March 26, 2012
Note: These are notes for remarks that I gave recently at the Tucson Festival of Books, where I was asked to talk about my new book The Republican Brain on a panel entitled "Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?"
So the question before us on this panel is, "Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?" And I want to focus on one particular aspect of humans that makes them very problematic in a planetary sense -- namely, their brains.
What I've spent the last year or more trying to understand is what it is about our brains that makes facts such odd and threatening things; why we sometimes double down on false beliefs when they're refuted; and maybe, even, why some of us do it more than others.
And of course, the new book homes in on the brains -- really, the psychologies -- of politically conservative homo sapiens in particular. You know, Stephen Colbert once said that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." And essentially what I'm arguing is that, not only is that a funny statement, it's factually true, and perhaps even part of the nature of things.
Colbert also talked about the phenomenon of "truthiness," and as it turns out, we can actually give a scientific explanation of truthiness -- which is what I'm going to sketch in the next ten minutes, with respect to global warming in particular.
I almost called the book The Science of Truthiness -- but The Republican Brain turns out to be a better title.
The Facts About Global Warming
So first off, let's start with the facts about climate change -- facts that you'd think (or you'd hope) any human being ought to accept.
It turns out that the case for human-caused global warming is based on simple and fundamental physics. We've known about the greenhouse effect for over one hundred years. And we've known that carbon dioxide is a heat trapping gas, a greenhouse gas. Some of the key experiments on this, by the Irishman John Tyndall, actually occurred in the year 1859, which is the same year that Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
We also know that if we do nothing, seriously bad stuff starts happening. If we melt Greenland and West Antarctica, we're looking at 40 feet of sea level rise. This is, like, bye bye to key parts of Florida.
Enter the Denial
So then, the question is, why do people deny this? And why, might I add, do Republicans in particular deny this so strongly?
And if your answer to that question is, "oh, because they're stupid" -- well, you're wrong. That's what liberals want to think, but it doesn't seem be correct. In fact, it seems to be precisely the opposite -- smarter (or more educated) Republicans turn out to be worse science deniers on this topic.
This is a phenomenon that I like to call the "smart idiot" effect, and I just wrote about it for AlterNet and Salon.com.
Let me tell you how I stumbled upon this effect -- which is really what set the book in motion. I think the key moment came in the year 2008 when I came upon Pew data showing:
- That if you're a Republican, then the higher your level of education, the less likely you are to accept scientific reality -- which is, that global warming is human caused.
- If you're a Democrat or Independent, precisely the opposite is the case.
This is actually a consistent finding now across the social science literature on the resistance to climate change. So, for that matter, is the finding that the denial is the worst among conservative white males -- so it has a gender aspect to it -- and among the Tea Party.
So seriously: What's going on here? More education leading to worse denial, but only among Republicans? How can you explain that?
A Three-Level Explanation
Well, I think we need to understand three points in order to understand why conservatives act this way. And I will list them here, before going into them in more detail:
- Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.
- Conservative "Morality" Impels Climate Denial -- and in particular, conservative Individualism.
- Fox News is the Key "Feedback Mechanism" -- whereby people already inclined to believe false things get all the license and affirmation they need.
So let's go into more detail:
1: Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.
There's now a staggering amount of research on the psychological and even the physiological traits of people who opt for conservative ideologies. And on average, you see people who are more wedded to certainty, and to having fixed beliefs. You also see people who are more sensitive to fear and threat -- in a way that can be measured in their bodily responses to certain types of stimuli.
At the extreme of these traits, you see a group called authoritarians -- those who are characterized by cognitive rigidity, seeing things in black and white ways -- "in group/out group," my way or the highway.
So in this case, if someone high on such traits latches on to a particular belief -- in this case, "global warming is a hoax" -- then more knowledge about it is not necessarily going to open their minds. More knowledge is just going to be used to argue what they already think.
And we see this in the Tea Party, where we have both the highest levels of global warming denial, but also this incredibly strong confidence that they know all they need to know about the issue, and they don't want any more information, thank you very much.
2. Conservative "Morality" Impels Climate Denial -- in particular, Conservative Individualism.
But, you might say, "well, Tea Party conservatives don't deny every aspect of reality." And it's true. Presumably, they still will accept a factual correction if they have, say, the date of Mother's Day wrong. Presumably they're still open minded about that... we hope.
So why deny this particular thing? Why deny that global warming is caused by humans? And here, I think you've got to look at deep seated moral intuitions that differs from left to right. And it's important to note at the outset that whatever your moral intuitions are, they push you emotionally to reason in a particular direction long before you are actually consciously thinking about it.
So, conservatives tend to be "individualists"-- meaning, essentially, that they prize a system in which government leaves you alone -- and "hierarchs," meaning, they are supportive of various types of inequality.
The individualist is threatened by global warming, deeply threatened, because it means that markets have failed and governments -- including global governments -- have to step in to fix the problem. And some individualists are so threatened by this reality that they even spin out conspiracy theories, arguing that all the world's scientists are in a cabal with, like, the UN, to make up phony science so they can crash economies.
So now let's look at what these individualist assumptions do to the denial of science. In one study by Yale's Dan Kahan and colleagues:
- "Individualist-hierarchs" and "egalitarian-communitarians" are asked: Who's an expert on global warming?
- Only 23 percent of H-I's agree that a scientist who thinks GW is human-caused is a "trustworthy and knowledgeable expert," vs. 88 percent of E-Cs.
In another study, meanwhile, Kahan showed that if you frame the science of global warming as supporting nuclear power, then conservatives are more open to accepting it, presumably because it does not insult their values any longer.
3. Fox News is the Key "Feedback Mechanism" -- whereby people who want to believe false things get all the license they need.
So clearly, there are some deeply rooted attributes that predispose conservatives towards the denial of global warming.
But there are also "environmental" factors -- things that have come to exist in our world that did not exist before, that interact with these things about conservatives, and make all this much worse.
And here, Fox News is undeniably at the top of the list. There are now a host of studies (video here) showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed about various aspects of reality, including two such studies about global warming.
So if you've got Fox News, you've got a place to go to reaffirm your beliefs. And that serves this psychological need for certainty and security. So conservatives opt in, they get the misinformation, their beliefs are reaffirmed, and they're set to argue, argue, argue about why they're right and all the scientists of the world are wrong.
So in sum, we need a nature-nurture, or a combined psychological and environmental account of the conservative denial of global warming. And only then do we see why they are so doggedly espousing a set of beliefs that are so wildly dangerous to the planet.