The little matter of scientific consensus…

I am a trained scientist. My college degree is in Geology. One of the things that you learn as you work through a college course on a science subject is that science, in terms of the collective knowledge base and understanding level of its practitioners, is a moving field. The state of knowledge and understanding is constantly evolving, at a rate that is generally faster than the evolution of knowledge in other fields such as engineering. (One of my pet peeves is that many engineers like to think of themselves as scientists, but they mostly lack a sound understanding of the scientific method, and this soon shows up when they try opining on scientific topics. Some of the stupidest, logically defective opinions on scientific topics I have read originated with engineers. But I digress).
One of the phrases bandied about all of the time in debates in and around science is “scientific consensus”. This is regarded as a Bad Thing by people who are skeptical of science and/or hostile to the current majority opinions of scientists on key subjects and topics. For people hostile to the current position of the scientific community on topics such as global warming, the causes of autism, HIV/AIDS causes and a number of other “hot button” topics, the scientific consensus is a bad case of lockstep groupthink, where a majority of scientists decided what was true, and anybody in the scientific community who believes different is a heretic, an outcast, somebody whose views can safely be discounted or ignored.
Arguers against scientific consensus like to present themselves either as brave visionary mavericks, or if that fails, as martyrs to The Cause Of Truth. A common tactic is to compare themselves with Galileo, while totally failing to understand the message of the late Carl Sagan’s quote about that idea (“People laughed at Galileo. But they also laughed at Bozo the clown”).
Many disbelievers in science and its worldview like to take matters one step further, by alleging that scientific consensus is part of some evil conspiracy to force a narrow worldview on Everybody. If I could have a dollar for every time I have read the phrase “global warming” in the same sentence as the words “hoax”, “con” or “conspiracy” I would be writing this blog posting from Bora Bora, not the mainland USA. They often accuse scientists with whom they disagree of being “shills” or being paid to espouse their views. This is merely an example of the ad homimen fallacy, which should tell you that the critics in question have nothing substantive to offer. If you have to attack your opponent on a personal level, this is a solid indication that you really don’t have much of an argument.
David Gorski, a cancer specialist, has been writing about the misconceptions and outright falsehoods being promulgated against the scientific method for a long time. This latest posting about scientific consensus explains carefully how arguments against that concept are usually defective and deeply dishonest. Quacks and charlatans are quick to decry the scientific consensus as part of a process to de-legitimize the scientific method when it fails to support their own beliefs and ideas.
The main problem, as Gorski points out, is that you don’t obtain any credibility in the scientific community by complaining that a current concept or theory is defective or incorrect. The obligation on you is to suggest something better as an alternative. When a little-known patent clerk from Ulm, Austria by the name of Albert Einstein noticed that the existing Newtonian theories of the dynamics of moving bodies were inadequate to fully explain or predict the behavior of large objects such as stars and planets (a problem that the scientific community knew about, but had been unable to resolve by tinkering with existing theories), instead of writing letters to newspapers whining about how wrong the scientists were, he went away, did some deep thinking, and then wrote a short paper, published in 1905 with the innocuous-sounding title of “On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. The paper, part of what would soon become known as the Theory of Relativity, fundamentally changed the way in which scientists, physicists and astronomers viewed the world. Einstein applied his own thoughts to an un-solved problem and came up with a visionary solution.
This is not what quacks, pseudo-scientists do. Like the armchair quarterback sitting with his beer whining that the quarterback missed an open receiver in the end zone, quacks, pseudo-scientists and peddlers of disinformation merely seek to create confusion by complaining about the real or perceived shortcomings of existing scientific theories. They seldom offer their own ideas, often because they are hilariously unqualified to do so. One of the more interesting aspects of the entire Global Warming debate (if it is possible to call it that) is that many of the critics of the scientific consensus on Global Warming are either not trained scientists, or possess degrees in disciplines totally unrelated to climate science or palaeoclimatology. Ultimately their objections lack any credibility. They simply do not have the knowledge or background to do anthing more than act as armchair quarterbacks or bomb-throwers. They can and should be ignored.


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