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Who’s Afraid of the Neuroscience of Politics?
Andrea Kuszewski   May 14, 2012   The Intersection  

From the looks of things, it appears to be conservative journalists.

Being an election year, heated debates and dramatic name-calling are to be expected on both sides of the political fence. However, two political writers, Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow, have sunk to a new low in their recent article, “Are Republicans Genetically Inferior?”, a  grossly inaccurate analysis of Chris Mooney’s new book, The Republican Brain.

Being unjustifiably critical and misinterpreting the entire point of the book is irritating, but calling the author a “eugenecist” for merely discussing the scientific data that suggests psychological differences between liberals and conservatives is completely unwarranted, and deserving of both a retraction and an apology.

There is an overwhelming body of evidence to support that there indeed are some differences between the two parties–completely without bias–yet for some reason, many conservatives vehemently reject this scientific data and take it as a personal insult. People like Berezow and Campbell are only making things worse, showing their absolute lack of journalistic integrity by purposely stirring the hornet’s nest with huge exaggerations and outright falsehoods, just to drum up a little publicity of their own. They come marching with pitchforks and torches in a Nazi-esque hysteria, screaming about group extermination, trying to convince the public that liberals have some secret plan to create a uber-race of political Aryans. This is, of course, absurd. Ironically, their irrational behavior and rejection of any scientific data that goes against their previously held beliefs is only making a better case for the very ideas they are rejecting.

First of all…

This is such a tired and weak argument, I almost don’t want to address it. But I will anyway.
Berezow and Campbell claim that Mooney is ‘not a scientist’ and therefore unqualified to have a valid opinion on this topic. However, we are supposed to believe that the opinions expressed by Berezow and Campbell hold more weight because Berezow is a microbiologist, and therefore an expert on human behavior, personality, and psychology. Huh. I didn’t know neuroscience and the psychology of personality were the foundation of PhD programs in microbiology. Also, a PhD doesn’t guarantee someone’s ideas are valid or sane, so throwing around a degree title means very little to me. Does a PhD = ‘Always right’? Hell, no.

Chris Mooney may not have personal experience in the field of neuroscience and psychology, but in the course of writing his book, he consulted with those who do, myself included. My background actually is in psychology, differences in processing style, and cognitive neuroscience as it relates to human behavior (not to mention working in the field, training children and adults on communication skills), so maybe they’ll hear me out.

Enough With the Inferiority Complex

Let’s start with the opening paragraph by Berezow and Campbell:

Are Republicans genetically inferior to Democrats? That might sound like a preposterous question, but essentially that is the thesis of Chris Mooney’s latest book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality.

Hmm. Actually, that is 100% false. Nowhere in Mooney’s book did he assert ‘genetic inferiority’ on the part of Republicans. In fact, he went to significant lengths to emphasize that he was not stating that. Genetic differences between conservatives and liberals, whether they be large or small, does not imply inferiority–it just implies that there are differences. Also, Mooney’s book focused primarily on psychological, personality, and processing style differences between the two groups; genetics played a very small role in the book. But they would know this if they bothered to read it.

They go on to say:

“In a recent article, Mooney summarizes his case. “t often seems there are so many factually wrong claims on the political right that those who make them live in a different reality.” He continues, “So here’s an idea: Maybe they actually do. And maybe we can look to science itself…to help understand why it is that they view the world so differently.”

Translation: Republicans are stupid and there has to be a biological explanation for it.”

Wow. That’s such a gross misinterpretation of Mooney’s quote, I’m almost impressed with the creativity. And where did they get the word ‘stupid’ from? Let’s look at what Mooney actually did say in a recent Mother Jones article (which is also in the book, The Republican Brain):

Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain—with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.)”

Sounds real clear to me. Which I find ironic, considering the guys from Real Clear Politics are struggling to comprehend it.

Both in his book, as well as in a series of articles written on the subject, Mooney was careful to point out that each political party has their positive and negative qualities, and that the findings of these studies can be interpreted and framed in ways to be flattering or derogatory to either, depending on the context. The idea here is to speak in terms of the science, not make personal judgements when discussing this material. Again, if Berezow and Campbell had read the book, they would have caught that.

Eugenics? Seriously?

According to Berezow and Campbell, Mooney is a eugenecist for highlighting the psychological differences between two groups of people who identify with different political parties. How is awareness equal to eugenics? Just because we notice that there are differences between groups, it doesn’t mean we are saying one group is genetically inferior or less intelligent, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as eugenics. Throwing around that kind of loaded term along with the mention of Kanazawa’s famously bigoted study (which is totally irrelevant here and has nothing to do with Mooney nor his book) is just their way of taking cheap shots at him because they don’t like his politics. I notice that they fail to quote this passage from his book, The Republican Brain, where he states how misguided that notion is:

The point is that conservatism and liberalism alike represents core parts of human nature, and each has many virtues and benefits. That’s why the notion that studying the psychology, neuroscience, or even the genetics of left-right differences will lead to a “new eugenics” is so silly and misinformed. Why would you want to try to breed away character traits that are so vital and beneficial, and such a central part of who we are?

Moving on to the main point here…

Why discuss the neuroscience of politics?

Is this a productive conversation to have, or does it just cause more polarization? I think it depends on how responsibly you perceive and use the information.

Here’s a question to consider: Why is the idea of psychological differences between liberals and conservatives so distasteful? We readily accept that other groups of people have different thinking and processing styles, so why the resistance to political party differences? Like I’ve stated before, I see political parties as personality clubs to some extent. People of like minds tend to cluster together. These people, in all likelihood, are similar in some ways on a psychological and neurological level. This is just scientific fact, not political bias.

For example, we know that people on the autism spectrum have more a convergent, linear thinking and processing style, so we may adjust our communication strategies accordingly. This is just common sense. So if we can determine that a group of people that we desire to have a conversation with is more receptive to certain types of communication styles, then why wouldn’t we be happy to learn of this and use it to our advantage? People like Berezow and Campbell complain about judgements and say we are labeling the ‘other party’ as ‘inferior’, but really, they are the ones who refuse to let go of partisanship and look purely at the science.

While claiming he himself only wrote a paragraph or two of the article in question (perhaps even he knew it was overstepping bounds?), Campbell sarcastically comments about Mooney’s thesis,

Even bothering to make the claim sounds like something he would write for an Oprah audience (‘if we’d all just listen to each other…’) rather than anyone who understands science…

I find it troubling that someone who runs a science communication blogging network is so quick to mock real attempts at improving science communication by utilizing psychology and neuroscience.

At the Science Online 2012 conference in January, Chris and I co-moderated a panel focused on the issue of reporting on political neuroscience both in the blogosphere and the media in general. In the course of this conversation, the question of whether or not we should even be discussing the biological, psychological, or neurological differences between political parties came up. Some said it just creates more tension and divide, but I had a different opinion on the matter. Here is an excerpt from my summary of that session:

[This is a valid point, but] I look at it from a different perspective. If your goal is to communicate your ideas to an audience in the most effective way possible, it’s helpful to take their personality or processing style into account when framing your argument or presenting your data. If you know a group of individuals have a low tolerance for fearful stimuli, for example, coming at them with grotesque images isn’t going to help you in selling your idea; they’ll be turned off. Knowing that there are personality traits that seem to be consistent in each party  allows you to adjust your communication style to fit with that audience.

Rather than looking at Political Neuroscience as alienating and judgmental, try and look at it as giving you tips on how best to reach your target audience. By taking cues from this type of information, you may be able present your arguments in a way that is least threatening to the target group, and has the greatest chance of persuading them to at least listen to your arguments, and maybe even change their minds. Bottom line: When used responsibly, this type of information could help us to be better communicators. And isn’t that ultimately why we are in this thing in the first place?”

In closing, I have a message for Berezow and Campbell, and any other conservative political writers who fear this discussion: Since there is clearly a lack of understanding here that is causing unnecessary tension, I will be happy to answer any specific questions or concerns you have. This is an important conversation to have, and one that is critical to get right and not distort for personal gain. So please, bring it on. I’m ready and waiting…

Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.


It’s nice to see you call out strawman arguments. No doubt it’s a fulltime job wink

Interesting article!

Campbell and Berezow may be wrong about a lot, but they are hardly wrong in suggesting that the subtitle of the book title “Why They Deny Science - and Reality” is tantamount to saying that Republicans are stupid. I’m sure the title helped Mooney to sell more books, but if one wants to avoid hostile reactions from those one is writing about, this is hardly the way to do it.

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