Book Review: ‘The Republican Brain’ by Chris Mooney

REVIEW: Rational people have always wondered about the anti-fact and anti-science positions of republicans, conservatives, RWNJs, birthers, and morons in general. Turns out there are psychological factors at work. In his great new book, Chris Mooney gathers data from numerous studies to explicate what is wrong with the Right.

'The Republican Brain' by Chris Mooney“Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” notes Stephen Colbert, who is quoted at the beginning of the book.

For too long, many people assumed that republicans fell into one of three categories: uninformed, stupid, or morally bereft greed-whores. They were correct, of course, but it turns out that there is a twist: the minds of conservatives are incapable of easily handling scientific data. These people suffer from a very strong psychological need to push back against any information that challenges their insular view of the world.

With a sense of humor and a sense of purpose, Chris Mooney delves into the whys and wherefores of the mental roadblocks constructed by republicans. Not to be confused with the basketball player or fiction author of the same name, this Mooney writes for The American Prospect and Science Progress (a publication of the Center for American Progress). He is also the writer of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America (co-written with Sheril Kirshenbaum).

Mooney sets the stage in this new work by acknowledging the GOP’s “array of lies, misperceptions, and misguided political beliefs” but shows how the aim of the book goes to the root of the problem:

The real goal is to understand how these false claims (and rationalizations) could exist and persist in human minds, and why they are endlessly generated. In other words, we seek to understand how the political right could be so wrong, and how conservatives, Republicans, and Tea Party members could actually believe these things.

While GOP falsehoods, prevarications, hoaxes, demagoguery and other treachery are legion, Mooney uses just a few as examples, including birtherism, misunderstanding of public health concepts, war mongering, war profiteering, embrace of counter-productive economic policies, historical nonsense, the outright lying of Fox News, and their predilection for anti-science.

Does religiosity have something to do with it? Well, sure. “The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level — clutching for something certain in a changing world.” Mooney makes certain that the reader knows he is “referring to the scientific discipline, not to the practice of psychotherapy or counseling,” despite conservatives’ deep need for it.

Counter-Intuitive

You’d think that if people simply dealt with things like facts and evidence, the wacko theories would fall by the wayside:

The dream was that the power of human reason would eventually stamp out lies, prejudices, and falsehoods, delivering a truly enlightened society. It would be a society in which ideologically driven misinformation would gradually decline or disappear, vanquished and chased from the public sphere by rational arguments . . . It would be a society in which everybody could agree on the core facts about the world, especially those that matter to public policy and the future.

But as it turns out, this just ain’t gonna happen. Using proof both modern and ancient, Mooney shows the problem with this approach. The history lesson begins with someone new to me, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Cariat, the Marquis de Condorcet, who was renowned in the late 1700s for work on integral calculus. His public statements and writings about truth and reason were quite marvelous. As Mooney notes:

In Condorcet’s future, there would be no fortune tellers, no lotteries or casinos, and no convincing the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was working with Al-Qaeda. People would see through it all, and run the hucksters out of town.

It didn’t work then and it is not working for us today. Why? As the human brain evolved, the older parts, such as the subcortex and the limbic regions, usually control emotional or automatic responses while the newer parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, empower such things as abstract reasoning and language. It’s as if everyone’s brain is part ancient/conservative, and part modern/progressive.

By this point, conservatives are loudly denying the scientific studies that demonstrate this. Attack the messenger! Cloud the issue! Muddy the waters! Condemn the scientists! In fact: condemn science itself!

Con vs. Pro

The big problem is that conservative personalities are only comfortable with certainty and authority. Contrast that with progressives, who accept new information, even relish it, discuss it, investigate it, and see how it can best be utilized to cope with an ever-changing world.

In science, it is seen as a virtue to hold your views tentatively, rather than with certainty, and to express them with the requisite caveats and without emotion. It is also seen as admirable to change your mind, based upon the weight of new evidence. By contrast, for people who have authoritarian personalities or dispositions — predominantly political conservatives, and especially religious ones — seeming uncertain or indecisive may be seen as a sign of weakness.

In test after test, study after study, the evidence has piled up that conservatives perceive the world through absurd-colored glasses. For example, they quite literally do not see contradictory behavior in anyone on their side. It’s not stupidity, exactly. Well, I suppose it is, in a way. But the point is that it is not something that they can unlearn. Their perverted view of the interworking of humanity and science is wired into their minds. It is a shame and sad, of course, but primarily it is incredibly harmful to the U.S. as a whole because it means that part of our government is doomed to continual denial of truth, facts, and reality.

In a study conducted by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and Jason Reifler of Georgia State, a group of people were shown factual information about the world’s news. Instead of adjusting their views to the facts, the self-identified conservatives believed their incorrect views even more strongly than before they were shown the truth!

You probably have anecdotal evidence of this, as when your wacky uncle even more loudly yells nonsense after his positions are shown to be counter to reality. Stupid and stubborn he may be, but his brain is not going to allow him to let in any knowledge on the issues. With many conservatives, it turns out there can be no “teachable moment.”

When they deny global warming, then, conservatives think the best minds are actually on their side. They think they’re the champions of truth and reality, and they’re deeply attached to this view. That is why head-on attempts to persuade them otherwise usually fail. Indeed, factual counterarguments sometimes even trigger what has been termed a backfire effect: Those with strongly held but clearly incorrect beliefs not only fail to change their minds, but hold their wrong views more tenaciously after being shown contradictory evidence or a refutation.

Talkers and Spinners

It is crucial to keep in mind that the right-wingers who have been educated to a point where they are able to function in intellectual society, i.e. the GOP party leaders and bloviators, are also incapable of processing factual data.

Take, for example, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee writing about the homophobia displayed by the douchebag who runs the Chick-fil-A chain of sodium sandwich shops. For people in the conservative ranks, poor little innocent Chick-fil-A is not representative of troglodyte jerkoffs but is instead “standing up for traditional family values” against the “intolerance of the left.” When they make these silly pronouncements, their poor little guilty brains probably mean it. Sure, it’s idiotic and indefensible, but the wiring in their craniums will not permit them to process all the relevant information.

Mooney writes about what is coming to be recognized as the Conservative Smart Idiots Effect:

Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who know more about the issue, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves too — and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.

Conservative statements denying reality reflect the only way their minds are able to handle the situation. They simply cannot admit or tolerate things like actualities, truth, justice, fairness, equality, and so on because they are beholden to authority figures, to pontificators who say they love Jebus, to ancient elders, and to the comfort of sameness. (This is why they label those against them as “foreign,” “other,” or “un-American.”)

There is no denying the greed effect, of course. There is a good deal of money to be made by parroting the wishes of giant corporations seeking to increase their profits by loosening regulations (for health, safety, tax shelters, or financial transactions). This is why you see entertainment whores like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Uncle Toms like Michael Steele peddling right-wing nonsense wherever and whenever they can. Show me the money!

Still, for conservatives of every stripe, there is safety in the past. The old ways, including racism, homophobia, denial of science, good-old-boy cronyism, and theocracy, must be maintained at all costs. They will gladly damage everyone in the nation and harm future generations in order to preserve their fictions and delusions. Doing so is the only way for conservatives to remain semi-sane.

A Yale research team led by Dan Kahan looked into what is now labeled “motivated reasoning” and found that it “poses a deep challenge to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, which assumes that voters will be informed about the issues — not deeply wedded to misinformation.”

More Science

All of the book’s conclusions probably sound too good to be true. But it turns out to be both good and true. The studies, tests, and research conclusions are carefully referenced in the 262 notes spread out across 32 pages detailing the controlled interviews, blind tests, research groups, comparative studies, and on and on. For those who are reality-based (and let’s face it, the others have stopped reading), it is impressive and exciting. This is truly great news. Well, when it’s not so terribly sad. (Can someone say schadenfreude?)

A study published in the Psychological Bulletin looked at the results of 88 separate inquiries into political conservatism conducted over the past fifty years and involving 23,000+ subjects. They found that people holding a politically conservative outlook were statistically more likely to be linked to such things as “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, the fear of death, less openness to new experiences, less ‘integrative complexity’ in thinking, more need for ‘closure,’ and so on.”

Synthesizing it all, the authors depicted conservatism as an ideology that, by most centrally emphasizing the resistance to change and the acceptance or rationalization of inequality, satisfies key psychological needs. Behind it all, they argued, lay the deep human desire to manage uncertainty and fear, and to do so by finding something certain, stable, and unchanging to believe in and to cling to.

To be fair, Mooney notes that “character traits that tend to accompany conservatism — like patriotism, decisiveness, and loyalty to one’s friends and allies — could be considered very valuable and admirable in many contexts.” While you’d prefer that a progressive president decides if and when we go to war, once you’re in battle you’d prefer your troop leader to be a conservative.

Fooling People

Conservatives have to fool themselves on a daily basis. They vociferously deny science but ironically, the people who make a living from espousing their execrable views like to have scientific-sounding pronouncements to toss into their conversations. So, with funding from RWNJs the Koch brothers, they created their own “think tanks” to create “facts” they find comforting.

Places like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute started things off and now there are seemingly hundreds of anti-think-tanks, all “engaging in increasingly sophisticated and convincing forms of politically motivated reasoning, and in effect, helping conservatives to construct their own reality.”

The result, Mooney notes, is “polarization over the nature of reality itself.”

It gets worse. Conservative hooey is being spoon-fed to children as in Mike Huckabee’s cartoon video series called “Learn Our History” which consistently distorts history in favor of a pro-religiosity, pro-business, pro-Reagan message. In the World War II adventure, one figure appears to be absent. Not a big deal, really. After all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t really do all that much to help the Allies in WWII, right?

As Mooney writes, “There is so much bad conservative history about the origins of America that liberal Enlightenment laborers can barely manage to debunk it all.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Keep in mind that none of these conservative “errors” have arisen by accident.

They exist because they serve a psychological purpose or need; and they are defended, in the face of challenge or even unequivocal refutation, through the various mechanisms of motivated reasoning — confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, and so on.

It is nice to know there are scientific reasons for the idiocy and chicanery of conservatives. Learning that some of the studies of conservative errors have been going on for decades is reassuring. Next time your wacko relative begins spouting hatred and bile, try to remember that while his ilk are uninformed, ignorant, and just plain moronic, there is another reason: they are psychologically predisposed toward fallacy.

The important point is that we need to fight the fallacy. By all means keep stating the facts. But remember that they ignore, twist, and deny facts; what they cannot handle is humor. So while The Republican Brain is a wonderful and helpful book, make sure you combine it with “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Fight the power.

 

Book Summary
“The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality”
by Chris Mooney

John Wiley & Sons, Hardbound, 336 pages, ISBN- 978-1-1180-9451-8, $25.95

http://www.wiley.com

http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118094514.html

Article is Copr. © 2012 by John Scott G and originally published on eNewsChannels.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. Neither this site or the article author received any payment or consideration from the book publisher, author, or agent(s).

KEYWORDS: books, non-fiction, John Scott G, Chris Mooney, politics, republican, progressive

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About John Scott G

John Scott G is a writer of non-fiction and fiction appearing in print, broadcast, and digital media. He frequently works in communications, which means marketing, advertising, and various forms of hype. He is a contributor to eNewsChannels, Ga-Ga.com, and the Advertising Industry Newswire. Visit JohnScottG.com for more information. © John Scott G. (Note: The opinions expressed by JSG do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of this site or its publisher.)

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