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.

Evolution

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

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How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

How clean is that finger, Donald?
How clean is that finger, Donald?

Move over Nate Silver! The statistician and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t may have called 49 out of 50 states right in the 2012 US Presidential election. But today I note that my predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections were 100 percent correct.

Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.

One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.

But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.

Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.

Turns out that’s exactly what happened. Psychological Science just published a paper by Alec T. Beall, Marlie K. Hofer and Mark Schaller with the captivating title Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?. Schaller was the first to propose the crucial, to that time unexpected, links between disease, disgust and political traits like outgroup fear and conservatism. And his group lead the world in studying not only the links but the psychological basis for those links.

Outbreak

The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.

Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.

Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.

Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

Fortunately for West Africa, and for progressive politicians in general, the Ebola outbreak is largely over. That won’t stop politicians from appealing to voters’ basest fears. Donald Trump has done so shamelessly in his claims that Mexican immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border”.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:

“Normal,” the Republican presidential front-runner insisted. “Strong.” “Good size.” “Great.” “Fine.” “Slightly large, actually.”

Perhaps it isn’t the size of his hands that matters in this election. Perhaps we should be paying attention to how clean he can keep them?

AC/DC “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” Live at the River Plate.The Conversation

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