Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I am your host Marsupial Yuchi, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Today, I'm pleased to announce that we have the special guest, Chris Mooney, joining us for this episode. Chris is the senior correspondent for the American Prospect magazine and the author of two books, including the recent New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science. Chris was also in 2005, named one of Wired magazine's 10 Sexiest Geeks, which make the decision that he's joining us by Skype instead of in the studio.
But there you have it. Oh, well, welcome. I'll just picture how sexy you must be. Yeah, that was two thousand five.
Yeah, we will age my friend.
OK, so, Chris, I know that your book has predictably raised quite a bit of controversy. You've got criticism right and left, literally as in as in obviously predictably from the from the right, since those are the people you criticised in the book. But even even some commentators on the left, we'll get to that later on, maybe in the in the episode.
The point is, it definitely was controversial. So before we get into the meat of it, what's the what's the basic thesis?
So the Republican brain. The thesis is that in order to understand why left and right can't see eye to eye anymore. And that's obvious to everyone in American politics, but also why the right tends to be actually factually wrong. It's not enough to stick with purely surface level political, historical, sociological explanations because we've got too much evidence now that liberals and conservatives are just different people on levels of personality, the psychological needs, moral systems, all these things that make you respond to events and stimuli in a way that you're not fully, consciously aware of.
And so it stands to reason. In fact, it would be astonishing if that were not the case. But those things, those things are having a really significant role in our debates over what to do politically, but also in our debates over what's factually true. And given the amount of evidence and Massimiliano, that you talk about some of this in your own book, given the amount of evidence out there, it's really just hard to ignore it anymore.
So, Chris, what are some examples of issues on which the right tends to be factually wrong?
Oh, well, and this is what got me into this. I mean, I wrote the Republican War on Science and five in there, there's the whole litany. But if you want to just stick with science, science, this is not exclusive.
I must you want to stick with things that are completely open and shut. There's no wiggle room. Right? Then we'll take global warming and evolution. You can't do better than those two.
Right. OK, so but the issue is. Well, there's several issues. One of which is go back to what you just said a minute ago. So it is clear, as you say to everybody, that the current situation in American politics is really, really bad in terms of discourse. I mean, there is no discourse essentially among most people that are supposed to be to be engaging in politics, which is supposed to be the art of compromise.
They are, in fact, a lot of a lot of the time these people aren't, in fact, factually wrong. They're not they're not interested seemingly in here in the other side and so on and so forth. But it's also true that this is actually a development that it's quite recent in America, even in American politics, and certainly not a global phenomenon. I mean, there are other places in the world where there is no or there's not this degree of at least of gridlock.
So on the face, wouldn't that suggest that that a sort of historical cultural explanation is the proper locus of analysis here? Why do you think that it's not?
Oh, well, I wouldn't say that it's not. I mean, it has always been the form of analysis that has been taken. Right. It's a traditional form of journalists, of historians, et cetera.
And I in the book then plenty of time on giving just that sort of analysis. But what I say is that people have ignored what we broadly might call, quote unquote, nature, but it's hard to see why it wouldn't also be involved. And so, in other words, we privilege the cultural sociological analysis for a very, very long time. Right. But given all the evidence, it's time to look at what's also going on. And the two are never to the exclusion of one another.
They're always complementary. Right? So that's my opinion on that.
What are some well validated features of the psychology of conservatives that you argue contributes to them being.
Actually wrong on these issues, so there's really just a lot of data and what is most amazing to me is if you take something like personality, you know, I don't even I'm not even aware of a scientific counterargument to the basic idea that liberals and conservatives differ by personality.
And if you go by the accepted, widely accepted Big Five scale for measuring personality is certainly not the only one, but it's one that has certainly been become quite well-established. And liberals score a lot higher on the openness to new experiences dimension. Conservatives tend to score higher on a conscientiousness or wanting order and structure and stability in their lives. To mention.
I mean, that one's in that. Ram OFIS throughout all of your life, from who you date to how you plan your vacations, too, it turns out your your dispositions in politics and accompanying that analysis are a variety of different related kinds of measurements.
You know, there's this well-established construct in psychology called the need for cognitive closure, which is the need to have a fixed idea of fixed beliefs so that you can dispel uncertainty and doubt and have your secure knowledge and skills and develop to test that.
And that's one that always gives the right left difference, you know, with the conservatives more needing the fixed answer and then engaging in patterns of behavior that are related to within the fixed answer, like seizing on, seizing on a fact, seizing on a belief that give the certainty and then not being willing to deviate from it.
And that's related to go back to the personality dimension of openness to new experience. I mean, that's very closely related, how open your experiences are, how close you are to new experiences.
So that's those psychological traits are at the center of my analysis.
Now, people have gone further in recent years with new scientific techniques to try to root some of these things to the extent possible now, which is not very much in actual analysis of brain structure, function, physiological traits, even trying to go all the way back to genes.
And that is the most uncertain science and it's the newest science. You don't have to bank on it.
But on the other hand, it does stand to reason that if these are aspects of our personality, that we're eventually going to find out how they're related to brain function and how they relate it to physiological response.
So on the one hand, I don't see even the claim that there are different personalities that they reflect or their cause in some sense.
One one's tendencies, political tendencies, one's worldview and so on and so forth.
That seems like, well, it would have to be the case, right? I mean, we have, after all, what our opinions come from. We're not sort of rationalistic, abstract, you know, analyzers of information. We're filtering everything that comes from the outside world through our personality and our personality surely is the result of these complex interactions between genes, environment by environment.
Of course, I mean largely the cultural environment, but even the physical one throughout our lives.
So that seems rather uncontroversial.
The more controversial part, I would guess, if if it is interesting, in fact, but it should be rather uncontroversial. The more controversial parts should be OK. To what extent are these personality traits actually flexible plastic? And you mentioned the word genetics there.
And so are we saying or is the science, as you is understanding, saying that these personality traits are actually fairly fixed throughout one's lifetime? And that's the first part of the question.
The second part is, even if they are, does that in fact, to what extent does that imply if 60 of opinions, because one might have the same basic personality, but then filter information from the outside world throughout his life or her life and then change one's mind about certain things.
So the first question is, how stable is does the evidence indicate that the person with personality actually is throughout a lifetime of pretty stable, but it doesn't mean you can't change because.
So, yeah, my understanding of the research is that personality is something that you generally you don't go from a one to a five.
Yeah. Over the course of your life on these kinds of traits. And if you think about some of the other ones that are not as political, but that are just as defining of what a person is like, like extroversion versus introversion, you know, I mean, people are introverts. People are extroverts. You know, they might you know, an introvert might try to learn how to make small talk to some extent. But generally, I mean, they're never going to be thriving on and on the energy of other people in the way that an extreme extrovert is going to be doing.
So we're talking about something that really defines you and that is, broadly speaking, fairly stable.
But it doesn't mean people can't change the thing. But then the other part of the question is about the political environment. And so you take a personality and you stick it in an environment and then you change the environment. What is the personality do? And there's all kinds of things. So political political winds can actually change people. So I just don't think there's any real doubt about that.
Just to make sure I understand the point of the question, Massimo. If someone's personality did change over time, that doesn't seem to me like it would undermine the thesis of Chris's book.
If you know that if they become more open to experience over time, maybe that also makes them more open to revising their opinion.
In fact, of the matter is the issue at stake then, the psychology of personality, too?
I mean, if you think about like 9/11, which is the classic event that clearly changed politics, and I would argue that it changed politics by working on people's brains. I mean, you know, it instills fear, fear and threat. People are mortally concerned and, you know, they want to batten down the hatches. They do not want to indulge in a long and nuanced debate about what we ought to do. They want a leader who is going to take a firm, decisive decision and not think about anything except in terms of black and white.
That's how you feel when you're under threat. And so then that pushes the country towards a rightward shift.
So it sounds like the nature and nurture causes are very intertwined here. That's.
Yeah, and it pushes even liberals to the right, you know, because they're I mean, it's not like a liberal can't can't move and it's not like, oh, I can think of one of them.
But the point is, is that there are psychological factors underlying the kind of ideologies that feel right to us. And interestingly, since the book came out, there's been really great work done on the psychological factors that predispose towards libertarianism, which is something that I didn't talk about. But with just being shown by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues is that, you know, you can do it for liberals, you can do it for conservatives, and yes, you can do it for libertarians.
And they look a little different than either liberals or conservatives, but it still works. There's certain traits that predispose one to feeling the way a libertarian feel about the world. Yeah.
Can you break down what you mean by conservative? Are you talking social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, et cetera?
Well, usually in these studies, they'll do several things.
They will ask for self identification, rate yourself on a scale of one to seven from very liberal to very conservative. So the moderates in the middle, they will ask positions on issues. And so they'll ask social questions and they'll ask economic questions. And then they can determine whether your social, economic, liberal or conservative. Sometimes they'll do party identification to. None of these things are exactly the same.
On the other hand, they travel together pretty nicely in terms of their politics.
So the social conservatives and the economic conservatives tend to be together. Now, granted, we know are some some that aren't, but it's pretty correlated, tend to be together.
Same thing with party ID tend to be together in terms of their similarity on the openness to experience scales cetera and their resulting or allegedly resulting similarity.
I'm being wrong factually.
Well, so that's two questions. But actually, let me the best study I've seen of this, they do tend to be similar. For example, all three kinds of conservatives are more than ones who are being more conscientious, liking order and structure.
All three kinds of conservatives or liberals have this big difference on openness. So. Those things go across, whether you're economic, conservative, economic zori, economic conservative, social conservative or just plain, I'm a conservative. Right, but so let's stay for a second on the on the difference between fiscal and socially conservative.
You are absolutely right, of course, that they are currently aligned dramatically so in the American landscape.
But that was that. Again, that's also a fairly recent thing, right? I mean, this goes back basically to the Reagan years.
But what's happened is people are better sorted. Yeah. Than they used to be. Right. So and and so if we had more independents, we had less ideological homogeneity.
We had so so things were different. There's been a movement over the past several decades and people have felt a lot about what caused it. I mean, I, I view it as basically the growth of the religious right, the increasing authoritarianism of the Republican Party. But, yeah, they're pretty.
They're pretty they're pretty tightly interwoven now. And so that's because people are so well sorted with with psychology and ideology defining the parties. It's it's harder and harder for them to see eye to eye anymore.
So let's let's talk for a second about the other side of the political spectrum. What about liberals, which, of course, the liberals, just like conservatives, are actually multidimensional.
I mean, you can be, again, liberal about certain things and not sort of liberal about other things.
But let's talk about some people that I know who are on the liberal side of the spectrum by any definition of the term.
And yet they're just as antiscience as some people on the right. I'm thinking about people who reject the connection between vaccines and who thinks that there's a connection between vaccines and autism to first, for instance, people or who believe that 9/11 was an inside job.
Most of those people tend to be on the on the fringe left and on the extreme left of the political spectrum.
The vaccines and autism link, I, I was surprised to learn there wasn't actually a liberal actually get on. That is mixed data.
The 9/11 truthers maybe, I don't know, give you more on the left than I would have expected.
The vaccine would have be more on the left, but the data keeps not obeying me.
Some other examples are I mean, there is a lot of new age sort of kind of B beliefs that tend to be more on the left side, particularly typically also a belief in the paranormal in certain aspects of the paranormal, because the data seems to be a negative correlation, for instance, between being a very conservative Christian and believing in the paranormal for a variety of reasons, that actually people have gotten into it like, you know, it's it's not kosher to believe in ghosts and things like that.
If you're if you're a conservative. Christian Schizo's. Yeah. So so so the issue is, what about those people? And they also sort of an artifact and antiscience in some important sense of the term.
Right. So, yes, just to be brief. Yes, I think we don't want to be there for different reasons. Yeah. And I think that whether the two sides are behaving this way to the same extent is quite debatable. But there's no doubt that you can get it on the left. And to explain that, I mean, I think that, you know, to some extent you can go with the standard. You know, you can infer it from some of the personality aspects.
But I think that more enlightening is this research on moral systems and how they differ on the left and basically differ from left to right. And then what you what you find is that liberals, they get very emotional about issues related to equality, fairness and people who are vulnerable being harmed and and emotions drive reasoning.
And conservatives get very emotional about different things. But if you get liberals emotional about those things and then it turns out that the facts aren't actually aligned properly, they can get very fired up about something, ends up being a wild goose chase. And so generally, when you find these left anti science things, you're going to find the emotion behind it that relates to quality, that relates to some sense of the weak being abused, poisoned by some corporate power.
So it aligns with left emotions. And that's where you'd expect to find and that's where you actually do find it.
That's an interesting point. I haven't thought about it that way. I mean, that you're referring to the work by Jonathan Haidt on on the different right.
Yeah, this is his his breakdown. And then, of course, you'll find.
And so just as you find that on the left and on the right, where their biases, their biases are toward the ingroup as opposed to the outgroup, and they do that more strongly towards authority and towards sexual purity.
That's something that you find strong emotions about on the left. No. And then, you know, lay off regulating the economy is one of the ones that you put into this analysis.
Yeah. So so it's different. It's different emotions. And one of the key issues that's not resolved is what is the relationship between the personalities and the moral systems and what comes first? I mean, they clearly they both very reliably from left to right. And how are they related to each other? And, you know, there's not a really satisfactory answer to that. But I mean, I have my theories about it. There do seem to be some relationships between them.
So I'm getting a little bit of trouble squaring. So you're the idea that the left leaning rejection of facts has to do with man?
I'm sure in some sense it has to do with emotional reactions of a different way of a different type. But let's say let's go back again to say a tendency for new age belief as opposed to a tendency for fundamentalist Christian belief.
I mean, to me that they both seem to be equally rational, but I can actually much more easily see how the fundamentalist right is related to certain types of emotions that I associate stereotypically, let's say with the with the with being conservative as opposed to the New Age belief, having a similar kind of explanation.
I mean, why would there be a connection between accepting some new view of the world and and so being being, you know, emotionally attached to equality, for instance, or something like that?
Well, let's put it out like it's easier with the fundamentalists. I mean, fundamentalist beliefs are providing closure, right?
I mean, right. That's that's what's going on. It's quite simple. I mean, you know, New Age, please, let's let's take one.
I mean, would you accept alternative medicine as a new age belief or what would you what are you looking for there?
Yeah. Let's Yeah. Says for instance, there'll be there'll be one or the power of crystals, you know, that sort of stuff.
Uh huh. I mean I'm just when I, when I think about it, rejection of scientific medicine and embrace of unproven alternative modalities, I, I feel like I see liberal. I mean, first of all, we know that this stuff is more clustered in the coasts where liberals are. Right.
But but also I feel like I see liberal emotion through it. I mean, basically, there is a sense that current health care system is corporatist and so therefore unfair.
OK, so there's your there's your quality, unfair and harmful in the sense that it abuses people with less money who are more vulnerable, taking advantage of them. So what are we going to do? We're going to find some other health care system that's more egalitarian, that takes care of everybody that's warmer and more nurturing. And so there we have it. We've got this alternative. Former former, you know, getting medical care, which whatever you might say about it, I think it does tend to try to make people feel cared for, paid attention to.
It's not corporate. It's not treating them like a statistic, you see.
Yeah, yeah. I can see that. That would be a testable hypothesis of some sort. You know, you probably have interesting historical data there to look at, for instance, the rise of New Age beliefs and then in the 1960s and 70s during the, you know, the liberation movements and all that.
And that was certainly before there was any serious discussion of health care in this country. But, yeah, you could I can see how you can you can attest to that sort of.
But I can I can see some other connections, too, that seem plausible, like the love of and trust for natural things and things that that, you know, tribal peoples used instead of corporations.
These the, you know, emotional preference for things like that.
And the sort of noble, savage mentality that goes along with that seems related to the, you know, opposition to colonialism and Top-Down power and war and things like that.
You see, if you can be very psychologically open minded and still, like, really dig this kind of thing. You know, you're not that your rationality is not going to lean toward the fundamentalist type. It's going to go in a different direction.
Yeah, it's going to go in the direction that Carl Sagan famously put in terms of, you know, if you're if your mind is developing, your brain is going to fall off.
This is sort of the opposite extreme.
I want to ask you one question that is going to lead me to us to a second topic, which I think is going to be one of the most controversial in your in your book, which is the genetic part.
But before we get to the genetic part, as a matter of curiosity, I'm not as familiar. Of course, we've we've sort of psychological and social literature as I am with similar kinds of literature. So in biology, like in ecology and evolutionary biology, for instance.
And what I know from that literature is that whenever people come up with sort of models, explanatory models for complex phenomena, very often these models do work and they're statistically significant and all that.
But the percentage of variation explain tend to be pretty small. And so as a matter of questions, so here, for instance, what is your sense of how much explanatory power does something like personality profiles or brain scans and all that have on the actual beliefs that are held by people?
I mean, I'm sure there is a statistically significant connection, but is it I was planning three percent of the variance, 10 percent, 90 percent of the variance. What are we talking about?
So I'm not a statistician.
Read a lot of these papers. And of course, the amount of variance that's being explained is always varying. But you're never with these things getting 90 percent of the variance. Right. OK, so just throw that out. Yes, right.
So that's definitely not happening what we're talking about.
And again, I mean, I wish I had something in front of me to refer to because in the book I deliberately don't use a lot of statistics, although at one point we did actually.
And if I could open it, I could have given you a real helpful answer.
But what we're really talking about is something like, let's say, a correlation between personality and a political view of point three to two point five.
You know, at most really any point is pretty strong.
There was a lot of things that go into the mix, right? Yeah, of course.
So it's moderately it's not like extreme is strongly horrible right now.
And, you know, social scientists will say to you that they get that kind of correlation, given how complex the world is and given how, you know, how much people vary and given the sum of the problems with the, you know, measuring when you're using it, what are essentially, you know, self report, right?
No, no, I absolutely said so.
But that was in fact, it was not meant as a criticism was meant to sort of put things into perspective, because actually the kind of answer you just gave me, no correlation between, you know, point two, point three, that sort of stuff is in fact exactly the sort of the range that you get also in other areas that other scientific areas with these studies are complex phenomena that are presumably caused by multiple causes, such as an ecology revolution.
Now, for that for our listeners, I would say I would point out that let's say a correlation, a point five, which sounds it is and it's not doesn't sound it is pretty high. It still is equivalent to about twenty five percent of the variance explained, because the way you get that is simply the square of of the correlation coefficient. So we're talking about a significant amount of variance. But we're not we're still that still means that even with a correlation coefficient, a point five you got.
Seventy five percent of the variation that is not unexplained or is explained by other causes. The reason I brought that up is because I assume, again, this is from my experience in a separate but not too distant field, I assume that when we get to the genetics, the thing gets even worse.
Let me give you one of my favorite examples, which is the ongoing research to find genes underlying the tendency for homosexuality.
Now, first of all, a lot of homosexuals themselves today will actually tell you that, yes, it's very likely there is a genetic component.
They don't feel like they have a choice, you know, that sort of stuff.
Even so, whenever people have actually looked at, you know, try to identify genes that are actually correlated significantly with the development of a homosexual lifestyle within a family tree, they find them.
But first of all, they find a lot of them. They find these guys all over the genome. And each one of these genes is tend to be either present in only one particular population. For instance, there was a famous case a few years ago of a a group of families in Scandinavia. But the same gene when they when they looked into other populations was not correlated with homosexuality.
And when they find them, these genes explain something like it on the order of one or two percent of the actual variation in the phenotype, which doesn't mean they're not important.
They're the correlation is statistically significant. But it doesn't mean that, of course, they leave quite a bit of variation out there for other four other three causes. Is that a similar case also for what the research you looked into between personality? I'm talking now about the genetics of personality.
So just to be clear, you're saying that they're finding one gene that's explaining like a one or something. Yeah. One or two percent for homosexuality.
Right. Just to make sure I got it right.
Because if so, that would be better than anybody's finding in politics.
OK, so we're talking about smaller numbers than not then.
Well, I mean, but but I don't think anyone expected to be finding any single genes with larger effects.
Right. That's yeah. That's not what you would expect for a complex social trait like politics. Right. But on the other hand, I mean and I explain in the book when they do twin studies, that one of the traditional ways of trying to find out whether a trait is partly genetic, then they definitely find that politics, religion, etc., all these things that we think, oh, my God, that's your upbringing. It turns out they always find that they have a genetic component to them.
But that doesn't mean that it's one gene. It's probably a huge number of genes and the search is on to find them. And there's at least one paper published claiming to have found a liberal gene. But I mean, you know, it's not like I'm not even sure that's accepted.
And and. Yeah, and the idea that it would explain much of anything is, I think, you know, overdoing it. So I just wanted to just give you a little bit more on terms of how much personality does explain politics, because, you see, this is a single question.
And I want to tell you how I broke down. Explain one of the studies. This is a Yale study of personality and politics. And so this is how I wrote it. And I just want to be precise. People who rated very high on openness were, on average, more liberal in outlook than seventy one percent of the respondents. And someone who rated very high on conscientiousness was on average, more conservative in outlook than sixty one percent of the respondents.
What's an example ended up being as much as or more of an effect than education on your politics.
And that's an example of education.
Push to the left. Everybody knows this. And the upshot was that, well, personality does, too. We just don't like we don't talk about that nearly as much. OK, third try.
Well, that's an example of a question that someone would get asked to demonstrate their openness or their conscientiousness.
Just to give our listeners a sense of what you're talking about here, I view myself as. Cleanly, I view myself as highly organized.
Those are some conscientiousness questions that you might get. Let me actually I have I have a PowerPoint slide and I'm just going to actually read you some of them. OK, so an openness question would be how much do you agree with the statement? I see myself as artistic, highly abstract thinker. And you rate one to seven. Agree strongly. Disagree strongly. And the conscientiousness question would be, I see myself as dependable self self-discipline. And you write yourself one to seven.
How much do you agree or disagree? Another openness question would say I see myself as open to new experiences, complex. I agree or disagree. So that's the kind of thing that they do. And they do the same things with you know, I see myself as extroverted, enthusiastic, agree, disagree.
You go through the list. So these are subjective people reporting what they're like. But I mean, there's a pretty well established science of doing this because I have an alternative hypothesis I wanted to propose.
So to correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that your your thesis was that there's this causal arrow pointing from these personality traits to your beliefs on these questions of fact. What if it were the case that the actual determinants of people's beliefs in these questions of fact was their their tribe, basically their social, familial environment, and that also determined their personality traits? So you would have a common cause, but, you know, there wouldn't actually be a causal arrow going from personality traits to.
So let me see if I understand correctly what Judy is asking. So you're suggesting the possibility that what appears to be a correlation between the observable correlation between, let's say, personality traits and certain positions, political positions may actually be the result of a common factor that is influencing both correlation causation.
Right. And that common factor? Well, there would be causation once removed. Right. So you say that there a third factor in this case, you're thinking of familiarity, essentially.
Actually, there's a term for that, just like the. Yeah. Your family, your social circle environment, people you interact with because both your level of conscientiousness, our openness to new experiences and also your beliefs in these places.
Chris, what do you think? First of all? So I don't doubt that that is happening. But you've got to remember, first of all, the Republicans conservatives are more tribal. And that's one of the results of Jonathan work, is that they perceive more of a difference between the group and the group.
And so if that were the case, then you would think if what you're saying is the case, you would expect the two sides to be symmetrical in how much they are biased toward their own side and biased against the other side.
But another thing that the book does is piece together a lot of the evidence showing all these asymmetric responses.
And I was just doing an interview with a political scientist about this today in terms of approval ratings for the president of the opposite party or willingness to credit that of a president of the opposite party, which actually did well on the economy when there was good economic news. He was saying that the Republicans are just more negative on the president.
Yeah. Of the opposite party. Yeah. I've actually looking at this is just just another result that just came out.
It was a study of conspiracy theories and there were two that were held on, one on the left and two that were held more on the right and so one on the left was truth or ism or the ones on the right was thinking that Obama was not born in the United States or that he's lying about his past, et cetera.
And then there were other ones. And again, what that what they were finding was that, first of all. Republicans believe the Obama lie much, much more than Democrats believe the truth, a lie, but also it was only in Republicans that knowing more about politics made you more likely to believe the conspiracy. But on the Democratic side, the more you know, the more the fog is lifted and you don't believe this nonsense anymore.
But that's just one of those. If you go through and you look at all the research, some of which has come out since the book, you keep finding these very suggestive asymmetries. And I don't purport to say that the science is completely in on why we keep finding them. But on the other hand, I'm very happy to say that they keep turning up. I'll tell you about some more if you want. They keep turning up. And it's very plausible to think that they might be related to psychology, given that you have psychological differences that you would think would lend themselves to this kind of thing to begin with.
So that's that's my view on the matter.
But just to be clear, I don't think that their views are compatible, however, with it. And as you pointed out yourself, with a number of causes interacting into eventually yielding the final result, which is what's your opinion about this or that particular political political subject matter? Meaning that, first of all, if we start with the observation that be the claim that people are different, let's say their brains work differently because and that explains why they have different opinions.
That's at that level. That's almost a truism. I mean, it has to be the case, right?
We think we formulate our opinions through our brains, presumably.
So if we have different opinions, it actually means mean some people may be using other organs, but presumably you will find some differences in their brains. The deeper question, of course, is, well, are those differences in the brain more stable over the lifetime? Now we're talking about personality as opposed to superficial differences.
And then that even deeper question is, well, could could some of that actually be genetic and therefore be a result of evolutionary forces?
And it seems to me that the more we get removed from the what I refer to as the superficial aspect of analysis, but I don't mean that as a demeaning sense.
I mean, literally as closer to the surface of what the brain does is, is the more we move from the description of differences in the functionality of the brains of different individuals to sort of the extreme level, the more remote level of the genetic analysis, clearly we lose a lot of percentage of of explanatory power, essentially, because we're having a lot of more more causal pathways that can going to interact.
So the picture that seems to emerge then in the end is that human behavior is in fact the result of some genetic influences, some personality. Personality surely is partly genetic, partly result of the kind of phenomena that Julia was talking about. That is the familiarity, the kind of environment in which you grow up. And, of course, part of it is still shaped throughout your life. I mean, I'm sure that I have a slightly different personality, at least from what I had, you know, 20 or 30 years ago.
I certainly have different opinions on a number of things from what I had 20 or 30 years ago.
So it's one, how does this kind of scheme therefore explain, for instance, the fact that people do change their mind? I mean, there's clearly there is there's evidence of that, right.
So are you saying that certain personality types are more likely statistically to change their mind in certain things? Or maybe there is the scope of what they are willing to change their mind about, that it's different or both?
Well, I mean, I think that in general, you know, openness to new experience implies more of a willingness to listen to others perspective and take them seriously.
I think that that's part of openness. But the question is, again, complicated, because I think everyone can change and I think situations change people. And I think situations to some extent caused people to change their personalities.
Also, interestingly, I mean, there's some reason to think that this sort of if you have high need for closure, you need a firm answer. Sometimes that can be the kind of person who will go from one radical extreme to the other. Situations change and flip entirely and find a different kind of all encompassing kind of answer that might be different from one that they used to believe before. So so the question of change is, I think, really interesting.
And but nothing about this to me argues against the possibility of change and. I think the most interesting kind of change and the kind of change that I think most affirms this whole approach is the fascinating phenomenon of liberals getting more conservative in different situations, largely because of some psychological pressure. Either the country's under attack. They want a strong leader. They start to act conservative because they fear for their lives, just like conservatives do. But it's been made more salient to them.
But, you know, some of the other manipulations that tend to make liberals more conservative are being primed to think of bodily cleanliness. There's a study on that.
One of the current things we didn't talk about with conservatives is all this you need for physical cleanliness and sexual purity.
And to some extent, it seems of priming liberals with those thoughts leads them to answer questions more conservatively. So, I mean, there's that kind of change, too.
And what it all suggests is that all these insensible factors in the environment are interacting with the. The nature of the person at the particular point in time and are pulling them towards different ideologies and different outcomes, and we're not conscious of a lot of what's happening.
There's also going sorry, there's also another factor actually today. I would assume I'm going to make a guess here that is actually predictable of a statistical tendency to change from more liberal to more conservative.
And that's simply age. A lot of people become more conservative when simply when they become older.
And what did that is? Because they suddenly they become they have children. They have investment into certain things that are they become more afraid of losing or something like that. Or perhaps they've been you know, it's the cumulative experience of their lifetime or whatever it is. That's obviously not always the case. I mean, I know perfectly well that there's people who start out as liberal and end up as liberal through the end of their life.
But the reason there's a good number of at least anecdotal cases that I know of and be nice to see if there is actual evidence of that trajectory, because that goes back to one of the original questions about how much does personality change through through time.
But I'd like to just to prove to them that doesn't that doesn't contradict Chris's theory. If as people age, they also that causes them to become less willing to change their minds and that's what causes them to be unwilling to update on new evidence.
It's just wrong. Yeah, yeah. It's just one more dimension to the problem. I have one more question before we do is going to tell us that we have to wrap it up, which is OK.
So given your the framework that you lay on in the book, do you have any suggestions on how to improve the situation that we started with, which is this complete lack of of understanding and dialogue in American politics these days?
Can we do anything about it, given your particular framework?
We could. I mean, but to effect mass change, you'd have to have mass awareness of all of this. And if there's anybody who's terrified of it, it's the media because it exposes their fallacious, even handed behavior is is not really responsible. And so you don't get serious treatment of this kind of understanding what's really driving politics. But if you did if it was widely understood and it isn't remotely the case right now, it was widely understood that we adopt our political predispositions based on a variety of personality related and emotional factors of which we are not consciously aware, not necessarily in control.
Then I would think that. Oh, and by the way, my neighbor might just end up doing it differently than me for reasons that are hard to determine and not necessarily under my neighbors control.
I would think that that would lead people to say to their political opponent, you know, there but for whatever kinds of factors I could have gone.
And so therefore, you know, maybe maybe it's just part of the way things work that we have these liberals and we have these conservatives and we have these libertarians and they just, you know, the world kind of spits them out. And, you know, that's just the way it is. And I think that that would lead to a perspective that will be more able to credit that, you know, that's the way they are.
It's not something we can really change. It's not something that's worth demonizing because it's always been thus. I would think that that would lead to more productive kinds of conversations if people really wrap their mind around that reality.
But we're we're so far from a world in which that's, you know, taken to be the case and accepted that it's hard to imagine what that world would be like because before we wrap up, I wanted to commend you sincerely, because at the end, well, you don't know yet what you're being kind of still.
Well, at the end of the book, you report some new results of a psychological study that you helped conduct testing hypotheses related to the thesis of your book. And the results were partially confirmatory and partially not. And I always admire it when people publish results that don't completely confirm their theory.
Oh, well, thank you. Know, we had to do and, you know, this is what that study is trying to get out of the relationship between biased reasoning and these basic psychological predispositions that are related to ideology.
And, yeah, we didn't I mean, research continues, but we thought we had a design that could really capture something that a lot of people would say.
Aha, and we didn't have, you know, well, give us what we expected, such as science. Way to set a good example.
That was that it would have been really lame not to, you know, good for you.
We are now over time, so let's wrap up this section of the podcast and move on to the rationally speaking PEX. I'd like to take this moment to remind our listeners that if you're a fan of the rationally speaking podcast, you'll definitely enjoy this year's Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, which will be held in New York, New York the weekend of April 5th through 7th, 2013. Go to NextG now to get your tickets there on sale in addition to Masimo.
And you'll also find a lineup of great speakers, including the CGU, Simon Singh, Michael Shermer and our keynote speaker, physicist Leonard Mladenov, author of The Drunkard's Walk. Next story. That's an easy asphaug. Go get your tickets now.
Welcome back. Every episode, we pick a suggestion for our listeners that has called our rational fancy. This time we ask our guests, Chris Mooney, for his suggestion.
Yeah, well, I'll just recommend the book that I've read most recently that I really enjoyed. I read Maria Kournikova's book, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Oh, yeah. And I thought it was I thought it was awesome.
You know, it's about sort of how to change your consciousness in the way you respond to the world so that you live a little better because you are more engaged and you're less just sort of letting things happen to you and letting your brain process them unconsciously and a little bit more aware of what your brain is actually up to.
And I realized reading it what part of my life I was actually good at doing that in. And it really surprised me where my brain is trained especially. And it turned out that, you know, I've been a bird watcher. So I realized that when I go through life, I'm always looking and seeing things that other people aren't seeing around them that are apt to be birds, because I trained my brain to do it and it made me think, oh, how could I possibly do this with other things that I did?
So and of course, the idea is that Sherlock Holmes is like this, right? He's trained himself so that you can see all these things and not be buffeted around by whatever happens, but have more control over it. So I thought it was really fascinating.
That's that's great to hear. Chris and I as as a former birdwatcher, when I was 11, 12 years old, I always resented that that bird watching wasn't given sufficient respect and admiration society.
So if we can just spread this message widely that you can be more like Sherlock Holmes. If you just spend a little time bird watching, then, you know, 11 year old Julia would be pleased to hear that.
Well, of course, it's been a pleasure having you on the show.
Thank you so much for joining us. Thanks so much for having me on. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.