Understanding Republican Science Denialism. Haidt is right. Mooney is wrong.


With the Presidential election cycle hitting it’s partisan peak, let’s talk about Republican science denialism since it’s a subtext of the election.

It so happens that Chris Hayes did a segment on science denalism on his show in May (picture above, link to 21 minute video here). As guests he had on Jonathan Haidt and Chris Mooney. It’s a great little segment since it showcases two liberals who honestly attempted to figure out why Republicans held beliefs which seemed so wrong (to liberals). It’s a more subtle topic than it might appear, and the resulting books wound up with quite different takes. Haidt’s book I really like. While Mooney’s book means well but in my view ironically succumbed to the same partisan temptations he was trying to debunk. So reading Haidt allows you to understand Mooney’s mistakes. While reading Mooney allows you to, well, pump up your ego if you are a liberal. Since Mooney has a relatively common view on Republican science denialism it’s worth digging into.

Chris Mooney wrote the bestseller “The Republican War on Science” in 2006. In the show above he’s discussing his more recent 2012 book “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality”. To see why Mooney is wrong, let’s start with the chart from Gordon Gauchat mentioned in the show. In the mid-1970’s, conservatives and liberals had roughly equal trust in science. Now they are widely split, with conservative trust dropping.


Mooney says this chart backs up the thesis of his 2006 book:

Clearly, The Republican War on Science’s politicization thesis is being strongly validated—a thesis that attributes the problem to the growth of a modern conservative movement, its need to appease its core interest groups and constituencies (corporate America, conservative Christians), its need to have its own alternative expertise and journalism (think tanks, Fox, Limbaugh), and so on. But frankly, I don’t think this thesis goes far enough. That is the whole point of The Republican Brain, where I assert that we need a nature plus nurture account to understand why conservatives deny science and reality.

Mooney then goes on about his 2012 Republican Brain thesis. Let’s quote from the cover flap of that book:

Mooney explores brain scans, polls, and psychology experiments to explain why conservatives today believe more wrong things; appear more likely than Democrats to oppose new ideas; are less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts; and sometimes respond to compelling evidence by doubling down on their current beliefs. The answer begins with some measurable personality traits that strongly correspond with political preferences. For instance, people more wedded to certainty tend to become conservatives; people craving novelty, liberals. 

So in his 2006 book, Mooeny says conservatives deny science because they are in the pocket of politicized interests groups like corporate America and conservative Christians. By his 2012 book he’s found the deeper reason. Conservatives love certainty and can’t tolerate the newness of science like liberals can. You can find variations of Mooney’s views repeated in blogs, newspapers and tv.

But look very carefully at the chart above. And recall that Darwin’s book on evolution came out in 1859. If the “conservatives are wedded to certainty” thesis is true, then conservatives should have a perpetually low  trust in science.  Instead trust was equal in the mid-1970’s, but then dropped rapidly. Haidt makes this point on the segment as well. In fact Haidt says he’s personally experienced in his field how the left denied the science of differences between genders through much of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Then Haidt goes on to quote the creator of the chart above, Gauchat, who says (transcribing from memory) “in Japan and Europe public opinion against science comes mostly from the left, due to issues like genetically modified foods and nuclear power.” Get that? In another culture close to our own, science denialism comes from liberals. So science denialism can come from either side if we just look outside the US or into the recent past.

To see what’s really going on let’s quote from a Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. I pulled this book quote from a recent review:

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.

Sacredness is the key. Sacredness binds tribal groups, and that binding is stronger than reason. Denial is a way for tribal groups to protect their sacredness, and confirm loyalty.

Let’s look at the chart above in this new light. In the US (for now at least) liberals have sacred values of environmentalism, gender equality and racial equality. Conservatives have sacred values of traditional religion, markets and individualism. What’s causing changes in the chart is that environmentalism and global warming have come to the fore in US politics. These issues are sacred for liberals on many fronts: green, international, mother nature, capitalism exploiting the Earth. And against this we have conservatives who have sacred pro-capitalist and pro-market views. A nasty tribal conflict of sacred against sacred. Piled on top of this we also have a larger long term loss of trust in US institutions in general. Put it together and you can explain the chart above.

This frame also provides insight into Republican denial of evolution, statements on abortion, stems cells. And unlike the Mooney’s view, it can handle cases where liberals deny science themselves. To be clear, I’m not saying the harm of science denial is equal on each side. The chart above speaks for itself. Conservatives are heading us all down a tragic path by losing trust in science. What I am saying is Haidt’s frame of sacredness as the cause of tribal denial is far more robust and useful. You can “follow the sacredness” to understand conflicts in ancient Greece with Socrates, or apply it 2000 years later to understand modern Greece as it teeters on leaving the European Union. It also points the way to bridging increasing polarization in the US. What we need is a better mutual understanding of the differing sacred values of liberals and conservatives. What we don’t need is talk about why liberals have an innately superior disposition for science. Haidt is right. Mooney is wrong.

To see this more clearly, as a thought experiment take Mooney’s book cover quote above and replace “conservative” with black and “liberal” with white. Note that this substitution forces the liberal moral sense to activate by triggering the sacred liberal value of racial equality. You can use this trick on conservative quotes as well as well by the way, if you flip-flop the substitutions. When I do this on partisan election posts on my facebook feed the results aren’t pretty. I’ll be glad when the election is over. In the modified Mooney quote, the smug tribal condescension behind this commonly held liberal view jumps out clearly:

Mooney explores brain scans, polls, and psychology experiments to explain why [Blacks] conservatives today believe more wrong things; appear more likely than [Whites] Democrats to oppose new ideas; are less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts; and sometimes respond to compelling evidence by doubling down on their current beliefs. The answer begins with some measurable personality traits that strongly correspond with political preferences. For instance, people more wedded to certainty tend to [be black] become conservatives; people craving novelty, [white] liberals.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Republican Science Denialism. Haidt is right. Mooney is wrong.

  1. This is a great article and a great blog.

    But the science-focus you demonstrate in so many other articles seems to be betrayed here when you say “racial equality” instead of “human equality” and when you say there is a “white” race and a “black” race instead of just a human race. Aren’t you ironically denying science by holding pseudo-scientific racism as sacred? There are trends in our genes of lighter skin or hair and darker skin or hair but we are all the same humans. Racism was scientifically disproven, like phrenology. Of course it is sacred to US American culture and is one of the sacred things tying together US conservatives. But it is a denial of scientific fact.

    So I think you may accidentally have proven your point that sacred trumps science in a different way than you meant to. Racism — the proposition that there is more than one race — is 100% science denial today. It persists because some people have made it sacred. If a science-focused guy like you can fall into that trap, it is no wonder that people with little or no scientific training can believe the Earth is 6000 years old.

    1. Thanks for this comment. Been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and have learned a bit since I wrote this. Working on a new post on Nicholas Wade’s book and the controversy around it in fact.

      It’s more clear to me now that race can be used in two distinct ways: 1) race as social construct which means ethnicity, 2) race as biological construct which means genetic ancestry. Conflating the two is where the problem lies. #1 is about human rights and values. #2 is an empirical science question on how all alike people are genetically (quite a bit of course).

      So if I were writing this post today, I would clarify explicitly that I was using the word “racial” in the social construct sense. If I had made that clarification on the terminology in the original post, then I think the post itself stands.

  2. I’m a scientist and I believe my politics stem from practicality: a society that works and that doesn’t waste too many resources, including human resources. A very evolutionary viewpoint. Sacred ideas are not a dependable way to achieve functional results. Just understand the problem as well as possible and solve it.

    Of course somehow everything in American politics must be reduced to Red or Blue, so most scientists are Blue, but the idea that my viewpoint is based just as much on sacred ideas as theirs strikes me as saying that science is just another religion. It isn’t. And I think that a large slice of liberals are just people who are sick of sacred ideas.

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