Friday, September 14, 2012

The Smart Idiot Effect: Why You Can't Reason With Republicans

Two years ago, I posted a piece here, Is Republicanism the New Stupid? The short answer, I concluded, is yes. The long answer is more involved. You can write a book on it. Journalist Chris Mooney has: “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.”

It’s not like our genes have predestined us to vote for a specific party or believe in a particular ideology (often in complete defiance of the facts), but it’s something like that, and the topic is now the object of intense research across a wide range of disciplines - from how we think (or don’t think), to heritable personality traits, to how we behave, to environmental factors. But we begin with the fact that the Republican Party has been taken over - occupied - by the lunatic fringe.

It wasn’t always this way. Indeed, poll any Democrat today and you are likely to find he or she (myself included) is very comfortable with Eisenhower Republicanism. Indeed, Ike - a former university President who championed science, who got the troops out of (rather than into) a foreign conflict, who expanded social security, and who worked with Democrats across the aisle - had no place for extremists in his party. To wit:

Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Those were the days of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which appeared to have a strong moderating influence on the politics of the era. Over the years, that changed. Conservatives gravitated to one party and liberals to the other, with a predictable polarization affect. Fine, dandy. We can still talk, right? May the best ideas prevail, right? Everyone benefits, right?

Wrong. For one, the brain is not wired to rationally sift through the facts and make smart decisions. Any casual reader of this blog knows that the brain science is coming in loud and clear on this. Our “thinking” is emotions-driven. We respond first, think later. Too often, our “thinking” is deployed to rationalize our emotions.

We’re all guilty of this. We buy stuff we don’t need, we fall in love with the wrong person, we put up with awful abuse. Do we learn? Sometimes. The rest of the time - well, that’s a different story.

Basically, we have two brains: a sophisticated processing unit retrofitted atop a primitive responding device. When things work right, our emotions give meaning to the flood of information bombarding us, which helps the “thinking” part of the brain make smart choices. When things go wrong, we do a lot of stupid things. This is why we are human, not Vulcans.

The big mistake our Founding Fathers made was that they, as children of the Enlightenment, assumed that reason would prevail. An educated public, with access to the facts - so they thought - could be entrusted with the reins of government.

Had they only known about the “smart idiot” effect.

Chris Mooney begins his book with the example of Conservapedia (see top image), which bills itself as “The Trustworthy Encyclopedia.” You can trust Conservapedia to inform you that evolution is not real, that global warming is a hoax, that homosexuality is a choice, and that abortions cause breast cancer.

On today's front page of the site, in the news section, reads the heading: 

What lunatic, you might ask, is responsible for such nonsense? The answer will surprise you. He is Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis), a Princeton-educated engineer and Harvard Law graduate. 

How can smart people (a lot of this stuff is mainstream Republican dogma) possibly believe such rubbish? We start with the proposition that emotions decide and that emotions are housed inside personalities. Thus, if you are the type of person who feels comfortable in a world of certainties and is threatened by change, your natural tendency is to reconfigure the facts (even making up your own) to sync with your world view, however out of touch with reality it may be.

And how do you FEEL after reconfiguring the facts? Much better, thank you very much. You may be in total denial of reality, but - very ironically - the smarter you are, the more proficient you become at deluding yourself. Your arguments become ever more sophisticated, your beliefs grow more rigid. By now you are absolutely certain of yourself. Nothing is going to change your world. Check this out, from a Pew report cited by Mooney:

For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

What about liberals? “Are liberals ‘smart idiots’ on nukes?” asks Mooney. According to Mooney, the natural liberal impulse to distrust nuclear energy “puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).” Mooney cites study evidence showing that on further reflection, liberals  “moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them.” 

According to Mooney: “This is not the ‘smart idiot’ effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.”

What gives? No surprise, liberals love facts, they are comfortable with change. On personality tests, they score high on “openness to experience” and low on “conscientiousness.” Loosely translated, liberals have messier houses with more interesting things in them.

Loosely translated again: You can reason with most liberals. But, ironically, because liberals are open to reasoned discussion, they are blind to the fact that others are not. You can’t reason with a Republican. I gave up trying years ago.

Much more to come ...


Tony the cretin said...

Just to add, the Republicans claim to be the Christian party, but they want to kill all programs that help the disadvantaged. My question to them is where in the New Testament does Jesus say "When a man is down, kick him in the teeth?" What New Testament are they reading?

John McManamy said...

Hey, Tony. In the Gospels, Jesus comments more on religious hypocrites than just about everything else put together. Can you imagine the reception Jesus would get at a Republican or Tea Party gathering? I can't, either.

I strongly recommend Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God," which exposes Christian fundamentalism as a fairly recent phenomenon, totally out-of-phase with history - basically a reaction to enlightened thinking, liberalism, and scientific inquiry.

I could write a book on this. Fortunately, others already have. :)

Tony Previte said...

So what about us Moderate Independents? We must REALLY have a screw loose, or nut to tight perhaps.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Tony. Thank heaven for moderate independents. You guys are an endangered species. You're also the ones most critical to making this whole thing work. Remember back in '64 when Goldwater said " Moderation is no virtue"? Goldwater was wrong. :)