7 Mar 2016

You can't change your mind without a dialogue

A few weeks ago, I posted a reply ("Four billion facing severe water scarcity? I think not") to Mekonnen and Hoekstra's article in Science.

My eLetter has not yet been published because the editors are waiting for a reply from the authors.

Although I understand their desire to "further the discussion," I consider Science's policy counterproductive, as it has implied, for the past few weeks, that nobody has any objections to the article. Even worse to me is that this process prevents "the community" from talking over the article. I have heard -- via emails, comments and face-to-face conversations -- many complaints about that article's flaws. Sadly, none of this response (ignoring whether it's correct) is on display for other people who may lack the background to understand the article's flaws. They may see it as "peer reviewed knowledge" when that's not a widely-held perspective.

Going further, I have to worry that the authors may be stalling or trying to ignore these objections. As I pointed out, they are both "involved" with an organization that charges for the footprinting services they recommend in the conclusion to their article. That's a pretty big conflict of interest for "authors [who] declare that they have no competing interests."

Turning to a more positive note, I can't exactly blame them, as it is awfully hard for academics to "betray" their research conclusions. As Russ Roberts says here:
Part of what I'm arguing for here is how hard it is to do that [change your mind on a topic]. For any human being. And certainly for a professional economist or an academic who has got a reputation and a track record of past pronouncements, I think it's very hard for us to do that... My claim is, is that we use that empirical sophistication as a way to dress up our lens -- to the outside world, to make us look a little less naked. Right? As you said, it's very hard to argue about this long history of personal experience and narrative --, so, say, 'Well that's not the real reason I believe these things. The real reason is I have evidence. I have science behind me.' ... we have these sort of vague ideas that come from our personal experience. They are not made up. They are not biases --it's just sort of convenient for us. They are just an accumulation of lots of stuff. Some of it evidence, some of it fact, some of it comforting because of the way we want the world to work. And then we dress it up with these studies.
I know that I've changed my mind on a few big things (the Peripheral Canal and increasing block rates, among others), so I can see why Mekonnen and Hoekstra might be hesitating.

Bottom Line The academic approach to understanding and knowledge won't work unless people are willing to talk... and admit that they may not be right.