October 05, 2012

What’s wrong with Chris Mooney’s #TheRepublicanBrain?

Image via Goodreads
The Republican Brain has become a hot item among Democrats seeking to bash many Republicans for their climate change denialism, above all else. It's true that they do this, and that many Republicans do operate from a different mindset than many Democrats.

So, what's wrong with this book?

In a word, “scientism.” Mooney’s not as bad or as blatant about it as a Sam Harris, but, yes, the book does veer off into scientism.

And, Chris is not a scientist, but he is a science journalist of several years standing, and the author of previous books. He should know better.

And I suspect he DOES know better. But, not applying his own writing about “motivated reasoning,” or, as I have called it before on this blog, “pulling a Chris Mooney,” he’s engaged in politically driven motivated reasoning himself. As a left-liberal, albeit a skeptical one, I can say that without being a conservative ax-grinder of the likes of whom he obsessively-compulsively writes about to the degree of posting info about “bad” Amazon reviews of his book to Facebook.

Anyway, let’s look more at this scientism and motivated reasoning.

The scientism starts in the title.

The mind isn’t the brain, and no, I’m not saying that as an epistemological or ontological dualist. The mind arises from the brain, but it arises in interactions with other minds in social settings, perceptions of the world, etc. The mind isn’t a reductionistic artifact in a vacuum.

More below on other problems with the title, too.

Problem No. 2? Mooney fails to grapple with issues of evolutionary psychology, as properly done. I’m not talking about Pop Evolutionary Psychology. (That said, Mooney might possibly be guilty of what I’ve labeled in the past as Pop Evolutionary Sociology, what I consider Pop Ev Psych applied to particular social groups as a “just-so” explanatory device.

Yes, the personality issues on the five-type scale (more on that in a minute, in several ways) that can well be used to separate liberals and conservatives, did evolve hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years ago.

Others, though? If they didn’t evolve more recently, at the least, the modern degree of emphasis on them didn’t socially evolve until relatively modern times.

I think in specific about “authoritarianism.” Until the start of civilizations with the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, there was much less call for authoritarian psychological issues than before, with small bands of hunter-gatherers.

But, major psychological changes don’t evolve that quickly, and Mooney knows that, too. Rather, among many people in early civilizations, the emphasis on authoritarianism socially evolved, and hence, authoritarian leaders gained in popularity, plural wives, etc. Whether even that contributed toward evolutionary growth in authoritarianism in a marginal way may be open to dispute, or at least, strong discussion.

Problem No. 3 is related to that, and back to the title.

“Republicans” didn’t exist 10,000 years ago, let alone 100,000 years ago. And, today’s GOP is not the party of Lincoln, or arguably even of Richard Nixon, recently named second-best environmental president ever by a group of environmental organizations.

Problem No. 4 is related to that.

The GOP is not the British Conservative Party, or Canada’s Conservatives, or the Rally for the Republic party in France, or the Christian Democrats in Germany. To think there’s a “Republican brain” that has specially come to exist in the U.S. is scientism squared.

These parties have a number of differences, between one another and even more, all of them in general vs. the US Republican Party.

Details in those differences include that most Conservatives (with the possibility of a fair minority of Canadian Conservatives) accept the facts of global warming. Ditto on evolutionary theory. And, other conservative parties accept the idea of national (and usually, single-payer) health care. And, I don’t know, because I’ve not read Chris’ book and won’t bother, if he allows for religiosity differences as a factor between the US and elsewhere.

Related to this, Chris executes a mainstream media error. Because he talks about Republicans vs. Democrats, from the title on, rather than liberals vs. conservatives, he plays the two-party game.

Left-liberals, whether buttering their bread more with Green types or with Socialists, are somewhat different from today’s Democrats. Libertarians, especially true libertarians like Gary Johnson, unencumbered with Ron Paul religiosity (or racism vestiges) are even more different from today’s Republicans. But, there’s no room for them in Mooney’s dyadic world.

And, here’s more thought on the five-type scale, and on using personality assessments, whatever they are, to make political assessments.

The five-type personality assessment scale, while an improvement over the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (which isn’t all bad, either, and may in some ways still be better than the five-type scale), let alone Jungian type theory before that, isn’t perfect. Mooney is putting his eggs in a pretty new, possibly somewhat weak, basket. (Sidebar: Enneagram devotees have already tried to co-opt the five-type system.)

Beyond that, not all conservatives fit neatly in one half of each of the five personality traits, nor do all liberals.

For example, many liberals, whether through heredity, child or adult trauma, or other reasons, rank as high as the average U.S. conservative on neuroticism. I know I do.


This is a decent three-star book, doing good work on collecting a lot of anecdotal evidence for different thought patterns between typical US conservatives and liberals. But, between scientism and all the omissions listed above, as well as thin explanatory information, it’s no more than three stars. And, because of all of these issues, on Goodreads, I classified it as a “politics/public policy” book, NOT a “science” book.

Jonathan Haidt, whom I don’t totally like for other intellectual reasons, seems to have a better take on these issues in “The Righteous Mind.”

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