Saturday, April 20, 2013

review: the republican brain - the science of why they deny science and reality

energyskeptic | I doubt many Republicans are going to read this book. They ought to. Mooney is thoughtful and insightful. Compare his evidence-based book with the Republican counterpart, Ann Coulter’s “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republican”.  Some chapter titles:
  • Teddy Kennedy: apparently fat, drunk, and stupid is a way to go through life
  • Liberal “argument”: hissing, scratching, and hair-pulling,
  • Liberalism and other psychological disorders
  • Liberal tactics: distortion, dissembling, deception—and the rest is just run-of-the-mill treason
  • Baby-killing: Abort liberals, not children
  • Blacks: the only thing standing between the democrat party and oblivion
  • Christians: must Reproduce More
  • Communism: a new fragrance by Hillary Clinton
  • Environmentalism: Adolf Hitler was the first environmentalist
  • Evolution, Alchemy, and other “settled” scientific theories
Some good news: not everyone is equally biased.  Many of us are capable of listening to others and changing our views.  But this varies a lot from person to person, because people differ in their need to defend their point of view, in their need to have convictions that must not change, in their need to believe their group is right, and in their need for unity with their group.  If you’re wired and strongly motivated to have unwavering convictions, it will be almost impossible to change your mind with any facts, logic, or reason.  Mooney makes the case that this kind of person has a conservative mind, and is therefore likely to be a Republican.
Mooney likens someone with a strongly held opinion that’s being challenged to experiencing a physical attack, because these beliefs are physically embedded in the brain.

Which means you can’t expect to come up with undeniable, irrefutable facts and suddenly change someone’s mind, since their strongly held beliefs are literally wired into their brains.

Linguist George Lakoff, at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to think you can change someone’s beliefs with well-reasoned arguments is not only naïve, it’s also unwise and ineffective.
Reasoning is emotional, what psychologists call hot reasoning. We are not coldly rational.  Not even scientists are immune.  But what makes science the most successful way we have of testing reality is the scientific method, since peer review, experimental replication, and critiques from other scientists mean that eventually the best ideas emerge despite any individual’s biases. Within scientific circles, it’s considered admirable to give up cherished ideas when evidence shows you to be wrong.

Mooney believes this is a key difference between liberals and conservatives.  Scientists are overwhelmingly liberal — they have to be, or they won’t get far in their profession.  Please note this does not mean that their scientific discoveries are liberal or democratic.  Scientific findings aren’t political, they’re reality, and only become “political” when spun that way.  The opposite of a scientist is a religious, authoritarian, political conservative, because they tend to have a strong need to never modify their deeply held beliefs, or to ever appear to be uncertain and indecisive.

Since most of the most important problems that need to be solved require scientific literacy, which less than 10% of Americans have, here’s how Mooney says scientific news is interpreted by the other 90% of the public:

“When it comes to the dissemination of science—or contested facts in general—across a nonscientific populace, a very different process is often occurring than the scientific one.  A vast number of individuals, with widely varying motivations, are responding to the conclusions that science, allegedly, has reached.  Or so they’ve heard.

They’ve heard through a wide variety of information sources—news outlets with differing politics, friends and neighbors, political elites—and are processing the information through different brains, with very different commitments and beliefs, and different psychological needs and cognitive styles. And ironically, the fact that scientists and other experts usually employ so much nuance, and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty when they communicate their results, makes the evidence they present highly amenable to selective reading and misinterpretation.  Giving ideologues or partisans data that’s relevant to their beliefs is a lot like unleashing them in the motivated reasoning equivalent of a candy store.  In this context, rather than reaching an agreement or a consensus, you can expect different sides to polarize over the evidence and how to interpret it”.


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