Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bullshit Mountain Explained: Why You Can't Reason With Republicans - Part III

The biggest problem with the denizens of Bullshit Mountain, is they act like their shit don't stink. If they have success, "they built it". If they failed, the government ruined it for them. If they get a break, they deserve it. If you get a break, it's a "handout" and an "entitlement". It's a baffling, willfully blind, cognitive dissonance ... - Jon Stewart

My previous two posts (one and two), based on Chris Mooney’s illuminating “The Republican Brain,” summarizes the science and circumstances behind Bullshit Mountain and why these days it is impossible to reason with a Republican. Today, I woke up to validation from a surprise source - JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. In a recent interview with the Guardian, she said:

We all know that pleasurable rush that comes from condemning, and in the short term it's quite a satisfying thing to do, isn't it?

Ah, dopamine.

Rowling is about to publish her first novel for grown-ups, “The Casual Vacancy,” that, according to the Guardian, “satirizes the ignorance of elites who assume to know what's best for everyone else.” Says Rowling, who has experienced poverty and not forgotten about it:

How many of us are able to expand our minds beyond our own personal experience? So many people, certainly people who sit around the cabinet table, say, 'Well, it worked for me' or, 'This is how my father managed it' – these trite catchphrases – and the idea that other people might have had such a different life experience that their choices and beliefs and behaviors would be completely different from your own seems to escape a lot of otherwise intelligent people. The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash, like porridge. The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people.

So, can one recover from Republicanism? Yes, but it’s not easy. An eye-opening article by Jeremiah Goulkin in The Nation makes it clear that nothing less than a willingness to confront your comforting illusions is involved. According to Goulkin:

The more I learned about reality, the more I started to care about people as people, and my values shifted. Had I always known what I know today, it would have been clear that there hasn’t been a place for me in the Republican Party since the Free Soil days of Abe Lincoln.

He goes on to say:

The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in. Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal. For the first time, I found myself paying attention to broken eggs rather than making omelets. Up until then, I hadn’t really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. ...

My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality. To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their “just” desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn’t actually work that way. ...

Last but not least:

Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful. I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned. I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer (because those weren’t mentioned in the media we read or watched).

As discussed in my two previous pieces, shifting one’s thinking is far more difficult for conservatives than liberals. To quickly review: Our brains were not built to dispassionately sift through facts and come to reasoned conclusions. Rather, we think with our emotions. This applies to all of us, but there is a fatal twist with conservatives, namely they score low on “openness to experience,” which translates to extreme discomfort with change and uncertainty and ambiguity.

Conservatives, then, are far more inclined than liberals to remain locked into unsustainable positions, in complete defiance of the facts. Yes, there are extreme liberals, too, but there are far fewer of them and they tend to get relegated to the margins. The very opposite has happened in the Republican party, where the extremists have taken over.

As Mooney explains, conservatives are afflicted by “conscientiousness,” a very desirable personality trait but fatal in the context of misplaced loyalty, particularly to a tribe or in-group at the expense of the greater good. This is why moderate conservatives would rather remain silent than speak out, even in full knowledge of the consequences of their acquiescence.

We can’t leave this without something about Fox News. Mooney devotes a lot of attention to this in his book, but fails to mention that conservatives are far more inclined than liberals to pick their news - just compare the ratings of Fox News to MSNBC. Where is Walter Cronkite when we need him?

Back to Bullshit Mountain, to Republicans: No need to explain yourselves. I've already done that for you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why You Can't Reason With Republicans - Part II

Last week I posted why you can’t reason with Republicans. This has to do with the “smart idiot effect,” laid out in Chris Mooney’s illuminating book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.”

First you start with the proposition that the thinking part of the brain is designed to rationalize our emotions rather than override them. The emotional part of the brain was there first, and - like it or not - it still calls the shots. We have to work with what we’ve got. I’m sure if God decided to start over, He would be outfitting us with Vulcan brains. That’s more or less the evolutionary biology take on it. As to why God doesn’t start over - that’s a theological discussion.

If our brains were truly built for dispassionately sifting through information, making reasoned decisions, and adjusting beliefs in response to new facts, we wouldn’t be exposed to such spectacularly stupid dogma as man coexisting with dinosaurs and humans having nothing to do with global warming.

Amazingly, intelligent people actually support such rubbish, and this leads to the “smart idiot” effect, namely the more informed we are, the more elaborate our rationalizations. According to Mooney, Republicans are particularly adept at this. I can cite Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment as Exhibit A, but I’m not about to change any minds on this, which is exactly my point.

It’s only likely to get worse. One reason, Mooney explains, is that conservatives (read Republicans) rank low on “openness to experience” (part of standard personality tests).  These are people uncomfortable with change and challenge. Liberals tend to be the opposite. Here, Mooney contrasted two default positions: Conservatives with global warming and liberals with nuclear power. According to research cited by Mooney, conservatives (particularly informed ones) failed to moderate their positions over time while the opposite happened with liberals.

So, liberals, rather than being smart idiots, tend to suffer a surfeit of open-mindedness, which can be a fatal affliction. Whereas conservatives are totally sure of themselves, irrespective of the facts, liberals can’t seem to make up their minds, can’t make decisions.

This is why thinking with our emotions can be good. I have written extensively on this, citing Jonah Lehrer’s eye-opening “How We Decide.” When our thinking and emotions align, the brain tends to make the right call. We need to pay attention to what is going on in the back end of the brain, but - likewise - we also need the wisdom to veto where our emotions want to take us.

It may feel good believing that half the citizens of the US are victims who don’t pay their taxes, but is this any way to run a country? Really, seriously.  

But still, extreme liberals are as looney as extreme conservatives, right? Of course, but if we go with Mooney’s analysis there aren’t as many of them. Liberals - you will recall - are more likely to change or moderate their default positions on particular issues. The ones who don’t get relegated to the fringe. Mainstream liberals may wind up despising them as much as Rush Limbaugh, but for much more intelligent reasons. I ask you, who listens to Helen Caldicott these days?

This is not the case, says Mooney, with conservatives. Another personality trait is at play here - “conscientiousness,” which conservatives score high on. These are people who, among other things, exhibit fervent loyalty to their tribe, which can be a great character strength but also a sign of malignant xenophobia.

The eleventh commandment, said Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

Party first - pretty scary stuff, especially if the lunatics have taken over the asylum. This explains why you don’t hear principled conservatives or moderates speaking out against the extremists in their midst. It also explains why - with virtually no outcry from principled conservatives and moderates - the extremists have taken over. Try to imagine Eisenhower - or, for that matter, Reagan - finding a home in today’s Republican Party. 

With liberals, it’s a whole different ball game. Says Mooney:

For these folks, it isn’t about obedience, or group solidarity, or sticking up for those on your side of the aisle - it’s about getting it right, dammit.

Getting it right, of course, is always a work in progress. Which is why we need everyone helping out. Principled conservatives and moderates have a lot to contribute. Too bad they have rolled over and are currently playing dead. Too bad they have dropped out of the conversation.

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 ...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rerun: My Good Friend Kevin

In honor of World Suicide Prevention Day ...

Eight years ago, I was facilitating a DBSA support group in Princeton, NJ. In walked Kevin, exuding a goofy charm, baseball cap on backward. But there was something about his presence that indicated he was no mere goofball. The others in the room felt it, too.

Over the weeks, I couldn't help but be impressed by the way Kevin carried himself. He would walk up to newcomers and introduce himself and start up a conversation. In the group, he was a great listener, dispensing the wisdom of a sage, leavened by a keen sense of humor.

It was amazing to observe him with people much older. At once, he was deferential, compassionate, and exuding great authority. You simply forgot you were talking to someone much younger. You simply wanted to be around him, laugh with him, seek advice from him.

He had his setbacks, his dark moments. Yet, over time - in group, over coffee, over sandwiches, hanging out - I watched him blossom. With his extraordinary people skills, the sky was the limit.

In late 2006, my marriage broke up. Kevin was the first to offer me support. He also reached out to my then-wife.

Suddenly, I had my life in seven or eight FedEx cartons and a one-way ticket to San Diego. I popped into the DBSA group one last time. Kevin was facilitating. He gave me a heartfelt tribute. I felt the goodness in the man. Goodness, true goodness. That was the last time I saw him alive.

He had so much to live for, so much to offer. Yet, on a miserable muggy New Jersey morning - almost exactly three years ago today - his brain tricked him into believing otherwise. He was 28. Three years later, all those he left behind are still dealing with it.

I've been suicidal. So have a lot of us. We fully understand, yet - we totally don't understand.

Kevin, you still shine a light on the world. Nothing - nothing - is ever going to extinguish it.