Remember a few weeks ago when I griped about global warming? What bothered me wasn’t that we have fringe groups, conspiracy theorists, and “deniers.” These folks will always be with us in everything (sometimes they’re even right).
What bothered me was that there seems to be a legitimate case against the predominant view and few scientists in the mainstream are addressing it directly and scientifically. Almost nobody from the scientific “consensus” community are taking these people on, rather they’re using name-calling and ostracism to maintain their position. It also bothers me that scientists feel they have to stoop to “consensus” and PR smear campaigns to make their point.
Consensus is fine—great—for some things, but not in science:
If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing house prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to come unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead? Surely not—how could so many climatologists be wrong?
What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics. “We still have whole domains we can’t talk about,” Dr. Bouchard said, referring to the psychology of differences between races and sexes.
I would argue that there are even more things than psychology that aren’t being talked about, including climate change, because of this fear of consensus. Politicians and business-types are the kinds of people who look for consensus of opinion—that’s because they don’t actually know or do anything. They mobilize opinion to get other people to actually think or do. But scientists are different—they’re doers. Science is for observing, gathering, analyzing and interpreting data with confidence intervals. Maybe come up with a theory. Scientific disagreements should be about the data and its interpretation, not posturing and raspberry-blowing.
Scientists are of course entitled to have opinions as much as the next op-ed writer, but a scientist is expected to have some rigor and discipline when engaging in and refuting arguments. More importantly, a scientist is expected to be a thinker capable of ignoring the ridicule of his or her peers to get to the truth of a matter.
An article in the New York Times recently wrote about how Groupthink might be the culprit of our financial crisis (read: “collapse”):
In his classic 1972 book, Groupthink, Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.
When scientists bond together and form a consensus, science itself is imperiled. Because scientists are human and care about what their peers think, they take a big risk of stifling creative, scientific thought. Science is, at its core, the opposite of what we achieve by consensus. Science needs naysayers and village idiots every bit as much as the respectable, well-groomed, mainstream thinkers.
Paul Graham wrote an essay called “What you can’t say” that puts it even better:
Of course, we’re not just looking for things we can’t say. We’re looking for things we can’t say that are true, or at least have enough chance of being true that the question should remain open. But many of the things people get in trouble for saying probably do make it over this second, lower threshold. No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.
Another way of putting it is Bob Sutton’s “strong opinions, weakly held.” Whatever we call it, it’s something more scientists need to learn apparently. We’re not in high school anymore, and any scientist who puts popularity and peer acceptance ahead of their scientific rigor, even in their spare time, is doing more harm than good.