It's time we stopped treating the chasm between the right and left as a legitimate difference of opinion. It's not and that's very dangerous - for them and for us.
It seems counter-intuitive that, even as scientific research steadily pours in corroborating the theory of global warming, the gap between believers and deniers has widened dangerously.
For a long time I've given the right the benefit of the doubt and assumed most of the rejectniks were the ill-educated, the ignorant. That made me hopeful that, with just a little more education, better information, they would understand and accept the scientific consensus. Turns out I had it wrong.
Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican Brain - The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality" has made a case that is, and should be, disturbing - ignorance has nothing to do with the right's rejection of climate science. Mooney explores a 2008 Pew Research report documenting the partisan divide over global warming.
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.
...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. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation’s defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.
...the rapidly growing social scientific literature on the resistance to global warming (see for examples here and here) says so pretty unequivocally. Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
But Mooney points to research that reveals liberals, for all our flaws, aren't particularly susceptible to the "smart idiot effect."
...with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.
Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue--for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).
So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values--knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.
Mooney's conclusion is that trying to appeal to reason with conservative types on "hot button" issues like global warming is a waste of time and effort that ought to be directed elsewhere. It doesn't make any difference how many facts you have, you're talking to a closed mind. The more intelligent, the better educated the conservative, the more likely they are to have that mind tightly shut.