In a news analysis story in the Denver Post yesterday titled, "On climate, the ignored elephant", Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press makes poignantly clear that delegates to the two-week-long climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, were constantly looking over their shoulders at an invisible "elephant in the room", careful not to agree to anything that would actually require the U.S., along with other major polluters, to reduce their output of poisonous carbon dioxide. Although careful not to be too specific, delegates insinuated that the biggest obstacle to making real strides toward confronting "one of the greatest challenges of our time" was none other than "the impending Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives". Euphemisms included "governments deadlocked because of ideological divisions" and the "backward politics" of an unnamed developed country.
This item leads to connecting a dot to a David Brooks column titled, "Social science palooza", from The New York Times, December 6, 2010. In it, Mr. Brooks refers to this item from Kevin Lewis, who covers social sciences for The Boston Globe and National Affairs:
Classic research has suggested that the more people doubt their own beliefs, the more, paradoxically, they are inclined to proselytize in favor of them. David Gal and Derek Rucker published a study in Psychological Science in which they presented some research subjects with evidence that undermined their core convictions. The subjects who were forced to confront the counter-evidence went on to more forcefully advocate their original beliefs, thus confirming the earlier findings.
When I read this, I was reminded of something I read few years ago in Drew Westen's brilliant book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. In it, he tells of studies done in measuring the brain waves of college students during the presidential campaign of 2004 when presented with videos of their favorite candidate making statements, followed by other videos presenting evidence which contravened those statements.
When Kerry supporters were shown evidence challenging their beliefs, the part of their brains that indicates an effort to reconcile what they had just seen with their preconceptions became more active. In other words, there was at least a brief period of confusion and reassessment. Though they may not have ultimately changed their minds about Kerry, they had learned something or, at least, had been given "food for thought".
However, when Bush supporters were placed in a similar position regarding their previous beliefs about their candidate, the area of their brains which produces the fight or flight stimulus was almost immediately active, suggesting that, as in the study mentioned above, their reaction was to argue even more forcefully for their preconceived notions of truth.
This explains, perfectly, why Republicans can insist that global warming is "the worst hoax ever foisted upon the American people" despite over-whelming evidence to the contrary.
It explains why Republican hooligans from the Bush campaign could be sent to Dade County, Florida, to harass and intimidate the poll workers trying to sort out the hanging chad mess in 2000 and appear to be so utterly self-righteous that it reminded me of the mobs that used to string up prisoners locked up but "at risk of escaping justice" in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
It explains why Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina could shout out "You lie!" to President Obama in the middle of the State of the Union address (and be financially rewarded for it by his constituents)...and how a sitting Supreme Court justice could sit in the front row and visibly and plainly mouth the words, "That's not true," when the President said that the decision in Citizens United would lead to a massive increase in spending and influence by corporations in upcoming elections--something that we now know is a fact.
It explains why Republicans can be handed a sheet of talking points and told how to vote on a bill before Congress and they will follow it, without a word of question or complaint.
This is what happens when one's politics is based upon religion or beliefs inculcated in young children by their parents without any basis in truth but rather an unquestioning obeisance or respect for the "teller of truths". It is what happens when a person's ego has been so bruised that they dare not admit the possibility of error. It is what happens when self-worth is married to Eternal and Unchanging Truth. It is what happens when conservatism becomes preserving the status quo at whatever cost. It is what happens when one believes that all goodness came into being two thousand or two hundred years ago and nothing good has happened since. It is what happens when cynicism about humanity replaces the belief in one's own capacity to discern the truth.