On the eve of the sixth anniversary of 9/11 comes a new kind of political disaster--one of the most troubling examples of an already troubled nation's obsession with biodeterminism I have ever seen.
A study picked up by the American media (see below for reference) claims to have evidence that the brains of liberals and conservatives are "hardwired" differently when it comes to conflict monitoring and resolution. The news article title itself ("Homo politicus: brain function of liberal, conservatives differs") is immediately guilty of overgeneralizing because "brain function" is particularly vague and sounds all-inclusive.
What do researchers deem an adequate analog that has external validity outside the scope of the study applicable to the political issues harshly debated between liberals and conservatives?--no more than how much brain activity occurs in one small area of the brain when met with a task that challenges an established routine (in the current research, a task involved pressing a key when seeing an M appear on a computer monitor but not pressing the key if a W apppeared. There was one condition in which the M appeared 4 times more frequently than the W and in another condition the W appeared 4 times more frequently, which set up a routine and controlled for what effect the specific letters might be having on the task. As a group, the participants who identified themselves as liberals made fewer errors and had more brain activity in the region of the anterior cingulate cortex). The researchers then infer that such a circumstance in the lab has the same effect on your brain's mechanism for basic conflict resolution, such as having to change the way you would routinely drive home when you're met with road construction. In the end, the same brain mechanism is presumably so important for something like your ability to resolve the larger abstract and real world conflicts that are a part of a political orientation that it warrants media exposure of the results.According to the results, it was "unmistakable" that the group identifying themselves as liberals showed greater neural activity according to electroencephalographs in a region of the brain thought to be associated with conflict monitoring when they had to break a routine, which can then be inferred to the whole population of liberals (bad science), and this explains why (i.e., the underlying cause) they resolve conflicts differently than conservatives? What is much more unmistakable is that research of this type is consciously designed to try making a correlation between physiology and a characteristic such as political orientation a unidirectional cause and effect relationship. The biodeterministic chain of events goes like this: Genes cause the development of conflict monitoring mechanisms in your brain (which itself is not well established) and then this biological component is why you prefer a liberal or conservative type of conflict resolution (whatever that could possibly be in the real world). Let's not leave out the part of the causal chain in which the media gets a hold of this type of research and throws an already biased analysis so far out of whack that people begin wondering whose brain structure is "better" for conflict resolution--the stubborn and rigid conservative or the wishy-washy liberal--when brain structure is not the all important causal determinant for a person to adopt one political orientation over another. The public has already been told in so many ways it's "better" to be stubborn and rigid than wishy-washy.
Not even half of the people who went to the Internet on their Monday morning to see this article sitting there waiting to be read have the capacity to see the reductionistic interpretation of human behavior being presented. Moreover, it would never cross their minds that you can't simply seperate a political agenda from "scientific" research claiming you have "scientific" evidence that is simply the factual truth (i.e., the researchers chose to add to the body of research that keeps telling us how automatic behavior is).If you do happen to have the capacity to understand science more than most people, keep in mind the following:1. The study imposed order by forcing people to report their political orientation as one thing or the other- conservative or liberal. (There's no mention of moderates, independents, or any other political labels.)
2. Skeptics might also want to consider that nobody is demonstrating how first you develop a particular type of conflict resolution dependant on a brain mechanism and then you become either a liberal or a conservative, which would be crucial to actually demonstrate that physiology has the kind of power that some assume predetermines even your political orientation.
3. Unless everyone in each group performed exactly the same (highly unlikely), we have no way of knowing about any overlap in the two groups (i.e., was the brain activity of some conservatives less than what was observed with liberals and vice versa). We can only assume any overlap was not enough to prevent a statistically significant difference between the two groups.4. To suggest that the evidence obtained by researchers in this study is relevant to "hardwiring" of the brain confounds how a person uses his or her brain with the actual physiological structure. The physiological structure of the brain is not automatically revealed by the way someone demonstrates thinking or behavior. In other words, two people can have the same basic brain physiology and still not USE their brains the same way based on many different factors. It's a trend toward biodeterminism that many scientists make this leap of faith.
I absolutely cannot believe that before the data is even gathered these researchers design studies specifically to support that activity of merely one region of the brain (in this case, the anterior cingulate cortex) is indicative of a person's conflict regulation (but may only be one small part of a complex system), that they authoritatively say "the neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood" (as if later education has no influence on decision making), that they measure the electrical activity of one small region of the brain and eventually (when they find only a correlation between whose brain showed more activity and what they indicated as political orientation) conclude that "genes provide the BLUEPRINT [my emphasis] for more liberal or conservative orientations." Then, just to be on the safe side to not make their preplanned agenda so obvious and not give away that we're heading back to the reductionistic age of the eugenics movement, they sneak in a sentence or a phrase like "but ...they [genes] are shaped substantially by one's environment over the course of development." Substantially enough to stop adding to the body of research that fosters biodeterminism?Can't you see eugenicists of the future, armed with the data from the human genome project, trying to figure out how to breed out of the American population a "liberal" style of conflict resolution (again, whatever that could possibly be in the real world)? More people have got to see this is scientific thinking gone awry.
Your brain structure is a PHYSIOLOGICAL CORRELATE in relation to your behavior, and any state one region of your brain is in when you resolve a conflict is a PHYSIOLOGICAL CORRELATE and not necessarily the cause of how you resolve a conflict. There is a physiologically correlated state at ANY given time to your behavior. If there is anything that is rigid and stubborn in our society it is the conceptualization of human behavior as mechanistically bound to the result of research studies trying to show how physiology causes people to act a certain way. To conclude that your physiological state or genetic structure is bound by the underlying "blueprint" that has presumably predesigned (i.e., the cause of) your behavior when there are actually a multitude of factors both known and unknown that in some way influence something as complex as political orientation, your intelligence, how you resolve a conflict, and (most importantly) your development as a whole person is further evidence of the sheer biodeterminism that is ruining the field of psychology and our understanding of human behavior. Read the article yourself by journalist, Marlowe Hood, "Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs" available here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/scienceneuroscience
Edit: The above article was pulled from the U.S. Yahoo news (not suprisingly). You can see Google here: http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5isgJ0r_9nH41VBhtXvN17pxlA31Q
also available here is another journalist's take on the research but is similarly supporting biodetermism: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-politics10sep10,0,5982337.story?coll=la-home-center