Conservatives Attack Scientific Findings About Why They Hate Science (Helping to Confirm the Science)
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Two months have passed since my new book, The Republican Brain, was published, and so far it has gotten a lot of media attention. However, the coverage has followed a noteworthy pattern: while progressives and liberals seem intrigued about what I’m saying, the so-called “mainstream” media—the CNNs of the world—have shied away from the subject.
What’s up with this? Well, a book with conclusions closely related to mine—Norman Ornstein’s and Thomas Mann’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism—seems as though it is being handled similarly by some in the press. And perhaps there’s a reason: Centrist (aka “mainstream”) journalists might well prefer that the findings of these books not be true.
You see, if I’m wrong, then the press can happily go on doing what it has always done: Splitting the difference between the political left and the political right, and employing “on the one hand, on the other hand” treatments that presume we’re all equally biased, all equally self-interested...just in different directions.
The trouble is, I’ve presented a substantial body of scientific evidence suggesting that this simply isn’t the case. More specifically, the science I’ve presented suggests that the political right and left are quite different animals; that they perceive the world differently and handle evidence differently; and most importantly, that the polarization and the denial of science in modern American politics are fundamentally the fault of the authoritarian right. (Mann and Ornstein argue something very similar about today’s Republican Party.)
In other words, if my book is right, we have to discard much that we thought we knew about politics. If the science of political ideology is right, then the ground shifts beneath us.
It is very natural, then, that a lot of people—centrist journalists perhaps most of all--don’t want to accept what I’m saying. The problem is, where is the scientific counterargument to what I’m saying?
Current State of the Science Supports The Republican Brain Thesis
The evidence for my thesis—that liberals and conservatives differ by personality, psychological needs, moral intuitions, and numerous other traits; and that this is what is lurking behind our political battles over what is true, on issues ranging from global warming to whether President Obama was born in the U.S.--was lying in plain sight in the scientific literature. I simply compiled it and reported on it. Notably, this evidence is not dependent on the work of any one scientist or group of scientists, on any one methodology, or on any one discipline. It is cross-disciplinary, and it is growing.
No wonder that since the book came out, I’ve heard from a number of researchers whose work I’ve reported on, saying that I’ve done an accurate job. Indeed, there have been a number of public remarks from people of expertise, saying essentially the same thing.
Most prominent among these is Jonathan Haidt, the University of Virginia moral psychologist and the author of the much discussed book The Righteous Mind. Notably, Haidt defines himself as a “centrist,” not a liberal. On MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, Haidt had this to say about my thesis:
Chris has done a great job of surveying the literature. I want to give him a stamp of approval. He is not cherry picking, he is representing the current state of thinking about politics and personality.
Haidt went further, adding that his own science casts additional light here:
I want to fully agree with Chris that the psychology does predispose liberals more to be receptive to science; my own research has found that conservatives are better at group-binding, at loyalty, and so if you put them in a group-versus-group conflict, yes the right is more prone, psychologically, to band around and sort of, circle the wagons.
…Mooney is a partisan, and he's looking at the data with the thesis that members of the Republican Party are more close-minded, less scientific, and more willing to disregard experts. And, well, the science backs him up on this. The fact that the research supports his position doesn't sully him OR the science. He's not the one doing the research; Mooney's biases cannot affect studies that he's completely uninvolved in. Of course, he does like what he reads, but is [there] a shame in being right? There isn't.
Everett Young, my collaborator in Chapter 13 of the book, is a Ph.D. political psychologist. He writes:
Chris simply collects in one place the wide research about the differences in cognitive style that give rise to different kinds of ideological thinking, and argues that these differences might help explain why conservatives in this day and age seem to reject empirical evidence on the major issues more readily than liberals do, and hold political beliefs in strong contravention of such evidence.
Much evidence is in, as this book details. Seeing the world in more black-and-white terms IS associated with conservatism. Less curiosity is also. This needn't make conservatives inferior. In fact, such a cognitive style can have advantages, especially where decisiveness is required. But it's certainly plausible that a quickly decisive cognitive style is also less interested in updating its internal map of the outside world to comport with EVIDENCE.
I am not a scientist, and have never claimed to be. I am a science journalist. But it is precisely because I report on science and interview the scientists involved that I am able to stick closely to what they have to say, and what they have learned.
Which is, in and of itself, inconvenient for the reality-denying right.
The Right’s Arguments Against the Science Are Ill-Informed At Best
So what do conservatives have to say in response to this science? Honestly, the objections are quite weak, and frankly provide a wealth of new evidence in support of the book’s argument—that conservatives tend to simply reject science and evidence when it threatens their beliefs. The main conservative counterargument relies on little more than misrepresenting the book and its arguments. Jonah Goldberg claimed, in USA Today, that I was saying there is something wrong with conservatives; that they have “bad brains.” Nonsense, and I refuted Goldberg here.
Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow went even further, claiming the book espouses a new form of eugenics and calls Republicans “genetically inferior.” The book says nothing of the sort. (Andrea Kuszewski skewered their various errors.)
Ernest Istook, the former member of Congress and now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, hit the same note:
Conservatives are simpletons with a mental defect.
That claim is offensive, odious, obnoxious and downright deranged. But it’s the thesis of a book that liberals are buying up, written by Chris Mooney, called “The Republican Brain.”
Well, no, it isn’t the thesis. With all of these critics, one wonders whether they actually read the book.
A slightly more serious conservative critique came from Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard who, in a cover story, dismissed both me and Jonathan Haidt, based upon various methodological critiques of psychology studies, especially those relying on subject pools of undergraduates. Ferguson is calling into question the sampling and methodological practices that are used regularly in papers published in the leading journals of the field. In other words, he’s attacking science.
But not only are these methods eminently defensible; and not only have psychologists been weighing such concerns for decades. The case I’m making doesn’t rest solely on these kinds of studies, or on the work of any one scholar or methodology. Indeed, most recently, the research on psychological differences between left and right has been backed up by physiological research, and even, tentatively, by some brain studies. Thus, Ferguson’s argument also collapses.
So what’s left? Not much, other than the standard conservative distrust of what academic scientists are up to—coupled with a pretty impressive amount of overconfidence. After all, conservatives seem to think that they are competent to critique--not in the scientific literature, but in the media and on blogs--an entire field. And then, to dismiss it based on those critiques.
Everett Young, commenting on Facebook, had perhaps the best gloss on conservatives’ willingness to dismiss academia without even trying to play the game:
If conservatives want more conservatives in the academic research enterprise, then let them join us. Do not criticize those who are in the trenches working hard at it for YOUR absence from the trenches.
The "too much liberalism in academia" criticism is exactly this ridiculous. It's like out-of-shape people criticizing a gym for the fact that everybody who works out there is in great shape.
What It All Means
All of which creates a rather extraordinary situation.
A lot of people are clearly threatened by what my book is saying. And no wonder, for the claims it makes are deeply inconvenient, both to conservatives but also to quite a lot of media centrists. (Liberals get a drubbing too in much of this research—for being indecisive and wishy-washy--but somehow they don’t seem particularly worried about that. Which itself is interesting, no?)
However, the scientific argument against my basic claim—liberals and conservatives are just different people, psychologically--is not really making itself apparent. So could it be that I’m actually….er, right?
Time will tell. At least at the present time, it certainly does look like the available evidence leads to a conclusion that many people don’t want to accept.
But perhaps they shouldn’t be so threatened. One implication of my book, after all, is that liberalism and conservatism simply reflect different but enduring parts of human nature. And that means that liberals (and scientists) are simply the kind of people who like to stir the pot and shake things up—and always will be. It’s like the line about Jean Jacques Rousseau (an 18th century “liberal”) that I quote at the end of the book: “He could not be hindered from setting the world on fire.”
Is it possible that, paradoxically, this is something conservatives could learn to accept or even respect? After all, it’s kind of a basic human tradition. Liberals push the envelope, and err on the side of too much open-mindedness; conservatives pull us back again, and err on the side of too much closure. It could be a productive relationship. It could be considered normal, and even necessary.
But that won’t happen until conservatives, and journalists, are willing to accept what the science of politics is now telling us.