Category Archives: Politics

Nobel Laureates Endorse Obama

Prof. Martin Chalfie recently won  the Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Profs. Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien for their work on fluorescent proteins. Only a few days later, Chalfie posted this video on Youtube:

Chalfie, Shimomura and Tsien join 63 other American Nobel Laureate scientists in an open letter that expresses their support for an Obama presidency. From the letter:

We have watched Senator Obama’s approach to these issues with admiration. We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation’s competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation’s and the world’s most urgent needs.

For more information about the cadidates’ specific positions, check out ScienceDebate2008.

Make Love, Not War

You’d think that a country renown for its Islamic zeal would have fairly conservative policies toward sex and reproduction. Not so with Iran. Even though Ahmadinejad denies the holocaust, he can’t deny the excessive population growth and burgeoning AIDS epidemic that currently confront his country. That’s one of the reasons why Iran is installing vending machines that dispense condoms and syringes.

Iranian scientists are hopping aboard the love train as well. Apparently some non-zero fraction of said scientists devote their time to sexual enhancement therapies instead of developing nuclear technology. A new paper in Neuropsychopharmacology tests the safety and efficacy of dapoxetine for treatment of premature ejaculation.  Dapoxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that I have written about previously.

While Iran’s nuclear ambitions often take center stage in the media, the country is home to a rapidly growing and diverse community of scientists. The government has relatively liberal stem cell laws, and hopes to use such cutting edge research to enhance its international profile. Eventually, progress in the academic sphere may help temper the fundamentalist elements in Iranian politics.

’08 Candidates Embrace Neuromarketing

Not to be outdone by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal explores the increasing usage of neuroscience tools for political ends in a recent article. They predict that companies like EmSense, a neuromarketing firm founded by MIT grads that uses EEG headsets to measure the brain activity of consumers and voters, will become increasingly prevalent in future election cycles. Though the ’08 presidential candidates have stayed away from newfangled gizmos, both John Edwards and Mitt Romney have hopped on the neuropunditry bandwagon to some degree. Romney turned to TargetPoint, a company that offers a new twist on traditional focus groups:

TargetPoint, the Virginia-based political and business consulting firm that worked for the Bush campaign in 2004 and is now working for Mr. Romney (his campaign paid the consultancy $345,000 last quarter, according to Federal Election Commission records) is seeking ways around the problem. Alex Lundry, the company’s research director, says traditional methods of polling voters are sometimes inaccurate. “People may say one thing in a focus group and do another thing in the voting booth,” he says. To get beyond this, Mr. Lundry says, the company developed an Internet survey that asks voters questions like which candidate they support. But rather than just tallying the results, the survey tests their subconscious attitudes by recording how quickly the respondents enter their answers — the theory being that faster responses indicate stronger feelings.

In order to refine his campaign strategies, John Edwards has called upon Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

In his studies, which have involved placing partisan voters in brain scanners, he found that when voters look at pictures of candidates or listen to their statements, the regions of the brain associated with emotion are more engaged than the regions governing thought. Instead of detailing a ten-point health-care plan, he says, politicians would be better off talking about health care in moral terms. An October Federal Election Commission filing shows Mr. Edwards’s campaign paid $1,951 to Westen Strategies for air fare. Mark Kornblau, Mr. Edwards’s traveling press secretary, said Mr. Westen had come to observe the candidate and give him some feedback. “He has gained notoriety and respect in the Democratic party with his book,” Mr. Kornblau says. “It was helpful to hear his ideas.” Mr. Westen declined to comment on the discussion.

Of course this news doesn’t do much to dispel the perception that John Edwards is all image and no substance.

It will be interesting to see how voters react to politicians who would rather pander to their emotions than persuade their judgments. The WSJ article argues that voters will accept the application of neuroscience tools to politics just as they have come to accept the use of focus groups. The real question is whether neuromarketing strategies will actually pay off in the primaries, and that only time can tell.

Bloggers Against Un-Reviewed Research

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?


EEG Goes to Washington

As President Bush faces increasing criticism for his handling of the war with Iraq, the jingoistic battle cry of neoconservatives has been “Stay the Course.” Well it turns out that the impulse to persevere in the face of conflicting information may be a fundamental cognitive disposition of conservatives.

A new study in Nature Neuroscience asked subjects to rate their political orientation and then tested their performance in a Go/No-Go task. This task involves repeated responses to standard stimuli, but occasionally the stimulus changes and subjects are supposed to inhibit their response.

One important finding from the study is that political orientation predicted accuracy in this response-inhibition task, with liberals outperforming conservatives. In all fairness, the authors note that “Although a liberal orientation was associated with better performance on the response inhibition task examined here, conservatives would presumably perform better on tasks in which a more fixed response style is optimal.” Talk about a back-handed compliment!

In addition to measuring the behavioral performance of the participants, the experimenters also measured the Event-Related Potentials associated with stimulus presentation (To learn more about ERPs, check out the Method of the Month). When subjects see the No-Go stimulus, a negative potential is observed that is thought to represent conflict between the prepotent response and the attempt to inhibit it. Remarkably, the size of this Error Related Negativity (ERN) was more strongly correlated with political orientation than behavioral performance. Even when the experimenters controlled for accuracy, the size of the ERN was still correlated with political orientation. Thus, liberals seem more sensitive to cognitive conflict.

Although the study is exciting, there are a few limitations. First, it’s hard to really know what cognitive processes the ERN magnitude corresponds to. Second, even though the paper localizes the signal to the anterior cingulate cortex, such localizations of ERPs are notoriously unreliable. Lastly, the paper is so brief that the authors don’t really describe their entire methodology. If subjects were asked to report political preference before engaging in the Go/No-Go task, it’s possible that the questionnaire primed their subsequent performance.

Nonetheless, the authors found a creative way of approaching an age-old question: What grounds political orientation? This paper brings us a step closer toward the answer.

Show Me the Money

These days, it is very difficult for researchers to get funding. The National Institute of Health (NIH) says no to about 90% of the professors that apply for grants. Graduate students seeking funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) are also bound for disappointment, as only 1000 receive money annually. Unfortunately, this exclusivity discourages aspiring scientists from entering the field.

The Bush administration has exacerbated these problems by cutting funding for non-military scientific research, but many Democratic challengers want to reverse this trend. So far, Hillary Cinton has the clearest plan. She promises to double the NIH budget and triple the number of NSF fellowships for graduate students.

Barack Obama has voiced similar goals, though he seems more focused on early education. At Yearly Kos, he had this to say:

Only time will tell whether this rhetoric will lead to tangible improvements.

Pinker Doesn’t Care About Your Ancestry

Every once in a while, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker contributes his two cents in the pages of The New Republic. While most of these articles remain locked behind TNR‘s unfortunate subscription barrier, a recent article on geneology is open to the public with free registration.

Pinker is reacting to the burgeoning popularity of genotyping services that promise to reveal our ancestry and distant relatives. For example, this one promises to tell you if you are related to Marie Antoinette. The gist of his article: So What?

First Pinker exposes a common fallacy about ancestry that assumes we all have 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and so on. If every position on our family tree was occupied by a unique individual, then this exponential function would predict that the earth’s population would have to be ~1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the year 0 A.D. History teaches us that this was not the case, so we must conclude that incest was not the exception but the rule. Pinker refers to this conclusion as “pedigree collapse”:

The same arithmetic that makes an individual’s pedigree collapse onto itself also makes everyone’s pedigree collapse into everyone else’s. We are all related–not just in the obvious sense that we are all descended from the same population of the first humans, but also because everyone’s ancestors mated with everyone else’s at many points since that dawn of humanity. There aren’t enough ancestors to go around for everyone to have a family tree of his or her own. So it is a mathematical necessity, not a surprise, that genealogy will turn up strange bedfellows. George W. Bush is a distant cousin of his electoral opponents Al Gore and John Kerry (as well as of Richard Nixon, Ernest Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth, and, through her, every European monarch). Gore, for his part, is a descendant of Charlemagne, and Kerry is a descendant of Mary, Queen of Scots–and presumably also (thanks to his recently-discovered-to-be-Jewish paternal grandfather) of rabbis, cantors, and medieval moneylenders.

While the perception of kinship can have a major impact on how we relate to other people, Pinker wants to paint this preferential treatment as irrational–and in some cases–harmful. Often strong family ties weaken the strength of social institutions such as regional government. Pinker mentions this effect in reference to failed nation-building efforts in Iraq, where familial pedigrees remain relatively distinct thanks to the culturally-acceptable practice of marrying one’s cousins:

About half of all marriages are consanguineous (including that of Saddam Hussein, who filled many government positions with his relatives from Tikrit). The connection between Iraqis’ strong family ties and their tribalism, corruption, and lack of commitment to an overarching nation had long been noted by those familiar with the country. In 1931, King Faisal described his subjects as “devoid of any patriotic idea … connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil; prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”

The implicit solution? Pass around a bottle of wine, turn up the Marvin Gaye and hope for some Sunni on Shiite love.