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.

For instance, this argument popped up recently on The Young Turks’ “The Point,” a great web show that did a special science focused episode hosted by Cara Santa Maria of the Huffington Post. I did a minute-and-a-half video to spark discussion for the show, and in response to it, science writer K.C. Cole really did seem to articulate what I consider the  knee-jerk centrist stance (something that Phil Plait, also appearing on this episode of The Point, also criticizes). Here’s Cole at around 8:07:

I was recently at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, and somebody showed this great slide, it was of a health food store in Princeton, New Jersey, and a sign out front, on a chalk board, saying, “Chemical Free Sunblock.” “Chemical Free Bug Spray.” And these people are not Republicans. There is a lot on the loony left that is as anti-science, truly, as there is on the right.

Here, unlike with Haidt, it sounds like we really are getting the centrist “pox on both your houses” approach–which to me, is pretty weak. Let’s state it plainly: Just because the left is not always 100 percent factually correct, it does not follow that the left and right are equally wrong, or that the left and right handle or process information in the same way, or that they’re equally biased, just in opposite directions. None of this follows from simply pointing out a few cases of left wrongness.

How do you defeat the knee-jerk centrist argument? Other than by articulating the logic above, I mean.

Well, first you can show just how overwhelmingly wrong the right is, not just about science, but about facts in general—something that The Republican Brain actually does in detail. And when you do this, not only do you find much more right unreality. You also find that in cases where some on the left actually are wrong, the misinformation doesn’t go politically mainstream in the same way.

On Up with Chris Hayes, for instance, I pointed out that some on the left do seem to believe wrong information about nuclear power, and particularly about the risks of low dose radiation. “It doesn’t travel all the way across the Pacific from Fukushima and kill babies on the West Coast,” I noted. But as Hayes quickly pointed out, that’s exactly the point: Lots of Democrats today are pretty okay with nuclear power. Dubious ideas about low dose radiation risks over vast distances aren’t in the Democratic mainstream. But climate denial, evolution denial, and so on really are in the conservative mainstream.

Another way to make the argument is to point out that liberals today trust scientists much more than conservatives do—the data are unequivocal on that. This is something that Haidt full recognizes, for instance–he mentioned it on air–but that K.C. Cole doesn’t appear to concede.

Most important and insightful, I think, are the psychological arguments for why the left and scientists are naturally aligned—in much the same way that the right and the military are naturally aligned, or the right and the business community are naturally aligned. This, again, is what Haidt and I agree about, as discussed on Up with Chris Hayes.

Anyway, what all of this leads to is the following. If knee-jerk centrists really want to make a serious argument, then they should start by showing one or more of the following:

1.       The dramatic extent of left anti-science, and how it equals or surpasses right anti-science.

2.       The regular mainstreaming of left anti-science in the Democratic Party.

3.       Left wing distrust of science that is equal to or greater than right wing distrust, as shown in national polling data.

4.       Psychological evidence that the left and scientific community aren’t actually aligned, or that the right and the scientific community are just as well aligned as the left and the scientific community.

Until they do this, the centrist “view from nowhere” will continue to seem pretty hard to distinguish from simple blindness. 


“After deep discussions about evolution and brain function At Science 2.0 the scientists there were very critical of the tribalistic nonsense  Mooney is selling.”

Argument from hearsay fallacy. The fact that somone at some website gave some un referenced criticism does not make their criticism valid. You provide no link and do not repeat whatever argument they made.

You are just gossiping and you expect others to take your hearsay as true.

The ad hom is just icing on your denialist cake.

The journalist backs his claims with Fox surveys.

Even muppets know Fox doesn’t do news, and can’t even follow its own line of logic.


What kind of idiots are running the show at Fox?  And who’s stupid enough to listen to them. 


and the explanation for everything from their high cohesiveness to the way it manifests itself in the form of denialism across a wide spectrum of issues, has a significant “moral” element to it that they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of.

Even in the case of global warming, what is being assaulted on their “morality” front, is really the same thing that divides the right and the left on just about every issue, the space between the “rugged individualist” and those that promote an interconnected society that knocks the RI position into a more subordinate one that they find unacceptable.  The global warming issue goes to the heart/core of the righty libertarian/con ideology of property rights, because to do something about it collectively is a denying to them by way of analogy, of their right to poison the river for the consumption of those downstream from them.   This is of course to those of us in the other camp, a disgusting and deplorable pov, and indefensible on moral grounds as well.

The same morality based disgust, fear, and loathing they have over this issue, can also be seen in just about every other issue in which they live in daily denial of, ranging from rights to self-determination they willingly deprived the Iraqi people of with their war based on lies, to the way in which they “otherize” every single group they see as a threat to their profits and content of their wallets.  “let them eat dirt/hurry up and die” and all the other ways they reveal themselves on econ/healthcare  – the things their “god” JC was all about,  similarly make them weightless on the moral scales.

The reason why their fear, loathing, and disgust for BHO (and lefties generally, and that liberal bias the facts have)  that we witness daily is way outta proportion with the rational reasons they can provide to uphold it, is because they are desperately seeking vindication and validation for their many and varied failures that the Bush admin of error and terror made truly inarguable, with that war based on lies, the continuning class warfare, and the time lost in the battle with glabal warming are but a part of their moral failings.

Their disgust for their ideological opposition requires their complete abandonment of the concept of “agreed upon facts” and the level of denial we’re currently witnessing about just about everything, because the only other alternative for the party of personal responsibility, is to take responsibility for their failures then and NOW. This I might add, didn’t happen over night, but rather over decades as the license to lie without fear of political or financial reprisal for their pols and pundits became increasingly unimpeded by the sense of shame (morality-based, self-disgust produced stuff, no?) to the point of a and all but complete abandonment of the (th Commandment by these “good” xtian folks we see today.  They can’t even do more than pay lip service to the old testament, much less the new one.

Their current level of morality-based denial about so much correlates in proportion to that slow erosion of the concept of agreed upon facts, which is why I see the avoidance of shame and the ego-preservation tool known as denial in large part, as causal for their denialisms and conduct today.

If I had wholly supported the record of failure and achieved a level of awareness (which most of them have imo) that made the toll in the form of unneeded and avoidable human misery undeniable, I’d certainly have a bit of shame and disgust with myself over it, and particularly if that awareness included the knowledge that it was all done in the support and service of monied interests that worship ONLY the almighty dollar, not my own self-interests. 

Of course some lefties have problems of the denial kind, but I’d attribute them far more to simple ignorance than what is seen outta those on the right.  I can only speak from persoanl experience on this, but having debated both sides on this and that over the years, I’ve found a great deal of success in changing lefty minds once they run outta rope/reasons to be hung up on something, whereas righties cling to their BS and gladly hang before giving up the ghost of unreality. 

The centrists of today – if that’s to mean those square in the middle of the lefties and extreme righties of today in DC and in the punditry – need to show how they aren’t really righties of yesteryear, given how far off the ideological center we use to have they are. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/04/10/150349438/gops-rightward-shift-higher-polarization-fills-political-scientist-with-dread That imo makes their povs biased and therefore suspect from the onset. 

That’s why we read and hear so many of those “both sides do it/are equally guilty” false equivalencies, and they have the lifespan they do.

Many commentors state that the equivalent on the left is resistance to GMO and Nuclear Energy, but that’s a false comparison. Whatever one’e view – there are legitimate scientifc debates and inquiry around the safety of GMOs as well as the cost and burden of NPP on society, combined with its saferty hazards. They are difficult, complex matters that are still being resolved and supporters of both have strong arguments. 

Not so with AGW, CO2 pollution in general, or evolution/natural selection.

And in any case, the far right response seems to be one of anger for even daring to question GMO and NPP, most of the time. So its quite clear there is no equal to or worse than relation and Mooney is correct.

are authoritarian and extremely concerned about what goes on in your bedroom.  They bankrolled the rabid right, Tea Party.

This is old news.


Anyways, I want government. I want regulations.  The absense of such would be, well, criminal.  History is full stories of people getting slimed for someone else’s pocket book.