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Can You Understand the Republican Brain?

(Image: Wiley Publishing)

Scientific American lauds author Chris Mooney “as one if the few journalists in the country who specialize in the now dangerous intersection of science and politics.” Having interviewed Mooney about his first book, the highly praised, “The Republican War on Science,” Truthout/BuzzFlash interviews Mooney about his latest release, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.” Truthout and BuzzFlash readers can directly obtain “The Republican Brain” and support uncompromised journalism by clicking here.

Mark Karlin: Progressives often say of Fox that they create facts to bolster their opinions. Is this true of the Republican mind set in general?

Chris Mooney: This seems to be very persistent on the right. I do not argue that liberals never do it, but conservatives seem to be engaging in a boatload of biased reasoning today, and also doubling down on false beliefs, on issues ranging from climate change to the debt ceiling. We even have the bizarre phenomenon of the “smart idiot” effect: Educated conservatives being more likely to hold wrong beliefs than less educated conservatives on issues like global warming – which probably partly reflects misinformation coming from Fox.

In light of all this, I think it is far past time to look at what psychology has to say about why the left and right differ, and what this may have to do with our divide over reality and what is true. And that’s what the book attempts to do.

MK: What happened between the ’50s when we engaged in a scientific race with the Soviets to get a man on the moon and the anti-science beliefs of the GOP today? We got the man on the moon, and then seem to have gone in reverse as far as a belief in science as a basis for moving forward.

CM: It’s sad. The country was much more unified behind the idea that science is the way to create a better future. Since then, trust in the scientific community has plummeted among conservatives in particular.

I argue that this is because the conservative movement defined itself in opposition to academia and pointy-headed intellectuals, but also because it has activated a strain of psychological authoritarianism – viewing things in black and white ways without nuance or toleration of uncertainty, which is of course highly incompatible with scientific thinking. In fact, you might argue that authoritarianism and science have been opposed ever since the time of Galileo.

MK: Do you think the notion of the religious right in being anti-evolutionary contributes to the denial of science? After all, science is predicated on humans building upon a foundation of accumulated knowledge, but if everything was created contemporaneously, science is of little value. We are part of the divine order – not of scientific inquiry – their creationist argument goes.

CM: There’s no doubt that conservatism, religiosity, and opposition to science are tied up in a tight little bundle in the US. And the common theme here seems to be psychological authoritarianism and a lack of openness to new ideas.

The denial of evolution is the fundamental centerpiece of an anti-empirical worldview. The irony is massive here when it comes to discussing the focus of the book, by the way.

I discuss the psychological underpinnings of ideology, and of left right differences, in the context of what we are starting to know about human nature. And while the science here isn’t all in yet, and there is much more still to learn, I suspect we are going to find that liberal-conservative differences are partly rooted in who we are as evolved creatures. This is what a lot of researchers are coming to expect; it is also something the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his new book.

So denying this research may come very naturally to conservatives – after all, so many of them don’t think we evolved!

MK: How do you scientifically show why the leading ideology of the GOP is a denial of science? After all, every GOP senator denies global warming. Won’t they just deny your scientific proof of their rejection of science?

CM: This is pretty easily done. The polling data show overwhelming that conservatives, much more than liberals, deny global warming, deny evolution, think Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., think Saddam was collaborating with Al Qaeda, and so on. Tea Partiers tend to be the worst on a lot of these.

I don’t honestly think even conservatives would argue back against the polling data – rather, they’ll say that they’re right to question global warming because it’s phony science, and so on.

There is also a separate body of data showing that Fox News viewers tend to be more misinformed about these issues – call it the Fox “effect.” Here, there has been some response, with Fox trying to critique and dismantle the various studies involved. But it just doesn’t hold up. You might be able to undermine one such study, but seven of them? I don’t think so. There’s too much data. Toss out one study, it doesn’t change the big picture.

MK: In your introduction, “Equations to Refute Einstein,” you conclude with remarks about “liberal denial.” You note this might be due to the fear that “it leads to a place that terrifies them [liberals]: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.” Would you expand on that? Why is it so important to know the psychology of the right?

CM: Whether or not conservatives pay attention to what we’re learning about the psychology of ideology, liberals and progressives can profit greatly by learning about it. Because this research shows that many of our assumptions about how to reach people different from us are flat wrong.

We can’t count on facts to change minds – emotions and values trump facts almost every time. Nor can we rely on our own natural, nuanced, complex style of communication to reach the public. The research suggests that our very instincts are leading us to only know how to talk to ourselves; conservative styles of communication – decisive, direct – have a great appeal to the right and, likely, the middle. And we can use this research not only to better reach conservatives, but to reach people who are moderate or undecided, but who also have some conservative attributes.

MK: For Truthout readers who may be unaware of it, can you explain “Conservapedia”?

CM: Ha. This is the website run by Andrew Schlafly, the son of the anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly. I have fun at the beginning of the book noting how factually wrong Schlafly manages to be, about, well, a staggering array of topics. He’s what I call a create-your-own-reality conservative. He thought Wikipedia was too liberal, so he made up his own facts. And the most staggering example of this is his Conservapedia entry trying to take down Einstein’s theory of relativity. The guy even writes equations to try to disprove Einstein. It’s quite the facepalm moment.

MK: How does the open personality as compared to the closed personality affect political outlook?

CM: The evidence here is pretty hard to escape. Across studies, even across countries, scoring high on “Openness to Experience” – one of the big five personality traits – strongly predicts political liberalism. Indeed, in a study I ran myself in the book, the liberalism-openness relationship popped up, just as it always does. So if you’re not open – which means open to trying new things, including new ideas – if you’re closed, you tend more conservative.

I want to emphasize how powerful this finding is. In one study of over 14,000 people, the relationship between liberalism and openness was as strong as, or stronger than, the relationship between social liberalism and higher education, and between economic conservatism and having a higher income. So we’re talking about an effect at least as significant as these factors – education, income – that everybody knows strongly affect ideology.

MK: Since many Republican leaders who are anti-science are very pro-corporate, doesn’t it appear inexplicable that they can champion the scientifically developed genetic modification seeds of Monsanto, but deny the scientific basis of pollution?

CM: No. Conservatives like science fine when it is on their side and supporting their values, and one of their values is the embrace of individualism and private industry, free from government interference. So the science of drilling, the science of nuclear power – they dig that stuff. However, they’re very selective, and if science comes out suggesting that these activities have adverse consequences, of a sort that might require the government to step in … well then science isn’t so admired any more.

MK: History is subject to interpretation to a certain degree. That is what keeps history graduate students busy. But there are historical facts that aren’t arguable when they are written in documents such as the United States Constitution. So how, as you discuss in your chapter on the “Republican War on History,” can leaders of the GOP argue that this country was founded as a Christian nation?

CM: It’s really the same kind of phenomenon as the denial of science. It’s wishful thinking dressed up in very dubious scholarship, and bolstered by biased, motivated reasoning.

Ultimately, I believe that some issues in history are about as open and shut as scientific issues – and this is one of them. The historical consensus is clear about who our founders were and what they thought about church and state, and how the country they created would handle religion.

Conservatives want to believe that the founders are mirror images of who they are today – which is why they style themselves as Tea Party revolutionaries – but I argue that in fact, they are fundamentally betraying our nation’s heritage and who we are. How dare they, frankly. It’s outrageous. It turns out that liberals care about our heritage and our tradition more than conservatives do in this instance.

MK: You end your book by dedicating it “to that unquenchable liberal spirit that will never, ever stop pushing us to be different and better than we currently are.” Can we be better than we currently are without a belief in science?

CM: I don’t think so, no. Since the Enlightenment, science and liberalism have been allied in a quest to use reason to make the world just a little bit better than it was before, and make our lives just a little bit richer than they were in the last generation. But there’s an irony: Now science itself shows us that some people are going to feel a lot less comfortable than others with this quest, and also that they are going to reason in a way that is far from what we would call scientific.

That doesn’t mean giving up on the quest. Rather, it means basing it on a firmer scientific foundation – so we can truly understand the nature of the hurdles ahead.

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