Why are anti-science conservatives so damn condescending?

The center-right Washington Post publishes another inane attack on liberals

I’m going to invent a new word — CONservativeDESCENDING. It carries the traditional meaning “displaying a patronizingly superior attitude” but it only applies to people displaying such an attitude while adopting an anti-scientific position, while descending into disinformation and obfuscation that threatens all of our children and countless generations beyond them.

After all, everyone with strongly held views appears condescending to those who disagree with them, but only those who are CONservativeDESCENDING can be patronizingly superior while being objectively wrong. Indeed, the fact that just about everyone appears condescending to those who disagree with them makes it utterly inane for the Washington Post to publish an Outlook piece Sunday, “Why are liberals so condescending?” — and have a “Q&A, Mon., 11 a.m.: Outlook: Why are liberals so condescending to conservatives?

Before addressing the nonsensical thesis of the piece in as un-condescending a manner as possible, let me first note that the piece is doubly nonsensical being published in the Post, which is the home of the single most condescending person in the country — or at least the single most condescending person who has a media megaphone, the person who defines the word CONservativeDESCENDING.  Indeed, while I defy you to find any liberal columnist for the Post who routinely displays a patronizingly superior attitude to conservatives, I defy you to find a George Will column that does not display a patronizingly superior attitude to liberals.

For instance, just last year, the Post published one of his anti-scientific pieces with the headline, “Climate Change’s Dim Bulbs.”  I kid you not.  What was particularly striking about that condescending diatribe was that the Post, abandoning any journalistic standards, let Will publish for the third time global warming lies debunked on its own pages!  That is the epitome of CONservativeDESCENDING.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the Outlook article is yet another opinion piece by a right winger (see Post’s Kurtz calls paper’s op-ed page “left-leaning” “” even as it features mostly right wingers) — Gerard Alexander, Visiting Scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute   But you might be surprised the Post does not share the AEI affiliation with their readers.  I’ll be interested to see what the print edition says about Alexander, but online they merely say he’s a U. VA. professor giving a talk at AEI Monday.

But, of course, the fact that he is conservative doesn’t mean he’s wrong — it would be condescending to suggest that.  No, he’s wrong because, well, his argument just makes no sense:

Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration.

[I suppose it would be simply be too condescending to point out that the second sentence doesn’t quite make sense as written.]

Hmm.  Let’s see.  Who wrote this condescending piece on the opinion pages of the Washington Post last year?

The revelation of appalling actions by so-called climate change experts….

The e-mails reveal that leading climate “experts” deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to “hide the decline” in global temperatures….

I’ve always believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics….

Our representatives in Copenhagen should remember that good environmental policymaking is about weighing real-world costs and benefits — not pursuing a political agenda….

In his inaugural address, President Obama declared his intention to “restore science to its rightful place.” But instead of staying home from Copenhagen and sending a message that the United States will not be a party to fraudulent scientific practices….

Without trustworthy science and with so much at stake, Americans should be wary about what comes out of this politicized conference.

Yes, that is Sarah Palin, who the Post also allowed to publish falsehoods that were debunked on its own pages.

What is remarkable about that piece is not merely its anti-science anti-intellectualism, but that it simultaneously satisfies the very definition Alexander offers for condescension.  Palin repeatedly asserted that her views are “correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while [liberal] positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration.”

Again my point isn’t that liberals are never condescending — only that it is transparently obvious that conservatives are every bit as condescending and that it is nonsensical to assert otherwise.  Just read the message boards at anti-science websites like WattUpWithThat.

Alexander writes:

Some observers have decried an anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in George W. Bush’s aw-shucks style, Sarah Palin’s college-hopping and the occasional conservative campaigns against egghead intellectuals.

Note the strawman.  “College-hopping” is not a significant basis for observers’ detection of an anti-intellectual strain in Palin.  It’s her anti-scientific anti-intellectualism that is the basis for that view.

Alexander cleverly dodges the not-“occasional,” but now permanent campaign against scientists, especially on the climate issue:

Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science” argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda….

He turns Mooney’s well-argued analysis on conservative disdain for climate science — which has been more than vindicated by the ceaseless attacks on climate science and climate scientists from the right-wing — into a dispute that is merely about the cost of action, where he thinks conservatives are on strong intellectual grounds:

Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend. Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care. Supporters of such efforts want to ensure that key decisions will be made in the public interest and be informed, for example, by sound science, the best new medical research or prudent standards of private-sector competition. But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals.

Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras. Of course, thinking twice would be easier if more of them were listening to conservatives at all.

The Post‘s editors let Alexander ignore the entire dispute over climate science — where conservatives embrace a remarkably consistent anti-scientific strain, led by the uber-condescending Will (and Palin).  But at least they (apparently unwittingly) let him hang himself intellectually (again, apparently unwittingly):

Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend


If the most important conservative insight is that free marketeers should get complete freedom from government oversight, then the most important conservative intellectual insight has just been smashed to bits on the rocky shoals of the Bush-Cheney depression.  Of course, avoiding such catastrophes would be easier if more conservatives were listening to liberals at all.  Sorry if that sounded a little condescending, but at least it wasn’t CONservativeDESCENDING.

I won’t be having a Q&A Monday sponsored by the Post on “Why are liberals so condescending to conservatives?” so in lieu of that, I’d like to here from you on “Why are conservatives so condescending to liberals?”

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34 Responses to Why are anti-science conservatives so damn condescending?

  1. Dean says:

    The idea that liberals are more patronizing than conservatives is just another one of the successful messaging efforts by conservatives in recent decades. And while there are some liberals that play into it and make the messaging effort easier, there are conservatives who would also make it easy, like they did in the 60s (think Archie Bunker).

    A side issue of this is urban vs rural. The idealism of small-town America and the “heartland” vs big city America, where most of us live, and where most of the wealth is created, creates a foundation that makes this messaging effort easier. Is a small town in Iowa or Missouri really heartland of this country? In earlier decades a city with an auto or steel factory was probably the true heartland.

  2. Jonah says:

    “Why are conservatives so condescending to liberals?”

    They’ve been given a simple, consistent, compelling narrative.

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    Condescension on discussion oriented sites is often accompanied by the “John Houseman Affect”, a posture of frosty, dry academic rectitude where what is a discussion between equals suddenly is accompanied by such demands as “Please show your work”, “Demonstrate with calculations, with references for all claims”, etc.

    For some reason this peculiarity is usually displayed by contrarians, and though I can’t show calculations or references it does seem to appear mostly when a contrarian argument is about to collapse. I guess it’s a coping mechanism to avoid descending into spluttering invective.

  4. DreamQuestor says:

    As John Stuart Mill once observed:

    Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.


  5. mike roddy says:

    Very interesting essay, Joe. I certainly agree about Will- this man exudes condescension, even though it is based on verbal spider webs, not knowledge. I’m glad you cited his and the Post’s continuing whopper about glaciers, too, which absolutely mystifies me.

    Alexander is of course just another lockstep conservative, looking for reasons to perpetuate the burning of fossil fuels and the conversion of our forests to two by fours and packaging. Inadvertently he did raise a legitimate point: how do you talk to a conservative who is skeptical about climate change (to borrow and reverse a phrase from Ann Coulter)?

    Having been through this exercise for years on other blogs, one thing I’ve learned is that engaging in rational discussion on issues of science doesn’t go anywhere. They either cite another piece of bad data or engage in arguments that can best be described as high school debates: a little bit of content, and a lot of argumentative technique. This leads to a stalemate, because after a while the actual evidence recedes into the background- especially since when I or a scientist proves them wrong, they never admit it, just like Will. The deniers on the blogs, at least, are deniers for life, for reasons I can’t really fathom.

    Alexander is right that (even though conservatives are equally guilty) this leads to “liberals” like me hurling insults, or, to quote their favorite pseudo intellectual phrase, “ad hominem” attacks. The point of this is actually that their opinions on matters of scientific evidence are in almost every case dishonest and without merit, and I will agree with Alexander that I hold this opinion. This includes their negative cost benefit claims of action on climate change, which have been equally debunked.

    Maybe others who are both more qualified and less aggressive than I need to carry this banner of basic evidence a little more forcefully, and laugh and scoff at the basic denier positions. Let them call these scientists and liberals condescending; who cares what labels they choose, anyway, since the deniers are not grounded in facts?

    IPCC and current tutorials from scientists on the evidence aren’t making enough of a dent in public ignorance and obstruction, which has been so well stoked by far right think tanks and their friends in the media. The best ways to overcome this unfortunate faux intellectual standoff remain to be determined.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Members of the un-scientific “right” (and not all people on the “right” are un-scientific, of course) do this for two reasons. One is best represented by this observation, from Thomas Jefferson:

    “Resort is had to ridicule only when reason is against us.”

    – Thomas Jefferson

    The other motivation has to do with the felt need for people to do things to preserve their own sense of self and their own self-respect. Some of these people have actually convinced themselves, out of the need to preserve their own ego, that they are “above” the laws and dynamics of nature. Foolish, yes, but that’s the reality for some of them.



  7. EMTguy says:

    Jeff Huggins (#5) quotes Jefferson thus: “Resort is had to ridicule only when reason is against us.” Re-read the post which prompted these comments. No ridicule there.

    I’m afraid ridicule has become about equally spread among all sides of the AGW issue. When there exists equality in ridicule, the advantage ascribed to it by Alinsky becomes a wash. A truce in the ridicule arena might let truth become evident. Who wants to be first?

  8. caerbannog says:

    A bit off-topic, but here’s an article that folks here should read:


    “The leak was bad. Then came the death threats.”


    But he pleads provocation. Last year in July alone the unit received 60 FoI requests from across the world. With a staff of only 13 to cope with them, the demands were accumulating faster than they could be dealt with. “According to the rules,” says Jones, “you have to do 18 hours’ work on each one before you’re allowed to turn it down.” It meant that the scientists would have had a lot of their time diverted from research.

    A further irritation was that most of the data was available online, making the FoI requests, in Jones’s view, needless and a vexatious waste of his time. In the circumstances, he says, he thought it reasonable to refer the applicants to the website of the Historical Climatology Network in the US.

    He also suspected that the CRU was the target of a co-ordinated attempt to interfere with its work — a suspicion that hardened into certainty when, over a matter of days, it received 40 similar FoI requests. Each applicant asked for data from five different countries, 200 in all, which would have been a daunting task even for someone with nothing else to do. It was clear to Jones that the attack originated from an old adversary, the sceptical website Climate Audit, run by Steve McIntyre, a former minerals prospector and arch climate sceptic.

    “We were clearly being targeted,” says Jones. “Only 22% of the FoI enquiries were identifiably from within the UK, 39% were from abroad and 39% were untraceable.” What irked him was that the foreign applicants would all have had sources closer to hand in their own countries.

  9. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Insecurity? Smart educated people are telling them things they don’t like. So they react the only way science-ignorant people can react–with condescension. Or they’re all suffering from Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

  10. espiritwater says:

    Wow! I didn’t realize they were that bad! They’re evil! I would call them something much worse than deniers.

    Palin’s remarks were particularly dispicable. Who is she to talk as if she knows better that the best scientists in the world? She’s utterly ridiculous and disgusting! (She probably had prompts– too dumb to come up with all that by herself).

  11. Doug Bostrom says:

    caerbannog says: February 6, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    That is a part of this story the sanctimonious twits tut-tutting in feigned outrage over CRU’s FOI fumble are delighted to ignore. Put in the same position, I’m quite confident the vast majority of them would turn out to be rank hypocrites in comparison to the standards they insist others follow.

    Legislators have limited foresight and all too often a failure to anticipate unintended consequences. A revisit of FOI to make it robust against abuse would be a fine thing.

  12. espiritwater says:

    One thing’s for sure: there’s a war going on. And it’s only going to get worse. The fossil fuel industry/ rich cats at the top are out to win at any cost.

  13. TomG says:

    If the rich cats at the top win, regardless of cost, there won’t be much of a prize at the bottom of the box.
    All the monetary riches of this earth cannot buy us another planet.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Ok, I suppose one could try the line I have a livable planet I want to sell you.

  15. Richard Brenne says:

    “Why are anti-science conservatives so damn condescending?” is Joe’s headline question.

    Maybe Winston Churchill in one of his famous quotes can provide the answer:

    “Because so little is at stake” – no, that was what he said about why faculty politics are so bitter. With climate change everything is at stake.

    “Because they have a lot to be humble about” – no, while true, they are not generally humble.

    “You’re right, Right Winger, I am quite condescending, but tomorrow morning you’ll still be completely ignorant while I shall be indisputably sober.” – closer.

    “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” – okay.

  16. Leif says:

    Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Wiki.
    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. ”

    — Bertrand Russell[2]

  17. Andy says:

    The Ehrlich’s book: The Betrayal of Science and Reason, written after G W Bush was first elected, was right on target. Also see: 1984 and Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The general public sometimes wants to be decieved. It’s easier than dealing with change; especially when those who have the most to lose from change are able to convince the citizens that no matter what course of action they choose, the result will be worse than if they had chosen to do nothing. That is what is going on here. The corporatocracy is now directly telling the public that they have no real control over their destiny; anything anyone tries to do to better the nation will only backfire. No one can do anything any better than what we’ve always done. Sit back and enjoy it.

  18. What’s the speed of dark?

  19. fj2 says:

    The same reason why movies are so engaging: When you look behind the scenes it is all fake!

  20. fj2 says:

    Experienced negotiators will likely tell you that it is extremely difficult if not impossible negotiating with people who are stupid or crazy. Communist Russia was quite adept at this ploy . . . they fooled the CIA! . . . as are public conservatives.

    The President’s strategy of direct deliberative confrontation should have some success in exposing the facade but, immediate decisive action addressing personal financial, climate change, and health care crisis will be much more expedient.

  21. Jon says:

    Amanda Marcotte had a great post a couple of years ago on how the “arrogant liberals” dynamic works:

    Nixon, the neoconservatives (with their “New Class”), all use this kind of dynamic to the hilt. It’s kind of like conservatives epistemology is based on groupthink and spin… if you insist on sound methods instead (for instance, science), that must mean you’re an arrogant know-it-all, because that’s the way you look, you latte-drinking, ivy-league-graduating, volvo-driving, etc etc etc.

  22. Jon says:

    Check out this Sam Tanenhaus piece from earlier this year. This summarizes the dynamic better than anything I’ve seen (ignore the first sentence, which doesn’t concern us–it’s an exchange with another writer.):

  23. Wit's End says:

    Maybe because they get paid to be?

    “Think-tanks take oil money and use it to fund climate deniers…
    ExxonMobil cash supported concerted campaign to undermine case for man-made warming”:

  24. Wit's End says:

    espiritwater, you are so right, and you will probably enjoy this post about Palin’s prompts! The video parody is brilliant too:

    The best thing for Obama as for the Republicans to run someone bland, and Palin to run as a third-party (Tea Bagger?) candidate. She will siphon some significant percentage of votes from the RBland, not Obama.

    Caerbannog, that story about the harassment of scientists is despicable!

  25. Richard Brenne says:

    Over on DotEarth (yes, I occasionally stray and visit other sites, only to return to the open hearth and arms of CP – and I was only looking anyway) during yet another post about the conflict rather than the science or reality of what’s happening, where the deniers comment and grow on such posts like unthinking spores, I finally had enough, cracked and wrote:

    You win! You’ve successfully denied what science including climate science has been telling you about overpopulation, overconsumption and their effects including climate change, species loss, peak oil and all other resource depletion!

    What do you win? Generations of unprecedented misery! Congratulations!

  26. Leif says:

    Richard: If there were only some way that the Anti-Science faction could reap what they sow without dragging the rest of us into the quagmire…
    In a perfect world there would be two Spaceship Earths. One for them to trash and wallow in swill. One for us to attempt long term sustainability and even hug a tree or two should the notion arise.

  27. SecularAnimist says:

    What is called “conservatism” in America today is nothing but a fake, phony, trumped-up, corporate-sponsored, Madison Avenue-scripted, focus-group-tested, talk-radio-programmed pseudo-ideology, designed to bamboozle and manipulate weak-minded, ignorant, gullible dupes — people who actually call themselves “Ditto-Heads.”

    There are basically two types of “conservatives” in America today: the bought-and-paid-for purveyors of a phony pseudo-ideology, and their dupes.

    Gerard Alexander is a member of the first group — the “Purveyors” — and his sneering screed against the “condescension” of “liberals” exemplifies the unending barrage of blatant BS that his class supplies to the second group — the “Dupes” — to feed their hatred of “liberals”, which is the only real content of their “conservative” pseudo-ideology. His message about the evils of “powerful liberal elites” is nothing but rote regurgitation of the same old demonizing, scapegoating, hate-mongering message that can be heard every day from Rush Limbaugh, and that was heard every day in 1930s Germany from Goebbels (except then it was “powerful Jewish elites”).

    The fact is no one is more “condescending” towards the Dupes than Gerard Alexander and his fellow Purveyors. They know full well that rank-and-file Ditto-Head / Tea-Bagger “conservatives” are weak-minded, ignorant, gullible dupes who will slavishly believe anything they are told that is branded “conservative”. Alexander’s article is just more deliberate, cynical pushing of the well-programmed buttons of the Dupes.

    And as for the Dupes, they basically constitute a “cult for hire”. Imagine what it would cost ExxonMobil, for example, to actually hire and pay for a legion of deniers who would spend hours deluging every blog, call-in-radio-program, newspaper letters column, etc. where climate change is discussed with scripted denialist talking points. Fortunately for ExxonMobil, they don’t need to hire such people — because the ultra-rich reactionary corporate extremists who invented and funded the so-called “right wing media” have created a cult of “conservatives” who will enthusiastically do that stuff because they have been conditioned to obtain pleasure and a sense of self-worth from repeating whatever Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin tells them. So the denialist message is sent out by the “right wing” propaganda machine, and the zombie army of Ditto-Heads and Tea-Baggers picks it up and runs with it.

    That’s what “conservatism” is. And Gerard Alexander — as a “visiting scholar” at the ExxonMobil-funded American Enterprise Institute — is very well aware of it.

  28. #16, Leif: I suspect Russell was hearkening back to Yeats:

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all convictions, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    — “The Second Coming”

  29. espiritwater says:

    To Richard Brenne (#15)- A quote which comes to my mind (concerning the deniers): “He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; shun him”.

  30. espiritwater says:

    When scientists start getting death threats (#8- above), and CBS, which I thought was a non-partisan, respectable news channel– starts making fun of scientists (and that was after they admitted the scientist was exonerated!) then I think things are really getting bad! It is scarey.

  31. Nick says:

    Why are anti-science conservatives so condescending? Because they don’t do content,they just do packaging.

  32. John Stanley says:

    There’s a very useful piece of “unpackaging” on the front page of the UK Independent on Sunday, headlining an investigation of the funding network behind “climate $keptics”.

    Across a picture of an oil refinery runs the banner headline: “Climate Change $ceptics”, subtitle: “REVEALED: The role of big business in financing the campaign against the global warming lobby”.

    Of course the best frame for the subtitle would have been “the role of the fossil fuels complex in financing the war on climate science”. But $keptics is a great start to the unmasking process.

    The lesson of relentless anti-climate science sociopathy is to generate a rapid and coherent response. It was the lesson that candidate Kerry did not learn in the face of the “swift boat” smear campaign. It is something that should be demanded now of the UK, EU and US (governments), who have the duty and resources to support real science and future generations against a “permanent PR campaign” of corporate disinformation.

    Condescension is a well-known technique to disempower an opponent – the better to intimidate them or manipulate a TV audience. One appropriate verbal response would be to “catch the monster in the act” ie. challenge the behaviour politely, firmly and immediately, eg.”Excuse me, but are you condescending to me? There is no genuine, rational or scientific justification for any such thing. You may be trying to intimidate me or manipulate the viewers, but that has nothing to do with the relevant facts”.

  33. Chris Winter says:

    As noted above, Gerard Alexander wrote: “Some observers have decried an anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in […] the occasional conservative campaigns against egghead intellectuals.”

    Yeah, what could be more misguided than supposing a campaign against “egghead intellectuals” signals any sort of anti-intellectualism?


    Their terminology always betrays them…

  34. Richard Brenne says:

    SecularAnimist(#27) – Amazing, brilliant comment!

    Leif (#26) – Ditto!