Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Does Your Association Follow the Wisdom of the Crowd or Encourage Diverse Thinking?

Many association executives – me included – encourage crowd-sourcing as a tool to encourage ideas.

Reading a Wall Street Journal article (An Outcast Among Peers Gains Traction on Alzheimer’s Cure) made me wonder how we balance decision-making within our nonprofit organizations.

This story points to this tyranny of the experts as potentially harmful to society. 
While it is not quite crowd-sourcing, this story does make me wonder if our association boards, committees and staff can fall into the trap of what the experts say.

Here are some key points from the article:
  • History is peppered with examples of scientists who struggled against a prevailing orthodoxy, only to be proved right. In 1854, British doctor John Snow traced a cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated water supply, but his discovery was rejected by other scientists, who believed bad vapors in the air caused the disease. In the 1880s, cholera was finally pegged to bacteria found in contaminated water. In 1982, when two Australian scientists declared that bacteria caused peptic ulcers, conventional wisdom had it that stress and lifestyle were to blame. The scientists won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery.
  • Dr. Wischik says he and other tau-focused scientists have been shouted down over the years by what he calls the "amyloid orthodoxy," a hard-charging group of researchers who believed passionately that beta amyloid was the chief cause of the disease (altzheimer’s). "Science is politics," he says. "And the politics of amyloid won."
  • The so-called "amyloid hypothesis" quickly gripped the field, and attacking the protein became the main strategy for fighting Alzheimer's. Athena Neurosciences, a biotech company whose founders included Harvard's Dr. Selkoe, focused in earnest on developing drugs to attack amyloid. Meanwhile, tau researchers say they found it hard to get research funding or to publish papers in medical journals.
  • "It was very difficult to have a good publication on tau, because the amyloid cascade was like a dogma," says Luc Buee, a tau-focused researcher at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. "For 15 years if you were not working in the amyloid field you were not working on Alzheimer's disease."
  • Commitment to the amyloid hypothesis persisted. Peter Davies, an Alzheimer's researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset (NY) recalls hearing a researcher at a conference in the early 2000s concede that his amyloid research results "don't fit the hypothesis, but we'll keep going till they do." "I just sat there with my mouth open," he recalls.
What does this theory mean for associations and professional societies?
  • Is your association paralyzed by group think or a tyranny of one-way thinking about a specific issue within the organization or a major issue important to the association? 
  • How do you encourage dissenting opinions to ensure you are examining all potential solutions? 
  • When – if ever – is it time to call an end to debate and discussion? 
  • More importantly, perhaps, is our association or professional society’s culture and structure open to full dialog or do the outspoken experts dominate direction.

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