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.

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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.

I'm not talking about the appearance of a consensus, but about the consensus itself. If the helmet thing is based only on a study, then it's not a consensus in science, but in media. What I'm talking about is cases like the AGW where virtually all National Academies of Science in the developed world and all institutes, that have gotten huge results in the past, have issued official statements about their conclusions on climate change. That's a consensus, not what most people think about a subject.

I don't care about how informed scientists are on philosophical issues, or religion, or anything like that. All I care about is their precise field of expertise in which there is no one better than... well, the experts. All I'm saying is that, if physicists say the General Theory of Relativity is accurate, then it would be ridiculous for a non-physicist to believe it is not. And I encounter such people on a daily basis, whether it's about physics, climate, biology or whatever.


All I'm saying is that science is hard, really hard, and that, if you didn't study a field of science for years and even decades, don't think you can revolutionize it just because you read something on the Web!


This may sound obvious to you, but most people have beliefs that contradict science in every way possible and think it's OK. Maybe they think science is mere opinion, as valid as anyone else's, I don't know. To these people all I can say is that, if they are to have opinions contradicting evolution for example, they should firstly try to disprove the Wiener–Khinchin theorem, for instance. Most people probably won't understand a thing even from its definition (power spectral density, wide-sense-stationary random process, Fourier transform, autocorrelation function), let alone its proof. They won't understand it because science is hard and needs studying a lot, and evolution, climate change and everything else which doesn't sound as strange as the W-K theorem, are science too and they're equally hard.

I wish I knew. I guess that increasing scientific literacy wouldn't do much harm, but the actual details of this are beyond my grasp.


I only started this discussion to see whether what I thought was reasonable actually made sense to other intelligent people and naturally enough I thought of T|A. :)

I really wish other communities were like this one, because the other atheist community that I was talking about is packed with loonies.

Oh, it was a group on Facebook for atheists from my country. Highly aggressive towards each other about any opinion.

I've been called an AGW fundamentalist for discussing the meaning of the consensus in general and saying that it would apply to climate change too. I don't even know how conclusive the data really is, I was merely stating all the National Academies of Science and other institutes that have issues official statements about this thing, but I was apparently a fundamentalist for doing so. Some were saying that I was appealing to authority and that science is done with evidence. Of course I agreed about the last thing, but I was saying that we would need to study a lot to understand and analyze the data properly. Then I was basically called stupid for not being able to grasp such a simple concept as AGW and for "surrendering" my mind to others.

Apparently some can do science just fine on blogs and forums. That's when it was evident for me that these people haven't properly studied science for one hour in their whole lives and thought it could be done by surfing the Internet.

[...]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.

Unfortunately, few people have a basic grasp of what science is and how it works.  I think that, even though I hated science in school, wasn't every good at it, I was able to come out with a decent understanding of science as a method, a discipline for understanding "how things work."  And, as I understand it, part of science (well, part of many disciplines) is consensus - otherwise there'd be too much time spent reinventing the wheel, so to speak, and not enough time spent moving forward.   But for those who are doing science that has something direct, immediate to say about "how things work" the scientific consensus can come up against an ideological or a political/economic consensus.   That, I believe, is the case with AGW.  Yes, there is scientific consensus on AGW.  The implications that flow out of that consensus - i.e., the various possible solutions to the problems of AGW -  run headlong against certain political/economic ideologies.  But instead of saying we don't like the possible solutions to this problem because it would destroy our freedoms, national sovereignty, whatever - those who value their ideology over the reality of "how things work" attack the science itself.  And, if the science is wrong than there is no need to impose solutions their ideologies tell them are undesireable.  It would be lovely if everyone agreed to live in the reality-based world and it would be lovely if AGW deniers would say, okay, don't like it but the evidence of AGW seems to be pretty unequivocable, let's see if we can't put on our thinking caps and come up with solutions that address AGW and also address our concerns about freedom, sovereignty, etc.   I guess that would be too much to ask.   Instead, they mislead and lie not only about the problems of AGW but also about science in general thereby diminishing the already low level of scientific literacy in this country and elsewhere.

I think part of what I was trying to say here is what Adriana just said:  many people are AGW deniers not based on good faith analysis of the science but rather based on their political ideology (as Adriana said "fundamentalist" free marketeers).   They simply do not like the political/economic implications of a finding that, yes, AGW is a big problem that we must do something about.  And, like Adriana, I have seen many comments from these so-called AGW "skeptics" on atheist forums. 

re: those maps that were posted... notice how Canada, with our meager 30 million people is the dark red. There are interesting ties between our politics and the USA's. Canada is the USA's main supplier of petroleum, not the Arab world, most of our oil is extracted in Alberta, TAR SANDS are a major source of Albertan oil. The TAR SANDS extraction process alone produces more green house gases than all Canadian motor vehicles put together. The TAR SANDS earn petrochemical companies A LOT OF MONEY. Albertan politics are completely entwined with petrochemical money. Canada's TAR SANDS are the single largest industrial project in the world (area of England and Wales combined). The United Nations has declared them to be the singlest greatest weather changer on the planet. The Syncrude (crudely made) dam holds back 3x more fluid than the Three Gorges Dam on the Yantze River.


Is there any action against any of this, other than talk, zero. When reality stands between profit and people, profit always wins.


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