Book Review: The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney

The weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.

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The first thing you need to do when you pick up Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality is get over whatever initial reaction you have to the title.

Partisan labels are so loaded that it’s easy for liberals and conservatives alike to mistake Mooney’s nuanced overview of psychological research for a jeremiad about “stupid conservatives.”

And, in fact, that reaction has typified many conservative and some liberal responses to the book.

Which sort of proves Mooney’s point.

 

Thinking is more important than information

Decades ago, social scientists started tearing down the Enlightenment view that human beings rationally and methodically process information. In the old view, our brains were like filing cabinets into which we inserted new information to synthesize. In reality, we are motivated reasoners: we use facts and information to justify what we want to believe.

In many cases, the more educated or “smarter” someone is, the more able they are to seek out information that justifies their views. There’s a fundamental difference, one of the researchers in Mooney’s book points out, between being stupid and being misinformed.

And Mooney’s book is all about misinformation, the brains it lands in, and how it gets there.

 

What’s the difference between dominant liberalism and dominant conservatism?

One of the chief values that underpins liberalism, Mooney argues, is “Openness.” Liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences, new cultures, and new ideas. They embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and messiness. Conservatives are more likely to exhibit Conscientiousness: a need for order, stability, clarity and cleanliness. As he puts it, people who rate high on conscientiousness are, “highly goal oriented, competent, and organized—and, on average, politically conservative.”

But the other side of the Conscientious coin is a need for “closure” and definitive answers. Often, science doesn’t provide them. And whenever science appears to conflict with the values of someone with a strong need for closure, they’re more likely to reject the science.

 

We are all liberals, we are all conservatives

At various points in the book, Mooney weaves in a more nuanced view of the liberal-conservative divide. Many social scientists rely on four variables, not two, to describe how people view society: a predilection toward hierarchical structures that justify those who succeed vs. an egalitarian view that emphasizes fairness to all and a view of the world that emphasizes individual rights vs. one that tends toward community needs. Ultimately, American political movements have aligned along these four variables in different combinations over the years, but today extreme conservatives happen to be hierarchical individualists while extreme liberals tends to be communitarian egalitarians. While cumbersome, these terms get to deeper truths about how people think about the world.

There are several points in the book where Mooney compliments conservatives for their decisiveness and ability to bring order to the world. For instance, conservatives are more likely to work in hierarchical organizations like police forces and the military. And thank goodness for that. A country full of anti-authoritarians would probably be pretty ripe for invasion. And he suggests that societies are “balanced” by cooperation among conservatives and liberals.

A personal detour

Reading the opening chapters, I found I identified with both Openness and Conscientiousness. I took an OCEAN test online, which measures Openness, Conscientiousness and three other “Big Five” personality measurements. And, indeed, I rated high on both openness and conscientiousness. Certainly, I’m open to new ideas. And the uncertainties and probabilities inherent in life are something I’m happy to take as a given. I assume everyone I meet has a unique and valid life perspective worth learning about. But a look at my office or home will reveal my high levels of Conscientiousness. I like things clean, simple and organized. And if anyone I know ever does anything I consider unethical, they’re kind of dead to me.

Maybe that’s why I like playing poker. I’m happy to operate in a world of probability and uncertainty, but at the end of each hand, there is closure. And over time, you are either a winner or loser.

 

How these personality traits play out in the real world

Mooney’s psychological primer — which is full of fascinating summaries of clever, thought-provoking studies — provides a base layer of understanding as he moves into the changes in American politics and media that have made it easier for misinformation to find a willing home in many Americans’ brains, particularly the most extreme hierarchical individualists that have aligned into the conservative movement.

He covers the assimilation of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party and the resulting polarization in American politics as the country sorted itself along party lines. And he talks about the fascinating political journey Phyllis Schlafley took to illustrate how the conservative movement has changed over her lifetime. He chronicles the rise of the intellectual right and the expanded universe of think tanks that sprang up in the 1970s to provide analysis that justifies conservative ideology and policy.

He also covers the dominance of Fox News, talk radio and partisan blogs as information sources for conservatives. Their combined power and links to think tanks and the Republican Party can create an information bubble that can easily turn into a misinformation bubble.

From death panels to revisionist histories of America’s founding, the misinformation machine is an equal-opportunity weapon against reality. As Shawn Lawrence Otto ably demonstrates in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, we happen to be living in a time when scientists have discovered problems such as climate change that can hit a lot of ideological buttons and become ready targets for hierarchical / individualist oriented think tanks that feed misinformation into the bubble.

 

But aren’t liberals guilty of the same biases?

Not really, Mooney argues. And certainly, I laugh whenever anyone equates Fox to MSNBC or NPR. Fox is so much more entertaining and delivers a coherent narrative to its viewers. MSNBC and NPR simply have different missions.

Mooney argues that liberals can certainly slip into anti-science and assimilate misinformation. But those anti-scientific views aren’t allowed to dominate the liberal extremes or cross over into the mainstream.

Take the vaccine-autism “debate” for instance. It’s a natural for extreme liberals who fear any possibility of environmental harm to believe misinformation linking vaccine use to autism, Mooney says. But leaders of that movement, including celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, have found their claims rejected by opinion elites on the left. So anti-vaccination attitudes have only gained a tenuous foothold in communities Mooney calls “granola” like Ashland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.

Mooney credits liberals’ Openness with their faculty for criticizing one another and reining in their extremists. And he points to other examples from nuclear power to natural gas fracking to prove his point. The bad claims and the extremists’ craziest arguments get weeded out of the system. There is, he says, “a psychology of disobedience and anti-authoritarianism on the left that ensures that those making these claims will be challenged, sometimes quite vigorously or even viciously.”

Put another way, when Ann Coulter says something provocative, conservatives share it on Facebook and say “Right on!” When Michael Moore says something provocative, his fellow liberals pounce on him for not being nuanced or accurate enough. If pressed, they will say they pretty much agree with what he says, but they don’t like how he says it.

Mooney puts a finer point on it by telling stories about David Frum and other conservatives who were booted from their movement by being “too open” to new ideas and too willing to criticize their brethren. Meanwhile, Democrats rarely boot apostates from their ranks.

Ultimately, I found the shifting power dynamics of political movements and the media environments in which they operate a stronger explanation for where we stand today than the psychological research. And Mooney acknowledges that some of the most interesting and startling findings from social science research come with a healthy dose of uncertainty themselves.

 

So what do we do about it?

Mooney’s closing chapter contains some concrete suggestions for how to address anti-science. This is a step up from Unscientific America, which he coauthored with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Like many readers, I enjoyed the book, but wanted a lot more discussion about what to do about the sorry state of our public discourse around scientific topics.

First, Mooney argues, we need to come to grips with the fact that more facts won’t win the day if people are predisposed to rejecting or ignoring them. Mooney argues that listening to people and helping them see how their worldview is affirmed – not threatened – by scientific findings is one way to overcome these challenges.

He also encourages journalists to become more conversant in how liberals and conservatives view the world and to communicate that to their audiences. So don’t just tell us there’s a budget disagreement tell us why liberals’ egalitarian values and conservatives’ personal responsibility values are in conflict over spending and debt. In other words, stop letting politicians simply talk past each other.

He says liberals should learn to be more decisive and cites the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ongoing European debt crisis as typical liberal discussion-fests lacking clear leadership, focus or a willingness to make decisions. Heck, the occupiers designed their movement to avoid classic leadership. Sometimes one plan, any plan, is much better than endless debate.

 

Conclusion

Mooney’s book offers a combination of detail, breeziness and narrative that should satisfy anyone who is frustrated by the prevalence of misinformation in America’s political debates, particularly scientific misinformation.

And he offers some tantalizing suggestions for how this might be effectively addressed.

But more importantly, like any good science fan, he calls for more research. And he acknowledges his own uncertainty about his conclusions.

But, overall, the weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.

And that’s a fact we should all accept if we’re interested in making our democracy stronger.