24 July 2009

Condemning Conformity, Celebrating Skeptics

At the New York Times Nicholas Wade cites the views of Thomas Brouchard, a noted psychologist, to engage in a larger discussion of the incentives not just to conform to consensus views in the scientific community, but to silence those who don't happen to share those views:

“Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.”

So says Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart, in a retirement interview with Constance Holden in the journal Science.

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There’s a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss’s shoes, and to win the group’s approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah” . . .

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.
Bonus points for the first commenter to provide a link to Nicholas Wade being called a "denier."

16 comments:

Brian said...

Oops! I find I posted the following to the prior article:
"Roger:
A quick search shows your blog as the leading reference to the connection between Wade and "denier". ;>)"

Dean said...

There is indeed a strong current of conformism among many people, including scientists. But in the Global warming field, it is mroe than matched by the denialist camp. The comments to this blog alone prove it. One reason that true skeptics are called denialists is that denailists - who ignore the science in their political quest - are much louder critics of AGW than genuine skeptics.

And lets remember that there is a different kind of conformism related to AGW - the kind that conforms to the status quo of how we currently live and operate and how some of us make money. It's not conformism in support of the scientific consensus as represeted by the IPCC.

Jim Hansen was not a confirmist in the 80's and few people have been so vilified for being correct. His position may now be _somewhat_ more mainstream, but many are still trying to get him fired for it.

keith said...

Dean-

Your point that such conformism or group-think works both ways is well taken.

Those who don't align themselves with either "team" should probably be a consistent critic of both sides, lest they be confused with being an unofficial member of one.

That's the lesson I tend to draw from Roger's case, though he does have a documented record of criticism to both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Roger-
It's not Joe Romm--I just checked. But give him time.

Sean said...

Any scientist who does not approach his/her chosen field of study with serious humility is either not probing the bounds of new knowledge or setting themselves up to be humbled. It is kind of an odd profession where you have to study a field in depth to learn the rules that are generally accepted by a consensus of experts but you spend your time extending those rules or nibbling at their foundations. The greatest joy in science is to craft cleaver experiments that take a recking ball to a hypothesis to see if it stands up or fails. Life is much more interesting when the hypothesis fails and you begin to construct anew. The biggest problem with climate science is that it has gotten so engrained into a political process with hundreds of billion of dollars of economic impact riding on the legislation based on a hypothesis that no one wants to see any recking balls come near. Hence you rely on a bulkwork of consensus to protect the hypothesis. In addition to this, you don't really do experiments in climate science, you make predictions based on your models then you wait to see what mother nature will do, trying to pick out small trends from a very noisy signal. I think its quite telling that meteorologists who make short term predictions every day (daily to seasonal) seem to be the most humble and somewhat more skeptical than the climate physicists that are making long range predictions, that may or may not be verified in their lifetime. These people and climate science in general would be much better off if they approached the field with much greater humility.

bernie said...

Dean:
You say: "There is indeed a strong current of conformism among many people, including scientists. But in the Global warming field, it is mroe than matched by the denialist camp. The comments to this blog alone prove it. One reason that true skeptics are called denialists is that denailists - who ignore the science in their political quest - are much louder critics of AGW than genuine skeptics."
Are you saying that if you are a "true skeptic" you cannot be a "genuine skeptic"? I am confused by your use of terminology. Can you rephrase?

How do you categorize AGW alarmists?

You also say: "And lets remember that there is a different kind of conformism related to AGW - the kind that conforms to the status quo of how we currently live and operate and how some of us make money. It's not conformism in support of the scientific consensus as represeted by the IPCC." Again I am confused. Are you saying that if you agree with the IPCC, you are not conforming or are you saying that there is pressure to conform with the consensus represented by the IPCC report even when you disagree with the scientific conclusions? Isn't the point of the article that everyone feels pressure to conform to some widely held perspective or set of expectations?

More personally, I try very hard not to "ignore" the science and the data. For example, there was a recent AP story on some research on the shrinking of the Cook Glacier on Grande Terre in the Kerguelan Islands attributed to AGW. I checked the temperature record for Grand Terre and noted that there is no temperature increase since 1990 in the official temperature record used by GISSTemp. Does that make me a genuine skeptic or a denialist?

Mark B said...

"Young American scientists can make their name by showing their professor is dead wrong;"


Theoretically. In practice, if you think your adviser is wrong about something, you probably just move on to another topic. Young scientists rely on their former advisers and post-doc supervisors to help move their careers along. If you rock the boat and make them look bad, you've just alienated your meal ticket. Better to just move on, and let people know what you think in private.

Japan and Europe have different science cultures, but let's not take it too far. Advisers expect their former students to represent them in a kind of family tree, not make them look bad.

SBVOR said...

-2-Dean sez:

“denailists - who ignore the science in their political quest - are much louder critics of AGW than genuine skeptics”

I wonder…
Does Dean regard me as a “denialist” or a “genuine skeptic”?

Personally, I prefer the more accurate title of “trained scientist” who has spent thousands of hours reviewing both the IPCC publications and the peer reviewed science.

Before Dean responds, he might want to examine the directly cited peer reviewed science in each of the following posts (come on Roger, gimme a break here):

Atmospheric CO2 over Time

Is CO2 a Primary Driver of Climate Change?

Temperatures Over Time - Part I

Temperatures Over Time - Part II

The Current Cooling Trend

P.S.) Dean - You might also want to address this comment in another post.

SBVOR said...

-2-Dean sez:

“It's not conformism in support of the scientific consensus as represeted [sic] by the IPCC.”

And there, my friends, we have a new definition of “denier”!

Dean is saying:
Hey! I’m not a conformist! And, I know I’m not a conformist because the majority (as I imagine it) agree with me!

LOL!

Sharon F. said...

Mark B. your experience in the science community echoes mine.. scientists are ultimately human beings subject to all the delusions and self-interest and community dynamics that flesh is heir to.

Dean said...

Bernie - Sorry for any confusion.

True skeptic = genuine skeptic in my statement above. No difference.

Conformism means going with the status quo. But what status qho are we talking about? Is it conformist to say that we can't change our carbon-intensive lifestyles? That it would destroy our economy to do so? Isn't it alarmist to say that we will destroy our economy if we address AGW?

Those who may be conformist on climate science may be very much non-conformist as to lifestyle choices in some cases..

Sylvain said...

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all "your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah” . . ."

I think that John Stossel is a good example.

Dean said...

SBVOR - I don't know if you are a denialist or a skeptic because I haven't seen enough of what you write or think, nor am I making a point of going out and trying to categorize everyone. I do agree that the term is used overly broadly by some, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist. Chichton is a denialist, as is Sen. Inhofe.

For the record, though, I consider a denialist is somebody whose disagreement with the current state of the science is based on clearly and unambiguously unscientific criteria, such as "they had a consensus that it was cooling in the 70's and now they say it is warming - they can't make up their mind" or vague conspiracy theories.

Misuse of the term is a problem, but it isn't doing a fraction of the damage to climate policy formulation that the well-funded denialists are.

SBVOR said...

1) Come on Roger - Dean has 3 comments and I’ve only got 2.

2) -12-Dean sez:

“Chichton [Crichton?] is [was? -- now deceased] a denialist, as is Sen. Inhofe.”

There is quite an irony between that comment and a previous Dean comment:

“denailists - who ignore the science in their political quest - are much louder critics of AGW than genuine skeptics”

You see, Senator Inhofe generally relies upon extremely credible scientists and their peer reviewed science.

By the way, Dean…
Not only are your so-called “denialists” not well funded, but they risk losing their jobs for speaking the truth about what the science tells them.

The alarmists, on the other hand, are certainly well funded -- to the tune of an estimated $50 BILLION from various governments around the world.

Dean is an “interesting” character. He very predictably spews all the clichéd alarmist propaganda and sings the praises of the IPCC (which has never once published ANY peer reviewed science). Meantime, Dean never cites ANY peer reviewed science. And, all the while, Dean describes people like Inhofe -- who DO cite peer reviewed science as “denialist(s)” (a term coined from those who deny the holocaust).

Typical (and very, very sad)…

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-SBVOR-Dean-

perhaps a good time to take this exchange to SBVOR's blog or to exchange emails . . .

Brian said...

A link to Wade as a "denier"?
Other than Derbyshire's review (June 26, 2006 National Review on line) that Wade's focus on race based genetics in his **Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors** was "fearless" in the face of a "blank slate", egalitarian, race-denying Standard Social Science Model of human nature, and my belief that Wade's Darwinist views likely put him in the category of creationsim-denier, I am tapped. A hint would help. Thanks.

TokyoTom said...

Roger, Wade certainly takes Bouchard too far, by moving from a discussion of pressures to conform within science - which as an institution must always strive be open to question - to similar group pressures when what is at stake is not "truth" but a collective choice by a group as to how the group itself will address a choice (which is often binary).

Thus, while our understanding of climate till never be perfect, we may very well decide we have enough information to start acting, including via formal action.

By muddling this important distinction, Wade has done us a disservice.

In any group action, pressures like that that Bouchard describes and Wade regrets are a part of human nature, and are just the natural way we reach decisions. What is unfortunate, but deserves much more careful analysis, is how pressures to conform work themselves out in a scientific community that itself is inextricably linked to a larger group decision-making process over matters that may be of very serious and far-reaching importance.

On this, Wade has unfortunately implied that the climate science itself is suspect, which would appear to be far from what Bouchard would imply, judging from what can be glimpsed behind the paywall. Steve Hsu at Technology Review quotes Bouchard as follows:

"But we still have whole domains we can't talk about. One of the great dangers in the psychology of individual differences is self-censorship. For example, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that black self-esteem was much lower than white self-esteem, and that was a cause of differences in achievement between the two groups. Now that's been completely overturned—there is virtually no racial difference in self-esteem. But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn't publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system."

Surely Bouchard (or other scientific observer) would not suggest that climate change is one of those "whole domains we can't talk about", or that "people ha[ve] enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they d[o]n't publish because it d[oes] not fit the prevailing [climate] belief system."

While there is unavoidably pressures to conform even in the scientifc community, are all "skeptics" in the scientific community being "silenced"?

Disappointing that Wade was sloppy here, when a little clearer thinking is what we need.

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