Good News, Bad News

The flip of a coin
Tells which group you will join;
There is no more investment than that.
It’s a “minimal group”
But you’re one of the troop
And you’ve taken up arms in the spat.

If the star-bellied sneetches
Are best on the beaches
Then what would the plain-bellies say?
The most trivial stuff
Can be more than enough
To let intergroup biases sway

And as quick as you know
You’ve turned friend into foe
For as near as no reason at all
Just the flip of a dime
And a moment of time
And you’re ready and willing to brawl

If you think that a fight
Over which side is right
Means that something important’s at stake
Just remember, it’s known
We will fight for our own…
And a coin flip is all it might take

The bad news is, skeptics are fighting among themselves. The good news is, skeptics are fighting among themselves.

“Minimal Group” experiments (Tajfel and colleagues, in the early 70s) showed that something as simple as the flip of a coin was enough to engender ingroup/outgroup bias effects. The Hatfields and McCoys had generations of feuding to generate ingroup/outgroup bias; Tajfel found that biases did not need much at all to get started.

Now, I’m not saying there are not very real and meaningful differences. I’m just saying that the fact that people are sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches does not mean that the differences they fight over are worth fighting over. People choose up sides at the drop of a hat. Oh, and once they do, and do so publicly, we start hearing less about Tajfel and more about Festinger. We are motivated to maintain and defend our publicly stated opinions… even if, yeah, the original differences in opinion were trivial.

Let’s throw one more classic name in social cognitive psychology at you–Muzafer Sherif. Sherif is the name thrown about when we try to join groups together, instead of dissecting them apart. His solution? Superordinate goals–common goals that redefine two separate groups as part of one larger group. For example, Reagan (more than once) claimed that our differences with the Russians would disappear if earth were invaded by Martians.

Too bad it seems that it takes the presence of a common enemy to bring peace. But one hopeful possibility is that the skeptics are fighting among themselves because the common goal is closer to resolution than in the past. Without the clear and present danger, we have the luxury of fighting among ourselves.

Still and all, I’d really rather we didn’t.


  1. cuttlefish says

    Schism? Goodness, no! Diversity is a strength–this sort of conflict is a feature, not a bug. Different approaches in science (different operationalizations for the same concept, say) sometimes converge on a common finding, and sometimes find important differences that are due to the methods used. Either way, we learn something. We absolutely don’t have to agree, and in fact that would be a sure path to ineffectuality.

  2. Freerefill says

    “Skeptics fighting amongst themselves” is almost redundant. Still, I agree that science tends to converge. And so it will continue, as long as we maintain the ability to be skeptical about everything, including (and, perhaps, most importantly) our own ideas.

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