You Don’t Like the Scientific Consensus? Ignore it Away.

You Don’t Like the Scientific Consensus? Ignore it Away. October 9, 2015

scientific consensus evolution climate changeImagine this problem: you’re a layperson, and you dislike the scientific consensus on some issue. I argued recently that laypeople have no grounds by which to reject a scientific consensus—how could they when they’re outsiders to that discipline? But if you’re part of a vocal minority on the political Right, you just declare the consensus stupid and substitute your own.

Those who give themselves veto power over science sometimes argue that smart people (and who wouldn’t put themselves in that category?) are perfectly able to evaluate the conclusions themselves. Or they might poke around the internet to find conclusions they like better and adopt those arguments, unconcerned that these are fringe opinions, already evaluated and rejected by the relevant scientists.

Let’s take an example. Dennis Chamberland is not a climate scientist, but he’s good and mad at the current consensus within that discipline that climate change is happening and that it’s primarily caused by human activity (“The Tyranny of Consensus”). That’s not going to stop him from finding more pleasing conclusions on the internet and adopting those.

The dark cause behind all this

He begins by rooting out the underlying cause.

[Infecting science with politics] was accomplished for a reason, of course: specifically so that billions of dollars in global taxes may be levied at the point of a gun against the specter of anthropogenic climate change.

What’s next—black helicopters? The United Nations as world government? Reptoid shape-shifters controlling Congress? The Antichrist?

There seem to be lots of dog-whistle terms in this article to wake up the faithful. If I were in this community, I’d probably understand what he’s trying to say. I suppose that for those people, this vague claim works, but let’s move on to the more interesting point, Chamberland’s attack on the use of the scientific consensus.

Government’s conflict of interest?

Science struggles to do the right thing, but we’re told that government isn’t helping.

The task is made even more difficult by an across-the-board failure of ethics within the profession [of science], created by the billions of research dollars poured into anthropogenic climate change [by government].

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Government money with an agenda bothers you, when on the opposing side is the energy industry? I’ll see your billions of dollars and raise you the many trillions of dollars of market capitalization of those companies.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the publicly traded energy companies Exxon Mobile, Petro China, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Sinopec, Gazprom, Total, and British Petroleum? They have a market capitalization of $1.5 trillion. That turns out to be the low estimate for the market value of the world’s largest company, state-owned Saudi Aramco. It alone is valued at up to $7 trillion. Don’t forget the enormous state-owned oil companies in Mexico, Venezuela, Kuwait, Malaysia, Algeria, Iran, Indonesia, Nigeria, and other countries.

The fossil fuel industry is enormous and powerful, and they like the status quo just as it is, thank you very much. You don’t think they’re eager to spend billions studying climate change, do you? Sometimes the “follow the money” game can bite you.

He’s back with concern about the Dark Forces:

[The government is] entirely biased against any approach, study or theory except the one championed and paid for, solely reflecting the government’s predetermined, ethically conflicted, politically and economically motivated, self-serving theories.

Again, I’m missing the big conspiracy, so let’s set that aside. Was research on GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) burdened by some demand for a government-imposed finding? Smallpox vaccine? Internet? Cancer research? Or if they’re too goal-driven, consider work on the Higgs boson or the Cassini spacecraft. Science often just follows the evidence.

Evil consensus

This has been somewhat tangential to the main point, the attacks on the scientific consensus when it is unwanted. Nevertheless this has illustrated the kinds of games that can be played to defend an anti-consensus position.

As an example of the misuse of consensus, Chamberland gives the book A Hundred Authors Against Einstein, published in German in 1931 as a criticism of relativity. His conclusion:

This consensus-based, adolescent pile-on of Einstein historically backfired in a rather spectacular way, as all consensus schemes are wont to do.

Let’s consider this example. Suppose that

  • There were just 101 physicists in the world, Einstein and 100 others who wrote this book.
  • Einstein proposed Theory X.
  • The other 100 all thoroughly understood Theory X and Einstein’s reasoning.
  • The other 100 all rejected it.

Given that the relevance of a consensus is its value for outsiders like us rather than the practitioners, what do we conclude? Of course, we conclude that Theory X is not ready for prime time. What else could we conclude? Maybe the theory will mature to sway the other physicists, but we go with the consensus. When the consensus changes, so does our opinion.

Chamberland might handwave, “But Einstein was right with relativity!” I agree, but how do we know? Because (and only because) it’s now the consensus! When it’s Einstein vs. the Hundred, it’s not like there’s an arbiter who can settle the argument. Consensus as our arbiter is imperfect, but it’s the best approximation we have.

Let’s return to A Hundred Authors Against Einstein. This example crumbles because it wasn’t the clean thought experiment I’ve just outlined. By the publication date of this book, relativity was already well accepted within the scientific community, and the consensus was on Einstein’s side. More important, there was only a single physicist in the list! This wasn’t even an attempt at a consensus.

This is like the Disco Institute’s misguided attack on evolution, “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” In it, around a thousand scientists skeptical of evolution have added their names, but how many are biologists whose critique of evolution would be relevant? Just like with the relativity attack, almost none have credentials relevant to the issue at hand.

How does Chamberland expect we laypeople to respond to the scientific consensus? Maybe he likes the Kim Davis approach where every elected official makes their own conscience the ultimate arbiter for any action. “Sure, I’ll follow the law,” she says, “as long as it satisfies my morality.” A Kim Davis world would have county clerks deciding who can get married, Jehovah’s Witness nurses avoiding blood transfusions, Muslim police officers arresting women dressing immodestly, and racist judges deciding cases based on white supremacist principles.

Chamberland analogously imagines each of us deciding things on first principles. “Sure, I’ll accept germ theory (or quantum theory or evolution),” Chamberland says, “once I give it a good review.” Nothing is settled for us, and a 6000-year-old earth is no less an option than one 4.5 billion years old. Creationism, phlogiston, ether, bodily humors, astrology, alchemy, flat earth—they are all in play if there is no consensus.

In his next tirade, I recommend that Chamberland acknowledge the elephant in the room, that he seems to accept scientific theories based on whether he likes the conclusion or not. That may not be his underlying drive, but it sure looks like it.

Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact
as the roundness of the Earth.
NewScientist, 2008.

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, flickr, CC

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