Friday, June 7, 2013

The Republican Brain: And no this is not an oxymoron.

TV's Dragnet detective Joe Friday frequently would implore: Just the facts ma'am.

This refrain, quite obviously, meant that he was not interested in emotionalism, personal conjecture or particular bias. In order to solve the case he relied on facts, accurate details and evidence.

This dedication to accurate details is not a skill-set transferred to politics by many of our friends on the right. Before reviewing the facts on a plethora of issues -- ranging from global warming, reasonable gun laws, health insurance, fair taxation and austerity vs. government stimulus -- right wing doctrinaires begin with emotionalism, name calling and over-the-top rhetoric:

  • He's an anti-American Muslim secretly plotting jihad.
  • They are planning death panels to decide grandma's fate.
  • Obama wants your gun.
  • Obama is a socialist trying to destroy free enterprise.

And if you have ever attempted to have a light political discussion with a conservative associate, you probably were amazed how fast an usually rational person could morph into a hate spewing idiot -- facts be damned.

You probably heard the phrase: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. This adage better describes how conservatives and progressives process information. A recent Yale study sheds some light on this divide.

Here's some interesting findings:

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say.

On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science—among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

This was my first encounter with what I now like to call the “smart idiots” effect: The fact that politically sophisticated or knowledgeable people are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant. It’s a reality that generates endless frustration for many scientists—and indeed, for many well-educated, reasonable people.

Let’s face it: We liberals and progressives are absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about “death panels.” People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim, not born in the United States. Climate-change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can’t comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist.

And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them—to argue, argue, argue about why we’re right and Republicans are wrong.

Yale researcher Dan Kahan and his colleagues set out to study the relationship between political views, scientific knowledge or reasoning abilities, and opinions on contested scientific issues like global warming. In their study, more than 1,500 randomly selected Americans were asked about their political worldviews and their opinions about how dangerous global warming and nuclear power are.

But that’s not all: They were also asked standard questions to determine their degree of scientific literacy (e.g, “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria—true or false?”) as well as their numeracy or capacity for mathematical reasoning (e.g., “If Person A’s chance of getting a disease is 1 in 100 in 10 years, and person B’s risk is double that of A, what is B’s risk?”).

The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.

Instead, here was the result. If you were already part of a cultural group predisposed to distrust climate science—e.g., a political conservative or “hierarchical-individualist”—then more science knowledge and more skill in mathematical reasoning tended to make you even more dismissive. Precisely the opposite happened with the other group—“egalitarian-communitarians” or liberals—who tended to worry more as they knew more science and math. The result was that, overall, more scientific literacy and mathematical ability led to greater political polarization over climate change—which, of course, is precisely what we see in the polls.

So much for education serving as an antidote to politically biased reasoning.

What accounts for the “smart idiot” effect?

For one thing, well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

What this suggests, critically, is that sophisticated conservatives may be very different from unsophisticated or less-informed ones. Paradoxically, we would expect less informed conservatives to be easier to persuade, and more responsive to new and challenging information.  source

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