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Academic event discusses the science of disbelief

3/17/2014

ELIZABETH GOLDEN

egolden@dailynews.net

Chris Mooney, a science and political journalist, presented at Fort Hays State University's 50th Science Cafe event Wednesday.

Mooney has written four books and blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund. He co-hosts the Inquiring Minds podcast. A graduate of Yale University, he has been a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union since 2010.

He first visited Hays in 2007 and inspired the founding of the Science Cafe, an outreach program designated to bring science to the general community.

In his lecture, "The science of why we don't believe in science," Mooney discussed political ideologies and how they relate to psychological and environmental factors.

"I'm going to talk about this amazing thing human nature and how it can lead to some pretty bad responses when it comes to how we deal with scientific information," Mooney said, making it clear he is not a scientist, but a journalist who writes about science. "The bottom line is that denying science is fundamentally an emotional process."

Mooney said he coined the term "smart idiot effect." He used an example of how education relates to scientific realities in the context of global warming.

"For Republicans, the higher level of education, the less likely to accept psychological reality," he said. "But with Democrats, it's the opposite. The higher the level of education, the more they accept reality. Politics is the opposite of rationality."

Political views even affect one's ability to do math. He presented a complementary word problem regarding skin creams to the audience. The amount of education a person had, the more likely he or she was to get the answer correct.

He then presented the same problem, but substituted skin cream for violence and gun control. The results changed drastically.

"If your politics are involved, you'll even do math wrong," he said.

Mooney turned his attention to conspiratorial thinking.

"Conspiratorial thinking has a strong relationship to the denial of science," he said, "especially climate change, genetically modified organisms and vaccines."

Mooney said those who deny vaccines believe certain vaccines cause autism, even though that has been strongly disproved. Conspiratorial thinkers are also more likely to deny climate change, which he said is scientifically proven.

"The fact that global warming is caused by humans is extremely established," he said. "Denying humans cause global warming can only be a conspiracy because you're saying all the scientists in the world are wrong. I doubt all scientists stuck together to make this claim. Scientists are hard to coordinate."

Those who deny scientifically proven facts are more likely to be paranoid and unhappy with society, Mooney said.

Mooney cited a study saying there is a huge partisan different between the republican and democrat distrust in science.

"For Democrats, distrust of science was at 6 percent," he said. "Republicans had a 22 percent distrust."

"Conservatives know academia is a primarily liberal place and the statistics are just undeniable," Mooney said.

"14 percent of college educators republican, and liberals are much more likely to have an advanced degree."

Mooney said fundamental personality traits can make someone predisposed toward his or her political believes. For that reason, it could be near impossible to change someone's mind.

Citing a 2010 study "Personality and Political Attributions: Relationships Across Issue Domains and Political Comments," liberals are more open, conservatives are more conscientious. Conservatives are more stable, and liberals are more educated.

He also disagreed with the ideology behind Libertarians.

"Libertarians, we have to talk about this," Mooney said. "It's impossible to convince a male Libertarian that global warming is real."

To end his lecture, he left the audience with words of eternal wisdom from a great philosopher, Yoda.

"Yoda said you must unlearn what you learned," Mooney said. "That is why people deny science and it's so hard to reach people who are different than you. That is the situation we are in."

The next Science Cafe will be in April at Gella's Diner & Lb. Brewing Co. The date will be announced later.