Nesse on Academia

Darwinian medicine pioneer Randolph Nesse answers this year’s Edge question:

I used to believe that you could find out what is true by finding the smartest people and finding out what they think. However, the most brilliant people keep turning out to be wrong.  … A lot of the belief that smart people are right is an illusion caused by smart  people being very convincing … even when they are wrong. I also used to believe that you could find out what is true by relying on ­ smart experts ­ who devote themselves to a topic.  But most of us remember being told to eat margarine because it is safer than butter ­ then it turned out that trans-fats are worse. … I shudder to think about all the false beliefs I have unknowingly but confidently passed on to my patients, thanks to my trust in experts. …

Finally, I used to believe that truth had a special home in universities.  After all, universities are supposed to be devoted to finding out what is true, and teaching students what we know and how to find out for themselves. Universities may be best show in town for truth pursuers, but most stifle innovation and constructive engagement of real controversies, not just sometimes, but most of the time, systematically. … Faculty committees intervene to ensure that most positions go to people just about like themselves. … Where can we look to find what is true? … We could begin to design new social structures that would support real intellectual innovation and engagement.

This seems to me to be just about the right attitude – admitting that academia is the best we have but lamenting that it seems so inefficient, and looking for better ways. Perhaps Nesse is ready to consider Idea Futures.

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