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Why the Republican Assault on Reason?

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According to a 2008 Pew report, better educated conservatives deny climate change even more strenuously than less educated conservatives. Ironically, the greater the education the greater the dogmatism. Just when liberals thought education was the key to persuading conservatives about the science of climate change, it appears we were wrong. What are the implications of this study for educating conservatives about climate change and the reaching of bipartisan solutions in the future?

We often believe that lying out the facts in cold, logical arguments is the best way to persuade, particularly with an educated group. For Democrats, the greater the level of education the greater the acceptance of climate change, but for Republicans, the reverse is true.

As background, basic physics tells us that CO2 molecules have radiative properties that trap infrared heat radiation that otherwise escapes to space, in the process warming the planet. Natural fluctuations, though known to exist, can not explain what we are seeing.

Curiously, among Republicans having a college degree did not appear to open one's mind to what scientists were saying. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. "Only 19 percent of the college educated Republicans agreed that the planet was warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans."

Just when conservative misinformation predominates and we can not leave our living rooms without hearing about death panels, the president is a Muslim, or the right's refusal to accept basic science, we find that logical arguments do not work to persuade even educated Republicans. Such a misunderstanding is common. In fact, when asked how to get congressional Republicans to accept the mainstream scientific understanding of climate change even President Obama's science adviser, Dr. John Holdren, incorrectly stated that it's an "education problem." As a punishment, Holdren may have to return his MacArthur genius grant!

As usual, Tea Party members are the most misinformed. For example, considerably more Tea Party members than ordinary Republicans thought there were disagreements among scientists on the subject of global warming (69 percent to 56 percent).

According to Yale researcher Dan Kahan: "If you were already part of a cultural group predisposed to distrust climate science e.g., a political conservative or "hierarchical-individualist" -- then more science knowledge and more skill in mathematical reasoning tended to make you even more dismissive. Precisely the opposite happened with the other group-- "egalitarian-communitarians" or liberals -- who tended to worry more as they knew more science and math.

Paradoxically, sophisticated conservatives are more exposed to and consume more conservative opinion and thus are more likely to be hardened in their views than the less sophisticated ones. For example, even such conservative intellectuals as George Will dismiss climate change, citing a need for further research. On Fox News, any number of naysayers who mock climate science are trotted out one after another. The scientific consensus confirming climate change is replaced with a surreal air of disbelief.

Interestingly, the most hardened conservatives, the so-called authoritarians do not become their full ideological selves until some "authoritarian activation" takes place. It is very reminiscent of the "born again" experience that takes place among evangelicals. "Consuming a lot of political information seems to help authoritarians feel who they are -- whereupon they become more accepting of inequality, more dogmatically traditionalist, and more resistant to change."

For some reason, educated liberals remain open-minded. Factual argumentation and reasoning are still persuasive to them. For example, nuclear power as an energy source is distrusted by many liberals, contrary to scientists who widely consider that nuclear power risks are overblown, especially given the dangers of other energy sources like coal.

Among liberals, however, the more scientifically literate one was the more his views conformed to that of scientists, or the less worried he was about nuclear power. The results show liberals do not become as intransigent in their views as do conservatives.

Evidence then clearly has limited persuasive powers, especially in politicized areas where deep emotions are involved. "If you're a liberal who is emotionally wedded to the idea that rationality wins the day -- well then, it's high time to listen to reason." Research shows a growing insight into the minds of conservatives, but persuasion of the conservative mindset is as foreign to scientists as climate change is to conservatives.

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