Ever since the days of Karl Marx, leftists have tried to stigmatize the political beliefs of non-leftists as stemming from some irrational pathology.
Marxists developed the idea of “false consciousness” to explain why everyone in the world didn’t immediately recognize the obvious correctness of Marxist ideas. Later, leftists of all stripes resorted to explanations based on Freudian pseudo-science to “explain” that conservatives rejected the obviously correct leftist ideas because of sexual repression or other Freudian mechanisms we now know to be without any scientific basis.
Today, we see an increasing number of “studies” that seek to link non-leftist beliefs to mindless biological factors. The latest comes from political scientists at Cornel University.
The press release from Cornel says:
Are you someone who squirms when confronted with slime, shudders at stickiness or gets grossed out by gore? Do crawly insects make you cringe or dead bodies make you blanch?
If so, chances are you’re more conservative — politically, and especially in your attitudes toward gays and lesbians — than your less-squeamish counterparts, according to two Cornell University studies.
Liberals and conservatives disagree about whether disgust has a valid place in making moral judgments, Pizarro noted. Conservatives have argued that there is inherent wisdom in repugnance; that feeling disgusted about something — gay sex between consenting adults, for example — is cause enough to judge it wrong or immoral, even lacking a concrete reason. Liberals tend to disagree, and are more likely to base judgments on whether an action or a thing causes actual harm.
This study [PDF] clearly fits the historical pattern of stigmatizing conservatives as making political decisions based on thoughtless gut reactions while intelligent, educated leftists make decisions with emotionless logic.
I can say a lot of things about this study and the obvious unconscious biases it reveals, but for the sake of brevity in this post I will confine myself to examining only the study’s basic methodology, the press release’s assertions, the obvious contradictory evidence.
I can best describe the methodology of the study as lightweight. The researchers used the internet web polling site Zoomerang.com to conduct the questionnaires. The participants selected themselves by signing up for the website. Self-selection and participants entering more than once under alternate identities are common problems with online polls and questionnaires. The study does not mention any precautions taken to prevent such problems. There were only 188 participants which is not a large sampling for a study that seeks to examine the behavior of 204 million adult Americans. They used the Disgust Scale Revised (DS-R) [homepage] to measure sensitivity to disgust and a custom scale of their own design to measure political orientation. The political scale used only ten statements on political issues : gay marriage, abortion, gun control, labor unions, bombing Iran, welfare, Iraq war, affirmative action, tax cuts, and the death penalty. The participants would rank on a scale from 0 to 7 whether they strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with the statements. The political scale is obviously oversimplified and its predictive power uncertain. It would have been better to use a standardized scale in long use.
Despite the wording of the press release, the study doesn’t actually show that conservatives make decisions based on feelings of disgust. It merely purports to find a correlation between high scores on the DS-R (indicating a high innate disgust response) and scores on the researchers’ political quiz that the researchers define as “conservative”. The assertion that conservatives base decisions on visceral disgust is actually based on another online study in which conservatives reported that they felt that disgust was a justifiable reason for adopting a moral stance. That study has not been duplicated. (That paper also reveals a lot of intellectual blind spots which I will address in a subsequent post.) Also, despite the wording of the press release, the paper does not show a significant correlation between all of the conservative stances on the ten issues proffered, but just with three issues: abortion, gay-marriage and taxation.
The biggest, most glaring flaw in the paper is that the authors make no effect to provide evidence that might invalidate their hypothesis. As physicist Richard Feynman pointed out, a scientist has the obligation to provide any evidence that might disprove their hypothesis. In this case, strong and obvious evidence exists that would falsify the hypothesis that an elevated disgust response causes people to adopt conservative political ideas.
Many people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder develop a hyper-activated sense of disgust. Their urge to clean and to avoid interpersonal contact arises from an overwhelming sensation that everything is contaminated. (One OCD researcher explained that people with OCD feel about everyday objects the way a non-OCD person would if everyone in the world walked around with their hands covered in feces.) The disease is neurological in origin, i.e., it is a disease of the body and not a learned behavior. Most people develop symptoms in early adulthood but sometimes the disease arises in older adults with no previous psychiatric history. The same Disgust Scale-Revised used in the study under discussion is used to diagnose the magnitude of OCD. Yet there is no evidence that people with OCD lean towards the conservative which we would expect to see if a strong sense of disgust causes people to adopt a conservative outlook. People who acquire OCD as adults do not become more conservative afterwards. OCD is such a widely studied disease that if such a pattern in political orientation existed, researchers and clinicians would have spotted it.
Women score much higher in disgust on the DS-R, yet women as a population are significantly more liberal than less-easily-disgusted males. If disgust causes conservative beliefs, we should expect to see the opposite pattern. In the paper, the authors say they applied a mathematical corrective to eliminate this variable from their final results but they do not address how the existence of the pattern affects the validity of the hypothesis itself or what the data would look like without the correction.
I will address the study in more detail in a future post. My next post will examine how a love of abstraction causes the authors and other leftists to ignore how people must make moral decisions in the real world. Next I will examine how they failed to account for the role that disgust plays in different political issues and how that failure effects the study’s results.
Unfortunately, in the social sciences, studies with this kind of rickety methodology are the rule instead of the exception. It is also the rule that the media will broadcast a study’s “results” without any qualifications about the methodology or even a mention that no one has yet duplicated the study’s findings. This study will become revealed wisdom on the Left just as previous generations of leftists embraced wholly-unscientific explanations based on Marxism or Freudianism.
The next post in this series is here.