November 25, 2007

Politics and the Brain

Link via Bad Science: This is your brain. This is your brain on politics. Any questions?

Provoked by an unrefereed article in a recent op-ed column in the New York Times on the American presidential elections, "This Is Your Brain on Politics", a group of cognitive neuroscientists wrote a critical letter to the editors, concluding:

As cognitive neuroscientists, we are very excited about the potential use of brain imaging techniques to better understand the psychology of political decisions. But we are distressed by the publication of research in the press that has not undergone peer review, and that uses flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions about topics as important as the presidential election.

Brain imaging is the latest toy in the hands of both scientists and pseudo-scientists. A spate of unrefereed articles in newspapers and glitzy magazines, have reported sensational findings on everything from economics to politics to the behavior of movie goers. One may hypothesize, for example, the differences between liberal and neocon voters on their perception of Hillary Clinton. Instead of following the time-honored method of using a questionnaire based on 5, 7, or 9-point scale — the choice depends on the numerical sum of the researcher's birthday — political and social scientists now seek to use instruments used in the hard sciences. Presumably, they lend an aura of scientific rigor to their endeavors.

Based on the results from applying one of the several imaging techniques available — here, the choice depends on the size and source of the grant, I suppose — the researcher may conclude that the liberals' mirror neurons fire-up on seeing images of Hillary Clinton, but the neocons show activity only in the amygdala region, indicating sexual arousal. Just kidding!

1 comment :
  1. Seems like a demand and supply thing. Newspapers seem to love stuff like this and so scientists love to churn them out.

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