This is your (Republican) brain on (science).

by Jen

A few weeks ago, I finished Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- And Reality. Before I dig into the book a little, I should point out that it’s a fairly recent release, (published in April), and has already generated some rich discussion. Though I’ll focus mainly on the book’s implications for my thesis work rather than a general review, it’s worth following a totally interesting and relevant conversation playing out between Mooney and Dan Kahan, whose worked I discussed earlier. Kahan opened the debate with two posts, here and here, about Mooney’s methods and conclusions, and Mooney has replied here and here. There’s also a response to the two sides by Paul Rosenberg here. It’s nice to be reminded how a completely civil dialogue on such a charged topic can still take place in 2012.

Chris Mooney is host of the Point of Inquiry podcast and the author of three other books, (including The Republican War on Science) and several articles that include recent pieces on the science of frackingwhy people deny science, and how the ‘reality-based community’ is moving to the left.

If you want a sample of the book’s flavor without buying it first or, heaven forbid, reading it in its entirety, you can find a shorter blog post version of its main idea here, or listen to a Point of Inquiry interview with Mooney about it to get the main idea.

Now that I’ve covered all that introductory advertisement, I suppose I’ll get to the substance of the book itself. In a nutshell, Mooney explores the brain science that might reveal genuine differences between liberal and conservative thinking and how people fall into different ideologies. I thought it may be relevant to my thesis because a) it claims to address those who “deny science” right there in the title, and b) understanding the psychology of science denial might in turn offer clues on how to get around it.

Mooney uses a term I find interesting: politicized wrongness. I may just steal this from him; it’s a great way to differentiate between the genuinely pathological deniers out there (beyond reach, or at least the scope of my project goals) and the rest of the conservative population who simply don’t have the excuse of being ‘crazy,’ and who are, in my opinion, potentially reachable via rhetorical strategies. Reading this book was 50% reaffirming, (in Mooney’s journey through a lot of the same studies and papers I myself have earmarked or already read), and 50% preaching to the choir (full disclosure: I’m pretty liberal). But, I’m also a scientist, at least in spirit (and bachelor’s degree, if not in career), and I appreciate the empirical justification Mooney makes for most of his ideas.

Just as I’ve based my thesis on the premise that science communication will need to evolve from a simple “more information, better education, and less arguing with deniers,” approach, Mooney expresses an identical sentiment right away:

Scientific and fact-based arguments often don’t work to persuade us; education often doesn’t protect us from lies and misinformation; more information and knowledge sometimes just give us more opportunities to twist and distort- and worst of all, the two groups we’ll broadly call “liberals” and “conservatives” have an array of divergent traits that sometimes make them unable to perceive or agree upon the same reality.

It’s that last part that hits on the value of this work. Reality. Slippery idea, especially difficult for the scientific community to treat as anything other than concrete and absolute, the same for everyone. Part of me wonders if convincing the scientific community to adjust their communication tactics isn’t a bit like convincing 20th century physicists that, by the way, it turns out matter really isn’t always matter. Maybe we need a quantum physics-style revolution in science communication?

One of the main takeaways from Mooney’s book is the concept of motivated reasoning. While there is some debate (as I mentioned above) about whether liberals or conservatives are more or less likely to engage in motivated reasoning, the more salient point for my work is not who does it more, but that everybody does it, to some extent or another.  Teasing out which factors do the motivating for different groups of people can help us understand their reasoning. Of course,

Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion — what researchers often call “affect.” Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts.

In other words, by the time we’re consciously “reasoning,” we may instead be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.

Mooney walks through Kahan’s research, explaining the political and moral compass as a Cartesian plane with one axis separating individualist and communitarian, the other separating hierarchical and egalitarian. With obligatory warning that life is never quite so simple, generally speaking, U.S. conservatives fall into the hierarchical-individualist quadrant, while U.S. liberals are more likely to be egalitarian-communitarians. 

(Kahan explains the difference between cultural worldview and political affiliation on his blog).

As Mooney explains it:

A hierarchical-individualist finds it difficult to believe that the things he prizes (commerce, industry, a man’s freedom to possess a gun to defend his family) could lead to outcomes deleterious to society. Egalitarian-communitarians tend to think that the free market causes harm, that patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people can’t handle their guns.

Framing communication appropriately for different audiences (with different cultural worldviews) makes sense. It also explains why many communication strategies, developed by a scientific community heavily populated by egalitarian-communitarians, tend to reach only similarly minded audiences. Yet, there are ways to inform and educate people in the other worldview quadrants without sacrificing accuracy and integrity.

  • Thesis project takeaway #1: Determine the cultural worldview of participants in my research. Consider what communication framing would be most appropriate for people in different points along the cultural worldview spectrum. Give said framing strategies a try.

Mooney also devotes a significant portion of the discussion to personality theory, especially the “Big Five” traits widely accepted in psychology:

  • Openness to Experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

(Note the convenient OCEAN acronym if you want to refer to this at future cocktail parties).

Each of these traits can be seen as more of a spectrum than an absolute qualifier; someone may be more or less open to new ideas and experiences, or be emotionally stable rather than neurotic. The five traits are not value judgments about personality, simply descriptions of an individual’s tendencies.

That said, two are more important to this discussion than the others: liberals and conservatives tend to diverge most on Openness and Conscientiousness. Across a large range of studies, liberals rate higher on Openness,

a broad personality trait that covers everything from intellectual flexibility and curiosity to an enjoyment of arts and creativity… Openness is about embracing change and even reveling in it, thumbing your nose at those who want to preserve the status quo. Closedness is the opposite.

Openness is not the same thing as intelligence, though it does impart a willingness to enterain new ideas and a toleration of different perspectives and values.

Conservatives, on the other hand, may score more at the Closedness end of that trait spectrum, but they have an admirable trait of their own: Conscientiousness.

Those who score high on this trait tend to prize orderliness and having a lot of structure in their lives– being on time, working hard… The conscientious are highly goal oriented, competent and organized.

In a nutshell,

Open liberals are fine with things being complex, ill defined, blurry, novel. Closed conservatives are the opposite.

Which can make it tough for scientists, who prefer to speak in statistical tendencies and theoretical likelihoods rather than certainties and absolutes, to click with conservatives who crave definitive statements and cognitive closure.

  • Thesis project takeaway #2: Determine the Big Five personality profile of participants in my research. Consider what communication framing would be most appropriate for those on the Open and less Conscientious end of the spectrum vs. those on the Closed and more Conscientious end of the spectrum. Give said framing strategies a try.

The third takeaway offered by Mooney is an account of liberal vs. conservative moral systems advanced by George Lakoff.

His opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. One metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society. The problem is, we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, “nuturing” parent version.

Lakoff’s account implies that liberals and conservatives will have a different relationship with science and with the facts because the concept of authority is critical to their relationship with reality. For liberals, science motivates their reasoning and improves the accuracy of their understanding. They are more willing to change their minds in light of new facts. Conservatives, on the other hand, look to science less for motivation and more for support– especially of their moral values and political goals. Lakeoff suggests there is a “reflexive conservative trust of authority” that leads to “factual intransigence” (truthiness?).

If you’re a bit disgusted by this notion, you’re probably liberal. But, before you throw up hands in defeat, consider Lakeoff’s own description of the “chief liberal weakness:”

Constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better, and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well-researched, and supported, they are disregarded, or even actively attacked, by conservatives.

As much as I hate a hackneyed quote, this would probably be a good place to include that old classic about insanity being the repetition of something over and over while expecting different results. You know who said that right? Einstein. A scientist. 

  • Thesis project takeaway #3: Explore the narratives and metaphors that are used successfully outside the scientific community, even those used to attack or deny science. Why are they successful? What aspects of human nature do these metaphors touch, and in what types of audiences, where current practices in science communication fall short? Incorporate some of those strategies, without sacrificing accuracy or integrity, into my project.

This was a long one, I know. There’s a lot of good information in Mooney’s book; it’s like a clearinghouse for much of the other research that supports my ideas, though it covers a larger scope (politics! humanity!) than my own goals in the design of science communication. That said, I’ll certainly come back to Mooney’s work a good deal over the coming school year as this project takes shape. In the mean time, I’ll leave you with this, as a reward for reading all the way to the end:


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