Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science is an important look at a pattern of anti-science policies by Republican politicians. When it came out, my review’s main concern was “the only paths available to a Republican party that wants to promote a religious/corporate agenda contrary to the values of the public at large is to attack the details of programs or to attack the policy process. … I wish Mooney dug deeper into that part of the story, but perhaps we can hope for a sequel. Mooney is certainly meticulous in his research, and this study presents the problem starkly. The epilogue, which offers some solutions to the problem, feels weak and sounds doomed to fail because the reader doesn’t understand what is driving the trend, only that it exists.”

In recent years, Mooney has been digging deeper into the psychology behind science denial, addressing a lot of those issues, issues I’d hoped would be in a sequel and look like they will be. We talked about his Mother Jones report on denialism, and now he has a report in The American Prospect on why experts are usually Democrats:

Increasingly, the parties are divided over expertise–with much more of it residing among liberals and Democrats, and with liberals and Democrats much more aligned with the views of scientists and scholars. More fundamentally, the parties are increasingly divided over reality itself: over what is actually true, not only about hard science but also social science and simple policy facts such as the contents of the health-care bill.

There’s no doubt these two divides are connected, but the relationship between them isn’t necessarily straightforward. It’s not as if all the brains are on one side, and there’s a total lack of them on the other. So before glorying in the fact that we have more facts, liberals might consider first blowing into an intellectual breathalyzer, to be sure we’re not too intoxicated by our own seeming brilliance. After all, one thing our expertise does not appear to be doing is bringing the country back from the brink of a fully postmodern and fact-free discourse. In fact, it may even be contributing to the problem. …

How did this happen? Part of the answer is surely obvious: In recent decades, the Republican Party’s rightward shift alienated many academics, scientists, and intellectuals. …

But another critical part of the explanation is … [s]ince the 1970s, Republicans and conservatives have not only been slamming universities as bastions of liberal bias but have forged a fleet of think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, whose task is to hit back against liberal expertise. …

… the Internet echo chamber effect…is part of the problem. But the dynamics of expertise and counter-expertise are also fundamental to the explanation, perhaps even more so. The Internet didn’t bifurcate us over reality–we were already cleaving long before it existed (though surely the Web sped up the process).

…psychology and neuroscience. … “motivated reasoning” …

Media equivocation …

To gain some perspective on the problem, follow this thought experiment. Suppose there were a counterfactual world in which most experts were conservative, but there was a minority of liberal experts who fought back against them tirelessly–very sure of themselves and never the least disturbed (or, perhaps, aware) that they are usually wrong. But wait–just by posing the experiment, we quickly see why that world doesn’t sound very believable. It’s not that liberals can’t be wrong: As we’ve seen, they can. But they would never be so sure of themselves. Aren’t liberals famous (or infamous) for bending over almost backward to hear the other side?

We are now getting to the complicated question of why most academics today are liberal. Surely the rightward movement of the Republican Party has something to do with it, as do the repeated attacks on academia from the conservative movement over the decades. Ironically, though, one key premise of these attacks–the idea that institutions of higher education make one a liberal, through a kind of brainwashing process–is questionable. More and more evidence suggests that for most of us, our political identities are already largely determined well before we reach the point of choosing career paths, and then we select desirable life choices (a doctorate, for one) based in part on those identities. …the expertise gap is likely the result of a “self-selection process,” fueled by the fact that for liberals, academic jobs hold prestige–but for conservatives, they’re not considered attractive nowadays. That’s partly because academia has been repeatedly smeared as a liberal bastion and perhaps also partly because of differing values: Ambitious and smart conservatives would rather work on Wall Street.

However, the researchers admit that their analysis can’t rule out another explanation supported by growing evidence–the idea that conservatives and liberals are just different, in aggregate, when it comes to personality types and moral systems. If true, this would surely affect liberals’ and conservatives’ career choices, too, as well as how they argue about fact-based or expertise-based issues.

At least one highly influential expert on liberals and conservatives, the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, views this as a central factor in our fights over science and expertise. …

Factoring in all (or even some) of these characteristics, we would expect to see more liberals who want to be scientists or researchers, who want to use science and expertise to serve social goals by advancing knowledge–and who revel in the details, complexity, and ambiguity of the research endeavor. Whereas conservatives would not be anti-science or anti-intellectual but would tend to use research and expertise to support other agendas. They would also tend to reject results that seem to counter these agendas–all the while being quite sure of themselves and happy to argue the point.

I cut a lot there, and you should read the whole thing. I’ve soured on George Lakoff in recent years, as his “strong father/nurturant parent” model seems a bit too pat, but there’s surely a kernel of truth to his points, and in this case they map well to a more empirical psychological approach.

This also serves as a neat response to last February’s argument over Jonathan Haidt’s claim of bias against conservatives in academia.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Mooney
    June 15, 2011

    Thanks Josh. Just one thing…even Haidt admits that most academics should be liberal based on personality.

    “Research on personality consistently shows that liberals are higher on openness to experience. They’re more interested in novel ideas, and in trying to use science to improve society. So of course our field is and always will be mostly liberal. I don’t think we should ever strive for exact proportional representation.”
    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt11/haidt11_index.html

  2. #2 Anthony McCarthy
    June 15, 2011

    I’ll be back later but George Lakoff should have lost any credibility in political matters with his “General Betrayus” debacle. It was one of the stupider instances of a wacky theory overriding what someone with common sense could have told the clever young people who went with is advice that saying that would backfire.