Thursday, June 7, 2007

Please leave your independent thinking at the door

I know I have mentioned this book The Wisdom of Crowds several times, but it is one of those "ah-hah moment" books for me, so I am mentioning it again today. Here's why.

The chapter I've just been reading talks about the importance of dissent when groups are making decisions, and the tendency that dissent is not voiced. People who disagree with the dominant opinion may be deterred by lack of status in the group, and that is reinforced when they do speak up but are marginalized or ignored within the group. This is unfortunate because the dissenting person may have information the rest of the group doesn't have and if they were heard the group's decision making would be enhanced.

Here's why this is resonant to me today. I have been thinking about the case of Mike Griffin, the head guy from NASA, who made the news a week or so back when he expressed doubt about how freaky we should get over global warming. Here's the quote that started it all:

"I have no doubt that ... a trend of global warming exists," Griffin said on NPR. "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with."

Mind you, he did not even deny global warming, just questioned what type of response is appropriate. And still, there was a burst of righteous indignation from the "debate is over, no room for further discussion" crowd. Now, Griffin is compelled to back pedal somewhat:
The head of NASA told scientists and engineers that he regrets airing his personal views about global warming during a recent radio interview, according to a video of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said in the closed-door meeting Monday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena that "unfortunately, this is an issue which has become far more political than technical and it would have been well for me to have stayed out of it."

Mind you he points out the politicization of the issue, and doesn't really negate what he had earlier said. Interesting. This is another clear message that everyone is now expected to toe the line. No dissenting voices need apply. March in lockstep with Commander Gore and his Compact Flourescent Raiders! Far be it for me to suggest that I have a franchise on the truth - all I am advocating for it the right to have doubt and not be shunned. Groups make better decisions when dissenting opinions are heard and considered.

Nothing makes me more nervous than the "shout them down" mentality. And particularly when it comes from people who should know better, meaning, people in the scientific community. I suppose they are saying that NASA is being paid off by Exxon?

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