Ls&Cs: Tribal Loyalties and Conservative Irrationality

Several striking items recently that dovetail nicely, about covid and climate change denial.

An anecdote from the Aug. 13th issue of The Week, under the heading “Only in America”: A shopper in Omaha wearing a mask is shot by another man with a BB gun. When the assailant was asked why he did it, he told his victim “You’re on the other team.”

This supports one of my notions here in this blog that people don’t acquire knowledge or beliefs through education or careful consideration of evidence; they take on the beliefs of their tribes–communities, families, congregations. It’s mostly irrelevant whether those beliefs are true, whether they have any bearing to reality. In fact, that they don’t is often the point: endorsing outlandish beliefs is a mark of allegiance to the tribe.

And this may be fine, in terms of the health of human communities–until those beliefs cause damage, e.g. when denial of vaccines leads to death.

In the past couple weeks the theme in the news has been the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” with the delta variant being a mutation that developed in the bodies of the unvaccinated. If everyone had gotten vaccinated earlier this year when prompted, there might be no delta variant.

And governors of states like Florida and Texas are advocates of virus transmission, under the conservative rubric of “freedom.”

If some foreign infiltrator bent on taking the US down through covid implemented measures to allow virus transmission as free as possible, this is what they’d be doing. Whose side are these governors on? Apparently not their constituents, except to the degree that some of them must be sacrificed to appeal to the “freedom” of others to infect and kill. Freedom’s collateral damage.


The major piece of this past week appeared on the 8th in Salon (and reposted elsewhere): A terrifying new theory: Fake news and conspiracy theories as an evolutionary strategy, subtitled “Social scientist Michael Bang Petersen on why people believe outrageous lies — as a tool in violent group conflict.”

This sounds shocking but is really no surprise; it’s consistent with the understanding in recent decades of social cohesion and group selection and evolutionary biology. It neatly answers the question, why should people believe outlandish things that might kill them? How does believing falsehoods enhance evolutionary survival?

Well, because selection acts not only on the individual, but on the group. (Actually, the notion of group selection, which goes back decades, was controversial for a while — those who objected claimed that selection criteria of the group would inherently apply to the individuals as well — but seems to be less so recently. And considering how many people get so easily wept up into cults, including the biggest of all recently, T****’s, it’s not about particular selection criteria spontaneously appearing in millions of individuals. It’s about individual autonomy being subsumed by tribal/cult/group values. “Teams.”)

Thus, beliefs in “fake news” can enhance the bonding among a particular group, even as the consequences of those beliefs can be deadly, for some. Obviously there’s a wavering balance between the long-term success of the group/cult/tribe and the collateral damage of the loss of some of its members.

Human beings have an evolutionary history, and deception is commonplace in the animal world because it confers evolutionary advantage. There’s good reason to believe we’re not so different, other than the fact that humans are ultra-social creatures. In ancestral and evolutionary terms, being part of a successful social group was every bit as essential as food and water. So deception among humans evolved from group conflicts. That’s the thesis of a recent paper called “The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood” …

The article is an interview with Petersen.

The basic logic at work here is that anyone can believe the truth, but only loyal members of the group can believe something that is blatantly false.

There is a selection pressure to develop beliefs or develop a psychology that scans for beliefs that are so bizarre and extraordinary that no one would come up with them by themselves. This would signal, “Well, I belong to this group. I know what this group is about. I have been with this group for a long time,” because you would not be able to hold this belief without that prehistory.

Fascinating piece.


The much bigger denial of reality among many (conservatives) is that of climate change, as a major report came out this week about the dire consequences humanity cannot avoid without immediate, drastic, action. One aspect of this denial is the tendency of many to ignore long-term threats in favor of short-term gains, where the latter entail unwillingness to change, and commitment to climate-damaging technologies.


Paul Krugman in NYT, responding to that major report: Climate Denial, Covid Denial and the Right’s Descent, subtitled, “It’s not as bad as you thought. It’s worse.”

The conclusions won’t surprise anyone who has been following the issue, but they were terrifying all the same.

We can, however, safely predict how influential conservatives will react to the report, if they react at all. They’ll say that it’s a hoax or that the science is still uncertain or that any attempt to mitigate climate change would devastate the economy.

The article actually focuses on the *differences* between conservatives reactions to climate change and covid — with the latter being worse. Climate change involved the long run, the big money behind climate denial, and how “free-market ideologues didn’t want to hear about problems that the free market can’t solve.”

How covid denial is worse:

⦁ “America’s rapid vaccination pace during the spring was very good news for the nation — but it was also a success story for the Biden administration. So influential conservatives, for whom owning the libs is always an overriding goal, began throwing up roadblocks to the vaccination program.” (There we go–it’s not about reality; it’s about defeating the other tribe!)
⦁ “As I’ve written before, the modern G.O.P. is more like an authoritarian political cult than a normal political party, so vaccine obstruction — not necessarily denunciation of the vaccines themselves, but opposition to any effort to get shots into people’s arms — became a loyalty test, a position you took to prove yourself a loyal Trumpist Republican.”
⦁ And it’s about self-preservation: “Presumably, the politicians who made this calculation had no idea that reality would strike back this hard and this fast … [i.e. in Florida and Texas] But it’s almost impossible for them to change course. If Ron DeSantis were to admit the deadliness of his Covid mistakes, his political ambitions would be over.”
⦁ Conclusion: “So Covid denial has turned out to be even worse than climate denial. We’ve gone from cynical catering to corporate interests to aggressive, performative anti-rationality. And the right’s descent continues, with no bottom in sight.”

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