Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Science versus the Consensus

To begin, I was raised in an environment that considered Science and Politics to be completely different beasts. Of the two, politics is considered inferior: If you weren't bright enough to do science, you could always go into politics. I retain that prejudice today. I also subscribe to an older and tougher tradition that regards science as the business of developing theories to explain observable phenomena, then testing those theories against measured data from the Real World. Untestable hypotheses are not Science. Unproven theories may be based in science, but are still not (necessarily) Truth.

BTW - When did "skeptic" become a dirty word in science? When did the word require quotation marks around it? Just asking...

By example, and in what will be a surprise to some, I believe that environmental awareness and understanding is critically important. The environment is our shared life support system; it is what we pass on to the next generation. How we act today has consequences — potentially serious consequences, and especially in the financial and political realms — for future generations.

But I have also come to believe that the current 'conventional wisdom' (e.g., 'the consensus') with respect to the environment is unscientific, badly out of date, and ultimately damaging to the very environment it supposes to 'protect'. Example: Yellowstone National Park has raw sewage seeping out of the ground. A century of direct 'management' of Yellowstone has proven time and again to be disastrous in the extreme. We must be doing something wrong. We have been arrogantly ignorant with the best of intentions.

IMHO, the 'consensus' approach to man-made global warming (AGW) is a prime example of everything that is wrong with our approach to the environment. We are basing decisions on speculation, not evidence. (Do I have to repeat - again! - that models are not evidence?) AGW Proponents are pushing their views with more PR than with actual scientific data and conclusions derived directly therefrom. Indeed, we have allowed the whole issue to be politicized: red vs blue, Republican vs Democrat, etc.. This is absurd.

Data are not political: Data are data (or, as Aristotle said, “A is A”, a thing is itself). Politics, unlike science, leads you in the direction of a Belief, whereas data - if you follow where it leads - (eventually) uncovers truth. Yes, by that definition, Politics qualifies as a 'religion'.

Like many, I experienced my early and formative youth at the height of the Cold War. In school drills, I crawled under my desk as instructed just in case there was a nuclear attack. (Later, this practice declined for no stated reason, but with the unspoken acknowledgment that such actions were - in the Real World - quite useless: a waste of time and effort; but at that time, *everyone* knew it was the Right Thing To Do.)

Even at that young age, I recognized a world dominated by widespread fear and uncertainty, but held fast to a belief that Science represented the best and greatest hope for mankind. Politics is a world of hate and danger, of irrational beliefs and fears, of mass manipulation and disgraceful blots on human history. Intentions don't matter: A is A.

Science was represented by an international scope, forging friendships and working relationships across national boundaries and political systems, encouraging a dispassionate habit of thought, and ultimately leading to knowledge and new technologies that would benefit all mankind. Science is and has been THE great hope for our troubled and restless world. Beyond extending lifespan, feeding the hungry, curing and treating diseases, expanding communications and the distribution of information world-wide - I wanted science to be, as Carl Sagan said, "a candle in a demon haunted world."

However, I am increasingly disturbed that science has (apparently) been seduced by the lures of political power and easy publicity. Too many of the demons that haunt our world today are actually the invention of scientists. IMHO, the world has not benefited from permitting these demons to roam free. And demands to follow the consensus are at the root of that danger. (Am I the only one that remembers all those movies with a theme of "let the scientists run the world and we'll have Utopia?")

I believe a 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 phrase, “a consensus of scientists agrees” on something, hold on tight to your wallet.

The work of science has nothing whatsoever to do with 'consensus'. Consensus is really the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one researcher - whether proposing or challenging a theory - 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 to science, is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

Remember: if ONE PERSON (even a non-scientist!) can disprove a theory Wrong - or just a critical element of same - then the theory is FALSE (again: A is A). Personally, I do not consider the track record of 'consensus' as necessarily something to be proud of. ("That's a bold statement: where are your examples, Steve?") Consider:

1. For centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth: one woman in six died, directly related to the fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested the fevers were an infectious process, and further claimed he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes stated puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that simple sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. In fact, there was no agreement on the causes of puerperal fever - despite the continuing deaths of women - until the start of the twentieth century. The consensus took 125 years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent "skeptics" around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored.

2. In the 1920s, here in the U.S., tens of thousands - mostly poor - were dying of a disease called pellagra. The consensus of scientists said it was infectious, and what was necessary was to find the "pellagra germ." The US government asked Dr. Joseph Goldberger to find the cause. Goldberger concluded that diet was the crucial factor. The consensus remained wedded to the germ theory. Goldberger demonstrated that he could induce the disease through diet. He demonstrated that the disease was not infectious by injecting the blood of a pellagra patient into himself, and his assistant. He and other volunteers swabbed their noses with swabs from pellagra patients, and swallowed capsules containing scabs from pellagra rashes ("Goldberger's filth parties"). Nobody contracted pellagra. The consensus continued to disagree with him. There was, to be sure, a social (political) factor in the disagreement - southern States disliked the idea of poor diet as the cause, because it meant that social reform was required. The consensus continued to deny the evidence for years, for no better reason than it conflicted with the prevailing political agenda.

3. Every schoolchild notices that South America and Africa seem to fit together rather snugly, and Alfred Wegener proposed, in 1912, that the continents had in fact drifted apart. The consensus sneered at the suggestion of continental drift for fifty years. The theory was most vigorously denied by the great names of geology - until 1961, when measurements conclusively presented data suggesting the sea floors were spreading apart. It took the consensus 50 years to acknowledge what any schoolchild sees.

And pure politics is not exempt by an inept consensus - review the effect of Lysenko's policies in Russia (from which they still suffer today), Margret Thatcher's 1981 budget (which worked in spite of the review of a host of'experts', Reagan vs. the Evil Empire (which eventually collapsed under the weight of an economic attack, disguised as a military one) ...

A major media embarrassment of using science for advancing political agenda happened in 1991, when Carl Sagan predicted on Nightline that Kuwaiti oil fires (from the first Gulf War) would produce a nuclear winter effect, causing a "year without a summer," and endangering crops around the world. Sagan stressed this outcome was so likely that "it should affect the war plans." A 'consensus of concerned scientists' rapidly agreed and made many public statements in support of Sagan's position. None of it happened.

… You want more? - Galileo / Copernicus and their helio-centric observations, the Phlogiston theory, Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory, saccharine, margarine, repressed memory, fiber and colon cancer, hormone replacement therapy... In each case, the consensus at that time clearly and vehemently came down on what was ultimately the Wrong Side. The list of errors by 'the consensus' goes on and on...

Now, when demanded to bow down to the opinions of 'the consensus' (or other 'appeals to authority'), I ask one to notice WHEN and WHERE the claim of consensus is typically used:

Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science (i.e., the Real World data) is not solid enough for close scrutiny.

Today, nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. Nobody says the consensus is that the world is not flat (at least they say that NOW)... It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. There is no such thing as consensus science. IMHO, "consensus science" is a modern oxymoron on the scale of "jumbo shrimp" and "fresh raisins".

If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

… I'll stop here for now. In future posts, I'll try to address the question: “If you can't trust the consensus, who DO you trust?” Also, I'll post notes on the principles and positions for what I believe and support (some surprises there, to be sure). Stay tuned.

- Steve


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  2. Great post here! I would also like to comment that consensus is has also plagued scientists themselves, although this may be part of your point too. Reading Kuhn's work, "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," is a great testimony to that. You may sympathize with James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis (is it a theory now?) He cites many of the same themes as you do and have found his work to be directly opposed to the current scientific-political agenda. Thanks again for this blog!

  3. Steve, great post. I run a website, Celebrating Sagan (, and I'd like to invite you to write a Carl Sagan article for the site. Feel free to email me at memories [at]



  4. A follow-up on claims it is somehow 'better' to be part of the 'group of leading scientists' (e.g., the 'consensus') and having government backing for their research efforts...

    Go back to the first decade of the 20th century. Check out the history behind 'aeronautics' research. In the end, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio managed to build a heavier-than-air machine capable of powered flight. They did it multiple times and even had visual documentation of their success...

    Meanwhile, one of the nation's 'leading researcher' in that field - who was publicly backed by the powerful and prestigious Smithsonian, and had received extensive amounts of government financial backing - merely wasted a LOT of time and money, the end result of which was a machine that barely managed to crash into the Potomac without flying an inch.

    ...A similar failure in the AGW arena will not be as obvious until a lot of harm is done.

    - Steve