Casey Luskin, Disco. DJ and legal eagle sparrow asks “When Is it Appropriate to Challenge the [scientific] ‘Consensus’?”
Simple answer: When you can make a convincing scientific argument.
Casey disagrees, joining Jay Richards – Prodigal Son of the Disco. ‘Tute – in arguing that:
we must carefully examine the scientific, sociological, rhetorical, and political dynamics of a debate to determine if the consensus deserves our assent, or our skepticism.
This actually combines several errors. First, one can be skeptical of something which deserves assent, and indeed to which one does assent. Skepticism of a claim is not the same as rejection of the claim. Skepticism consists not of rejecting claims, but if accepting the limits of one’s own knowledge.
This brings the second error. Evaluating claims of scientific consensus doesn’t require an examination of rhetoric, of politics, of policy, or grand sociology. It requires assessing 1) the current state of scientific knowledge and 2) the current state of thinking within the scientific community at large.
Most people are not equipped to make that assessment on every given issue. Most people are not equipped to read and evaluate a single paper on a new scientific topic, let alone to evaluate a host of papers, each embedded in a long context of research and internal dispute, and to extract from that complete literature a sense of where the totality of relevant research points.
So what is to be done? One begins by listening to people who are qualified. Examine the writings of leaders in relevant fields, especially review articles that are meant to summarize the history of the field. If those papers are over one’s head or if they seem to be in conflict, one looks to peer reviewed summary statements like those issued on global warming by the IPCC. If such documents do not exist (as they do not for most topics), then the assessment must come from a survey like that conducted by Naomi Oreskes, who found that the scientific literature had reached a strong consensus behind global warming.
Richards (and Luskin) endorse 12 criteria for “doubting a consensus,” none of which addresses the actual substance of the claimed consensus:
- When different claims get bundled together.
- When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.
- When scientists are pressured to toe the party line.
- When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish.
- 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.
- When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.
- When consensus is declared hurriedly or before it even exists.
- When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus.
- When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution.
- When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies.
- 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.
- When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus.
People can be rude, cliquish, and reliant on scientific expertise without undermining the scientific process or the scientific consensus. That “scientists say” certain things in the scientific literature, it matters quite a bit for judging a scientific consensus. And when “the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented,” that doesn’t justify dismissing what it does find.
Casey concludes by quoting Richards’ bizarre claim:
The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. … 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. … Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.
It would be trivial to note that the distance of the Earth from the Sun varies from 90 to 95 million miles, and that those numbers change over time in what are known as Milankovitch cycles. And it would be equally trivial to observe that Casey’s buddy Tom Bethell loves to attack relativity and other concepts tied intimately to mass-energy conversion as well as and evolution and global warming and HIV’s causation of AIDS. When people respond to each of those acts of denialism, they cite the consensus of expert opinion. If Casey thinks defenses of evolution or global warming based on consensus of expert opinion shows weaknesses of those sciences, does he also question HIV’s role in AIDS or the validity of the Standard Model in physics?
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.