The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths)

by Chris Mooney, in a DeSmogBlog cross-post

Over the last year here at DeSmogBlog, my writings have converged around a set of common themes. On the one hand, I’ve shown just how factually incorrect today’s political conservatives are, documenting the disproportionate amount of misinformation believed by Fox News watchers and the disproportionate wrongness of the right when it comes to science.

At the same time, I’ve advanced a variety of psychological explanations for why we might be seeing so much political and scientific misinformation today on the right wing. For instance, I’ve unpacked the theory of motivated reasoning; and I’ve also talked about why conservative white males in particular seem to be such strong deniers of climate science.

All of this, I’m now prepared to say, is just the iceberg tip. You see, for the last year, I’ve been working on a book on the same topic, which explains why conservatives are so factually incorrect—drawing on the latest research in social psychology, political science, cognitive neuroscience, and other fields.

The book is now finished in draft form—due out next year with Wiley—and it is long past time to formally announce its existence. After all, it is already up on Amazon. But I can go farther by showing the draft cover image (the current subtitle is likely to change, as this phenomenon goes far, far beyond science, as does the book).  I can also share the text that will soon go up to Amazon and elsewhere. Eat your heart out, Ann Coulter:


Bestselling author Chris Mooney uses cutting-edge research to explain the psychology behind why today’s Republicans reject reality—it’s just part of who they are.

From climate change to evolution, the rejection of mainstream science among Republicans is growing, as is the denial of expert consensus on the economy, American history, foreign policy and much more. Why won’t Republicans accept things that most experts agree on? Why are they constantly fighting against the facts?

Science writer Chris 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 and 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.

· Goes beyond the standard claims about ignorance or corporate malfeasance to discover the real, scientific reasons why Republicans reject the widely accepted findings of mainstream science, economics, and history—as well as many undeniable policy facts (e.g., there were no “death panels” in the health care bill).

· Explains that the political parties reflect personality traits and psychological needs—with Republicans more wedded to certainty, Democrats to novelty—and this is the root of our divide over reality.

· Written by the author of The Republican War on Science, which was the first and still the most influential book to look at conservative rejection of scientific evidence. But the rejection of science is just the beginning…

Certain to spark discussion and debate, The Republican Brain also promises to add to the lengthy list of persuasive scientific findings that Republicans reject and deny.

I know very well that this invites controversy, so let me say (even though I expect many conservatives will ignore it!) that the book also fully documents the handicaps and drawbacks of liberal/Democratic psychology. It’s a yin-and-yang kind of thing; you can’t make one argument without the other.

There’s a reason Winston Churchill was a better wartime leader than Neville Chamberlain. There’s a reason why the Tea Party got itself elected in under two years, while Occupy Wall Street is kinda all over the place. There’s a reason why we have scores of environmental groups that often can’t see eye to eye. There’s a reason, as George Lakoff and others have noted, why Democrats (and scientists!) focus too much on policy facts and details rather than winning over people’s hearts (and winning elections).

But when it comes to determining what’s true about complex, technical subjects—issues full of ambiguity and uncertainty, where you can’t just jump to conclusions and have to stay open-minded and tentative in your beliefs—I’ll take the scientific-liberal approach any day. And after reading the book, I think so will you.

The implications of this argument about liberalism, conservatism, and the facts are vast. For instance, media “balance,” and the allegedly neutral fact-checking enterprise, founder completely if the two political camps have a different relationship with ambiguity, nuance, certainty, and ultimately, facts.

Meanwhile, cases of liberals or moderates attacking their own allies and making really weak arguments—e.g., absurd suggestions that conservatives aren’t actually more wrong about science, or that scientists are just politically biased—will come into focus as (admittedly annoying) instances of the core liberal search for novelty, complexity, and new ways of looking at things. In other words, liberal contrarians just can’t help it! They need to be different, puckish, disobedient.

Very real cases of liberals, or leftists, also being wrong about the facts, on issues like vaccination, will also be discussed and explained.

I’ll be saying a lot more in coming months, including (I hope) rolling out some novel inquiries undertaken for the book.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more, the always awesome David Roberts has recently written two perceptive columns with a very similar theme. See here and here. And Andrew Kuszewski has covered the cognitive neuroscience of liberalism and conservatism in a very smart piece here. This will also be the subject of a panel at the 2012 Science Online conference, convened by myself and Andrea.

My book synthesizes all of this, and much more, and, I hope, pushes the ball further.

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and author of the bestselling book The Republican War on Science. This piece was originally published at DeSmogBlog.

38 Responses to The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths)

  1. greg says:

    This looks like a fascinating read. I wonder to what extent these differences are heritable, to what degree conservatives today are reproducing more than progressives, and thus what these differences mean for the future of humanity.

  2. cervantes says:

    Sorry but I have a quibble. The claim that the anti-vaxers are somehow of the “left” is simply false, but it is often seized upon to inject false balance into this discussion. Unfortunately the despicable RFK Jr. is an anti-vaxer and also purports to be a progressive, but he’s only one person, and he has been roundly and widely repudiated by the progressive community. Otherwise, they’re as likely, or more likely, to be wingnuts than they are to be lefties. Same goes for all the snake oil salesmen and quack doctors. This has nothing to do with the left-right ideological spectrum.

  3. cervantes says:

    (Unfortunately RFK Jr. was given a platform here. Hopefully that will never happen again.)

  4. Joe Romm says:

    It might.

  5. M Tucker says:

    Social science…this will be an interesting read but I am always skeptical of drawing conclusions from social science…Sure Churchill / Chamberlain can lead to one conclusion BUT Roosevelt / the Entire Republican congress will lead to something that seems quite different.

    Ok those are politicians, what of scientists:

    But when it comes to determining what’s true about complex, technical subjects—issues full of ambiguity and uncertainty, where you can’t just jump to conclusions and have to stay open-minded and tentative in your beliefs—I’ll take the scientific-liberal approach any day.

    We are not even going to suggest that politically conservative scientists do not engage in complex technical subjects are we?

    I will keep an open mind and wait until I read the book to pass judgment.

  6. Leif says:

    So is it “nature” or “nurture” that makes a person Republican. If is “nature” it would imply like Gay or Lesbian and require acceptance and assimilation. Can society even afford to assimilate a growing portion of “reality ignores” in today’s fast pace scientific civilization? If it “nurture” the question becomes, what societal pressures enhance the affection? Who or what is benefiting? How can reality break the ice without ecocide as the outcome, and ultimate decider?

  7. Peter Mizla says:

    Just my biased opine

    republicans I have dealt with seem either in denial (of everything from climate change to gay family members) to guilt- for just about everything.

    Is it a chemical thing? ;-)

  8. Over the shape of the brain, I’ll go with the old economic reason: It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding. Add in the blow to their intellectual vanity by admitting that they (right wingers) were wrong, and we’re doomed.

  9. Greg Wellman says:

    This is a good point. Anti-vaxers are all over the political spectrum. Indeed, the currently most prominent elected official to express anti-vax ideas is Michelle Bachman. There is simply no left wing equivalent to the right wing litmus test for AGW denial.

  10. Timeslayer says:

    Jeffrey, whose salary depends on him or her rejecting the scientific evidence of climate change? I think that’s a very very small group of people, relatively to the US population.


  11. prokaryotes says:

    Video – Conservative Brain Vs. Liberal Brain – Study

    Conservative brains are more active in the area for fear and other primitive emotions.

  12. Russell says:

    To restore bipartisan comity, might Chris prevail on Joe and Anne to measure each others cranial volumes?

  13. Gestur says:

    Oh, not to sound too pedantic and certainly giving only a thumbnail sketch of my own views on this, but as usual, I think what we are seeing in this growth of denialism in general is the result of a complex mixture of genetic tendencies that have always been present in the gene pool at approximately the same levels and the evolution of our societies in ways that allow these genetic predispositions to ‘express themselves’ more readily, as the geneticists would say. And what are these societal enablers, as it were? I’d say an important one today is the fact that individuals with any kind of predilection can ‘find’ others so readily through the Internet in particular. Just think how easy it is now to generate and propagate publicity. So whereas a hundred years ago someone with these tendencies had to exert quite a bit of effort and spend considerable time to find support and encouragement from others, now it’s a breeze. And that ease of identifying and indeed learning from others of similar views, I think deepens an individual’s commitment to and belief in those values. I’m pretty sure that I’ve worked this out in my head in the middle of the night with a lot more clarity, but it seems to me to be another example of how in so many ways we’ve reached a point that is, well, inevitable.

    Of course with the particular case of climate change and unlike denying the safety of immunizations or evolution, there are economic incentives for some people whose livelihoods depend—or who perceive their livelihoods to depend—to some extent on continuing the status quo. And for most people and on top of that, the hard-wired dislike of change.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    It could be more dynamic. I favor acceptance.

    Think about how former segregationist Governor George Wallace, in a wheel chair and cared for by a black man, made a public statement repudiating segregation. He had experienced compassion from someone who could have hated him.

    I formerly worked as a lab assistant among neuroscientists, and I never cease to be amazed that a brain made of soft fatty gooey material can store memories at an amazing level of detail, learn to make decisions, and control emotions and their expression.

  15. Chris Winter says:

    RFK, Jr. is wrong about vaccines (I’ve heard him rant on the topic) but AFAIK he’s not wrong about his other positions. Ergo he may still deserve a forum.

  16. Eventually we may get to the issue of how to work constructively with the realities oft he situation… Even as we continue to revel in understanding such underlying realities in more precise detail and more accurate overall pattern.

  17. I think you’re being a bit literal there. I meant simply that economic reasons have swamped scientific concerns. I call that “Death Before Discomfort” thinking.

  18. Leif says:

    What is that saying in science? Paradigm shifts happen one death at a time.

    I sure hope it does not come to that. Humanity will be in deep do-do long before that.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I recently saw a fascinating documentary on epigenetics, and how environmental influences can effect the expression of genes in the individual, and these changes can then be handed down to that individual’s descendants. It all sounds like a variation on the long discredited theory of ‘the inheritance of acquired characteristics’. I can see, however, where decades of exposure to various toxic substances might have just such an effect, and the worst pollutant of all, in my opinion, is the intellectual and spiritual poison peddled by the Rightwing MSM. I would say that lengthy exposure to Faux News or any other outpost of Murdoch’s Evil Empire is bound to somewhat derange even the least susceptible, let alone the fertile ground of the Dunning-Krugerites.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ground for the growth of anthropogenic climate destabilisation denialism and the denial of the science was, I believe, fertilised by the very real history of the corruption of science by Big Business. We have seen over recent decades a tsunami of malpractise in medical research, mostly to benefit BigPharma corporations. GE crops have been forced on humanity by the simple expedient of declaring them ‘substantially equivalent’ to natural crops, while no actual safety testing has been undertaken, and research indicating real dangers has been suppressed and the researchers ostracised. Big Business routinely commissions scientific work, that invariably backs up their proposals. Environmental impact studies never say that a project is a disaster in the making. Scientists move from Big Business to academia to Government, all the time serving the business interest in exploitation.
    So it is deeply ironic, tragic and unsurprising that Big Business is now exploiting the public’s disaffection with corrupted science to attack uncorrupted science that serves no business interest. They must be laughing themselves hoarse at their unscrupulousness.

  21. Bill Goedecke says:

    I guess I don’t like the tone. The ‘republican brain’ is no different than our own. I understand – what is going on drives me nuts – but, these people are very ordinary people who don’t want to be challenged, who don’t want to change. They lead very redundant lives. And they are looking for media figures to reassure them. The more emphasis that is put on how bad things are, the more that such folks will look for that reassurance that everything is fine. We all have dead places inside and we all can be very mechanical and reactionary – they just seem more so. Not so different, maybe just a lower level of consciousness.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As far as vaccination goes, in my opinion it is too complex a problem to be addressed in stark ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ terms. Vaccination does have benefits, but also risks and real negative consequences at times. Vaccination does not always produce immunity. Vaccines are full of ‘adjuvants’, many toxic and inadvisable to be taken parenterally, and many kept secret due to ‘commercial confidence’. For years thiomersal, a mercury based preservative was common, because of its great effectiveness as a bactericide and fungicide, but in recent years it has been banned in a number of countries.
    In countries where medical services are poor, and epidemic disease is rife, the advantages in reducing mortality and morbidity of the young in particular, clearly outweigh the disadvantages. However the balance is I believe, less clear-cut in countries where there are good health services and diseases such as measles are not killers. And then you have to consider the advantages of ‘herd immunity’ and your responsibility not to put others at risk by remaining un-immunised.
    Complicating things further are the proliferation of vaccines, the increasing number given to infants and young children, at ages where their immune systems are still underdeveloped. Many countries immunise at older ages, with no lesser efficacy.
    I think the question is best not addressed in black and white terms, but on the balance of probabilities of harm and good, and bearing in mind the real pecuniary advantage that accrues to BigPharma from multiplying the numbers of immunisations required.

  23. Raul M. says:

    Denial of truth is such a involving way.
    If we know that a monster storm is likely to happen and we deny that we can build a shelter then we would still likely be left out in the cold…
    If a political leader has access to a fully functioning shelter, doesn’t it become like the childhood game of king of the hill.
    We could start at the level of denial that we would have any choice if the monster storm comes our way.
    Then we could only be left with the level of denial when we find no answer when.we are at the storm shelter door of another and saying “Please let me in.”…

  24. Brooks Bridges says:

    Love the idea but volume is so 50’s :-) Now you’d do a brain scan and look for differences in key areas.

    Saw a fascinating video showing a scan of speech center in a person with relatively mild Asperger’s and one without. Night and day.

    Potential uses in this area for future is exciting and scary.

  25. cervantes says:

    Well you ought to know better.

  26. Russell says:

    Yes, but this is less a nature-nurture than cranial capacity versus cranial opacity debate.

    If Chris can’t prevail on the MCZ for the loan of Steve Gould and Carleton Coon’s skull tongs to facilitate double blind measurements, he can examine historical rends in the size of hats thrown in rings by party affiliation.

    Requiring academics to wear mortar boards while testifying to Congress would likewise make life easier for physical political anthropologists

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    I saw it happen to an old college friend, Mulga. She went from a dancer and activist to being glued to the Fox tube 30 years later. It was really bizarre to listen to a formerly intelligent woman parroting Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

    This was indeed a form of clinical insanity, or maybe an indication of the very undeveloped stage of the human brain itself.

  28. Mike Roddy says:

    I’ve got several quibbles with RFK, but do not understand these attacks from the Left. The man is committed, and does the right thing on almost all of the key issues.

    RFK’s main problem is that he is still hooked up to his class, and thinks that corporations’ charters to make money above all other considerations is somehow sacred. He admitted as much in a speech I heard him deliver in San Francisco.

    Yeah, let’s hear from him here again, Joe. His is a fresh and brave voice.

  29. Joan Savage says:

    Oversimplifying differences and drawing somewhat arbitrary boundaries, based on fearful experiences, helped humans stay away from quicksand and lions.
    The long-evolved practice gets mixed up when we create arbitrary boundaries among our own species.

    To the extent that liberals are afraid of conservatives (and some are) it may feel safer to clump conservatives into a physiologically different group.
    However, this separation process isn’t sociologically all that different from the phrenology and physical anthropology of the 19th century that attempted to justify racial stereotypes.

    In my experience, I can get cranky and conservative and want to slam the door, and yet in time I can revive my ability to engage with those with whom I disagree.
    I recommend we stay open-minded and keep engaged, town-hall style, with those with whom we disagree. Don’t scare people off by being numbingly fact-based.
    To really win we have to include both the nimble brained and the loyal-hearted.

  30. SecularAnimist says:

    Chris Mooney wrote: “I’ve also talked about why conservative white males in particular seem to be such strong deniers of climate science.”

    There’s a simple reason for that.

    “Conservative white males” are the demographic that has been specifically targeted by the so-called “conservative” media (eg. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, WSJ op-ed page, etc) for the last couple of decades, during which time they have been relentlessly and systematically brainwashed to unquestioningly believe every bit of pseudo-ideological corporate propaganda that is spoon-fed to them by the “conservative” media, and to reject contrary information from any other source.

    And the AGW denial machine has of course used the “conservative” media to disseminate their propaganda (as have other corporate interests), taking advantage of the ready-made cult of true believers already created by the “conservative” media.

    There’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about “conservative white males” that makes them deny AGW. Anyone who has been subjected for 30 years to carefully crafted, focus-group-tested, sophisticated and powerful brainwashing techniques developed by the most insidious minds of Madison Avenue to target their particular vulnerabilities would be in the same boat.

  31. Timeslayer says:

    Fine. But still – whose economic interests benefit from rejecting the scientific evidence of climate change? Probably those of fossil fuel company CEOs, and some workers in that industry, but that’s about it. For the vast majority of Americans, their economic interests are damaged by failure to address climate change, e.g., by the failure of the US to be as competitive as it should be in green technologies to create jobs. So I don’t think even “Death Before Discomfort” can be used as an excuse for Republican intransigence on climate change.


  32. Joe says:

    It is black and white.

    The small chance of an adverse reaction to the constituents, compared to the much larger risk of dying from a disease that we had virtually eradicated a generation ago if we allow a few paranoid cranks to not protect their kids. Failure to vaccinate should be considered child abuse of the worst order, and the culprits should be prosecuted for any deaths that occur.

  33. Belgrave says:

    Speaking from my own experience, I grew up (in rural Northern Ireland) in a hardest of hard-line protestant fundamentalist sect (cult really, but apparently it has ceased to be a cult by virtue of now being over 150 years old – the “Plymouth Brethren” if anybody’s familiar with that name).

    This was long before anthropogenic climate change appeared on the horizon so the example I’ll use is creationism. It would not really have been possible to be a member in good standing and accept, any belief except the most extreme of “young earth” creationism. As far as I can figure it out my family inhabited a magical world where science simply did not exist – while remaining blissfully unaware of how many of the products of scientific research they used in their daily life. They organised their lives so that they simply never encountered any information which would have contradicted their world view. I’ve read estimates that there are, in the United States, around 40 million fundamentalists who live in this manner – homeschooling their children so that they’re never “contaminated”. Fortunately, home-schooling was unknown (and, I think, actually illegal) when I was growing up.

    I well remember my own conversion! I was sitting at the back of the chemistry lab during my last year of high school puzzling over the contradictions between what I’d been taught at home and the clear evidence of evolution of life forms over hundreds of millions of years set out in my biology text books. Then the blinding flash of light happened! I saw that if I left God out of the equation, assumed the bible to be only a collection of bronze age legends, accepted the truth of the clear evidence of evolution and embraced atheism, all the contradictions melted away. (As a bonus, it eliminated the fear of eternal hellfire as well!)

    (BTW I don’t consider myself an atheist any longer – it seems to me that the universe is far to complicated for such a simple belief to be the whole truth.)

    Actually my greatest fear is that being an “authoritarian follower” (which, in the US, seems to correlate quite closely with beig a climate-change denier) is genetically determined. But when I compare white Americans with the more accepting attitudes of white Europeans (who must be genetically virtually identical) it doesn’t seem to me to be very likely. Good education from an early age seems to be the key!

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Or more likely the result of the medium itself which reduces the frequency of the electrical response of the brain from beta (normal activity) to delta (first stage of sleep). Critical awareness is bypassed leading to a purely emotional and purposeless response, ME

  35. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Or more likely the result of the medium itself which reduces the frequency of the electrical response of the brain from beta (normal activity) to delta (first stage of sleep). Critical awareness is bypassed leading to a purely emotional and purposeless response, ME

  36. Russell says:

    “Anyone…subjected for 30 years to carefully crafted, focus-group-tested, sophisticated and powerful brainwashing techniques developed by the most insidious minds of Madison Avenue to target their particular vulnerabilities would be in the same boat.”

    It’s wonderful what 30 years of watching Captain Planet reruns can accomplish.

  37. Thanks for the link and congrats on the new book. I think it’s a bit of a tough sell to moderates to say when the left is anti-science they are complex and puckish while when the right is anti-science they are just stupid or political, but I suppose that is why you wanted to make the case in long form.

    The right may still read it – atheists know a lot more about the Bible than religious people, studies show, and ‘Denialism’ went after junk science accepted by the left more than by the right and it still got bought by both sides who found something in it for them.