Monday, September 17, 2007

I Should Laugh At This...

William Saletan--who is sufficiently liberal to say that men training horses to have sex with them is closer to heterosexuality than homosexuality--does a good job of shredding a new "scientific study" that claims that liberal brains work better than conservative brains:
Are liberals smarter than conservatives?
It looks that way, according to a study published this week in Nature Neuroscience. In a rapid response test—you press a button if you're given one signal, but not if you're given a different signal—the authors found that conservatives were "more likely to make errors of commission," whereas "stronger liberalism was correlated with greater accuracy." They concluded that "a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change."
Does this mean liberal brains are fitter? Apparently. "Liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty," the authors wrote. New York University, which helped fund the study, concluded, "Liberals are more likely than are conservatives to respond to cues signaling the need to change habitual responses." The study's lead author, NYU professor David Amodio, told London's Daily Telegraph that "liberals tended to be more sensitive and responsive to information that might conflict with their habitual way of thinking."
Saletan points out that the criteria used by the study are so artificial that they really don't tell us much about the real world:

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.
2. Responsiveness to information. Again, let's consult the supplementary document:
Each trial began with a fixation point, presented for 500 ms. The target then appeared for 100 ms, followed by a blank screen. Participants were instructed to respond within 500 ms of target onset. A "Too slow!" warning message appeared after responses that exceeded this deadline, and "Incorrect" feedback was given after erroneous responses.
An "ms"—millisecond—is one-thousandth of a second. That means participants had one-tenth of a second to look at the letter and another four-tenths of a second to hit the button. One letter, one-tenth of a second. This is "information"?
Perhaps what this tells us is how rapidly people respond to data--but not how well they respond. The smartest person that I know isn't blindingly fast in conversation. He often takes what would seem like a very long time to convert his thoughts into speech. But it isn't because he's stupid, or slow. He's taking his time to put his thoughts into the correct form. Sometimes the choice is fast or accurate.

The fact that scientists think that they have come up with something meaningful based on this fairly laughable study tells me more about the scientists involved than about the science. I'm reminded of how otherwise respectable German scientists, after Hitler came to power, turned their Social Darwinist notions about ethnicity and genetics into Rassenkunde--"race science." A lot of this stuff made Social Darwinism look downright scientific and liberal.

Of course, the real question is why the masses continue to fund bad, politically motivated "science" like this. At least the Rassenkunde crowd was producing bad science to satisfy what was becoming a majority view in Germany of "Aryan superiority." This trash is just to make the liberal minority feel self-righteously superior.

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