The Interview: Chris Mooney

Article published on May 14, 2012.

Chris Mooney is the bestselling author of The Republican War on Science, the host of the “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and the author of “The Intersection” blog for Science Progress. In addition to three books, in the past he has written for Mother Jones, the American Prospect, Harper’s, the Washington Post, USA Today, and Slate. He has appeared on The Last Word, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Book TV, Science Friday, Morning Joe, and Fresh Air, among other programs.

Are you a bookgeek?

Sure, absolutely. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t devoured books growing up. They taught me how to think, and also how to write myself.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?

The piece of advice about writing that influenced me the most was contained in George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.” Orwell admitted very frankly that writers are driven by their egos, their desire to make a mark on things–and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor, he added, is there anything wrong with writing out of political motives. There is an aesthetic aspect that gets layered on top of it all, but the other factors can’t be ignored, and shouldn’t be apologized for.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?

My favorite writer in high school and college was Charles Dickens. I also read science fiction and fantasy to decompress. Lately, like everybody else in the world, I’ve been reading Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I know I’m supposed to give a much more erudite answer than that, and show that I devour political books, but, well….I learned frankness and honesty from Orwell.

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?

My audience—at present, anyway–is basically the set of liberals and scientists who are frustrated by the irrationality of the world, and trying to figure out a way to make things a little bit better. Their frustration knows no end, and I do think I can help a little to ease their sorrows. Or at least to make it all make a little more sense.

But yeah, you bet I write to satisfy myself as well. There’s nothing more sublime than the moment when you’ve been working on a book for about 6 months, and suddenly, it’s like you step out of your body and have a vision of how all the parts fit together. Parts that you didn’t know existed yet, and parts that you didn’t know where to place. Suddenly, the puzzle pieces up and move themselves into place. I have to admit that I crave that moment.

Where do you write, and why?

I take it you mean physically. I do my best writing in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., in the early morning. It’s called Tryst. I’ve thanked them in my books.

I wrote these very words in Tryst, actually.

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.

Wuthering Heights. Weird, right? But it’s true. I don’t know of a more perfect book.

Or maybe Tristram Shandy. That really captures my sense of humor.

The American left is traditionally considered to be more right-wing than the European left.  Would you say the socialist brain is a different beast again, or is it simply a variation on the liberal brain?

No, just a variation of the liberal brain. There are large cultural and regional variations in ideology that are probably not influenced by psychology, so much as by “nurture” or the environment. I think U.S. liberals would, in Europe, often be called socialists. In fact, there is research, discussed in the book, showing that moderate socialists in the U.K. looked a lot like U.S. liberals in their “integrative complexity,” which means their willingness to consider other sides of an argument and find the common ground between different perspectives.

You mention that a more personal appeal to common ground and positive emotion may be the key to conciliation between rival factions. To what extent is that possible when releasing information in books and journals? Does science have a PR problem in that regard?

Science has a gigantic PR problem, and it is at last beginning to recognize it. Scientists like start with the facts in communication–and even, sometimes, with the facts that you have to know in order to even begin to understand the facts.

Yeah.

This means scientists have communication precisely backwards. When communicating with homo sapiens, you want to start with the overarching point, not with the details. Moreover, if you want to really connect with somebody, you have to start with the values and emotions—preferably, those that the two of you share.

So the whole scientific process is built to be, essentially, anti-communicative, and turning that around is a big, big challenge. But, it’s starting to happen.

European conservatives have generally been able to accommodate the theory of evolution. Why do you think American conservatives are so resistant to it?

Simply put, and for historical as well as psychological reasons, American conservatism has activated a religiously fundamentalist and psychologically authoritarian strain that is not matched in Europe. Authoritarianism leads to a much more extreme sort of reality denial, as well as bellicosity and prejudice. So American conservatives—Christian conservatives in particular–have fixated on the idea that evolution is a threat to their values (although it shouldn’t be), and they’re also the sort of people who double down and defend their beliefs against challenge and outsiders.

In closing The Republican Brain, you mention your willingness to be wrong bolsters the likelihood of you being right. Is it reasonable to draw a parallel between this thinking and the religious assertion that doubt strengthens faith?

Yikes. I hope not.

Recent research suggests that people who engage in more second stage reasoning—more measured, less automatic and instinctive reactions–tend towards less religiosity. So I am not sure that doubt actually does strengthen faith in all cases.

In truth, when you talk about the sort of faith that is strengthened by doubt, what you’re really talking about is psychologically liberal religiosity. Psychologically conservative religiosity, or fundamentalism, is not at all strengthened by doubt. It craves certainty, and latches on to what it considers absolute truths to stave off doubt’s corrosion.

My view is that in religion as in politics, there are psychologically liberal approaches and psychologically conservative approaches—and the latter tend to be the problem, because they’re wedded to certainty and frequently become intolerant. This separates me, incidentally, from the so-called New Atheists, who think religion in all its forms is the problem. No way, I say. You need to worry about conservatism, in religion or anywhere else.

Is it ever possible to be neutral when reporting politics?

People try it, but inevitably, they reach a bridge where either they’ve got to call a fact a fact—whereupon, one side will get angry—or, they’ve got to be spineless. This is especially the case in U.S. politics today, incidentally, where the distribution of unreality is vastly unequal. This leaves fact-checkers, in particular, in quite the quandary. Conservative lies are far worse than liberal lies, so are they really going to split the difference? If so, that will make them a laughingstock—and of course, we’ve seen that happen.

In view of your findings, do we need a new Enlightenment? And if so, what form would it take?

It’s simple—and I’m not the first to propose this, by the way. I’m following George Lakoff.

The new Enlightenment would not be built on idealism about the power of rationality to fix human ills. Rather, it would be built on the best available evidence about how human beings process information. In a sense, that would mean that it would be an Enlightenment that pretty much assumes all manner of human irrationality. It would recognize that reason can’t save us unless we recognize and study the very limited circumstances in which reason actually occurs—and act to privilege those circumstances.

In The Republican Brain, you mention Churchill as a leader whose conservative qualities were vital to the war effort.  Outside wartime, could there ever be a political reality in which you as a liberal would vote for a conservative party?

Sure. A psychologist reviewing the book at Amazon.com pointed out that I myself am actually a blended character in terms of left-right psychology. I have some conservative traits, but I also have a liberal “need for cognition.”

Conservative leaders have often appealed to me. People like the John McCain of the year 2000, for instance. However, I can’t hold truck with the sort of conservative irrationality and anti-empiricism that dominates today in the U.S. I’ll do everything I can to combat it.

You might say I’ll support conservatism when it gives me decisive and brave leaders who actually respect modern knowledge, rather than trample on it. Short of that, I’ll stay with liberals, even though they’re politically rather inept.

Finally, who do you expect to win in November?

President Obama. But such predictions at this stage of the game are, to my mind, just as meaningless as they are amusing.

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