the study mean? Maybe something, but not much if it means anything at all.
9.15.2007 7:28pm
MacGuffin:
Just because people say their choice of ideology is rational doesn't mean that it is.

Right, but it is equally true that just because neither liberals nor conservatives are perfectly rational, that doesn't mean either that their respective ideologies and partisan activities are wholly devoid of rationality or that what the study has to say about pre-rational ideological tendencies has a direct bearing on rational ideological tendencies.
9.15.2007 7:32pm
Richard Nieporent (mail):
I would say that the real test of one's intelligence or more correctly lack of same is whether one is willing to believe that such a study actually shows what it purports to show. The idea that a test of one's reflexive response to some simple task could somehow be related to something as complex as political belief doesn't past the laugh test. I remember a Peanuts comic strip many years ago where Lucy told Charlie Brown that women were smarter than men. How did she know this, asked Charlie Brown? Why it was proven by women scientists responded Lucy. Now we have life imitating the comic strips. Liberal scientists have proved that liberals are smarter than conservatives.
9.15.2007 7:45pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Brian K,

But as we're taught in psychology, you never take the individuals description of one's self as the truth. What they say doesn't matter...only what you observe matters.

But in that case, since the only evidence we have of whether the study participants were "liberal" or "conservative" is their individual self-descriptions, can we in fact say that the study demonstrates anything about "liberals" or "conservatives" at all?
9.15.2007 7:58pm
frankcross (mail):
People need to be a little more familiar with social science. It's not easy to test these cognitive things objectively, and this was a nice test. It's not meant to measure the big issues, because they are very difficult to design a test for. It's far from conclusive and should be replicated, but it is informative.

Moreover, it does not show that conservatives are not rational. The conservative responses are consistent with a sort of rule-utilitarian view, which may be a perfectly rational approach.

Richard, how do you know the scientists were liberal? Do you know them personally?
9.15.2007 7:58pm
MacGuffin:
The idea that a test of one's reflexive response to some simple task could somehow be related to something as complex as political belief doesn't past the laugh test.

The study does do a reasonably good job of showing that a test of one's reflexive responses to some simple task are somehow related to self-identified political belief; but it doesn't say much of anything about the nature of those political beliefs, nor of anything like causality from the tested response tendencies to politically or ideologically motivated actions. What the study shows is something along the lines as if it had shown that ambidextrous people tend to be self-identified liberals -- somewhat interesting; but what, if anything, does it really mean or imply at the level of political or ideological thought and action?
9.15.2007 8:07pm
Richard Nieporent (mail):
Richard, how do you know the scientists were liberal? Do you know them personally?

frankcross, I would be willing to place a large wager on the fact that the researchers are of the liberal persuasion. Given the fact that the overwhelming percentage of the members of the average psychology department are liberals, the odds would be very much in my favor, now wouldn't they? However, there is another simpler reason. The purpose of this study was to show that liberals were "smarter" than conservatives. Do you really believe that a conservative would undertake such a study?
9.15.2007 8:41pm
theobromophile (www):

The purpose of this study was to show that liberals were "smarter" than conservatives. Do you really believe that a conservative would undertake such a study?

If you believe the results of the study, yes: conservatives are entirely dim-witted creatures, prone to fits, irrationality, and an inability to adapt to our modern, ambiguous society.
9.15.2007 9:03pm
Brian K (mail):
Afterall reading the article...

the study may or may not be good (i didn't read it) but the article's critique of it was sorely lacking. It's obvious that he has little knowledge of neuroscience or psychology and he makes the critique solely from his opinion. where is his data to back up his assertions? and he spends most of the time attacking erroneous articles about the research paper (although strangely not his own article) rather than the actual research paper itself.
9.15.2007 9:16pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Brian K,

I'm curious. Which "assertions" in Saletan's article seemed to you to need backing up with "data"?
9.15.2007 9:40pm
Brian K (mail):
One letter, one-tenth of a second. This is "information"?
your brain process one letter (or many) the same way regardless of how long it is presented to you. unless he has some new research studies that aren't reflected in my neuro textbooks, the only difference between presenting one letter for a tenth of a second and a paragraph for an hour is the error rate of the task. the mental process are (nearly) the same.*

Fifteen minutes is a habit? Tapping a keyboard is a way of thinking?
Yes and Yes. even one time is enough to form a habit. for proof, ask yourself how many times did you have to touch a hot stove before your learned that hot stove = pain?

I can continue, but i think my time is better spent studying for my clinical neuro exam on monday.


* the former would test working memory and the latter would test consolidated memory, but it is irrelevant for the purposes of this study because it is not testing memory.
9.15.2007 10:15pm
frankcross (mail):
The purpose of the study was not to show that liberals were smarter than conservatives. That is fevered paranoia. I don't know their subjective purpose, but I do know that the conclusions of the study do not demonstrate that liberals are smarter, only that they process information differently.

But what would the purpose matter? Is there any flaw in the study's methodology? The only criticisms I've seen are from people who appear to be pretty ignorant of neuroscience. This is perhaps a failing of blogs, and their comments. People assume they are omniscient even when they are utterly informed about a scientific question.
9.15.2007 10:21pm
SeattleSolicitor:
The entire basis of the Saletan article, that the study purports to show that liberals are "smarter", misconceives the results pretty thoroughly. (I don't even think he makes much of a cogent argument that the press got it wrong, either, but I'm not interested in arguing that point since so many people, including Saletan and several commentors, are attacking the study itself as well as the researchers behind it.) As several people have suggested, intelligence is not a clear-cut concept--witness for example the many critiques even of IQ testing--and it isn't being tested for here. I think this study shows a difference in how brains work, NOT how well they work. On the road to figuring out how small differences in brain function relate to more complex decision-making at the cognitive level (such as political decision-making, if indeed politics is primarily driven by cognition and rationality) there will necessarily be many small studies illuminating only a part of the picture. This little tidbit adds to other studies that have shown differences in brain function corresponding to self-reported political beliefs. There seems to be a growing case for some link between the way a brain functions on the micro level and how people think about big issues.

What I find interesting is that there may be a statistically significant correlation between certain quantifiable brain activities and political beliefs. And I'm quite mystified as to why so many people are threatened by it to the point of attacking the integrity of scientists who research it. The idea that we are predisposed to find certain kinds of arguments persuasive--or to prefer certain types of social arrangements, or otherwise to arrive at some or all of our political beliefs--on the basis of some combination of basic brain functions, is an interesting but not completely surprising idea. (If differences in how individual brains function did not lead to differences in how individuals think about things, including politics, that would surprise me far more.) It doesn't necessarily destroy the concept of rational political beliefs: after all, these are college-age subjects whose beliefs are less likely to be fully formed or informed. But given how few people spend significant time rationally refining their political views, and how beliefs tend to filter perception (eg affirmation bias), it could account for significant parts of how politics happen in human societies.

The fact that both conservative and liberal cognitive genes (if indeed this has a genetic basis) have survived in our gene pool suggests to me that neither is completely maladaptive, and (if you'll allow me my kumbaya moment) that the tug between no-change and too-much-change biases tends to support human societies (or did at some point in our evolution). Having some people who argue in favor of change and some who argue against it sounds to me like a pretty good adversarial system of long-term group decision-making.
9.15.2007 10:22pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Anyone seen the original paper that started all this? All I've seen is commentary. How many people did they test? How did they determine political ideology? What was the breakdown between ideologies? Did they control for general intelligence or assume all subjects were equal? How about other factors such as gender?

(I'm looking at you, Mr. Cross.)
9.15.2007 10:32pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
SeattleSolicitor,

The idea that we are predisposed to find certain kinds of arguments persuasive--or to prefer certain types of social arrangements, or otherwise to arrive at some or all of our political beliefs--on the basis of some combination of basic brain functions, is an interesting but not completely surprising idea. (If differences in how individual brains function did not lead to differences in how individuals think about things, including politics, that would surprise me far more.)

Well, yes, of course. Assuming that the brain is basically an extremely complicated mechanical object, all the interesting higher-level mental functions have to be resultants of an awful lot of less complex micro-functions. But what seems to me fantastically unlikely is the kind of neat correspondence between levels that the press reports of this study, at least, suggest — that, say, being more or less "tolerant of ambiguity" in carrying out a task too quick for rational thought maps nicely onto being more or less "tolerant of ambiguity" in political terms.

You wonder how on earth people can feel threatened by work like this? Don't worry; it doesn't necessarily "destroy the concept of rational political beliefs." Oh, and if political beliefs are genetically heritable (and where, I wonder, did that fillip of speculation come from?), no one's going to call some of them maladaptive, because obviously there's a wide range in the gene pool, right? Mmm-hmm.

Forgive me, but when science has set itself to the task of quantitatively differentiating socially-relevant classes of human beings, the results have historically not been pretty.

On an unrelated note: Does anyone happen to know whether the study controls in any way for video-game proficiency? Quick, accurate physical reaction to a flashed image on a video screen is something a lot of college-age kids have spent hundreds or thousands of hours practicing. I would be amazed if it made no difference at all.
9.15.2007 11:01pm
David Schwartz (mail):
From my sources (see below), the study had a very significant flaw. They divided every single candidate into either the "Liberal" or the "Conservative" group. Nobody was excluded on the grounds that they fit neither definition.

They placed you based on your answers to typical "Liberal versus Conservative" questions. But the vast majority of the candidates were Liberal. As a result, most of those classified Conservative actually had no strong opinions one way or the other. Some of them were just less Liberal than the average college student.

If you look at the raw data, these "middle of the road" people pulled the Conservative average down. In fact, within experimental error, people the same distance from a fair neutral centerline scored about the same on the cognitive task.

At least, that's what I have heard from an anonymous source close to the study. It certainly seems plausible to me.
9.16.2007 12:03am
eric (mail):
Seems this study is more likely to prove that liberals play more video games.
9.16.2007 12:11am
theobromophile (www):

But the vast majority of the candidates were Liberal.

Which means that you can get statistically significant results for the liberals; however, that may not be true of the (much smaller) conservative group.


Does anyone happen to know whether the study controls in any way for video-game proficiency?

Are you suggesting that liberals spend time playing video games while the conservatives organise into a vast conspiracy? ;)
9.16.2007 12:17am
NickM (mail) (www):
Without trying to find where I read it again, IIRC the sample size of "conservatives" was 7 people, all male.

Of 7 male college students who know that they will get paid the same whether or not they press only at the right times are great sociological conclusions drawn.

I also don't know whether subjects were questioned about recent alcohol consumption, but I'd bet that could adversely impact accuracy.

Nick
9.16.2007 12:48am
pmorem (mail):
And I'm quite mystified as to why so many people are threatened by it to the point of attacking the integrity of scientists who research it.

It's attempting to assign value judgements to it that others me. An equally valid value judgement would be to say that "Liberals are more easily reprogrammed". I don't think that's a road we want to go down.
9.16.2007 7:02am
ChuckB (mail):
Tongue-in-cheek alternate interpretaton:

Another kind of test might ask the question, "what is the next number in the sequence 1,2,3,4,5,..."

Conservative answer = 6.

Liberal answer = 234.
9.16.2007 10:58am
Guest 3L (mail):
A study by an NYU professor, which was sponsored by NYU, was rigged to make liberals look smarter than conservatives? Shocking. Yet more evidence that NYU is a complete dung heap.
9.16.2007 12:11pm
devoman:
Conservatives and liberals might both be interested in this talk on Morality given by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at a conference sponsored by the New Yorker magazine called "Conference 2012, Stories from the near future".
Video here

Note: you can also download this (as well as other conference videos) from the iTunes music store (it's free).

The short version (which doesn't do it justice - no pun intended) is that the author defines 5 pillars of morality. His research shows that liberals tend to base their morality much more heavily on two pillars: compassion and fairness.

On the other hand, conservatives tend to base their morality more evenly on all 5 pillars (I don't recall them all, but I think one is tradition).

This explains why liberals find it difficult to understand why conservatives disagree with them on some issues that appear "obvious" to them (liberals).

For example, consider the issue of gay marriage. When viewed strictly from the prism of compassion and fairness, why not support it? But when you throw in tradition as part of your morality, then the opposition becomes much more understandable.
9.16.2007 1:01pm
Random Commenter:
"Seems this study is more likely to prove that liberals play more video games."

Eric beat me to it. It's amazing what motivated people will read into an experiment in which people are asked to press "w" or "m" as fast as they can after seeing it on the screen.
9.16.2007 1:12pm
LM (mail):
Orin's opening this topic for discussion without taking a position on it reminds me of something a friend told me about her dad. When he was a curious, some would say sadistic little boy, he used to enjoy throwing a bee and a spider into a jar together to watch what ensued. So, the question is, Orin, are we subjects in any legitimate academic inquiry, or was there just nothing good on TV? :)

By the way, my friend's dad went on to a long career as a CIA analyst.

If Orin is indeed looking to these comments for useful data, I'd suggest they indicate that Conservatives have no problem adapting to new information. Wednesday, when the question was claiming credit for the absence of terror attacks since 9/11, many of them seemed, if not unaware of, at least unconcerned with the logical defect in equating correlation with causation. But give them just a few days, and now they get it. :)
9.16.2007 4:35pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I just love how recognizing ambiguity somehow makes you smarter. In other words, if you can't figure it out or if you can't understand the meaning of something, you are clearly smarter than the simpleton right-winger who sees an answer or solution.
9.16.2007 9:40pm
LM (mail):
Brian G,

Who said that?
9.16.2007 9:47pm
markm (mail):
The idea that a test of one's reflexive response to some simple task could somehow be related to something as complex as political belief doesn't past the laugh test.

Not unless "knee-jerk liberal" is truly an accurate description.

Seriously, I suspect it's simply sampling error. In various accounts, there were either 7 or 9 "conservative" subjects. With a sample that size you expect that the sample average of any characteristic will probably be noticeably different than the average of the whole population.

The more interesting question is, how would the researchers have spun it if they'd drawn a sample of conservatives who happened to score above the liberals?
9.16.2007 10:25pm
LM (mail):
They cheated.
9.16.2007 10:30pm
David Schwartz (mail):
The reason there was a rush to attack the study was because the statements by the researchers to the press were clearly biased beyond belief. For example, suppose I described my study like this:

"A comparison was done of African-American college students to white college students. It was discovered that African-Americans have, on average, slightly thicker upper lips. Perhaps this explains why they have so much less economic success."

At least that African-Americans have less economic success is a, to some extent, an objectively verifiable fact and clearly is not something people are likely to prefer.
9.17.2007 9:26pm