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Mon, 2012-05-07 06:11Chris Mooney
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A View From Nowhere? The Case Against Knee-Jerk Centrism When It Comes to Politics and Science

Debate over The Republican Brain is mounting, as emotional (and highly extraverted?) conservatives fling meaningless attacks at the book–attacks so off target it’s doubtful in most cases that the critics read the book–but scientists admit that it represents the research on ideology accurately. That’s what just happened Saturday morning on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, where Jonathan Haidt, the University of Virginia moral psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, basically agreed with me that liberals are indeed more open to new experiences, with all that entails—which is why they are more sympathetic to scientists, and take their knowledge more seriously. Conservatives, meanwhile, just do it differently, Haidt explained:

I want to fully agree with Chris that the psychology does predispose liberals more to be receptive to science; my own research has found that conservatives are better at group-binding, at loyalty, and so if you put them in a group-versus-group conflict, yes, the right is more prone, psychologically, to band around and sort of, circle the wagons.

Haidt nevertheless went on to talk about a lot of cases of the left attacking science too, enough that both Michelle Goldberg (of the Daily Beast) and Chris Hayes eventually challenged his stance. Goldberg worried about a “morass of cultural relativism, in which everybody’s equally irrational,”  and later, Hayes suggested that Haidt was trying to put himself at a “remove” that may not exist:

It’s the claim to special enlightenment that centrists have that drives me crazy…the fact of the matter is that [centrism] is as ideologically binding and team oriented as [anything else].

This drives me crazy too–but I don't think Haidt is an un-thoughtful or knee-jerk centrist, of the sort that we so often see out there. Indeed, I think Haidt is incredibly close to my own views, and have no problem with him problematizing things and pointing out cases of left science denial, which clearly do exist. I point out these cases myself, whenever I can. Haidt’s argument, in other words, is not simply that “everybody does it equally”—it is more complex than that, more accurate than that (as I think the Haidt quotation above shows). But a lot of people are going to hear it that way. And it’s this mishearing that requires answering.

Indeed, while Haidt is not making the “everybody does it equally” argument, others really do.

Thu, 2012-05-03 06:48Chris Mooney
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Conservatives, Seeking To Show They Are Open-Minded, Ignore Contrary Evidence (And No, This Is Not an Onion Article)

I was on the road last week, so I couldn’t properly respond to this Daily Caller item, which is really sort of marvelous. Basically, it’s an attempt to use a handful of survey data points to turn the whole Republican Brain line of analysis on its head, and argue that it’s really Republicans who are the open-minded, well informed group in politics today.

Alas, the attempt crashes and burns, because 1) the evidence cited by The Daily Caller is sometimes being misused; and 2) even when it isn’t being misused, the massive body of counter-evidence (e.g., all the evidence presented in my book) is simply ignored and goes unmentioned–thereby presenting a dramatically skewed picture.

How…open-minded.

More specifically, the Daily Caller piece, by Neil Munro, purports to show that Republicans are “more open minded, better informed than Democrats.” Given the staggering amount of evidence showing the opposite—e.g., Republicans believe a vast amount of misinformation, and show higher need for closure and less openness to experience across studies—this is a pretty bold claim. So let’s go through the alleged evidence presented by Munro.

1. A Pew Survey Showing Republicans Have More Basic Knowledge About Politics Than Democrats.

The first study cited by Munro is here. It’s a recent Pew poll, showing pretty clearly that Republicans, as a group, know more basic facts about U.S. politics than Democrats (as a group).

I’m not going to critique the poll itself; I am sure its results are valid, and I myself rely on Pew surveys like this one all the time. However, in this case, the poll results don’t prove what Munro thinks they do–because of the ever-present “smart idiot” effect on the right, which goes unmentioned by Munro.

Mon, 2012-04-30 08:35Chris Mooney
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Let’s Just Say It: When It Comes to Science, The Right is the Problem

This weekend in The Washington Post, two deans of the Washington establishment, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, finally stated what has been increasingly obvious: The problem with U.S. politics is coming from the right, not from “both sides.” In their piece, provocatively titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are The Problem,” they note that Republicans and conservatives have become extreme and unwilling to compromise. And as they stress, this is not something the Democrats or liberals are “just as bad” at.

Hence, the whole approach of the mainstream or centrist media is myopic or, worse, complicit. “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” write Mann and Ornstein.

Mann and Ornstein make allusion in their piece to the fact that conservatives have simultaneously become extremely anti science (witness climate change) and anti empirical. And indeed, when it comes to eschewing phony media balance, well, that’s something we science journalists have been recommending for a decade. In this, we’ve been way, way ahead of the game. We’ve had to be.

Mann’s and Ornstein’s piece is very important and a breath of fresh air; yet in truth, their approach is probably still too centrist. The problem is that their analysis is purely sociological and historical in nature—in some cases blaming Republican extremism on the actions of a few individuals, like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist–rather than psychological.

Consider, for instance, some important new data (pictured here, click link to enlarge), cited by Mann and Ornstein, showing that House and Senate Republicans have become much more ideological over the past 30 years, whereas Democrats and liberals have not. That’s true and revealing, but why is it occurring?

Mon, 2012-04-30 06:30Guest
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Heartland Institute Attacks Forecast the Facts, Denies Its Climate Change Denial

This is a guest post by Daniel Souweine, Campaign Director, Forecast The Facts

On April 24, Heartland Institute President Joe Bast issued an angry missive attacking Forecast the Facts, a new campaign that successfully petitioned automobile giant General Motors to end their financial support of Heartland earlier this month. In a 2,000-word screed, Bast defended his organization's efforts to disseminate anti-science propaganda to public classrooms and the general public, while making a number of wildly inaccurate claims about our group.

While much of what Bast wrote does not warrant a reply, we felt it important to address the most pernicious falsehoods, and also to remind Heartland's corporate donors exactly why support for the organization is so untenable (although Bast does an excellent job of that himself). 

The saddest and most offensive attack on Forecast the Facts is the Heartland president's suggestion that the more than 20,000 signatories of our successful petition to General Motors may not even exist, calling the petition a “fraud.” We stand by the validity of our petition one hundred percent. But even more so, we proudly affirm the existence of our members and their commitment to fighting climate change denial. The signers of the petition are real people with valid email accounts and sincere concerns that major corporations continue to support Heartland's climate change denial. (You can see some of their powerful comments here).

While Bast directs his venom at the everyday Americans who comprise the Forecast the Facts campaign, it's clear that his primary intent is to soothe the concerns of his corporate donors, many of whom are now reconsidering their support of his organization. If anything, his rant lays bare just how disreputable Bast is.

In a truly Orwellian turn, Bast vehemently denies Heartland Institute's climate change denial. (As a reminder for those less familiar with Bast, his primary focus before becoming a leader in the climate change denial movement was to question the links between smoking and lung cancer at the behest of Philip Morris, which remains a Heartland backer.) 

Thu, 2012-03-29 03:39Chris Mooney
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Conservatives versus Science: A New Scientific Validation of the Republican War on Science (and Republican Brain) Thesis

UPDATE: The paper discussed below is downloadable here.

For a while now, I’ve been aware of a powerful new paper that directly tests the central argument of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science—and also validates some key claims made in my new book, The Republican Brain. I’ve had to keep quiet about it until now; but at last, the study is out—though I’m not sure yet about a web link to it. 

The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:

1) the cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;

2) the alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and

3) the politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.

The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

And not just that.

Mon, 2012-03-26 05:44Chris Mooney
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How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?

It’s widely known that Republicans, far more than Democrats, reject modern climate science. And more and more, it has become apparent that this is at least partly because Republicans have a deep distrust of scientists in general, or at least environmental scientists.

But there are many other causes for this rejection as well. These include Republicans’ strongly individualistic system of values—basically, a go-it-alone sense that government is the problem, and markets the solution—and even, perhaps, some aspects of their personalities or psychologies. This is something that I’ve argued in my new book.

There is also, of course, the huge role of Fox News in all of this: Watching it causes conservatives to have more false beliefs than they would otherwise, about issues like climate change. We’ve written about this extensively on DeSmogBlog; and I’ve highlighted a new video on the “Fox misinformation effect” here and below.

Such are some of the factors that seem to build an anti-science Republican; but now, researchers at George Mason, American University, and Yale have swooped in to ask the reverse question. Given that this is so, how do you make a pro-science one? Or in other words, what attributes or beliefs predict being an outlier Republican who actually believes that global warming is real and caused by humans?

The researchers call such Republicans “counter-normative.” That’s academic speak for “out in the cold” in their party right now.

Thu, 2012-03-22 06:05Chris Mooney
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The Science of Truthiness: Why Conservatives Deny Global Warming

These are notes for remarks that Chris Mooney gave recently at the Tucson Festival of Books, where he was asked to talk about his new book on a panel entitled “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” Video of the panel is currently available from C-SPAN here. Please note: Mooney’s notes do not necessarily match his spoken word perfectly. 

I want to thank you for having me.

So the question before us on this panel is, “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” And I want to focus on one particularly aspect of humans that makes them very problematic in a planetary sense–namely, their brains.

What I’ve spent the last year or more trying to understand is what it is about our brains that makes facts such odd and threatening things; why we sometimes double down on false beliefs when they’re refuted; and maybe, even, why some of us do it more than others.

And of course, the new book homes in on the brains—really, the psychologies–of politically conservative homo sapiens in particular. You know, Stephen Colbert once said that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And essentially what I’m arguing is that, not only is that a funny statement, it’s factually true, and perhaps even part of the nature of things.

Colbert also talked about the phenomenon of “truthiness,” and as it turns out, we can actually give a scientific explanation of truthiness—which is what I’m going to sketch in the next ten minutes, with respect to global warming in particular.  

I almost called the book “The Science of Truthiness”—but “The Republican Brain” turns out to be a better title.

The Facts About Global Warming

So first off, let’s start with the facts about climate change—facts that you’d think (or you’d hope) any human being ought to accept.

Thu, 2012-03-15 21:55John Mashey
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See No Evil At George Mason University

Image credit: Joy Brown / Shutterstock

George Mason University (GMU) has labored for 2 years on simple plagiarism complaints.  It has just written self-contradictory findings that avoided seeing plagiarism in the 2006 Wegman Report (WR) while admitting the same text elsewhere was plagiarism.

In March 2010, climate scientist Ray Bradley complained to GMU of 2.5 pages of plagiarism of his paleoclimatology book by the Wegman Report.  In May he added 5.5 pages of WR Social Networks Analysis  plagiarism  and a 1.5 -page subset in a Computational Statistics and Data Analysis (CSDA) paper.

All were based on the work of Canadian blogger Deep Climate, who kept finding more problems. The known total of 80+ pages has 4 PhD dissertations, some lectures, a patent and 7 papers.

Edward Wegman and Yasmin Said published two largely-plagiarized papers in a “peer-reviewed” Wiley journal they edit with David Scott.  Wikipedia pages they copied were better. 

In May 2011, CSDA publisher Elsevier finally forced retraction of the CSDA paper.

Wed, 2012-03-14 09:04Chris Mooney
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Is James Inhofe Shilling For God, or Oil? The Correct Answer is “Both”

Last week, we were treated to one of those facepalm moments that make those of us who care about the future of planet intensely frustrated. Or worse.

Senator James Inhofe, climate conspiracy theorist, was on a Christian radio program talking about his new book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And here’s what he said (audio at link):

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in [the book] is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

Okay, forget about the biblically-based climate denial for a moment. I’m kind of fascinated by Inhofe’s statement that God is still “up there.” Really? Like, in the sun? Directly over our heads?

Is Inhofe a pre-Copernican as well as a global warming denier? Does he not realize that while “up” might have meant a great deal to Ptolemaic Christians, it has no real significance in the context of modern physics and cosmology?

What’s most frustrating, though, is this bizarre invocation of Scripture to justify the idea that we don’t need to worry about climate change. For those of us who are secular in outlook, it’s not just that this makes no sense. The idea that such sectarian notions—arguments or motivations that cannot be proved by rational argument or discussion with those who do not share Inhofe’s religious premises–could be influencing U.S. policy is, frankly, shocking.

Mon, 2012-03-12 14:07Chris Mooney
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Fox News’s Attacks on Climate Science Now Include The Denial of Basic Physics

There was a time, believe it or not, when Fox New’s Shepard Smith openly mocked global warming deniers—seriously comparing them to a man who got stuck in a portable toilet. (Hat tip to D.R. Tucker for showing me this clip.) But since then, Fox has become a veritable misinformation machine on this topic.

One way the station sows doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change is through constantly putting climate “skeptics” on the air. A study by American University’s Lauren Feldman and her co-authors, for example, found that in the period of 2007-2008, 46 percent of Fox’s guests discussing global warming were climate change doubters. By contrast, only 40 percent of guests defended the scientific consensus.

That’s not just phony “balance”–that’s coverage strongly tilted towards unreality. And if anything, I suspect that Fox has grown still more unbalanced during the Obama years.

One of Fox’s frequent doubter guests is meteorologist Joe Bastardi,  who recently said on the show that carbon dioxide “literally cannot cause global warming.” As Media Matters soon pointed out, this statement seems to throw out over 100 years of science on the greenhouse effect, and the behavior of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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