Is It a Serious Study?

Large swaths of the American left-wing blogosphere (e.g. Bora, Daily Kos) are all over a study that says mentally ill patients were likely to vote Bush in 2004, if they voted. The story everyone seems to be linking to says,

[Link] Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

But before you go thinking all your conservative friends are psychotic, listen to Lohse’s explanation.

“Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader,” Lohse says. “If your world is very mixed up, there’s something very comforting about someone telling you, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

Bora is of course trumpeting the study as evidence for his theory that conservatism is a form of mental illness born of automaton-like authoritarianism. On Daily Kos there’s a raging debate over whether conservatives are insane or evil. My excuse for not using that material as inspiration to edit another chapter of my book, whose portrayal of the blogosphere is more realistic than idealistic, is that I’m half asleep.

Fortunately, some people on Daily Kos who come off as more familiar with mental illness than most explain this. Sweet Potato comments,

[Link] Anyone who has spent time with the mentally ill knows that they have an inclination towards conspiracy theories, paranoia and collectivized emotion, especially as peddled by the media.

And Brown American explains why this study should be taken with a huge pinch of salt: its sample size is 69, and existing studies peg mental patients as better than the general population at telling when someone’s lying.

The buzzword in areas of social science that generate numerous studies is “meta-study.” It’s easy to botch these too, but when something draws enough buzz for there to be a hundred different data sets about it, a political hack will be able to use five that show the correlation is statistically significant.

In fact, usually there will be many more than five, because published studies have an existing bias in favor of data sets that show significant correlation. “There’s no link between these two things” won’t get you published unless it’s a real hot-button issue like racial IQ differences, and even that only diminishes that bias but does not eliminate it.

Of course, that didn’t prevent Bora from opening his post by snarking,

You know that Bush-apologists say crazy things. They get cited, chastized and mocked for it every day on the liberal blogs, after all. You may have also wandered, by mistake, onto comment threads on Little Green Foodballs, or The Corner, or other nasty Right-wing blogs and suspected that those people are not really ‘all there’.

There he’s completely right. Commenters on top political blogs like LGF, the Corner, Daily Kos, and Firedoglake tend to be an incredibly irrational bunch that gives regulars on Free Republic and Democratic Underground a run for the money. Blog comment threads are usually not that bad, because blogs are public enough for people to have the sense to write for the general reader rather than for the echo chamber, but the forums and the large blogs with insular comment threads are not. There’s no way someone who wasn’t obsessed with satisfying a readership thirsty for viciousness would’ve called a blue dog Democrat a whore (hat-tip to Zuzu and Piny for that gem).

Update: Coturnix has an update explaining he just wanted to alert the left-wing blogosphere to the study, without saying anything about its validity.

8 Responses to Is It a Serious Study?

  1. coturnix says:

    Yup, but you did not quote my update.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think your update was up when I wrote my post.

  3. Thanks for this post, that I heard about on Orac’s site. The glee from the left blogosphere bothered me a lot. My son is suffering from depression and possible PTSD and just started taking antidepressants and I have been reading a lot of blogs written by people who suffer from mental health disorders. Their reaction was that this very unprofessional “study” just basically makes them fodder for gleeful attempts at humor about Bush. I hate Bush as much as the next person and think he has done a lot of harm to this country and broken laws and should be impeached. I don’t think we have to go around searching for sloppy validation of our views that also mock the mentally ill.

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