‘They do that because they were born that way.”
If you say that about homosexuals, you are tolerant and realistic. If you say it about blacks, you are racist (unless you’re black yourself). If you say it about women, you may or may not be sexist, depending on who is manning (er, womanning) the feminist battle stations. If you say it about men, you just might be a writer for Esquire. But if you say it about conservatives, you’re a scientist.
Over the past decade, a new fad has taken hold among academics and liberal journalists: Call it the new science of conservative phrenology. No, it doesn’t actually involve using calipers to determine intelligence based on the size and shape of people’s heads. The measuring devices are better — MRIs and gene sequencers — but the conclusions are worse. The gist is this: Conservatives and liberals don’t just have different world views or ideas, they have different brains; the Right and Left are just hard-wired to think differently.
Author Chris Mooney compiles much of this research for his new book The Republican Brain, which purports to show that conservatives are, literally by nature, more closed-minded and resistant to change and facts. His evidence includes the fact that conservatives are less likely to buy into global warming, allegedly proving they are not only “anti-science” but innately anti-fact, as well. “Politicized wrongness today,” he writes, “is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.”
That’s an entirely understandable view for Mooney to hold. He’s a soaked-to-the-bone liberal partisan. But he crosses the line into pseudoscientific hogwash by trying to explain every political disagreement as a symptom of bad brains. For instance, Mooney claims Republicans have trouble processing reality because Republicans think Obamacare will raise the deficit. No really, stop laughing.
Of course, Mooney believes he’s simply going where the science leads. Consider that one of the more famous studies was conducted by liberal researchers at University of California, Los Angeles and New York University and published in Nature Neuroscience. Subjects were asked to spot the letters M or W on a screen for a fraction of a second. It turns out that self-described liberals did somewhat better on the test than the conservatives.
What does that mean? Well, according to the researchers, it means: “Liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty.” Liberals are also “more likely than are conservatives to respond to cues signaling the need to change habitual responses,” NYU says.
Translation: Conservatives literally aren’t smart enough to be spell-checkers at an M&M factory because they won’t be able to understand quickly enough that the occasional W is just an upside down M.
The data might be correct, but as with Mooney, the conclusions are beyond absurd. London’s Guardian newspaper responded to the study by declaring, “Scientists have found that the brains of people calling themselves liberals are more able to handle conflicting and unexpected information.” The Los Angeles Times announced in an editorial that the study “suggests that liberals are more adaptable than conservatives” and “might be better judges of the facts.”
Huh? The test didn’t measure “informational complexity.” It measured informational simplicity. As Slate’s science columnist William Saletan notes, the study actually excludes complexity and ambiguity. It measured response times to a rudimentary visual-acuity test. Almost by definition, conscious thought isn’t part of the equation. My hunch is that Socrates would do very poorly hunting and pecking for Ms and Ws on a screen, too.
Now it’s probably true that, on average, there are subtle differences between conservatives and liberals when it comes to cognition. But you don’t have to be “anti-science” to see how the scientists are wildly overreaching from the data. Indeed, there’s a huge definitional problem. Conservatives resist growth of the state, but that’s not the same thing as resisting change. After all, capitalism is among the most powerful agents of change in human history, and conservatives are the ones defending it. Meanwhile, liberals are downright reactionary about preserving the Great Society and New Deal.
A famous study asserts that Communist revolutionaries Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro were political conservatives because they resisted change once in power. If your algorithmic whirligig spits out the finding that Stalin, the global leader of Communism for two decades, and Castro, the global dashboard saint of recrudescent left-wing asininity, are “politically conservative,” it’s time to take the gadget out to a field and smash it with baseball bats like the printer in the movie Office Space.
Mooney, who recently explained in a speech that he has given up on the Enlightenment view that we’re all open to reason, doesn’t seem to realize where he’s heading with this nonsense. Never mind that this approach is inherently undemocratic and opens the door to “genetic” explanations for everybody’s political views — blacks, women, gays, etc. — it is also self-serving bigotry that allows liberals to justify their own closed-mindedness on the grounds that Republicans aren’t even worth listening to. After all, they’re just born that way.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.