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


10 Responses to Ideology trumps science and blocks regulation

  1. Wow. This is exactly what we need, and a lot more of it. It is the socio-pathology of these people we need to get to the bottom of. The pseudo-scientists on the Economics faculty – who are they? How do they maintain their *academic* respectability in the face of overwhelming evidence of malpractice and even corruption? These people *take money* in exchange for favorable opinions (see Ferguson’s “Predator Nation” et. al.)

    How do we expose and defeat these forces in academia, the media and ultimately the courts? They are accomplices in the systematic destruction of the economic structures of society. They have helped to destroy millions of ordinary peoples’ lives – for money. Yet they pose and posture as respected experts, fawned on by the media and the elites.

    Fall has come. Rake muck, not leaves.

  2. Gee, Broun panders to his fundamentalist audience! What unusual behavior for an elected official. Hillary Clinton’s southern drawl before African-Americans is an example of what? And since when did Gallup polls determine the validity of scientific theory? It wasn’t so long ago that blood-letting was the accepted cure-all for almost every physical problem, and an 18th century Gallup would have found a majority agreement among the scientific community.

  3. I’ve been waiting for someone (much more educated than I) to address this issue for a very long time. Thank you, Dr. Black. I’ve been intrigued for a couple of decades with this, noting the similarity of the financial hierarchy to the religious hierarchy, and how both seem to be almost completely based on emotion, rather than intellect, and feed off of each other. And, this article takes the discussion far beyond fundamentalist religion simply turning brains into mush so they can be effectively transformed into receptacles for the bullsh*t the financial elites spew on a constant basis. Again, great article! I hope you continue to address this.

  4. … and the Big Bang theory are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell.’” William K Black

    Actually, the Big Bang supports the Biblical account that this universe had a beginning.

    For an intelligent defence of the Bible vis a vis modern science I recommend Dr. Hugh Ross has a Phd in astrophysics and believes in both modern science and the Bible. He says that they compliment each other.

  5. And btw, how does one “regulate” counterfeiting?

    • justaluckyfool says to “regulate” counterfeiting is easy. While the voters are sleeping on the job -Make it legal,and limitless; if you are a for-profit bank. And if you charge compound interest on that “legal counterfeiting” you could eventually “own all the wealth of the nation”.

  6. I want to make some remarks particularly about the concept of ideology and the way it is used in this article. It is a common misunderstanding that “ideology” as a term marks a kind of enchantment, a kind of illusion that needs to be shattered by the realization of (scientific) truth. This is not the case. One of the first major thinkers of “ideology,” Karl Marx (yes, that guy), coined the term in various different uses, but he always insisted that “the ideologists” (the thinkers he took trouble with) were creating illusions not by enchanting them, but by DISenchanting other illusions. The point is that, if we return to the economic perspective, the way human beings relate to each other is changed by capital, not by capital’s “echantment,” but by the illusion created by individuals that their striving for more capital gains is in fact their ultimate rational self-interest. The ones doing the disenchanting are the individuals themselves, they think they have “revealed” the truth about themselves, while at the same time, they subscribe to a commodity fetish that constitutes just another world view with its own illusions. So, two partners in exchanging goods may think of themselves as ‘making a good deal’ because the deal happens to serve their financial (commodity, …) self-interest. However, they both subscribe to a world view that equals this material self-interest with their self interest AS human beings. Any possible other part of the equation as to why this deal should go through in the first place (for instance: “Is this exchange making me happy? Is it making someone else happy? Are their undesireable effects on other people?”) is left out.

    To go back to the article, prof. Black says:

    Both prof. Black’s and Ditto’s position is insufficient in explaining the bipolarism around evolution in the US. What makes people believe evolution is the power of the theory of evolution to explain, to disenchant, reality. Yet, this is exactly the same reason why people believe the earth to be 6000 years old. Via the same procedure, a disenchantment contains the creation of a new illusion (whether this illusion corresponds to truth is irrelevant, they always carry within them the promise of truth), one that is imbued with a power that is vastly greater than any theory based on mere enchantment alone because it has no need to investigate itself. It is already glorified with the seal of truth because it fed on the disenchantment of a previous illusion. Does this mean that there is no truth? Of course not. It means that if truth is discovered somewhere, human beings have to be on their guard all the more because the risk of this truth to become “ideological” is too great. It is reductive to call people who believe the earth is not older than a few millenia stupid, because it disenchants these believes and torpedoes the sympathetic reader of this blog to the skies of supreme understanding, of supreme ideology itself. And it is precisely this procedure which makes militant creationists so militant.

  7. One of your best Dr. Black. Thank you for telling it straight, and for all the work you do.

  8. Prof. Black is a maverick economist, along with Drs. Hudson and Wray. As Jamie Galbraith explains, people with new perspectives generally are not tolerated in the mainstream and they are not generally given a forum to express their ideas to mainstream economists, e.g., their access to “peer-reviewed” journals is limited by the gatekeepers. Therefore, as Galbraith points out, reform in the professional economics field is next to impossible. (

    It is a funny thing to me that Prof. Black and others then look at the field of “science” in general and suppose it operates differently. Well, it doesn’t. A bunch of hardliners who have followed a particular theory for 40 years and who are now in charge of the mainstream science journals are not about to let any new ideas seep through, much less present them with a fanfare. Who would like to admit, for example, that a theory they have based the last forty to fifty years on, written hundreds of papers about, and received grants on is no longer viable? Who is man or woman enough to say, “well, gee I guess I was wrong and maybe I need to chuck my life’s work and look at a new field of study?” All those papers on my CV? Well, they’re just crap!

    These people may not be corrupt, but it is very difficult to get a person to see a thing when his paycheck (status, prestige, faculty appointment) depends on his not seeing it. To say that science is “peer reviewed” is analogous to saying that rating agencies “peer reviewed” stocks and derivatives.

    To think that all the foibles, greed, insecurities, inflated egos that make-up the people who populate the banking and financial institutions suddenly evaporate when a person dons a lab coat is, I’m afraid, expecting too much of the costume. For example, big pharma funds studies of the safety and efficacy of drugs in combating diseases. There is a revolving door in the government regulatory bodies between big pharma and the FDA, CDC, etc., just as there is the revolving door in the financial industry. Drugs are approved which should not have been, and after billions are made, and thousands die, then the industry is fined a pittance for their misbehavior (i.e., they knew or should have known from the studies that the deaths were likely to occur but they either hid the results or fudged on the statistics). Then the company is free to pursue the next new pill–all at a substantial profit–jacking up the cost of healthcare for everyone–and leaving untold suffering in their wake. But as in all corporations, their duty is to make a buck. So they dress up little girls in short skirts and send them off lugging a huge suitcase full of “freebie” drugs, ink pens, notepads for the local MD, and they urge him to attend a free dinner in which one of their paid experts will explain why a new pill named something ludicrous like “Sadndown” should be prescribed to five-year-olds for “depression.”

    As to climate change–I am not sure that “scientific evidence” is in proving that humans are making a big impact toward global warming, in spite of what Al Gore told us in his “Inconvenient Truth.” The information he was peddling certainly didn’t seem to shock him into changing his lifestyle. He still jet-sets, lives in his gazillion dollar mansions, eats until he is double-chinned. Farting cattle grazing up the whole mid-west don’t seem to both him when he plunges into his big steak. But it does interest me that all the folks who seem to be pushing for human caused global warming also have an Enron-like scheme to fix it–i.e. the selling of “carbon offsets” and carbon default swaps, etc. I believe it was some of the “Smartest Boys in the Room” that initially pushed climate change while formulating their new scheme to “fix” it for us. After having seen a push for home ownership before the mortgage crisis, a repeal of the right to bankrupt against student debt before they pushed the student loans off on everyone, I am very suspicious now that we need to pass laws to limit our “carbon footprint” so that carbon trading can now take off. To me it looks like just the next scheme in a long line of them.

    I am sure, however, that Fukishima is continuing to spew radioactivity into the Pacific, that the burning of radioactive debris is polluting the air, and that cancer deaths will probably increase greatly because of this. “Scientists” if they are to be believed, claim that some of these radioactive elements have half-lives of 50,000 years. If this is true, something tells me that this whole nuclear business is a very dangerous way to boil water to make electricity, and apparently, there are many plants similar to Fukishima located throughout the U.S. Yet billions will be given to build more of these monstrosities while the old one sit about collecting millions of 50 gallon drums full of waste that no one knows what to do with. The profits are privatized, but when it comes to clean-up the cost will be shifted to the commons.

    As for evolution? Is there anyone who doesn’t believe in micro-evolution? That is, almost no one who will dispute that a butterfly will change colors to reflect its background, that skin pigment changes based on the environment, etc. As for the other kind, macro-evolution, well, things get a bit tricky. Darwin said there ought to be lots of transitional forms out there, and even though he could not find any, he said we ought to give it another hundred years or so, and if you didn’t find them in the hundred years after his death, he said his theory ought to be re-examined. In fact, no transitional forms have been found. Because of this, the “new” theory of Darwinism is now “spontaneous evolution” which is, of course, not Darwin’s theory at all. Some of professors write about how something happened in the environment to “spontaneously” alter one life form into another. Yawn. You might as well say God sent a thunderbolt or watch some morphing on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” A theory of gradual evolution based on natural selection to one of spontaneous evolution is no theory at all. It is a an attempt to keep a dead theory alive, because so many grants, professorships, papers demand on it being there gosh darnit.

    And please don’t bring up Lucy. If you have any doubts about that farce, watch NOVA where Johanson admits in a classic example of self-deception that he retrieved all of these bones out of a gulley washout, that the bones just didn’t fit. But he gets a brilliant idea, why the bones must have been compacted after 2 million years of earth being on them. So he did what any good scientist would do, he took them to his laboratory and sawed them so that they would fit. And now ladies and gentlemen, I present you with your prehistoric ancestor! Kind of gives “sawbones” a whole new meaning. But you gotta admit, Johanson has lived pretty good off ole Lucy all these years.

    But I did not come to this site to argue the merits or lack thereof, of evolution or climate change for that matter. I came to learn about the economic ponzi schemes that keeps us all enslaved and poor as church mice while the elite make out like the bandits they are. I’m just saying, if we are going to accept the theory of climate change as fact, then let us make sure it is not just another ponzi scheme set to rip us off even further with a whole new wave of financial instruments that will rob us even more.

  9. Derryl Hermanutz

    Spoken like an enlightened truth seeker, Ruthie, as contrasted with the tired closed minds smug in their ideological prisons.