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Why Conservatives Believe in Anti-Gay Pseudo-Science

The anti-gay-rights movement's claims about homosexuality are based on the worst kind of junk "science."

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There are a small number of Christian right researchers and intellectuals who have tried to make a scientific case against same-sex marriages and unions, by citing alleged harms to children. This stuff isn’t mainstream or scientifically accepted -- witness the APA’s statements on the matter. But from the perspective of the Christian right, that doesn’t really matter. When people are looking for evidence to support their deeply held views, the science suggests that people engage in “motivated reasoning.” Their deep emotional convictions guide the retrieval of self-supporting information that they then use to argue with, to prop themselves up. It isn’t about truth, it’s about feeling that you’re right -- righteous, even.

And where, in turn, do these emotions come from? Well, there’s the crux. A growing body of research shows that liberals and conservatives, on average, have different moral intuitions, impulses that bias us in different directions before we’re even consciously thinking about situations or issues. Indeed, this research suggests that liberals and conservatives even have different bodily responses to stimuli, of a sort that they cannot control. And one of the strongest areas of difference involves one’s sensitivity to the feeling of disgust.

recent study, for instance, found that “individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images.” In other words, there’s now data to back up what we’ve always kind of known: The average conservative, much more than the average liberal, is having visceral feelings of disgust towards same-sex marriage. And then, when these conservatives try to consciously reason about the matter, they seize on any information to support or justify their deep-seated and uncontrolled response -- which pushes them in the direction of believing and embracing information that appears to justify and ratify the emotional impulse.

And voila. Suddenly same-sex marriages and civil unions are bad for kids. How’s that for the power of human reason?

All people engage in emotion-guided or motivated reasoning, to be sure. But mounting evidence suggests that left and right may do so differently. And they definitely do so for different reasons -- as the present case so strongly demonstrates.

Does this mean we should be more tolerant of the intolerant, or less disgusted by those who may consider us disgusting? Maybe. After all, people may not have much control over these impulses. They may not even be aware of them. At the very least, such knowledge should increase our level of understanding of those who disagree with us.

In the end, however, facts are facts -- and emotions and gut instincts are an utterly unreliable way of identifying them. We can try to be understanding of people different from us -- even when they’re manifestly failing at the same task. But the latest research makes it more untenable than ever to base public policy on gut-driven misinformation.

This article originally appeared at Towleroad, and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Chris Mooney is the author of four books. His new book is "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality."

 
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