So, how much does a consensus in science matter when it comes to believing something that goes against it.

a) For other scientists (in fields relevant to the issue)?

b) For non-scientists?


My answers right now:

a) Not important if the scientists know what they're talking about and publish their work so that they can be criticized by their peers. Contesting the consensus is a basic principle of science.

It's not OK, though, for these scientists to make their claims in the media and basically to manipulate people by doing so. I don't mean there should be an embargo or anything, just that they shouldn't advertise for something that is considered wrong by most other scientists. Non-scientists will get the wrong impression that there is a greater debate in the scientific community than it really is. Examples of this are creationism, global warming deniers, relativity challengers and so on. Not that these claims should be taboo, but those who are doing the research shouldn't advertise that their findings are genuine. Let them convince their peers first, because the only reason to advertise such claims is to convince ignorant people of something they wouldn't accept because of the evidence for these claims. This evidence is to be studied by professionals, who have spent their careers studying just so that they are qualified to properly analyze data and derive a conclusion.


b) Very important, because the consensus says a lot about the likelihood of the claims being true. While it is certainly true that only evidence should be used to drive science forward, non-scientists are by definition not capable of correctly analyzing this evidence. What most people can rely on is what the experts tell them. How else could someone who hasn't studied years in a particular field of science conclude that most scientists in that field are wrong? This would only happen if the non-scientist was manipulated through the media, like how those who believe in intelligent design really do believe it because they saw some scientists claiming it's real. As retarded as it sounds, there really are biologists, with PhDs and everything, who are claiming that ID has validity. This brings me to my next point, which is that it also matters who these scientists are. I mean, it's one thing if the let's say 3% of the scientists, who are making a certain claim that goes against the 97% left, are people who only have PhDs but no real achievements in their field and therefore real knowledge, and quite another if the best in their field are included in those 3%. There is a great difference between those who are pushing science forward and those who are merely happy to call themselves scientists.


So, my point is that we should look at the scientific consensus and believe it, as a reasonable thing to do, rather than contest it with no real backbone to support our claims. I mean, amongst tons of scientific studies, how could we decide that the 3% that support our preconception are right? It would be arbitrary at best. But to decide that it's more likely that the consensus is right is statistically reasonable. That's because the consensus is right most of the time claims are made that contradict it, even if these claims are made by scientists and published in scientific journals. When the claims convince most scientists, then we should accept their probable validity.


What do you think about all this stuff?


P.S. I started this discussion after arguing global warming and racial differences with some atheists from my country. Some of them were citing studies that said global warming is not anthropogenic and others that said race is a factor in the statistical differences between certain features of populations with the same skin color. Instead of trying to bring forward scientific evidence to counter their claims, I decided to appeal to reason and show the consensus. While they agreed that there is a consensus, they kept saying that science is not done on consensus. But I was trying to explain them that we aren't qualified to investigate the issues scientifically and that we couldn't decide which studies are true and which are not. What we can do is look at the consensus and conclude that the claims that counter it aren't substantiated enough to convince most scientists of their veracity. But in vain I cited National Academies of Science from all over the world and most other great institutes for research, they kept claiming that science is not done on consensus, as if that would mean anything in that particular context.

Although they are atheists, I don't regard them any better than I regard creationists, conspiracy theorists, flat-Earth adepts or geocentric universe believers. They only rely on the preconceptions they got from the media and that's not good enough for people who want to be rational.

Tags: consensus, science

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Doesn't anyone have an opinion on this? I think it's pretty important to discuss such matters in times when anti-scientific thoughts are rampant in our society.


Am I crazy for believing that science isn't accessible enough to be refuted by people who haven't studied it in detail? I only ask this because I have seen this approach too often in atheists even. Am I the only one not thinking that I am a god of science for reading some stuff on the Web, instead of studying it for years and decades? Is it that easy to dismiss the scientific community as just an authority to which we shouldn't appeal?

I am 18 years old and don't have a formal education in a biology, cosmology, physics, or what have you, I have a basic understanding of these topics that I have a great interest in, but for me to debate the likes of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins would be futile, for the have a formal education and have been studying these topics for years, where I have only self-educated.


So I agree with you, a carpenter probably doesn't have sufficient knowledge to refute Hawking Radiation, or most of evolutionary biology.   

It should be!
*Loop Johnny and 3 more liked this!*

As I have heard Prof. Brian Cox (from the LHC) say, "science is hard, very hard".


That is probably one reason that people turn to easier explanations for things, such as religion. That sees to give them an answer for everything but, in fact, answers nothing.

It seems that we are in perfect agreement about this. But what can we say to people who are obviously too ignorant to contradict the consensus, but who don't realize it? This was the case for me in many discussions in which I mentioned the consensus about evolution, relativity, climate change and so on. These people would still say that science is not done on consensus and that they were right, even though all their "knowledge" came from the Internet, while scientists are studying these things all their professional lives.


I guess we have to know a thing or two in order to realize just how little we know. Most people don't realize how much work goes into the scientific process of finding out the truth.

There does seem to be an inverse relationship between passion and ignorance on many hot topics.
Ha!  Maybe I feel so strongly about this formula because of all the missing values?
You're right about the effect of passion. Ignorant people fall for passion and eloquence. Or even oppositely, I'm confounded by the number of ignorant people who hold Obama's eloquence as proof that he's a master deceiver.

To distinguish between good science and bad science, strict scientific understanding of a topic is not the only issue at hand. As a modern cultural artificial civilisation, where priorities and knowledge are controlled by an intellectual and financial elite, other than understanding the very fundamentals of a science, the other tools are understanding fundamental human motivations. In the legal world, the crime and the evidence are but a part of the trial, motivation is a huge component of the legal process. Murder without intent is not murder, it's homicide.  The same is true of science. Evidence and results and conclusions are but one aspect that make up the validity of studies. There is timing, and funding, and politics, and choices to publish, or not, or hold back. There are excellent studies that get held back and crap studies that get published. There are scientists starving for funding or others swayed by riches who will twist results. Science is not politics-free. And following the money trail can be as important as reading a set of results and/or their interpretation. Many atheists believe that as soon as a scientists writes up a conclusion, that's a done deal, a few of those and voilà, consensus! The best way for a non-scientifically astute atheist to get a grip on the validity of a study is to follow the money, be a detective, who stands to profit, who stands to lose. In our society, the financial value of winning and losing are a much stronger impetus than truth.


So it's good to look at individual studies sceptically. And when great storms of controversy seem to want to tear science apart, look at motive and contextual circumstance. Every single decision/action in society favours one group against another. There is no such thing as 'equally beneficial to all'.


Take the science surrounding claims of genetic underpinnings to homosexuality. No matter the final consensus decades down the road, someone will win someone will lose. If homosexuality is concluded to be mostly genetic, we'd be stuck with disease/cures/pharmacology/genetic therapy/baby selection/reproductive issues. If on the other hand the final conclusion decades down the road is that homosexuality is mostly nurtured, then we'll have psychologists/conversions/'fakers'/child-retraining/social pressures. Even when science provides answers, they are not always useful answers. Because people will do what they will with them.


With races and AGW, there are huge power shifts and money at stake.

This sounds too much like a conspiracy frenzy to me. Maybe I didn't understand it well, but are you saying that there are ideas about which there is an apparent consensus among scientists and which are in fact, not the result of actual science, but of politics and stuff like that? If so, are these conspiracies happening all over the world?


And finally, do you think that AGW, for example, is in fact the result of political games?


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