Science and Tribalism

This is my reaction, perhaps a strange one, to the appointment of Marine General Mattis as the next secretary of defense, and has absolutely nothing to do with General Mattis per se or the Pentagon.  Rather, this has to do with the culture of the Marine Corps and similar organizations that makes them simultaneously strong and, in a certain sense, vulnerable. Be ready for something completely meandering and a bit directionless.

All that I know about General Mattis is that he is immensely revered by the Marines, current and former, and that he has some interesting views (about how torture does not work) and some not especially interesting views (seemingly reflexive and knee-jerk hostility to some countries out there.)  Not really enough to say much other than he seems to be the embodiment of the espirit de corps that makes the Marines a powerful and cohesive organization:  you mess with one Marine, you mess with the entire Corps and all that.  This is not really unique to the Marines, of course:  similar statements, doubtlessly true, are made about all manner of “elite” organizations–the Rangers, the British Paras, Russian Desantniks, the Jesuits, the Mob, and so forth.  Every elite organization is, in a manner of speaking, a family, in principle.  Everyone who is enlisted into the organization as a full member, a “made man,” so to speak, is entitled to protection by the entire family. Any and everyone who antagonizes a “made man” is to be made an enemy of the entire family and is to be treated as such.

This worldview, of course, is what made city states of the Renaissance (and the classical times too) so formidable as well:  not every Venetian was a full citizen, but all deals struck by a full Venetian citizen was also backed up by the full force, finance, and credibility of the powerful Venetian city state, at least as a matter of principle and honor.  This concept of citizenship lived on for many years afterwards:  as late as 19th century, if a citizen of France got into a dispute with a piddling Latin American country–in this case, Mexico–the French naval infantry would land at Vera Cruz to enforce his claims (and blow off the leg of a Mexican would-be-Napoleon, General Santa Ana, in process).

From the perspective of the other side, of course, this is an ultimate example of might making right.  The only thing that made the French citizen’s claim at Vera Cruz valid, in the end, was that he was French and the French were powerful.  The “truth” was irrelevant.  But, suppose the French state was to have made its intervention dependent on “the truth”?  We don’t know what the truth is, in the end.  Most disputes are vague and uncertain.  We don’t know the full array of indisputable facts.  We may have theories, but all theories are only provisionally true–“scientific integrity” demands that we place only so much trust in them and be prepared to ditch them as soon as credible contrary facts can be found.  This, of course, is not how institutions work:  in the end, we trust institutions to back us up as a matter of “right,” and a right is a “right” because it is unconditional  We are entitled to have the French marines enforce our claim because we are citizens of France, so to speak.

The catch, of course, is that the right of membership in an elite organization is not available to “everyone.”  Not everyone could be citizens of Venice in Middle Ages.  Becoming a Marine, a Jesuit, a Ranger, a Desantnik, or a “made man” in the Mob, is an extraordinary thing, requiring the aspirant to “prove” himself or herself in a variety of ways.  If such a person makes a claim, maybe that is worth backing up.

Or, is it?  Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent are more than just “made men” in the economics mob.  They are Nobel laureates and highly revered.  So should the entire econ mob back them up when they say something?  Paul Romer’s argument that I had discussed in a previous post, is that, that is wrong.  When Lucas and Sargent, or whoever, makes an argument that is not scientific, it should be criticized without any regard for sanctuary.  So the tribe gets split:  the anti-Lucas/Sargent tribe vs. the pro-Lucas/Sargent tribe.  We don’t know what the “truth” is–if we did, we wouldn’t be doing science in the first place.  But we do know who is on our (and their) side, so to speak, and being on the right side affords protection, if and when we might need to make a claim against Mexico, so to speak.  Better not criticize the French marines if you are a French citizen–especially if you deal with matters in the Caribbean–because you might need their help one day.  You can criticize them only if you have something comparable on your side–but if you do, then you are forbidden from criticizing your friends.

People who are weak need protection, and having a strong tribe affords that protection.  But the membership fee for being part of that tribe is exorbitant:  attacking your own tribe, regardless of their rightness or the wrongness, is difficult except in a manner that is prescribed in their bylaws–and even that may be seen as an act of betrayal.  The kind of grandiose manner in which my Marine acquaintances described the Marine Corps–that you believe in God and the Corps, as if they are the same, is, in a sense quite true, and the Marines justify that faith by making sure that nobody gets left behind, almost unconditionally.  I don’t mean to imply that Marines, or any other comparable organization, actively cover up misdeeds of their members.  Rather, that they earn the trust of their members by  collectively fighting for them as long as there is any shred of reason to believe that they are in the right.  I think that is completely noble.  But that is no way to do “science,” if you are to change the example of a tribe from the Marines or the Jesuits to an academic tribe built around a certain set of theories and/or worldview, or indeed, any other tightly-knit social grouping.  It is ultimately a faith-based grouping, that sustains itself on the faith.  But you do science not by believing in it, but by actively renouncing faith therein.

I’ve been writing a lot about wonkism, creationism, and other isms.  But all these are, ultimately, matters of tribes:  every -ism ultimately is a set of faiths that a tribe is built around, and they matter only to the degree that that faith is justified, by the collective entity reciprocating the faith of each member by extending him or her the due rights of group membership.  The more unconditional the extension of the rights are, the more powerful the tribe, as it elicits greater trust and faith.  But this also serves to subvert “science,” which derives its validity from its fundamental unbelief.  This begs the question, at least from my perspective:  what can a tribe be based on?  Made up things, I imagine, the objects with no inherent value, like fiat money.  Shakespeare’s line about Juliet asking Romeo to give up his name becomes significant here:  the family name may be completely arbitrary thing, but it signifies his membership in the tribe, and with it, protection that it offers.  Fiat money is worth nothing, other than the promise of the government (or whoever else that issues it) to preserve its value as the ultimate arbiter, or failing that, the faith that everyone in the society that uses it places on everyone else valuing it as they do.  So we are in the realm of faith again, and the less “scientific” this faith is, the more powerful it becomes.  An interesting conundrum indeed, for “social sciences,” since this “faith” is not easy to render into a testable theory.


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