Respectful Insolence

It has often been written on this blog and elsewhere that the mark of a true crank is hatred of the scientific consensus, be it consensus regarding the theory of evolution, the science that says homeopathy is impossible, anthropogenic global warming; various areas of science-based medicine; or the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Perhaps the most famous expression of distrust of a scientific consensus is the famous speech by Michael Crichton, in which he famously said:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

To which I (and many others) responded, “Bullshit! Period.”

In fact science is all about coming to a consensus, but it’s about coming to a consensus based on data, experimentation, and evidence, a consensus that has reproducible results that are, as Crichton put it, verifiable by reference to the real world. After all, what is a scientific theory like the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity but a statement of the current scientific consensus regarding a major scientific topic? What is peer review but quality control (making sure the scientific methodology is sound) coupled with testing new science against the current consensus to see where it fits in or where it exposes weaknesses? What is science but attempting to forge a consensus regarding theories and statements that most accurately describe the universe in a useful and predictable way?

Of course, questioning the consensus is often necessary in science. Indeed, it is critical to scientific advancement. However, there is a huge difference between questioning a current consensus and producing the data and experimental evidence to show that there is a real scientific question and JAQing off about science. The latter, raising spurious or already answered questions about a scientific finding or theory one doesn’t like, belongs to the province of cranks and denialists, and it is what they are very good at. The problem is that they aren’t very good at realizing why their questions are not worthy of the attention that they think they are. A lovely example of this showed up on the Discovery Institute’s propaganda arm, its version of Age of Autism, so to speak, namely Evolution News and Views. In it, the Kent Heckenlively of the creationist set, the ever excitable Casey Luskin, penned a typical bit of silliness in which he asks the question, When Is it Appropriate to Challenge the “Consensus”?

If Casey had two neurons to rub together, he could answer the question in two sentences and echo how scientists would answer the question: When you have an actual scientifically valid reason, based on science, evidence, experimentation, and observational evidence, to think that the current scientific consensus about something is in error, then it is appropriate to challenge the scientific consensus. When you don’t, then it isn’t. Unfortunately, Casey doesn’t; so he can’t. Instead, we’re treated to a potpourri of pseudoscientific and denialist claptrap that was apparently based on an article in The American by Jay Richards entitled When to Doubt a Scientific ‘Consensus’. In the article, Richards postulates twelve “signs” that should lead one to doubt a scientific consensus, any scientific consensus (although he seems most concerned with anthropogenic global warming in this particular article, while Luskin is, of course, concerned mostly with “intelligent design” creationism versus the hated (by Luskin) “Darwinism.” There’s just one problem. Not a single one of these “signs” has anything to do with a scientific argument. Richards starts out with a reasonable enough introduction:

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd. Many false ideas enjoyed consensus opinion at one time. Indeed, the “power of the paradigm” often shapes the thinking of scientists so strongly that they become unable to accurately summarize, let alone evaluate, radical alternatives. Question the paradigm, and some respond with dogmatic fanaticism.

We shouldn’t, of course, forget the other side of the coin. There are always cranks and conspiracy theorists. No matter how well founded a scientific consensus, there’s someone somewhere–easily accessible online–that thinks it’s all hokum. Sometimes these folks turn out to be right. But often, they’re just cranks whose counsel is best disregarded.

So what’s a non-scientist citizen, without the time to study the scientific details, to do? How is the ordinary citizen to distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom? Conversely, how do we tell crankish imperviousness to evidence from legitimate skepticism?” Are we obligated to trust whatever we’re told is based on a scientific consensus unless we can study the science ourselves? When can you doubt a consensus? When should you doubt it?

Your best bet is to look at the process that produced, maintains, and communicates the ostensible consensus. I don’t know of any exhaustive list of signs of suspicion, but, using climate change as a test study, I propose this checklist as a rough-and-ready list of signs for when to consider doubting 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 suspicious.

So far, there isn’t much here to disagree with. Scientists are human beings; scientific fads come and go. Some scientific consensuses ultimately turn out to be wrong. Virtually all of them undergo significant revisions as new evidence comes in. Moreover, not all consensuses are created equal. Depending upon the field, the strength of any one scientific consensus can vary quite markedly compared to others, depending upon the science, the topic within that science, or even the subtopic within the topic. For example, the scientific consensus supporting the theory of evolution, particularly common descent, is exceedingly strong. Based on multiple lines of converging evidence from many different disciplines, evolution one of the strongest of all scientific consensuses. Similarly, the consensus that natural selection is one major driving force behind much of evolution is nearly as strong. However, as the discussion devolves into more detailed areas, inevitably the consensus weakens. Eventually, subsidiary areas of a discipline are reached where the consensus is weak or where there is no consensus. Often these questions are at the frontiers of the science and, because there is not yet a consensus, the most heavily researched and hotly contested areas of the science. Denialists often attack science at the very edges of a field as a proxy for attacking the much more strongly supported core theory. Creationists like Casey Luskin are actually notorious for this, jumping on new findings about, for example, “junk DNA,” whether it has a function, whether it is subject to natural selection, and, if so, how much, as a bit of logical prestidigitation to hide the fact that the core theory of evolution is supported by mountains of evidence and not in doubt by scientists.

It is also true that peer pressure and groupthink can make persuading scientists that a particular scientific consensus is in error can be a disturbingly slow and messy process at times. However, in the end eventually science does win out. One example (summarized very well by Kimball Atwood IV, MD) is the discovery that most duodenal ulcers are actually caused by a bacterium, H. pylori. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren first reported a curious finding of what they described as “unidentified curved bacilli on gastric epithelium in active chronic gastritis” (not ulcer) in two letters to The Lancet, published on June 4, 1983. They reported that it wasn’t seen using traditional staining methods and suggested that they might be associated with gastritis. By 1992, multiple studies had been published establishing the causative role of H. pylori in peptic ulcer disease, and medical practice rapidly changed. That’s less than ten years, which, given how long it takes to organize and carry out clinical trials, is amazingly fast. Yet somehow a favorite denialist myth is that “dogmatic,” “close-minded” scientists refused to accept Marshall and Warren’s findings. It’s an example of a scientific consensus that deserved to be questioned, was questioned in the right way, and was overthrown.

In other words, it was nothing like Richard’s twelve “signs”:

  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 dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.
  6. When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.
  7. When consensus is declared hurriedly or 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 uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible.
  12. When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus.

Oddly enough, most, if not all, of these warning signs apply to denialists and cranks. Richards appears to be engaging in a massive case of projection. I’m not going to examine each of the twelve “signs” in detail (that will be left as an exercise for the interested reader), but I will examine a few of the most egregious “signs.” For example, when it comes to ad hominem attacks, Richards writes:

Personal attacks are common in any dispute simply because we’re human. It’s easier to insult than to the follow the thread of an argument. And just because someone makes an ad hominem argument, it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is wrong. But when the personal attacks are the first out of the gate, and when they seem to be growing in intensity and frequency, don your skeptic’s cap and look more closely at the evidence.

Crank movements, of course, excel at the ad hominem attack. Creationists like Casey Luskin, for instance, spit the term “Darwinist” at evolutionary biologists and frequently try to link evolution (and thus its defenders) Nazi-ism and the Holocaust, eugenics, social Darwinism, and all manner of evils. Above all, evolutionists must be atheists, which to many creationists is the worst thing a person can be, given the vehemence of the invective.

Speaking of invective, one crank in particular, J.B. Handley has made a special study of seeing just how nasty his attacks can be. Generation Rescue and its propaganda arm Age of Autism specialize in “venomous invective,” particularly against Paul Offit and anyone else who opposes its anti-vaccine agenda. After all, this is the same man who launched personal attacks on Steve Novella that can only be viewed as more than venomous. This is the same man whose misogynistic attacks on Amy Wallace, a journalist who wrote an excellent article on the anti-vaccine movement, made him infamous throughout the science-based blogosphere. This the same man whose blog posted a Photoshopped picture of Steve Novella, Amy Wallace, Paul Offit, and Trine Tsouderos sitting around the table for a Thanksgiving feast, the main course of which was a baby.

If we look at the “case study” used by Richards, AGW denialists also excel at the same tactics, painting scientists as hopelessly politically motivated, corrupt, and lying. They hack e-mails looking for dirt and try to embarrass scientists by posting them. They attack Al Gore, as the most famous advocate of political action to mitigate the effects of AGW as fat, stupid, and corrupt. The list goes on.

By Richards’ criteria, the vaccine, evolution and AGW denialists send up huge red flags, as a major compoenent of their message consists of ad hominem attacks on scientists. As for “misrepresenting the actual peer-reviewed scientific literature,” what is The Discovery Institute, Age of Autism, NaturalNews.com, and every other denialist website or blog but veritable fonts of misrepresenting scientific literature? Hardly a week goes by, it seems, that I’m not applying a bit of the ol’ not-so-Respectful Insolence to some bit of nonsense or other about a scientific study laid down by the anti-vaccine movement or some quack or other. Back in the day, I used to do the same thing more often with creationist misrepresentations of science, but for whatever reason I don’t do that as much anymore. Perhaps I should.

It’s also hard not to note a distinct feeling of repetition in Richards’ list. For example “When ‘scientists say’ or ‘science says’ is a common locution” and “When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus” are more or less the same thing. Perhaps the silliest part of this whine is this:

A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.

Now there’s some flaming stupid strong enough to increase the planet’s temperature by at least 1° C, if not more.

Richards apparently doeesn’t know the difference between scientific theory and scientific fact. That salt is sodium chloride is a fact. That light travels 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum is a measurement and a fact. That blood carries oxygen to our organs is a fact. Of course, no one argues about them; they are well-settled facts, not theories. They are trivially obvious. Arguing about them would be as trivial as arguing about what I had for breakfast this morning or whether the above paragraph by Richards represents the essence of scientific ignorance. A theory is a higher level construct supported by facts, experimentation, and evidence.

Casey Luskin’s and Jay Richard’s tag-team of flaming stupid demonstrate a profound ignorance of science–even an anti-scientific bent. They don’t like science because it either doesn’t support their political beliefs (Jay Richards and AGW) or their religious beliefs (Casey Luskin and evolution). Sure, scientists can at times be as petty as any human being. They are as prone to groupthink and ideology as any group of people can be. But the wonderful thing about being a scientist is that science is a process. Although it is an activity of people it does not depend on any group of people. Eventually, even when scientists go down wrong alleys or succumb to fads, science wins out. It is self-correcting. The process may not be as fast as we like. It may not be as linear as we like. In fact, sometimes it’s damned messy and frustrating. However, it is the best process we have for finding out how our universe works.

Oh, and for building a consensus about how the universe works. It’s perfectly acceptable to challenge such a consensus, but if you don’t have the goods in the form of evidence, experimentation, and data to show that the consensus is in serious error, there is no reason for scientists to take your challenge seriously.

ADDENDUM: Joshua Rosenau has an excellent takedown of this combined idiocy as well. Key passage:

But moving past those trivialities, Casey and Jay’s underlying point is catastrophically wrong. As John Ziman points out in Reliable Knowledge: “the goal of science is a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field” (emphasis original). The beauty of science is precisely that it is rooted in our shared reality, and as such it is subject to the formation of consensus on which new work can build.

Yep, that’s about right. I’ll ask again: What is a scientific theory but a scientific consensus about how one aspect of how the world works?

Comments

  1. #1 Dan Gaston
    March 24, 2010

    One example I like to point out to Denialists about this issue is the development of the modern theory for the endosymbiotic origin of plastids and mitochondria. This was an idea that “cut against the grain” and was hotly debated. Ultimately it prevailed because of the accumulation of evidence. It took time of course, but most major changes in scientific thinking do. But, as you pointed out, they do so by weight of evidence.

    New ideas, no matter how counter to the consensus they are, have a place in scientific discourse when they have at least some evidence to support them.

  2. #2 Fred The Hun
    March 24, 2010

    It’s perfectly acceptable to challenge such a consensus, but if you don’t have the goods in the form of evidence, experimentation, and data to show that the consensus is in serious error, there is no reason for scientists to take your challenge seriously.

    “There’s more to life than evidence…”;-)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIaV8swc-fo

    Homeopathy & Nutritionists vs Real Science!
    Darrin O’Brianin

  3. #3 Rene Najera
    March 24, 2010

    I try to live by “truth does not negate truth”. That is, if you have evidence to prove me wrong, and it’s good evidence, then I’m wrong. If, on the other hand, you have just mean-spirited things to say and your statements wouldn’t make it past a 5th grade science class, then I have nothing to discuss with you.

  4. #4 Pablo
    March 24, 2010

    An old buddy of mine used to say, “The way science progresses is that old guys die.”

    There’s a lot of truth to that. As much as we like to think that scientific consensus occurs as the weight of the evidence becomes clear, there is still a lot who will resist changing their minds.

    Although that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with being slow to change, especially if those things that are clung to were formed because of the weight of evidence.

    This is the thing that the cranks don’t get. The whole reason evolution became the consensus view is because it displaced a weaker alternative (creationism) on the strength of the evidence. Thus, to claim that evolutionists “won’t consider” creationism is a bunch of hooey. It has been considered – shoot, it WAS the prevailing view, but has been abandoned because it failed to work as well as evolution. The consensus was formed by the weight of the evidence.

    Granted, once the consensus exists, the resistance to changing it can go well beyond the weight of the evidence, and that is where it helps to have strong proponents die. But then again, for the cranks, that doesn’t matter when you don’t have evidence on your side. Darwin is dead. His ideas didn’t die. Stephen J Gould is dead. Evolution didn’t die with him. So even old guys dying won’t change anything when the weight of evidence is on your side.

  5. #5 Adam_Y
    March 24, 2010

    A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.

    I wonder if he was just ignorant. At least one of those examples he gave is subject to crank contraversy.

  6. #6 Andreas Johansson
    March 24, 2010

    Crichton said:

    There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

    I’m reminded of a Usenet creationist (Ray Martinez) who used to claim (still claims, for all I know) that the scientific consensus is always wrong. He never responded to the question whether that means that if, say, the consensus changed to that evolution is false, that would force reality to change so that evolution is now true.

  7. #7 Militant Agnostic
    March 24, 2010

    # 11

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

    Doesn’t AGW denialism have “an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal”?

    Pablo makes a good point @4 that scientists have usually already considered the alternative and found it wanting.

  8. #8 Pablo
    March 24, 2010

    Doesn’t AGW denialism have “an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal”?

    What? Are you suggesting that, perhaps, this is case of projection? The hell you say?

    Actually, the whole thing is projection! Look at this one, for example…

    “When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.”

    Let’s see…”Scientific consensus is political” etc

    I mean, they aren’t even TRYING to address the merits of the argument.

  9. #9 Militant Agnostic
    March 24, 2010

    Given Micheal Cricton’s hostility to scientific consensus it is fortunate that he never put his medical degree to use by practicing medicine. Had he done so, I suspect he would have racked up an impressive body count.

  10. #10 Craig
    March 24, 2010

    I think he gets double irony points for creating a list of things that “don’t require consensus” that all actually were hot topics of debate (with the possible exception of Sodium Chloride) at one point. We don’t talk about consensus on these issues today merely because the consensus is so strong that only a dedicated guanophrenic would ever question them.

  11. #11 Moridin
    March 24, 2010

    If you believe that hostility towards a scientific consensus is the sign of a crank, you have declared people who have challenged the orthodoxy of science vigorously like Richard Dawkins, Steven J. Gould, Einstein and Newton as “cranks”.

    Are you prepared to defend such a view?

  12. #12 Lycanthrope
    March 24, 2010

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

    Well, maybe you’re always being told because you never listen!

    Also, @10, Craig: “guanophrenic” is now my new favourite word. Thanks for that one!

  13. #13 Dedj
    March 24, 2010

    Believing the consensus to be wrong and dis-believing the idea that there can even be a consensus are not the same thing.

    I for one would like direct unmolested quotes from all 4 people mentioned that indicate that all 4 disparaged the idea of consensus.

  14. #14 Lycanthrope
    March 24, 2010

    @11, Moridin:

    There’s a difference between “challenging of” and “hostility towards”.

  15. #15 Ian
    March 24, 2010

    @Moridin

    Only if you’re willing to stand by your strained false equivalence that vigorous opposition is the same as hostility. Do you ever watch sports?

  16. #16 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    In fact science is all about coming to a consensus, but it’s about coming to a consensus based on data, experimentation, and evidence, a consensus that has reproducible results that are, as Crichton put it, verifiable by reference to the real world.

    It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that while this should always be how it works, it regrettably is not always so. String theory was a good example – a consensus so firm that looking for alternative models could fairly be described as “career suicide”, yet empirically unsupported. Fortunately theoretical physicists are coming to recognize and deal with the problem, but it should never have gotten to the point it did without testable predictions.

  17. #17 Angel
    March 24, 2010

    Guanophrenic! Priceless.

  18. #18 Militant Agnostic
    March 24, 2010

    I too join the chorus promoting Guanophrenic. May it soon be officially recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary or at least by the Urban Dictionary.

  19. #19 Techskeptic
    March 24, 2010

    Honestly, my favorite examples of going against the scientific grain are so far done by scientists.

    H. Pylori for stomach ulcers
    Prions, a self replicating protein

    took a long time to get into main stream. Both resulted in nobel prizes for the “dissident scientists”.

  20. #20 Techskeptic
    March 24, 2010

    well, prions self replicate in a way, just not the way bacteria do.

  21. #21 Orac
    March 24, 2010

    @19 Techskeptic

    Except that H. pylori went from first report to treatment to acceptance of treatment by the medical community in around a decade. That’s incredibly fast in medicine. Very few things move from first discovery in a lab to treatment to widespread clinical utility in anywhere near that brief of a span of time. See:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/10/the_life_cycle_of_translational_research.php

  22. #22 Denice Walter
    March 24, 2010

    As someone who reads and hears a *lot* of guano… I mean alt med talking points,I certainly agree: it’s not only ranting and railing against the consensus and those who espouse it, but then constructing a baroque nigh-unto-rococo imbroglio of a plot to explain exactly *why* the “Truth is being hidden”** While their pseudo-scientific hypotheses are often better labeled “science fiction”,the additional confabulation reads like a bad *noir* ’50′s novella, probably reflecting their earlier reading choices(as opposed to bio, physio, chem,psych,stat texts)**(involving skads of money,personal power, or world domination,most likely self-revelatory)

  23. #23 Ender
    March 24, 2010

    String theory was a good example – a consensus so firm that looking for alternative models could fairly be described as “career suicide”

    Could it really?

  24. #24 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    @23:

    Yes, it really could. Someone who already has tenure would be OK. But for someone looking for a position, or trying to qualify for tenure, it’d be highly unlikely to work out.

  25. #25 Elaine Schattner, M.D.
    March 24, 2010

    I really like this post despite its guyishness (female cranks are usually described in other terms). The dangers and comfort (what you might call security) of population group-think can feed on news from intellectual herds of scientific or medical opinion leaders, many in need of grants and publications, besides eager for professional success.

    My issue is that the same 12 points listed above apply to the mammography debate. In that, limited and old data were gathered by public health officials and others, some anxious to push their careers in epidemiology and “evidence-based medicine” and then misrepresented and exaggerated by the press. Many oncologists and other doctors, the majority without any vested interest in the business-side of mammography, besides patients and others know/understand/see that those data are flawed.

    Like global warming, medical data matters. How we present, judge and distribute information can make a difference of life or death.

    My view on breast cancer screening is biased, necessarily, by the fact that I’m a board-certified oncologist and breast cancer survivor in my 40s. Another crank maybe – or a woman with an unusually thought-out, researched, rational perspective?

  26. #26 Pablo
    March 24, 2010

    Yes, it really could. Someone who already has tenure would be OK. But for someone looking for a position, or trying to qualify for tenure, it’d be highly unlikely to work out.

    Yeah, because it’d be highly unlikely that they’d be successful at actually coming up with something dramatically better.

    Even with people working on it now, I haven’t heard of any great breakthroughs. Admittedly, I don’t follow the literature in the field, and I wouldn’t deny there has been progress made, but it’s very clear that this is a very hard problem.

    It doesn’t matter what field you are in, if you try to tackle a problem so big that you can’t make a serious impact in 5 years, you aren’t going to get tenure. That has nothing to do with an overwhelming scientific consensus, and the nature of the job.

    (this is, in fact, one reason we HAVE the tenure system – to allow researchers the ability to tackle problems that don’t have the types of immediate reward that would ultimately be the consequence of a “productivity based on the numbers” system; one of the most important things that assistant professors are advised to do is to chose projects that will provide them with amble opportunity to demonstrate productivity, and save the long-term study projects for after they get tenure)

  27. #27 daijiyobu
    March 24, 2010

    I like the term ‘preponderance’ more than consensus.

    Yes, it’s legalistic, but it also captures the real ‘judging’ that must occur in the sense of weighing evidence / support versus alternative explanations / doubt.

    But it is likely that consensus is as contextually charged as ‘theory’.

    -r.c.

  28. #28 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    @26:

    The trouble with your arguments is that they apply equally well to string theory itself (no great breakthroughs, nobody’s going to make a serious impact in 5 years – indeed, the entire theory has yet to accomplish that feat). When a theory which has produced no testable predictions despite so many people spending so many years on it becomes virtually the ONLY possible career path in the field, that is a problem completely independent of the tenure system.

  29. #29 Daniel J. Andrews
    March 24, 2010

    No matter how well founded a scientific consensus, there’s someone somewhere–easily accessible online–that thinks it’s all hokum. Sometimes these folks turn out to be right. But often, they’re just cranks whose counsel is best disregarded.

    The word “sometimes” overstates the case. In today’s world almost always these folks are cranks. The level of expertise required to become an expert in a subject almost always precludes that anyone on the fringes will be right while the experts are wrong. And in the very rare cases where the lone voice is right most likely that lone voice will have been right for all the wrong reasons (in other words, they got lucky).

    re: guanophrenic. Now a part of my vocabulary. Great word.

  30. #30 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    Oh yes, and I should also point out that, without grad students and postdocs working on it, there’s no real chance of getting anything done.

  31. #31 Pablo
    March 24, 2010

    The trouble with your arguments is that they apply equally well to string theory itself (no great breakthroughs, nobody’s going to make a serious impact in 5 years -

    Non sequitor.

    Saying that people “should not work on alternatives to string theory and hope to get tenure” does not mean they “should work on string theory if they want to get tenure.”

    When a theory which has produced no testable predictions despite so many people spending so many years on it becomes virtually the ONLY possible career path in the field

    Huh? You have said that it would be possible to do other stuff if you have tenure. Therefore, apparently you can do other stuff besides string theory.

  32. #32 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    Saying that people “should not work on alternatives to string theory and hope to get tenure” does not mean they “should work on string theory if they want to get tenure.”

    Actually, it does.

    Huh? You have said that it would be possible to do other stuff if you have tenure. Therefore, apparently you can do other stuff besides string theory.

    Possible, but it’s not considered respectable or reasonable, and it hurts your odds of getting grants. Which is because the career point isn’t my central one. The point I’m making is that there is a consensus that string theory is most likely correct, despite the absence of supporting evidence. The career implications are simply one result of that consensus.

  33. #33 Pablo
    March 24, 2010

    Saying that people “should not work on alternatives to string theory and hope to get tenure” does not mean they “should work on string theory if they want to get tenure.”

    Actually, it does.

    Huh? There’s nothing else to do in physics research but string theory or alternatives to string theory? Everything else is solved, then?

  34. #34 Jake Crosby
    March 24, 2010

    “J.B. Handley has made a special study of seeing just how nasty his attacks can be.”

    Like yours?

  35. #35 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    Sorry for my lack of clarity – I was referring specifically to TOEs.

  36. #36 Ian
    March 24, 2010

    @Jake Crosby

    I think you spilled some “tu quoque” on my shoe.

    Tu Quoqua Cola – when you need refreshment, but don’t have a leg to stand on.

  37. #37 Joseph
    March 24, 2010

    If you believe that hostility towards a scientific consensus is the sign of a crank, you have declared people who have challenged the orthodoxy of science vigorously like Richard Dawkins, Steven J. Gould, Einstein and Newton as “cranks”.

    Are you prepared to defend such a view?

    They challenged it with data. That’s very different to challenging it because you’re “suspicious.”

  38. #38 Lynxreign
    March 24, 2010

    @34 – Jake Crosby

    Brilliant repartee! What a stunning indictment! What’s next? “I know you are, but what am I?” or the classic “I’m rubber, you’re glue” gambit? Please let it be my favorite: “So’s your face!”

  39. #39 Raging Bee
    March 24, 2010

    Hostility toward “concensus” is a sign of paranoid delusion: to a paranoid, “concensus” means “conspiracy.” So when just about everyone else seems to march in lockstep support of some proposition that the paranoid refuses to accept (like “the Earth is round” or “there’s no evidence of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world”), it’s not a universal acknowledgement of objective reality, it’s a dark and evil conspiracy exerting mind-control over the masses of sheeple and drones.

  40. #40 Militant Agnostic
    March 24, 2010

    If find Jake Crosby to be positively guanophrenic.

  41. #41 Dangerous Bacon
    March 24, 2010

    I don’t recall Einstein posing an unlikely theory, getting it shot down repeatedly by well-conducted research, yet persisting in espousing the theory and whining about how groupthink and “Big Physics” were suppressing his work.

    I’ve seen tons of examples of woo supporters jumping quickly to virulently nasty and inaccurate attacks on those who question their beliefs, while protesting how mean their opponents are. Like the Brave Maverick Pediatrician who ducks in here every once in a while to drop a load of steaming stupidity.

    The rest of the twelve “signs” similarly are loaded with unintended irony.

    Perhaps there should be a Quack Miranda warning for articles such as these, warning readers of the serious dangers posed to their irony meters.

  42. #42 Pareidolius
    March 24, 2010

    Craig, you’ve uncovered a new area of medicine, Guanophrenology.

    I propose a symposium on this exciting new field of study.

    Guanophrenologist: A Gp.D. For example, Steven Novella, M.D. Ph.D. Gp.D. One who studies and “treats” Guanophrenics in particular and Guanophrenia in general.

    Guanophrenoid: Not quite a Guanophrenic, but close i.e. Mooneybaum.

    Guanophrenae: Of the family Guanophrenidae.

    Guanophrenia: The condition itself.

    Guanophrenic: Handley, Hamm, Beck, Duesberg, et al.

    Zyguanovax™ (polyinsolence scatraventinol): A drug being developed by Lord Draconis Zeneca at PharmaCOM Orbital. The only known treatment is being developed with the help of a certain see-through supercomputer based here on earth. A pure liquid, highly acidic form of insolence, Zyguanovax™ is being tested secretly by the government through chemtrail and sprinkler deployment.

  43. #43 eta c
    March 24, 2010

    Guanophrenic is good, but a more precise derivation from Greek would be “Copracephalic” giving “Copracephaloid” as the word describing someone suffering from the syndrome.

    Among some in the physics community there is concern that the focus on string theory is drowning out other possible avenues of research and driving those who are not doing string theory out of the field. Two recent books (“Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit and “The Problem with Physics” by Lee Smolin”) describe this situation. That being said, should string theory prove unviable, the worm would turn and it would turn into a historical dead end.

  44. #44 jenbphillips
    March 24, 2010

    eta c, I think the advantage to ‘guano’ over ‘copro’ is the association with bats.

    Crosby, take another swig off that Tu Quoque Cola and provide a reference to an Oracian insult that’s even in the same ballpark as the JB Handley-work linked to above.

  45. #45 Luna_the_cat
    March 24, 2010

    The thing I haved noted about the use of the term “consensus” — apparently missed or ignored by Crichton and those who quote Crichton — is that this term is generally only invoked by name when the scientific field in question is coming under attack from outside. I mean, there is just as much a consensus that Maxwell’s Theory of Electromagnetism is a good description of certain aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum — but people don’t talk about this consensus as such because it isn’t constantly being called into question in the press and on thousands of websites. If it were called into question that way, I guarantee there would be a load of scientists stepping forward going, “nonsense, we reached consensus on this ages ago.” They don’t simply because they don’t have to respond to outside attack on this all the time.

    The “consensus” defense is in fact invoked for a specific reason — that is the fact that the politically, religiously or economically motivated attacks on the field use exaggeration of how much genuine debate there is in the field as a deliberate tactic to sow doubt in the non-science public; the classic “well, if even the scientists can’t agree on this, why should we accept it?” The obvious counter to this is, of course “but scientists only disagree about a few aspects of this; the thing itself is well-accepted, there is a consensus.

    This being the case, then turning around and declaring “anything consensus to not be science” becomes yet another denialist/crank heads-I-win-tails-you-lose tactic.

  46. #46 Dedj
    March 24, 2010

    Careful jenbphillips, here (http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2009/10/neurodiverse-intimidation/) is an example of just how idiosyncratically (sp?) Jake defines common terms.

    Don’t expect an answer that makes any sense.

  47. #47 jj
    March 24, 2010

    OT (and I apologize for that) – but since Orac did a take down of A Gizmodo article a few days ago, though I’d see what his take on this one is – Giz is normally horrible at science reporting

    http://gizmodo.com/5501103/this-is-the-future-of-the-fight-against-cancer

  48. #48 Scott
    March 24, 2010

    @47:

    Looks very interesting, and seems to refer to a paper in Mol Pharm (PMID: 19267452) but it looks to me to be exceedingly preliminary. Based on the abstract, the paper seems only to cover “this is how it’s supposed to work”, not whether it actually does.

  49. #49 James Sweet
    March 24, 2010

    The other problem with the “You keep hearing consensus talked about” point is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough cranks attack a consensus, then non-cranks will be forced to reiterate that it is a consensus.

    If I got Glenn Beck to state that light couldn’t possible travel at 186,000 miles per second, and that it was really more like 100mph, scientists would be forced to reiterate the speed of light over and over again. So what?

  50. #50 bluemaxx
    March 24, 2010

    Mr Sweet…

    if you have enough cranks attack a consensus… isnt that a Contra-consensus?
    Apparently it is NOT acceptable for science to develop, based upon objective evidence collected over time, a working consensus. For example… we have a great deal of science and information about MARS… but it is consensus science, no one has been there yet to check things out first hand!

    BUT… if Jenny McCarthy talks to Oprah…who talks to Entertainment Tonight… and they get together and watch a Jim Carrey movie… and then talk about what they all think happens with the immunologic effects of vaccines.. THAT sort of CELEBRITY “parental common sense” consensus… is acceptable?

  51. #51 BKsea
    March 24, 2010

    What got my irony meter going is Richards’ admission up front that people outside the consensus are unable to empirically assess the consensus:

    “So what’s a non-scientist citizen, without the time to study the scientific details, to do?”

    coupled with item 5 on his list:

    “5.When dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent”

    Apparently, he believes he still has the authority as a non-scientist who has not studied the field to differentiate strong and weak evidence, good and bad arguments.

    I think this is actually one definition of a crank: Someone who can espouse “good” arguments and “strong” evidence without any scientific background to stand on.

  52. #52 Der Bruno Stroszek
    March 24, 2010

    A very good post. I recently read an interview with the right-wing British journalist Andrew Neill, a global warming and HIV denialist, where he parroted Crichton’s line about there being no such thing as scientific consensus. I thought, “Wait, so we can’t find out anything? Why don’t we all agree to disagree and go home if that’s the case?”

    I think one of the things that has to be stressed about the notion of scientific consensus is that yes, there have been occasions where consensus has been overturned – but by other scientists, because you need some awesomely in-depth knowledge of your subject to achieve this.

    When denialists talk about overturning consensus they seem to have an image in their head of some plucky young blogger, political activist, home-school teacher or priest explaining their theory to a bunch of elitist scientists whose monocles then fall and shatter on the ground as they exclaim “Good Lord, this untutored outsider is right!” I can’t think of a single case in the whole of history where this has happened.

    Raging Bee’s point about the conspirational roots of anti-”consensus” thinking is worth remembering too.

  53. #53 Tlazolteotl
    March 24, 2010

    Guanophrenia is an unfortunate side-effect of a medical malady that is epidemic today, namely, Cranio-rectal Impaction Syndrome.

  54. #54 WordMan
    March 24, 2010

    and GUANOphilia… is from the latin meaning “I love this sh#t”

  55. #55 rob
    March 24, 2010

    and i thought guanophrenia was a rock opera.

  56. #56 Joseph
    March 24, 2010

    The problem with cranks is not that they challenge scientific consensus, per se. It’s that they put the cart before the horse. They start out with “suspicion” of consensus, and then try to find data to challenge the consensus. Often, they cherry-pick data to do it. It’s therefore not surprising that their efforts don’t bear fruit. How likely is it that this approach would ever work?

    A real pioneering scientist will come up with a finding first, and then determines whether the data truly appears to be at odds with the current consensus. It’s not a suspicion of “the man” or anything of the sort.

  57. #57 Ian Musgrave
    March 24, 2010

    Techskeptic wrote at 19:

    Prions, a self replicating protein took a long time to get into main stream. Both resulted in nobel prizes for the “dissident scientists”

    Prusiner’s first paper on prions was published in 1978 (and even then it wasn’t really identifying prions as self replicating). By 1990 it was all over bar the shouting (yes there were a few hold outs, but by 1990 it was the consensus opinion, by the time of the BSE outbreak in the mid 90′s in Britain prions were the orthodoxy).

    Under 12 years from the first glimmerings of a proposal of an extremely radical (to say the least) idea to wide spread acceptance, given there was a heck of a lot of clinical work to be done and enormous problems generating DNA-free preparations of prion proteins, that’s what I call fast.

  58. #58 SLC
    March 24, 2010

    Re Scott

    Relative to string theory, it appears to me that casual observers have not understood that string theory, as we sit here today, is not a theory of physics. It is a theory of mathematics which may or may not have application to the physical world. It would be much better to describe string theory in terms a physics as an hypothesis. As I understand it, one of the things that led to the great interest in the string theory hypothesis was the possibility of a theory of quantum gravity.

    Re Orac

    A couple of other examples of the scientific consensus being overturned by the acquisition of data is the discovery of Australopithecus Africanis

  59. #59 SLC
    March 24, 2010

    Comment #58 continued

    Re Orac

    A couple of other examples of the scientific consensus being overturned by the acquisition of data are

    1. The discovery of Australopithecus Africanus by Raymond Dart. It took many years and many subsequent discoveries for this fossil to be recognized.

    2. The proposal of Wegener relative to continental drift which also took many years and many discoveries to become accepted.

  60. #60 AnthonyK
    March 24, 2010

    It seems to me all too easy to identify crank science critics (apart from their assertion that “science doesn’t know everything”, and the “Galileo Gambit”), and that is that, without exception, they are not practising scientists in the relevant fields.
    So, no criticism of the theory of evolution comes from practising biologists, and no denial of AGW comes from climatologists – the people who actually take the readings and collect the data. The ones who do the work. You know, the experts.
    No, it’s only the diletantes, those who feel so overqualified in their own field that they can interfere in others’, the ignorant non-experts who meddle, misread, and distort the truth then claim that “the consensus” is against them and that it is hiding the real truth for its own murky ends. Hence, the anti-vax crowd routinely asserting that Orac, and other proper doctors, are Pharma shills.
    They can’t use science to make their points, so all they can do is to criticize science itself, and those who practise it, for not being open to their own, largely political, fantasies.

  61. #61 Wind
    March 24, 2010

    Jake Crosby certainly gets around stating his opinions these days. It would be nice if anyone with an opinion could express them where he writes.

  62. #62 The Gregarious Misanthrope
    March 24, 2010

    I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe the scientific method and the idea of scientific consensus to the average joe. This is what I’ve come up with.

    Scientists had an hypothesis called “home” that described the basic requirements of a dwelling. Through much experimentation and development (inluding earlier theories like “cave” and “log cabin”) scientists had arrived at the theory of “house.” “House” answered a number of testable questions such as: where do I toilet? where do I prepare food? where do I sleep? where do I play Wii? Questions that “cave” and “log cabin” failed to address fully. The answers were: bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. So now there was a complete theory of “home” called “house” and pretty much all the scientists agreed about it. They had consensus.

    There was still one main holdout for “cave” but he didn’t publish anymore. There were a few still enamored of “log cabin.” There was even one guy who kept pushing his ideas about flying RV’s in space, but he only ever self-published on his own website.

    There was still a lot of debate about “house,” but it wasn’t about the purpose and basic requirements of the rooms. The debate was about the furnishings, decorating, and landscaping. Just because the scientists couldn’t agree on “french provincial” vs. “shabby chic” didn’t mean “house” was invalid.

    Of course, the house-deniers will just say I’m a shill for Big Contractor.

  63. #63 Mark Davis
    March 24, 2010

    I have come across this excellent blog as a result of trying to identify information to help me reply to certain pro-smoking denialists who keep posting on a Facebook group which supports the ban on smoking in pubs in the UK. A common theme of theirs is that the consensus on the dangers of tobacco smoking is wrong, due to the way smokers and non-smokers are defined in scientific studies e.g.

    “The SAMMEC software, where most anti-smoking statistics are based, is used to compile statistics for smoking related morbidity, mortality and costs.

    It takes the risk factors derived from various studies (cherry picked or not) applies them to the smoking population vs. the non-smoking population and bingo ends up with a no. of smoking caused mortalities. For example, in the U.S. it is 440,000 per year.

    So, if the definition of a smoker is anyone who has smoked or still smokes over 100 cigarettes in a lifetime, then your figure will be very high. It would be even higher if the definition of a smoker was anyone who has smoked 1 cigarette in their lifetime. If the definition was anyone who has breathed one whisp of smoke in their lifetime, every disease under the sun would be smoking related.

    If however, they actually measured relative risks according to how much each person smokes, how long ago they started, how long ago they quit, how much they smoked in their lifetime before quitting and came with probabilities in a linear fashion, then I might agree with you. But then you wouldn’t be hearing that lung cancer occurs in smokers 90% of the time, wouldn’t you?”

    I apologise if this is somewhat off topic but I am having some difficulty in answering this argument and would appreciate some input

  64. #64 Chris
    March 25, 2010

    Mark, just look at some of the vaccine articles to see how anti-vaxers react with actual evidence. They totally ignore it!

    I notice you are posting about a public law. You might research what happened in other areas that restricted smoking in public places. I know that in our area some taverns experienced increased patronage! Apparently in an area where most of the population does not smoke, it pays to have an establishment they are willing to enter. I know if I walk into a business and it stinks I walk right out the door (and it is not just tobacco, that includes candle stores, and when I was in college those stores that burned incense… I have been known to walk in, take a sniff and walk right out!).

    I have a couple of replies to those who insist that smoking is harmless (especially since in the past five years our family has lost at least four due to smoking, including a cousin who was in his early 40s… the cancer started in his mouth, he had his jaw replaced with bits of bone from elsewhere, but it spread to the rest of his body):

    1) Why do you insist on spending money on something that makes you stink to high heaven? Please, take a shower and change your clothes before coming near me!

    2) If you do not like the “No Smoking” rules in public buildings or at work… then quit! There is absolutely no reason you should be voluntarily inhaling pollutants into your lungs. If my 80 year old grandmother could quit smoking because her new boyfriend did not like, you can too!

    Yes, I know it is an addiction. It took my step-mother twenty years to quit, but she did finally succeed. Of course, she did finally die of lung cancer when she was over 80 years old! Finally quitting when she was about 55 probably added over ten years to her life.

    I should note that my father quit smoking in the mid-1960s. A dentist noticed a growth in his mouth, which was a “little bit of cancer.” So my dad quit smoking cold turkey. He is alive an kicking at over 80 (both his siblings have died, including a brother who died in his 40s). Sometimes he has to have a growth removed from his mouth, but that is all.

    What is worst than a smoker? An ex-smoker. My dad turned into the ultimate anti-smoker activist. He would not allow my step-mother to smoke in the car. When his boss borrowed the car and actually smoked in it, he refused to drive that car ever again (even though my step-mother drove it later, she was not allowed to smoke in it!). While he did allow his father to smoke in his house, and then his sister when she came to their father’s funeral (where he spent more time on the deck), he will no longer tolerate anyone smoking in his house!

  65. #65 Joseph Hertzlinger
    March 25, 2010

    There actually is a test to see if groupthink has taken over: Are the defenders of an idea organizing petitions on its behalf? If they are, is it taken seriously?

    I have a theory that when people sign petitions about a theory instead of stating their beliefs individually, it is because they are trying to hide behind each other. If the petition turns out to be nonsense, they can blame somebody else.

    For example, I don’t recall ever hearing about a serious pro-evolution petition, even despite all the attacks on evolution. I have heard about an apparently-serious anti-evolution petition.

    As another example, I was highly dubious about anthropogenic global warming until the anti-AGW petitions started to show up.

    In other words, there actually is a point to being dubious about a consensus, but it frequently misapplied.

  66. #66 Mark P
    March 25, 2010

    Hostility towards a scientific consensus: A sign of a crank

    This is ridiculous.

    Is everyone who opposes the majority a “crank” now, by definition, until proven innocent? (And any majority will claim consensus.)

    Don’t like string theory? Must be a crank. No other reason is possible. Don’t like the asteroid theory on dinosaur extinction. Crank! Believe in punctuated evolution? Jewish crank! Dispute Lyshenko? Fascist crank!

    Get over it! Sometimes people honestly disagree over fact and over interpretation.

    Sometimes consensus is forced, for political or social reasons. In the West it is rarely as obvious as Lyshenkoism, but it does happen.

  67. #67 Orac
    March 25, 2010

    You obviously didn’t read the post beyond the title, or if you did you didn’t understand it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have come up with such a straw man argument that would be at home as the centerpiece of the Burning Man festival.

    How about this: I’ll consider renaming it to “Hostility towards the concept of a scientific consensus: A sure sign of a crank.”

    Oh, and read the post, not just the title.

  68. #68 AnthonyK
    March 25, 2010

    No, it’s not ridiculous at all. The hostility towards scientific consensus is actually the reaction of ignorant people towards experts, and to informed opinion. And it is usually politically motivated – ever noticed that AGW denialists are selfish, right-wing loons? Or that creationists are all religious, and non-biologists?
    Look, you don’t have a right to quarrel with stuff you don’t understand, or worse, don’t want to accept because of its consequences.
    The scientific consensus could turn out to wrong, but if so the people who will find that out are scientists in the relevant field; but in any case, with us knowing so much now – though far from everything, obviously – what is more likely is an adjustment to our views, a shift, rather than a wholesale rejection of prevailing paradigms.
    But anyway, in general, scientists welcome new information that would make them change their minds – it’s the pursuit of knowledge that is the thing, not just being right.
    And no, scientific consensus is never “forced” – you can think what you like, but until you have drawn up an experiment that vindicates your own theories, showing others that you are correct, then there is little point in pursuing them.
    If, as has been tirelessly pointed out here, it had been discovered that vaccines do cause autism, then they would have been discontinued or modified – but they don’t so other than the continuing slight improvements we keep using them.
    And only a crank would, and does, disagree with than scientific consensus.

  69. #69 Bellerophon
    March 25, 2010

    At post 60
    ” no denial of AGW comes from climatologists”
    This is untrue. After just a few minutes on the web I found the following,
    Joanne Simpson, Stanley Goldberg, William Briggs, Hajo Smit, James Peden.
    Without getting too embroiled, two things are clear
    1. These people are all meteorologists
    2. They have all expressed AGW sceptical comments
    I have no doubt I could have found more.

  70. #70 Scott
    March 25, 2010

    Relative to string theory, it appears to me that casual observers have not understood that string theory, as we sit here today, is not a theory of physics. It is a theory of mathematics which may or may not have application to the physical world. It would be much better to describe string theory in terms a physics as an hypothesis.

    You started off so well, and then went off the rails with the last quoted sentence. It is more accurate to say that string theory is currently pure mathematics, that somebody may someday find a way to generate a scientific hypothesis from. (Which is why some people feel that it really ought to live in math departments, not physics departments. I expect it’s clear at this point that I’m one of them.) Calling it a hypothesis is inaccurate right now, as it is unfalsifiable.

    As I understand it, one of the things that led to the great interest in the string theory hypothesis was the possibility of a theory of quantum gravity.

    An oversimplification. It works well enough as a shorthand, but there’s actually no real problem with quantum gravity – stipulate a massless spin-2 gauge boson, and you’re essentially done. What’s really meant when people talk about ‘quantum gravity’ in this context is that string theory has the potential to be used to produce a model of physics at all energy scales (in particular, beyond the Planck scale without requiring a UV completion). Which is a truly fascinating thing, to be sure, but calling it ‘the problem of quantum gravity’ just grates on me.

  71. #71 SLC
    March 25, 2010

    Re Scott

    1. Actually, the mathematical theory of superstrings sits in the same position today as Reimannian Geometry did before Einsteins’ Theory of General Relativity and Group Theory did before Wigners’ isospin proposals in the 1930s. Certainly, neither Riemann or Galois had the slightest inkling that their mathematical theories would someday provide fundamental insight into the physical world. Apparently, Mr. Scott (or perhaps Dr. Scott) is a devotee of Mark Smolen who has written a book rather critical of the emphasis elementary particle physicists (EPP) are placing on the mathematical theory of super-strings.

    By the way, my take on the matter is that super-string hypotheses are a perfect example of the bandwagon effect in EPP. During my sojourn in the field a million years ago, several such bandwagons rolled through (e.g. Regge Poles, bootstrap dynamics, SU(6), current algebras, etc.).

    2. The introduction of spin 2 massless gravitons only provides a theory of linearized gravitation. I recall having an interesting discussion with Steven Weinberg on this subject a million years ago while taking a course at the Brandais Summer Lectures.

  72. #72 trrll
    March 25, 2010

    It is more accurate to say that string theory is currently pure mathematics, that somebody may someday find a way to generate a scientific hypothesis from. (Which is why some people feel that it really ought to live in math departments, not physics departments. I expect it’s clear at this point that I’m one of them.) Calling it a hypothesis is inaccurate right now, as it is unfalsifiable.

    To say that it is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there exists a mathematical proof that string theory can accommodate any conceivable observation whatsoever. To the best of my knowledge, this does not exist. There is no “deadline” in science by which time a theory must generate a testable prediction. It is true that at this stage string theory is a purely theoretical mathematical endeavor, which means that it is unreasonable to demand progress in terms of experimental tests. String theory will continue to attract researchers as long as mathematical progress on the theory continues to be made. If at some point the theorists reach a dead end in terms of making mathematical progress, or somebody comes up with a mathematical proof that no experimental test is possible even in principle, then younger theorists will begin to lose interest in it, and will start to gravitate to other theoretical approaches. If they are successful in making progress, then we will see the formation of a new consensus regarding the most promising theoretical approach.

    Professional science is fundamentally a collective endeavor. If you want to obtain financial support for your work, you need to be doing something interesting to other people, enough that they are willing to pay for it, either directly or indirectly. You may bemoan the fact that few other people share your own particular interests, but if that is the case, then you will need to find something else to work on to pay the bills, while pursuing your other interests as a sideline. Tenure actually is rarely an issue, because there is little that a scientist can do without external or institutional support (even a pure mathematician needs time free from other institutional obligations in which to work).

  73. #73 Tracy W
    March 25, 2010

    An inverse question, how do you prove that there is no scientific consensus on a topic?

    I’ve had a few debates recently where someone talks about cuts in government spending a recession inevitably leading to a deepening of the recession. When I’ve challenged them, citing some actual cases of cuts in government spending being closely followed by an economic recovery, I’ve been called the equivalent of a creationist or a climat change skeptic. Now I’m not a macroeconomist, but I studied it at university, and I know that there’s no consensus in that science the equivalent of that about common descent, or climate change. But how do you convince a non-economist of a lack of consensus?

  74. #74 Neil craig
    March 25, 2010

    I have asked journalists, politicians & alarmists now totalling in the 10s of thousands to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming & none of them have yet been able to do so. I extend this same invitation here.

    There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer.

    As a general rule of thumb when somebody has been caught saying something untrue once anything else they say should be treated with suspicion. If no “environmentalists” can prove their abuse of the good name of science in claiming “consensus” we should not respect their warming alarmism or indeed any of the other numerous scare stories produced over the years.

    The next “scientific consensus” that needs examination is the “no lower threshold” (LNT) theory that low doses of radiation are deadly. This has allowed hysteria to prevent cheap & plentiful electricity for the world for 40 years. Yet not only is there no evidence whatsoever for it there is massive evidence for the opposite theory, known as hormesis, that it is beneficial

    And incidentally he LNT “consensus”, even before formally established, statred 65 years ago. Exactly how long is a reasonable time for a “consensus” based on politics not science to last?

  75. #75 Vicki
    March 25, 2010

    Tracy–I think you need to take the offensive, and point out that they’re the ones arguing faith in the face of evidence. The Chicago school has a lot of believers, but facts are stubborn things, and the economy is more complicated than its textbooks.

  76. #76 colmcq
    March 25, 2010

    parody Neil Craig wrote:

    “If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk”

    Except the vast majority of these scientists have not been varified, next to none of them are climate scientists. Besides, 31,000 scientists represents a tiny fraction of all scientists… who did not sign it, presumably because they think it’s tosh and balls…oh, and a petition isn’t scientific evidence.

    see here:
    http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/oregon-petition-redux/

  77. #77 Scott
    March 25, 2010

    Apparently, Mr. Scott (or perhaps Dr. Scott) is a devotee of Mark Smolen who has written a book rather critical of the emphasis elementary particle physicists (EPP) are placing on the mathematical theory of super-strings.

    Dr. Scott, for what little relevance it has. And Smolen has had no impact on my views; they derive far more from Shelly Glashow. (I haven’t actually gotten around to reading either Smolen’s or Woit’s books yet. Too many things keep coming up.)

    The introduction of spin 2 massless gravitons only provides a theory of linearized gravitation.

    I am aware that my comment was oversimplified, yes.

    To say that it is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there exists a mathematical proof that string theory can accommodate any conceivable observation whatsoever.

    I use the term in the sense that it has not yet been demonstrated that any conceivable observation is inconsistent with string theory; this is at minimum a common usage even if not strictly correct.

  78. #78 Pablo
    March 25, 2010

    I use the term in the sense that it has not yet been demonstrated that any conceivable observation is inconsistent with string theory;

    “conceivable” is an added baggage.

    If protons and neutrons did not form, would it not be inconsistent with string theory?

  79. #79 AnthonyK
    March 25, 2010

    Neil Craig – yawn :-0
    Listen – you are posting your ill-informed nonsense on a clever, well-informed, scientifically-literate blog.
    Moron. Wanker. Pray tell us (or don’t, we really don’t care) what is your non-existant expertise in this matter?
    Apparently you know more than the relevant science does. You hare proved the matter the matter to your own satisfaction (to which the word “self” inevitably attaches itself)
    Please stop wasting our time with your rubbish, and go away, possibly in a sexual manner, to to a place where your nonsence might be more appreciated.
    Cordially Yours,
    AnthonyK

  80. #80 AnthonyK
    March 25, 2010

    OOPS! Spelling errors! “existent”, and “nonsense”. I do apologise.

  81. #81 Joseph Hertzlinger
    March 25, 2010

    If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2.

    I was a lot more dubious about AGW before the Oregon petition.

    BTW, in case you were wondering why my fellow wingnuts think that the AGW theory is merely a threadbare excuse for a power grab, it’s because of the “Global warming means we can finally overthrow civilization!” loons discussed here. In a sane world, the question of anthropogenic global warming would merely amount to a discussion of how fast should we build nuclear reactors. In this world…

  82. #82 Joseph Hertzlinger
    March 25, 2010

    If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2.

    I was a lot more dubious about AGW before the Oregon petition.

    BTW, in case you were wondering why my fellow wingnuts think that the AGW theory is merely a threadbare excuse for a power grab, it’s because of the “Global warming means we can finally overthrow civilization!” loons discussed here. In a sane world, the question of anthropogenic global warming would merely amount to a discussion of how fast should we build nuclear reactors. In this world…

  83. #83 Orac
    March 25, 2010

    One notes that Joseph apparently can’t say anything convincing to refute the science behind AGW and instead complains about the political uses to which it is put. These are two different things, but AGW denialists frequently conflate them, as though political proposals for what to do about AGW somehow casts doubt on the inconvenient science they don’t like that supports AGW.

  84. #84 trrll
    March 25, 2010

    In my experience, pointing to a petition as evidence against a scientific consensus is by itself sufficient to identify somebody as a crank. No legitimate scientist would ever imagine that a petition could possibly constitute a valid survey of expert scientific opinion. When a scientist wants to know the scientific consensus, he looks at the peer reviewed literature.

  85. #85 Luna_the_cat
    March 25, 2010

    @Bellerophon –
    meteorology =/= climatology.

    Very different focus and skills, actually. Meteorology is weather, yes — short term, chaotic. Climate is what weather turns into when you have enough history of it to do statistical analyses; long term, and not so much chaotic as dynamical. Mappable, of not absolutely perfectly predictable.

    Climatology demands an understanding of statistics and physics, meteorology not so much.

    Yes, there is a vocal “skeptic” contingent in meteorologists. Most (possibly all) of these have demonstrated in their writing that they do not understand the difference between weather and climate, and they repeat basic mistakes about physics and statistics. So, no, they don’t really count as qualified. The real challenges to any field come from people who demonstrably understand it.

    @Neil craig — “name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby
    Wow, that gives you an easy out, doesn’t it. Why, all the scientists at NASA and NOAA are government funded, and all the other academic institutions which have declared their stance on AGW are obviously “alarmist”, so they can be discounted too!! Why, since even the AGU issued a consensus statement on climate change, you can declare every scientist who belongs to the American Geophysical Union to be an “alarmist”, and discount all of them! How handy! It’s just a winning situation for you, isn’t it! Since you can define every opinion you don’t like as an “alarmist” one that doesn’t count, you never have to take seriously any opinion you don’t like.

    Schmuck.

  86. #86 thingsbreak
    March 25, 2010

    Unexpected but entirely welcomed surprise to be getting visitors from this blog. RE: the Oregon Petition, there are other sites that have done more in depth debunking than I have:

    Skeptical Science
    Kevin Grandia/DeSmogBlog
    Chris Colose
    Greenfyre

    all have nice take downs.

    A similar example of “pseudo-science by petition”, denialists basically stealing a (web)page from the creationists’ playbook.

  87. #87 Scott Cunningham
    March 25, 2010

    @Joseph Hertzlinger @#82

    Real knowledge gets misused by immature people all the time. In fact, I’d almost define politics as “immature people misusing the facts,” except I know damn well immature people misuse nonsense they make up, too.

    That immature loony kids abuse the science doesn’t disprove the science.

  88. #88 SLC
    March 25, 2010

    Re Neil Craig @ #74

    Internet petitions are a dime a dozen and have no relevance to scientific issues. There are internet petitions that deny the big bang theory of cosmology, that deny the theory of evolution, that deny that HIV causes AIDS, that deny the germ theory of disease, that deny the efficacy of vaccines, etc. Science does not progress by internet petitions; it progresses through scientific meetings and publications in peer reviewed literature. Unfortunately, climate change denialists, like the others in my little list are rather lacking in such publications.

  89. #89 PhilD
    March 26, 2010

    When does a consensus become a bandwagon?

    I am very comfortable with a true scientific consensus i.e. evolution which is based on long term experimental evidence correlated from a range of different sources. But I get quite nervous when I get beaten over the head by the “consensus” in areas were the “proof” is more abstract like AGW (i.e. mainly based on theoretical models and lots of proxy data). I get even more nervous about a consensus that underpins so many political positions and vested interests, again like both sides of the AGW debate. The cynic in me sees this as a recipe for manipulation and masking of the truth.

    Does that make me a crank, or does it make me someone who tries to discern the difference between a true consensus, group-think and a bandwagon? Surely I don’t have to blindly believe in the power of all scientific consensus not to be considered a crank?

    I do enjoy reading Orac’s comments on the world of woo, totally on the money, but do I need to be 100% AGW believer (I am agnostic) to dislike woo….it sort of feels like it from the tone of this thread?

  90. #90 Bellerophon
    March 26, 2010

    PhilD
    Agree with you wholeheartedly. Nice to compare your reasonable and calm argument with the foam flecked spittle & foul mouthed abuse epitomised at 79.

  91. #91 LF Velez
    March 26, 2010

    A tool from classical rhetoric that you may find useful in dissecting arguments [cranky or otherwise] is Stasis Theory. It can be used to locating the intellectual space where a person is making their ‘stand’ in an argument:

    Fact [is there a thing?]
    Definition [what do we choose to call it?]
    Quality [what value do we assign to this thing?]
    Propriety [what should be done about it? (Sometimes this is called the stasis of Policy or Procedure)]

    If you find people saying x idea is defined as against their religious beliefs and therefore must be stamped out, you’ve got Definition and Propriety. If you’ve got people saying that x idea is an intellectual dead end and not worth pursuing, you’ve got Definition and Propriety again, but from a completely different angle.

    If instead people are splitting definition hairs and backing up to the point that the existence of x is in question, arguing back on the basis of Propriety probably isn’t going to win any points [unless your opponent's dogmatism is interrupted by a brief flash of practicality].

    For a quick introduction, see here: http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/Silva.htm

    For a more elaborated view, and application to archaeology, see: http://www.writinginstructor.com/northcut

  92. #92 trrll
    March 26, 2010

    Does that make me a crank, or does it make me someone who tries to discern the difference between a true consensus, group-think and a bandwagon? Surely I don’t have to blindly believe in the power of all scientific consensus not to be considered a crank?

    The scientific consensus is not always right, but in the absence of strong evidence otherwise and extensive personal knowledge of the field, it is the way to bet. To do better than that, you are going to have to start delving into texts and original literature personally. Note that the experts in a field typically have at least a few years, and likely decades of experience, so you should expect to have to invest a substantial amount of time before you are competent to critique their work.

    Even if you don’t have extensive knowledge of a field, it is often possible to recognize when the “skeptics” are actually cranks. Many cranks are quite clever at taking advantage of scientifically naive reporters to create the appearance of scientific controversy when in fact very little exists, and some cranks are funded by wealthy interests who can afford public relations experts and lobbyists. Nevertheless, crank argumentation is quite distinctive, whether it is evolution deniers, 9/11 truthers, moon landing deniers, vaccine phobics, or global warming deniers. I’ve mentioned one giveaway: citing a petition as evidence that there is not a scientific consensus. This is pretty much an infallible indicator of a crank. Cranks also cannot resist quote mining and mischaracterizing the scientific literature, so it is worth following up claims of critics back to the original literature. Even if you are not personally expert in a field, you can often recognize when conclusions are being misstated or statements are being taken out of context. Another giveaway is picking on some minor error that does not affect the conclusions, and making some form of the argument, “If they could get this wrong, how can we trust anything they say?” For example, there was a great deal of publicity from anti-global warming exponents when a minor correction in an error resulted in a change in the rankings of the warmest year. According to the anti-AGW folks, NASA was no longer considering 1998 to be the warmest year globally, but now 1934 was the warmest year, leading into a variant of “if they could get this wrong…” argument. It didn’t take a lot of research to discover:

    1. It wasn’t global temperatures, but only US.
    2. NASA’s ranking hadn’t actually changed; they’d previously had 1934 as the warmest year in the US (but by a statistically insignificant margin).
    3. The correction was much smaller than the standard error of the measurements. The difference in average US temperature for those two years was not statistically significant either before or after the correction.

  93. #93 Tracy W
    March 26, 2010

    There actually is a test to see if groupthink has taken over: Are the defenders of an idea organizing petitions on its behalf? If they are, is it taken seriously?

    By this logic, naive Keynesian economics at least was groupthink – back in 1981 over 300 economists signed a petition saying that Margaret Thatcher’s policy of cutting government spending in the middle of a recession was a really bad idea, in part because it would cause the recession to worsen. (Later the statistics department worked out that economic growth started again the same quarter as Thatcher’s cuts). See http://www.iea.org.uk/files/upld-publication310pdf. I would not however say that Keynesian economics was a matter of groupthink, I think they just got their theory wrong.

    Vicki – I don’t think making scathing comments about the Chiacgo school would help me, as the people arguing that there’s a consensus against ever cutting government spending in a recession do tend to call themselves Keynesians and tend to think badly of the Chicago economists to start with. (The inverse is not true, many people who call themselves Keynesians do have more complicated models of how the economy works).

    As for your comment: “The Chicago school has a lot of believers, but facts are stubborn things, and the economy is more complicated than its textbooks.”

    I think you mistake the nature of economics, particularly macroeconomics. Firstly, the Chicago school economists are well aware that the economy is more complicated than its textbooks. The relevant debate in macroeconomics is not whether the economy is more complicated than textbooks describe, but whether the economy is simple enough that we can expect real-world governments to be able to manage it more effectively than real-world markets can. The basic starting point of most economists who are inclined to the free-market (which includes the Austrians) is that both real world markets can fail and real world governments can fail.

    Secondly, the problem with macroeconomics is that there are way too many facts. Controlled experiments are impossible to do in macroeconomics and typically so many things are changing that you can pick out a few of those changes and build a convincing-sounding narrative around them, but that doesn’t mean that your narrative is true – basically there are too many degrees of freedom. It’s like trying to work out the best medical treatment when all you have is, at best, systematically-collected anecdotes. Every now and then history will disprove a particular theory (eg the Philips Curve is dead and gone) but that’s reliant on a lot of chance.

  94. #94 Pieter B
    March 27, 2010

    An easily understandable statistical analysis of the 31,000+ signatories to the Oregon Petition at SkepticalScience.com

    31,000 is a very small fraction of the number of people who fit the OISM definition of “scientist” — about 0.3%.

  95. #95 Neil Craig
    March 28, 2010

    AnthonyK says he is on a

    “clever, well-informed, scientifically-literate blog.
    Moron. Wanker”

    which answers itself.

    A couple of others have said that the Oregon petition isn’t scientific evidence or proof of a sceptical consensus. Of course it isn’t & that is a straw man because nobody said it is. What it is, if it cannot be very much more than matched by alarmists is proof that there is no alarmist “consensus”. The fact that nobody can produce names of more than 1 scientist, who isn’t government paid, who supports catastrophic warming not only shows that there is no scientific consensus but that the focus of alarmists is not among scientists but in government.

  96. #96 Dedj
    March 28, 2010

    You can’t exclude a significant proportion of the people that would constitute a consensus and then declare that there isn’t a consensus. You have already been pulled up for that little trick by other posters.

    Unless you can give a very, very good reason to exclude government and government aided scientists, then you really have no buisness making the demands that you do.

    You will provide those reasons in your next post. I’m amazed you thought you could have got away with that stunt here. You really should give the people here more credit. They certainly aren’t stupid enough to let you get away with it, why you thought you wouldn’t get caught is beyond understanding.

    “A couple of others have said that the Oregon petition isn’t scientific evidence or proof of a sceptical consensus. Of course it isn’t & that is a straw man because nobody said it is.”

    No, but it was heavily implied as such here:

    “If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk”

    Calling it a strawman is to misunderstand or misapply the definition of strawman as a fair reader could have reasonably assumed it was what you were trying to imply.

  97. #97 trrll
    March 28, 2010

    The fact that nobody can produce names of more than 1 scientist, who isn’t government paid, who supports catastrophic warming not only shows that there is no scientific consensus but that the focus of alarmists is not among scientists but in government.

    Trying to exclude everybody who might have genuine competence is another hallmark crank behavior. Of course, anybody with the actual qualifications to obtain a government grant to support their work will have done so.

    Cranks almost invariably believe that the truth is being suppressed by a massive conspiracy. While it might sound insane to anybody thinking rationally, it sounds perfectly reasonable to a crank that every government in the world (even when, as in the US during the Bush Administration, the ruling party is itself dominated by global warming denialists) is engaged in a conspiracy to promote AGW.

  98. #98 Neil Craig
    March 29, 2010

    Gosh so anybody not working for the government must be second rate. Poor Bill Gates not getting that much desired job as a postman or Sakharov giving up working for the government when, if had been just a little smarter, he could have been as successful as Lysenko or Dr Pachauri.

    You can’t exclude the at least 50% of scientists who aren’t paid by the state & who, as posters here have proven by their inability to name any, virtually unanimously don’t support catastrophic warming. A consensus which deliberatlely excludes 50% isn’t a consensus, actually it isn’t even a majority. Well you can if you are Dedj or Trill but not if you are serious.

  99. #99 Antaeus Feldspar
    March 29, 2010

    Neil, you are aware that discounting what a person says purely based on their employment or their perceived financial interests is a fallacy called ad hominem circumstantial, right? Who cares if you can point to individuals outside your extremely broad category of “paid by the state” who have shown competence or individuals inside that extremely broad category who have shown incompetence? It doesn’t change the fact that using that category as a basis for artificially excluding voices from the debate is fallacious.

    And yes, I know the name that you will bring up to attempt a tu quoque, ‘I can do it because you do it too!’, rebuttal. Andrew Wakefield. But the difference is that the government needs to know whether catastrophic global warming is happening or whether it isn’t. A pharmaceutical manufacturer needs to know whether its new compound is effective for its intended purposes or whether it isn’t. By contrast, lawyers who pay a scientist to develop evidence that can be used in a lawsuit that alleges dangerous side effects from a product don’t want to get data that says there’s no reason to believe such a connection exists.

    Even then, the fact that Wakefield would have profited handsomely (both from law firm payments and from sales of his rival vaccine) if his conclusions had been adopted was not the reason his conclusions were rejected. They caused his work to be examined quite carefully and critically – the fact that he concealed those financial interests even more so – but ultimately his conclusions were rejected because it was weak science that failed the test of replication.

  100. #100 Zaher Bey
    March 29, 2010

    DID YOU SEE THAT!? Neil Craig excluded every scientist who ever received government funding from having a viable opinion for his little survey, made up their proportion of all scientists out of thin air, then blamed YOU for excluding the people he excluded. This is an amazing day in internet arguing people. I’m just glad I was here to see it.

  101. #101 trrll
    March 29, 2010

    Gosh so anybody not working for the government must be second rate.

    No, but you didn’t originally say “not working for the government.” You said “not funded by government.”

    Of course, now that somebody has pointed out how unreasonable that is, you want to change your argument retroactively. This is known as “moving the goalposts.” It is yet another of the classic signs of the crank.

    Of course, there are a lot of ways to be government funded other than working for the government. The government is, after all, the largest source of funding for basic science research. Basic research is costly. Any climate scientist who has the qualifications to obtain a government grant would be derelict in his duty to his work not to seek one. So yes, if somebody is a climate scientist and has never has a government grant, it is pretty strong evidence that they don’t even qualify as second rate (even second rate scientists occasionally get grants).

    Of course, there are plenty of climate scientists who aren’t working for the government who acknowledge the reality and the threat of global warming. But there’s no point in naming them, is there? Because you’ll just move the goalposts back to “funded by the government.”

  102. #102 Dedj
    March 30, 2010

    Or even “was at one time funded by the government” or “works somewhere that is partially funded by the government” or “uses data from someone funded by the government” or “associates with people funded by the government”. The list goes on, and each and every one of the list has been used over and over again by contraritivo’s time and time again.

    Just because we don’t want to play your silly little game, Neil, doesn’t mean you get to declare yourself the winner. The kid that no-one wanted to play with because he made the rules up as he went along always ended up by himself, regardless of his own opinion of his greatness.

    You were asked to validate your dismissal of anyone funded by the government. You don’t get to make unsupported unreasonable requests and then bitch and moan when people refuse to meet your request.

    Defend yourself and validate your request, or stop making it.

  103. #103 Neil Craig
    March 30, 2010

    Thanks for your explanation of ad hominum Mr Feldspar. Not being a complete hypocrit you will want to put this on the vaccination thread where it the point has come up more appropriately. The reason why the statistically impossible division between government funded scientists & others is obviously important is because (A) government has taken an unambiguous line on promoting this scare & (B) as Professor Nutt proves, scientists who disagree with government get fired. Since you use the argument of personal interest against Wakefield it is difficult to explain why you don’t know of it.

    Zaher try reading it. I objected that thje author had excluded the scientists not funded by government not those who were. Presumably having read it & not being a complete hypocrit you will now join me in that.

    Trill the remark begining “Gosh” was meant somewhat facetiously – I am sorry it was too subtle for you. I am perfectly happy to accept “funded by government” as the set divider. Pardon me but isn’t your excuse “there are plenty of climate scientists who aren’t working for the government who acknowledge the reality and the threat of global warming. But there’s no point in naming them, is there? Because you’ll just move the goalposts back to “funded by the government.”” complet pants since the scientists you calim to know so many of & who would prove your argument if you felt like making it are, by definition neither directly paid nor otherwise funded by government. Not being a complete hypocrit & not having made up the claim about knowing them you will now be the first person worldwide to choose to prove that point. Or not as the case may be.

  104. #104 trrll
    March 30, 2010

    Trill the remark begining “Gosh” was meant somewhat facetiously – I am sorry it was too subtle for you

    Frankly, if I were to ignore everything that you wrote that looks facetious to me, there would be very little left.

    I am perfectly happy to accept “funded by government” as the set divider.

    So it seems that as I predicted, you have now moved the goalposts back again. So we are back to the original problem. By excluding anybody who has received government funding in any form, you effectively exclude virtually everybody with real competence in the field, because anybody with the qualifications to obtain government grant support for his research in climate science will undoubtedly have done so at some point.

    And I take it that you see nothing even slightly irrational about believing that every major government on earth is for some reason conspiring to financially pressure climate scientists to endorse global warming–even when (as in the case of the the US during the Bush administration) the party in charge is publicly hostile to the idea of global warming?

  105. #105 Luna_the_cat
    March 30, 2010

    @trrll, arguing with Neil Craig is a bit like arguing with the Time Cube guy. He’s capable of making susie look sane and well-grounded in reality.

  106. #106 Neil craig
    March 31, 2010

    I see nothing even slightly irational in saying that politicians lie & that if the only people that agree with them are those who are dependent on them then nobody independent agrees with them.

    Ms the Cat thank you for acknowledging that what I say is unarguably correct. I assume that is why you did not stoop to actual discussion.

  107. #107 trrll
    March 31, 2010

    I see nothing even slightly irational in saying that politicians lie & that if the only people that agree with them are those who are dependent on them then nobody independent agrees with them.

    And how about believing that all of the major countries worldwide, which can’t agree about much of anything else, and which have divergent national interests in virtually every other area, somehow find it to be in all of their interests to promote belief in global warming? Does this sound remotely reasonable to you?

  108. #108 Dedj
    April 1, 2010

    “I see nothing even slightly irational in saying that politicians lie & that if the only people that agree with them are those who are dependent on them then nobody independent agrees with them.”

    You have been asked to provide your reasoning for this logic.

    You have failed to do so. Thus whether you think you are a rational person or not is irrelevent to the discussion.

    You have failed to prove yourself to be a rational person. There is currently no reason to consider you a worthwhile contributor.

    This exchange is over. Well done for ruining what was a decent thread.

  109. #109 Jonny
    April 1, 2010

    So, the consensus of Ptolemy, for example, was a good thing? It was even established with solid observation. Not long ago the consensus was that the Milky Way was the universe and that Mars was “dry as a bone”. Scientists are humans before they are scientists. So, they can jump to conclusion that fit what they want to believe. They can select and/or ignore facts based on personal bias. They can even follow a political agenda. When there are enough facts and/or observations to hint at an alternative or complimentary explanation, isn’t it the duty of science to investigate it? Apparently, not if there is a consensus. Thank God for Copernicus and Galileo.

  110. #110 dedicated lurker
    April 1, 2010

    To invoke Galileo, you can’t just be persecuted – you’ve got to be right.

  111. #111 Jonny
    April 1, 2010

    Was Galileo right? Or was he just more right (less wrong) than the ones before him, based on his more detailed observation? He still believed the Sun was the center of the universe. And who could blame them? That is all they could see with the technology of the time. Your standard that we’ve “got to be right” is absurd and silly, for most scientists have not been right in the sense you are requiring; they have simply offered new explanations based on observations or even new insights. Follow the trail where it leads. One doesn’t have to be “right”, but just less wrong. Think about it: every new theory about something means that the ones before it were wrong or at the very least not complete.

  112. #112 Poogles
    April 1, 2010

    Jonny, what exactly is your point?
    Because at you seem to be arguing against a definition of consensus that no one is putting forth; namely that a consensus means scientists are saying “we are absolutely right, and cannot possibly be wrong” when really the definition that seems to be correct is more along the lines of “To date, the best evidence we have points to these conclusions” which is kinda what it sounded like you were describing in your second comment “Follow the trail where it leads. One doesn’t have to be “right”, but just less wrong. Think about it: every new theory about something means that the ones before it were wrong or at the very least not complete.” Are you arguing a strawman?

  113. #113 Antaeus Feldspar
    April 1, 2010

    So, the consensus of Ptolemy, for example, was a good thing? It was even established with solid observation.

    Yes, you’ve got one half of it: the consensus for the Ptolemaic model was established with solid observation. Now here’s for the other half: the Ptolemaic model was overturned by solid observation. That’s the part that the cranks always want to skip over.

    A scientific consensus doesn’t get established because there are some observations that “hint” at it; it gets established because it does a better job than any other at accounting for, at the very least, huge swaths of observations in the field. It takes more than “hints” to overturn a consensus.

    Now, if some researcher sees such “hints” and decides that’s a reason to investigate a hypothesis that contradicts or questions the consensus, that’s perfectly fine! Science has no problem with that! And if that researcher is sane and not a morona good researcher, he/she will understand the need to generate more observations with studies that will give different results, depending on whether the scientific consensus is correct or the researcher’s hypothesis is correct.

    Some people think that’s all that anyone should need, to dethrone the consensus: the fact that some researcher is doing studies to find out if there’s a problem with the current consensus is enough to conclude that there is a problem with the current consensus. It isn’t, of course. But even when a researcher comes forward and says “Here, I did these studies to see if my hypothesis was better than the scientific consensus, and the studies say I’m right!” we don’t automatically conclude that the consensus was wrong, and start revising the textbooks. You know why?

    Because researchers challenging the consensus are humans before they are researchers. So, they can jump to conclusions that fit what they want to believe. They can select and/or ignore facts based on personal bias. They can even follow a political agenda.

  114. #114 Jonny
    April 1, 2010

    My point is the other poster said that I had to be “right” to invoke Galileo. I responded that Galileo himself wasnt comnpletely right, so that standard is silly. But, he advanced science. Solid observations are being ignored because of a built in bias of the consensus. Among others, observations like the alternating LINE and SINE distribution on a chomosme, and the identical SINE distribution in different species in what the consensus currently calls random junk dna; the digital-like coding of dna and the nano scale factory machine-like structure of the cell. Global warming is another area where the consensus is clearly influenced by political and funding bias. I dont say to throw out the consensus. You said, “investigate a hypothesis that contradicts or questions the consensus,” but that isnt happening. If a scientist wants to investigate a hypothesis that involves intention of design, he will be ridiculed, even if some new (or old) observations explain them at least as well as evolution with its religious-like assumptions.

    Im not arguing as much as asking why the contention and riducule? No one is saying to throw out the consensus before it’s proven wrong or right or to teach a god created world; however if there are indications that things arent random, why not look at that without being called a crank?

  115. #115 trrll
    April 1, 2010

    So, the consensus of Ptolemy, for example, was a good thing? It was even established with solid observation.

    Yes, of course it was. It offered strong predictions that new observations could be tested against, which ultimately gave rise to a better theory. (Copernicus’s theory wasn’t right either, because like Ptolemy, he thought that orbits had to be circular–it took Kepler to get that part right).

    The consensus is not always right. Indeed, one can argue that it is usually wrong, at least in fine detail. Note, however, that it is a logical error to go from “The consensus is most likely not to be perfectly right” to “A view that is contrary to the consensus is more likely to be correct.” Even if the consensus is not perfectly correct, views that are contrary to the consensus almost always turn out to even less correct. This is because there are a lot more ways to be wrong than there are ways to be right.

    Scientists are always hoping to overturn the consensus. But we also understand that a consensus exists for a reason–a large body of compelling evidence supporting that consensus. To overturn the consensus, one does not merely need fresh ideas–ideas are cheap. Ask almost any scientist, and he will gladly reel off a dozen pet hypotheses that are contrary to the current consensus. But to overturn a consensus, one needs a theory that fits the existing data at least as well as the consensus view–along with additional evidence that favors the new idea over the current consensus.

  116. #116 Dedj
    April 1, 2010

    “Im not arguing as much as asking why the contention and riducule?”

    Because you clearly haven’t read and understood the opening post, because you clearly haven’t read and understood the resulting discussion, and because your only contribution thus far is a basic rehash of an already dealt with misrepresentation of the arguement.

    Barge in with nothing to offer but poor comprehension and logic and you will be called out on it.

    It would be appreciated if you were to at least make an effort to stick to the thread topic, rather than just mouthing off with your own irrelevant opinion.

  117. #117 trrll
    April 1, 2010

    Among others, observations like the alternating LINE and SINE distribution on a chomosme, and the identical SINE distribution in different species in what the consensus currently calls random junk dna

    What consensus? There is certainly consensus that significant amounts of junk exist in the DNA of most species, but I’m not aware of any consensus about which noncoding DNA is junk, which is regulatory, and which plays some kind of structural role. I smell a straw man…

  118. #118 Antaeus Feldspar
    April 1, 2010

    If a scientist wants to investigate a hypothesis that involves intention of design, he will be ridiculed, even if some new (or old) observations explain them at least as well as evolution with its religious-like assumptions.

    Actually, this is provably false. Michael Behe, for instance, had his ideas about “irreducible complexity” taken quite seriously — until he demonstrated to everyone that he was not a real scientist who would examine the data and follow it to its logical conclusion, he was an ideologue who would start at his chosen conclusion and attempt to work backwards to whatever limited subset of the data appeared to support his conclusion.

    (It’s also a bit ridiculous to talk about evolution having “religious-like assumptions”, when the primary “assumption” that evolution operates under is that the laws of probability will not magically alter themselves to make events impossible that would otherwise be assured by sheer volume of trials.)

  119. #119 squirrelelite
    April 1, 2010

    Jonny,

    I’m going to offer a few suggestions because I think there is a core of insight in your comments, but it is difficult to recognize because it masked by the maze of what seem to be your attempt to argue against the existing scientific consensus on AGW.

    Instead of invoking the mantle of Copernicus and Galileo, you might do better to invoke the mantle of Richard Feynman who said:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    http://thinkexist.com/quotation/the_first_principle_is_that_you_must_not_fool/224189.html

    Science is a group process, even though it is ultimately done by individuals. Because of that, there are more chances for someone to spot an error in someone else’s reasoning or a flaw in their experiment. There is also a competitive inducement to look for better explanations or new ways to test the current consensus. However, when the collective group of scientists arrives at a consensus that phenomenon X is real or explanation Y is the best explanation we have at present, you cannot easily overturn that consensus just by saying “I don’t think so and here is someone who agrees with me.”

    You need an alternative explanation that makes predictions that differ from the consensus and that can be measured and tested. Or, you need a significant body of data that disagrees with it or is not well explained by it.

    You said:
    “Follow the trail where it leads. One doesn’t have to be “right”, but just less wrong. ”

    A key feature of the scientific process is that it is not seeking to be perfectly accurate or absolutely right. It just seeks to be more accurate and less uncertain. But, you have to be willing to follow the trail where it leads and that requires real data and a lot of foot work.

    You also said:
    “if there are indications that things arent random, why not look at that without being called a crank?”

    Actually, that is what climatology is trying to do. Weather is very random. Just wait five minutes and it will change. It is only when you average lots of data over long periods of time that you get to something that can be called climate and is not just random. Then you can study the significant factors that affect it in a non-random way and try to understand how they interact and which are more important. That is what climatologists have done and their consensus is that humans are a factor and their effect is significant.

    Lastly, it helps if you devote a little of your comment(s) to explaining how you understand things and what you think to be true or at least more accurate. That should be your point and you need to make it.

  120. #120 Buffoon
    September 2, 2010

    “In fact science is all about coming to a consensus,”

    –>Bullshit, period. When I look at the scientific method, I don’t see “agree with somebody” anywhere.

    “data, experimentation, and evidence,”

    –>Don’t require consensus to exist or be observed.

    “a consensus that has reproducible results that are,”

    –> Don’t you mean an “experimental method” which has reproducible results? You’re just sticking “consensus” in there willy nilly now.

    ” After all, what is a scientific theory like the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity but a statement of the current scientific consensus regarding a”

    –> Well, let’s see. At the time evolutionary theory was being formed, what was the “consensus”? I don’t think it was evolutionary theory. I think evolutionary theory was, at some point, a new thing (you know, because it had to be new at some point,) which means a consensus was constructed around it, not the other way around.

    “When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.”
    “but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.”

    –>”cranks and denialists” “they aren’t very good at realizing why their questions are not worthy of the attention that they think they are”

    “When you have an actual scientifically valid reason, based on science, evidence, experimentation, and observational evidence”

    –> Recursion fail.

    “evolution one of the strongest of all scientific consensuses.”

    Evolution is one of the most strongly supported scientific theories by evidence. This requires no consensus. Stop throwing that word in there like it adds something.

    “A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. (Correct)But a consensus is not itself the evidence. (Correct)And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. (Correct) SECTION OMITTED FOR CLARITY The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion” (Reasonable contention)

    “the goal of science is a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field”

    Science has no goals. Scientists have goals. Science follows the scientific method to learn about the world around us. It requires no consensus for the facts about the world around us to be there for observation.

    Consensus is immaterial to science, no matter how much you try to inject it.

    You introduce the merit in questioning a scientific consensus. Why would you question a consensus if the consensus itself has merit? Answer: Because any theory or law may be overturned at any time. Consensus or agreement over said theories is thus exactly as important as challenges to those theories.

    I agree with your point that challenges to theories themselves should be done in a scientific manner. I disagree that “consensus” is some goal in science to strive for. I’m not trying to get people to agree with me every day when I go to work, I’m trying to get myself to agree with nature.

    Consensus = scientists taking themselves, as a group, far too seriously.

  121. #121 Buffoon
    September 2, 2010

    “In fact science is all about coming to a consensus,”

    –>Bullshit, period. When I look at the scientific method, I don’t see “agree with somebody” anywhere.

    “data, experimentation, and evidence,”

    –>Don’t require consensus to exist or be observed.

    “a consensus that has reproducible results that are,”

    –> Don’t you mean an “experimental method” which has reproducible results? You’re just sticking “consensus” in there willy nilly now.

    ” After all, what is a scientific theory like the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity but a statement of the current scientific consensus regarding a”

    –> Well, let’s see. At the time evolutionary theory was being formed, what was the “consensus”? I don’t think it was evolutionary theory. I think evolutionary theory was, at some point, a new thing (you know, because it had to be new at some point,) which means a consensus was constructed around it, not the other way around.

    “When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.”
    “but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.”

    –>”cranks and denialists” “they aren’t very good at realizing why their questions are not worthy of the attention that they think they are”

    “When you have an actual scientifically valid reason, based on science, evidence, experimentation, and observational evidence”

    –> Recursion fail.

    “evolution one of the strongest of all scientific consensuses.”

    Evolution is one of the most strongly supported scientific theories by evidence. This requires no consensus. Stop throwing that word in there like it adds something.

    “A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. (Correct)But a consensus is not itself the evidence. (Correct)And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. (Correct) SECTION OMITTED FOR CLARITY The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion” (Reasonable contention)

    “the goal of science is a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field”

    Science has no goals. Scientists have goals. Science follows the scientific method to learn about the world around us. It requires no consensus for the facts about the world around us to be there for observation.

    Consensus is immaterial to science, no matter how much you try to inject it.

    You introduce the merit in questioning a scientific consensus. Why would you question a consensus if the consensus itself has merit? Answer: Because any theory or law may be overturned at any time. Consensus or agreement over said theories is thus exactly as important as challenges to those theories.

    I agree with your point that challenges to theories themselves should be done in a scientific manner. I disagree that “consensus” is some goal in science to strive for. I’m not trying to get people to agree with me every day when I go to work, I’m trying to get myself to agree with nature.

    Consensus = scientists taking themselves, as a group, far too seriously.

  122. #122 Chris
    September 2, 2010

    A crank is also someone who comments on a months old article using really bizarre formatting, twice.

  123. #123 squirrelelite
    September 2, 2010

    Thanks, Chris.

    I agree.

    Since I seem to have had the pleasure of getting in the last word on this thread for about 5 months, I thought I would offer a few thoughts.

    I, too, wonder why people bother to comment on threads that have lain fallow for months. It seems to me like visiting a park in the fall and remembering some discussion you had with a school mate at the end of school spring picnic there and then trying to resume that discussion. Except, there is no one else there! They’ve all gone on to other, more current problems.

    Perhaps there is an informal heirarchy among hot button trolls. To achieve the Order of Hot Button, Third Class you only have to watch your daily google searches for recent posts that push your hot button issue (scientific consensus, vaccine safety or whatever). Then, you drop in and spout your favorite line of argument.

    To achieve the Order of Hot Button, Second Class you have to do some deep research into old blog threads to find one that touches your hot button and do the same.

    To achieve the Order of Hot Button, First Class you also have to succeed in fanning the dying embers of a long dead thread into a full flaming argument.

    Since Buffoon thinks scientists take themselves too seriously, they are obviously unfamiliar with the works of Sidney Harris.

    http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/index.php

    Howver, I think I will refrain from awarding Buffoon the Order of Hot Button, First Class.

  124. #124 Orac
    September 2, 2010

    I, too, wonder why people bother to comment on threads that have lain fallow for months. It seems to me like visiting a park in the fall and remembering some discussion you had with a school mate at the end of school spring picnic there and then trying to resume that discussion. Except, there is no one else there! They’ve all gone on to other, more
    current problems.

    This happens from time to time, and, as long as I’ve been blogging, I never understand it. There are times when I suspect it’s due to the utter cluelessness of the commenter, who apparently can’t figure out that the post is nearly 6 months old (or, in some cases, four years old). Sometimes I think it’s just the mark of a crank.

    Whatever the case, I wish there were some mechanism to automatically shut down comment threads after some predetermined time, say, 90 days. I can do it on WordPress, but here on the almighty Movable Type I cannot do something that basic. And so buffoons like Buffoon pop up in old comment threads from time to time.

    And I have to shut those old threads down, as I am doing with this one.

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