by Matt Colborn
It's extremely hard to be a truly independent thinker in academia. Graduate training programmes tend to have an environment that 'some students find to be perfectly friendly but at the same time, is very hostile to students whose attitudes and values don't conform to the dominant ones (Schmitt, 2000. p.150).' Jeff Schmidt's observation encapsulates my own post-graduate experiences quite nicely, because my interest in psychical research flowered at the same time that I completed a mainstream postgraduate programme. As a consequence, the academic environment in which I moved morphed from one of overall benevolence to something rather different.
Schmitt suggests that one function of professional training is to narrow thought, so that by the end of such training, student's opinions will be far more uniform than they were at the beginning. Students tend to get 'guided', both passively and actively, towards orthodox views by both their tutors and their peers.
I can think of several examples from both my Masters in cognitive science and my doctorate in mainstream experimental psychology. Once our class watched a video of Kanzi the Bonobo apparently accurately comprehending some quite complex instructions from her trainer, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. It was fascinating to watch the expressions of several of my classmates take on the classical sceptical scowl, because in Psychology, any animal ability that seems close to human is 'naturally' regarded with scepticism.
Another example was when a tutor took the piss out of me for 'believing' Penrose's claims about quantum consciousness, even though I'd merely brought the subject up for discussion and had made it clear that I didn't 'believe' it. A third example was being quite aggressively scolded for questioning the information-processing paradigm by a potential Phd. supervisor. A fourth, most relevant here, was the bewilderment of a fellow student when a paper by computer pioneer Alan Turing apparently took telepathy seriously. That's self-evident nonsense, isn't it?
It's important to understand how unremitting peer pressure to accept a certain point of view can be. In the academic environment, one is constantly pushed to conform to the views of your boss and your peers. A recent example of this policing reportedly occurred at the Perrott-Warwick conference, where parapsychologists were in a minority and aggressive skepticism rather high. One world-famous philosopher of mind apparently giggled every time 'psi' was mentioned; I have personally witnessed him simply ignore a question about psychic phenomena at a lecture. Academia can sometimes resemble a schoolyard.
But in a way, skeptics do us a favour by making these often-implicit attitudes explicit, because dissenting views are often totally ignored in the mainstream. Try finding a discussion of the 'aquatic ape' theory, aberrant red shifts or apparent past-life memories in most mainstream textbooks.
The exclusion of dissenters is also part of the filtering process. Those that stay on after their doctorate often do so because they've largely absorbed the ideology of their institution and their peers. Many academics will protest that no-one tells them what to think; but this is not necessary, because they wouldn't be in their position if they did not think they way that they do. Those of us who found the restrictions intolerable are shown the door, or leave voluntarily.
I find such fierce policing not only slightly revolting, but of questionable value to science. One dissenter might just be a bitter rebel, but the more one researches scientific anomalies, the more one encounters a similar situation in some very diverse fields. And when you read repeated pleas that science really must stop penalizing new ideas (Greenburg, 2007), it's hard to dismiss the thought that there's something very rotten in the State of Science.
Greenburg, R. (2007).Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter's Ocean Moon. Springer.
Schmitt, J. (2000) Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield: Oxford.