Magazine article The American Conservative

Are Conservatives Irrational?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Are Conservatives Irrational?

Article excerpt

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality, Chris Mooney, Wiley, 327 pages

Chris Mooney believes conservatives are wrong about many more important issues than are liberals. Like any principled science writer, he's also certain he could be wrong. Had Mooney chosen a less insulting title, he might have convinced a few conservatives to consider his positions on climate change, evolution, and President Obama's healthcare program.

Of course, he'd also sell fewer books. He and his publisher know their audience, just as Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg know theirs. Mooney admits that he has little hope of changing conservative minds through education. His 2005 attempt at an edifying overture, The Republican War on Science, failed entirely.

Despite a religious temperament and natural respect for tradition, an unsettling, empirical bent forces me into agreement with Mooney and his fellow liberals on the issues of climate change and evolution. Darwin got it right. There is no scientifically credible challenge to the general theory of evolution. Likewise, the scientific consensus on climate change--that it's real, anthropogenic, and poses a grave threat--is as solid as consensus on anything beyond first principles is likely to ever be.

Mooney's guiding light is the Marquis de Condorcet, the French Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician, whom he correctly distances from Jacobin excesses during the French Revolution. Alas, that Mooney dedicates The Republican Brain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with no caveat, supports his assertion that conservatives and liberals are truly different people. Mooney quotes Thomas Carlyle on Rousseau: "He could be cooped into garrets, laughed at as a maniac, let to starve like a wild beast in his cage; but he could not be hindered from setting the world on fire."

Keep that cheery image in mind.

According to Mooney, conservatives' personality traits, resulting from both genetic and environmental factors, predispose them to resist data that conflict with strongly held beliefs. Referring to research by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, Mooney writes, "deep-seated views about morality, and about the way society should be ordered, strongly predict who [individuals] consider to be a legitimate scientific expert in the first place--and where they consider 'scientific consensus' to lie in the contested issues."

To his credit, Mooney admits that liberals aren't immune to irrationality and "motivated reasoning." He points out the equalitarian let's attacks on sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and the reflexive liberal antipathy toward nuclear power and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." But Mooney asserts that the trait is far more pronounced in conservatives.

He presents Kahan's model, a Cartesian coordinate system with one axis running from very hierarchical to very egalitarian, the other axis running from individualist (or libertarian) to very communitarian. All of us would fit into one of the four ideological quadrants, though we might move depending on the issue. According to Mooney, the hierarchical-individual quadrant corresponds to American conservatives while liberals fall into the egalitarian-communitarian quadrant.

In one of Kahan's studies, participants were asked to imagine that a friend had told them that she is considering her position on highly charged issues, including whether global warming is caused by humans and the safety of nuclear waste disposal. The imaginary friend is planning to read a book on the subject but would like opinions on whether the author is a legitimate authority. The study subjects were then shown alleged book excerpts by fake experts as well as phony pictures and resumes. Here's Mooney's interpretation: "The results were stark: When the fake scientist's position stated that global warming is real and caused by humans, only 23 percent of hierarchical-individualists agreed the person was a 'trustworthy and knowledgeable expert. …

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