Friday, February 24, 2012

The Modern Right - Either They Get Toppled or We're All Going Down

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.


Anonymous said...

BUT -- did they ALWAYS behave this way? Maybe I wan't paying attention, but I don't remember the christian kids in my school 40 years ago denying evolution. Sure, the parents made the girls wear dresses not matter what the weather and leave the room when Oh Canada was played, but I don't recall the ANTI FACT element. Was I just not noticing or is this a truly recent phenomena?

Anyong said...

Just imagine...if Hitler had called the Third Reich a religion we would all be Nazies.

The Mound of Sound said...

@Anon. No, I don't think they always behaved like this. Today's right has simply gone off the deep end. In the US, for example, Nixon and even Reagan would be considered much too left for today's Republican movement.

Some contend that we mistakenly refer to the right today as 'conservative' when it's gone so far beyond conservative ideology as to bear little resemblance. That's a fair point. If you read the writings of Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt, for example, they were very progressive and pro-labour.

The political spectrum goes far beyond socialism on the left and far beyond conservatism on the right. As it moves beyond them it becomes increasingly authoritarian. That is the hallmark of the Harper "conservatives."

So, no, they weren't always like this but those were the good old days when we all existed within the same reality.

Anonymous said...

I find the Nuclear Power point to be interesting.

While in favour of the theory of using nuclear power, it is the implementation that scares me. When we introduce a "for profit" motivation into the equation, that's when I know it will have to fuck up at one point.

The Mound of Sound said...

Actually, Anon, the more you discover about nuclear power the less ominous and more necessary it appears. Most of these problems, all in fact, take place at first generation reactors. Science has now progressed into 4th/5th generation technologies.

One of these is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) which offers enormous benefits. It doesn't require any more uranium to be mined. It uses supposedly "spent" fuel rods that vex every country with reactor power. Conventional, 1st gen reactors get only 3-5% of the energy out of fuel rods. When they're sent out to eternal storage, they still have up to 97% energy left. The IFR essentially eats those fuel rods, accessing the remaining energy. Best of all, the IFR produces no weapons-grade or weapons-suitable leftovers. In fact, it can even turn weaponized nuclear material into fuel. If we don't use IFRs we'll be saddled with this dangerous stuff for centuries, millennia. Britain alone is said to have enough spent fuel rod energy that, if run through IFRs, it could power the country, emissions-free for a century.

You might also want to look into the liquid-sodium reactors that China will soon be constructing.

We see nuclear as a killer yet the actual numbers tell the opposite tale. Then work out how many people die in the production and consumption of coal energy each year. How many deaths are caused by oil energy? Even on a unit by unit basis, there's no comparison.

Once you set aside the drama of Fukushima, the nuclear option becomes compelling.