Questionable Neuroscience – Politics and Gender




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As an aspiring neuro- and cognitive scientist, one of the things that really irks me is when people try to use scientific data to support their claims about a particular group of people. Generally, this happens with an “out” group, and the “in” group claims to have discovered some neuroscientific evidence to prove that the “out” group is fundamentally and irreversibly different, usually with some negative implication.

I came across an article recently on Salon called “Inside the conservative brain: what explains their wiring?“. I knew that I shouldn’t click on it, and that it would only irritate me; the warning signs were crystal-clear.

First of all, the title targets the “conservative brain” as something that needs to be explained, which gives a pathologizing air to the article already (being an academic, unabashed antipathy toward conservativism is something that I see a lot, but it still bothers me). The subtitle is “Neuroscience can help us understand the strangest of birds: the modern conservative. They really do think different“, which is offensive on multiple levels. Talk about pathologizing.

Anyway, I was intrigued by what sort of evidence Salon was going to present that the conservative brain was different to the liberal (which I assume they consider to be the “normal”) one.

It turns out that the article is repurposed from a book called Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us, which was written by a man named Avi Tuschman, a former political speech writer. I do not know much about Tuschman, but I will be trying to find out more in the near future. To be fair, I do not think he probably titled this article, so he could have a slightly more balanced view than Salon.

The researchers conducted an EEG test on liberals and conservatives who were looking at blurred images of sketched faces, each of which had an ambiguous expression. Conservatives, they found, were more likely to perceive threatening or dominating emotions on these faces than liberals — they were also faster to “process” (exactly what this means is not stated in the article) dominant emotions on the faces than liberals.

The article continues on to describe another study in which the two groups were shown a series of images that fell into one of two groups: some of the images were startling, disgusting, or fear-inducing; and the others were neutral or happy. They measured skin conductance, which is influenced by the sweat glands — something that Tuschman makes a point to say are controlled by the sympathetic (automatic) nervous system, which is not under conscious control. Conservatives, according to the article, were more likely to show increased skin conductance (and, therefore, physiological arousal) to the startling images.

Tuschman interprets all of this evidence as support for the idea that conservatives have a stronger view of the world as a dangerous place, which is why they are more likely to oppose societal change. Tuschman does not say why this is not interpreted as evidence for the fact that conservatives might be more protective, self-defensive (in today’s political climate, that would make perfect sense to me), or just more afraid of spiders.

After reading this article, I immediately thought of a recent journal article by Catherine Vidal, who wrote about the idea that differences between genders are biologically predetermined. She says that “[b]iodeterminism goes along with a reductionist conception of the human person, which reduces mind to brain, brain to molecules and molecules to the products of genes”, which fits in perfectly with the drive to figure out why conservatives are “wired” the way they are.

Vidal goes on to discuss a plethora of psychological and neuroscientific studies that looked at the differences between male and female brains, all of which she points out serious problems with. For example, some studies have shown that boys are better than girls at mental 3D rotation. However, this depends greatly on the instructions given before the task: if students are told that it is a geometry task, boys do better. If it is called a drawing task, girls do better.

So the instructions before the task can make a difference… but there is no mention of this potential confound in the Salon article. Despite scientists trying to control for as many factors as possible, academia is still a very liberal place, and experimenter bias is a real and measurable thing.

Furthermore, Vidal points out that some studies have shown differences in male and female behavior or brain patterns, but those studies have been overturned when more subjects were added to the pool — this is caused by a very high degree of inter-individual variability in brain function. The skin conductance part of the study mentioned above used participants with “strong political beliefs“, which makes me think they cut out the middle and took strongly left- or right-leaning subjects, which could provide some potentially false significance in the study.

Anyway, all of this goes to say, simply, do not believe everything you read. Even if it claims to be backed up by neuroscience.

References

Vidal, C. (2011). The sexed brain: Between science and ideology. Neuroethics, 5(3), 295–303. doi: 10.1007/s12152-011-9121-9

Tuschman, A. (September 2013). Salon. Inside the conservative brain: What explains their wiring? 

Image via Minemero / Shutterstock.

  • http://ronmurp.net Ron Murphy

    Daniel,

    I agree with many of the reservations you have about how data is interpreted, so I’ll focus on some points where I might not agree entirely.

    There is no reason why we should not expect some differences in brains, between conservatives and liberals, and between the genders.

    As you hinted with the 3D rotation issue on the gender studies, the differences measured can depend on other environmental factors. But it is also not celar what is cause and effect. It could be that gender differences come about because of the way men and women are categorised socially from birth. Is it the case that conservative brains and liberal brains are different because they are conservatives and liberals, or are they of those political persuasions because they have different brains?

    And of course the pathology implications are entirely political. Even if there were biological, genetic differences that essentially made some people liberal and some conservative, it would just mean that we have two categories of normal. It is very difficult to say what is a pathology without having a very clear definition of a normal.

    Heterosexual/Homosexual; Spiritual/Non-spiritual. There may be many examples where brains are naturally different, but where one group or another would like to discriminate against those that are different.

    That some people make a political issue out of difference should be no reason to deny difference where it is found. The trick is to accept our human diversity and get on with it.

  • http://ronmurp.net Ron Murphy

    On the issue of reductionism, I find it comes all too easy to some people to be dismissive of it.

    Reductionism as a tool is extremely valuable. Reducing something to a more detailed explanation of its parts is how we come to understand stuff. I guess all science depends on it.

    And as a description of how the world works it seems spot on – if you understand it properly. It has utility in one direction and not another.

    So, biology is entirely described by chemistry. And chemistry by atomic theory. Without some of the details of atomic theory working as they do chemistry would not work as it does, and biology would not work as it does.

    So, we can describe downwards; that is, we can explain the detail of how one level works in terms of how a lower level works.

    We can describe very well the details of a single atom, or even collections of them as molecules. We can look at biological processes, and given the scientific investigation we could describe how DNA is replicated by describing the chemical processes, and in turn describe how that chemistry works by describing the atomic processes.

    Of course it becomes more complicated – and useless – to try to explain an entire human cell entirely at the level of atoms. But atoms do determine what a cell does and how it does it. So, modelling upwards beyond a local area, to larger scales, is a problem.

    What we cannot do is predict upwards with any great degree of accuracy.

  • onergk69

    In regards to gender brain differences, one of my most popular trainings is entitled “Brain Sex”. Anatomical brain differences explain very little of the variance we see between the sexes. Sociocultural factors are much more powerful in this regard!Factors, such as, gender polarization, gender role assignment, & parenting are very significant. In my clinical experience, neuroscience is still too often non-specific; yet, quite remarkable in its possibilities!

    Rich

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at www.dannalbright.com or on Twitter at @dann_albright.
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