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Friday, June 22, 2018

I often think it’s comical 

How Nature always does contrive 

That every boy and every gal 

That’s born into the world alive 

Is either a little Liberal 

Or else a little Conservative!

–from “Iolanthe,” by Gilbert & Sullivan


Here’s the latest alarming dispatch from the frontiers of knowledge: Scientists say that Republicanism may be a congenital problem. Well, not scientists, exactly, but journalist Chris Mooney, whose latest treatise, “The Republican Brain, The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality,” has got suggestible Democratic brains all atwitter.

Explaining his findings in Mother Jones magazine, Mooney writes that, bewildered by right-wing irrationality, he found it “impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence—from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics—that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality.”

Wow! You think? Almost needless to say, the professors who study these things credit liberals with personality traits tending to make one popular at say, an art gallery cocktail party, while conservatives are made of sterner stuff. “The evidence here is quite strong,” Mooney insists. “[L]iberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.”

He appears not to notice that these are loaded terms.

So here’s my first question: How do evolutionary psychologists explain why such different human types evolved in Mississippi, say, as opposed to Massachusetts? And if all the creative, intuitive types inhabit New England, then how come Mississippi (Southern chauvinism alert) has produced far more than its share of great writers and musicians over the years?

The answer, of course, is that psychologists make no such claim. How could they? No evidence exists that would assign different personality types to different parts of the country. (Much less to different countries, but hold that thought.) It follows that such insights as Mooney produces about the cognitive styles of Republicans vs. Democrats are far less useful than he thinks in explaining American political dynamics.

Debating Mooney on his blog, Kevin Drum makes a related objection, observing that “temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it’s Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don’t. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don’t generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.”