"Our Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom. As a matter of fact they were very much afraid if that because they’d just had this experience with this far-away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you, and then it was actually the reason that we fought the revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown if you will."
While I think the whole issue is pretty trivial, it does threaten to solidify the conventional wisdom that Perry is dumb. Yesterday, for instance, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Joseph Rago said at a pre-debate panel at Dartmouth (where I am on the faculty) that Perry seemed like he "had some sort of mental disability" during the previous debate. A few more incidents like this and Perry will be covered more like Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle than Mitt Romney. And as Palin and Quayle can tell you, once the narrative forms, reporters start looking for anecdotes to reinforce the story they want to tell. It's a cycle that is very difficult to break.
Update 10/12 11:59 AM: NBC News has video:
Going into tonight's GOP debate at Dartmouth College (where I am a faculty member), the challenge for Rick Perry, as TAP's Jamelle Bouie notes, is to reassure nervous elites that he's a capable national-level candidate while attracting support from anti-Romney conservatives who have swung toward Herman Cain:
Romney is leading the field with 38 percent support among likely voters in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Herman Cain takes the second place spot with 20 percent of the vote, and Ron Paul finishes third with 13 percent of the vote. The remaining candidates, including Rick Perry, poll at 5 percent or less.
This obviously isn’t great news for the Texas governor. But it’s not terrible news either. The simple fact is that Herman Cain isn’t a serious candidate. His policy knowledge is slim and his political organization is nonexistent. Yes, he’s traveled to a few primary states, but that has more to do with book sales than it does with actually running for president. Sooner or later, his bubble will pop, and he’ll fall back down to earth.
But while Cain’s candidacy is a sideshow, his constituency is not. Cain represents the largest faction in the anti-Romney wing of the Republican base, which is as large—if not larger—than Romney’s own base of support. In New Hampshire and elsewhere, these voters have attached to Cain for lack of a better choice.
To put this another way, Herman Cain has sucked the oxygen out of Perry’s bid for anti-Romney conservatives. As such, Perry’s task for tomorrow’s debate and the weeks ahead, is to reassure Republicans of his conservative credentials and re-establish himself as the real alternative to Romney. Part of that, as I noted earlier, will involve attacks on Romney’s record. But part of it, I think, will require Perry to gently show conservatives that while Herman Cain is a great guy, he’s not quite presidential material.
The problem is that Perry is uniquely ill-suited to go after Cain. First, the former Godfather Pizza CEO's primary vulnerability is his lack of detailed policy knowledge, but the same is true of Perry. In addition, it would be awkward for Perry to target Cain so soon after the controversy over a racially offensive term painted on a rock at a hunting camp leased by Perry and his family. Cain, the only African American running for the GOP nomination, said afterward that Perry showed "a lack of sensitivity."
For these reasons, it's likely that Perry will instead focus his fire on Romney as he did at the Value Voters Summit and in an online video. He has to hope that other contenders will take on Cain in the hopes of attracting some of the gadfly candidate's supporters once his boomlet dissipates.
What's been strange to observe, though, is how Perry's handlers and allies have failed to play in the expectations game in a savvy way. Rather than downplaying his likely performance in the debate tonight, they seemed to promise a major improvement in a New York Times story on Perry's struggles that included an unfortunate comparison of the candidate to a "tired puppy." By comparison, expectations for George W. Bush were set so low that it was considered a victory when he "survived" his first debate in 1999 "without any major gaffe" and the AP later reported that "Even the Texan's allies sounded underwhelmed" by his early debate performances. If Perry's camp is smart, they will avoid creating an expectation of a dramatic turning point that he is unlikely to deliver.
Going forward, Perry's principal challenge is to stay viable so that more elites don't defect to Romney. He is well-funded and has a favorable primary calendar. Regardless of his standing in national polls, he has a decent chance to mount a comeback against Romney because support in multi-candidate primaries is so fluid. When there are relatively minor ideological differences between candidates, it's possible to make rapid gains as voters shift to their second or third choices for strategic or stylistic reasons. If Perry can adapt to the rigors of a national-level campaign, his odds of consolidating enough of the anti-Romney vote to win the nomination are significantly better than the current Intrade estimate of 18.9%.
I have a new column at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball on why Harry Truman's 1948 campaign against the "Do-Nothing Congress" may be a misleading model for President Obama:
[T]he dramatic narrative of Truman’s victory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As University at Buffalo, SUNY political scientist James Campbell pointed out in 2004 (gated), Truman’s comeback was fueled by “sizzling” growth in the year before the election (the time when voters tend to most strongly reward economic improvement)...
This well-timed surge in economic growth is likely to have played an important role in the success of Truman’s campaign. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund just downgraded its forecast for US economic growth in 2011 and 2012 to 1.5% and 1.8%, respectively.
The column, which updates a 2010 post on this blog, directly contrasts economic growth under Truman in the six quarters before the election with the forecasts for the equivalent period under Obama. The difference is dramatic. Read it to find out more.
My friend and former UM RWJ colleague Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, has a new ebook based on his popular series of Grad School Rulz posts on the Orgtheory blog. If you're in a Ph.D. program or thinking about pursuing a career in academia, this is a necessary purchase (especially for only $2). Like Fabio, I had no idea what I was getting into when I went to graduate school and found it difficult to learn the rules about how academia worked (which are almost entirely unwritten). I would put this book alongside Robert Peters's Getting What You Came For as essential texts for the aspiring academic.
Here's a scientific article that needs careful attention among editors of the New York Times op-ed page:
The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations
Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.
Back in 2007, the Times published a a questionable op-ed titled "This Is Your Brain on Politics" that tried to interpret voters' mental states based on fMRI data from 20 subjects. The analysis was promptly debunked by a group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists, who wrote that the article uses "flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions."
Unfortunately, the NYT doesn't appear to have learned its lesson. On Saturday, it published an op-ed by a neuromarketer named Martin Lindstrom claiming that consumers showed brain activity consistent with "love" when "exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone." And again, it's not able to withstand serious scrutiny. Here's The Neurocritic:
Lindstrom committed a logical fallacy -- one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity in neuroimaging experiments. See papers by Aguirre (2003) and Poldrack (2006).
Here's UT-Austin neuroscientist Russ Poldrack:
Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones. In Tal Yarkoni's recent paper in Nature Methods, we found that the anterior insula was one of the most highly activated part of the brain, showing activation in nearly 1/3 of all imaging studies! Further, the well-known studies of love by Helen Fisher and colleagues don't even show activation in the insula related to love, but instead in classic reward system areas. So far as I can tell, this particular reverse inference was simply fabricated from whole cloth. I would have hoped that the NY Times would have learned its lesson from the last episode.
And here's Yarkoni himself, a neuroscientist at UC-Boulder:
This brings us to what might be the biggest whopper of all, and the real driver of the article title: the claim that "most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion".
...[T]he insula (or at least the anterior part of the insula) plays a very broad role in goal-directed cognition. It really is activated when you're doing almost anything that involves, say, following instructions an experimenter gave you, or attending to external stimuli, or mulling over something salient in the environment...
The insula is one of a few 'hotspots' where activation is reported very frequently in neuroimaging articles (the other major one being the dorsal medial frontal cortex). So, by definition, there can't be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often. To put it differently, as Russ and others have repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn't give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value. That's not to say that some psychological states might not be more strongly associated with insula activity (again, you can see this on Neurosynth if you switch the image type to 'reverse inference' and browse around); it's just that, probabilistically speaking, the mere fact that the insula is active gives you very little basis for saying anything concrete about what people are experiencing.
In fact, to account for Lindstrom's findings, you don't have to appeal to love or addiction at all. There's a much simpler way to explain why seeing or hearing an iPhone might elicit insula activation. For most people, the onset of visual or auditory stimulation is a salient event that causes redirection of attention to the stimulated channel. I'd be pretty surprised, actually, if you could present any picture or sound to participants in an fMRI scanner and not elicit robust insula activity. Orienting and sustaining attention to salient things seems to be a big part of what the anterior insula is doing (whether or not that's ultimately its 'core' function). So the most appropriate conclusion to draw from the fact that viewing iPhone pictures produces increased insula activity is something vague like "people are paying more attention to iPhones", or "iPhones are particularly salient and interesting objects to humans living in 2011." Not something like "no, really, you love your iPhone!"
In sum, the NYT screwed up. Lindstrom appears to have a habit of making overblown claims about neuroimaging evidence, so it's not surprising he would write this type of piece; but the NYT editorial staff is supposedly there to filter out precisely this kind of pseudoscientific advertorial. And they screwed up. It's a particularly big screw-up given that (a) as of right now, Lindstrom's Op-Ed is the single most emailed article on the NYT site, and (b) this incident almost perfectly recapitulates another NYT article 4 years ago in which some neuroscientists and neuromarketers wrote a grossly overblown Op-Ed claiming to be able to infer, in detail, people's opinions about presidential candidates. That time, Russ Poldrack and a bunch of other big names in cognitive neuroscience wrote a concise rebuttal that appeared in the NYT (but unfortunately, isn't linked to from the original Op-Ed, so anyone who stumbles across the original now has no way of knowing how ridiculous it is). One hopes the NYT follows up in similar fashion this time around. They certainly owe it to their readers -- some of whom, if you believe Lindstrom, are now in danger of dumping their current partners for their iPhones.
I am Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. I received my Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Duke University and served as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research and a faculty member in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College before coming to the Ford School. I also tweet at @BrendanNyhan, contribute to The Upshot at The New York Times, and am a co-organizer of Bright Line Watch. Previously, I served as a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review, co-edited Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of political spin, and co-authored All the President's Spin. For more, see my Michigan website.