Menus Subscribe Search

Book Reviews

redsciencebooks

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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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