Reputation Traps [...]

A reputation trap is protective device set around issues of sensitivity in a given profession. Reputation traps enforce epistemic closure: to express a certain view or engage in a certain type of work renders one untrustworthy, which in turn further invalidates the view.

The term was coined by Hew Price in an article on cold fusion research:

Again, there’s a sociological explanation why few people are willing to look at the evidence. They put their reputations at risk by doing so. Cold fusion is tainted, and the taint is contagious – anyone seen to take it seriously risks contamination. So the subject is stuck in a place that is largely inaccessible to reason – a reputation trap, we might call it. People outside the trap won’t go near it, for fear of falling in. ‘If there is something scientists fear, it is to become like pariahs,’ as Lundin puts it. People inside the trap are already regarded as disreputable, an attitude that trumps any efforts that they might make to argue their way out, by reason and evidence. [ source]

Sometimes such traps are helpful, in cases where there is a near-unanimous consensus backed by overwhelming evidence. As an example, a person expressing a view that man-made global warming does not exist would (at this point) find it hard to work in mainstream climatology. It would be difficult to trust the expertise of someone who could look at the available evidence and come to that conclusion. A history of effort to disprove evolution would cause similar issues for a biologist (and again, rightly so).

In most cases, however, reputation traps do more harm than good. In evolutionary science many scientists steered clear of certain work in evolutionary science because it bore a superficial resemblance to the disgraced ideas of Lamarck. Today those same issues form one of the more exciting branches of evolutionary science.

As Price notes, we find a similar situation today with cold fusion research:

Again, the explanation for ignoring these claims cannot be that other attempts failed 25 years ago. That makes no sense at all. Rather, it’s the reputation trap. The results are ignored because they concern cold fusion, which we ‘know’ to be pseudoscience – we know it because attempts to replicate these experiments failed 25 years ago! The reasoning is still entirely circular, but the reputation trap gives its conclusion a convincing mask of respectability. That’s how the trap works.

Fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn taught us that this is the usual way for science to deal with paradigm-threatening anomalies. The borders of dominant paradigms are often protected by reputation traps, which deter all but the most reckless or brilliant critics. [ source]


When reputation traps are institutionally defined, they are sometimes considered Lysenkoism

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