Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Consensus Science and Why We should be Suspicious

I was having a very pleasant conversation with a woman about faith. She then maneuvered the conversation to the question of evolution. It felt like a trap, but I allowed myself to be stood up at the firing line. “Do you believe in evolution,” she asked. If I said that I did, I would pass the test. If I said that I didn’t, the firing squad would be ordered to shoot.

“I think that there are many problems with macro-evolution,” I cautiously responded.

“Well, you just lost me. If you want to be ignorant and oppose science, that’s your business.” She then abruptly hastened away, confident that she had delivered the decisive knock-out blow. However, she wasn’t even a scientist. As far as I could tell she hadn’t even read extensively on the subject. Whhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifere then did her very obvious confidence come from? She had put her faith in our prevailing and ubiquitous cultural biases.

We are too ready to adopt the present consensus of the scientific community as truth. However, there are many good reasons for caution. :

• This is a word redolent of the state of contemporary science. It is a political word, not a scientific one. Most of the great innovations in science have been by individuals, or very small groups, striking out from the prevailing opinion to establish new frontiers. As Einstein is reputed to have remarked, when the Nazis published a book in which one hundred German scientists pronounced him wrong, “It only needed one of them to be right.” There was indeed a “consensus” in physics at the start of the twentieth century that “the science is settled”, but that was blown apart by Einstein and his contemporaries. Most of the great breakthroughs in science are made by those who are in a minority of one. The moral pressure to join the consensus and support the establishment view is substantial, even carrying the threat of dismissal. Such things have no place in a free society. This is not persuasion, it is enforcement. Research funding is exclusively given to proponents of establishment theories and denied to opponents. It is a remarkable tribute to the human spirit that so many dare stand up to the bullies and accept the contemptuous label of “denialist” (not that the general public ever get to hear of them). Others, who have family responsibilities, have to preserve their reservations for private conversation.
Meanwhile, the contemporary consensus club gets all the grants and university positions. If you are not part of this club, you get nothing apart from ridicule and ostracism. The club also has the power to publish whatever studies promote the consensus and suppress whatever findings fail to promote it. The media then falls behind the club’s credentials and reports only its trusted conclusions. Those who oppose the club are marginalized and dismissed as cranks. For instance, the scientists at the Discovery Institute are maligned as religious fanatics who know nothing about science.

It is therefore difficult to see through the club’s assertions that their position is fact. It is also difficult to not adopt the condescending attitudes that cling to these assertions, like mold to rotten food.

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