May 15 2012

Consensus Reality and the Madness of Crowds

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(originally posted October 11, 2007)

Michael Prescott has an interesting meditation on peer pressure, herd mentality, information overload, and consensus in science.

Referring to a New York Times piece about nutrition, Prescott uses its descriptions of overdiagnosis and expet-seeking of information overload to parallel the state of affairs surrounding the discussion of psi phenomena.

It seems easy enough to apply this to mainstream science’s rote rejection of all evidence for the paranormal. The overwhelming majority of scientists have never stuided psi and “look for guidance from an expert – or at least someone who sounds confident.” Skeptics like James Randi, Paul Kurtz, and Michael Shermer never lack for confidence, at least in their public pronouncements.

How did skeptics like Randi, Kurtz, and Shermer find themselves in the “expert” chair?

George P. Hansen has a fascinating history of CSICOP on his website, which is actually very enlightening. Reading the article – I hate to say it – I was struck by how familiar a lot of it sounded. In fact, if I may get slightly political for a moment, it seemed that CSICOP and Fox News/the NeoCons were using the same playbook.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for debunking hoaxes, and looking for other explanations for That Weird Thing That Happened That One Time. However, to patently ignore the possibility of something on ideological grounds is anti-science. It’s political. And it’s political for reasons I can’t figure out, other than to attribute it to fear. And I confess, I do not understand this fear.

For me, the real fun begins when we stop saying “no,” and start saying “what if?”

Even if the answer to “what if?” is “no,” we at least asked the question in the first place, and went looking for an answer.

That is science.

 

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