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In Person

Chris Mooney

We live in an era of hyper-partisanship—and Chris Mooney argues there are neurological reasons for that. Mooney, author of the provocative new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress, and hosts the Point of Inquiry podcast. He’s also the author (or co-author) of three previous books, including The Republican War on Science.

In These Times Books Editor John K. Wilson interviewed Mooney via e-mail in early May.
—May 17, 2012

Politics

The conservative approach to science seems to have dramatically shifted in recent decades, most notably in the denial of climate change. How does your research explain this rather sudden change in values in terms of how conservatives think?

Well, the change of which you speak has been playing out for nearly half a century. Recently published data suggest that since 1974, conservatives have been marching away from the scientific community. This clearly indicates a change over time in the conservative community, so whatever has happened can’t be solely attributed to “nature,” or the relatively constant aspects of conservative psychology.

However, a “nature” plus “nurture” explanation seems to work nicely. For instance, Hetherington and Weiler show that the GOP has become more of an authoritarian party, and the people who call themselves “conservatives” and “Republicans” today are much more psychologically authoritarian than they were in, say, 1970. And this occurred because the right mobilized Christian conservative culture warriors, coming out of the conflicts of the 1960s.

So it’s a combination of historical events and psychological dynamics. Authoritarians, I argue, have deep-rooted problems with science because it is such an alien way of thinking to them. They crave certainty and see things in black and white; science is all about uncertainty, ambiguity, and nuance, and how to handle them. So a conflict between science and authoritarianism is very natural—indeed, this kind of conflict goes all the way back to Galileo.

Media

Rush Limbaugh has been one of the most outspoken conservative opponents of science, calling it one of the “four corners of deceit.” What do you think has been the impact of Limbaugh and talk radio/Fox News on the views conservatives hold about science?

Simply massive. Not only is the right today a psychologically authoritarian movement; it has its own media, its own sources of information that provide belief reinforcement to people who crave such reinforcement, because they crave certainty.

I argue that conservative or authoritarian psychology, in combination with environmental effects like the development of a right wing media, have given us a conservative movement that has become entirely unmoored from reality. And the data on Fox News viewers support this: Again and again, they’re more factually wrong in contested areas—global warming, healthcare—than viewers of other stations.

Culture

One remarkable fact you note is that among Republicans, being better educated makes you less likely to believe in the science of climate change and other factual matters. What do you think is the explanation for this? And what do you think of the recent conservative movement towards attacking higher education and discouraging people from going to college?

Well, the explanation for this “smart idiot” effect is multiple. Smarter or better educated conservatives are probably watching more Fox News, for one. They’re more engaged with the issues, and for a conservative today, that’s tantamount to being more factually wrong about the issues.

As I further explain in the book, intelligence or sophistication actually make biased reasoning about politics worse. The more you know, the more you can reinforce your beliefs, on either side of the aisle.

Finally, we’re probably picking up authoritarianism again here. It seems that engagement with the substance of politics pushes authoritarians to the right—if they’re disengaged, they may not really even know that they’re right wing. So once you’ve got an authoritarian who is engaged and fully embraces conservatism, then you’ve got a rigid ideological thinker wielding “facts” and “evidence” to support a black and white worldview. And you’ve got a lot of really biased reasoning.

The right attacks higher education because it thinks it is a liberalizing influence in our society. And it isn’t wrong about that. But driving people away from college—especially driving conservatives away—is only going to lead to more polarization over facts and what is true. We already have a much higher percentage of advanced degrees among liberals than among conservatives. That “reality gap” is only going to widen if conservatives keep attacking science and those who produce it.

For years, the left has been very critical of scientific research on genetics and intelligence. Do you think that this was a case of the left rejecting science for ideological reasons? What are the differences between left-wing and right-wing approaches to opposing science?

I’m prepared to say that any liberal or leftist who seriously wants to deny that humans are the product of evolution, and that this is a central key to understanding our present day behavior—including our political behavior—is guilty of science denial.

But that said, you’ve got to get the evolutionary logic right. There is definitely bad science out there that seeks to apply evolution incorrectly to who we are today.

I think that the left campaign against “sociobiology” was definitely ideological in nature. It was driven by misplaced egalitarianism. That’s a chief liberal value and chief liberal emotion: We care about equality. It’s a wonderful thing, but it can certainly drive biased reasoning in some cases.

The difference between how left and right use science is both psychological—e.g., science is more friendly to liberals, because they’re more tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity—but also moral and emotional. Both sides like science when it supports their values; but they have very different values. The left uses science to promote equality and to protect people from harm and to make the world better. The right prizes using science to support free enterprise and its other ideological goals.

Because liberals are emotional creatures too, there is nothing that says they can’t err or misuse science. However, they do so for very different reasons, and they also change and update their views more easily over time. So the misguided left campaign against “sociobiology” from the 1970s is basically, at this point, a historical relic. And thank goodness for that.

Personal

Ultimately, does the source of people’s ideas really matter? Whether it’s emotional or genetic or rational or whatever, it seems like the primary (and best) way to change people’s beliefs is by rational persuasion. Do you think that efforts to persuade conservatives need to have a different approach based on your research?

Actually, all the research I’m surveying suggests that rational persuasion is not at all a good way to change people’s beliefs. It’s far better to change people’s emotions than to change their ideas, because the emotions drive everything. In particular, rational persuasion has little chance of working if people’s defensive emotions have been aroused.

I think conservatives are, by definition, very hard to change. If you want to do so, you need to make sure they do not feel threatened, and help them interpret inconvenient information as consistent with their values. Getting in an ideological argument with them goes nowhere.

One of my goals is to get people to stop thinking that reasoning is rational. We’ve got a political system in which everybody is flinging around arguments all the time, but in reality, most of this is driven by emotion, not dispassionate thinking. We need to disarm and calm down. We need to understand both that we’re different, and also that we’re highly emotional about those differences. This is the only way to achieve a greater degree of political tolerance and understanding.