There are millions of people who deny the scientific truth that the Earth is 4.55 Billion years old. They insist that it no more than 10,000 years old. In poll of U.S. adults, 40% did not accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on earth. Instead they believe in creation myths, or intelligent design. Many people claim that climate change is a hoax. Others reject the link between HIV and AIDS. Still many others spread fear that vaccinations with harm their children. And there are others who believe the Holocaust did not happen. And, still there are millions who think President Obama’s birth hospital is not in Hawaii.
Jon Huntsman sent a Tweet while running in the Republican Primary for President that many people heard, loud and clear. He Tweeted:
For a Republican running for President, this was like saying he agreed with President Obama. For Hunstman, this was a reflection on his character and courage to go against the grain of his political party. Most Republicans, when asked about the topics I mentioned above (age of earth, evolution, global warming etc.) would NOT accept and trust the work of scientists. In their public appearances, they do their best to spread doubt, claim outright denial of the scientific facts, and reject the methods that scientists use to do science. See this paper by Joshua Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Education.
Why can’t we simply tell these people that they have their facts wrong? Why can’t they just be told the truth? It’s not that simple as we will see ahead in this post.
The Effect of Correction on “Truth”
In a study that I reported on here, entitled When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Georgia State University suggest that beliefs about controversial factual questions are closely linked to one’s ideological preferences or partisan beliefs. The study is important at several levels. For those of us who are teachers, their study might be disheartening. Even after providing “corrective” information on a contemporary problem, subjects in their study didn’t necessarily change their views, opinions or concepts. In some cases it hardened their belief. For those who are trying to figure out why so many people deny the facts of science, as well as historical and current events, read on.
In their study, three hypotheses were investigated about how the effectiveness of corrections will vary by participant ideology (liberal, centrist, conservative):
Hypothesis 1: An ideological interaction
The effect of corrections on misperceptions will be moderated by ideology.
Hypothesis 2a: Resistance to corrections
Corrections will fail to reduce misperceptions among the ideological subgroup that is likely to hold the misperception.
Hypothesis 2b: Correction backfire
In some cases, the interaction between corrections and ideology will be so strong that misperceptions will increase for the ideological subgroup in question.
The researchers investigated three areas from contemporary politics: the war in Iraq, tax cuts, and stem cell research). This brought more realism to the study and not using hypothetical situations and questions. The war in Iraq focused on the risk associated with Saddam Hussein passing weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks. Subjects read a news article that included remarks made by President George Bush that defended the Iraq war, and that there was a real risk that Saddam would pass on weapons or information. Some respondents were given correction which discusses the Duelfer Report, which documents the lack of Iraqi WMD or active production program prior to the U.S. invasion.
After reading the article, respondents were asked to state whether they agreed (on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5) with the following statement:
Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.
In this 2005 experiment, the results supported the “backfire” hypothesis. For very liberal subjects, the corrective information made them more likely to disagree that Iraq had WMD. For liberal and centrist people, the corrective information had little effect. But for those that were to the right of center (ideologically conservative), the correction backfired—that is conservatives who received the corrective information that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD. One explanation was that conservatives tended to believe Bush and not the media, thus resulting in the backfire effect.
The researchers conclude that their study seems to support the idea that citizens engage in motivated reasoning. Their studies support the notion that using corrections on factual beliefs shows that responses to the corrections about controversial issues vary systematically by ideology.
As the researchers point out, their study did support the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic, but they also pointed out that liberals and Democrats also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political world views.
This important study reveals that conservatives are more dogmatic than others, but we all “filter” information to fit our particular views. But this does not explain the outright denialism that is rampant in the right-wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party.
The Republican Brain
For decades empirically based scientific theories and ideas have been deliberately denied by primarily conservative males. A reality exists that science writer, Chris Mooney explains in his book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. One of the characteristics of the Republican Brain, according to Mooney, is how the science of denial has become a political force in affecting the minds of many people, especially the media on significant science related social and economic issues of the day.
The field is very young, according to Mooney, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways.
Mooney shows us in his research that the science of denialism is practiced by more Republican and Tea Party members than not, to the bewilderment the rest of us. He is helpful in putting this in perspective on two issues, global warming and evolution. He writes:
In a nationally representative survey released just as I was finishing this book—many prior surveys have found similar things—only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent accepted human evolution.
In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.
The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don’t. (Mooney, Chris (2012-03-22). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (pp. 6-7). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition)
The lies, distortions, and the denials that we see and hear everyday by conservative politicians , right-wing talk show hosts, Fox News, and right-wing editorials, as Mooney says, “drive us crazy.” In the midst of this babel of unreason has emerged an ideology in which one systematically reacts by refusing reality and truth (Didier, F., 2007). Some of the babel includes statements about global warming from Senator James Inhofe: “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state,” or better still, Representative Paul Broun’s (Georgia) opinion that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell” (from a published talk he gave at a church in Georgia).
As I indicated in the first section, “convictions,” especially involving feelings and attitudes, are difficult to change. Teachers who embrace the learning science of constructivism know this. Initial ideas or prior conceptions that students hold about ideas in math, science, social studies, literature are not changed directly, but require an environment of open inquiry and discussion, and the movement on the part of the learner that they want to learn something new or they are willing to consider ideas different from their own. This is not an easy matter. As teachers we bang our heads against the wall trying to come with novel ways to engage our students so that they have a chance in the game of school.
Now, I want you to think about adults who would look you in the face and deny facts presented that support the theory of global warming and its effect on climate change. Some of them will try and dredge up one of the few scientists (typically ones who have not done research in the area of global warming), and say, “See, here’s a scientist who does not believe in global warming. Even scientists can’t agree. The science is not settled on global warming. We need to hold off doing anything until all the facts are in.” Or something like that. You get the idea.
Even with evidence that global warming effects are getting worse as reported in a New Scientist, climate change article, deniers are teaming up to fight efforts to increase funding for renewable energy sources and projects. Increasing renewable energy project and research is one way of reducing global warming. According to an article on Climate Progress, the Heartland Institute (climate change denier organization) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a right-wing group of nay-sayers made up of Republican representatives) are teaming up to kill clean energy projects.
At the individual level, its the brain, as Mooney suggests, that determines our actions. Mooney, citing modern neuroscience research, tells us that “thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion or affect.” Indeed, many of our reactions to stimuli and information are not reflective, but emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to conscious thought. When people who have been harboring the idea that global warming is a hoax are presented with facts and research results that show how global warming is affecting, say glaciers, the denier simply goes into automatic and selectively looks at the information, or questions it, or the authors. No facts, no evidence will change the denier. However, Nyhan and Reifler found that “corrective” information (facts) produced a “backfire” effect for ideologically conservative people. That is, the new information tended to make them deny the idea even more.
Science denial appears to be a special ability practiced by Republicans, some industry CEO’s. It has a long history in American society. When Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, she was not only attacked at the personal level, but her research and findings were ridiculed (even up to now), especially by the chemical and pesticide industries. When health organizations began to cite research showing the link between smoking and cancer, the tobacco industry went to war against anyone who supported the scientific support of the link. More recently the rampant denial that AIDS is caused by the virus HIV, and that vaccinations cause autism.
Although we can’t blame the Republican brain for all of these denials, the pattern of denial is there. The pesticide, and tobacco industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to disgrace and besmirch the research by scientists to further their own interests. Right wing groups, to be sure, were involved in these actions. Fundamentalists groups clearly played a role in the AIDS/HIV and vaccination denials.
In an article, Science denial: A Guide for Scientists, Joshua Rosenau suggests that its important to find out what are the underlying reasons for people denying scientific findings and theories. He writes that:
Although science denial claims often seem absurd to scientists in relevant fields, they make sense when viewed from an insider’s perspective. For example, creationist journals run their own version of peer review, but require identity of a social group.
As Mooney points, we are not giving the snake eye to those who honestly lack information, but we must push back against those who run campaigns of misinformation.
If you listen to right-wing talk radio, or Fox News, especially after the election, the distortions and misinformation continues. The Republican brain is active and alive. All you have to do is switch on your radio, read Tweets from Bortz, Limbaugh, or Hannity, or watch Fox News.
Blue and Red Morality
In my view, the most relevant theoretical explanation for Mooney’s assertion that the Republican brain (read conservative) is different from the brains of progressives and liberals is the work of George Lakoff.
According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family. Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here). In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.
The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):
- The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
- The father is the head of the house
- The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
- A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
- Children are weak and lack self-control
- Parents know what is best
- Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
- When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.
This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we look at schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.
In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:
- Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
- Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)
The right-wing babel on any issue (global warming, evolution, school choice, AIDS/HIV, contraception, etc.) can be understood by using Lakoff’s concept of cascading, a kind of sorting that goes on in the brain. Look at this diagram from Lakoff. When the brain is activated by any issue, ones response is related to frames and values higher up in the hierarchy.
Understanding the babel from the right (and the left) requires a deeper understanding of the brain. Lakoff has developed a model that we think is powerful.
We end with a quote from Lakoff and Wehling.
All politics is moral.
Please refer to: Lakoff, George; Wehling, Elisabeth (2012-06-19). The Little Blue Book (p. 13). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
What do think about the concept of a Republican brain? Do you think that we can use the work of Mooney and Lakoff to understand the babel that permeates the discussion of important issues?