Closed-mindedness, ‘groupthink’ and ‘out group’ stereotyping

Nick Cater, writing in today’s The Australian, discusses possible problems in the prevailing recommendations for nutrition. Being an economist, I don’t have a view on the merits or otherwise of his argument, however some of the paragraphs towards the end of his article are of interest to us: 

Yet Teicholz’s account of an unproven hypothesis that became enshrined as dogma before it had been properly tested is wearingly familiar: the casual confusion of correlation with causality; the cherry-picking of data; the hardening of biases and the crossing of the line between empiricism and campaigning.

The theory, once adopted by official institutions, is nearly impossible to challenge. Organic chemist David Kritchevsky tells Teicholz of his experience on a National Academy of Sciences panel 30 years ago when he suggested relaxing the guidelines on dietary fat.

“We were jumped on!” he said. “It’s hard to imagine now, the heat of the passion. It was just like we had desecrated the American flag.”

Researchers questioning the prevailing view were cut off from grants and struggled to find scientific journals that would publish their papers. The outward impressions that nutritionists were united was made possible only by pushing aside opposing views.

Sadly, this behaviour is all too familiar. We have seen it in the discussions of global warming caused by anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, and I’ve seen it – although to a lesser degree – in discussions on economic theory.

It tends to happen in fields where a hypothesis is persuasive and objectively sound, but for which the empirical evidence for that hypothesis is weak or even non-existent. In place of the missing evidence, emotion and ad hominem attacks are substituted into the arguments of defenders.

In the worst instances, those questioning the orthodox interpretation are belittled, sidelined, ridiculed, and have their credentials to comment or their sanity questioned. Hardly ever are their arguments considered seriously.

All round, a woeful tendency to which we as humans are, sadly, all too prone.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Democracy and freedom of mind, Groupthink, Nullius in verba and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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