Thursday, June 9, 2016

Journalistic cognitive dissonance

Heh. This is entertainingly illuminating. Four years ago, a team of psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University released a study, Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies by Brad Verhulst, Lindon J. Eaves, and Peter K. Hatemi. From the abstract:
The assumption in the personality and politics literature is that a person's personality motivates them to develop certain political attitudes later in life. This assumption is founded on the simple correlation between the two constructs and the observation that personality traits are genetically influenced and develop in infancy, whereas political preferences develop later in life. Work in psychology, behavioral genetics, and recently political science, however, has demonstrated that political preferences also develop in childhood and are equally influenced by genetic factors. These findings cast doubt on the assumed causal relationship between personality and politics. Here we test the causal relationship between personality traits and political attitudes using a direction of causation structural model on a genetically informative sample. The results suggest that personality traits do not cause people to develop political attitudes; rather, the correlation between the two is a function of an innate common underlying genetic factor.
No particular issues there. What got a lot of press at the time was material within the report.
In line with our expectations, P [for “Psychoticism”] (positively related to tough-mindedness and authoritarianism) is associated with social conservatism and conservative military attitudes. Intriguingly, the strength of the relationship between P and political ideology differs across sexes. P‘s link with social conservatism is stronger for females while its link with military attitudes is stronger for males. We also find individuals higher in Neuroticism are more likely to be economically liberal. Furthermore, Neuroticism is completely unrelated to social ideology, which has been the focus of many in the field. Finally, those higher in Social Desirability are also more likely to express socially liberal attitudes.
This was paraphrased in many different ways in different main stream media platforms. The reporting was, broadly, that right-wing nut jobs are prone to psychoticism and neuroticism and respectable left wingers were socially desirable.

Now part of this paraphrasing was simply the science illiteracy and innumeracy of the average journalist but also at play was also the fact that it aligned so well to popular leftwing narratives.

Now? Deepest game of trolling ever? Copycat Sokal Hoax? Or just the kind of mistake that occurs in a field where most research cannot be replicated to confirm findings.

Probably the latter but I don't completely discount the two former hypotheses either.

But now, four years later, we have this. Erratum to “Correlation not Causation:The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies” by Brad Verhulst, Lindon Eaves & Peter K. Hatemi. Truly, as professionals, my sympathy is extended to these researchers. Anybody working in the higher levels of the knowledge economy has at some time made a bone-headed error in interpreting data. Everyone has, at some point, accidentally transposed data incorrectly. But this one was very major and very public.
The authors regret that there is an error in the published version of “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies” American Journal of Political Science 56 (1), 34–51. The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal; and where the original manuscript reports those higher in neuroticism and social desirability are more liberal, they are, in fact, more conservative.
Contra the original reporting, conservatives are more interested in policies that help others and are more oriented towards getting along with their fellow man, whereas liberals are more authoritarian and militaristic.

Miss Emily Litella of SNL, you are evergreen.

I saw the hoopla when this study came out but don't think I commented on it at that time. I have commented less and less on striking sociology and psychology research as the political biases inherent in them have become more robustly documented and the retraction rates have climbed higher and higher. It is regrettable because these are important fields but, for the time being, they have sabotaged themselves.

The stronger the claim, the stronger has to be the evidence and this claim was questionable on the face of it. There is a lot of more empirical/objective research around which demographics give time and money to charitable causes and almost uniformly the results are that those who self-identify as conservative give factors more than self-identified liberals. So the original research was suspect for being inconsistent with other perceived facts. With the correction, the sociological study now aligns with the charitable giving studies.

Kind of a funny volte-face but the underlying issue remains the same and provides as good grounds to ignore the correction as there was to ignore the first report. The field is riddled with bias and with study error. The only thing amusing is the number of left leaning advocacy journalists who crowed the "scientific" confirmation of the first report and now should be eating crow with the second. However, there is an easier way for them to address the cognitive dissonance and that will almost certainly be the path chosen. They will ignore the retraction as if it had not happened.

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