The trouble with tribalism It's the humans

from last week’s Public Policy Polling:

Public Policy Polling, Feb 20-22, 2015

There’s a tendency to say to oneself, “Well, that can’t be right, can it? It can’t be that 49% of Republicans don’t believe in evolution. And, wait, 57% want a national religion???”

We saw Steve Benen go through exactly the same head-slapping when he wrote:

…results like these are discouraging. There’s plenty to divide Americans, but scientific truths need not be one of them.

 But I continue to wonder how much of this is sincere and how much of this is the result of tribalism.

 It’s certainly possible that Republicans are, all of a sudden, turning against modern biology in greater numbers, but I think it’s more likely that in a time of stark polarization, partisans choose to stick to their “team.”

Sorry, Steve, we don’t think “team” and “tribe” really softens the reality of just how deeply divided the American people are. You can “continue to wonder how much of this is sincere and how much of this is the result of tribalism”, but really it’s just that the mind boggles at the polling shown above. Ours, too. But there’s no real reason to think the respondents weren’t sincere.

The fact is, we ALL belong to tribes. In fact we all belong to multiple tribes and overlapping sub-tribes. Our tribes don’t tell us to phony up our answers when a pollster calls.  Our tribes do actually guide us on whom to trust, and yes, how to think and what to believe.

Let me tell you about my tribe and what it means for me. One of my major tribal affiliations is the Tribe of Scientists. I revere the tribe of scientists. They’ve been steering me right all my life, or so I feel. When scientists largely concur on something (oh, let’s just say, anthropogenic climate change), I strongly tend to believe they’re onto something. Since I cannot and don’t investigate this sort of thing on my own — I’m incapable and unqualified — I believe what they say. I am in this way very like a member of a religious tribe who doesn’t really concoct his own theology — because, in his own estimation, he’s incapable and unqualified — and so he follows — at least for the most part– whatever orthodoxies his religious leaders provide for him.

The religious fellow and I are not that different when it comes to relying on our tribes.

Now having said that, let’s go back and look at those three questions from the poll.

The first two questions are scientific questions, and they have correct and incorrect answers. In the case of evolution it’s really an open-and-shut case, and yet a shocking number of Republican respondents got it wrong. In order to do that they had to be either unaware of or dismissive of 150 years of biological science. And that is a HUGE body of knowledge to be unaware of. It does boggle the mind.

And the case for global warming, being only 30 years in the making, is only slightly less clear than the case for evolution. Although the consequences of getting it wrong will be catastrophic for human civilization.

Whatever conglomeration of tribes is helping the Republican respondents know what to think, it’s a doing a terrible disservice.

And the third question about establishing a national religion is again a shocker. It’s not a factual or a scientific question. It really is essentially a matter of opinion. But there is only one answer grounded in the founding beliefs of our country, and that is… that we should have no official national religion. The founders were extremely unambiguous on this. Just to pick one quote out of hundreds:

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.   –Thomas Jefferson

Do 57% of Republicans now reject a bedrock principle of the founders? Well, they say they do.


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