A Conservative Ignores the Science on Why…Conservatives Ignore the Science

Mon, 2012-02-06 07:38Chris Mooney
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A Conservative Ignores the Science on Why…Conservatives Ignore the Science

David Klinghoffer, of the anti-evolutionist Discovery Institute, has a revealing article in the conservative American Spectator entitled: “Republicans and Science (as opposed to liberals and the science they’ve politicized).”

Why “revealing”? Klinghoffer seeks to explain the real reason why conservatives like himself resist certain scientific findings. But in the process, he shows a surprising, er, inattentiveness to the scientific research on this very topic.

At the same time, Klinghoffer also strikingly affirms the results of that research by…denying science for ideological reasons that are quite obviously rooted in deep-set (and even gut level) conservative moral impulses.

In other words, he’s doing precisely what the science tells us he is going to do.

Klinghoffer starts with an astonishing statement—one in which he not only misinterprets a book he hasn’t read (my own; it isn’t out yet) but then goes further:

What's wrong with Republicans, anyway? Scientists and journalists offer a variety of diagnoses. Some say a backwoods element in the population has abandoned the Enlightenment, a result of poor education or religious fundamentalism or both.

Other experts find no convincing sociological explanation and opt for a more scientific (or scientific-seeming) approach, pointing to faulty brain chemistry. A forthcoming book title by journalist Chris Mooney says it all: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.

I'm not aware, though, that anyone trying to explain these things has considered exactly what kind of scientific issues evoke a skeptical response from Republicans.

Faulty brain chemistry”: This is nonsense. There is nothing faulty in the chemistry of the brains of Republicans. Rather, there are perfectly normal differences between how they think and respond, and how liberals or Democrats think and respond, and these differences are at the root of our divide over science and reality.

But the whopper here is Klinghoffer’s remark that he is “not aware…that [anyone] has considered exactly what kind of scientific issues evoke a skeptical response from Republicans.”

Dude. Ever heard of the cultural cognition research program at Yale? It has received considerable funding from the National Science Foundation (e.g., here) to study precisely this topic. And no wonder, for the research has yielded great insights, and has gotten tons of attention for doing so.

What kinds of scientific issues evoke a skeptical response from Republicans? Thanks to the Yale group and others, we know the scientific answer to that. These are issues that, among other things, appear to conflict with their individualistic and hierarchical values.

After ignoring the research on moral values and the rejection of science, Klinghoffer then promptly goes on to express his….moral values, and use those to bulwark his denial of science. Note the powerfully individualistic sentiments expressed below:

Something all these hot-button scientific topics have in common is that each has been politicized. Not by Republicans, however. The scientific issues that incite the Right all involve attempts by government to coerce behavior and spend billions in tax dollars through divisive policies on education, the environment, public health, and medical experiments. [Italics added]

Klinghoffer has seen at least a little bit of the latest science, though. For instance, he goes on to protest that his rejection of evolution is well-informed and intellectual, and not driven by automatic gut impulses of the sort that have been highlighted in recent research.

In the process, however, Klinghoffer shows a lack of familiarity with another closely related body of research on the resistance to science: motivated reasoning, which explains how our gut instincts bias our reasoning processes, leading us to spin out convoluted rationales to support something we already wanted to think for non-intellectual reasons.

This process is actually more advanced, not less, among people who know more about a topic—e.g., the highly sophisticated anti-evolutionists at the Discovery Institute. So there is nothing contradictory about saying that evolution prompts negative gut impulses on the one hand, and saying that anti-evolutionists know how to make complicated scientific arguments on the other. The two go hand in hand; in fact, they're inseparable.

And then, sure enough, Klinghoffer proceeds to give us some insight into his own, er, gut instincts:

There is a persistent sense that we are being manipulated by fellow citizens who use the prestige of the word “science,” coupled with the technique of the excluded middle, to intimidate us in service to a political agenda. Not just any political agenda, but one that violates our own experience of who, as human beings, we really are. [Italics added]

This sounds like something felt, not reasoned, no? Does Klinghoffer have a deep “gut feeling” about who we really are as human beings–that we must be more, somehow, than the result of “blind Darwinian forces” (his words)?

Finally, Klinghoffer ends with a fascinatingly ambiguous sentence:

It's not “science” that we deny but this effort to redefine man in the name of science that we resist.

What does he mean here? Is it the “effort” he resists, the “science” he resists, or both?

The point, of course, is they’re deeply connected. Klinghoffer's double meaning, intended or otherwise, says it all.

Previous Comments


I’m curious to know how this data breaks down by geographic region or education.

In North America, scientific education (high school and under) is pretty much homogeneous, and poor.  Its no suprise that we like Apple Computer products, they were always built to be easy to use… for a reason.

I spent several years in South Africa, and hard science was grilled into us there.  I returned to Canada to finish Grades 11 and 12, and I pretty much slept through it.  When I hit university, it was approaching the same complexity as I had in Grade 10 (Form 5: Higher Grade) South Africa.  I breezed through first year engineering because of that education.

In the Common Wealth there will likely be some interesting data around Lower, Standard and Higher grade education as a predictor.

Can you find any information like that?

In the mean time… Can you spot the outlier?


but those are not conservatives.  Misguided fools don’t make the grade up to conservative.

The  appearance of Klinghoffer, a weapons grade religious fanatic from the Discovery Institute, marks  the intellectual implosion of  the once ( well, maybe slightly, in the ‘80’s)  Menckenesque American Spectator

It now represents a faction of the social conservative Base that values faith above fact checking,  a development palaeoconservatives find all the more ominious given Phyllis Schafly’s role  as Santorum’s eminence grise, and her effort to entitle her faction with its own facts  via her son Andy’s Conservapaedia .


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