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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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Between Christmas & New Years Eve

San Diego:  Another cold rainy day here in Southern California created, almost certainly according to contemporary theory, by us carbon emitting freakazoids all Hell-bent on destroying the planet and turning it into a huge space desert sort of like Mars except hotter.  According to the logical extension of the theory the continual heat we humans (helped by flatulent cows) generate with our industry and cars will melt all ice caps, flood the coasts and move food production further north until the Rocky Mountains become an island chain like the soon to be submerged Hawaii,  all the while baking the equatorial regions.  Further, since some of the true believers seem to assert that we have already passed the tipping point and the earth’s environment cannot ever — ever — recover on its own for millions of years, the continued heating will slowly turn the planet into a a spherical Sahara and unless the few remnant humans can survive off of lizards and cactii, in a few hundred years we are all doomed.

I’m not worried though;  the other prevalent theory at play is that on December 21, 2012, the world as we know it will all end anyway since the Mayan Calendar’s “long count” ends on that day.  Or perhaps if it ends on that date then December 21 will be normal but December 22 simply won’t happen and we will all awaken to oblivion.  But in either case there will not be time for all of the ice caps to melt.

In any case (and I personally believe neither theory) the scenarios do provide an excellent foundation for some serious thought and introspection.  If, in absolute, undeniable and unchangeable fact we were dead certain that the world would end about 104 weeks from now, that is, if instead of a 2-minute warning all of the human teams on the field got a 2 year warning before the game was over — permanently — how would we play out the game for those last two years? What would gain in importance and what would lose in importance?

How would the accumulation of wealth stack up against the accumulation of friends and relationships?  Would we still feel that at the end for all of us, the one with the most toys wins?  Of what value would be a better car or a bigger house or a nicer suit if in 2 years it would all be wiped away.  Our stuff would not be given to the kids or the pets as a bequest, but wiped away along with the kids and pets and everyone to whom you might wish to leave it.  What value then would it have and to whom?  They say no one yet has said on their deathbed that they wished they had spent more time at the office and less with their loved ones.  What if we all knew to a scientific certainty that on a specific date, our planet would simply vaporize and cease to exist?  What would become important to you when survival was no longer a possibility and therefore not an issue for which to plan.  Would you want to spend more time at the office?

Or…. would your family and your loved ones take on a whole new level of value.  Would you want to try to tie up some of those nagging loose ends of your life, resolve issues with people you’ve knowingly wronged so you could march into the blackness or whatever awaits on another plane with your mind free, your heart clean, and your spirit unburdened by regret for what might have been?  Or would you spend the time in a panic stricken, high stress effort to prolong the inevitable; turning your back on all human comfort to discover the flaw in the theory, error of measurement or equation that would obviate the prediction of disaster?

If you knew that somehow, you could cast some accurate bit of yourself and of the history of your last days out into space and that millennia hence that bit of flotsam would be picked up by a passing craft from another world, how would you like them to think of you?    If you knew that the destruction might send into space bits of debris from all over, some of which might be records of us  humans in our final days and hours, or even that the radio and TV broadcasts beaming into space might someday reach the ears of other sentient beings, how would you want us. the inhabitants of the planet earth, to be seen?  As petty, warring, ego-centric, miserably penurious wretches?   Obviously some individuals will react poorly and try to take advantage of the situation even if there is no real advantage to be taken.  But my question is not to them it is to you… what would YOU do with your remaining time.

The closest analogy we can get is someone with terminal illness knowing about when the end will come.  But that is not an exact match since the world and the lives around them will go on past their time.  For them there are others to worry about, others to try to take care of, the comfort of a continuity that will survive them.  But in our scenario that continuity, at least for this life, does not exist.  The only possible continuity would be a spiritual one of which we know nothing for certain and can only hope or believe somehow transcends this mortal one.  So in the normal sense all continuity for humanity would be lost and our worries for them beyond the specified date pointless.

So my core question is, whether or not the world will end in 2 minutes, 2 years, or 2 millennia, if we all adopted the behavior consistent with it ending no more than 2 years out, could we not make our earth a far better place?   if so then I would propose that as one of our collective New Year’s resolutions for 2011, we resolve to look at life: our lives and the lives of our fellow humans, as if we had but 2 years to continue to exist and see if, in those two years we develop some new habits that would serve us all better just in case, slim chance that it might be to some, that the Mayans simply ended that calendar and had not gotten around to starting another one to follow when the Spaniards brought about their own end which they did not seem to foretell.

They say people won’t change for the better until the “known” becomes worse or scarier than the unknown.  Well, it is hard to imagine a worse “known” that knowing the world will end on a date certain.  So how can we individually change for the better?  Don’t worry about others in this case and in terms of them handling the situation.  Two years is not enough time to correct the world’s woes, not enough time to turn a species’s nature into something completely different, and not nearly enough time to save the downtrodden from themselves.  Many would simply give up; that is, as it is now, a conscious choice; you cannot help them until they chose to make a different choice.     Many would be in denial and go about life as usual; you cannot help them because they too would have made a conscious choice.  Some would spend it in a long party, others in a long prayer session.   But how about you?  If, however, you looked at and researched the science behind the prediction and found it to be unassailable and universally accepted and reinforced (unlike the two theories we are using as a spring board here which, if they share anything, share the same marginal levels of scientific integrity and consensus) what would you do with the remaining two years for you and the rest of humanity?

 

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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