Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

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The Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

While checking a reference for yesterday’s posting I came across an epigram concerning human behaviour that I declared, back in 1983, should rank with Einstein’s E=mc2 in physics. I quoted it in 1984 and After, but it really ought to be written on every blackboard in the world.

Who said so? None other than Kilgore Trout, the imaginary science fiction writer invented by the real-life science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut re-caps a Trout story called Plague on Wheels.

A space traveller called Kago told the Earthlings about the self-reproducing automobiles on a dying planet named Lingo-Three.

Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.” Within a century of Kago’s arrival the Earth was dying too, littered with the shells of automobiles.

Getting an interview with Vonnegut was never easy, but when I managed it my key question was whether Kilgore Trout’s epigram expressed his own opinion. He said, Yes it did.

Before this accidental prompt, I wasn’t going to bother to comment on a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no less. Anderegg et al. claim that scientists convinced about man-made global warming are cleverer and better respected, as well as much more numerous, than scientists who are unconvinced.

Now I’ll say that it’s scary but not surprising that the National Academy of Sciences should permit a division of experts into an ingroup and an outgroup, and an evaluation of them by arbitrary tests that have nothing whatever to do with the inherent substance or merit of their research. Unsurprising because it accords with Kilgore Trout’s insight into human behaviour, which has been well verified in psychological experiments.

Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed one experiment called Klee-Kandinsky, executed for real with unsuspecting schoolboys, for our documentary “The Human Conspiracy” (1975).  I also summarize the experiment in Magic Universe, in the story “Altruism and aggression: looking for the origins of those human alternatives”.

A French-born social psychologist working at Bristol, Henri Tajfel, was dissatisfied with interpretations of aggression in terms of the psychology of individuals or mobs. In the early 1970s he carried out with parties of classmates, boys aged 14-15, an ingenious experiment known as Klee-Kandinsky. It established that you can modify a person’s behaviour simply by telling him he belongs to a particular group.

Tajfel showed the boys a series of slides with paintings by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, without telling them which was which, and asked them to write down their preferences. Irrespective of the answers, Tajfel then told each boy privately that he belonged to the Klee group, or to the Kandinsky group. He didn’t say who else was in that group, or anything about its supposed characteristics — only its name.

Nothing was said or done to promote any feelings of rivalry. The next stage of the experiment was to share out money among the boys as a reward for taking part. Each had to write down who should get what, knowing only that a recipient was in the same group as themselves, or in the outgroup.

There were options that could maximize the profit for both groups jointly, or maximize the profit for the ingroup irrespective of what the outgroup got. Neither of these possibilities was as attractive as the choices that gave the largest difference in reward in favour of ingroup members. In other words, the boys were willing to go home with less money for themselves, just for the satisfaction of doing down the outgroup.

In this and similar experiments, Tajfel demonstrated a generic norm of group behaviour. It is distinct from the variable psychology of individuals, except in helping to define a person’s social identity. With our talent for attaching ourselves to teams incredibly easily, as Tajfel showed, comes an awkward contradiction at the heart of social life. Humanity’s greatest achievements depend on teamwork, but that in turn relies on loyalty and pride defined by who’s in the team and who isn’t. The outgroup are at best poor mutts, at worst, hated enemies.

This discrimination has nothing to do with the interests of the individual who is doing the discriminating,’ Tajfel said. ‘But we have to take into account all the aspects of group membership, both the positive ones and the negative ones. The positive ones of course involve the individual’s loyalty to his group and the value to him of his group membership, whilst the negative ones are all too well known in the form of wars, riots, and racial and other forms of prejudice.’

As Trout said: Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. And in Tajfel’s experiment, it didn’t matter whether the schoolboys had any idea which paintings were which – they behaved as loyal Klees or loyal Kandinsky-ites just because they were arbitrarily assigned to one group or the other. The relevance of Trout and Tajfel on social identity extends from football to war, and takes in religious, political and, regrettably, scientific allegiances.

Apropos Trout in 1984 and After, I commented: “… scientists and scholars who care about ideas can’t abide public politics; at the same time the academic world is notorious for its infighting, and for intellectual prejudices which again are badges of friendship.”

If I were writing that passage now, or looking again at the Tajfel story in Magic Universe,  I’d take the man-made global warming hypothesis as a remarkable case of academic infighting spreading into global politics.

The badge of friendship saying “I’m convinced” allows eminent scientists to fraternize with politicians, journalists and professional environmentalists who are often ignorant and sometimes mendacious, because it’s all in a good cause. The badge also protects them from the knowledge and ideas of the “unconvinced” thanks to the good offices of the journal editors who systematically reject unwelcome papers – so creating the statistics used by Anderegg et al. in their document. And as in the Klee-Kandinsky experiment, doing down the outgroup is the most important thing,  even if one pays a price in compromising the ideals of scientific discourse and discovery.

[A small correction to the passage from Magic Universe – Tajfel was born as a Polish Jew but pretended to be French while a soldier during the Second World War, and so escaped the Holocaust.]


Nigel Calder, 1984 and After, Century Publishing, 1983

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, Cape, 1973

William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider:, 2010: “Expert credibility in climate change”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 21, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107 Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.abstract

For a moderate perspective on this paper see Eli Kintisch’s comment http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/06/scientists-convinced-of-climate.html

The Human Conspiracy” produced and directed by Alec Nisbett, written by Nigel Calder, BBC-TV and co-producers, 1975

Nigel Calder, Magic Universe, pp. 7-8, Oxford UP, 2003

11 Responses to Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

  1. Kerry Rodgers says:


    I presume you are familiar with Stephen J Gould’s “On Dichotomy” in “Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle”. However,in this instance, Kilgore Trout is far more elegant. Says it all really.

    • calderup says:

      Thanks, Kerry, for that reminder. I’ve checked that anyone can see Gould’s remarks on Google Books just by googling “On dichotomy” and Gould.

  2. O'Geary says:

    Completely OT.

    I just wanted to say “Magic Universe” is the best, most thorough pop science book on the market, along perhaps with “The Ascent of Science”, Brian Silver.

    A couple of years ago all my friends got them both for Christmas prezzies.

  3. Pointman says:


    As usual, a lot to chew on. What occurs to me is the opposite side of the coin. So many of the truely revolutionary ideas came from people who didn’t really ‘fit’ into their social framework, the outsiders. eg Newton.

    I know there’s always something odd about everybody but these people people seem to have dragged crosses of various kinds throughout their lives. Does that put them outside the groupthink thing? Does that free their minds to come up with ideas from left field. Has anyone done any research in this area?


    • xyzlatin says:

      If you go to Asperger sites and books, you will find many believe that the Asperger mind is the key to many great discoveries. Asperger people often do not fit into social groups and are seen as odd/nerdy etc. The outstanding trait of many Aspies is to not be able to fit into the normal social network easily plus an obsessive nature. However, that does not mean that they cannot also be hooked into beliefs or trends.

      • Pointman says:

        Hello xyzlatin.

        I’m aware of the idiot savant phenomenon and it’s fascinating but it’s at the extreme end of the personality range I was thinking about.

        Newton would be the perfect example. Any one piece of his pioneering work in Celestial Mechanics, Calculus and Optics would have garnered a Nobel prize and yet in parallel with all that and between nervous breakdowns, he worked just as hard as an Alchemist.


      • xyzlatin says:

        Hi Pointman, Asperger although related to autism is not quite the same, and is not the idiot savante. Described in the 1940’s by Hans Asperger, it was only in the 1980’s that clinicial psychologists started to diagnose children correctly with this syndrome and the “second wave” of diagnoses of adults is occurring (slowly) of those of us who were born before then.
        Asperger people often have a heightened ability to concentrate on a single interest to the exclusion of all others, and to concentrate on tiny details, but can have difficulty reading body language (supposedly 80% of communication) thus socially can be at a disadvantage, but can go very far in a field requiring detailed concentrated work.
        The absent minded professor discussing abstract theory while wearing odd socks and hair unkempt is the old stereotype. The new one is the nerd sitting at a computer eating popcorn at 1am. Aspies have come into their own with the computer revolution.
        Another trait which is typical Aspie is the unwillingness to admit they are wrong, or to apologise. This is related to the inability to see anyone else’s point of view (called Theory of Mind).
        I see many Aspie traits in individuals involved in the Climate Wars and the “Greenies”. Apart from the money benefitting anyone who is involved in pushing global warming, which is a strong motivator to not change one’s mind or side or group, there is also the mental inability to change. With Aspies who have been bullied and on the outside of groups while growing up, to belong to a group who agrees with and accepts you is a strong motivator to not change your mind but to defend the group which has accepted you.
        Another strong trait in Aspies is the ability to argue and nitpick until the cows come home. Aspies are often unable to relate what they say to what they do, being unable to see themselves. (People lecturing others about being green while themselves jet setting all over the world springs to mind here).
        Which gets me back to your query about research. The best book is Prof. Tony Attwood’s on Asperger Syndrome, but there have been many others.

      • xyzlatin says:

        Sorry, I forgot to say, your whole original post from “So many of the truly” etc to the end, is an exact description of Asperger’s Syndrome. People who don’t quite fit, something odd, dragged crosses through their lives, left field thinkers. By the way, if you do read any research, it is useful to remember that many descriptions of Asperger’s relate to children, as many adults learn to hide their disability in company, except in very close contact.

      • Pointman says:

        Hi again xyzlatin.

        To start with, I expressed myself ambigiously in my last post, with regard to the idiot savant and Aspergers. I wasn’t suggesting any equivalence. I didn’t know much about Aspergers but took the time to read up on the internet.

        There are certainly behavioural overlaps between Aspies, if I may use your term, and the individual type I was positing. As you say, they’re both capable of intense concentration but the latter seem to come up with the really big ideas that are initially upsetting to the concensus but quickly become mainstream doctrine. That attribute doesn’t appear to be more prevalent in Aspies than other groups.

        I suppose I was moving towards the idea that innovative thinkers are just that because, not belonging to peer groups, they don’t approach problems with a baggage of received ideas from the group. Also, it’s amazing how many of these have real physical medical problems. If we ever start DNA screening of embrios, we’ll lose the contributions of most people in that category …


  4. […] “Esta discriminación no tiene nada que ver con los intereses del individuo que está haciendo la discriminación”, dijo Tajfel. “Pero tenemos que tener en cuenta todos los aspectos de la membresía de grupo, tanto los positivos como los negativos. Los positivos por supuesto incluyen la lealtad del individuo a a su grupo, y el valor para él de la pertenencia al grupo,  mientras los negativos son demasiado conocidos en su forma guerras, revueltas, racismo y otras formas de prejuicio” [–>]. […]

  5. Nummulite says:

    The Klee-Kandinsky experiment is interesting. I wonder whether the results would have been any different had the group consisted of all girls, or been mixed. I suspect not; from observation in general life, cliques and gangs exist just as much among girls as boys, and girls are at least if not more ruthless at dealing with those deemed to be excluded (although with different techniques).

    However, to generalise further: girls don’t seem as much inclined to strong forms of tribalism such as football supporting, which is very dominantly male. Girls are also more ready to consider circumstances as they change, and to switch allegiance if matters seem to require it. Boys, having decided to be in a particular grouping of whatever type, take a very great deal of persuading to change their decision. Continuing with the football team analogy, a terrible season ending in relegation is cause for soul-searching discussions, rage, outpourings of despair – but not for going to support a better-performing team instead. On the whole, girls are more likely to cut their losses.

    Incidentally, my knowledge is by no means extensive, but it appears to me that the only prominent “warmist” scientist or writer who seems to be saying that we need to be calm and take a sensible look at things post-Climategate is Judith Curry. All the men have simply laagered up.

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