Political Pseudoscience

Marco Iacoboni, Joshua Freedman and Jonas Kaplan recently authored an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled “This Is Your Brain on Politics”. The authors describe a new study where they put 20 swing voters through an fMRI session designed to reveal their true thoughts and feelings regarding the current field of political candidates. They argue that revealing the unbiased opinion of individuals through fMRI will give an indication of how people will finally vote.

Their results are, well, their results. Do you have increased activity in the anterior cingulate? That must mean that you have mixed feelings about a candidate. Do you have increased activity in areas known to possess mirror neurons? Then you must have an increased amount of empathy for a candidate. Suffice it to say, the greater scientific community has responded with much derision and gnashing of teeth to their methods, results, message, and choice of publication.

I would recommend that you take a few minutes to read Martha Farah’s guest post at the Neuroethics and Law blog. It is about as close to an unbiased review of the op-ed article as I have found. The last sentence is the clincher – fMRI data is all about effective interpretation. Good examination of the results will be objective, reliable, and scientific. Poor examination of the results is no better than tea leaves.

I am inclined to go with tea leaves over the Iacoboni et al. results.

Perhaps in the future we will have effective methods to scientifically study political opinion with fMRI. For now I think we are doomed to several more years of terrible articles like this from the Iacoboni Lab. See you next January – that is when the next press release will be coming out…

November 17, 2007 • Posted in: CogNeuro

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