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.

Image credit: DeSmogBlog.com

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.

Notable Excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs Biography

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is remarkable on many levels. I was consistently struck by Job’s ability to simplify Apple’s mission and make command decisions about the future of the company. He was also a consistent advocate for the users of Apple products from within his own company.

Below are some selections from the book that stood out to me. Obviously, very few of us are CEOs of major corporations with compliant boards, so it’s hard to imagine many other organizations where someone like Jobs could pull off what he did. None the less, he was a man of incredible vision and he executed that vision effectively and sometimes mercilessly.

I should also note that this is the first time I’ve taken advantage of the Kindle’s highlighting feature as I read a book. All I can say is I wish I had this technology in college. It would have made quote citations in paper writing so much easier.

Jobs advocating for users:

One day Jobs came into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain, but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year. “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled. “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”

Jobs radically simplifying Apple’s product lines when he came back as CEO:

“It was insanity,” Schiller recalled. “Tons of products, most of them crap, done by deluded teams.” Apple had a dozen versions of the Macintosh, each with a different confusing number, ranging from 1400 to 9600. “I had people explaining this to me for three weeks,” Jobs said. “I couldn’t figure it out.” He finally began asking simple questions, like, “Which ones do I tell my friends to buy?” When he couldn’t get simple answers, he began slashing away at models and products. Soon he had cut 70% of them. “You are bright people,” he told one group. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products.” Many of the engineers were infuriated at his slash-and-burn tactics, which resulted in massive layoffs. But Jobs later claimed that the good engineers, including some whose projects were killed, were appreciative. He told one staff meeting in September 1997, “I came out of the meeting with people who had just gotten their products canceled and they were three feet off the ground with excitement because they finally understood where in the heck we were going.”…After a few weeks Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. “The room was in dumb silence,” Schiller recalled.

Jobs explaining how making a product you’d want to use yourself can be the standard for success:

The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.

Jobs on constructive vs. destructive politics:

In return for speaking at the [NewsCorp] retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said.

Jobs dealing openly (and harshly) with a failed product:

Jobs was furious. He gathered the MobileMe team in the auditorium on the Apple campus, stood onstage, and asked, “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” After the team members offered their answers, Jobs shot back: “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?” Over the next half hour he continued to berate them. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he said. “You should hate each other for having let each other down. Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us.” In front of the whole audience, he got rid of the leader of the MobileMe team and replaced him with Eddy Cue, who oversaw all Internet content at Apple. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky reported in a dissection of the Apple corporate culture, “Accountability is strictly enforced.”

Jobs coda to the book about how he wanted to deal with disagreements at Apple:

I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of shit and I can tell them the same. And we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments, where we are yelling at each other, and it’s some of the best times I’ve ever had. I feel totally comfortable saying “Ron, that store looks like shit” in front of everyone else. Or I might say “God, we really fucked up the engineering on this” in front of the person that’s responsible. That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest. Maybe there’s a better way, a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words, but I don’t know that way, because I am middle class from California.

What Would a Literal Adaptation of World War Z Look Like?

Paramount says World War Z‘s film adaptation will follow Brad Pitt’s quest to stop the zombie outbreak. While that departs radically what the book depicted — humanity learning from its failure to prevent and contain a zombie outbreak and its eventual triumph over the zombie menace — I get why a literal adaptation would have been pretty hard to pull off.

A literal adaptation would have involved dozens of directors from around the world each filming a chapter using local actors and locations. It would be 30 hours long and while I would watch every minute of it, I understand that the studio has to market the movie to people who didn’t read the book. That said, the book itself is pretty dark and the idea of depicting a post-apocalyptic environment where humanity is trying to rebuild is appealing, but probably not mass-appealing.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, was a great book. But the film version, which was a fairly literal adaptation, made for a soul-sucking, relatively boring cinematic experience.