Not the Same Study Section: How the Truth Comes Out

In the latest Vanity Fair is a brilliant piece of journalism, Goodbye to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House by Cullen Murphy and Todd Purdum. In a fun, easy-to-read format, it tells some basic truths I had never read before. Here are two examples:

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: When Abu Ghraib happened, I was like, We’ve got to fire Rumsfeld. Like if we’re the “accountability president,” we haven’t really done this. We don’t veto any bills. We don’t fire anybody. I was like, Well, this is a disaster, and we’re going to hold some National Guard colonel responsible? This guy’s got to get fired.

For an M.B.A. president, he got the M.B.A. 101 stuff down, which is, you know, you don’t have to do everything. Let other people do it. But M.B.A. 201 is: Hold people accountable.

David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: There’s this idea that the Bush White House was dominated by religious conservatives and catered to the needs of religious conservatives. But what people miss is that religious conservatives and the Republican Party have always had a very uneasy relationship. The reality in the White House is if you look at the most senior staff you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders. Now, at the end of the day, that’s easy to understand, because most of the people who are religious-right leaders are not easy to like. It’s that old Gandhi thing, right? I might actually be a Christian myself, except for the action of Christians.

And so in the political-affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at everyone from Rich Cizik, who is one of the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, to James Dobson, to basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.

This is related to the Shangri-La Diet. In these two excerpts, the speakers were (a) close to the events they describe but (b) not so close they are in any danger from the people they tell the truth about.

In science the same thing happens. Saul Sternberg and I could tell the truth about Ranjit Chandra’s research not only because (a) we were fairly close to that research (which involved psychology, even though Chandra was a nutritionist) but also because (b) not being nutrition professors, Chandra couldn’t harm us. Those closer to Chandra, professional nutritionists, had plenty of doubts as far as I could tell but were afraid to say them. Hal Pashler and I could criticize a widely-accepted practice among cognitive modelers because (a) we were in the same general field, cognitive psychology, but (b) far enough away so that the people we criticized would never review our grants or our papers. (Except the critique itself, which they hated. After the first round of reviews, Hal and I requested new reviewers, saying it was inevitable that the people we criticized wouldn’t like what we said.) Likewise, in the case of voodoo correlations, Hal is (a) close enough to social neuroscience to understand the details of the research but (b) far enough away to criticize it without fear.

In the case of the Shangri-La Diet, I was (a) close enough to the field of nutrition that I could understand the research but (b) far enough away so that I could say what I thought without fear of reprisal. Nassim Taleb is in the same relation to the field he criticizes. Just as Saul Sternberg and I knew a lot about the outcome measure (psychological tests) but were not nutritionists, Weston Price, a dentist, knew a lot about his outcome measure (dental health) but was not a nutritionist.

It’s curious how rarely this need for insider/outsiders (inside in terms of knowledge, outside in terms of career) is pointed out. It’s a big part of how science progresses, in small ways and large. Mendel and Darwin were well-educated amateurs, for example. Thorstein Veblen wrote about it but I haven’t read it anywhere else.

10 Responses to “Not the Same Study Section: How the Truth Comes Out”

  1. Tom Says:

    Brilliant, brilliant post, Seth. The elephant in the room.

    Fantastic.

  2. Nadav Manham Says:

    I’ve always been struck at how many of the world’s great skeptics and iconoclasts were either aristocrats (Montaigne, Russell), deliberately thrifty (Hume), or did their best work while earning a “normal” living (Einstein in the patent office, Spinoza as a lens grinder). In each case, their economic independence seems to have helped their intellectual independence.

  3. DA Says:

    Jane Jacobs embodied this insider/outsider status. One could argue that Obama is an insider/outsider, too, though only time will tell how that influences his presidency.

  4. mike kenny Says:

    nietzsche too, left university and wrote from the outside. wittgenstein wrote his tractatus while a soldier in world war i, iirc.

    should we get rid of peer-reviewed journals? put your stuff up on the web and let people criticize it that way, publicly. it seems a more rapid and multi-perspectival approach. not to discount experts–they can say whatever they would say as referees.

    does blogging damage journals since academics seem to be putting their ideas on the web anyway? ‘oh, i read your paper, but you pretty much said everything on the web before hand.’

  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) Says:

    I think you’ve hit something very profound with this post.

  6. Duncan Says:

    ‘This kind of critical review paper, emphasisizing the key unsolved problems, is common in quantum gravity, cosmology, and, I suspect, most other fields of science. Because this was not being done by any of the leaders of string theory, it was left to someone like me, as a quasi “insider” who had the technical knowledge but not the sociological commitment [bold mine], to take on that responsibility. And I had done so because of my own interest in string theory, which I was working on almost exclusively at the time. Nevertheless, some string theorists regarded this as a hostile act.’
    — Lee Smolin, from the How Do You Fight Sociology? chapter of his recent book The Trouble With Physics.

  7. Alexis Gallagher Says:

    I agree this the idea of an insider/outsider is very powerful. Why is it not better appreciated?

    At least one reason is that there’s no good word for it. The closest word is probably “whistleblower”, but that is crucially different in its focus on ingroup malfeasance rather than groupthink or peer pressure. (I’d say much journalism on groups shares this misplaced focus, looking for conspiracies rather than folly.)

    “Insider/outsider” is pretty good coinage. But can we do better?

  8. Alexis Gallagher Says:

    I thought you would be interested to note that the March25th article on Freeman Dyson in the NY Times magazine refers to him as an “outsider-insider”, with exactly the sense used here.

    The meme is spreading!

    (Or the coincidence is.)

  9. seth Says:

    Thanks, Alexis! Very interesting.

  10. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » What I’m Looking Forward to Reading Says:

    [...] In September, David Owen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, will publish Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability. Or at least that’s what the print says; the picture has a different subtitle. The book expands on this New Yorker article. Owen criticizes Michael Pollan and Amory Lovins, among others. Maybe this is an example of the insider/outsider advantage I’ve blogged about. Owen is not the New Yorker’s environmental reporter; that would be Elizabeth Kolbert. So he can say anything, criticize anybody, without worrying about his ability to write more on the same subject. He can always go back to golf. Kolbert is not so free. In any case, Owen’s book sounds better — less predictable — than Kolbert’s book on a similar subject. A TV show on the subject. Owen on bridge. [...]