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Nicholas Wade, one of the better scientific contrarian journalists, has written about why Jared Diamond’s blockbuster Guns, Germs and Steel is misleading as well as why cats are, without question, utterly useless. (That last topic garnered thousands of emails in passionate protest. Many cat lovers, myself included, are convinced that felines are angelic energies embodied in a four legged form.)

So Wade’s recent piece in the New York Times about conformist thinking—focusing primarily in the sciences—is in keeping with his primary theme.

Here’s a sampling:

“Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.”

So says Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart, in a retirement interview with Constance Holden in the journal Science.

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There’s a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss’s shoes, and to win the group’s approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

Ah, herd values. I referenced a memorable passage about Nietzsche on this topic in an earlier post which seems particularly relevant here:

Jan Sokol:

Nietzsche occasionally calls even himself a nihilist, but for an entirely different reason: everybody has a mouth full of values, but in reality they all behave like cattle, like a well-fed “herd”. What they call “values” are only wooden idols which overthrow themselves. People do not seek any “values”; rather they follow the others like the herd. It is also true today that only what is rare, difficult, risky and demanding has value, and we all avoid these things. We prefer to wait for how things turn out.

Conformity in the arts can be harder to detect. When the “norm” in a field is to outrage, overstate and shock, detecting the power of the herd mentality may be less obvious than it would be when a lone economist’s warning about a pending housing collapse is ignored. But trends and fads in thinking are prevalent everywhere and the arts are no different. Wade’s points of view sometimes irritate the hell out of me, but I’m so glad he’s a reliable other voice. He’s that curmudgeon you don’t want to invite to your party, but he nails it time and time again.

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