Chris Mooney: Why Conservatives Don’t Believe in Science
March 29, 2012
Chris Mooney is the author of ”The Republican War on Science”.
The following is excerpted from a longer piece discussing his most recent book, “The Republican Brain”.
I think we need to understand three points in order to understand why conservatives act this way. And I will list them here, before going into them in more detail:
Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.
Conservative “Morality” Impels Climate Denial — and in particular, conservative Individualism.
Fox News is the Key “Feedback Mechanism” — whereby people already inclined to believe false things get all the license and affirmation they need.
Let’s go into more detail:
1: Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.
There’s now a staggering amount of research on the psychological and even the physiological traits of people who opt for conservative ideologies. And on average, you see people who are more wedded to certainty, and to having fixed beliefs. You also see people who are more sensitive to fear and threat — in a way that can be measured in their bodily responses to certain types of stimuli.
At the extreme of these traits, you see a group called authoritarians – those who are characterized by cognitive rigidity, seeing things in black and white ways — “in group/out group,” my way or the highway.
So in this case, if someone high on such traits latches on to a particular belief — in this case, “global warming is a hoax” — then more knowledge about it is not necessarily going to open their minds. More knowledge is just going to be used to argue what they already think.
And we see this in the Tea Party, where we have both the highest levels of global warming denial, but also this incredibly strong confidence that they know all they need to know about the issue, and they don’t want any more information, thank you very much.
2. Conservative “Morality” Impels Climate Denial — in particular, Conservative Individualism.
But, you might say, “well, Tea Party conservatives don’t deny every aspect of reality.” And it’s true. Presumably, they still will accept a factual correction if they have, say, the date of Mother’s Day wrong. Presumably they’re still open minded about that… we hope.
So why deny this particular thing? Why deny that global warming is caused by humans? And here, I think you’ve got to look at deep seated moral intuitions that differs from left to right. And it’s important to note at the outset that whatever your moral intuitions are, they push you emotionally to reason in a particular direction long before you are actually consciously thinking about it.
So, conservatives tend to be “individualists”– meaning, essentially, that they prize a system in which government leaves you alone — and “hierarchs,” meaning, they are supportive of various types of inequality.
The individualist is threatened by global warming, deeply threatened, because it means that markets have failed and governments — including global governments — have to step in to fix the problem. And some individualists are so threatened by this reality that they even spin out conspiracy theories, arguing that all the world’s scientists are in a cabal with, like, the UN, to make up phony science so they can crash economies.
So now let’s look at what these individualist assumptions do to the denial of science. In one study by Yale’s Dan Kahan and colleagues:
“Individualist-hierarchs” and “egalitarian-communitarians” are asked: Who’s an expert on global warming?
Only 23 percent of H-I’s agree that a scientist who thinks GW is human-caused is a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert,” vs. 88 percent of E-Cs
In another study, meanwhile, Kahan showed that if you frame the science of global warming as supporting nuclear power, then conservatives are more open to accepting it, presumably because it does not insult their values any longer.
3. Fox News is the Key “Feedback Mechanism” — whereby people who want to believe false things get all the license they need.
So clearly, there are some deeply rooted attributes that predispose conservatives towards the denial of global warming.
But there are also “environmental” factors — things that have come to exist in our world that did not exist before, that interact with these things about conservatives, and make all this much worse.
And here, Fox News is undeniably at the top of the list. There are now a host of studies (video here) showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed about various aspects of reality, including two such studies about global warming.
So if you’ve got Fox News, you’ve got a place to go to reaffirm your beliefs. And that serves this psychological need for certainty and security. So conservatives opt in, they get the misinformation, their beliefs are reaffirmed, and they’re set to argue, argue, argue about why they’re right and all the scientists of the world are wrong.
So in sum, we need a nature-nurture, or a combined psychological and environmental account of the conservative denial of global warming. And only then do we see why they are so doggedly espousing a set of beliefs that are so wildly dangerous to the planet.