Scientific Nonsensus


I’ve said before that we need to be careful of those who claim “scientific consensus” as an argument-ender. This issue has become even more prominent recently as people or groups are dismissed at once as being “science-deniers” or “truth-deniers.” We are told that we now live in the “post-truth” era where “facts” have been made irrelevant by the idiocracy.

These buzzwords are applied to a variety of subjects ranging from vaccines to climate change, or from economics to sociology. Though it feels good to immediately label all anti-vaxers as such, it is dangerous to do so and wrong. This pat appeal to science, what I call Scientism, makes an authority out of something that should not be so revered.

Now I am not at all saying that science and the scientific method are not the best tools we have to evaluate things like climate change or vaccination risks and benefits; quite the contrary. I am saying that anyone who ends arguments with an appeal to science or to scientific consensus and then proceeds to dismiss all contrary ideas with ad hominem attacks is just as bad if not worse than the persons he attacks. Every generation of science has been guilty of such faux pas, and we need to understand that this form of argumentation is both dangerous and ineffective.

Why ineffective? If you wish to convince parents who are worried that vaccinating their children might not be necessary or safe, I can assure you that banning them from your practice or hurling insults at them while clinging to the absolute and incontrovertible dogma that you consider to be scientific fact will not change their minds. It will just make you appear smug, self-righteous, and uncaring, which has the effect of making your opponent dig in even deeper.

What’s more, your inability to understand the issue from your opponent’s perspective not only makes you close-minded by definition, but also renders you unable to reason or persuade them to another viewpoint. The same goes for any issue you care to bloviate about, including climate change, politics, or restaurants.

Why dangerous? Well the point of science is not to “prove” a set of “facts.” Rather, the point of science is to continuously question received dogma and look for greater understanding. By simply saying the words “Science proves…” you have perverted science. If you believe that “scientific consensus” is the end of the matter and all debate is closed and all non-believers are heretical morons, then you are guilty of excesses worse than those previously credited to totalitarian governments or the Catholic Church.

Such rhetoric betrays an immature understanding of science. Consider the following scientific facts agreed upon by all serious scientists and held out as scientific consensus:

  • The geocentric universe was scientific consensus from 600 BC until 1543 AD when the heretic Copernicus defied all of the evidence and proposed heliocentrism.
  • According to scientific consensus, cholera, the Black Death, and other diseases were caused by miasma, a bad smelling poisonous vapor, until the middle of the 19th century, when crackpots like Ignaz Semmelweis and Louis Pasteur dared go against the establishment.
  • All of medical science proved and all doctors agreed that stress was the cause of stomach ulcers, until lunatic Barry Marshal showed that H. Pylori caused peptic ulcer disease in the 1980s.
  • All physicists and astronomers agreed that the universe was static (not expanding or contracting) until madman Heinrich Olbers walked out into the night sky in 1823 and asked the stupid question, “Why is the sky dark at night?” (though in fairness, it took another 100 years for Edwin Hubble to convince everyone that the scientific consensus had been scientific nonsensus).
  • More recently, we see the term scientific consensus bandied about (and later retracted) for a variety of topics ranging form Sweet-n-Low to nuclear fusion.

Now this is not the crank argument of “Science was once wrong so therefore all science is wrong today.” Instead, the point is that science is a constantly evolving process. When “scientists” fail to appreciate the importance of epistemology, they begin to take themselves a bit too seriously and become instead Scientismists.

One contributing factor to the surge of Scientism is that people today believe that they are smarter than people who lived in previous generations and therefore they will not make the same types of gross “mistakes” that they did. But that is hubris in the extreme. Previous generations didn’t make mistakes any more than current scientists do – such belief shows a poor understanding of how science works, changes, revises, and progresses.

Newton was one of the greatest intellects in history, yet his pièce de résistance – gravity – was wrong (at least incomplete). Virtually every great theory in history has been superseded by another and/or thoroughly repudiated. But the intellects of those ages were just as sure of their greatness (and just as myopic) as we are today. The greatest of scientists understand the transient nature of science and the lack of certainty surround “facts.”

No scientific “fact” is beyond reproach and questioning. The constancy of the speed of light is held so sacrosanct that some leading skeptics believe that skeptics who are skeptical of it are just cranks. Yet today some very serious science is proceeding to test the theory of the variable speed of light (VSL). These new scientists are probably wrong, and the scientific consensus will likely remain that the speed of light is constant, but hooray for them doing good science: seeking to disprove what is accepted. If they fail to show that the VSL is a real thing, then we will strengthen our belief in the constancy of the speed of light; and if they do show that the VSL has merit, then they will transform our understanding of various scientific disciplines and they will be remembered like Newton and revolutionaries.

You see, Science wants to be questioned and doesn’t take it as insult when it is. It accepts the answers to those questions without bias, then adjusts its theories or its degree of certainty, and keeps moving. It doesn’t attack those who seek to disprove its tenets, it applauds them.

A lot of what is labelled as “scientific consensus” might be better labeled as prevailing bias. Prevailing bias is a measurable current in scientific literature where certain well-received theories are confirmed over and over again by new studies because the scientists doing those studies find evidence of what they expected to find (what they were taught, what everyone knows to be true, or confirmation bias). We usually find what we are expecting, not what we are not expecting, unless we are “contrarian” and look at the world through a different lens. So many wrong premises gain great traction in the literature until they are soundly overturned. We see this in geocentrism versus heliocentrism; until Copernicus, people just couldn’t see what was in fact right in front of them the whole time.

Am I saying that I don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming? I’m not saying that at all (I also believe in vaccines if you were wondering). But I am saying that if the only reason you believe in it is because of scientific consensus, that’s okay, but don’t be too surprised if the prevailing theory is altered, if the magnitude of effect is revised, or if the theory isn’t completely overturned in the coming decades. That’s the story of science. Even making that statement will draw scrutiny, which just goes to show how emotional and political (and therefore not scientific) the issue has become.

What’s more, see if you can make the argument from the other side; in other words, try to disprove global warming. That’s the scientific process. If you do happen to disprove it, then good; if you don’t, then you will more firmly understand the evidence for it and you will be better able to persuade those who disagree with you. Don’t be so petty as to not entertain other ideas. If you believe that the issue (or any issue) is already settled and therefore such intellectual activities are a waste of time, then you don’t actually believe in science (even though you claim to do so).

Do you understand why some legitimate scientists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming (or the more watered down “climate change”)? Can you make their arguments better than they can? If you are passionate about the issue and you are as open-minded as you believe you are, then give it a try.

I don’t believe that “climate change deniers” actually deny climate change all that much; I believe they mostly debate the magnitude of effect and debate the best way to tackle the issue. In the last 100 years, there have been several “sky is falling” issues that were to be our downfall: the end of oil, over-population, HIV, food shortages, water shortages, antibiotic resistance, etc. Yet our history is a story of innovation and rising up to meet the challenges we have faced. We are doing pretty well, thank you, in dealing with all the challenges that Nature has thrown at us, despite the pessimism of people like Frank Fenner, who gives us all less than 100 years due to our ravaging of the planet. I have no doubt that every generation in human history has had its Frank Fenners. Problems that seem insurmountable today are just one key scientific breakthrough away from a solution.

Rather than use science as a tool of demagoguery and allow it be abused by politicians as the new unimpeachable religious authority, we should use science to innovate. How would you like to be the guy that called Newton or Copernicus crazy? I am not sure what the future will hold, but I am no pessimist. Just last month, this paper in Science  showed the promise of engineering our way out of the problem of atmospheric carbon. Imagine a world where the carbon in our atmosphere becomes one of our most valuable resources! In one form or another, I would bet on it.