A Primer On "Tribal Science": An Easy Read On Why We Believe As We Do
    By Kim Wombles | May 22nd 2012 09:43 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Kim

    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

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    Mike McRae's Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas is short, sweet, often humorous and to the point. It's also pithy and full of quote-worthy sentences:
    "Since most of the face-like patterns Mary sees every day are indeed faces, her brain's gamble usually pays off. In addition, making the mistake of thinking there is the face of Jesus on her iron isn't costing her much (except a new iron. Nobody likes to do housework with the face of God)."

    McRae covers all of the ground traditionally covered in books like this, such as Shermer's The Believing Brain, but he does without tons of jargon and in about half the words. He covers facilitated communication, Wakefield, homeopathy, and more. While readers who are familiar with much of pseudoscience's territory will find all of this familiar ground, it's still worth the read because this is the book you want to hand to friends who are not familiar with skepticism and critical thinking. This book is damn good reading and might reach them. Might, but as McRae himself writes,

    "Not only do we learn what to believe from our tribe, we learn how to go about forming our beliefs with a bias about what constitutes good evidence. Changing minds, therefore, is far more challenging than simply substituting conclusions or debunking beliefs. It requires a person to change their fundamental epistemology" (emphasis mine).

    And there you go: how obvious that the back and forths that occur on many posts, especially like those on facilitated communication, or vaccines and autism, or for goodness sake, parasitic worms being introduced into autistic children's bodies in the misguided, erroneous belief that autism is an auto-immune disorder arising in the gastrointestinal tract, are completely a waste of time. People who have bought into a pseudoscientific idea will not be persuaded by someone else--if change comes for them, it will arise because they grow: "According to Kuhn, progress doesn't come as a result of persuasion or lecturing in a belief. You cannot explain to somebody a process of thinking and expect them to embrace an evaluativist epistemology. Rather it comes with exploring ideas and arriving at conclusions that later appear to be self-evident" (okay, there is some jargon, but in prior paragraphs, McRae explains the terminology very well, so it will not be a barrier).

    So what are we, a skeptical, scientific community, to do with that awareness that arguing, debating, engaging those who uphold pseudoscientific beliefs has little pay off when it comes to changing the belief systems of these individuals? Do we pack up our toys, shrug and march off the playground, harrumphing in a hissy? Probably not. I think we keep doing the same things, but that we know when to walk away from a discussion that is going nowhere--that we don't act like right-fighters, always insistent on having the last word, because I don't know if you've noticed--those true-believers are pretty motivated to keep coming back and trying to wear us down. I think we pick our battles, we face these individuals with realistic expectations that at times what we are doing is little more than pissing into the wind.

    McRae closes his excellent book with this thought: "The question of how to engage citizens in science must move beyond a focus on the dictation of facts, figures, beliefs and theories, and have as a greater priority the ability to engage with others in the community to evaluate the knowledge they encounter." I would add that without also instilling a sense of humility and a willingness to remain open to contradictory evidence, we'll still be doing the same old tango, as people already believe that they are qualified to evaluate evidence even when they are far from it.

    McRae doesn't really break any new ground or say anything that other scientists and science writers like Shermer, Stephen Law, or David Eagleman haven't already said. He just says it in a refreshing way and one that's completely appropriate for handing over to our friends, family members, or students. He's engaging, entertaining, and perhaps, most importantly given how fractured our attending abilities appear to be today, short and to the point.


    The thing about those who are skeptical of the "true believers" is that they also have a bobble-headed response. They tend not to think for themselves, either. It's like the pot calling the kettle black. And for some reason, I hear a nasal "na-na-na-na-na, you're so-o stu-pid." after each post by the noveau-skeptics. In truth, in my somewhat illiterate mind, I can't see one existing without the other. Like two sides of the same coin.

    I came across an interesting term in my twittering,fallibilism, which wiki defines as
    (from medieval Latin fallibilis, "liable to err") is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world. In the most commonly used sense of the term, this consists in being open to new evidence that would disprove some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that "any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences."[1] This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.[2]

    The new skeptic seems to have forgotten that they are not "infallibilistic". It's not taken for granted anymore...It seems rather "popish" to me.

    Yes, you're right--too often, it's the same thing--just a different take, so you have two groups of people yelling back and forth at each other the same thing--think Age of Autism and everyone else--nothing's changed over the years, and the players mostly remain the same--no evolution in anyone's thinking.
    I get enough chances to get a light kick in the butt to let me know I could be wrong and have three bluntly honest kids who love to correct me. It's always possible to be wrong and any evidence that counters a belief ought to be examined in as impartial a way as possible. And if it's not a big deal with huge consequences, then needing to be right doesn't seem to me to be that important. Certainly not worth arguing over.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    That sounds as if it might be an interesting book, as long as as sticks to science and does not venture into politics or religion.  I have allergies in those domains.
    One thing though.  Could you provide me with a context for the Martin Luther King quote?

                                                  Ladybird on back of Borage flower.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gorgeous photo!
    The quote comes from his 1963 book of sermons Strength to Love.

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Many thanks.  The book is in our town library, but “in storage (ask staff)”.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Yes, I'll agree. I think you see the repercussions of wrong thinking by people of a non-scientific bent. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt children die of diseases that are preventable by vaccine. Unvaccinated children are far more likely to spread disease.

    I vaccinated Ben because 1) I believe in science and the ability to minimize disease, and to me it was a loving thing to do . 2) societal pressure...I didn't want to be one of ~them~. What seldom gets into the discussion is that doctors are refusing to vaccinate children if their parents can't afford it, and public health is underfunded. That also is a part of the reason for the whooping cough epidemic in California, one you will seldom hear. The AMA called out their members on this, while still mentioning anti-vaxers. Have your cake and eat it too.

    Seems to boil down to: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

    Still, there is no conscionable reason why individual susceptibility wasn't given as much study as epidemiological proof of non-causation. Over one-hundred years ago Samuel Clemens spoke of liars, damn liars, and statisticians. It's possible that susceptibility is totally missed.