In a recent lecture, Paul Krugman said:
“Or to put it another way, one thing we seem to have learned from the (economic – sw) crisis is that many of our colleagues are less engaged in something like science, an attempt to understand the world as it is, than we would like to think. Instead, when they invoke evidence it is the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.
The best excuse one can offer is that even hard scientists are often reluctant to change their views – ‘science progresses one funeral at a time,’ said Max Planck. But what I’m pointing out here isn’t just that too few economists were willing to learn from the Great Recession, but that there’s a notable contrast with the way the profession seized on the troubles of the 1970s. This asymmetry is what’s troubling …”
While Krugman’s field and object of analysis is economics and his colleagues in that profession, his insights have broader application to businesses, political parties, and other institutions that, when encountering a challenge to their outmoded thinking and practices, either cherry pick their evidence to sustain that thinking and those practices, or, worse still, double down on them.
While that gambit may create the illusion that “all is right in their world,” or soon will be, it won’t in the long run stand up to the corrosive and unforgiving force of reality. And at that point, unless its practitioners make a u-turn in their thinking and practices, an existential crisis erupts, resulting in the eventual collapse of the organization and a scrambling for the exits.
What Krugman doesn’t really address (well, to be fair, he hints at it) is an explanation for the stubborn persistence of old modes of thinking and practices, even in the face of growing and unimpeachable evidence that they are totally out of sync with reality. I hope he comes back to this matter in another lecture.
In the meantime, I would suggest this as a hypothesis: people who inhabit institutions, be they economics departments, political parties, businesses, or whatever, are the products of a deeply embedded and self-reproducing organizational and political culture, thereby making them cognitively and psychically resistant to challenges to that worldview and its accompanying practices.
Moreover, this resistance is reinforced by the material and status benefits that is confers on its leading practitioners.