Science and popular opinion both seek unanimty in favor of questioning assumptions and challenging received wisdom.

This post is a response to Take This Paradigm and Shove It by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., P.E.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 11, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Climate-Gate E-Mails - Science, and Psychology, as Usual

For the past several weeks, scientists, politicians, and Sarah Palin have been discussing a series of e-mails from leading climate researchers at Britain's University of East Anglia. Fox News and Republicans have been using the contra temps to question efforts to remedy global warming.

The e-mails show that leading academics and climate scientists shaded data to make their points, contemplated withholding data, and attacked editors of journals who allowed anti-warming critics to publish their views.

According to Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic , "that is not how normal science works." Yes it is. Scientists, human beings, shade reality to support their collective point of view all the time. Group psychology in search of unanimity drives most human thought. That's why liberals tune in MSNBC, where they see the mirror image of events as portrayed for conservative viewers on Fox News.

I played basketball regularly at the gym at the University of Pennsylvania, where I attended college. One day, several varsity players were shooting in the gym and challenged a group of us to a game. I asked if it wouldn't make for a better contest if we split the varsity players up. Their leader (who was 6'11") earnestly argued, "We're only subs - we're no better than you."

I laughed - the experience made clear to me what I already suspected. Athletes and others don't want to be challenged - they prefer one-sided conquests. People will use any possible means to make sure their team wins, including convincing themselves they are playing on equal terms even when the deck is stacked completely in their favor.

I once attended a public health conference where a libertarian spoke out against government regulations curtailing individual health behavior choices, even if these were unhealthy. The two public health specialists on his panel immediately attacked his point of view. Afterwards, when I asked another public health advocate what he thought of the panel, he was irate that the lone libertarian was allowed to speak!

In fact, unanimity and elimination of dissent is the goal of normal scientific activity and discourse. The anxiety of intellectual differences is too much for scientists to bear. Minority, iconoclastic opinions might be right? Their own thinking and life work might be wrong? Never!

The facts never line up in a row for any position. So all wide-ranging points of view can be challenged. Meanwhile, wrong-headed views are broadly held by great majorities of people, even well-educated specialists, on a wide variety of subjects. We have in place - in medicine, science, and society - any number of platforms and policies that have demonstrably failed to produce positive results. Yet the approaches are maintained ad infinitum.

People don't strive to understand the world as it is. They strive to maintain their own mind sets. As John Tierney, science columnist from the Times, describes his ethos: 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong. 2. But that's a good working theory.

Blogger's note: This post is not about global warming, but about human thought. My views on melting ice caps and global warming are here.