‘Staggering Irrationality’ In American Politics

“At a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.

So says science writer Chris Mooney in a recent Washington Post article. He attributes the “staggering irrationality” to psychological differences in the way liberals and conservatives respond to reality. He points in particular to two differences in personality traits.  

Photo of Chris Mooney, Author of Unscientific ...

CHRIS MOONEY (Photo via Wikipedia)

The first personality trait is “openness to experience.” Conservatives tend to be more “conscientious,” that is, they “appreciate order and structure in their lives.” Liberals, on the other hand, are more “open” to change and new ideas.

The second personality trait is “need for cognitive closure.” Those with a high need for closure, Mooney posits, “seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information.” He says conservatives need more cognitive closure than liberals; and he strongly implies that conservatives are therefore more likely to ignore new scientific information. Evolution and global warming are cited as two examples of scientific information that is often accepted by liberals and rejected by conservatives.

Mooney offers this chilling conclusion:

“When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.”

Jane Jacobs raised similar concerns in her final book, Dark Age Ahead.”  She warned of decay in five “pillars of culture.” Three of the five relate to the critical concepts of information and truth.  They are: 1) Higher education; 2) “Effective practice of science and science-based technology;” and 3) Self-policing by the learned professions.

Chris Mooney’s analysis of political psychology is presented in his book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality.” As the title reveals, the author has an obvious bias against the conservative viewpoint. It’s easy to imagine that another author might analyze the same personality traits with a bias in the opposite direction.

However the analysis might be biased, it gives no reason to be optimistic about détente in American politics anytime soon.

— John Hayden 

4 thoughts on “‘Staggering Irrationality’ In American Politics

  1. Hi Barbara. You know a lot more about science that I do. Science is one of my shallowest areas of knowledge! I’ve never even taken a basic course in Chemistry or Physics! And Mooney of course ventures into a minefield by mixing science and politics.

    I remember the nuns in elementary school teaching the basics of the “scientific method” with a degree of fervor they usually reserved for infallible pronouncements from the pope. The scientific method, as I remember it, was: hypothesis, experiment, publish findings, repeat. The findings would be accepted only if they could be replicated by other independent researchers.

    Jane Jacobs and others seem to think that modern American culture has lost the almost religious faith we once had in the scientific method. Some think a willingness to skip over the rigors of science may put the U.S. at a disadvantage with other countries who are producing more scientists and engineers. What do you hear?


    • Other countries are producing more scientists and engineers ONLY because we train them in OUR graduate programs!!! Our kids, with their craving for instant gratification, don’t get it that their attitude of blase entitlement is guaranteeing our loss as the world leader in technology! They just don’t seem to want to do the hard work!


      • We still have a great system of higher education at the graduate level. But I’m afraid that, too, may fade. Scholars from India now prefer to return to India to work.

        Higher education is one of our few remaining profitable exports. When students from all over the world come here to study, they spend a ton of money in America. It’s the same as if we were exporting the equivalent number of cars or televisions to their countries. We ought to be doing everything we can do to strengthen our universities.

        U.S. universities have an elastic capacity to provide advanced degrees for our own qualified graduate students, plus many from abroad. But we never seem to have sufficient capacity in medical and nursing schools to train an adequate supply of doctors and nurses for America. Theoretically, we should be able to educate all our own doctors and nurses, plus many more to export at a profit to the rest of the world.


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