The Root Cause of Academic Groupthink

The shroud is coming off elite academia and America is not pleased with what it’s seeing. Its leaders have told us that genocidal antisemitism is too complex to recognize and that plagiarism is a problem for students, perhaps for junior faculty, but not for the president of Harvard. DEI policies elevated demographic considerations far above merit at our most prestigious institutions.

How did this happen? What can be done to fix it?

Those are tough questions. Major institutions don’t become corrupt overnight. The process is long, slow, and methodical. The solutions go far beyond the removal of a few high-profile officials. In academia, the egregious examples that gain sudden visibility are merely manifestations of a corrupt core.

That corrupt core stems from the inherent difficulty of assessing the quality of knowledge work. Suppose that there are multiple competing theories to explain some phenomenon—freakish weather, persistent crime, disparate outcomes, reactions to a vaccine, the variance of election results from poll predictions, etc. How can anyone know which theory to believe?

Most people turn to one of two heuristics. The first is personal, and few people like to admit it openly: They accept whichever theory comes closest to what they’d like to believe. The second is societal, and most people who advocate it do so with pride: They ask the experts.

Academic institutions—built by experts and for experts—have enshrined this second approach, using mechanisms that sound unassailable, like “peer review” and “faculty governance.” Success in academia flows to those who most impress the key decision-makers. Many students encountered this phenomenon in classes known for handing the highest grades to those best adept at parroting the professor’s views.

What few students appreciate is how powerful that approach remains throughout the academic hierarchy. Graduate students seeking faculty positions maximize their chances by embracing and building upon the work of their faculty interviewers. Assistant professors are most likely to gain tenure and promotion if they anchor their work to that of their senior colleagues. Authors seeking publication in prestigious journals cite the previous publications of the editors and reviewers. The same is true for those seeking research grants.

In other words, the safest, surest, most common path to success in academia involves telling those already designated experts precisely what they most want to hear: That their own work had been so groundbreaking that the most interesting and exciting path forward is to build upon it.

Suppose you’re part of the senior faculty of a department committed to the phlogiston theory (i.e., debunked 18th c. chemistry). Two candidates compete for a junior slot. The first presents a marginal tweak on phlogiston citing your own work and that of several colleagues. The second presents groundbreaking proof that phlogiston is wrong.

Who gets the job? The candidate whose work flatters you and your colleague? Or the candidate who’s shown that you’ve dedicated your career to nonsense? Now ask the question about climate change instead of phlogiston. Then ask it about DEI. The answer is always the same. Experts who’ve staked their careers and prestige on the validity of a theory will always hire, promote, and reward those who burnish that theory.

The net result is a reinforcement of orthodox thinking and a field committed to moving further along whatever path it was already taking. I’ve termed this phenomenon “incremental outrageousness.” It defines the basic incentive structure of academia—and of our entire credentialed class.

Decades ago, when WASP men (to use the acronym of the time) held almost all positions of influence, it was hard to argue with the proposition that casting a far broader net might yield superior candidates. Once our institutions had committed to moving in that direction, however, autopilot took over. The edict was clear: Whatever you may have done vis-à-vis hiring and promotion last year, increase the consideration given to minority candidates.

That instruction did two things: It entrenched a bureaucracy charged with moving incrementally forward in the same direction and it guaranteed that we could never reach an appropriate balance. It thus elevates an idiosyncratic view of cosmic justice over the challenge of placing the best qualified people in jobs. That’s incremental outrageousness in action. It’s a necessary consequence of a system whose sole determinant of quality is the collective opinion of those who’ve already navigated that system most successfully.

America is chafing beneath the leadership of an expert class motivated to elevate the experts who flatter the egos of the expert class. That’s hardly a prescription for good governance. It does, however, explain fully what Americans are learning about our most prestigious academic institutions: The only way to make sense of their performance is to understand that their sole motivation is the promotion of their own grandeur.

Removing a few poorly chosen, underperforming college Presidents is a start. Dismantling a bureaucracy that is committed to engaging in current discrimination to remedy past discrimination would help also. But the only way to truly fix the problem is to alter the incentives.

We need to broaden the base of decision-makers: Bring back those who’ve been cast to the periphery of their fields for challenging the orthodoxy. Include those too productive to worry about credentials. Embrace those who’ve retained their common sense rather than chasing the next incremental outrage. Meritocracy can never be better than those who define merit. Never confuse the finest contributions to orthodox thinking with the finest contributions to society—or science.

Unless we do that, today’s elite consensus will always point academics in a direction that, given time, leads to some form of groupthink that is just as damaging—and just as divorced from reality—as that we find in our institutions today.

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.

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