Beware of “Neuropunditry”

Slate keeps tabs on a flimsy new trend

On Super Tuesday, CNN broadcast a weak science news segment about a brain-imaging machine that the reporter called a “neurological lie detector test.” The point?

Voters may say that they prefer one candidate, but the brain actually knows better … It’s not a lie, but an unarticulated truth … [and brain imaging] may prove to be better than polling at determining what a voter does in the voting booth.

The segment appears to be the third time this campaign season that “neuropunditry” has crept into the mainstream media. The term belongs to Slate’s Dan Engber, who, in addition to coining a great candidate for Word of the Year, has done an excellent job policing the new, quasi-scientific trend.

In the CNN segment, reporter Randi Kaye teams up with Lucid Systems, a market research firm, to map the brain waves of eight, undecided California voters as they watch videos of the Republican and Democrat presidential debates. The voters are hooked up to a variety of sensors that measure “arousal” and “emotion.” When both of those spike while watching a candidate speak, no matter what the voter may say, he or she has been “moved”-a “positive response.” Lucid Systems co-founder Dave Remer tells Kaye, “We look directly into their mind and body and see what’s going on.”

Actually, that’s a big stretch.

The company’s sensors measure things like perspiration, facial muscle movement, and electrical conductivity on the scalp. All of these are reliable indicators of activity in certain parts of the brain, which are associated with certain emotional responses. There are many responses associated with each area of the brain, however, and as promising as imaging may be, it hasn’t come close to “directly” identifying the exact emotions in play. In producing the clip, and brandishing color, three-dimensional images of the head, CNN seems to have fallen for a bit of techno infatuation. As Engber put it in Slate, “The network shamelessly inflated this rather old-fashioned study with the image of a mind-reading computer that can predict tonight’s outcome at the polls.”

As specious as it was, though, CNN’s report was not the most objectionable piece of neuropunditry this season.

The first incident occurred in early November, when The New York Times published an op-ed by three neuroscientists, one public policy expert, and three political consultants touting the results of a study of twenty swing voters. It used functional magnetic resonance imaging and attempted to parse voters’ true feelings about candidates. The op-ed goes farther than CNN’s report, claiming that “Our results reveal some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.”

There are two fundamental reasons why the Times should not have published the op-ed. First of all, in language and tone it purports to be a scientific study when many of the conclusions amount to pseudo-science. Enger was the first to offer a rebuttal, in which he argued that, “To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous.” A group of seventeen neuroscientists wrote a letter to the Times the same day, giving a detailed scientific refutation of the op-ed’s claims. A week later Nature, one of the world’s leading, peer-reviewed scientific journals, published an editorial chastising the Times for “disseminating this information to millions of their readers who may not have the background to recognize for themselves the absurdity of some of the authors’ conclusions.” They go on to call it “a gross disservice to science and indeed to politics.”

Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that the authors basically duped the Times into publishing what amounted to free advertising. Both Engber and Nature criticize the authors’ affiliation with FKF Applied Research, a Washington, D.C.-based “neuromarketing” firm that sells brain scan research to Fortune 500 companies. As the latter noted, these affiliations were only “partially transparent,” and, “seducing The New York Times’ editors with the allure of Technicolor brains lighting up with Hillary Clinton angst yielded no more or less than a multimedia advertisement for the company’s product to millions of readers.”

Less than a month later, the Los Angeles Times succumbed to the same seduction, publishing an op-ed by Daniel G. Amen, a registered psychiatrist, suggesting that “Rudy Giuliani’s messy personal life, John McCain’s temper and Hillary Clinton’s inability to seem authentic” might be “evidence of underlying brain dysfunction.”

Engber again gets credit for his prompt, detailed deconstruction of the piece and its use of thinly validated science to draw overstated and profit-oriented conclusions. In this case, Amen owns a clinic that peddles brain imaging to clients in order to detect signs of autism, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological diseases and disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical utility of neuroimaging techniques has potential, but is still unproven. “In the last month, two of the most prestigious opinion pages in journalism have succumbed to the delusion that MRI machines and SPECT imaging have anything meaningful to say about the upcoming elections,” Engber complained at the time.

A week later, The Wall Street Journal published a detailed report on the emerging market phenomenon of neuroimaging. Onto the list that already included Amen Clinics and FKF Applied Research, the paper added a company called EmSense Corp.:

This campaign season, the newest thing in presidential politics is neuroscience. Driven by new research that suggests monitoring voters’ brains, pupils and pulses may be more effective than listening to what they say, EmSense is one of a cottage industry of neuromarketing firms across the country that are pitching their services to presidential campaigns.

Voters often do give pollsters explanations for their vote that don’t convey the full truth of their decisions. And it is safe to say that what voters tell pollsters are often rational responses, when their decisions were based largely on emotions (but this doesn’t mean they’re trying to be deceptive—as CNN correctly noted). Moreover, scientists’ efforts to discern and accurately measure voters’ various psychological responses to candidates is an interesting story, but there is a better way to get at it. Newsweek’s Sharon Begley has, in fact, proven this three times over (full disclosure: my girlfriend contributed reporting to one of the articles), and her treatment of the subject warrants the detailed attention of any science journalist who wants to do this right.

Begley’s work recognizes that attempting to identify exactly which emotions voters associate with candidates (especially in an effort to forecast elections) is fruitless. As she wrote in a piece on last summer:

If you think your political decisions are coldly rational, think again …

[But] there is no shame in being motivated by wishes, fears and values. Emotions actually provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior. Neuroscientists find, for instance, that emotions guide moral decisions, and do so pretty well.

She addresses the same neuromarketing techniques trumpeted in the two Times’ opinion pages, but resists the temptation to stretch the data into grand conclusions about voters’ opinions of candidates. Instead, she keeps it to a more general, but reliable, deduction about the way voters tend to think:

Neuroscience research backs up the poll results. When voters are hooked up to brain-imaging devices while watching candidates, it is emotion circuits and not the rational frontal lobes that are most engaged. When voters assess who won a campaign debate, they almost always choose the candidate they liked better beforehand.

Begley had a sequel to this article in Newsweek last week. It is a longer and more thorough discussion of what scientists currently know about why “when it’s the head versus the heart, the heart wins.” She stresses that although emotions are the motive force behind voters’ decisions, it is difficult to determine which ones, exactly, are at play.

This information might not be as valuable to political operatives as voters’ specific emotional triggers, but it has obvious implications. There is, for example, a difference between Democrats and Republicans in this regard. According to a blog post Begley wrote in September, which was based on a peer-reviewed study published in Nature, conservatives have a more difficult time changing their minds, even in the face of conclusive evidence, than liberals do. “Does this mean some people are hard-wired for liberalism and others are hard-wired for conservatism? No.” Begley writes. She then urges readers to resist the temptation to interpret the findings as suggesting that the structure and function of the brain determines the way you think; it is more likely, she writes, that “What and how you think alter the structure and function of the brain.”

Hopefully, the remainder of this campaign will bring more stories like Begley’s and fewer acts of neuropunditry.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.