Tag Archive for science

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.


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.


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

Are You A Real Scientist? Find Out Now!

(click for a larger view)


This chart is my social commentary on the strange attack on Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s new SuperFreakonomicsbook. It seems a large chunk of people are worked up over a chapter in the book in which they look into alternate, controversial ways of solving the climate-change/global-warming/whatever-the-kids-are-calling-it-these-days problem.

At the eye of the storm are people accusing Dubner and Levitt of lies and misrepresentation in their book, particularly as it relates to their conversations with Ken Caldeira, a respected climate scientist working with Intellectual Ventures (possibly the most arrogantly named company ever).

Long story short: A blogger at Climate Progress claimed that Caldeira objected to his portrayal in the book and that Dubner and Levitt essentially flipped him off and left burning dog crap on his porch. Dubner responded that Caldeira read through two drafts of the chapter, correcting things he felt were wrong. Caldeira feels the authors worked in good faith and, while he may or may not agree with their conclusions, he feels their portrayal was fair.

What I find funny about the whole thing is the extent to which most people are blasting Dubner and Levitt even though they have explained repeatedly that they are not challenging the scientific status quo concerning climate change, that their reference to global cooling is a reference to finding ways to use technology to reverse global warming, which they unabashedly believe is happening. Their chapter looks at people working to solve the problem (you know, the problem of global warming which they believe is happening) who are working outside the “climate-change establishment”.

On a related note, Dubner has announced that he will change his name to Stephen Dubner-Yes-I-Believe-Climate-Change-Is-A-Problem.

But for the blasting of Dubner and Levitt and the (unconvincing, in my opinion) Brad DeLong’s “you should have let me write your book” post, no one can really give me a good reason to believe that they have a better grasp on the topic than Dubner and Levitt.

(Update: Greg Mankiw gives me reason to believe that Yoram Bauman has a better grasp on the topic and he seems disappointed. However, his back and forth with Steve Levitt amounted to “You may be technically right on the specifics, but the gist you gave was inaccurate.” I’m still struggling to try and reconcile that with the statements attributed to Ken Caldeira who, you may recall, previewed multiple drafts of the chapter. If he really did OK the overall scientific gist of the chapter, that strikes me as a pretty powerful authority.)

Up till now, I’ve stayed out of the climate change arena because I don’t have anything resembling an appropriate background for dealing with the topic. But the problem I’ve found is that people on both sides of the argument don’t really give a crap about credentials or scientific rigor.

What they care about is simply “Did this guy end up on my side of the argument?” If he did, he is a real honest to goodness scientist. If he didn’t, he is a hack, a washed up old know-nothing, a dishonest tool for religious environmentalism or a shill for the oil companies (depending on which side you’re on).

The reason I’m skewering the pro-climate-change side in this visual is because they seem to be much narrower in their orthodoxy. I’ve known extremely liberal people with graduate degrees in nuclear physics who get angry because no one wants to hear their solution to climate change (hint: it rhymes with buclear flower pants) due to the fact that the movement (from a political stand point) is dominated by long time environmentalists who spent their formative years fighting against nuclear power and don’t want to admit that they might have gotten that one wrong. (How is that for a run-on sentence?)

The “climate skeptics” side is often just as scientifically lackadaisical, but they’ll welcome anyone with open arms as long as they’re even remotely skeptical of any part of the political climate change agenda. They’ll accept anything including “climate change isn’t happening”, “man isn’t causing climate change”, “climate change isn’t a problem”, or (my favorite) “the solution isn’t (Kyoto/carbon tax/ethanol/hybrid car/whatever-my-political-enemies-like), the real solution is (fill-in-the-blanks-with-something-that-will-make-my-political-enemies-angry)”.

But, ultimately, I find the pro side to be more humorous because it is populated by approximately 30 actual scientists with knowledge in the field and millions of people with no scientific knowledge in the field who just like to feel smug about being all “scientific” while bashing other people who aren’t “scientific”.

And how do they determine who falls into which category? See the chart above.