By William Urban


            Last week a study by professors at New York University and UCLA reported that conservatives and liberal think differently, not because of different upbringings and life experiences, but because they are wired differently. That is, they are biologically different.

            On the whole liberals have rejoiced. My immediate understanding of the newspaper articles was that liberals can type the letter W faster than conservatives, hence they are smarter. Alternatively, they donít have to slow down to think.

            My second impression was that liberals, like those expelled from the Clinton White House in 2000 (who reportedly removed W from some computer keyboards and poured glue over the others), responded so negatively to the letter W that they literally banged down the key hard and fast. Conservatives, not so enthusiastic about W (the president) as before, just typed at the normal speed. The idea that liberals were more competitive than conservatives didnít cross my mind more than once, since the thought of liberal athletes provoked too much laughter.

            Reading the report more carefully, I learned that the test did not ask the students to type W, but not to type at all. Then it made more sense. Liberals were just too stunned by the letter to type, while conservatives typed M when they should have sat quietly. Make of that what you will.

            I have also learned that the test was badly flawed (only seven students were conservatives, a rather small sample; there were more women than men, without indicating their politics, and the girls in my 7 AM high school typing class were much faster at typing than boys like me with fingers swollen from football practice) and that 90% of the differences in the groups were factors other than political orientation. The inferences to the politics of George W Bush and John Kerry were made not by the scholars, but by those eager to show that liberals were smart and conservatives dumb.

            Does this really tell us anything about biases, other than those of newspapers which gleefully reported that conservatives were hesitant to experiment, were too rigid to respond to new stimuli, and lacked brain activity? I think not. But the implications of the experiments are worrisome:

            Will tests of this nature be used by future Democratic administrations to weed out those who have conservative brain waves, or Republicans to decide who should be nominated as judges? Why bother with interviews or looking into past behavior, if a simple test on a computer and a brain scan can do the job better?  Why not test to see if races think differently? What about men and women? There is a conversation in my recently published murder mystery (The Dean Is Dead) about men tending to think vertically, hence unable to see anything but the distant goal, while women thought horizontally, hence more creatively (I didnít make that one up).

            The opportunities for applying this kind of test stagger the imagination. Universities could weed out conservatives from the application pool for faculty positions, though I have difficulty imagining them improving on current practices. Seminaries could sort through student applications, eliminating those who think their education will have something to do with God. Young people could sort through potential mates, eliminating those least likely to earn a good salary.

            While humor may be the best way to put this study where it belongs, the enthusiastic reception it has received is sobering. Scholars have been cautious about research of this type because we see where it led in the Third Reich. Hitlerís scholars were not all vicious racists, but they were so interested in obtaining scientific results that they ended up lending their talents to one of the most despicable regimes in modern history. ďItís pure research,Ē they said, when their studies of skulls lent support to plans to, first, expel the Jews from universities and government, then to herd them into gas chambers.


Galesburg Zephyr (2008)