September 14, 2007

Saletan Dismantles The Nature Neuroscience Conclusions

Progressive bloggers delighted in the news that a study in Nature Neuroscience "proved" that liberals had better cognitive and analytical skills than conservatives. The lead author wrote that liberals "tend to be more sensitive and responsive to information," which allowed them more flexibility in their thinking. They also supposedly tend to deal better with informational complexity and more open to change when provided with the necessary cues for it.

William Saletan had a look at the study, and at Slate, he rips the wide-ranging conclusions taken from very narrow experiments:

Let's take the claims one by one.

1. Habitual ways of thinking. Here's what the experiment actually entailed, according to the authors' supplementary document:

[E]ither the letter "M" or "W" was presented in the center of a computer monitor screen. … Half of the participants were instructed to make a "Go" response when they saw "M" but to make no response when they saw "W"; the remaining participants completed a version in which "W" was the Go stimulus and "M" was the No–Go stimulus. … Responses were registered on a computer keyboard placed in the participants' laps. … Participants received a two-minute break halfway through the task, which took approximately 15 minutes to complete.

Fifteen minutes is a habit? Tapping a keyboard is a way of thinking? Come on. You can make a case for conservative inflexibility, but not with this study. ...

3. Complexity and ambiguity. Go back and look at the first word of the excerpt from the supplementary document. The word is either. Participants were shown an M or a W. No complexity, no ambiguity. You could argue that showing them a series of M's and then surprising them with a W injects some complexity and ambiguity. But that complexity is crushed by the simplicity of the letter choice and the split-second deadline. As Amodio explained to the Sacramento Bee, "It's too quick for you to think consciously about what you're doing." So, why did he impose such a brutal deadline? "It needs to be hard enough that people make a lot of errors," he argued, since—in the Bee's paraphrase of his remarks—"the errors are the most interesting thing to study."

In other words, complexity and ambiguity weren't tested; they were excluded. The study was designed to prevent them—and conscious thought in general—because, for the authors' purposes, such lifelike complications would have made the results less interesting.

Once again, a study appears to have been used for purposes outside of its design, and meaning extrapolated from unconnected and pointless exercises. While choosing between M and W may make for an interesting cognitive exercise, it doesn't follow that it has much application to conservatives, liberals, or independents. From Saletan's description, it creates an antiseptic world where all change is good and indicative -- and gives no indication whatsoever of its application to the real world.

Saletan concludes:

The conservative case against this study is easy to make. Sure, we're fonder of old ways than you are. That's in our definition. Some of our people are obtuse; so are some of yours. If you studied the rest of us in real life, you'd find that while we second-guess the status quo less than you do, we second-guess putative reforms more than you do, so in terms of complexity, ambiguity, and critical thinking, it's probably a wash. Also, our standard of "information" is a bit tougher than the blips and fads you fall for. Sometimes, these inclinations lead us astray. But over the long run, they've served us and society pretty well. It's just that you notice all the times we were wrong and ignore all the times we were right.

In fact, that's exactly what you've done in this study: 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.

Exactly. And the fact that people used the specious applications of this study to political thought tells us even more about the value of these studies, and the mindset of the media that amplifies them.


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Comments (51)

Posted by stoo | September 14, 2007 8:40 PM

Oddly enough, a researcher just completed a study of researchers, and was not impressed:

"There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims," Dr. Ioannidis said. "A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."

The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.

Posted by docjim505 | September 14, 2007 8:45 PM

It was obvious that the study was bogus as it proceeded from the patently false premise that liberals are CAPABLE of thought, much less that they think differently than conservatives.


Posted by Bennett | September 14, 2007 9:08 PM

Oh, let's just give it to them. Liberals are smart, conservatives are dumb. Dumb but better armed.

I'm calling it even.

Posted by Neo | September 14, 2007 9:17 PM

When I first saw this story, I commented at JOM ..

What this means is that liberals thought this experiment was meaningful and useful, while conservative thought it a complete waste of time and got bored with the tripe of it all.

The Liberal mind is so open to new ideas that they don't know a POS experiment when it is thrust in their faces. Liberalism is for the mind, what autism is for the senses.

Posted by Lew | September 14, 2007 9:20 PM

The single most interesting aspect of this little exercise is not the study or its flawed logic or its specious conclusions. The most interesting aspect regards the simple question; "Why would someone ask the question in the first place?"

The answer of course is that the core notion of modern liberalism is the assumption that smarter and more educated people have a right to determine the lives of others. It follows therefore that if liberals can "prove" that they are especially gifted and enlightened that they may rightfully claim this right to rule over others. While this may seem on the surface to be a rather novel idea, it is in fact a childish variation on the oldest fallacy in all of political thought; that the right to rule others is somehow born into some small elite group by virtue of some scarce characteristic or other. The right bloodline or the right clan or family was the dominant criterion for centuries, and still reigns in some of the more primitive societies around. And now we hear that one must have graduated from the right school and have successfully immersed ones self in the right disciplines.

So the professor designs a "study" to prove that liberals are smarter than conservatives and reveals himself far beyond his wildest intent. In so doing he merely affirms what we've all known from the day we began to read; that liberalism is nothing more than a thinly disguised version of what previous generations called "benevolent despotism". The ancient Greek plays described it perfectly almost 2500 years ago and the medieval utopian philosophers tried to preserve European monarchy with it all the way up to the First World War.

Its really nothing more than a ghoulish throw back to the divine right of kings, only now its the utilitarian right of the enlightened.

Repeat after me; "Freedom doesn't work! The people are too dumb!" In the end, that's all anyone ever needs to know to fully understand the liberal mind.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 14, 2007 9:43 PM

A lot of people who come here identify themselves as conservatives. Not me.

I took a very long, and round-about journey.

As I've told people, back when I was 21, John F. Kennedy was running for President. The year was 1960. You bet, I voted for the winnah.

And, I laughed at the joke that "his dad wasn't gonna buy him a landslide." And, then I cried with lots of other People, when JFK was shot dead, in Dallas.

Yes, I even know where I was, "when I heard the news."

Lots of nonsense broke loose in DC after than event. And, sure, it roiled the world that once held a "safety net."

Detroit would be the city that died. But we can't blame outsiders for that. More like insiders.

LBJ would tap the Chief of the Supremes; the politician Earl Warren. Who had, had his own dreams of leaving the governor's mansion in California, for the White House.

Instead? He created the wall paper to fit the theory of a single bullet; that's still in orbit; circling the sun. As we speak.

And, of course, LBJ's career was toasted by his own inneptness. Sad to say, we made military mistakes. And, the youth? Lots took off their clothes and got naked. Free love sure beat out commitment.

When Ronald Reagan died, and there was such a massive outpouring of grief; held in during all those dozen years of his Alzheimer's illness; the hoi-poloi couldn't believe it. But you saw the pictures.

And, a lot of the clothes? Comfortable. Men no longer wore hats. And, 3 piece suits. Everyone has adapted.

Change does that.

While the pendulum swings.

Now, if you want to get serious; and you even fear Hillary "could win the presidency" in 2008 ... You tell me.

Because I've seen a political spectrum appearing that the last group on earth that will be safe to come outside, will be the Bonkeys. The days that past are past.

Hillary, if she wins (and I don't think she has a Chinaman's chance); you get to be president in a country that divides; and makes BDS look like a piece of cake.

She couldn't call on the military; because we all know the creepiness of Wesley Clark. He ain't got what it takes! The Bonkeys would just be out there; while our military, police, and lots of ordinary folks, JUST. TURNED. THEIR. BACKS.

I don't think this is what will come to pass. And, I certainly hope GUiliani's health holds up; because he's the best pick of the lot, to grab votes from all over the map. (Leaving very little for the BOnkeys to steal.)

Sometimes, if you have a good eye for business; you can walk into a store. Look around. And, figure out if merchandise is flying off the shelves. Or not. You can also tell success from failure. But, here, you need eyes that look around, because you're gonna be picking up signals from strangers.

Myself? You have no idea how uncomfortable I am, these days, with liberal ideas.

Of course, as I said, in my "yoot" ... it was LBJ who rolled out the affirmative action laws. They were for poor people.

Let me repeat this, because it's important. In the beginning there were the hardship cases, where women had to be excellent to make it to the top. (Well, like Margaret Thatcher. And, Jeanne Kirpatrick. It wasn't something you got just because you could stop menstrual flow with tampons.)

Yes, the world's known some really excellent women; who could handle leadership. Who could handle college classrooms full of eager students. Who didn't need rules bent for them to "compete."

In today's world, alas, those rules have been bent.

Incompetent women can now float above "the old glass ceiling," not on skills, but on the thinness of their resumes.

Many of them are spoiled. Many of them so elite, they were brought up as a ruling class. So their defects don't rub shoulders in the real world.

And, it's here that we find ourselves, now.

While the Bonkeys are knocking themselves out.

Anyway, should Hillary make it?

I think she'd discover what it's like NOT being liked! And, she has nowhere near the stamina our President possesses.

The elections, ahead, are gonna be pivotal. I don't think we can change the whole thing in one election cycle.

But we're getting better at seeing the phony-ness. Better at putting our own spins on the 24/7 news cycles.

And, the other thing I noticed; when a jerk like Fitzmas fails, he drops off the radar screen.

At some point, all that litter will reach sky high.

OH, my mom was gangbusters in retail. ANd, she assured me, when I was young, that if you don't treat customers right; and you lose them, they're not likely to come back and shop in your store.

Bill Clinton is the last time a Bonkey suckered me. (Not the first time. Then, I was crazy enough to vote for Perot.)

But I know I've changed my habits.

Just like lots of other Americans.

And, we're just waiting. Sooner or later politicians are gonna figure out that good wheels take them places. While bandit masks will just get them into trouble.

Oh, and up next? You think Wide-Stance Larry can pull off his Intent? Or are you prepared to hear what happens when the toilet opens up, and the secrets spill out like sewage?

Well? Immigration "reforms" got stopped. Keep the faith. There's more people paying attention than you think. And, yes. Some were way more conservative than me through all these years. More people, now, than ever. However. And, I doubt voters are just gonna turn their backs and go home.

Posted by kindlingman | September 14, 2007 9:45 PM

"Overthink" may be a virus caught by both the testor and the debunker in this post. I hope it is not too contagious.

Posted by stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] | September 14, 2007 9:53 PM

"And the fact that people used the specious applications of this study to political thought tells us even more about the value of these studies, and the mindset of the media that amplifies them."
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four revisted?
"But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
[The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection.]

Posted by Scrapiron | September 14, 2007 10:07 PM

Sounds like a 3rd grade hand-eye coordination test misused by a leftie. At least they got 3rd grade results.

Posted by RBMN | September 14, 2007 10:10 PM

Vive la différence. As they say, in Heaven the police are all British, the mechanics are all German, the cooks are all French, the lovers are all Italian, office managers are all Swiss, and the bloggers are all Irish drinkers. But in Hell, the police are all German, the mechanics are all French, the cooks are all British, the lovers are all Swiss, office managers are all Italian, and the the bloggers are all Irish teetotalers.

Posted by Eric | September 14, 2007 10:11 PM

Interesting study. Meaningless, but interesting.

I’d say this about this: I’m a conservative and I know that I can be pretty set in my ways at times. I would tend to think of myself as disciplined.

It has never occurred to me that I should try to justify the flexibility of my thought. I’ve always marched forward with the conviction of my thought. On some occasions, I’ve been wrong, but time has told me that I’m mostly right. That’s not to say that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong, but rather, I’m trying to illustrate a fundamental difference between the two. A conservative would never consider conducting a study to justify their thought patterns. Evidently, the liberals have.

Also, this seems to be a form of twist on the "conservatives are dumb" argument. Seems inflexible to me.

Posted by Eric | September 14, 2007 10:15 PM


Wow. very deep. Very smart.

Posted by unclesmrgol | September 14, 2007 10:50 PM

Well, their conclusions might not be good, but they did notice a strong correlation between "liberal thinking" and the absence of error in this rote task, while "conservative thinkers" tended to make lots of errors with the same rote task.

My conclusion would be that liberals are much better at rote tasks involving sorting letters of the alphabet than conservatives.

Now, what that translates into cognitively is up for grabs. It does indicate a difference in processing thought associated with this task, but what difference?

To figure that out, I would instrument the subjects to determine which areas of the brain are used while performing this trial. Are they what scientists believe are the cognitive thought centers, or are they those areas associated with automatic actions (e.g., "flight or fight", which which is activated via the sympathetic nervous system under immediate "threat" and takes place on the order of fractions of a second)?

In addition, one would have to determine why the error rate goes up with conservatives. Is there some linkage between individual errors in conservatives which is missing in liberals, or vice versa? Is there some change in brain activity over time in one group which is absent in the other? Does the error rates change as the rate of presentation of the letters change, and, if so, what physical changes are noted in the brains of the subjects?

A lot of questions, and, from the original article, they attempted to infer answers without measurement.

The experiment was quite interesting.

Posted by bcismar | September 14, 2007 11:05 PM

Now if someone would please get ahold of that damn poll that the BBC and CBS and the Japonese TV station did in Iraq and fisk that turd.

How do I know it's a turd?

They sent out people to poll folks in a country where the subjects would have reason to fear giving out their personal opinion to a stranger who could either be an extremeist or could be captured by extremist and reveal who answered the poll in what way. In such a situation you default to the safe answer not the truthful answer. Between "love the US" and "Hate the US" only one of them will get your children burned alive and your head cut off. Which answer would you tell the stranger at the door with the clip board?

Posted by Jim Beam | September 14, 2007 11:39 PM

Could this be a symbol for the continued irrational attachment the left has with the global warming conclusions. They seem to repeatedly jump to conclusions when the evidence can be cut in so many different ways. Maybe, and I will borrow from the Liberal page of hyperbole, liberals are more opportunistic than conservatives?

Posted by Carol Herman | September 15, 2007 12:22 AM

Oh, back in the 1970's, to prove that money gave you cancer, I remember this "study" that took mice (prone to getting cancers), and inserting dimes into them, surgically. Natch, they developed cancers.

But ya know what? Nobody threw away their money.

But just like polling data can be manipulated, "by the ways in which you ask the questions," ...

Lo and behold, the world of science gets so complicated, sometimes, that idiots are given grant funding.

And, then?

Okey dokey. Liberals are smarter than anybody. There's just no Bell Curve for them.

Meanwhile, from stupid stuff, even when it's "off the wall" wrong; you actually learn nothing at all.

While "liberals" have undergone a "sex change." Because, in my book, you once found liberals all over the place, including among the poor. Who used their votes to "make the world a better place."

But then?

Along came Nixon. And, I'll never forget this. Because it's here that the craziness in American politics began to develop. I remember people who were in the "arts" advertising that "if Nixon won they'd leave the country."

Well, not too many left.

And, then, of course, we got the media (who held the mikes at the time); to allow a queer guy at the FBI, to "schtupp," more than just secrets; into the ass of Bob Woodward.

Well, we were relaxing our sexual more-ayes, at the same time. SO I suspect what I think could'a happened, as being closer to the truth than most people know.

Was it right? No.

Did the press get away with it? YOU BET! Nothing like having your secret source able to question everyone in your administration; and then just leak this crap right out onto the front pages of a newspaper. While people saw the scandal. And, they didn't care. Anger at Nixon grew huge.

This trick was tried again. Here. (Dunno whose doing the "schtupping.") But Bush survived. As a matter of fact, in 2004; probably thinking they were on a roll ... CBS punched itself in the EYE. And, Dan Rather lost his throne.

(Second time around, tragedy comes back as farce.)

And, this leads me to believe the same people who were once good-hearted. And, liberals. Are no longer even in the store.

Today, it's just limosine liberals, who definitely do not rub shoulders with the local yokels.

I still think there's a fly in the Bonkey's ointment. Because for all their yelling. For all their abilities to send out their minions to destroy the Vietnam Memorial, which they just did in the dead of the night. (Like painting swastikas on cemetary stones. Nobody pops out of the ground to complain. Or even take notes on who they are.) But those are NOT happy people!

And, if by chance the GOP cannot pull out any winners in 2008? (Okay. That's rediculous. But it sets up my example.) Do you know what the People would be like if they woke up and smelled a stolen election?

That's the "odd part" of all this craziness, today. Those Code Pinkers are CLUELESS as to what would happen, if they actually had a reason to celebrate. (We ain't Nazi germany, ya know?)

I think the backlash would be huge.

And, I think, too, that the Bonkeys don't have a single candidate that could take it. If the AMerican people went into an uproar.

Sure. Hillary can dish it out.

But that's not what I just said, here! I said she cannot take it! She'd need to be medicated. Sure, Bill has the aplomb. But as soon as his pants are down around his ankles, he's not gonna be a guest in the White House. Not even in the Lincoln Bedroom.

So there. A woman who most people see as a pig, or a witch. You tell me what happens if the judges throw the prize to her; and try to crown her as the "beauty contest winner?"

I'm sure we're never gonna find out. Because I think Hillary wins when pigs fly.

But that's the answer I have now when people do their polling; to tell us all about the crap. Which was the result written even before the "counting" began.

Yeah. Americans love a soap opera. What can Hillary add? Fancy sox for her appointments? They'd all have to show up for confirmation, and people would demand they empty their pockets. ANd, take off their shoes ... just like passengers at airports. "NO PAPERS FOR YOU!"

I'd even bet the police would be kept busy making arrests.

Posted by Rose | September 15, 2007 12:58 AM

Leave it to Liberals to find a way to spend 15 minutes acting like chimpanzees and label it genius.


Posted by Jeff | September 15, 2007 1:05 AM

"make no response when they saw "W"

W? As in George W. Bush?

Liberal subliminal techniques at work here, IMO.

Posted by Brad Marston | September 15, 2007 1:50 AM

Just a quick visit to say hello. I have missed reading your stuff this summer and am so glad to be back.

Posted by cthulhu | September 15, 2007 2:59 AM

In that the design of the study emphasized hand-eye coordination over conscious thought, didn't they effectively just "prove" that self-designated liberals tend to be better at video games?

Posted by pacatrue | September 15, 2007 5:23 AM

This was my take on the study, but it is based on the news reports and I haven't dug into the full text:

My understanding is that the participants classified themselves as liberal / conservative. It’s self selection. Basically, people who identify themselves with a certain label appear to have some different personality traits as measured by a particular cognitive task. The cognitive task wasn't made up for the study. Instead, a researcher tried to use it to see if there was any relationship between behavior on the task and self-labeling. These traits naturally have neural correlates, because everything we think has a neural correlate. So in the end in the experiment, there is a statistically significant match between how a person labels him or herself and a certain behavior on a task.

That seems fine as far as it goes, but it’s pretty much impossible to know what to do with the info, particularly as political views go. I can’t see how you can mesh it at all productively with actual political stances, because each contemporary political group has its own issues that is a hardliner over, and stubborn as a mule, and its issues where it chooses to go all laissez faire.

A more likely possibility is that certain personality types are drawn to each other in slightly greater numbers. This personality type might actually influence a couple of the social or political views, but then the rest is just socialization into whatever the group happened to already believe. For instance, perhaps your inherent personality gives you a sort of cosmopolitan urge, and you end up hanging with cosmopolitan sort of people who get off on going to ethnic restaurants. Now that group, *for completely different reasons as I know of no obvious connection between liberalism and cosmopolitan inclinations*, believes in, say, the legality of same sex marriage, the effects of carbon on the atmosphere, and supports unions. Since people who believe these things are your friends whom you like, you start believing these other stances, too. It's just human nature to share beliefs with people you admire.

So now you idenify yourself as "liberal" and support unions, but there's no real relationship between union support and your brain.

The main way I would disagree with commenters here is that there is no evidence some idiotic liberal professor sat down one day and made up a completely stupid experiment to prove how great he is. Instead, he knew of a previously existing methodology that had been used to study how people adapt to changing patterns and he became curious whether there was any relationship between that and political labels. From my experience of scientific articles in the popular press, it's likely 20% the scientist reaching beyong his data in interpretation and 80% the media simplifying (and as a result misleading) its readers. OK, and then a whole bunch more for political bloggers grabbing it and making it say whatever they want it to say.

Posted by swabjockey05 | September 15, 2007 5:49 AM

Lew nails it AGAIN. Thanks shipmate!

RBMN. The Captain has been known to "sample" the grog bowl from time to time (I know he's done it "too early" in the morning...and some non-Shellback once said his motto is: "Hit the grog early...hit the grog often" or words to that effect....not always the best way to run a ship of the line BTW) does that mean we got the "heavenly" blogger ;>?

Posted by docjim505 | September 15, 2007 6:03 AM

Excellent post, Lew!

Posted by Scott | September 15, 2007 6:16 AM

Was the experiment controlled for age? When I was younger my reflexes were quicker and my political beliefs leaned to the left. Could this study really be saying that as we get older we get wiser?

Posted by burt | September 15, 2007 6:19 AM

This study seems to be a backhanded way of determining who plays the most shoot'em up video games.

A secondary purpose was to determine if conservatives and liberals performed differently on the test. If they did, one would then after the fact, dictate that whatever liberals did, many or few errors, was evidence superior thought processes.

Posted by B. English | September 15, 2007 6:26 AM

A chicken in a cage. A button is installed inside the cage. A light bulb, also in the cage would illuminate. The bird would peck at the button, and be rewarded with feed. At one time, this was supposedly at the Toronto agricultural fair. Given the finding in Nature Neuroscience; shall we suppose that this chicken is a liberal?

On that note, my cat is loving, has a sense of values, but at times kinda dopey. Would that make him an independent, or a conservative? However, in his eyes, I'm more staff than master, indicating liberal tendencies in him.

BTW: Great posting Lew-- well said!

Posted by Jay Wills | September 15, 2007 7:28 AM

Given the liberals' historical track record, this "study" appears to give lie to the old assumption that success is a function of intelligence.

Posted by Barnestormer | September 15, 2007 7:56 AM

Somewhere, Larry Summers must be mulling the sad reality that if only he'd known how the scientific method really worked, he'd not only still be president of Harvard, but tenured.

Posted by Eric | September 15, 2007 8:26 AM

I guess it's now proven. Prolonged use of weed makes you good at sorting letters.


Posted by hermie | September 15, 2007 8:33 AM

What this 'study' proved is that you can talk anyone into funding a 'study' of anything; no matter how stupid the hypothesis, or how idiotic the testing methods.

Posted by Teresa | September 15, 2007 8:36 AM

Oddly enough the only web sites I have seen mention this study at all are conservative websites. Which may indicate a certain degree of shall we say "sensitivity" about the subject. ;)

(I think this sort of thing is pretty meaningless. Lots of people are conservative about some issues and liberal on others. Very few folks are completely monolithic in their thinking.)

Posted by always right | September 15, 2007 9:21 AM

maybe liberal website "managers" cringed at the wrong conclusion by the "researchers"? Too easy to tear apart, too big of a target? I would put a bag over my head if such sloppy "research" is done to prove their conclusion, too.

Posted by always right | September 15, 2007 10:39 AM

Somebody else said that this test proved liberal-minded doing better than conservatives at aping a trained monkey. I said it is why they are the perfect subject for their "overlords".

Can you imagine what will happen when liberals arrived in Utopia and found himself not the Supreme Overlord? After 5 sec shocked disbelief and silence, incessant crying, whining, loudly proclaiming their victimhood, I predict utopia had a lasting chance of maybe 1 min, then it will be worse than hell.

Posted by Bender | September 15, 2007 11:17 AM

We really did not need a study to know that libs are nothing more than reflexive knee-jerkers.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | September 15, 2007 12:10 PM

Let's not forget that many liberals, even the noted liberal deep thinker Bill Press, were totally suckered by another "study" that came out a few years ago, namely the one from the nonexistent "Lovenstein Institute".

They fell for it because they wanted so much to believe it.

Posted by Eric | September 15, 2007 12:51 PM

Here's a description of the hoax that that Del is referring to. Well worth reading.

Posted by njcommuter | September 15, 2007 12:59 PM

Of course, the study may indicate that conservatives are more willing to recognize patterns ... that is to say, more willing to draw conclusions from evidence.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | September 15, 2007 1:30 PM

Here's the Bill Press story from Newsbusters-Bill fell for this hoax last year, even though it had been floating in the toilet bowl for several years already!

And here, Press admits his error, but doesn't apologize for it

"But you’ve got to admit: It sure is believable. Does anybody doubt that Bill Clinton’s the smartest - and George Bush is the dumbest? Just look at his record.

Iraq. That dumbbell took us to war to get rid of WMD that didn’t even exist.

The Middle East. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know the first step toward ending a war is for both sides to stop shooting.

Global warming. Miami will be underwater before he realizes there’s a problem.

The budget. He couldn’t balance a budget if his job depended on it. Too bad it doesn’t.

See what I mean? Who needs a study? It’s self-evident.

George Bush is not only the dumbest of all 12 presidents since World War II.

He’ll go down in history - as the dumbest president…ever!"

What an idiot.

Posted by reddog | September 15, 2007 5:07 PM

I am absolutely smarter than you conservatives and if I could get my clenched fist out of this milk bottle, I'd prove it to you.

Posted by pacatrue | September 16, 2007 2:20 AM

njcommuter said, "Of course, the study may indicate that conservatives are more willing to recognize patterns ... that is to say, more willing to draw conclusions from evidence."

Ha. If njcommuter's intepretation of the study is correct, then I have a feeling the study will suddenly, amazingly have more validity. Funny how that works.

Posted by dave | September 16, 2007 4:43 AM

My wife is a Social Psychologist and is presently working in a Neuroscience lab. She uses the same go-no-go test described in the Amodio paper, but she uses red and green lights instead of an “M” or “W”. This test has been around since 1985 (Principles of Behavioral Neurology, Mesulam), and has been used in countless studies. The test is completely valid, and the use of it does not constitute a “rigged” (Slate article) study.
First of all, the test is not measuring intelligence, and the suggestion that it is does does not come from Amodio, but from people who are ignorant of what the study is about. The key part of the test is not that conservative make more errors of commission, but the brain functioning that is associated with the No-Go task, although they are probably related. There is a significant correlation between greater liberalism and error related negativity amplitudes and No-Go N2 amplitudes. This can not be explained by saying the study is “rigged” or that Amodio is stupid. (It’s funny that the Slate author, who has a 4 year degree in Philosophy, is negating an entire area of Cognitive Neuroscience). There is a reason for the increased AC activity being observed in liberals. Amodio suggests a relationship to conflict monitoring, which is well precedented (an example is “The N2 in go/no-go tasks reflects conflict monitoring not response inhibition”, Brain and Cognition Journal). If you have a different explanation, give it. The comments here and in the Slate article give no alternative explanation. Actually, the inability for conservatives to accept the results of a valid study is probably reflective of what the study shows. Ironic.

I know people here are not usually able to deal with the content of issues, but like instead to focus on your inane comments. I'll help you out and give you some material to use. My wife ran across this picture of Amodio while I was writing this:

Have fun making fun of him.

"Why would someone ask the question in the first place?"

These studies are done on countless different groups, and researchers are always looking for new areas to explore, new relationships to find. That someone decided to study political views for you suggests a grand conspiracy that liberals want to rule the world. On a blog that considers me a conspiracy theorist, I find that hilarious. The “small elite group” that rules the world is not liberals, but the rich. This paper is not part of a conspiracy. Take off your tin foil hat.

“The right bloodline or the right clan or family was the dominant criterion for centuries…”

It doesn’t seem much different now. After the next election, we could have 24 years of leadership whose names are: Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush, Clinton.

“So in the end in the experiment, there is a statistically significant match between how a person labels him or herself and a certain behavior on a task.”

As it says in the paper, a persons self-reported political evaluation accounts for 85% pf the statistical variance in voting behavior over the past 32 years. How a person labels themselves is strongly correlated to their actual politics.

Posted by B. English | September 16, 2007 5:27 AM

Dave, if the study indicates that liberals are superior, then isn't this just the usual rhetoric used by the left? More progressive, etc. In the last Canadian Federal Election; the liberal party (left of center) tried a similar stunt. They attempted to coerce/ bribe voters with expanded day care paid from taxes. It became apparent that the politicians felt that parents are incompetent at child rearing. Instead the child should be put in the care of unionized workers, who are competent.

The theme of After-all, we know more than you do smugness is a pathetic attempt to end discussion. Similar tactics are calling one racist, nazi, bigot just because one disagrees with another's valid discussion. This sort of stuff is typical of leftist behavior, and over the years has become irritating. Perhaps this is why conservatives feel a need to talk about these sort of antics.

Posted by daev | September 16, 2007 9:29 AM

B English:

"Similar tactics are calling one racist, nazi, bigot just because one disagrees with another's valid discussion. This sort of stuff is typical of leftist behavior..."

This is pure projection. Even though I am not a racist, nazi, or bigot, I cannot count the number of times I have been called these things on this site. Here is a good recent example:

“This kind of thread brings out the new neo-Nazis who form the mainstay of the nutroots left.. This movement, which claims to be the cutting edge of the so-called progressive movement, eschews all the symbols of their predecessors from the Third Reich and even projects their own Nazism onto their opponents in a weird post modern sort of way…The new neo-Nazi movement was energized, some would say created, by Edward Said…Said falsified his own biography just like his intellectual mentor Paul De Man, who was a member of the Belgian Nazi party during the WWII, to disguise his true intent, i.e., the hatred of Jews. Given that Nazism itself is really just another form of socialism this was not a difficult task. Orientalism and the beautification of Palestinians gave anti-Semites a progressive cover that allowed Jew haters on left to become respectable. The movement has been attracting adherents in increasing numbers as the new neo-Nazis have been able to subvert and take over progressive dominated organizations. They have now reached the point for gaining control of one of America’s two major political parties.” –Jerry

It is the right that consistently uses these techniques. The most obvious technique is to label any form of criticism of Israel whatsoever as “anti-Semitism”. Captain Ed is one of the most rational writers on this site, and even he has called the following anti-Semitic: Mearsheimer and Walt, Jimmy Carter, Human Rights Watch, and the entire UN. This is ridiculous, and is the primary tactic used by the right in discussing Israel.

The theme of After-all, we know more than you do smugness is a pathetic attempt to end discussion.

Again, this is pure projection. The best way to tell how good of a point the left has is to look at the reaction of the right. If the right engages in debate on the content, the point is probably not very good. When there is no discussion of the content, you know the point is correct. The discussion of the Mearsheimer/Walt book, for example, will consist of nothing but calling them anti-Semites. No discussion of the content will take place. The most the right will do is find a couple quotes out of the entire book that they can spin negatively, and that will be enough for the right to ignore the book. Of course no one on the right will ever actually read it.

Please show me an example of a prominent member of the left not discussing the content of an issue.

As far as Amodio, he does not say that the left “knows” more than the right. Again, his article has nothing to do with intelligence. What Amodio says is this:

“…greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern”.

He has not “proven” anything, but he ran a well-established test that has been used for decades and found a very significant correlation, and his findings “suggest” the above. His experiment is solid, the correlations are very significant (most p values less than .001), and the above is exactly what the results suggest. If you want to see a “pathetic attempt to end discussion” on this paper, I suggest you reread this thread. Show me where there is actual discussion of the content of the paper. Show me one person other than myself that has even read it.

Posted by Olaf Anderson | September 16, 2007 10:45 AM


You make some valid points. I haven't read the paper, not wanting to pay $30 for the 2 page report. However, from what I've read, there seems to be a few experimental questions.

First, the sample size was relatively small-43 right-handed colleges students, with 63% female, 37% male. Not having access to the paper, I'm not sure of the breakdown for "conservative" vs "liberal".

Second, with such a small sample size, the differences must have been very large if they calculated the statistical significance you claim. It's possible, but it just raises a question.

Third, why choose the letters "M" and "W"? Why not use the red light-green light system your wife uses? or another set of letters-say "b" and "d"? As mentioned somewhere in this discussion, "W" may not be emotionally neutral in politically active people. In fact the more liberal a person is, the more thay might have a distatse for "W," as they probably associate it with Pres. Bush. In fact, the experiment should have been repeated with different letters, or with a different signal (red-green lights, sun-moon, to see if a different result was obtained.

In sum, before taking this experiment at face value, it should be repeated with a much larger sample size (unless you think 43 mostly female, right-handed college students are representative of all liberals and conservatives).

One final thought-at least half of all scientific publicatons are wrong, or give wrong result due to sytemic problems, including statistics. Here's a link:

Again, without reading the paper, I can't fault the statistics or experimental design-except as discussed here in generalities.


Posted by dave | September 17, 2007 8:13 AM

The test is often run with letters. I cannot believe that different letters would produce different results, but the test certainly could be run again using different letters. I don't think any serious researchers are going to question the study based on that, however.
A sample size of 43 is no problem. I have certainly seen studies with less. More people cost more money, which many universities do not have, especially with funding decreases. Statistical significance is proportional to sample size. More subjects would require less effect size. Less subjects requires more. This is not an issue. (Plus, the article was only a short communication, which usually implies a smaller study).
The only issue could be the design of the test, which I see no problem with, or that there is not a relationship between the AC activity measured and conflict monitoring, but this has also been pretty well established in other studies. Amodio found a real, significant relationship. There must be an explanation. Amodio's explanation is the most logicial.
This paper only seems to be an issue with conservatives and the MSM. Liberals are not running around saying that liberals are "smarter" than conservatives (maybe the less intelligent ones are). That's not what happens. My wife has the same political views as myself. When I saw this thread, I asked her about the article. She had mentioned that she read the abstract, and that she knew of Amodio. When she read it, she did not come running to me gloating about "dumb" conservatives. She didn't even mention it.

Posted by dave | September 17, 2007 9:12 AM

About the link you gave:
This is very similar to a situation I ran into on a previous CQ thread. The author of the following article posted a comment on a CQ thread:

The article was published by the Heritage foundation, and contains nearly 200 references, many from prestigious journals. Sounds impressive. The problem is, once I started looking up the references, it turned out that they said nothing close to what the author was saying, and sometimes the exact opposite. The article appears serious, but is a complete joke. The thread is here:

The point is that a suspect publication (Heritage Foundation) can produce material that is worth nothing, and it may appear serious because it contains many footnotes of well respected journals. Problem is, the references do not reflect what the author says. It’s complete deception. The Heritage Foundation will publish this, but any serious journal would laugh at it.
I suspect the same is true with your link. It is from an “open access” publishing site, which is far more suspect than even the Heritage Foundation. I am not able to look up the references until I get home, but it appears to me from just looking at the titles that the article may be similar to the above. In general, I can point out that researchers do pay attention to the power values of their statistics and the associated type II errors, and not just Type 1 errors.

Posted by Olaf Anderson | September 17, 2007 10:21 AM


A sample size of 43 can yield significant results, but the problem is in the interpretation. Again, what exactly was measured with this sample size? Can it be extrapolated to conservatives in general, or even to self-identifiers as conservatives and liberals? The fact that many professionals have no problem with the data does not mean the experiment was done correctly.

Additionally, the variance in results within each of the 2 groups must be pretty small if the authors achieved such a high degree of signicance. Again, I don't have access to the paper, but I logically find it difficult to believe that the differences between consrvatives and liberals would be so stark in such a small sample.

I understand well the problems with funding and sample size. However, before I publish any data, I look for all possible alternative explanations, and if I can't do the experiment, I at least explain the alternative explanations and weaknesses in the reults. I don't think this was done in this case, and I'm not sure what these data mean, other than that young people, mostly women, who are right handed have higher error related negativity amplitudes when distinguishing between the letters "M" and "W" if they call themselves conservative rather than liberal. This has certain neurocognitive associations, but what does it really mean?

Regarding the reference in my previous post, my personal experience in the biomedical research arena fits well with the conclusions of that article. Anecdotal evidence, of course. Plus the author is well-recognized, which gives the manuscript a bit better validity.

In sum, if the purpose of the experiment were to examine differences between liberals and conservatives in cognitive functions, the population sample was poorly chosen, and that Amodio conducted a poorly designed to examine these differences. His sample was not representative of either conservatives or liberals. It would be similar to trying to extrapolate the effect of a drug measured in college-aged women to all females. Further experimentation would be needed beforte any definitive statement could be made, as I'm sure you'll agree.

One final point, if his results pointed in the opposite direction, with liberals making more errors, do you think that peer reviewers would have accepted the results as readily, or would they be looking for more flaws in the experimental design? Would Nature Neuroscience consider it worthy of publication? I can't say for sure, but I think those results would not have made it into any reputable scientific journal at this stage, without more supportive evidence.


Posted by dave | September 17, 2007 11:31 AM

"Again, what exactly was measured with this sample size?"

Accuracy, ERN and N2 amplitudes of both Go and No-Go trials.

“Can it be extrapolated to conservatives in general…”

Yes. That’s what is meant by statistically significant.

“…or even to self-identifiers as conservatives and liberals?”

I mentioned above that there is a strong relationship with self reports and voting behavior.

“The fact that many professionals have no problem with the data does not mean the experiment was done correctly.”

It certainly is a strong indication. Nature Neuroscience is a prestigious publication and is very critically peer reviewed. The study was done correctly. The criticism of a Slate writer with a 4 year philosophy degree does not mean the study was done incorrectly, especially when someone not in the field can find multiple flaws in his statements through a quick literature search.

“I logically find it difficult to believe that the differences between conservatives and liberals would be so stark in such a small sample.”

The amplitude of the ERP waveforms of the No-GO trials was twice as large in liberals as conservatives. The difference was stark.

“This has certain neurocognitive associations, but what does it really mean?”

Judging by previous relationships that have been made between this type of AC activity and conflict monitoring (see, for example, the article I referenced above), it means exactly what Amodio said it does. The basis of this study has much precedence. All Amodio did was study different groups. The theoretical basis and the test are well precendented.

“…do you think that peer reviewers would have accepted the results as readily, or would they be looking for more flaws in the experimental design?”

They would accept the results readily. The vast majority of researchers are ethical. If an unethical reviewer did reject a paper for unethical reasons, this would be negated by the other, ethical reviewers. Unless you want to start talking about conspiracy theories…

Posted by Olaf Anderson | September 17, 2007 2:39 PM


"“Can it be extrapolated to conservatives in general…”

'Yes. That’s what is meant by statistically significant.'

No. Statistically significant refers to the difference in the sample groups. It does not mean you can validly extrapolate the results to a larger population, especially one that was not included in the sample. At best, this is a preliminary result that would need much more testing for validity. You seem very willing to take this result at face value, and not to question anything about the experiment. Why?

“…do you think that peer reviewers would have accepted the results as readily, or would they be looking for more flaws in the experimental design?”

'They would accept the results readily. The vast majority of researchers are ethical. If an unethical reviewer did reject a paper for unethical reasons, this would be negated by the other, ethical reviewers. Unless you want to start talking about conspiracy theories…'

This happens all the time in research, for many reasons. No conspiracy theory needed. It's happened to many researchers. Review tends to be less rigorous if the result fits accepted theory than if the result goes against accepted theory. No offense, but you seem a little naive on the ins and outs of peer review. Scientists aren't saints-we have our own agendas. The hard part is staying neutral and following the data, even if it goes against your own theories.

'The basis of this study has much precedence. All Amodio did was study different groups. The theoretical basis and the test are well precendented.'

That's not what I question. I question his sample selection and its applicability to a larger population of conservatives and liberals. If I want to study the effects of a drug on a mixed population, I don't select a subset of that population unless I'm going to repeat the experiment in other groups. If I do get a result in a subpopulation, I limit my conclusions to that subpopulation. I can then hypothesize that the result will be applicable to the larger population, but I haven't proven it unless I duplicate the test in that larger group.

Posted by dave | September 17, 2007 7:03 PM

There was nothing wrong with sample selection. You have a problem because 63% were women? You think if 50% were women the correlation would not be significant? This is silly...

"No offense, but you seem a little naive on the ins and outs of peer review."
I have authored several papers and patents as well. I have also been a reviewer. How about yourself?

Posted by dave | September 17, 2007 7:53 PM

BTW, my wife is starting a new study. If the pilot study shows significance, the eventual full study will have 40 participants. The pilot study has 8.
When the peak amplitude of the ERP waveform is twice as large in liberals vs conservatives (quite a difference in brain activity), you do not need 300 participants. Deal with it.

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