Links and Comments: Conservative Susceptibility to Lies; Contempt for Science; Existential Threats

» Slate: Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?. Subtitle: “An interplay between how all humans think and how conservatives tend to act might actually explain a lot about our current moment.”

Longish article about how conservatives are more given to believing “fake news” or alternative facts — that Obama is a Muslim, that Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama even when looking right at comparative photos, that Hillary Clinton was involved in a pizza parlor sex trafficking ring — than liberals are. “The left is certainly not immune to credulity (most commonly about the safety of vaccines, GMO foods, and fracking), but the right seems to specialize in it.”

And then goes on to explore why. It’s not a matter of stupidity or education. It’s partly that the right specializes in manufacturing fake news, going back to how the business interests of the tobacco industry downplayed evidence of linkage to cancer. But ultimately it’s about psychology — and here we are deep into Haidt territory (my comment; the article doesn’t mention him):

But, the gullibility of many on the right seems to have deeper roots even than this. That may be because at the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence and trusting science is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, faith and intuition and trust in revealed truth appear as equally valid sources of truth.


Psychologists have repeatedly reported that self-described conservatives tend to place a higher value than those to their left on deference to tradition and authority. They are more likely to value stability, conformity, and order, and have more difficulty tolerating novelty and ambiguity and uncertainty. They are more sensitive than liberals to information suggesting the possibility of danger than to information suggesting benefits. And they are more moralistic and more likely to repress unconscious drives towards unconventional sexuality.

Fairness and kindness place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives than for liberals. Conservatives show a stronger preference for higher status groups, are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathic (at least towards those outside their immediate family). As one Tea Party member told University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “People think we are not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”

“Conservatives’ greater acceptance of hierarchy and trust in authority may lead to greater faith that what the president says must be true.”

(You can fool some of the people all of the time, is my take.)

And so on. This issue blurs together with the latest example of our current president’s horrible choices for cabinet and other leadership positions — mostly people chosen to dismantle the institutions they are in charge of, as if our president is actually a clever foreign infiltrator bent on destroying our country.

Amanda Marcotte: Trump’s terrible NASA nominee and the GOP attack on science. Subtitle: Jim Bridenstine, Trump’s choice to head NASA, is only the latest symptom of Republican contempt for science.

He’s a climate-change denier with no science or engineering background at all; he was a business major and has an MBA, and held an administrative position at a Tulsa Planetarium.

This pattern strongly indicates that Trump holds science itself in contempt. (The fact that actual science requires education and expertise probably makes him feel stupid, which he notoriously dislikes.) Trump clearly sees these scientific positions as opportunities to reward his supporters with paychecks, titles and offices, not as jobs important to America’s future that need to be filled with qualified people.


And there was a segment on today’s Science Friday radio program about the Paris Agreement about climate change deniers — their arguments are never about the science, but about supposed conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to sacrifice short-term advantages for long-term survival [another flaw in human cognition built into us by evolution, where long-term effects were out of anyone’s control] — or more simply, resentment at the idea the government can tell them what to do.

The US Will Be The Only Country Not In The Paris Agreement. Now What?


All of this boils down to the varying ways individual humans perceive and understand the world. Per Haidt (review of his book here and in two later posts), I’d rather not designate traits of conservatives or liberals, but rather understand the range of human psychological attitudes, which can vary along five or six axes. They all exist for reasons of genetic diversity — in different situations throughout humanity’s evolutionary history, one or another attitude has been best at any one time for the species’ survival. The world would not be a better place if everyone were like me, or like you; it takes a range. That is, one understands that people who have certain attitudes along those five or six axes as exhibiting traits that Americans currently identify as conservative, and others as liberal. They are all equally valid ways of expressing human nature.

But they are not equally valid ways of dealing with the real world, or with long-term threats. Human nature has been refined by evolution for survival in a particular kind of world, and not as an accurate perception of reality. And now the world is changing, in ways that bring human nature into conflict with reality — the reality of a world undergoing a climate change that could spell the extinction of the species, in the worst case. The denial of that evidence could really have dire consequences. It’s fine to think as I have that everyone can believe whatever they want to believe, that in some sense it doesn’t matter, because they still perform the quotidian activities of living their lives and raising families and carrying on the next generation. But it does matter if those beliefs don’t take into account existential threats.

Over human history, in fact, many cultures have died before. There’s a Jared Diamond book about this — COLLAPSE, which Wikipedia summarizes here. I’ve browsed it but not read it thoroughly, but a glance at the detailed Table of Contents reveals themes all-too-familiar from discussions of conservative thinking, the values of the religious, and the activities of the current administration… “Failure to anticipate; Failure to perceive; Rational bad behavior; Disastrous values…”

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