The Wisdom of Doubting Scientific Consensus
If you wait long enough, scientists will find exceptions
to their dogmas and will have to rethink everything.
It’s axiomatic in many parts of the country to say, “If you don’t like the weather in [name the state], just wait 30 minutes.” Scientific consensus is like that, except usually on a longer time scale. A prime example often reported at CEH concerns early man. It seems like every few months, the experts tell us “everything you know is wrong’ (e.g., 26 June 2021).
For the same reason, a wise observer of Big Science should maintain some skepticism about what the scientists all agree is true now. Wait for the weather to change; an article containing the word “rethink” has a good chance of appearing: e.g., “early humans were smarter than thought” or the like. In fact, the more dogmatic the consensus, the more a wise observer should suspect something is wrong.
This is not to advocate for automatic rejection of any scientific consensus. Instead, wisdom calls for examining the evidence. What is the current belief based on? When they say confidently, “Now we know,” what assumptions lie hidden below, ready to collapse in the quake of a new anomaly, ready to erupt and pour hot lava over the prior consensus? Are there perverse incentives offstage, such as rivalry or desires to maintain funding? What worldview assumptions govern the types of answers that are deemed acceptable? Given the history of scientific revolutions, a critical thinker stands to be ahead of his time by predicting a “rethink” around the bend.
Here are some rethinks that have appeared recently in press releases and journal papers.
Having ‘good’ posture doesn’t prevent back pain, and ‘bad’ posture doesn’t cause it (The Conversation, 17 Aug 2022). Who doesn’t recall the posters and public service announcements about how to sit and stand to prevent back pain? If you don’t watch your posture, experts all agreed, back pain is inevitable. Better read this article by three physiologists who overturn this belief as a myth.
Surprisingly, there is a lack of evidence for a strong relationship between “good” posture and back pain. Perceptions of “good” posture originate from a combination of social desirability and unfounded presumptions.
Displaying a typical poster showing do’s and don’ts of sitting and standing posture, they go on to cite studies that fail to find a connection between common advice about posture and actual back pain suffered by individuals. This story is reminiscent of the long-believed “food pyramid” that was debunked a few years ago.
These findings are consistent with systematic reviews that have found no consistent differences in sitting or standing posture between adult populations with and without back pain.
People adopt a range of different spine postures, and no single posture protects a person from back pain. People with both slumped and upright postures can experience back pain.
The three authors don’t leave the reader feeling helpless. There are things we can do, such as exercise, sleep and reducing stress. Those might work until the next rethink.
Massive expanse of towering hydrothermal vents discovered deep in the Pacific (Live Science, 10 Aug 2022). This article is based on a paper by McDermott et al. in PNAS on 21 July, 2022. The paper reported the discovery of new field of hydrothermal vents 200 miles off the west coast of Mexico. It’s large, hot, and active, about the size of a football field, with towering vents rising 40 feet off the seafloor pumping black smoke-like hot water almost 700 °F.
What’s odd about this discovery is that it shouldn’t be there. Consensus geology states that hydrothermal vents emerge along the axes of plate boundaries where the plates are separating. Those spreading centers create troughs where magma can rise and heat water that erupts through cracks. This new vent field, however, is 850 yards east and 4 miles north of the previously-known vents that are on the axis. The new vents represent something “very different” from what was expected, and the implications could be profound.
These so-called off-axis vents likely derive their heat from a different source than the vents found on the axis, said Seyfried and Karson, who were not involved in the new study. The discovery hints that there are more hydrothermal vents in the deep sea than once thought and that these off-axis vents could serve as a “presently underappreciated source of heat and chemicals that might be significant on a global scale,” they wrote.
Chemicals such as transition metals might find their way from the mantle into the biosphere through these vents. The paper mentions potassium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, lithium and rubidium among others measured in the hot water. The lead author, Jill McDermott, admits, “There is much still left to be discovered about deep-sea vents along the global mid-ocean ridge….” The paper opens with a statement of the significance of the find:
We describe the discovery of a large, active, high-temperature off-axis hydrothermal vent field on the East Pacific Rise. Hydrothermal vents are more prevalent across the crestal region of midocean ridges than previously thought. Our finding has important implications for understanding the fundamental controls on vent location and hydrology of hydrothermal systems along the crest of fast-spreading midocean ridges.
Not all in the genes: Are we inheriting more than we think? (WEHI, 12 Aug 2022). Time to rewrite the textbooks on genetics again. A steady stream of discoveries about non-Mendelian inheritance is upsetting long-believed views. As usual, scientists blame everybody by framing the “rethink” in Tontological form:
A fundamental discovery about a driver of healthy development in embryos could rewrite our understanding of what can be inherited from our parents and how their life experiences may shape us.
The new research suggests that epigenetic information, which sits on top of DNA and is normally reset between generations, is more frequently carried from mother to offspring than previously thought.
The article trembles with astonishment at how unexpected the discoveries were at WEHI. Just how unexpected?
“Knowing that epigenetic information from the mother can have effects with life-long consequences for body patterning is exciting, as it suggests this is happening far more than we ever thought.
“It could open a Pandora’s box as to what other epigenetic information is being inherited.”
Shape of human brain has barely changed in past 160,000 years (New Scientist, 1 Aug 2022). Studies on “human evolution” are reliable sources of rethinking. One doesn’t have to accept the Darwinian view to enjoy watching scientists on the roller coaster. Luke Taylor narrates this latest episode:
An analysis of fossils suggests changes in the shape of the braincase during human evolution were linked to alterations in the face, rather than changes in the brain itself.
The physical transformation of the human cranium over the past 160,000 years was probably driven by alterations in the face resulting from diet and lifestyle changes, not from the evolution of the brain itself as previously thought, a study has found.
—found, that is, until the next rethink that changes everything again.
People with half a brain removed do well at face and word recognition (New Scientist, 15 Aug 2022). Scientists should stop telling readers what they previously “thought” and be honest about what they “knew.” Remember all the common knowledge about left-brain and right-brain? Look at this controlled study of 40 individuals that had grown up with half their brain surgically removed. The patients were tested on face and word recognition with whole-brained individuals.
The team thought people with only their right hemisphere would perform better at face recognition, while those with just their left hemisphere were expected to score more highly at word recognition.
Instead, the people who had their left or right hemisphere removed scored an average accuracy of 86 per cent across both tasks, compared with 96 per cent accuracy in the control group.
Testosterone promotes ‘cuddling,’ not just aggression, animal study finds (Emory University, 15 Aug 2022). The correlation of testosterone with manly aggression and antisocial behavior has reached the status of iconic truth in society. What will talk show hosts say next, now that scientists have found that male gerbils injected with extra testosterone became more cuddly?
“For what we believe is the first time, we’ve demonstrated that testosterone can directly promote nonsexual, prosocial behavior, in addition to aggression, in the same individual,” says Aubrey Kelly, Emory assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study. “It’s surprising because normally we think of testosterone as increasing sexual behaviors and aggression. But we’ve shown that it can have more nuanced effects, depending on the social context.”
This could radically change the punch lines about men with cojones. Wives might like this rethink:
“Instead, we were surprised that a male gerbil became even more cuddly and prosocial with his partner,” Kelly says. “He became like ‘super partner.’”
That’s all for now, folks.
We sure hope this entry doesn’t stop you peons from obeying what the bureaucrats tell you. Wear your obedience mask. Stay six feet apart in line. Lower your carbon footprint. And prepare for the end of the world in 12 years from climate change.
Anybody want to bet now that there will be a major rethink 13 years from now, in 2035?
Recommended Read: See our 28 Sept 2015 story about the tragic apostasy of Ronald Numbers, who lost his faith over a scientific consensus about geology that he couldn’t reconcile with his upbringing into young-earth creationism. When the geologists radically changed their story, it was too late. Dr Numbers by then was a prominent anti-creationist.