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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Friday, May 30, 2014

The Groupthink Problem in Modern Cosmology and Physics

Two months ago in March 2014 the BICEP2 study was released, and almost all cosmologists seemed to hail it as compelling evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation (the theory that the universe underwent exponential expansion in its first second, not to be confused with the more general theory of the Big Bang). Even after a scientific paper was published in April casting grave doubt on the conclusions, cosmologists continued to assert that the BICEP2 study had provided strong evidence for gravitational waves produced by cosmic inflation. There seemed to be only a handful of skeptical voices about this matter back in March and April, including this blog (here and here), and the blogs of a few scientists (such as here).

But in May 2014 the situation finally changed, after the devastating presentation of Raphael Flauger at Princeton (and the rumors that arose from it). A flood of skeptical stories began to appear in the press. Doubts about the BICEP2 study now seem to be spreading dramatically. The scientific journal Nature just published an article citing two new scientific papers (including this one) indicating that the BICEP2 observations can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing (nothing special), rather than anything from cosmic inflation or the Big Bang. The journal quotes a scientist saying, “There’s no evidence for the detection of gravitational waves. It’s consistent with dust. “

Why did almost the entire community of cosmologists seem to throw themselves for at least a month behind a conclusion that is now regarded as being extremely doubtful? Why did cosmologists speak again and again as if a “smoking gun” of cosmic inflation had been discovered, when no firm evidence had been found, and there were from the beginning plenty of reasons for being skeptical? To understand this embarrassment, we have to take a candid look at groupthink problems in modern cosmology.

Anyone who has taken a sociology course may remember the phenomenon. Groupthink is the tendency of a relatively small group to produce unwarranted decisions, largely because of sociological reasons pertaining to conformity. Groupthink can occur when a person belongs to a small group that regards itself very highly, and when fitting in with that group is regarded as extremely important. Groupthink can occur when few or no people in the group challenge the decision of the group, because each person wants to fit in with the group, and no one wants to be regarded as an outsider who is challenging the group.

To visualize groupthink, imagine a buffalo herd all traveling in the same direction, partially because no buffalo wants to view himself traveling in one direction when the rest of the herd is traveling in a different direction. Such an image gives you a feeling of what goes on in groupthink.


A classic example of groupthink occurred when the United States decided to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that occurred in 1961. Everyone who advised President Kennedy on the matter agreed that supporting the invasion was a good idea. But the invasion was a disastrous failure that created tensions leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis that put the world on the brink of nuclear war. President Kennedy later complained, “The advice of every member that was brought into advise was unanimous – and the advice was wrong!”

But is there reason for thinking that the groupthink problem occurs among modern cosmologists? Exactly such a claim has been made by Martin Lopez-Corredoira in his paper “Non-Standard Models and the Sociology of Modern Cosmology.” Although this paper may go a bit too far in a skeptical direction, this is a paper with some perceptive observations, and it should be required reading for every cosmologist.

Lopez-Corredoira describes a severe groupthink problem in modern cosmology. He illustrates his thesis with the following quotation from the late cosmologist G. R. Burbidge:

We all know that new ideas and revolutions in science in general come from
the younger generation, who look critically at the contemporary
schemes, and having absorbed the new evidence, overthrow the
old views. This, in general, is the way that science advances.
However, in modern astronomy and cosmology, at present, this is
emphatically not the case. Over the last decade or more, the vast
majority of the younger astronomers have been conformists in
the extreme, passionately believing what their leaders have told
them, particularly in cosmology. In the modern era the reasons
for this are even stronger than they were in the past. To obtain an
academic position, to obtain tenure, to be successful in obtaining
research funds, and to obtain observing time on major telescopes,
it is necessary to conform.

Lopez-Corredoira describes what he calls a snowball effect. When a particular theory is created, it is rather like a small snowball descending from the top of a mountain. The theory may die away like a snowball that hits a rock, or the theory may be like a snowball rolling down the mountain, getting bigger and bigger as it accumulates more snow. But the snow being added to the snowball as it rolls down the mountain need not be evidence for the theory – it may be simply the accumulated financial and intellectual investment that has been made in that theory. Every time a new scientific paper is written based on that theory, it's more snow on the rolling snowball. Every time an expensive new scientific instrument is built to look for evidence for a theory, the snowball gets a lot more snow. Every time a big conference is called to discuss the theory, it's more snow on the snowball. Eventually it may get to the point where the theory is almost unchallenged, not because there is good evidence for it, but because no one wants to be the person standing at the bottom of the mountain with his hand out to stop the giant rolling snowball.

snowball effect
 A theory benefiting from the Snowball Effect

To understand some of the psychological and sociological factors that may influence the thinking of a modern cosmologist, imagine yourself as a cosmologist who recently entered the field. You have worked long and hard to gain acceptance into this small group of scientists, which enjoys great prestige. You want very much to be accepted by this elite little group. You know that your colleagues have invested many years in writing many hundreds of scientific papers relating to the theory of cosmic inflation. You know that scientists have chewed up more than $365 million dollars in taxpayer money in an attempt to look for evidence of cosmic inflation with projects such as LIGO. What you want most is acceptance in your peer group, and you know that group favors this theory of cosmic inflation. Are you going to be the one who says, “There's no real evidence for this theory – let's move on to something else?” Or, are you going to conform to the group's accepted wisdom, which will make it more likely for you to get research dollars and your next job or assignment?

Faced with such a choice, groupthink sets in, and you will probably “get with the program.” You will probably “tow the line,” and run in the same direction the herd is running in.

Groupthink seems to occur not just in modern cosmology, but in physics as well. String theory has dominated theoretical physics during the past several decades, despite a lack of any evidence to support it. In his excellent book The Trouble With Physics, physicist Lee Smolin suggests that groupthink and sociological factors may help explain the mysterious popularity of this theory. Groupthink may also explain why a theory such as supersymmetry continues to be defended by many scientists, despite taking bullets from observational tests that conflict with it, and despite a lack of evidence to support it.

Understanding this groupthink problem, we can better understand what went wrong with how scientists reacted to the BICEP2 study. A group of very qualified physicists had a press conference, and their press release announced the “first direct evidence” of cosmic inflation. A few opinion makers in the scientific community gave their thumbs up. It seemed clear in which direction the buffalo herd was going to run in this matter (even though there were lots of reasons for being skeptical, including the fact that the BICEP2 study seemed at odds with results from the Planck space telescope). So with a very few exceptions the rest of the cosmologists fell into line, with almost no dissent for more than a month. It was a temporary triumph of groupthink. But thanks to Raphael Flauger and a few others, who have shown that the BICEP2 signals can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing, many scientists seem to be realizing they jumped on this bandwagon too hastily.

If the current trend persists, and it turns out (as I strongly argued the day after the BICEP2 study was released) that the grandiose “evidence for cosmic inflation” conclusions of the BICEP2 study do not hold up, then cosmologists need to take a good hard look at that great big rolling snowball, the theory of cosmic inflation, A cosmologist should ask himself – am I supporting this theory because there is any compelling evidence for it, or am I just running with the buffalo herd?

I have a serious proposal to fight the groupthink syndrome in modern science. In addition to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on studies designed to verify or support the prevailing scientific theories, ten million dollars in taxpayer dollars should be reserved for annual prizes that we might call the Rebel Awards. These prizes should only be given to scientists who advance a new theory or discredit an existing theory, in a way that defies conventional scientific thinking and upsets the generally accepted opinion of other scientists in the same field. Each award should have a matching research grant, to be used by the winner for any serious research project that he chooses. This would help correct today's situation, where it seems that 100% of the financial incentive is for scientists to conform and “tow the line.”