Some key areas of “group think” among scientists

By Joern Fischer

Researchers operate within networks, and people within those networks tend to share certain worldviews. None of us are free of this — different researchers see the world through different analytical lenses, which one might also call “paradigms”. My sense is that we’d get a lot further in terms of insight if relatively less research energy was put into developing sophistication within paradigms, instead focusing on the differences between paradigms and ways to learn from multiple paradigms. One might also call this “epistemological pluralism“, or less technically, it would be nice if scientists were a little more open-minded.

This phenomenon of “group think” amongst different sets of research groups is something I have found fascinating for a long time, and I think it exists in various topic areas. I list some of those areas here where “group think” appears quite strong, and potentially this causes some problems. These topic areas are in no particular order — so I’m not claiming that all are equally “guilty” of group think, nor that the ones near the top are somehow more guilty than those near the bottom.

Resilience thinking. Researchers working on resilience tend to have a specific toolbox of concepts that they like to apply to all problems. For example, they might see thresholds in all kinds of phenomena, or adaptive cycles. These are, of course, useful concepts, but there are instances where the threshold concept is perhaps neither the most useful, nor the most important concept for a particular kind of problem — the same is true for the adaptive cycle.

Ecosystem services. In an effort to more effectively “sell” the value of nature, ecosystem services researchers have often conveniently ignored the dis-benefits provided by nature. The rhetoric, for example, is that ecosystem services are especially important for the poor. But in some poor communities, people complain about disservices, such as wild animals raiding crops or threatening human life.

Though shalt incentivise. Many ecologists like to say that better incentives (typically meaning financial payments) are needed for farmers or other actors to conserve nature. This idea of “incentivising” people, however, tends to embody quite a narrow construct of people as Homo economicus, caring above all about financial and material gains. This is often not the case — other governance mechanisms exist, related to things like the flow of information, or even articulation of shared values; but such “softer” approaches are often ignored.

We must be evidence-based. There is a strong rhetoric in some parts of the conservation community that our actions must be evidence-based. While this is fine in principle — the alternative is that everything we do ought to be haphazard — it is a very empirical (not conceptual) view of the world, which sheds light on phenomena for which evidence is readily gathered while glossing over other areas. That is, certain epistemological biases are very likely embodied in writing that emphasises the need to strengthen the “evidence base” .

Food demand will double, and we must meet it. This is one of my favourite ones. It is virtually unquestioned among ecologists that demand for agricultural products will double, and that we must meet this demand. The question as to why we must, or who is going to benefit from this, is typically left for others to answer. After all, there’s nothing to be argued about: we must double it! At face value, this is no more or less obvious than saying “we must stop eating meat”, or “we must no longer drive cars”. It’s essentially an assumption that, given a desired outcome, a certain action is required. The desired outcome here is that all demand must always be met. That’s something on can assume or take as a starting point for analyses, but it is no a self-evident truth.

We must solve problems by “going local”. If only things were local! We could all happily live re-united with nature ever after. This worldview has some serious limitations in that it ignores connections via large distances — tele-connections — which are built into the Earth System (e.g. the carbon cycle), and into many of our modern economic and social systems. So … local will only be a part of the solution.

I’m sure there are many other examples. But the interesting point is that, within each of these communities, the main focus typically remains fully unquestioned. Such group-think, in turn, means we miss out on a lot of opportunities for learning.

 

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21 thoughts on “Some key areas of “group think” among scientists

  1. Hi Joern,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your points here, and the need to highlight the dangers of “group think”. We may better call it “group sleep” in some instances as participants (which certainly includes us all in a number of guises) are unaware, perhaps blissfully, that they are following the crowd. And sleepwalking towards conformist science. Thomas Kuhn spoke directly to this with his theory on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) where he posited that there are long periods of stasis punctated by occaisional paradigm shifts when key individuals think outside the box.

    There is, of course, lots of good work out there seeking to deliver your epistemological pluralism. Students at SRC who recently visited the STEPS center at the university of Sussex wrote a very thoughtful piece on bridging “resilience thinking” and the “pathways approach” (developed by STEPS). See http://steps-centre.org/wp-content/uploads/Resilience-and-Pathways.pdf.

    I think a very fine way for us to help each other in avoiding falling, or sleepwalking, into this epistemological monocultures, is to have a vibrant exchange program of researchers and students between labs that think very differently. I have found it to be a sometimes alarming, but always fruitful and enjoyable thing to do.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post and keep up the thinking! J

    Toby

  2. Hi Joern thanks for your post. Certainly the academic community is not free of ‘stakehoderization’: we are intellectually well stakeholderized. I see in this opportunity to learn: with their focus (not to say blindness:D) they help integrative brains (like you) to build conceptual models which maybe are more realistic if we have these groups than without them. I also like to approach this from evolutionary perspective: academic thinking is diversifying as more brains are engaged in it.

  3. Hi Joern,
    I largely agree, but I think some care has to be take to seperate “group think” from “useful concept framing”. For example, the general lack of discusion of ecosystem “dis-services” is not to my mind group think, but rather a result of the logical framing of the ecosystem services concept. i.e. pests eating a crop is not a dis-service, rather the pests eating the crop are a process that influences the bundle of goods that can be appropriated from an ecosystem. The idea of a dis-service is just not very useful. Firstly because it is often not directly related to the object of value (e.g. food in your example). Secondly it is conceptually problematic, for example, is an ecosystem that “provides” inadequate food or carbon storage “providing a dis-service?

    My point is that the ecosystem services concept does not (at least in your example) represent group think because it does not preclude the posibility of thinking about pests through the concptual framing. Group think is when the concept framing resticts possible solutions (Esther Turnhout discusses ecostystem services in this context in sopme of her recent papers, including one in Conservation Letters lat year that I and Jan responded to).

    The current dominant sustainable intensifcation debate is to my mind a bit more “group thinky” as the framing constrains potential solutions to the problem… Doubleplusungood as we used to say in 1984.

    • Hi Joern,
      I just came across your blog recently and have greatly enjoyed the posts here including this one :). Also I think that Dave’s point that as “concept framing” all of these you noted have value. The trouble is that they easily lead to group think and eventually to where your idea is the hammer and every problem out there is a nail. E.g. resilience theory can explain everything from ecology to history or all sustainability problems can be solved by “going local.” To me this demonstrates the central importance of multi-disciplinaryity to counteract this tendency in sustainability. This means going beyond working with other specialists on a project but actually teaching, researching, learning and thinking in different areas rather than just becoming the ultimate guru in ecosystem services or some such narrow concept.

  4. Hi Joern thanks for your post. Certainly the academic community is not free of ‘stakehoderization’: we are intellectually well stakeholderized. I see in this opportunity to learn: with their focus (not to say blindness:D) they help integrative brains (like you) to build conceptual models which maybe are more realistic if we have these groups than without them. I also like to approach this from evolutionary perspective: academic thinking is diversifying as more brains are engaged in it.

  5. Reblogged this on The Sceptical Economist and commented:
    Great, insightful post by Björn Fischer, again. In my work I encounter most of the “group think” phenomena mentioned here, and I can only confirm that they do exist and that they constitute serious problems in the area of sustainability research.

      • Hi there — no worries; both spellings are “correct”. In German, it’s with the Umlaut and no e; but the international spelling is in fact with “oe”. That is what Germans used to do on typewriters, for example, ages ago, before they had an Umlaut! So, in an international context, I spell myself “Joern” because otherwise it leads to misspellings…. there you go!

  6. Hi Dave,
    I think Joern is right in including disservices in his list. As you point out, this “omission” is not insurmountable and disservices can be easily included if deemed necessary/useful. However, they are not being included. From my perspective, me being an economist, this is highly problematic, as it creates the impression that ecosystems do us only good. Which is wrong. They are the source of pests, pathogens, diseases etc. (recently, I read about an interesting example of why higher species diversity in lakes might be of negative value for humans, too–it might increase the length of food chains, thus leading to higher concentrations of mercury in top predators, which are the fish we prefer to eat). So, e.g., when an ecosystem is to be valued economically (I put aside for the moment the issue of whether this is generally a good idea;-), concentrating solely on the services it provides, without paying attention to potential disservices, we create a very one-sided story. And give ammunition to those who don’t want that ecosystem to be preserved.

    • I agree that both welfare decreases and increases should be considered in an ecosystem service framework and that the assumption that more diversity is always good is not tenable.

      However, in part the crucial question is about what is to be valued, in your example the final services is stil food and, economically, it is this final service that should be valued (as this is the instrumentally valued service where the utility and preferences ultimately lie). The length of the food chain can be considered as a factor of production, but to it value it seperately leads to double counting and any number of other technical and conceptual issues. Moreover, it seems to me that the notion of dis-services reinforces the misaprehension (in my opinion) that ecosystems are something humans passively receive from ecosystems when in practice ecosystems services are the result of human capital applied to appropriate flows of services from particular ecosystem structures and processes.

      From a welfare economics perspective I can’t see the need for the notion of dis-services, but perhaps I am still missing something.

      • I must agree with the food point. You are right that the distinction between benefits, services and functions (or however we call the steps of the cascade) should be kept in mind. However, I doubt whether your argument applies for non-provisioning ecosystem services… And what about, say, malaria-parasites transmitting mosquitoes? This is, in a way, a “final” disservice, isn’t it? (I am not sure myself)

        in practice ecosystems services are the result of human capital applied to appropriate flows of services from particular ecosystem structures and processes.

        This is the view, if I understand you correctly, of Boyd and Banzhaf, which I do not fully agree with. Again, this might be true for most provisioning services; when it comes, however, to the other service categories, there is no need for active human “participation”–passive reception is more common here, I think. I am not sure what this means for our notion of disservices, but this might be due to my tiredness;-)

      • Hi Bartosz,

        I guess there is a limit to the nesting so my reply is to your comments below. Regarding passive reception of ecosystems services I cannot think of any examples of “final” services that do not require some activity from humans in order for appropriation to occur, even carbon sequestration requires we emit lots of GHG gases before this becomes a service.

        The Malaria question is an interesting one, and one Joern has also raised, and I guess that can be considered a passively received dis-service, but if you are actively intervening into an ecosystem to reduce malaria then you are attemting to co-produce a pest control “service”.

        I fully admit that I might be wrong here, but to try and drag this back to the point of the article, my point it is that not using a dis-services framing does not necessarily result from, or lead to, “group think” in the way as the current problem framing of the sustainable intensification debate does.

      • my point it is that not using a dis-services framing does not necessarily result from, or lead to, “group think” in the way as the current problem framing of the sustainable intensification debate does.

        I agree.

        The passive-active issue seems to me to be mainly based on the interpretation of terms, less on truly “analytic” disagreement, so I think it is not a point worth further discussion. I would still maintain, however, that if you interpret ecosystem services as contributions to human well-being/welfare (I choose the word “contributions”, as it potentially allows for both negative and positive effects, while benefits is clearly skewed to the positive), it should be kept in mind that particular ecosystems might influence our well-being negatively. The interpretation depends partly on the scale you consider: if you want to assess the value (economically or not) of, say, a forest ecosystem, you should include the disservice of it being the home of pests that damage some crops nearby. If you would analyse the system on a higher scale, including the agricultural sub-system, than this disservice would indeed “cancel out”–so, e.g., for accounting purposes it wouldn’t be relevant. But we use the ecosystem services concept often to show the value/importance of specific systems, and there disservices might be relevant. Furthermore, I still think that the malaria case is relevant at all scales.

        P.S. I wonder where this comment will appear in the tree when I click the “Post” button…

  7. True, very well written reflection about mental models. But I want to add something about it relating this comment to another comment on a blog a friend sent me recently 😉 (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/mariakonnikova/2014/05/why-do-people-persist-in-believing-things-that-just-arent-true.html).
    People will not change their opinion about something if this change risk to undermine their constructed identity about themselves- e.g. a sexist person will hardly accept that the person in the world with higher IQ is a woman, if he/she have read before that was a man (even if finally the source recognized their mistake). But they are more likely to change it if, in the moment that the mistake is communicated to him/her, this person remembered a moment on his life where he felt really happy.
    In short, what I got from it is that the way we communicate is what is important, not the words themselves, but how we make feel people when we throw up our meaningless words. And I would tend to think (I don’t know because I am not yet in this world), that researchers in different “paradigms” may construct their own identity as a researcher around these concepts.
    So then, coming back to the topic of how researchers would become more “open-minded”, I agree that it is a fact of communication and a “group thinking” phenomena, but also I think is not just a matter of exchanging information with words, but also listening others, really understanding their points of view and consequently, making people feel good. In brief, I also think that also the individual attitudes matter, and not only the group dynamics.

    Thank u again for your comment 😉

    • Thanks Marta, for the comment — I agree, intuitively — it’s certainly about people feeling safe and good in certain worlds; and it always being a challenge to expose oneself to a less friendly, strange world. For insight to emerge (and science to mature), however, this kind of “stepping into the uncomfortable” is precisely what is needed. I think you’re right that a culture of “friendly” communication would make this much easier — which science is often lacking. J.

    • Hola Marta thanks for this I like your comment because it touches some deeper level ‘forces’ which shapes our way we think about the world, our identities and our ability to move out from the confort zones our knowledge (and the societal rewards) give us. My personal experience also shows that you may be right (tru not always but in the majority of the cases).

  8. Nice blog Joern, I agree with all of your examples. The resilience one is particularly interesting to me, as I think the dominant conceptualization is too dominant. There are multiple ways of thinking about resilience, including the simple and intuitive original concepts (i.e. resistance and ‘engineering’ resilience). They might not have the academic appeal of thresholds, hysteresis, multiple stable states etc. but they’re tractable, quantifiable, and easy to communicate. Despite these strengths, research using those concepts are rare, and I think that’s in part due to the dominance of resilience thinking.

    • Interesting! Thanks Dale. I’m actually — for the most part — a fan of resilience thinking, but as with all areas, I think it’s not area of thought that holds all answers (or whose concepts can be applied equally usefully in all situations). So, I guess you are right in general terms that whenever one worldview shades out others completely, we miss out on useful insights otherwise possible.

  9. Great article, many thanks for that! According to a nice paper in PLOS there is a strong bias inferred into research, and large herds homing in on one topic does not make it better: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020124 . We all chase for significances, and negative results remain often unpublished. Furthermore, fresh views are becoming more rare, and I agree that they are often actively condemned by the community. I add this as a short token of support and applaud to your nice blog entry!

  10. Pingback: SustainabLINKS July 21, 2014 | Achieving Sustinability

  11. Pingback: Ecosystem Disservices Revisited | The Sceptical Economist

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