Menus Subscribe Search

Book Reviews


Red Science, Blue Science

• December 20, 2012 • 4:00 AM

The conservative war on science is an old trope, but apparently liberals have opened up a second front.

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality

By Chris Mooney; (Wiley)

Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fantasies and the Rise of the Scientific Left

By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell; (PublicAffairs)

TIMES OF INTENSE IDEOLOGICAL POLARIZATION are always dreary for reasonable people. Consider the Marquis de Condorcet, a brilliant scientist, mathematician, and political philosopher who was forced into hiding during the French Revolution after running afoul of the radical followers of Robespierre. During his months as a fugitive, Condorcet penned a treatise—now considered a major text of the Enlightenment—that envisioned a society founded on the principles of free inquiry, critical thinking, and science. But the nobleman was caught, and his vision for France died with him in a revolutionary prison cell.

Condorcet’s story opens The Republican Brain, the science writer Chris Mooney’s lament about today’s polarized intellectual climate. Mooney mourns the death of Condorcet’s enlightened vision, and I suspect Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell would as well. Like Mooney’s, their new book, Science Left Behind, describes a 21st-century American society that is the exact opposite of what Condorcet wanted and predicted. Both books condemn the magical thinking and distorted passions that shape our modern intellectual enterprise and diminish our lives.

But this is where the agreement ends. Mooney lays the blame for our misinformed and misguided society squarely at the feet of political conservatives who deny science and its methods. Berezow and Campbell are troubled by distortions of science on the political left.

Mooney examines the phenomenon of right-wing denial of science through the lens of cognitive psychology, a frame that is both well attuned to the bestseller-list zeitgeist and destined to fluster his ideological opponents by putting them on the couch. Mooney takes us on a fascinating tour of the psychological dynamics underlying biased thought. He explains with admirable clarity such concepts as cognitive dissonance, personality theory, and an array of automatic, emotional biases that allow wrongheaded ideas to persist.

To be sure, these are well-documented psychological processes that undermine all human decision making and action—not just that of Republicans. But Mooney is convinced—and convincing—that Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally different in the way they think about the world. Republicans have a different cognitive style than Democrats. They show lower tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, which makes them defensive about their beliefs and highly resistant to persuasion. Conservative Republicans score low on a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which encompasses curiosity and intellectual flexibility.

All of these processes contribute to what’s called “motivated reasoning”—which is not reasoning at all, in the classical sense. The theory, derived from modern neuroscience, holds that we often process information automatically and emotionally, without reflection or even awareness. These hidden emotional priorities cause us to misinterpret or dismiss evidence—even technical, scientific evidence.

This is not just a parlor game. This “politicized wrongness,” as Mooney labels it, has very high stakes. Just a few of the right-wing “truths” with no scientific merit: that global warming is not related to human activity and is not a threat, that abortion causes breast cancer and mental disorders, that homosexuality is a choice that can be reversed. The list goes on, with huge logical and political ramifications for health, war, and peace. But the ultimate harm, Mooney asserts, is the “utter erosion of a shared sense of what’s true.”

The stakes are not quite as frightening in the liberal assault on science, as detailed in Science Left Behind. Berezow and Campbell call the villains here progressives, by which they seem to mean environmentalists, health-food advocates, and other groups whose personal life choices the authors resent. These behaviors include such “feel-good fantasies” as using water-conserving toilets, shopping at health-food stores, running barefoot, and conserving fossil fuels by driving Priuses.

If the authors’ point is that people on the political left sometimes misunderstand or distort science, just like people on the right do, then point granted. And some practices the authors criticize do carry serious public consequences—like the choice not to vaccinate children against serious disease, despite the evidence supporting inoculation and lack of evidence for risk. But people on the left do not have a monopoly on vaccine fearmongering; the sentiment has gained traction on the right as well, as evinced by Michelle Bachmann’s spooky remarks about the HPV vaccine in a Republican primary debate last year.

In any case, the vast majority of liberal behaviors that fall under Berezow and Campbell’s withering gaze are, at worst, just silly and uninformed consumption patterns. Right-wing fallacies with further-reaching implications are given lighter treatment. The authors think it’s fine to deny the theory of human evolution, for instance, which they characterize as a harmless personal choice.

Overall, the caricature of a cohesive liberal worldview that Berezow and Campbell draw rings false, resting as it does more on assertion and juxtaposition than on evidence. People choose to shop at Whole Foods or drive a hybrid for a variety of reasons, but these are not necessarily—as the authors suggest—the same people who are leaving their children unprotected against whooping cough. To suggest otherwise is tendentious.

Not to mention petty, which describes the book’s overall tone. Here are just a few of many examples: The authors attack a waitress at a Seattle coffee shop for defending (when asked) hormone-free lattes, calling her “the crazy café lady.” They dismiss vegetarians and other “food fetishists” for having an “innate resistance to meat.” They smugly label an environmentalist a “treehugger.” All this while seeming very pleased with themselves and their cleverness. Science Left Behind is small-minded, snarky, lacking in nuance—a perfect example of the emotional, undisciplined cognitive style that Mooney dissects.

Taken together, these two analyses are disturbing and discouraging. I doubt that readers will end up swayed to a fresh understanding or a more dispassionate belief system. Nearly 220 years after his death, the Marquis de Condorcet’s vision remains as elusive as ever.

For more, read Science Left Behind co-author Alex Berezow’s response to this review.

Wray Herbert
Wray Herbert is a writer in residence at the Association for Psychological Science

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.

September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.

September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”

September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.

September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?

September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.

September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.

September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.

September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.

September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.

September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

Follow us

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.