No Reason at All

People explain things to each other and it’s almost always useless. This was the week liberals explained to conservatives that George Zimmerman kind of lost it – he liked playing cop way too much and pursued an unarmed young fellow, Trayvon Martin, who he thought looked suspicious, pursuing Martin after the actual cops specifically told him not to, confronted him and then shot him dead. This is terrible – Zimmerman should be arrested. And conservatives explained that somehow things changed and Zimmerman feared for his life, and shot the young fellow in self-defense, as that slight young fellow was beating the crap out if him – as Zimmerman had a right to do under Florida’s unusual Stand Your Ground Law, written for the Florida legislature by the National Rifle Association and passed by that legislature back in 2005. It’s simple, say you felt threatened and you can shoot someone dead. All you have to do is say is you felt threatened – case closed, or in this case never opened. Liberals say that’s a stupid law, a license to kill, at will, and conservatives say it’s not – everyone has the right to protect themselves. The government is useless in most situations. Liberals say look at the damned videotape – Zimmerman didn’t have a scratch on him minutes after the arrest. And conservatives say maybe so, but Zimmerman said he felt threatened, and that’s all the law requires – so let him be.

And none of this was resolved. Each side gives its reasons, but no one is reasoning with each other. Explaining things was useless, just as it was with everyone explaining those three days of arguments before the Supreme Court, all about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The individual mandate – everyone has to buy healthcare insurance, or else pay a fine, to create a pool large enough to keep costs down and make this work for everyone, and so that no sneaky people get a free ride – was a reasonable exercise of the Commerce Claus for a reasonable outcome for the greatest good – or it was an assault on everyone’s basic freedom to buy only what they want to buy and be left alone, and an unconscionable overreach by the federal government. Millions of words were written about this, and each side gives its reasons, and offered examples and analogies. But no one is reasoning with each other. People had made up their minds about all this long ago, and then worked backwards from that, using reasoning to explain what they already believed, not to change anyone’s mind, even theirs. So, as usual, what each side likes to call reasoning turned out to be, once again, not that at all – it was just fancy and often quite clever after-the-fact attacks and sneers. We know what we know. Reasoning is just a way to slam what we know in someone’s face, hard.

But how do we know what we know? Chris Mooney in his new book The Republican Brain – a follow-up to his 2005 bestseller The Republican War on Science – has been looking into this, from his perch on the left. And he finds the whole idea of reason, on the other perch, is not even considered these days:

Political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

And in his 2005 book he argued there was an “environmental explanation” for this:

At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality – most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts – and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity… Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one’s friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.

What he called right-wing science denial was political opportunism, somehow trying to blend religious impulses with corporate profit motives. And it worked well enough, but now he’s had time to think about it:

It isn’t wrong, exactly. There’s much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics.

The environmental account ascribes Republican science denial (and for other forms of denial, the story would be similar) to the particular exigencies and alignments of American political history. That’s what the party did because it had to, to get ahead. And today, goes the thinking, this leaves us with a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans in their acceptance of modern climate science and many other scientific conclusions, with conservatives increasingly distrustful of science, and with scientists and the highly educated moving steadily to the left.

But now he’s not happy with that explanation:

This account ignores the possibility that there might be real differences between liberals and conservatives that influence how they respond to scientific or factual information. It assumes we’re all blank slates – that we all want the same basic things – and then we respond to political forces not unlike air molecules inside a balloon. We get knocked this way and that, sure. And we start out in different places, thus ensuring different trajectories. But at the end of the day, we’re all just air molecules.

But what if we’re not all the same kind of molecule? What if we respond to political or factual collisions in different ways, with different spins or velocities? Today there’s considerable scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.

And of course he reviews all the psychological studies, but there’s history too:

For instance, the historic political awakening of what we now call the Religious Right was nothing if not a defense of cultural traditionalism – which had been threatened by the 1960s counterculture, Roe v. Wade, and continued inroads by feminists, gay rights activists, and many others – and a more hierarchical social structure. It was a classic counter-reaction to too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values – all occurring too fast. And it mobilized a strong strand of right-wing authoritarianism in US politics – one that had either been dormant previously, or at least more evenly distributed across the parties.

Perhaps it was cultural PTSD:

The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level – clutching for something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one’s own ways in uncertain times, and one’s own group in the face of difference – and can’t be fully understood without putting this variable into play.

And yep, he does realize this comes close to shallow pop-psychology, and he knows that’s a minefield:

The problem is that people are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists in particular almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things, telling endless stories of horse races and rivalries, strategies and interests, and key “turning points.” All of which are, of course, real. And conveniently, by sticking with them you never have to take the dangerous journey into anybody’s head.

But what if these only tell half the story?

He wants to tell the other half:

I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence – from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics – that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this.

Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced – and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

So there may be a difference between average “liberal” and “conservative” brains, as there seem to be “deeper psychological and cognitive factors” that cause all the fights between the left and the right over basic reality:

Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem – why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests? – make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology. …

We don’t understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don’t know how all the puzzle pieces – cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes – fit together. And we know that the environment (or nurture) is at least as important as the genes (or nature). This means that what I’m saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in case of any particular individual.

Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do – even if you provide all the caveats – there’s a lot of consistency. And it all makes a lot of sense. Conservatism, after all, means nothing if not supporting political and social stability and resisting change. I’m merely tracing some of the appeal of this philosophy to psychology, and then discussing what this means for how we debate what is “true” in contested areas.

But he doesn’t let liberals off the hook:

Liberals aren’t always right, but that’s not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.

On the one hand, we’re absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about “death panels.” People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. 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. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, “I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!”

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.

In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.

Arguing about why you’re right and Republicans are wrong is simply the wrong approach – this has nothing to do with any real intellectual give and take. Of a typical conservative Mooney says this:

He’s not arguing out of openness to changing his mind. 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.

Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.

But that response, too, is a form of denial – liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives.

But then Kevin Drum sees some problems here:

Broadly speaking, I don’t really have any issue with this. I’ve long been sold on the idea that liberalism and conservatism are at least partly temperaments, and it’s those temperaments that lead us to different political conclusions rather than any kind of rational thinking process.

But the problem I have with Chris’s piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it’s Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don’t. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don’t generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.

So the problem is that Mooney doesn’t address the question of why “differences in brain-wiring have produced such extreme anti-science views in American conservatives but not in European conservatives.” Are American conservatives unique in some way, or American brains wired differently?

One way or another, though, it strikes me that international comparisons are critical here. If we’re talking about brains, we’re talking about the human race, not just our little chunk of North America.

And Julian Sanchez offers this:

Browsing a conservative news site the other day, I was struck by the sheer oddness of that familiar genre of political commentary that treats  liberals and conservatives, not just as groups of people with systematic disagreements on policy questions, but as something like distinct subspecies of humanity. The piece that triggered this was something along the lines of “Five Reasons Liberals Are Awful People,” and it had almost nothing to do with any concrete policy question, or ultimately even the broad-brush contours of liberal political thought: It was a string of assertions about broad types of character flaws purportedly shared by liberals, of which their policy views were only a symptom. …

Then just yesterday, my friend Conor Friedersdorf tweeted a request for good summaries of the liberal view of the right to privacy, and I was again struck by how odd it sounded: Scholars have advanced a whole array of views on the question, and while certainly liberals and conservatives would tend to find different ones more congenial, it seemed like an unhelpful way to map the terrain or illuminate the key points on which various thinkers diverge.

This makes no sense to him:

As libertarians never tire of pointing out, there is no particularly compelling philosophical reason that one’s views on abortion, foreign military intervention, environmental regulation, tax policy, and criminal justice should cluster in the particular pattern we find among Republican and Democratic partisans. So we ought to be awfully skeptical about the (growing?) tendency to treat this binary divide as reflecting some essential fact about human nature, or as providing a frame within which to understand all intellectual or cultural life.

So Sanchez sees a slightly different reason that reason itself is simply an illusion:

It starts to seem, as Albert Camus once put it, that we’ve made the mind into an armed camp – in which not only politicians and legislative proposals, but moral philosophies, artworks, even scientific theories, have to wear the insignia of one or the other army. This obviously oversimplifies – a taxonomy with two categories is not particularly rich – but also obscures the internal fault-lines within each domain in a way that’s guaranteed to undermine our understanding. We’re at the point where people are morally certain about the empirical facts of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on the basis of their general political worldviews. This isn’t exactly surprising – we are tribal creatures who like master narratives – but it feels as though it’s gotten more pronounced recently, and it’s almost certainly making us all stupider.

When people are morally certain about empirical facts there’s bound to be trouble. Moral certainty and dispassionate empiricism are the opposite of each other – unless you’re stupid and think they’re the same thing. And we often do think that.

And as an example, one of Digby’s readers offers this:

If the Tea Partiers – to the extent that they believe they are not corporate shills – really think the healthcare battle is about freedom, why won’t they accord the rest of us the freedom they crave? In other words, if they don’t want government healthcare and the mandate to buy insurance, fine. Here’s the deal… we’ll eliminate the mandate in exchange for people being able to buy into Medicare for All.

Then they can choose to go without insurance – and be refused care they can’t pay for – or buy private insurance where 40% of their premiums will go to overhead and profit, while the rest of us can choose buy into a plan where only 3% goes to overhead and there is no profit. If you want to be “free” to choose, I should be too.


Why shouldn’t I be allowed to choose Medicare if I want to? I feel that my freedom as an American is being infringed. How come these people are all forcing me to buy private insurance against my will? What is this, Communist China?

Sure, it’s a stretch. But of it infringes on someone’s freedom for insurance companies to make contraception part of a preventive care package, then it sure as hell infringes on my freedom to be denied the opportunity to buy insurance through Medicare.

Who are these people who would deny me the right to buy what I want to buy! This is America!

There’s a lot of bitter irony here, but that’s because reason, and reasoning, has become so debased – if it ever really existed in the first place. Political psychology is fine – Mooney explains things well – but there is the larger problem. It’s that tribalism Sanchez discusses. And beyond that, reason itself is almost always not at all what it seems.

And now are you convinced?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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