Ideology trumps science and blocks regulation

By William K. Black
(Cross posted at

This column was prompted by a story that ran Friday entitled “Congressman Calls Evolution Lie from ‘Pit of Hell.’”  Yes, unintentional self-parody continues to reign supreme.

The NYT story illustrates the central point I wish to make.  The Congressman is Paul Broun (R. GA).  The story reports that “evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell.’”  Broun added that “the Earth is about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days.”  Broun is also a climate change denier.  But the twin barreled punches to the story are that Broun sits on the House committee on Science, Space, and Technology (indeed he chairs the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight) – and he is an M.D.

I will not attempt to convince any reader that Broun’s views are unscientific or incorrect.  Indeed, the exceptional difficulty of doing so is the central point of this column.

The first preliminary point is that the Republican members of the House committee on Science, Space, and Technology typically deny climate change and evolution.

The title of the article says it all:  “The Climate Zombie Caucus Of The 112th Congress.”

Second, rank and file members of the Republican Party largely share Broun’s views.

“Thirty percent of Republicans say manmade global warming is occurring, while 64 percent of Democrats say that’s the case, according to Pew Research Center. Pure creationism – which says man was created by God in his current form – is subscribed to by 52 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup.”

The same Orange County Register story documents the divergent views of conservative ideologues and the scientists with the relevant expertise.

“Denial of manmade global warming has gained traction thanks to campaigns to fuel skepticism, according to Masci, Newport and Ditto. That view appears to be supported by a 2008 study by researchers at University of Central Florida and Oklahoma State University. They looked at 141 books challenging belief in manmade climate change and found that 92 percent were linked to conservative think tanks.

A Pew poll found that 84 percent of scientists believe there’s manmade global warming, compared to 49 percent of the general public. The journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences looked at the writings of 1,372 climate scientists and found that 97 percent thought there was manmade climate change.”

The central point is that Republican elites are more likely to reject the scientific consensus the more they are scientific competent.  This is why Broun, as an M.D., is so representative of the Republican leadership.  Similarly, Representative Akin describes his background in these terms.

“Todd is a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he earned a B.S. in Management Engineering. After graduation, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army with the Army Combat Engineers at Fort Belvoir in Alexandria, Virginia. He received an honorable discharge from the Army Reserves in 1980. Todd spent four years as an engineer with IBM.”

Again, I will not try to convince the reader that Akin’s view that fertile, female victims of “legitimate” rapes do not become pregnant because their bodies naturally block pregnancy.  My point is that Akin is well-educated and has considerable scientific and engineering expertise.

The OC Register article provides part of the explanation for why humans are so good at reinforcing their political ideologies when they consider scientific issues.  It quotes U.C. Irvine Professor Ditto:  “People find holes and problems in arguments where they look for them – and they look harder when the science offends or just upends their established beliefs.”

“Ditto says that the general public on both sides arrive at their beliefs based on faith – they just put their faith in different sources.

‘Scientists are like the priests of the liberal religion,’ Ditto said.”

I reject Ditto’s simile.  To rely on a scientific consensus in physics, chemistry, biology, or medicine is not remotely like relying on a “priest’s” views, purportedly based on holy texts, of any of those scientific fields.  Ditto’s simile is cute but facially absurd because priests and scientists do not follow comparable methods.

“On policy issues like manmade global warming, many partisan voters simply line up with others in their party, according to Ditto.

‘I think it is largely a team sport,’ he said. ‘The red team has been told that they shouldn’t believe in global warming and the blue team has been told that they should. And both teams are told that people from the other team are deceiving them.’”

This helps explain why increased education leads to increased polarization on these scientific issues.  Better educated liberals have greater confidence in scientists, but better educated conservatives have an increased lack of confidence in scientists because scientists are overwhelmingly liberal and scientific findings in areas like evolution and global climate change support policies that conservatives oppose.

Kahan and a bevy of co-authors have found evidence arising from tests of Cultural Cognition Theory (CCT) that supports Ditto’s general thesis.

“CCT posits that people who subscribe to a hierarchical, individualistic world-viewone that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authoritytend to be sceptical of environmental risks. Such people intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such risks would license restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behaviour that hierarchical individualists value. In contrast, people who hold an egalitarian, communitarian world-view one favouring less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needstend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, to which they attribute social inequity. They therefore find it congenial to believe those forms of behaviour are dangerous and worthy of restriction.”

Kahan and his co-authors explain why global climate change is particularly likely to exhibit extreme polarization between conservatives and liberals.

“For the ordinary individual, the most consequential effect of his beliefs about climate change is likely to be on his relations with his peers. A hierarchical individualist who expresses anxiety about climate change might well be shunned by his co-workers at an oil refinery in Oklahoma City. A similar fate will probably befall the egalitarian communitarian English professor who reveals to colleagues in Boston that she thinks the scientific consensus on climate change is a hoax. At the same time, neither the beliefs an ordinary person forms about scientific evidence nor any actions he takesas a consumer, say, or democratic voterwill by itself aggravate or mitigate the dangers of climate change. On his own, he is just not consequential enough to matter. Given how much the ordinary individual depends on peers for supportmaterial and emotionaland how little impact his beliefs have on the physical environment, he would probably be best off if he formed risk perceptions that minimized any danger of estrangement from his community.”

Their study found that as egalitarian/communitarians scientific literacy and numeracy increased they were more likely to consider global climate change a greater risk, but for hierarchical/individualists the results were the opposite (and far stronger).  Elite conservatives are substantially more likely than less well educated conservatives to believe that global climate change poses no serious risk.

While Kahan’s and his colleagues’ research did not study belief in conservative economic theories, cultural cognition is a useful candidate for explaining the irony that conservatives overwhelmingly reject the findings of “hard sciences” (physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and physics) when the findings challenge their ideological views while embracing the theories of pseudo-sciences such as theoclassical economics and finance.  Theoclassical economics and finance have pathetic records of predictive success and a long history of recommending the criminogenic policies that produce recurrent, intensifying financial crises.  It has gotten so bad that even the Queen of England famously realized that the field was an utter failure.

Theoclassical economics and finance, however, created and defined the ideology of hierarchical individualists and their economic theories deride egalitarian and communitarian precepts, so from a cultural cognition viewpoint there is no irony.  The same urge to believe that which will aid the hierarchs motivates both the rejection of the hard sciences and the passionate embrace of the pseudo-sciences.  Indeed, if cultural cognition theory has any validity theoclassical economics should be the field with the most passionate support from hierarchical individualists despite a predictive track record that would embarrass astrologists.

Of course, if theoclassical economists were subject to the standards of imposed by a real science like chemistry they would have all been fired decades ago.  But theoclassical economists dominate economics faculties.  Chemists are scientists who do not act as “liberal” “priests.” Theoclassical economists are conservative priests who have faith in dogmas they consider inerrant regardless of their predictive failures.  That is why they are pseudo-scientists.  Cultural cognition may explain why the conservative laity continues to put its faith in their failed theoclassical priests.  The priests sell the equivalent of indulgences to their corporate patrons (hierarchs such as the Koch brothers) in the form of expert testimony designed to protect them from sanctions for even the most destructive frauds that made them wealthy.  The priests preach the doctrine of liberation theology – except that it is the oligarchs who must be liberated from regulation by the priests’ opinions used in courts to strike down regulations.

The priests rarely fail to tell these hierarchs exactly what they want to hear – that they are wealthy because they are superior human beings.  The priests tell the individualists that they are normal; one should maximize self-interest rather than the community’s interests.  Their recurrent sermons promise that if the individualists protect the hierarchs some of the hierarchs’ wealth will eventually trickle down to the individualists.  The priests warn against efforts to aid the poor, preaching that such programs harm the poor.  All of which is to say, the theoclassical economic priests are heterodox priests.  They invert and pervert the good news by making greed gospel.

These points have tremendous importance for regulation.  Exceptionally conservative justices dominate the Supreme Court and a slight majority of the Courts of Appeal.  Democratic judicial appointees tend to be moderate liberals and recent Republican judicial appointees tend to be movement conservatives.  William Landes and Richard Posner (formerly a U. Chicago professor of law and now a 7th Circuit jurist) find that jurists recently by Republican presidents are more conservative and evince greater polarization in their decisions on non-unanimous cases.

Conservatives dominate seven circuits (the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, and the D.C.).  Democratic appointees dominate the remaining six circuits (which includes the Federal Circuit).  Democratic appointees dominate the Second and Ninth Circuits (which include New York and California).

The key circuit for regulation is the DC Circuit because virtually any federal rule can be challenged there and the Conservative majority has a record of extreme hostility to regulation.  It supports that hostility through skepticism of science and faith in theoclassical economics, particularly benefit-cost analysis.  The DC Circuit has disinterred the “substantive due process” doctrine once used by the judiciary to overturn most progressive legislation.  The DC Circuit panels now decree that they finds certain statements in the administrative record “persuasive” (those submitted by industry that oppose regulation) and other statements that support regulation “unpersuasive.”  Given the makeup of the Supreme Court and the infrequency of grants of certiorari the DC Circuit is effectively the Supreme Court for regulatory agencies.  The decisions of the Conservative judiciary are the decisions of Republican elites.  Their skepticism of scientific findings that favor regulation and their enthusiasm for theoclassical economic dogmas that oppose regulation further support social cognition theory.  Landes and Posner’s study led them to conclude:

 “Overall, our findings support the hypotheses that ideology plays a highly significant role in a judge’s votes and that the circuit composition has significant effect on an individual judge’s votes.”


Bill Black is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He spent years working on regulatory policy and fraud prevention as Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, Litigation Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Deputy Director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, among other positions.

Bill writes a column for Benzinga every Monday. His other academic articles, congressional testimony, and musings about the financial crisis can be found at his Social Science Research Network author page and at the blog New Economic Perspectives.

Follow him on Twitter: @williamkblack


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