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The Wrong Side of Scientific Consensus

by Glenn Murray

After numerous debates on scientific issues, I realize certain issues and aspects of science are not commonly understood by the public.

Say we are arguing over Quantum Gravity vs Superstring. If you think about it, it would be ludicrous. Neither of us have the background, especially in math to argue well about it. Without at least a masters and preferably a PhD in that subject, such arguments are little more than ego contests. For other arguments it is still absurdity, it's just less obvious.

The same can be said of many arguments going against scientific consensus. Let me clarify. Scientific consensus is a fairly rare thing. It does not come from a single study or a few, but a large body of research, where the studies and opposing studies are taken into account by major scientific societies who consider the evidence overwhelming. These societies are those such as the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics, The American Medical Association, The Royal Society of Chemistry, or The National Academy of Sciences, to name a very few. Like scientists, they live by their reputation. Like scientists, if they are found backing anything scientifically fraudulent or dishonest, they would be doomed, disgraced in the scientific world from then on. They could never recover. A politician or religious leader can do something illegal or unethical and be forgiven. It does not happen in the scientific field. These institutes will occasionally come to a consensus on a major issue, say like Relativity or Quantum Mechanics of the early 20th century. These are and were not taken lightly. If an institute puts its reputation behind something seriously flawed, the damage to the institute's reputation could be major if it appears they should have known better.

Scientific consensus occurs when not one, but a number of these institutes, usually the one primary in that field of the issue involved, along with fields ancillary to the issue involved backs a conclusion involving that issue. This is done when the major players in the organizations feel the evidence is overwhelming. A current example is Anthropomorphic Global Warming. The lead was taken by the IPCC and American Meteorological Society, followed by the ACS and AIP. For some time this was opposed by the American Geological Society, not a primary or ancillary field in atmospheric science. The AGS, like all major societies and science bodies, have dropped their opposition to anthropomorphic global warming. All don't support it, but have dropped opposition, rather than risk the loss of reputation when the level of evidence currently is so high. At this point the vast majority of societies and science bodies support human-caused global warming, along with all of the societies for the directly related fields. Saying this type of consensus is difficult to arrive at is an understatement. Scientists, by nature, tend to try to disprove what their colleagues come up with. They do this by repeating the original experiments first, then my altering the experiment to see if they get the same results from a different direction. If they confirm the results, at least they come up with a paper to publish. If the paper contradicts the original, it makes a name for the scientist involved. Many scientists who have done this have made their name and career in disproving what came before. Darwin showed biological science was wrong about the apparent fixed nature of species. He is now a household name. Einstein disproved a small corner of Newtonian mechanics (for the very large and/or the very fast), now Relativity and Einstein are known to everyone. Schrodinger disproved a small corner of Newtonian mechanics (for the very small) and Quantum Mechanics, with all its bizarre strangeness, is now taken for granted as true. It's in a scientist blood to find out something wrong in their fellow's work so it is difficult for a large group to come to a consensus about an issue. The weight of evidence has to be very large. This is why consensus carries are great deal of gravitas.

It's easy to find a list of studies supporting a side. But, how do you know if the studies mentioned in an article were not cherry picked to support one side of the research? Unless you do research in the field you won't have any clue what counter studies and papers exist. The people writing the article rarely include them because their goal is to persuade. All studies of this sort will have been re-run several times by others. If it supports the conclusions, the researcher has another paper under his/her belt. If they disprove it, then they have gained a significant bit of stature in that someone will have to directly consider what theyt've found. The more generally accepted what they disprove is, the higher the stature they gain from their research when it's confirmed.

Unless you do research in a field, you are not familiar enough with the subject to know the literature on it. Most online articles have one goal, to convince the audience of one side - a sure sign it's not a scientific article. A scientific paper should address the bad AND GOOD in the counter arguments.

If I wanted to produce an article about cold-fusion and how the establishment was subverting it I could find research and papers supporting it. One of the first I could point out was done by nuclear physicist Dr. Mahaffey, of Georgia Tech, who detected neutrons emitted while repeating the experiment - a solid indication of fusion. If you didn't know the literature well, you wouldn't have known he retracted his findings about a week later when he realized the neutron detector he used was subject to falsely reporting neutron radiation if detector temperature was elevated. He re-ran the experiment, controlling the temperature and the neutron radiation disappeared.

The problem with any subject having deeper underpinnings than we can knowledgeably investigate directly is we have to rely on others. It's a queston of their credulity and qualifications. This goes to what we base our conclusions on. Do we accept an article by people we don't know a lot about, potentially using cherry picked data? Or even those of a small set of scientists who oppose the larger consensus. If we don't have their level of expertise in the subject, how can we knowledgably support the position. Moreover, if we do, is it because we like their conclusions, which may have nothing to do with the logic and evidence used to arrive at those conclusions? Accepting the consensus of a large group of respected scientists, who would love nothing more than to prove each other wrong, is safer, better, and a more rational position to take, unless your knowledge in the field is extensive.

A common position I hear, whether anti-vaccine, anti-global warming, or anti-evolution is the consensus is due to a conspiracy by scientists. Accusing scientists of conspiracy is a bit absurd but an easy accusation to make. It falls apart when realizing how vast the conspiracy would have to be, the fact the motivations just are not there to support such a conspiracy, and that the dangers of being caught supporting scientific fraud is professional suicide for any scientist. It's just plain opposite of most scientist motivations. If there is consensus, you are saying this of most scientists in a given field.

This isn't to say they couldn't be wrong, they most certainly can be. However one must keep in mind the complete overthrow of a theory or major field idea is almost unheard of past the 19th century. A small part of it can certainly be overturned, but very rarely the whole idea or theory. Einstein only overthrew a tiny corner of Newtonian mechanics in an area we couldn't actually test at the time. The same can be said of Quantum Mechanics. As revolutionary as they were, these were evident in small areas which were only able to be investigated starting about the time the ideas were posited.

Considering overthrowing an accepted and major scientific assessment is vanishingly unlikely, going with the consensus of scientific thought is the most rational position, assuming you don't have serious expertise and knowledge in the field. That lack of knowledge means picking any other conclusion isn't as supportable and the reasons for choosing it should be seriously examined. How do you know choosing any other position isn't falling into one's own ego trap or worse, one of another's making? Scientists have to constantly question their own position because they are dead certain their collegues will. Shouldn't we do the same?

Video with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, including consensus at minutes 7 through 10

Wikipedia entry on Scientific Consensus

I hope this has provided you with food for thought.

"Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end." - Krishnamurti