The Republican Brain

Something about the title of this book elicits skepticism. I wouldn't read a book called The Liberal Brain, if it were written by a conservative (did Ann Coulter actually write a book with that title)?  Why expect objectivity from a liberal trying to dissect the Republican brain?  Actually, if you read the book, you do get an answer.  Liberals, more than Conservatives, love to be fair and nuanced.  They value empathy highly, so will work hard to see things from the other side's vantage point.  Mooney works pretty hard on that, and doesn't whitewash liberals.

Here's the kind of thing I want to understand.  Do any Republicans really think Obama is a Muslim, or do they just pretend to think so for effect?  What's running through the minds of people who doubt climate change is real and human-caused, despite the views of the vast majority of climate scientists?  Do abortion foes really think abortion causes breast cancer, even though there's no good evidence of that?  These are really extraordinary phenomena.  It would take a lot for me to say "now I understand".

Mooney reports findings that Republicans do more "motivated reasoning" than Democrats.  Their response to evidence is more colored by their preconceptions. There are also considerable differences in personality, with relevance to political outlook.  Democrats score higher on openness, Republicans on conscientiousness.  For lots of reasons (their greater openness is a factor), Democrats are more attracted to science and Republicans more wary of science.  Etc. (This isn't meant to be an exhaustive summary.)

I don't quite have a "now I get it" reaction from the book. To get that I might need to get more deeply into the vantage point of Republicans (see, liberals like me do value empathy highly!).  One thing that might be going on is that conservatives think they're paddling upstream.  The current is running in a liberal direction.  We are quickly getting more freedom, a breakdown of categories (two brides in one wedding -- OMG), lots of sexual license, more government. Paddling upstream makes you desperate and frantic. 

Then again, when liberals feel like they're paddling upstream, and therefore get desperate, they don't show the same degree of contempt for science.  Take far left greens, who think we need to combat genetic engineering, and nuclear power. Or far left liberals of the 1970s, who were so upset about sociobiology. Or far left feminists today, some of whom absolutely won't acknowledge any innate sex differences.  On the left, motivated reasoners will pick sides in a scientific dispute based on an ideology, but will only rarely turn their backs on all of science.  On the left, we're basically science fans.  Why is that not the case on the right?

The personality explanation only seems to take you so far.  It's just not clear the differences are huge enough to explain the extreme indifference to science that we see on the right. Perhaps you ultimately have to say more about religion.  David Frum says this (p. 143):  "...if you are an intensely committed Christian and especially an evangelical Christian, you do feel yourself kind of beleaguered in an intellectual world that's not hospitable to you, and that feeling of isolation and victimization is then spread through the tone and style of the whole conservative world."

One might hypothesize that conservative Christians have lots of practice being indifferent to science, because of their religious stance, and that's the main reason they're capable of turning their backs on so much science when it comes to climate change, abortion, Obama's background, etc.  Mooney points mainly to more general features of the personalities and cognitive styles of Republicans.  Thus, the book is in synch with another (off stage, mostly) part of Mooney's outlook--his wish to avoid being a religion-basher.

Anyhow--interesting book, worth reading.

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