This has been out for a little while now, and Chris has been promoting it very heavily, and it’s sort of interesting to see the reactions. It’s really something of a Rorschach blot of a book, with a lot of what’s been written about it telling you more about what the writer wants to be in the book than what’s actually in it. A lot of conservative responses to it are basically case studies in the sort of motivated reasoning Chris is writing about, but I’ve even seen some liberals jumping on it as completely confirming their own pre-existing biases, for example, claiming that this means Chris has renounced the whole idea of “framing” that led to so much bickering a few years back.
The premise of the book is certainly inflammatory, as you can tell from the full title: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. That’s eye-catching, all right, well chosen to stir up some excitement. And it pretty much tells you what you’re going to get: an argument, based on recent cognitive science experiments, that people who are inclined to be politically conservative will approach facts and data in a fundamentally different way than people who are inclined to be politically liberal.
What’s striking about the book, especially given the title, is how careful it is. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given that Chris is a liberal guy, and thus more comfortable with nuance and uncertainty (according to the research he cites), but he does a really good job of avoiding extreme overreach. The research results that he describes are presented with most of the caveats you would like to see from a responsible science journalist. This isn’t 274 pages of “Repubs R Dum LOL!”, it’s a carefully constructed argument, presented in a very calm manner. He’s also very careful to note the limitations of everything– that while an individual’s innate personality type may incline them toward one ideology or another, in the end, political affiliation is a complicated mix of innate traits and environmental influences (family, local political context, media, etc.).
That’s as it must be, of course, because the book is, ultimately, relying on cognitive science results, which are some of the most provisional results in science– necessarily so, given the complexity of the system they’re studying. The weakness in the argument is, ultimately, that it relies on the accumulation of lots of individual studies that suggest particular tendencies, especially when all of them are taken together, but there’s no single killer result showing unambiguously that conservatives are more prone to the motivated reasoning that is a key component of the disconnect between the modern Republican party and the universe the rest of us inhabit. The last chapter presents the results of an experiment that was designed to look for exactly this kind of clinching result; unsurprisingly, given that this is psychology and not physics, the data turn out to be just another suggestive argument, not a rock-solid discovery of anything.
So, if you’re going to argue that this book must be taken with salt, the source of the seasoning should probably be along the same lines of the recent argument between ex-ScienceBlogger Jonah Lehrer and my colleague at Union, Chris Chabris (see Chris’s pan of Jonah’s book, Jonah’s response, and Chris’s response to Jonah’s response). As Chris points out, you need to be careful not to make too much of a small number of experiments, and particularly to avoid jumping to causal explanations on the basis of correlational data. I haven’t read Jonah’s book, so I can’t directly compare them, but I think this book stays on the right side of the line, making clear that all the results taken together are merely suggestive (albeit powerfully so), not conclusive. I’m not in a very good position to evaluate the underlying science, though– it’s not really my field, and I don’t have the time or inclination to really dig into it.
Anyway, in terms of what I am qualified to assess, this is a very good book. The argument is carefully constructed and clearly laid out, and on a whole, it’s very readable (I read most of it while riding a stationary bike, which tells you that it’s not a real chore to read…). The sections about media bias and political culture will be familiar to anybody who’s been reading blogs (particularly Chris’s blog) over the last several years, but then, we’re not really the target audience. The final recommendations are also not too surprising– contrary to what some would like to believe, Chris doesn’t abandon the notion of “framing” science for public-policy purposes. Though he doesn’t use the F-word, the last section includes what is essentially a renewed call for the same things he’s been calling for all along– that “liberals and scientists should find some facts–the best facts–and integrate them into stories that move people.”
So, if you’re interested in the interaction between science and public policy, this book is definitely worth a read. If you’ve been following Chris for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with a lot of what he has to say, but this book makes a more coherent argument in more detail than you would get from stapling together a bunch of his blog posts and interview transcripts (*cough*cough*Neil deGrasse Tyson*cough*). Presented this way, it’s a strong suggestion that there may be real, inherent differences in the way that different political groups approach reality, and that this has profound implications for the way science and policy interact.