When to Ignore the Scientific Consensus

Good article at stream.org from Jay Richards concerning when to ignore the so-called scientific consensus (article here). Richards identifies 12 signs that should clue you in that a consensus is political rather than scientific:

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are prone to herd instincts. Many false ideas once enjoyed consensus. Indeed, the “power of the paradigm” often blinds scientists to alternatives to their view. Question the paradigm, and some respond with anger.

So how do we distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom?

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. One of these signs may be enough to give pause. If they start to pile up, then it’s wise to be leery.

(1) When different claims get bundled together

(2) When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate

(3) When scientists are pressured to toe the party line

(4) When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish

(5) When dissenters are excluded from the peer-reviewed journals not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but to marginalize them.

(6) When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.

(7) When consensus is declared before it even exists

(8) When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus

(9) When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution


(10) When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies

(11) When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as fairly as possible

(12) When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus

Read the whole article for an explanation of each point.

I would also add that we should be leery of a scientific consensus when the thesis being agreed to has larger worldview implications which are highly important to the scientist in question. So, for example, Richard Dawkins once said that believing in blind neo-Darwinian evolution made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Well, as Dawkins is an atheist, then you can immediately understand why it might be important to him that neo-Darwinian evolution be considered a fact regardless of the evidence for it, or lack thereof. And the same holds true for some many other scientists with a similar worldview as Dawkins’. So indeed, when a scientist’s personal worldview largely rests on a certain scientific theory being true, then we should be skeptical on any consensus about that theory.



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