Why America Lacks a Scientific Conversation

The science is in, and Chris Mooney’s politicization hypothesis is real. Conservatives, especially evangelicals, are less apt to accept scientific evidence than they were 40 years ago. This trend has been driven by ideology, think-tanks, and a media echo chamber where the conversation is not about science. For example, the only people left out of the climate discussion have been climate scientists.

Our national discussion of climate change has been actively thwarted by mainstream, “liberal” media organizations: climate coverage declined 90% on Sunday shows and 72% on nightly news programs from 2009 to 2011. Of course, even in 2009 the number one climate story was the climategate nontroversy. It’s all in this Media Matters report.

Writing on the emerging science of the conservative and liberal brain, Koren Shadmi writes at WaPo:

Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the “need for cognitive closure.” This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. “The finding is very robust,” explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.

“Closure” is epistemic closure. Whereas epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, research on the right-wing brain is mostly agnotology, the study of ignorance. The operative word here is “believe,” because conservative ignorance is willful and cognitive. As the X-Files poster says, “I want to believe.”

Conservatives choose to believe in Kenyan birth, a climate hoax, and non-Darwinian biology. It is simply easier than admitting the need for discomforting change. These manufactured issues form the tangled web of a paranoid cosmology: if one does not believe in evolution, then it is not necessary to agree that fuels are fossils. If you believe the president isn’t an American, then it follows that everything he does is un-American. “Belief” is just a hypocrite excusing their hypocrisy.

We can see this at work today with Ted Nugent and the National Rifle Association, which would have us believe President Obama’s inattention to gun control issues is actually proof if his intent to confiscate guns. Shadmi again:

When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.

The political psychological divide goes beyond science. Factual disputes over many issues feature the same dynamics: Does the health-care reform law contain “death panels”? Did the stimulus package create any jobs? Even American history is up for debate: Did the founders intend this to be a Christian nation?

Facts, they say, have a liberal bias. In fact, liberalism is part of the enlightenment tradition and has always been informed by the sciences. That liberalism has become a dirty word in politics points to just how much of the culture wars has actually been about denying scientific reality — and substituting it with a false one — on issue after issue.

The question is how we get a different conversation going. And we must, because nature isn’t going to be swayed by Heritage Foundation talking points. The scientific community must organize in its own defense and speak up for itself; our science-based civilization depends on it.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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