Power tribes

By Craig Cormick

President, Australian Science Communicators


There are many people out there who understand that science helps us make sense of the world around us, through discoveries based on analysing data, measuring impacts and drawing conclusions from evidence-based thinking.

  • I’m sorry, I’ll just start that again.

There are many people out there who see science as a rather limited way of explaining the world, and that it is elitist, blinkered and hampered by its insistence on obtainable data.

You might not be pleased to know it, but both statements are equally correct – for there are many competing world-views that exist within our families, our communities, across our nation and around the globe.

And not all of those world-views belong to those of us who might be members of the Science Fan Boys and Fan Girls Tribe.

For despite thousands of years of civilisation, and many years of uniform access to Facebook and Twitter, we are still inherently tribal – and prefer to define the world into those who are like us and those who are not like us.

Modern tribes though are less distinguished by whether we have stars on our stomaches, or whether we paint our faces blue, and are more defined by our similarity of beliefs and world views.

And of course, no matter what your tribe, it is the one that sees the world as it really is.

Our tribe is the right tribe!

And our tribe is the righteous tribe!

Let me explain how this works. We have an inherent world view – formed by a complexity of things – that might be individualistic, communitarian, hierarchical, conservative, progressive, fearful, frivolous, consumer driven, sustainable etc.  And we are driven to not only look for things that reinforce our world view – but we look for people who have a similar world view to us.

Our tribe!

With as simple a thing as a Friend Request or a Friend Delete we can surround ourselves with other members of our tribe.

UFO believers, anti-vaccination advocates, economic rationalists, neo-liberals, climate change deniers  – you name it – there’s a tribe for you.

And here’s the thing, once you have surrounded yourself with a solid tribe of similar thinking, it is very, very hard to convince you that there might be an alternative world view of any merit.

Especially if it is coming from people who are not like you.

Facts and data will not do it.

Numerical weight of evidence will not do it.

And online brawling and name calling certainly won’t bring about any change of position.

Of course the same happens for Science Fan Boys and Fan Girls.  We surround ourselves by our tribe and engage in social-media war on the other tribes – shaking our virtual slings and arrows at them.

And why not? For we are the superior tribe, yes? We are the ones who can see through the short-term thinking of those seeking profits over sustainability, or real estate over research, or can see the danger of species loss, or monocultures. And we are the ones who can see that sensible investment in research will lead to widespread social and environmental and individual benefits.

We can see why it’ s good to drive a hybrid car and have solar panels on our house, and subscribe to Cosmos and listen to the Science Show and take our kids to National Science Week gigs – and maybe – just maybe – feel a little warm and smug about it.

Because our tribe has never had it so good! We have access to more good science podcasts and talks and programs and events and ways to follow science than we have ever had.

But – as I pointed out – there are actually a lot of other tribes out there who don’t see the world the same way. Who don’t think there is much of a pay off from science research, and don’t think that science is either interesting or relevant, and feel it can’t really explain all the things that are unexplainable in the world.

If you want confirmation of that – just have a closer look at the majority of politicians on your local council, or in your State or Federal Governments – and look at their world views.

And they are worth looking at. For they are Power Tribes.

There are lots of such Tribes out there – generally cashed up and well connected – and like it or not – Science Fan Boys and Fan Girls are not a Power Tribe. We have more clout and numbers than the I’d Rather Be Fishing Tribe or the I Vote and I Shoot Tribe – in most cases. But we’re not up there with the big Power Tribes.

In fact evidence shows we are actually a shrinking tribe – particularly amongst young people – which is often masked by our increased interconnectedness with each other and our heroes.

We can feel a bit superior, sure, but that doesn’t mean those in a real Power Tribes think we are.

Even the general public don’t necessarily think we are. Evidence shows that while scientists are still respected by the general public they are not so much trusted by them as they once were.

One of the problems is that while we are a tribe that does a lot of talking – it is predominantly … amongst ourselves.

So here’s the issue put simply. How do we become a Power Tribe and actually influence things more?

Well there are really two key ways – either infiltrate existing Power Tribes more effectively, or grow the size of our tribe and make it more dominant and powerful numerically. Or both.

And that brings me to a key question: if you are a member of the Science Fan Boy and Fan Girl tribe, what have you done recently to try and grow the tribe or to influence existing Power Tribes?

What have you done to put away your virtual slings and arrows and engage with other tribes – while acknowledging their different world view and values, rather than criticising them?

This is an important issue – and it goes beyond who to add to your Facebook and Twitter Feed and who to invite to your next barbeque – though they are useful first steps.

For we will never become The Power Tribe – and that’s probably not a bad a thing, as we are just as susceptible to group-think as any tribe.  Such is life!

But we need to talk more to other tribes and less just to ourselves.

We need to find ways for other Tribes to consider science thinking more often, and consider it a part of their own world view, by us framing it through their world view.

We need to talk science without ever using the word science sometimes.

For the good of everyone we need our Power Tribes to contain diversity of thought – less a monoculture – and to be more often considering the things that Science Fan Boys and Fan Girls think important when making decisions.

As I like to say at my Tribal barbeques – the stakes are high.

For as Jared Diamond points out, there are more than enough examples over the centuries of Power Tribes who have ignored the evidence-based voices around them, and died out when their world views proved inconsistent with sustainability.  Just as there are examples of Tribes of Evidence, who could see the problems facing them, but weren’t in a position of power.

There is not really going to be a lot of smugness in saying, “I told you so!” as we spiral downwards.

So – get out of your Tribe a bit more often. Invite other Tribes to your things. Listen to what they have to say, and then don’t necessarily talk about science. Talk about evidence. Talk about consequences. Talk about the things they value – family, home, career, security, well-being, natural surrounds, health – and if they’d put them at risk.

Find those commonalities – not the differences – and you might find that we all belong to one larger human tribe.

And that is something worth discovering.

Listen out for a broadcast of this article on ABC’s Science Show in coming weeks.

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