Simon Dedeo in Nautilus:
Last month, I published an article on Nautilus called “Is Tribalism a Natural Malfunction?”. It was a meditation on a series of computer experiments in the study of Prisoner’s Dilemma, and a reflection on what these simulations, and more complex arguments from mathematical logic, might tell us about social life. The groups that formed in our simulation, shibboleth machines, were unable to tolerate others—and eventually became unable to tolerate the differences that emerged amongst themselves.
There were some lovely comments on Nautilus and elsewhere, of course, and the usual rough-and-tumble of Internet argument. What I didn’t expect was the robust defense of tribalism made by educated and apparently intelligent people writing on ostensibly science- and technology-focused sites. (A student in my seminar sent me a link to the Hacker News discussion; a search pulled up similar kinds of discussion on Reddit.)
The claim these critics made was simple: “Tribalism works.” Theirs was not a lament on the human condition. What they meant was quite a bit darker: that at least some forms of tribalism are good and desirable. Though their arguments took different forms, it was surprising to see the same fallacies appear repeatedly. It’s not usually useful to deal with failures to reason on the Internet. But in this case it’s worth scrutiny because these errors came from those who seemed to consider themselves particularly sophisticated thinkers.
My sense is that these readers—who may be able to think well enough to write good code (say)—suffer from motivated reasoning when thinking about their social lives. There is something they want to believe and, driven by that desire, they select the mental moves necessary to avoid locating contradictions or evidence against the belief in question. I’m also concerned these readers believe that other Very Intelligent People secretly think along similar lines; if these people think similar thoughts about the virtues of tribalism then it’s not worth the effort to consider alternatives.