US political debate: The biology of politics
Jon Entine says popular author Chris Mooney is mistaken in his claim that those on the opposite sides of the left-right divide are hardwired to disagree
In many western democracies, taking uncompromising, highly partisan policy positions is the new political norm. In the United States, whether the issue is climate change, fracking or even the best solution for stirring the sluggish world economy, the right and left often appear to be on different planets.
Is this a product of our times – the bickering that prevails when times are tough – or is there a more enduring explanation?
In the US, the chattering classes are abuzz over a hot new book claiming that genetics is to blame – that ideological differences are hardwired. According to Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain, Republicans and Democrats don’t merely disagree because they don’t think alike; they don’t think alike because their brains are programmed differently.
Mooney is a well-known anti-Republican gadfly. His 2005 bestseller, The Republican War on Science, made a persuasive case that Bush-era politicos subsumed science to expediency on many issues.
In that 2005 book, he is on firm ground when he generalises that conservatives are less likely than liberals to embrace the science of climate change and Darwinian natural selection.
If he had stopped there, his contribution would have been welcomed. Instead he now wanders beyond his knowledge zone, pontificating about genetics and the heated battle over whether Keynesian deficit spending or austerity is the best cure for government deficits.
What Mooney ignores is the elephant in the room, and it’s not just the Republican version.
The sad reality is that most Americans are scientifically illiterate. Take evolutionary theory, the bedrock of science education as it embodies the importance of empirical evidence over unverifiable supernatural claims. In a recent Fox News poll, people were asked: which is the more likely explanation for the origin of human life – the biblical account, Darwin’s theory of evolution or both accounts?
Mooney claims the left generally embraces natural selection and veracity of scientific evidence but the right doesn’t. That’s not what polls show. The results were downright frightening. Only 28% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans accept the purely scientific explanation. Most people believe supernatural forces are at work. So, are both Democrat and Republican brains cognitively defective?
The largest group of evolution deniers are not tea partiers, as Mooney claims, but African American Democrats. Joe Graves, a geneticist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina A&T University, asked pollsters to break down the numbers by race. Graves, who is black, was horrified that only 16% of blacks believed in evolution; 80% accept a Biblical account at least in part; and 60% take the Bible as the sole explanation.
Religion and education
Graves believes the reason for anti-science thinking is not the Republican-Democrat divide but religious and educational schisms in America. Many tea partiers and African Americans share key characteristics: poor education and religious fervour.
If you factor in education and strength of religious belief, the Democrat-Republican divide dissolves almost entirely.
Mooney contends that conservative denialism is more consequential than the liberal version. That’s debatable.
Among “left” anti-science beliefs are “natural” alternative therapies, the special nutritional benefits of organics, the threat of genetically modified crops, the link between vaccines and autism, the dangerous toxicity of tested and approved chemicals, the intrinsic dangers of fracking and nuclear power, and more.
Mooney excuses these anti-science beliefs, saying they are a consequence of Democrats’ virtuous embrace of the “precautionary principle”, which he praises as “sound science”. Few scientists would agree. In its crudest application this precautionary principle is not based on findings of potential harms but merely the perception of threats, which are often exaggerated and unscientific. It’s strongly biased against the process of trial-and-error so vital to scientific progress.
An informal survey of top scientists by the British free-thinking group Spiked found almost no one who believes the radical liberal embrace of the precautionary principle is based on science.
Spiked says: “Imagine healthcare without vaccines, penicillin, antibiotics, aspirin, X-rays, heart surgery, or the contraceptive pill. Imagine scientific theory without Newton, Galileo, quantum mechanics, or the human genome project. Imagine transport without aeroplanes, railways, cars or bicycles; power without gas, electricity, or nuclear energy; agriculture without pesticides, hybrid crops or the plough. Imagine man had never been to the moon. This is how scientists imagine history, had past developments been subject to the constraints of the ‘precautionary principle’ – the assumption that experimentation should only proceed where there is a guarantee that the outcome will not be harmful.”
Where conservatives sometimes hold anti-scientific beliefs out of ignorance, soft-headed liberals often embrace them for ideological vanity. We face enormous economic and environmental challenges. Polemical books like The Republican Brain debase political debate and scientific literacy, and make reaching the compromises that are necessary for democracies more difficult.