How Fear Trumps Knowledge - On Blind Tribes and Becoming Sighted

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

How Fear Trumps Knowledge
On Blind Tribes and Becoming Sighted

The relationship between education and partisanship is a complex one, but one of tremendous import. On the surface, one might think that the more education one receives, the more informed and rational one's choices will become. But in many cases, the rational parts of the mind that education nourishes remain under the control of primal, fear-based survival impulses, even when instilled with a greater volume of knowledge. To examine this dynamic, let us consider the ongoing debate in America over climate change.

Global Warming

First, let us acknowledge straightaway that global warming is a reality with virtually unanimous consensus in the scientific community, and that humans are accelerating global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Statistical climate predictions project an extended array of extreme weather phenomena: rising global temperatures, increased droughts, heat waves, desert expansion, rising sea levels, heavy rains, flooding, and hurricanes. Species extinction is also predicted, along with mass human migration from shorelines. If unabated, global warming is also predicted to diminish crop yields, threatening food security and resulting in societal unrest as humans compete for resources.

Given conservatives’ overall greater threat sensitivity, one might expect broad and impassioned acceptance of climate change on the political Right. But this is demonstrably not the case. In 2008, Pew Research, for example, found that despite near universal scientific consensus among the world's climate experts that global warming is caused by human activity, there was a deep divide in agreement on the subject between Republicans (27 percent) and Democrats (58 percent).10 Even more striking was the fact that the more educated Republicans were, the less they believed in climate change, and that the opposite trend was seen among Democrats; among non-college-educated Republicans, 31 percent agreed with the scientific consensus, whereas that number dropped down to 19 percent among Republicans with a college degree. Among non-college-educated Democrats, 52 percent agreed, and that number bumped up to 75 percent among college-educated Democrats.

Another study, looking at nearly a decade of Gallup poll data between 2001 and 2010, found similar results—liberals were more likely than conservatives to agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. This study also found that more education, and higher reported self-understanding of climate change, was associated with greater belief in global warming. But only among liberals. Once again that relationship was either negligible or negative for conservatives,11 and other studies find this very same negative correlation.12 These paradoxical results call to mind the words of historian Daniel Boorstin: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”13

But how do we acquire illusory knowledge, and how do we make sense of these data? How is it that Americans on the more fearful end of the natural curve are so prone to rejecting global scientific consensus on an issue that portends danger? And why is this more prevalent among the better educated? Tribalism—the pull to go with the group is the single best explanation for all these questions. So deep is the impulse to turn to the group when threatened that, faced with the dangers of climate change, the more ardent tribalists among us will make that turn even when the tribe offers no real protections but only simple, group-level denial. Among those with a greater in-group orientation, more education, it appears, gets swept up by motivated reasoning and simply makes people better at rationalizing the tribe's chosen stance.

But again, tribalism emits a familiar male scent, especially from the anti-climate-change position. An increasingly large volume of research is finding a negative correlation between environmentalism and preference for social hierarchy (social dominance orientation)14 and authority (right-wing authoritarianism).15 Given what we have learned about how these constructs are rooted in team-based male competition, it is perhaps not surprising to find that men are far less likely to embrace environmentalism than women,16 nor that a political ideology based on male competition would turn global warming into an us-versus-them issue. Indeed, climate change denial has become locked into a badge of tribal commitment.

Even conservative political operatives recognize anti-climate-change stances for what they are. Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who worked for Senator Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, admits,

Most Republicans still do not regard climate change as a hoax. But the entire climate change debate has now been caught up in the broader polarization of American politics. In some ways it's become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you're a good Republican.17

As we might expect, accepting the science can get you ejected from the tribe. During his 2010 reelection campaign, Bob Inglis, a six-term Republican congressman from South Carolina, admitted on a local radio show that climate change was real. Using this admission to discredit Inglis's commitment to his tribe, his challenger Trey Gowdy smashed Inglis in the election by forty-two percentage points. Inglis later reported that “the most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real and let's do something about it.”18

The thing that places climate change denial even more squarely within our tribal psychology is its very remedy. One study found that when environmentalism was reframed as patriotism, with statements like, “Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country's natural resources,” those especially prone to justify in-group norms were more likely to adopt a pro-environmental stance.19

But how did an anti-climate-change stance become such an education-retardant conservative badge? Billionaires with stock in the petroleum industry have a vested financial interest in ensuring that we continue to burn fossil fuels unabated, and they have actively supported anti-climate-change propaganda. Those with the most to gain from the status quo have also ensured that conservative oil lobbyists and climate denialists are appointed to head key environmental cabinet positions. The propaganda keeps the anti-climate-change base loyal while the powerful, already so drenched in oil money, continue to amass profane fortunes. Crucially, in the days of our distant ancestors, when in-group biases resulted in resource gains, those gains were dispersed among the clan. Today, the windfall profits won by the petroleum industry are simply not passed on to those who deny climate change in support of the tribe. Their homes continue to get swept away by hurricanes and flooding, and their children continue to face a hotter, climatically turbulent future. All based on a ruse that abuses the Right's information-resistant tribal psychology.

As one piece of evidence that anti-climate-change stances are socially engineered, powerhouse conservative political consultant Frank Luntz has given written instructions on how to dupe the American electorate on climate change. In a 2002 memo to President George W. Bush, titled “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America,” he advised, “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” He went on to write,

The scientific debate is closing [against us]…but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.20

At the time, this strategy relied on the general population's scientific naïveté. But even as the science of climate change has expanded, as noted above, acceptance of climate change has decreased among the conservative populace in America, and rejecting science has become a badge of tribal commitment. As it happens, the same tribalistic, fear-based motivated reasoning that results in climate change denial also results in denying evolution.


In general, higher education is associated with greater acceptance of evolution.21 However, like climate change, this relationship is complex. Crucially, anti-evolutionary stances also show resistance to increasing education. For example, for those who take the stance that the Bible should be taken literally (stances concentrated among political conservatives), education is associated with decreasing acceptance of evolutionary principles, and the opposite for those taking non-literalist stances.22 Research has found similar influences for political identity. One study of Mormons—who among their religious counterparts in the United States report nearly the lowest acceptance that humans evolved as a result of natural processes23—found that as education increased so did acceptance of evolution, but once again only among liberals.24 More educated Mormon conservatives tended to reject evolution.

It is concerning that politics-based rejection of science puts Americans behind the rest of the world. Research finds not only that public acceptance of evolution in the United States is significantly lower by comparison to other industrialized nations but also that acceptance has been on a slight decline since the 1980s.25 This trend runs against the current of an ever-increasing knowledge base in the evolutionary sciences. Evolution has been politicized in the United States to an extent not seen in other westernized nations, and the Republican Party has developed creationism as a platform to consolidate their political base in red states. In other words, like global warming, Republicans have turned rejecting evolutionary science into a badge of tribal identity. And as education increases, conservatives or biblical literalists, to borrow from sociologist Joseph Baker, “are more likely to confront issues of evolution directly and reinforce their working knowledge of rhetorical defenses of creationism.”26

Fear, tribalism, and rejecting evolutionary principles run deep together. Godless Darwinism challenges long-standing religious beliefs that, by promising eternal life, give human beings a salve for the terror of their own mortality. Indeed, a branch of research examining fear-based motivated reasoning, called terror management theory (TMT), has found ways to induce mortality fears in the lab. Many studies in this area have subjects write essays on their own death, whereas controls write innocuous essays on food or television. When death fears are experimentally primed, people gravitate more toward religion, God, and the belief in an afterlife.27 The ability of religion to allay death fears is intuitive; many scholars, myself included, would argue that this is among religion's primary functions. But it is important to remember that religious worship is a tribalistic experience, and tribalism thrives on group consensus. Consider one example in 1 Corinthians among a nearly endless number of scriptures across religious traditions: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”28

And so in churches, mosques, synagogues, or any other place of worship, the faithful inject themselves with an emotionally potent sense of unity. In unison, the pious recite immortality scriptures, passages promising protection from death itself. Coming together to reject evolution, in this sense, is just another way of coming together in agreement against death, something intuitive to the human brain and an exercise regularly practiced in religious traditions. Yet being “perfectly united in mind and thought” can be dangerous, particularly when the thought is erroneous—from the notion that women should be burned as witches to the idea that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Maintaining group consensus that evolution is false is also deeply concerning. Apart from dispensing with evolutionary science's crucial insights, waving it away creates other vulnerabilities.