Real Science Hates Tribalism

To teach science, scientist should mimic the way children learn the best. And they should avoid precisely what they have been doing, pontificating as if they were superior beings belonging to a superior tribe. I have pounded this message in the past, and I was happily surprised that it is found in “Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public.” By Richard P Grant.  

The argument is that “scientists and science communicators are engaged in a constant battle with ignorance. But that’s an approach doomed to failure”.

Making science attractive by despising the plebs is doomed to failure, because it turns knowledge, the highest calling, into a “us” versus “them” struggle. And that, in turn, and indeed, comes from the fact that many who work in science are driven more by self-glory, tribalism, hence intellectual fascism, guys all looking together in the same direction, than they care to admit. 

Real Thinkers Look Everywhere Different. That’s Why Meerkats Are Meerkats, and Humans, Human.

Real Thinkers Look Everywhere Different. That’s Why Meerkats Are Meerkats, and Humans, Human.

A video did the rounds a couple of years ago, of some self-styled “skeptic” disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the video – he sure put that idiot in their place!

Scientists love to argue. Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy, or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.

It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.

[British Celebrity physicist] Brian Cox was at it last week, performing a “smackdown” on a climate change denier…He brought graphs! Knockout blow. And yet … it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future? I doubt it somehow… And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.

What people increasingly dislike, nowadays, and rightly so, is members of the establishment, pontificating. And the so-called “scientific community” is fully part of it. … As Grant puts it: “Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.”

I have used nearly the same discourse many times in the past. Indeed, the scientists, and mathematicians clamor, all too much: We are a gang, we are family, you are not; you are outsiders, inferior types, you are (chuckle) ignorant buffoons whose ignorance amuse us.

This is wrong in two completely different dimensions: it does not persuade, quite the opposite, because it uses the Authority Principle, instead of the Scientific Principle.

***

Tribalism is fundamentally opposed to science:

Science is, and develops, knowledge. Science requires an open mind. That means a mind ready to change. Science, honestly pursued, requires to be skeptical about what one knows. Science is about going beyond. Beyond one’s own mind, away from common thought… Exactly not like meerkats looking all in the same direction.

Instead, tribalism is not questioning where we come from. Just the opposite; the tribe is god. Tribalism is about war, exclusion, xenophobia, intellectual fascism. And tribalism is not about the truth: tribalism is about one’s country, right or wrong, being always right.

Thus a brain in a scientific mood is fundamentally transverse to a brain in a tribal mood.

Tribalism has slowed science immensely. For example, the tribal Roman Catholic church tried to kill scientific inquiry at every chance it got. Why? Because a superstition in place, like Catholicism, claims to have the one and only truth, it’s not about ever better truths..

Yet, all too many scientists are about tribalism, indeed. Why? Because tribalism augments one’s power. Richard Feynman resigned from the US Academy of Science, after he discovered that most of the activity there was struggling for the fittest tribal promotion, to enhance the power of the group one belonged to.

Scientists love to evoke their appurtenance to the “scientific community”. In truth, that’s offensive; we, humans, are all scientists. We, indeed, all belong to THE scientific species.

Yet, as their usage of the expression “scientific community” demonstrates, many scientists flaunt their tribalism, and the power they have of excluding “non-scientists”.

Whereas, if really keen to advance science, they should exhibit humility, and understanding, not just for what they learned by rote, but humility and understanding when interacting with others, and of skepticism itself. Debates about GMOs or new insecticides such as neonicotinoids exemplify this: many scientists are pontificating, in spite of shaky evidence for their positions. So doing, they endanger science itself.

Verily, today’s scientists know all too little. In all too many ways. Arguably, The scientists’ own global ignorance about all too many things, is what science, and science communication, paradoxically suffers from the most.

Patrice Ayme’

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6 Responses to “Real Science Hates Tribalism”

  1. ianmillerblog Says:

    An excellent post. I have occasionally carried out a literature survey of something that is contentious, and what I have found is that only too many scientists cite only evidence that could conceivably support their own view, and will steadfastly neglect to mention observations that if correct falsify their basic premise. It is not pretty.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Ian! Yes what you mention is a dreadful situation in science. It is particularly acute in biology, where most results (biotech companies have said) are completely false. I did not mention BIG PHARMA, where the situation is even worse, and has resulted in stalling of healthcare improvement, while corruption reigns…
      PA

  2. tom Says:

    Another one of Feynman’s points was that “if we cannot explain something in SIMPLE terms, then this means we do not understand it well”. So yes, scientists are ‘sworn’ to the whole truth and learn to be objective and distinguish the truth from what they’d like to be the truth.[This btw is not unique to scientists-anyone who must one way of another confront reality should do the same. This is true in chess for instance and also in businesses-except that all the CEO has to do is to push the impact of the truth he wishes to ignore pas his departure] Do all scientists stick to this? No, and one can give a number of excuses, such as that one needs to publish, get a position etc. This is important as I explain later
    That said, it’s true that scientists who understand their subject well should be able to explain to the public in SIMPLE terms. If it’s not done, then score one point for the insane conspiracy theorists.
    The second point is the ethics issue. The public must TRUST the scientists and to achieve that the scientists themselves must have their house clean and show as a whole high standards of integrity and isolate violators. This is not always easy, but essential, because otherwise the public will have a hard time accepting scientific truths it does not like. “The bigger the wizard, the easier he can fool you”. If trust is lost, then people will tend to close their ears.
    The third point -and that is the point scientists do not control directly- is the general madness, whether based on religious idiocy (such as creationism or islamic lunacy), “ideologically covered” back to nature/drugs/simple life(by people who never actually did manual work and cannot do as much as kill and cook a chicken) or simple indifference (‘dont care much’) usually based on laziness “math is too hard, science is too hard”(sure, if you don;t try everything is hard). Perhaps such an attitude should lead to loss of voting rights, i.e. people who do not have the education or mental skills or the will to grasp problems facing us today such as global warming should not vote.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      What Feynman points about the simplicity of truth, is major and fundamental. Feynman pointed in particular at the PCT theorem (that inverting Time, Parity, and Charge left the results of computation the same). The question of Time, in particular, stays open. I do believe that irreversibility, irreversibility of Time, will show up in a fully correct Quantum Physics. That’s related to the greatest experimental question in physics: how big can an interference pattern grow? Nobody knows, few physicists have tried to find out.

      Any tribe rests on sustaining sustainable theories it conspires around.

      • ianmillerblog Says:

        A very interesting question, Patrice (How big can an interference pattern grow?) I do not know the answer (perforce) but I suspect it is surprisingly small (based on the concept that a laser beam can go an enormous distance without dissipation). I am also curious as to whether it could go a lot further from a stationary state wave. If so, gravity could be a quantum effect! What I find curious is that physicists seem to avoid this question like the plague. I admit it would be difficult, but isn’t that what physicists claim to want to solve?

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Exactly. I actually proposed, many years ago, fundamental experiments that way in a prestigious physics department (Berkeley), and was enabled to run some. But the disinterest of the big shots was manifest. As Eugene Commins (not a Nobel, but famous) told me:”These questions only give headaches!”
          But, as you say, the deepest questions is what physicists should be doing.
          So how did they get the way they did?
          Working too much under military direction is one way: soldiers love “HIGH energies”.
          Getting plenty of results without understanding why: completing haphazard symmetries… And it worked!… Sometimes… Thus they learned to make sophisticated mathematics from haphazard phenomenology… Or make sweeping predictions: supersymmetry!
          Still, questioning the basics was not their forte: it requires PHILOSOPHICAL acumen. Whatever Einstein said became sacrosanct (after considering said Einstein a dinosaur, as he himself observed, in the 1950s). That was because Einstein believed in unification, and unification, to some extent, worked (see Standard Model…)

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