The Republican Brain—Is It Sound Science?

April 10, 2012

Chris Mooney is an experienced science journalist, a skilled writer, a great host for Point of Inquiry, and a friend. Not a close friend, but he is someone who has helped me and CFI on several occasions and I never forget a favor. But, paraphrasing Aristotle, although Chris is dear to me, so too is truth. I’m concerned that Chris’s new book may be advancing a thesis that lacks adequate scientific support.

When I heard Chris had a new book coming out called The Republican Brain, my first reaction was that the title was phrased aggressively for marketing purposes—understandably so. You don’t catch the consumer’s eye by titling a book “Some Examples of Motivated Reasoning That Lead Some Republicans to Reject Scientific Evidence on Certain Occasions.” However, I expected the book itself to take a nuanced approach to some of the errors in reasoning committed by some Republicans, and would balance these observations with how some Democrats also reject science and hard facts.

I’m afraid this may not be correct. I emphasize “may” because I have yet to read the book. (Hope to soon; should get a copy this week.) However, I have listened to the Point of Inquiry show in which Chris describes his thesis. Based on that show, I’m concerned that Chris may be drawing some scientifically unwarranted conclusions and may be indulging in sweeping generalizations more appropriate for … well, for Fox News.

Let me begin by noting that I accept the empirical, scientifically validated evidence that indicates that many people at one time or another engage in motivated reasoning, that is, we allow our emotions and commitments to guide our reasoning. We may reject certain facts because they do not fit in with our strongly held convictions. This is a well-documented phenomenon, and Chris, by the way, discussed this phenomenon expertly in an article that appeared in Mother Jones about a year ago.

But, as just indicated, many people do this to one extent or another. I’m not aware of any compelling evidence that indicates “liberals” do this less often than “conservatives.” (Chris appears to use “liberal” more or less interchangeably with “Democrat” and “conservative” more or less interchangeably with “Republican.”)

Which brings me to one of the first problems I have with Chris’s arguments. Let’s call it the classification issue. He uses the terms “liberals” and “conservatives” as if these terms describe well-defined, mutually exclusive classes of individuals. I’m doubtful that these terms can be used with scientific precision. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a “conservative”? If the answer is you’re a conservative if you reject the science on global warming, evolution, and stem cell research, well, then it’s not surprising that conservatives tend to reject the science on global warming, evolution, and stem cell research.

During his interview, Chris indicates there is research suggesting liberals are more “open-minded” and conservatives more “close-minded.”  Really? I’m eager to review these studies. (Does my desire to see those studies make me a liberal or does my advance skepticism about those studies make me a conservative?)

How would one classify a person who is an atheist, sees no problem with abortion, is in favor of same-sex marriage, supports stem cell research, wants nationalized health care, supports the death penalty, believes in a  strong defense, wants us to rely more on nuclear power, owns a handgun, and rejects affirmative action as discriminatory? Liberal? Conservative? Is this person more open-minded or more close-minded? Is s/he more likely to accept or reject science? To accept or reject the fact that Oswald assassinated Kennedy? There are people who do not fit into convenient stereotypes, and unless Chris’s theory can classify them in some non-question-begging fashion, then this would appear to be flaw in his thesis.

Let’s go to another point, one which should be obvious to most objective observers of our public policy debates: self-described liberals also sometimes reject science and established facts, maybe as often as self-described conservatives. Opposition to nuclear power is predominantly left-wing; rejection of bioengineered crops is predominantly left-wing; acceptance of woo in the area of alternative medicine does not appear to have any ideological boundaries (CFI just released a statement the other day requesting HHS not to mandate that insurers cover acupuncture; we received quite a strong negative reaction from over a dozen individuals who subscribe to our emails—yet our support base is not known as a hotbed of right-wingers.)

And it goes beyond science strictly speaking. I alluded to the Kennedy assassination for a reason. The person of my acquaintance who most adamantly insisted the CIA did in Kennedy was a leftie on most issues. (She also did Reiki.) I had another left-wing acquaintance who insisted the Khmer Rouge got a bum rap. Admittedly, this person was a Marxist, but that just makes her a super-leftie. Shouldn’t that make her especially open-minded?

Of course, we know that’s not the case. Indeed, it may be true that the further left one goes, the more likely one may be to reject scientific evidence. Socialists and communists have been notorious for rejecting science and uncomfortable facts that threaten the party line (remember Lysenko?) In his POI interview, Chris does acknowledge that in the Soviet Union, communists could be described as close-minded and authoritarian, but then seems to dismiss this as irrelevant. Why? If his thesis is supposed to be a general thesis about how our brains work, and how certain dispositions and attitudes, including a willingness to consider scientific evidence, correlate with right-wing and left-wing political views, then the thesis should have cross-cultural validity. The specific issues on which left/right divide will reflect one’s culture, but the general tendencies should be the same.

For what it’s worth, my own (admittedly not especially well-researched) view on motivated reasoning is that it’s something most of us do at one time or another. We all have commitments and values that shape how we perceive things, that act as prisms through which we view the evidence. Liberal or conservative, I’m not likely to accept readily the fact that my daughter is the one who put the drugs in her locker—I don’t care what that damn videotape shows.

Critical reasoning is an acquired skill. It takes practice. It requires reinforcement. And influences that detract from our ability to engage in critical reasoning may make us more disposed to react emotionally, dogmatically. This influence could derive from a deep-seated ideological commitment, for example, to fascism or communism. It could also derive from a religious commitment. This is one reason religious faith is pernicious.

And this may be one reason that some conservatives in this country appear disposed to reject science on many issues. The religious right now dominates the American conservative movement to an extent unforeseeable 40 years ago. It’s not that, in general, the brains of right-wingers differ substantially from the brains of left-wingers. It’s that in the United States the religious right has eaten the conservative brain.

As indicated, I will be reading Chris’s book soon. I am looking forward to it because given Chris’s track record, it’s virtually certain to be a well-written, engaging book. So look for another blog post on this topic next week. And if I need to make a clarification or retraction after reading the book, I’d be more than happy to do so. For now, however, relying solely on the POI interview, I’m afraid the book may be based more on politics than sound science.


I have ch
anged some of the wording (including the title) of the original post because, upon reflection, the wording seemed too slanted, especially given that I have not yet read Chris’s book. Part of my skepticism regarding Chris’s thesis may derive from its important, indeed, revolutionary implications. If Chris is right, then this is a breakthrough book.