Christopher Booker, writing in the UK Telegraph, points to a fascinating extract from a book entitled “The Blunders of our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The extract in question refers to the work of an American psychology professor in the 1960s, Irving J. Janis, who studied the cultural phenomenon of group-think.
When reading the following paragraphs, keep in the forefront of your mind the following:
- the ABC (and its ideological twin the BBC);
- John Cook and Dana Nuccitelli of Skeptical Science;
- Stephan Lewandowsky and his psychology mates, and
- the majority of the ‘consensus’ community in climate science
and see how much of it can be applied to them.
Janis became intrigued by a sequence of unfortunate episodes in modern American history that seemed to him to display a number of common characteristics: the Roosevelt administration’s faiure in 1941 to prepare for a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the Truman administration’s rash decision in late 1950 to invade North Korea; the launching of President John F. Kennedy’s clownish Bay of Pigs expedition in 1961; and Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War during the mid-1960s. To that original list, he later added President Richard M. Nixon’s attempt to cover up his own and his henchmen’s complicity in the notorious Watergate break-in of 1972.
According to Janis, whose views are now almost universally accepted, group-think is liable to occur when the members of any face-to-face group feel under pressure to maintain the group’s cohesion or are anyway inclined to want to do that. It is also liable to occur when the group in question feels threatened by an outside group or comes, for whatever reason, to regard one or more outside individuals or groups as alien or hostile. Group-think need not always, but often does, manifest itself in pathological ways. A majority of the group’s members may become intolerant of dissenting voices within the group and find way, subtle or overt, of silencing them. Individual group members may begin to engage in self-censorship, suppressing any doubts they harbour about courses of action that the group seems intent on adopting. Latent disagreements may thus fail to surface, one result being that the members of the group come to believe they are unanimous when in reality they may not be. Meanwhile, the group is likely to become increasingly reluctant to engage with outsiders and to seek out information that might run counter to any emerging consensus. If unwelcome information does happen to come the group’s way, it is likely to be discounted or disregarded. Warning signs are ignored. The group at the same time fails to engage in rigorous reality-testing, with possible alternative courses of action not being realistically appraised.
And the following paragraph could have been written for our friend Professor Lewandowsky:
Group-think is also, in Janis’s view, liable to create “an illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks”. Not least, those indulging in group-think are liable to persuade themselves that the majority of their opponents and critics are, if not actually wicked, then at least stupid, misguided and probably self-interested.
Denial, conspiracy ideation, extreme free-market adherents – add those to the list and we’re done! It continues:
Irving Janis’s own conception of group-think is tightly bounded. It refers only to situations in which members of a face-to-face group feel, consciously or subconsciously, a need to maintain the internal cohesion of the group. It is, in that sense, a purely psychological concept. But of course the notion of group-think can be extended and used more widely to refer to a variety of situations in which there exists such widespread agreement among the members of a group about the desirability of a given course of action that no threats to the group’s internal cohesion ever arise. Because there really are no dissenters in the group, no one in the group ever expresses dissent. There are no nay-sayers. Everyone is agreed. But such situations can be just as dangerous as the ones Janis describes. The decision-making processes associated with unforced agreement may be just as defective as the ones associated with suppressed dissent.
As Booker concludes:
[Janis’s] account of “the illusion of unanimity”, and how group-thinkers regard anyone daring to question their belief-system as an “enemy” to be discredited, superbly characterises the mentality of that small group of “climate scientists” at the heart of driving the warming scare. This was never more clearly brought home than by those Climategate emails, showing how they were ready to fiddle their data to promote what they themselves called “the cause”, and to suppress the views of any scientists they saw as a threat to their illusory “consensus”. We all casually use the term “group-think”, but I had not known how comprehensively Janis explains so much that is puzzling about this world we live in.
Perhaps Cook, Lew, Nuccitelli and the rest of the “consensus” crew should take a good, long, hard look in the mirror now and again, instead of applying pseudo-psychology to their critics.