by Judith Curry
Multiple choice test: Republicans are more skeptical than Democrats about climate change because:
a) A defensive ideology is hardwired into their brain
b) A growing distrust of scientific institutions because of the politicization of science
Chris Mooney on the Republican Brain
I haven’t read Chris Mooney’s new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, but I have read a number of essays that Mooney has written about the book. From an essay in the Huffington Post:
In my last piece here, I commented on the growing body of research suggesting that the difference between liberals and conservatives is not merely ideological in nature. Rather, it seems more deeply rooted in psychology and the brain — with ideology itself emerging as a kind of by-product of fundamentally different patterns of perceiving and responding to the world that spill over into many aspects of life, not just the political.
As the new research suggests, conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments. By contrast, liberalism can be thought of as an exploratory ideology — much more appealing to people who go through life trying things out and seeking the new.
Chris Mooney further writes at A Gentleman’s View:
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.
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.
Massimo Pigliucci has post at Rationally Speaking, entitled Republican brains, Republican genes. Some excerpts:
I have recently touched on the problem with correlative analyses of brain and behavioral activity here at Rationally Speaking. Of course we will find, always, a neural correlate of any human behavior. That’s how humans behave, through actions that are rooted in the functioning of the brain. That said, it certainly is interesting to discover that the brains of liberals and conservatives look different in an fMRI scan, but to go from that observation to building a solid causal scenario isn’t that easy. Brains are things that grow and change in response to myriad environmental stimuli, from before we are born to pretty much the end of our lives. It is very difficult — and certainly hasn’t been done by the recent flurry of studies — to disentangle genetic, environmental, and developmental effects for any human behavior, let alone for something as complex and context dependent as being conservative or liberal in 21st century United States. It’s not just that we don’t know whether having a certain brain predisposes someone to be a Republican or whether being a Republican molds our brain responses in a certain way. It’s that the very question doesn’t make much sense because the causal pathways are complex, interrelated, and full of feedbacks.
Similarly with the issue of genetics. Genes don’t make us think or vote. They just make proteins. There are huge layers of complex causality separating a given strand of DNA and your decision to watch Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart, so that discovering genes influencing a given behavior (many, many other things being equal) is interesting, but constitutes only a tiny fraction of the puzzle, and one that is particularly apt to be misunderstood by the public and exploited by demagogues.
The risk we face in the case of this new trend of biologizing politics is that — regardless of Chris’ and others’ careful disclaimers — many people will conclude that there is no point in engaging “the other side” because, you know, they can’t help themselves, they are the way they are because of their brains, their genes, and their evolution. Chris ends one of his pieces (on the alleged evolutionary roots of the political divide) by saying: “the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we’d have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.” Nice quip, but as it turns out plenty of conservatives accept evolution (and global warming, etc.), and there is a good number of progressives who believe in coocoo notions about vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being the result of a government conspiracy, and of course the perennial favorite, quantum mysticism.
The reality is that we are the product of both biological and cultural evolution, that we are constrained by our genetic makeup, and that everything we think and do is mediated by our brains. But our political opinions do change, both over our lifespan and sometimes from an election to the next, and they change because we can be persuaded through a variety of means, some of which even include rational discourse! So, let us certainly look at the science of politics, but let us also not neglect to engage each other on the issues whenever possible, and as reasonably as we can manage.
Hank Campbell at Science2.0 is quite critical of Mooney’s thesis. Some excerpts:
Chris Mooney, writing in Rolling Stone, is in a tough spot. He historically has wanted to talk about actual science, which should make it hard for him not to smirk at a social psychology ‘study’ conducted outside a bar, but he hates Republicans far more than he loves science, in a way it is difficult to describe to a more moderate, mainstream audience.
He hates Republicans so much so he refuses to ask any awkward questions of any crazy study, including one in which a group of social psychologists stand outside a bar and ask questions designed to gauge the political beliefs of patrons, after which they conduct a breathalyzer test. Then they map the left-right skew to how drunk people are. Total woo, right? Without pseudoscience, there is no book on how Republicans have ‘different brains’ so we have to give him a break on embracing that stuff, because he isn’t writing the book for a science audience, he is writing it for people who want to make fun of their political opposition. Yet he is no cynical opportunist. He believes the stuff he says, just like Ann Coulter does.
If you read Science 2.0, you are chuckling at that ‘body of research’ claim – if this same level of research rigor were being issued about the left wing he would not be giving it a free pass but this is inRolling Stone. To them, it probably is research, because they assume anything with the term ‘science’ in it is actually science. It’s a tremendous disservice to the public to have that colloquial confusion and a large reason why the public increasingly distrusts science; liberal, welcoming scientists have not protected their brand and are letting economists and political scientists and social scientists and progressively ideological whatnots lay claim to having the same rigorous methodology.
I would note for him that the conservative public may feel under assault by ‘academics’ but the only ones who feel under assault by science academics have been confused by the intentional efforts of cultural pundits to try and conflate social goofiness with real science like biology or physics and whatnot. In just asking general questions of people when I get an idea of their political slant (and so, just as legitimate a method as asking questions outside a bar, though not showing up in any ‘journal’) I find very few who distrust science. They distrust the humanities – and social psychology belongs more there than it does in the same buildings as science which is why, if you visit more campuses, they are actually over with the humanities. They also distrust climate scientists, because there is a lot of politicking in that field, but I can’t find anyone on the right who distrusts biologists or physicists even if I quote numbers about the political participation of those disciplines.
At the end, he even finds a way to rationalize why liberals get drunk a lot more; they are so darn smart they just have to get away from their super smart brains on occasion. In other words, they drink because they need to be more like conservatives – dumber – and stop solving all of the world’s problems.
So, yes, in answer to my original question, it is apparently entirely possible that getting drunk makes you more conservative – if by that we mean you are able to stop overthinking topics and working them through a framework of social justice issues and just have an honest reaction to the world around you.
Roger Pielke Jr. has a good post entitled A loss of trust in institutions of science among US conservatives. Excerpts:
A new paper is out today in the American Sociological Review by Gordon Gauchat titled “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.” Here is the abstract:
This study explores time trends in public trust in science in the United States from 1974 to 2010. More precisely, I test Mooney’s (2005) claim that conservatives in the United States have become increasingly distrustful of science. Using data from the 1974 to 2010 General Social Survey, I examine group differences in trust in science and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region. I explore the implications of these findings, specifically, the potential for political divisions to emerge over the cultural authority of science and the social role of experts in the formation of public policy.
These conclusions mirror more broadly the dynamics that I discuss in The Climate Fix that have occurred in the case of climate change :
…conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy (see Gauchat 2010). Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy. . .
Paradoxically, it is possible that science’s cultural authority engendered politicization, particularly its role in policy formation and regulation of private interests. This assumes that science’s cultural authority has grown—especially among legal, political, and economic institutions —to the point that the scientific community inevitably becomes entangled in polarized conflicts .
The paper provides a nice set of empirical evidence to support the arguments that have been made by Dan Sarewitz (and others) about the consequences of the politicization of the scientific community. Writing in Slate last year, Sarewitz explained the basic dynamics at play here using the case of climate change:
Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?
During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics,Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn’t share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.