The Psychology Behind “The Psychology Behind the War on Environmental Science”

Last Saturday I attended a lecture at the university entitled “The Psychology Behind the War on Environmental Science.” The speaker was American science/political journalist Chris Mooney, the author of Unscientific Americaand most recently The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and RealityThe lecture was recommended by the professor of my Ethics of Nature seminar, and out of interest and my mounting fondness for her, I did the unthinkable and went to school on Saturday.

The lecture was predictably interesting. Mooney described his experience as a journalist: how his grandfather, a prolific scientist, had instilled in him a quest for truth, objectivity. Although not scientifically trained, he narrowed the scope of his writing, originally political, down to science in politics, and has there certainly found his niche. Specifically, he’s explored the relationship between the political right and scientific progress in areas like stem-cell research and climate change analysis. Funding for these types of initiatives are often strongly opposed by Republican politicians, and Mooney extrapolates that in several ways. The focus of his talk on Saturday was the immense impact that values, even more than higher education and political agenda, have on people’s political and scientific belief system.

Many of his cited studies  were very compelling (in that, ok but what do we REALLY do about it?/TED talk kind of way), for instance this one, which describes how the math skills of Republicans and Democrats alike deteriorate in the face of polarizing issues like gun control.  In the end, though, I already knew that values are the driving force behind most everything we do, and sometimes even the most (seemingly) blatant truths, like the rapid rate of global warming, are no match for deeply rooted ideology. At the end of his hour, Mooney urged us to attempt amiable discourse with people who don’t necessarily share our views. The underlying message is positive, but relies too heavily on the notion of the “other,” as though without his permission we would never dare.

I think my careful reaction to this lecture might stem from the fact that I’m a little hyper-sensitive to generalizations these days, which somehow is bringing me to the defense of Republicans with whom I disagree on almost everything. If scientific thinking tells us anything, it’s to question assumptions. Generalizations about people based on certain factors becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in action; if you tell someone they’re predisposed to close-mindedness, what reaction do you expect to induce?

What proved very insightful was the discussion that followed Mooney’s talk, where audience members asked related questions. An interesting parallel was drawn between Mooney’s assertion that conservatives deny science, and the vaccine war, which is predominated by liberal-thinkers. It helped alleviate the tension, I thought, to open up that we are all biased by externalities that are often out of our control. Of course some of these biases are more dangerous than others, in terms of impact on human welfare and the environment. One thing that kept popping up for me was a tenet of sustainable development that recurs often throughout my classes, that change, especially social change, must be inclusionary rather than reactionary, it must inform rather than attack.

I hope to go to many more lectures on varying topics in the coming weeks and months, and I hope you look forward to reading about them!

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