Scientific consensus: a crutch for scientism

Time for a triad of quotes. To start, look out for the word consensus in this statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009:

As the U.S. Senate considers climate change legislation, AAAS joined with leading scientific organizations to send a letter to all senators reaffirming the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and that greenhouse gases from human activities are the primary driver.

Second is this highly biased letter to the editor from Tom Fehringer in 2013; while it makes reference to evidence, note too its reliance on consensus:

Evolution has overwhelming evidence to support it, whereas creationism has none…

In an article about people that reject scientific consensus, Steven Novella MD made the following observation, “It seems absurd, when you really look at it, to substitute your own opinion based upon reading a smattering of simplified popular writings for that of the consensus of scientific experts who live and breath[e] the science. Humility and reason dictate that the consensus view should be given appropriate respect…Just be extremely cautious before you believe your opinions trump those of hundreds or thousands of working scientists.”…

The short version of this is that, due to overwhelming evidence there is a scientific consensus in support of the theory of evolution; there isn’t any scientific evidence to support creationism; and the attempts to discredit science and evolution are invalid and misleading.

Now, remembering that word (consensus), read this analysis from Jay W. Richards in 2017:

So how do we distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom? And how do we tell crankish imperviousness to evidence from legitimate skepticism?” Do we have to trust whatever we’re told is based on a scientific consensus unless we can study the science ourselves? When can you doubt a consensus? When should you doubt it?

Your best bet is to look at the process that produced, defends and transmits the supposed consensus. I don’t know of any complete list of signs of suspicion. But here’s a checklist to decide when you can, even should, doubt a scientific “consensus,” whatever the subject

A consensus should be based on solid evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on climate change may be enough to justify suspicion.

To adapt that old legal rule, when you’ve got solid scientific evidence on your side, you argue the evidence.

When you’ve got great arguments, you make the arguments.

When you don’t have solid evidence or great arguments, you claim consensus.

Quote sources

  1. Somers, B. (2009). AAAS Joins Leading Scientific Organizations in Letter to Senators Reaffirming Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Available https://www.aaas.org/news/aaas-joins-leading-scientific-organizations-letter-senators-reaffirming-scientific-consensus. Last accessed 1st May 2017
  2. Fehringer, T. (2013) Scientific Consensus in Support of the Theory of Evolution [letter to the editor]. South Platte Sentinel, July 10. Available http://www.southplattesentinel.com/2013/07/scientific-consensus-support-theory-evolution/. Last accessed 1st May 2017
  3. Richards, J.W. (2017). Heading into Today’s March, Here’s When to Doubt a Scientific “Consensus”. Evolution News and Science Today. Available https://www.evolutionnews.org/2017/04/heading-into-todays-march-heres-when-to-doubt-a-scientific-consensus/. Last accessed 1st May 2017
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