How tribal thinking left us in a post-truth world

In light of Brexit, and the United States election campaign that gave us President-elect Donald J Trump, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” its 2016 word of the year. In keeping with the disdain for veracity that it embodies, the word of the year is not even one word, but rather two.

British conservative politician and Brexit supporter Michael Gove got one thing right this year when he said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Events have proved him correct, and not only in Great Britain.

Brexit, the US election and the parlous state of public leadership in Australia are not anomalies. They represent a dire crisis of public confidence in expertise, knowledge and evidence. And they present an uncomfortable challenge for universities and civil societies.

As we seek to lead and elevate debate on the most important issues facing society, such as climate change, refugees and migration and inequality, I discern a common thread. That is, the triumph of tribal conviction over knowledge.


Tribal thinking

Humans find meaning in belonging to a group, adhering to an ideology, identifying with a religion, culture or merely a conviction. Such tribalism defined so many of the unsavoury themes that galvanised the Brexit and Trump votes.

And it made it all too easy to sneer at the “leavers” and the “deplorables” as racist, sexist, anti-intellectuals. Yet the failure of the left to understand Trump supporters, Brexiters and Hansonites on their own terms is also a symptom of tribalism.

Every one of us is vulnerable to thinking that the ideas we hold dear are reasoned or principled positions. But how many of our ideas are adopted and defended as part of our tribal identity?

Today, in the challenge-free spaces and echo-chambers of our social media feeds, we are arguably becoming ever more vulnerable to tribal convictions. Almost half of us now get all our news from Facebook, for example; information that is digitally targeted to align with our interests. As a consequence, that “information” reflects, and so reinforces, our biases far more than it informs.

In this atmosphere, it takes a special kind of intellectual honesty to interrogate our own ideas as rigorously as we do other people’s, to listen to other arguments, and to discard our own bad ideas. But this is the only way to break the self-reinforcing binds between tribal identity and conviction.


My own research field, the evolution of sexual behaviour, fights not one but two long-running tribal conflicts. Creationism still represents the textbook example of tribal conviction trumping honest understanding. Darwinian natural selection confronts the Creationist urge to see humanity as a special part of a grand plan that divinely orders the living world.

However, any student of natural history understands that adaptation is neither grand nor planned, and that imperfect patterns emerge from the bottom-up as individuals strive to maximise their own fitness at the expense of others.

A more vexed contemporary tribal conflict lies in the tensions between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour. This polarises nature from nurture, genes from environment and the biological from the social, as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives rather than interacting dynamics.

These represent merely the latest in a long line of false dichotomies that go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.

Together, these false dichotomies build what neuroscientist Stephen Pinker calls “the last wall standing in the landscape of knowledge”. As always, when humans cling to conviction as a signifier of belonging, we find it easier to huddle on our own sides of the last wall, than to venture into the vast, less familiar landscape of knowledge and discovery.

Back to the facts

Biology and the social sciences are now moving beyond their tribal infancy and surly adolescence toward rediscovering one another. When used together, they reveal a more nuanced, complete and, ultimately, more useful view of sex, reproduction and why they grow so complicated.

More broadly, places of learning and research must similarly find their way in this apparently post-truth world, to help us navigate past the old tribal certainties to effectively address the many complex challenges humanity faces. This demands a willingness on all sides to explore uncomfortable ideas.

It also demands that we seek out the areas of genuine, productive disagreement. Rather than allowing those who benefit from obfuscation, inaction and division to grow rich and powerful by framing issues to suit their own interests, universities must use their wealth of expertise to define and lead public debate.

Evolutionary biologists have long known not to debate creationists; their calls for debate amount to cynical time-wasting. Likewise, scientists should focus on the productive debates that will help us to save our world, not time-wasting tribal titillations with those who deny reality.

As we put this post-truth year behind us, my hope is that next year brings a resurgent courage to apply the intellectual tools, developed over centuries, for separating good ideas from bad. And that we begin to again recognise that subjective experiences, compelling storytelling and tenacity of conviction do not alone make an idea worthwhile.

The ConversationScientia Professor Rob Brooks is Director of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre and the Academic Lead of the UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program. He will speak about the post-truth world at UNSOMNIA: What keeps you up at night?, the launch event for the Grand Challenges Program on December 1.

Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Academic Lead of UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

One thought on “How tribal thinking left us in a post-truth world”

  1. Hi Rob

    I enjoyed your article and your book Sex Genes and RnR.

    I’ve also enjoyed reading many of the hundred-or-so comments that followed your publication of this article seven months ago in The Conversation, via the link above. Many of the comments are by Americans and many are by academics of various flavours.

    Regarding “post-truth”, let me offer a couple of ideas. Totally personal musings.

    Once upon a time facts appeared slowly. Or, at least, statements appeared slowly. Pamphlets got published by writers like Thomas Paine, books by the likes of Dante and Darwin and Durkheim, and the statements therein were considered and debated, and theories were built and destroyed with deliberation.

    Ideas had mass, but not their own momentum. They’d fit like bricks together, or they wouldn’t, or the wall would fall over, but they were evolvingly static.

    Today ideas appear quickly. They spread quickly. As they say, a lie can get half way around the world before truth can get its pants on. Spreading a lie is easy and fast, but dismantling a lie is necessarily slow, hard, and with zero sensationalism.

    To spread (like Dawkins’ concept of a meme) a lie clearly doesn’t need to be true, but it needs plausibility in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps verisimilitude. But it also needs attractivity. Perhaps in post-truth physics we can invent a law, that verisimilitude times attractivity equals idea momentum. Idea momentum divided by idea mass equals idea velocity.

    Borrowing from calculus, we can describe the physics or mechanics of modern ideas as being subject to second order formulae and third order formulae. Whereas in the 19th century of evolving idea stasis each idea had only mass, today ideas have mass *and* velocity, therefore momentum, kinetic energy, etc. A small idea of reasonable verisimilitude and great attractivity will have as much “idea momentum” as a larger idea of great verisimilitude but lousy attractivity. Etc etc etc and you can play with this paradigm all day. Ask a physicist.

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