Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


The skeptic community (if such a thing actually exists) is all abuzz because of the recent publication in the journal Cogent Social Studies of an article by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay called "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct."  If you read the article, you'll see immediately that it's a hoax.  It contains such passages as one in which they say the "concept of the penis" is responsible for climate change, and defend that claim thusly:
Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset.  This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology.  When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
Boghossian and Lindsay, both of whom write for Skeptic magazine, do a good bit of har-de-har-harring at the fact that their spoof article allegedly passed peer review, as does Skeptic's founder, Michael Shermer.  Shermer writes:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.  Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.
In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay hint that their hoax shows a fundamental problem with all of gender studies:
The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense.  That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions.  Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Denigrating all of gender studies based upon a sample size of One Paper seems like lousy skepticism to me.  They didn't do a thorough analysis of papers published in the dozens of journals that address the subject; they found one journal that accepted one hoax paper uncritically.  Sure, it says something about Cogent Social Studies -- which, it turns out, is a pay-to-publish journal anyhow, ranking it a long way down on the reliability ladder -- but that no more discredits gender studies as a whole than the Hwang Woo-Suk hoax discredited all stem cell research.

To me, this is more of an indication that Boghossian and Lindsay, and by extension Michael Shermer, have an ax to grind.  The hoax itself appears very much like a cheap stunt that Boghossian and Lindsay dreamed up to take a pot shot at a subject that for some reason they hold in disdain.  When the hoax succeeded, they crowed that the field of gender studies is "crippled academically."

Kind of looks like confirmation bias to me.  Sad, given that these three are often held up as the intellectual leaders of the skeptic community.

[image courtesy of artist Ju Gatsu Mikka and the Wikimedia Commons]

I do think there's one important lesson that can be drawn from this situation, however, and it's not the one Boghossian and Lindsay intended.  It's that the old adage of "if it's in an academic journal, it's reliable" simply isn't true.  I recall, in my college days, being told that the "only acceptable sources for papers are academic journals."  This wrongly gives college students the impression that all journals have identical standards -- that Nature and Science are on par with Cogent Social Studies and The American Journal of Homeopathy.

This makes a true skeptic's job harder (not to mention the job of college students simply trying to find good sources for their own research).  It is incumbent upon anyone reading an academic paper to see what the track record of the journal is -- if its papers have been cited by reputable researchers, if the research they describe is valid, if its authors have reasonable credentials.  Boghossian and Lindsay did show that we are right to be suspicious of papers that appear in pay-to-publish journals.  Beyond that, what they did strikes me as a lot of mean-spirited dicking around.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heavenly message delivery service

A while back, I wrote here at Skeptophilia about a business called "After The Rapture Pet Care" that (for a small fee) would pair holy pet owners up with well-meaning sinners, so that when the holy people were Raptured up to heaven, their pets would have someone to look after them.

Well, if that wasn't goofy enough for you, one of my Critical Thinking students ran across an even goofier idea last week.  His discovery?

A company called "MySendOff" that has a program they call "Sending Telegrams to Heaven."  The idea here hinges on the fact that most of us have friends or relatives who have died, and whom we would like to contact.  As the website puts it:
[W]hat if you had something you wanted to say to [a deceased loved one]?  Perhaps you had one last pressing thing you wanted your loved one to know but time wouldn’t allow it.  You maybe feeling somewhat guilty or unfulfilled for not saying that one last thing.  Some may even feel somehow responsible for the death and feel the pressing need to apologize and tell the deceased they feel responsible.  They may go on through life with a feeling of discontentment and frustration due to this self blaming.  Another reason for contacting the deceased may be that you want to inform them of new events that happened since their passing, a new birth in a family, a wedding etc.
I'm sure at least some of my readers can relate.

So here's what MySendOff will do for you.  For five dollars per word, you can upload a message to their website.  MySendOff will then find a volunteer who is terminally ill, who will memorize the message, and when the volunteer dies, (s)he will deliver the message to your loved one.

For their part, MySendOff agrees to periodically contact the volunteers to check up on them and make sure they still remember the message.  And -- special offer -- if the volunteer lives a year past the day (s)he was contracted to deliver the message, your fee will be refunded, and the volunteer agrees to deliver the message for free once (s)he does kick the bucket.

It's hard to know where to start, regarding how bizarre this is.  First, there's the idea that MySendOff is somehow getting in touch with hundreds of terminally ill people to act as couriers.  Second, the company is getting five bucks a word for basically doing... nothing.  Other than passing the message to the courier, that is.  You have no guarantee of delivery, given that they're not saying you'll ever know if the recently deceased, formerly terminally ill person successfully contacted your loved one.

I mean, think about it.  The odds are very much against it, right?  Think of all the billions of people who have died.  Even if you think they're all still kicking around somewhere in the Great Beyond, what's the likelihood of being able to find one of them, amongst all the people who have ever died?  Unless the afterlife is some kind of big, IRS-style bureaucracy, where each deceased person is assigned a tracking number upon arrival, so that they can all be located quickly if needed.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I hate to bring this up, but what if the terminally ill person arrives at the Pearly Gates, only to find that your loved one is sort of... not there?  I.e., they ended up in hell?  I have to admit, considering most of my relatives, that's a great deal more likely.  Does the courier then have the responsibility to have the message handed over to someone to make a downward delivery run?

Or does MySendOff pair up sinful dead people with sinful terminally ill people, so that the message goes the right direction to start with?

Of course, for me the main frustration would be that I don't so much want to deliver a message to my deceased loved ones, I'd much prefer to ask some questions, which means that I'd like answers, something for which MySendOff provides no guarantee.  I'd especially like to chat with my grandma, with whom I was very close as a kid.  There are all kinds of things I wish I'd asked while she was alive.  How did she meet my grandpa?  (My grandma was from rural southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandpa from southern Louisiana.  They met during World War I, and I'm sure there was a story there, but I never found out what it was.)  After my grandpa died, how did she meet the Dutch expat Catholic priest for whom she became the live-in housekeeper -- a job that lasted forty years until his death at age 86?  And, most importantly, what is her secret chocolate fudge recipe, which I have tried for thirty years to replicate without success?

But MySendOff has no provisions for two-way communication, which is a pity.  I mean, it'd be nice to tell my grandma that I miss her, but if there really is an afterlife, I'm sure she knows that.

So I'm not gonna pay five bucks a word to send her, or any other dead people, a message.  Seems a little steep, frankly.  I'll just wait until I die and can carry my own messages.  It'll be too late to use my grandma's chocolate fudge recipe, but at least we'll be able to have a nice chat about old times.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Killing public schools

One comment I hear every time budgets for public education are discussed is, "You can't fix the educational system by throwing money at it."

This pisses me off on a variety of levels.  First, there's the sense that funding public schools is randomly "throwing money," as if it's inherently irresponsible to provide adequate resources for educating the next generation of citizens.  Implicit in this is that schools will just waste the money anyhow, that school boards spend their time looking for frivolous ways to spend their state and federal funding.

The worst part, however, is that this convenient and glib little quip ignores the truth of a different adage: "You get what you pay for."  If you want to obtain and retain quality teachers, ensure that they have manageable class sizes that optimize student success, and give them the resources they need to deliver top-quality education, you have to pay for it.

And it's not like if you refuse to spend tax money to fund schools, then somehow the money magically stays in your pocket.  Taxpayers will pay either for supporting schools, or for the consequences of a generation of poorly-educated, disaffected young adults whose career choices are constrained by a lack of opportunities in public schools, or who have chosen to go to college and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that will take decades to repay.

All of which is why the proposed federal education budget is such a travesty.

The Washington Post calls this "Trump's education budget," which is a little doubtful, given that Trump gives every impression of having never written anything longer 140 characters, much less an actual budget proposal.  The specifics, honestly, have Betsy DeVos written all over them.  The Secretary of Education is a staunch believer in federal funding for private and religious schools -- which she refers to as "school choice" -- and for cutting damn near everything else to the bone.

Here are a few of the provisions of this proposal:
  • cutting a total of $10.6 billion from the overall budget for education
  • cutting funding for college work-study programs by half
  • cutting over a hundred million dollars from programs supporting mental health services and programs providing enrichment, honors, and advanced coursework in middle and high schools
  • ending a program to provide student loan forgiveness for college graduates who work in public service
  • cutting $168 million from grants to states for career and tech programs
  • cutting $72 million from programs for international education and foreign language training
  • cutting $12 million from funding for the Special Olympics
  • cutting $96 million from a program for adult literacy instruction
On the other hand, it:
  • expands support for charter schools and private and religious schools by $400 million
  • adds $1 billion to programs to push school districts to adopt "choice-friendly" policies
"It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education," DeVos said.  "Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over fifty years with very little to show for its efforts."

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

DeVos, of course, is in no position to make that kind of judgment.  She has never worked in a public school, did not send her children to public school, and her main claim to fame, education-wise, is pushing a program in her home state of Wisconsin that funneled $2 billion to private and religious schools despite peer-reviewed studies showing that these programs do not work.  And the situation in Wisconsin is by no means unique -- other states have tried voucher systems, and by and large they have been a dismal flop.  Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times gives one example:
A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana’s expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program.  Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program.  In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.
So let's take those results, and make them national by mandate!  That'd be a great idea!

It doesn't take an expert to recognize the terrible effect that such a diversion of funds has on schools.  You'd think this would be enough for even the most diehard supporter of "school choice" to say, "Oh.  I guess I was wrong, then."

But no.  Data, facts, and evidence have no impact on a doctrinaire ideologue like DeVos, who honestly doesn't seem to give a damn if public schools fail.  In fact, if by her actions public schools do decline, in her mind it will just prove what she's claimed all along; that education in America is in a tailspin.

 Look, I've worked in education for thirty years.  It's not that I think we're perfect.  There's wastefulness, there is misspent money, and I have long decried the increasing focus on trivial content and preparation for standardized tests.  But the solution is not to cut funding to the bone.  Faced with revenue loss, public schools have only one real choice -- reducing staff.  Most of the rest of the line items in school budgets are earmarked or non-discretionary -- school boards have no choice in whether to include them.  The only big-ticket item that boards actually do have control over is salaries.  But since the salary per teacher is set contractually, there's only one option: lay people off.

Which means higher class sizes, cutting of electives, and loss of program.

Not that DeVos would ever admit this.  But look at the actual results of voucher programs and charter schools, nationwide -- not the spin that DeVos puts on it, but real numbers coming from studies such as the ones described by Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times article linked above.

The conclusion is unequivocal.  And the budget being proposed will, if passed, be a death blow to the schools that can withstand it least -- poor, overcrowded, inner-city schools.

Remember that next time you see Betsy DeVos smile her smarmy smile and say that she's pro-child.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Attractive paranoia

I know two people who are major conspiracy theorists.

One of them believes he's being persecuted by the folks at his place of employment, that they're getting together and deliberately making his life difficult because "they all" disagree with his political and religious beliefs.  He seriously believes that the ordinary, average folks he works with are meeting in secret to try to find new and devious ways to make him miserable.

"Why would they do that?" I ask.  

"Because of who I am," he answers, with no apparent trace of irony.

The other one is more of a global conspiracy type -- there's this Shadow Government run by the CEOs of the Big Corporations, and they have Big Secret Plans for World Domination. (This guy always speaks in Capital Letters.)  He's a major fan of Zeitgeist, believes there are secret plans for a One World Government, thinks that the CIA is putting mind-control chemicals into jet fuel so we get zombified whenever there's a jet contrail, and thinks that there are Men in Black who make dissenters disappear.  Say the words "New World Order" in his presence, and he gets really serious, and looks around to see if anyone overheard.  And of course, when you point out that there's no evidence whatsoever for a Global Conspiracy, he just raises his eyebrow coyly and smiles, as if to say, "Of course there's no evidence.  You don't think they'd just leave evidence hanging around, do you?  These guys are good."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm willing to believe that the second guy has just watched too many episodes of The X Files, but it does make me wonder why conspiracy theories are so appealing.  As strange as it sounds, there's a certain attraction to paranoia.  People want there to be a huge master plan behind everything -- sinister or otherwise -- because, I think, it's more satisfying and reassuring that there is a plan.  It's a little disconcerting to think that the universe is just kinda random, that things happen because they happen, and most people are just helpless dorks with no more intentionality than billiard balls bouncing off each other.

I mean, I like The X Files as much as the next guy, but honestly I think the universe is much more like a cosmic Mr. Magoo episode.

In a recent interview in Vox, social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, agrees.  "[Conspiracy theories are] a tool to explain reality," van Prooijen said.  "We can’t always know or understand everything that happens to us. When people are uncertain about change — when they lose their jobs, or when a terrorist strike or a natural disaster has occurred — then people have a tendency to want to understand what happened, and also a tendency to assume the worst. It’s a self-protective mechanism people have.  This combination of trying to make sense and assuming the worst often leads to conspiracy theories."

This means, van Prooijen said, that during unstable times, we should expect conspiracy theories to sprout up like mushroom after a rainstorm.  "They’re particularly likely to flourish in times of collective uncertainty in society. Particularly after high-profile incidents that imply a sudden change in society or a sudden change in reality in a threatening way.  Think 9/11, but also think of disease outbreaks [or] long-term threats like an economic crisis or climate change."

This means, too, that they're remarkably resistant to correction.  When the emotional piece is added, it makes people much more likely to dig their heels in than admit they were wrong.  And that's despite that fact that in general, most conspiracy theories are very likely to be wrong.

Robert Heinlein said, "Never attribute to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity."   I'd add to that that most people don't have the time or interest to conspire.  Conspiracy, after all, takes so much effort.  The first guy I mentioned -- the one thinks that his coworkers are out to get him -- would probably be appalled if he knew how little time and energy his coworkers actually spend thinking about him.  Sorry, buddy, you're not the victim of a conspiracy -- "who you are" is just not that important.  Most of your coworkers spend more time daily thinking about what to have for dinner that night than they do thinking about ways to make your life miserable.

Also, there's just the practical aspect of it.   Conspiracies are hard to manage, because face it, people like to gossip.  Plus, my own version of Murphy's Law is that the overall IQ and efficiency of a group is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group.  Our government isn't so much evil as it is ridiculous -- Congress as 535 Keystone Kops running about while "Yakety Sax" plays in the background, banging into each other, falling down, and having the occasional sex scandal and collusion with Russia, all overseen by President Magoo, whose job is to keep people believing the pleasant myth that his administration has got a handle on everything.

It's not that the government, or corporations, don't do bad things. They do -- sometimes really bad ones. But there's nothing more behind it than simple human greed and power-hungriness and dumbassery, with the occasional plot that is usually about as successful as Watergate. The rest of the world just keeps going on, doing what people do, and rolling our eyes at how absurd it all is.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Confirmation bias, false news, and The Palmer Report

I'm going to make another plea for something that I've requested before:


In these fractious times, it's easy to get your dander up and post, share, or retweet links about controversial stuff without double-checking their veracity.  And you should especially check your sources if you're inclined to agree with them.  Confirmation bias plagues us all, and we are all more likely to accept a claim uncritically if we already thought it was true.

This all comes up because of an article from Business Insider about The Palmer Report.  The Palmer Report is a strongly left-leaning news website run by one Bill Palmer, and has established itself as being about as reliable as Fox News in presenting verified, accurate information.

The Business Insider article describes an incident involving Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.  Markey went on CNN and said, "Subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to [National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn and Gen. Flynn's associates. A grand jury has been impaneled up in New York."

This resulted in some puzzlement, as no one else seemed to have heard about the impaneling of a grand jury in New York, or anywhere else, for that matter.  Questioned about the claim, Markey identified the source of it as The Palmer Report.

Bill Palmer, apparently, made the claim up out of whole cloth.  But when this became obvious, did he back down, and say, "Oops, guess I was wrong"?

Of course not.  Websites like The Palmer Report have, as their motto, "Death Before Retraction."  Instead of addressing the apparent falsehood, Palmer responded with a dazzling display of circular reasoning and said by quoting The Palmer Report, Markey had "confirmed" that a grand jury had been appointed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The site has kept Snopes busy lately.  Just in the last week, Snopes has debunked false or misleading claims from The Palmer Report including that James Comey sent out a malicious tweet about Donald Trump and the alleged "pee tape" after he was fired; that Donald Trump had said that "Americans have no right to protest;" and that Trump called up CBS after Stephen Colbert's anti-Trump diatribe and "got him fired."

All of these stories are false.  But they line up very much with what the left would like to be true, so they've all gone viral.

Palmer, for his part, is unapologetic.  "Anyone unfamiliar with my work shouldn't just take my word, or anyone else's word, on its validity," he wrote last year.  "My articles include supporting source links which allow readers to easily verify the facts in question, meaning there's nothing controversial about my reporting."

Believe me because I say it's true, in other words.  And why should you think I'm accurate?  Well, I just told you I was, dammit!

All of which brings up a rather unpleasant tendency; for the left to see all of the right's claims as unfounded supposition and their own as well-sourced, fact-based, virtually self-evident to anyone with a brain.  And vice versa, of course.  The truth is that everyone is prone to bias, and we need to evaluate stuff we agree with even more carefully because of the danger of accepting it without question.

And as far as The Palmer Report and the other purveyors of fake news out there, left and right; you are muddying the waters, stirring up conflict and dissent, and making the ugly polarization that is characterizing today's United States even worse.  I have no doubt you know this already, and suspect that you don't care much.  But I will add my own voice to others in saying: if you don't know that the claim you're making is true, shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Who watches the watchers?

A nearly universal, and rather creepy, sensation is when you turn to look at a stranger -- and find that they were watching you.

This "feeling of being watched" is something we all have experienced from time to time.  I seem to notice it most when I'm driving on the freeway, and happen to glance at the car next to me.  I can remember many times when either the person in the next car was already looking at me -- or else, even creepier, they turn their head toward me at exactly the same time.

However odd this feels, I've always felt like there was a perfectly rational reason for this, and my sense was that it's yet another example of dart-thrower's bias -- the perfectly natural human tendency to pay more attention to (or overcount) the hits, and ignore (or undercount) the misses.

In this case, how many times do you glance at a car next to you on the freeway, and the person in the car is not looking at you?  We don't remember it precisely because it happens so often.  On the other hand, on those rare occasions where someone is looking at us, it stands out -- and is given more weight in our memories.

"Uhhh... did you ever have the feeling that you was bein' watched?"

There's another possible explanation, however, and it has to do with an oddity of our perceptual systems only recently discovered because of a peculiar disorder called "blindsight," in which an individual is functionally blind, but can still perceive some visual stimuli.

Blindsight occurs when a person's visual cortex is damaged, usually by a stroke, but his/her eyes and optic nerve are still intact.  In a dramatic study led by Alan J. Pegna of Geneva University Hospital (Switzerland), it was found that although they are unresponsive to most visual stimuli, people with blindsight still exhibit visual phenomena like "emotional contagion" -- the tendency of people to match the emotions of faces they're looking at.

Apparently, this happens because the information from the eyes does not just travel to the visual cortex, it goes to a variety of other places in the brain, including the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion.  So a person might be able to match the smile in a photograph of a smiling person -- while not, technically, being able to see the photograph.

Pegna's study showed that not only are people with blindsight able to detect the emotion in a face they are (not) seeing, they can also tell when someone is looking at them.  Scanning results of a patient with blindsight showed increased activity in the amygdala -- the part of the limbic system that controls anxiety and fear -- when he was being watched.

So the conjecture is that there may be something more to the sensation of being watched than simple dart-thrower's bias.  It might be that when someone in our peripheral visual field is watching us, it doesn't register in our conscious awareness (through the visual cortex), but our nervous and ever-watchful amygdala still knows what's going on.  And since the limbic system largely functions subconsciously, it feels as if we had some kind of psychic awareness of something we didn't actually see.

Meaning that once again, we have a rational explanation (two, actually) of something that seems like it must be paranormal.  In other words: science wins again.  I have to wonder if something like this might be responsible for some other perceptual oddities, such as déjà vu, about which I have been curious for years but never seen a particularly convincing explanation.

In any case, it's something to keep in mind, for next time you're in a crowded restaurant and you see someone across the room staring at you.  It could be that your amygdala just went onto red alert.  It could also be that people are looking at you because you're drop-dead sexy.  You're welcome to go with whichever explanation you prefer.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The geography of belief

When I first read Richard Dawkins's fiery and controversial diatribe The God Delusion, one of the points he made that struck me the most strongly is that religion is for the most part dependent not on its adherents choosing a particular schema of belief because of its appeal or its inherent logic, but because of simple geography.  Dawkins writes:
If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents.  If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Dawkins's point is that this is a strong indicator that specific religions are held by their followers not because of choice, but primarily because of cultural and familial traditions.  There are adult converts, of course, who are choosing a belief system, but most people who are religious belong to the dominant faith in the place where they live.  (In fact, a Pew Research poll just released last week estimates the percentage of Christians who are in the faith because of conversion as adults as less than 6%.)  In other words, for most religious people, they believe it's true not because they were convinced by the evidence, but because it's what they were told by the people around them when they were children.

And now, a team led by Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Alexa M. Tulett of the University of Alabama has shown that the same thing is true of political beliefs.

In a paper in PLOS-One called "The Political Reference Point: How Geography Shapes Political Identity," Feinberg et al. looked at the spectrum of political stances regionally, and whether geography correlates with not only party affiliation but how terms like "conservative" and "liberal" are defined.  The authors write:
It is commonly assumed that how individuals identify on the political spectrum–whether liberal, conservative, or moderate–has a universal meaning when it comes to policy stances and voting behavior.  But, does political identity mean the same thing from place to place?  Using data collected from across the U.S. we find that even when people share the same political identity, those in “bluer” locations are more likely to support left-leaning policies and vote for Democratic candidates than those in “redder” locations.  Because the meaning of political identity is inconsistent across locations, individuals who share the same political identity sometimes espouse opposing policy stances.  Meanwhile, those with opposing identities sometimes endorse identical policy stances.  Such findings suggest that researchers, campaigners, and pollsters must use caution when extrapolating policy preferences and voting behavior from political identity, and that animosity toward the other end of the political spectrum is sometimes misplaced.
Which makes it all the more interesting how fervently people believe they're correct on political matters.  Just as with religion, a person in rural Kansas who grew up staunchly conservative would likely have grown up liberal had he been raised in San Francisco.

The problem with this argument, though, is that this doesn't fix the problem that most people see their own beliefs as based on sound, well-considered thought, and everyone else's as based on indoctrination.  Instead of recognizing that all of us are more a product of our regional culture than of any kind of systematic examination of our own moral, ethical, and political matrix, it's easier (and on a lot of levels, more comforting) for the rural Kansas conservative to say, "Of course if I was raised in San Francisco I'd be liberal.  I'd have been brainwashed by the damn left wing Democrats before I had a chance to form my own opinions."  (And vice versa, of course.)

So I'm not sure where the research of Feinberg et al., and even the observations of Dawkins about religion, get us.  All of us still tend to cling like mad to our own preconceived notions (and I am very definitely including myself in that "all of us").  But if this line of thought can persuade some of us to re-examine our beliefs, and consider the extent to which we were shaped not by evidence, logic, or rational argument but by geography and family influences, it might be a first step toward not only helping us to think as clearly as possible, but understanding those of us whose beliefs differ from ours.