Over the weekend we hear from POLITICO that,
“A growing body of experimental research is finding evidence suggesting that, to some degree, political inclinations and ideological leanings may be tied to innate factors like a person’s biology, physiology and genetics… The area of research is relatively new, but researchers say they have already made some startling findings, leaving them with no doubt that they are on the right track. But the nascent field is still struggling to win acceptance in many corners of academia, said Prof. George Marcus of Williams College, an expert in political psychology and the author of the 2012 book ‘Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics, and Politics.’… ‘Those interested in new work find it exciting,’ Marcus told POLITICO. ‘Those committed to established ways of thinking are pretty much wedded to rejecting it so far…kind of like climate science.’”
Perhaps this story feels vaguely familiar to you. It should. Back in 2011 we were seeing stories like this one: “Is your brain liberal or conservative?”
“Scientists had previously found that some psychological traits were associated with certain political views. For instance, studies have shown that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threatening faces, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences.”
Then back in 2007, the Los Angeles Times trumpeted: “Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain.”
“Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.”
This was one of a pile of stories release about the same time.
Basically, this story keeps getting reported on some pretext or other every few years—and always as an exciting new area of science. The reason it is always fresh and “new” is because, none of the “new” discoveries are ever worth much. Thus, each new attempt to prove a biological basis for politics is always a hopeful development to the media. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in 2007, “I think this study is just a continuation of a long line of craptacular research.”
He further pointed out,
“Is socialist Sweden’s population saturated with liberal-brains? Are other ethnicities simply genetically ‘conservative’ — i.e. opposed to change — and that’s why they have the problems they do? And what about Canada? They’re very liberal up there, but genetically or neurologically, are they really that distinguishable from Americans? In Russia for a very long time, ‘conservatives’ wanted to conserve the Soviet system which made them the anti-matter universe versions of American conservatives. Surely the substance of what people want to conserve matters, if we are to take these studies remotely seriously.”
Goldberg points out a lot of other problems with these studies. Building on what he says and my own observations, I think their main purpose is to pretend that there are two different parties in the United States that are polar opposites. Where does Rand Paul—winning cheers from Glenn Greenwald, Ted Cruz, Van Jones, Glen Beck, and John Cusack while being mocked by John McCain, James Carville, and Lindsey Graham—fit into these studies? The fact is that both the labels and the parties are imperfect approximations at best. Are the GOP advocates of same-sex “marriage” also equipped with different brain function than the GOP defenders of DOMA?
I think the purpose of this pursuit is to discourage critical thinking on issues. As John Taylor Gatto once said, the purpose of public school is to produce “people who believe that the difference between Coke and Pepsi is a matter worth arguing about.” These claims about a biological basis for political ideology encourage the same idiocy in politics.