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Thursday, November 13, 2008

All the junk that's fit to debunk: "Neuropolitics" is up next


(Note: This was my ChristianWeek column, published in print as "Neuroscience hits the junk science circuit" November 15, 2008.)

Methods of probing the brain at work - while communicating with the research volunteer - have made neuroscience a very cool toy indeed. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has done for brain studies what the diving bell did for ocean studies. But all good science risks attracting junk science. And today I am going to talk about a junk science - neuropolitics.

With any luck, by the time this column sees print, we will no longer be hearing much from politicians for a while. But, knowing a timely fad when they see one, enterprising groups of researchers in psychology and neuroscience have been dabbling in “neuropolitics” — with predictable results.

In “Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings” (Scientific American, October 13, 2008) Jordan Lite skeptically chronicles neuroscience-based explanations for voting behavior. Here’s an attempted explanation of a surge of sympathy for the Republican VP candidate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, after she was announced:


Circuits of cells called mirror neurons that fire or send out signals when we see someone act in a way that's familiar may have played a role in a 20-point, post–Republican Convention swing in allegiances among white, female Obama supporters to the GOP ticket, says Marco Iacoboni, author of the book Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect with Others. Pundits credited John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate for the shift, but Iacoboni says there's reason to believe biology played a role.

At the most basic level, mirror neurons—in the form of empathy with Palin—may have temporarily dazzled swing female voters, says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of the 2006 book The Female Brain, which explores hormonal and other influences on the brains of women and girls.

"The mirror neurons in your brain are going, 'ding, ding, ding—this person is just like me,'" Brizendine says. Those mirror neurons are working with the insula, a section of the limbic system involved with emotions and gut feelings, she says. Both operate at a subcortical, or nonthinking, level dubbed the "sub-Blink level" after New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book Blink about gut instincts.
These comments handily illustrate a common factor in junk neuroscience: The attempt to find occult explanations for behavior. By “occult” explanations, I mean explanations that are not needed if we assume that the voter is behaving consciously and (in her own terms) rationally.

The text of the proposed explanations addresses mechanisms in the brain, but the subtext is that no one could conclude on rational grounds that sitting governor Palin might make a better vice president than career senator Biden. So we are asked to consider neurons or hormones or the “nonthinking” “sub-Blink” level as an explanation instead.

Lite quotes neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps’ caution that “neuropolitics” is “too nascent” a discipline to justify such strong conclusions. Actually, neuropolitics is a bogus discipline whose purpose is to use the trappings of neuroscience to flag the generally liberal political beliefs of academics as more scientific than those of the average voter. Such studies are an excellent demonstration of confirmation bias — seeing only the evidence that supports what we already believe.

As it happens, much sound research has been done on how people decide who to vote for. Briefly, many voters do not think much about politics, but vote for a candidate who sounds “reasonable” — generally, the one they hear the most positive news about. Some always vote for or against the incumbent. Others are canvassed at the workplace to vote for, say, the “pro-union” party or the “pro-industry” party. In some regions, the region-friendly party routinely wins. Religious figures often suggest a direction for the vote of the faithful. Some voters, having paid little attention to the issues or party policy, “do their duty” by voting for an ethnically reassuring name or photo. Some factors are harder to predict. There is the disputed Bradley effect, for example — voters may reassure pollsters that they intend to vote for a minority group member, when they will in fact vote for reasons listed above.

The neuroscience around how we make choices is a fascinating study, and I certainly don’t want to discourage it. But serious study must begin by addressing the large existing fact base of rational and conscious factors that sway voters, not by proposing exotic theories about irrational and unconscious factors, theories that merely flatter the vanity of professors.

Denyse O'Leary is the co-author of The Spiritual Brain (Harper One, 2007)

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