WHICH TRIBE REEZUNS BETTER: Their tribe's wiring is bad!

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9, 2012

Part 3—Did Mooney make good points here: Conservative voters have swallowed all manner of bunkum over the past forty years. (We liberals have begun to catch up.)

If Chris Mooney’s reporting is right, a similar process took place in the run-up to yesterday’s vote in North Carolina concerning same-sex marriage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/12). According to Mooney, some “Christian right researchers and intellectuals” have peddled some utterly bogus claims about the harm allegedly done to children of same-sex unions.

This “bad science” was peddled in North Carolina. And sure enough! Some voters believed these claims, Mooney says.

Can we talk? At this point, we pretty much have a “dog bites man” story going. Voters constantly swallow pap when it’s served by the leaders they trust; conservative voters have swallowed such pap on a wide array of topics. But in this particular case, Mooney added an extra step to his rumination. He sought to explain why conservative voters would swallow this particular pap.

Mooney may have good points to make about the way people react to homosexuality. But as this extra step is added, we’ve reached a point where Mooney’s own science may have started to go a bit bad. At any rate, this extra step takes us to the second subject of his piece.

Forget what happened in North Carolina. Mooney’s second topic is captured in the headlines Salon chose to run:
SALON HEADLINES (5/5/12):
Republicans: Wired for homophobia
New research sheds light on why conservatives are so eager to embrace anti-gay pseudoscience
Presumably, Mooney didn’t write those headlines. But if we take them at face value, those headlines make sweeping assertions:

Republicans are “wired for homophobia,” the first headline says. Presumably, that would be all Republicans; the headline offers no qualification of its sweeping claim. Nor does it suggest that any Democrat might be comparably wired.

The second headline says that conservatives are eager—indeed, so eager—to embrace anti-gay pseudoscience. Again, all conservatives seem to be involved. And the headline fails to note that conservative voters have been eager to embrace all manner of pseudoscience and general bunkum down through the past many years.

Those headlines make sweeping assertions; poorly written headlines tend to do that. But it’s especially risky to make such claims when dealing with matters of tribal "wiring." Weak-minded readers will be eager to take such suggestions and run, as Salon’s commenters eagerly did.

Again, Mooney didn’t write those headlines; some tribal journalist at Salon did. But in one key passage from his article, we’d have to say that Mooney himself really does flirt with some “bad science” all his own.

Are Republicans “wired for homophobia?” Mooney never makes a claim as sweeping as the claim which ran in the headline. But in this passage, he describes the research behind that sweeping headline. In the process, he makes a slightly slippery move of his own:
MOONEY (5/5/12): A growing body of research shows that liberals and conservatives, on average, have different moral intuitions, impulses that bias us in different directions before we’re even consciously thinking about situations or issues. Indeed, this research suggests that liberals and conservatives even have different bodily responses to stimuli, of a sort that they cannot control. And one of the strongest areas of difference involves one’s sensitivity to the feeling of disgust.

A recent study, for instance, found that “individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images.” In other words, there’s now data to back up what we’ve always kind of known: The average conservative, much more than the average liberal, is having visceral feelings of disgust toward same-sex marriage. And then, when these conservatives try to consciously reason about the matter, they seize on any information to support or justify their deep-seated and uncontrolled response—which pushes them in the direction of believing and embracing information that appears to justify and ratify the emotional impulse.

And voila. Suddenly same-sex marriages and civil unions are bad for kids. How’s that for the power of human reason?
People who recoil from the sight of a man eating worms “are more likely to self-identify as conservative” as compared to people “with more muted physiological responses to the same images.” Folk who recoil are “especially” more likely to oppose gay marriage, Mooney says.

We assume that these claims are accurate, though imprecise. But from here, Mooney transitions to a highly pleasing claim, a claim which affirms the tribe:

“In other words, there’s now data to back up what we’ve always kind of known: The average conservative, much more than the average liberal, is having visceral feelings of disgust toward same-sex marriage.”

Can we talk? That’s a fairly powerful jump, even before some headline writer removes all qualifiers. As we start, we’re told that folk who recoil from worms are more likely to identify as conservative—though we aren’t told how much more likely they are to identify that way. But soon, we’re told that we were right in what we thought all along—the average conservative is much more likely to have “visceral feelings of disgust toward same-sex marriage.”

We went from more likely to much more likely with the help of that one lone “especially.” But at no point are we ever told what Mooney means by these phrases—and by the time we reach that headline, all qualifications are gone.

The next step in this roll toward liberal “bad science” was inevitable. In comments, we liberals screeched and yelled about “those people,” secure in the knowledge that our own tribe is wondrously pure and The Others are wired real bad.

No qualifications appear in the headline. Operating from that cue, the comments descend into bedlam.

Mooney didn’t write those headlines. That said, did he do anything wrong in this piece? Did he commit any "bad science" himself?

We’d be inclined to say that he did. Especially when dealing with topics like this, a writer should qualify (and quantify) his statements aggressively; he should do this because he knows where claims of this kind inevitably lead. Starting in 2009, for example, pleasing thoughts of this type led to appalling performances by Janeane Garofalo and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC—grotesque performances in which we liberals were encouraged to think that the other tribe is the way it is because their “limbic brains” are bad.

Doctor Garofalo asserted these claims, secure in her limitless lack of knowledge. (For example, see below.) Olbermann, an endlessly mixed-up fellow, laughed out his brainless consent.

Can we talk? This is the way the very worst humans of the last century “reasoned” about other tribes. As Garofalo and Olbermann showed, the most suggestible folk people in our tribe are still drawn to this type of thinking—and we aren’t especially nuanced when we proclaim our beliefs.

Are Republicans “wired for homophobia?” Mooney himself didn’t make that claim—but in our view, he was a bit lazy, and a bit hazy, in the claims he did make. He speaks of “the average conservative” and “the average liberal,” and so we ask these questions:

How much more did the average conservative recoil against those images? To what extent did the average liberal recoil against those same images? How big was the difference between these two folk when it came to this reaction?

In the headline, the difference was total. But just how big was the actual difference in the actual data? (We don’t know the answer, of course. Mooney didn’t include this info, except in the haziest terms.)

Similarly: To what extent is the average conservative “having visceral feelings of disgust toward same-sex marriage?” And to what extent does the average liberal have such visceral feelings? Mooney says that the average conservative experiences such feelings “much more” than the average liberal does. But exactly how much is “much more?” And how exactly can Mooney make such an assertion at all?

That headline wreaks of “bad science.” Liberal readers took things farther in their excited comments. In short, we liberals are drawn to “bad science” too, though such thoughts may not enter our heads when we’re cued by headlines like those which appeared in Salon.

Mooney may have good points to make on this topic (or not). But did he make them here?

Tomorrow: Mooney and Haidt meet Chris Hayes

The doctor was IN: We liberals are soooo much smarter! Here was Garofalo, sharing her brain science with KO:
GAROFALO (4/20/09): We’ve discussed before, the limbic brain inside a right-winger or Republican or conservative or your average white power activist, the limbic brain is much larger in their head space than in a reasonable person. And it is pushing against the frontal lobe. So their synapses are misfiring.
We’ve discussed it before, Garofalo said, and she would go on to discuss it again. And yes, this is precisely how the worst human beings of the last century “reasoned.”

KO loved it—had her back! For more from that first seminar in bad science, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/09.

2 comments:

  1. For some really interesting insights on the moral psychology of liberals and conservatives check out Jonathan Haidt's TED talk:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

    Haidt avoids the pitfalls Mooney seems to have fallen into (not to mention Garofalo).

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