Humorist Will Rogers famously quipped: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble. It’s what we know that ain’t so.” (More)

The Republican Brain, Part I: “What We Know That Ain’t So”

This week Morning Feature looks at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Today we consider some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs. Tomorrow we’ll explore the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. Saturday we’ll conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mooney begins with an in depth review of the psychology of motivated reasoning and studies that show the persistence of motivated reasoning correlates to two of the Big Five personality traits: Openness (for which liberals typically score higher than conservatives) and Conscientiousness (for which conservatives typically score higher than liberals). We’ll discuss that more tomorrow, but I’ll start by reviewing Mooney’s argument on the comparative prevalence of false beliefs. I chose to start there for two reasons. First, it’s important to establish a problem exists before exploring possible causes and solutions. Second, Mooney laid much of that groundwork in a previous book – The Republican War on Science – and wrote The Republican Brain after and as part of reviewing research in psychology to better understand the ‘why’ of his previous book. So while I’m taking The Republican Brain book out-of-sequence, doing so follows Mooney’s own path of discovery.

Does the Problem Exist?

Mooney’s review of the research suggests that Republicans are, in fact, more likely to hold false beliefs. For example, a 2010 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes interviewed voters on several factual issues:

  • The Track of the Economy – 72% of Republicans (vs. 36% of Democrats) said most economists agreed the economy was getting worse in November 2010. In fact most economists agreed the economy had begun to recover.
  • The Affordable Care Act and the Deficit – 73% of Republicans (vs. 31% of Democrats) said the consensus of economists was that that the ACA would increase the federal deficit. In fact the consensus of economists was that the ACA would decrease the deficit.
  • The Stimulus and Tax Cuts – 67% of Republicans (vs. 42% of Democrats) said the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act did not include tax cuts. In fact tax cuts comprised 28% of the stimulus package.
  • Scientific Consensus on Climate Change – 62% of Republicans (vs. 26% of Democrats) said most scientists have not agreed that climate change is occurring. In fact the scientific consensus supporting climate change is overwhelming.
  • President Obama’s Citizenship – 64% of Republicans (vs. 17% of Democrats) said it was not clear that President Obama was born in the U.S. In fact the State of Hawaii had already certified that he was born in that state.
  • Chamber of Commerce and Foreign Money – 57% of Democrats (vs. 9% of Republicans) believed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had used contributions from foreign sources to support GOP candidates. In fact the Chamber of Commerce did not use foreign contributions.
  • Democrats and TARP – 56% of Democrats (vs. 14% of Republicans) believed that Democrats in Congress mostly did not support the Troubled Asset Relief Program proposal. In fact Democrats in Congress supported TARP.
  • Troop Levels in Afghanistan – 51% of Democrats (vs. 39% of Republicans) believed President Obama had not increased troop levels in Afghanistan. In fact he had.

Voters in both parties were misinformed, but Republican voters were more misinformed. Of the ten questions in the PIPA survey, only 18% of Republicans (vs. 32% of Democrats) answered at least seven correctly.

The Fact Checkers

Although Mooney criticized PolitiFact’s conclusion on a claim by Jon Stewart, he concedes that PolitiFact and FactCheck are generally rigorous and reliable. A review by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog found Republicans drew “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings in 39% of the statements reviewed, vs. only 12% for Democrats, and statements by Democrats were rated “Half-True,” “Mostly True,” or “True” 75% of the time vs. only 47% for Republicans. Although the Smart Politics writers suggest this reflects selection bias among which statements to review, Mooney argues a simpler explanation: Republicans are more likely make false statements.

That explanation was supported by Mooney’s own review of The Washington Post‘s Fact-Checker, which uses “Pinocchios” to grade false or misleading statements. He and a colleague reviewed the Post‘s Fact-Checker stories over a four-year period, and found that statements by Republicans were given a total of 361 Pinocchios vs. 243 for statements by Democrats. The average rating for statements by Republicans was 2.46 vs. 2.09 for Democrats, a statistically significant difference. In assessing the number of Pinocchios given, he found:

  • Four Pinocchios – Republicans 27, Democrats 11
  • Three Pinocchios – Republicans 33, Democrats 24
  • Two Pinocchios – Republicans 67, Democrats 46
  • One Pinocchio – Republicans 20, Democrats 35

From this Mooney concludes:

What this suggests is that the Post was giving Democrats a lot of wrist-slaps for relatively minor sins, even as the most egregious falsehoods were clearly clustered at the Republican end of the distribution.

Again, the conservative response to such data is to suggest that Fact-Checker, like PolitiFact, is biased against Republicans. Again, Mooney suggests the simpler explanation: Republicans are simply more wrong, more often.

Science, Economics, and History

Mooney then presents other evidence of Republican orthodoxy in science, history, and economics which contradict prevailing data. For example, Republicans are less likely to accept scientific evidence on evolution, more likely to believe children raised in LGBT families suffer harm as compared to children raised by heterosexual couples, more likely to believe sexual orientation is a choice, and more likely to believe abstinence-only sex education produces fewer teen pregnancies.

In economics, Mooney quotes at length from an interview with Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bartlett was fired from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis after writing How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and he uses words like “kooks” and “nuts” to describe Republicans’ belief that tax cuts always increase federal revenues and that defaulting on the federal debt would be harmless or even beneficial for the economy. Bartlett calls the latter “the most monumental insanity that I can even imagine.”

Mooney then addresses Republican historical revisionism, beginning with Sarah Palin’s infamous account of Paul Revere’s ride. He also discusses Mike Huckabee’s American history cartoons, Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers ended slavery, and the Wallbuilders headed by David Barton, a Dominionist group who argue the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation despite manifest historical evidence to the contrary.

What About the Fracking Democrats?

Mooney concludes by considering some false claims commonly believed by Democrats, such as that pumping chemicals into natural gas wells – hydraulic fracturing or fracking – pushes toxins into the water supply. In fact, Mooney set out to prove that in an article for Scientific American, and came up dry. While there is evidence of water contamination around fracking sites, the research so far suggests that contamination comes from other parts of the drilling process such as not properly cementing pipes and not properly storing chemicals at the drill sites. There is as yet no evidence that fracking causes the gas or the chemicals to leech up through a mile of rock into the water table. He also addresses false beliefs about the risks of nuclear power plants and the connection between immunization and autism, both of which are more often held by Democrats than by Republicans.

But in all three cases, Mooney points out two key distinctions. First, when presented with the scientific evidence, educated Democrats are more likely to change their minds and accept that fracking and nuclear power are not as risky as first believed, and that there is no reliable scientific correlation between immunization and autism. And second, while some Democrats do cling to one or more of these beliefs, elected Democrats who have reviewed the scientific evidence do not encourage or base policy on those false beliefs.

Conversely, educated Republicans are more likely to cling to false beliefs, and more likely to be confident they already have enough information and don’t need to consider new evidence. As we’ll see tomorrow, the reason may lie in the different personality traits of Republicans and Democrats.


Happy Thursday!