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.
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.
Chris Mooney’s first chapter: Equations to Refute Einstein
We all know that many American conservatives have issues with Charles Darwin, and the theory of evolution. But Albert Einstein, and the theory of relativity?
If you’re surprised, allow me to introduce Conservapedia, the rightwing answer to Wikipedia and ground zero for all that is scientifically and factually inaccurate, for political reasons, on the Internet. Claiming over 285 million page views since its 2006 inception, Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer, engineer, homeschooler, and one of six children of Phyllis Schlafly, the antifeminist and anti-abortionist who successfully battled the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. In his mother’s heyday, conservative activists were establishing vast mailing lists and newsletters, and rallying the troops. Her son learned that they also had to marshal “truth” to their side, now achieved not through the mail but the Web.
So when Schafly realized that Wikipedia was using BCE (“Before Common Era”) rather than BC (“Before Christ”) to date historical events, he’d had enough. He decided to create his own contrary fact repository, declaring, “It’s impossible for an encyclopedia to be neutral.” Conservapedia definitely isn’t neutral about science. Its 37,000 plus pages of content include items attacking evolution and global warming, wrongly claiming (contrary to psychological consensus) that homosexuality is a choice and tied to mental disorders, and incorrectly asserting (contrary to medical consensus) that abortion causes breast cancer.
The whopper, though, has to be Conservapedia’s nearly 6,000 word, equation-filled entry on the theory of relativity. It’s accompanied by a long webpage of “counterexamples” to Einstein’s great scientific edifice, which merges insights like E = mc2 (part of the special theory of relativity) with his later account of gravitation (the general theory of relativity).
“Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world,” declares Conservapedia. “To date, a Nobel Prize has never been awarded for Relativity.” The site goes on to catalogue the “political aspects of relativity,” charging that some liberals have “extrapolated the theory” to favor their agendas. That includes President Barack Obama, who (it is claimed) helped publish an article applying relativity in the legal sphere while attending Harvard Law School in the late 1980s.
“Virtually no one who is taught and believes Relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold,” Conservapedia continues. But even that’s not the site’s most staggering claim. In its list of “counterexamples” to relativity,
Conservapedia provides 36 alleged cases, including the following: “The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51.”
If you are an American liberal or progressive and you just read the passage above, you are probably about to split your sides—or punch a wall. Sure enough, once liberal and science-focused bloggers caught wind of Conservapedia’s anti-Einstein sallies, Schlafly was quickly called a “crackpot,” “crazy,” “dishonest,” and so on.
These being liberals and scientists, there were also ample factual refutations. Take Conservapedia’s bizarre claim that relativity hasn’t led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity works—if it didn’t, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.
Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity “counterexamples” and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of “facts” about the world than modern science: It also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it “strengthened my faith. I don’t have to live with what’s printed in the newspaper. I don’t have to take what’s put out by Wikipedia. We’ve got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better.”
You might be thinking that Conservapedia’s unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and 9/11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one’s view, is something we find all around us today. It’s hard to call it rational-and hard to deny it’s everywhere. Every contentious fact- or science-based issue in American politics now plays out just like the conflict between Conservapedia and liberals—and physicists—over relativity. Again and again it’s a fruitless battle between incompatible “truths,” with no progress made and no retractions offered by those who are just plain wrong-and can be shown to be through simple fact checking mechanisms that all good journalists, not to mention open-minded and critically thinking citizens, can employ.
What’s more, no matter how much the fact-checkers strive to remain “bipartisan,” it is pretty hard to argue that the distribution of falsehoods today is politically equal or symmetrical. It’s not that liberals are never wrong or biased; a number of liberal errors will be described and debunked in these pages. Nevertheless-and as I will show-politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.
Their willingness to deny what’s true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics like evolution or climate change. But there’s nothing unique about these subjects, other than perhaps the part of campus where you’ll find them taught. The same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there’s something ideological-in other words, something emotional and personal-at stake.
As soon as that occurs, today’s conservatives have their own “truth,” their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels-newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities-to broad- and narrowcast it. The reality described through these channels is vastly different than the reality that liberals occupy. The worldviews are worlds apart- and at most, the country can only exist in one of them.
Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and that’s precisely where our country now stands with regard to the conservative denial of reality. For a long time, we’ve been trained to equivocate, to not to see it for what it is-sweeping, systemic. Yet the problem is gradually dawning on many of us, particularly as the 2012 election began to unfold and one maverick Republican, Jon Huntsman, put his party’s anti-science tendencies in focus with a Tweet heard round the world: To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.
But the right’s rejection of science is just the beginning. And our political culture remains unwilling to acknowledge what our own eyes show us: That denying facts is not a phenomenon equally distributed across the political spectrum.
The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had-or will have-world-changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what’s true-which they both generate, and perpetuate. In these pages, we’ll encounter an array of lies, misperceptions, and misguided political beliefs, and marvel at some of the elaborate arguments used to justify them. And we’ll do some debunking-but that’s not the point of the exercise. The real goal is to understand how these false claims (and rationalizations) could exist and persist in human minds, and why they are endlessly generated. In other words, we seek to understand how the political right could be so wrong, and how conservatives, Republicans, and Tea Party members could actually believe these things.
That’s what I set out to discover when I embarked on researching this book. I wanted an explanation, because I saw a phenomenon crying out for one.
Consider, just briefly, some of the wrong ideas that have taken hold of significant swaths of the conservative population in the U.S., and that have featured prominently in public policy debates and discussions in recent years. This catalogue is necessarily quite incomplete-ignoring entire issue areas where falsehoods are rampant, like immigration. Still, it gives a sense of the problem’s sweeping extent.
The Identity of the President of the United States. Many conservatives believe President Obama is a Muslim. What’s more, a stunning 64 percent of Republican voters in the 2010 election thought it was “not clear” whether he had been born in the United States. These people often think he was born in Kenya, and the birth certificate showing otherwise is bunk, a forgery, etc. They also think this relatively centrist Democrat is a closet-or even overt-socialist. At the extreme, they consider him a “Manchurian candidate” for an international leftist agenda-and yes, those are their actual words.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. Many conservatives believe that the law they deride as “Obamacare” represented a “government takeover of health care.” They also think, as Sarah Palin claimed, that it created government “death panels” to make end-of-life care decisions for the elderly. What’s more, they think it will increase the federal budget deficit (and that most economists agree with this claim), cut benefits to those on Medicare, and subsidize abortions and the health care of illegal immigrants. None of these things are true.
Sexuality and Reproductive Health. Many conservatives- especially on the Christian Right-claim that having an abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer or mental disorders. They claim that fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks of gestation, that same-sex parenting is bad for kids, and that homosexuality is a disorder, or a choice, and is curable through therapy. None of this is true.
The Iraq War. The mid-2000s saw the mass dissemination of a number of falsehoods about the war in Iraq, including claims that weapons of mass destruction were found after the U.S. invasion and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were proven collaborators. And political conservatives were much more likely than liberals to believe these falsehoods. Studies have shown as much of Fox News viewers, and also of so-called authoritarians, an increasingly significant part of the conservative base (about whom more soon). In one study, 37 percent of authoritarians (but 15 percent of non-authoritarians) believed WMD had been found in Iraq, and 55 percent of authoritarians (but 19 percent of non-authoritarians) believed that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Economics. Many conservatives hold the clearly incorrect view-explicitly espoused by former president George W Bush- that tax cuts increase government revenue. They also think President Obama raised their income taxes, that he’s responsible for current government budget deficits, and that his flagship economic stimulus bill didn’t create many jobs or even caused job losses (and that most economists concur with this assessment). In some ways most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply “prioritize payments” if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling. None of this is true, and the last belief, in particular, risked economic calamity.
American History. Many conservatives-especially on the Christian Right-believe the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” They consider the separation of church and state a “myth,” not at all assured by the First Amendment. And they twist history in myriad other ways, large and, small, including Sarah PalM’s claim that Paul Revere “warned the British” and Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to put an end to slavery.
Sundry Errors. Many conservatives claimed that President Obama’s late 2010 trip to India would cost $200 million per day, or $2 billion for a ten day visit! And they claimed that, in 2007, Congress banned incandescent light bulbs, a truly intolerable assault on American freedoms. Only, Congress did no such thing. (To give just a few examples.)
Science. This is the area I care about most deeply, and the denial here is particularly intense. In a nationally representative survey released just as I was finishing this book-many prior surveys have found similar things-only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent (respectively) accepted human evolution.
In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it. The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don’t. Errors and misperceptions like these can have momentous consequences. They can ruin lives, economies, countries, and planets. And today, it is clearly conservatives-much more than liberals-who reject what is true about war and peace, health and safety, history and money, science and government.
But why is that the case? Why are today’s liberals usually right, and today’s conservatives usually wrong? This book is my attempt to provide a convincing answer to that question, by exploring the emerging science of the political brain.
One possible answer is what I’ll call the “environmental explanation.” This is an account of today’s U.S. political right that, while it might admit that modern conservatives have become misaligned with reality, nevertheless relies on a fairly standard historical narrative to explain how we arrived in a world in which Democrats are the party of experts, scientists, and facts.
It’s an easy tale for me to tell—I’ve told a version of it before, in my 2005 book The Republican War on Science. For science in particular, the “environmental” account runs something like this:
At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality-most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts-and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity.
Thus, for instance, the religious right (then the “Moral Majority”) didn’t like evolution. And so Ronald Reagan made anti-evolutionary remarks (as, later, did George W Bush). Corporate interests, chiefly electric power companies, didn’t like the science showing they were contributing to acid rain. And they had big money-and big motives-to resist it. So Reagan’s administration denied the science on this subject and ran out the clock on dealing with it-just as, later, George W. Bush would do on another environmental problem to which power companies (and oil companies, and many other types of companies) contribute: global warming.
Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one’s friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.
In such an account, the problem of conservative science denial is ascribed to political opportunism-rooted in the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. But is this the right answer?
It isn’t wrong, exactly. There’s much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics. The environmental account ascribes Republican science denial (and for other forms of denial, the story would be similar) to the particular exigencies and alignments of American political history. That’s what the party did because it had to, to get ahead. And today, goes the thinking, this leaves us with a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans in their acceptance of modern climate science and many other scientific conclusions, with conservatives increasingly distrustful of science, and with scientists and the highly educated moving steadily to the left.
There’s just one problem: This account ignores the possibility that there might be real differences between liberals and conservatives that influence how they respond to scientific or factual information. It assumes we’re all blank slates-that we all want the same basic things and then we respond to political forces not unlike air molecules inside a balloon. We get knocked this way and that, sure. And we start out in different places, thus ensuring different trajectories. But at the end of the day, we’re all just air molecules.
But what if we’re not all the same kind of molecule? What if we respond to political or factual collisions in different ways, with different spins or velocities? As I will show in these pages, there’s considerable scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.
For instance, the historic political awakening of what we now call the Religious Right was nothing if not a defense of cultural traditionalism-which had been threatened by the 1960s counterculture, Roe v. Wade, and continued inroads by feminists, gay rights activists, and many others-and a more hierarchical social structure (family values, with the father at the head, the wife by his side). It was a classic counter-reaction to too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values-all occurring too fast. And it mobilized a strong strand of right-wing authoritarianism in U.S. politics-one that had either been dormant previously, or at least more evenly distributed across the parties.
The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level-clutching for something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one’s own ways in uncertain times, and one’s own group in the face of difference-and can’t be fully understood without putting this variable into play. (When I say “psychology” here and throughout the book, I’m referring to the scientific discipline, not to the practice of psychotherapy or counseling.
The problem is that people are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists, in particular, almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things, telling endless stories of horse races and rivalries, strategies and interests, and key “turning points.” All of which are, of course, real. And conveniently, by sticking with them you never have to take the dangerous journey into anybody’s head.
But what if these only tell half the story?
This book is my attempt to consider the other half-to tell an “environment plus psychology” story. And it’s about time.
As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence-from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics-that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.
Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain-with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.
Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced-and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.
What’s more, since Openness is a core aspect of personality, examining this difference points us toward the study of the political brain. The field is very young, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways. Indeed, as we’ll see, it’s even possible that these differences could be related to a large and still unidentified number of “political” genes- although to be sure, genes are only one influence out of very many upon our political views. But they appear to be an underrated one. What all of this means is that our inability to agree on the facts can no longer be explained solely at the surface of our politics. It has to be traced, as well, to deeper psychological and cognitive factors. And such an approach won’t merely cast light on why we see so much “truthiness” today, so many postmodern fights between the left and the right over reality. Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem-why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests?-make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology.
Before going any further, I want to emphasize that this argument is not a form of what is often called reductionism. Just because psychology seems relevant to explaining why the left and the right have diverged over reality doesn’t mean that nothing else is, or that I am
reducing conservatives to just their psychology (or reducing psychology to cognitive neuroscience, or cognitive neuroscience to genes, and so on). “We can never give a complete explanation of anything interesting about human beings in psychology,” explains the University of Cambridge psychologist Fraser Watts. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from the endeavor.
Complex phenomena like human political behavior always have many causes, not one. This book fully recognizes that and does not embrace a position that could fairly be called determinism. Human brains are flexible and change daily; people have choices, and those
choices alter who they are. Nevertheless, there are broad tendencies in the population that really matter, and cannot be ignored.
We don’t understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don’t know how all the puzzle pieces-cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes-fit together. And we know that environmental factors are at least as important as psychological ones. This means that what I’m saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in the case of any particular individual.
Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do-even if you provide all the caveats, and I’ve just exhausted them-there’s a lot of consistency. And it all makes a lot of sense. Conservatism, after all, means nothing if not supporting political and social stability and resisting change. I’m merely tracing some of the appeal of this philosophy to psychology, and then discussing what this means for how we debate what is “true” in contested areas.
Such is the evidence I’m going to present, the story I’m going to tell. In its course, I’ll introduce information that will discomfort both sides-not only conservatives. They won’t like hearing that they’re often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion. They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the closed-minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process. (I’m waiting, Ann Coulter.)
But liberals will also be forced to look in the mirror, and if I’m right about their personality traits they’ll be more open to doing so. As a result, some will learn from these pages that their refutations of false conservative claims don’t work and should not be expected to work—and that they should not irrationally cling to the idea that somehow they should.
For after all, what about liberals? Aren’t we wrong too, and dogmatic too? The typical waffling liberal answer is, “er . . . sort of.” Liberals aren’t always right—I’ll show some cases where they’re misguided and even fairly doctrinaire about it—but that’s not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.
On the one hand, we’re absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about “death panels.” People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can’t comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, “I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!” And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them-to argue, argue, argue about why we’re right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation’s defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.
In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them. To begin to remedy that defect, let’s go back to the Conservapedia relativity dustup, and make an observation that liberals and physicists did not always credit. No matter how hard it is to understand how someone could devote himself to an enterprise like Conservapedia, its
author—Andrew Schlafly—is not stupid. Quite the contrary.
He’s a Harvard Law School graduate. He has an engineering degree from Princeton, and used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. His relativity entry is filled with equations that I myself can neither write nor solve. He hails from a highly intellectual conservative family-his mother, Phyllis, is also Harvard educated and, according to her biographer, excelled in school at a time when women too rarely had the opportunity to compete with men at that level. Mother and son thus draw a neat, half-century connection between the birth of modern American conservatism on the one hand, and the insistence that conservatives have their own “facts,” better than liberal facts thank you very much, on the other.
So it is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can’t make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schlafly makes an argument, it’s hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take or an openness to changing his mind. His own words suggest that he’s arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his “faith”), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.
Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Too often, they’ve failed to think as we will in this book, perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.
But that response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can’t continue. Because as President Obama’s first term has shown—from the health-care battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.
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.
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?”)