Saturday, June 16, 2012


“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”
The Captain in Cool Hand Luke

My latest “gotta-read” book was by Chris Mooney, entitled:  The Republican Brain:  The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.  As soon as I saw it on Amazon, I knew that this was something I HAD to read.  I had read some material by Mooney before (DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS), was intrigued by the assertions he made and was eager for more.

Mooney is a journalist who has been published quite widely.  His specialty is science reporting, even though he clearly claims that he himself is not a scientist.  He is also an unabashed political liberal.  His best known book is The Republican War on Science (which I have not read), in which he attempted to deal with how, as he perceived it, “the political right was wrong, and attacking reality on issues where the evidence was incontrovertible …” (page 19).

Mooney apparently had the idea that by presenting the facts and refuting false assumptions he would be able to change minds and ultimately contribute to “a truly enlightened society.”  However, he found that this was not the case; this book is for the most part an attempt at explaining why.

Before I get too far in this review, I need to say that I have shared the author’s frustrations.  Though he and I are from very different backgrounds and even different belief systems (he is an Atheist), yet I have felt a sort of kinship.  And this book has helped me in unexpected and unintended ways in dealing with these frustrations.  But more of that later.  First I need to attempt to summarize Mooney’s thesis.

If I may state it briefly, Mooney argues that there are real differences in the ways liberals and conservatives think, not just what they think.  While there are many explanations for these differences:  their environment, their shared information, their education, even their upbringing, we must also take into account that there are psychological differences – our brains are wired differently!

Before discussing these differences in the brains of these folks, Mooney discusses the theory of “cognitive dissonance” (page 28).  “…when the mind holds thoughts or ideas that are in conflict, or when it is assaulted by facts that contradict core beliefs …one moves to resolve the dissonance by bringing ideas into compatibility again.”  New discoveries and studies in psychology verify this theory and out of it developed the theory called “motivated reasoning.”

We reason, he tells us, from our emotions.  They take precedence.  As he says elsewhere, “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.  New data that threaten our current beliefs and opinions are not processed, but instead trigger a “fight or flight” response.  Our reasoning is not used to determine truth, but to defend truth as we perceive it.

I’ll not get into Mooney’s discussion of what he contends is an evolutionary basis for this type of reasoning, but would have to agree that we all engage in it.

Throughout the book, Mooney quotes and references study after study to back up his thesis.  He clearly contends that these differences in thinking are real.  Some of his descriptions follow.  Please note that he is not here arguing that one group is better or smarter or more ethical than the other, but that there are genuine differences in the way people in these groups think.  Also note that these are general descriptions and do not necessarily apply to each individual conservative or liberal.  Forgive me if I’ve missed any important ones.

Liberal characteristics:
            open to experience
            hold their views tentatively
            often are agents of change
            need cognition – take pride in thinking
            view issues from multiple perspectives
            tolerant of uncertainty
            nuanced in their thinking           

Conservative characteristics:
            less open to new experience
            need to defend their beliefs strongly
            need closure
            intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty

The studies demonstrate that because of these characteristics, conservatives are much more prone to use motivated reasoning.  Mooney even refers to “what has been termed a backfire effect.”  When people hold strong but incorrect beliefs, evidence that contradicts these beliefs causes them to “hold their wrong views more tenaciously” (page 44).

A corollary effect is what Mooney calls the “smart idiots” effect.  Those who are more informed or knowledgeable, or as he terms “politically sophisticated” are “often more biased, and less persuadable than the ignorant” (page 46).  He blames this to a certain extent on their sources of information.  Conservatives are more like to get their information from conservative sources, such as Fox News (page 48), whereas liberals are generally open to various sources.  An explanation for this is that a conservative ideology meets our human psychological needs, especially our “desire to manage uncertainty and fear” (page 60).

And a conclusion that follows these studies is that political liberals and political conservatives are different in ways that go beyond politics.  “They are different people” (page 62).

Much more data is presented and various objections are dealt with, many having to do with exceptions or perceived exceptions to these contentions.  One objection is the question “Why don’t you psychoanalyze liberals too?”  Mooney’s reply is, “I have.  Didn’t you notice?” (page 93)  He goes on to explain that liberals also have a certain psychological profile and certain psychological needs.  And they too address these needs through their reasoning processes.  More on that later.

He also discusses the selective way data is processed by conservatives as well as selective sources:  Fox News, talk radio, think tanks.  When confronted with contradictory data, conservatives can always find “experts” who reinforce their opinions, whether on science (global warming, evolution, etc.), economics or history.  Large amounts of threatening data can always be fought off with countering arguments.

If I may summarize:  liberals tend to approach new data in a much different way than conservatives.  Liberals (and I generalize) receive new data and process it and are willing to revise their positions; conservatives tend to absorb agreeable data and reject data that contradicts their positions.

Though I find myself in essential agreement with Mr. Mooney, as a good liberal I found myself wondering about a couple of questions I felt were not dealt with at enough length.
·        First, the chicken and egg question:  are liberals liberal and conservatives conservative because their brains are wired differently?  Or are their brains the way they are because of their previous experiences and exposure and their own choices?
·        Secondly, what about the liberals’ use of motivated reasoning?  Mr. Mooney sees dogmatism as a characteristic of the conservative brain, but he himself seems quite dogmatic on the findings of science.  Is he looking at the specks in his brothers’ eyes and ignoring the beam in his own?

This book answered many questions for me, not only regarding the current political situation, but also regarding my own ways of thinking in many areas.  This was its main value for me.  I found myself in its pages.  I will have more to say about this on another post.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book to both my liberal and conservative friends.  In fact, I would say that the reader’s reaction to the book (and to this post) would be a good standard for determining whether or not she or he was a liberal or a conservative.

However, I suspect that my conservative friends won’t bother to read it!


Sherry said...

it was always my understanding that the original meanings of liberal & conservative, before the religious or political connotations, had to do with how we accept new ideas which seems to be the bulk of what he's saying.

liberal: broad-minded; especially not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms

conservative: traditional; tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions; marked by moderation or caution

Ramsey P said...

Interesting post, Bill. I would like to ask the question regarding the liberal sources of information. As you explained, the book particularly attempts to characterize conservatives (as well as where they receive the information used for perceiving things around them). But, is the author suggesting that this same defense of one's core beliefs in reverse form (info bolsters view, rather than info shapes one's view) is absent from the political left? MSNBC thrives off of the same desire of the masses to fuel their own beliefs that Fox uses. If there only existed conservative news sources (Fox, radio, etc.), and there was not such a strong political left presence in the media (television news, print news, Hollywood, etc.) that exists for the same purpose, I feel as though this theory would be more valid. I mention Hollywood only because it often exploits the pathos appeal, while news the logos, both impacting the ethos. Nevertheless, to characterize a particular set of political beliefs as pertaining to those whom are more closed-minded seems asinine, especially when there are people just as set in their ideals on both sides of the aisle.

Bill Ball said...

I somehow get the feeling that you've just reinforced his thesis. :^)