“Libertarian ideology is the natural enemy of science” Always?

The Guardian carried an interesting and incisive piece yesterday under the headline “Libertarian ideology is the natural enemy of science.” From gun control to health care to climate change, there are indeed many arenas in which scientific evidence clashes with libertarian (and conservative) worldviews: To illustrate, even though the data show that if you are a victim of an assault, you are between 4 and 5 times more likely to be fatally shot if you had a gun available than if you didn’t have a gun, this evidence is generally dismissed by American libertarians and conservatives. They also dismiss the fact that after Australia introduced stringent gun control in 1996, accelerated declines in firearm deaths were observed.

So not only do libertarians dismiss the problem, they also ignore the solution.

Similarly, the relationship between right-wing politics and the rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change is established beyond much doubt, and we all know that this often involves an element of conspiratorial thinking: a particularly colorful illustration of this tendency erupted this week in Australia.

Yesterday’s Guardian piece comes hard on the heels of other bad scientific news for conservative and libertarian ideology: During the past week, we learned that conservatives show higher levels of psychopathic personality traits than non-conservatives, and we also learned that lower intelligence in childhood is associated with increased prejudice later in life, with the mediating variable being greater endorsement of right-wing socially-conservative attitudes.


One likely reason that this relationship with intelligence is observed is because right-wing ideologies offer simplistic and well-structured views of society, which makes them particularly attractive to people who find uncertainty and ambiguity overwhelming. Or, as Herbert Wray put it, “smart people are more capable of grasping a world of nuance, fluidity and relativity.”

Let’s explore that nuance and relativity a bit more.

For people on the political left it may be tempting to use the recent results to equate conservatism with low intelligence, psychopathy, racism, anti-scientism, or nutty conspiratorial thinking. Although those links can be justifiably drawn on the basis of existing data, this package is a bit too neat and simple and smacks itself of the simplification purportedly associated with right-wing ideologies.

So let’s look at the other side of the ledger and look at “the right” in the nuanced manner that is so cherished by the political left:

  • We need to differentiate between libertarianism and conservatism: Although the two are often lumped together (as in the Guardian piece and as I have thus far in this post), and even though the constructs are often highly correlated, recent research has begun to differentiate between libertarians and social conservatives. This differentiation can be crucial, as for example in one of my recent studies that examined attitudes towards vaccinations.
  • Although conservatism is typically associated with more dogmatism overall, the picture changes when people’s “belief superiority” is probed with respect to specific hot-button issues. Belief superiority refers to the belief that one’s position is more correct than someone else’s, and in a recent study it has been found to be associated with political extremity rather than one particular ideology. Specifically, very liberal people were as convinced of the superiority of their views on government help for the needy as highly conservative people were convinced of the superiority of their view regarding voter identification. Less politically committed individuals on both sides of the spectrum showed a more moderate preference for their own opinion.
  • There is some evidence that even racial prejudice might have more to do with an implicit presumption of attitudes than race per se. That is, the greater prejudice against African Americans that is routinely and reliably observed among conservatives might at least in part result from the attitudes that African Americans are presumed to hold—for example, African Americans are known to predominantly endorse affirmative action and welfare, two issues on which conservatives hold strongly opposing views. Thus, black skin does not trigger prejudice, but black skin signals likely attitudes that, in turn, trigger prejudice. To illustrate, in one recent study, when conservatives and liberals had to rate their impressions of an African American who either endorsed or rejected welfare, what was found to matter was the match of attitudes and not race: Liberals’ negative impressions of a conservative African American were indistinguishable from conservatives’ negative impressions of a liberal African American, and correspondingly, both groups’ enthusiasm for African Americans of their own conviction was also indistinguishable. Importantly, this symmetry can co-exist with greater overall prejudice among conservatives—as indeed it did in this study!—which is measured without providing information about a specific person’s attitude, thereby forcing people to rely on inferred attitudes of a target group.
  • Finally, and most relevant to the role of scientific evidence in society, there is the large body of work by Dan Kahan and colleagues which shows that liberals are as susceptible to cognitive shortcuts and biases as their conservative brethren—except that those biases are expressed in different directions. For example, liberals and conservatives will misinterpret hypothetical data on gun control to suit their own biases with equal flourish. (This work remains to be reconciled with the notion that conservatism is associated with lesser cognitive functioning. I am not aware of the existence of any reconciliation, and I consider this issue unresolved and in need of further research).

What, then, is the relationship between scientific evidence and political attitudes? Is libertarian ideology the natural enemy of science?

The answer has three parts: First, conservative and libertarian ideology is undoubtedly at odds with much scientific evidence. Large bodies of solid scientific evidence are being rejected or denied on the basis of ideology, arguably with considerable detriment to society. Second, there is little doubt that liberals and progressives are equally capable of rejecting scientific evidence that challenges their worldviews, using the same well-understood processes of motivated cognition as their conservative brethren. Third, one of the most wicked problems ever to have confronted humanity, climate change, is not being addressed at present because the solutions involve challenges to conservative and libertarian worldviews. Those worldviews are not natural enemies of science; they are enemies of science because of the particular historical context in which conservative cultural cognition expresses itself at the moment.