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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Academics as conformists?: No, they just want to be non-conformists, like everybody else

Or so Nicholas Wade tells us is the view of Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist who studied twins raised apart ("Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers," New York Times, July 25, 2009). Now retiring, in an interview with Constance Holden, Bouchard assails his colleagues (paywall). Wade writes,
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.”
Whether you are right or wrong on the facts makes no difference because facts are what the academic monoculture chooses to recognize as such.

David Tyler notes here:
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.
Wouldn't it be cheaper just to develop avatars of academics that would lecture students on TV screens? They'd all pretty much say the same thing, just like before, right. We could change the graphics now and then.

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