The science of anti-science

On almost every post where conservative denial of science rears its unwelcome head, a fascinating question breaks out in comments: do they really believe it or are they just being cynical assholes? The traditional response is “I can’t read people’s minds …but”. Now, thanks to the rapidly growing field of neurophysiology, we’re starting to get insight into the cerebral activities that rise and fall when someone is confronted by strong counter arguments to their beliefs. Defacto mind reading?  It’s a complicated subject, way out of my league as a writer. But luckily, I happen to have in my hot little hands a review copy for a new book due out in April by noted science writer Chris Mooney called The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science.

As Mooney notes when setting the stage, it’s not that liberals are always right about science, it’s that these days conservatives are wrong a lot, and from all outward appearances they often seem to be sincerely unaware of how wrong they are. At times they can even make a good faith effort to grasp why they’re wrong and still fail. How is that? The answer, and the book’s starting proposition, is that human brains aren’t deliberate truth detectors, they are Machiavellian fitness engines. The main thesis being the brains of conservatives and progressives process facts and beliefs a little bit differently, making the former more difficult to persuade using documented facts or reasonable inferences, particularly on issues where there’s a partisan axis, even in the face of a robust scientific consensus.

I haven’t gotten far enough into the book to find out if Mooney successfully cashes that large check, but so far it’s a damn enjoyable read anyway. The examples cited in the first pages are mind candy for those of us who spend, some might say waste, so much time in the rhetorical trenches fighting off teabagging anti-science nonsense. The book opens with a synopsis of Conservapedia and its zany foray into Einstein’s work on relativity, the one where relativistics is portrayed as some kind of neo-liberal attack on staunch conservative values rendered in the ineffable idiom of advanced mathematics, as well as a long list of factually nonsensical right-wing chestnuts like birtherism and climate change, that had me solidly hooked by page five. Anyway, well see …


  1. Trebuchet says

    Unfortunately there are LOTS of anti-science liberals — most anti-vaxxers and alt-med nuts qualify. Take Bill Maher — please! They just disregard different aspects of science.

    Furthermore, acceptance of science is not necessarily based on any better understanding than rejection. I’d guess there are lots of liberal AGW non-deniers who have little if any better understanding of the science than conservatives. They’re just for it because the other guys are against it.

  2. BinJabreel says


    Or they’re for it, despite knowing nothing about the science behind it, because someone who DOES know the science behind it has told them that they’re pretty sure that’s how it works.

    In science denialism, that’s the key element, the denial that someone who knows more than you do could possibly know more than you do. People who believe in AGW, despite not knowing anything about the science behind it, are at least tacitly acknowledging that somebody does.

  3. says

    If I’m reading that right, Coyne is saying he hasn’t read the book yet. Just talking about exceprpts. I haven’t finished the book either, but so far it’s loaded with qualifiers and nature-nurture warnings.

    Yeah, conservpedia is hilarious.

  4. Trebuchet says

    @Jake — Thanks for that, I missed the Conservapedia reference the first time I read Ed’s post. I keep track of them daily by following the WIGO’s on RationalWiki. I very seldom click through to CP, no need to give them extra traffic. Of course, even fellow conservatives don’t take them seriously.

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