Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Republican Knowledge: Conservapedia

If one follows current political debates it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are each living in different worlds with different facts and different physical laws. Chris Mooney has given himself the task of explaining why that is, in fact, effectively true. He makes the convincing argument that liberals and conservatives are wired differently, partly through genetics and partly through life experiences (or indoctrination). Mooney presents his thesis in his recent book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality

Mooney believes the vast differences in thought processes can be understood as instances of "motivated reasoning."

"This theory builds on one of the key insights of modern neuroscience: Thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion….And not just that: Many of our reactions to stimuli and information are neither reflective nor dispassionate, but rather emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to (and often in the absence of) conscious thought."

Our brains seem to have evolved in a way that attempted to ensure survival in a dangerous environment. In that context, they abhor uncertainty and indecisiveness. If the most important decisions are flight or fight, then machinery useful for quiet contemplation of alternatives does not have the highest priority. Our brains then develop responses to given inputs of data—and only reluctantly wish to change them.

"What counts here is that our political, ideological, partisan, and religious convictions—because they are deeply held enough to comprise core parts of our personal identities, and because they link us to the groups that bulwark those identities and give us meaning—can be key drivers of motivated reasoning. They can make us virtually impervious to facts, logic and reason."

The belief that presenting a dissenter with facts will alter his reasoning is quite naïve.

"Beliefs are physical. To attack them is like attacking one part of a person’s anatomy, almost like pricking his or her skin (or worse). And motivated reasoning might perhaps best be thought of as a defensive mechanism that is triggered by a direct attack upon a belief system, physically embodied in a brain."

All people are guilty of motivated reasoning, but to different degrees.

"Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information."

"The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views."

Mooney makes it quite clear that the ability to reject demonstrable facts in favor of preconceptions is not related to intelligence or learning. In fact, Mooney describes something he calls the "smart idiots" effect.

"….The politically sophisticated or knowledgeable are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant."

Smart idiots have more tools at their disposal when it comes to rationalizing a belief that runs counter to facts.

If liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are to possess differing worldviews, then they would need to have separate pools of "knowledge." Mooney tells us that that is, in fact, true. Conservatives apparently view Wikipedia as a repository of "liberal" knowledge, consequently it was necessary to create something to counter it called Conservapedia.

"Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer, engineer, homeschooler, and one of six children of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist and anti-abortionist who successfully battled the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s."

Mooney provides this assessment of Schlafly’s creation.

"….Conservapedia, the rightwing answer to Wikipedia and ground zero for all that is scientifically and factually inaccurate, for political reasons, on the internet"

"Its 37,000 plus pages of content include items attacking evolution and global warming, wrongly claiming (contrary to psychological consensus) that homosexuality is a choice and tied to mental disorders, and incorrectly asserting (contrary to medical consensus) that abortion causes breast cancer."

The website has something to offend everyone. Mooney was struck by the vehemence with which Einstein’s theories of relativity were attacked—presumably because they were inconsistent with Biblical miracles.

The section on the age of the earth was particularly noxious.

"The Age of the Earth has been a matter of interest to humans for millennia. All verifiable evidence indicates that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Yet with circular reasoning and implausible assumptions, liberals insist that the Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years (4.54 × 109 ± 1%)."

"Old Earth advocates rely on one flawed assumption to the exclusion of other evidence, similar to how an investigator may mistakenly rely on one faulty eyewitness's opinion to the exclusion of all else. In fact, eyewitness testimony is proven to be less reliable to than other indicators, just as the assumption by Old Earth proponents that the rate of radioactive decay has always been constant is flawed. In fact, The rate of radioactive decay would slow down greatly as the universe cools. Moreover, a large number of physical processes, such as neutron capture and fluctuations in solar radiation, affect the rate of radioactive decay of elements in the Earth's crust and render radioactive dating measurements unreliable…."

Why bother arguing with someone who has the option of changing fundamental physical laws in order to support their idea.

Lesson learned: We are in deep trouble!


  1. The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. - Leo Tolstoy

    I'm not sure Conservatives have a monopoly on being a prisoner of their ideology. At the extremes, it seems both Conservatives and Liberals are very similarly inflexible.

  2. Everyone is capable of self-delusion, and everyone resists having to change an opinion. However, research in psychology indicates that liberals are more apt to entertain new concepts and revel in complexity. That's what makes them liberals. Conservatives are much more resistant to any hint of uncertainty; that's what makes them conservatives. Any number of polls have indicated liberals are much more open to compromise than conservatives on political issues. That is why conservatives usually have undue influence in our politics. The situation is in no way symmetric.

  3. >knowledge

    Really, you're too kind.

  4. I'd lean against equating "Republican Knowledge" with Conservapedia. Now that the label "Conservative" has been hijacked by the right-wing extremists, traditional Republican conservatives have no label. Conservatism USED to mean a nod toward fiscal, social, and religious values - now it is identified with birthers, shut-down-the-government, christian fundamentalism, etc. The wingnuts who hijacked the label try to out-conservative each other, and anybody who doesn't wave that flag is a damned Liberal; Conservapedia represents those extremists and NOT Republicans. Fortunately, what's left of the Republican Party is reacting violently to that element, but I think that the damage to the label "conservative" is done.

  5. I recognize that there are still traditional Republicans out and about, but they not only have no label, they have no party. When some people brave enough to promote a "traditional" agenda get elected as Republicans, I will consider a more nuanced approach. For the time being, Republicans = conservatives = wingnuts.


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