Philosophy Magazine

RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk

RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific ConsensusWhen discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.
In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…not complying with the consensus view at the time on the origin of biological life. Consensus doesn’t move us forward. As Axe says, “those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.” (5)

In other words – scientists from the past were influenced by human factors as well as data factors. Possibly more so. Our deference to consensus seems to be about sticking with the herd and not straying too far from it. And discouraging others from straying from the consensus view. If that was true for scientists back then – its sure to be true now. Arthur Koestler talks about this principle in play during the formation of cosmology. It’s also present in biology too. 

Now – I’m not suggesting accountability is wrong. Not so – our colleagues keep us honest. What I am criticising – is consensus. Or to put it another way – “group think” holds creative scientific discovery back. It hurts scientific understanding by slowing the formation and adoption of new theories.

Here are three observations about the scientific process and the dangers of group think:

First – this suggests to to me that it takes courage to be the one to stand up and disagree with the consensus – and propose a new idea. It takes courage to put forward a new theory, and back that theory up with evidences. Courage is required because, inevitably, rejection will follow from your peers.

Second – it also suggests to me that scientific consensus does not equate to truth. I wish Darwinians today could wrap their heads around this. Just because the consensus of scientists agree on something does not make their theory true, however scientifically orthodox it may currently be. Rather – the consensus is simply that. The widely held public view of qualified people today. Tho in private – they may say something else entirely.

Thirdly – it suggests to me that anyone who rejects a new theory based on the views of scientific consensus is missing the point of science, and actually behaving in an unhelpful and non-scientific way. Consensus is just the current status quo. Humanity needs people of courage to stand up and propose something that’s new so it can be examined and tested. To simply reject this on the basis of personal and consensus led bias…seems unscientific and harmful to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

The answer to a new scientific theory is not, “Don’t be so silly. No one else believes that because its stupid.” Rather – the answer should be, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s test it together.”

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

Michael Crichton, who went to Medical school and taught anthropology before he authored books like Westworld and Jurassic Park, stood against scientific consensus much more strongly then either Doug Axe or myself. He calls the notion of scientific consensus “pernicious…and the refuge of scoundrels, because it’s the way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” Oh – how familiar that problem is to me today.

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .” (6)

(1) Douglas Axe, Undeniable How Biology Confirms our Intuition That Life Is Designed, (Harper One, 2016), 3.

(2) Online Variorum of Darwin’s Origin of Species: first British edition (1859) comparison with 1872, http://test.darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-483-c-1872.html

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

(6) Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’Links to an external site.,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.


RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

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