The Frontal Cortex

Politics and Research

Science exists in a cultural context. When the culture changes – and American culture has just a celebrated a rather massive change – the science is sure to follow. It’s a truism but it’s still true: our experiments don’t take place in a vacuum. Scientists are members of society, too.

Sometimes, these cultural influences are direct. When the Bush Administration stifled data on global warming, it was directly influencing (or attempting to influence) the scientific process. But such direct interactions are rare: most of the time the culture seeps in without anybody noticing. It doesn’t so much influence the answers we get, but it almost certainly drives the questions we ask.

Here’s an example I’ve been thinking about lately: did the the flaws of the Bush Administration influence the direction of psychology? Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems that the last eight years have seen a resurgence of scientific interest in cognitive dissonance and the danger of certainty. There have been excellent books on the subject, such as Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, and On Being Certain, by Robert Burton, but there have also been some wonderful experiments. I certainly don’t mean to imply that all of these books and experiments are about the Bush Administration, or were motivated by some sort of liberal angst. Rather, it’s just the case that we had a president who, for better or worse, was unerringly certain, and so certainty was in the news. In a similar vein, I’d be willing to bet that the Lewinsky scandal let to a modest spike in research and books on the dangers of temptation and the lapses of self-control. (In fact, I’ve talked to a scientist who said one of the reasons she studies self-control is because she became fascinated by Bill Clinton: how could such a smart man be undone by a thong?)

But here’s my question: how will Obama’s even-tempered personality influence future psychological research? My hope is that we’ll see a lot of studies on the benefits of staying calm and maintaining an emotional equilibrium. After all, it’s time we get a president who’s an example of effective cognition, and not a case-study in how not to think.


  1. #1 OneEyedMan
    January 21, 2009

    It sounds like presidential negatives have a bigger role in influencing research agendas than their strengths. We may see an increase in the research on the dangers too much empathy and not enough anger, stemming from an Obama strategy of talking too much with people who only want to kill us.

  2. #2 HikoBills
    January 21, 2009

    “When the Bush Administration stifled data on global warming, it was directly influencing (or attempting to influence) the scientific process.”

    That is dishonest, or at least slightly ignorant. Saying a Pres. can stifle the scientific process is a very one sided way of saying that. When you see two sides and endorse one it is not stifling anything, but endorsement of one.

  3. #3 Lee Hamilton
    January 21, 2009

    That will be interesting to see. Another angle in all this is the slowly escalating voter turnout in the U.S., which diversifies the voting pool and diminishes the sway of single-issue voters (who tend to be “reliable voters” for their respective causes, and who are motivated by a kind of subjective certainty). So you’ll get more nuanced leaders seeking to appeal to more people as a result of this slowly diversifying process. You’ll eventually reach a tipping point where the hold on public policy (including science policy) exerted by ideologues of any stripe will diminish, and it will become increasingly anachronistic to attempt to apply stringent “litmus tests” based on the received certainties of the hard-core base.

    In other words, Obama’s even-tempered self-presentation is as much a product of his diversified base, as his base is a construction of his inclusive, nuanced politics and appeal.

  4. #4 Eric Hester
    January 21, 2009

    First, from England at teatime I must say how much I enjoy this blog every day. Well done!

    Having said that, I am delighted that the esteemed and honourable blogster knows the new President of the United States personally so well that he can assess his personality as being “even-tempered”. It would, I suppose, be very unscientific to comment on a man’s personality merely from what the media say. Here in England, many of us wonder what is all the fuss about this man (the President not the blogster); he reminds some of us of Tony Blair. I should explain for those in America that Tony Blair is a former Prime Minister of Britain, who took office with a great deal of media attention but then who disappointed many.
    However, in England we are rejoicing over the 800th anniversary of the founding of our second oldest university which has done some things for science. Indeed, one college, Trinity, Newton’s College, claims to have had more Nobel prize winners than Japan.

  5. #5 OftenWrongTed
    January 21, 2009

    Agreed that the cultural climate is now more open to change; yet does that leave us with calmer seas, and a more perfect environment for scientific advancement? One thing has not changed and remains a shoal to progress:

    “Not only will men of science have to grapple with sciences that deal with man but – and this is a far more difficult matter – they will have to persuade the world to listen to what they have discovered.” Bertrand Russell

  6. #6 jb
    January 21, 2009

    Other than being about President Obama, this comment is off-topic, but I’m writing to ask Jonah to perhaps post something further about mirror neurons and the election.
    Recently in talking with a friend about Capt.”Sully’s” heroic action, Wesley Autrey’s name came up. Cara Buckley (NYTimes 1/07/09)had an interesting post on mirror neurons and this “Subway Savior’s” quick action: this black construction worker threw himself ontop of a white youth having an epileptic fit in the path of an oncoming train, a atypical example of mirror neurons at work.
    Clearly mirror neurons had a glorious workout yesterday. On the news last night there was a TV interview with a black woman who said now her young son could aspire to be something other than a rapper or basketball star; he could aspire to be president. And on NPR this afternoon a inner city scool teacher noticed on her way to school in Rochester today that young black boys, who had been absent from school in recent weeks, had turned out at bus stops in droves this am.
    As someone who at age 3 delightedly ran up to a train conductor yelling “Daddy, Daddy” because he was male and wearing a navy blue uniform with brass buttons, and despite his color, it feels like my mirror neurons are getting back to being colorblind. Thank you President Obama. Thank you America.

  7. #7 JK
    January 21, 2009

    In addition to how Bush shaped Psychology, he changed the world of educational research. He put a lot of emphasis on standards and testing and (IMO) drove innovation and thinking out of the schools. Here’s hoping for something new and innovative with Obama!

    With regard to Psychology research, here’s hoping that embodied cognition will get a bit more attention! (And it relates to education!)

  8. #8 dave p v
    January 26, 2009

    Here in Canada, I’ve seen and read stories of university and research labs lamenting the United States and its, formally, at least, reopening to research the exciting and promising field of stem-cell research.

    Over the last 8 years, studies have emigrated to more friendly environs–namely, every other industrial nation with the technical wherewithal–to the benefit of, in this case, labs in Canadian universities and elsewhere.

    It is, I think, quite a simple line to draw and conclusion to make.

  9. #9 Scarhawk
    January 28, 2009

    Seems like half the bookstore has been a subtle anti-Bush protest for several years now. People have been too paranoid of wiretapping to say so directly but it’s pretty obvious. Certainly the psychology and nonfiction sections anyway. It shouldn’t be a surprise – this is why proper dictators kill the smart people first, seemingly innocent literature professors etc., because they lead dissent and they know how to fly it under the radar.

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