Reality has a well-known liberal bias.
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.
You can’t convince of believer of anything, for their belief is not based on evidence but on a deep-seated need to believe.
Hearing the speakers at the GOP convention spout their ideas this week, I’m again reminded that an entire American political party is proudly and openly espousing views that are demonstrably contrary to reality, from claiming that rape does not cause pregnancy, to claiming that global climate change is a hoax, to even weirder idea, like the bizarre notion that the President of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim. For years, I’ve puzzled over why people can believe such weird things as creationism or other kinds of pseudoscience and science denials. In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I devoted an entire chapter to asking why creationists can so confidently believe patently false ideas, and refuse to look at any evidence placed in front of them. I’ve compared it to Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, where Alice steps through the mirror and finds that the objects and the landscape look vaguely familiar—but all the rules of logic are reversed or turned inside out. How can people continue to believe things that are clearly wrong, and refuse to change their ideas or look at evidence?
It turns out that human brains are constructed very differently than what we would like to believe. As described by Chris Mooney (2012) in The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—and Reality, our brains are not logical computers or non-emotional Vulcans like Dr. Spock, but organs in emotional animals who navigate the factual world to fit our beliefs and biases. Mooney explains this by starting with an anecdote about the Marquis de Condorcet, an important figure in the French Enlightenment (he helped develop both integral calculus and also wrote many important works on politics and philosophy). Condorcet believed in the Enlightenment ideal that humans would always be rational and guided by reason, and persuaded if logic and evidence were considered—and lost his life in 1794 during the irrational, emotional, highly political Reign of Terror. Even though Enlightenment philosophy and political science long argued that humans are rational animals, modern psychology and neurobiology have shown this is not the case. Humans filter the world to see what fits their emotional and cultural biases, and easily neglect evidence and information that does not fit (confirmation bias). Even more to the point, we are prone to what psychologists now call motivated reasoning—confirmation bias, reduction of cognitive dissonance, shifting the goalposts, ad hoc rationalization to salvage falsified beliefs, plus other mental tricks cause us to constantly filter the world. Our minds do not behave by objectively weighing all the evidence and listening to reason, but instead acts as if we were lawyers seeking evidence to bolster our pre-existing beliefs. Instead of the Enlightenment ideal that humans would change their minds when the facts go against them, motivated reasoning explains why humans are adept at bending or ignoring facts to fit the world as we want to see it.
In particular, our brains are governed by several different, often conflicting factors. What psychologists call System 1 are the rapid-fire emotions and reactions that date back to some of our earliest ancestors, and are controlled by the most fundamental animal parts of our brains, such as the limbic system and the amygdula, which are responsible for fear, feelings of pain, and our “fight-or-flight” response. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the brain show that these regions are highly active in a politically conservative brain when they are processing information. System 2 is the more rational, slow-moving, thoughtful conscious process of thinking things through and trying to arrive at rational decisions. The studies of people’s brains by fMRI show that this type of rational, slow decision making is controlled by the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), which tends to be active in brains when they are confronted with new information.As psychologists have shown, most events in our life are first filtered through the emotional System 1, so that even if System 2 is working in a fully rational way, it is biased by what our emotional System 1 has told it. Our memories, too, work this way, so if we have a set of associations of a certain concept, such as “Sarah Palin”, the associated memories with that stimulus (e.g., “woman,” “Republican,” “pregnant unwed teenage daughter,” “death panels,” “wrong about Paul Revere”) are immediately triggered and become part of the processing of any new information about that subject. As Mooney (p. 32) describes it:
To see how it plays out in practice, consider a conservative Christian who has just heard about a new scientific discovery—a new hominid fossil, say, confirming our evolutionary origins—that deeply challenged something he or she believes (“human beings were created by God”; “the book of Genesis is literally true”). What happens next, explains Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber, is a subconcious negative (or “affective”) response to the threatening new information—and that response, in turn, guides the types of memories and associations that are called into the conscious mind based on a network of emotionally laden associations and concepts. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” say Taber, “and that will lead them to construct or build an argument and challenge what they are hearing.”
We are all guilty of this to a greater or less extent, but Mooney (2012) explores some of the recent research that explains the psychological roots of these beliefs. Individual belief systems, world views, and cultural biases have been categorized in research on cultural cognition by Yale law Professor Daniel Kahan and his colleagues along two main axes. Along one axis, humans range from Individualists (people who value the individual over society, believe we are all responsible for our lot in life, and should be punished or rewarded for our choices or faults, and the government should not step in to change this) versus Communitarians (people who value the common good over the individual welfare). On the other axis, the beliefs range from Hierarchical (believing society should be highly structured, orderly, and stable, including rankings based on gender, class, and race) versus Egalitarian (believing everyone should strive for more equality and less hierarchy). When people are given all sorts of psychological tests or respond to a series of polls, they tend to break out into discrete clusters along these axes. American conservatives are, not surprisingly, very Hierarchical and Individualist. American liberals tend to be Egalitarian and Communitarians.
For whatever reasons we become liberal or conservative (largely their upbringing in a conservative or liberal household, but other life events sometimes change this), most humans immediately identify with one or the other of these clusters, and this forever influences what they will think and what information they will absorb for the rest of their lives—unless a traumatic event changes them. These sets of beliefs or associations are strongly connected to one’s sense of belonging to a community, and to our sense of well being, and (for some) our sense of purpose or meaning in life, so they have strong emotional reinforcement that prevents them from being overturned by something as simple as facts or rational argument.
Consequently, one of the classic Enlightenment views—that rational arguments and evidence will eventually win out—turns out to be wrong in many cases. For people who have strong emotional and community connections to a belief system (whether it be a religion or a political party or whatever), their minds are preparing arguments against anything that weakens or challenges that belief (like a lawyer preparing his slanted case to defend one side of an argument), not listening to reason or evidence. Thus we have “smart idiots”—people who are actively engaged in an argument, well educated, and smart by any standard measure—but who have selectively biased what they have learned so they can argue against reality if it is important to defending their community and belief system. This is really discouraging to those of us who are battling irrationality. According to the Enlightenment view, truth, reason, and evidence should eventually persuade anyone, but what psychologists have shown is that the diehard creationists, climate deniers, and anti-vaxxers (along with other true believers) cannot be persuaded this way.
In fact, exposure to the facts can actually cause a “backfire effect”, so they react to such challenging information by clinging to their own beliefs even more firmly and becoming more entrenched in their world view, using the tricks of motivated reasoning, such as ad hoc rationalization or moving the goalposts. Psychologists first documented this in the cases of religious sects which set a date for the Rapture, sold all their worldly possessions—only to have the prophecy fail them (as happened on May 21, 2011, and again on Dec. 21, 2011, when evangelical minister Harold Camping prophesied the end of the world, and it made worldwide news). In each such case, we saw classic examples of motivated reasoning. Instead of admitting the prophet was wrong, the followers (and sometimes the prophet) clung even more strongly to their failed belief system, and rationalized its failure by saying “The Rapture did occur but it was invisible” or “Our prayers were so powerful that God spared the world.” Thus, Mooney argues that all our efforts to educate doctrinaire conservatives in hopes of changing their minds are in vain, since evidence and reason don’t work. Only some external factor which makes them change from their conservative stance and open their minds to other viewpoints have any chance at success.
Mooney (2012) also describes research which shows that conservatives (especially modern Republicans) are particularly prone to deny scientific realities such as evolution or climate change. Studies by John Jost and colleagues at NYU have shown a whole set of personality traits associated with the Hierarchical-Individualist conservatives versus the Egalitarian-Communitarian liberals. Conservatism also tends to be associated with a variety of other personality traits, including dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, fear of death, fear of change, less openness to new experiences, less “integrative complexity” in their thinking, less “nuanced” thinking, more need for “closure”, and so on. Liberals, on the other hand, are characterized by some of the opposite personality traits: rejection of dogmas, tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, less fear of death or change, more openness to new experience, curiosity about the world, and more complex and nuanced thinking without the need for simplicity or “closure.” Thus, you find more artists and musicians and entertainers (“liberal Hollywood”) already have personalities that fit the open, experimental view of the world, whereas conservatives tend to be found in highly traditional institutions, like the church, business, and the military. By their very nature, academics and scholars tend to be more open, questioning, prone to complex nuanced thinking, and comfortable with uncertainty, so it is no surprise that liberals tend to dominate the university (except maybe in departments like engineering or business, where the thinking is highly structured and the field is relatively unchanging).
More to the point, scientists also tend to be people with many of these liberal traits (especially open to challenges of dogma, curious, and comfortable with ambiguity or no simple answers), because these are the traits that make a scientist successful and explain why science works. By contrast, someone with diehard Conservative personality traits, or strong religious beliefs that bias their perspective on life, will view scientists with suspicion or scorn any time they discover an “inconvenient truth” that threatens or challenges their comforting belief systems about the world. Hence, the widespread attempt to smear scientists and claim their research is motivated by greed for research grants in the global warming battle and other battles over the environment, or the claim that all scientists are atheists in the creation/evolution wars, or the idea among the anti-vaxxers, AIDS deniers, and “quack medicine” pushers that scientists and doctors are in cahoots with Big Pharma.
To be fair to both sides, Mooney (2012) points out that not all examples of science denial are on the right wing. There are certain ideas, such as the vaccine fears of the anti-vaxxers, and fears of nuclear power, or of scary oil company practices like fracking, that are predominately held by liberals and environmentalists. But there are important differences here. Adherence to pseudoscience and anti-science is not symmetrically distributed between the left and the right. Ideas such as anti-vaxx, anti-nukes, and anti-fracking are not held uniformly by the majority of liberals or progressives, but only a tiny subset, whereas studies show that the ideas of creationism and global climate change denial are virtually universal among American conservatives now. More importantly, none of these ideas (anti-vaxx, anti-nukes, anti-fracking) are held by a majority of the national leaders of the Democratic Party, nor are they being actively written into law across the nation (with a few local exceptions). By contrast, nearly all conservative politicians in the modern GOP must at least pay lip service to a litany of dogmas, from lowering taxes, cutting spending on the poor, and boosting military spending, to opposing abortions, birth control, and stem-cell research, to homophobia—and, in this last few years, they must also toe the line with denying global climate change, and throw at least a bone to creationism. These are important distinctions, and explain why the antiscientific attitudes of American politics are not evenly or symmetrically distributed.
As Mooney (2012) reminds us, one personality trait that characterizes most American liberals is an open, questioning attitude about their beliefs, and a respect for science. In the case of fracking, nuclear power, and anti-vaxxers, the scientific community has either spoken clearly (vaccines do not cause autism), or the scientific data are not in favor of the diehards and fearmongers (nuclear power is not perfect, but all forms of energy have drawbacks, and we need power from somewhere; fracking might lead to a few cases of groundwater contamination, but so far there is no sign that it is always a problem). When scientists speak clearly and present their evidence, and liberal politicians respect their opinions, only minorities of liberals end up holding the unscientific or pseudoscientific views, and no policy changes occur. By contrast, when conservatives were or are in power (as in the Bush years of 2001-2009, or in many state governments now), laws are passed either hindering scientific reseach or outright denying scientific reality, from climate change, to evolution, to stem-cell research, as well as laws about abortion, birth control, and homosexuality.
All this research about our psychological dark sides is highly discouraging. It shows that reason, logic, and evidence cannot win when emotion or dogma clouds people’s judgment, and even better education does not necessarily change people’s false beliefs. It may only mean that people with these pre-existing biases become dogmatic “smart idiots”, fighting scientific reality from a fortress of myths and misconceptions that no one can release them from. It explains why creationism has always held sway over about 40-45% of the American population, despite decades of effort in education and huge scientific advances and changes in our society. Apparently, the only way to change this is to change the culture, so that religion does not hold such a strong grip on us. In the case of things like environmental issues, climate change and peak oil and population worries, it apparently takes really scary external demonstrations of reality (like the Cuyahoga River catching fire, or record deaths from heat waves or smog, or record oil prices) to get people to change their minds and come around to realizing what scientists have been saying for years. Thus, for much of the anti-science, the change will come, but only in the form of external events that force us to address reality.
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