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21st century science:   Group-Thinking Elites and Fanatical Groupies

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/11

Science has been a reliable resource for official policies and actions for much of the era of modern science, which is usually regarded as having begun around the 17th century.

It is almost without precedent that a mistaken scientific consensus should lead to undesirable and damaging public actions, yet that is now the case in two instances: the belief that carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels is primarily responsible for global warming and climate change; and the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

Both those beliefs gained hegemony during the last two or three decades. That these beliefs are mistaken seems incredible to most people, in part because of the lack of any well known precedent and in part because the nature of science is widely misunderstood; in particular it is not yet widely recognized how much science has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

The circumstances of modern science that conspire to make it possible for mistaken theories to bring misguided public policies have been described in my recent book, Science Is Not What You Think [1]. The salient points are these:

Ø     Science has become dysfunctionally large

Ø     It is hyper-competitive

Ø     It is not effectively self-correcting

Ø     It is at the mercy of multiple external interests and influences.

A similar analysis was offered by Judson [2]. That title reflects the book’s opening theme of the prevalence of fraud in modern science (as well as in contemporary culture). It assigns blame to the huge expansion in the number of scientists and the crisis that the world of science faces as it finds itself in something of a steady-state so far as resources are concerned, after a period of some three centuries of largely unfitted expansion: about 80% of all the scientists who have ever lived are extant today; US federal expenditure on R&D increased 4-fold (inflation-adjusted!) from 1953 to 2002, and US industry increased its R&D spending by a factor of 26 over that period! Judson also notes the quintessential work of John Ziman explicating the significance of the change from continual expansion to what Ziman called a dynamic steady-state [3].

Remarkably enough, President Eisenhower had foreseen this possibility and warned against it in his farewell address to the nation: “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”. The proponents of human-caused-climate-changer theory and of HIV/AIDS theory are examples of such elites.

A crucial factor is that elites, like all other groups, may be dysfunctionally affected by the phenomenon of Groupthink.

Janis [4] showed in detail several decades ago how that phenomenon of Groupthink had produced disastrously bad policy actions by the United States. The same phenomenon of Groupthink can cause bad things to happen in other social sectors than the government. Recently, Booker [5] has shown how Groupthink has been responsible for creating the worldwide belief, shibboleth, cliché, that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is causing global warming and climate change through the release of carbon dioxide.

Commonly held ideas about science do not envisage the possibility that a scientific consensus could bring misguided policies and actions on a global scale. What most people know — think they know — about science is that its conclusions are based on solid evidence, and that the scientific method safeguards against getting things wrong, and that science that has been primarily responsible for civilization’s advances over the last few centuries.

Those things that most people know are also largely mistaken [1, 6]. Science is a human activity and is subject to all the frailties and fallibilities of any human activity. The scientific method and the way in which it is popularly described does not accurately portray how science is actually done.

While much of the intellectual progress in understanding how the world works does indeed stand to the credit of science, what remains to be commonly realized is that since about the middle of the 20th century, science has become too big for its own good. The huge expansion of scientific activity since the Second World War has changed science in crucial ways. The number of people engaged in scientific activity has far outstripped the available resources, leading to hyper-competition and associated sloppiness and outright dishonesty. Scientists nowadays are in no way exceptional individuals, people doing scientific work are as common as are teachers, doctors, or engineers. It is in this environment that Groupthink has become significantly and damagingly important.

Booker [5] described this in relation to the hysteria over the use of fossil fuels. A comparable situation concerns the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS [7]. The overall similarities in these two cases are that a quite small number of researchers arrived initially at more or less tentative conclusions; but those conclusions seemed of such great import to society at large that they were immediately seized upon and broadcast by the media as breaking news. Political actors become involved, accepting those conclusions quickly became politically correct, and those who then questioned and now question the conclusions are vigorously opposed, often maligned as unscientific and motivated by non-scientific agendas.


At any rate, contemporary science has become a group activity rather than an activity of independent intellectual entrepreneurs, and it is in this environment that Groupthink affects the elites in any given field — the acknowledged leading researchers whose influence is entrenched by editors and administrators and other bureaucrats inside and outside the scientific community.

A concomitant phenomenon is that of fanatical groupies. Concerning both human-caused climate change and the theory that HIV causes AIDS, there are quite large social groups that have taken up the cause with fanatical vigor and that attack quite unscrupulously anyone who differs from the conventional wisdom. These groupies are chiefly people with little or no scientific background, or whose scientific ambitions are unrequited (which includes students). As with activist groups in general, groupie organizations are often supported by (and indeed often founded by) commercial or political interests. Non-profit organizations which purportedly represent patients and other concerned citizens and which campaign for funds to fight against cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc., are usually funded by Big Pharma, as are HIV/AIDS activist groups.


[1]  Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed, why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed, McFarland 2017

[2] Horace Freeland Judson, The Great Betrayal, Harcourt 2004

[3]  John Ziman, Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press 1994

[4]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[5]  Christopher Booker, GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Report 28; Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

[6]  Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

[7]  Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007


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Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/02

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere
is not
the overarching determinant of global temperature.

Over the life of the Earth, carbon dioxide levels have been far higher than now during Ice Ages, for example. Since the mid-19th-century Industrial Revolution, levels of carbon dioxide have increased while temperatures were cooling rather than warming during ~1880-1910 and ~1940-1970s, and they have remained relatively steady since ~1998; see sources cited in Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide. The lack of warming since the start of the 21st century is acknowledged surreptitiously by the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in offering attempted explanations for it.

Since the evidence is quite clear, there exists a great mystery:
How has it happened that essentially the whole official world insists mistakenly that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing unnatural warming and climate change?

How could that happen in this modern era in which science is the supreme intellectual authority?

A huge literature of books, articles, pamphlets, and blogs has rehearsed the substantive flaws in the belief that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing global warming (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming) and climate change (ACC). There has not, however, been the same degree of analysis of how national and international institutions have come to accept this mistaken notion to the extent of making policies based on it.

Christopher Booker has now offered an explanation in GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink.

By “science” Booker here means psychology. He invokes and applies the concept of Groupthink which had been developed by psychologist Irving Janis [1, 2] several decades ago:

“Janis’s focus was on decision-making in the foreign policy arena. However, as soon as you look, you see that his ideas apply elsewhere. The climate debate is a case in point — all of the characteristic ‘rules’ of groupthink are there: warmist ideas can’t be tested against reality, and so to ensure they are upheld as the truth, they have to be elevated into a ‘consensus’ and anyone who challenges them must be crushed. These are precisely the features that Janis used to define Groupthink.”

So just as Groupthink led to the policy disasters of Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war, attempts to suppress serious debate of climate science and the policies that are being promoted as solutions are leading to irrational behaviour, costly policy blunders and corruption on an unprecedented scale. This will only end when groupthink eventually bumps up against reality.

As Booker puts it in his conclusions:

“Every South Sea Bubble ends in a crash. Every form of Groupthink eventually has its day. This is invariably what happens when human beings get carried along by the crowd, simply because they have lost the urge or ability to think for themselves” [3].

I would differ with that last comment, however. Human beings do not customarily lose the urge or ability to think for themselves, all too often they never acquired it. That ability is not genetically inherent and it has to be gained against strong odds. We humans are raised to believe what we’re taught, by parents, by teachers, and by preachers and sundry self-appointed prophets; nowadays, by intrusive media and innumerable internet sources claiming to offer reliable facts and insights. The question is not, how people can believe clearly wrong things, even absurd things: examples are everywhere of people devoutly believing things that are against logic and against tangible facts. The mystery is how some people manage, at least some of the time, to come to think for themselves by forming beliefs on the basis of evidence, thereby rejecting their earlier indoctrination [4].

Booker describes the essential characteristics of Groupthink as
Ø      A group of people come to share a particular view or belief.
Ø      They insist that their belief is shared by a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded opinion
Ø      They defend it with irrational, dismissive hostility towards anyone who disagrees.

GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink shows rather convincingly how these factors played out in the rise and subsequent hegemony of AGW belief.

This historical analysis is invaluable in revealing the specific actions of specific actors that led initially to AGW belief among a group of scientists. That belief was congenial to various groups, outside the scientific community (notably environment al activists) whose internal consensuses then in turn also display the characteristic features of Groupthink.

Beliefs come in a very wide range of degrees of intensity. Human groups display conformity in matters small and large, sometimes to the degree of unanimity, and Groupthink is intellectual conformity that demands unanimity within the group.
Over AGW, this demand for unanimity is displayed in actions as well as words, in the conviction of being right and the hostility towards disbelievers, as when the latter are referred to as ignoramuses (“Flat-Earthers” is a common epithet) or as “denialists”, harking to the morally despicable genre of Holocaust deniers.

It has not often enough been remarked, how extraordinary it is that disagreements between scientists reach the level of hostility of charging fellow scientists not just with being ridiculously wrong but also with being as morally despicable as Holocaust deniers. And it also goes against the conventional wisdom about science to suggest that Groupthink exists in the scientific community. Popularly, scientists are regarded as strikingly individual, whether it be in a laudable way (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein) or the opposite (Dr. Frankenstein and other mad or evil scientists [5]). The conventional wisdom has not yet grasped just how drastically different today’s science is from its popular image; that was formed by the earlier centuries of modern (since ~17th century) and has not digested the enormous changes since about World War II [6]. Science nowadays is by and large a group activity. That is not to deny that scientists see themselves as individuals, but they are also to varying degrees subject to group influences. Chemists (say) not only do individual work toward a particular goal, they are aware of and accommodate in various ways the other chemists working toward the same or similar goals, be it in the same institution or elsewhere; and they also share some group interests with other chemists in their own institution who may be working on other projects. Chemists everywhere share group interests through national and international organizations and publications. Beyond that, chemists share with biologists, biochemists, physicists and others the group interest of being scientists, of having a professional as well as personal interest in the prestige and status of science in the wider society.

The most intense group feeling of course concerns whatever the immediate research project is, since that determines professional career status, prestige, future prospects. If it were to turn out that AGW is wrong, that human generation of carbon dioxide is not causing global warming and climate change, this would be devastating for the careers of current proponents of AGW, and for their institutions. Little wonder, then, that the dogma of AGW is defended with such determination.

Intense competitiveness in science and its sad consequences became significant only since the second or third quarter of the 20th century, so AGW is something of a new phenomenon, international acceptance of a mistaken scientific consensus. There is one other instance already, though, which also took hold in the last couple of decades of the 20th century: the theory that HIV causes AIDS. That is distinctly contrary to copious evidence (The Case against HIV) yet it is propounded and defended so determinedly that it is simply inconceivable that official bodies would ever come to acknowledge that the theory is wrong (OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!).


It is a sad fact
that in the era of Fake (Political) News,
there has also come into being
Fake Scientific Consensuses.



[1]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[2]  Paul’t Hart, “Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink”, Political Psychology, 12 (1991) 247-78.


[4]  See “Motives for Believing”, chapter 11 in Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984/1999.

[5]  Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, W. W. Norton, 1998.

[6]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed, why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed (McFarland, 2017), chapter 1.


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How science has changed — VI. The influences of groups

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/26

Popular stereotypes of scientists picture them as strikingly individual, whether admirably so (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein) or the opposite (Dr. Frankenstein and other mad or evil scientists [1]). That is one of the most significant ways in which the folklore about science differs from today’s reality: Science nowadays is by and large a group activity, and that has many far-reaching corollaries. This is not to deny that scientists see themselves as individuals and act as individuals, but they are also influenced to varying degrees by group memberships and associated loyalties, and that can interfere with truth-seeking.

Memberships in groups and the associated loyalties is a common human experience. First comes the family group; then there is the extended family or clan, and perhaps subgroups of the clan. Other groups cut across different lines, defined by religion, by ethnicity, by nationality; and also, very much pertinent to the circumstances of science, there are groups associated with the way in which we earn a living; we are influenced by our memberships in professional guilds or trade unions.

Under some circumstances it becomes necessary to set priorities with respect to loyalty to the various groups to which we belong. In most circumstances the highest priority is on loyalty to the family, though some individuals have placed a higher priority on religion or some other ideology. Among professional researchers, the most important thing is the current research project and the associated paradigm and scientific consensus: going with this group is the way to further a career whereas dissenting from the group can spell the blighting of a career.

The groups to which scientists belong is one of the most significant aspects of scientific activity, and that has changed fundamentally in recent times, since about WWII.
In the earlier stages of modern science, what we by hindsight describe as scientists were individuals who, for a variety of reasons, were interested in learning to understand the way the natural world works. One of the most crucial foundations of modern science came when groups of such inquiring minds got together, at first informally but soon formally; the Royal Society of London is generally cited as iconic. Those people came together explicitly and solely to share and discuss their findings and their interpretations. At that stage, scientists belonged effectively to just one science-related group, concerned with seeking true understanding of the workings of the world. Since this was a voluntary activity engaged in by amateurs, in other words by people who were not deriving a living or profit from this activity, these early pre-scientists were not much hindered from practicing loyalty simply to truth-seeking; it did not conflict with or interfere with their loyalties to their families or to their religion or to their other social groups.

As the numbers of proto-scientists grew, their associations were influenced by geography and therefore by nationality, so there came occasions when loyalty to truth-seeking was interfered with by questions of who should get credit for particular advances and discoveries. Even in retrospect, British and French sources may differ over whether the calculations for the discovery of Neptune should be credited most to the English John Couch Adams or the French Urbain Le Verrier — and German sources might assert that the first physical observation of the planet was made by Johann Gottfried Galle; again, British and German sources may still differ by hindsight over whether Isaac Newton or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz invented the calculus.

Still, for the first two or three centuries of modern science, the explicit ideal or ethos of science was the unfettered pursuit of genuine truth about how the world works. Then, in the 1930s in Nazi Germany and decades later in the Soviet Union, authoritarian regimes insisted that science had to bend to ideology. In Nazi Germany, scientists had to abstain from relativity and other so-called “Jewish” science; in the Soviet Union, chemists had to abstain from the rest of the world’s theories about chemical combination, and biologists had to abstain from what biologists everywhere else knew about evolution. In democratic societies, a few individual scientists were disloyal to their own nations in sharing secrets with scientists in unfriendly other nations, sometimes giving as reason or excuse their overarching loyalty to science, which should not be subject to national boundaries.

By and large, then, up to about the time of WWII, scientific activity was not unlike how Merton had described it [2], which remains the view of it that most people seem still to have of it today: Scientists as truth-seeking individuals, smarter and more knowledgeable than ordinary people, dedicated to science and unaffected by crass self-interest or by conflicts of interest.

That view does not describe today’s reality, as pointed out in earlier posts in this series [2, 3].   The present essay discusses the consequences of the fact that scientists are anything but isolated individuals freely pursuing truth; rather, they are ordinary human beings subject to the pressures of belonging to a variety of groups. Under those conditions, the search for truth can be hindered and distorted.

Chemists (say) admittedly do work individually toward a particular goal, but that goal is not freely self-selected: either it is set by an employer or by a source of funding that considered the proposed work and decided to support it. Quite often, chemists nowadays work in teams, with different individuals focusing on minor specific aspects of some overall project. They are aware of and accommodate in various ways other chemists who happen to be working toward the same or similar goals, be it in the same institution or elsewhere; and they also share some group interests with other chemists in their own institution who may be working on other projects. Chemists everywhere share group interests through national and international organizations and publications. Beyond that, chemists share with biologists, biochemists, physicists and others the group interest of being scientists, having a professional as well as personal interest in the overall prestige and status of science as a whole in the wider society — at the same time as chemists regard their discipline as just a bit “better” than the other sciences, it is “the central science” because it builds on physics and biologists need it; whereas physicists have long known that their discipline is the most fundamental, “the queen of the sciences”, without which there could not be a chemistry or any other science; and so on — biologists know that their field matters much more to human societies than the physical sciences since it is the basis of understanding living things and is indispensable for effective medicine.

So scientists differ among themselves in a number of ways. All feel loyalty to science by comparison to other human endeavors, but especial loyalty to their own discipline; and within that to their particular specialty — among chemists, to analytical or inorganic or organic or physical chemistry; and within each of those to experimental approaches or to theoretical ones. Ultimately, all researchers are obsessed with and loyal to the very specific work they are engaged in every day, and that may be intensely specialized.

For example, researchers working to perfect computer models to mimic global temperatures and climate do just that; they do not have time to work themselves at estimating past temperatures by, for instance, doing isotope analyses of sea-shells. Since such ultra-specialization is necessary, researchers need to rely on and trust those who are working in related areas. So those who are computer-modeling climate take on trust what they are told by geologists about historical temperature and climate changes, and what the meteorologists can tell them about relatively recent weather and climate, and what physicists tell them about heat exchange and the absorption of heat by different materials, and so on.

With all that, despite the fact that research is done within highly organized and even bureaucratic environments, there is actually no overarching authority to monitor and assess what is happening in science, let alone to ensure that things are being done appropriately. In particular, there is no mechanism for deciding that any given research project may have gone off the rails in the sense of drawing unwarranted conclusions or ignoring significant evidence. There is no mechanism to ensure that proper consideration is being given to the views of all competent and informed scientists working on a particular topic.

A consequence is that on quite a range of matters, the so-called scientific consensus, the view accepted as valid by society’s conventional wisdom and by the policy makers, may be at actual odds with inescapable evidence. That circumstance has been documented for example as to the Big-Bang theory in cosmology, the mechanism of smell, the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs, and more [4].

Of course, the scientific consensus was very often wrong on particular matters throughout the era of modern science. Moreover, the scientific consensus defends itself quite vigorously against the mavericks who point out its errors [5], until eventually the contrary evidence becomes so overwhelming that the old views simply have to give away, in what Thomas Kuhn [6] described as a scientific revolution.

Defense of the consensus illustrates how strong the group influence is on the leading voices in the scientific community; indeed, it has been described as Groupthink [7]. The success of careers, the gaining of eminence and leadership roles hinge on being right, in other words being in line with the contemporary consensus; thus admitting to error can be tantamount to loss of prestige and status and destruction of a career. That is why Max Planck, in the early years of the 20th century, observed that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it” [8]; a paraphrase popular among those of us who question an established view is that “Science progresses funeral by funeral”.

At the same time as the history of science teaches that any contemporary scientific consensus is quite fallible and may well be wrong, it also records that — up to quite recent times — science has been able to correct itself, albeit it could take quite a long time — several decades in the case of Mendel’s laws of heredity, or Wegener’s continental drift, or about the cause of mad-cow diseases or of gastritis and stomach ulcers.
Unfortunately it seems as though science’s self-correction does not always come in time to forestall society’s policy-makers from making decisions that spell tangible harm to individuals and to societies as a whole, illustrating what President Eisenhower warned against, that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [9].

More about that in future blog posts.


[1]   Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, W. W. Norton, 1998
[2]    How science has changed— II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior
[3]    How science has changed: Who are the scientists?
How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins
How science changed — IV. Cutthroat competition and outright fraud
[4]    Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism   in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012
[5]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596–602
[6]    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed., enlarged); 1st ed. was 1962)
[7]    I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin
[8]    Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (1949); translated from German by Frank Gaynor, Greenwood Press, 1968
[9]    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell speech, 17 January 1961

Posted in consensus, funding research, media flaws, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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