Who Conforms and Why

[Note: This is one of my long comments at another site that I thought I would post here.]

I think our economic lives profoundly influence how we think about broader issues. The degree to which any individual can disagree with one’s superiors and peers without suffering harm to one’s career varies significantly from field to field. In turn, the degree to which mere human opinion plays a role in an individual’s success within a field determines how conformist to common opinion within a field an individual must be to succeed.

For example, individuals in science or engineering rather routinely challenge both their peers and superiors because they have highly objective, non-human evidence by which to determine if an individual’s ideas are wrong or right. A scientific hypothesis either predicts or it does not. Technological artifacts either work or they do not. Likewise, people who create businesses either succeed or fail to earn profits. Mavericks in such fields can overturn a group consensus by the simple expedient of doing something that succeeds or fails. Regardless of how popular an idea might be within the field, a successful counter-idea can kill it. As a result, great diversity of thought exists in these fields.

However, fields in which no external test exists for the validity or usefulness of the ideas in a field become dominated by the group consensus, and individuals must conform to the beliefs of their peers and superiors in order to succeed. In the arts, journalism and especially in the academic liberal-arts, no external test exists for ideas. The fields deal with untestable information. Ideas persist and their creators receive rewards based solely on their popularity. No non-human information can destroy an idea. The ideas do not have to work in any sense, they must merely appeal to a large number of people within the field.

Further, since those within the field cannot prove the validity of their ideas to people outside the field by objective means, they rely on the presentation of a unified front to convey veracity. This is why academics and journalists all tend to tell the same story. The general public can only assume that truth must be what everyone who purports to understand the problem says it is. Any individual who deviates from the pack consensus places everything in doubt. All members of the field therefore have a vested interest in settling on a story and sticking to it. Mavericks threaten the status and position of everyone and therefore cannot be tolerated.

As a result, little diversity of thought exists within these fields. (Their differences with the ideas outside their fields don’t count, because those difference do not impact an individual’s success.)

I don’t think it mere coincidence that leftists dominate those fields in which objective standards do not exist. Instead, I think leftism reflects the world view of those who live in a world lacking objective standards. Leftists are so savage in attacking those who disagree or, worse, those who once agreed but have abandoned the fold, because in the end they only have their collective consensus to support their claims. Mavericks must be destroyed.

6 thoughts on “Who Conforms and Why”

  1. In business, the people most willing to challenge authority in an outspoken fashion tend to be commissioned salespeople. If you’re a sales manager at 140% of quota, you can be fairly sure no one is going to fire you for saying that a politically-well-connected new product program is a dumb idea. Moreover, you have an incentive to argue for your belief, because your future success will be dependent on the company’s abilty to create saleable products.

    Engineering people tend to be somewhat less outspoken, partly by personality but partly because the activity is not quite as crisply measurable as sales. Indeed, engineering managers tend to be fairly political animals.

    Staff functions such as HR and “strategic planning” tend to be pretty quick to fall in line with the correct opinion *du jour*, although there are plenty of individual exceptions.

  2. David Foster,

    I think your comparison within the field of business is accurate but I was concerned about the difference between fields of endeavor.

    People in business can easily buck the group consensus by simply making money. The founder of Fedex famously got an F on his thesis wherein he outlined the business plan for Fedex. By contrast, how would a PHd candidate in the liberal arts prove that their thesis on the gender implications of Dumas’ works was right when the professor say otherwise?

    I think the lag time between the assertion of prediction and the definitive testing of that prediction also governs how easy it is to dissent within a field. Sales people get feedback very rapidly, engineers get it slower and HR people (in my experience) never get it. Likewise, scientist get feedback very quickly has they knock down hypothesis with experiments but humanist never get feedback.

  3. Shannon, as much as I admire your writing, and generally agree with you to a large extent, I must take exception to the last line of your comment above.

    If there is anything that can be said about the horror that was the 20th century, it is that the entire period was a world wide labratory experiment in the various theories of political philosophy and social sciences.

    I would submit that there was, and is, a great deal of feedback available for anyone who wishes to see it, or has the courage to look at it.

    Humanity tested several versions of collectivism, some ancient monarchical/religious autocracies, and a number of variations on the representative democratic theme. And, in a grisly comment on such experimentation, there is even a quantifiable scale for the results—the number of graves per socio/political theory.

    Now, it may be the case that any number of academic leftists and internatinal ANSWER types manage to go through life pretending this lab work didn’t actually happen, or that the results were somehow not a collection of bones which would dwarf the famed “mountain of skulls” supposedly constructed by Tamerlane to demonstrate his fearsome nature, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t relentlessly point out that the evidence is very clear, and compelling, and entirely unambiguous—the more collectivism, the more graves.

    It’s almost scientific.

  4. Veryretired,

    I to agree that powerful evidence exist but Leftist strive mightily to create the general impression that it does not. They either just ignore the question or seek to create a plausible explanation for why they really weren’t to blame.

    As I have pointed out before, Leftist models of the Vietnam war have proven nearly completely broken in hindsight yet they advance the same models for the conflict in Iraq. They can do so because they have created a the appearance of a vast consensus that the Leftist policies implemented at the end of the conflict created an acceptable outcome worthy of emulation. If all the supposed experts tell the same story how is a lay person to know that something is wrong?

    For example, even today, most scholarly works about Vietnam spend the vast majority of their time dissecting the war prior to the Tet offensive. Very, very few examine the history of Indochina following the fall of Saigon at all. Most Leftist I converse with know next to nothing about that era or anything about the nature of the North Vietnamese regime. I believe that such careful mis-education results from a studied unwillingness of Leftist to engage in any sort of self-examination or self-critique.

    Their dominance of media and academia mean that only those who go far out of their way can learn to pierce the Leftist veil of illusion.

  5. “Engineering people tend to be somewhat less outspoken, partly by personality but partly because the activity is not quite as crisply measurable as sales. Indeed, engineering managers tend to be fairly political animals.”

    Depends on the level. Higher ups in science / engineering do tend to be very political, btu still brook much more back talk from lower down their organizations than the sales organizations I’ve seen. The worst group-think I’ve seen is product design and marketing of complex technical products, not becuase the results are not measurable, but because the delayed feedback from the market for long-term projects means that the idiot that screwed the project up is no longer in that job, and can’t be punished.

  6. //By contrast, how would a PHd candidate in the liberal arts prove that their thesis on the gender implications of Dumas’ works was right when the professor say otherwise?//

    Really? If an author writes bad books, he won’t be read. If a criticizer will praise bad books, he will be fired. If students know that this university (Or this professor) prepare bad authors and bad criticizers, they will avoid it/him and this translates into money very quickly. A great painter is one who sells his works for big money, whereas a bad won’t sell anything at all. An actor-teacher who cannot teach an actor to be good (so the actor earns money) will be avoided over long.

    And it is easier to impress people with your paintings(good ones, that is) than to get a credit if you are an outsider.

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