Some icy winds are blowing through the corridors of academia. What we are seeing is the linking of the intellectual 'consensus' with power, peer esteem and funding. The freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads is being steered into a 'freedom' to strengthen the consensus (but not to question it). These issues are raised in a retirement interview with Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart. He pointed out the way this was affecting his own discipline (although I'm omitting references to specific issues):
"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." [. . .]
"But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn't publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system." [. . .]
"There are a lot of people who simply won't talk about those things. Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don't have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists."
The human face of academia - and of science (source here)
These issues were picked up by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times. He recognised that Dr Bouchard was describing a situation that is widespread.
"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"."
Wade wanted to make the point that scientists are not exempt from this human tendency. Indeed, it is vital for science that they guard against it.
"Conformity and group-think are attitudes of particular danger in science, an endeavor that is inherently revolutionary because progress often depends on overturning established wisdom." [. . .]
"The academic monocultures referred to by Dr. Bouchard are the kind of thing that sabotages scientific creativity."
A bit of history of science will help here. Why is it that science did not flower after the young plant started so well among the ancient Greeks? Why did Islamic science falter in the Middle Ages? Why did Chinese science not get beyond some promising technological innovations? The answer is that in each case, the thinking of the scholars was dominated by a consensus ideology. Instead of testing ideas by reference to the natural world, they showed their allegiance was to Aristotelian philosophy (or to the equivalent in the cases of the Arab and Chinese cultures). Why did science develop in 17th Century Europe? It is because the scientists were consciously throwing off Aristotelianism and resolving to test their theories of the natural world by reference to observations of nature. The experimental method was the hallmark of their enquiries. Many have seen the Christian culture of those days as the handmaiden to science: they had come to distrust the unaided power of the human mind. One such scholar is Peter Harrison, whose book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science brings a refreshing perspective on this period of history:
"The strength of Harrison's argument is his insistence that experimental science grew out of the acute awareness that attaining knowledge is not an easy, natural process. In a postlapsarian world, strategies must be devised to overcome the inherited infirmities of original sin, as well as circumscribe the difficulties of apprehending nature, which had become less intelligible since the Fall. A scientist would have to create controlled environments so that experiments could be performed and repeated, and naturalia observed and described."
We need a fresh appraisal of developments in contemporary society. Scientists who step outside the 'consensus' are given a rough ride. Science leaders are being perceived by the public as arrogant. They are behaving like priests who understand their role to dispensers of knowledge. Bill Dembski refers to a "powerful new caste of scientists who have appointed themselves the guardians of humanity and the priests of a new social order." He continues:
"Scientists are as fallible as the rest of us, as are their scientific theories. Indeed, the history of science is filled with failed scientific theories that once were confidently asserted and now have been radically modified or even abandoned (see Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"). The new scientific priesthood, however, has raised the stakes considerably for the mischief that science can do. In claiming to find and then resolve problems that threaten to overwhelm humanity, they have invaded the political scene, commanding vast research moneys and attempting to force on the wider population government-sanctioned programs for social control."
In the light of these trends, it is not surprising that ID scientists are regularly portrayed as enemies of reason and as subversive influences in the academic world. He/she who has eyes to see, let them see.
Behavioral Geneticist Celebrates Twins, Scorns PC Science
Science 325, 3 July 2009, 27 | DOI: 10.1126/science.325_27 (restricted access)
Last month, the Behavior Genetics Association held its annual meeting in Minneapolis, home of the world-famous Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Attendees took the occasion to honor psychologist Thomas Bouchard, the man who started it all. Bouchard, 71, is retiring after 40 years at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and has moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Bouchard spoke with Science at the meeting; his comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Wade, N. Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers, The New York Times, (Tierneylab, 23 July 2009).
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