Posted tagged ‘Denialism’

Republican Brains and Liberal Facts — A Conversation

June 13, 2012

I’ve just finished reading Chris Mooney’s latest, The Republican Brain, and I commend it to you all.  It’s Chris’s best, IMHO, intellectually (though not narratively) a sequel to his earlier best seller, The Republican War on Science. Or, perhaps more accurately, the new work is a response to that earlier one, an attempt to figure out why Republicans have become so (and increasingly) divorced from reality, why as a political movement, the G.O.P. has committed itself to so much that is, simply, objectively, wrong.

Chris and I will be talking about this later today as part of my monthly gig as a host for Virtually Speaking Science.  You can listen here at 5 EDT or later (after about midnight) to a podcast that will also be available through iTunes.  You can also join the live virtual studio audience in Second Life — throwing questions at us from either venue.

We’ll start with Chris’s argument: that a broad body of research from a variety of fields — psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and more — produces a reliable, reproducible nature and nurture account of systematic differences between conservative and liberal brains and minds.  In this account, conservatives act out of the quadrant of motives and neural systems that characterize “Closed” or resistant-to-new-experience personalities…and this renders them less able to respond to facts and/or argument that challenge essential beliefs. Liberals, or those who fall into the”Open” pattern do the opposite.

That’s the most simple minded cartoon of an inquiry into a lot of research that supports Mooney’s essential point:  there are fundamental attributes of how our minds work that shape whether or not we can accept or work very hard to ignore things like the reality of human-caused climate change, or the fact that tax cuts do not increase national revenue.

I find the book really persuasive on that score — but I do have a few points I’m planning to push Chris on.  One’s a historian’s thought — not so much a criticism, as a note that the vigor of reactionary denial of reality always ramps up at times of great change.  I’m thinking of a marvelous, if less-read-than-it-should-be book The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom’s essayistic narrative of Europe’s schizophrenia from 1900-1914 — that tension between the legacy of Victorian assurance and the reality of massive cultural and social dislocative change.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, we’re smack in the middle of just such a period right now.  The Way It Used To Be is simply unavailable to whole swatches of society who are now terrified by what’s going on with technology, social life, culture, the hierarchy of privilege.  That terror invokes exactly the kind of neurological and cognitive response Chris is talking about — and I’d like to go more into the implications of history, of the contingencies of time and place, especially as they bear on his suggested solutions to the problem of a Republic in which close to half of the political class (and their supporters) are delusional.

The second point I plan to push him on is a bit of “both sides”-ery he permits himself.  He argues that the benefits accrue both from the virtues associated with the conservative mind — he mentions loyalty, decisiveness, perserverance, among others — and those tied to liberalism:  flexibility, openness to new information, invention.  My problem with this is that it is not a symmetrical opposition.  Decisiveness, for example, is an attribute that can accrue to either shoot-from-the-hip types or reflective ones; rejection of valid information or the disdain for expertise is not.  I can guess at what Chris might say, but I’m not sure…so I plan to ask.

That said, the most important part of the conversation, I expect, will be on what to do about the very real problem that the Republican Party now resembles nothing so much as King Canute’s court.  Chris has long argued for better framing of liberal and pro-science arguments, and in this book he points at the need to couch fact in great stories.  He doesn’t go deeply into this — most of the book is laying out the case for the reality of material differences of mind and brain between the ends of the political spectrum — but I think he’s right, and I want to go deeper into what that might mean.

In any event, check out the book, and come listen in (or the other way round).

Image:  Egon Schiele,Agony (The Death Struggle), 1912

Send in the Clowns: Upper Class Twit Edition

July 19, 2011

I cannot tell you with what malicious glee I read this in the Guardian.

That House has taken the unprecedented step of publishing a “cease and desist” letter on its website demanding that Lord Christopher Monckton, a prominent climate sceptic and the UK Independence party’s head of research, should stop claiming to be a member of the upper house.

The letter, sent by David Beamish, clerk of the parliaments, to Monckton last Friday and now published on the Lords’ website, states: “You are not and have never been a member of the House of Lords. Your assertion that you are a member, but without the right to sit or vote, is a contradiction in terms.”

His Lordship, for those of you not up on one of the sillier turns of the very serious business of climate denialism, is a former hack (in the British sense) who worked in Maggie Thatcher’s policy shop.

That experience, like his education fully prepared him for the job of analyzing the various technical disciplines that go into making climate change predictions.  Monckton possesses an MA in Classics from Cambridge (less impressive than it sounds: Cambridge awards MA’s to any BA who survives the completion of their undergraduate studies for for six years after matriculation), which accompanies his diploma in journalism studies from University College, Cardiff.

Undeterred by any possible lack of knowledge or technical training, Monckton has been one of the stars of the denialist circuit, and no wonder.  He’s a snappy dresser, he talks funny — in a good, Peter Wimsey kind of way, and, by gum, he’s a lord.

Of course, no one loves a lord more than the common folk who inhabit the (former) colonies…

…which is why he was the perfect figure for the Republicans on the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support of the House Committee on Ways and Means to invite as their sole witness  to a hearing in 2009, during which he was slated to “debunk” the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

Of course, hilarity ensued.  Now Monckton has a famously thin skin — when you question his questionable “science” he threatens to sue.  And if you doubt his qualifications, why, he’s a member of the House of Lords.  A Peer. One born to rule.  Hemce  this exchange:

When asked by ABC Sydney’s Adam Spencer if he was a member, he said: “Yes, but without the right to sit or vote … [The Lords] have not yet repealed by act of parliament the letters patent creating the peerage and until they do I am a member of the house, as my passport records. It says I am the Right Honourable Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. So get used to it.”

Or not.  As the letter Mr. Beamish sent to the Second Viscount of Cloud-Cuckoo Land went on to say:

“I must therefore again ask that you desist from claiming to be a member of the House of Lords, either directly or by implication, and also that you desist from claiming to be a member ‘without the right to sit or vote’. I am publishing this letter on the parliamentary website so that anybody who wishes to check whether you are a member of the House of Lords can view this official confirmation that you are not.”

Monckton at this point can fairly be viewed as pathetic.  It’s reached the point where Monckton’s use of a thinly modified version of the emblem of the House of Lords is being examined to see if it is a breach of Britain’s trade mark protections — for which offense penalties can extend to six months in jail.

No sympathy here, or rather bucket-loads of vicious pleasure.  This, after all, is someone whose contempt for the hard work of actually mastering a complex technical field has lead him to advance positions that display reckless disregard for the health and wealth of billions.

Not to mention he’s the kind of asshole who would juxtapose the image of a climate scientist with whom he disagrees with that of a swastika.

So raise a glass to jeer at yet one more poster-child for the ills of a heriditary aristocracy.

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Image:  Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Thomas Bruce Brudenell-Bruce, later 1st Earl of Ailesbury, in Peer’s Robes, 1776