Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A More Thoughtful Take on Political Brains

For a more sophisticated viewpoint on some of the differences between liberals and conservatives -- and much less ideological than it's mostly their genes or it's structures in their brains or its both nature and nuture or there is no hardwiring -- the explanation seems to change daily depending on what mess Chris Mooney needs to clean up from the day before -- watch psychologist Jonathan Haidt's talk at TED:

There's also this talk Haidt had with Robert Wright, and a NYT review of Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, where William Saletan writes:
"To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason....

"The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others....

"Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet."
And, of course, liberals can be just as irrational (in someone's opinion) and anti-science as conservatives, such as the attitude of some on the far left about genetically modified organisms. (Keith Kloor has more on that here.)

I've received more than one email, and several comments, criticizing me for commenting on Mooney's book without having read it. First of all, excerpts like this seem quite clear:
"And I’ll examine what is in some ways the most revolutionary idea at all–the increasingly powerful notion that, while the environment assuredly matters, much of the left-right difference may ultimately be influenced by genetics, and even detectable in structures in the brains."
I agree with Kenneth Silber at FrumForum: you don't name a book The Republican Brain unless you're looking to sell books by getting attention for ticking people off. If he was a science writer and not a political writer he would have named it The Political Brain or some such. Instead the title's tactic is that same as those who title their book Liberal Fascism or Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. Silber notes
"Mooney criticizes Republican congressional leaders, for example, for sending a letter to Ben Bernanke in September 2011 urging no further monetary easing."
as if national economic policy is so cut-and-dried there is an obvious correct answer.

So, no, I'm not going to read the book. There's too much else out there that is worth reading, and I'm at the point where I'm wary of anyone who thinks they know the right answers to big questions (no matter what they think).

Note added: In this regard, Haidt's most relevant thought comes at the 3:05 mark in the video:
"When people all share values, when people all share morals, they become a team, and once you engage the psychology of teams it shuts down open thinking."


sylas said...

Good point on that last extract.

One of the great ironies about Chris Mooney's writing is that he was, a few years ago, all about "framing" in such a way as to avoid alienating those who need to be persuaded. But his most recent framing of the science denial problem is absolutely the most alienating tack he could have taken.

I don't think you have any obligation to read Mooney's book.

Of course, (I try to say gently), if you choose not to read it, and yet also try to make specific criticisms, you are very likely to make errors -- as you did last time, frankly.

That is not a defense of Mooney's thesis... as I tried to emphasize in my earlier reply to you; now the last comment in the earlier thread.

Dano said...

Perhaps another explanation is that there is no reason to try and "persuade" those that continue to be denialists, as they will never be persuaded. Best to highlight their tactics and move on.