Nine out of ten dogmas

Frank Furedi on the assumptions, agendas and distinctly iffy data behind those ubiquitous words, 'research shows'

November 20, 2008

As someone devoted to academic research, I feel increasingly embarrassed when I encounter the words "research shows" in a newspaper article. The status of research is not only exploited to prove the obvious, but also to validate the researcher's political beliefs, lifestyle and prejudice.

So last month a study by John Alford of Rice University proved that right-wing Americans are likely to be far more nervous than left-wing counterparts. Liberal readers will be delighted to learn that they are typically relaxed.

We know this is cutting-edge research because he interviewed as many as 46 people. There was also good news last month for people of faith. University of Oxford researchers have discovered that belief in God works as a wonderful form of pain relief. After testing 12 Roman Catholics and 12 atheists, they concluded that believers can draw on reservoirs of spirituality to endure suffering with greater fortitude than unbelievers.

This was not news to the Anglican Bishop of Durham, who observed that the "practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are". It also turns people into honest, generous, trusting citizens, according to a study published in Science in October.

If you are offended that your lifestyle and belief have not been validated by gold-standard research, you will be delighted to know that there must be a study out there that proves your moral worth. Liberals may be more chilled out, but right-wing folk are nicer. There is now an important corpus of research that demonstrates that a right-wing outlook disposes people to be happy and to act philanthropically.

They are even less materialistic than those shopping addicts on the left. Peter Schweizer, in his book Makers And Takers, provides incontrovertible data to show that liberals are twice as likely to resent others' success. Conservatives also do well in the nurturing stakes; they hug children more often than frigid lefties.

Thankfully, there is robust research out there that challenges the association of nurturing with a right-wing mindset. The Democratic Party's favourite academic, George Lakoff, is certain that liberals are inspired by the values of "empathy and responsibility".

The politicisation of research is not a new development. Throughout the 20th century, advocacy research served to promote moral crusades and political agendas. Cold War-era psychologist Hans Eysenck reassured his refined readers that "middle-class Conservatives are more tender-minded than working-class Conservatives; middle-class Liberals more tender-minded than working-class Liberals; middle-class Socialists more tender-minded than working-class Socialists and even middle-class Communists are more tender-minded than working-class Communists".

In current times the kind of prejudice promoted by Eysenck is recycled through the dark art of brain research. Scientists can now prove that contrasting political outlooks are related to differences in how the brain processes information. Scientists at NYU and UCLA believe that their experiments show that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of the way their brains function. They too have numbers - liberals are 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to indicate activity in the brain circuits that engage with conflict.

Despite its links with the past, advocacy research has now acquired an unprecedented significance in Western culture. One important driver of its expansion is the growing significance that people attach to their lifestyles. The very subjects that advocacy research addresses suggest that lifestyle issues such as emotional orientation, parenting styles and the management of relations have become increasingly politicised.

In a world where lifestyle has unprecedented significance, people seek to endow it with moral worth. So it matters when a study concludes that children of gay parents "do just fine" or that single mothers' sons can succeed at school, or that marriage protects elderly adults from mental illness.

Naturally, academics also take their lifestyles very seriously. But it is important that we resist the temptation to discover the moral worth of our lifestyle through our research. And maybe we should take the lead in informing the public that when they see the words "research shows", they should assume the role of a sceptic.

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