Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reply to Mooney

Chris Mooney responds, and includes some complimentary words ("mostly...very fair"; "the first seriously engaged critique") before saying that "there is one thing that [Silber] gets factually wrong, in my opinion," that being my description of the science in the book as "rather provisional." Excerpt from Mooney: 
There is a large body of consistent psychological research on the differences between left and right, across countries. What’s much newer is extending this research into other domains–cognitive neuroscience, physiology, genetics. But even here, the new results are consistent with the preexisting psychology studies.

In other words, a large body of evidence was accumulated in psychology, and is now being re-confirmed in new fields by new scientists. It’s hard to see how this situation could exist unless there was something real that all the different researchers were detecting, albeit in different ways and with different methodologies. So I agree, this is not physics or climate science. But I disagree with the idea that the science involved is “rather provisional.” Rather, I would submit that the more you dig into and read this research, the more you’ll see how extensive it is.
Mooney cites support from neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, whose tweets about my critique include this remark:
Seriously it's such a mindless refrain to say that the science is not conclusive.
 Iacoboni's input is a good example of how substantive debates can degenerate into empty sneering, especially on Twitter. As for Mooney's far more thoughtful rebuttal, it seems to me a matter of opinion, not straightforward fact, as to whether the science described in his book is "rather provisional." (And if not, why does Mooney add "in my opinion" to his "factually wrong"?)

It is clear -- and Mooney acknowledges -- that  he is on considerably firmer scientific ground in adducing evidence from psychology, such as personality tests, than he is in tying his argument to neuroscience and genetics. As far as I can tell, the entirety of his Chapter 6 (titled "Are Conservatives from the Amygdala?") is based on science that is "rather provisional" or perhaps even more provisional than suggested by the modifier "rather." Considering that the book is titled The Republican Brain, I think I made a fair point in noting the limited development of the neuroscience involved.

As for the psychology data and particularly its extension "across countries," I think the differences various observers have noted between American conservatism and its international counterparts with regard to acceptance of well-established scientific theories in physics, biology etc., provide an obstacle to Mooney's thesis of the importance of non-cultural factors in conservative dogmatism and reality-denial. At the very least, it seems there's fertile ground for future research in trying to make sense of the cross-cultural data.

I wonder: Would a poll of psychologists and neuroscientists show they overwhelmingly agree with a list of assertions about the relevant science extracted from Mooney's book? Would they agree that I am factually wrong in describing the science as "rather provisional"? I would be interested in seeing that data.

1 comment:

ziferstein said...

No. I didn't gloat. The article was as you said. I gloat when see Perry and Palin, Csine amd Ronney, et al, but Hugh Hewett keeps me feom ever imagining rightists aren't brilliant. But they remain a mystery, and perhaps one day science will understand why they are so wrong.