Education, Biased Reasoning, and Enlightenment

By Chris Mooney | May 30, 2011 12:44 pm

In the last thread about my upcoming show with Michael Shermer, Sean McCorkle asks a really deep question, or set of questions. Let’s take them in sequence:

What about science education at an age level before undesirable beliefs “set in”? Can something positive be said about early intervention? And what about the quality of education (not just the level)? I’m sure there are a lot of studies that back up #10, but do they treat education as a binary value: yes, person has it, or no they haven’t, tacitly assuming that all individuals have been exposed to the same level of instruction on average? If so, I think that’s a problem. Somewhere on Panda’s Thumb or someplace there was a survey that revealed a high percentage of HS biology teachers who didn’t believe in evolution themselves. So how can we expect their students to receive proper exposure to evolution? I know education quality questions are hard to deal with quantitatively, but I feel they are important, especially before we dismiss science education as a possible cure. Maybe its the disparity of quality of education that really needs to be addressed.

Educational disparities certainly do exist–and they should be addressed. But educational improvement (especially K-12) will not serve the goal that Sean seems to hope for. The evidence simply doesn’t suggest that as we get more educated or acquire more intellectual abilities, we get better at detecting reasoning fallacies and false beliefs, and fall for them less. There is actually research on reasoning biases and youth development. For instance, Klaczynski, “Bias in Adolescents’ Everyday Reasoning and Its Relationship With Intellectual Ability, Personal Theories, and Self-Serving Motivation,” Developmental Psychology, 1997, Vol. 33, No 2., pp. 273-283:

The author presented 60 9th- and 12th-graders with hypothetical arguments that contained logical fallacies. Arguments were either consistent or inconsistent with participants’ theories. Participants rated the quality and truth of each argument, identified perceived strengths and weaknesses in the arguments, and verbally described hypothetical experiments that could lead to evidence falsifying the claims made in the arguments. Results indicated that intellectual ability, particularly verbal ability, was the best predictor of each index of everyday reasoning. However, neither the ability measures nor age were related to biases in everyday reasoning. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses showed that, for each reasoning variable, adolescents’ personal theories accounted for the most variance in reasoning biases. These findings are discussed in terms of the roles that intellectual ability and theory-driven motivation play in everyday reasoning and self-serving adolescent reasoning.

Meanwhile, there is a whole different chain of evidence showing that those who know more about contentious political issues (like global warming) are more biased and more polarized about them–rather than more calm and rational and unified. These groups don’t converge as they know more, they diverge as they know more.

I’ve been blogging about this research, for example here. The point is that education serves many important goals, but it does not appear to check biased reasoning about issues where we have deep emotional investments. And why would it: We respond emotionally on such issues, and then we rationalized our deep set views. In this context, more intellectual ability will only aid in rationalization.

So what does this mean for Enlightenment? Sean continues:

I ask this in the larger context of a point that you have raised previously, that we need to reexamine the Enlightenment. That’s something that I find profoundly disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is that I fear you are correct. Among other worries I have about potentially abandoning principles that lifted the west out of the dark ages centuries ago, the issue for me here is the potential for institutionalizing a perception that some—maybe most—people will never reach a level where they can be counted on to make an objective evaluation of reality, and so will have to be treated differently, thus perpetuating a social subclass by an education process of low expectations (oh, we won’t bother teaching them that because they can’t really comprehend it anyway) rather than one which challenges the students to become more than they are.

There are a lot of principles associated with the Enlightenment. I certainly do not propose discarding the Enlightenment’s political philosophy principles which underlie the Declaration of Independence and Constitution–equality, human rights, etc. Rather I want to get rid of the Enlightenment’s naivete about humans being rational and dispassionate, whereas we really are, as Shermer puts it, “belief engines.”

It seems to me that these two things are highly separable. We’re all still equal, we all have equal rights–and indeed, we share the same human nature. It’s just that that nature is not nearly so rational as some once believed, or hoped….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Motivated Reasoning

Comments (39)

  1. Somite

    “These groups don’t converge as they know more, they diverge as they know more.”

    But the groups are not equal. Some groups follow facts, the scientific conclusions, and are more likely to reflect reality. Other groups truly diverge and deny reality.

    For example, most climate scientists agree and support the conclusion that climate change is real and it is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. As the level of expertise in scientific reasoning decreases you are more likely to become a denier.

    The mistake is to think that scientific reasoning involves only the facts. It also involves accepting or developing the most likely interpretation of those facts as well.

  2. Chris Mooney

    “As the level of expertise in scientific reasoning decreases you are more likely to become a denier.”

    that’s just wrong. how do you explain all the scientists who are skeptics and deniers?

  3. Somite

    “Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate
    researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i)
    97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the
    field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental
    Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and
    scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are
    substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

  4. Chris Mooney

    you didn’t say, “as the level of peer-reviewed papers published in climate journals decreases….” this is a somewhat different finding. it is not in contradiction to what i am saying.

  5. Somite

    “ii” addresses the expertise issue directly.

  6. Mike

    Somite: “As the level of expertise in scientific reasoning decreases you are more likely to become a denier.”

    CM: “that’s just wrong. how do you explain all the scientists who are skeptics and deniers?”

    Actually polling on this seems to support Somite’s contention.

  7. Chris Mooney

    Based on publication and citation record. yes.

    what you are showing is that top climate researchers, judged by publication and citation record, overwhelmingly support AGW. No surprise there. I heartily agree.

    That is not a refutation of the claim that the more people are informed about climate the more they polarize based on political views….the claim I am making is not situated within the context of peer reviewed science. It is in the public arena.

  8. Faraday

    Yes, emotional and social factors play a huge role in shaping beliefs. One problem is that scientists and policy makers don’t get this basic fact.

    Let’s assume that anthropogenic climate change is correct and demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt to scientists.

    What social evidence is there to support this? Sure, there are left-wing groups advocating their same old positions for conservation and “green” energy. Big surprise.

    Want to convince normal people? How about massive rallies to build new nuclear power plants?

    Where is the huge push to develop a small-scale version of terraforming?

    Ted Turner donated a *billion dollars* to the U.N. in the 90s. Where are the billions of dollars spent on climate change by other millionaires and billionaires?

    Based upon what the rich and powerful *actually do* the rational choice is to not give a damn about climate change.

  9. Chris Mooney

    @6 mike, like Somite, you’re showing a different thing. You’re showing that scientists who have expertise in climate or related areas overwhelmingly accept the consensus–not by publication record this time, but through survey data of scientists. Again, that’s true but it’s different than the claim I’m making.

  10. Mike

    “Meanwhile, there is a whole different chain of evidence showing that those who know more about contentious political issues”

    I think that this statement is based on self-reported claims of knowledge.

    Claiming to be knowledgeable about an issue, such as global warming, does not necessarily make it so.

  11. Chris, this fits well your MoJo story on how (and why) we “reason.” To make statements to an in-group, and to fortify that in-group against out-groups, more knowledge is a plus indeed. So the idea that more scientific knowledge could increase AGW denialism isn’t surprising.

    OTOH, this doesn’t translate to everything. Witness many people who become atheists or agnostics precisely as a result of knowing more and more about the Bible.

  12. Chris Mooney

    @1o It is not always self reported. What is sometimes called the “sophisticates effect” has been documented in a variety of ways. Here is a version that is not self reported:

    “Among Republicans, similar percentages of college graduates and those with less education say there is solid evidence of global warming (46% and 51%, respectively). Yet for Republicans, unlike Democrats, higher education is associated with greater skepticism that human activity is causing global warming. Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.”

  13. Somite

    But isn’t the simplest interpretation that conservatism increases the likelihood of disregarding the correct scientiic facts and interpretations. Let’s not pretend that climate change denial is as equally valid or as correct as climate change accepance.

  14. Chris Mooney

    Of course climate change denial isn’t just as valid as climate change acceptance.

    And of course being a Republican/conservative is a central factor, if not the dominant factor, in being a climate change denier.

    But that’s not what’s interesting about all this. What’s interesting is that, we have a group of differentially educated Republicans, and the ones who have been to college are *more* likely, not less likely, to be climate change deniers. How do you explain what is going on here?

  15. Faraday

    Sigh. Does it ever occur to anyone among this little liberal tribe to actually talk with conservatives to find out their beliefs? For example, see my post #8 above.

  16. JMW

    What’s interesting is that, we have a group of differentially educated Republicans, and the ones who have been to college are *more* likely, not less likely, to be climate change deniers. How do you explain what is going on here?

    Okay…is it possible to break it down into a little more detail? I would posit that most Republican college-goers major in law, business, economics, and politics. A priori, that would mean that there are proportionately less people self-identifying as Republicans who study physics, biology, climatology, paleontology, geology, or any of of the other -ologies that might have some relevance with what is happening in the real world.

    And the end result would be that while they are college-educated, they are not scientifically trained to the level that others are.

    Thus the deniers become self-perpetuating, especially as economics theory in particular has been hijacked by Friedmanites – economics majors soak it up from their professors. Perhaps you could find other Republican godfathers of thought for the other disciplines as well.

  17. Gaythia

    Chris I think that you are neglecting the fact that “all Democrats” or “all Republicans” are not demographically uniform groups. So, when you start separating the two parties out by education, you must be introducing quite a number of confounding variables. Obviously, there are separations based on politics when it comes to choices of education level, majors or ultimate professions. And quite significantly, not every college graduate ends up with the same knowledge base or experience in science.

    For example overall, the higher the education level, the greater the odds that the person is a college professor or researcher in the natural sciences. But natural science professionals aren’t distributed equally with regards to political affiliation. (Right wing commentators complain about this, but not about a similar “unfair” distribution of corporate CEO’s)

    The study cited is actually only differentiated by college graduates, so on the Republican side, you aren’t looking in particular at those Republicans that have a PhD in anything, let alone some branch of natural sciences. In fact, as you go away from those who have less than a college degree to those who have a college degree or more (MBA perhaps), there is no reason to think that these people know more about science than less educated Republican party members. (This is probably true of Democrats also). But there would be, I think,with increasing Republican education, an increase in the number of people who have upper level corporate positions. Perhap0s that is what is significant. Perhaps not.

    The obvious political affiliation sorting factor for those who consider climate science to be a significant reason for selecting a candidate, would be the likelihood of finding a candidate within the selected party that supports one’s own position. So maybe it isn’t that there is something about the form of higher education that Republicans receive that makes them less likely to support climate science, but rather that other factors than climate science that keeps less educated Republicans within the party.

  18. Somite

    @jmw that is a very good possible explanation. After all, college education does not guarantee expertise in scientific reasoning.

    It all comes down to accepting that there are conservative interests involved that encourage and have established an alternative reality sustained by misinformation. The best approach is to point this out and counteract with the best facts.

    @faraday Those solutions may be ideologically comfortable for you. However, the correct course of action would be to follow the recommendations of energy experts. Their consensus is that low risk renewables like wind and solar are preferable to nuclear. I think it is obvious that although potentially safe nuclear reactors can be built the potential for disaster is too great; especially compared to the alternatives.

  19. ThomasL

    Why I don’t comment much here anymore Faraday. It is interesting to watch them argue with each other over what it is they don’t understand and how each of them miss understands it in their own unique way though… Thus it is entertaining enough for me to still venture by and read now & then. Maybe leave a quick comment or two even.

    I’ve been watching Nullius try to explain this to them for well over a year, even ventured into the waters myself a time or two… They still don’t get it. Though this conversation has been interesting as we see the ever present elitist attitude (and we’ll gloss over the argument through authority fallacy it masks all the time while we’re at it) that apparently if it isn’t peer reviewed, it never happened, or can’t be known, or can’t possibly be true, and hey-hey publishing has taken the place of real world verification -> lots faster this way… I wonder if they have any clue how much of their foundations have never been “peer reviewed” and *oh my*, those sneaky ancients -> self-published even!, and that really, it’s the successful standing up to the testing to try to *disprove* that leads to acceptance, not the being published part -> they seem damn incapable of understanding that basic tenant of science….

    So don’t kill yourself trying to explain it here, not what it’s about. Just enjoy the entertainment…

  20. Sean McCorkle


    I’m honored that you elevated this to a post. I should state outright that I’m operating in near-total ignorance of any research on the subject beyond the odd NAS or NSF survey results that pop up occasionally on various science blogs. Mostly I’m reacting from personal experiences, which I realize puts me in a precarious position analogous to the novice who contends that its just too hard to believe a teeny increase in a trace gas could possibly cause sea levels to rise.

    I’m still trying to digest Klaczynski’s extremely interesting paper. Do I have it right that the HS students abandoned pure logic in arguing about positions which they were emotionally attached to (music preference! brilliant!) to support their preferences, and this was independent of their educational achievement, assessed through a standard skills test? I wonder why he didn’t run a parallel test of some non-emotional issue as a control to show that students could identify the same logical fallacies in one question but not one which they were emotionally attached to. That kind of a control would have sold me instantly.

    But at the risk of actually being an example of what you are describing—too biased towards improved education as a solution to listen to reason—I wonder how much education these kids received in the way of identifying logical fallacies. Maybe Klaczynski was largely measuring baseline or innate human ability, sans training, in that age group. I didn’t actually learn informal fallacies and such until I took a Logic class in college. I mean, how much of that material did these kids receive? Problem solving is usually taught through practice and repetition; maybe a more thorough grounding in reasoning, with drills and exercises relevant to every day life would affect Klaczynski’s findings. It seems like thats the kind of thing that could actually be tested, through the establishment of an experimental Logic curriculum. (I’m not trying to be obstinate; I assure you I can be convinced a horse is dead and to stop beating it, given evidence)

    This connects to SocraticGadfly’s point in #11: somehow, some of us learn despite all these psychological obstacles. I have to ask myself, how does that happen? Speaking personally, when I was back in high school (or junior high) there was not one fad my friends and I didn’t buy into: von Daniken, Loch Ness, Velikovsky. sasquatches, Kirlian photography, etc. We absolutely loved that stuff, but we grew out of it. And I don’t want to admit how much time I wasted trying to cook up a scheme to move faster than light, because it was positively absurd to me that there should be such a think as a limiting speed. Yet as time went on, I learned better. I’ve been through a lot of arguments where I stuck stubbornly to the wrong position because I was married to it, but I eventually got through the embarrassment and anguish and came around to reason (although that sometimes took a long time). Isn’t everyone capable of going through that process? Aren’t we capable of understanding it, and then altering our teaching practices accordingly?

    Lastly, I should have stated that I wasn’t insinuating you were actually advocating abandonment the Enlightenment. In fact, you’ve been pretty clear that what you meant is that we need to take another look at “The truth will set them free” because there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. I’m just worried, perhaps unnecessarily, about a slippery slope developing that might be exploited by others down the line.

  21. Chris Mooney

    @16 & 18–how does that explain why the more educated are more biased and more wrong about the science than the less educated?

    These findings are better interpreted, in my mind, in the context of the sophisticates effect which has much evidence in its favor (and is also supported in Michael Shermer’s new book). One example is here:

    “On reading a balanced set of pro and con arguments about affirmative action or gun control, we find that rather than moderating or simply maintaining their original attitudes, citizens–especially those who feel the strongest about the issue and are the most
    sophisticated-strengthen their attitudes in ways not warranted by the evidence. “

  22. Chris Mooney

    @20 Klaczynski’s paper is just one example of this kind of thing. Here’s liberals and conservatives seeing hypocrisy in the candidate they dislike and not in the candidate they like:

    I do believe there are defenses against reasoning biases that are partially effective. If you are a professional philosopher trained in reasoning, you are probably going to commit less logical fallacies in your published papers! But I would argue this is the result of philosophical professionalization, more than basic education, as I argued here:

    And professionals are also sophisticates in their given fields, so they can find ever more ingenious ways of being biased while still passing the tests they have to pass to be counted as professionals among their peers!

  23. Somite

    “how does that explain why the more educated are more biased and more wrong about the science than the less educated?”

    This probably shows that educated people with more information at their disposal are more adept at rationalizing; one of the false outcomes that scientific reasoning is designed to prevent.

    Engaging in scientific reasoning with peer review prevents false rationalization. Those that are “more wrong about the science” do not accept the correct facts or peer review.

    It may be plain and simple hubris.

  24. Chris Mooney

    Yes Somite now it sounds like we are agreeing. I agree that the peer reviewed scientific process has far more checks on bias and is much more professionalized. I don’t agree that it is immune to errors, bias, or even rationalization–but it is definitely better.

    I also think there is a lot of hubris in terms of well educated, biased and politicized people thinking *they* are competent to get to the bottom of complex matters where they don’t have any real expertise, but nevertheless have the gall to challenge real experts on the matter.

  25. 1985

    Educational disparities certainly do exist–and they should be addressed. But educational improvement (especially K-12) will not serve the goal that Sean seems to hope for. The evidence simply doesn’t suggest that as we get more educated or acquire more intellectual abilities, we get better at detecting reasoning fallacies and false beliefs, and fall for them less

    This has been said many times before, including touched upon in this thread already, but I will repeat it once again – the argument that education doesn’t help or that it actually makes denialism stronger is an absolute fallacy.

    And it is a fallacy because it ignores the fact that what is called “education” contains very little training in proper scientific reasoning even at the PhD level in the natural sciences. I am not aware of a single institution, even among the most prestigious, that requires its science graduates to take any courses in the history, philosophy and epistemology of of science. None. The better programs do teach some of that just by integrating it in the science courses themselves (i.e. exam question designed to test that ability), and the better advisors manage to teach their brighter graduate students some of it in the course of research, but those are not the majority. The result is that even most science PhD holders are quite clueless when it comes to knowing and applying the rules of proper reasoning in their research, let alone everyday life. That’s the PhDs in the sciences. Then we have the PhDs and various other post-graduate degrees in softer non-scientific disciplines, the bachelor degrees, etc. etc., where it is much much worse.

    All of this means that it is absolutely meaningless to claim that “education” doesn’t make people less likely to hold absurd beliefs. Well, yes, it may seem that it doesn’t but that’s because what we have is a parody of education, not because real education can’t do it. People who say that more education will fix the situation they typically mean more and better actual education where people are trained into proper thinking and reasoning. Which would run directly against the predominant educational philosophy today (teach the students what they need to get a job, don’t bother with actual education) but it is that same educational philosophy that’s the problem to be fixed.

    This applies to the general argument that Chris has been making for a long time – if people’s decision making is more influenced by their religious and ideological beliefs than by facts and logic, this means that the educational systems has failed to teach them the relative importance of reality (facts and logic) versus fiction (religion and ideology), and that the educational system is of dire need of drastic reforms to fix that. It does not mean that we should resign ourselves to the fact and try to somehow work our way around it.

  26. Chris Mooney

    @25 please read the Drew Westen paper cited above. What it shows is that on issues where we have strong emotions–like which presidential candidate to support–the calm, rational, “cold” reasoning part of our brain don’t seem to be operating. The emotional “hot cognition” parts are.

    These parts are both faster operating and, it seems, more powerful than the calmer reasoning mechanisms. And they also infect the calmer reasoning mechanisms.

    You want to teach people calm philosophical reasoning (which is fine) through education, but you then expect them to apply it in situations when they are emotionally provoked. I’m telling you we have mountains of evidence that in these situations, people reason in a motivated, emotion driven way and commit logical fallacies, and biases, to defend their preexisting views. Sure, some will get out of this pattern, and sophisticated philosophical education may help them get out of it. But for others, sophisticated philosophical education will just make them better at arguing their biased point.

    Based on what we know about how people respond to controversies that make them emotional, rather than teaching logical fallacies and how to avoid them, you would presumably want to do something more like teaching people to calm down, breathe deeply, not be provoked, not lash out, not fire off blog comments (;>), etc. I don’t think that class exists in the curriculum either.

  27. Sean McCorkle

    Here’s my cognitive disconnect: if its so hard for us to overcome emotional biases, even with an education, then how did the Age of Reason occur at all? I’m trying to get my head wrapped around all the implications. Have we always been plagued by these polarizing social dynamics and shortcomings in reasoning? I could see that historic social changes would have been driven by emotion – i.e. desire for freedom from the monarchy. Also, one could argue that scientific achievements post WWII in the U.S. were driven, at least in part, by fear (at least the funding was), but what about all the scientific revolutions in pre-WWII europe? Is it that early 1900s physics and chemistry developed because it didn’t really push anybodies buttons? (although Darwin certainly did).

    And I’m trying to apply this to current events. Emotional bias can certainly explain widespread resistance to the starring issues of this blog: evolution, vaccines, climate change, etc., but there’s something bigger happening. Outside of biology and medicine, things are grinding to a halt in the U.S. If so, is it simply because the fear motivator (gone since the end of the Cold War) can no longer arouse the public at large? That seems like a good explanation, but I think there’s a also a concomitant decline in the public’s interest in science and scientific achievements. Although post-WWII US science has had a goal-oriented or application bend, science is ultimately driven by curiosity, and it seems like thats a commodity thats not regarded very highly any more. It seems like another dynamic has been at play – science has lost its luster, its value, in the eye of the public. Not just scientists, but the pursuit of science itself. There’s some magic or something thats missing. Its difficult to put my finger on it exactly. People generally aren’t seduced (to borrow Niel DeGrasse Tyson’s wording) by science as much as they were during and post-Sputnik. Without that positive social force, all the negative effects described in this post are curtailing progress.

  28. Chris Mooney

    The Age of Reason ended in murderous passions, aka the French Revolution, and the execution of some top Enlightenment scientists, like Lavoisier. This stuff has always been with us.

    Humans clearly have a capacity for art, science, and so forth. In the right conditions it can be nourished and do amazing things. That’s also part of us. Don’t assume that the most creative or scientific weren’t also driven by emotion…or were always capable of unbiased reasoning all the time.

    The U.S.’s relationship with science has also changed for big cultural reasons–it’s a huge can of worms. Polarization has much to do with it, as does the fact that we’re not under the same pressures as we were after Sputnik…and that barely scratches the surface of the subject. The Sputnik response was certainly induced in large part by fear.

  29. Colin

    I think that there was a major difference at the start of the Age of Reason, because there were major movements to be made scientifically and politically. Right now, in or current era, no one has any major scientific or political movements in the wings, so we are down to haggling over the same issues. Bear in mind that technically, the term liberal covers both the right and the left in the United States because it covers a basic belief in human freedom tempered by a government that exists by the will of the people. The left is less conservative than the right, so what is more accurately going on here is that we have a conservative liberal party and a progressive liberal party looking for small changes in the same field.

    Scientifically, the predictions made at the start of the age of reason could be mathematically duplicated by the majority of the people in the developed world of the time, meaning that they either had to accept it or fight against logic wholeheartedly. Now, we are talking about statistical models that show without a doubt that fettering markets leads to economic decay while letting markets move unfettered leads to environmental damage. So, four options remain; deny free market economics, deny global warming, accept both but choose the environment, accept both but choose economic development. Republicans have come down firmly on the deny global warming side because its really hard to argue that nature doesn’t matter and Democrats have come down mixed between the deny free market economics or choose the environment options. Libertarians are all about the free market economics, but they are generally more versed in science and philosophy in their ideological ranks, so they are split as well.

  30. Gaythia

    I agree with Sean @27 here. It is one thing to acknowledge that emotions play an important role in our decision making, another to take actions as if we deny the possibility of well reasoned discourse. Or the inspiration that can arise from the pursuit of truth. In fact, one of the best reasons to understand the role of emotion is to more effectively promote our ideals, which are based in logic. And we certainly must realize that encouraging people to operate at their most emotional gut levels is not the way to promote civilized society. And we don’t favor authoritarianism as the method of control to keep emotions in check.

    I think that this quote from the conclusion of Drew Weston’s book, the Political Mind, encompasses this: “The liberal philosophers of the Enlightenment used reason as a sword against those who would rule by religious dogma. But ultimately, it was their passion for liberty, and for the liberty to take reason wherever it would go, that inspired the founding of this nation and the liberal democracies around the world, which seem as “natural” to us as the kingdoms justified by divine right did to most people at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
    It is time, now, for reason, and the science that it has inspired, to lead us to a better understanding of the passions that provide its sustenance, and to help those who want to lead our country int he spirit of the Enlightenment to recapture the imagination of the American people.”

    I believe that Sputnik offered the military industrial complex a route into buying into space exploration as a means of developing technologies useful in the cold war. And we have to acknowledge that many of the actual drivers of our political process are economic. But in terms of the public, I think that the motivations of Sputnik elicited some amount of American competitiveness, but that most of the actual public support for space exploration came more out of awe than fear. People can be inspired.

  31. Gaythia

    @me @wherever you insert my comment regarding Sean.

    I made a book title slip here. Drew Weston’s book is “The Political Brain The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” The book ” The Political Mind, Why you can’t Understand 21st century American Politics with a 18th century Brain” is by George Lakoff. In a more recent version, George Lakoff’s subtitle is: “A Cognative Scientists Guide to Your Brain and it’s Politics” I haven’t read this, but I’m hoping he’s backing off the anti Age of Reason sentiment a bit.

    I’ve always been curious about the personal dynamics between these authors and their books.

  32. Chris Mooney

    Hi Gaythia
    If you’ve read the two books, they have big overlaps, but they are also quite different. I encourage you to listen to my Point of Inquiry interview with Lakoff.

    He praises Westen….

  33. Gaythia

    Chris, I did listen to your George Lakoff interview, and it was excellent, really excellent. I’ve also heard Lakoff in person and think he is just outstanding at discussing the implications of the hot topic of the day. But the interview was great not only because it was Lakoff but because you exercised your interviewing skills quite well.

    But, (Sigh! Moan! even Groan!) the fact that you are asking me this @32 now means that my “What would George say?” question a ways back #4 had little or no memorable impact.

    That comment, is essentially the same in nature as my comment on what I feel was your sharp (and overly simplistic) delineation between Democrats and Republicans, as I expressed @17 here.

    Maybe questioning this balance of your ability to exercise your obviously real intellectual analysis skills in different venues belongs in your latest post, the one on blogging encouraging motivated reasoning? What would Chris Mooney say?

  34. ThomasL

    Hmmmm. After reading so many threads with this theme and having listened to your interviews over the months, taking note of the direction you seem to be heading off lately, I have to ask -> You do realize that basically you’ve “discovered” existentialism and the inherent problem in “pure” reason it pointed out? You also realize philosophy for all practical purposes finished dealing with this issue at least 50+ some odd years ago (if you are unsure as to how it came out, try reading Albert Camus’ “The Fall”), and has for some time now moved on to other issues brought to light through the lenses of that (in other words, as I have said in here before, if you haven’t digested this part of the “Great Conversation” yet, you are way over your head trying to tackle what’s being worked on *today*…)?

    The hard science types in here always seem caught up in the works of the enlightenment and “The Age of Reason” -> something we study as “Foundations of Modern Thought”, realizing it’s all wrong but required work to get to where we are in our understandings today (as in the *current* understandings of how all this works…). It’s like only studying Newton and thinking you understand Einstein…

    Perhaps you’d all be less confused if you worked through the last 150 years of philosophy instead of stopping in the simplistic, still “categorical” thoughts of 200 years ago… You might discover we’ve not only already been working with that wheel for a while now, but we’ve even made progress in laying out how to understand it as it was “discovered” quite a long time ago… In fact it is so well understood it has a whole school of work behind understanding it (as much in philosophy you may have to translate the word usage into normal parlance, but such should be easy enough for anyone educated…).

  35. Barry

    May 30th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    “As the level of expertise in scientific reasoning decreases you are more likely to become a denier.”

    Chris Mooney: “that’s just wrong. how do you explain all the scientists who are skeptics and deniers?”

    What part of ‘more likely’ do you not understand, Chris?

    And ‘all the scientists’ is a double error – first, it’s not true that ‘all the scientists’ skeptics and deniers, and if you mean ‘all those scientists who are…’, you need to show a significant amount. The climate fraud groups can rustle up a bunch o’ guys, but that’s nothing compared to the population of scientists.

  36. Nullius in Verba


    All scientists are sceptics. The term ‘denier’ is just name-calling.

    Science recognises that scientists are biased, and therefore as a matter of principle applies methodological scepticism – the position that everything is open to question, everything is subject to challenge, and that as scientific confidence can only be gained through surviving challenge, contention rather than agreement is the engine at the heart of scientific progress.

    The process is sometimes subverted when humans’ natural instinct for hierarchy, career, and the bureaucratic nature of much of today’s science funding, leads to one position dominating by political means. Science always wins in the end, but sometimes has to progress one funeral at a time.

    However, if by scientists you mean those who adhere most closely to the ideal, rather than the human actuality, then the more expert you become in scientific reasoning, the more you see consensus as dangerous (even if it happens to be correct) and the more you are inclined to look for ways to disrupt it. Thus, all scientists are natural sceptics.

    The idea that scientists should follow the herd, that accumulated expertise is to be relied upon, and that one position, one group, has the more direct access to the truth, and can reason towards it unaided – that is to fall back into precisely the intellectual trap that methodological scepticism once dug us out of. That is to give our biases free rein, to shield them from critical examination with ipse dixit and authority, while fervently denying that any such biases exist. That’s not science.

    Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that this has happened many times before, it will do again, and is not so remarkable. But every time it happens it is something to be taken seriously. Every now and then we have to swallow one of Joseph Goldberger’s unpleasant little pills, and think the unthinkable once again.

  37. Sean McCorkle

    Great discussion, Chris. Really eye-opening for me. After all this, I realized the core issue for me is whether or not temp tional bias is a surmountable limitation or not. It would bother me a lot if it isn’t.

  38. JMW

    @21, 23, 24: Chris & Somite. To quote Robert Heinlein in the Notebooks of Lazarus Long:

    Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so.

    So someone highly trained in one field – say economics – with a pre-conceived bias against anthropogenic climate change, is more likely to be willing to pit his/her expertise against that of a climatologist, even though the economist’s expertise in economics means little when discussing issues of climate.

  39. Nullius in Verba


    To quote Richard Feynman in “What is Science?”: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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