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Friday, March 17, 2017

Why a Clique of Scientists Might Do Worse at Judging Truth Than a Jury

When newly awarded PhD's start writing papers and books and judging truth, they are rather like jurors who have been methodically exposed to evidence, and who then deliver a verdict that is a judgment of truth. A community of scientific experts may have much more prestige than a group of ordinary people chosen for a jury. But there are some reasons for thinking that the 12 ordinary people on a jury may be more likely to judge truth correctly than a clannish scientific community with some narrow subject specialty. Below are some of the reasons.

Reason #1: Jury Members are Randomly Selected, but Scientific Experts are Often Those Who Volunteered to Join an Ideological Enclave

One of the greatest strengths of the jury system is that jury members are randomly selected. A system in which jurors can volunteer for particular trials would not work well at all. If a particular defendant was on trial for murder, and jurors could volunteer for a particular case, then you might end up with only jurors predisposed to find that the defendant was guilty. Instead the jury system guarantees randomness. Jurors are randomly selected from the population. When they go to the court, they are randomly assigned to trials. So we usually don't end up with things like juries consisting mostly of people who were inclined to judge one particular way when judging a court case.

But this random selection process differs greatly from how scientific experts become scientific experts. A scientific expert becomes a PhD by volunteering for some particular graduate program at a university. These graduate programs are often ideological enclaves, places where there predominates some particular ideology not embraced by most people.

The fact that the graduates of such programs are volunteers creates the opportunity for sociological selection effects. Let's imagine an extreme example. Let's imagine there arises some new scientific discipline called groosology. It might be the opinion of 90% of the American population that groosology is utter nonsense. But groosology might be “all the rage” at some Graduate Program in Groosology Studies at a particular university. The people who sign up for such a program might almost all be from the tiny fraction of the population that believes in groosology. At this particular program there might then be tremendous sociological pressure for students to embrace groosology. So 90% of the graduates of this graduate program might be believers in groosology, even though a randomly selected jury from the general population would probably conclude groosology is worthless nonsense.

The diagram below illustrates this type of sociological effect. Such a sociological effect is going on at many graduate programs at universities, which are often as much ideological enclaves as are theology schools.



There is the additional fact that university graduate schools are not free, but often charge very high tuition fees, such as $30,000 a year. The number of scholarships for graduate programs is only a small fraction of the scholarships for bachelor's degree programs. Such facts tend to guarantee that the people who sign up for university graduate programs are not merely people predisposed to accept the ideology of such programs, but are actually people particularly eager to accept such an ideology. For example, you are not likely to shell out $50,000 to be trained as an evolutionary biologist unless you were really enthusiastic about the prevailing thinking of evolutionary biologists to begin with.

An equivalent situation in a jury pool would be if courts charged a high fee (such as $5000) for you to be a voluntary juror on a particular defendant's jury. This would guarantee that the juries would be populated only by those who were the most passionate about the defendant's guilt or innocence.

Reason #2: Juries Are Exposed to an Even-handed Discussion by People Arguing Opposing Cases, but Scientists Are Not Trained in Such a Way

One of the great strengths of the jury system and the court system is that equal weight is given to opposing sides. Imagine if someone is being tried for murder. First, the district attorney will give an introductory speech making the case for the defendant's guilt. Then the defendant's attorney will make a speech arguing for the defendant's innocence. Then the district attorney will present witnesses and evidence trying to establish the defendant's guilt, which at each stage may be challenged or cross-examined by the defense attorney. Then the defense attorney will present witnesses and evidence trying to establish the defendant's innocence, which at each stage may be challenged or cross-examined by the district attorney. Finally the district attorney will summarize the case for the defendant's guilt, and the defense attorney will summarize the case for the defendant's innocence. What could be more even-handed?

But unlike a juror who is exposed to both sides of the case with a fair balance, a student studying at a scientific graduate school gets no such even-handed exposure to opposing opinions and differing evidence. Such a student will be likely to be indoctrinated in only side of the case. For example, if you are studying to be a neuroscientist, you will get years of indoctrination that will give you one side of the story: the idea that mental processes are purely the products of brains, and cannot occur once a brain is dead. There will certainly not be a point in your training where your program director will say, “Very well, to give you an evenhanded education, you will now spend the next six months talking to psychics, those who had near-death experiences, and mediums who claim to be able to contact the dead through seances.” (Graduate schools may have courses on the thinking of those opposed to the viewpoints taught by the graduate schools, but such courses are normally taught by teachers hostile to such thinking, and simply amount to an attempt to immunize the student against such thinking.)

How would it be if juries had such experiences? We might imagine a jury that would hear only the prosecuting attorney's case, without ever hearing the defense attorney's case (or a jury which heard only the defense attorney's case, without ever hearing the prosecuting attorney's case).

Reason # 3: Juries Are Not Socially Pressured to Have Particular Opinions While They Are Being Exposed to the Evidence

If you are a juror, you are not socially pressured to have a particular opinion until you get into the jury room to reach your verdict. Jurors are silent while a trial is proceeding, and jurors are instructed not to talk about a case during a trial, until the final jury discussion after the evidence has been presented. So there is no peer pressure for you to think in a particular way until the very end of the process, nor is there any authority figure asking you about whether you have conformed to the expected thinking.

But it is a very different situation for the student training in a scientific graduate program. The student will be constantly asked to take tests and write essays, and he may be graded partially according to whether he accepts whatever ideology he is being taught. For example, someone training to be a neuroscientist may be asked to explain how memory works, and he may be graded by how well he parrots prevailing theories, and may be graded poorly if he suggests such theories are unbelievable. Having made a huge investment in tuition, the student is almost forced to “deliver his verdict” on the truth of what he is being taught before his training has finished; or he may risk flunking his courses and losing his huge tuition investment.

Reason # 4: Juries Have No Financial Interest in Reaching a Particular Verdict

If you are a juror and get into the jury room, you will have no vested interest or financial interest in reaching a particular verdict. You can then reach an opinion solely on the facts, knowing that it will make no difference to your financial health.

But we may contrast this with the person who has just graduated from a university graduate school. His financial health will now depend on conforming to whatever ideology was taught at his graduate school. If he speaks as if he accepted the prevailing ideas in his little science community, he will have a decent chance of getting research grants, and might even be appointed to be a professor (a decision that will be made by professors who have embraced the ideology of his scientific community). But imagine if this person announces a contrarian verdict. Imagine if he states that he disagrees with the conclusions of his scientific community. Such a person will have placed himself “out on a limb,” and his position will be financially precarious. He will have a hard time getting scientific journals to publish his scientific papers, since peer reviewers often exclude papers suggesting results contrary to the ideological taboos and norms of a scientific community. Lacking much of a publication record, and out of sync with the thought of those who decide whether he should be appointed as a professor, he won't be able to get appointed as a professor.

So many of our newly minted PhD's are like bribed jurors. They have a strong financial incentive to reach particular conclusions. If something similar were to go on with juries, we might imagine a situation like this. Near the end of the trial, when you went into the jury room to reach the verdict, you would find various pitch men who would tell you that if you voted in one particular way, you would be paid $10,000.

If Being a Juror Was Like Becoming a Conformist Scientist

I can put all these observations together into a portrait of what it would be like if being a juror was like studying to become a scientist at certain types of graduate programs. Things would work like this. The only way in which you would become a juror would be if you paid a big fat fee to sit on a particular jury – something like $20,000 or $40,000. Once you got on that jury you would find yourself with other jurors who had all volunteered for the particular case you were to judge on, jurors who had all paid large sums to sit on the jury. During the trial you would only be presented with one side of the case, the case of the prosecuting district attorney. During the trial breaks, you would have authority figures come to see you and your fellow jurors. They would ask you questions to make sure that you were absorbing and accepting the government's case, and they would try to squash any skepticism you might have about that case. Once the case had been presented, you and your fellow jurors would finally find yourself in the jury room, assigned to the task of reaching the verdict. But before you started, you would talk with various people who would offer you huge bribes to vote as the prosecuting district attorney wanted you to vote. You would know that rejecting authority and thinking independently would be very financially disadvantageous.

In the description above, the giant fee required for sitting on a particular jury corresponds to the tuition price of getting a graduate degree. The situation of hearing only one side of the case corresponds to the fact that you are pretty much taught only one standpoint if you sign up to get a degree in something like Freudian psychoanalysis, string theory, evolutionary biology or neuroscience. The part about trial breaks corresponds to the fact that graduate students are constantly monitored and graded in accordance with how well they are absorbing their indoctrination without resisting it. The part about the bribes in the jury room corresponds to the fact that any newly minted PhD knows that he will flourish financially by singing from the same hymn book as the other scientists in his specialty, rather than going out on a limb and judging that such scientists have come to wrong conclusions.

We don't have such a jury system like the one described above. We have instead a totally different system designed to maximize the chance the jurors will reach impartial decisions after hearing both sides. The common person who takes part in such a system – sometimes a low-paid cleaner, driver, or cashier – does not have the prestige of a scientist. But due to the strengths of the jury system, such a person may be more likely to judge truth correctly and objectively than some person with a fancy title who may be the assembly-line end-product of the mind-molding conformist machinery of an ideological enclave.

How to Run a School That Churns Out Standardized Thought-Robots

From the sociological considerations above, we can deduce some general tips that can be used by any person wishing to create an ideological enclave that will generate graduates that all share the same ideology.

  1. Make it perfectly clear that your institution will be teaching a particular ideology (but avoid using that particular word).
  2. Charge a very hefty annual tuition, making sure that the only people who sign up for the school are people strongly predisposed to believe in whatever ideology you will be teaching.
  3. Give your students a one-sided curriculum that indoctrinates them in your ideology, with little or no exposure to alternate viewpoints.
  4. Require that your students repeatedly voice assent to your ideology as you are teaching it, by doing things such as having tests in which the correct answers are those reflecting your ideology, and written essays that will be graded poorly if they do not reflect your ideology.
  5. Flunk out students who show signs of rebelling against your ideology, or simply leave them in some “uncompleted curriculum” limbo that causes them to quit.
  6. During the months leading up to graduation, make it perfectly clear that your graduates will enjoy a lucrative career in your organization and similar organizations if they continue to voice the ideology that the school has taught, but that they will receive no financial reward at all for their huge tuition investment if they defy that ideology.

This should work like a charm, and 90% of your graduates will probably end up voicing approval for whatever strange ideology you have taught them. Sadly the description above doesn't differ very much from how certain types of scientific specialists are trained.

Postscript: My previous post The Groupthink Problem in Modern Cosmology and Physics discusses complacent conformity problems in two branches of science. In my post Improving the Conformity Factories Known as Science Graduate Schools I give some ideas on how to lessen some of the "rubberstamp thinking" problems mentioned in this post. Besides the ideas discussed in that post, I can think of an additional way to reduce the problem: fund scholarship programs that offer "take it or leave it" full-tuition scholarships to randomly selected college seniors, offering to pay the entire cast of graduate education in one particular scientific area, without any option to change the field of study.  For example, a randomly selected English major might suddenly receive an offer to pay the full cost of becoming a PhD in neuroscience, with no option to change to some other PhD program. With such a program, you would have a higher percentage of graduate school beginners who were not predisposed to accept the ideology of a particular graduate program.  An additional idea is to set up a large prize fund consisting of many individual financial awards to be awarded only to scientists who publish results that contradict prevailing assumptions in their field.  A good name for such a fund would be: the "Shock to the System" awards.