‘The Republican Brain’: Probing the limits of Left and Right

Republicans are increasingly anti-science, but Democrats are clueless about what to do.

donkey vs elephant
While there is some support for the "rigidity-of-the-right" hypothesis, there is also support that liberals could be characterised as "disorganised" and "indecisive" [AP]

San Pedro, CA – The Bush Administration had barely been in office a month before the scientific community took note of its anti-science hostility. In “Problems With The President“, the editors of Nature said that Bush had wasted little time in setting a hostile tone. “Rapid-fire decisions on ergonomics, arsenic levels and carbon dioxide emissions indicate that scientific opinion sits low in the pecking order of influence inside the new Bush administration,” they wrote. Criticism only spread over time, with additional high-profile editorials in Scientific American that June (“Faith-Based Reasoning“) and in Science in January 2003 (“An Epidemic of Politics“).

The Beltway media largely ignored the scientists. America’s political media usually finds it difficult to write outside of the partisan framework or some near variant of it (liberals versus conservatives, say) whenever explicitly political actors are involved. They did pay some attention in August 2003, when Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Government Reform, released a minority staff report “Politics and Science in the Bush Administration” which presented an organised overview of how the scientific advisory process had been corrupted and politicised. Yet, while there was some excellent reporting done, the scientists’ critique repeatedly struggled to escape the he said/she said Republican-vs-Democrat framework, as if letting scientists have too much sway would have “biased” the reporting in favour of the Democrats.

Persuasiveness versus truth

And so it remained for science journalist Chris Mooney to tell that story and much more in his 2005 New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science. At the time, Mooney now says, he naively believed that getting these facts out would have a substantial political impact. But that’s not how things have played out since then, and Mooney’s new book – The Republican Brain – is devoted to exploring why. Its subtitle is “The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality“, and that is a fascinating story to be told. But perhaps an even more important message of Mooney’s book is that liberals and Democrats are alsodeep in denial – particularly about the limits of reason and the need to rethink how to respond effectively to Republican’s science denial.

If we take the Enlightenment imperative seriously, and turn it back on ourselves, then we need to change how we think about how we think.”

Perhaps most centrally, Mooney argues, liberals inspired by the Enlightenment vision of ever-growing knowledge about the world appear to be fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason. When it comes to framing and articulating seemingly rational arguments, our brains are shaped more by the need to make persuasive arguments than to arrive at objective truth. (After all, that’s the evolutionary reality in which our brains evolved.) If we take the Enlightenment imperative seriously, and turn it back on ourselves, then we need to change how we think about how we think. We are practiced rhetoricians all, and practicing scientists only some, at best.

This is why it’s quite mistaken to confuse conservatives’ hostility to science with a more general lack of intelligence. They are, if anything, clearer than liberals about what’s really at stake. In arguing for their worldview, therefore, it is hardly surprising that the more educated, sophisticated and “informed” conservatives are more wrong about the science than their fellow conservatives – a phenomena that’s particularly evident in the escalating denial of global warming over the past few years. They are, after all, more right in advocating for what they believe in.

In the end, Mooney even goes so far as to argue that liberals and conservatives have complementary strengths, and if conservatives remain intransigently opposed to liberalism in America today, then it’s up to American liberals to learn the benefits of becoming more conservative, at least on the psychological level. It’s this dual nature of Mooney’s message (at least) that makes this book a good deal more interesting and important than it might at first appear to be, while also intentionally raising more questions than it can possibly answer.

Psychological factors of conservatism

Around the same time as the Waxman’s report, a comprehensive survey of psychological studies of political attitudes was published, which plays an important role in The Republican Brain, not just for what it revealed, Mooney explains, but also because it spurred a significant increase in research that has largely confirmed and expanded on its basic findings – even including new research going beyond psychology to begin exploring biological, even genetic foundations for ideological orientation. The survey, “ Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition“, covered 88 studies over a period of five decades of research. A July 22 press release said the four researchers:

“report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:

  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure.”

While some liberals as well as conservatives characterised this as implying that “conservatives are crazy”, the researchers themselves rejected this interpretation. In a Washington Post op-ed, two of them wrote “All the variables we have reviewed pertain to normal cognitive and motivational functioning.” What’s more, they said, “It’s wrong to conclude that our results provide only bad news for conservatives. True, we find some support for the traditional ‘rigidity-of-the-right’ hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterised on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganised, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity – all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.”

Indeed, Mooney himself doesn’t dive deeply into a detailed analysis of the study. Rather, he focuses more on specific findings and how they fit into a broader two-fold umbrella characterisation that is derived from the  framework of personality research and its “Big Five” traits: “Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism”, encapsulated in the acronym, OCEAN. Openness as a personality variable broadly describes liberals not just in America, but across cultures. Mooney describes it thus: “Openness is a broad personality trait that covers everything from intellectual flexibility and curiosity to an enjoyment of the arts and creativity. It denotes being experimental, a risk taker in one’s way of living and once’s choices, and wanting to sample variety across the range of life’s experiences.”

While conservatives can be charaterised negatively in terms of lack of openness, they can also be characterised positively, in terms of conscientiousness.”

How important is Openness to liberalism? Mooney reports that one large-scale study from Yale (12,000 participants) found that “people who rated very high in Openness were, on average, more liberal in outlook than 71 per cent of the respondents”. Correlations that high are rarely found in social sciences.

While conservatives can be characterised negatively in terms of lack of openness, they can also be characterised positively, in terms of conscientiousness. “Those who rate high on this trait tend to prize orderliness and having a lot of structure in their lives – being on time, working hard, sticking to a predictable schedule, and keeping one’s home or office neat or clean… The conscientious are highly goal-oriented, competent, and organised – and, on average, politically conservative.”

Characteristics of liberals and conservatives

Mooney’s primary focus throughout most of the book is on reality-orientation, thus stressing the lack-of-openness aspect of conservatism regarding information processing. After all, that’s primarily what the book is all about. First off, building on his earlier book, Mooney both reprises and provides new evidence about conservative bias, misinformation and disinformation out in the world – as for example, when he rolls out a series of seven studies showing how Fox News misleads its viewers (video here), directly refuting a mistaken PolitiFact “fact check” on Jon Stewart. This sort of misguided “balance” is a relatively under-developed theme in Mooney’s book, which typifies one of its semi-hidden strengths – the creation of a fertile field for further discussion. (Indeed, a brand new guest post at Mooney’s blog takes up this theme: “The Paradoxical Centrist Bias of the Political Left“.)

At the same time, Mooney’s prep work also consists in discussing scientific findings about human cognition in general, the better to establish a sound framework for understanding liberal/conservative differences. This involves matters such as how more recent, sophisticated reasoning powers are layered on top of older processes, as well as the little quirks that defy our efforts to neatly compartmentalise the inherently messy nature of the broadly interconnected human brain.

But more centrally, Mooney discusses dozens of different experiments shedding light on how conservatives “motivated reasoning” leads them astray, convincing them of what they’d like to believe rather than what is actually true. Many of these findings are particularly damning of conservative close-mindedness. Regarding Tea Party members, for example, one survey on global warming found that “not only were they the most factually incorrect, but they were also the most overconfident and close-minded, and least likely to want to inquire further”.

…Not only were [Tea Party members] the most factually incorrect, bu they were also the most overconfident and close-minded.

– Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain

Mooney also describes how liberals generally don’t show this same sort of pattern – although it does show up relatively rarely in some limited cases, which he also discusses. One fascinating study showed that liberals could be made to react more like conservatives – if they were sufficiently distracted from thinking their answers through. Alcohol intoxication can also do the trick. Increased threats also make liberals act more like conservatives – see the high levels of Democratic support for President Bush after 9/11, for a real-world example of this phenomena. 

However, a deeper sense of balance between liberals and conservatives is embodied in a sub-dominant theme of the book: what to do about the primary subject matter. This theme becomes dominant as the book moves to its close, and the concluding discussion makes clear that Mooney is guided overall by a sense of complementarity, based on recognising the positive value of conservatives’ conscientiousness. “The point is,” he writes, “that conservatism and liberalism alike represents core parts of human nature, and each has many virtues and benefits.”

It’s a neat balancing trick to spend so much time wading through and explaining how conservatives’ thinking leads them astray, not just in matters of science, but economics and history as well – each with its own chapter – and yet to end up arguing that conservatives have something important to teach liberals. But there’s also another highly significant and central balancing act that Mooney is engaged in. He is obviously focused on making the argument about psychological differences as strongly as possible, based on the data available, yet he also argues that the political environment exercises a profound influence as well. Again, Mooney’s subject matter puts the primary focus on one aspect, but the environmental aspect is repeatedly mentioned, and in parts of the book it emerges centre stage, as Mooney discusses how individuals change as indicators of shifts in the political environment. Indeed, the interaction of cognition and political environment helps shed light on both. It’s basic science, really: the way to understand the significance of multiple variables is to study them as they vary.

Fighting conservatism with conservatism

For all the nuance Mooney brings to bear, don’t expect many conservatives – except a few apostates – to contribute anything useful to a discussion of his book. See for example a telling exchange with conservative SE Cupp on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Witt, which Mooney comments on and links to here. Among other things, Cupp tries to portray conservatives as the ones who are acting scientifically, rhetorically drawing on the long-established lie of characterising climate change denialists as “sceptics” – a good thing in science. They are, of course, nothing of the sort, as Mooney’s book only further serves to explain. The denialists’ fierce belief in their own mythologies and oft-discredited “experts” is singularly immune to facts. Indeed, at one point in his book, Mooney warns, “[I]f fact-checking is the only approach liberals take it will be sure to fail. And so will they.”

If fact-checking is the only approach liberals take it will be sure to fail. And so will they.

– Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain

But if the facts can’t stop them, what can? One thing Mooney argues for is the use of powerful morally-grounded stories, echoing the advice of cognitive scientists like George Lakoff and Drew Wessen. He mentions Shindler’s List as an example. The fact that Mooney says little more to develop this point is an example of how the book contains numerous suggestions that beg for further discussion and research. Taken individually, this can be frustrating, but given how quickly the underlying science is advancing, it makes sense for Mooney to leave considerable room for discussion and debate.

His very brief chapter on economics, for example, discusses top Reagan/Bush economist Bruce Bartlett, and his evolution as a critique of Bush II era conservatism, based on his own conservative criteria. This opens out into a too-brief discussion of several significant topics, such as how tax-cutting became a dogmatic, all-purpose virtue – compared with Reagan’s willingness to raise or lower different taxes at different times – based on the easily-refuted claim that “tax cuts pay for themselves”. This in turn has become responsible for the GOP’s unified refusal to even think about balancing spending cuts and tax increases, which in turn helped bring us to the brink of national debt default. This story is well-known via liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong – but it has a distinctively different flavour and focus in the broader context that Mooney provides, without coming out and saying anything definitive.

In other cases, debate seem virtually primed to explode. Just one example: Mooney argues that liberals need to learn from conservatives, and in part he says, along these lines, “Take liberals and President Obama. He’s the best hope they’ve got – in fact the only one. And yet for many, the constant instinct is to find flaws with him, and liberals are vastly less committed to devotedly supporting him than the Tea Party is to attacking him.”

Yet, at the same time, Obama’s governing style has epitomised much of the same mistaken false-equivalence between liberals and conservatives that is Mooney’s primary target. He seems to be failing them as much as they fail him. As Obama shifts back into campaign mode, this false equivalence side of his thinking is less in evidence, but there are well-founded fears that it will emerge again if, as expected, Obama secures a second term.

This is, quite obviously, an old debate, but the promise here is that Mooney has provided a much richer, intellectually more robust framework for understanding the stakes and issues involved. And this is just one easily-described example of the inter-related issues Mooney sets before us. The subject, ultimately, is how we can restore a sufficient degree of balance to our political system – not just in America – to solve the problems confronting us in a world that only grows more complex, however much we might yearn for lost simplicity.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg