Attempts to demean the conservative temperament — even assuming that there is such a thing as the conservative temperament — bother me less than the attempt to insist that such demeaning is merely neutral analysis. And I’m not only referring to the popular press: this Vox post by David Roberts takes its chief talking points from recent scholarship, for instance this article from Current Biology.

Let’s consider a key passage from that article, one that Roberts quotes. It goes like this (footnotes deleted for clarity):

Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that increased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with conservatism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Interesting, no? But what if the research had been presented in this way?

Liberals respond to threatening situations with less aggression than do conservatives and are less sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This lowered sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with liberal orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that decreased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with liberalism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Precisely the same conclusions — but notice how differently the argument reads when it treats liberalism as a deviation from conservativism rather than the other way around. Note that the article says that the conservative response “might exhibit differences” — but from what? From the norm, of course. The assumption that liberalism is the default (and presumably rational) position, and that any deviation from that position is what requires scientific explanation, not that position itself, is deeply embedded in the article, and indeed in the ideological framework of American social science tout court.

So David Roberts thinks that in writing his article he and the research he draws on are totally neutral — “Whichever of these personality traits, or clusters of traits, you might prefer, the research itself does not characterize any as better or worse” — so when conservatives get annoyed by posts like his, it surely must be tempting for him and his liberal readers to attribute that to more of that good ol’ conservative “heightened sensitivity.” (You people can’t even tolerate neutral description!) And so the liberal ideological bandwagon rolls on, and on, and on, serenely confident in its neutrality, its clarity in seeing things just as they are, its normalcy.