Chris Mooney

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 172012


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.


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.


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. 


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. 

Chris Mooney is the author of The Repub­li­can Brain: The Sci­ence of Why They Deny Sci­ence – and Real­i­ty, along with three oth­er books includ­ing The Repub­li­can War on Sci­ence. He blogs for Sci­ence Progress, a web­site of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress and Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress Action Fund, and is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.
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