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D. R. Tucker


Mind Games

Posted: 03/27/2012 10:35 am

Is climate denial a cognitive disorder?

There's a compelling case to be made that those who reject scientific facts are a little, well, touched, and Chris Mooney's outstanding and provocative new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality (due out April 3) makes it. Mooney, whose 2005 bestseller The Republican War on Science called attention to the GOP's intolerance for inconvenient information, delves deeper into the dynamic that causes the American right to express scorn for that which independents, moderates and progressives recognize as basic common sense.

Mooney notes that the phenomenon of "motivated reasoning" -- the belief in concepts that are manifestly false -- plays a significant role in the right's rejection of reason:

According to intriguing research by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, people's deep-seated views about morality, and about the way society should be ordered, strongly predict who they consider to be a legitimate scientific expert in the first place--and where they consider 'scientific consensus' to lie on contested issues. These same views also lead them to reject the expertise of experts who don't agree with them. They simply assume they're not really experts at all... When they deny global warming, then, conservatives think the best minds are actually on their side. They think they're the champions of truth and reality, and they're deeply attached to this view. That is why head-on attempts to persuade them otherwise usually fail. Indeed, factual counterarguments sometimes even trigger what has been termed a backfire effect: Those with strongly held but clearly incorrect beliefs not only fail to change their minds, but hold their wrong beliefs more tenaciously after being shown contradictory evidence or a refutation.

Not for nothing did Rush Limbaugh title his first book The Way Things Ought to Be. Today's conservatism is all about the way things ought to be, as opposed to the way things are. This wasn't always the case, but thanks to Limbaugh and his ilk, it is now.

Mooney asserts that not all Republicans engage in motivated reasoning. He notes that former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and former Ronald Reagan domestic policy advisor Bruce Bartlett are examples of clear thinking on the right:

These are often people who lament the right's loss of nuance and intellectual seriousness, its betrayal of principles, and its intolerance of dissent (namely, theirs). Therefore, it appears that [independent thinkers such as Frum and Bartlett] are reacting against authoritarianism, and are people who may have more need for cognition and more integrative complexity. The death of nuance on the right, the ideological extremism, pushes them away.

Another example of a Republican who rejects "motivated reasoning" is MIT professor Kerry Emanuel, who has demonstrated remarkable courage for defending the integrity of climate science in the face of a vehement, vicious, yet intellectually vapid assault from denialist degenerates. As Mooney notes, Emanuel embraced the sort of high-IQ conservatism exemplified by William F. Buckley, only to see the right's intellectual standards decline below measurable levels:

[Although President] Reagan moved the country significantly to the right, he was also considerably more politically pragmatic and compromising than much of the GOP today. For instance, Reagan supported a global environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol, to curtail emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which at that time posed an enormous threat to the stratosphere's protective ozone layer. It's hard to imagine the Tea Party going along with such a thing.

But the GOP moved further to the right in subsequent years, from the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, to the George W. Bush presidency, to the 2010 election -- and today, Emanuel perceives the political situation as largely reversed. The extremes, as he sees them, are now to be found not on the left and on campuses, but rather, on the Tea Party right. By comparison, the Democrats these days are a bunch of centrists and pragmatists. Thus, Emanuel -- who really, it appears, was always a moderate -- finds not so much that he has moved but that his party did.

'Psychologically, I associate it with the [2008] death of William F. Buckley,' he says. 'I'm turned off by those people for exactly the same reasons I was turned off by the [progressive] ideologues of the 1970s.'

Right-wing motivated reasoning has resulted in the conservative movement psychologically segregating itself from the rest of the country. Veteran Republicans who deviate from the party line are shunned, scorned, savaged. The Republican brain creates its own world, with no connection to the real one.

Conservative talk radio plays a key role in maintaining this alternative universe:

During the 1990s, conservative talk radio flourished, offering a powerful mix of entertainment and explicitly ideological commentary. And as scholars began to study this medium, they unveiled results that will sound familiar... What were conservative talk-radio listeners misinformed about in the 1990s? It's a bit of a trip down memory lane, but one that illuminates a key transitional stage leading to our current misinformation environment. They wrongly believed that 'Growth in the budget deficit has increased during the Clinton presidency' and that 'Teaching about religious observations is illegal in public schools,' as well as that teen pregnancy was on the rise and that student test scores were declining--all part and parcel of a right-wing narrative about America, but not actually true.

Mooney does acknowledge that progressives have their own set of peculiar attitudes, and that the Democratic brain's response to such issues as hydraulic fracturing and nuclear energy can similarly be questioned:

[S]ome on the left can go emotionally astray on issues like fracking, nuclear power, and vaccination. There is a powerful counterweight to such biased reasoning in the scientific community and those allies who embrace its Enlightenment values--but the biased reasoning itself clearly does happen. That's impossible to deny.

In fact, although many of the psychology studies that I've surveyed seem to capture conservatives engaging in more intense motivated reasoning, liberals have been caught in the act too. I've shown that the best predictor of liberal bias, in a controlled motivated reasoning experiment, seems to be egalitarianism -- e.g., liberals tend to be biased in favor of disadvantaged groups.

Of course, by rejecting objective facts in the name of ideology, conservatives disadvantage themselves.


The Republican Brain hit uncomfortably close to home for me. As I read this brilliant book, I couldn't help thinking of my own journey on the right, and the dynamic that kept me in the conservative movement for far too long.

The late Boston talk-radio star David Brudnoy wasn't the only person who shaped my political thinking nearly two decades ago. The Boston Herald op-ed page routinely featured compelling writing from syndicated columnists Ken Hamblin, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams; I gravitated to these black men as representatives of an optimistic, upwardly mobile America, as opposed to the pessimistic, woe-is-us, to-hell-with-all-Republicans vision I associated with progressive black writers. Hamblin and Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby resonated with me in particular because they shared my disgust with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's efforts to set himself up as the nation's most prominent post-Martin Luther King black leader. Brudnoy, Hamblin, Sowell, Williams and Jacoby became my ideological icons as a teenager, with Buckley, George Will and Charles Krauthammer later added to that mix. They literally had all the answers. Tax cuts always stimulated the economy. Present-day discrimination to "offset" past discrimination had to be ended. Gun control only disarmed law-abiding citizens. Racial hatred was morally wrong no matter who expressed it. The culture had grown too uncivil.

These men were all filled with contempt for President Clinton, a contempt I did not share until days after the Oklahoma City bombing, when Clinton delivered a speech that subtly tried to blame Limbaugh for the bombing. Clinton's remarks hardened me against him; I had only begun to listen to Limbaugh just a few months after tuning in to Brudnoy, and while Limbaugh wasn't anywhere near as good as Brudnoy, he certainly wasn't encouraging his listeners to go blow up federal buildings. I found Clinton's remarks perverse, insulting, manifestly stupid; that one speech turned me into a full-fledged Clinton-hater.

It was in the summer of 1995 that I first heard Limbaugh declare that global warming was a hoax concocted and promoted by the man he referred to as "Vice Perpetrator Al Gore." The logic was pretty simple, and pretty compelling: Gore was a liberal; liberals believe in big government, central planning, and preventing people from doing things perceived to be harmful to others; the proposed solutions to the alleged problem of global warming all involved big government, central planning, and preventing people from doing things perceived to be harmful to others; and thus, global warming was merely a way to exercise control over other people's lives. There was no science. There was no legitimacy. There was no danger. There was nothing to all of Gore's scare-mongering. Global warming was a hoax.

And I bought it. Shame on me.

I had formed an intellectual and emotional bond with the conservative pundit class. It didn't break even after Dinesh D'Souza called for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be repealed in his 1995 book The End of Racism. It didn't break even after ex-conservative Glenn Loury made some painfully true points about the right's view of race in 1997. It didn't break even after conservative writer Lee Edwards acknowledged in his 1999 book The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America that Barry Goldwater's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was directly responsible for black voter exodus from the GOP, something these conservative pundits were loath to admit. It didn't break even after the conservative pundit class largely turned itself into a pro-President Bush amen corner in the 2000s.

In fact, my intellectual and emotional bond with the conservative pundit class really didn't start to weaken until the fall of 2007, and the release of Clarence Thomas' memoir, My Grandfather's Son.

The debate over My Grandfather's Son set the country back sixteen years: the resurrection of the controversy over the Anita Hill hearings proved that the partisan anger surrounding those hearings had never dissipated. I found the book stirring, and his story of his rise from poverty to power inspiring. It disgusted me that the old slurs against Thomas -- that he was an Uncle Tom and a lapdog for the far right -- were being revived.

However, I was surprised that in his media appearances with Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, none of the hosts bothered to ask him about this curious passage on page 179 of his book, in which he describes his frustration with the Reagan administration and the GOP during his days as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

...I'd come to realize, as I told a reporter, that 'conservatives don't exactly break their necks to tell blacks that they're welcome.' Was it because they were prejudiced? Perhaps some of them were, but the real reason, I suspected, was that blacks didn't vote for Republicans, nor would Democrats work with President Reagan on civil-rights issues. As a result there was little interest within the administration in helping a constituency that wouldn't do anything in return to help the president. My suspicions were confirmed when I offered my assistance to President Reagan's reelection campaign, only to be met with near-total indifference. One political consultant was honest enough to tell me straight out that since the president's reelection strategy didn't include the black vote, there was no role for me.

For years, I listened as the talk-radio right condemned anyone who suggested that the Reagan administration disregarded black voters. (D'Souza also rejected the idea that Reagan had little interest in attracting black support.) Now, you had the country's most prominent black conservative saying virtually the same thing, and they didn't confront him on his claim. They didn't even ask him to clarify his statement. Why?

It dawned on me that Limbaugh, Hewitt, Hannity and Ingraham did not confront Thomas on his claim because they knew his claim was true, and they didn't want to call attention to it. After years of listening to these pundits get defensive whenever liberals suggested that Reagan was indifferent towards black voters, I was amused by their decision to keep their mouths shut when a conservative icon suggested the same thing. That was the moment when I started seriously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the conservative pundit class. That was the moment when I started to become a little more skeptical of the views expressed on conservative talk radio and in right-leaning op-eds. That was the moment when I started to realize that the rants and remarks from the right's raconteurs weren't necessarily true, and were in some cases manifestly false.

Facts destroyed 'motivated reasoning,' at least in my case. Could this happen to other conservatives? That depends on conservatives being willing to subject the views they hear and read to strict scrutiny, to ask themselves if they're really hearing the truth from the talkers, to determine if what they're being sold has real value. Mooney suggests that most conservatives are unwilling to do so. I'm afraid he's right.


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