Scientists Too Sure Of Themselves: Except, Of Course, Climatologists And Neuroscientists

Since most of us are ill inclined to labor until Monday next, I don’t want to post anything of momentous importance until then—accepting, as we must, that all that appears in this space is, at a bare minimum, monumentally important and routinely Earth-shattering. Here, then, are some things upon which to stew while we await the new year. Expanded articles on each topic will appear once we are all re-ensconced in our cubicles.

The Decline Effect of the Scientific Method

Drop everything and click over to Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece on The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method? This eminently quotable article well summarizes what I have been raving about for years: that scientists are too damn certain of themselves. (Not me, natch’.)

Except for climatology, whose worst-case predictions are too good to be false, the grim situation in other fields is best described by biologist Richard Palmer, “We cannot escape the troubling conclusion that some—perhaps many—cherished generalities are at best exaggerated in their biological significance and at worst a collective illusion nurtured by strong a-priori beliefs often repeated.”

Amen, brother Palmer!

Our man John Ioannidis is there with words of eternal truth:

[T]he main problem is that too many researchers engage in what he calls “significance chasing,” or finding ways to interpret the data so that it passes the statistical test of significance—the ninety-five-per-cent boundary invented by Ronald Fisher. “The scientists are so eager to pass this magical test that they start playing around with the numbers, trying to find anything that seems worthy.”

Preach it!

I’ll have much more to say on this next week. Thanks to longtime reader Nate Winchester for the link.

Conservatives’ Brains Are More Primitive

Ronald Reagan was fond of telling this joke about that former paradise on Earth, the Enforced Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (E-USSR).

A guy walks into a police station and asks if they have found a parrot. The desk sergeant says, “No, comrade. Why?” The guy says he lost one, but that if the police found one, “I want you to know that I don’t agree with a word that bird says.”

The obvious hilarity is that any loyal socialist citizen caught disagreeing with the wisdom of his masters was thought to have contracted a disease, which (of course) meant undergoing a harsh treatment to remove the cause of the disease. Big Brother must be loved!

The E-USSR failed, mainly because they ran short of bullets with which to cure diseased dissidents. But imagine if Stalin had access to modern science! Then he could have ferreted out the mentally afflicted before they became problematic.

What joy Stalin would have felt where he to read of a new study conducted by neuroscientists at University College London, which reports that, “Self-proclaimed right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion while their political opponents from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates.”

[Geraint Rees director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said,] “The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.

“It is very significant because it does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.”

Yes, dear readers, “right-wingers” are both more primitive and more apt to rely on emotions (read: they are less reasonable) than those of the enlightened left. Thus, the poor souls who argue against, say, socialism as a cure-all, can’t help themselves. Their brains are just different; they are to be pitied! Or cured?

The neuroscientists who discovered these, what were already obvious, facts used a magnetic magneto-phrenology imaging (MRI-P) device. These miracles tools can look inside any brain and can confirm any hypothesis a researcher might have. Marry them with the kind of statistical methods outlined in the previous article, and there is nothing they cannot prove.

As Rees said, his findings must be true because he found “a strong correlation that reaches all our scientific tests of significance”. It’s science!

23 Comments

  1. Ahah! Beautifully put. I really am annoyed at the constant attempts to explain complex beliefs and ideological systems as fluctuations between sizes of glandula A, or hipothalamus B, etc. I can almost hear these people say “oh, of course you’re being so emotional, you can’t get hold of your insanely big amygdala.”

  2. Interestingly, the study hasn’t been published (ie. peer reviewed) yet. And while, “The research was carried out by Geraint Rees director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience … ” there is no mention (that I can find) at the institute’s web site.

    Professor Rees said that although it was not precise enough to be able to predict someone’s stance simply from a scan, there was “a strong correlation that reaches all our scientific tests of significance”.
    http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/brain-thickness-determines-political-leaning-study-20101229-199hk.html

    Well, that settles it.

    Further proof: Bing returns 36 links (including this fine site) that contain the phrase, “The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old,” Google, 27 (after promising 426 on the first page). If all those sites carefully researched and reported the story, it must be true.

  3. Related. While researching the above comment I ran across an interesting and developing story. Start with this WSJ Health Blog from July 1, 2010 …

    The paper is out! Or at least one of them is. Researchers, clinicians and patients in the chronic-fatigue syndrome community have been eagerly awaiting the release of two studies on the relationship between the XMRV virus and CFS, and the journal Retrovirology has just published one of them online.

    Researchers looking at the blood of 51 people with CFS and 56 healthy people found no association between the virus and the syndrome. In fact, they didn’t find XMRV in any of the samples, which were tested in the CDC lab as well as the Robert Koch-Institute in Berlin and the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco.

    … findings don’t agree with the study published last October in Science, which found XMRV was more common in CFS patients than in healthy people. The paper kicked off an ongoing investigation by public health officials into the possible impact of the virus on the nation’s blood supply.
    http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2010/07/01/cdc-teams-xmrv-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-paper-is-out/

    And now (December 20, 2010) …

    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome not caused by XMRV

    A virus previously thought to be associated with chronic fatigue syndrome is not the cause of the disease, a detailed study led by UCL scientists has shown.

    The research shows that cell samples used in previous research were contaminated with the virus identified as XMRV and that XMRV is present in the mouse genome
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1012/10122001

  4. You guys don’t understand. What these failures of science mean is that science works. Or something. At least that’s what I got from that last confusing RealClimate post.

    Where they acknowledge the big importance of blogs to find out that that arsenic stunt was bad science…. wait…. watttt???

  5. They are just threaned by your big amygdala.

    “The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old.” My amygdala is about 41 years old.

  6. Hmm, even assuming the neurobiologist is correct and there are structural differences between the brains of left and right, what conclusions can be drawn about the effects of those differences? That leftists are physiologically less capable of understanding the rest of humanity (the amyglada handles with the DETECTION of emotions, not the feeling of them) and are literally thicker in the brain (honest brain scientists are not certain what the anterior cinculate cortex does or how it does it) the ACC seems to be related to a variety of things like paying attention and schizophrenia BUT thickness or thinness might make it better at doing whatever it is that the ACC does.

  7. As it happens I’ve been sort-of discussing this on Twitter ( @mrsean2k ), slightly better armed than I would have been courtesy of this blog.

    Maybe a bit annoying in this format, but my point over several 140 character chunks was basically:

    “I’d want to know if espousing right wing views could *alter* brain chemistry / structure”

    “bugger of a control group to establish anyway. Correlation always by far the easiest bit.”

    “I’d hope, for all our sakes, education was orders of magnitude more significant than meat”

    “but even *some* influence brain structure ideology would be interesting.”

    IOW, not unlike clinical depression causing a chemical imbalance, could actively espousing / acting / considering a particular ideology over a prolonged period *change* the development of the amygdala, so that proposed cause and effect are reversed?

    And your swollen amygdala may shrivel if you cross the floor?

  8. It is well-known scientifically that Gadarene swine have swollen lizard brains. But that is thought to be due to the legion of demons in there, and not to political persuasion.

  9. Not to be outdone, Thom Hartmann has leveraged the conservative gene theory into an attractive new conjecture.
    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/new-lefty-theory-ritalin-may-turn-children-into-conservatives/
    And here I thought fluorine in water was a communist plot. I guess that just dates me.

    All this has been in the works for a long time. After all, “ecopsychologists,” yet another branch that has the truth in its hands, had branded climate denialism a mental disorder. http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/printable/6320/

  10. No one needs a statistical study to know that being shot in the head is detrimental but one is needed to “know” if ingesting salt is bad. I think one of the problems is the growing acceptance of finding effects that reside near or under the noise level. If statistics is needed to even see the effect one has to wonder if it is in fact real.

    I had more to say but I seem to have contracted a case verbal overshadowing.

  11. Some stupid statistics I came across today:

    Lesbians earn 6% more than heterosexual women after ajusting for age, eductation, race and metropolitian area.

    Women with C cups are 10% more likely to be picked up when hitchhiking than A cups.

    They make great headlines, but the noise to signal seems awfully high.

  12. It … does suggest there is something about political attitudes that are either encoded in our brain structure through our experience or that our brain structure in some way determines or results in our political attitudes.”

    Seems to be a standard conclusion, not much of an explanation, really. Nature or Nurture? The chick or the egg? Anyhow, I find the science of the brain fascinating. I shall stick around and see what neuroscience would bring us in the next quarter century. Just think of how far genetics has come in the past quarter century!!!

  13. As always, things aren’t simple. It may well be that the supposed intellectual superiority of the left is not a good thing.

    The problem with the over-intellectual is that they lack a well developed BS filter. They will believe anything (like AGW for instance) as long as it is self-consistent.

    Check out “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. Very Interesting!

  14. The problem with the over-intellectual is that they lack a well developed BS filter. They will believe anything (like AGW for instance) as long as it is self-consistent.

    This kind of intellectualistica analysis is the same kind of BS that the alleged “over-intellectuals” seems to indulge in. Be careful.

  15. No, Doug, it’s true. Women with a “C” cup do indeed get picked up more then women with an “A” cup. The data on women with a “D” cup is of the chart. I think this guy is on to something this time.

  16. Luis Diaz said:

    “This kind of intellectualistica analysis is the same kind of BS that the alleged “over-intellectuals” seems to indulge in. Be careful.”

    So what do you advocate?

  17. I advocate to read Briggs’ book, I advocate better sampling methods, paying attention to the power of the study and above all I advocate SKEPTICISM.
    Try Sextus Empiricus, pause, go back, reach for Jaynes “Probability theory”, reflect over the quality of argumentation, and so on. Think about logical implications of relativism ( Luis Diaz !): if something can be good or bad depending on the point of view, or particular system of beliefs, then genocide is bad for the slaughtered but good for the murderers. Self- contradicting nonsense.
    Garbage will fade to obscurity sooner or later, the truth (not always as self evident as C-cups) may prevail — but at what price?

  18. “The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old”

    Francois Guisot (1787-1874): “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”

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