This post by Chris Mooney about his new book called The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality is an interesting insight into something that baffles all of us:
I can still remember when I first realized how naïve I was in thinking—hoping—that laying out the “facts” would suffice to change politicized minds, and especially Republican ones. It was a typically wonkish, liberal revelation: One based on statistics and data. Only this time, the data were showing, rather awkwardly, that people ignore data and evidence—and often, knowledge and education only make the problem worse.
Someone had sent me a 2008 Pew report documenting the intense partisan divide in the U.S. over the reality of global warming. It’s a divide that, maddeningly for scientists, has shown a paradoxical tendency to widen even as the basic facts about global warming have become more firmly established.
Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.
For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science—among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.
This was my first encounter with what I now like to call the “smart idiots” effect: The fact that politically sophisticated or knowledgeable people are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant. It’s a reality that generates endless frustration for many scientists—and indeed, for many well-educated, reasonable people...
It turns out that educated conservatives are more likely to believe all kinds of unscientific nonsense because they absorb a lot of partisan news and have a tendency to tribal identification. Well, hell:
Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.
What this suggests, critically, is that sophisticated conservatives may be very different from unsophisticated or less-informed ones. Paradoxically, we would expect less informed conservatives to be easier to persuade, and more responsive to new and challenging information.
In fact, there is even research suggesting that the most rigid and inflexible breed of conservatives—so-called authoritarians—do not really become their ideological selves until they actually learn something about politics first. A kind of “authoritarian activation” needs to occur, and it happens through the development of political “expertise.” Consuming a lot of political information seems to help authoritarians feel who they are—whereupon they become more accepting of inequality, more dogmatically traditionalist, and more resistant to change.
And, it turns out, educated liberals are different and tend to be open to new information and more flexible of mind. They have other problems, of course, not addressed in this study. (Oy, do they...)
Ultimately, this is about tribalism, feeling part of a group, being validated by it and thinking and behaving in ways that preserve your place in it. We all do it to some extent; we're social animals and we usually have a strong need to belong to a larger group. But how we process information is important and something that good political strategists understand instinctively.
The simple rule is this: if you want to persuade liberals of something, bring out the charts and spreadsheets. If you want to persuade conservatives of something, make them identify emotionally with what you want them to believe. And by the way, there's no such thing as "independents" who can be persuaded of anything. 90% of them are conservatives or liberals who either don't know it or won't wear the label and the rest are too clueless and capricious to be persuaded of anything.