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.
But it’s not just global warming where the “smart idiot” effect occurs. It also emerges on nonscientific but factually contested issues, like the claim that President Obama is a Muslim. Belief in this falsehood actually increased more among better-educated Republicans from 2009 to 2010 than it did among less-educated Republicans, according to research by George Washington University political scientist John Sides.
Actually, this isn’t news. And all it tells us about educated Republicans is that they’re human.
People don’t like to be wrong. Set out to prove them wrong and the first thing they do, after telling you to fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine, isn’t to look at the evidence you’ve carefully collected and presented in your kindly, well-meaning attempt to correct the errors in their thinking. It’s to set out to prove to themselves that they aren’t wrong.
Sociologists have a term for this habit, and maybe it’s better to call it a reflex. Self-Justification Bias.
And it turns out that the better educated you are, the better you are at self-justification. Michael Shermer sums it up neatly in his book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths :
Or as I like to say, smart people believe weird things because they are better at rationalizing their beliefs that they hold for nonsmart reasons.
Give you an example of how this works over on the left. Most of us aren’t scientists. Most of us don’t even know the science or how to do it. Most of us don’t know how to think like scientists. What we know is to trust science and respect scientists.
And then we know how to congratulate ourselves for being part of the “reality-based” community.
Take Krugman, for another example. Not the man himself. His place in collective progressive thought. Ever read any of his work in economics? Know why he was awarded a Nobel Prize? How much does that work have to do specifically with what he’s been writing in his Times’ columns and blog posts?
We know he’s a smart guy when it comes to economics. We know he’s won a Nobel Prize. We know he has a pretty good track record as a political Jeremiah. So what we know is to point to him when we need an expert to back us up.
How many arguments have you won or flattered yourself you won with the punchline, “Did you read Krugman’s op-ed?”
Krugman’s main contribution to the debate isn’t that he’s right---although he usually he is---but that we can use him to make ourselves sound “right” to ourselves when what we are is full of ourselves.
Left, Right, it doesn’t matter. Vanity guides people’s thinking. We are own favorite and most authoritative expert on every subject. What college teaches us is tricks to defend us from facing our own stupidity. Rick Santorum is wrong. College doesn’t turn conservatives into liberals. If anything it turns them into more stubborn and self-satisfied conservatives. Does a similar favor for liberals too, teaches them how to be more stubborn and self-satisfied liberals. Students learn how to impress themselves with their own mental acrobatics.
Teaching students “critical thinking” is, sadly, a way of teaching them how to defend their prejudices, biases, and conceits against it.
Sorry if I sound grumpy. I’ve been spending too much time on Twitter where it’s begun to look to me as though what passes for progressive debate these days is identifying an egregious example of Republican, conservative, Right Wing idiocy and passing it around for the rest of us to sneer at, shake our heads over, condemn, revile, sniff or scoff at---in short, to enjoy a mutual round of self-flattery.
And, yeah, I know, I’m very guilty of this myself.
And, no, I’m not saying that Twitter is a bad thing or that nothing good happens over there.
All I’m saying is that those people Mooney calls “smart idiots” aren’t only to be found among educated Republicans. Lots of us are smart idiots too. In fact, I think Mooney’s use of the term is a giveaway that he can be one himself. (Chris, if you read this, you understand I’m the pot here, you’re the kettle, right?) Make sure you read Mooney’s whole essay at alternet and then think about the way liberals have learned to name-drop the Enlightenment lately. The essay is adapted from Mooney’s new book, due to hit the shelves in April, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality, which seems perfectly titled if your intention is to give Democrats a reason to think their brains are so much superior to those Republican ones.
If you want to read about why there are so many smart idiots on both sides, read Shermer's book. You’ll feel smarter for it.
Update, morning poetry edition: Commenter RoyS says he wrote this verse some time ago, but I’m glad he left it for us today:
Of all that I hold probable,
Only this I know:
My wisdom only takes me
Where my folly wants to go.
And a big thank you to Batocchio for this extended reply.