Tribalism comes for pandemic science

In this century, we have become accustomed to heated political debates that somehow avoid contact with reality. They involve genuine and important problems, but they are fought largely as posturing contests. Some are arguments over projected medium-term crises (like the federal debt, or climate change) which one party laments and the other ignores or denies — allowing each to assert its moral superiority while treating the other with contempt without paying any immediate price. Some are struggles over cultural or national identity (like the immigration or gun control debates) and so often aren’t really about what partisans argue on the surface. Many are fabricated outrages that serve as pure tests of tribal loyalty. President Trump is particularly adept at manufacturing these to demonstrate his prowess at bending our politics to his ego by generating weeks of intense arguments over some ephemeral insult or violated taboo.

Our polarized political culture has reflexively approached the pandemic as just another culture-war drama of this sort — demanding that we each prove our loyalty to our team and express exasperated outrage at the other. This has left us clinging to various strategies rooted in provisional hypotheses (about re-opening the economy, for instance, or enforcing lockdowns, or using hydroxychloroquine), insisting that evidence against our view does not exist, and unwilling to change our minds when new facts emerge.

Worse yet, the very communities of experts we rely on to assess provisional knowledge and provide us their best judgment have failed the test of professional restraint in key moments, giving in to political tribalism themselves. The latest example has involved the protests (and at times riots) that have broken out across the country after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Their cause is just, and when they remain peaceful these protests are surely a force for good. But even acknowledging the evidence that outdoor transmission is uncommon with normal activities, there is simply no doubt that hundreds or thousands of people marching in close proximity and yelling increases the risk of spreading the virus. Yet after months of their supporting lockdowns, scolding those who violate social-distancing rules, and even demanding that some elections be postponed, we now find not only progressive political leaders but even public health experts downplaying the risks.