Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The 9/12 Syndrome

On September 11th, 2001 -- now known universally as 9/11 -- the dreadful assault on the Trade Towers in New York took place. The reactions on the next day, 9/12, were interesting and revealing about the nature of human behavior, at least in our society.

Those who on 9/10 had criticized President Bush for being an international bully and a sabre rattler, said that the tragedy of 9/11 showed that the US needed to rejoin the world as a constructive partner of other nations and one working towards international understanding. But those who on 9/10 were feeling the US's power said that 9/11 showed that, as they had said, the US should become more definitive and unilateral in its international actions, less accommodating to the 'soft' countries of the world.

In other words: 9/11's tragedy changed nobody's mind.

It is true in all areas of human life, perhaps, that we seek tribal affiliation that we are loathe to break. Religion, political party, school allegiance, and various belief systems are clung to fervently, and the same facts are routinely used to justify the unchanging position.

The same is largely true in science. Unless a new discovery really forces everyone to change their views, or provides a new tool, toy, or me-too rationale for a new kind of research, scientists cling to their views.

We have a remarkable degree of free speech in this country, and science too has so many avenues for expressing ideas that even the most wacky can see the light of print (or Blog!). Despite alternatives being available and knowable to those who care to know, the herd's belief system, what everyone is doing at any given time, or the prevailing theory, is largely impervious to critics or skeptics. As in any 'tribal' setting of this kind, new ideas much less a new tribe are threats to the current order. In science the threat is in part seen as undermining the grant base, the publication base, or just as importantly the base of feeling that we as scientists understand the world profoundly, and are documenting that understanding.

It is as difficult to be open-minded in science as in any other area. Our mythology is that science always challenges its assumptions, but the truth is much more that we cling hard to our beliefs. We design studies to establish hypotheses that we like, we skirt around evidence that's not supportive, and we set up straw-man 'null' hypotheses that we know in advance we can shoot down. As a consequence, the rejection of the null is usually not as persuasive as claimed (sometimes expressed in terms of a significance level, or p value).

The Nature-Nurture cycle is a good example. In any era there are those who believe in biological (these days that means genetic) inherency: you are what you inherited. And there is the Nurture crowd, who believe you are what you experience. Both views are expressed openly (in free societies). But a given era mainly has an ear for one or the other dogma. Darwinian selectionism and genetic determinism represent the inherency view, and its down sides are racism and social discrimination. Pure environmentalism is the Nurture view, stressing free will and malleability, to justify the redistribution of wealth, which is a big downside for those whose earned wealth is being redistributed to others.

We ourselves tend unapologetically to be on the skeptical side in many areas of modern science, as our book, this blog, and our other writing show. We try to stay away from a polarized, much less ideological position, though it is difficult for anyone to do that completely. Like anyone else, we want to be right! But a major objective issue is that it takes a lot of time and wasted funds as the ship of science changes course from time to time, in tidal flow of new discoveries, but also of changing vested interests. The 9/12 syndrome delays such changes and makes them more expensive, even when the evidence supports the change.

Scientists are not immune from the 9/12 syndrome: we tend to see the world as we want to see it.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

cooperation withing tribes or affiliations but competition between tribes. What irked me the most about 9/11 were the bumper stickers asking for God to bless America, when it seemed to me that asking God to bless the world would make much more sense! Then all countries would have what they needed and there would be more tendency toward cooperation between tribes.