In the article on climate science that I discussed in my two previous posts, William Nordhaus writes:
I believe the opposite of what the sixteen claim to be true: dissident
voices and new theories are encouraged because they are critical to
sharpening our analysis.
I have no expertise in climate science but I have spent my life in academia. To judge by my experience, he is describing how it should work but not how it does work.
Academics have three ways of gaining income and status in their profession. One is by being hired by a university, preferably a top university, preferably with tenure. A second is by publishing articles in journals, preferably top journals. A third is by publishing original work that the rest of their profession finds convincing. What are the implications for each of being a dissident, someone who rejects the current orthodoxy in one's field?
Hiring and promotion decisions are made by the senior faculty members, who mostly subscribe to the orthodoxy—that, after all, is what it means for a view to be orthodoxy. From the standpoint of the people deciding the dissident's fate, he is someone who has rejected truth in favor of error—not a job qualification. If sufficiently able he may overcome that handicap by persuading them that he is brilliant, technically able, unusually hard working. But it will not be easy.
Much the same applies to the second route to success. The articles he submits will be reviewed by other people in his field. They too are likely to subscribe to the orthodoxy he rejects. Here again, the situation is not hopeless. If an article is sufficiently brilliant, the reviewer may conclude that it is worth publishing even if wrong. He may even be convinced that it is right. But that is not the way to bet. Most of us are more open minded in theory than in practice.
It is only with regard to the third route that being a dissident can be an advantage. Work that supports what everyone else already believes may get you hired and published, but work that offers convincing arguments against the accepted view and for an alternative attracts more attention, not all of it hostile. It may make you the leader of a new school of thought within your field. It may even win you a Nobel prize.
In order to achieve that sort of success, however, you have to get your work published. It also helps if you are offering your arguments from the pulpit provided by a tenured position at a top university. Those are conditions that the dissident may have trouble satisfying. I am not arguing that new views can never replace old—obviously they sometimes do. But the situation as I have observed it is the precise opposite of the rosy picture offered by Nordhaus.
So much for theory—what about evidence?
In an earlier post
, I offered an example of how dissident views are treated in practice, a prominent university that pushed out three different academics, two of them economists, because of their unconventional views—views for which all three later received Nobel prizes. In the case of the economists we know it was deliberate because the document saying so, written by the department chairman responsible, was carelessly passed on to a later chairman with different views.
For a second piece of evidence, I offer a story. It comes from Leo Rosten, an author who was a friend of my parents. It probably dates from sometime in the late fifties or early sixties.
One one occasion, Leo asked an MIT economist about minimum wage laws and got the conventional answer—that they reduce employment opportunities for unskilled workers by pushing up the cost of hiring them. He asked if that was the view of most economists and was told that it was. He asked why, in that case, economists did not make an effort to inform the public of the problem.
"I guess we're afraid of sounding as if we agree with Milton Friedman."
I cannot prove that the story is true, but after fifty some years in academia from freshman on it strikes me as a good deal more plausible than Professor Nordhaus' rosy view.