September 15, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

No Consensus on Scientific Consensus

How much do you trust scientific experts?  Most of the scientific experts expect us to trust them.  They are appalled when lay people express doubts about matters the consensus of experts take for granted.  Yet others tell us we should doubt.  There seems to be no consensus about whether to trust the scientific consensus.
    Science Daily reproduced a study from the University of Michigan that concluded, “Women More Likely Than Men to Accept Scientific Consensus on Global Warming.”  That begs the question of which gender should accept the scientific consensus.  It was partially answered in a quote, “women underestimate their scientific knowledge” – i.e., the women who accept the consensus must be the more scientifically reasonable ones.
   PhysOrg reproduced a study by Yale University law professor Dan Kahan and friends who tried to figure out “Why ‘scientific consensus’ fails to persuade.”  The hidden subtext is that the consensus should persuade, because it’s scientific, but that people, who are unscientific (i.e., dumb) tend to only agree with the consensus when it matches their own biases.  People are “threatened” by scientific findings that contradict their beliefs, the article intimated, so they must be shmoozed into the accepting the findings by means of non-threatening ways of framing the information.  One colleague explained, “To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments,” which presumably include religious beliefs.
    One of the skeptics about consensus (more or less) is Anthony Gottlieb.  Writing for Intelligent Life magazine, he reviewed two books: Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara (2009) and Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman.  On the one hand, Gottlieb provided plenty of entertaining examples of the scientific consensus being flat wrong, and recognized that most of today’s consensus beliefs are likely to be flat wrong in 100 years.  But on the other hand, he pigeonholed crackpots into strange bedfellows: “the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism” whom he lumped together as “demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be….”  Is it because the scientific consensus feels that way that he said this, or has he performed his own controlled experiments?  However he decided to lump these groups together, it could be called a form of the association fallacy.
    Scientists and science journalists who buck the consensus are sometimes called mavericks.  They are legitimate scientists or journalists, but they sometimes have to exercise personal and moral courage to hold their ground against the majority.  A recent example was told in Columbia Journalism Review.  Pallava Bagla was an Indian journalist who broke the news that the IPCC had provided false information about the rate of glacial melt in India in their famous report.  At the time, this was a career-limiting move for Bagla, who faced trepidation and the threat of ostracism for revealing the error at a very politically inopportune time (right before the Copenhagen Summit) – and he did initially get ridiculed by the head of the IPCC.  Later, that same head apologized, and Bagla ended up getting a journalism award for his daring.
    The idea of consensus loomed large in Robert Crowther’s recent entry on Evolution News and Views, “Academic Elites Don’t Appreciate Uppity Scientists Who Buck the Consensus.”  Discussing the risk that independent thinkers take when challenging orthodoxy, Crowther said, “The average scientist can find lots of fruitful areas of research that won’t get her in hot water with the pointy-headed elites who’s [sic] all-seeing academic eyes keep a watch out for anything that is out of line with the current orthodoxy.”  At least that’s how some of Gottlieb’s “deniers of evolution” feel about it.

We’ve harped on consensus many times, so no long reruns here, but science is supposed to be about truth based on evidence, not majority rule.  There are times when a consensus, with its presumed authority of the collective, can actually hold back scientific progress (e.g., 04/30/2009).  This is especially true for areas of science that are inference-based and non-repeatable.  Recall novelist Michael Crichton’s blistering attack in 2003 to a Caltech audience on the notion of consensus (12/27/2003); the whole address is available in PDF form from Stephen Schneider’s Stanford website.
    The philosophy of science of the pro-consensus reporters is appallingly shallow.  They picture scientists as ruling elites, the Knowers of the Culture, and lay people as ignorant scum.  There’s plenty of scum to go around.  It’s not only lay people who have cultural biases.  Those biases are nearly impregnable in certain “scientific” circles and situations.  Science becomes corrupt when it demands allegiance on the basis of sheer numbers or authority.  Remember that one of the great physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, joked that “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
    For a good introduction to philosophy of science that reveals the difficulty of establishing infallible trust in the scientific community, we recommend again Dr. Jeffrey Kasser’s lecture series (see 04/18/2009 Resource of the Week) and Dr. Stephen Goldman’s lecture series, Science Wars (12/19/2009 Resource).  Even if you have no reason to doubt the consensus, at least be knowledgeable of the philosophical issues involved.  Without a doubt, many scientists are honest and above reproach, particularly in the less politically-charged areas of research.  Many scientists are sincerely looking for the truth.  So are many in the public.  You could be, too.  Orient yourself to truth, not consensus.
    Related reading:   See also the 11/25/2008 entry for examples of how wacky some scientific ideas can become, the 11/15/2010 entry on the inertia of specious theories, the 03/17/2006 on ways scientific journals can perpetuate false ideas, and the 04/02/2010 commentary for a list of 30 factors that can distort consensus science into groupthink.  Other commentaries on philosophy of science can be found at 05/13/2010, 04/30/2009, 10/29/2008, 06/28/2008 on “Yellow Science”, 08/13/2007, 03/19/2007.  More can be found using the search phrase, “philosophy of science”.  Lest you think it doesn’t matter, keep in mind this maxim from Greg Bahnsen: “Everyone does philosophy, but not everyone does it well.”  Know what you believe – and why you believe it.

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