Slate accidentally stumbles onto something interesting, important, and probably factual.
Our research suggests that the theory that conservatives and liberals respond differently to threats isn’t actually true.
June 20, 20196:43 PM
There are researchers still seeking truth and advancing science. In this environment, these guys are heroes.
Our story starts in 2008, when a group of researchers published an article (here it is without a paywall) that found political conservatives have stronger physiological reactions to threatening images than liberals do. The article was published in Science, which is one of the most prestigious general science journals around. It’s the kind of journal that can make a career in academia.
It was a path-breaking and provocative study. For decades, political scientists and psychologists have tried to understand the psychological roots of ideological differences. The piece published in Science offered some clues as to why liberals and conservatives differ in their worldviews. Perhaps it has to do with how the brain is wired, the researchers suggested—specifically, perhaps it’s because conservatives’ brains are more attuned to threats than liberals’. It was an exciting finding, it helped usher in a new wave of psychophysiological work in the study of politics, and it generated extensive coverage in popular media. In 2018, 10 years after the publication of the study, the findings were featured on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.
I believe it is also the basis for Chris Mooney’s book: The Republican Brain.
The question is whether this relationship is really as meaningful as we sometimes think it is. The brain is a complex organ with parallel conscious and unconscious systems that don’t always affect the other one-to-one. We still believe that there is value in exploring how physiological reactions and conscious experience shape political attitudes and behavior, but after further consideration, we have concluded that any such relationships are more complicated than we (and the researchers on the Science paper) presumed.
A familiar story took place.
We did not expect Science to immediately publish the paper, but because our findings cast doubt on an influential study published in its pages, we thought the editorial team would at least send it out for peer review.
It did not.
We wrote back asking them to consider at least sending our work out for review. (They could still reject it if the reviewers found fatal flaws in our replications.) We argued that the original article continues to be highly influential and is often featured in popular science pieces in the lay media (for instance, here, here, here, and here), where the research is translated into a claim that physiology allows one to predict liberals and conservatives with a high degree of accuracy. We believe that Science has a responsibility to set the record straight in the same way that a newspaper does when it publishes something that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We were rebuffed without a reason and with a vague suggestion that the journal’s policy on handling replications might change at some point in the future.