This requires a bit of set up, so stick it out:
The very existence of Bullshit Mountain should not be possible in a world inhabited by an educated, rational, and enlightened populace. Yet the Bullshit that forms the steep slopes, rocky crags, and soaring peaks of the Behemoth is exceptionally well-documented.
The phenomenon that is Bullshit Mountain is made possible by a very interesting and frightening reality of human nature: that there are many, many among us who simply can’t learn anything that might conflict with their world view. The vast majority of those identify themselves as ‘conservatives’.
Sure, there are non-conservatives that believe things that are not true and will not learn extant facts which might cast doubt on their beliefs, but such examples are somewhat rare. The important difference between conservatives and non-conservatives is not how readily they fall for false information, but how willing they are to discard what is proven to be bullshit. For instance, when non-conservatives encounter a false story that aligns with their beliefs, they will circulate the story until they encounter the actual facts that debunk that story. That there are many non-conservatives that pride themselves on fact-checking is part of their collective mechanism that filters out Bullshit with some effectiveness over time. But when conservatives encounter a bullshit story like the Clinton/Uranium One deal, no matter how many times they are exposed to the actual facts, no matter how thoroughly those facts are explained, and no matter how much more sense those facts make, they simply cannot learn those facts if it means they might have to abandon their belief. Notice how I said ‘cannot’ instead of ‘will not’? I’ll get to that in just a bit.
In the case of the Clinton/Uranium One deal hyperlinked above, if you ask a conservative who believed the story a year ago if they still believed it today, nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine times out of ten-thousand, they will tell you “Clinton sold 20% of our uranium to Russia!”. Then, even if you show them the facts which make that belief look entirely ridiculous, they will say the same thing this time next year… and the year after that… and the year after that.
Take some of the following examples:
Explain to a conservative that the theory the globe was cooling was just a postulation by a small group of scientists, and when the data were gathered the idea was proven completely wrong and that in fact, the opposite was proven to be true.
A year later, that same conservative will still say that global warming is bunk because ‘scientists also said’ the Earth was cooling.
Tell a conservative that the Theory of Evolution has been proven through the study of not only fossils, but of plants and bacteria in real time.
A year later, that same conservative will still say, “Evolution is just a theory!” Then try explaining that proven theories are actually facts… it won’t matter.
The conservatives who still believe Obama isn’t an American despite the fact that he could have been born on the Moon and still been a US citizen by virtue of his mother’s status?
Try prying that from their cold, dim heads.
Certainly, not every conservative believes the exact same bullshit, but a surprising majority adhere to the same beliefs. Also there are non-conservatives who believe some bullshit as well. But the staggering difference is in just how much more unwilling conservatives are to adjust their worldview based on the facts. It would be easy to say that they must simply be stupid, or that they are scientifically illiterate. But that’s not necessarily the case (even though there seems to be a downward correlation between conservatism and IQ). The reality isn’t that conservatives are stupid, or that they won’t accept facts they don’t like… the reality is that they can’t.
But why would someone with what appears to be a functioning brain not be able to recognize facts?
The reason, it would seem, is based on relatively recent evolution.
When our primate ancestors found themselves in a hostile environment of dangerous animals with sharp pointy things on five out of six ends, the number one tool for survival was fear. In the dangerous epochs of human evolution, fear was a trait that increased the individual’s chances of survival.
If you and I were Australopithecus walking through the jungle three million years ago, and we both heard a rustle in the bushes, the one of us who took off running would more likely go on to procreate and have offspring with the same instincts, while the one of us who stuck his head in the bush out of curiosity would more likely wind up as something’s dinner.
So when the world was still our nemesis, ‘fear’ was a very good thing to have and pass on to future generations. It literally became a hardwired attribute for survival.
Then we took fear to its next logical manifestation: Tribalism.
For a few million years, forming tribes was a particularly advanced evolutionary strategy. Naturally, the formation of tribes was necessitated by fear. Being in a tribe meant that we could be less afraid of all the nasty critters by having strength in numbers. It was also a means to secure resources against competitors, which included other tribes.
But the downside of being in a tribe was that an individual could not be different from the rest of their tribe without running the risk of being cast out. To be cast out of one’s tribe meant only one thing back then:
“Who ordered lunch?”
So let’s say you’re in a tribe, and you’re naturally curious and questioning. One day you say, “Hey, I think this idea that lightning comes from a sky wizard throwing a tantrum might be a little silly. What if it’s actually just something that happens in the sky under certain natural conditions?”
Things might not go so well for you after that.
Those that were born with natural curiosity and an above tribal-average intellect tended to have fairly limited life spans. In the few cases where such a creative person was not thrown out of their tribe, they might sometimes become an asset.
So pre-history rinsed and repeated until those whose creativity and intellect wasn’t quashed as a rule actually became assets to their tribe. This eventually led to civilization.
Suddenly, at least by evolutionary standards, the creative and curious found themselves much more able to thrive amidst a modicum of social order . Over a mere five-thousand years or so, the sudden explosion of creative intellects led to the most rapid state of innovation in history. We created cities. In those cities we created legal, political, and logistical structures. With the recognition of individual talent, we saw an eruption of science, art, philosophy, and all of the tools that would lead to our current modern age.
So to recap:
-For roughly one hundred sixty million years of being mammals, we survived by fear.
-For nearly twenty million years as primates, we got by on tribalism.
-Then, for a mere five thousand years, we’ve thrived from intellectualism.
That means that, from an evolutionary perspective, our fear is thirty-two thousand times older than our intellectualism and creativity.
What does this have to do with conservatives? Everything.
Recent scientific studies have demonstrated a very stark distinction between conservatives’ brains and those of non-conservatives. Essentially, the conservative brain is literally hard-wired with the ancient fear response while non-conservatives tend to gravitate towards the more novel curiosity/creativity response.
Ever wonder why so very few conservatives have a sophisticated sense of humor or why they are so bad at producing popular comedy?
Like a Firefly
That would be, in part, due to their less utilized anterior cingulate cortex. The ACC region of the brain is generally connected to curiosity, creativity, and conflict resolution. In non-conservatives, utilization of the ACC is higher than in conservatives. While this is just one of the aspects of the newly emergent intellectualism, it is striking when contrasted with the tendency of conservatives to have higher utilization of the right amygdala. To over-simplify; the amygdala is responsible for dealing with memory, fear and anxiety. It is, in part, responsible for dealing with threatening stimuli by correlating fear-associated memories through the hippocampus and forming a ‘quick decision loop’ between the thalamus and medial prefrontal cortex. To over-over-simplify, the amygdala is part of a system that decides what is a threat, how it is a threat, and whether something should be filed as a threat for long-term potentiation (memory). In that process, the amygdala ‘decides’ whether or not something is worthy of being remembered as a threat. Obviously, I’m not a clinical cognitive psychiatrist or neuroscientist, but the short of it is that the conservative right amygdala, a neuronal cluster responsible for dealing with fight or flight, is figuratively on steroids.
Just like our fear-riddled, tribal ancestors.
While it might be unfair to characterize conservatives as ‘evolutionary throwbacks’, they are indeed more representative of the last one hundred sixty million years of our evolution while non-conservatives and liberals in particular are representative of just the last five thousand years during which they were not fed to wolves.
“Food!… Water!… Atmosphere!…”
Here’s the thing: It’s obvious to anyone paying some bit of objective attention that fear and tribalism are alive and well in today’s conservatives. It’s not a coincidence that conservatives own more guns, shun Muslims/Immigrants/LGBTQ people or *Any* people who are not like their tribe, and why conservatives tend to stick only with each-other.
“What do you mean ‘not inclusive? We got BOTH kinds of white people.”
There’s a reason that conservatives don’t like science and are hostile to the arts. It’s not that they’re necessarily simply less creative or scientifically illiterate, it’s because the parts of their brains that should have evolved are still stuck in a time when those things were just too abstract to really be practical. If it didn’t put ‘food on the family’ or save you from threats, it didn’t matter.
Here’s where we put it all together, the REASON conservatives can’t seem to learn anything that conflicts with their ideology is because their very brain structure is designed for pre-civilization survival. That means, “Being part of a tribe” is absolutely essential. While there are tribal tendencies among nearly all humans, conservatives have a special bond over their beliefs. It’s true that conservatives don’t believe every single thing that other conservatives believe, but when one takes a look at their core values, there is a unifying worldview among them that none will violate. This puts them in a special position of ‘Motivated Reasoning’ where the motivation is to maintain their identity as part of their tribe… as though their lives depend on it.
Because whether they know it or not, and they will never, ever admit it, at some primeval level, the conservative brain is literally hard wired to believe that being different means being expelled from their tribe, and being expelled from their tribe means death.
This means that a conservative will never seek or accept knowledge that might conflict with the core beliefs of their tribe. They will never learn the actual science that proves man made climate change for any other reason than to find futile ways to refute it. The vast majority of them will never understand that being gay or trans isn’t a choice… because then they could not hold the collective belief that it is a ‘character flaw’ of a ‘bad’ or ‘mentally disturbed’ person. They will refuse to absorb the overwhelming evidence proving the theory of evolution because good conservatives ‘believe in Gawd’.
I have very little doubt studies will eventually show that some architecture in the conservative brain, possibly that pesky amygdala, does more than suppress uncomfortable impulses; it suppresses the realization of facts and even the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when they engage in logical fallacies that would make most intellectual sorts feel shame.
Like good members of a tribe, they see the world in black and white, us against ‘them’, and they are always truly ‘good’ while those they dislike are always bad. They cannot even register the rank hypocrisy they engage in when they ignore the fact that their president plays more golf and takes more vacations than the president they used to rail at for every single moment of leisure he enjoyed, and showing them those facts will have absolutely no effect on them or give them pause for introspection.
They just can’t do that.
Because for a conservative, deliberate ignorance is absolutely crucial to their ego, their tribal identity, and ultimately and unwittingly, their survival. Thanks to evolution, their brains are simply not wired to get around that deep, abiding, terrifying instinct.