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Researchers: Distrust of Science Is Due to Tribal Loyalty

In Part 2 of 4, we look at a claim arising from a recent study: We blindly believe those we identify with, ignoring the wisdom of science

Recently, a paper lamenting the decline of trust in science was discussed at ScienceAlert, a science news site. In representing the paper—doubtless accurately — for a lay audience, the write-up embodies the causes of legitimate public distrust. That is worth dissecting in more detail. Yesterday, we looked at the write-up in light of the government responses to COVID, which were all too often panicked reactions rather than trustworthy guidance. Then, in the wake of the debacle, the White House chose to set up a Disinformation Board to target non-government sources of alleged disinformation — which could only deepen existing distrust.

総務省 検察庁 国家公安委員会

We press on. The second point of four raised at ScienceAlert is that tribal loyalty is thought to create distrust in science:

The way our thinking is wired as an obligatorily social species makes us very vulnerable to sometimes blindly believing those we identify with as part of our own cultural group – no matter how much education we have had. This phenomenon is called cultural cognition.

“Work on cultural cognition has highlighted how people contort scientific findings to fit with values that matter to their cultural identities,” write Philipp-Muller and colleagues.

Political polarization and social media have only enhanced this. For example, conservatives are more likely to believe scientists that appear on Fox News, and liberals are more likely to trust those on CNN.

Tessa Koumondoros, “These 4 Factors Can Explain Why So Many People Are Rejecting Science” at ScienceAlert (July 16, 2022). The paper requires a fee or subscription.

There seems to be no recognition here that researchers also have a tribal loyalty. The fact that they are fiercely competitive among themselves doesn’t change that. Just as businesses can be fiercely competitive among themselves but band together against unwelcome government regulations, researchers can unite against skepticism of their claims in general.

If the researchers’ response is, “We represent science,” one might ask, “Why, then, was the Wuhan lab origin of COVID-19 treated as a ‘conspiracy theory’ when it was in fact a reasonable hypothesis?” Anyone who has taken the trouble to study the situation will be aware that political considerations made the theory unpopular because — well, for one thing — the United States had been helping to fund the research.

Wait. Weren’t we just talking about tribalism? Nothing like a crisis to get everyone running in the same direction. Sure, the researchers represent science. But they also represent a tribe. Which is fine as long as we all recognize that.

Granted, liberals and conservatives get their news from different sources. But that’s been true as long as there have been news media and isn’t the main source of distrust. Distrust is driven more by factors like: Major politicians were all-too-often caught flouting the COVID rules they imposed on everyone else. If Top People did not really “believe the science,” why should others believe it?

Top People are a tribe too, in their way. They may represent strikingly different political factions while all behaving as if allegedly science-based rules are for the Little People.

The truth is, nobody represents science in any pure way, especially in an uncertain situation like a new pandemic. Different “tribes” have different relationships to unfolding events. “Trust the science,” under those circumstances, could mean a better or worse outcome or make no difference at all. And circumstances like COVID are the ones for which the public has a large collective memory.

Note: The paper, which requires a subscription, is “Why are people antiscience, and what can we do about it?” by Aviva Philipp-Muller, Spike W. S. Lee, and Richard E. Petty, July 12, 2022, PNAS 119 (30) e2120755119 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2120755119 The paper requires a fee or subscription.

Next: Researchers: Teaching people more about science can cause them to trust it less

Here are all four parts of the series:

Square letters with text DOUBT and TRUST
  1. Why many now reject science… do you really want to know? COVID demonstrated — as nothing else could — that the “science” was all over the map and didn’t help people avoid panic. As the panic receded, the government started setting up a disinformation board to target NON-government sources of panic, thus deepening loss of trust.
  2. Researchers: Distrust of science is due to tribal loyalty. In Part 2 of 4, we look at a claim arising from a recent study: We blindly believe those we identify with, ignoring the wisdom of science. There seems to be no recognition that researchers, however fiercely competitive among themselves, also have a tribal loyalty that skews their judgment.
  3. Researchers: If we tell folks more about science, they trust less. Part 3: The researchers argue that doubts about science arise from conflict with beliefs. The many COVID-19 debacles suggest other causes…
    Generally, the remedy for loss of trust after widespread failures is reform of the system, not reform of its doubters. Post-COVID, scientists should take heed.
  4. Claim: If science were properly presented, trust would grow! The ideas examined in these four short essays all assume that scientists are exempt from the bias and self-interest that governs everyone else. We’re asked to believe that scientists are somehow exempt from the bias problem ingrained in our biology — yet they have the same biology as everyone else…

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Researchers: Distrust of Science Is Due to Tribal Loyalty