Epic Correction of the Decade

Hoo-wee, the New York Times will really have to extend itself to top the boner and mother-of-all-corrections at the American Journal of Political Science. This is the journal that published a finding much beloved of liberals a few years back that purported to find scientific evidence that conservatives are more likely to exhibit traits associated with psychoticism, such as authoritarianism and tough-mindedness, and that the supposed “authoritarian” personality of conservatives might even have a genetic basis (and therefore be treatable someday?). Settle in with a cup or glass of your favorite beverage, and get ready to enjoy one of the most epic academic face plants ever.

The original article was called “Correlation not causation: the relationship between personality traits and political ideologies,” and was written by three academics at Virginia Commonwealth University. Here’s the relevant part of the abstract:

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.

After the usual long winding path through the existing literature and exhausting discussion of their methodology, we get to some analysis and conclusions, and this is where the fun starts. There’s a lot of jargon and highly technical discussion as usual, but some comprehensible copy:

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.

Here I must explain that “Social Desirability” is a social science term that essentially translates into common sense language as someone who self-consciously wants to get along. Keep this in mind as we get to the epic correction. Keep also in mind where the authors also express some surprise that “neurotic” people would turn out to be liberals and support the welfare state:

People higher in Neuroticism tend to be more economically liberal. What is intriguing about this relationship is that it is in the opposite direction of what past theories would predict. . . That is, neurotic people are more likely to support public policies that provide aid to the economically disadvantaged (public housing, foreign aid, immigration, etc).

Now if you’re still with me, take in the opening of this very long correction:

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.

I’m just going to let that sit there for a moment while you swallow your beverage and put your cup or glass down so as not to risk damage to your keyboard. To continue:

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.

If you go back to the excerpts above and swap out the ideological categories you will have to suppress a horselaugh. Liberals are more prone to “psychoticism” (which the authors hasten to explain doesn’t meant “psychotic,” but what the hell. . .), and hence authoritarianism, which would come as no surprise to any conservative who pays attention to authoritarian liberalism. And people higher in Social Desirability will turn out to be conservatives, which is also congruent with the many simpler survey findings that conservatives are happier than liberals.

If you continue with the explanation in the correction it would seem to suggest that someone simply transposed the data somewhere along the line during the coding steps. Or maybe the authors were hoping for a job with Dan Rather or Katie Couric if tenure didn’t come through? They are defending themselves by saying that the main point of the paper was to demonstrate the magnitude of correlations between personality traits and sociopolitical attitudes, and hence that the ideological direction of the correlation doesn’t matter. This doesn’t wash well with the great folks at the indispensible Retraction Watch, who interviewed one of the academics who spotted the mistake, Steven Ludeke of the University of Southern Denmark, who said:

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.

In other words, if this study hadn’t come out conforming to the liberal narrative and sliming conservatives, it wouldn’t have attracted much notice. By the way, your tax dollars paid for this essential social science research. A note at the end says, “The data for this article were collected with the financial support of the National Institutes of Health.” And people wonder why Republicans in Congress want to cut off federal funding for social science research. As an alternative, I suggest redirecting federal social science funds to Retraction Watch.

And cue Emily Litella whenever you’re ready.

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