Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?

About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-meds, and toxin fear-mongering. The mental heuristics that cause people to believe, and then entrench themselves, in nonsense seem generalizable to humanity rather than just those attracted to conservative politics. Why should those who identify as liberal be any different? Wouldn’t they just believe in nonsense with a liberal bias?

Lately, Chris Mooney has been taking a different tact on explaining the apparent discrepancy between liberal vs conservative rejection of science with the suggestion the conservative brain is fundamentally different.

First of all, it’s not a matter of education. Whenever people complain that disbelief in evolution or climate change or whatever is a matter of education, they’re simply wrong. We can not educate our way out of this mess, and the problem isn’t that the Republicans arguing this nonsense are any less educated. Chris agrees and cites evidence:

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

And it’s not specifically education on or awareness of the specific topic, as self-reported knowledge of the topic resulted in opinions among conservatives more likely to be aligned against the scientific mainstream. Orac points out this is not an old phenomenon and maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect which we incorporated into our unified theory of the crank. This is the “incompetent but unaware of it” phenomenon, that the more incompetent people are, the more likely they are to be falsely confident of their own abilities and unable to recognize competence in others..


But the most fascinating part of this article is when Mooney mentions a study to see if liberals were comparatively incompetent in judging the science in an area of high liberal bias – Nuclear power. This would seem to provide an answer to the question from my earlier post, that is, are we missing an equivalent liberal tendency towards denialism because we’re not asking the right questions?

It looks like my hypothesis of possible equivalence might have to be rejected …

Mooney writes:

But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases–kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study–people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried–and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

Liberals therefore might start with an unscientific bias consistent with their political orientation, but the difference is education works on them. As they are more informed, they reject their rapid-response liberal heuristic conclusions and generate a more balanced view.

Upon reading the study I’m willing to accept my hypothesis of liberal/conservative denialist equivalence has taken a hit. But this is still just one question – Nuclear power. Also if you examine figure 4 which demonstrates this effect, the liberal perception of risk does not, with education, even approach the conservative impression of nuclear power. This suggests liberals are still excessively concerned with risk or conservatives are too dismissive. It’s hard given these figures to determine if liberals acquire and appropriate amount of caution with education or they just have a trend towards being less alarmed by nuclear power with education.

I’m also still curious to see more of a survey on areas of clear-cut denialism and see the relative rates of denialism between the two groups. Nuclear power is a complicated issue and concern for safety given last year’s tsunami in Japan seems to be warranted. Further, is it possible that liberals and conservatives both have a tendency to believe anti-science based on their biases, it’s just that liberals have a higher capacity to recover and be educated to reject the false conclusions their biases lead them to? So, is it possible a baseline of denialism might exist between the two groups with a seemingly lower prevalence among liberals because with time and information they tend to reject denialism? There are still many questions to be answered here and I hope Kahan continues probing this issue so we have more answers.

After all the data so far suggests the conservative brain, as Mooney puts it, is irredeemably incompetent at accepting scientific information that conflicts with their bias. If true, a this represents a staggering problem. How does one fight anti-science when the brains of one’s opponents are hard-wired to reject evidence?

It seems this view of conservative brains is now Mooney’s belief, and that he’s changed his mind to come around to denialism blog’s strategy for dealing with denialism. After all, a few years ago there was some argument between Mooney and his colleagues that the anti-antiscience folks like myself and Orac were hurting the cause by insulting denialists with labels like “crank” or “denier”. Now Mooney says:

On global warming, Santorum definitely has an argument, and he has “facts” to cite. And he is obviously intelligent and capable–but not, apparently, able to see past his ideological biases. Santorum’s argument ultimately comes down to a dismissal of climate science and climate scientists, and even the embrace of a conspiracy theory, one in which the scientists of the world are conspiring to subvert economic growth (yeah, right).

Viewing all this as an ideologically defensive maneuver not only explains a lot, it helps us realize that refuting Santorum probably serves little purpose. He’d just come up with another argument and response, probably even cleverer than the last, and certainly just as appealing to his audience. We’d be much better concentrating our energies elsewhere, where people are more persuadable.

There is no point arguing with cranks. I agree. And now Chris Mooney does too. I feel at redeemed that at least one of my hypotheses seems to be holding up. The only effective strategy when one faces cranks and denialist ideas is to create awareness of the problem of denialist arguments themselves and to teach people, from an early age, not to respond to these forms of defective reasoning. If there is a broader rejection of these types of arguments, and promoters of denialist arguments are marginalized and excluded from reasoned debate for the cranks they are, then maybe we will have some chance of bringing public debates on science back into some semblance of sanity.

Study Cited:
Kahan, Dan M., Wittlin, Maggie, Peters, Ellen, Slovic, Paul, Ouellette, Lisa Larrimore, Braman, Donald and Mandel, Gregory N., The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change (2011). Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-26; Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 89; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 435; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 230. Available at SSRN: or