Friday, January 18, 2013

On Scientific Consensus ~ by David Barash

While putting together my post "What consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming?" I came across this article by David Barash.  I thought he did an excellent job of reviewing the concept of "scientific consensus" and I asked the Chronicle of Higher Education for permission to reprint it.  They forwarded me to David Barash himself, who graciously gave me permission to reprint his article.
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On Scientific Consensus
By David Barash ~ July 18, 2012


Isaac Newton, painted by Godfrey Kneller. 
The late Sir Isaac wasn't shy about making use of a prior "scientific consensus."
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Responding to a recent post by our own Mark Bauerlein, a commenter (flailing—and failing—to find justification for her disavowal of the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming) noted that she was “trying [unsuccessfully, one gathers] to think of a concept that is more ‘anti-science’ than consensus.” I find this observation to be uncharacteristically thought-provoking on her part, although in this case she is—characteristically—wrong-headed and downright uninformed. I fear, however, that she is not alone.
It may be that some people, lacking any real concept of science, are indeed under the impression that consensus is somehow inimical to the scientific process.  They couldn’t be more incorrect.
Like nearly all human endeavors, and perhaps more than most, science is a cumulative enterprise. Discoveries build on earlier findings, occurring within a context of what is known; i.e., what constitutes a scientific consensus. Otherwise, we would each have to discover every truth for ourselves, leaving little if any room for what can legitimately be called intellectual progress. One would think that even conservatives, who ostensibly have special reverence for received wisdom, would understand this.
Perhaps they have been misled by a recent, regrettable trend in what can only be called cowardly journalism, whereby it is felt necessary to give “both sides” to every story, such that any claim, no matter how outlandish, warrants being aired. (More likely: Conservatives did much to generate such journalism, by their insistence that the media are “liberal biased” to which the media – more pusillanimous than liberal – responded by giving equal time to every claim, no matter how spurious.) 
To be sure, science differs from most other enterprises in the degree to which it must be open to new information, to questioning of prior dogmas. And here, regrettably, the apostles of non-science have cleverly perceived a potential chink in the armor of science, arguing, for example, that it is “unscientific” to deny equal time to creationism, or that it is unseemly and “unscientific” to acknowledge the overwhelming consensus regarding global warming.
They are right that science must always be open to alternative views, but not so open-minded as to let our brains fall out, or our planet overheat, or that we need give equal time to flat-earthers or purveyors of comparable snake oil.
There is crucial consensus in many scientific domains, even identified dogmas, such as what is unblushingly known as the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology – that information flows from nucleic acids to proteins and not vice versa
There is a comparable scientific consensus on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, on relativity (special as well as general), on the germ theory of (most) diseases, and so forth. On occasion, of course, a scientific consensus is found to be incorrect, as with the Ptolemaic universe or alchemy, but such corrections are the very stuff of science … and their occurrence doesn’t detract from the importance of consensus as a summed statement of what science considers true at any given time.
Writing to his scientific rival Robert Hooke, in 1676, Isaac Newton famously noted: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” a phrase, by the way, that Newton may have borrowed from a non-scientist, the 12th century theologian John of Salisbury, who, in his treatise on logic wrote that “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
In short, we get somewhere—albeit most of us not nearly as far as did Newton!—by consensus.
Absent such consensuses (consensi?), science would be a series of idiosyncratic random walks. Instead, we all rely heavily on the findings of others, which is why misrepresentation of scientific data is such a serious (and blessedly rare) misdeed. It is also a wonderfully self-correcting enterprise, since unlike, say, theology, it is firmly grounded in what we confidently call “reality,” our understanding of which is due not only to our personal discoveries but on—you guessed it—consensus.
And you can bet there’s scientific consensus on that, too.

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