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The Republican Brain: Why Even Educated Conservatives Deny Science -- and Reality

New research shows that conservatives who consider themselves well-informed and educated are also deeper in denial about issues like global warming.

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Instead, here was the result. If you were already part of a cultural group predisposed to distrust climate science—e.g., a political conservative or “hierarchical-individualist”—then more science knowledge and more skill in mathematical reasoning tended to make you even more dismissive. Precisely the opposite happened with the other group—“egalitarian-communitarians” or liberals—who tended to worry more as they knew more science and math. The result was that, overall, more scientific literacy and mathematical ability led to greater political polarization over climate change—which, of course, is precisely what we see in the polls.

So much for education serving as an antidote to politically biased reasoning.

What accounts for the “smart idiot” effect?

For one thing, well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

What this suggests, critically, is that sophisticated conservatives may be very different from unsophisticated or less-informed ones. Paradoxically, we would expect less informed conservatives to be easier to persuade, and more responsive to new and challenging information.

In fact, there is even research suggesting that the most rigid and inflexible breed of conservatives—so-called authoritarians—do not really become their ideological selves until they actually learn something about politics first. A kind of “ authoritarian activation” needs to occur, and it happens through the development of political “expertise.” Consuming a lot of political information seems to help authoritarians feel who they are—whereupon they become more accepting of inequality, more dogmatically traditionalist, and more resistant to change.

So now the big question: Are liberals also “smart idiots”?

There’s no doubt that more knowledge—or more political engagement—can produce more bias on either side of the aisle. That’s because it forges a stronger bond between our emotions and identities on the one hand, and a particular body of facts on the other.

But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “ Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue--for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values--knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

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