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.

It turns out that the case for human caused global warming is based on simple and fundamental physics. We’ve known about the greenhouse effect for over one hundred years. And we’ve known that carbon dioxide is a heat trapping gas, a greenhouse gas. Some of the key experiments on this, by the Irishman John Tyndall, actually occurred in the year 1859, which is the same year that Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

We also know that if we do nothing, seriously bad stuff starts happening. If we melt Greenland and West Antarctica, we’re looking at 40 feet of sea level rise.  This is, like, bye bye to key parts of Florida.

Enter the Denial

So then, the question is, why do people deny this? And why, might I add, do Republicans in particular deny this so strongly?

And if your answer to that question is, “oh, because they’re stupid”—well, you’re wrong. That’s what liberals want to think, but it doesn’t seem be correct. In fact, it seems to be precisely the opposite—smarter (or more educated) Republicans turn out to be worse science deniers on this topic.

This is a phenomenon that I like to call the “smart idiot” effect, and I just wrote about it for AlterNet and

Let me tell you how I stumbled upon this effect—which is really what set the book in motion. I think the key moment came in the year 2008 when I came upon Pew data showing:

• That if you’re a Republican, then the higher your level of education, the less likely you are to accept scientific reality—which is, that global warming is human caused.

• If you’re a Democrat or Independent, precisely the opposite is the case.

This is actually a consistent finding now across the social science literature on the resistance to climate change. So, for that matter, is the finding that the denial is the worst among conservative white males—so it has a gender aspect to it—and among the Tea Party.

So seriously: What’s going on here?  More education leading to worse denial, but only among Republicans? How can you explain that?

A Three-Level Explanation

Well, I think we need to understand three points in order to understand why conservatives act this way. And I will list them here, before going into them in more detail:

1.       Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.

2.       Conservative “Morality” Impels Climate Denial—and in particular, conservative Individualism.

3.       Fox News is the Key “Feedback Mechanism”—whereby people already inclined to believe false things get all the license and affirmation they need.

1: Conservatism is a Defensive Ideology, and Appeals to People Who Want Certainty and Resist Change.

There’s now a staggering amount of research on the psychological and even the physiological traits of people who opt for conservative ideologies. And on average, you see people who are more wedded to certainty, and to having fixed beliefs. You also see people who are more sensitive to fear and threat—in a way that can be measured in their bodily responses to certain types of stimuli.

At the extreme of these traits, you see a group called authoritarians—those who are characterized by cognitive rigidity, seeing things in black and white ways—“in group/out group,” my way or the highway.

So in this case, if someone high on such traits latches on to a particular belief—in this case, “global warming is a hoax”—then more knowledge about it is not necessarily going to open their minds. More knowledge is just going to be used to argue what they already think.

And we see this in the Tea Party, where we have both the highest levels of global warming denial, but also this incredibly strong confidence that they know all they need to know about the issue, and they don’t want any more information, thank you very much.

2. Conservative “Morality” Impels Climate Denial—in particular, Individualism.

But, you might say, “well, Tea Party conservatives don’t deny every aspect of reality.” And it’s true. Presumably, they still will accept a factual correction if they have, say, the date of Mother’s Day wrong. Presumably they’re still open minded about that…we hope.

So why deny this particular thing? Why deny that global warming is caused by humans? And here, I think you’ve got to look at deep seated moral intuitions that differs from left to right. And it’s important to note at the outset that whatever your moral intuitions are, they push you emotionally to reason in a particular direction long before you are actually consciously thinking about it.

So, conservatives tend to be “individualists”—meaning, essentially, that they prize a system in which government leaves you alone—and “hierarchs,” meaning, they are supportive of various types of inequality.

The individualist is threatened by global warming, deeply threatened, because it means that markets have failed and governments—including global governments—have to step in to fix the problem. And some individualists are so threatened by this realty that they even spin out conspiracy theories, arguing that all the world’s scientists are in a cabal with, like, the UN to make up phony science so they can crash economies.

 So now let’s look at what these individualist assumptions do to the denial of science. In one study by Yale’s Dan Kahan and colleagues:

• “Individualist-hierarchs” and “egalitarian-communitarians” are asked: Who’s an expert on global warming?

• Only 23 percent of H-I’s agree that a scientist who thinks GW is human-caused is a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert,” vs. 88 percent of E-C’s.

In another study, meanwhile, Kahan showed that if you frame the science of global warming as supporting nuclear power, then conservatives are more open to accepting it, presumably because it does not insult their values any longer.

3. Fox News is the Key “Feedback Mechanism”—whereby people who want to believe false things get all the license they need.

So clearly, there are some deeply rooted attributes that predispose conservatives towards the denial of global warming.

But there are also “environmental” factors—things that have come to exist in our world that did not exist before, that interact with these things about conservatives, and make all this much worse.

And here, Fox News is undeniably at the top of the list. There are now a host of studies showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed about various aspects of reality, including two such studies about global warming.

So if you’ve got Fox News, you’ve got a place to go to reaffirm your beliefs. And that serves this psychological need for certainty and security. So conservatives opt in, they get the misinformation, their beliefs are reaffirmed, and they’re set to argue, argue, argue about why they’re right and all the scientists of the world are wrong.

Any questions?

So in sum, we need a nature-nurture, or a combined psychological and environmental account of the conservative denial of global warming. And only then do we see why they are so doggedly espousing a set of beliefs that are so wildly dangerous to the planet.


San Diego will be treated to a helping of “truthiness”, courtesy of “Lord” Monckton this Saturday evening (Mar 24).   

The event is being held at the University of San Diego. USD is a very well-respected university; I’m sure that lots of USD folks will be rather less than thrilled to find out that a Monckton “tea party” is being hosted there.

Event details / on-line reservation info here:

Auditorium capacity is about 300; currently, it looks like about 60 seats are still available

Putting the call out to all UCSD/Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists – please consider crashing Monckton’s little “tea party” Saturday evening. 

To all lurkers here – if you know a UCSD/SIO scientist, or know someone who knows a USCD/SIO scientist, please pass the word along.

Ditto for those who might know any USD scientists/instructors – USD is a very solid Catholic institution of higher learning (just like John Abraham’s University of St. Thomas).  Here’s hoping that at least one USD “John Abraham” will show up to challenge Monckton.

I’ll try and get some friends from UCSD to drive over. As tomorrow is World Meteorlogical Day –  I suspect Monckton’s campaign has a high profile event planned to spread what I call his “unformation”. It will be interesting to see how that is received or if the day is too obscure to matter in the MSM. The AMA has its meeting this fall and are schduled to release their first statement on Global Warming in a awhile. This one I am sure will get coverage.


It is ironic that freshman Assemblyman Brian Jones has chosen this Saturday, March 24 to emcee one of the world’s most egregious actors on the climate denial stage – after a winter of broken heat records. Regardless of your opinions on climate change, sponsoring an inflammatory charlatan such as self-titled Lord Christopher Monckton is offensive to many in San Diego County….

 ”It is truly shocking and disturbing that Mr. Jones is hosting a thoroughly discredited climate denier who has no scientific background and has no problem comparing climate activists like ourselves with Hitler Youth. While an informative debate could highlight different viewpoints on some of the more nuanced concerns of climate scientists, bringing the equivalent of a smooth-tongued snake oil salesman who repeats outright lies about the content of scientific papers and spouts disproved notions as “facts” - is misleading, dishonest, and harmful.

“We call on Assemblyman Jones to disavow and cancel this event and his sponsorship of it. It would be encouraging if he were open to meeting with local climatologists and our organization to discuss real concerns. If he is open-minded, he might be surprised with what he learns. In that case, we could look forward to what he might do as a new member of the State Assembly. ”

East County Magazine ( is an award-winning nonpartisan community publication published by the Heartland Foundation, a dba of the nonprofit 501c3 Heartland Coalition.

Editor’s Note: The Heartland Institute, a climate-denial organization linked to Monckton, has absolutely no relationship to Heartland Coalition, publisher of ECM and founder of UnitedGREEN.

To all San Diego scientists;

If you do plan on showing up and challenging Monckton, please bring your ‘A’ game as he is known to shred the unprepaired with his rational and fully believable arguments.

But I’m sure he’s verbally adroit and aggressive.

These videos never get old.  (And should probably be required viewing those scientists for tomorrow.)

Don’t forget to ask him how his cure for cancer and HIV is going.  Its important to inform everyone what kind of quack he is.


Looking at Monktons body language at 7:00 in that first video, it’s funny how Monkton often rubs his nose at the precise moment he is telling a lie.

“with his rational and fully believable arguments.”

Lara, did you feel that because Chris mentioned Colbert, that you had to provide some alternative comedy relief? Because that’s a beauty.

240 people have already booked seats to see the gish gallop.


The GOP is still iving in the Andrew Mellon- Calvin Coolidge- Herbert Hoover- Ronald Reagan  reality- which is sort of a past Gilded ages- roaring 20s manifesto

science may interfere in the ‘business of America’

Gallup is out today with a new poll that shows 70% of American adults  across the entire political and educational spectrum, doubt that the current warm winter was influenced by global warming. The data show that even among Democrats 37% were non-believers compared to 43% of Democrats who blamed global warming a mere 6% separation.

The bigger problem that I see from this data is that it falsifies Mooney’s hypothesis, that Republicans are unique in doubting global warming effects. While Mooney may still be correct that scientists and social influencers may be communicating poorly, it would appear that many Democrats and not just Republicans are not getting the message that Mooney thinks they should be getting. This Gallup poll data does not support Mooney’s new book and his argument that only the  Republican brain is incapable of accepting global warming as a fact, because we have evidence that the Democrat brain isn’t much different in belief.

Let’s not mistake a Gallup poll for a scientific study.

Steve Novella on surveys,

(and it sounds like the poll asked specifically about the cause of “the current warm winter”, which is a different question to HCGW)

That its bat ass wrong.  Out to lunch.   Totally bogus.

There was quite a kerfluffle about the last election polls.  All were quite wrong except Angus Reid.. (Which doesn’t really poll, but rather the asked 800 people with known voting habits, how they’d vote this time around.)

poll which surveyed over 10,000 Earth scientists, asking them if they thought it is warmer now than when the Little Ice Age ended.  Well since the scientists couldn’t write in “Duh!” they had to answer “yes”. U of I then chose to focus on responses from just 77 respondents out of the over 3,000 respondents to reveal their Earth shattering announcement that 97% of climate scientists accept that the world is warmer now than at the end of the Little Ice Age. lol

Gallup poll however has a good reputation for competancy and accuracy although I have found examples in past surveys of poor question design (I have constructed surveys) so I would certainly listen to any specific criticism you have of the Gallup poll design. I understand this is nothing more than a snapshot of feelings/perceptions about climate, but it is no different than any other poll on climate from Gallup in that you end up with nothing more than a snapshot of peoples feeling/perceptions. All I tried to illustrate was that those feelings/perceptions, which are manifestations of brain function, showed that many but not all Dems had the same feelings/perceptions as many but not all Reps and that obviously some (37%) Democrat brains have the same feeling/perception as some Republican brains.

I refuse to have a battle of the wits with an unarmed person.

The first poll you commented on was done this way;

“Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 8-11, 2012, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.”

Those polls are random and unrelated to reality.  If they were in any way accurate we’d be living with a minority Conservative Canada as was repeatedly predicted by all polls except Angus Reid.   (Who I mentioned, don’t poll because they know them to be inaccurate.)

That wasn’t a gallop pole survey.  It was a review of scientific literature.

You might try to understand what the difference is.  One consists of calling a random hodge podge of people, and the other consists of reading the work from actual scientists.

“97–98% of the most published climate researchers say humans are causing global warming. In another study 97.4% of publishing climatologists and just under 90% of earth scientists, broadly construed, say that significant man made global warming is occurring. Of those who didn’t, most were unsure.”

One of things I like about this… is that if any scientist could disprove global warming… All Hail!  He’d be a hero!  He’d be famous! He’d have funding up the wazoo!  He’d just have to show something that disproved it.

But they just can’t do it. 

Don’t forget that this is 10 years after the oil industry stated that they already HAD THE PROOF to Canada’s Environment Minister.  And we are still being treated to a new random crock from you guys every week.  And no proof has been presented.

You yourself can’t even find any Windy.

“You have found yourself.”

If y’all think windy is right-on & Mooney out in left field, then by all means, let windy know.

However, if you suspect that windy is still steeped in denial, well then, just show windy the love. [click!]

If only ridicule and humour was enough.

Science is showing how facts don’t simply speak for themselves.

So if we want to change minds (public opinion, public policy) -and climate sciences warn this is urgent- then pro-science advocates ought to change debating style to what the social sciences are telling us works.

The Debunking Handbook,

… which is the great social benefit of a captive press owned by a person of tarnished credibility. The “Free Market” has given us the “Free Press” we hear so much about, but it cannot give us the antidote. A monopoly which spreads disinformation is as socially cancerous as a political dictatorship.

Finding confirmation of one’s opinion on Faux News should start an alarm bell ringing in one’s cognitve dissonance attractor, whether one is afflicted with a Republican Brain or not.

Chris, there is another factor why conservatives deny climate change and that is the influence of evangelicals who have a huge influence on Republican politics (witness the current war on women).

Bill Moyers warned some time ago that the real reason many Christian fundamentalists showed no interest in protecting the environment was thier adherence to the end times theories of John Nelson Darby. “they believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded, but actually welcomed-even hastened,” Moyers said, “as a sign of the coming apocalypse.”

To latter day dispensationalists, the droughts, floods and extreme weather wrecking havoc around the world are prophetic signs foretold in the bible. Attempting to reverse them would be tantamount to defying divine providence. Besides, as Moyers noted, Darby’s theory of a selective exit plan for believers eliminates any need for personal dread. 

Our Canadian Prime Minster as well as 2/3ds of the conservative caucus are evangelicals who are determined to develop the tar sands at any cost. They also, through their polices. express severe disdain for the environment (witness pending legislation to gut environmental regulations on fisheries and environmental review of industry. 

“A new holy war is growing within the conservative evangelical community, with implications for both the global environment and American politics. For years liberal Christians and others have made protection of the environment a moral commitment. Now a number of conservative evangelicals are joining the fight, arguing that man’s stewardship of the planet is a biblical imperative and calling for action to stop global warming.”

“Is God Green?” explores how a serious split among conservative evangelicals over the environment and global warming could reshape American politics.”

To say that Darby’s followers would consider apocalyptic ecological destruction as something to be “actually welcomed-even hastened” takes it a step too far. I am familiar with Darby. “Welcomed” may be true, but never “hastened.” Darby taught along the lines that the end of the world would be brought by finishing the work of spreading the gospel and building the church.

I think we still need to be careful with the way we guess at others’ motivations.

I’ve been arguing for and am now glad to see some evangelical conservatives supporting action against carbon emissions as an Earth stewardship responsibility.

FRONTLINE: Murdoch’s Scandal

Tuesday, March 27 on NPR’s “Fresh Air”, on-air or online, don’t miss it.

“For more than a half century, Rupert Murdoch’s business acumen and political shrewdness built one of the world’s most powerful media empires. Now his dynasty is under threat — not from outside competition, but from shocking allegations of invasion of privacy and journalistic impropriety as well as criminal allegations of obstruction of justice and bribery by employees and executives at Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World.”

while I agree that rightwinger morality has a role in all of this, I think it does so in a way different from that which you seem to think predominates, or perhaps more accurately, I think your analysis incomplete.

First of all, I don’t think it’s coincidental that most of the flat earthers cut their teeth chewing on the  “Gorebal Warming” Faux Views fed them, and I have a hard time reconciling the known facts regarding the smart v dumb cons/repubs you laid out with the reasons you provided to explain the disparity. While I’m certain that plays a role – the “individualist thing” – I think it does so for a a different reason, which is basically that it undermines the core tenet held by right libertarians and cons alike these days – property rights.  It no longer allows them to do with as they will with their property, given that AGW is analogous to poisoning the river for those downstream.

Secondly, in terms of the intelligence and morality angles, I’ve long seen this as being explainable by a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the denial required for ego-preservation all the “intelligent” must have some measure of in stock, and finally, the horror of the realization, acknowledgement, and acceptance those things impede and heretofore have prevented in the educated/intelligent you cite, as opposed to the more malleable rightwing dummies. 

Thirdly, and as first noted, the backdrop or birthing ground upon/in which most of their povs on this issue were crystallized, was during the the Bush years of error and terror, and even worse, was preached about by Gore that most of them loathed, adding to their reluctance to accept the science.  That was why he was imo, turned into the titular head of the global warming community by them – negative exploitation.  After all, had it been a respected scientist instead like a Carl Sagan-like figure in the “Gore” role, can we say the result would have been the same?

The GSS data indicate that Americans believe that scientists should have a relatively large amount of influence on public decisions concerning these issues (table 7-9 ). For the four issues, the percentage who said that scientists should have either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of influence ranged from 85% (“global warming”) to 72% (“income taxes”). For each issue, the percentage was greater for scientists than for either of the other leadership groups. The contrast among the groups was more pronounced for the three issues that dealt with biological or geophysical phenomena than for income taxes, where elected officials ranked closely behind economists.

I’ve long thought the global warming denialism is but a part of the morality play the rightwing masterminds have used to continue getting their less enlightened minions to vote against their own self-interests despite in many cases, them knowing better on issues like global warming – the most important issue we’ve ever faced imo

I think the very same disgust many of them feel about and direct towards Gore for example, is really more about denying and avoiding the disgust they should be directing towards themselves for supporting all the failures in their many and varied forms during the Bush admin – his inattention to global warming being one, but the list is far longer in terms of abominations, starting with the robbery known as “trickle down”, lying us into war, torturing, etc. History has vindicated those of us on the left for the disgust we held for Bush, but that seen outta them for BHO is way beyond their ability to justify.  And as I recall, the estimated cost of implementing Kyote back in Bush’s day, was basically a fraction – around one tenth – of what the Iraq War alone will inevitably cost us.

And to add some icing to this particular cake and to move from the collective back to the individual, I’d ask a simple question – “Who are the modern day cons/repubs worst critics?”.

I’d say it would be those like Bartlett, Frum, Sullivan, and others to a lesser degree, who found their way back from the dark side.  And indeed, as is often the case with former alcoholics, smokers, druggies, or born again xtians, their past sins are forgotten as they wage war against the offenders before them, and with their righteousness being wielding more as a forgetfullness tool, than that of the sinless saint.  As Reagan once said “morality and politics are inseparable”, and it is the disgust morality can produce that serves as the primary weapon for rightwingers.  That’s why they granted their pols and pundits a license to lie without fear of reprisal during the Bush years – because defeating those imaginary godless socialists is the end that justifies that means.  This why some of their lies never die – you climategate crook you.

Imho, in the intelligent and therefore, at least partially aware if even on a subliminal level, it’s mostly about avoiding the shame that must – assuming they have a moral core – accompany being so grossly wrong about so much that has cost so many during the Bush years, and global warming as any dummy knows, will inevitably carry the highest price tag of all their “wrongs” should it be “right”.

Imo the rightwing masterminds have used essentially the same tools to pull the wool over the eyes of their voting/supporting fools for all issues of significance that are inter-related, and share the common element of being wallet issues, including jobs and how we produce them, to health care, and yes, global warming.  The details aren’t as important in the context of bringing the big picture into focus as is the fact that they all will in all likelihood require evil “socialistic” solutions that will erode the mountain of riches those masterminds are determibed to protect.

And of course, this scheme requires the production of a cult-like collective mind, that Faux Views serves as the producer, reinforcer, and enforcer of for the authoritarians, along with other paragons of ”morality”, like Rush Limbaugh.  I’d say if anything, the educated/intelligent are less inclined to change their povs because they see themselves as mini-Rushes from having the credentials for it that their less intellectually gifted or educated fellow cons/repubs lack, and an ego to match in constant need of defending, given the liberal bias facts and reality have, and their demonstrated flair for being on the wrong side of both of them with such high frequency.

In short, I see modern repubs/cons of this type suffering from an individual and collective mental malady not unlike the German people did when they started cleaning up the death camps they claimed to have no knowledge of.

Denial for a great deal more than global warming is all they have left at this point to avoid the ugliness and evil within themselves and the human lives lost and human misery they’ve caused, which is why things like dishonesty in the form of lies in fact and by omission, false equivalencies, “both ways” BS and etch-o-sketches are used, and deflection and projection are the rule rather than the exception.

This is my armchair social psychologist analysis of it all…


we’re talking about conservative authoritarian/likely patriarchal white males, whose “morality” is most likely grounded in “The Good Book”, so it’s impossible to get away from the role morality plays in all of this.

In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles - about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society - to be fought all over again.

It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about - competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.

and just as surely, it’s impossible to disentangle their “competing vision” and the history of failures theirs has left in its wake from the RIGHTeousness that sustains their egos that are in turn, inextricably linked to their morality-based political povs acrosss a broad spectrum of issues.  For example, their clinging to the belief that “trickle down” economics that BHO is lambasting as I write this, despite the failures of it history has recorded, follows the same dynmaics, and stems from a “disbelief” in the alternatives like those of the New Deal, or those as yet unformulated and untried. Imo, almost if not every issue that showcases their shift towards extreme rightwingnutism on the domestic and foreign policy front, share the same underlying causes – manipulation from the rightwingnut masterminds that serve the interests of the American aristocracy and Taliban, and are designed to get most of those white american cons to vote against their own self-interests, using the power of morality, like “taxes are theft!” to accomplish it.  And the latter is exactly what their disbelief in AGW is, and disbelief isn’t gonna stop its inexorable march towards making it one day, undeniable.  Imo there’s nothing unique or surprising about their disbelief in climate science, which likely parallels graphically, their growing disbelief in gov, which has eroded steadily since the Raygun days where it was designated the problem, not a source of any solutions.  One could perhaps make the case that since gov is linked to the solutions for climate change, that the “belief” in the aforementioned Raygun’s BS serves as a fertilizer for their growing disbelief, given all those immoral regs, interventions, and threatened redistribution schemes involved with the issue.  In any case, I don’t see how denial in the form of a disbelief that can’t be justified given the overwhelming case that can be made for “belief”, can be divorced from on an individual level, ego preservation that denial is according to Freud, which necessarily has negative things on the moral front to say about the denier. This is why I think that that it’s a joint effort between the American aristocracy and Taliban, because the latter provides the moral bulwark needed to preserve the wall of denial that rightwingnuts collectively hide behind.  One needn’t look past the latters efforts on things like the Iraq War, or their efforts directed at that evil and infanticidal marxist muslim born in Kenya who’s the terrorist best friend currently residing in the WH, to see that.  ANd the next time Chris raises this issue, I’ll make that case in detail.