How Do We Explain Scientifically Literate But Anti-Science Conservatives? Paging Drs. Dunning and Kruger

Fri, 2012-06-08 08:18Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

How Do We Explain Scientifically Literate But Anti-Science Conservatives? Paging Drs. Dunning and Kruger

As regular readers of this blog know, I have spent a lot of time discussing what we call the “smart idiot” effect: Political conservatives who know more about science—or, have a higher level of education—tend to be more in denial of science or facts in contested areas, like global warming, than are less knowledgeable conservatives.

Any way you look at it, this is a puzzling phenomenon. For after all, we also know that leading climate scientists—e.g., those who have the most knowledge, the most expertise—clearly accept the science, and are deeply worried about it. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for instance, examined the scientific publication records of climate researchers and compared these with their views on global warming. It turned out that the scientists publishing most in the literature were overwhelmingly accepting of the idea that human beings cause global warming.

What this suggests is there is a level of scientific training and expertise beyond which the smart idiot effect largely vanishes. In fact, while there are assuredly some climate skeptics remaining within the scientific community, the PNAS study found that on average, their “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” tended to be “substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

What this implies to me is that the conservatives who become worse science deniers with a little knowledge or education may be evidence of an odd effect that, in the psychology literature, goes by the name of Dunning-Kruger (after the researchers who famously discovered it). In other words, they may be over-confident in their abilities, but simultaneously, unaware of it. (A little knowledge truly can be a dangerous thing.)

In a famous 1999 study, Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University captured this effect by studying student performance in grammar, logic, and humor. In each case, they found that those who fared the worst in these areas relative to their peers “grossly overestimated” their performance (relative to those same peers). “Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices,” wrote Kruger and Dunning, “but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” By contrast, those who tended to perform best at logic, grammar, and humor tended to underrate their abilities—they were less sure of themselves than they should have been!

Here’s a figure from the famous Dunning-Kruger study, when it came to a grammar test:

Why might Dunning-Kruger be relevant to the right wing denial of scientific reality? First, and as I document in The Republican Brain, we have a situation today in which advanced degrees are strongly skewed towards the political left—as are academia and science in general–even as anti-science views are skewed to the political right. And more specifically, we have a situation in which the leading climate scientists are convinced that humans are causing global warming, but scientifically literate and politically engaged conservatives are highly skeptical. There is no political Dunning-Kruger study that I’m aware of, but perhaps there ought to be.

And it’s not just global warming where this appears relevant. For instance, a majority of Republicans today are creationists—and I’m willing to bet many think they have great arguments against the theory of evolution.

Finally, I’ve recently seen Dunning-Kruger-type behavior from conservatives in an area I know a lot about, because I just wrote a book on it—the science of ideology. Conservatives like Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard have launched broad attacks against this entire field of research, and seem perfectly happy dismiss its validity, even though those of immersed in the subject know that they did not really even hit the target.

So are we seeing a Dunning-Kruger effect when it comes to conservative science denial? There’s a very important complicating factor here: Conservatives may be more sure of themselves in general, and liberals more self-doubting in general. Certainly, a lot of the research on ideology suggests that conservative ideologies (in both politics and religion) more appeal to those who crave certainty, and are less tolerant of ambiguity, nuance, and doubt.

But hey, untangling these sorts of things is what science is for. So I repeat, someone ought to design some (competent) research here. You would expect conservatives to bash such a study and dismiss it, of course–but then, that's the beauty of it. If the hypothesis turns out to be supported by the evidence, they’d only be proving its point!



Certainly, a lot of the research on ideology suggests that conservative ideologies (in both politics and religion) more appeal to those who crave certainty, and are less tolerant of ambiguity, nuance, and doubt.


It's odd that "libertarian" and "conservative" are often considered nearly synonymous when in point of fact conservatives frequently (mostly?) exhibit authoritarian instincts. 

It's rather horrible to contemplate but I suspect many self-identified conservatives would instantly  pivot to an embrace of climate science if only an emotionally appealing authority figure told them it was the right thing to do without question.  We see this mental agility so often in poltiical races in the U.S.; yesterday's sneering at a "RINO" becomes today's adulation as the former pariah becomes the alpha figure in a pack of candidates. 

What I would like to see is a scientist up there who can put a basic scientific chart or diagram in front of these so-called experts and when the Dunning-Kruger type starts talking, challenge him with a basic question.  Imagine having some idiot talk about how the climate scientists are all wrong about something and then be unable to find a common element on the periodic table.  And then all the scientist has to say is: if you don't know a common element on the periodic table, then what makes you think you understand the greenhouse effect? 

In short, make these people publicly take (and fail) the test shown in the graph above.  Embarass them in public.  Scientists have been too meek in this regard.  I'd particularly like to see this in Congressional testimony when some congressman or senator starts trying to tell a scientist the "truth."  And when the congressman starts calling him an elist, all the scientist needs to say he he's not being elite, he's pointing out who understands science and who does not.


as far as I am concerned, having already made that point here

as far as the rest is concerned, e.g. "morality's" role, etc, I've covered extensively, we see the projection from the guilty Let's compare the two men, no?

The reality is imo, is that the morality associated angles and the Dunning-Kruger effect  reinforce each other quite nicely, because they both share the element of "overestimation" of the quality of their thoughts and deeds, and I'd argue where political issues are involved, and as Romney is apparently making the case for himself, the morality angle is inseperable from the political choices he's advocating for.  Much like "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing", a "little morality" in a world class, chronic liar like Romney similarly be a dangerous thing, because it can lead them to believe they are far closer to the saint than the unrepentent sinners they are. 

The reason why I've long thought and argued that these things plague almost all modern "cons" to one degree or another, is because not only that they've been wrong about almost every issue of significance in the last ten years as "smart idiots" or just idiots thinking themselves "smart, , but also because despite their being disproportionately supportive of wars of aggression, torture, as well as having a disproportionate amount of racists, homophobes, islamophobes, sexists, etc, in their rank ranks, they also have a great many that promote and accept the "let them die/eat dirt" etc povs in violation of the "Good Book" they largely only pay lip service too, they see themselves as paragons of morality like the Mutt does. 

The simple truth of the matter is, they forever lost the possibility of getting or having the designation of the collectively smart or moral people outside of their cult, and their complete abandonment of the 9th Commandment (like Romney for example) and the subsequent license to lie without fear of any political or financial reprisal from within their ranks this has resulted in, all but mandates that the overestimation of their "smart" and "morality" things in real and "competency" terms, are all but if not entirely, inextricably intertwined. 

I'd argue that you really can't seperate intelligence and morality in a political context, any more than you can completely seperate politics from morality.  Wise, prudent, and just political policy choices obviously require a comprehensive overview and understanding of all the facts in the case  -- like with global warming for example.  It could also be argued of course, that intelligence/knowledge/enlightenment, shapes and/or changes morality as well. 

That's what the perpetual rightwingnut dummification is all about, and why their "rugged individualism" is narrowly interpreted, promoted, and enforced.  They really want sheeple and mostly unenlightened "cheap labor" that won't object to much to struggling for their enrichment. 

You don't need to look beyond the "moral" plans Romney has in store for us to see that.

And I've argued for the last decade that they are "the best witnesses for their own prosecution", which I see all the aforementioned as evidence for, so I'd fully expect the result you concluded with should their guilt be incontrovertibly shown.

Hi Chris,

I would like to suggest that Dunning Kruger may not be relevant here and that the "smart idiot" effect you describe can be explained by a different interpretation of the politicians' behaviour.

To me Dunning-Kruger seem to be just describing everyday ego delusion, as when, for example, 95 percent of people think that they are above average drivers (with those who really are good drivers perhaps not wanting to overrate their abilities).

I am more inclined to believe that the scientifically literate right wing politicians who vehemently deny climate change are, like Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, protesting too much.

Am I being too cynical?


Is this sort of science denial a characteristic of conservatism or are climate change and evolution merely their hot button issues and are progressives equally likely to deny science if it gets in the way of their ideology?

A few examples of types on anti-science behaviour that seem to be more common on the left even though there is not a direct connection to ideology Anti- vaccination appears to be more common on the left. Panic over genetically modified organisms. Panic over nuclear power. The attitudes that encourage these seem to encourage people to support the left.

For hot button issues on the left look at anything which they see as questioning their support of equality. Remember a few years back how an academic was howled down when he suggested that one of the reasons why there were fewer women than men at the top levels of some sciences was a different distribution of the required abilities in the respective populations.

So is it merely happenstance that climate change hits conservatives' and even more so libertarians' ideology?

But back to denialism on the part of the scientifically literate. I have noticed on a conservative /libertarian site with scientifically literate  members that I post on that there is a difference between the attitudes of conservative scientists and those who merely are interested in science. The former nearly all accept the reality of AGW.  Far too many of the latter do not. I think it is the difference between practitioners of science and users and followers of science. The scientists know how science is done and can recognize integrity and get pissed of at attempts to attack other scientists. Those who are merely interested in science are much more susceptible to denialism. And many of the denialists are more interested in technology than in science. Those whose primary enthusiasm for technology and its possibilities are likely to see environmentalism as a threat to technology.

I suspect that the non scientists see only the conclusions of science and see them as much more cut and dried than they really are. I wonder also if they are primarily interested in only part of science. Are they primarily interested in the novelties, the new discoveries, the breakthroughs.  I suspect they are less interested than scientists in the checking out of discoveries and fitting them into an overall picture. But this is the largest part of science. So does openness to new experience make you less likely to be a denialist or can liking novelty set you up for denialism?


Lloyd Flack said:

"A few examples of types on anti-science behaviour that seem to be more common on the left even though there is not a direct connection to ideology Anti- vaccination appears to be more common on the left. Panic over genetically modified organisms."

I have to disagree with the comment about genetically modified organisms. Those opposed to the widespread use of GMO's in agriculture are in fact more cognizant of the science, all aspects of the science and technology, than those supporting them. There is a clear case that GMO's are being promoted on the back of dishonest science and dishonest PR, just like the denial of AGW.

The dishonesty is shown by both the companies producing them and by the politicians who have erected a regulatory system which is completely useless and only benefits the GMO producers.

There is nothing wrong with rDNA technology itself it is the dishonest promotion of it that is the problem.

For example, glyphosate, the herbicide used with Roundup Ready crops is not as safe as originally stated. The whole acceptance of many chemical pesticides was based on the dishonest and fraudulent tests conducted by a couple of testing companies, Industrial Biotest Laboratories and Craven Laboratories ( Many scientists who have published work detrimental to GMO companies have been vilified e.g. Arpad Pusztai. There are now many well documented research projects showing harm caused by feeding GMO crops to animals.

There are also many documented cases of various problems farmers have encountered with the use of these crops, e.g. herbicide resistant weeds, insecticide resistant insects. All of these were predicted but the promoters poo haad such"nonsense."

The third problem is the regulatory system. There is a revolving door between Monsanto and other GM companies and the regulatory arms of US Government departments.

Thus the question we should be asking is: Why is dishonest science supported by Conservatives? Are they too lazy to actually check (i.e. be "skeptical")? Or are more conservatives employed by companies selling these products?

There are many parallels between companies promoting AGW denial and those promoting GMO crops.

I was referring to the people who were talking about "frankenfoods" etc. It's the the idea that there is something unnatural about directly bringing about genetic changes but selecting from among random mutations (which we have done with all our crops and livestock) is natural. Little of our food is natural (except  for fish) if you mean it is something that we haven't genetically modified. And there is no evidence that there is anything toxic or not nutritios about genetically modified food.


Now the antics of some of the corporations creating the GMOs is another matter and some of the concerns that you have raised are reasonable. But there are those people who freak out at the very idea of genetically modified food for reasons that have no scientific justification.

Lloyd said:

"And there is no evidence that there is anything toxic or not nutritios about genetically modified food".

There are plenty of peer reviewed papers on the harmful effects of GM food and feed. Arpad Pusztai was the first to show this and he was vilified. It became very difficult at first since the companies producing the GMO's controlled them and any researcher had to get any results approved by the companies before publishing. Obviously, any negative effects were vetoed.

However, recently there have been numerous reports on the harmful health effects of GM crops especially those containing the bacterial toxin BT. The toxins, as produced by the crops, have never been tested. Instead, the proteins produced by their natural  host, Bacillus thuringiensis for BT and the snowdrop lectin in Pusztai's work, were tested. The toxins produced in the crop are different due to "post translational modification". Pusztai and Ewen realized that the recombinant process itself resulted in changes but did not understand what these changes were and thought that the toxicity of the potatoes may be due to the viral promoter used in the transformation.

The irony in the Pusztai affair is that he was selected by the UK Government to set up testing protocols to evaluate the safety of GMO crops. The first test he set up showed harmful effects so he was fired and his research vilified.

As well as results in the peer reviewed literature there are many problems identified. For example, the feeding test on cattle fed Bt176 corn performed on behalf of Syngenta in Hesse, Germany. Four cows died, the test was terminated and all the other cows killed. It is unclear if any autopsies were performed but certainly no report was published.

This case has recently been reopened:

There are a number of resources for those wishing to become acquainted with what is really going on in the world GMO crops:

These web sites are run by independent scientsts who understand the science behind the promotion and production of GMO's. They are the equivalent of Realclimate and DeSmogBlog.

Reasonable caution is one thing, Knee-jerk  reaction of the "It's unnatural type" is another. And the opposition that I have seen has been of the type that claims that there is something wrong with the idea of genetic engineering itself. And this is illogical.

Now could there be failures of regulatory oversight going on? Quite possibly. Could pressure from corporations be behind such failures. Quite likely. So use proper caution and set proper regulatory frameworks. And keep a sense of proportion about any risks.


Lloyd said:

"Knee-jerk  reaction of the "It's unnatural type" is another. And the opposition that I have seen has been of the type that claims that there is something wrong with the idea of genetic engineering itself."

Can't say that I find much of this in my readings but I do tend to stick to science based sources.

Scientific illiteracy is everywhere.  I think it is dangerous to adopt the opinion that it is only "the other people" who are scientifically illiterate.

Over at Huffington Post, I've been following a number of stories on Mercury, BPA, HFCS, etc.  It seems the major on the left over there are of the opinion that virtually every chemical created by "The Man" causes cancer, kills, etc., regardless of the dose.  One PPB Mercury ... "TOXIC!"  A minute trace of radioactive cadmium in fish as a result of Fukishima?  "TOXIC!"

But there are acceptions!  Marijuana, it seems, is completely harmless.  Hell, it's good for you!  Nevermind what the American Lung Association says on the topic ... "BIG LUNG" has been bought out by "The Man" to keep us all down!

Now, I'm not anti-marijuana.  But I do think the vast majority of people on both the left and right tend to cling to a narrative of reality that appeases them, regardless of the truth behind that narrative.  I'm inclined to believe that, if a person wishes to smoke marijuana for example, they should be able to without adopting a corrupted notion of reality.  The truth is, it's very likely not good for you!  At the same time, a small amount of HFCS, consumed in moderation, is not going to kill you.  Nor is the trace amount of radioactive cadmium recently found in Pacific fish.  (It's not good for you either, but at the levels seen so far, it shouldn't be a concern).

The democrats have their share of scientifically illiteracy as well.  It is simply wrapped around different subjects.  I think adopting a left vs. right or democrat vs. republican stance on the subject of scientific illiteracy is just counterproductive and leads to tunnel-vision on the subject.

The correlation is quite striking, and its been a gradual 30 year shift.


However that may be different from what politicians are up to.  I do believe that there are a lot of Democrats in Desmogblog's sights because of their activities.


I think in politics, that its lobbiests and lots of filthy lucre.

To understand this anti-science behaviour, I find a more helpful comparison with the highly educated primate exhibiting behaviour while his/her partner, the organ grinder, provides a dance tempo.  Many years education, significantly more educated than the overwhelming portion of his/her primate fellows.  Much more adept at behaving in the public setting than the rest of the species.  And just as aware, whether that awareness is present in symbolic knowledge resident in the primate's neural system, or that awareness is founded in other functional, rehearsed behaviours seated in whatever portions of the bio-physical primate systems as may be.  

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