Groupthink in Theoretical Physics and Beyond

I recently read Lee Smolin’s excellent book, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Highly recommended for anyone interested in a sophisticated nontechnical account of the current state of physics, both theoretically and as a human discipline.

Smolin is more reflective than most scientists, which makes the book a special treat for the philosophically inclined. He’s also a devastating critic of the mainstream in theoretical physics. And he’s the best critic one can hope for, the insider who’s knowledgeable and insightful enough to lay out the problem clearly, and generous enough to suggest solutions.

One of the big troubles with physics as a discipline is that its dominant members—string theorists, at the moment—are engaged in groupthink. I had a rough idea of the phenomenon to which groupthink refers, but not until Smolin’s book had I come across a compelling account of it (not that I’d been looking).

There’s so much groupthink going on all around us, and it generates so many problems, that it is worth understanding better. Know your enemy, as they say.  So, following Smolin’s account, here is a brief primer on that narrow-minded beast called groupthink.

Let’s start with the phenomenon and the question it raises, and then hear Smolin’s answer. Generally speaking, the trouble is that his string theory friends are “as individuals, almost all more open-minded and self-critical and less dogmatic than they are en masse.” Smolin’s question, then, is “How could a community act in a way so at odds with the goodwill and good sense of its individual members?”

It turns out that sociologists have no problem recognizing this phenomenon. It afflicts communities of highly credentialed experts, who by choice or circumstance communicate only among themselves. It has been studied in the context of intelligence agencies and governmental policy-making bodies and major corporations. Because the consequences have sometimes been tragic, there is a literature describing the phenomenon, which is called groupthink.

Yale psychologist Irving Janis coined the term in the 1970s. He defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

It requires that members share a strong “we-feeling” of solidarity and a desire to maintain relationships within the group at all costs. When colleagues operate in a groupthink mode, they automatically apply the “preserve group harmony” test to every decision they face.

The term has been applied to many other examples, including the failure of NASA to prevent the Challenger disaster, the failure of the American automobile companies to foresee the demand for smaller cars, and most recently—and perhaps most calamitously—the Bush administration’s rush to war on the basis of a false belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

The Field Guide. Here’s a brief description for identifying groupthinks in their natural environment. You can tell if a “group suffers from groupthink if it:

overestimates its invulnerability or high moral stance,

collectively rationalizes the decisions it makes,

demonizes or stereotypes outgroups and their leaders,

has a culture of uniformity where individuals censor themselves and others so that the facade of group unanimity is maintained, and

contains members who take it upon themselves to protect the group leader by keeping information, theirs or other group members’, from the leader.

Groupthink has become a strong attractor for string theorists. Not only have they been dominating institutional physics for 25 years, but the highly technical nature of the work has generated an especially clubby “we-feeling” of exclusiveness and solidarity among its members. Though Smolin doesn’t discuss it in these terms, there appears to be another more insidious force contributing to groupthink among string theorists: defensiveness. For the fact is that string theorists haven’t actually come up with a bona fide theory, much less one that can be falsified. Instead, as yet they have only a name for their dream of a final theory: “M-Theory.” (The story is complicated, so read Smolin’s book if you’re interested.)

This is, or should be, an embarrassing situation for scientists to find themselves in, since what distinguishes scientific theories is that they lead to testable hypotheses. But string theory hasn’t, and many physicists think it never will. 

The irony is that a group of physicists are so at odds with the ethos of their own guild—committed as scientists are to a method that privileges experiment and investigation, self-criticism, and an open-minded but  decidedly skeptical attitude toward hypotheses that can’t be tested. Needless to say, this irony is not lost on Smolin.

I can’t resist mentioning an analogous irony found among some Buddhist sects in which certain beliefs and ritual practices that distinguish their group are reified and then claimed as essential. This is ironic because one of Buddhism’s justified points of pride is that, as in science, the substance and proof of its claims are found in direct experience. You don’t need to have faith in revelation or in a transcendent god. You can experience it for yourself. (By contrast, there’s no irony when Jews or Christians or Moslems resort to ideology, since these religions are founded on appeals to revelation and a transcendent god, neither of which is open to being confirmed or denied through direct, universally available experience.)

Groupthink takes hold more easily wherever ideology and the drive for social cohesiveness take precedence over lived experience and free reflection.

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One Response to Groupthink in Theoretical Physics and Beyond

  1. Friedwardt Winterberg, Professor of Physics says:

    A benefit of string theory groupthink is financial: Selling their non-provable mathematical speculations as physics to the gullible public and ignorant funding agencies, the money keeps flowing. To make sure that no serious criticism of their groupthink speculations is published on the Cornell University operated arXiv preprint server, the principal outlet of their speculations, any criticism is censored out by unknown arXiv “moderators” who may not even be recognized unbiased experts but PhD graduate students of string theorists. The fact remains that in spite of almost 40 years of taxpayer funded string theory research, resulting in 50 000 publications by one count, not a single prediction of this theory has been confirmed.

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