The Stupidity of the Tribe

I wasn't planning on posting anything until next week, but I just happened upon something so ridiculous I had to talk about it. The scientist and blogger Judith Curry was recently interviewed for an article with the attention getter: "I was tossed out of the tribe." This provoked a post from the blogger Anders which made what might qualify as the most idiotic argument ever:

David Rose has a new article about Judith Curry called I was tossed out of the tribe. Well, here’s problem number one. There is no tribe. If you’re a scientist/researcher, then you should be aiming to do research that is honest and objective, the results of which should not depend on who you regard as being your contemporaries. If you think there’s some kind of tribe to which you need to belong, then you’re doing it wrong.

Yeah, that's right. Anders says science isn't about tribalism, therefore tribalism doesn't exist in science.

I don't think anything more needs to be said, but I can't help myself. It's too funny. Anders says tribalism in science would be a bad thing. Judith Curry frequently says the same thing. Initially she didn't though. Initially, she said this in a guest post she wrote for the blog Climate Audit:

2. Climate tribalism. Tribalism is defined here as a strong identity that separates one’s group from members of another group, characterized by strong in-group loyalty and regarding other groups differing from the tribe’s defining characteristics as inferior. In the context of scientific research, tribes differ from groups of colleagues that collaborate and otherwise associate with each other professionally. As a result of the politicization of climate science, climate tribes (consisting of a small number of climate researchers) were established in response to the politically motivated climate disinformation machine that was associated with e.g. ExxonMobil, CEI, Inhofe/Morano etc. The reaction of the climate tribes to the political assault has been to circle the wagons and point the guns outward in an attempt to discredit misinformation from politicized advocacy groups. The motivation of scientists in the pro AGW tribes appears to be less about politics and more about professional ego and scientific integrity as their research was under assault for nonscientific reasons (I’m sure there are individual exceptions, but this is my overall perception). I became adopted into a “tribe” during Autumn 2005 after publication of the Webster et al. hurricane and global warming paper. I and my colleagues were totally bewildered and overwhelmed by the assault we found ourselves under, and associating with a tribe where others were more experienced and savvy about how to deal with this was a relief and very helpful at the time.

Her experience with this very post contributed to an evolution in her views on the tribalism issue, as seen in her interview:

Curry’s independence has cost her dear. She began to be reviled after the 2009 ‘Climategate’ scandal, when leaked emails revealed that some scientists were fighting to suppress sceptical views. ‘I started saying that scientists should be more accountable, and I began to engage with sceptic bloggers. I thought that would calm the waters. Instead I was tossed out of the tribe. There’s no way I would have done this if I hadn’t been a tenured professor, fairly near the end of my career. If I were seeking a new job in the US academy, I’d be pretty much unemployable. I can still publish in the peer-reviewed journals. But there’s no way I could get a government research grant to do the research I want to do. Since then, I’ve stopped judging my career by these metrics. I’m doing what I do to stand up for science and to do the right thing.’

It's likely one could trace something of an evolution in her views over the years between these two pieces, but even in her guest post five years ago she showed she was realizing the dangers of tribalism:

After becoming more knowledgeable about the politics of climate change (both the external politics and the internal politics within the climate field), I became concerned about some of the tribes pointing their guns inward at other climate researchers who question their research or don’t pass various loyalty tests. I even started spending time at climateaudit, and my public congratulations to Steve McIntyre when climateaudit won the “best science blog award” was greeted with a rather unpleasant email from one of the tribal members....
In summary, the problem seems to be that the circling of the wagons strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks against climate science are now being used against other climate researchers and the more technical blogs (e.g. Climateaudit, Lucia, etc). Particularly on a topic of such great public relevance, scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them. Trying to suppress them or discredit the skeptical researcher or blogger is not an ethical strategy and one that will backfire in the long run.

Judith Curry has talked about the tribalism issue for half a decade now. She has talked about her personal experiences with the matter and published many posts at her site for people to discuss the subject. Some of those posts, such as this one, are examinations of what other people have to say on the subject.

And Anders dismisses all this. Why? Because scientists' work and actions "should not depend on who [they] regard as being [their] contemporaries." That's it. Scientists shouldn't be tribalistic, therefore they aren't.

It's the dumbest argument I can imagine. I imagine Curry would agree with Anders when he says:

If you’re a scientist/researcher, then you should be aiming to do research that is honest and objective, the results of which should not depend on who you regard as being your contemporaries.

I imagine she wishes that were the case:

If you think there’s some kind of tribe to which you need to belong, then you’re doing it wrong.

So that people didn't have to worry it might hurt their career to hold the "wrong" views. But wishing doesn't make it so. Saying tribalism shouldn't exist doesn't magically make tribalism not exist.

Unless you're Anders or one of his friends. Then it does, and anyone who says otherwise deserves mockery and scorn. Because clearly, there are no tribes.

20 comments

  1. So that people didn’t have to worry it might hurt their career to hold the “wrong” views.

    That then solves the puzzle. I am not afraid that holding the "wrong views" would hurt my career. Overstating my case, not having the evidence to back up my claims, or in general doing bad research that naturally does hurt my career, like doing a bad job hopefully hurts any career.

  2. "I am not afraid that holding the “wrong views” would hurt my career." Uh, yeah. Because Victor Venema's views aren't the type for which people's careers get hurt. Those people are the ones who doubt AGW alarm. So it's nice that you aren't afraid, but it would be nicer if you would take seriously the concerns of people who aren't just like you.

    A white man in the United States in the 1950s says that he isn't afraid of being a victim of racism, so he doubts that black people are either. Could be he's oblivious. Could be he just doesn't like them. Neither choice reflects credit on him.

  3. MikeR, I wrote "I am not afraid that holding the “wrong views” would hurt my career".
    I did not write "I am not afraid that holding my views would hurt my career".

    Just because I am allergic to the nonsense your political movement is spreading does not mean that I do not hold views your political movement would like and would call "wrong views". I am working on a review paper to show that changes in the way observations are made can have a large impact on estimates of trends in extreme temperatures from station data.

    For details, another example and how it helped my career see: How climatology treats sceptics.

  4. Victor Venema, you say:

    That then solves the puzzle. I am not afraid that holding the "wrong views" would hurt my career. Overstating my case, not having the evidence to back up my claims, or in general doing bad research that naturally does hurt my career, like doing a bad job hopefully hurts any career.

    But this post isn't about you. The discussions about tribalism are not about you. You are one person who makes up some small portion of some small number of social groups. Do you think your personal lack of fear can and should be interpreted as representative of the entire field of climate science? If not, nothing has been solved.

  5. Oh, this is rich. After one of his users said it, Anders repeated the point that:

    Marco said what I was going to say. Just because some people will choose to defend some reearch does not mean there is a tribe/team/cabal/….

    There is no Team. Real Climate never talked about the Team. Michael Mann never talked about the Team.

    Nope. Nuh-uh. Never happened. Forget all those blog posts you might have seen. Forget all the interviews you might have heard. Definitely forget the books you may have read.

    There is no Team.

  6. Victor

    You mention your article reagarding changes in observations making a difference in trends. I wrote on that general subject a few years ago.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/05/23/little-ice-age-thermometers-–-history-and-reliability-2/

    Whilst your review will obviously be much more technical than mine, if you are looking at historic temperature readings as well as modern ones, you might find the work of Dr Julie's von hann of interest. He wrote a Very good book published in 1903 with numerous comments on observations. A link to the book is in section 1 of my article

    Tonyb

  7. Brandon, fortunately this discussion is not about me, but I think I am quite typical in this respect. Also before I challenged the orthodoxy I did not fear any negative consequences because I have seen how it goes for others. There is nothing more beautiful than a good challenge, that is what you become scientist for. But you do need to have the evidence, that is also what you become scientist for.

    Tony, thanks for the link; Would be interested in the full document. You put work much work into the topic I love: understanding all the measurement problems, which are especially large in the early instrumental period (the period before Stevenson screens). Interesting idea that smog may have caused a cooling bias in cities. Had not heard of that potential problem before.

    I am more optimistic than you about the siting of AWS. In the USA the siting may have gotten worse due to the introduction of the MMTS systems. They were still analogue and had short cables. Modern digital systems with, if necessary, long lasting batteries and independent solar or wind power sources can be sited much better, maybe even better than the old Stevenson screens because the observer does not have to go there daily. The problem with AWS is again maintenance, a measurement problem is likely not detected as fast when there is not someone who comes by daily. Whether the screen got dirty or the ventilation was blocked or animals nest in the instrument is detected much later nowadays.

    We have started studying such problems using parallel data, which is especially important for the early instrumental period because then there were not many other stations to compare with to see changes and where thus the normal statistical relative homogenization may not work well.

  8. Victor

    I will dig the stuff out for you over the weekend.

    Did you ever read the book by camuffo regarding the adjustments made to 7 historic European temperature data sets? He and his group were given a grant by the EU to investigate and track down all likely influences, down to discovering that some temperatures were briefly taken indoors and that a keyhole had been stuffed with paper, so no warm air was enterng the room from that source!

    It was done under the Improve' project. It is a massive tome that comes with a cd and had a title ' understanding climatic variability '

    I had to take it out of the met office library three times before I could get to grips with it.

    Tonyb

  9. Victor Venema:

    Brandon, fortunately this discussion is not about me, but I think I am quite typical in this respect. Also before I challenged the orthodoxy I did not fear any negative consequences because I have seen how it goes for others. There is nothing more beautiful than a good challenge, that is what you become scientist for. But you do need to have the evidence, that is also what you become scientist for.

    I'm afraid I can't agree you are "quite typical in this respect" given the many people who have specifically stated views contrary to yours. Neither can I ignore the evidence they've presented, nor the evidence I have seen myself. You are free to hold whatever views you wish, but you won't convince anyone or accomplish anything by simply ignoring or dismissing what they say by saying you haven't seen it yourself. This is particularly true given you yourself have been accused of the very tribalistic behavior you say doesn't exist, to the point people have commented on this site to remark on what they perceive as it when you've commented here.

    Those comments, of course, could be wrong. All the people who have participated in discussions saying they perceive tribalism in how scientists have participated in climate debate may be wrong. These comments could stem from projection, or some other reason where the fault is on the ones making accusations. That is a possibility one could argue, and I wouldn't criticize a person for doing so.

    But I think any fairminded person would agree with the point of this post. Even if tribalism isn't a problem, you cannot demonstrate that by simply saying science isn't about tribalism. Anders's argument, "There is no tribe," which is based solely on the ideal science shouldn't have tribalism is wrong. Idiotically so. That's true, even if tribalism isn't a problem like Judith Curry claims.

    And it'd be good for discussions if people would say so. People should point out bad arguments no matter which "side" those arguments come from.

  10. I'm breaking this part of my comment off because it's not part of a discussion or conversation. It's more a remark from the moderator and administrator of the site. Early Victor Venema said this:

    Just because I am allergic to the nonsense your political movement is spreading does not mean that I do not hold views your political movement would like and would call “wrong views”. I am working on a review paper to show that changes in the way observations are made can have a large impact on estimates of trends in extreme temperatures from station data.

    I won't say this sort of remark is unacceptable here. I certainly won't say it is something bad enough I'd considered moderating it. What I will say is this: Anyone who thinks this sort of commentary is neutrally worded, civil, constructive or even just not embarrassing, is wrong. The moment you write, "I am allergic to the nonsense your political movement is spreading," you might as well just say, "You're a useless piece of garbage who should go to hell." That may not be what you say, but it's pretty much what people will hear.

    And that goes for both sides. I'm not trying to pick on Victor here. I see this constantly at WUWT, Bishop Hill, Anders's place and pretty much everywhere else. I don't get it. Trying to throw any random participant in an exchange into some group so you can smear them with some vague derogatory remark about that group just... seems pointless. It's certainly not a way to have a discussion. People can do it if they want, but personally, I think if you're going to resort to such pettiness, you might as well cut the pretense and just stick purely to the insults.

    So yeah, it's something you guys might want to consider. This isn't about the rules or anything. I'm just saying as a bit of general advice, if you're going to make derogatory remarks, maybe consider not going with "snide and petty." "Blunt and direct" tends to make you look better.

  11. Maybe that was an overreaction, but MikeR basically said that I did not do my job. If I were to defend AGW rather than follow the evidence, I would be a lobbyist, not a scientist. Thus this was also not a nice thing to say. Being a scientist is not just a job; like for most scientists it is part of my identity. Thus this was a personal attack in my eyes.

    (Yes, the quote is not friendly. I was, however, pointing to behavior, not to persons ("assholes") and talked about the culture of a group, not a specific person.)

  12. Victor Venema:

    Maybe that was an overreaction, but MikeR basically said that I did not do my job. If I were to defend AGW rather than follow the evidence, I would be a lobbyist, not a scientist. Thus this was also not a nice thing to say.

    No, he did not. He didn't say anything of the sort. He didn't say anything about the validity or lack thereof of your views on global warming or how you came to form them. What he said was you hold views which have the approval of the "tribe" he believes causes harm to people's careers in this case, so you would naturally have no reason to fear such harm.

    I have no idea how you came up with this interpretation, but it isn't based in anything anyone said. Pointing out the views you hold are aligned with those of a particular group says absolutely nothing about why you hold those views.

    Thus this was a personal attack in my eyes.

    Interestingly, he did criticize your character in his comment. It wasn't in the way you claim though, and I'm at a loss as to why you haven't responded to it. Personally, I would think being compared to a racist would provoke a response.

    (Yes, the quote is not friendly. I was, however, pointing to behavior, not to persons (“assholes”) and talked about the culture of a group, not a specific person.)

    It worries me people actually think this is a good thing. Not the first part, mind you. Focusing on behavior rather than persons is good. But... do you honestly think attacking a group and labeling a person a part of that group is somehow better than just attacking that person? It's not. It's worse. When you attack a person you're talking to, he can speak up in response. When you attack a group he may belong to, he can't effectively respond because it's impossible to defend unnamed individuals against unspecified allegations. But since you label him a part of the group, you get to smear him by association with those vague, derogatory remarks.

    It's a cheap and pathetic rhetorical trick. Even worse, MikeR didn't identify himself as part of any group. I don't know him. I don't know that he belongs to any particular group, much less some political movement. How do you? Do you have some personal experience with him from other sites? I can't rule that possibility out, but if so, nobody visiting this page will share your knowledge. To them, it will look like you just assumed some guy must be part of some unnamed political movement so you could smear him by association with vague accusations that have no basis in anything that's been said here... just because he criticized you. That you seem to have completely misunderstood what he said to you only will only serve to enhance that impression.

  13. Tony, thanks, got your mail.

    Brandon, when MikeR expects me to only hold tribe-approved views, which I have shown to be wrong in the linked post, rather than views that are supported by the evidence, that is an insult to me as a scientist. That would mean that I do not do my job. That would be a society I do not want to live in. I like open societies with rational debate.

  14. Victor Venema, you don't have the slightest shred of evidence to support that claim. MileR never said anything like that. If you still think he did, you can quote what he said and explain why you think it says that. Maybe that will let us figure out why we have such radically different interpretations of what he said.

    But as it stands, I cannot see anything in his comment that even hints at what you claim. MikeR didn't say a word about why you believe what you believe global warming issues. Your poor behavior here, all predicated on this continued insistence he said something he never said, does you no credit.

  15. If a scientist says they haven't seen tribalism and groupthink it's because they don't have the proper equipment to detect it. They probably aren't aware of 'politics' either.

    And suddenly their own personal anecdotes count as evidence to justify their own beliefs about themselves and their profession?

    Since when are scientists known for being highly socially aware?

    Normally scientists defer to experts when they don't know what they are talking about. But there is bias when it comes to social psychology: many "hard" scientists don't like the "soft" sciences. Too feminine?? 🙂

  16. You say "Anders says science isn’t about tribalism, therefore tribalism doesn’t exist in science."
    I dont see anything with same meaning as "therefore" in the text you quote. I believe you often yourself argue against misrepresentation/misquotation.

  17. Alex, I struggle to see any other meaning one is supposed to take from Anders's post. He says there is no tribe then immediately discusses how science is not about tribalism. What other meaning would you have people take from that?

    If Anders wasn't offering the idea scientists shouldn't be tribalistic as justification for claiming there is no tribalism, then he said Judith Curry was wrong to claim there is tribalism while offering absolutely no justification for his claim. Then, in what must have just been some stream of thought rambling, he went on to talk about how science isn't about tribalism, not intending thay to justify his argument in any way, shape or form...? Is that what you and Anders are saying? He also said I misrepresented him, but he refused to offer a word of explanation.

    I'm open to hearing alternative interpretations of that paragraph, but I need to actually hear them. As it is now, no matter how many times I read it, it keeps coming back the same.

  18. For the record, I do kind of like the idea of reading Anders's post as beginning with a paragraph saying Judith Curry is wrong on such a central issue - that tribalism even exists, while not doing a thing to support or justify the claim. Because that would be hilarious.

    "She's wrong! She's wrong! She's so completely wrong! And now that we've established that, let's move onto a different subject."

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