Tribal Politics Is Turning Us Against Each Other—and Science

If you’ve spent much time on a college campus you’ve probably heard the claim that conservatives are anti-science. If you’re a liberal who doesn’t interact with many conservatives, you might have believed it. If you’re conservative, you probably felt frustrated and misrepresented. This view of conservatives as anti-science has been broadcast beyond the college campus. We should all be concerned about the consequences of playing politics with science.

Science isn’t inherently associated with liberal or conservative viewpoints, but tribal politics does influence how people think about scientific issues. Consider a recent study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that examined the kinds of nonpolitical books conservatives and liberals purchased. Conservatives and liberals were equally interested in science books. In fact, both groups similarly preferred science books over non-fiction books not related to science. This is good news. It reveals a general high level of interest in science among both liberal and conservative readers. Indeed, surveys reveal that Americans across the political divide hold scientists in high regard.

The researchers did, however, detect differences in the types of scientific books conservatives and liberals purchased. Liberals were more inclined to purchase basic science books such as books on astronomy, physics, and zoology. Conservatives were more inclined to purchase applied and commercial science books such as books on medicine, criminology, and geophysics.

These distinctions may be partially accounted for by natural differences in the personal interests of conservatives and liberals. But they also raise concerns about ideological echo chambers.

This is where tribal politics comes into play. When liberals and conservatives read on the same topic (e.g., economics) research indicates that they are selectively consuming information (e.g., books, websites, magazine articles) that reinforces their own ideology.

But why? Humans are a social species. Starting at birth we depend on caregivers to meet our basic needs. Even as independent adults we rely on others to survive and thrive. At a minimum, we need one other to reproduce and even the most individualistic folks require the help and expertise of others from time to time. Forming and maintaining more complex groups and larger societies has allowed us to dominate the planet and, using science and technology, bend nature to our will.

Because humans are highly self-aware organisms capable of abstract and symbolic thought, these groups are often based on or closely tied to shared ideologies. This is all well and good but the motivation to be a good member of the tribe can mean forming opinions based on perceived group consensus as opposed to rational thought and empirical data. Thus, if a particular scientific topic becomes or is perceived as political, many will adopt the position of their political tribe, as opposed to conducting their own investigation.

In the modern world, it is often hard to realize just how powerful these social motives are for our species. But imagine the high price our ancestors might have paid if they were ostracized by the group. Indeed, history is full of examples of people being punished, banished, or killed for challenging tribal orthodoxy.

Even in today’s society, tribal disloyalty can have dramatic personal and professional consequences. Consider, for example, the very recent case of an untenured philosophy professor being publicly ridiculed and shamed by fellow academics for publishing a paper that, in their opinion, did not sufficiently conform to far-left dogma. Our sensitivity to rejection is adaptive but it can also lead us to privilege tribal loyalty over facts.

Trusting the consensus of a group is not necessarily a bad idea. People only have so much time and cognitive bandwidth to allocate to any given topic or task so we naturally assume we can rely on the knowledge of others, particularly those who share a common group identity, interest, or goal. This approach works when the shared information is accurate.

And if the information we are given is incorrect but has no direct or immediate impact on us personally, maintaining our standing within the tribe may be a more valuable proximal goal than challenging its collective wisdom. Of course, this can lead to longer term consequences for us and others if the collective wisdom is wrong and dangerous.

This is why it is critical to make science transcend tribal politics. Academia, which is increasingly dominated by faculty on the political left, is not immune to tribal loyalty and groupthink. As a result, it is easy for academics to identify and criticize conservatives who reject scientific findings or engage in biased reasoning but to not see their own biases and some of the pseudoscientific and even anti-science scholarship that is happening at liberal universities.

This problem goes beyond the academy. It is people on the political left who often have pseudoscientific beliefs about vaccines, GMOs, and alternative medicines and healing practices. Conservatives are not the only people denying science.

Likewise, liberals are not the only people advancing science. For instance, recent rankings of states on clean energy development reveal that the top ten rankings were nearly evenly divided between conservative and liberal led states. Not surprisingly, California was at the top, but states such as Wyoming, North Dakota, and Kansas also held high rankings. For Wyoming, all of the state’s power plant capacity added since 2016 comes from renewable sources. Kansas has tripled its production of electricity from wind. And North Dakota is number one per capita in wind-based energy production. This is just one example.

Science is not a social club or a tribe. It is way to examine and understand the natural world and the organisms that live in it, including humans. It is an effort to remove human biases, motives, and emotions in order to develop an objective understanding of reality. Scientists are humans and humans are biased so mistakes are made and science is sometimes used for personal gain or to cause harm. But this is not the fault of science. It is the fault of people. Science has no agency. Therefore, it has no agenda, ambition, or prejudice.

Psychological science offers a solution to the politicization of science. Research indicates that uniting people under a common cause reduces tribal biases and intergroup conflict. Researchers call this a superordinate goal. Thus, if science is perceived as something that is superordinate to political or any other group identity, people across different groups are better able to work together. Common humanity is a similar concept. When people from different groups perceive themselves as part of a superordinate group with a common purpose, it is easier for them to perceive science as part of that shared purpose.

Our nation and world have plenty of issues and concerns that divide us. We can’t afford to let science be one of them. We all need science.

  • Jim Martin

    Thank you for another stimulating contribution to the politics of science, and how it evolves.

    Those interested in this theme might want to check out Alex Berezow’s website, RealClearScience. It has regular features on science-rejection on both the left (their chemophobia) and the right (our denial of climate change).

    The best practice should be to let science be science. Scientists in a special field will prevail only to the extent consistent with the standards of the scientific method, and challenges from learned rivals. If a problem requires remedial policy changes, science can provide valuable input on background and can point out some consequences. It does not control the remedial policy decisions, which follow the practices of a different discipline: politics. Policy-making responds to the will of the people through their elected representatives.

    How do we respond to the scientific consensus about humans’ contribution to global warming? Do we restrict economic growth in underdeveloped countries, or developed countries, or both? No? Do we wait until Malthusian principles settle it for us? No? What then? Science tells us we need to reduce the generation of carbon dioxide, and that combustion of natural gas is better than coal. Science and engineering have developed alternative energy sources, but they typically require excessively large land areas relative to kilowatt yields. One exception is nuclear power. If we deny nuclear power, can we be serious about global warming?

    Let science be science, and let policy-makers make policy.

    • Commenter Jim Martin says, “… and the right (our denial of climate change)…”

      One little problem with that line: it is a literally unsupportable far-left talking point. At a convention of people skeptical about the idea of catastrophic man-caused global warming, Lord Christopher Monckton demonstrated in comical fashion how an entire roomful of people who are supposedly climate change deniers do no such thing – starts at the 13:38 point here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSVI-EdgLr4&t=819

      Regarding commenter Jim Martin’s line “Science tells us we need to reduce the generation of carbon dioxide”, skeptic climate scientists offer mind-blowing amounts of detail on how the science of this issue does not say anything of the sort. We are led to wonder if commenter Jim Martin is unaware of this material. At the moment, some links are malfunctioning at this site ( http://climatechangereconsidered.org/other-nipcc-publications/ ), but we all should invite commenter Jim Martin to explore that overall site when it all functions properly again and speak extensively with skeptic climate scientists while viewing myriad other sites on the skeptical side of the issue, and then see if he changes his mind about “can we be serious about global warming.”

      In my view, it is extremely hard to ‘get serious’ about an issue which seems to survive on false premise science assertion misinformation, ‘alternative facts’ rather than the whole truth, and outright character assassination of skeptic climate scientists (said to be ‘paid industry shills’ when there is zero evidence proving that accusation to be true). I entirely agree that the science should be science, but the bigger issue now is to expose efforts seeking to bury half the science out of public view. E.g. “NewsHour Global Warming Bias Tally: 39 to 0” http://gelbspanfiles.com/?page_id=3834

    • Jarhead0369

      Unfortunately, science is driven by salaries, grants, prizes, tenure, publicity, and prestige, which are all driven by government, think tank and private money. Policy makers make the rules and divide up the pie. They will never be impartial.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        In addition to the fact that “Science” is not necessarily what the experts and policy makers think it is. The former is more the ‘idea’ that science progresses according to the scientific method, and the latter represents those successful at reputation building and gaining access to resources.

  • ccass

    There’s a difference between science being political and science being partisan.

  • Jarhead0369

    tribe (trīb)n.
    1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.

    Members of our tribe are, after the family group, the people we take care of first.
    Neither liberals or conservatives, or Republicans, Democrats or SJW’s for that matter are a “tribe”.
    “Common humanity” is a red herring, a myth, and it is always superseded by the tribe. Science may not be tribal, but the uses it is put to most certainly are.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Science is just as tribal as any other group that forms around an accepted genealogy of technical equipment, accepted standards of truth, a shared mathematical language, supported by a material base of resources and financing, including journals and conferences. The sociology of science is not somehow different from that of any other group.

      • Jarhead0369

        Science as a whole may share the so called “scientific method”, but what makes it a human activity is the same petty scramble for power, money, and prestige as any other group. That is your sociology of science. You can’t be members of a tribe simply by sharing a discipline or Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Murray Rothbard could all be classified as members of the same tribe.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Science is, as you say, a human activity, with “the same petty scramble for power, money, and prestige as any other group” — well put!

          The question of who is a member of a tribe, and who is not, is relative because it depends on the observer. The location of the observer, the status of the observer and how binding their observations are for others — this is what makes a difference. (Stephan Fuchs 2001) Tribes themselves can count as observers, observing other tribes and being themselves observed by other tribes.

          As a result, what counts as membership in a tribe depends on the location of the observer and the tribe they belong to. There is no view from “nowhere” because observers are spread out in arrays of social networks, always part of one social network or another.

          One tribe’s science can be another tribe’s fakery and falsehood, especially when that tribe is observed centuries later, or across a cultural chasm.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Thanks, Clay.

    Your opening comments are supported by a recent book by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, “THE KNOWLEDGE ILLUSION : Why We Never Think Alone.”

    A book review by Yuval Harari echoes much of what you say: “while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with the African savanna in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate for dealing with the urban jungle of the silicon age.”

    The book shows how far cognitive psychology has advanced in the past couple decades — confirming what cognitive sociology has already known for perhaps one hundred years: that homo sapiens think in groups.

    Consequently, the idea that science is not a social club or a tribe is erroneous. The parameters of how humans think (never alone) are not suddenly abrogated by any single group, but continues to apply to all collectives.

    “Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.”

    Here is what is especially relevant:
    “Indeed, scientists who believe that facts can change public opinion may themselves be the victims of scientific groupthink. The scientific community believes in the efficacy of facts, hence those loyal to *that* community continue to believe they can win public debates by marshaling the right facts, despite much empirical evidence to the contrary.”

    Ludwik Fleck (Genesis and Development of Scientific Fact, 1935) described this sociologically, and his ideas were later revived by Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, 1970). All this and much more is included in the “sociology of scientific knowledge”, an immense branch of sociology, applied to science and scientific thought. Nothing about science exempts it from the limits and constraints of collective experience. (Ask any scientist.)