“At a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.“
So says science writer Chris Mooney in a recent Washington Post article. He attributes the “staggering irrationality” to psychological differences in the way liberals and conservatives respond to reality. He points in particular to two differences in personality traits.
The first personality trait is “openness to experience.” Conservatives tend to be more “conscientious,” that is, they “appreciate order and structure in their lives.” Liberals, on the other hand, are more “open” to change and new ideas.
The second personality trait is “need for cognitive closure.” Those with a high need for closure, Mooney posits, “seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information.” He says conservatives need more cognitive closure than liberals; and he strongly implies that conservatives are therefore more likely to ignore new scientific information. Evolution and global warming are cited as two examples of scientific information that is often accepted by liberals and rejected by conservatives.
Mooney offers this chilling conclusion:
“When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.”
Jane Jacobs raised similar concerns in her final book, “Dark Age Ahead.” She warned of decay in five “pillars of culture.” Three of the five relate to the critical concepts of information and truth. They are: 1) Higher education; 2) “Effective practice of science and science-based technology;” and 3) Self-policing by the learned professions.
Chris Mooney’s analysis of political psychology is presented in his book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality.” As the title reveals, the author has an obvious bias against the conservative viewpoint. It’s easy to imagine that another author might analyze the same personality traits with a bias in the opposite direction.
However the analysis might be biased, it gives no reason to be optimistic about détente in American politics anytime soon.
– John Hayden
- The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney [Uncertain Principles] (scienceblogs.com)
- Author Chris Mooney explains conflict between science and ‘the Republican brain’ (rawstory.com)
- Book review: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality (dailykos.com)
- Live Chat: The Political Brain (news.sciencemag.org)
- Are Republicans Really Anti-Science? (motherjones.com)
- Conservative Trust Of Science At All Time Low, Study Confirms Chris Mooney Thesis (thinkprogress.org)
- Chris Mooney: The Science of Truthiness: Why Conservatives Deny Global Warming (huffingtonpost.com)