When writer Chris Mooney visited Indianapolis in 2011 to speak at the Center for Inquiry, he was on a roll. He was already the author of a popular book,The Republican War on Science, a contributor to various national magazines, and his article inMother Jones, "The Science Behind Why We Don't Believe Science," was exploding on the web.
So much so, he'd just gotten a book deal out of it — to expand that article into a much larger manuscript.
In April of this year, that book was released, with a title that was a bit, um, partisan:The Republican Brain. The title was a bit of a surprise because one refreshing thing about Mooney's presentation to CFI was how doggedly neutral he seemed to be. In fact, he annoyed some in the crowd for his lack of condemnation of conservatives.
He wasn't budging when one by one they lined up to ask a question or hurl an invective at conservatives, hoping to get a liberal rise from Mooney.
But Mooney, while an avowed liberal, is more interested in how brains function than taking partisan sides. So, ergo my disappointment he — or his publisher — would resort to such a polemical title.
Hey, I'm just as fascinated by Republicans as the next guy. How can they ignore science, evolution, history, facts? What makes 'em tick?
But doesn't naming the bookThe Republican Brainjust end up preaching to the choir?
After reading Mooney's book, that is precisely the point I — personally — take away: You might as well preach to your choir, because there doesn't seem to be much common ground to be had in this politicized, dichotomized culture we live in.
As Mooney puts it, "education and fact-based arguments often don't work to persuade us; education often doesn't protect us from lies and misinformation; more information and more knowledge sometimes just give us more opportunities to twist and distort — and worst of all, the two groups we'll broadly call 'liberals' and 'conservatives' have an array of divergent traits that sometimes make them unable to perceive or agree upon the same reality."
Ah, divergent traits! So Mooney does criticize liberals in his easy-to-read book, but it is conservatives who get the majority of the attention, because, well, because they are just so fascinating, especially to a self-acknowledged liberal like Mooney.
A key to understanding the divergent traits is the psychological concept of motivated reasoning. It goes like this, says Mooney: "Thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion. And not just that: Many of our reactions to stimuli and information are neither reflective nor dispassionate, but rather emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to (and often in the absence of) conscious thought."
That most of the brain's work occurs subconsciously should come as no surprise, especially if you — on some level — already "knew" that. But Mooney makes the point again and again: With a combination of nature (genetic predisposition) and nurture (your upbringing), a foundation for a neural/chemical belief system is laid, one that forms your (pre-) reactions to the world.
You shape the stimuli that come to you so that it largely fits your belief system. If it doesn't fit the system, well, there's another divergent trait.
If you're a liberal, you will likely reject the tidbit of info that doesn't fit your worldview, but you might think about it tomorrow. You might even let it slip into your thinking, and eventually, possibly, alter your perspective on something.
If you're a conservative, you will reject the tidbit. Period.
Mooney cites study after study to support this difference in brains, raising repeatedly the chicken/egg question as well: Does brain structure lead to political ideology, or does political ideology change brain structure?
In terms of the brain, it's the difference between the amygdala (seat of emotion) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC — a "higher" order of thinking). Researchers have placed people into MRI machines and watched self-avowed conservatives light up their amygdala maps while self-identified liberals show increased activity in the ACC.
As Mooney succinctly puts it, "Beliefs are physical."
Breaking it down
Mooney explores the overall issue of politics, ideology and human behavior by describing a series of characteristics:
A hierarchical outlook believes "society should be highly structured and ordered, including based on gender, class, and racial differences."
An egalitarian person would believe the opposite.
Those with an individualist outlook believe "we are all responsible for our own fates in life and people should be rewarded for their choices and punished for their faults and that government should not step in to prevent this."
A communitarian believes the opposite.
Broadly speaking, says Mooney, hierarchical-individuals = conservatives; egalitarian communitarians = liberals.
But as much as Mooney tries to spread the criticism out, he fails.
After all, increasingly over the past few decades, hierarchical-individualistic conservatives don't trust science. And, even more disturbing, the more educated the conservative, the more sure they are that science is untrustworthy.
Tea Party members are the worst offenders. When it comes to a study out of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, Tea Partiers were not only "the most factually incorrect, but they were also the most overconfident and close-minded, and least likely to want to inquire further."
You liberals? Beware of the "enlightenment syndrome." As Mooney points out numerous times, liberals fail on many levels — they're wishy-washy, over-intellectual, too nuanced — but their biggest gaff is believing that reason will win out.
Climate change looming
So what to do?
Read this book. Study the science. Make up your own mind.
If you'd like, admire — as does Mooney — conservatives for "being decisive, sticking to a course, being unwavering." Conservatives also are team-oriented, supportive of each other. In fact, Mooney's advice to liberals is to be more conservative—not in a policy sense but in a psychological one.
As Mooney puts it, "Liberals have the impulse to shout back what's true. Instead, they need to shout back what matters."
Mooney muses that when it comes to genetics and anthropology, liberals and conservative attributes make for a creative tension—and ultimate harmony—within the same brain. Both sets of characteristics are beneficial to a functional person and thus to a functioning society.
But instead of recognizing the value of both, we've "put these two sides of ourselves in opposition."
And boy, are they in opposition. Here's hoping a polemically titled book can contribute to breaking the logjam of our current political landscape. With climate change looming, along with so many other challenges, we need it now more than ever before. And that's both truth and something that matters.
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