Disputing the science of conservative anti-science

Liberals and conservatives may have similar biases in some respects as one researcher claims, but there are differences.

GOP Leaders Speak To Media After House Republican Conference Meeting
Why has anti-science - like US Rep Todd Akin's claim that 'legitimate rape' rarely leads to pregnancy - gained such a strong foothold among conservatives and Republicans? [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA – Late at night on August 5, the perfectly-named Curiosity rover made a perfect landing on Mars – a towering acheivement in human history. The next morning, a photo showed up in my Facebook feed, with a passage from a Creationist science textbook that read:

“Electricity is a mystery. No one has ever observed it or heard it or felt it. We can see and hear and feel on what electricity does. We know that it makes light bulbs shine and irons heat up and telephones ring. But we cannot say what electricity itself is like.

“We cannot even say where electricity comes from. Some scientists think that the sun may be the source of most electricity. Others think that the movement of the earth produces it. All anyone knows is that electricity seems to be everywhere and that there are many ways to bring it forth.”

What do those two paragraphs of gibberish have to do with Creationism? It’s simple, really: once you start down the road of arbitrarily rejecting science because it upsets you, there is no logical stopping point before you end up sounding like this. Plain old-fashioned political savvy might stop some Creationists from babbling like this, but nothing in their ideology will do so. This is your brain on anti-science. Meanwhile, science has landed on Mars.

One hundred years ago, the gulf between the two might not have seemed so extreme, but now it literally spans the Solar system. Given how vast the gulf has become, one just has to ask: Why has anti-science gained such a strong foothold among conservatives and Republicans over the past 30 years? Whatever the reason, the results have been stark: A 2009 Pew poll found that just 6 per cent of scientists are Republican, compared to 55 per cent who are Democrats, and 9 per cent are conservative, compared to 52 per cent who are liberals – that’s a far cry from the 1950s, when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower spoke proudly of “my scientists”, whose formal role as presidential advisors was established on his watch.

In his recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality, author Chris Mooney offers a complex explanation of the GOP’s anti-science trajectory, but with a simple main thrust – conservatives and liberals simply think differently. Social context matters as well, Mooney argues – indeed, he highlights some examples of conservatives who’ve broken with the conservative movement as it has grown more and more extreme – but there’s now an enormous body of evidence showing that liberals and conservatives think differently from one another in a variety of different ways, most of which can be captured in terms of two basic personality traits out of the so-called “big five“: “openness” for liberals and “conscientiousness” for conservatives.

A question of balance?

When Mooney’s book first came out, there was a wave of knee-jerk criticism from offended conservatives which did more to confirm Mooney’s thesis than respond to – much less rebut – it. But in the last month, a respected researcher – Dan Kahan, head of Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project [CCP] – has raised a much more thoughtful critique (here, here, here and here). Kahan is a pioneer of cultural cognition, an interpretation of the “Cultural Theory of Risk“, first articulated by anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in their 1982 book, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. A definitional statement at CCP’s website explains:

“Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact… to values that define their cultural identities.”

This approach highlights ideologically neutral or symmetrical tendencies based in identity-protection, and there is, to my mind, indisputable evidence that such tendencies exist. But that’s not all that exists. There is also a wide-ranging body of work (dating back decades) showing asymmetrical tendencies of various different sorts which can generally be characterised in terms of greater openness among liberals. Mooney’s book largely reflects those results, first comprehensively summarised nine years ago in an influential meta-study (collecting results from 88 separate studies), “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition“, which the authors (John Jost and three others) further clarified as “the hypothesis that people adopt conservative ideologies in an effort to satisfy various social-cognitive motives”. 

Before getting back to Kahan’s critique, a few clarifications are in order. First, the authors did not assume that only conservatives are so motivated, they merely reflected the historical fact that motivations on the conservative side of the political spectrum have received the most sustained attention, in part because the relative closedness of conservatives is easier to pin down empirically than the openness characteristic of liberalism. What’s more, they explicitly rejected trying to reduce conservatism solely to a matter of individual attitudes:

“[T]reating political conservatism solely as an individual difference variable neglects growing evidence that situational factors influence the experience and expression of conservatism. If classic personality theories are correct in positing that character rigidity and motivational threat are related to the holding of conservative attitudes, then system instability and other threatening circumstances should also increase conservative tendencies in the population as a whole.” [Scholarly citations removed.]

Given the differences between Kahan and this tradition, it’s not surpsing that he criticised Mooney’s book – though he did so with considerable respect for Mooney’s fair-minded approach. In his brief fourth and final post, he wrote, “There’s a ton of spirit in Mooney but not an ounce of dogmatism. He communicates important elements of science’s way of knowing by his example as well as by his words.” Yet, I believe Kahan’s overall objection is mistaken, though valuable nonetheless, because he forces others to think more clearly and more deeply. To see why, we need to look at how Kahan himself appears to mis-perceive the work he criticises – a misperception that might even prove to be an example  (or close cousin) of cultural cognition at work!

Fair criticism? Or distorted view?

Here is a statement from Kahan’s December 2011 blog post, “The Ideological Symmetry of Motivated Reasoning“:

“As I read Jost and others, the asymmetry position grounds motivated reasoning in a general propensity (a personality trait, essentially) toward dogmatism that tends toward a conservative (or ‘authoritarian’) political orientation. On this account, we shouldn’t expect to see motivated reasoning among liberals, whose ideology is itself a reflection of their propensity toward open-mindedness.”

There are three problems with Kahan’s formulation here. The first is that dogmatism only consitutes one aspect of the factors Jost and others study. The 2003 paper mentioned above spelled this out explicitly in the very first sentence of its abstract: “Analysing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism – intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalisation (social dominance, system justification).” Kahan significantly (though not intentionally) distorts, diminishes and misrepresents this body of work by reducing it to solely a matter of dogmatism. The second problem is that this research does not necessarily limit motivated reasoning to conservatives, just because it has found such reasoning easier to study, and therefore analyse. (This is a potential danger, however, that should not be ignored.) The third is that this research does not claim to be exhaustive. Motivated reasoning by liberals based on other factors – such as cultural identity protection – is entirely possible without in any way discrediting the body of research Jost and others have produced.

Having said all that, I should hasten to add that Kahan does offer cogent criticism of methodological and interpretive problems with much of this work, and that his multi-part response to Mooney’s book displayed an important clarification and sharpening of the issues. Kahan’s discussion of the Cognitive Reflection Test, which specifically measures reasoning quality, is particularly helpful in this regard. Yet, it also runs the risk of being misleading, since I believe Kahan fundamentally mis-represents the argument when he criticises the asymmetrical work of Jost and others for presenting poor models or measures of the quality of reasoning, when quality of reasoning per seis commonly not their point. Just for the sake of argument, however, suppose he’s right that all that research is mistaken somehow, and there is no asymmetry between how individual liberals and conservatives think (there certainly are experimentally defined contexts in which this is so). Where does that leave us?

Contrary to what you might expect, it’s still quite possible that flawed cognition is asymmetrically distributed in society as a whole, even if it’s not at the individual level. (Failure to see this possibility is a reflection of the fallacy of composition.) There are three obvious ways this is possible: First, if there are simply more conservatives than liberals – which, at least in terms of self-identification, we already know to be true. Second, if their flawed perceptions are more systematically organised and politically mobilised – say by media such as talk radio and Fox News – which there is already considerable evidence for. Third, if conservatives take more extreme positions than liberals do. This, too, we also know to be true, at least in Congress, the most important political decision-making body in the country. And this is not even considering the question of who is actually mistaken about empirical reality (global warming, WMDs in Iraq, President Obama’s birthplace, etc) – which surely ought to count for something.

Thus, even if Kahan’s stated objections were true, they would not preclude the existence of asymmetry in flawed cognition or empirical reality perception at the level of the cultural/political environment.

Now here’s the crucial point: Although Mooney refers to and draws on research in the Jost tradition (as well as relatively new evidence of biological differences between liberal and conservative brains), it’s not his primary focus. I would have loved a super-wonky book with chapters devoted to each of the various strands – authoritarianism, terror management, social dominance, system justification, etc – but that’s not the book that Mooney wrote.

Instead, Mooney did four things. First, he focused primary attention on the much broader personality trait of openess to experience (see a key Yale study he cites here) which is explicitly not a measure of thinking quality, but of personality orientation. Second, he discussed two contrasting models of reason – one focused on reality-testing, the other on social persuasion without arguing anything about the quality of reasoning involved, only its purpose. Third, he discussed other sorts of empirical data – such as surveys showing how misinformed Fox News viewers are, which establish assymmetries in misinformation. Fourth, he looked at the political environment and its change over time, with movement conservative apostate Bruce Bartlett, for example, to provide an explicitly non-liberal, but critical perspective on how movement conservatism has asymmetrically lost touch with reality.

The research Kahan criticises plays a role in Mooney’s book, to be sure. But on close inspection that role is not really foundational for Mooney’s larger argument – although it certainly strengthens it greatly. In the end, however, it makes relatively little difference if conservatives credit religious leaders more than scientists for reasons that are symmetrical or asymmetrical to the reasons that liberals turn to scientists instead. As Mooney says, liberals have the right friends, conservatives do not. The reasons why are important, but they can only explain the facts, not alter them.

Finally, here’s Kahan’s most concise statement of what he finds lacking in Mooney’s book:

“I’m skeptical of RHB [sic – the Republican Brain Hypothesis]. Studies conducted by CCP [the Cultural Cognition Project] link conflict over policy-relevant science to a form of motivated reasoning to which citizens of all cultural and ideological persuasions seem worrisomely vulnerable. The problem, I believe, isn’t that citizens with one or another set of values can’t or won’t use reason; it’s that the science communication environment – on which the well-being of all citizens depends – has become contaminated by antagonistic cultural meanings.”

No one can deny that the “science communication environment” – along with the rest of the public realm – has become “contaminated by antagonistic cultural meanings”. But the use of the passive voice here is extremely misleading – although not unusual for scientific discourse. Yet, such “contamination” did not just happen. It was caused. And the people who caused it have names, as well as specific assymetrical cultural motivations, collectively at least. They include both social/religious and economic movement conservative leaders. They are not the people who put Curiosity on Mars. They are, among others, the people who wrote, “Electricity is a mystery. No one has ever observed it or heard it or felt it.”

Did those who put Curiosity on Mars fight back, defending their own cultural identities? Yes, they did. But that’s not the problem. Quite to the contrary – the problem is, they didn’t fight back hard enough, or early enough. So now they have a tremendous amount of catching up to do. They will need all the insights of Kahan and Jost – and a whole lot more, besides – if they are to succeed in saving us all from the well-organised, persuasion-focused resurgence of prideful ignorance that threatens us all from the right.

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