Issue 4 / 9 February 2015

WE all know the comfort of belonging to a tribe: the agreeable sense that we are among people like us, and the guilty pleasure we may take in despising those in the other tribe.

It’s a feature of every primary school playground and, for most of us, continues to play a role in our adult lives — even, or perhaps especially, when it comes to the stance we take on the major issues of the day.

Some tribes seem to take a particular pleasure in seeing themselves as a persecuted minority — anti-immunisation campaigners come to mind — while others are more triumphalist.

Tribes that cluster around fringe ideas may be soft targets for criticism, but what about those of us who broadly identify with the prevailing scientific view of the world — do we have our own tribe?

Australian psychology researchers analysing the psychological and social motivations of Americans who hold opposing beliefs on the causes of climate change have found a number of similarities in the ways the two groups behave.
Qualities shared by both “believers” and “sceptics” include social identification with the group, anger at the opposing group and a belief that their group can achieve its goals (group efficacy), the researchers write in a research letter to Nature Climate Change.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the linguistics here. Just how did supporters of a scientific view become “believers”, while those who oppose it receive the honourable title of “sceptics”?

But, leaving that aside… these researchers are pretty much painting a portrait of the schoolyard. We belong to the cool group. We hate the not-cool group. We’re going to take over the cubby house.

So, nyaah.

What is unusual about this research is that it also applies its description of group behaviour to those who align with the scientific view — not just to the fringe dwellers — which leads to some interesting suggestions about how such polarised views about science might be addressed.

“The key implication is that the divisions between sceptics and believers are unlikely to be overcome solely through communication and education strategies, and that interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic”, the authors write.

“Antagonizing sceptics and increasing their anger towards their opponents (for example, by suggesting that their beliefs are risible) is likely to rebound by making them more committed to take contrary action.”

A better strategy might be to undermine the sceptics’ belief in group efficacy, the authors suggest, perhaps by convincing them their efforts will be unlikely to prevent action on climate change.

I’m not sure that particular argument is well founded, given the way governments around the world are dragging their feet on the issue, but there can be little doubt we need new strategies for making the scientific case on some of the major challenges we face.

Findings from the Pew Research Center released at the end of January showed a dramatic gap between beliefs held by scientists and those held by the general American public across a range of issues.

Here’s just a few of them — 86% of scientists thought childhood vaccines should be required, compared with 68% of the general population; 88% of scientists thought genetically modified foods were safe, compared with 37% of non-scientists; 82% of scientists saw the growing world population as a major problem, compared with 59% of non-scientists.

And on climate change, 87% of scientists saw it as mostly caused by human activity, compared with only 50% of the general public (and 25% of the general public didn’t believe it was happening in the first place).

Scientists are not always right, but the scientific process is the best tool we have to identify, describe and, just perhaps, find solutions to some of the more intractable problems we humans face.

If a better understanding of group psychology can help further that endeavour, then bring it on.


Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

9 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Tribal beliefs

  1. SA Health Library Network says:

    Cynara, regardless of arguments about statistics, the natural world is warming. Many species are being found expanding from their ranges out of warmer parts of the world (but not cold adapted species expanding their ranges). This is seen on east and west coasts of Australia and in other parts of the world. English amateur naturalists have recorded things like the first cuckoo or butterfly of Spring or the first flowering of certain flowers in Spring for a couple of hundred years and these are gradually occuring earlier. Carbon dioxide does interact with photons at wavelengths that equate with heat (CO2 lasers exploit this). It leads to it being a “green house” gas, and leads to a warmer world. Warm times in the geological record are associated with higher CO2 which arose by various means. Right now CO2 is largely rising because of burning of fossil fuels (the isotope analysis shows that this is where the excess carbon comes from).

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Hi, Chris. The relevance of the climate change discussion, if I understand it correctly, is as an analogy for immunisation “denialism”. What they have in common is people without the specialised expertise and knowledge expressing a “belief” about whether the science is correct.

    Organised religion, whatever its pros and cons, is a system of beliefs. Personal belief is appropriate for a faith-based view of the world, but personal beliefs have no place in assessing scientific phenomena and the research that measures and quantifies them – be it climate change or vaccination.

  3. Chris Strakosch says:

    I’m not sure why climate change gets such a run in a medical journal. Perhaps it’s because it may result in health problems for our patients in the future.

    Religion would seem to be posing much greater health problems to millions of people right at the moment. Belief in a omnipotent force which could be recruited to advance the cause of one’s tribe or to ward off disasters was no doubt very useful in the past and has been strongly selected for in the evolution of our species. Faith in a protective god does seem to be useful in helping many persons get through the day but it is religion- the tribal displays of conformity and the hatred of persons not of the religious tribe which is causing so much trouble. Religion, by enforcing conformity, no doubt also was useful in reinforcing tribal cohesion but It has now passed its use by date. Doctors would save a lot more lives if they could assist in suppressing religion while perhaps supporting a private faith- an interaction between a person and whatever supernatural force they elect  to believe in.

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    The responses to Jane’s piece make for a psychological study in themselves! Scientific measurement is not an area for opinion, but for evidence. As a medical specialist, I understand the evidence behind vaccination, can evaluate published research, and can also recgonse those with greater expertise than I. In the matter of climate science, I have no training or expertise in the area, don’t understand the intricacies of their research methodology, but recognise that others do. I would not accept the opinions of climate scientists on vaccination, but I don’t second-guess them on climate science.

  5. Prof Tim Florin says:

    Jane, you are so off the mark with this piece. Please refrain from uncritical reporting of supercilious analysis of those who hold a different view to yours. Lukewarmers or sceptics or deniers may be labelled a minority – but that doesnt make us stupid.
    Consider some of the claims made by the persons who spout the orthodoxy of AGW. Just dig below the surface of the political hype and media propaganda that stated that this was the hottest year in recent memory. Mean surface temperature was 0.02˚ +/- 0.04˚C higher than 2010. If this were a medical paper you would be amonst the first to reject it for misinterpreting data. Temperatures may have risen slightly from 1976-98 but not since, even though CO2 is increasing inexorably. Why? The GISS temperature dataset – the misinterpreted source of the latest propaganda – and most other mean global T datasets all show a greater mean temperature increase between 1910 and 1940 when CO2 rate of increase was less than it is today. Please explain that before railing against persons who hold a different view to yours. Please also ask why the global homogenisation of temperature data is generally revising the temperature datasets before 1965 downwards or why when data are rounded up the errors are not carried forward in the reported calculations. You would call this as at best sloppy statistics or worse as fraud if this occurred in a study submitted to MJA. The recent headline could have been more accurately stated as ‘2014 was amongst the 3% coldest years based on extrapolations of pre-1850 datasets to 10000 years BP, a blink of an eye in Earth time.

  6. Ian Hargreaves says:

    ‘Kingsman’ was funny indeed. And Mr Jackson’s character had a scientifically effective, albeit currently unfeasible, solution to global warming. Cyril Kornbluth would approve.

    My scientific training is that one should be wary of any research funded or affiliated with any industry lobby group, eg smoking research funded by the tobacco institute. A journal with ‘climate change’ in its title is by definition biased.

    One thing is brutally certain – on a geological timescale climate has swung wildly, without human intervention. Antarctica was inhabited by dinosaurs in the warm Cretaceous. A return to the Wisconsin Glaciation of a mere 11,000 years ago would see all of Canada, half of the USA, all of Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe under ice sheets. Adjacent areas like the Northwestern half of China, and Northern India would be effectively uninhabitable, other than by small bands of nomadic hunters. Several billion people would die of famine or in territorial wars.

    It’s fashionable to worry abut Tuvalu and Kiribati sinking, but glaciers once again covering Manhattan and Switzerland would displace far more people, and be a far greater public health disaster. Forget believers and sceptics – any rational person should be a global warming advocate.

  7. Richard Pearson says:

    Jane, one can only despair at the naivete shown by this article purporting to laud a piece of psychological gobbledegook as valid science.

    It belongs together with Marxism and astrology as examples that are not science, yet purport to be.  The reason this and they are not science is that the conjectures made are not falsifiable. It is not even ‘post-normal science’ like that of ‘climate change.’ 

    The recent movie ‘Kingsman’ is well worth seeing for anyone who hopes to gain insight into what ‘climate change science’ is all about, its purpose, and intended outcome. 

  8. Dr. Adrian Roger Clifford says:

    The Jury is still out about climate change and computer projections don’t have all the answers. Accurate temperature records only go back to the 1970s, & doom & gloom merchants are causing untold grief and expense for a problem, so called human causes for global warming, which probably don’t exist and for those of us who think, regard it as a natural phenomenon. Most of us remember the Y2K problem at the beginning of the new millenium when computers were going to crash & planes were going to fall out of the sky and which cost the community in excess of 6 billion dollars for a problem which didn’t exist. No wonder the public and some of us scientists are sceptical.

  9. Andrew Nielsen says:

    Dear Jane – The most important article that you can ever read is “Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes” by Nisbett and Wilson, puplished in Psychological Review May 1977 84(3).  You can get it by Googling it. When social scientists ask people why they act in a particular way, they are only finding out why they think they acted in a particular way. The claim that they are finding out the reason that they act a way is a plausible way of going a bit beyond their data and avoiding a LOT of work that most peple would not realise was important IMHO. Read the article. You will never read any social science the same way again.

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