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Tribal Skepticism?

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 21 2012

I’ve been enjoying an “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy” of the upcoming U.S. edition of Mike McRae’s Tribal Science from Prometheus Books, which has once again put me in mind of something I think about often: the considerable bogusness of the conceit of “skeptics” versus “believers.” There is a social subculture that can be called “skepticism” and there is a niche of scholarly activity by the same name, but it’s a mistake to suppose that skeptics and believers are very different sorts of people. The true landscape of skepticism and belief is so complex that I can’t resist summing it up with this wonderful T-shirt slogan from Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Bulldozing the complexity of human striving for understanding into tribal “skeptic” and “believer ” piles distorts reality, and makes it harder to do the already difficult work of solving mysteries and promoting science literacy.

The truth is that self-identified skeptics are not so terribly good at critical or scientific thinking. There’s little shame in that; nobody is all that good at those things. Nor, on the other hand, are paranormal “believers” all that terribly bad. Regardless of our intellectual commitments, regardless of our investments in this or that ideology or belief, humans everywhere are pretty damn smart—and also pretty dumb.

To get at this complexity, I’d like to share this prescient 1857 description of an approach to fringe claims that we would now call “scientific skepticism.”

The power of drawing correct inferences from what we see, and even of knowing what we do really see, and what we only imagine, is vastly augmented by the rigorous training of the faculties which long habits of observing certain classes of phenomena induce; and every man of science must have met with numberless cases in which statements egregiously false have been made to him in the most perfect good faith; his informant implicitly believing that he was simply telling what he had seen with his own eyes. A person the other day assured me, that he had frequently seen hummingbirds sucking flowers in England; I did not set him down as a liar, because he was a person of indubitable honor; his acquaintance with natural history, however was small, and he had fallen into the very natural error of mistaking a moth for a bird.

It is quite proper that, when evidence is presented of certain occurrences, the admission of which would overturn what we have come to consider as fixed laws, or against which there exists a high degree of antecedent improbability—that evidence should be received with great suspicion. It should be carefully sifted; possible cause of error should be suggested; the powers of the observer to judge of the facts should be examined; the actual bounding line between sensuous perception and mental inference should be critically investigated; and confirmatory, yet independent testimony should be sought. Yet, when we have done all this, we should ever remember that truth is stranger than fiction; that our power to judge of fixed laws is itself very imperfect; and that indubitable phenomena are ever and anon brought to light, which compel us to revise our code.1

Couldn’t say it better myself! But this is not a quote from anyone that skeptics think of as one of “us,” but from one of the more infamous creation theorists of all time: Philip Henry Gosse, whose Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot proposed that the apparent geological antiquity of the Earth was built into God’s instantaneous creation as a kind of virtual past. It is a book that stands as the ultimate example of an untestable hypothesis in the history of science—”spectacular nonsense” in the words of Stephen Jay Gould.2 Moreover, the sensibly skeptical passage above is part Gosse’s defense of the great Atlantic sea serpent, a cryptid whose existence he advocated alongside a Bigfoot-like creature in Venezuela—and even unicorns!

“So what?” you may think. Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, right? Gosse made some skeptical noises, but clearly he should be dismissed as a kook…shouldn’t he? Once again we find that it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Gould explained, Gosse was also one of great science popularizers of the English-speaking world, “the David Attenborough of his day, Britain’s finest popular narrator of nature’s fascination. He wrote a dozen books on plants and animals, lectured widely to popular audiences, and published several technical papers on marine invertebrates.”3 He was a friendly personal acquaintance of Charles Darwin, to whose theory of natural selection he gave a friendly shout-out and hefty quote earlier in the same book that promotes sea serpents.4 You may even have a part of Gosse’s scientific legacy right in your own home: he was among the first to experiment with salt water “aquariums”—a word he popularized with his books on the topic, inspiring both the continuing household hobby and the tourist industry of marine animal exhibition parks. It’s fair to look back at Gosse through many different modern lenses, as a scientist, pseudoscientist, naturalist, supernaturalist, skeptic, wild-eyed speculator, creationist, cryptozoologist, and more. Each description is as true as such retrospective judgements can be; each is also incomplete. Gosse was complicated.

As are we all. In more recent years, astronomer Carl Sagan described science and skepticism as “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.”5 He was of course correct about the value of this “exquisite balance,” and movement skeptics often quote that evocative phrase. But here’s the thing: everyone embodies that balance to a substantial degree. Every person on every side of every paranormal question believes that they are both skeptical and open-minded—and they are all both correct and incorrect. This is possible because people are people, and not cardboard cutouts. We’re verbs, and we’re complicated. Our internal equalizer bars of gullible and shrewd, foolish and wise, willful and humble are in constant flux. We all try our best. We all get the balance wrong.

Does this mean there is no value to the skeptic label? Is it an affectation, a flag for arbitrary tribal affiliation? I’ll come back to my own defense of the term in another post, but for now: I think the answer in some ways is “Yes.” I’m persuaded that there is nothing very special or different about skeptics. Certainly, we are not immune to base tribal impulses. It’s worth considering that Sagan’s “exquisite balance” passage followed immediately after these sentences of warning:

I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. This is a potential social danger of an organization like CSICOP. We have to guard carefully against it.6

Remember as well that most skeptics are not scientists, but (at best) science enthusiasts. The social danger Sagan warned about is not merely that we may be impolite, but that we may express certainty that goes beyond the evidence, or beyond our own command of the evidence. Science-y language and the unearned pretension of scientific authority — pseudoscience, in short — may be used as a cudgel by those selling science just as easily as by those selling homeopathy.

And yet, the situation is a bit more complicated than that, too, isn’t it? Because while people are much the same, in all our flaws and glory, ideas are not. As Sagan explained, it’s not enough to have skepticism and open-mindedness in our hearts; we must also have rigorous techniques for putting these shared human values to work on the task of untangling the external complexities of the universe and the internal complexities of our biases and tribal dispositions. “Some ideas are better than others,” Sagan wrote. “The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”7

Which brings us to a further irony of our nature, which I’ll leave to Mike McRae’s Tribal Science to describe: “The universe is at once confusing, majestic, beautiful, logical and incomprehensible. And yet something in our tribal wiring makes it impossible for us to stop trying to understand it.”8


  1. Gosse, Philip Henry. The Romance of Natural History.  (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1863.) p. 298–299. Hyperlink added.
  2. Gould, Stephen Jay. “Adam’s Navel.” The Flamingo’s Smile. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.) p. 100
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gosse (1863.) p. 79–82. “I am very far, indeed, from accepting Mr. Darwin’s theory to the extent to which he pushes it, completely trampling on Revelation as it does,” wrote Gosse, “but I think there is a measure of truth in it.”
  5. Sagan, Carl. “The Burden of Skepticism.” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 12.1, Fall 1987. pp. 38–46
  6. Ibid. Hyperlink added.
  7. Ibid.
  8. McRae, Mike. Tribal Science. (New York: Prometheus Books, 2012.) p. 224. Quote from uncorrected advance reading copy.

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34 Responses to “Tribal Skepticism?”

  1. Max says:

    Whenever a headline says something like “Study inconclusive on cell phone cancer risk,” believers conclude that cell phones cause cancer, and skeptics conclude that cell phones don’t cause cancer.

  2. Other Paul says:

    If you’d rather be right than certain then you must also rather be wrong than certain.

  3. Janet Camp says:


    I’m not so sure (or–it’s more complicated than that, perhaps?). When I read that headline, I wonder who is saying more study is necessary–physicists who say that this type of radiation couldn’t possibly cause cancer or deniers (who often like to call themselves skeptics) who will never accept that their preconceived notion is not true? Acupuncture and homeopathy devotees also continually call for “more research”. Public health authorities often bow to political pressure to do all sorts of unscientific things–like the whole department set up by Senator Harkin to study “alternative” medicine.

    I do agree with the post in the sense that skeptics can fall into the very thinking they protest so much, however. There’s a guy at my local skeptic group who faithfully decries every type of “woo” until it comes to his pet practice–yoga. Suddenly, yoga “really is proven”, he says, to be more effective for (fill in the blank) than any other type of exercise–and he goes on from there to credit all sorts of personal anecdotal things to yoga!

    • Max says:

      Physicists like Dr. Leikind don’t need any observational study because they declare what’s impossible from first principles.
      But doctors like Dr. Gorski and Dr. Hall say that such declarations are premature.

      Self-identified skeptics ridicule believers for jumping to conclusions prematurely, but they do the same thing.

      If you don’t study “alternative” medicine, how do you know whether or not it works?

      • Somite says:

        That some skeptics may be mistaken sometimes doesn’t prove that skepticism is not inherently the same as paranormalism.

        Skeptics as individuals and as a group work hard to avoid being mistaken or using faulty reasoning. For paranormals faulty reasoning is a tool.

      • mcb says:

        “If you don’t study “alternative” medicine, how do you know whether or not it works?”

        Of course once we study a traditional folk remedy or a new alternative therapy carefully enough to determine it is effective and safe (on balance) it becomes plain old science-based medicine.

        But many “alternative” therapies show no signs of ever demonstrating effectiveness or a plausible mechanism of action. After a century or more of unsuccessful tests I propose we can safely pull the plug on homeopathy, chiropractic, and acupuncture without “jumping to conclusions prematurely.”

      • Somite says:

        “plausible mechanism of action”

        Bingo. Same for ghosts, god and bigfoot.

      • Max says:

        and quasicrystals, accelerating expansion of the universe, and faster-than-light neutrinos.

        Why do you emphasize plausible mechanism and not empirical evidence?

      • Somite says:

        You need one or the other. Paranormal phenomena offers neither.

      • Max says:

        Right, you need one or the other.
        The Ganzfeld experiments offer evidence of paranormal phenomena or lousy controls.

  4. Somite says:

    I find it much to center around results than the approach. Show me evidence and verifiable results and I don’t care what label you attach to yourself.

    It all comes to a difference on what is acceptable data. Agnotology, if you will. If you accept psi and paranormal “journals” as “data” you are no different than a woomeister because they are simply not the same as a Science or Nature.

    Define the source of your data and the work is half done. Saves a lot of time and text.

    • Somite says:

      Jesus Somite. Fully wake up before attempting a post!

      “I find it useful to center around results rather than the approach.”

      • Max says:

        What do you mean? You can’t trust the results if the approach is bad.

      • Somite says:

        In the sense of labels. If paranormal researchers came up with incontrovertible evidence for the paranormal I would accept it; regardless of the source.

  5. Max says:

    Eliezer Yudkowsky suggested a test
    “Since it can be cheap and easy to attack everything your tribe doesn’t believe, you shouldn’t trust the rationality of just anyone who slams astrology and creationism; these beliefs aren’t just false, they’re also non-tribal among educated audiences. Test what happens when a ‘skeptic’ argues for a non-tribal belief, or argues against a tribal belief, before you decide they’re good general rationalists.”

    “If I recall correctly, the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book, on UFOs, explained away as a sighting of the planet Venus what turned out to actually be an experimental aircraft. No, I don’t believe in UFOs either; but if you’re going to explain away experimental aircraft as Venus, then nothing else you say provides further Bayesian evidence against UFOs either. You are merely an undiscriminating skeptic.”

    • tmac57 says:

      I guess a truly discriminating skeptic would try to find out if the author did in fact “recall correctly”.

      • Max says:

        He may be referring to the Mantell UFO incident.

        In any case, you don’t have to look very far to find “skeptics” jumping to conclusions. Watch any episode of P&T Bullshit!

      • tmac57 says:

        I can’t disagree with that.I am not so sure that Project Blue Book was a good example of what he was trying to demonstrate though.It reminded me of the AGW deniers that wanted to discount the IPCC report in it’s entirety because of the mistake it made on when the Himalayan glaciers were projected to melt.Never mind that that was one data point in a 1000 page summary of hundreds of climate research papers.

    • Johnny says:

      Given that Less Wrong is pretty deeply into the singularity religion and much of what they do center around it, I’d take much of what they think of skeptics with a huge grain of salt. From what I know, many skeptics are, well, skeptical of the singularity hypothesis (which is essentially a cult for geeks).

  6. Phea says:

    I do not like labels. Many years ago I found a website, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, ( It helped me explain to friends why I just didn’t believe in stuff like astrology, ghosts, ufo’s, psychics, etc., and I found I agreed with almost everything I read there. It also, through links, led me to this, and other sites which I have found very interesting/educational/entertaining. Skepticblog has also been responsible for linking me to many interesting websites, too many to list. What labels us? Our beliefs, our interests, what websites we have bookmarked? I suppose I’m a “skeptic” but I still do not like labels.

  7. Johnny says:

    I think Steven Novella described this issue in a sensible way:

    The SGU also had a podcast when they dealt with this issue. Short summary: Humans do have self-images, there is really no getting away from that. Novella said the best one could do was to be aware of it and channel it in a positive direction. He also said he identified with (quelle surprise) skepticism.

    My problem with the skeptic label is that it is rather vague, people disagree on what it means and what it encompasses. PZ Myers thinks it includes certain things that Daniel Loxton doesn’t think it includes, for example.

  8. Trimegistus says:

    An excellent post, and all too relevant.

    Sadly, I have a suspicion everyone reading it is shaking their heads over how OTHER people are so easily drawn into tribalism.

  9. Mike McRae says:

    Biased as I am, I agree this is a great article. And many thanks again for the plug.

    One thing I tried to communicate with the book was how tribal thinking isn’t so much a cognitive deficiency; it is how we think. The short cuts that occasionally lead us astray usually empower us, and have seen to not just our survival but our ability to spread far and wide across the planet.

    What has frustrated me with skeptical communities is a sense of dualism when it comes to matters of the mind, where some are enlightened by their ability to see clearly and others are impeded by fallible (or even broken) brains. This dichotomous view of cognitive purity versus broken thinking is a troubling fallacy.

    In my opinion, the way forward is to utilise the strengths in social thinking, and accept inevitable limitations with humility and grace. Yes, some ideas will be bad ones. And some of those bad ideas (and I have mulled over the irony of this thought) will be mine. But progress that can benefit the majority happens as an evolution of ideas within a social construct, and as we know, evolution is impossible without diversity.

  10. Loren Petrich says:

    I think that that’s being too hard on Philip Gosse. Yes, he was a creationist, but his created-appearance theory had a certain logic to it. He believed that the Universe runs in cycles, and that God had created it in the middle of its cycles, because there’s no other way to do it.

    His book “Omphalos” was a huge compendium of seeming evidence of the great age of the Universe, which he explained according to his theory. Thus, God created Adam and Eve with navels, even though they had not been born that way, because he was creating them in the middle of their lives, as it were. Thus, the title of his book, the Greek word for navel.

    While he thought that created appearance was a logical way to create, most other people seem to have thought that it is a theory of divine fraudulence.

    • Gosse has a bad rep today, but I agree that he deserves more respect. He not only had the integrity to take the implications of his creationism seriously, but also his scheme was designed to allow creationists to embrace the whole of the new geology—rocks, fossils, an old Earth, the whole shebang.

      He was naive in his hope that his ideas would be widely adopted, but he was a very clever guy.

  11. Brit says:

    Meh, I mostly disagree with this article. While it’s obviously true that “skeptics” can have all kinds of biases and tribalism, I don’t agree that these factors are as often present among skeptics. Skeptics can be a prickly bunch – like herding cats. How can we so readily ascribe things like “tribalism” to a group who seems to be so ready to disagree with people with our “tribe”?

    There’s actually a lot of things that makes a good skeptic. (And, yes, I distinguish “good skeptic” from “skeptic” because simply the fact that someone has beliefs that largely match skeptical beliefs does not mean they arrived at them correctly.) Willingness to challenge authority (including what your parents told you) is a good trait of a skeptic. Though, it’s also possible to go overboard and find people who enjoy simply being contrarian to authority and one’s parents’ beliefs.

    I still remember a number of years back when I was with a few friends. One of my friends is a pretty good magician (he works professionally as one), and he was performing all kinds of magic tricks. A second friend of mine was watching him perform these tricks. I was watching him closely and figuring out how he was doing the tricks – because I want to know everything. After performing a trick, my second friend said something to the effect that she didn’t want to know how it was done because she liked to believe that it was real magic. It struck me as such an odd statement to make. But, it occurred to be that she enjoyed the idea of magic, mystery, the unknown, and the unexplainable in the world. Those are not good traits for a skeptic because it can mean deliberately avoiding seeing the truth because of the emotional thrill of mysterious, unexplained forces in the world. It made me wonder how many other people were believing in nonsense because they somehow enjoyed the thrill of it, so they deliberately avoided knowing the truth. Accepting beliefs because they are comforting and then avoiding knowledge about the truth is not skepticism – especially if someone argues that they are right when it’s really about maintaining a belief because they want to maintain it.

    The one thing I do agree with is the idea of maintaining a certain degree of humility and uncertainty about one’s beliefs because arrogance can be an impediment to assimilating new information, and because it can make it difficult to convince other people if they can easily latch onto the criticism that “you’re arrogant”.

  12. Daun Eierdam says:

    I guess this puts an end to the despicable idea that we’re “brights,” eh?

  13. Chris Howard says:

    I think the real difference between “skeptics”, as opposed to people who are skeptical of certain things, and “believers” and/or the faithful is that a skeptic understands that knowledge is provisional. This means that, while we still suffer from the same logical fallacies, thinking errors, and biases that a “True Believer” does the skeptic has the advantage of humility. We know, and admit that we have, are, and will be wrong. The faithful, generally, will never admit that they’re wrong, regarding articles of faith, or belief. They may be skeptical of certain things, but that does not make them a skeptic.

    They are different mindsets. The skeptic knows that they will be in error, some of the time. Whereas the believer, believes that they are inerrant, always.

  14. Syd Foster says:

    Thank you everyone for an extremely good discussion. I am resolving to carry my humility closer to my heart in future… it’s good to be more conscious of something like this, so that it’s more likely to take the heat or tension out of “discussions” which so easily can descend into face-off …. Cheers!