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How Do You Explain Your Opponents: Irrational or Ideological?

Casey Luskin

In The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney tries to paint his opponents as irrational (or worse). Broad-brushing other people this way might score rhetorical points with your political base, but it rarely works otherwise. Why? Because most people, whether you agree with them are not, are in fact rational and reasonably intelligent. Calling large segments of the populace irrational doesn’t make an audience trust your arguments. It only makes you seem arrogant and aloof.

In their book Science Left Behind, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell don’t assume that people who disagree with them are necessarily irrational. While I don’t like all the ways they label other people, in general they use a very different method from Mooney’s, a far more reasonable one, to explain why many people disagree with them. Though they don’t recognize this explicitly, their argument is based upon the simple principle that ideas (or ideologies) have consequences. And when you get attached to those ideologies, you might end up holding beliefs that are wrong.

Extreme ideologists have certain assumptions, and some of those assumptions naturally lead them to accept incorrect ideas about science. Berezow and Campbell speak, for example, of “wrongheaded progressive ideas” which include such beliefs as, “Everything natural is good.” (p. 17) People who hold these ideas are perfectly rational and perfectly intelligent. But that doesn’t mean they are right.

It’s possible to be totally rational, intelligent, logical, and wrong at the same time. Why can’t Mooney recognize this? The problem goes back to wrongheaded ideas at the base of Mooney’s own ideology.
Chris Mooney is a hardline atheist, and one of the assumptions at the base of much atheist thinking is that they have the monopoly on reason and rationality. Thus like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, many atheists believe that proper logic and reason will always lead you to the same and correct conclusion. Many, like Mooney, view themselves as intellectually and mentally superior to others–especially those that disagree with them. Thus he offers black-and-white blanket descriptions of the world like “today’s liberals are usually right and today’s conservative usually wrong“; or “denying facts is not a phenomenon equally distributed across the political spectrum.” (The Republican Brain, pp. 7, 4, emphases in original) If you don’t agree with the “liberals,” there must be something wrong with your mind.

Though Mooney denies he thinks conservatives are stupid, he nonetheless admits “I can’t tell you how any times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, ‘I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they believe X!'” (p. 12) He certainly concedes that he thinks conservatives are not capable of properly processing information:

So it’s not that [conservative attorney Andrew] Schlaffly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can’t make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schalfly makes an argument, it’s hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take or an openness to changing his mind. His own words suggest that he’s arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his “faith”), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team. (p. 13)

It’s funny, because that’s kind of how I feel when I read Chris Mooney’s books.

In any case, Mooney’s entire thesis is refuted by the facts. Page 213 of Science Left Behind offers data that is devastating to Mooney’s case. It shows that on many issues conservatives hold the more accurate scientific viewpoint compared to Democrats or Independents. At his website, Science 2.0, Campbell explains this data:

The right is far more scientifically literate at the consumer level. More Republicans than Democrats know:

The benefits of science exceed the harms
Not all radioactivity is man-made and hurts us
Not all chemicals harm us
Not all pesticides cause cancer
Fathers determine the gender of a baby
Meanwhile, more Democrats than Republicans believe:Astrology is scientific
Lasers are made from sound waves
Genetically modified foods are harmful
Vaccines are harmful
Organic food is more nutritional than conventional
Yet efforts to spin the right as being more anti-science go on.

One of the issues where more conservatives supposedly believe the “wrong” answer was on this question: “Humans evolved from other animals.” Here, only 41.5% of Republicans agreed, as opposed to 57.6% of Democrats and 50.7% of Independents. (I’ll address evolution in more detail in a forthcoming article.) But still, this means that over 40% of Democrats and nearly 50% of Independents reject human evolution.

What does this data do to Mooney’s assertion that the right holds a monopoly on so-called “anti-scientific” views? Berezow and Campbell explain why it is devastating:

Accusations of a Republican war on science, of conservative resistance to and defiance of that fact, do not contribute in any positive way to the scientific enterprise. These accusations are founded on a handful of scientific topics on which slightly more conservatives hold slightly more uninformed beliefs than those on the other side. It blatantly ignores all the uninformed beliefs that those who aren’t conservative hang onto. (Science Left Behind, p. 257)

Indeed, if Berezow and Campbell’s data are correct, then Republicans seem to generally be as or more scientifically correct in their views than Democrats on many different issues. Yet the entire tale Mooney spins to purportedly explain why conservatives are scientifically less-literate than liberals is based upon the premise that conservatives have wrong scientific beliefs compared to liberals. Berezow and Campbell’s table suggests this is not the case.

Berezow and Campbell address Mooney’s response to this kind of data:

Yet progressives routinely claim otherwise. They claim that conservatives — particularly religious ones — are downright stupid. They might admit that their side has dumb people, too, but that conservatives are clearly dumber. Yet using that as a line of intellectual defense is only marginally better than Pee Wee Herman’s effective insult comeback: “I know you are, but what am I?”

Regardless of the facts, in his latest book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney argues that people on the right are stupid because they can’t help it. Blame biology. If they could help it, they wouldn’t be conservatives. Climate scientist Roger Pielke Jr. responds that Mooney’s argument sounds a lot like “eugenics.” Of course, if Mooney had made the same argument about, say, ethnic minorities, he would be correctly called a bigot and a racist. But since he smears only conservatives, progressives consider him a respectable authority. (Science Left Behind, p. 222)

In fact, most people on all sides of the evolution debate are perfectly rational, intelligent, and informed. They use logical reasoning and arguments to make their case. Despite what Chris Mooney thinks, it’s possible for rational, intelligent, well-informed people to disagree. Mooney’s ideology won’t let him accept or admit this simple truth. It won’t allow him to accept the possibility that his opponents’ are intellectually capable, and make arguments which carry real intellectual and scientific merit.

Scary Consequences?
It is, moreover, not hard to see how really bad ideas like Mooney’s could lead to some really bad consequences.

Mooney thinks the reason people disagree with him is because their minds are deficient. In reality, the reason we don’t all agree is because we have different assumptions and ideas that enter into our decision making. This leads us all to interpret different facts and data points differently. Some of those assumptions may be right and justified, others wrong and unjustified.

Mooney maintains that many people are not intellectually capable of abandoning beliefs that, according to Mooney, are “dangerous”:

The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had — or will have — world-changing consequences.” (The Republican Brain, p. 4)

He denies that he wants to see some kind of “new eugenics.” (p. 269) But it’s not hard to imagine many of Mooney’s ideological compatriots — the people he has in mind when he says “I can’t tell you how any times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, ‘I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they believe X!'” — taking Mooney’s arguments in an ugly direction. After all, Mooney concedes that Darwin’s own well-intentioned scientific arguments have been misused. Is it hard to imagine Mooney’s arguments being misused?

Whether he intended it or not, Mooney has provided a rationale for restricting the freedoms of people who disagree with his own personal ideology. Just like “Science Guy” Bill Nye, Mooney has labeled those views as “dangerous,” and then used “science” to argue that the people who hold them are intellectually deficient. Mooney claims it’s “silly and misinformed” to think his kind of scapegoating and pseudoscientific demonization of political opponents could lead to a “new eugenics.” (p. 269) But I think it’s “silly and misinformed” to think it couldn’t. Just look at how so-called progressives have advocated eugenics in the past. Berezow and Campbell see this danger clearly:

Trying to use science to explain these political differences — especially when the goal is to smear your adversaries — is nothing short of scientific malpractice. Besides, this isn’t the first time progressives have tried to map biological data to their cultural topology; it is just a modern-day variation on the same eugenical theme that the early progressives were so fond of. (Science Left Behind, p. 237)

It’s both false and dangerous for Mooney to pretend that liberals alone are capable of real scientific investigation, whereas conservatives are not. We find people all along the political spectrum who get some scientific claims right, and some wrong. We can’t settle scientific debates by defining those who disagree with us as intellectually deficient. These debates can be settled by weighing the evidence.

I’m not saying I expect some “new eugenics” movement to arise, and of course I sincerely hope it won’t. And I have no doubt Mooney shares my hope that no one misuses his arguments in this way. But if there ever were a progressive “new eugenics” movement, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be quoting Chris Mooney’s book.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Chris MooneyIncivilityPoliticsscience