Martha Farah just alerted me about her recent comment in the Neuroethics & Law blog. Yesterday, NY Times ran a story about neuro-politics. More precisely, they presented a study of how subjects’ brains responded to, e.g., different political words and pictures of US politicians involved in the 2008 presidental election. The article’s first author is Marco Iacoboni from UCLA. Basically, the researchers give subjects different kinds of tasks, report activations in different regions of the brain (that themselves are likely enough to be involved during the tasks). Then, the authors set out to interpret this activity, such as:
When we showed subjects the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent,” they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety
Didn’t I just say that the amygdala is involved in positive emotions, too? So what does amygdala activation mean, then? Studies have also shown that mere emotional uncertainty (e.g., a neutral face) may activate the amygdala. So maybe the political words are just more emotionally ambiguous? Let’s take another one from a different part of the article:
With Mr. Giuliani, the reactions are reversed. Men respond strongly to his initial still photos, but this fades after they see his video. Women grow more engaged after watching his video.
OK, where did men respond more strongly? The whole brain? WOW! Let’s continue to a third place in the article:
Our subjects also exhibited a much stronger empathetic response to a minute-long excerpt from a stump speech by Mr. Thompson than they did to an excerpt of a Giuliani speech.
So what was compared? Two speakers, two political opponents, two speeches, or ___ (add your favourite). OK that’s just three examples, but the article is full of such tea-leaf reading. It’s nothing short of magical thinking, astrology or healing. Put differently, the authors look at brain blobs and try to interpret their meanings in terms of previous knowledge. Is that bad? Yes it is, because it does not even attempt toput up testable hypotheses. And why don’t we get to know what is meant by “more active” or “respond more strongly”? What is this activation compared to? What is the contrast, the baseline? Even further, what is the statistical cutoff and how many other regions light up during conditions X, Y or Z? Where are all the tech specs that validate this study?
So is this really our brain on politics? Or is it the Iacobini team’s own ambition to get publicity (and maybe earn some money along the way)? I’d say the latter is the case here. The basic problem is that we don’t have a scientific reference, and only have to take the authors’ word for it. It’s a violation of every sensible way to report findings from a scientific method in the press. IMO, before you can do such a thing, you should at least (!) have a manuscript that is accepted, let alone published. And if you choose to do a test for the media, just “for fun”, then say so! This article pretends to be scientifically correct. It is not.
How this has come through the press is probably the most interesting story. And how it got through the science editors at NY Times is a mystery. Indeed, I hope that more criticism will force NY Times to send out a corrigendum.
NOTE: As I hoped for, this story has spurred a lot of discussion, e.g., here.