I cannot adequately express how pleased I am with the tremendous online outcry against Marco Iacaboni et al.’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. After scanning swing voters with fMRI, the authors of this article attempt to draw all sorts of grandious conclusions about what they think of the various presidential candidates.
For instance, the article concludes that “Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands,” and “Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed.” Wow, tell me something I don’t know. When the authors get a little more concrete about which emotions are in play, it becomes clear just how speculative their arguments are. When voters viewed Hillary and exhibited activity of the anteriror cingulate, the authors claim that this means they “were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.” However as Daniel Engber points out at Slate, activity of that region could mean many things:
But their interpretation of the Hillary data starts to look a little fishy if you take into account a similar round of FKF brain scans from the last presidential election. In 2004, the same researchers put 20 highly partisan voters into an MRI machine and showed them pictures of George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader. The result: Voters showed heightened activity in the conflict areas—including the anterior cingulate cortex—when they viewed the candidate they hated, as opposed to one they loved. In other words, when a hard-core Democrat looks at a picture of the dreaded George Bush, you get the same brain activity as when a swing voter looks at Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, the Hillary results don’t seem so promising.
While peer review is an imperfect system, it does a good job of preventing scientists from overextending their data to reach speculative conclusions. Reviewers insure that conclusions are based off comparisons of experimental data with control data, something that was definitely lacking from Iacoboni’s research. Because this research was not subjected to these rigorous standards and instead went directly onto the pages of the Times, it is not surprising that the quality of the science is poor.
It’s a shame that respected a neuroscientist like Iacaboni would sell out like this, especially when some of his research is so compelling. However, the debacle does highlight the necessity of peer review. Furthermore, it demonstrates that popular news outlets must learn to cooperate and coexist with scientific journals if they are to succeed at informing readers accurately. When the Times tries to operate outside of the existing peer-review structure, it ends up looking foolish.
For these reasons and more, I support what’s going on over at Bloggers for Peer-Reviewed Research Reporting. But journalistic failures like this one make me wonder if we don’t need another icon as well. So, how about this?