The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths)

Read time: 5 mins

Over the last year here at DeSmogBlog, my writings have converged around a set of common themes. On the one hand, I’ve shown just how factually incorrect today’s political conservatives are, documenting the disproportionate amount of misinformation believed by Fox News watchers and the disproportionate wrongness of the right when it comes to science.

At the same time, I’ve advanced a variety of psychological explanations for why we might be seeing so much political and scientific misinformation today on the right wing. For instance, I’ve unpacked the theory of motivated reasoning; and I’ve also talked about why conservative white males in particular seem to be such strong deniers of climate science.

All of this, I’m now prepared to say, is just the iceberg tip. You see, for the last year, I’ve been working on a book on the same topic, which explains why conservatives are so factually incorrect—drawing on the latest research in social psychology, political science, cognitive neuroscience, and other fields.

The book is now finished in draft form—due out next year with Wiley—and it is long past time to formally announce its existence. You are now seeing the draft cover image (the current subtitle is likely to change, as this phenomenon goes far, far beyond science, as does the book).  I can also share the text that will soon go up to Amazon and elsewhere. Eat your heart out, Ann Coulter:

Bestselling author Chris Mooney uses cutting-edge research to explain the psychology behind why today’s Republicans reject reality—it’s just part of who they are.

From climate change to evolution, the rejection of mainstream science among Republicans is growing, as is the denial of expert consensus on the economy, American history, foreign policy and much more. Why won’t Republicans accept things that most experts agree on? Why are they constantly fighting against the facts?

Science writer Chris Mooney explores brain scans, polls, and psychology experiments to explain why conservatives today believe more wrong things; appear more likely than Democrats to oppose new ideas and less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts; and sometimes respond to compelling evidence by doubling down on their current beliefs. 

· Goes beyond the standard claims about ignorance or corporate malfeasance to discover the real, scientific reasons why Republicans reject the widely accepted findings of mainstream science, economics, and history—as well as many undeniable policy facts (e.g., there were no “death panels” in the health care bill).

· Explains that the political parties reflect personality traits and psychological needs—with Republicans more wedded to certainty, Democrats to novelty—and this is the root of our divide over reality.

· Written by the author of The Republican War on Science, which was the first and still the most influential book to look at conservative rejection of scientific evidence. But the rejection of science is just the beginning…

Certain to spark discussion and debate, The Republican Brain also promises to add to the lengthy list of persuasive scientific findings that Republicans reject and deny.

I know very well that this invites controversy, so let me say (even though I expect many conservatives will ignore it!) that the book also fully documents the handicaps and drawbacks of liberal/Democratic psychology. It's a yin-and-yang kind of thing; you can’t make one argument without the other.

There’s a reason Winston Churchill was a better wartime leader than Neville Chamberlain. There’s a reason why the Tea Party got itself elected in under two years, while Occupy Wall Street is kinda all over the place. There’s a reason why we have scores of environmental groups that often can’t see eye to eye. There’s a reason, as George Lakoff and others have noted, why Democrats (and scientists!) focus too much on policy facts and details rather than winning over people’s hearts (and winning elections).

But when it comes to determining what’s true about complex, technical subjects—issues full of ambiguity and uncertainty, where you can’t just jump to conclusions and have to stay open-minded and tentative in your beliefs–I’ll take the scientific-liberal approach any day. And after reading the book, I think so will you.

The implications of this argument about liberalism, conservatism, and the facts are vast. For instance, media “balance,” and the allegedly neutral fact-checking enterprise, founder completely if the two political camps have a different relationship with ambiguity, nuance, certainty, and ultimately, facts.

Meanwhile, cases of liberals or moderates attacking their own allies and making really weak arguments—e.g., absurd suggestions that conservatives aren’t actually more wrong about science, or that scientists are just politically biased—will come into focus as (admittedly annoying) instances of the core liberal search for novelty, complexity, and new ways of looking at things. In other words, liberal contrarians just can’t help it! They need to be different, puckish, disobedient.

Very real cases of liberals, or leftists, also being wrong about the facts, on issues like vaccination, will also be discussed and explained.

I’ll be saying a lot more in coming months, including (I hope) rolling out some novel inquiries undertaken for the book.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more, the always awesome David Roberts has recently written two perceptive columns with a very similar theme. See here and here. And Andrea Kuszewski has covered the cognitive neuroscience of liberalism and conservatism in a very smart piece here. This will also be the subject of a panel at the 2012 Science Online conference, convened by myself and Andrea.

My book synthesizes all of this, and much more, and, I hope, pushes the ball further.

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Insofar as I can tell, my original comment on Andrea Kuszewski’s guest post still applies. (Andrea not Andrew, right? If so, needs correction above)

I think that several things are worth re-emphasizing:

Notably: “The brain is plastic.”

This means that education matters, and the type of education offered matters. Is education about test scores, memorization and recitation, exploration and/or creative thinking?

Cultural structures matter. To use an historical example, what made Athens Athens and Sparta Sparta?

It also offers some relief to people such as myself, whose procreative efforts are strictly at replacement level. There may be some benefit to subgroups who adapt a “quiverfull” ideology, but not maxing out on reproductive efforts does not necessarily doom progressive, liberal civilization.

While not explicitly stated above, I also think that it is very important to realize that “liberal” is not synonymous with leftist, and similarly “conservative” is not strictly analogous to rightist either. Thus there are people who end up in either of the two political slots offered in the US who fit both models. I don’t think that this makes them necessarily “more complex”. I think that the ideology of our political parties make some sense looking at their historical roots, but in modern terms are somewhat arbitrary. At the extremes, there are some leftists who are incredibly rigid thinkers, who believe that everyone should think as they do, or else. These are not “liberal” open minded thinkers. There are also some right wingers, who are libertarian in nature and not at all “conservative”.

Recognizing that people have thoughts and feelings with deeply emotional roots which originate in real differences in how we use our brains, does not mean that we have to abandon prospects for rational civilized society. I do believe, however that it highlights the unfortunate fact that for humans, grasp of civilization is tenuous. This means that without continuous nurturing, without serious efforts at building and maintaining the key elements of civilized society, humans are eminently capable of backsliding.

I think that having a deeper understanding of human cognitive processing will aid us in our efforts to move forward.

In Canada Liberal is Centrist.  Mild conservative, and a mild socialist.  That’s about where I am on the political spectrum.  I’ve been swayed by many of the conservative goverment’s stands on issues.

I like to joke that if Harper leans any closer to the center he’s going to fall over.

The Conservatives in Canada are clearly authoritarian. This is difficult for them since they have fewer religious folks to rely on, so they have to meld in softer conservative values in order to gain votes.


You make great points. All I can say is that I'm aware of these objections and tackle *all of them,* as far as I can tell. I don't know whether you'll be satisfied, though, until you read the book.

I certainly could not write the book without addressing these objections.


This book really cleared up a lot for me.

You see… My brother in law is a crazy rightwinger.  And in a regretable dining incident the subject of Climate Change came up.

The first thing I said was that there are no experts on the denier side.

He pulled up a web page of experts (like Dyson)…

So… I pulled up a web page explaining their creditials (none).  After seeing and understanding this fraud he was unconvinced.

I told him to find a scientific paper supporting his position.  He pulled up a pdf opinion piece on a Blog.  (He didn’t know what a paper was…)

Undaunted he pulled up this;

It looks dire.  It looks official… it even has REAL papers.  So it must be so.  But as you can guess, he couldn’t understand at all what he was seeing.

I read a few papers I realized that there were a lot of mistakes.  (Papers with conclusions unrelated to their thesis.) That’s when I decided to examine Energy and Climate.  A polisci editor with no useful knowledge of science who thinks of Energy and Climate as a means of pushing her own political agenda.


I cite him, it's a great book, very influential. However, there is much more research on authoritarianism than this. It's barely the beginning, really. 

But authoritarianism is definitely central to understanding the right and its denial of reality.


” Undaunted he pulled up this;

It looks dire.  It looks official… it even has REAL papers.

Yes, Poptech has been covered on numerous blogs.

It’s pretty much as you say:

“I read a few papers I realized that there were a lot of mistakes.  (Papers with conclusions unrelated to their thesis.)”

He has just found any paper that even mentions & cloud & has said yeah thats good enough. Poptech was also responsible for a smear campaign a few years back on one of the desmog members. He posted the real name & address of a member in the hope they would be persecuted or attacked.

When you mentioned that the book will cover Liberals who are wrong about vaccination got me wondering if you will also cover alternative medicine.

Why do liberals (such as myself), take their somewhat reasonable distrust of mainstream medicine, and put all their faith in alternatives that either haven’t been proven to work, or have been proven not to work? Homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, ColdFX… it’s all bull, and it seems to be mostly the liberals advocating them.

I’m not sure if I’d agree that all liberals are like that.

My experience is the opposite.  Conservative fear mongering over vaccinations and autism, etc.  Faith related healing here and there.

I think this is on both sides of spectrum.  I suspect that theres lots of nutty behavior out there.  But just because we can measure and label the conservative side of spectrum, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a flavour of it on the Left.  (Which I think you are suggesting.)

I can comment on ColdFX.  I have a friend who’s also a biotech stock analyst, who’s also quite Liberal (in the Canadian sense).

The sales folks at ColdFX are quite pushy.  In fact they frequently call up and offer bogus suggestions for alternate uses for their ‘drug’.  (Like taking ColdFX can help fend of H1N1…)

I’d suspect that what they are really hoping to do is generate more free crap advertising.  Someone says something, and next thing you know a new use for this snake oil is found.  So it doesn’t surprise me that something like that would be found.

(FYI… my friend said no to their ‘scientific’ advances.)

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see then!

It’s established science  that republicans are inferior to democrats and really the republicans ought to just get out of the way and quit causing us trouble.

We need to figure out how the USA can become more of a one party state. I’m not sure how to do that. It’s not like we want to lock up the republicans but we need to do something.

Perhaps we can use the science to show that republicanism is a mental illness. It’s a medical issue. They need medication to get them thinking right.

We could just outlaw dissagreening with a dem… That woud be simpler.

Then put valium in the water and ban any free thinking…

If you need an opinion, the state will give you an approved one…!!!!


“It’s established science  that republicans are inferior to democrats”

Got any evidence or a link for that?………Nah, it’s ok, I believe you. ;)

“They need medication to get them thinking right.”

I think just education & some morals should do the trick. But not a bad idea Rick. Mental illness is a real problem these days & you might be onto something there.


A) No one has said anyone is better or worse than anyone else.  If you’d actually read Bob Altemeyer’s book, you’d know that he covers that off in chapter 1.

B) I find it interesting that as a global warming skeptic, you are confusing correlation with causation.  They aren’t the same thing, look it up.

C) You are willfully ignoring facts.  There is a rift in the Republican party between the ‘Hawks’ (far right) and the more moderate conservatives.  I’ll wager this book correlates with the Hawks in the Republican Party.

There is plenty of room for multi-party politics.  For the longest time in Canada the Conservatives split into three parties.

   As a Democrat myself, I must say that you are wrong. The attitude that one group is superior to another is exactly the same thing that led to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and many other travesties throughout history. Your comment shows both a lack of understanding of history and a deep ignorance of politics.

   For example, your one party state idea. How on Earth do you expect anyone to change American politics that dramatically without resorting to violence, forsaking the constitution, and creating a human rights issue when “republicanism” is declared “an enemy of the State”? That will not solve the climate problem, it will set back our ability to adress the climate problem.

   Your ideas, if they were realistically put into effect (which they will not be) would likely lead to a civil war. That is one thing we do not need.

   I am disturbed by your comment. I know a great deal many Republicans whom I consider to be friends. They are not mentally ill, they are not neseccarily ignorant (though on climate change, perhaps). They are people, like us. We cannot persecute them for their beliefs, as you are suggesting. We have to work with them.

Chris, I am somewhat sympathetic to what I can infer (not having read it yet) is the thesis of your book. However, I wince when I hear the claim that authoritarianism is the province of one part of the political spectrum. Authority really knows no ideological bounds. Both left and right have long histories of atrocious authoritarian behaviour.

Further, Republicanism is a relatively broad worldview within an even larger right-wing paradigm. Within the Right spectrum there is libertarianism alongside moral majoity types. It’s really a mixed bag and a big tent, with lots going on inside it. There is also the matter of which Republicanism is being analyzed, American Republicanism of the 21st century? American Republicanism of the 18th century? British Republicanism? (many British Republicans of the 18th and 19th century were very enamored with the scientific advancements of the day) Spanish Republicanism? (which used the latest scientific discoveries to spread their colonies). Also, what we call ‘conservatism’ today is more or less the opposite of what conservatism was in the 19th century. Still, both the Whigs (considered liberals of  the day who venerated law and order, Parliament, laissez faire capitalism and Federalism) and Tories (conservatives who were suspiscious of scientific advancements, and exalted the monarchy and the church) were even in their own time a mixed bag.

Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno and the Franfurt School of Critical Theory, Wilhelm Reich, Michel Foucault, among others, have already done a lot of ground work on authority. Stanely MIlbram’s experiemts in the 1960s and the Stanford Prison Experiment have largely borne out what these other thinkers have warned about: that authority is situational and pervasive, irrespective of previous ideological committment.

I wonder if your book addresses or at least touches on any of these points? 

Yes, I address these points. I don't think authoritarianism is equally distributed on the political spectrum, and I don't think the research (of which there is a large body) at all supports that idea.

I agree with many of the points raised by Peter Moss above.

Assuming that your book does expand on these issues and those I raised earlier, I’m wondering if the current book title is misleading.

You mention that: “(the current subtitle is likely to change, as this phenomenon goes far, far beyond science, as does the book).”

If in fact the book goes beyond a narrow definition of the modern Republican Party, can this be rephrased so that it doesn’t sound like a generalized indictment of all people who happen to have registered themselves as Republicans?

The lack of faith in climate science is derived from the lack of evidence and the consistantly incorrect and exagerated predictions. This always happens when politics trumps the scientific process.

commented on this thread, but either my poor attempt at a joke was considered tasteless and removed or else otherwise dissapeared into the greeat bit bucket in the sky.

Anyway, good for you Chris.  FInishing up a book is no picnic.

As a registered Republican who is also a scientist, I’m really looking forward to finding out why I’m a walking contradiction, but wait, that would make me ambivalent, so that means I’m liberal…

But a little fact checking for you. Chamberlain and Churchill were both Conservatives. In fact, Churchill, who served in at least one Liberal administration, was more ambiguously Conservative than Chamberlain. It would be lovely if conservatism came packaged with wartime leadership abilities, but it unfortunately ain’t so. 

Also, this seems awfully US-centric. The Conservative government in Britain at the moment supports their rather draconian renewable energy plan and is most definitely not AGW-denialist, or climate skeptic, or whatever your favorite ideologically weighted term is. And evolution denial is quite peculiar to the US, among Western democracies. Yet I doubt brain physiology is responsive to political boundaries. 

Finally, I think your view of science is quaint. Read Kuhn. Science is rarely puckish or contrarian; in fact, sometimes it’s depressingly reactionary. Everyone loves a paradigm shift, but ‘normal science’ rarely experiences paradigm shifts. 

Gerard Harbison, it is a mistake to assume “conservative” means the same thing in different countries, or at different times.  In Canada the current Conservative Party is nothing like the former Progressive Conservative Party; and people who now claim to be “Conservatives” are not conservative as defined in the dictionary.

What I as a Canadian would consider “conservative” in the dictionary sense of the world, you as an American might consider “liberal”. But then “liberal” and “Liberal” in Canada are also two different things.

I’ll quote from R. A. Lafferty, who was an American writer of an original turn of mind:

“Things are set up as contraries that are not even in the same category. Listen to me: the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive. Thus I will describe myself as a radical conservative liberal; but certain of the tainted red fish will swear that there can be no such fish as that. Beware of those who use words to mean their opposites. At the same time have pity on them, for usually this trick is their only stock in trade.

R. A. Lafferty, in The Flame is Green (1971), Ch. 5”

I am well familiar with the British Conservative Party, and it is the British Conservative Party to which I was referring. Britain has two main parties, one social democrat, and one conservative (the LibDems are a munge, and are polling in the single digits). 

British conservatives align far better with the Republican Party than the Democrats. If indeed the Conservatives in the UK contain mostly people who, if transported magically to the US, would align as Republican – and I regard that as a pretty safe hypothesis –  and if the overall neurophysiological range of traits in the US is similar to that in the UK, then it is very difficult to explain the anti-evo, anti-AGW tendencies in the US by physiology.

This is the point. Regardless of political alignments, neurophysiological ranges in Canada are almost certainly broadly similar to the US. So, since Canadian politics is very different, that limits the extent to which physiological factors can influence politics. 

In no way on this planet are conservatives in Canada similar to the US.

Look at your demographics.  In Canada (like the UK) we have way way way less religion to rely on as a voting block.  In the US this dramatically alters the playing field.

Look at their culture.  In the US capitalism is deeply ingrained.  Not so in Canada where we have public health care.

There are a lot of differences.

Read my other post…

Correlation does not equal causation.

This is very very very basic science\math.  You know that.  Altemeyer’s book covers that off in the first chapter.  Leaping to your conclusions is silly.

And yes… This is American Centric.

In Canada we had many grades of right wing (conservative) parties.  The far right was Reform (?), and I think that was where Harper began.  (That why I joke that if he leans any closer to the center, he’ll fall over.)  The important point is that there are many flavors and grades of conservative.  The US has polarized to two parties, and notably the far Right dominates the Republicans.  Canada is now the same.

Thanks for the tips on very very very basic science and math. I must have skipped that on the way to my research career in physical chemistry. 

Could you identify the conclusions you believe I’ve leapt to? 

doesn’t mean you’re a walking contradiction.

Correlation… You are a Republican.

Causation… Does not mean that in any way you are like every other Republican.


And yet the book is called ‘The Republican Brain’, and subtitled ‘The science of why they don’t believe in science’. A distinct dearth of qualifiers there. 

I know a lot of Republican scientists. 

BTW, the word verification algorithm on this site sucks. 

Political parties are labels, so take what appears to a slam with grain of salt.

Look at me… I’m a pretty ardent Liberal in Canada… and the party folded after a scandal.  I don’t like the Conservatives (specifically, Harper), and I’m not very socialist so I don’t like the NDP.  And dang the liberals did nothing about Climate Change…

I suspect that I will swing NDP next election just because I want to see more done for the environment…

The republican brain is a good read but it has an awful title. This is because it reeks of partisan wankery which is nowhere to be found inside the book. On the other hand the content which author delivers provides sophisticated focus method analysis and social group psychological research on default personality types and how some with certain personality traits have drifted towards one major political party or the other, just like Adam Gottbetter writes in his book. The author also does an excellent job of displaying how this focus method sorting contributes to people's polarization.