Partisanship and Ability to Ignore Facts

January 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

So this study looks interesting:

Democrats and Republicans alike are adept at making decisions without letting the facts get in the way, a new study shows. And they get quite a rush from ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view. Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects’ brains were monitored while they pondered. The results were announced today. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say. Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained. The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making. . . The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate. “The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,” Westen said.”

If this study is correct then those “junk science” and “war on science” folks will each probably find a way to ignore or discount its conclusions! But on a deeper philosophical note, does this mean that those who allege that either Republicans or Democrats are worse abusers of science are in fact themselves abusing science?

16 Responses to “Partisanship and Ability to Ignore Facts”

  1. David Roberts Says:

    Roger, this study presents a fairly obvious truth that very few people would deny.

    And of course it has no bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsehood of the claims in Mooney’s book.

    This post is just more of the typical auto-glorification we have so come to expect from self-styled centrists who believe that *they*, unlike the benighted masses, see things clearly and from a lofty height. Boring.

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  3. Paul Says:

    I don’t know what this study means. But Milloy at blogged on your post about Don Kennedy. It seems obvious where Roger’s allies are.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Paul Thacker-

    We welcome intelligent (and sometimes even wildly off subject) comments on this site, which has been somewhat unique for the (almost complete) lack of angry ad homs and adolescent insults. My preference would be to keep it that way. If you have something substantive to say, say it and if the past is any indictation, then commenters here will listen and respond with respect, even when they happen to disagree. As far as who links where, I am confident that our readers can read my posts and make up their own minds about the merit of the arguments they find — whether they ultimately agree or disagree.


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  7. Jim Angel Says:


    The other day I was reading about PUS and today about monitoring brain activity (or the lack thereof) of politicians. For a minute there, I thought I was reading The Onion. :)

    Who says science policy discussions can’t be fun.

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  9. Paul Says:

    Roger…don’t know what to say. Far too much irony in your post. But in the future, I prefer simply Paul, or my full name Paul D. Thacker. I never go by Paul Thacker.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Paul- You got it.

    Jim- You get it. ;-)

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  13. John Fleck Says:

    David -

    I think you’re wrong to simply dismiss this as an obvious truth that no one would deny. It’s instead an essential factor that must be accomodated in the search for effective policy solutions to the sort of problems that are regularly discussed here.

    For example, the central argument in “The Republican War on Science,” which frequently plays out here, is that if we could only get those pesky Milloy-style “junk science” R’s to simple recognize the Real Science, then we could move forward with policy solutions. But that doesn’t happen, everyone gets real frustrated, and yells at one another.

    It’s obvious that to actually solve policy dilemmas, rather than spend our time in the visceral pleasure of yelling at one another, we need to find policy solutions that are robust to the central truths that this study helps illustrate. So yeah, I guess it may be obvious, but that doesn’t mean we are acting accordingly.

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  15. Greg Lewis Says:

    “So yeah, I guess it may be obvious, but that doesn’t mean we are acting accordingly.”
    The problem is recognizing the obvious is not very much help in figuring out how to act accordingly!

    George Lakoff in his book “Moral Politics” makes exactly the same point. He make a pretty good attempt at addressing why “conservatives” and “liberals” think the way they do, and addressing how they could talk to each other. It is interesting that he started the study because he as a cognitive scientist had no idea what conservatives issues had in common (anti-abortion, low taxes, small government, pro-military, etc.) and then he realized that he had no idea what his own liberal beliefs had in common.

    And Roger, I hope you realize the irony in your final sentence.

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  17. Paul Says:

    By the way, Roger, what exactly are your thoughts on Milloy? Noticed that you compared him somewhat with Revkin.

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  19. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Paul D. Thacker-

    I don’t know Milloy, but looks like to me from his site that he is interesting in cherry-picking science to advance a pretty explicit ideological agenda.

    I have indeed _contrasted_ him with Andy Revkin, who I do know and respect, in a comment on Real Climate (you are doing your Googling, I see) a while back to underscore the difference between opinion and news in journalism. To suggest as you have that I think that the two of them are comparable, is not really correct is it? It is in fact the exact opposite of my point, no? (Readers can judge for themselves in the comments at the following link:)

    But it is not the first time we have had this sort of discussion:

    How about this: since you are a jounralist if you’d like like to ask me some direct questions, interview style, I’d be happy to try to answer them and we can post them on our blog. I am sure that it would be a more effective means of at getting what you are after than a back-and-forth over snide comments on a weblog.


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  21. Paul Says:

    Got it. When you wrote, “You are right, Andy Revkin, Steve Milloy, what’s the difference?” I thought that you were implying that there is no difference, or were sliding your way into becoming a media pundit. We’ve already clarified that you’re not a climatologist.

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  23. Mark Bahner Says:


    It’s interesting…this study doesn’t not seem to have had any “controls.”

    It would have been interesting if they’d included:

    1) People who vote approximately equally for Democrats and Republicans (assuming such people actually exist),

    2) People who are staunchly against both parties (staunch third party voters),

    3) People who are politically completely disinterested (apolitical non-voters).

    Maybe **no one** uses reason.


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  25. Rabett Says:

    Mark Bahner makes some good points. Here is a URL
    to take a look at. It is especially interesting to look at the demographic breakdowns:

    Partisans (republican and democrats do about equally well, e.g. ~ 38% don’t know the answer to the question), but the so called moderates have a much worse idea about reality.

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  27. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Partisans (republican and democrats do about equally well, e.g. ~ 38% don’t know the answer to the question), but the so called moderates have a much worse idea about reality.”

    I don’t see this as the same issue. The study you reference is a simple question about which party has more members in Congress. It’s a simple test of knowledge. It stands to reason that staunch members of either party know the answer to that question to a greater extent than people who don’t care which party has more members in Congress.

    The brain scan study was different. It wasn’t a test of simple knowledge, but a test of reasoning. From the article on the study:

    “The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.”

    So I’d like to see some “controls” in the form of people who: 1) opposed both candidates, 2) vote about equally for either party, and 3) don’t care about politics at all.

    The brain scan study seems to be drawing the conclusion that, when people are staunch supporters of one party, they shut down their brain reasoning centers. But in order for that conclusion to be valid (that the reasoning centers get *shut down*), there needs to be some “control” group that is shown to have reasoning centers still functioning.

    P.S. Eli Rabett, I suggest you accept my offers here:

    I will take your failure to accept my offers in the same manner I took Tim Lambert’s failure to accept my offer. I will conclude that you and Tim Lambert are dishonest, rather than merely ignorant.

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  29. Rabett Says:

    Mark, don’t clown. Your ill posed questions were answer by Robert and me in the Deltoid thread.

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  31. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Mark, don’t clown. Your ill posed questions were answer by Robert and me in the Deltoid thread.”

    Eli, why do you even bother spending time writing such a blatant and pathetic LIE? Do you have the insane idea that if I don’t respond, you will have “won?”

    As I have already pointed out, you have NOT answered my questions. I asked you to label the following statement as “true” or “false,” and to say why:

    “Surface air temperature alone is inadequate to monitor trends of surface heating and cooling. The SI units for temperature are degrees Kelvin (or Celsius), and the SI units for heat are Joules. The surface air temperature can go up while the enthalpy goes down or remains the same. The surface air temperature can go down while the enthalpy goes up or remains the same. The surface air temperature can remain the same while the enthalpy goes down or up.”

    So the ANSWER is either “true” or “false,” and an explanation of why.

    I’ll give you a little help…the correct answer starts with “t…”. See Roger Pielke Sr.’s blog for further explanation:

    And I also asked you to say by what percentage the enthalpy of a given mass of air changes if…

    1) It goes from 20 degrees Celsius and 50 percent relative humidity to 30 degrees Celsius and:

    a) 10 percent relative humidity, or
    b) 30 percent relative humidity.

    2) It goes from 20 degrees Celsius and 30 percent relative humidity to 15 degrees Celsius and:

    a) 80 percent relative humidity, or
    b) 60 percent relative humidity.

    3) It stays at 20 degrees Celsius, but the relative humidity changes from 40 percent to:

    a) 20 percent, or
    b) 70 percent.”

    You clearly have not answered those questions, either. The answers are PERCENTAGES.

    I would ask that you stop lying…but I’m getting more and more certain that asking you to stop lying is a waste of time. That’s apparently beyond your capabilities.

    Just like understanding the relationship between (dry bulb) temperature and enthalpy is apparently beyond your capabilities.