Book Club

David's Book Club: The Republican Brain

Kenneth Silber is a New Jersey-based writer on politics, economics, history and science. He has written for FrumForum and is a senior editor at Research magazine. He blogs at Quicksilber.

Chris Mooney is a journalist focused on the intersection of science and politics. An avowed liberal, he is best known for his 2005 book The Republican War on Science, which castigated conservatives for hostility and dismissiveness toward science and scientists on matters ranging from global warming to embryonic stem cell research.

Mooney’s new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science, seeks to ground his critique of conservatives in psychology and biology.

The right and left, he contends, diverge not just in opinions but also in thought processes and behavior. For instance, personality tests show conservatives rank lower than liberals in “openness,” a measure of intellectual flexibility and curiosity.

Moreover, an emerging trend in neuroscience research links ideological dispositions to variations in brain structure and activity. Physiological studies suggest, for example, that conservatives may be more attuned to the amygdala’s fear responses. The left-right divide, Mooney argues, reflects deep-seated (and to some significant degree, hereditary) differences in how we perceive and understand the world.

These differences, in Mooney’s telling, are not all liabilities for conservatives. He concedes that liberals have their own cognitive weaknesses, such as wishy-washiness, and that a stubborn conservative decisiveness can be valuable at times (Winston Churchill during World War II being his prime example). He disavows any assertion that conservatives are stupid or crazy.

The problem, according to Mooney, is that numerous conservatives are just plain wrong—stubbornly resisting facts the way Churchill resisted Nazis—on a broad range of issues, not just scientific ones but everything from the debt ceiling to light bulb regulations to whether the United States is a “Christian nation.” His book aims to explain, as he puts it, “how the political right could be so wrong,” and to draw out the implications of what science tells us about this pervasive wrongness.

I sympathize with Mooney’s indignation about dogmatism and factual inaccuracy on the right. That shared concern was the focus of an interview by Mooney of David Frum and me last year. The book lauds (by way of contrasting with the right overall) “the group of intellectually honest (and moderate) conservatives who have formed around former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, and who are constantly trying to keep conservatives accurate on global warming, the debt ceiling, and much more.”

Let me return the compliment by noting that I consider Mooney a thoughtful and fair-minded critic of conservatism. Let me add that I think The Republican Brain is an interesting and thought-provoking work. And now let me tell you what’s wrong with the book, as in my view there are some important deficiencies in its argument.

The central weakness is that the science involved is rather provisional. To say “the science isn’t settled” may be a misleading cliché in the global warming debate, but it’s true enough with regard to scientific understanding of ideological differences, and particularly for efforts to analyze such differences in neurobiological terms.

Neurobiology has delved into the mystery of why people prefer Coke or Pepsi, as well as why they become Democrats or Republicans. There is still much to learn about why certain brain parts are activated when you’re sipping a soft drink inside an MRI machine, and there is vastly more yet to learn about how political beliefs are formed and acted upon over a lifetime.

Denying that he is engaged in determinism or reductionism, Mooney notes that his account of conservative intellectual error combines nature with nurture. Environmental factors (such as the rise of Fox News and conservative think tanks) gave rein to reality-denying tendencies rooted in conservatives’ brains and genes. But if the results are so variable, how important or enduring are those tendencies?

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Perhaps the GOP a few years hence will be as fact-oriented as Dwight Eisenhower (“a remarkably pro-science president,” as Mooney mentions).

Mooney makes various acknowledgements of scientific uncertainties and ambiguities. But such disclaimers count for little in a book titled The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science. The book’s hedging will not prevent conservatives from reacting to the argument with outrage. Nor will it deter liberal readers from gloating that science has delivered some supposed body blow to the entire conservative enterprise.

A further weakness is that the book’s efforts to demonstrate the sheer wrongness of various conservative beliefs sometimes blur the crucial distinction between fact and interpretation. Mooney criticizes Republican congressional leaders, for example, for sending a letter to Ben Bernanke in September 2011 urging no further monetary easing. (He cites David Frum for support.) Now I too am no fan of the GOP’s current hard-money emphasis, but contrary to Mooney, that letter was neither some readily verifiable error nor the first time that politics ever intruded on the Fed.

In a concluding chapter, Mooney expresses a hope that liberals will take a tack from conservatives in becoming more cohesive and determined. I am not sure that Mooney is correct in thinking the right is more unified than the left; the Republican primary season has given reason to think otherwise. Anyway, he urges liberals to stand by President Obama, rather than indulge their supposed natural iconoclasm:

Obama needs you right now. He needs your trust, your devotion. You ought to try to show him the same loyalty that conservatives showed George W. Bush, and forget about that little issue where he didn’t do things precisely as you would have liked.

That gives me the creeps. But maybe that’s my fear-driven amygdala acting up.