Chris Mooney's <i>The Republican Brain</i>: Self-Therapeutic and Self-Refuting - Evolution News & Views

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Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain: Self-Therapeutic and Self-Refuting

Though Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality may appear to offer something new, it actually rehashes many well-worn, self-serving arguments that conservatives tend to be biologically incapable of accepting science. According to the book, biology makes conservatives "more rigid, less flexible in their style of thinking" (p. 15) so that they "just aren't as interested as liberals in finding things out about the world." (p. 258) That's when Mooney puts it in nice-ish pseudo-scholarly terms, which is the least you'd expect from a book published by John Wiley & Sons, with its specialty in academic works. But sometimes Mooney let's his real feelings run loose. The subtitle -- "Why They Deny Science -- and Reality" -- is one good example of this. Reading through the book, we find other self-serving, incendiary rhetoric like:

  • "Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and that's precisely where our country now stands with regard to the conservative denial of reality." (p. 4)
  • "Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one's view, is something we find all around us today. It's hard to call it rational -- and hard to deny it's everywhere." (p. 3)
  • "[P]olitical 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. The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don't." (p. 7, emphasis in original)
A quick search of the book on Amazon shows that, predictably, it contains dozens of references to the term "anti-science." Mooney officially denies that he thinks Republicans are "less intelligent" (p. 271) but his message comes through loud clear: when it comes to evaluating scientific questions, he thinks conservatives are intellectually deficient. Don't believe me? Consider these comments from Mooney:
  • "denying facts is not a phenomenon equally distributed across the political spectrum." (p. 4)
  • "today's liberals are usually right and today's conservative usually wrong." (p. 7)
I reviewed Mooney's prior books, The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Science Illiteracy Threatens our Future, focusing specifically on his treatment of Darwinian evolution vs. intelligent design, although both books argue for the "consensus" view on other controversial topics like global warming and stem cell research. Those books similarly argued that conservatives/Republicans are "ideologues," "zealots," "dumb," "scientifically illiterate," "anti-intellectual," and "abusers" when it comes to science and science-policy. The Republican Brain adds qualities like "irrational" (p. 39), "illogical" (p. 39), "less flexible" (p. 4) and even "dangerous" (p. 4) to Mooney's list -- along with some purported biological arguments to back up those claims.

The circular, self-serving nature of Mooney's argument is hard to miss: only by assuming that his views on controversial scientific issues are correct can he even begin to argue that those who disagree with him are intellectually deficient. But as we'll see, Mooney never established that his scientific views were correct.

Self-Therapy

What's fascinating about The Republican Brain is the self-therapeutic motivation Mooney offers for why he wrote it. In the book, he admits he couldn't understand why his earlier book The Republican War on Science wasn't successful at, as he puts it, "changing minds on the other side of the aisle." (p. 19) Mooney explains that he wrote The Republican Brain to help explain to himself why those efforts to persuade opponents didn't work:

I don't think I fully realized, at the time, that I was following a script written long before. I was dreaming a dream of how it ought to work when false claims are aired, espoused, or defended for any reason, political or otherwise. The dream was that the power of human reason would eventually stamp out lies, prejudices, and falsehoods, delivering a truly enlightened society. It would be a society in which ideologically driven misinformation would gradually decline or disappear, vanquished and chased from the public sphere by rational arguments (like mine). (p. 19)
When it turned out people still believed things Mooney had argued against after reading his book, he had to find out how this could be the case. For Mooney, he can't fathom the possibility that the problem might be that his "rational arguments" weren't so strong after all. In his mind, the problem must be that many who were heard his arguments were mentally incapable of accepting them. Thus, he writes The Republican Brain to reassure himself that this must be the case:
[T]he greatest scientific liberal [Mooney is referring to the Marquis de Condorcet, not to himself] was wrong about one of the things that matters most. He was incorrect in thinking that the broader dissemination of reasoned arguments would necessarily lead to greater acceptance of them. And he was equally wrong to think that the refutation of false claims would lead human beings to discard them. (p. 26)
Mooney then launches into a book-length argument that people rejected his "rational arguments" because their biologically determined intellects were incapable of accepting them. I have a different explanation of why many people don't accept Mooney's arguments.

In 2006, I published a response to Mooney's chapter in The Republican War on Science that attacks intelligent design. I showed it to be full of errors, documenting multiple areas where he simply ignored what intelligent design proponents are saying and misstated our arguments. His discussion of the relevant scientific evidence was one-sided and ignored evidence that challenges his view. He consistently took a "Judge Jones Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It" approach to intelligent design. Totaling about 20,000 words and citing over 170 endnotes, my response offered 14 items that Mooney got wrong:

  • Error #1: Mr. Mooney overpraises Darwin.
  • Error #2: Mr. Mooney claims ID traces itself to the theological arguments of William Paley.
  • Error #3: Mr. Mooney critiques a blatantly false, straw-man version of intelligent design.
  • Error #4: Mr. Mooney implies there are no peer-reviewed scientific publications supporting ID.
  • Error #5: Mr. Mooney alleges that the controversy over evolution is "manufactured."
  • Error #6: Mr. Mooney insinuates that Discovery Institute opposed Dover's ID policy because Discovery Institute allegedly believes ID is unconstitutional.
  • Error #7: Mr. Mooney implies it is inappropriate to "teach the controversy" over evolution.
  • Error #8: Mr. Mooney insinuates that the Santorum Amendment inappropriately "singles out" evolution.
  • Error #9: Mr. Mooney argues that intelligent design is not science because some of its proponents have Christian religious beliefs and motives.
  • Error #10: Mr. Mooney argues that Discovery Institute is "disingenuously pretending that modern science basically amounts to institutionalized atheism."
  • Error #11: Mr. Mooney appeals to authority as a valid argument against ID.
  • Error #12: Mr. Mooney's misrepresents Stephen Meyer's peer-reviewed pro-ID science article.
  • Error #13: Mr. Mooney claims the Kitzmiller v. Dover case is the "death knell" of ID.
  • Error #14: An Error of Omission -- Mr. Mooney ignores the real "war" -- the attack upon the academic freedom of scientists who support intelligent design in science and the media.
(My full response can be found at "Whose 'War' Is It, Anyway?: Exposing Chris Mooney's Attack on Intelligent Design.")

So here's my simple explanation for why Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science, didn't change minds: On some issues, it was full of errors and material omissions, and thus wasn't very persuasive to informed readers.

Mooney himself appears incapable of accepting that possibility. Thus, in The Republican Brain, we get passages like this where he sounds like he's projecting his own failings upon conservatives:

But when the evidence arrived and it contradicted their theories, they didn't change their minds. They physically and emotionally couldn't. Rather, they moved the goalposts. (p. 39, emphasis in original)
But that's exactly what Mooney has done in his latest book! According to his own admission, he wrote The Republican War on Science to persuade everyone -- including Republicans -- that their scientific views were wrong. He believed that his "rational arguments" were so perfectly aligned with reason that no one could dispute them. But that didn't happen. Instead, something happened he didn't expect: people didn't accept his arguments.

Mooney can't accept the possibility that his arguments simply weren't persuasive, and that he might not have a monopoly on reason and truth. So he must move the goalposts and believe that the problem wasn't his arguments, but the people hearing them. To avoid the possibility that his arguments just aren't very persuasive, Mooney goes so far that he writes an entire book arguing that biology prevents his opponents from properly evaluating and accepting his ideas. Thus Mooney can provide himself with a neat and tidy rationale for how his arguments could fail to persuade and yet still be correct.

You and I might find Mooney's tactics a bit suspect and illogical. But I'm sure Mooney doesn't. In fact, Mooney explains to us precisely how people feel when they engage in goalpost shifting rather than changing their minds:

Note, however, that only those who do not hold the irrational views in question see this behavior as suspect and illogical. The goalpost shifters probably don't perceive what they are doing, or understand why it appears (to the rest of us) to be dishonest. This is also why we tend to perceive hypocrisy in others, not in ourselves. (p. 39, emphasis in original)

Is The Republican Brain a book about Republicans, or about Chris Mooney?

Thus, in an ironic way, the self-therapeutic aspect of The Republican Brain also make the book self-refuting: He tries to paint his opponents as intellectually inflexible and unable to change their minds in the face of conflicting data. Yet he wrote The Republican Brain to give himself an excuse not to have to change his own mind when he faced data he didn't expect (i.e. his arguments weren't persuasive to critics). If his arguments about how people behave when refuted by the evidence are correct, then they describe his own reasons for writing The Republican Brain pretty well. What does that say about the veracity of his own "rational arguments"?

No wonder he has an odd passage at the very conclusion of The Republican Brain where he seems to be reassuring himself that he's a true open-minded liberal:

In conclusion, then, I am a liberal, self-described, self-examined, and hopefully self-aware. I am willing to update my beliefs and to change -- and I see this willingness as a virtue, a characteristic, I strive to possess. (p. 275)
That's fine. Mooney is welcome to go on praising himself if he thinks that will advance his case at all, but here's my challenge to him:

Chris Mooney, you're a very good writer -- so I'm sure you've heard this principle that I learned from my high school AP English teacher: don't "tell" readers why a point is true, "show" them. So Mr. Mooney, rather than just telling us what a good liberal you are, show us.

You've known about my critique of your chapter on intelligent design in The Republican War on Science since it was first published in 2006. To my knowledge, you've never responded. No offense taken--not everyone has time to respond to every critic.

Nonetheless, you chose to take on ID in your earlier book and a major ID proponent (me) wrote a detailed, 20,000 word response to your chapter on that topic. So if you're going to close your latest book by praising yourself as a true liberal, it seems OK to ask you to back that up. So show me that my arguments are wrong. And if they aren't, admit where you made mistakes and update your beliefs accordingly.** That, it seems to me, is what a true liberal would do.

What do you say, Mr. Mooney?

** And if you do respond, here's a small suggestion: don't just take the 'Judge Jones Said It, I Believer It, That Settles It' approach like so many uninformed ID critics have found it easy to do. Show us that you are a true liberal who is informed by engaging with ID literature and arguments directly.