An intriguing talk at a recent conference I attended discussed the Republican Brain.
Seems that scientists have been studying how people respond to different scenarios and then measure their responses, both on a written questionnaire and by looking at brain images.
Scientists find differences in the brains of conservative and liberal folks.
My fear is that the so-called “Republican Brain” may be another example of finding data to support an already held belief. What we call cherry picking your evidence.
My professors admonished us to be careful what we look for when we do research because, chances are, you will find what you are looking for.
Think of the stereotypes for folks who lean in a conservative direction. We imagine they are more recalcitrant: less likely to accept ideas outside their belief systems.
Turns out some brain research supports this thesis.
But here’s my problem: scientists used the same methodology when it came to studying American Indian brains.
American Indians could not be civilized because they had smaller skulls and were therefore less intelligent, according to 19th century scientists.
The most famous among American scientists of the time, Samuel G. Morton, collected and studied Indian skulls and pronounced that my ancestors could never advance because “their brains were more animal than human.”
The linkage between brain size and intelligence was an impressive thesis at the time, and one that scientists, politicians and lay folk readily adopted. The thesis justified the political actions that were to follow, from removal of Indian children from their homes to boarding schools, and forced sterilization of Indian women.
Such actions were justified using the rhetoric of science.
No wonder many Indians harbor resentment of science, particularly since science served political interests at many critical junctures in history.
And I can’t help but wonder whether folks doing research on liberal and conservative brains have an agenda that serves political ends.
well yes ,my sense tells me you hit it on the head with this one.
It doesn’t look like the methodology was necessarily the same. In the recent paper “Red brain, blue brain”, the authors measured chemical response rates in their subject under different decision-making circumstances. The insula and amygdala and their associated reactions are well documented, and the research supporting their functions is well-founded. This seems to be a far cry from the tenuous connections between civility and skull size that were made in the 19th century. As I was reading the article, there didn’t seem to be too much opportunity for “cherry-picking” the data. I think the sample size could have been a little bigger, but it seems incredibly unfair to connect this research with the shameful practice of geographic determinism.
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