Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Sociological Reasons Why Bad Explanations Persist in Academia

A person wishing to convince you that brains make minds may fall back on a kind of argument from authority. He will point out that most neuroscientists maintain that brains make minds, and ask: how could all of these revered authorities be so wrong?

Such an argument will have little weight to the person who studies either of these things: the history of highly erroneous teachings made by esteemed authorities, and the sociology of groupthink and social conformity. Let's look at the first of these things. It is a fact that during the past 100 years there have been some important cases of expert opinion that was not only wrong, but wrong with disastrous consequences.

Here are a few examples: 

  • Before the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, almost of all his advisers told John Kennedy the invasion would succeed; but it failed miserably, and helped sow the seeds of the Cuban Missile Crisis that put the world on the brink of nuclear war.
  • President Lyndon Johnson's brainy Ivy League advisers kept telling him to pursue the Vietnam War full-blast; but the war ended in defeat for America, with a gigantic unnecessary loss of life for both the US and the Vietnamese.
  • For decades before World War II, eugenics was all the rage at American universities, all of which taught eugenics courses; but eugenics fell out of favor after the Nazis used eugenics to justify their horrific exterminations.
  • For years before the Housing Bubble burst at about 2006, the financial experts assured us it was no problem, and the most respected Wall Street experts assured us it would not cause much trouble; but the Housing Bubble led to the Great Recession of 2008, with millions losing their homes, and the stock market plunging.
  • For decades in the 20th century, psychiatry was dominated by the strange ideas of Sigmund Freud, which included the idea that much of mental illness was caused by sexual conflicts in childhood; but Freud's ideas are now generally dismissed by psychologists, who regard them as largely nonsensical and unscientific.
  • The military experts and foreign policy experts in high positions mostly supported the idea in 2003 that it was good idea to invade Iraq to get rid of its “weapons of mass destruction”; but no such weapons were found, and the resulting futile war was a disaster which plunged Iraq into many years of chaos, cost America more than 2 trillion dollars, and resulted in perhaps a million Iraqi deaths.
  • Experts at the US government signed off on a medicine called Vioxx, which was then prescribed by countless doctors, until it was found that it had caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths by creating heart problems.
  • Countless doctors wrote prescriptions for opioid medications so casually and frequently that “from 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses” according to the CDC; and the resulting opioid addiction and overdose problem is currently one of the worst problems facing the US.
From all of these examples we can make the general conclusion that expert opinion is very often wrong, and not just wrong in some small way, but wrong in a very big way.

Is there some general reason why experts often get things wrong? There seems to be such a reason. It is the fact that experts often are trained in ideological enclaves. An expert typically becomes an expert by volunteering for some particular graduate or specialized training program at a university or in the military. These graduate programs are often ideological enclaves, places where there predominates some particular ideology not embraced by most people. The ideology that predominates at neuroscience departments of universities is a materialist ideology based on dogmas such as the dogma that minds are made by brains.

The fact that the graduates of such programs are volunteers creates the opportunity for sociological selection effects. Let's imagine an extreme example. Let's imagine there arises some new discipline called tricostics. It might be the opinion of 90% of those who have read about tricostics that tricostics is pure nonsense. But tricostics might be “all the rage” at some Graduate Program in Tricostics Studies at a particular university, or some Pentagon training program specialized in tricostics. The people who sign up for such a program might almost all be from the tiny fraction of the population that believes in tricostics. At this particular program there might then be tremendous sociological pressure for students to embrace tricostics. So 90% of the graduates of this tricostics program might be believers in tricostics, even though a randomly selected jury from the general population would probably conclude tricostics is worthless nonsense.

ideological enclave

An expert existing in some ideological enclave may get be filled with dogmatic overconfidence about some opinion that is popular within his little ideological enclave. He may think something along the lines of: “No doubt it is true, because almost all my peers and teachers agree that it is true.” But the idea may seem senseless to someone who has not been conditioned inside this ideological enclave, this sheltered thought bubble.

A good rule is: decide based on the facts, and not merely because there is some consensus of experts.

Departments of neuroscience in our universities are ideological enclaves, as are departments of evolutionary biology. Anyone signing up for a PhD program in neuroscience is someone who has signed up to be conditioned in the dogmas of an ideological enclave, as is anyone who signs up for a PhD program in evolutionary biology, as is anyone who signs up for a 2-year minister education program or a priesthood training program. Like a rubber stamp stamping out the same ink pattern, these ideological enclaves tend to create people who all mouth the same dogmas. We should not be particularly impressed by a uniformity or near-uniformity of opinion coming out of such ideological enclaves.

The fact that 99% of the graduates of fundamentalist theology schools believe in fundamentalist theology is not a very powerful argument for fundamentalist theology. The fact that 99% of the graduates of Catholic seminary schools believe in Catholic theology is not a very powerful argument for Catholic theology. And the fact that 90% of the graduates of neuroscience PhD programs may adhere to the prevailing dogmas of neuroscientists is not a very powerful argument that such dogmas are correct. All such things can be explained as examples of the power of groupthink and social conformity.

Besides these sociological factors, it is easy to think of psychological and financial factors why experts may tend to come to wrong conclusions in matters of neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Exercise 1: Imagine you have just spent five long hard years and $100,000 in cash to get a PhD in neuroscience. Now you can believe one of two things:

  1. The mind is a great mystery, and you have learned a lot about the brain, but very little as to why humans actually have mind, consciousness or memory.
  2. You are a great knowledge master on the topics of the mind and the brain, and you know the answers to all the main questions involving where minds come from and how memory works.

Which of these two opinions will you tend to favor after having spent five long years and $100,000 of your money to get a PhD in neuroscience? Of course, there are psychological reasons why you will tend to favor the second opinion, which bolsters your prestige and self-esteem. Similarly, a person who spends five years getting a PhD in evolutionary biology (spending $100,000 on graduate school) will have a very strong tendency to think that he has become a great knowledge master who can now explain how biological innovations arose and how species appeared, an opinion that bolsters his own self-esteem and prestige.

In both of these cases a person who has no vested interest may tend to come to a vastly different conclusion than the person who has a vested interest in the matter. When we also consider that the newly minted neuroscience PhD or evolutionary biologist PhD has a vast financial incentive to parrot the party line (which will make him more likely to get appointed as a tenured professor and more likely to get his papers published), it is rather easy to understand the persistence of unfounded but popular dogmas in these fields.

Below are some cases of social groups in which all members were conditioned to believe certain dogmas, with various forms of sanctions for any deviation from the group orthodoxy.

Social Group Dogma Mandated by Social Group
Ancient Roman senators The belief that Rome is destined to rule the world, and that local rebellions must be quickly crushed.
Medieval clergymen The belief that the Church is the supreme holder of truth, and that heretics must be destroyed.
Southern US slaveholders, circa 1830 The belief that people with dark skin are fit only to serve as slaves.
German officials, World War II The belief that Germans are destined to rule as the master race.
Soviet Union officials, circa 1950 The belief that history is essentially a class struggle that is reaching its climax in the creation of communist worker's paradises such as the Soviet Union.
American government and military officials, circa 1965 The belief that much of Vietnam must be thoroughly bombed to prevent Communist expansion.
Modern biology professors The belief that biological innovations have  appeared merely because of random mutations and natural selection, and that the brain is the sole source of the human mind and self.

In each of these groups there is or was relentless peer pressure to conform to the doctrine in the second column.  A person outside the group may regard such a doctrine as absurd, but to the group member bound by the iron chains of social conformity, such a doctrine may have been deemed as unquestionable wisdom.

People will think and do things merely because it is customary to think and do such things. Consider male New York City office workers in the 1950's. Almost every one of them went to work wearing a tie. But wearing a tie is a silly custom. A man's neck will be more comfortable if he doesn't wear a tie. So why did office workers in the 1950's all wear ties? It was the power of social conformity effects. No one wanted to be the "oddball" who did not wear a tie in his office.  Belief customs and dress customs may persist for decades or centuries mainly because of the power of peer pressure and social conformity effects.  A conformist social group (whether it be a tribe of academics or a high school cafeteria table) compels us to dress or speak in some way, and we conform, wanting above all to fit in to whatever little social group we are part of. 

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