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Friday, December 14, 2018
Personal Reflections ... Politics ...

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an “Observation” post on the Scientific American web site entitled “Why Smart People Are Vulnerable to Putting Tribe Before Truth“. In sum, intelligent people are becoming more and more partisan, mostly on the “liberal-progressive” side although intelligent conservatives are still quite common (and just as biased). The article gives a good explanation of the driving forces behind this trend, and provides some empirical evidence from various studies to support this claim. Here’s the theory in a nutshell:

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it is perfectly rational to use one’s reason this way in a science communication environment polluted by tribalism . . . What an ordinary member of the public thinks about climate change, for example, has no impact on the climate. Nor does anything that she does as a consumer or a voter; her individual impact is too small to make a difference. Accordingly, when she is acting in one of these capacities, any mistake she makes about the best available scientific evidence will have zero impact on her or anyone she cares about . . . But given what positions on climate change have now come to signify about one’s group allegiances, adopting the “wrong” position in interactions with her peers could rupture bonds on which she depends heavily for emotional and material well-being. Under these pathological conditions, she will predictably use her reasoning not to discern the truth but to form and persist in beliefs characteristic of her group, a tendency known as “identity-protective cognition.”

Yea, it’s sad, isn’t it. For 99.9% of us, our views on things don’t make any difference to the world overall, i.e. how things turn out nationally and globally. Perhaps this is a bit too pessimistic; but honestly, smart people are a dime a dozen today in the US, Europe and much of Asia. Our world and its future faces a myriad of complex challenges regarding climate and environment, social stability, economic growth, distribution of income and wealth, equality, justice, opportunity, human rights, public health and well being, etc. You’d think that a lot of smart people would be needed to address such challenges. And yet . . . it takes a lot of study, a lot of investment of time and energy into understanding what is truly going on, to get a handle on what a good response might be. But there is almost never a “magic bullet” solution to these problems, i.e. a machine or a chemical or something else relatively simple that would change everything. If there were, at least one of the many smart people out there would have tripped across it by now.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s biggest problems today are the summation of many individual acts from millions or even billions of people. And convincing even 10 people to listen to you and change their ways is really difficult. Even if we are sure that we have figured out how our neighbors and the rest of western culture should act, what chance do we have these days of getting millions of people to listen to us, in a world where everyone has a voice on social media but only a handful of celebrities and politicos and wealthy people get widely heard and considered?

The Book of Deuteronomy has a line that reads “but what can one man do to settle all your quarrels and problems?” (Deut. 1:12-14). So even in biblical times, there wasn’t much optimism over the prospects for a lone person changing the hearts and minds of communities or nations. And it doesn’t seem as if things have gotten better for the thoughtful individual over the past 2 or 3 millennia. So, a smart cookie might as well “go tribal”, stick with a set of views that get her or him accepted into a “cabal”, a “tribe” (and hope that this tribe can make some sort of positive change, even if not exactly the best and most appropriate one). Again, an individual who takes the time to study complex issues in an open-minded fashion will get little or no personal reward, not even the satisfaction of knowing that they made the world a better place; by now it’s beyond what 99.9% of us can change. But we CAN obtain immediate benefits from tribal belonging, from having a group that accepts you socially and perhaps can even do you some favors, e.g. finding a job or recommending a good dentist. It makes sense.

In our total-information world, this situation becomes one of those self-reinforcing loops. The incentive is increasingly tending towards polarization. Non-polarized truth seekers have less and less potential influence over time, as the “tribe of no-tribe” just keeps on shrinking. The more powerful the tribes become, the more necessary it is to pick one and be loyal.

Unfortunately, in the time of Donald Trump and his like, the growing politicization of science, culture, education, media, etc., is causing intelligent people, who should otherwise have “curiosity” and be able to cross ideological lines, to “tribalize” more and more. They become convinced that they need to fight fire with fire. As such, they wind up imitating Trump, adopting tactics not that different than his own. It reminds me of what the Nazi’s claimed about their tactics, i.e. they caused their opponents to become much like them . .

As for me . . . long ago in my youth, Mrs. LaGreca, my 2nd grade teacher unexpectedly told me that I “was different”. I’ll never forget that. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to know that I’m one of the last “tribe of no-tribe” hold outs. I hear the educated drummers of progressive liberalism, and at the same time I hear the “National Review” intellectual conservative crowd. At first, the latter group tried to hold out in opposition to the raw native populism that Trump appeals to, but more and more the National Review is reading like any other pro-Trump GOP propaganda source. The small band of brainy conservatives have been selling out to a larger tribe, given how little they can do to change a GOP that has been hijacked by the Trump movement. Recall that NR had a “No Trump” issue in late January, 2016, just as the GOP primary season got under way; and obviously, it had all the effect of a spit into the wind. And another high-brow anti-Trump conservative publication, The Weekly Standard, has just called it quits.

As to the Democrats, they continue to move further and further away from the pragmatic centrism of the Clintons, towards neo-socialist attitudes favoring expansive government and limits on individual freedoms (except for “the oppressed”, as defined by the Democratic Party educated elite). The polarization process rolls on!

But I just don’t feel compelled to dance to any of these drummers. I still want the luxury of unbounded thinking, of being able to agree with either side (or disagree with both) on any particular, to mix and match my point of view. I’ll continue with this even though my opinions have even less influence on reality than NR’s No Trump issue. I want to continue my present practice of listening to NPR in my car during my drive home from work, but punching the button for the Sean Hannity show when NPR gets too dreamy. And when Hannity goes too far, I will punch the button for the Bloomberg station, with its politically centrist / business-oriented theme. I hope that Mrs. LaGreca would be proud of me if she could see me now !!

PS — YES, I realize that in the title to this post, I am referring to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1757 fictional book “Last of the Mohicans”, but that I have mixed up the imaginary “Mohicans” with the real-life “Mohegan” Native American tribe, who still exist today. The mix-up was unintentional, but I do want to say quite intentionally that I am not trying to exploit or be-little Native Americans or their culture; they deserve a whole lot more respect and attention from our nation than they actually get. They too never really gave in to the loudest “drummer”, for them the western Euro culture that has dominated their lands over the past 400 years or so.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:51 pm      

  1. Jim, The following are (as usual) some random tho’ts on “tribes or no-tribes”:

    I have a couple of questions: What does the word “tribe” actually mean in this context? Does it refer to people who think alike? Or does it refer to people who want the same things? Why does the word seem to apply only to “intelligent” people? Do not the “less intelligent” people belong to a tribe? Or is the fact that they are “less intelligent” mean they just don’t count? Then I find myself wondering just how “intelligence” is measured. Is the fact that I really don’t “get” the idea of “tribe” a measure of how lacking in intelligence I myself am?

    I do find myself having my opinions regarding politics; but I refuse to follow the lead of our president who seems to have made the use of name-calling and rude words about a person, demanding “loyalty” of individuals by which he means they sacrifice anything in their own lives for HIS benefit. Is this the norm by which our society evaluates a person and/or situation?

    It seems to me that we, as a general way of dealing with things, tend to want to “de-complexify” people, situations, politics, etc. It seems to me that even those in “tribes” want to make things simple so as to make them quickly and easily understood and thus be able to dismiss those ideas, people, etc., they just don’t like. Furthermore, it seems every person’s opinion is tho’t to be important (by that person) but is not really all that important. We get messages to give our opinion of how service was when we order something–and we are urged to make that “opinion” a favorable one. It seems the Russians had that concept in their meddling with our elections and even after the 2016 election, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.

    Put enough seeming “opinions” together does one have a “tribe”? Maybe. Or maybe we just have a bunch of uninformed opinions by people who mistakenly believe their opinions are informed. I also do not believe that the opinions of the uninformed have any lasting value. I think they will turn on a dime should the situation arise to make that “turning” occur.

    I know there seems to be little sense in my opinions above. But it seems to me that little these days makes much sense–particularly in politics. I tend to think it’s a problem that comes from the “top” down–more specifically, from our president down. OR it may be that our president has brought to light exactly what is wrong with the information world these days. People will need to begin to learn how to use information sensibly, wisely, and with prudence, rather than as a place to vent their various dislikes of people, thoughts, etc.

    It seems you do not wish to belong to a “tribe” and neither do I. I’d guess there are a lot more people who would just as soon not belong to a “tribe” either; I’d also guess their “tribal” thoughts (if thoughts make a “tribe”) would turn around as fast as the latest fashion in clothes does or to be sure to include men here: as fast as men would drop the “fashion” of growing beards. I’d hazard a guess that in private each person is happy to have his or her version of NPR to listen to and get away from all those who think alike.

    What may be more important in all this random, unrelated thinking of mine may be that the farther on society gets into the information age, the more they will have to learn how to use it instead of being obsessed with it as so many people are. I find myself wishing that each “new” smart whatever (i-phone, i-pad, etc.) that comes out had a longer “shelf-life” than the new ones that constantly pervade the market do. It seems before one can get used to one thing, another new thing has come out. Perhaps we just need some longer time to absorb the “information” that is available and be able to determine what is worth our time and trouble and what is not. MCS.

    Comment by Mary S. — December 18, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

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