Even though I live in the blood red state of Alabama, I do my best to keep contact with the unsavory conservative element to a minimum. I know it’s out there, of course I do. I can’t buy a vibrator in this state without claiming it’s for medicinal, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial, or law enforcement, purposes, but I can buy a gun at WalMart at any hour of the day or night. And of course, if I’m stuck in traffic on 280, without fail I’m behind an SUV bearing bumper stickers calling for Obama’s impeachment, or denouncing liberalism as a mental illness.
As hard as I try to keep myself safely ensconced in a bubble of liberalism, I have somehow managed to acquire three conservative friends. Two of them maintain a reasonable connection to fact based reality. The third, well, he has other redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, he is far more representative of the 21′st century Republican party than the other two.
Despite piles of evidence to the contrary, today’s conservatives insist on believing Obama’s a Kenyan Muslim, Global Warming is a hoax, perpetuated by vague, shape shifting cabal, and Sadaam Hussein participated in planning the events of Sept. 11, 2001. This is what makes them so maddening. It’s not their misguided political positions so much as their indifference to facts. Of course, if they based their positions on facts, most would quickly become untenable.
If you’ve spent any time at all around a person experiencing acute psychosis, you know there’s no point in arguing. Telling her the hospital staff is not in fact engaging in a lethal conspiracy against her, or there isn’t really a hearse in the adjacent hallway, is a waste of breath. Almost as pointless as expecting facts to persuade a conservative of anything.
Liberals, as a group, are smart, well educated, people. You’d think we’d have caught onto this by now, and come up with some other strategy. But no, not so much. As anyone who’s ever spent five minutes online, or watched two minutes of a Congressional hearing knows, liberals keep on with the facts, believing sooner or later conservatives will inevitably find their power too great to resist. That keeps on and on not happening though, driving us to distraction and despair. We use facts to navigate the world. We base our opinions and beliefs on them. For instance, we believe in evolution because of the fossil record. We believe Obama’s a U.S. citizen because we’ve seen his birth certificate. If new information comes to light, we shift our ideas accordingly, because that’s just what people do. Except for when they don’t. Given its title, I was hopeful Chris Mooney’s new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, would render this behavior, if not entirely explicable, at least somewhat less inhuman. Because honestly, my dogs do a better job of operating within reality to the best of their understanding than anyone in the employ of Fox News, or the RNC.
Most gratifyingly, Mooney demonstrates that the right is more wrong about more things, more often, than the left. They aren’t just uninformed, they’re misinformed. With peer reviewed studies to back it up and everything. It’s amazing, really, just how gratifying, shocking even, it can be to have something you’ve known perfectly well, for years and years, validated by science, even a social science. When it comes to explaining how and why that happens, however, Mooney doesn’t offer many more surprises.
Rather, he revisits some awfully familiar territory, reminding us of specific personality traits that have consistently been found to correlate with political conservatism or liberalism. The former value conscientiousness, the latter, openness. Conservatives tend to prefer the clarity and consistency of absolutes, intellectual and ethical, while liberals are more comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. Conservatives like closure, and quick decisions. Liberals, the kind of lengthy contemplation that tends to work against them. We’re more open to new ideas, and we like to stand out from the crowd. They tend towards consistency, conformity, and loyalty. While there are possible benefits on either side, it’s easy enough to see how these differences could lead conservatives to resist change, dismiss information challenging their strongly held beliefs.
Mooney does bring something new to the party though, neuroscience. Neuroimaging, to be precise. He reminds us of how our long held beliefs manifest physically, “residing not in any individual brain cell (or neuron) but rather in the complex connections between them. The pattern of neural activation that has occurred so many times before, and will occur again.” According to this model, mental activity is self-reinforcing. The more often a given idea or belief darts through your mind, the more firmly established it becomes in your neural network, and the more difficult to dislodge. Of course, this holds true whatever your political proclivities, so it’s relevance in exploring a difference between conservatives and liberals isn’t immediately apparent.
More interesting are the studies he sights showing the activation of neural regions associated with emotions, rather than logic, in political partisans presented with information damaging to the candidates they support. Especially one finding conservatives to have larger amygdalas – a part of the brain believed to play a role in our responses to threats, and other fear eliciting stimuli – while liberals have larger anterior cingulate cortexes – believed to play a role in fact checking, error detecting type cognition, also known as conflict monitoring. Taken together, these studies suggest trying to engage conservatives in fact based political discourse doesn’t work because facts are irrelevant to the parts of their brains activated by such discourse. Presumably, they’d be more likely swayed by emotional appeals. But what would that kind of discourse look like, either on a personal or a systemic level?
I’d expected to find some answers to that question by the end of the book. What use is knowing how conservatives are so easily able to dismiss science specifically, and facts generally, if that information doesn’t help us figure out how better to communicate with them? Mooney offers a few suggestions, but they’re mostly aimed at campaigns and advocacy groups. There’s very little here to help individuals better understand each other across party lines.
Democrats as a whole, he’s hardly the first to suggest, could stand to take a few pointers from Republicans. Basically, we should stop compromising on everything, and learn to practice some party discipline. Instead of using facts to make our case, we should try emotionally evocative narratives, focussing on what, “matters,” rather than what’s true. None of which is going to do me much good, the next time someone in my vicinity starts spouting an emotion packed narrative about Obama’s government takeover of the American auto industry, or how he’d never have been elected at all, without ACORN and its vast voter fraud conspiracy. I think I’ll be staying put here in my bubble as much as possible. It’s safer for everyone this way.