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Following Behe Review, Another Disturbing Peek Behind the Scenes at Science

John Hibbing

We got a look into the sausage factory that is Science Magazine when that prestigious journal reviewed Michael Behe’s recent book, Darwin Devolves. The review was a “train wreck,” as Behe showed. Neither the three authors nor the editors of Science ever took responsibility for its many demonstrable failings and they refused to publish a response from Professor Behe. I am not going to relitigate the episode, but you can find the record of that and other interactions with Behe’s critics at his book’s website.

Fear and Loathing

Now here’s another troubling peek behind the scenes at the top science journal in the United States. Back in 2008, Science published what would become an influential research article, claiming brain-based evidence for a physiological basis behind differences in political views. The authors found that conservatives show stronger responses to repulsive or frightening stimuli. From “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits,” by Douglas R. Oxley et al.:

In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

The study has since gone on to be cited as support for what science journalist Chris Mooney touts as the “‘amygdala theory’ of conservatism.” See his modestly titled book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality (2012). In an NPR interview last year, study co-author John Hibbing estimated that “maybe 30 or 40 percent of our political views come from genetics.”

Other research has seemed to show much the same thing. So it is people on the Right, not on the Left, whose responses to things they don’t like are the most colored by fear and loathing… Really? That sure doesn’t fit with my own experience from following social or other media. But hey, this is science! It couldn’t be wrong. Could it?

Well, It Could

Some other researchers decided to test the Science results — to confirm, not disconfirm, them. They tell their story in an article for Slate that is an eye-opener.

They used a larger field of subjects, 202 instead of just 46. Guess what? The results of the study by Hibbing and his colleagues were not reproducible. And guess what again? Science preferred not to publish this finding. There was no implication that the Oxley et al. had committed any errors. There was no “train wreck” in this case. It was just that, as often happens, their results did not repeat themselves, at all, when a more extensive study was attempted.

“Doing Something Wrong”?

From, “We Tried to Publish a Replication of a Science Paper in Science. The Journal Refused,” by Kevin Arceneaux et al.:

Our first thought was that we were doing something wrong. So, we asked the original researchers for their images, which they generously provided to us, and we added a few more. We took the step of “pre-registering” a more direct replication of the Science study, meaning that we detailed exactly what we were going to do before we did it and made that public. The direct replication took place in Philadelphia, where we recruited 202 participants (more than four times than the original sample size of 46 used in the Science study). Again, we found no correlation between physiological reactions to threatening images (the original ones or the ones we added) and political conservatism — no matter how we looked at the data.

By this point, we had become more skeptical of the rationale animating the original study. Neuroscientists can often find a loose match between physiological responses and self-reported attitudes. The question is whether this relationship is really as meaningful as we sometimes think it is….

We drafted a paper that reported the failed replication studies along with a more nuanced discussion about the ways in which physiology might matter for politics and sent it to Science.

Not only did Science decline to have the article peer-reviewed — they got a “summary rejection” on that score, indicating “it would be better suited for a less visible subfield journal,” in other words, shuffled off to somewhere obscure. But when they appealed this decision, they were simply “rebuffed without a reason.” That sounds familiar!

Fixed in the Popular Discussion

As Arceneaux and his colleagues point out, the Oxley study has entered the popular discussion about politics and physiology. And it seems to be fixed there. They note the NPR interview, and another, quite funny interview by atheist science celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson with Hibbing for the National Geographic Channel’s StarTalk. Tyson is excited by what Hibbing calls “political physiology,” exulting, “Yeah, let’s get some science! Roll some science into this conversation!”

Arceneaux et al. conclude, reasonably, that “Science requires us to have the courage to let our beautiful theories die public deaths at the hands of ugly facts.” You’ve heard intelligent design proponents say as much countless times. I know Michael Behe would agree. That’s the animating thought behind all of his work in probing the evidence for design in biology. But the editors of Science? Not so much, it seems.

Photo: Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewing John Hibbing on the National Geographic Channel’s StarTalk (screen shot).