How to Make the "Democrat War on Science" Argument (Supposing You Want To)

By Chris Mooney | June 9, 2011 1:51 pm

From globalwarming.org, a climate “skeptic” site, I find this very interesting piece entitled the “Democrat War on Science,” by William Yeatman. It attempts to us some of my own themes from The Republican War on Science and flip them so that they cut against the Obama administration–e.g., it released reports that violated peer review standards, it suppressed agency scientist dissent, it put out bad information. Based on three alleged examples, one from each category, the piece concludes:

If there’s a “Republican war on science,” then there is also a “Democrat war on science.” In fact, science is politicized and manipulated by both political parties. It’s what politicians do in order to achieve political ends. To put it another way, if you think that American elected officials give priority to the purity of science over political ideology, and not vice-versa, then I’d like to introduce you to a wealthy Nigerian friend who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland and who promises a hefty percentage of his fortune for assisting him.

Honestly, it’s a noble attempt. However, to really make the argument stick, you would need the following: 1) more fully documented case studies; 2) more clearly valid case studies; 3) crassness–e.g., the administration is doing this stuff blatantly and not apologizing; 4) a strong explanatory framework–e.g., what is the ideology driving this?

I think that with the Obama administration, you will certainly find mistakes and things that probably shouldn’t have happened, but I seriously doubt you will satisfy all of these criteria.

Take the three examples used by Yeatman. There’s the old business about the Interior Department wrongly claiming, in a report, that a panel of peer reviewers had supported the controversial moratorium on gulf drilling. They didn’t. Details here. My conclusion about this incident: “while a mistake was certainly made (and critics of the drilling moratorium were quick to cry foul), the mistake does not appear to have been intentional, or particularly devious in nature. What’s more, as soon as it was exposed, the responsible parties owned up and apologized profusely.”

So it’s not nothing, but it’s not a “Democrat War on Science,” either.

Yeatman’s third example–the EPA allegedly vetoing a Clean Water Act permit based on “shoddy science” is not something I know anything about, so I won’t comment. However, his second example doesn’t really work either. This is the story of Alan Carlin, a climate “skeptic” and economist who prepared a report that challenged the scientific basis for the agency’s greenhouse gas endangerment finding. New York Times story here–which shows why I am skeptical of this case:

It is true that Dr. Carlin’s supervisor refused to accept his comments on a proposed E.P.A. finding, since adopted, that greenhouse gases endangered health and the environment, and that he did so in a dismissive way.

But the newly obtained documents show that Dr. Carlin’s highly skeptical views on global warming, which have been known for more than a decade within the small unit where he works, have been repeatedly challenged by scientists inside and outside the E.P.A.; that he holds a doctorate in economics, not in atmospheric science or climatology; that he has never been assigned to work on climate change; and that his comments on the endangerment finding were a product of rushed and at times shoddy scholarship, as he acknowledged Thursday in an interview.

Dr. Carlin remains on the job and free to talk to the news media, and since the furor his comments on the finding have been posted on the E.P.A.’s Web site. Further, his supervisor, Al McGartland, also a career employee of the agency, received a reprimand in July for the way he had handled Dr. Carlin.

I do not mean to exonerate the Obama administration of all wrongdoing. It has been inexplicably slow in generating scientific integrity guidelines and getting the government agencies to adopt them, and there are certainly cases of things that have gone wrong. See here for a Union of Concerned Scientists’ report on some of this.

Still, the whole “Obama War on Science” narrative really doesn’t fly. The president is obviously very pro-science, as is his administration–in very large part as a reaction to the last one. Moreover, I don’t really see a clear thread of ideological motive here.

If you want to know why Democrats and liberals (and environmentalists!) might sometimes distort science, the best answer is implied by Dan Kahan’s work–they will be most likely do so in cases where science conflicts with either their “egalitarian” or their “communitarian” values. I think this definitely does occur–but I don’t think it is sweeping, or mainstream in the party, for a diversity of reasons that include the fact that Democrats are generally very pro-science these days, which gives a countervailing motive.

One could generate a much larger discussion on this last point–but for now, I’ll just say to Yeatman: Nice try, but you really have your work cut out for you.

Comments (27)

  1. ron

    its the old game of false equivalence.

    the only real anti-science aspect of “the left” is its anti-GMO hysteria and some also hold some neo-luddite views, but they are a minority. and thats about all i can think of.

  2. NikFromNYC

    Putting “skeptic” in scare quotes gives you away as someone who has never really looked at serious skeptic sites such as the blogroll on WattsUpWithThat.com, especially ClimateAudit.org. Instead you pick a weak article and beat up on it. Have you ever looked into the nature of the major alarmist sites and taken a look at the amazing exaggeration they offer up each week? You are simply partisan, not reasoned.

    DeSmogBlog = Run by a PR guy paid for by a $125 million dollar online gambling money convicted money launderer. That online banker now sells solar cells.

    RealClimate = Run by a far left wing political PR firm, the one that was behind the junk science claims that vaccines caused autism.

    ClimateProgress = Owned by a left wing PR firm.

    The environmental movement has no interest in abundant energy. On cold fusion, before it was debunked, they gave away their hand:

    “It’s like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” – Paul Ehrlich (mentor of the owner of SkepticalScience.com blog).

    “Clean-burning, non-polluting, hydrogen-using bulldozers still could knock down trees or build housing developments on farmland.” – Paul Ciotti

    “It gives some people the false hope that there are no limits to growth and no environmental price to be paid by having unlimited sources of energy.” – Jeremy Rifkin

    “Many people assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind is better off, but there is no evidence for that.” – Laura Nader

    Here I present The Quick Glance Guide to Global Warming:
    Denial: http://bit.ly/m6xySt
    Oceans: http://oi52.tinypic.com/x3e0es.jpg
    Thermometers: http://oi52.tinypic.com/2agnous.jpg
    Ice: http://oi52.tinypic.com/2upvlvm.jpg
    Earth: http://oi56.tinypic.com/2reh021.jpg
    Authority: http://oi52.tinypic.com/wlt4i8.jpg
    Prophecy: http://oi52.tinypic.com/30bfktk.jpg
    Psychopathy: http://oi52.tinypic.com/1zqu71i.jpg
    Icon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmPzLzj-3XY
    Thinker: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n92YenWfz0Y

  3. “One could generate a much larger discussion on this last point–but for now, I’ll just say to Yeatman: Nice try, but you really have your work cut out for you.”

    Ah, but he has accomplished his goal. One of the tactics of the denialist industry is counter the demonstration of what you are doing by accusing the other side of doing it too. That way the public sees everything as a “he said/he said” difference of opinion and throws up his hands in disgust. To the denialist industry, the more the public is confused and disgusted, the more the denialists win. People don’t make decisions when they are confused, and the denialist industry doesn’t want anyone making decisions on policy, or even honestly discussing policy options.

    So they cynically – and intentionally – distort, distract, and disinform.

  4. ╦heBigo╦

    The Democrat war on science is far different then the Republican war on Science. To summarize basically from the right it’s just the teaching of evolution, but these are just a small minority of people. The issues that the right has on science are easy to spot and counter. But this sort of opposition to science does not come from academia.

    The democrat war on science is far different and even more dangerous. Because this opposition comes from academia and flows it’s way into institutions like the U.N. It’s also more covert, harder to spot because of the cloaks some of these people hide under. Such as the post-modernist who believes that there should be no peer review i the science and instead to bum-rushed through forward and published. Then there is the hard core environmentalist whom wants to prevent all forms of mining, manufacturing and development that is deemed as detrimental to the environment at the sacrifice of the economy, private sector jobs and profit. Basically hijacking climate science to further an agenda. Then there is of course anti-vaccination and anti-gmo.

    So yeah science is politicized both ways which has lead to its corruption.

  5. Gentle Reader is invited to compare Republicants (the Party of No Ideas) with Democraps (the Party of Bad Ideas). It is fatuous fascists, villainous corporatists, and double-digit IQ christ-besotted jackasses against bleeding heart Liberals, welfare pimps, Enviro-whiners, feminazis, and Queer Nation. Choose wisely between two clown cars eructating $trillion criminal elasticities while spinning their wheels in an alphabet soup Federal muddle puddle.

  6. Chris Mooney

    “The democrat war on science is far different and even more dangerous. Because this opposition comes from academia and flows it’s way into institutions like the U.N. It’s also more covert, harder to spot because of the cloaks some of these people hide under. Such as the post-modernist who believes that there should be no peer review i the science and instead to bum-rushed through forward and published. Then there is the hard core environmentalist whom wants to prevent all forms of mining, manufacturing and development that is deemed as detrimental to the environment at the sacrifice of the economy, private sector jobs and profit. Basically hijacking climate science to further an agenda. Then there is of course anti-vaccination and anti-gmo.”

    Great–now we can debate! Postmodernism is nothing like mainstream in academia today. Whatever influence it may have had has long since faded–and coming from the left, I regard it as a joke.

    The kind of environmental extremism you describe has virtually no place in the Democratic party today. Democrats are neither anti-vax nor anti-GMO. So everything you’ve cited is, basically, fringe as far as I can tell.

  7. I will give you most of the argument, Chris. But there is a difference between being anti-GMO and being against releasing modified genetic material into the biosphere in an uncontrolled manner. That is what Monsanto has done with it’s rape seed… knowing full well that natural pollination will propagate it’s modified genetics, for which it has a patent, and then suing everyone whose own variant has adopted the modified.

    If you create new organisms, then the creator needs to be responsible for the economic damage it causes as well as profiting from the gain.

    That is the opinion of someone who chaired the EcoAction Committee, Green Party US. I guess that makes me “fringe.”

  8. Jody

    I break with my fellow lefties over nuclear energy. You have fringe groups on both sides, and i sure don’t consider anti-vax or the like to be a widely held Democrat belief. But thoughts on nuclear energy are borderline anti-science on the left. You can see the difference in the Gallup poll below (admittedly taken before the Japanese meltdowns):

    http://sas-origin.onstreammedia.com/origin/gallupinc/GallupSpaces/Production/Cms/POLL/y0xngrxfh0-r6v76hwhqpq.gif

    It’s the one field where I think my liberal brethren let their emotions get the better of them, and they ignore the science and facts.

  9. Chris – if I may call you that – I wish that the postmodernist current was that exhausted. However, I will point you to Francis Wheen – a man of impeccable left wing credentials, mark you – and his book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World records it rather differently.

    I can’t speak for the Obama administration, but I do know that Al Gore is an anti-scientific reactionary of the worst kind. This is a guy who came out in favor of the teaching of creationism in presidential bid, and, in Earth in the Balance and elsewhere attacks the Enlightenment principle that the world is understandable. This is the language of the counter-Enlightenment.

  10. Chris Mooney

    @9 conveniently forgetting Gore’s book “The Assault on Reason”? Nothing if not a worshipping (a naive one at that) of the Enlightenment. Gore has little foibles here and there (couple of flaws in Inconvenient Truth) but basically he’s in line with mainstream science.

  11. Well, I am sorry, but I am not in the habit of taking politicians at face value. He repeatedly talks about nature, not as something to be understood and controlled, but as a mystery to be appeased. This is the language of the primal reactionary. It’s so far to the right it’s off the charts.

    Also, the “couple of flaws” are, in fact, major distortions – witness the whole 20 feet of sea level rise, when the IPCC says 2. Look up the “Dimmock case”. I repeat what I say elsewhere; I have immense confidence in our scientists, engineers and so on. I have no confidence whatsoever in Gore and his rabble; they couldn’t protect me from a bruised knee or a rainy day, and they shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that they can, let alone to demand the sort of power they want.

    NikfromNYC, thanks for the info. I’ll look into that. I knew some of it – Ehrlich is a deeply sinister figure – but a lot of the rest is new.

    [EDIT] sorry, make that 1 foot.

  12. Postmodernism was pretty horrible, but it is by and large dead. Indeed, if anything, some of its arguments have been adopted by those on the right who would attack science.

    If you want a good historical (not current) account of an attack on science from the Left, *including* those in science, read “The Blank Slate” by Stephen Pinker. This isn’t exactly what Chris asks for in his next post, as Pinker is himself a liberal, not a conservative. However, many liberals viewed him as reactionary as he didn’t drink the “all nurture, no nature” kool-aid that liberal philosophy seemed to require.

  13. Mike H

    1) more fully documented case studies; 2) more clearly valid case studies; 3) crassness–e.g., the administration is doing this stuff blatantly and not apologizing; 4) a strong explanatory framework–e.g., what is the ideology driving this?

    I think the decision to close Yucca Mountain qualifies on all these with the “ideology driving this” being his desire to lock in the elctoral votes of Nevada and save Ried’s ass in his re-election.

  14. ╦heBigo╦

    @ Chris Moon

    Post-Modernism is alive and well today especially in academia. Any form of political correctness, ( which is at its most strongest in academia of course ) egalitarianism and the skewing of the scientific method such as peer review the last part is Postmodernism see the Sokal Affair.

    We can see the effects of this on many reports that fall under the category of science. For example when a report stated that geneticist have isolated the “Christian Gene”.

    Or how scientist have discovered that “conservative political views” are a result of a larger amygdala portion of the brain that feels fear and as a result is a brain problem. By that logic you can shrink that portion of the brain by becoming liberal. Of course these are just two examples that i have given but I’m sure you have read countless similar “scientific” reports that are really just B.S

    These kinds of garbage reports escape peer review and are considered science and why post-modernism is alive and strong today.

  15. Chris Mooney

    I disagree that postmodernism is alive and well in academia. What is your basis for saying this?

    There is indeed recent scientific research, brain scan research, that says conservatives have bigger amygdalas (on average) and liberals have bigger ACCs (on average). This is a study of British college students, 90 of them, peer reviewed and published in a journal–although bizarrely, the actor Colin Firth is a coauthor.

    http://blog.psico.edu.uy/cibpsi/files/2011/04/brains.pdf

    So are you saying that the scientists measured these brain structures incorrectly? On what basis? Why would this be bad science? Or are you attacking the study because you don’t like the implications?

  16. Nullius in Verba

    #16,

    Interesting that the three things you note about the paper to assess its credibility are that it is peer reviewed, in a journal, and the characteristics of one of the authors. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Things I noted were:

    – The sample size is small: 90 students. And the number in each political category is smaller still. There appear to be 14 conservatives sampled. If you saw an opinion poll with a sample size like that, what would you think?

    - They note the possibility of selection effects. The participants were picked from the pool of university student volunteers, who they note were more middle/upper class than average. (And I would think there are many more differences between students and the general population than social class.) 61% were female. And most remarkably, they found none of their participants fell into the “very conservative” class. Given that their sampling function is apparently quite strongly correlated with one of the variables under study, I’d say that was worth looking into.

    - They only say they control for age and sex. Considering the number of potential confounding factors and selection effects, the significance thresholds quoted are not going to be very accurate.

    - The error bars overlap. Figure 1 in the paper, and a much better figure in the SI, show how much the distributions overlap one another. I would say, looking at those graphs, that very liberal, liberal, and middle-of-the-road had indistinguishable distributions, but the self-reported conservatives are indeed offset. Virtually all the territory they occupy also includes liberals, but they do seem concentrated in one corner of the space. This may therefore be the result of selection effects – conservatives at the other end of the distribution space are being excluded somehow.
    (Incidentally, it’s more usual to use 95% intervals in scientific results, but they only present 1-sigma bars/ellipses. Not wrong, but it could give the wrong impression if you’re not reading it carefully.)

    I’ll offer you an alternative hypothesis – one of many – that this is a sample taken from students of a predominantly left-wing university where conservative views are not welcome, and that it takes a particular type of character to self-identify as a conservative or as having conservative views; i.e. a contrarian not bothered by social pressures. The obvious test would be to measure participants on a contrarian/conformist personality scale, and control for that variable.

    To be flippant about it for a moment, could I perhaps offer the above as the contrast between the left-wing and right-wing approaches to critically assessing a scientific study? One of the authors is a famous actor, versus identifying possible sample selection effects? In the sense of being a ‘Democratic war on science’ argument?

  17. Jody

    @17. Actually, for a healthy brain MRI study, 90 Subjects (not counting replication studies) is fairly good.

    Yes, there are many possible alternative scenarios to explain the results, but as clearly stated, the experiment was building on previous psychological studies about the differences between liberals and conservatives. It was designed with a hypothesis based on those previous studies: that brain mass in certain key areas could account for certain, already observed, lib/con behavior. The areas of interest have previously established effects on human reactions. Your analysis presents it as if they just measured some brain mass and pulled a conclusion out of the air.

    Their study was based on previous work in the field, and the results seem to confirm their logical hypothesis (and don’t seem to contradict it). They clearly and openly discuss the selection criteria and other potential mitigating factors. It was then peer reviewed and published. Even the authors don’t claim it’s conclusive, and you can feel free to test your own hypothesizes. I believe Chris’s point was that this is perfectly sound science, and nothing you said challenges that even remotely.

    I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I believe Chris was being flippant about Colin Firth because it was funny, and this is a blog, and as usual you should lighten up. Also, because the person he was responding to blithely called it postmodern junk science (which even a quick scan debunks) and so it didn’t require more than flippant dismissal.

  18. Nullius in Verba

    #18,

    While it is true that it is difficult to get large sample sizes for an MRI study, whether it is good or not depends purely on the statistics. An opinion poll based on 90 people wouldn’t fly even in the general media, and one that draws important conclusions from a 14 participant sample less so.

    Priors can be a consideration, but we would need to examine the prior evidence for them first before we can make a judgement. If the evidence had been conclusive, we wouldn’t need the MRI scans, yes? We need to be careful of confirmation bias, and not judge the present study more leniently because it fits in with our preconceptions.

    There are a whole lot of other assumptions they’re making – for example, that the political test only tests politics and not anything else, or that brain volume is positively correlated with strength of cognitive or personality traits. It’s depressingly reminiscent of 19th century IQ tests and craniometry, which was also used to justify beliefs about out-groups. Even with simple systems, you have to be incredibly careful to be able to be really sure that you’re measuring the right thing, and not fooling yourself that you’re seeing what you expect to see, and when it comes to something as complicated as the human brain, the alternative possibilities explode. They’re not being nearly careful enough to be able to derive a result of this nature.

    It’s definitely not postmodern, but it might be Cargo Cult science. (You’ll recall that Feynman specifically used the example of psychological research for illustration in his essay.)

    Yes, they discuss sampling procedures (in enough detail to raise concerns), but there’s a lot we don’t know about it, or its possible influences on the study. Why, for example, that odd lack of conservatives? It’s irrelevant that it was peer-reviewed and published – peer-review frequently doesn’t check details like this, all it says is that this study is worth reading, not that it is any good.

    Chris may well have been being flippant about Colin Firth – I would imagine that the study was done as part of a BBC Radio 4 programme in which he participated – but it’s a long-standing point between us that science is routinely being judged on the basis of Argument from Authority: the qualifications and expertise of authors, the prestige of peer-review journals. I was being somewhat flippant myself in pointing out that once again he was basing the credibility of a paper on its list of authors.

  19. Jody

    @19.” Priors can be a consideration, but we would need to examine the prior evidence for them first before we can make a judgement. If the evidence had been conclusive, we wouldn’t need the MRI scans, yes? ”

    Um, no. The whole point of this was that nobody had taken the conclusions of previous psychological studies and examined them from the perspective of brain mass. The previous evidence was conclusive enough to create an experiment testing for causes.

    A review of the scientific method, pulled from Wikipedia. 

    1. Define a question.  Is there a relationship between the brain’s formation and the psychology of those self-claiming a political ideology.
    2. Gather information and resources (observe). They examined the studies on the psychology of lib/cons.
    3. Form an explanatory hypothesis.  Mass differences in the amygdala and ACC might account for the psychological differences observed in the studies.
    4. Perform an experiment and collect data, testing the hypothesis. The MRIs, drawing from the pool of available subjects.
    5. Analyze the data. Done.
    6. Interpret the data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis. The results seem to confirm, and do not dispute, the hypothesis.
    7. Publish results. Done.
    8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists). Here’s where you would come in, if you were a scientist. 

    Nobody at this point is pre-filling out voter registration forms based on MRI scans. If subsequent experiments disprove a relationship between amygdala/ACC mass and self-identified political affiliation, it doesn’t mean the science was bad or the scientists inept, it just meant the hypothesis was wrong. You constantly write as if any experiment that is not perfect is therefore flawed and should not be considered. No experiment is ever perfect or conclusive, it is the cumulative weight of multiple imperfect experiments, and the opinions of scientists in the related fields, that progresses scientific theory.  That is why peer review and publication are important.  

  20. Nullius in Verba

    There’s a bit more to it than Wikipedia says.

    You’re OK on setting a question and gathering evidence. But when you form an explanatory hypothesis, what you should be doing is forming all possible explanatory hypotheses, and then doing experiments to eliminate them, ideally leaving only one.

    You also need to consider all the other consequences of those hypotheses to see what else they predict – partly because the cases where they make different predictions are potential experiments, partly because you may find predictions contradict previous findings. (For example, the hypothesis that brain volume is directly related to cognitive ability runs straight into the facts that men’s brains are bigger than women’s, and sperm whale brains are bigger than men’s. Size isn’t everything.)

    You then need to design your experiment to test the alternatives, eliminating all but one. The design has to take account of errors and uncertainty, sources of bias, statistical power, measurability, the statistical analysis to be done (very important to define that before seeing the results), and so on. It’s not a straightforward matter.

    Then you perform the experiment – documenting everything, including unexpected problems, according to the design. Perform the tests on the results that you defined earlier. Then go through the design, in light of the results and problems observed, and determine whether the design met the requirements (excluding bias, sufficient statistical power, etc.). And then round the loop again. When you’re sure you’ve eliminated every possible problem you can, write it up and publish. Then wait for other scientists to point out things you might have missed, and then go back and do it again. It is a difficult and painstaking process.

    “You constantly write as if any experiment that is not perfect is therefore flawed and should not be considered.”

    You can consider it, but you should consider it knowing what its flaws are. Until the flaws have all been removed the work is not complete but still in progress.

    “No experiment is ever perfect or conclusive, it is the cumulative weight of multiple imperfect experiments,…”

    Be very careful here. The cumulative weight of evidence from imperfect experiments can succeed if the flaws/errors are statistically independent. Systematic errors do not cancel out through repetition, and correlated errors cancel more slowly than you expect. Biases (cognitive and other) tend to be systematic. It is very dangerous to combine partial evidence without an understanding of how the errors are related – another excellent reason for knowing what the potential flaws in an experiment are.

    “…and the opinions of scientists in the related fields”

    No, definitely not. What matters is whether they have any arguments that can show your results to be potentially flawed (and whether they have checked thoroughly enough to tell). Opinions are irrelevant, except to the extent that they are based on understanding of the actual evidence.

    The practice of science is never perfect, but that’s no excuse for ignoring the imperfections and pretending it is. Science progresses through the ruthless elimination of flawed hypotheses to leave only the fittest survivors, like Natural Selection. Science progresses through criticism.

  21. Jody

    @21. Your interpretation of science doesn’t work in the real world, nor does the history of science conform to your sterile ideals. You can never eliminate all the variables and flaws. Likewise, if you didn’t rely on the opinions of experts, you could never progress in a field, it would just be a quagmire of of nitpicking criticism.

    You are also very wrong about hypothesis formation. An experiment in no way requires you to come up with, or eliminate, all other hypothesizes. OTHER experiments do that. The scientists should try to eliminate as many variables as their always limited resources and time allow, and explain any known flaws honestly. But no experiment will ever be complete or perfect.

    All of this has now gone into our radically different perspectives of science: pragmatic vs unattainably idealized. But nothing in your statements has done anything to question the science of the specific experiment. It is good science. Like all science, it is incomplete and imperfect, should be retested, and should be examined from other possible hypothesizes. But it is still good science, and worthy of note, citation, and notice.

  22. Chris Mooney

    Nullius here is another published study with a very similar finding. I’m sure you’ll subject this one to withering critique too

    http://lcap.psych.ucla.edu/pdfs/amodio_natureneuroscience07.pdf

  23. Nullius in Verba

    #22,

    My interpretation of science does work in the real world; it is possible, I admit, that it isn’t working in academia. You just try getting sloppy work like this passed in pharmaceutical development, or safety engineering, or something with a $100m investment riding on it! In the real world, with lives and fortunes at stake, you do it right or you’re out the door.

    Whether or not you can eliminate all variables and flaws, you should eliminate all the flaws that you can. If I as a non-specialist can spot these problems in a matter of minutes, those in the field certainly should have. If I can suggest improvements that should have been made, then what excuse can there be?

    The points I raised do question the ‘goodness’ of this science. If you can’t eliminate alternatives sufficiently to come to a dependable conclusion, then don’t waste our money doing the experiment. I can get a “maybe” far more cheaply than that.

    #23,

    You ought to be able to subject it to your own withering critique, now that I’ve given you an example.

    - What’s the sample size?
    - What indications are there that the sample is representative of the general population?
    For example – they mention the sex ratio, and you can count up how many liberals versus how many conservatives they had from the figure 1a near the bottom. (presumably 0 on the scale is politically neutral.) Are these the same as in the general population do you think, and if not, what does that imply about the sampling process?
    - What’s the overlap between the distributions for liberal and conservative? (fig 1a again.) Is the difference in the bulk of the points, or the outliers? How many outliers are we talking about? If there are more points sampled on the left, would you expect the outliers to have the same spread on the left as on the right?
    - What other variables and possible alternative explanations did they control for?

    Have a go! Let me know what you come up with.

    (Incidentally – I have no objection to the idea that liberals and conservatives might think differently for innate reasons. I would expect – like most nature-vs-nurture issues – that it is a bit of both. But I’m highly dubious that the nature of the difference is anything so crude that it will show up in the gross anatomy.)

  24. Chris Mooney

    I am not into debunking studies one by one, in this field or in other fields. I’m interested in what the weight of the evidence shows. As Jody pointed out, the reason these brain scan studies are being done is that psychological research gave a reason to expect that they might find something….and when they looked, they did. So you have to look at the totality of knowledge. I may do a post on this.

  25. Nullius in Verba

    “I am not into debunking studies one by one, in this field or in other fields. I’m interested in what the weight of the evidence shows.”

    I know. I was suggesting you might like to experiment with a different method, for once.

    Statisticians tell the tale of The Emperor of China’s nose.
    The Emperor of China lived in the Hidden City, where nobody had ever set eyes on him. A statistician was curious about the length of his nose, and could not go to look, so he conducted a survey of all the people in China to ask them how long they thought his nose was. None of them had seen him either, but each made their best guess, and the statistician collected the masses of data – literally tons of evidence – and averaged them. He reasoned that while each individual estimate was probably quite inaccurate, subject to experimental flaws and errors, if he averaged them to find the consensus opinion, the errors would average out and he would get an accurate number – given the number of people in China giving him data, very accurate.

    You and Jody say that the psychological research gave reason to expect this, but is that research any better? Suppose they had the same sampling problem? We ask for the evidence, and are pointed to one paper, we say the evidence isn’t there, we are told it is in earlier papers, we chase the earlier papers and find inconclusive results they say need further work to confirm, and asking for the confirmation we are directed to the first paper again. We end up playing the cups-and-ball trick: whichever cup you turn over, the ball – the evidence we seek – is always under another cup.

    Does the sheer number of cups, each with the possibility of a ball under it, count for anything?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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