Polanyi Was Right: There Is No Such Thing As “Settled Science”

In 50s Middle Grove, things didn’t go according to plan either, though the surprise was of a different nature. Despite his pretence of leaving the 11-year-olds to their own devices, Sherif and his research staff, posing as camp counsellors and caretakers, interfered to engineer the result they wanted. He believed he could make the two groups, called the Pythons and the Panthers, sworn enemies via a series of well-timed “frustration exercises”. These included his assistants stealing items of clothing from the boys’ tents and cutting the rope that held up the Panthers’ homemade flag, in the hope they would blame the Pythons. One of the researchers crushed the Panthers’ tent, flung their suitcases into the bushes and broke a boy’s beloved ukulele. To Sherif’s dismay, however, the children just couldn’t be persuaded to hate each other.

After losing a tug-of-war, the Pythons declared that the Panthers were in fact the better team and deserved to win. The boys concluded that the missing clothes were the result of a mix-up at the laundry. And, after each of the Pythons swore on a Bible that they didn’t cut down the Panthers’ flag, any conflict “fizzled”. By the time of the incident with the suitcases and the ukulele, the boys had worked out that they were being manipulated. Instead of turning on each other, they helped put the tent back up and eyed their “camp counsellors” with suspicion. “Maybe you just wanted to see what our reactions would be,” one of them said.

The robustness of the boy’s “civilised” values came as a blow to Sherif, making him angry enough to want to punch one of his young academic helpers. It turned out that the strong bonds forged at the beginning of the camp weren’t easily broken. Thankfully, he never did start the forest fire – he aborted the experiment when he realised it wasn’t going to support his hypothesis.

But the Rockefeller Foundation had given Sherif $38,000. In his mind, perhaps, if he came back empty-handed, he would face not just their anger but the ruin of his reputation. So, within a year, he had recruited boys for a second camp, this time in Robbers Cave state park in Oklahoma. He was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Middle Grove. There was no mixing at the beginning – neither of the two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles, were aware of the other’s existence until the second day. But, perhaps more importantly, Sherif relinquished his role as puppet master; a condition laid down by his research associate, OJ Harvey, who knew how volatile Sherif could be and insisted on taking control himself.

At Robbers Cave, things went more to plan. After a tug-of-war in which they were defeated, the Eagles burned the Rattler’s flag. Then all hell broke loose, with raids on cabins, vandalism and food fights. Each moment of confrontation, however, was subtly manipulated by the research team. They egged the boys on, providing them with the means to provoke one another – who else, asks Perry in her book, could have supplied the matches for the flag-burning?

Having got them fighting, the next stage was the all-important reconciliation – and the vindication of Sherif’s theory. One morning, the boys found that their water supply had been cut off. They would have to locate the water tank high on the mountain and work together to remove the rocks Harvey and Sherif had placed over the valve, so they could open it again. “Slowly,” Perry writes, “with the sun beating down and their water canteens emptying, the boundaries between the groups began to blur.” First, she says, they “took turns lifting and carrying the rocks away. But, realising there was a better and faster way of getting the job done, they soon formed a chain, passing the rocks down the line and working as a single team.”

Sherif was elated. And, with the publication of his findings that same year, his status as world-class scholar was confirmed. The “Robbers Cave experiment” is considered seminal by social psychologists, still one of the best-known examples of “realistic conflict theory”. It is often cited in modern research. But was it scientifically rigorous? And why were the results of the Middle Grove experiment – where the researchers couldn’t get the boys to fight – suppressed? “Sherif was clearly driven by a kind of a passion,” Perry says. “That shaped his view and it also shaped the methods he used. He really did come from that tradition in the 30s of using experiments as demonstrations – as a confirmation, not to try to find something new.” In other words, think of the theory first and then find a way to get the results that match it. If the results say something else? Bury them. Read more»

David Shariatmadari, “A Real-Life Lord of the Flies: The Troubling Legacy of The Robbers Cave Experiment,” The Guardian 16 April 2018. (HT: Sean Trende, Real Clear Politics)

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Ha! I’ve heard this experiment cited numerous times as an example of our tribal natures–especially of young boys.

    The insufferable Ezra Klein even had a guest on his podcast a few weeks ago who presented it as Exhibit A in disturbing human behavior that explains our present political predicament.

    • The Stanford Prison experiment was supposedly faked also. As was Stephen J. Gould’s study on human skull sizes.

      The rate of scientific discovery seems to be slowing down, in part, because scientists are constantly lying. Science was about the pursuit of truth and the scientific method a hedge against human fallibility. Modern SCIENCE! is something else altogether. Some science is good, however. Any consumer product you can buy is a manifestation of applied science. A good product requires good science.

Comments are closed.