Why Are Conservatives More Likely to Be Skeptical or Distrustful of Science When They’re Better Educated?

The question refers to the considerable body of research, discussed at length in my new book The Republican Brain, showing that political conservatives with higher levels of education are more in denial about the science of global warming than those who are less educated. I dub this the “smart idiot” effect, and show how it also emerges on non-scientific topics. For instance, research has also shown that better educated conservatives (or, those professing to know more about the issue in question) are more susceptible to believing falsehoods about “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act, and to holding the incorrect belief that President Obama is a Muslim.

So how do we explain this counterintuitive and, frankly, stunning finding?

In The Republican Brain, I discuss a number of explanations that should be thought of as complementary, rather than at odds. Probably all of these factors are at work:

Motivated Reasoning: You can’t reason in a truly biased way about politics unless you know something about it first. In other words, unless you’re “sophisticated.” If you follow politics regularly, you come to be familiar with the arguments and “facts” that support your point of view, and that are espoused by those who agree with you. And because of the way the brain works, this means that when your values are challenged on a particular issue—causing your emotions to fire defensively—you rapidly recall those arguments and “facts” and use them to defend and bolster your views: to strengthen your beliefs.

A little knowledge, in other words, really can be a dangerous thing.

Insofar as one’s level of education is a proxy for one’s paying attention to politics, then, it makes sense that a better educated conservative would express a more firm denial of science on an issue so threatening to conservative values as global warming. For denying the science on this issue serves a key emotional purpose: It helps conservatives to stave off the politically inconvenient realization that the “free market” created a global problem that governments will eventually have to step in and solve.

Fox News Viewership: It is also likely that better educated conservatives, who tend to pay more attention to politics, also tend to consume conservative sources of news and information—most prominently Fox News, but also Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Both are hotbeds of science denial, on global warming in particular, but on other topics as well. So educated and politically engaged conservatives are probably opting in to these particular information streams, receiving misinformation from them, and then using that misinformation to argue and bolster their beliefs.

Distrust of Academia and Science in General: Recent research suggests that political conservatives, over the past three decades or more, have grown increasingly distrustful of the American scientific community—which they presumably perceive as being biased in a liberal direction. Other research suggests that political conservatives are distrustful of environmental scientists in particular. Given this distrust, conservatives are surely more quick to discount academic research that challenges their values. Doing so exacts less of a psychological toll for them than it does for liberals.

What does education have to do with this? Better educated conservatives will be more likely to have consumed conservative movement rhetoric about academia being a biased liberal haven—in some cases, even, a hotbed of left-wing brainwashing. Plus, they’ll be more confident in their intellectual ability to challenge liberal experts.

Rigidity/Authoritarianism: There are many reasons to think that conservatives experience doubt and uncertainty differently than liberals—in other words, they are less tolerant of them. The cognitive styles of the groups appear to be different on average, with liberals showing more tolerance of ambiguity, and conservatives showing more decisiveness and in some cases, authoritarianism—viewing the world in a black and white or binary way, highly intolerant of uncertainty.

What’s important here is that political knowledge seems to interact with authoritarianism in a fascinating way. Knowledge appears to have the effect of “activating” authoritarians and pushing them to the right, by causing them to realize who they are politically and feel where they belong on the political spectrum. So it could be that conservative authoritarians who are more educated, and thus more politically engaged, are less willing to credit that they could be wrong, or to doubt themselves—becoming truly staunch and unwavering conservatives or Tea Party members.

There are broader implications here, to be sure. Most notably: 1) liberals and conservatives think and process information differently; and 2) “facts” do not actually work, in politics, in the way that so many of us think they ought to. They don’t usually pry open minds; rather, they too often serve as armaments to defend what we already think.

That’s a disturbing thought, perhaps; but it’s an increasingly difficult one to deny. I’ve written a whole book unpacking these ideas—ideas that are backed by a great deal of scientific research.

But, let’s face it. The idea that facts don’t work very well to change minds, or the idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently … neither comes as a particularly large shock if you pay attention to politics, does it?

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and the author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World, Unscientific America, and the new book The Republican Brain.

Category: Q&A


2 Responses

  1. Bill says:

    The Politics of Smoke and Mirrors

    There are two types of people:
    People who believe and accept subordination to a creator, accept equality with other children of that creator and seek harmony within creation and with its creatures; then there are
    People who envy the creator, reject equality with anything and are compelled to impose their order upon creation and its creatures.

    En mass, Republic are predominately the latter. As such, they are inclined toward any logic that facilitates rule by their own whim no matter how irrational those whims might be. The skill of their most ardent advocates is the ability to confuse and misdirect with fallacious and duplicitous rhetoric.

    Case in point:
    I once submitted to a Republican strategist that Republican philosophy appeared to favor justice in the hands of a few elite to which the rest of society would be subject. And I asked, “If that is the case, what is the price of admission to that elite?” He answered, “If you need to ask, then you can’t afford it.” Apparently, liberty based on universal principles was not part of his philosophy.

    In a democratic society, justice must be free and accessible to all the people. Justice is the first “unalienable right” granted by our Creator. This current generation of Republicans don’t believe in truth, justice or the Creator. They believe in themselves and will propagate any rhetoric that produces enough damage and confusion for them to exert control.

  2. Afghan Whig says:

    Conservatives simply don’t trust that those who speak in the name of science are actually being impartial. It doesn’t help that environmentalists aren’t exactly tolerant of dissent; one would expect a reasonable scientist not to be intimidated by disagreement and let the facts speak for themselves.

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