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 landscape…in 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