Republicans And The Trouble With Science

Republicans have not had a friendly relationship with science these past few months: crazy theories about rape, attacking climate scientists, and referring to evolution as “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Just yesterday, 2016 Republican presidential contender, Marco Rubio, made headlines for refusing to answer how old he thinks the Earth is, sparking widespread concern over another anti-science congressman who ironically sits on the Committee on Science.

The overwhelmingly lopsided attack on scientific research from conservatives raises a very important question: Are Republicans more averse to science than Democrats? According to the most recent evidence from Yale University on how ideology impacts belief in scientific research, the answer is most likely, “no.” Everyone, liberals included, is primed to trust evidence based on whether it confirms our pre-existing beliefs. It is only when scientific theories threaten core conservative principles, such as small government (environmental regulation), religious dogma (creation), and abortion rights (pregnancy from rape), that individuals turn on their mental blinders. Indeed, Yale University researchers can experimentally make partisans more amenable to researchers simply by reframing the purpose of their expertise to be more conservative friendly.

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point,” wrote psychology legend Leon Festinger, who pioneered early work on motivated cognition, the study of stubbornness.

One of the earliest and most powerful studies of motivated cognition involved an undergraduate sports rivalry after a heated basketball game. The study found that supporters of each team believed that the other side had committed more fouls, even though all participants watched the exact same footage. In other words, sports fans disputed objective facts about reality based on their own vested interests.

The personal stakes wrapped in politics can be even worse, making an open-minded search for the truth in policy debates rarer than a Republican camp at Burning Man. Professor Dan Kahan of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project found that he could experimentally manipulate how credible scientific research seemed by selecting studies based on whether it supported or contradicted participants’ political beliefs.

Kahan and his colleagues confirmed that far more conservatives than liberals believed that there is no scientific consensus around climate change (19 percent of conservative-leaning participants believed “most” scientists agree vs. 78 percent of liberal-learning participants). Yet, when it came to evidence on the safe disposal of nuclear waste, conservatives, who generally favor nuclear power, were almost twice as likely to believe that that there was scientific consensus on safe disposal procedures.

Partisans “retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” Charles Taber, professor of political science at Stony Brook University, told Mother Jones magazine, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, it’s only incidental that, at the moment, conservatives seem anti-science. The hot-button issues of the day (reproductive rights and the environment) pit many conservatives in uncomfortable opposition to broad scientific consensus. If nuclear system defense weren’t a backburner issue, conservatives might seem like the science geeks, given their propensity to funnel millions into missile-stopping technology that has yet to work consistently.

It might be only a matter of time before scientific evidence doesn’t threaten core conservative values, like if green technology becomes an avenue for less governmental regulation. Until then, it doesn’t help that some biblical interpretations have trouble denying that the Flintstones was not inspired by real life events.

*Post-Script: To be sure, Republicans do not have a monopoly on crazy scientific theories, like when Democratic Representative Hank Johnson hypothesized that further military buildup in Guam would cause the island to capsize. This post, explored why, on average, Republicans seemed more at odds with broad scientific evidence than Democrats for recent issues. For the record, we say plenty of nice things about both sides.