Sunday, November 02, 2008

"Science " Undermining The Efficacy of Reason Is Inescapably Anti-Democratic by Anthony McCarthy

As a never ending source of soc-sci nonsense, the well known Boston Globe’s Sunday “Ideas” section can be lots of fun. But this morning’s nonsense about political and even partisan political behavior being biologically determined strikes me as both absurd and dangerous.

Eve LaPlante joins a list of “Ideas” scribblers in undermining the assumed efficacy of such antiquated and romantic concepts as reason, which many of us take as one of the essential guarantees of effective beneficial political action, in favor of the, frankly, scientistic-religious iconography of “brain scans” and those always at hand, twin studies. Her faith in the arising priesthood of political scientists aping alleged scientific methodology, would be “scientists” of "political physiology", is sufficient that not a single word of skepticism is allowed to enter her article in today’s paper.

As with so much of this bilge, those hankering after the prestige and glamor given to this kind of stuff, cog-sci glam boy Steven Pinker was an inspiration:

John Alford, one of the study's authors, said that these genetic study results, along with his reading of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate," persuaded him and other scholars to embark on a quest to uncover the physical correlates of political ideology. Pinker's book argues against the popular conception of the brain as a blank slate, which in his view skews research across disciplines, in favor of the notion that the brain possesses innate qualities that influence individual experience and opinions.

"To what degree are we political scientists guilty of implicitly assuming that the human brain is a blank slate?" Alford recalls wondering. Does political ideology have roots in biology? Could genes predict how someone might vote?

The next step for the young field was to look for ways that genetics and biology might affect social and political opinions. "We needed to find an actual path from genetics to how people feel about political issues of the day," Hibbing said, "and then to see what physical systems are involved in these feelings about politics."

Passing up the clear fallacy of equating an (alleged) correlate with causation, I just love how “ the next step” is always the same, to get a few scans of brains, a few of those wonderfully predictable “twin studies” and a few dozen non-randomly chosen test subjects together to invent an entire new “field” of “science” For example:

A subject of this study, seated in a chair in the lab, is a resident of Lincoln, Neb., who has been identified from random phone calls. In the initial phone call the subject indicated to researchers that she felt strongly about a political issue or had based a vote on the basis of a single issue. Since then she has responded to a lengthy questionnaire about her political attitudes.

As the images and noises are presented, a machine records the subject's physical responses. An electrode above her eye measures automatic muscle movements that make up the "blink startle" response. A lead attached to her finger measures "skin conductance," the amount of perspiration on the skin, another physiological sign of stress.

After examining 46 such subjects, researchers found a strong correlation between subjects' political attitudes and their physiological responses to threat. People who showed more "blink startle" and perspiration after a threatening stimulus tended to cluster on the right politically. They advocated capital punishment, school prayer, and defense spending, and they supported the Iraq war.

In contrast, liberals - who supported "less protectionist" policies such as gun control, open immigration, and increased foreign aid - showed significantly less physical response to the threatening stimuli. While education had some effect on the results, subjects' blink and skin-conductance responses were much better predictors of their political attitudes. And the degree to which a person was startled by threatening stimuli indicated how much he or she advocated policies that protect society from external and internal threats such as wars and crime.

46 test subjects. 46. And that's divided into two groups, so let's assume actual samples of 23. If you could find 46 randomly selected subjects and come up with a coherent description of “conservatism” or “liberalism” as sufficiently fixed category so as to form, unanimity among short-lived political discussion groups, it would be a miracle. If university level political science “scholars” can’t appreciate the complexity of what these guys are proposing to do science about, they don’t need to be branching out but handing out dope slaps.

Of course, behavior sci being what it is today, the entire shoddy mess is alleged to demonstrate evolutionary adaptation.

In fact, viewed through the long lens of evolutionary time, it would seem that the two camps depend on each other. A person who's hard-wired to protect himself from danger may be able to avoid getting eaten by an attacking tiger - while his neighbor, who's hard-wired to adapt to change, may sense an impending Ice Age in time to escape.

This is the reassuring note offered by political physiology at the end of another long, divisive American presidential campaign.

"The biological variation between liberals and conservatives is itself adaptive," Alford said.

The evo-psy habit of pretending what it says it sees through their entirely imaginary "long lense" can function as real science has become one of the most pervasive and insane manias of our intellectual class. There doesn’t seem to be much of any protest against it by real scientists, though I’d imagine eventually a reaction is going to set in.

But protecting the integrity of science is the business of scientists. When this anti-democratic junk starts to make its way into politics, it is all of our business. This stuff, not science by any honest definition, has the same potential as pseudo-sciences of the past to gain political influence. When a major, respected newspaper in the United States can print an article like the one linked to, we are in serious danger from it. If scientists won’t call them on it we peons who favor democracy will have to.

Democracy presupposes the efficacy of informed reason, it cannot exist without that. Other parts of the fashionable pseudo-sciences undermine other essential prerequisites of democracy such as equality and self-sacrifice. I don’t see any way in which democracy can withstand these academic assaults without us calling them on their scientific and scholastic short comings and basic dishonesty.