Republicans Brains are Wired to Deny Science & Reality

A book review by Alice Friedemann at energyskeptic.com of:

Chris Mooney. 2012. “The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality”.

We are all susceptible to over 250 cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors, regardless of what political party we belong to. It seems every week a new book comes out about why we can’t see reality and make dumb choices.

I’ve read several such books lately.  Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is a good introduction to this research.  Kahneman shows that the basis of our cognitive biases is due to how our minds work. It begins with the lightning fast like/dislike reactions of our primitive emotional brain (system 1).  It’s up to the newer parts of our brain to interpret these basic emotional reactions (system 2).  But system 2 is slow and can only focus on a few things, so we usually succumb to the primitive biases of system 1 without even realizing it.

Chris Mooney’s book also sees our emotional brains as a big part of how we see the world, and of why we become a Democrat or Republican.

When an emotion bubbles up from our subconscious brain, we rationalize, not reason.  Or as Mooney puts it, “we’re not scientists, we’re lawyers trying to ‘win the case’, especially if we’re emotionally committed to an idea”.   We start to become little lawyers when we develop motivated reasoning around the age 4 or 5.  That’s when we start siding with the groups we belong to — our family, friends, neighbors, church, and political party.

I doubt many Republicans are going to read this book. They ought to. Mooney is thoughtful and insightful. Compare his evidence-based book with the Republican counterpart, Ann Coulter’s “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republican”.  Some chapter titles:

  • Teddy Kennedy: apparently fat, drunk, and stupid is a way to go through life
  • Liberal “argument”: hissing, scratching, and hair-pulling,
  • Liberalism and other psychological disorders
  • Liberal tactics: distortion, dissembling, deception—and the rest is just run-of-the-mill treason
  • Baby-killing: Abort liberals, not children
  • Blacks: the only thing standing between the democrat party and oblivion
  • Christians: must Reproduce More
  • Communism: a new fragrance by Hillary Clinton
  • Environmentalism: Adolf Hitler was the first environmentalist
  • Evolution, Alchemy, and other “settled” scientific theories

Some good news: not everyone is equally biased.  Many of us are capable of listening to others and changing our views.  But this varies a lot from person to person, because people differ in their need to defend their point of view, in their need to have convictions that must not change, in their need to believe their group is right, and in their need for unity with their group.  If you’re wired and strongly motivated to have unwavering convictions, it will be almost impossible to change your mind with any facts, logic, or reason.  Mooney makes the case that this kind of person has a conservative mind, and is therefore likely to be a Republican.

Mooney likens someone with a strongly held opinion that’s being challenged to experiencing a physical attack, because these beliefs are physically embedded in the brain.

Which means you can’t expect to come up with undeniable, irrefutable facts and suddenly change someone’s mind, since their strongly held beliefs are literally wired into their brains.

Linguist George Lakoff, at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to think you can change someone’s beliefs with well-reasoned arguments is not only naïve, it’s also unwise and ineffective.

Reasoning is emotional, what psychologists call hot reasoning. We are not coldly rational.  Not even scientists are immune.  But what makes science the most successful way we have of testing reality is the scientific method, since peer review, experimental replication, and critiques from other scientists mean that eventually the best ideas emerge despite any individual’s biases. Within scientific circles, it’s considered admirable to give up cherished ideas when evidence shows you to be wrong.

Mooney believes this is a key difference between liberals and conservatives.  Scientists are overwhelmingly liberal — they have to be, or they won’t get far in their profession.  Please note this does not mean that their scientific discoveries are liberal or democratic.  Scientific findings aren’t political, they’re reality, and only become “political” when spun that way.  The opposite of a scientist is a religious, authoritarian, political conservative, because they tend to have a strong need to never modify their deeply held beliefs, or to ever appear to be uncertain and indecisive.

Since most of the most important problems that need to be solved require scientific literacy, which less than 10% of Americans have, here’s how Mooney says scientific news is interpreted by the other 90% of the public:

“When it comes to the dissemination of science—or contested facts in general—across a nonscientific populace, a very different process is often occurring than the scientific one.  A vast number of individuals, with widely varying motivations, are responding to the conclusions that science, allegedly, has reached.  Or so they’ve heard.

They’ve heard through a wide variety of information sources—news outlets with differing politics, friends and neighbors, political elites—and are processing the information through different brains, with very different commitments and beliefs, and different psychological needs and cognitive styles. And ironically, the fact that scientists and other experts usually employ so much nuance, and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty when they communicate their results, makes the evidence they present highly amenable to selective reading and misinterpretation.  Giving ideologues or partisans data that’s relevant to their beliefs is a lot like unleashing them in the motivated reasoning equivalent of a candy store.  In this context, rather than reaching an agreement or a consensus, you can expect different sides to polarize over the evidence and how to interpret it”.

If you’re going to make the strong claim that Republicans deny science and reality, you’d better back that up.   Which Mooney does quite well, beginning with the history of how Republicans and the Christian Right have built institutions of propaganda and recruited false experts for decades. Then he shows how these institutions have influenced issues like climate change, evolution, women’s rights, health care, economics, and so on.

Republicans have created a closed world view for their followers so they’re never exposed to ideas outside this universe of Fox TV, hate talk radio, and other right-wing and Christian propaganda.  What’s presented is carefully crafted to appeal to conservative minds and provides them with certainty and closure.

This means there can never be a moment of clarity like when Joseph Welch told McCarthy live on ABC television in 1954 “Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” and suddenly people woke up to the evils of right-wing McCarthyism and made it go away.

But this is not a book about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it, or how you can change a Republican’s mind now that you know how they operate. It’s more of a Carl Sagan “Science as a candle in the dark”, shining of light into the dark corners that lurk within closed minds, and groups of closed minds, shut off from reality.  Mooney casts light with the latest scientific findings and critical thinking skills.

The Big 5 Personality Traits and how they predict which party you’re likely to join

Scientists have tried to boil personality research from the past decades into a unified theory and have come up with the “big 5” personality traits (see wiki or my book review of Daniel Nettle’s book, “Personality, What makes you the way you are”).

Some of the liberal/conservative correlations with the big 5 personality traits:

  • 71% of liberals have an open outlook
  • 61% of conservatives are high in conscientiousness
  • 59% of the highly educated are liberals
  • 56% of those with very high incomes are conservatives

But these traits are not destiny.  Overall, our political views are 40% genetic, 60% environment.  There is no democratic or republican gene, but dispositions that pre-dispose us one way or the other.

If you walked into someone’s home, you could probably tell which way they swing – liberals and conservatives hang out at different places, dress differently, date differently, and listen to different music.  Liberals have more books and music, across a wider range of topics and styles than conservatives.  Conservatives have more sports paraphernalia, American flags, and cleaning supplies.

How to Avoid Giving up a Cherished Belief

Goal post shifting. Mooney defines this as demanding ever more evidence, or tweaking your view to avoid giving up a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

My expert is better than your expert.   Allows you to ignore what the other person is saying because you’ve found an expert who says the opposite. So when conservatives deny climate change, it’s because they think their experts are the best — the most realistic and truthful.

Stop seeking out more information.  Republicans have a much higher need for closure, so they are likely to seize upon information that pleases them and stop looking for more.

Republicans are More Biased than Democrats

Basically, conservatives are more strongly motivated to defend their beliefs, and are far more likely to cling to wrong views even more tenaciously when presented with incontrovertible evidence they are wrong (Backfire effect).  Smart, educated republicans better at coming up with incorrect facts to defend their beliefs than the less educated, what Mooney calls “the smart idiot effect”.  The opposite is true of Democrats – the more educated, the more likely a democrat will change his/her mind when evidence proves them wrong.

Why are we so Irrational?

Mooney makes the case that reasoning didn’t evolve to make us good logicians but to make us persuasive speakers, finding evidence to support whatever our case is, and to see the flaws in other people’s arguments.

Reasoning doesn’t exist for us to get at objective truth, it’s there to defend our position in a social context.   This is why we go to such elaborate lengths to defend wrong beliefs, and come up with truly bizarre “religions” like Scientology.

There’s an evolutionary advantage to being able to talk other people into doing what you want and helping you out. There’s also an evolutionary advantage to be able to poke holes in other peoples arguments and discerning whether a speaker was reliable and trustworthy.

We may not be perfect at reasoning, but not everyone is bad at it or unwilling to change their minds based on new evidence.  But it does appear that conservative minds are more likely to strongly defend their beliefs against any argument, and to persist in sticking to their incorrect beliefs no matter what evidence challenges their ideas.

The entire group benefits when all sides of an issue are aired, with everyone able to speak up about the flaws in others arguments.  Groups that don’t allow this, where the leaders aren’t challenged, can go very astray.  People or groups who insulate themselves from different opinions can end up like crazy hermits.

Conservatives are much more likely to be “crazy hermits” and follow conservative authorities who are dead wrong.  Their minds can’t be changed because of their need for closure, not seeking out new information, and the backfire effect, all of which make them more likely to hold wrong views.  Conservatives strive harder to be unified with their teams, so even if a conservative changes his/her mind, s(he) has little motivation to speak out or pick a fight with friends, family, and other groups.  Plus conservatives are far more likely than liberals to ostracize dissenters.

Mooney strives hard to find examples of bias in liberals to contrast with the extremely strong and incorrect biases of conservatives, but try as he might, he can come up with very few liberal biases.  He says that one way liberals might be biased is in overstating harm to prevent environmental damages.

Since the book was published, Mooney has interviewed Mark Lynas about science and bias on the left in a March 4, 2013 Point of Inquiry podcast (mainly the left’s being anti-GMO), and Michael Shermer, in the February 2013 issue of Scientific American has an article “The Left’s War on Science: How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum”.

Why are conservatives conservative?

Researchers say that conservatism satisfies normal, deep human desires to manage uncertainty and fear by finding beliefs and values that are certain, stable, and unchanging.  The need for order, structure, closure, and management of threat are normal.  Other normal tendencies that conservatives have are patriotism, decisiveness, and loyalty to friends and allies.

On pages 107-109, Mooney makes the case for conservatism being the default position, by showing how you can turn democrats into republicans in certain situations.

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains differ

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains are different.  Democrats have a larger anterior cingulated cortex (part of the frontal lobe connected to the prefrontal cortex).  This is the area that makes corrective responses, that can override the automatic emotional system 1 and bring in system 2 reasoning.

Republicans have a larger right amygdala. The amygdala is at the epicenter of our fear and threat center, a central component of our emotionally-centered brain.   Those with greater fear “dispositions” such as distrust of outsiders and people of different races, tend to be politically conservative.

What are the three kinds of conservatives?

Mooney breaks them down into Economic, Status-quo, and Authoritarians.  Economic and Status-quo conservatives are intellectual and principled.  Authoritarians are more primal, driven by visceral negative responses to otherness and a desire to impose their way of doing things on others.  All three types have a resistance to change.

Conclusion 

In these times of gridlocked politics, and the Republican War on Science (another of Mooney’s books), the Republican’s lack of reality and denial of science combined with billions of dollars invested in massive right-wing propaganda media and other institutions scares me and nearly everyone I know who’s paying attention.

Perhaps if there were a way for each side to understand one another our country could be governed more pragmatically.  Mooney is particularly upset that Republicans deny climate change, since that could drive us and most other species extinct (though see my energyskeptic post “Why do political and economic leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?” for a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on).

Across time and place, liberals are agents of change, conservatives the resisters – the yin and yang of societies.  In America, Democrats are more likely to compromise, to see things in shades of gray.  Republicans tend to be more rigid, are less likely to compromise, and see the world in more black and white terms.  These different cognitive styles lead to differences in information processing.

It’s good to be reminded not to trust your initial reactions and confabulate them into incorrect rationalizations.  If all of us could be more reflective and open to new ideas, and unattached to old ones, we might be able to create and sustain better communities.

I read this book partly because I wondered whether there were any practical insights that might help reform our broken political system.  But I doubt it, especially after hearing an NPR interview today with Robert Kaiser about his book “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t”.   Extreme partisanship and defense of turf decides what bills pass and their content far more than policy.  Most Congressmen are ignorant on important issues, so their staffs make powerful and influential decisions, which are probably not always beneficial for the public, since staffers often aspire to become corporate lobbyists.

My Take on this Book Given All the Other Books I’ve Read (energyskeptic booklist)

I think that they way parties influence people is by setting the agenda of what’s talked about, what the issues are, especially around election time, because the rest of the time, people aren’t paying a lot of attention.

We’re bombarded with information, and don’t have the time to read books on health care, nutrition, the history of fiat currencies and how our monetary system works, how to fix our own plumbing / electrical system / build a house — we simply must rely on “experts” because we don’t have the time to become an expert on everything in the world.

A political party is just another “expert” that to some extent we have to trust as the best choice to run government.  I bet the majority of people disagree with their political party about some of their platforms, just like the vast majority of Catholic women are on birth control despite the Pope being against it.

The way conservative and liberal minds manifest themselves in political parties at this time in America interests me less than what the idea of liberal versus conservative minds means across time and cultures, or if it’s even a useful concept.  Would educated minds be a better term than liberal minds, since people who are more educated tend to be Democrats?

As far as the differences between the two parties, Joe Bageant, in his excellent book “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War” is one of the best I’ve read. He explains how it came to be that so many people vote for politicians whose policies are against their own interests.

I see the world from a systems ecology point of view and think both democrats and republicans are nuts to think we can grow forever on a finite planet.  Both want to “grow the economy” at a time when we are at peak resources.

Political and economic ways of describing the world are more like blinders, false and narrow constructs that divert attention from what really matters — what keeps us alive: natural resources, infrastructure, and above all energy, especially liquid transportation fuels.  So I greatly appreciate all of Mooney’s books that use science as the basis for criticism, but wish that he would pay more attention to the real issues — above all, fossil fuel energy resources, which allows us to over-exploit all the other resources way past carrying capacity and makes civilization as we know it possible.

Is the idea of a liberal or conservative party useful, given that in all societies since civilization began, the ruling despots were mainly interested in gaining or keeping their wealth, fighting off rivals, and rewarding their tribe? First of all, for most of time, there was no political party to join, and now that they exist, framing reality as political and economic truths or moral issues distracts people from noticing their pockets are being picked and the wealth redistributed to the already wealthy.

To the extent that this is true, “conservatism” is rooted in self-interest to prevent a redistribution of land, money, and power, and “liberalism” is rooted in overthrowing the existing order and replacing it with a better or different one.  If successful, a new group reigns and the cycle of corruption and mismanagement begins again.

The word corporation isn’t in the index of Mooney’s book. Or campaign finance reform, the intersection of politics and money that drives both Democratic and Republican legislation to favor special interests over the public good.  Yet I think most politicians work extremely hard to make pragmatic, not “republican” or “democratic” decisions, and care deeply about our nation and helping others, but they’re caught between the rock of funding campaigns and the hard place of not being able to fix our real problems, or even talk about them, due to the peaking of energy resources.

Gridlock is to some extent a way of taking corporate money to finance campaigns or an eventual return of the favor in some abstract codicil that will benefit the corporation, but if it’s too noxious to justify to the folks back home, the bill can be killed in many ways, never get out of committee, and that way the money can be taken and the public not harmed, and “getting anything done” take a heck of a long time.

And what exactly do conservative and liberal “values” and “morality” mean?  Is there a pattern?  Are there only two sides? Other countries have many political parties. Isn’t there often only one side and dissenters killed or exiled? Were hunter-gatherer liberal or democratic societies?

The best book I know to understand reality is Charles A. Hall’s “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy”.  This is a revolutionary book that uses science as the basis of economics and is full of testable hypotheses, and explains why the current Neo-classical “economics” is more crazy than the most bizarre cult or religion you can think of.  This book ought to be the economics 101 textbook at all universities.  To get an idea of what it’s about, read Richard Vodra’s review at resilience.org.

The past four centuries of growth resulted in one-time only economic and political systems that provided thousands of energy slaves to every person (Buckminster Fuller) in developed countries, allowing us the luxury of a democratic political system. After the decline of fossil fuels, we’ll be back in the unstable alliances, regional governments, and occasional empires of the wood-based civilizations that existed before coal started the industrial revolution (see John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization”).  Political “parties” are more likely to be determined by what tribe or family you belong to, not your liberal or conservative mind, and you probably won’t be voting unless you’re wealthy.

It seems to me that a society of conservative minds would be the normal one, selected for by warfare, since tribes that were more unified, more religious, more willing to fight and die for both their group and their God would win the most battles.  The human past was endless warfare and skirmishes.  Communities were in a constant state of fear and on alert for an attack– surely most of us had enlarged amygdala’s?

What are the selection forces liberal minds?   I have no idea.  Maybe liberals provided a bit of comic relief for the conservatives.  They were the fun people, the tribal drummers, cave painters, the best dancers around the fire.

Population exploded from 1 billion to 7 billion people once fossil fuels launched an amazing number of new industries and increased intensive agricultural production 5-fold with fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides.  Perhaps those with liberal minds coped the best with constant change and did well in getting the billions of new jobs that arose, while the conservatives remained the servants at Downton Abbey.

Miscellaneous

I’ve always been fascinated by why people fall into these camps and wondered why.  Ever since I can remember, I could be sure of rowdy political debates on holidays as relatives on either side argued about current affairs, with poor Uncle John in the middle, trying to moderate the discussions and keep them from getting out of hand.  You’d think genetics and shared experiences would have put us all on one side or the other.

This book made me think about what experiences and traits led me to have a liberal mind. I think I could have gone either way, but above all I wanted to fit in with other kids, and they overwhelmingly came from liberal families where I grew up. Judith Harris makes a very convincing case that parents don’t have nearly as much impact on children as their peers do in “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” and I strongly agree based on my own experiences.  I became a democrat the day nearly everyone’s hand shot up when the teacher asked whose parents would be voting for Kennedy.

One study Mooney cites says that the stronger a man is, the more likely he’s a  Republican (see sciencedaily “Why Are Action Stars More Likely to Be Republican?”)

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3 Responses to Republicans Brains are Wired to Deny Science & Reality

  1. Gretchen Cruden says:

    Interesting thoughts for certain in your piece. The most shocking for me (as a teacher in today’s world) was the thought that your teacher asked students who their parents were voting for. Wow-times have changed. Sadly, we could not even watch President Obama’s first inaugural speech without serious backlash from the community. What a moment in history that slipped past because of parents calling the school prior to the event to let us know they would pull their child if this was viewed. Also, an insight into how conservative minds do NOT want to be exposed to change either.

  2. Gunter Pfaff says:

    “It seems to me that a society of conservative minds would be the normal one” – I wonder about that. Was there not an earlier time before the tribes started bumping into each other where the “liberal” mind was developed in adapting to ever changing problems of survival and openness and flexibility was key ? Might it be that then we had more “liberal” minds and with our increasing numbers and problems the “conservative” mind is coming to the fore because big numbers make things slower to change and the need for control and order more important.

    • Gunter Pfaff says:

      So – to “lean forward” – if we are becoming more afraid of change and unable to change – it might be nature’s way of assuring species extinction.