A friend shared this article on Facebook the other day, The Real War on Science, by John Tierney, writing in the City Journal. Mr. Tierney also writes for the New York Times. I thought about the piece last night and again this morning. I was tempted to relate it to other on-going things, but decided instead to give a brief synopsis and let you read his opinion on which philosophical/political side places the biggest hurdles to the advancement of scientific knowledge. My caveat, I may be a tad guilty of confirmation bias.
The bottom line of Mr. Tierney’s piece is the conservative right (i.e. Republicans) have not had too much impact science. He notes the role of the government, and how whoever is in power tends to make political decisions that may shift some research, but his concern is with the impact of the progressive left (i.e. Democrats) and two particular cultural aspects the shape modern social research. They are “Confirmation Bias” and “Groupthink.”
As Mr. Tierney describes, “the first threat is confirmation bias, the well-documented tendency of people to seek out and accept information that confirms their beliefs and prejudices. In a classic study of peer review, 75 psychologists were asked to referee a paper about the mental health of left-wing student activists. Some referees saw a version of the paper showing that the student activists’ mental health was above normal; others saw different data, showing it to be below normal. Sure enough, the more liberal referees were more likely to recommend publishing the paper favorable to the left-wing activists. When the conclusion went the other way, they quickly found problems with its methodology.”
Mr. Tierney notes researchers attempt to eliminate confirmation bias by having people with different opinions review their work. The problem is academia is a left-leaning institution and many fields are becoming mono-cultures where this are few, if any, opposing views. As an example, he gives the field of sociology where Democrats outnumber Republicans at a ratio of 44 to 1. Which leads to the next problem, when everyone in your peer group thinks as you do the group tends to believe not only are they right, what they believe must be true. He believes this Groupthink issue is becoming so wide spread that many researchers are no longer aware of their own role in it.
I found the article to be worth reading, if only for self-reflective purposes.