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The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science-and Reality [Hardcover]

Chris Mooney
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 1 2012
Bestselling author Chris Mooney uses cutting-edge research to explain thepsychologybehind 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; appearmorelikely than Democrats to oppose new ideas andlesslikely 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 ofThe 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 Brainalso promises to add to the lengthy list of persuasive scientific findings that Republicans reject and deny.


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* ""Drawing on a growing body of empirical research, he provides an intelligent, nuanced and persuasive account of how conservatives and liberals tend to differ at the level of psychology and personality"" (Financial Times, April 2012)

From the Inside Flap

Why do so many Republicans believe man-made climate change is a hoax? The two most common explanations are that the deniers are uninformed or that they have been bought off by corporate money. Bestselling author Chris Mooney isn't buying either of those arguments. In fact, as he points out, the better educated a conservative is, the more likely he is to dismiss climate change concerns. How can that be?

Part of the answer lies with motivated reasoning—the psychological phenomenon of preferring only evidence that backs up your belief—but in The Republican Brain, Mooney explains that is just the tip of the cognitive iceberg. There is a growing body of evidence that conservatives and liberals don't just have differing ideologies; they have different psychologies. How could the rejection of mainstream science be growing among Republicans, along with 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? Increasingly, the answer appears to be: it's just part of who they are.

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; are 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.

The answer begins with some measurable personality traits that strongly correspond with political preferences. For instance, people more wedded to certainty tend to become conservatives; people craving novelty, liberals. Surprisingly, openness to new experiences and fastidiousness are better predictors of political preference than income or education. If you like to keep your house neat and see the world in a relatively black and white way, you're probably going to vote Republican. If you've recently moved to a big city to see what else life has to offer, you're probably going to vote Democrat. These basic differences in openness and curiosity, Mooney argues, fuel an "expertise gap" between left and right that explains much of the battle today over what is true.

Being a good liberal, Mooney also has to explore the implications of these findings for Democrats as well. Are they really wishy-washy flip-floppers? Well, sometimes. Can't they be just as dogmatic about issues close to their hearts, like autism and vaccines, or nuclear power? His research leads to some surprising conclusions.

While the evolutionary advantages of both liberal and conservative psychologies seem obvious, clashes between them in modern life have led to a crisis in our politics. A significant chunk of the electorate, it seems, will never accept the facts as they are, no matter how strong the evidence. Understanding the psychology of the left and the right, Mooney argues, should therefore fundamentally alter the way we approach the he-said-he-said of public debates.

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.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Ronald W. Maron TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The 5 stars that are given to this book are based on the topic and not on the author's writing skills. That evaluation only deserves 2 to 3 stars.

While the topics are few, they are powerful and should lead all political extremes to a greater understanding of why such a great divide exists between us. Liberalism attracts and maintains persons who are not only far more curious than their conservative brothers but are also more easily swayed if the data shows that their initial conclusions are not exact. Conservatism, on the other hand, attracts persons who are more single minded and, being so, present themselves in a more self-assured manner. Or more easily stated; liberals seek out data and from that develop a conclusion whereas conservatives develop a conclusion based on scant data and then, in turn, seek out data that will confirm this original stance. The 'whys' of this dynamic most certainly are not well defined at this point but lean towards a combination of both nature and nurture. Physiology and psychosocial development both enter into the molding of this part of one's personality.

The author, on the other hand, offers a style of writing that is very distracting. He continually inserted comments about how a topic will be dealt with in a latter chapter. That served as nothing more than an annoying diversion and distraction from what he was trying to explain at the time. Secondly, there is a great amount of repetition and `pulp-filler' that made the text a highly tiresome read at times. The basic conclusion of this text was repeated ad nauseum throughout. "We heard you the first time! We really did!" If his rambling wordiness was in fact totally eliminated the topics that were actually discussed could have been presented in less than 100 pages.
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Format:Hardcover
A very important work if you need to understand the current stalemate in American public affairs. Why is it that you can not talk to your neighbors? How is it that your world view can be so different. How can so many people be disconnected from reality and defend their position so irrationally? Why do people vote against their best interest? Read this and you will understand how the republican brain works.
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289 of 331 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get over the title and dive in May 7 2012
By Aaron C. Huertas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Here's a tl;dr version...Get over the title and read the book. People don't process information rationally and they often view science through the lens of their own political and psychological biases.

Okay, back to the original review:

The first thing you need to do when you pick up Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality is get over whatever initial reaction you have to the title.

Partisan labels are so loaded that it's easy for liberals and conservatives alike to mistake Mooney's nuanced overview of psychological research for a jeremiad about "stupid conservatives."

And, in fact, that reaction has typified many conservative and some liberal responses to the book.

Which sort of proves Mooney's point.

Thinking is more important than information

Decades ago, social scientists started tearing down the Enlightenment view that human beings rationally and methodically process information. In the old view, our brains were like filing cabinets into which we inserted new information to synthesize. In reality, we are motivated reasoners: we use facts and information to justify what we want to believe.

In many cases, the more educated or "smarter" someone is, the more able they are to seek out information that justifies their views. There's a fundamental difference, one of the researchers in Mooney's book points out, between being stupid and being misinformed.

And Mooney's book is all about misinformation, the brains it lands in, and how it gets there.

What's the difference between dominant liberalism and dominant conservatism?

One of the chief values that underpins liberalism, Mooney argues, is "Openness." Liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences, new cultures, and new ideas. They embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and messiness. Conservatives are more likely to exhibit Conscientiousness: a need for order, stability, clarity and cleanliness. As he puts it, people who rate high on conscientiousness are, "highly goal oriented, competent, and organized--and, on average, politically conservative."

But the other side of the Conscientious coin is a need for "closure" and definitive answers. Often, science doesn't provide them. And whenever science appears to conflict with the values of someone with a strong need for closure, they're more likely to reject the science.

We are all liberals, we are all conservatives

At various points in the book, Mooney weaves in a more nuanced view of the liberal-conservative divide. Many social scientists rely on four variables, not two, to describe how people view society: a predilection toward hierarchical structures (big business, the military) vs. egalitarian structures (community groups, social movements) and a communitarian view that emphasizes the needs of the group vs. an individualistic view of the world that emphasizes personal responsibility. Ultimately, American political movements have aligned along these four variables in different combinations over the years, but today extreme conservatives happen to be hierarchical individualists while extreme liberals tends to be communitarian egalitarians. While cumbersome, these terms get to deeper truths about how people think about the world.

There are several points in the book where Mooney compliments conservatives for their decisiveness and ability to bring order to the world. For instance, conservatives are more likely to work in hierarchical organizations like police forces and the military. And thank goodness for that. A country full of anti-authoritarians would probably be pretty ripe for invasion. And he suggests that societies are "balanced" by cooperation among conservatives and liberals.

How these personality traits play out in the real world

Mooney's psychological primer -- which is full of fascinating summaries of clever, thought-provoking studies -- provides a base layer of understanding as he moves into the changes in American politics and media that have made it easier for misinformation to find a willing home in many Americans' brains, particularly the most extreme hierarchical individualists that have aligned into the conservative movement.

He covers the assimilation of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party and the resulting polarization in American politics as the country sorted itself along party lines. And he talks about the fascinating political journey Phyllis Schlafley took to illustrate how the conservative movement has changed over her lifetime. He chronicles the rise of the intellectual right and the expanded universe of think tanks that sprang up in the 1970s to provide analysis that justifies conservative ideology and policy.

He also covers the dominance of Fox News, talk radio and partisan blogs as information sources for conservatives. Their combined power and links to think tanks and the Republican Party can create an information bubble that can easily turn into a misinformation bubble.

From death panels to revisionist histories of America's founding, the misinformation machine is an equal-opportunity weapon against reality. As Shawn Lawrence Otto ably demonstrates in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, we happen to be living in a time when scientists have discovered problems such as climate change that can hit a lot of ideological buttons and become ready targets for hierarchical / individualist oriented think tanks that feed misinformation into the bubble.

But aren't liberals guilty of the same biases?

Not really, Mooney argues. And certainly, I laugh whenever anyone equates Fox to MSNBC or NPR. Fox is so much more entertaining and delivers a coherent narrative to its viewers. MSNBC and NPR simply have different missions.

Mooney argues that liberals can certainly slip into anti-science and assimilate misinformation. But those anti-scientific views aren't allowed to dominate the liberal extremes or cross over into the mainstream.

Take the vaccine-autism "debate" for instance. It's a natural for extreme liberals who fear any possibility of environmental harm to believe misinformation linking vaccine use to autism, Mooney says. But leaders of that movement, including celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, have found their claims rejected by opinion elites on the left. So anti-vaccination attitudes have only gained a tenuous foothold in communities Mooney calls "granola" like Ashland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.

Mooney credits liberals' Openness with their faculty for criticizing one another and reining in their extremists. And he points to other examples from nuclear power to natural gas fracking to prove his point. The bad claims and the extremists' craziest arguments get weeded out of the system. There is, he says, "a psychology of disobedience and anti-authoritarianism on the left that ensures that those making these claims will be challenged, sometimes quite vigorously or even viciously."

Put another way, when Ann Coulter says something provocative, conservatives share it on Facebook and say "Right on!" When Michael Moore says something provocative, his fellow liberals pounce on him for not being nuanced or accurate enough. If pressed, they will say they pretty much agree with what he says, but they don't like how he says it.

Mooney puts a finer point on it by telling stories about David Frum and other conservatives who were booted from their movement by being "too open" to new ideas and too willing to criticize their brethren. Meanwhile, Democrats rarely boot apostates from their ranks.

Ultimately, I found the shifting power dynamics of political movements and the media environments in which they operate a stronger explanation for where we stand today than the psychological research. And Mooney acknowledges that some of the most interesting and startling findings from social science research come with a healthy dose of uncertainty themselves.

So what do we do about it?

Mooney's closing chapter contains some concrete suggestions for how to address anti-science. This is a step up from Unscientific America, which he coauthored with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Like many readers, I enjoyed the book, but wanted a lot more discussion about what to do about the sorry state of our public discourse around scientific topics.

First, Mooney argues, we need to come to grips with the fact that more facts won't win the day if people are predisposed to rejecting or ignoring them. Mooney argues that listening to people and helping them see how their worldview is affirmed - not threatened - by scientific findings is one way to overcome these challenges.

He also encourages journalists to become more conversant in how liberals and conservatives view the world and to communicate that to their audiences. So don't just tell us there's a budget disagreement tell us why liberals' egalitarian values and conservatives' personal responsibility values are in conflict over spending and debt. In other words, stop letting politicians simply talk past each other.

He says liberals should learn to be more decisive and cites the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ongoing European debt crisis as typical liberal discussion-fests lacking clear leadership, focus or a willingness to make decisions. Heck, the occupiers designed their movement to avoid classic leadership. Sometimes one plan, any plan, is much better than endless debate.

Conclusion

Mooney's book offers a combination of detail, breeziness and narrative that should satisfy anyone who is frustrated by the prevalence of misinformation in America's political debates, particularly scientific misinformation.

And he offers some tantalizing suggestions for how this might be effectively addressed.

But more importantly, like any good science fan, he calls for more research. And he acknowledges his own uncertainty about his conclusions.

But, overall, the weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.

And that's a fact we should all accept if we're interested in making our democracy stronger.

(Full disclosure: I've worked with the author before as part of my day job, but the opinion stated above is my own.)
360 of 444 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Republican Brain" is a Spoonful of Bitter Medicine for Science Deniers March 23 2012
By Joe Hanson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
When Chris Mooney wrote "The Republican War on Science", his outstanding report on science denial and suppression in the modern conservative movement, many hoped that the problems therein would fade away along with George W. Bush. But as they intervening years have shown, the discourse around the politics of science has only grown more heated and partisan. Why isn't careful scientific experimentation, peer review and huge consensus on the science behind issues like climate change or stem cell research enough to persuade opponents of science? Why can't we just "out-fact" the deniers?

Enter "The Republican Brain". Decades of psychological and neuroscience research are beginning to paint a clearer picture of how and why we believe what we do. Our biology seems to be at the root of our ideology. Mooney lays out a convincing case that when our ideas are intertwined so deeply with our values, it can be almost impossible to view an issue through a lens of objectivity or be open to challenging one's beliefs. The conservative brain seems to be especially predisposed to what he calls "motivated reasoning", using inherently false information to support a strong ideological belief. In a sense, the book describes how values and political ideologies can overpower logic and reasoning. Democrats and liberals are not without fault, as Mooney's discussion of fracking and nuclear energy show, but research shows that the conservative brain is by far the most egregiously guilty. Instead of ripping off a painful band-aid and allowing their ideology to be challenged, the conservative brain seems more apt to pretend that the band-aid doesn't exist.

There's a great irony in the book itself. It's that those who most need to hear, embrace and respond to the message (modern conservatives), will likely disregard the scientific rigor held in its pages as yet another casualty of motivated reasoning. Because this book delivers such a painful message to the Republican brain, many will deny it outright and declare partisan warfare. Do not let them fool you. This is a discussion our society needs to have, and both sides have much to learn from the science of how we believe.
108 of 137 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not going to convince any conservatives--unfortunately May 2 2012
By wxnotes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Chris Mooney wrote The Republican Brain from a liberal perspective, geared toward other liberal readers. The majority of the book confirms opinions that many scientifically-minded liberals hold about conservative bias and adds the latest in psychological research to explain why the dissemination of facts has become highly polarized in this country. To summarize:

1. Republicans distort facts for their benefit far more often than Democrats--global warming and history are cited most in this book, although Mooney uses a wide variety of examples.

2. There are known psychological reasons for these differences including development and use of different parts of the brain. These differences go on to influence personality, friends, career path, and even which states people move to. The most interesting study is the "smart idiot" effect, which means that politically knowledgeable conservatives are often more biased and less persuadable than ignorant conservatives or liberals (i.e., conservatives engage in motivated reasoning).

3. The liberal/conservative divide has widened over the past few decades not only because of the conservative revolution of the 1970s-80s, but also because of the growth of cable news and the Internet. The new sources allow conservatives to have easy access to like-minded thinkers and a wide array of "experts" to back up their erroneous claims and create a new reality that conforms to their worldview.

Overall, Mooney does an good job addressing the above points, and the book is well worth the read for anyone interested in the partisan divide. However, the book still left me disappointed and I found myself rushing through the detailed study with Dr. Everett Young, which should have contained less statistics and more analysis. As Mooney explains in the prelude, his previous book, The Republican War on Science, was highly popular among liberals but did nothing to change conservative opinions. The reason of course is the inherent propensity in conservatives to predispose of any information that contradicts their deeply held beliefs. But any liberal who has attempted to debate a conservative already knows this: facts, logic, and scientific reasoning always fail in such discussions. Mooney's writing style is geared toward liberals and he admits that conservatives will not buy his arguments--although at least now he knows why!

I was hoping for more advice on how liberals should address and debate conservatives considering the advances in psychology. Mooney offers a few tidbits, mostly in the conclusion. To address the problems with rewriting history, liberals need to leave the debunking to the experts and instead tell their own stories about historical figures that are accurate, interesting, and emphasize liberal values. He also elaborates on a political point that has been discussed among liberals in recent years--it is pointless to try and compromise with conservatives (especially Obama vs Congress). Liberals need to "be more conservative" not in their political views, but by acquiring some of the positive traits of conservatives such as unity, loyalty, and shared purpose. This theme is similar to the "pep talk" that Mooney has given to scientists in the past and it applies to any advocacy group looking for influence.

Based on the recent advances in liberal vs. conservative psychology, there is a book to be written about how liberals should address and debate conservatives. From the Republican Brain, we now know why conservatives refuse to accept certain facts, but what is now needed it a detailed guide for how liberals should go about changing conservative falsehoods and winning arguments.

I hesitate to give this book only 3/5 stars, but this book has some repetition, loses focus at times in the second half, and has some undeveloped ideas. Other authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and recently Charles Duhigg are better at grasping the applications of psychological studies. But considering that Mooney only worked on this book for a year, he is well on his way to becoming an expert on the liberal vs. conservative divide.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inevitably read through tinted lenses May 17 2012
By James P. Cobb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Realize Chris Mooney is writing about about an explosive topic. People are going to read a book like this through a viewpoint, a prism. Insulting the politics of others on the other side of the political divide has become something of a national sport. I believe that in order to market this book, the author and publisher have chosen to market it to Liberals because, in their judgement informed by scientific research, Liberals are more likely to buy a book like this. Conservatives are more likely to be certain they know more about a variety of topics and to be in search of confirming what they already know.

I have friends and family from both ends of the political spectrum, am conservative on some issues and liberal on others. I don't identify with either group so I don't feel that I've got a vested interest in bashing one side or another.

I tried to read this book as I would read a science book. There are very important and interesting questions it attempts to answer. For example, why would you have one or two Conservatives in a family that's utterly Liberal - or vice versa? How could you have two people who do the same job and they each are utterly divergent on political issues? How come some people vote against their economic interests? This book takes on those questions and many more and does a passable job of trying to answer them.

Contrary to some reviewers, I didn't come away from this book believing Mooney was trying to make a case that Conservatives are stupid. Indeed, Mooney states that in some situations the Conservative position is arguably the more valuable one and in other situations the Liberal one is.

Yet it's far from perfect. Mooney has an annoying habit of writing something along the lines "now we're going to get a bit wonky" when he has to explain something mildly technical. In another case, he excoriates Liberal historian Howard Zinn. I'm of the opinion that he did so to appear evenhanded. Then there's the loaded title, one that had people giving this tome one-starred reviews without them even reading it.

We really don't need another book on the market demonizing our opposites on the other side of the spectrum. Something less inflammatory would do: "The Psychological Science of Why People Are Conservative or Liberal" would have been a duller title, might not sell so many copies, but might have been more illuminating to more people. Of course, this book is "popular science" and Mooney cites a number of manuscripts with similar dull titles.
42 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Republican Brain": Explains why I was conservative (emphasis on was) July 24 2012
By L. Lazar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a former self-labeled conservative, I hoped Mooney's "The Republican Brain" would help me better understand three questions that I've been pondering for a long time:

1. How does it happen? How can intelligent people, including myself, fall for an ideology, and political platform, that is built on a foundation of ideas that sound good, but are not true?
2. How we can reach the many Republicans that are more reasonable than the ideologues on the party fringe?
3. How can I help others like me escape? How many millions of conservatives don't really believe in the conservative platform, but were sucked in by the hard-wired need for social conformity, even when it is against their own economic best interests?

I'd give Mooney an "A" on #1 and #2, and a "unanswered" on #3. The book overall though, is definitely worthy of a 5 rating for its clarity of message and effort at being objective and seeking truth over partisanship.

Even before I read Mooney's book I had some pretty good ideas about how I became conservative. The pulls of social conformity, i.e. tribalism, the appeal of certainty and simple message is extremely strong, especially when one is surrounded in nearly all areas of life by conservatives and conservative messaging (propaganda?).

Fortunately I have a brother and sister in-law, both of whom having training in science, that were able to get through to me - "to show me the light", as it were. I am incredibly thankful to them for enabling my escape from the lies and deceit that is conservatism - despite the comfort that those lies provided.

Mooney's book confirmed my assumptions and findings from prior reading with overwhelming scientific evidence. One might think that he used some of the conservative "truth confirming" tricks of motivated reasoning and selection and confirmation bias, but he genuinely seems to have bent over backwards to present the data with honesty and objectivity - as true "truth seeking" liberals generally do.

Mooney also had some good ideas about how to reach conservatives - find common ground, don't attack their beliefs head on and use conservative techniques of appealing to authority and emotion while telling a story. Don't deluge them in facts - which will ultimately backfire and reinforce the incorrect belief. Engaging with conservatives is an art-form and Mooney provides some helpful techniques.

To my dismay, he did not address my third question. I'm not sure if this question, how to reach conservatives that are not REALLY conservative, is lacking data, or is just not worth the effort due to the small numbers (or large? Do we even know?) of people that fall into this category. My own unscientific perspective is that the ratio of conservatives who don't "believe" is probably similar to the number of people in church each Sunday who don't really believe in God or in the doctrine of their religion. Why would it be any different?

I don't think many true Republicans will read "The Republican Brain" as they are not typically "open to experience", hence the reason why they are Republican. That is unfortunate as they are in most need of its message. I fear that GOP insistence on ideological conformity on topics that are blatantly wrong will be the death of their party - which is a shame given the benefit we all receive from having two strong, and well-informed, political parties.

It is my hope, however, that the vast middle of reasonable, open-minded and politically independent people that want to understand the psychology of today's political mind will READ THIS BOOK.
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