Image credit: InfoThought
When I wrote a post last week asking why so many people hate environmentalists, RecycleNot brought up a climate skeptic/denialist talking point I hadn't heard in a while—that science does not work by consensus, and that argument from authority is a logical fallacy. On the face of it, it's an attractive argument for those who don't believe in man-made climate change, and one we heard many times when TreeHugger was inundated with 'skeptic' commenters around the time of the Copenhagen talks. At the time, I wrote a piece on why consensus really does matter, but it is worth revisiting. Because at the heart of this argument is a misunderstanding, or a misrepresentation, of what actually constitutes science. First of all, let me say that RecycleNot is absolutely, 100% correct in his/her main assertion. Science does not, and should not, operate by consensus. You can have 99 scientists all claiming, based on current evidence, that the world is flat. And all it takes is 1 pioneer to prove otherwise. But the key word here is 'prove'. And that means a disciplined, evidence-based pursuit of truth as part of the scientific method. (It's worth reviewing a fuller description of how the scientific method works via Wikipedia.)
The trouble is that RecycleNot, and others, take this very important assertion, and use it to suggest that the existence of one or two dissenters in the scientific community—never mind if those dissenters have been proven to be inaccurate, or do not have a solid background in the field being debated—is enough to cast doubt on the current accepted, scientific wisdom. Furthermore, they assume, as lay people, we are all capable of dissecting, analyzing and drawing our own conclusions on a body of scientific knowledge that spans thousands of publications, and decades of research.
The fact is that science does not operate by consensus. But science-informed blogging, policy making, journalism or education does and should.
I do not weigh in on the finer points of evidence regarding controversies in neuroscience. And likewise, I do not think it makes sense for me to form an opinion on climate science based on a "he said", "she said" series of talking heads on the news. Call it "dogged persistence" if you will. I call it responsible blogging, humility, and knowing the limitations of your expertise. Of course we, as the general public, do also have a role to play in oversight of how the scientific community operates—and while "climategate" did very little to undermine climate science as a whole—I do hope it will be a wake up call for scientists to communicate more responsibly and openly.
You only have to look at this point-by-point debunking of climate 'skeptic' Lord Monckton to understand how easy it is for those with no formal training in a particular field (I believe Lord Monckton, like me, has a background in marketing) to give a completely distorted representation of scientific evidence. And unless somebody takes the time to look through and understand the original sources, there is a very real danger they will be believed.
So by all means, let's champion ongoing debate and testing within the scientific community on all fronts. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking we are all scientists.
We are not.