Liberal vs Conservative Brains (ugh)

Last week I managed to get mixed up in a huge debate on Slate.com regarding the recent Amodio, Jost, Master, and Yee paper in Nature Neuroscience. The paper was a brief report on the ‘Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism’ where the authors reported that liberals possessed a greater error-related negativity (ERN) wave during a Go/NoGo task. What erupted after its publication was a partisan firestorm.

I panned the article at first since it was so far outside of my core interests. The paper also combined a two topics I consider questionable: ERP source localization and political social neuroscience. Still, a few days later while reading Slate I ran across a response piece posted by William Saletan, entitled “Rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid“. At once I was struck by how terribly argued the response was and how far from scientific truth his conclusions were. I was compelled to enter ‘The Fray’ and engage the debate as a neuroscientist. See my original post with subsequent responses here.

I don’t want to reignite the liberal vs conservative debate again in this forum. Judging from the Slate message boards I think the topic has been given more than enough attention. However, I did want to note how misinterpreted the Amodio et al. results were. I am not a huge fan of the paper – I have various issues with both their method and the discussion of results. Still, seeing headlines like “Liberals smarter than conservatives” and “Rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid” was not their fault. They are simply terrible examples of how mass media can take things to far.

The whole situation is very frustrating, but there are lessons we can take away from it. I think what I am focusing on is the importance of public dissemination of research by the experts themselves. I try to do this through presentations on the developing brain for parents and children. It is one of the favorite parts about my job, and something I take very seriously. Without a third party between my words and their ears I feel that I can more accurately represent the science behind development. I think that this, in some small way, will help to balance out the terrible misinterpretations by popular media. One can hope anyway…

September 23, 2007 • Posted in: CogNeuro

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