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8Jun 2012

The Republican Brain: The perils and promise of taking a stand.

In an appearance in May on Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Chris Mooney discussed, among other things, a new kind of denialism: Conservatives denying that there is a personality difference, a psychological difference, between liberals and conservatives. In other words, they are denying the science he covers in his most recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality. If conservatives admitted that we are all shaped at least in part by our personalities and our gut feelings, Mooney said on MSNBC, "we could agree that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and then we would just say, you know, some people are good at this, some people are good at that. You're not inherently better. You're not inherently worse. And then, actually, you may have a ground for cooperation."

I'm not sure it's that simple. Mooney's comment came in response to a kind of desperate plea from Hayes, who said, "How do we avoid a bleak which no one can persuade anyone [of] anything, and I come to work every day hoping to, like, you know, bring some information [to] the public and I'm completely banging my head against the wall and my life is meaningless?" He was kidding, but he's not far off. I've had discussions with conservatives about global warming, and my frustration is that they deny the facts. To use a simplistic example, it's a fact that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown in recent decades. One cannot have an opinion on that.

I haven't had a lot of discussions of this sort because, like Hayes, I feel I'm banging my head against the wall. If conservatives agreed that they are different from liberals, I'm not sure that would change anyone's mind about climate change or evolution.

Mooney has done an important service by looking into the science of ideology. He's a good reporter, and a clear and persuasive writer, and he's chosen an important topic. He has also taken a clear political stance. He is arguing from a liberal position. Liberals, he says, are more open than conservatives to new experiences and new information. That probably means that the conservatives he hopes to reach are going to reject him without bothering to read what he's written.

Much of what's in his book--which I've skipped through, but have not read in its entirety--is fascinating. I was particularly interested in his discussion of the work of Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor whom I invited to speak at the National Association of Science Writers meeting when it was in New Haven a few years ago. Kahan classifies people along two axes--individualist-communitarian, and hierarchical-egalitarian. Conservatives tend to be hierarchical and individualist. Liberals are communitarian and egalitarian. (I'm not quite sure what you are if you're hierarchical-communitarian, or individualist-egalitarian. If that's where you fall, my advice would be--don't tell anyone.)

It's easy enough to understand how we might differ on these axes. Some of us might believe that a more hierarchical society is more desirable in some respects. Others might feel that a more egalitarian society is the thing to aim for. And if those viewpoints differ along conservative and liberal lines, I think that's fair enough. Reasonable men and women might differ on those questions. But they shouldn't differ on matters of fact. One could imagine many solutions to the problem of climate change that would favor hierarchical approaches or more egalitarian approaches. But facts are different. Predictions of sea-level rise, for example, might be right or wrong, or precise or imprecise--but they are neither egalitarian nor hierarchical.

Many argue that the solution to these conflicts should be found in education. If we all knew the facts, we'd be more likely to agree. I'm reading between the lines a bit, but that seems to be partly what Mooney is saying. And I'm not sure that's right.

A recent case in point comes from a new study by Kahan, which was mentioned here by Charlie Petit here just a few days ago. In the study, which was published in Nature Climate Change, Kahan and his colleagues note the views on education that I've just referred to. "Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension," they begin. "The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled." The researchers wanted to know whether that was true. And their conclusion was as clear is it could be: "We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it." Not some support. Not an insufficient amount of support. No support. People with the highest degrees of scientific literacy "were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest," they wrote. Education was doing the opposite of what we supposed: it was widening the divisions among different groups, not bringing them closer together.

Mooney's book is an attempt to educate people about our cultural differences, to help us overcome them. But is it falling into the trap uncovered by Kahan in this study? By trying to educate readers, is it perhaps driving them further apart?

This is so paradoxical and odd that I'm having a bit of trouble trying to lay out the case. Perhaps Hayes is right to despair.

Or perhaps not. Kahan gives us some reason for hope:

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values.

To get back to evolution for a moment: Is there any conceivable way that the best science in evolutionary biology can be conveyed without threatening certain values? I doubt it. There might be more hope with the science of climate change, which doesn't, as far as I know, challenge anyone's theology. But then one might have thought that mere astronomical observations wouldn't challenge anyone's theology either.

Galileo found out otherwise.

- Paul Raeburn



I agree that we keep on keepin' on; there's not much else we can do. I'm a little more pessimistic about this than you, but maybe that's because I like to keep my expectations low so I can be delightfully surprised now and then.

I find this almost intractable. I'm thinking of one person I know who is very conservative on all of these issues but plays Dylan songs on the guitar.

Ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe...

Thanks for this review Paul. Mooney's book goes down pretty easy for me with my open-egalitarian-communitarian brain. Well, of course i does. I'm pretty close to eye and eye with him and am glad he put in the work to write the book.

But I am puzzled at the intransigence of the far-right, its growth, and am looking at the recent shift to the right as reason to think a tack back to the center is perforce also possible.

I too have plenty of stubborn conservatives in my circle of acquaintance who fit the hierarchal-individualist generality. Since I was a kid I've known people like that, including the John Birchers who when the McCarthy era was still sputtering along, were a big influence over education in my home town. We've always had inflexible, cocksure right-wingnuts around. I recall covering a shuttle launch, interviewing people whose trailers were parked with a good view, and finding a guy fulminating over foreign aid bankrupting the nation and about wasted money on space. I told him the US per capita and as a percentage of GNP provides less foreign AID than any western country except, I think, Ireland. That's a fact - still is, as a generality but I dunno about Ireland. I thought that'd enlighten the old coot, elicit some thoughtful curiosity. He just got madder and more sure of himself and told me to get lost.

The unanswered question is how come that faction has only recently paralyzed US politics? If their influence can wax and wane, one wonders whether a shift in the bulk of the population has permitted it. Does this mean brain organization has changed its distribution? Does this mean for all the deafness with which rational-sounding (to us liberals and centrists) pragmatic argument is greeted at the right fringe, that there were ways by which climate-rejectionism spread and, therefore, might retreat again. Why are red states red, blue states blue, and few places purple and civil about it? The genes of right-wing states surely aren't much different from those of blue ones. Is the topic neuroscience, or psychology? I've no confident argument to make here - just a suspicioin that there is enough plasticitiy in temperament within any large population that, eventually, education and facts will penetrate and make a difference - propelled, one hopes, by a professional media.

We just gotta keep reporting reality and not believe that the only smart way to talk to reactionaries who seem immune to established physical facts is to limit the subject to things with which they already agree.


Again, I don't think facts can be arranged to suit what we like. Some facts might be difficult to obtain, but facts are facts. One cannot have an opinion about today's temperature. It is what we measure it to be.

Whether we should behave selfishly or cooperatively, to use your example, is, again, a matter of opinion, on which people can differ.


I do not subscribe to the idea that "both sides of the political aisle do this." I'm on one of those sides, and I think I'm open to the facts about evolution, climate change, and habitat loss. Heck, I don't generate my own facts about those things, so I have to relay on others. I think many conservatives are not open to such facts.

Policy issues are different, as I tried to say--the facts are not clear, for example, on how much the nation should invest in solar power. That's a matter of opinion and judgment.

Paul I suggest a different tack. I gather from the climate and evolution debates that if I were a bystander and without an opinion, but then firmly grasped the facts, I ought then to be persuaded not only of those facts, but for the need for and acceptability of great changes in the economic and political arrangements we live under – or of the lack of such necessity and acceptability. Why not attack the thing from both ends, and not ask science to be the bridge?

What I say is that facts never persuade me of anything. What I do is based on what I want not on what I know about the world. Granted I don’t try to fly by flapping my arms but in general, my experience suggests that facts can be rearranged to suit, given enough knowledge and power, and I am used to being able to command knowledge and power.

On climate, one end is group identity, that split on egalitarian-hierarchical. Personally I think it’s an expression of humanity’s dual imperatives, cooperation and selfishness, for without both humans would not be the dominate species. Anyway, surely there are limits to an egalitarian’s statist impulses, or to the individualist’s let em do whatever impulses. Limits in both directions: impositions they won’t tolerate willingly on themselves, which we do not suggest, and limits to the impositions they will tolerate from others, which we will discuss.

Try to disconnect the assumption that the climate concerned are nanny state promoters and that the climate skeptics support robber barons. Not all change need be threatening, and not all the consequences that may flow from one’s own preferences need be tolerated.

From the other end, look at what ends are sought where present methods seem to change our climate. Are there other methods both more efficient and more economic? And from the climate side, what activities seem to change climate most: are there are ways those things could be accomplished?

Try to shift the conversation from a clash of world views to a discussion of limited changes in particular concrete things, perhaps those of differing basic views can be encouraged to keep their views and to agree with those holding different basic views on numerous specific things that would, from both points of view, represent improvement.

Douthat and Revkin argue much this way in the NY Times, Douthat from the center-right and Revkin from the center-left. I haven’t tried to determine how close they are to agreeing on things but in spirit there is a definite lets-reason-together result.

It is not that conservatives ignore facts and liberals don't. It is that everyone ignores the facts that are incovenient to their belief system. Both sides of the political aisle do this. This is true in the climate change debate as well as pretty much everything else.

As I recall, the Kahan study actually found out that the more science educated someone was, the more skeptical they were in the climate debate. I suspect that skepticism isn't whether warming and change is happening, but rather an uncertainty about all the causes. Also, a healthy distrust towards the chicken little, sky is falling, catastrophic event upon us, message. The notion of an uncotrolled feedback loop once CO2 levels hit some magic level is unsupported by the science to the point of being laughable.

Certainly a warmer earth will change things; potentially a lot. Will that be a net loss or gain? Gain for some, loss for others. Managing the change may be a better goal than stopping civilization in order to lower atmospheric CO2. Of course, working towards lower CO2 emissions is a laudable goal, just not to the exclusion of economic activity.

Wind and solar remain laregely unworkable technologies at this time and nuclear seems politically untenable in light of the over played hysteria in regards to Fukushima.

Perhaps a more reasoned approach to reporting the issues with less hysteria would serve us all better. Perhaps that is naive given all of our (both sides) need to defend our beliefs by ignoring the facts we don't like.

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