Conservatives are born that way?

The Los Angeles Times carried a story, which was picked up by UPI’s Odd News suggesting that the difference between liberals and conservatives is not a function of nurture but of birth.

First, I should point out that social scientists are generally so skeptical of nature as an explanation for behavior–as opposed to nurture–that I tend to dismiss such claims out of hand. But the media accounts of this study suggest other issues as well.

Operationalization can be understood as the meaning attached to each variable in research. It is rare that you can actually measure what you’re looking for, so you use something you can measure instead:

In an initial experiment, subjects were shown a series of images that included a bloody face, maggots in a wound and a spider on a frightened face. A device measured the electrical conductance of their skin, a physiological reaction that indicates fear.

In a second experiment, researchers measured eye blinks — another indicator of fear — as subjects responded to sudden blasts of noise.

People with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful than staunch liberals after the effects of gender, age, income and education were factored out.

But, even if we accept the association between fear and political persuasion, how can we assume from this experiment that the subjects were born more or less fearful? As anyone who has taken a few human development classes can tell you, there’s a whole lot of science demonstrating that nurture has a great deal to do with fearfulness, but the claim one-sidedly relies on “family and twin studies [which] have revealed strong genetic influences both for liberal-versus-conservative views and for people’s sensitivity to threat.” Second, the sample size was small:

The researchers . . . looked at 46 people who fell into two camps — liberals who supported foreign aid, immigration, pacifism and gun control; and conservatives who advocated defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war.

It is reckless and wildly irresponsible to generalize from such a sample size to an entire population of over 300 million people. Fourth, these issues correspond with simplistic U.S. views of liberalism and conservatism.

I should emphasize here that I have not been able to gain access to the original research from home.

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