I recently read something from a libertarian who accused people who “believe in science” as followers of a religion. The first point was, how can you so believe when you find well-credentialled scientists on both sides of an issue? The writer claimed that certain people may prefer people do not know this, but dissenting experts exist on many scientific questions that some pronounce as settled by a consensus. It claims credentialled maverick are often maligned as having been corrupted by industry, while scientists who view the established position are pure and incorruptible. So what do you think of that?
One comment lies in “well-credentialled” and “both sides of the issue”. By the time I started science in earnest, so to speak, Sir Richard Doll had produced a study showing heavy smoking greatly increased the risk of lung cancer. At the time, epidemiology was a “fringe” part of medicine but the statistics showed the truth. Naturally, there were people who questioned it, but I recall a review that showed that cigarette smoke contained a large number of chemicals that could be called carcinogens. One, 3,4-benzopyrene, was so active it guaranteed a cancer if a smear was applied to a certain strain of mice. Yes, they were particularly susceptible, but the point was obvious. Cigarette smoke contains a number of carcinogenic chemicals. Yet for years papers were produced that showed cigarette smoke was “harmless” and something else must be doing it. These were published in fringe journals and while the authors had credentials, they were being paid by the tobacco industry. So much for “both sides of the issue”.
A major criticism that comes to my mind is that the author does not understand what he is talking about. Science is not a collection of facts; it is a methodology for attempting to obtain the truth. Like any other activity, it does not always work well, but in principle you do not accept a statement based on the reputation of the speaker; that is the logic fallacy ad verecundiam. Unfortunately, what actually happens is so many are just plain lazy so they do not seek to check but rather accept it. Of course, if it is not important to you the consensus usually makes a lot of sense because you have not examined the details. Further, you accept it because you are only marginally interested. If someone says that a vaccine has passed a clinical trial in which x thousand people took part, there were no adverse effects and the vaccine worked, I take their word. The alternative is to check everything yourself, but you know that a procedure is in place where independent people have checked the statements, so I accept they are true. Science works by recording what we know and building on it. If there was a huge conspiracy to hide some real problems with a vaccine, the conspirators would eventually be found out, and an extended length of time would be spent in a rather uncomfortable cell.
Another criticism was that the “truth” comes down from a set of anointed scientists, and dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the group that matters. There is an element of truth in this. The anointed always get funding, and they get to peer review other funding applications. Dissent from the anointed means it is far more difficult to get funding. Further, the number of citations and publications you get means more funding. This leads to gaming the system, but such gaming cannot work with a dissenter. Sometimes, up to fifty scientists may agree to be authors on a number of papers (If you have fifty, they should produce fifty times the output of one.) But nobody counts the degree of share, and worse, they can keep citing all the papers within the set when one is being written, so automatically the number of citations jumps. Nobody notices they are self-citations or looks to see if they are relevant. That may seem unfair to others, but with money at stake, scientists also do what they can. This funding anomaly does lead to a group consensus.
Another example lies in climate change. Whether there is consensus is irrelevant; the question is, is there a definitive observation? I concede that initially I was suspicious, largely because there was a lot of modelling but not many facts. The theory was known, but the models ignored too many variables, and nothing seemed to have happened to the climate. The theory suggested there was an effect, but at first there was not much evidence for it. Then the evidence of warmer times started to come, but against that is climate has always changed. What was needed was a definitive set of measurements, and eventually they came (Lyman, J. M. and 7 others, 2010. Nature 465: 334-337.) What this showed was between 1993 and 2008 there was been an increase in the heat power delivered to the oceans of 0.64 w.m-2. That may not seem to be much, but multiply that across the area of oceans and you will see the planet is getting a very substantial net power input over a long period of time. We are cooking ourselves, but like the proverbial frog, we seem not to notice enough to do much about it.
One final comment. I wrote a chapter on climate change in my first ebook, which was about how to form theories, and which not only included the reasons why we should recognize the effect is real, but also I listed some previous technologies that could go some way towards reducing our dependencies on fossil fuels. These were all published or recorded in various archives, and one of the interesting things about this is that none of the recommended technologies have been proposed to be used. It is almost as if work done in the 1970-80s might as well not have been carried out. So what seemed to be “state of the art” then is now forgotten. There are problems in dealing with scientific issues and getting value from them, but group consensus is only temporary, and anything that can be forgotten probably will be. You don’t get science funding resurrecting the wheel, but you get somewhere. The question is, do we really want to get somewhere?