Predictions Revisited, Updating Magic Universe, and Climate Change: News & Comments
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