Then in June, Berkeley professor and frequent Huff Po contributor George Lakoff presented a nearly identical thesis—that Democrats are too hung up on truth and rationality—in his own analysis of voter psychology, The Political Mind. Both Lakoff and Westen present brain science as a strategic resource for the Obama campaign—a nerdy secret weapon. Up to now, they say, Democrats have been so brainy that they haven't connected with the brains of voters. But what if liberals used their knowledge of the brain to their advantage?
The fact that all neuropundits are liberals can be explained by the fact that most of the research originates in university labs. Jost, Amodio, Westen, and Lakoff are all participants in an educational system that tilts overwhelmingly to the left. We're not just talking about the Marxists and post-structuralists in the humanities—in 2002, Daniel Klein and Andrew Western tallied the political affiliations of professors at Berkeley and Stanford and found that even in the hard sciences, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a factor of almost 8 to 1. Among professors of neurology and neuroscience, Klein and Western counted 68 registered Democrats against just six Republicans.
A partisan science of partisan politics invites grave concerns about both its methodology and interpretation. Consider last week's paper in Science, which purported to show that conservatives were more anxious and easily frightened than liberals. Is that because their brains are wired differently? Or maybe it's just nerve-racking to be summoned into a lab and quizzed about your political beliefs by a bunch of university professors who almost certainly disagree with you.
You might also ask why the results had to be framed in terms of right-wing fearfulness and anxiety. The liberals could just as well have been described as having a weird inability to register emotion. (Indeed, a closer look at how the subjects were classified suggests that this interpretation makes more sense.) Likewise, the Amodio paper from 2007 demeaned conservatives for failing to process complex or conflicting stimuli rather than calling the liberals detail-obsessed and distractible.
Back in 2003, Jost and his colleagues made a compelling case that conservatives tend to be more deferential to authority and afraid of risk. But even this basic finding doesn't seem to account for party platforms. Why are liberals so conservative when it comes to the environment, endlessly harping on traditional farming practices and the uncertainty surrounding genetically modified crops, cloned meat, and the use of pesticides? And if right-wingers are so obedient, why do they favor smaller government and less gun control?
The irony of this liberal slant is that, from a strictly rational,blue-brain point of view, professional scientists have no reason to side with the Democrats. The data show that both political parties have pursued overwhelmingly pro-science agendas during the past 65 years. (If anything, research funding has tended to increase more under Republican presidents than under Democrats.) The Bush White House may have frustrated many in the community with its aggressive politicization of government science, but both candidates in this election cycle have spoken out for scientific integrity. Both accept that global warming is caused by human activity, and McCain appears to be just as committed as Obama to repeal the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
In the end, the liberal neuropundits may end up hurting their cause more than they help it. The most industrious among them have already begun to spin off private consulting firms, like Drew Westen's Westen Strategies, that hawk spurious science back to the party establishment. Consider high-powered Democratic strategist Bill Knapp, who joined up with former Clinton aide Tom Freedman to create FKF Applied Science, a neuromarketing firm that's already managed to get its bogus electoral brain-scans into the New York Times and the Atlantic.
These guys are selling junk. And it looks like the Democrats are their customers.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.