The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney

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.


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"resented in a very calm manner."

Doesn't this argue against the point he's making? :)

Now that you changed it, no one is going to understand my comment! :) Feel free to delete both.

I was tempted to leave it, because it's a great typo ("Calm Resentment" isn't exactly a great band name, but it could work for an album). But I think it's clear from context what happened.

It wasn't very clear to me what happened (ref comment 3). I thought comment #2 was claiming that comment #1 had been changed, due to what we might call grammatical ambiguity in comment #2.

I had to search the article for the word "calm" before it became clear that a typo in the article ("resented in a calm manner") had been corrected to read "presented in a calm manner".

Then it all became clear...

I think the original, "Resented in a Calm Manner", would make a great album title. Easy listening covers of angry rock songs, maybe?

Several years ago, John Dean wrote "Conservatives Without Conscience", in major part to honor his old "Conscience of a Conservative" friend, Barry Goldwater. In it, he posited some major patterns of general mental process among 4 major orientations of political thinking based on some research he came across in trying to determine exactly what a 'conservative' was. In the end, the definition was difficult but some of the general outlook and breakdown seemed to mesh well with the content here. Worth a look to compare and contrast.

By BobFromLI (not verified) on 17 May 2012 #permalink

"...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."
That is one heck of a sentence - especially ironic considering that this entire post was supposed to be about how "careful" Mooney was. So, I'm guessing that this book was confirmation for you as well? It is so reassuring to know that a "scientist" like yourself can devolve an entire sub-genre of politics into such a neat little caricature of cognitive packaging.

Oh, I have no trouble stating that the modern Republican party is inhabiting a different reality than the rest of us. That case is pretty much closed, for anybody who has paid any attention to the news in the last twelve years. Mooney does provide a helpful compendium of polling data and news stories to seal the case, if that were needed.

The claim that's still in question, and about which he is appropriately careful, is whether this alternate reality has its roots in the cognitive science of personality types and reasoning styles, or if it's merely a toxic mix of cynicism and stupidity. That's still undecided, and may be undecidable.

If you want to claim the current republican leadership and their most recent policy choices are anti-science, that is one thing. Claiming the republican party as a whole is anti-science is another thing entirely. As with most things in politics the "leadership" of a party usually consists of people that are not entirely representative of the party, but who simply have the most public support from other power brokers. There is very little in common with the leadership of ANY party in politics and the views/beliefs of those who self-identify with a particular party. The realities of practical politics on a large scale (particularly on a national scale) usually mean choosing typically extreme viewpoints that would be objectionable or onerous to individuals. Whether or not individuals choose to support those decisions can have entirely different cognitive processes than those employed when decisions were made at the "leadership" level.

I don't think it's outrageous to think different political beliefs attract different personalities. It is perhaps easier to characterize Republicans, because Democrats are bimodal. Democrats are both the less educated and more educated.
And when you think about it, Mooney does help explain why intelligent people believe things which are outrageously improbable to outright impossible.

"The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality."

While US politics is alien to me I find it interesting that the book is based on the same type of overreaching generalization one can find in elaborations about race.

I suspect a book called "The Nigger Brain: The Science of Why They..." wouldn't be so warmly endorsed by the same crowd even if it also constructed a careful argument, based on recent cognitive science experiments.

So, if I'm following Jared's argument correctly, he's saying that it's not that most Republicans believe stupid things and in consequence perpetrate disastrous actions, it's just that they vote for people who believe stupid things and in consequence perpetrate disastrous actions.

I suspect a book called "The Nigger Brain: The Science of Why They..." wouldn't be so warmly endorsed by the same crowd even if it also constructed a careful argument, based on recent cognitive science experiments.

Some years ago there actually was a close approximation of the book you describe, called The Bell Curve. Where the approximation breaks down is that the authors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, systematically distorted the science to fit their thesis, which (according to Chad's review) is not true of Mooney's book. The book was widely panned by pretty much everyone not associated with right-wing politics precisely because Herrnstein and Murray were distorting the science, not because they found the thesis to be ideologically repugnant (even though many would agree that the thesis was ideologically repugnant).

Herrnstein died while The Bell Curve was in press, but Murray is still around, and still widely considered a right-wing hack. He had a new book out a few months ago which purported to investigate class divide issues in the US; that book was also widely panned for the same reasons The Bell Curve was panned.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 May 2012 #permalink

If you want to claim the current republican leadership and their most recent policy choices are anti-science, that is one thing. Claiming the republican party as a whole is anti-science is another thing entirely

That's an... interesting interpretation of the situation. I think it runs into a bit of trouble, though, with the large amount of polling data showing that rank-and-file Republicans and particularly Tea Party Republicans are vastly more likely to believe things that are factually untrue: that Obama's citizenship is in any doubt, that there were WMD's in Iraq, that Obama has raised taxes by a huge amount, that the health care reform bill includes "death panels." And on, and on, and on.

Now, it could be that, as you propose, the leadership of the party is made up of crazy people, and the mass of Republican voters only say they believe this stuff for tribal identification purposes. Or it could be that the mass of voters believes this crazy stuff, and that pushes the leadership to cynically say that they believe it too, because the easiest way to get votes is to tell the people what they want to hear. Or it could be some linear combination of the two.

But whatever theory you want to propose needs to account for the fact that huge numbers of self-identified Republicans are just wrong about factual questions, in a very predictable and partisan way.

I suspect a book called "The Nigger Brain: The Science of Why They..." wouldn't be so warmly endorsed by the same crowd even if it also constructed a careful argument, based on recent cognitive science experiments.

Because, of course, looking into possible psychological underpinnings of well-documented mass delusion on the part of an organized political party is exactly the same as throwing around hateful racial slurs.

This reminds me so much of that old sci-fi series "V" where one of the first things the alien invaders did was get people to stop trusting scientists.

Honestly, I would love to see Republicans become a *real* opposition party again -- offering valid alternatives, debating thorny issues with intelligence, knowing the value of compromise. But it's always looked to me as if they were going in the opposite direction. I find it strangely satisfying that someone with a publishing deal can validate my observations. Ben Goldacre at The Guardian has written on this topic in the past and come to pretty much the same conclusions as Mooney.

If Mooney had meant to be "careful" (your words), he wouldn't have given his book the most provocative of all titles.

It's been shameful to watch science writers (like you) fall behind his book -- oh so carefully -- because it supports their political ideology.

By David Appell (not verified) on 25 May 2012 #permalink

Sounds like an interesting read