The Republican Brain (or How Liberal Journalists Distort Science To Confirm Their Biases)

I don’t normally allow guest blog posts because… well, mostly because I’m a jerk and I like to keep my blog all to myself. But then I read this post on Chris Mooney’s upcoming “The Republican Brain”. It’s part of an on-going liberal “Science says that Republicans (or conservatives or religious people) are dumb (or driven by fear or some other negative neuro-psychological phenomena)” talking point.

So I asked my brother (a neuroscientist entering med school this fall) to take a look at the piece and comment on it. What you’ll find below is his response. If you look at nothing else, check out the chart where he suggests other liberal/conservative conclusions based on the same “evidence” Mooney uses to bolster his “science-y” nonsense.

Enjoy!

Political Neuroscience

Whenever I see a study claiming “science proves XYZ about conservatives (or liberals)”, I roll my eyes and sigh. There is currently a problem of misuse and mis-referencing academic and peer-reviewed articles for the purpose of substantiating an argument or point-of-view that is already held by those offering up these studies. For those who use scientific results to convince their audience as part of a job, this amounts to nothing short of inherent bias, a position that is staunchly avoided and rejected by reputable scientists. Pervasive ignorance is nothing new, but with the advent of the internet the ignorant have easy access to science that is outside their area of expertise (or amateurism for that matter) and the misuse of science as a tool for manipulation has made the function and even purpose of the original studies grossly misunderstood.

Joshua Holland, Chris Mooney and The Republican Brain

Our example for today comes from an article published in Salon entitled “The Republican Fear Factor,” by Joshua Holland. In this article, Holland cites a recent study in Current Biology on the gray matter volume from individuals of different political persuasions. Holland points out that “the amygdala is an ancient brain structure that’s activated during states of fear and anxiety.” He then proceeds to interpret the results of aforementioned article (which finds that the amygdala is enlarged in conservatives compared to liberals) are evidence of conservatives living in a world of fear, even calling the world from a conservative’s perspective to be a “nightmarish landscape.”

The article continues in the now common, though still unpredictable, ramblings of the politically entrenched ideologues who are convinced all science (reason, common sense, credible faith, or any other citation used as a source of truth) supports their position. Often such overzealous ideologues attempt to discredit any source that contradicts their position, making manipulation of information their primary weapon for influence. This is not to say that idealists are categorically given to this tendency, nor is this any attack on ideals themselves. This critique is directed entirely at ideologues, i.e. those *blindly* committed to their belief systems who leave no room for discussion or counter-positions—these are the most common culprits.

While Holland and Mooney can be given credit for citing not just one, but two (TWO!) whole studies from reputable sources, their understanding of neuropsychology and scientific studies is patently flawed, evident from his misinterpretation of the findings. While I am by no means an expert in the field, I have an advantage over Holland: this actually *is* my field. I have five years of graduate/postgraduate experience in neuroscience research, with multiple publications in peer-reviewed journals. Holland’s handling of this study is such a far-cry from the kind of discussion these results would inspire in academic circles that addressing his article does not require an expert, just experience.

The Problem With Neuroscience and Journalists

While this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, I’ll identify some major, obvious problems with his interpretations. There is no brain structure that can be summarized completely in just a couple of sentences. Neither does there exist a higher-order brain structure to which we could attribute a complete understanding of its functions. It is true that the amygdala is activated in states of fear and anxiety. I’m not sure why Holland cites Chris Mooney, a journalist, for further explanation of the function of the amygdala. While Mooney works with scientists, it is in the art of communication; Mooney himself has no substantive background in science.

Holland could have found a renowned biologist and biochemist such as Leon Kass who pointed out that “the neuroscience area—which is absolutely in its infancy—is much more important than genetics,” Gerald D. Fischbach who said that “The brain immediately confronts us with its great complexity. The human brain weighs only three to four pounds but contains about 100 billion neurons. Although that extraordinary number is of the same order of magnitude as the number of stars in the Milky Way, it cannot account for the complexity of the brain,” or even an expert on information processing, such as the Emerson Pugh who wisely pointed out that the “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

I suspect I know why he didn’t cite these scientists: neither Holland nor Mooney are out to educate the public with this article, to fill the world with knowledge. This article is about winning, about attacking the enemy until it appears as defeated, inferior and cowering in its own nightmarish landscape. Citing an ideologue who agrees with him is easier than citing a scientist who will readily tell you that things are more complex than that.

If We Accept That Logic…

The results of this study suggest that there is a correlation between conservatism of the individual and gray matter volume of the amygdala. Using peer-reviewed journal articles, let’s look at a few other things that have this kind of association…

If we interpret this in the same way that Holland did, by oversimplifying the brain into one concise function, then we can say that extroverts and those with bipolar-disorder are extra fearful and more likely to be conservatives. Similarly, those with narcolepsy, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, high-risk for alcohol dependence, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and pedophilic tendencies have significantly reduced fear (and probably more likely to be liberal).

Do Republicans Live In A Nightmarish Landscape?

Allow me to emphasize one group: those with post-traumatic stress disorder have reduced gray matter volume. For those unfamiliar with the symptoms of PTSD, the most common include:

1. “Reliving the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity,” which including repeated nightmares of the event and strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that remind you of the event.

2. Avoidance, which includes “Emotional “numbing, or feeling as though you don’t care about anything.”

3. Arousal, which can include “having an exaggerated response to things that startle you… feeling more aware (hypervigilance)… feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger.”(13)

Some of these sound remarkably similar to the perspective Holland is claiming conservatives live in with their increased gray matter volume in the amygdala. In other words, those with PTSD have reduced gray matter volume in the amygdala and can literally be experiencing a “nightmarish landscape,” while conservatives with their enlarged gray matter in the amygdala are, as Holland believes, are experiencing the same thing. Those with PTSD can be crippled by fear, so maybe an enlarged amygdala makes conservatives far superior to liberals in dealing with the fear they face… Or maybe the amygdala is just not that simple. If gray matter volume were a direct correlation to function and behavior, how much easier a neuroscientists job would be! Actually, it probably wouldn’t be that simple because everything would be figured out by now and they would be out of a job.

Using the same logic, one could just as easily argue that taller people are naturally better at basketball. Basketball players have shown increased volume in their legs and hands over the average population. Since the legs have been determined scientifically to be the primary source of jumping and running and the shooting hoops occurs predominately with hands, we can conclude…

I looked only at the amygdala here because I’m lazy (and because the blog owner didn’t want me to attack the Holland’s other issue with the of the anterior cingulate cortex in a single blog post).

Using Science To Prove Bias

The point (and truth) is that we’ve got a lot of good ideas about some areas of the brain. It is absolutely true that the amygdala is activated in fear and anxiety responses. However, to say that this is *the* function of the amygdala or that increases in the size of the amygdala indicate a worldview that is warped by fear is journalistic extrapolation based on a pre-determined bias, nothing more.

I am confident that conservatives may react to fear differently than liberals. As indicated in the second study, conservatives look toward fear while liberals look away (14). This may be somewhat related to the higher ratio of conservatives to liberals among our armed servicemen and women—those whose job it is to run toward dangerous, fear-inducing conflict rather than away. Is this tendency to focus on sources of fear a weakness?

As an aside, I find it unprofessional that Holland is citing a Huffington Post article about this study (written and interpreted by our journalist friend, Mooney) without any link/citation to the study itself.

The eagerness to use the results of these studies to justify his position would be laughable if the general population didn’t find neuroscience to be beyond their grasp. As it is, it can barely be said that a basic understanding of neuroscience is within the grasp of even today’s renowned neuroscientists—and they’ll tell you that themselves. The point is that interpreting science is difficult, answers are not easy to come by, and almost nothing is as simple as online political editorials would have you believe.

References:

1. Omura, Kazufumi; Todd Constable, R.; Canli, Turhan. Amygdala gray matter concentration is associated with extraversion and neuroticism. Neuroreport. 16(17):1905-1908, November 28, 2005.

2. Altshuler LL, Bartzokis G, Grieder T, Curran J, Mintz J. Amygdala enlargement in bipolar disorder and hippocampal reduction in schizophrenia: an mri study demonstrating neuroanatomic specificity. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998;55(7):663-664.

3. Burgmer, Markus, Markus Gaubitz, Carsten Konrad, Marco Wrenger, Sebastian Hilgart, Gereon Heuft, and Bettina Pfleiderer. “Decreased Gray Matter Volumes in the Cingulo-Frontal Cortex and the Amygdala in Patients With Fibromyalgia.” Psychosomatic Medicine 71 (2009): 566-573.

4. Szeszko PR, Robinson D, Alvir JJ, et al. Orbital frontal and amygdala volume reductions in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56(10):913-919.

5. Benegal, Vivek, Antony, George, Venkatasubramanian, Ganesan, Jayakumar, Peruvumba N. IMAGING STUDY: Gray matter volume abnormalities and externalizing symptoms in subjects at high risk for alcohol dependence. (2007) Addiction Biology. 12(1) 122-132. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1369-1600.2006.00043.x

6. J.C. Baron, G. Chételat, B. Desgranges, G. Perchey, B. Landeau, V. de la Sayette, F. Eustache, In Vivo Mapping of Gray Matter Loss with Voxel-Based Morphometry in Mild Alzheimer’s Disease, NeuroImage, Volume 14, Issue 2, August 2001, Pages 298-309, ISSN 1053-8119, 10.1006/nimg.2001.0848. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811901908481)

7. Mark A. Rogers, Hidenori Yamasue, Osamu Abe, Haruyasu Yamada, Toshiyuki Ohtani, Akira Iwanami, Shigeki Aoki, Nobumasa Kato, Kiyoto Kasai, Smaller amygdala volume and reduced anterior cingulate gray matter density associated with history of post-traumatic stress disorder, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 174, Issue 3, 30 December 2009, Pages 210-216, ISSN 0925-4927, 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.06.001. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925492709001449)

8. Kaufmann, Christian MSc; Schuld, Andreas MD; Pollmacher, Thomas MD; Auer, Dorothee P. MD. Reduced cortical gray matter in narcolepsy: Preliminary findings with voxel-based morphometry. Neurology. 58(12):1852-1855, June 25, 2002.

9. LANGE,C. IRLE,E. Enlarged amygdala volume and reduced hippocampal volume in young women with major depression. Psychological Medicine. (2004) 34(6), 1059-1064. 10.1017/S0033291703001806 http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0033291703001806

10. Takeshi Yoshida, Robert W. McCarley, Motoaki Nakamura, KangUk Lee, Min-Seong Koo, Sylvain Bouix, Dean F. Salisbury, Lindsay Morra, Martha E. Shenton, Margaret A. Niznikiewicz, A prospective longitudinal volumetric MRI study of superior temporal gyrus gray matter and amygdala–hippocampal complex in chronic schizophrenia, Schizophrenia Research, Volume 113, Issue 1, August 2009, Pages 84-94, ISSN 0920-9964, 10.1016/j.schres.2009.05.004. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0920996409002199)

11. K. Schiltz, J. Witzel, G. Northoff, K. Zierhut, U. Gubka, H. Fellmann et al. Brain pathology in pedophilic offenders: evidence of volume reduction in the right amygdala and related diencephalic structures. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 64 (2007), pp. 737–746

12. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M., Inc.; ©2005. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; [updated 2005 Apr 30; cited 2005 Aug 12]; [about 4 p.]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001923/

13. Smith KB, Oxley D, Hibbing MV, Alford JR, Hibbing JR (2011) Disgust Sensitivity and the Neurophysiology of Left-Right Political Orientations. PLoS ONE6(10): e25552. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025552

61 comments

  1. Greg says:

    Ce n’est pas le meme chose, necessarily. Perhaps the same conclusion, but not the same thought process per se. It has been proven (though it was obvious to most) that life indeed begins at conception. A life begins at that moment.

    The question is not whether human life begins at this point; the question is whether it being human life is enough justification for its protection. Is it a person because of its biological makeup as human? Or is it a person because it has achieved a certain level of “awareness”, “self-consciousness”, or “viability”? These aren’t questions of scientific pursuit. These are philosophical questions. I take the former tack.

    As to tendency, sure. Presuppositions and whatnot, of course. But to attack the presuppositions of one group while claiming that one does not ALSO have presuppositions is where I take issue.

  2. Captain Obvious says:

    This whole thread is a field lab for liberal avoidance. When confronted with inconvenient facts or uncomfortable questions, change the subject.

    You attacked this posting for being unfair in noticing that a journalist was being unfair with his interpretation of scientific results… an interpretation you later characterized as unfair yourself, thereby agreeing with the posting.

    Why are you even arguing any more? To impress us with your ability to google for links to easily debunked crap, and then call us names when we debunk it?

    That’s Super Sciencey!

    How about you go back and answer Politicalmath’s original question. The one you avoided twice. No one is fooled by “oh, I missed it, repost it for me?” It’s not hard… use that little scroll bar thingy. Or do a text find for his name, it’ll bring up each of his posts. You know what, even easier… Here’s the question, respond to nothing else:

    “Answer this simple question: Why can we apply these correlations to conservatives, but not to liberals? If we apply them to liberals, we can say liberals are pedohpiles. This is obviously stupid, so why is it stupid for me to do it, but not stupid for you to do it.

    Please answer in a way that isn’t stupid.”

  3. quellcrist cavalli-sforza says:

    Oh, but Mooney does apply correlation to liberals….correlations that involve increased grey matter in the ACC, which conservatives do not have. I don’t understand how increased grey matter in the ACC correlates with pedophilia. pedophilia.
    Again, I have to say Mooney’s model appears to be empirically accurate.
    Conservatives are irrational on climate change, ensoulment, ToE and birtherism.
    Its exactly what he predicts.

  4. Captain Obvious says:

    “I don’t understand how increased grey matter in the ACC correlates with pedophilia. pedophilia.”

    Try reading and comprehending the blog post upon which you are commenting, smart guy. Look for the big letters that say “If We Accept That Logic…”

    So glad you evaluate all the evidence before shooting your mouth off about how irrational others are…

    Thanks for playing… better luck next time!

  5. quellcrist cavalli-sforza says:

    im a grrl.

  6. going_todash says:

    Pedophilia is not correlated with increased gray matter volume in the ACC. It is correlated with a decreased gray matter volume in the amygdala. Liberals have a decreased gray matter volume in the amygdala relative to conservatives, just as pedophiles have a decreased gray matter volume in the amygdala relative to normal people.

    Gray matter volume can be a structural indicator of functional/behavioral differences between groups. However, we cannot say that increased gray matter volume means X and decreased gray matter volume means Y, because that’s not how it works.

    While the amygdala is involved in fear and anxiety control, that doesn’t mean that one can use an increase or decrease gray matter volume to determine how someone sees the world. Holland treats conservatives as lesser beings, cowering and frightened and yet eager to be consumed by fear based on their media consumption and political support. Holland tries to explain conservatives like they are a different species and not a different approach to problems. The behavioral, functional differences exist and they do have a structural correlation, but Holland can’t defend his characterizations.

  7. Geologist says:

    Correction, -Miss G,

    Well then little missy, you may know something about the “science” of -the evolution of culture- but for you to comment about conservative irrationality for denying anthropogenic global warming is laughable. How would you suppose a reasonable socialogist would determine the rationality for a sociologist to comment about global warming? Paleoclimatology must have been a pet project for the sociology dorkpartment there at UC berkeley.

    A real scientist understands that you cannot necessarily draw a straight correlation line between two data points in space, to the exclusion of all other potential data points (discovered and yet undiscovered). They may be completely unrelated. They may be co-related. They may be dependent. They may be causative. THEY MAY HAVE NOTHING IN COMMON AT ALL. The point is you just don’t know unless you have examined the relationship to ALL OTHER DATA POINTS!!! And when I say all other data points, I mean ALL other data points. That is the entire point to the article. That without ALL of the data it is ludicrous to surmise correlation (and scientific malfeasance).

    That is why I must agree with the much earlier posting lamenting the future of “science” in the hands of moronic pseudo-science self-important progressivist propagandist anti-societal marxists…ahem, liberal people like yourself.

  8. […] Here’s a neuroscientist tearing apart the liberals’ recent pseudoscience on conservative versus liberal brains. […]

  9. gary morrison says:

    Conservatism represents a mind set that publicly rejects science as somehow insufficiently strict of method, while seeking relief from the scruntinty of science by simultaneously invoking both the verities of faith and the ambiguities of science as defenses. It seems pretty clear that a new field of inquiry is opening up here but the conservative picture of the world was doomed anyway if it ever expected to escape both the clarifying power of science and profund complexity of nature with an argument as shaky as the tattered legacy of patriarchy.

  10. Excerpted from a treatment I’m doing on “It’s A Learning Thing”:
    ———————————————————————————

    There’s more than enough scientific reasoning proffered today to understand that the totality of who we are – from our most basic instincts and emotions to our most complex thoughts and beliefs – is completely LEARNED!

    That is to say, whatever inchoate energy it is animating this mass of blood and bones we call ourselves, there is no indication that our personalities, identities, or any other facet of our metaphysical being is static, defined, or pre-determined in any way!

    There is however, every indication that the same cognitive template we learn through, and can identify, once verbal skills are acquired, exists from the time of conception on a rudimentary, non-verbal basis as well.

    Thus, everything we come to “know” about ourselves and our world, is determined, in ever-evolving cognitive capacity (non-verbal, then verbal), from what we LEARN.

    BONUS!
    Just realizing the learned nature of who we are and what we “know”, allows us, paradoxically, to debunk many of the very beliefs, identities, and worldviews we’d heretofore presumed as innately our own – and inexorably been living our lives by.

    And finally, the fact that we’re all animated by the same undefined energy – learning any differences we may have amongst each other – confers scientific validation to the age-old moral concept of all people being created equal.
    It instantly evolves the entire paradigm of ones thinking, and confers scientific validation, as well as moral imperative, to what here-to-fore had been presumed.

    Understanding the learned nature of who we are and what we believe should be as common to the zeitgeist of future generations as a curved Earth is to our own!

  11. Bob says:

    Defying the initial description (“nightmarish landscape”), I have always been amazed at (with few exceptions such as Bill Clinton and Joe Biden) how “unhappy” liberals look in general with many appearing “tortured”. Having trouble with their own “devils” methinks.