Tribal Science

It could be that Mitt Romney didn’t lose the 2012 election because of his forty-seven percent comments – although claiming that nearly half the country was a bunch of hopeless losers, lazy moochers who have no sense of personal responsibility, and never will have one, and thus can be dismissed as simply inadequate human beings of no real worth, didn’t help. He also shouldn’t have grinned and said he really liked firing people, or laughed at that crowd in Iowa, for how stupid they were in not thinking that corporations are people too, or insulted the Mayor of London, and everyone in England, just before their Olympics, by insisting they’d never pull that off as well as he had pulled off the Salt Lake City Olympics. He never saw the problem with any of that, and came off as the ultimate white rich guy, who thought he was entitled to the presidency – he could say anything. The little people, who didn’t really matter, would have to get over it, whatever it was that offended them, and vote for the man who was supposed to be president – but they didn’t get over it. Obama wasn’t perfect, but at least he didn’t sneer at everybody in sight. Romney had no people-skills, as they say. He actually didn’t seem to like “people” much at all – they are always such a bother. Americans voted for the imperfect human in the race.

That’s the conventional wisdom, but it could be argued that the Republican primary debates, all twenty of them, were the real problem. Americans got to know Republicans all too well, and that was a bit of a clown show. Rick Santorum was prissy and Michele Bachmann strange and Rick Perry couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. Oops. Newt Gingrich was all over the place and the less said about Herman Cain the better. There were others. No one remembers them now, not that it matters. The party was a mess – they’d seemed to have gone out of their way to insult Latinos and blacks and women and gays and the youth vote – and Romney, by default, was the best of the lot, or the least unhinged. At least he was focused – on becoming president, as was his right. It’s just that the dead weight of a wacky party, after dragging him to the far right, where he was clearly uncomfortable, finally dragged him under. Clint Eastwood talking to the empty chair on stage at their convention might have been the final straw. Obama has screwed up his share of things, and the economy was still a mess, but these Republicans were simply nasty and mean and very strange. Their hero-general, Colin Powell, had endorsed Obama, again – but it wasn’t Mitt Romney. The party itself was hopeless.

Anyone could see that. At one point Obama made the innocuous suggestion that we ought to make sure that every child who wants to go to college can go to college, which is the sort of thing all politicians say, on autopilot, and Rick Santorum – in the end Romney’s only real rival for the Republican nomination – went ballistic. His response was all over the news for a week – “What a snob!” That’s shorthand for college never did anyone any good, really – something that plays well with the Republican base – except Santorum wasn’t pandering to the base. He sat down for a long chat with Glenn Beck and clarified exactly what he meant:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Thursday that President Obama wants more young adults to go to college so they can undergo “indoctrination” to a secular world view.

In an hour-long interview with conservative television host Glenn Beck, Santorum also defended his record on abortion and his vote in favor of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law.

On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”

He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.

That might mean that if a university received public funds they should be require to teach an hour of Ayn Rand for every hour they teach Darwin, or something – but his main point was that learning stuff about the world inevitably destroys any kid’s faith in the literal truth of the Bible, or even its metaphorical truth. First they’ll be reading Bertrand Russell, and then those French existentialists, and the next thing you know they’ll be gay – although he doesn’t quite put it that way. He goes on to explain that his kids were home-schooled, and everyone’s kids should be too, so they don’t hear about the wrong things. And if that’s impractical, for parents who don’t have the time, there’s the next best thing:

Education should be the parental responsibility and the local community should be the one to be working with the parents to make sure that children get the best educational in environment for each child in America. The federal government needs to get out of education. The state government by and large needs to get out of education, other than making sure there are sufficient resources, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, to be able to help (have) some sort of equality of education in America … to have the resources to have the best customized education.

The whole idea is to keep certain ideas out of the minds of our children, and of course this has always been about evolution, and now it’s about climate change, and science in general. That Scopes Trial, that started on a hot summer day in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, never really ended. The terms just shifted. Darwin was just spinning a yarn, a pretty good one, about how things might have developed, but anyone can spin a yarn, and they can spin one too – a guiding intelligence implied in the wonder and complexity of this world. That’s the premise of Intelligent Design, and these folks keep saying schools, if we must have them at all, should let students know what all the yarns are, so they can decide which to believe. One offers empirical evidence and the other offers the logic of authority – none of this, none of what we are, could have happened by chance. Something is behind it all. It must be God.

That tension also plays out in how a good number of Republicans talk about global warming, or climate change, or whatever one calls it so as not to offend them too much. They dismiss the empirical evidence, the overwhelming scientific consensus, based on empirical evidence of actual experience, showing that something very bad is going on, and we alone are doing it to our own planet and really ought to try to stop burning so much fossil fuel and all the rest. They see no need for that, and it’s easy enough to mutter about how they’re all in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, or they’re absurd to think there’s a worldwide conspiracy of scientists everywhere out to destroy free-market capitalism, but listen to what many of them actually say. They say God wouldn’t let this happen. He promised not to destroy the world again – there’s that rainbow after the Flood after all. Others say Man doesn’t have the capability to ruin the world – it’s so big and we’re so small, so all this talk of how we’re causing global warming is presumptuous, the result of too much thinking, and arrogant thinking at that. Where do people get these ideas, college? What snobs!

All of this is what some have called the Republican War on Science, although Mischa Fisher recently argued there’s no such war at all:

I’m the first to admit that there are elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science – Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, an M.D. who claims evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell” is one rather obvious example – and many more with substantial room for improvement. But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that “anti-science” has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse. …

On global warming, conservative policy positions often seem to be conflated or confused with rejection of the consensus that the planet has been warming due to human carbon emissions. The climate trend over the last several hundred years is not one anybody credible disputes – despite the impression you might get from GOP presidential primary debates. Of the many Republican members of Congress I know personally, the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming (though, embarrassingly, some still do). Even Senator Jim Inhofe, perhaps the green community’s greatest antagonist in Congress, explicitly endorses environmental regulation.

The catch: Conservatives believe many of the policies put forward to address the problem will lead to unacceptable levels of economic hardship. It’s not inherently anti-scientific to oppose cap and trade or carbon taxes. What most Republicans object to are policies that unilaterally make it more expensive in the United States to produce energy, grow food, and transport people and goods but are unlikely to make much long-term difference in the world’s climate, given that other major world economies emit more carbon than the United States or have much faster growth rates of carbon emissions (China, India, Russia, and Brazil all come to mind).

Of course that’s not what everyone hears, and the argument that yes, it’s all true, but there’s nothing we can do about it, is oddly fatalistic – as if these Republicans that Fisher imagines are French existentialists in the fifties sitting around at the Flore smoking endless cigarettes and drinking bad coffee and talking about the tragic absurdity of life – and Fisher avoids discussing evolution much at all. The science there is clear too. Animals seem to have evolved, and the process can be traced in some detail, and we seem to have evolved too, as we too are animals. Darwin and Lamarck thought this might be so, and provided evidence that it’s so, and there’s been more and more evidence that’s piled up since those two got things started – the damned fossils keep piling up. God faded from the picture, unless He thought up evolution as a nifty way to keep things getting more efficient and appropriate all the time. That’s possible, if you must have an all-powerful single god, to keep you calm. It’s just not necessary.

That’s what makes the latest Pew poll so interesting:

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

Nothing much has changed:

About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

That’s the compromise view, if you must have a god, or God. So far, so good, but there has been a change:

White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved – a 24-point gap.

That sudden ten-point drop in belief among Republicans is odd, and Pew can’t quite figure out what’s up:

Differences in the racial and ethnic composition of Democrats and Republicans or differences in their levels of religious commitment do not wholly explain partisan differences in beliefs about evolution. Indeed, the partisan differences remain even when taking these other characteristics into account.

David Graham suggests what might really be going on:

One possibility is that respondents who identified as Republican and believed in evolution in 2009 are no longer identifying as Republicans. Fewer scientists, for example, are reportedly identifying with the GOP, and the overall trend is for fewer Americans to call themselves Republicans. But both Gallup and separate polling from Pew found approximately the same party ID in 2009 and 2013.

Another is that the rise of “intelligent design” education has helped to swing younger Americans against evolution. Yet the age breakdown remains similar in 2009 and 2013, with respondents ages 18 to 29 most likely to believe in evolution.

What does that leave? Maybe the gap represents an emotional response by Republicans to being out of power. Among others, Chris Mooney has argued that beliefs on politically contentious topics are often more rooted in opposition to perceived attacks than anything else – an instance of “motivated reasoning.” Given that Democrats have controlled the White House and Senate since 2009, this could be backlash to the political climate, though it will be hard to tell until Republicans control Washington again.

Of course, motivated reasoning might help explain why many Democrats also believe in evolution.

Paul Krugman sees something else:

Is the theory of evolution somehow related to Obama administration policy? Not that I’m aware of, but that’s not the point. The point, instead, is that Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe – and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists. For some time now it has been impossible to be a good Republicans while believing in the reality of climate change; now it’s impossible to be a good Republican while believing in evolution.

And of course the same thing is happening in economics… The reemergence of a 30s-type economic situation, with prolonged shortfalls in aggregate demand, low inflation, and zero interest rates should have made many Republicans more Keynesian than before. Instead, at just the moment that demand-side economics became obviously critical, we saw Republicans – the rank and file, of course, but economists as well – declare their fealty to various forms of supply-side economics…

All of this has to be about tribalism:

All the evidence, from the failure of inflation and interest rates to rise despite huge increases in the monetary base and large deficits, to the clear correlation between austerity and economic downturns, has pointed in a Keynesian direction; but Keynes-hatred (and hatred of other economists whose names begin with K) has become a tribal marker, part of what you have to say to be a good Republican.

That is, part of what you have to say to be a good Republican, is that climate change is a hoax, and evolution is just a theory, and not a very good one, and austerity is prosperity, because shutting down as much of the economy as possible, the government part, will lead to amazing growth – if you believe, as you should, if you don’t want to be exiled from the tribe, to wander in the wilderness, alone and despised.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum sees the same thing:

I don’t think this shows that conservatives are becoming more hostile to science, or even more hostile to evolution. Like so many poll questions these days, it gets interpreted by a lot of people as little more than “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” As Krugman says, between the pollster’s mouth and the respondent’s ears, it morphs into a tribal marker, not an actual question about an actual policy.

So my initial reaction was not to be too bothered about it. Increasing tribalism and polarization are no surprise, after all, and plenty of polls in the past have shown similar tribal dynamics. Republicans think the economy is worse than it is when a Democrat is president, for example, and Democrats think the same when a Republican is president.

Even so, Drum is still a bit worried:

If there’s a reason to take this more seriously than I did initially, it’s the magnitude of the effect. Republican belief in evolution has dropped an astonishing 11 points since 2009. Even if that doesn’t mean very much about evolution per se, it sure suggests that conservative tribalism has increased a helluva lot in the Obama era. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that tribalism rises and falls over time, with the out party generally becoming more cohesive until they manage to get one of their own guys in the White House, so maybe this is a self-correcting problem over a long enough time frame. But that’s just a guess. I haven’t seen any firm evidence for it.

This may not correct itself. In those twenty Republican primary debates in 2012, America saw the latest version of the Republican Party, engaged in deciding who was a member of the tribe and who wasn’t – and they all laid down their markers. Who would be the nastiest to immigrants? Who despised gays more? Who would keep women in their place more than the others? Who, more than the others, would stick it to the poor, so the poor fully realized their moral failings? Who thought the least of anything that had to do with science? Who had the most unremitting scorn for Obama?

This wasn’t about policy and governance. This was entirely tribal, and they finally admitted Romney to their tribe, on probation, because they thought he could win. They knew none of the rest of them could – but Mitt didn’t work out either, America looked at their tribal science, among other things, and decided to continue for another four years with the guy who just wanted to fix things. Tribal politics, which is the end result of party politics, is, after all, about no more than who gets to stay in the tribe – which is neither a meaningful or even very interesting question to outsiders. They’ll have to work that out. They can come back when they do. And no one will care one way or the other what his tribe thinks of him.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Tribal Science

  1. Rick says:

    I do like your title, “Tribal Science”. Sounds like a good title for a best-selling book about politics.

    On the other hand, I suppose many on both sides would misunderstand and find it pretty offensive. With Obama in the White House, many Democrats would hear in it some racist dog-whistle that implies that he only got there because black voters stuck together. As for Republicans, especially since so many of them don’t believe in the kind of science that treats us all as members of our various tribes, lots of them wouldn’t see themselves in this at all:

    “Me? Member of a tribe? Hey, just in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m white!!!”


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