A commenter mentioned ‘groupthink’ in a recent post, and that reminded me of a piece that Judith Curry put on her excellent website a fortnight ago. The title there was ‘Mutually Assured Delusion’, an allusion to the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ notion of the hotter parts of the Cold War. Those who think together, you might say, can be assured that they will be equally wrong. Dr Curry thinks that too many of the orthodox suffer from ‘groupthink’, and that it is bad for them as scientists. It is hard to disagree.
A bit of intellectual history is in order.The term is a borrowing from George Orwell (‘doublethink’ in 1984), via William Whyte in the 1950s, who actually coined the word ‘groupthink’, to Irving Janis in 1972, who wrote a book about it, to a Frenchman, Roland Benabou, who won a PhD at MIT and now teaches at Princeton; he has written a recent paper on it (‘Groupthink: Collective Delusions in Organizations and Markets’), and that paper is where ‘MAD’ comes from.
What characterises groupthink? Janis offers eight symptoms:
* the illusion of invulnerability
* collective rationalization
* a belief in inherent morality
* stereotyped views of out-groups
* direct pressure on dissenters
* the illusion of unanimity
* self-appointed mind guards
Benabou thinks that it is in any organisation’s interest to make sure that groupthink is easily distinguished from group morale: organizations and societies find it desirable to set up ex-ante commitment mechanisms protecting and encouraging dissent (constitutional guarantees of free speech, whistle-blower protections, devil’s advocates, etc.), even when ex-post everyone would unanimously want to ignore or ‘kill’ the messengers of bad news.
Dr Curry comments that ‘in the case of AGW, we have a scientific debate/disagreement about a highly uncertain and complex system. Acknowledging the complexity and uncertainty is key to generating a willingness to listen to different ‘prophecies’ of what the future might hold’. She has no doubt been saying things like that longer than I have, but my abundant posts on AGW carry the same message: why do we only hear about the evil consequences of warming, and never of the benefits, which have been many already? And why do we not hear about the many different climate prospects for the future?
Benabou is really talking about how businesses operate in market settings, but the following little statement is easily applied to global warming and ‘climate change’: Groupthink is thus most important for closed, cohesive groups whose members perceive that they largely share a common fate and have few exit options. Amen. He says that a major ‘source of group error is social pressure to conform, and that can best be defeated if dissent is encouraged.
Benabou lists seven ‘patterns of denial’, which I found somewhat delicious, since for him the deniers are those enclosed in groupthink. Some of them are so familiar in the global warming domain, like ‘preposterous probabilities’, and ‘new paradigms’ (this time is different, we are smarter and have better tools. Every case also displays the typical pattern of hubris, based on claims of superior talent or human capital).
Here are some more: ‘wishful beliefs’, information avoidance’, and the ‘normalisation of deviance’ (How do organizations react when what was not supposed to happen does, with increasing frequency and severity?). Two more: ‘reversing the burden of proof’ and ‘malleable memories: forgetting the lessons of history’.
I recognise that we are all likely to prefer information that accords with our own view, but I was trained in university to examine evidence critically, and the instruction went deep. What is more, while it is easy to picture only two sides in the debate, the orthodox and the dissidents, and I use these terms myself, the dissidents are hard to group into a single team. They come from all points of the compass, and often disagree with one another, as you can see on this website, let alone on Judith Curry’s.
In contrast — at least, as it seems to me — the orthodox have a church, a holy book (the current Assessment Report of the IPCC), and elaborate defence mechanisms to defend the writ against attack. All that makes them powerful and so far successful, but it does also make them vulnerable to new evidence. In some fields you can divert new evidence with subsidiary hypotheses, but in ‘climate change’ it is Nature that provides the new evidence, and it does so every day.
The failure of the models to track what actually happened, and the prolonged pause in warming, can be diverted for a while. But they cannot finally be ignored.