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Diagnosing the Republican Brain

Fact: Conservatives deny science and facts. But there's a reality check that liberals need too.

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

We all know that many American conservatives have issues with Charles Darwin, and the theory of evolution. But Albert Einstein, and the theory of relativity?

If you're surprised, allow me to introduce Conservapedia, the right-wing answer to Wikipedia and ground zero for all that is scientifically and factually inaccurate, for political reasons, on the Internet.

Claiming over 285 million page views since its 2006 inception, Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer, engineer, homeschooler, and one of six children of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist and anti-abortion rights activist who successfully battled the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. In his mother's heyday, conservative activists were establishing vast mailing lists and newsletters, and rallying the troops. Her son learned that they also had to marshal "truth" to their side, now achieved not through the mail but the Web.

Click here to read more about the science of why we don't believe in science.Click here to read more from Mooney on the science of why people don't believe in science.So when Schafly realized that Wikipedia was using BCE ("Before Common Era") rather than BC ("Before Christ") to date historical events, he'd had enough. He decided to create his own contrary fact repository, declaring, "It's impossible for an encyclopedia to be neutral." Conservapedia definitely isn't neutral about science. 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 whopper, though, has to be Conservapedia's nearly 6,000 word, equation-filled entry on the theory of relativity. It's accompanied by a long webpage of "counterexamples" to Einstein's great scientific edifice, which merges insights like E=mc2 (part of the special theory of relativity) with his later account of gravitation (the general theory of relativity).

"Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world," declares Conservapedia. "To date, a Nobel Prize has never been awarded for Relativity." The site goes on to catalogue the "political aspects of relativity," charging that some liberals have "extrapolated the theory" to favor their agendas. That includes President Barack Obama, who (it is claimed) helped published an article applying relativity in the legal sphere while attending Harvard Law School in the late 1980s.

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"Virtually no one who is taught and believes Relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold," Conservapedia continues. But even that's not the site's most staggering claim. In its list of "counterexamples" to relativity, Conservapedia provides 36 alleged cases, including: "The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46–54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51."

 

If you are an American liberal or progressive and you just read the passage above, you are probably about to split your sides—or punch a wall. Sure enough, once liberal and science-focused bloggers caught wind of Conservapedia's anti-Einstein sallies, Schlafly was quickly called a "crackpot," "crazy," "dishonest," and so on.

These being liberals and scientists, there were also ample factual refutations. Take Conservapedia's bizarre claim that relativity hasn't led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity works—if it didn't, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.

It's not that liberals are never wrong or biased. Nevertheless, politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.

Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity "counter-examples" and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of "facts" about the world than modern science, it also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it "strengthened my faith. I don't have to live with what's printed in the newspaper. I don't have to take what's put out by Wikipedia. We've got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better."

You might be thinking that Conservapedia's unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and 9-11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one's view, is something we find all around us today.

Every contentious fact- or science-based issue in American politics now plays out just like the conflict between Conservapedia and physicists over relativity. Again and again it's a fruitless battle between incompatible "truths," with no progress made and no retractions offered by those who are just plain wrong—and can be shown to be through simple fact checking mechanisms that all good journalists, not to mention open-minded and critically thinking citizens, can employ.

What's more, no matter how much the fact-checkers strive to remain "bi-partisan," it is pretty hard to argue that, today, the distribution of falsehoods is politically equal or symmetrical. It's not that liberals are never wrong or biased; in my new book,  The Republican Brain, The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, from which this essay is excerpted, I go to great lengths to describe and debunk number of liberal errors.  Nevertheless, politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers. (Indeed, a new study published in American Sociological Review finds that while overall trust in science has been relatively stable since 1974, among self-identified conservatives it is at an all-time low.)

Their willingness to deny what's true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics like evolution or climate change. But the same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there's something ideological—in other words, something emotional and personal—at stake.

As soon as that occurs, today's conservatives have their own "truth," their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels—newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities—to broad- and narrowcast it.

We've been trained to equivocate, to not to see this trend toward anti-factualism for what it is—sweeping, systemic. This is particularly true of reporters.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and that's precisely where our country stands now with regard to the conservative denial of reality. For a long time, we've been trained to equivocate, to not to see it for what it is—sweeping, systemic. This is particularly true of reporters and others trained to think that objectivity will out. Yet the problem is gradually dawning on many of us, particularly as the 2012 election began to unfold and one maverick Republican, Jon Huntsman, put his party's anti-factual tendencies in focus with a Tweet heard round the world:

To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had—or will have—world-changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what's true—which they both generate, and perpetuate.

Consider, just briefly, some of the wrong ideas that have taken hold of significant swaths of the conservative population in the U.S:

The Identity of the President of the United States: Many conservatives believe President Obama is a Muslim. A stunning 64 percent of Republican voters in the 2010 election thought it was "not clear" whether he had been born in the United States. These people often think he was born in Kenya, and the birth certificate showing otherwise is bunk, a forgery, etc. They also think this relatively centrist Democrat is a closet—or even overt—socialist. At the extreme, they consider him a "Manchurian candidate" for an international leftist agenda.

Obamacare Many conservatives believe it is a "government takeover of health care." They also think, as Sarah Palin claimed, that it created government "death panels" to make end-of-life care decisions for the elderly. What's more, they think it will increase the federal budget deficit (and that most economists agree with this claim), cut benefits to those on Medicare, and subsidize abortions and the health care of illegal immigrants. None of these things are true.

Sexuality and Reproductive Health. Many conservatives—especially on the Christian Right—claim that having an abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer or mental disorders. They claim that fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks of gestation, that same-sex parenting is bad for kids, and that homosexuality is a disorder, or a choice, and is curable through therapy. None of this is true.

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