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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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.

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.

No conspiracy at all, I generally dislike the concept. AGW denialists have their own financial motivations, that's why I distrust them, conflict of interest is hardly ever benign. I am a biologist not a climatologist or geologist, so to assess veracity beyond my general scientific knowledge, I must not limit myself to a strictly science approach and look at motive.


I will give you one example, which needs a separate discussion to be sure, in which the popular notion is that there is scientific consensus when there isn't. The case that bicycle helmets save lives by preventing 88% of head injuries, a study that was subsequently admitted to be faulty, but keeps getting quoted over and over again, not unlike the vaccine/autism study. In Canada, this single faulty study has become the religious mantra of public healthcare. In reality, a variety of studies - in several countries - have demonstrated that helmets have a limited use in mitigating total impact. Most of the empirical 'science' for helmets come from the helmet producing industry itself. In football and hockey, head injury statistics have gone up since helmet use, and the head honchos (pardon the pun) of these sports have pondered on this question. The conclusion? helmets brought a renewed violence to the games and this sells more tickets, so the increased head injuries are a secondary concern. The fact that head injuries of footballers in USA football cause them to have a shorter lifespan (55 yrs!) is considered secondary to the sport's profit margin. Once an instrument of protection, the helmet is now a weapon of mass devastation (Suicide by Quarterback - Football Players Dying Young). For cyclists, the false sense of security and faulty prioritising sends incompetent cyclists onto the streets and lulls parents into believing that once the helmet is on, their child is 'safe'. When in fact in Canada over 90% of head injuries happen within the home, so if our single payer healthcare was honest in its policy making, we would look at prioritising injury reduction where it will have the most impact. Helmets reduce the impact of collision, but they do absolutely nothing to help reduce collisions, in fact, most studies indicate they increase collision rate through the law of unintended consequences (something else many people chose to ignore). When the speed differential is small (40-lb stationary child falls to ground) most of the impact is attenuated, but in high speed collisions (motor vehicles) the force of impact is large enough to exceed the helmet's engineering (tested only at low impact levels and in limited scenarios) and the helmet only slightly mitigates the impact. So does a helmet protect a child's head while playing in the backyard yes, does it significantly increase and adult's survival in a car crash no.... yet, helmet use is in reverse proportion to this.


Is there the 'appearance' of consensus in this matter... yes. Is this consensus grounded in quality science, no. If cycle helmets were simply a matter of personal decision, it might not be a huge issue. But entire public policy is being based on faulty science, and that is sad.


Motorcycles are an entirely different situation,
with an entirely differently engineered helmet.


Consensus is extremely important, but it is not the absolute final word in the truth seeking process.

[...]It would be pretty short sighted for a any reasonable person [...] to not hee d caution given the potential of the phenomena to destroy, or at least nearly bankrupt,  the global economy.[...]


Most corporate leaders have no interest in the long term survivability of a corporation nor the 'global' market per se. CEO's are brought in from the marketplace and paid huge sums of money to increase immediate profits to shareholders. Corporations can be worth more dead than alive. Our late 20th century version of capitalism is ALL about short-term profit, then moving on to the next cash cow.

Short sightedness is one the common criticisms of modern citizens against our present outlook even among capitalist devoted citizens. We suck corporations and resources dry, legally and illegally, and we move on.

I'm totally in favour of a true free market, but the colour of capitalism has changed.

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.


People that have a belief or promote any of the unfounded claims ( defined as bullshit or bollocks ) actually know they cannot prove it. In that case you are afraid that you might get turned down and, when that happens, you would somehow reassure yourself that "He is wrong, I am right", thus making the scientific consensus look like an invalid source just because it has different views to yours ( which might be wrong ). 


It all comes from that. If science cannot accept your ridiculous claims you start denying science as valid. After that point comes ignorance and stupidity. Consensus is meaningless if science is viewed that way.


Some people like their belief more than truth. Or worse, they consider it the truth without being certain about it. Or worse, they somehow think they are certain about it. The worst: ignorance and the illusion of knowledge.


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