Neuropunditry in the pages of the Atlantic. 

The state of the universe.
June 18 2008 4:48 PM

Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit?

The Atlantic goes cuckoo for neuro-puffs.

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Why weren't the brains of the party faithful lighting up? Marco Iacoboni addresses this question in his new book Mirroring People. (See Chapter 10, on "Neuropolitics.") The inconsistent results, he argues, must have reflected the cumulative effects of political smear campaigns. "In such a toxic climate, how could you possibly identify and empathize with your own candidate, even though he would still receive your vote? It was almost impossible." Thus Iacoboni concludes that "negative ads work" and that they "create a dangerous emotional disconnect between voters and the leaders who should represent them."

Ah, classic neuropunditry. Note the inversion: The fact that partisan voters don't show mOFC activity in response to their favorite candidate clearly goes against the experimental hypothesis—i.e., it suggests that a voter's political preferences cannot simply be read off an image of his brain. But rather than take these data at face value, the FKF team devises a brand-new interpretation and represents a failure as a new discovery. Thanks to political brain scanning, they argue, we now have neurological proof that negative campaigns are effective!


The researchers happily apply the same backward science to Goldberg's brain. Remember how Jimmy Carter's criticism of Israel sent the writer's amygdala into paroxysms of anxiety? Later on in the experiment, they show him an image of Mahmoud "wipe 'em off the map" Ahmadinejad. This time, his amygdala is out of the picture; the scanner reveals instead an increase in blood flow to the reward circuits of the ventral striatum. Reward? Ahmadinejad? Wha …?

As usual, the neuropundits have little trouble folding blatantly incongruous data into their narrative. "You seem to believe that the Jewish people endure, that people who try to hurt the Jewish people ultimately fail," explains FKF co-founder Josh Freedman. "Therefore, you derive pleasure from believing that Ahmadinejad will also eventually fail."

To see such shameless inanity in the pages of the Atlantic fills me with a deep, amygdalar rage. It's hard not to admire your brain, Jeff. (Who knew it was so sanguine on the Middle East?) But I'm less impressed with the people who profiled it.

Neuropunditry Watch:

Clarification, June 20, 2008: FKF Applied Research paid for Goldberg's time in the fMRI scanner in Los Angeles. The company did not cover his airfare from the East Coast. ( Return to the sentence.)