Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers

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

This article from the New York Times highlights conformity, over-reliance on authority, and group-think in the science community.

A remarkable first-hand description of this phenomenon was provided a few months ago by the economist Robert Shiller, co-inventor of the Case-Shiller house price index. Dr. Shiller was concerned about what he saw as an impending house price bubble when he served as an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York up until 2004.

So why didn’t he burst his lungs warning about the impending collapse of the housing market? “In my position on the panel, I felt the need to use restraint,” he relates. “While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views.

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. It’s obvious that least 100 genes must be needed to convert a human or animal cell back to its embryonic state. Or at least it was obvious to almost everyone until Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University showed it could be done with just 4.

The academic monocultures referred to by Dr. Bouchard are the kind of thing that sabotages scientific creativity. Though they sprout up in every country, they may be a particular problem in Confucian-influenced cultures that prize conformity and respect for elders. It’s curious that Japan, for example, despite having all the ingredients of a first rate scientific power – a rich economy, heavy investment in R&D, a highly educated population and a talented scientific workforce – has never posed a serious challenge to American scientific leadership. Young American scientists can make their name by showing their professor is dead wrong; in Tokyo or Kyoto, that’s a little harder to do.

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?

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