Back in November 2011, I reported on a paper by University of Tampa professor Marcus Arvan which, in the words of Allahpundit at HotAir, purported to find “‘significant’ correlations between key antisocial traits and bedrock conservative views, like opposition to gay marriage and support for capital punishment.” As I said at the time, “It’s a sad sign when progressivist advocates stoop to jury-rigging ‘scientific’ studies in order to write off the opposition as Machiavellian psychopaths.”
Four and a half years later — just as I was getting ready to believe it — comes Retraction Watch: “Researchers have fixed a number of papers after mistakenly reporting that people who hold conservative political beliefs are more likely to exhibit traits associated with psychoticism, such as authoritarianism and tough-mindedness.” (Arvan’s paper was not among them.) Now it appears that liberal political beliefs are linked with psychoticism, while neuroticism and “social desirability (falsely claiming that you have socially desirable qualities)” are linked to conservatives. It’s beginning to sound like a fourth-graders’ argument: “You’re a psycho!” “No, you’re the psycho!” And so on, ad nauseam.
But wait! There’s more!
We’re not clear how much the corrections should inform our thinking about politics and personality traits, however, because it’s not clear from the paper how strongly those two are linked. The authors claim that the strength of the links are not important, as they do not affect the main conclusions of the papers — although some personality traits appear to correlate with political beliefs, one doesn’t cause the other, nor vice versa. [Bold font mine.—ASL]
To be clear, the original paper defined psychoticism not as clinical psychosis but as a score correlated with five personality traits: tough-mindedness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism. Tough-mindedness and authoritarianism I can see as conservative traits, at least according to one school of conservativism … but risk-taking? impulsivity? sensation-seeking!?
In any event, one of the papers’ authors, Pete Hatemi, the researchers were concerned about the strength of the correlations and not the directionality. “We only cared about the magnitude of the relationship and the source of it … None of our papers actually give a damn about whether it’s plus or minus.” However, considering that two of the articles have been cited a total of 79 times, the misreporting may have had quite a bit of collateral damage. Said Steven Ludeke, one coauthor:
The erroneous results represented some of the larger correlations between personality and politics ever reported; they were reported and interpreted, repeatedly, in the wrong direction; and then cited at rates that are (for this field) extremely high. And the relationship between personality and politics is, as we note in the paper, quite a “hot” topic, with a large number of new papers appearing every year. So although the errors do not matter for the result that the authors (rightly) see as their most important, I obviously think the errors themselves matter quite a lot, especially for what it says about the scientific process both pre- and post-review.
I find it especially questionable that the scientists were unaware of potential value or character judgments implied in calling the matrix “psychoticism”. The social sciences are particularly subject to political biases; the junk studies they produce are almost without exception prompted by an agenda, and reviewed by peers who share the researchers’ values. This is why we test null and alternative hypotheses. While I don’t accuse Hatemi, Ludeke et al. of intentional bias, using a term loaded with the implication of mental illness offers less light than smoke. Especially if the correlations are “spurious”, as Hatemi says.