Very often people utter the most important truths of their careers when they near retirement. The owl of Minerva flies at twilight in part because people with most of their lives behind them have little to lose by voicing controversial points.
So it’s worth paying attention to the retirement interview of Thomas Bouchard in the journal Science. Bouchard is the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart. His main point is that scientists are way too conformist, which means we should be far more sceptical of “scientific consensus” than we are. Bouchard is primarily thinking about differences between race and sex, but his analysis applies to a vast territory of scientific inquiry.
The consensus of climatologists about “global warming” certainly seems a ripe candidate for error-prone conformism. It’s not really possible to become a climatologist if you are a global warming sceptic, which means the consensus is self-reinforcing. The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade explores this point in a recent blog post:
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 unravelled? 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?
What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of sceptics. “We still have whole domains we can’t talk about,” Dr. Bouchard said, referring to the psychology of differences between races and sexes.
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