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Consensus and the Myth of Scientific Certainty

This is an edited “repost” of a Facebook entry in which I waded off into the deep water when one time too many I was told that any opposition to scientific consensus was too stupid to be taken seriously.  It came after I questioned a Facebook meme using a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, someone I like a lot but this time it pushed me over an edge.

Let me start by making it clear: I like Neil DeGRasse Tyson a lot. He is a brilliant presenter and top rate speaker and, I assume, a first-class scientist in his own field. (Yes, I confess I much preferred Carl Sagan’s original version of “Cosmos” but still I did enjoy the Tyson remake.)  But I am tired of seeing meme after meme using his picture or quotes to back up some claim or other about science, especially when it carries the implication of him asserting something he would certainly know better than to affirm.

Appealing presenter of palatable science that he is, his presentation was not entirely free of somewhat grievous error, especially when he steps outside his actual discipline.  Sometimes he allows the narrative to stray into other disciplines and in one case it strayed into mine.  And into a topic in which I knew him to be in error.  Like Ptolemaeus, the brilliant mathematician and astronomer of ancient Alexandria who went on to essentially codify what we now refer to as Astrology, he can be brilliant and still be dead wrong.  In Episode 4 of Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” there appears a fascinating assertion: that William Herschel, one of the great scientists of his day, invented photography.

I’ll just let that sink in for all you photographers… especially those of you who are familiar with photo history and that can spell “Niepce” and therefore know better.  Herschel did, it is true, some tinkering and important improvements in the development of the photo image, notably in the chemistry of “fixing” the image; and he was the subject of a delightful portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron — but he was certainly not its inventor,

But the real issue here is the pretense of the validity of consensus in the scientific world. If anyone on the planet should know that scientific consensus has nearly zero value as an indicator of final scientific truth, it should be Tyson — or anyone mildly conversant with scientific inquiry and history or even, for that matter, just familiar with such names as Eratosthenes, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Huygens, Darwin,  Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, Planck,  Hawking — all of whom are rightly famous for major advancements in science achieved by crushing the existing consensus over some bit of commonly accepted scientific ‘truth’ that was the consensus of the day.

If Columbus had accepted Eratosthenes’s calculation as to the earth’s circumference instead of the consensus thinking of his day, he would have known that when he made landfall in the Americas, he was not nearly far enough from his point of origin to be where he claimed he was.   Had he known and claimed the truth that he was setting foot on land unknown to the Europeans, he would have been acclaimed an incredible hero instead of earning his latter reputation as the leader in the greatest navigational blunder in the history of seafaring.

If ever a red flag should be waved fiercely in front of your mind it is when someone tries to convince you of a position because there is a consensus of any group, even scientists, who accept it.  In no field is truth revealed by popular vote or majority rule; and science is, historically, no exception.

Science is not advanced by consensus but by verifiable, repeatable experiments to prove hypotheses following out-of-the-box concepts that take current thinking from an existing plateau to a new level.  It is about quantifiable provable data and not about acceptance or rejection by people with a vested, often career-saving interest in a particular interpretation or preconceived outcome… much less by people with an ideological axe to grind.  Contrary to real scientific traditions and processes, there are, today, certain propositions to which if you do not openly and publicly swear acceptance and allegiance you will not be admitted into the halls of academia because they fit the political narratives and agendae of the current “choir.”.  That is not science; and acquiescence and acceptance of it is not science but rather, in my mind, a betrayal of the scientific traditions.

The problem is that science — good science — exists outside the world of human wishes, beliefs, hopes, fears, and other emotional reactions to phenomena.  Were it not for people refusing to accept an existing consensus we would still be believers in a flat earth and a heliocentric model of the universe, viruses would not exist much less effect health, dinosaur bones would be hoaxes placed by a capricious deity to confuse our minds and tempt us to stray from the proper path, and we would still have no idea about how such common things as “light” actually work and impact our lives.

We are all free to believe or not believe whatever suits us.  Huxley wrote that, “…we tend to believe what we tend to prefer.”  Until it directly effects me I am divinely indifferent to your personal beliefs about most anything.  But if you wish to persuade me of a proposition of ANY sort, especially if it appears to defy common observation or logic, then you need lead your “proofs” with more than simply an assertion of some group’s consensus, even scientist’s groups.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof or verification.  Collective or “group-think” may be extraordinarily (and increasingly) prevalent as a shield from the horrors of intellectual initiative; but it is not extraordinarily likely to be accurate.

The positions or theories about whose truth or accuracy you seek to convince me may or may not actually be accurate, but that status is not a function of any collective believing it to be true.

You could, of course, argue, that I am not a scientist so what do I know about it.  Well, I can read (a dying art these days, I admit).   But still it is a valid counter so I ran this by my friend, Dr. Jeffery Forrest, who teaches earth sciences (among other things) and this was his response.

“There is no “truth” in science. There is only a set of conclusions or premises bases on a plethora of STATED assumptions, delimitations, and limitations – these conclusions are accepted or rejected based on a shared reality of the state-of-being of some construct or system.

“As you have detailed, science reveals clues about the state of some matter (physical or otherwise) that is not absolute – ergo, the infamous disclaimer, “all other factors held constant.”   

“Humanity is a highly insecure animal. Its individuals look to science or faith for the illusive state of Truth – something to sleep well with. It’s a real shocker for most to be confronted with the realism that credible scientists are in the business of describing uncertainty and in doing so perhaps reveal new knowledge (discovery), and that advocates of security through faith, require courage to have that faith despite the uncertainty.”

I rest my case…


 

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Posted by on May 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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