In the midst of the George W. Bush Administration, science writer Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005) noted an increasing trend: the rejection of science by a growing number of Republican Party members, not just on evolution, but on topics as varied as stem cell research, the hole in the ozone layer, and climate change, among other issues. The book particularly focused on the growing unity between Christian conservatives and free market proponents united in their opposition to government regulations and authority, and the role of religion and corporate-funded think tanks in influencing the Republican rejection of science.
But is there more to the story on Republicans and science? Mooney thought so, and began examining the relevant research in psychology and neuroscience, particularly the role of cognition, emotion, and the brain in shaping our understanding of the world. His research has led to widely read articles like “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” and his recent book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality (Wiley 2012).
Mooney talked with Left Eye on Books about the science behind ideology and beliefs, the reaction to his book, and the Republican brain.
Christine Shearer: Your book The Republican War on Science was one of the first popular books to really lay out how the Republican party as a whole was veering farther and farther away from accepted scientific research, from the Newt Gingrich Congress through the George W. Bush Administration. And it looked at some issues that appeared to be more financial, like climate change, and others that were more religious, like stem cell research. Is it fair to say that you thought the crux of the issue at the time was corporate funding of misinformation and religious belief triumphing over science?
Chris Mooney: Yes. In fact, that was explicitly the argument of the book. It was that corporate influences and religious influences were creating an anti-science double whammy within the GOP. And by the way, although in the new book I go on to discuss the underlying psychology behind the denial of science, that is not to say that this analysis was wrong. The GOP clearly is the party of religion and the party of business — although recently, it has become so ideological that I would say it is becoming rather anti-business in many ways. And this has led it to dramatically undermine science.
Christine Shearer: Your next book Storm World (Harvest Books, 2008) looked at a group of scientists trying to determine whether global warming could be impacting the intensity and number of hurricanes. And there were a few scientists who were just adamant against making such a correlation, even as the supporting evidence mounted. Was it people like that who, in part, got you thinking that there might be more at work than money and religion in causing some to reject scientific evidence?
Chris Mooney: Huh. Actually I’d read that issue a little differently. This was a classic emerging science conflict under high uncertainty. It seems to me that skepticism about a climate-hurricane connection wasn’t necessarily beyond the pale at that time.
Certainly, though, the main character in the book, William Gray, does push the Republican War on Science analysis. Because the guy is a global warming denier, but no conservative. He wasn’t being driven by religion and he wasn’t being driven by corporate greed. Something else was going on there, having to do with a kind of turf battle between old-school meteorologists and computer-modeling climate scientists.
Christine Shearer: So let’s lay out the thesis of The Republican Brain – you draw upon a variety of studies suggesting that people identifying as Republicans and Democrats within the U.S. do not just think differently – their brains appear to be wired differently. For example, Democrats as a whole appear to be more open to new experiences and changing their minds, while Republicans more consistently value group solidarity and tradition, and these are differences that have correlations to parts of the brain?
Chris Mooney: Apparently they do. The brain stuff is very new, and controversial. But the personality and cognitive style differences from left to right are very real and well established, and it isn’t exactly radical to propose that those are going to have physical correlates in the brain. Right now, the search for them is on, and some tantalizing findings have already been published. But the only reason anybody went looking in the brain for differences is because they’d already manifested themselves in personality differences.
Christine Shearer: And of course the book is not arguing that biology determines political ideology, but perhaps there is a feedback effect: for example, the social movements of the 1960s created a backlash amongst U.S. conservatives that strengthened some of their core traits and values, not just in their ideas, but their physical brains?
Chris Mooney: Sure. I mean, living your life in a particular way—for instance, devoted to a set of ideas—changes your brain. We know that. So it is kind of common sense that getting conservative ideas reinforced a lot probably makes a brain more “conservative.” It appears there is both something “natural” about ideology, which is why genetics seems to be involved, but also a reinforcement effect emerging from life experiences.
Christine Shearer: How about conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute – do you think they believe in what they are doing, or are consciously trying to shape public opinion, even if that means promoting false or misleading studies?
Chris Mooney: Well, I think these are libertarian ideologues, often white and male. Their beliefs are very strong and they are very sure they are competent and in the right, and that global warming is hokum. I don’t think they’re conscious liars at all. They actually believe that they are rational — critical thinkers, even. Of course, this is a pretty inflated self-image.
Christine Shearer: How does religion fit into this? Or gender – for example, how conservatives like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh appear to be quite misinformed when it comes to issues like birth control?
Chris Mooney: My view on religion is that there is conservative and liberal religiosity, just as there is conservative and liberal politics. In both cases, the conservatives crave certainty and flee from uncertainty and ambiguity. In religion this leads to fundamentalism; in politics, well, it leads to Tea Party-ism and authoritarianism. And the two overlap heavily of course.
There is clearly a gender gap in both religiosity and in politics. In politics, women are more liberal, and I think this has a lot to do with empathy. And of course many women are thankfully rejecting the authoritarian, man-controls-the-family view of the right.
Christine Shearer: Is it fair to say that this research and thesis fits best with the experiences and history of western nations, particularly the U.S.? How might these findings vary by country, particularly a country very different from the U.S.?
Chris Mooney: Much of the research has been done in the U.S., and most of it has been done in the West. For obvious reasons. I suspect that we are tapping into something very deep here about human beings, though—for instance, the Big Five personality traits have been studied around the world, and seem pretty close to a human universal. And if some of those traits have political implications in a western context, wouldn’t they also have political implications in other contexts? I’d be surprised if they didn’t.
But culture is going to be a huge factor here, and under culture I include political systems. For instance, if the regime is totalitarian and you don’t really have a choice of what political view to adopt, does your personality really matter as much in determining your “politics”? Probably not. In such countries people would not likely be very well “sorted,” ideologically, by personality.
So you will see wide diversity in human ideologies and political systems, but you will also see some core elements that look a lot like “left” and “right” in the West and that likely reflect elements of personality that are part of human nature.
Christine Shearer: For many on the left, the immediate reaction when faced with someone who believes in something that is demonstrably false is to challenge them with loads of supporting evidence, but the research is showing that this is exactly the wrong approach with many Republicans. What is the better approach?
Chris Mooney: The better approach is emotional. You have to take away the defensive reaction; more facts only strengthen the defensive reaction. The facts, then, have be made to seem non-threatening. This requires knowing the source of the defensive reaction—why the facts seem such a menace to a person’s worldview—and an understanding of framing, or, how to present the same facts, or similar facts, in a context that conveys a very different and less threatening meaning.
Christine Shearer: Many conservative media outlets have attacked your book, which you find highly unfortunate, because you think there is a lot that the left and right in the U.S. can learn from one another. How much do you think conservative media sees the book as a threat to their worldview, and how much do they see it as a threat to their material interests? Is it fair to say the Republican platform is in many ways firmly rooted in free market and Christian ideals that make some people very wealthy and powerful?
Chris Mooney: Oh I think it is largely a threat to their self image as people who are rational and reasonable and, in fact, more reasonable and rational than their political opponents. I’m completely taking that away from them. I’m showing that their reasoning is emotionally driven, and moreover, that their way of responding to the world isn’t so conducive to the kinds of reasoning that we see in the scientific community. That’s threatening on a personal level. I don’t know that it has much to do with money or power.
Christine Shearer: You have said Republicans can offer those on the left valuable lessons in the area of group cohesion and loyalty. Yet Occupy Wall Street, for example, might say that their cohesion and loyalty lies in their shared commitment to participatory democracy, rather than following a certain party or leader. Do you think there is a middle ground between increasing group solidarity and cohesion, while also expanding the number and kinds of people within that group?
Chris Mooney: Sure. But I mean solidarity and unity in achieving actual political objectives. AKA, effectiveness. This requires actually choosing a leader—one Occupy Wall Street chapter was so anti-authoritarian that they chose a dog as their “leader”—and follow that leader…faithfully.
The left hates this, but it also needs this. I don’t think the left will choose leaders who are non-inclusive, but the point is that there is a need to actually be organized and achieve concrete strategic objectives. Just throwing a protest doesn’t cut it.
Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and most recently The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality (April 2012). 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.
Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. She is Managing Editor of Conducive, and author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).