Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Are Conservatives Irrational?

From global warming to evolution, the right is wrong for a reason.
Right-wing Ostrich

Chris Mooney believes conservatives are wrong about many more important issues than are liberals. Like any principled science writer, he’s also certain he could be wrong. Had Mooney chosen a less insulting title, he might have convinced a few conservatives to consider his positions on climate change, evolution, and President Obama’s healthcare program.

Of course, he’d also sell fewer books. He and his publisher know their audience, just as Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg know theirs. Mooney admits that he has little hope of changing conservative minds through education. His 2005 attempt at an edifying overture, The Republican War on Science, failed entirely.

Despite a religious temperament and natural respect for tradition, an unsettling, empirical bent forces me into agreement with Mooney and his fellow liberals on the issues of climate change and evolution. Darwin got it right. There is no scientifically credible challenge to the general theory of evolution. Likewise, the scientific consensus on climate change—that it’s real, anthropogenic, and poses a grave threat—is as solid as consensus on anything beyond first principles is likely to ever be.

Mooney’s guiding light is the Marquis de Condorcet, the French Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician, whom he correctly distances from Jacobin excesses during the French Revolution. Alas, that Mooney dedicates The Republican Brain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with no caveat, supports his assertion that conservatives and liberals are truly different people. Mooney quotes Thomas Carlyle on Rousseau: “He could be cooped into garrets, laughed at as a maniac, left to starve like a wild beast in his cage; but he could not be hindered from setting the world on fire.”

Keep that cheery image in mind.

According to Mooney, conservatives’ personality traits, resulting from both genetic and environmental factors, predispose them to resist data that conflict with strongly held beliefs.  Referring to research by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, Mooney writes, “deep-seated views about morality, and about the way society should be ordered, strongly predict who [individuals] consider to be a legitimate scientific expert in the first place—and where they consider ‘scientific consensus’ to lie in the contested issues.”

To his credit, Mooney admits that liberals aren’t immune to irrationality and “motivated reasoning.” He points out the equalitarian left’s attacks on sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and the reflexive liberal antipathy toward nuclear power and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But Mooney asserts that the trait is far more pronounced in conservatives.

He presents Kahan’s model, a Cartesian coordinate system with one axis running from very hierarchical to very egalitarian, the other axis running from individualist (or libertarian) to very communitarian. All of us would fit into one of the four ideological quadrants, though we might move depending on the issue. According to Mooney, the hierarchical-individual quadrant corresponds to American conservatives while liberals fall into the egalitarian-communitarian quadrant.

In one of Kahan’s studies, participants were asked to imagine that a friend had told them that she is considering her position on highly charged issues, including whether global warming is caused by humans and the safety of nuclear waste disposal. The imaginary friend is planning to read a book on the subject but would like opinions on whether the author is a legitimate authority. The study subjects were then shown alleged book excerpts by fake experts as well as phony pictures and resumes. Here’s Mooney’s interpretation: “The results were stark: When the fake scientist’s position stated that global warming is real and caused by humans, only 23 percent of hierarchical-individualists agreed the person was a ‘trustworthy and knowledgeable expert.’ Yet 88 percent of the egalitarian-communitarians accepted the same scientist’s alleged expertise.”

Mooney describes other research that suggests conservatives are prone to “backfire effect,” the tendency to affirm strongly-held beliefs even more tenaciously after being shown contradictory evidence. Furthermore, Mooney says, the more educated the conservative, the more sophisticated the argument—thus the “smart idiots” effect. “The ‘smart idiots” effect generates endless frustration for many scientists—and indeed, for many well-educated, reasonable people.” (Emphasis mine.)

Could it be that the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the culpability of corporate capitalism simply rests easier with liberals than with conservatives? Does Mooney believe the average liberal earnestly studies the latest climate data? What if the study questions addressed the responsibility of the poor for their own condition or evidence that scientific genius is more common among men? Might there be some liberal backfire effect?

Mooney quotes Kahan: in some conservative communities “people who say, ‘I think there’s something to climate change,’ that’s going to mark them out as a certain kind of person, and their life is going to go less well.” What would Daniel Patrick Moynihan say about the consequences of breaking with liberal orthodoxy?  Lawrence Summers?

Mooney builds much of his argument on the work of New York University’s Jon Jost and others who’ve studied the psychological basis of political orientation.  The results have been fiercely attacked by Republican politicians and opinion-makers. Yet the studies appear broad and painstaking, and many of the findings ring true. Researchers have found that conservatism emphasizes resistance to change and the acceptance or rationalization of inequality. No surprises there. Or, as a conservative might say, short of equalitarian despotism, inequality is unavoidable. Mooney admits that the conservative need for order and management of uncertainty and the accompanying virtues of patriotism, decisiveness, and loyalty to friends are assets in a time of crisis.

Another trait researchers found prevalent among conservatives and surprisingly common in the United States is “authoritarianism,” which has been intractably linked to fascism thanks to largely discredited work by Theodore Adorno. Mooney doesn’t mention Adorno’s F-scale, nor does he distance himself from it.

“Authoritarians are also increasingly strong in today’s Republican Party—and especially in its most extreme ideological arm. … Authoritarians are very intolerant of ambiguity, and are very inclined toward group-think and distrustful of outsiders (often including racial outsiders).”

Racial outsiders like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams, say?

Liberals are “pretty much universal agents of change,” characterized by curiosity and openness to new experience, more tolerant of disorder, less tolerant of economic inequality. According to Jost and Mooney, liberals also tend toward greater “integrative complexity,” or IC. “And not only do liberals tend to have much less need for closure than conservatives. At the same time, liberals often have more need for cognition. They like to think, in an effortful and challenging way, and take pride in doing a good job of it. They enjoy complex problems and trying to solve them.”

The relationship between IC and sound thinking remains unclear. Mooney points to studies that show that Neville Chamberlain demonstrated greater IC than Winston Churchill and that abolitionists were just as low in IC as apologists for slavery. Mooney associates IC and the liberal temperament with creativity. To which I respond: T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Wilhelm Röpke, Robert Nisbet, Christopher Lasch, Richard Weaver, Eric Voeglin, and of course Edmund Burke, reduced by Mooney to an “honest status-quo conservative.”

The Abrahamic faiths are inherently authoritarian, yet more than any institution built on abstract Enlightenment notions of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, they recognize human dignity and worth. Could there have been a pre-Christian Kant? If we rightly blame distorted religion for the Crusades, Galileo’s arrest, and the Inquisition, we should credit religious longing in its highest forms with the Sistine Chapel and Alhambra.

Certainly, Enlightenment reason freed minds from superstition and opened countless avenues of investigation. Yet other than a single mention of “murderous Jacobins,” Mooney glosses over the historical lesson that rationalism and egalitarianism, in the extreme, lead to gallows and gulag.

At the managerial level, hyper-rationalism is necessarily utilitarian. But in a multicultural society—a liberal project—there can be no agreement on what constitutes common good. Despotism is the only recourse. Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer have suggestions.

The liberal mind, in all its purported subtlety, can be disastrously, murderously wrong. Long after evidence of unprecedented atrocity trickled out of the Soviet Union, the intellectual left in the United States continued its infatuation with totalitarian communism, seeing in Stalinism the realization of the aims of the French Revolution.

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was a progressive project as grounded in racism and nasty paternalism as it was in good intentions. Today, the left’s doctrinaire support for programs that incentivize young women to have children out of wedlock virtually ensures increasing poverty, dependence, and resentment—problems that could prove as disastrous as climate change.

Mooney, in his reverence for science, seems oblivious to potential threats to human dignity posed by certain kinds of genetic, neurological, and psychological investigations. “The thrill is to be part of a dramatic merger of science, psychology, and biology that ultimately promises to uncover a ‘science of human nature.’ … Any guesses about what personality types will want to be working in this area, or how they’re likely to vote?”

No doubt, researchers will vote for the party “brimming with intellectuals and Ph.Ds.” Then egalitarianism won’t be demolished by authoritarians, but by liberal scientists. If, as Mooney asserts and some studies suggest, white Christian men are especially recalcitrant in their denial of climate change and their personalities can be partially attributed to genes, then surely planners and “experts” will need to know the strengths and weaknesses of other groups so as to ensure Progress.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Mooney that dogged resistance to climate science might have something to do with loyalty and priority. If you look at an image of a 10-week-old fetus and see “human,” instead of a lump of insentient human tissue, then climate change is not humanity’s most pressing issue.

Early in the book, Mooney promises not to engage in “what is often called reductionism,” reducing conservatives to their psychology. For the most part, he keeps his promise. Yet he can’t help but resort to reductionism when he describes responses of various regions of the brain to laboratory stimuli. Thus deep affection for one’s own people and place is reduced to simple fear of change and can be readily interpreted as racism. Do liberals see no threats other than Christians and shagbark reactionaries?

And this: “Conservatives—especially religious ones—are also in denial about the single most important thing that we human beings know about ourselves: Namely, that our species evolved by natural selection and therefore shares a common ancestor with every other living thing on earth.”

That we evolved by natural selection tells us more about ourselves than all of the recorded wisdom of the ancients? More than the works of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky? More than the Delta blues?

If this is where Enlightenment reason takes us, Chris Mooney can have it. Count me on the side of superstition.

Henry Chappell is a novelist and journalist in Parker, Texas. His latest novel, Silent We Stood, will be published next year.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here