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Thu, 2012-05-10 06:55Chris Mooney
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Us and Them: The Psychology Behind the Heartland Institute Billboards

The Heartland Institute’s jaw-droppingly ill-advised, and now withdrawn billboard campaign—pictured here–has drawn a huge volume of denunciations in the last week. There’s not much more to say substantively about the campaign, or the fallout from it, which has included a number of Heartland funders heading for the hills.

But it is fascinating to try to understand why the Heartland Institute may have gone to this extreme. The psychological phenomenon that I see lurking behind these ads is a critical one to understand–black and white, “in group/out group” thinking.

This is something that David Ropeik has already written on very observantly. In trying to explain and justify its linking of global warming with people like Ted Kaczynski and Charles Manson, Ropeik notes, here are some of the things Heartland has said–and the words speak volumes:

The most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the ‘mainstream’ media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.

What is going on here, psychologically, is something called “splitting.” The Heartland Institute is ignoring basic intellectual distinctions and all sense of nuance, and dividing the world up into black and white extremes.

Once you do this, it becomes much easier to group one’s intellectual opponents together with “murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

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?

Fri, 2012-04-06 11:07Chris Mooney
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S.E. Cupp Attacks Climate Science and Climate Scientists on MSNBC

Yesterday, I appeared on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner to talk about The Republican Brain. It was largely an interview about what’s going on with conservatives and science right now—why they distrust it so much–but S.E. Cupp, the conservative on the panel, called my argument “infuriating.”

Then, she proceeded to attack climate science and the researchers who produce it—doing a very good job of proving my point about conservatives and science! Brad Johnson has provided a transcript at Think Progress (video below it):

CUPP: There have been, to quote Rick Santorum, phony studies on climate change. East Anglia University I should mention!
WAGNER: And that study –
CUPP: Every time science has been corrupted by politics, everyone in the scientific community should be worried!

Mon, 2012-04-02 10:17Chris Mooney
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Judith Curry Was For Me Before She Was Against Me

I first got to know Judith Curry—the Georgia Tech researcher who blogs at “Climate, Etc.,” and has been drawn into controversy for, in her words, “challenging many aspects of the IPCC consensus”–when I was working on my second book, Storm World. I spent a fair amount of time with Curry, and with the other scientists profiled in the book—interviewing them in person, getting to understand their research. This is what science writers do.

At the time, Curry and her colleagues were just coming off a media feeding frenzy after having published papers linking hurricanes to global warming right in the middle of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

When Storm World came out, it is no exaggeration to say that Curry gave it a rave review. I want to quote in full from her Five Star endorsement at Amazon.com, which is entitled “Science writing at its very best.” Bear with me, this will all become very relevant; and I've italicized a few important parts:

To provide a frame of reference for this review, I and my colleagues Peter Webster and Greg Holland are among the scientists that are featured prominently in Storm World. Our involvement in the issue of hurricanes and global warming began when we published an article in Science shortly before the landfall of Hurricane Rita, where we reported a doubling of the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally since 1970. When Chris Mooney first approached me with his idea for writing a book on this topic, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn't see how this could be accomplished given the rapid changes in the science (I was worried the book would be outdated before it was published), the complexities of the technical aspects of the subject, a concern about how the individual scientists would be treated and portrayed, and a concern that the political aspects of the issue would be handled in a partisan way. Over the course of the past year and a half, it became apparent that Mooney was researching this issue extremely thoroughly and was developing a good grasp of both the history and technical aspects of the subject. Upon finally reading the book, I can only say Storm World has far exceeded any hope or expectation that I could have had for a book on this subject.

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