Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cargo Cult Science

Some remarks on science, pseudoscience and learning how not to fool yourself. Caltech's commencement address in 1974 from Richard P Feynman (PDF).

Now in what branches of 'science' might this approach be applicable nowadays? One specific example springs to mind but, really, the answer is 'all of them'.

Update: And in the spirit of Feynman (or should I say the bloody obvious), the Institute of Physics has come out of the closet.

These are the traits of groupthink (Janis, 1977). Where do we see them?

1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Incidentally, a 'flat-earther' is he or she who did not question the general consensus.


Anonymous said...

"All of them"
I think that is blatantly untrue. Groupthink is to be found in communities engaged in some sort of struggle or conflict. In hard sciences, that just isn't the case. (apart from climatology )
The way I see it, their egos got the better of them.

BTW, the idea that the Earth is flat used to be widespread among scholars is most likely a myth.


Neal Asher said...

Thanks for the link about 'flat-eathers' Yann. Just another one of those consensus views that needs to be challenged.

As for the 'all of them' contention. Let it be then that those who do not have that approach already, should have. So 'all of them' is quite right.

You're right, groupthink is more prevalent in the 'soft sciences' (in which I number climatology and at which that bit about groupthink was aimed)) but you'll still find it in the hard sciences. Science which is subject to peer review is also subject to peer pressure.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

herding via fantasy:

in reality you can fantasize via earning your wasted time!

Alex Cull said...

Maybe I'm just cynical, but in my opinion groupthink is always a danger in human organisations, scientific or otherwise. Like Neal, I would question whether the hard sciences are an exception, once scientists depart from the realm of that which can be readily tested/replicated.

Yann's flat earth link is very interesting, by the way; if accurate, a splendid example of the way a false idea can take hold, become widely accepted and would require a huge effort to dislodge.