Attacking consensus - a sure sign of a crank

Sandy Szwarc continues to wage her war against the "obesity myth", and has fallen into the classic crank trap of the attack on scientific consensus. It's right up there with attacking peer-review as a sure sign you're about to listen to someone's anti-science propaganda.

She cites this article at the financial times by John Kay which lauds the Crichton view of science.

Michael Schrage's comment on politics and science (September 26) struck a raw nerve: and provoked an extended response from the president of the UK's Royal Society. Lord Rees advocates that we should base policy on something called "the scientific consensus", while acknowledging that such consensus may be provisional.

But this proposal blurs the distinction between politics and science that Lord Rees wants to emphasise. Novelist Michael Crichton may have exaggerated when he wrote that "if it's consensus, it's not science, if it's science, it's not consensus", but only a bit. Consensus is a political concept, not a scientific one.

Readers of this blog will remember that line comes from Crichton's infamous anti-global warming crank speech "Aliens Cause Global Warming", which is one of the more pathetic crank attacks on science of all time. It's just one long Galileo gambit that suggests whenever scientists agree, you're being hoodwinked. This is, of course, total nonsense. Scientists strive for consensus on difficult topics. Review papers essentially are statements of consensus by people familiar with the field. Consensus conferences are routinely held to pour over data and determine things like the best treatments for a disease, or policy recommendations. The attack on scientific consensus is illegitimate, and is more or less, a subtle Galileo gambit. The article also has this great line:

Often the argument will continue for ever, and should, because the objective of science is not agreement on a course of action, but the pursuit of truth...

Boy I bet the cranks would love for this to be true. Sorry to burst their bubble but HIV causes AIDS, humans evolved, the CO2 causes global warming, the holocaust happened, and we landed on the moon. This idea that scientific concepts should be debated endlessly is absurd. If the data do not fit the theory, that's when you have a debate. If new methods and new findings show a theory is limited, that's when you have a debate. You don't have a debate because some people don't like what they hear.

And remember what I said about not trusting people who attack peer review?

Peer review is a valuable part of the apparatus of scholarship, but carries a danger of establishing self-referential clubs that promote each other's work.

And if that wasn't enough:

Statements about the world derive their value from the facts and arguments that support them, not from the status and qualifications of the people who assert them. Evidence versus authority was the issue on which Galileo challenged the church. The modern world exists because Galileo won.

And there we have a Galileo reference! Of course, on these topics it's the denialists who use status and qualifications rather than data and evidence.

Kay Ends with this stunning piece of naivete:

The notion of a monolithic "science", meaning what scientists say, is pernicious and the notion of "scientific consensus" actively so. The route to knowledge is transparency in disagreement and openness in debate. The route to truth is the pluralist expression of conflicting views in which, often not as quickly as we might like, good ideas drive out bad. There is no room in this process for any notion of "scientific consensus".

Again we have the annoying appeal to some perfect ideal of debate club. The problem is that some people are liars. They are not honest brokers in the debate. They aren't interested in providing evidence and data for their point of view. Instead, they lie, cherry-pick evidence, and smear the opposition. This idea that consensus isn't real and instead we need to debate denialists, and cranks as if they have something to contribute is absurd. What we need is to arm people with the knowledge to detect nonsense when they hear it, and accept that the expertise of bodies of scientists is preferable to the ramblings of hacks paid by groups like AEI or CEI. One recognizes, also, a conspiratorial tone in these attacks on consensus. As if scientists, when they have conferences on such topics, aren't actually evaluating data but trying to figure out how to attack political enemies. This is absurd. When scientists gather to debate a consensus they do just what Kay advocates, they fight it out and argue over what the data says. When cranks respond by covering their ears and yelling "Al Gore is fat!", that's not an alternative presentation of data, it's just useless bullshit, and is rightly impugned and ignored.

Now, this is not to say that increasing obesity or its links to morbidity is even one of those difficult questions that we need to have consensus conferences on. We're way past that. It is known, it is real. It causes illnesses like diabetes and hypertension, increases morbidity and mortality, and we should pursue methods to prevent obesity from developing because, as we've discussed, once obesity has developed it is difficult to reverse. No one seriously doubts the link between obesity and these consequences, and Sandy's latest foray into the classic crank realm of attacking consensus is just another great example of why she's not a real skeptic at all. Like her fellow CEI fake skeptic Steven Milloy, her site exists to muddy the waters on the science rather than clarify it. They would love for us to believe that it's our duty as scientists to perpetually debate them as if they honestly had something to say. I think we've made the point with this blog that this is not a wise course of action or a good use of time.
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P.S., I'm heartbroken Reasic has disappeared and his beautiful take down of Michael Crichton's speech is gone with him. If you're still out there Reasic, forward me that post and I'll preserve it here.

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Ugh.

That article Sandy cited is horrible, a veritable cornucopia of crank arguments and fallacies about the nature of science. Truly awful. You're right that it's the Galileo gambit, and when anyone makes such idiotic criticisms of the peer review system you know you're dealing with a crank, as I've discussed before in the context of HIV/AIDS denialist Dr. Donald Miller's attack on the system.

Maybe I misread Scwarz's original post, but the one on diet and health seemed to not be all that contoversial. She didn't go into the obesity myth stuff, and mentioned the data on particular diets not being well correlated with preventing certain diseases. I may have misread it though.
Of course, being right about one thing doesn't mean you are right about everything, so if she moves over into the "anti-peer review thing"...

Sometimes the cranks are right, but they're still cranks. I like cranks. Cranks are valuable. Anybody who tries to cast doubt on consensus instead of admitting they're a crank and moving on with reasoned arguments is something much worse than a crank - not necessarily a shill but quite likely a publicity-seeker (e.g. Crichton), an ideological zealot (e.g. Szwarc), or just a plain old troll.

My favorite relevant quote:

"Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted by an unkind establishment. One must also be right." (Robert Park)

What's most terrifying about Crachpot Crichton's anti-consensus, anti-expertise woo is that he used to be a doctor. Why bother stemming patient blood flow, when it's just a nasty old CONSENSUS view that people can bleed to death? We'll need to judge on a case-by-case basis. That's a brave, independent stand.

I'm only half joking. After all, in his autobiography he actually did say that the Germ Theory of Disease has not been proven to his satisfaction....

Most of what I had to say has already been said in other comments. Your arguments here strike me as one-sided and overly simple. It's a good blog, but I see this flaw in a lot of the writing...it's a sort of arrogance, I suppose.

Cranks do add value. Peer review IS flawed and can be improved.

It looks to me like you could benefit from a few science studies books (I know you are a (S)cientist...and so can you!...to borrow from the esteemed Comedy Central anchor).

I hope you would consider that debunking as an identity requires patience, reliance on reason, and a willingness to continue a dialog so as to allow someone else to learn. It isn't a karate chop dispensed with glee. That's an ugly sort of knowledge usage not much different from its usual enemies' tactics.

Tone it down.

I read a lot of medical blogs and was shocked to read on "Scalpel or Sword" that the blog author doesn't believe in global warming. It amazes me how ignorant so many physicians are about climate change science.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 18 Oct 2007 #permalink

Ryan, statements like this:

Your arguments here strike me as one-sided and overly simple.

without any elaboration don't contribute much to discussion, and push you dangerously close to concern-trolling (if not well into that realm).

"That's an ugly sort of knowledge usage not much different from its usual enemies' tactics.

Tone it down. "

That's not close to concern trolling, I swear that's the actual how-to example.

He "agree's" but thinks you need to scale back, for "safety's sake" so that the crank's will understand. Of course, they don't want to understand. If we watered down our arguments, then it makes it easier for the cranks to inflate their ego and attack new targets.

Oh, and "Cranks do add value" is the saddest statement ever. We could survive well without them, instead using simple discussions and peer review to find our flaws. We don't need single minded, unchanging people to cause us to see something new. They're distracting and dangerous. Never useful.

By Evinfuilt (not verified) on 18 Oct 2007 #permalink

I to was very upset to see Reasic go. Must download the site now for easy reference.

The flaw in peer review, or science in general is often *overspecialization*. For example, back when some people where trying to figure out why some drugs worked great in the lab, when taken from say a plant, but badly in the real world, when say... made in a test tube, a *lot* of people reacted really badly to the suggestion that maybe the problem was that about 50% of the test tube chemical was undergoing folding into a structure that was a mirror image of the original chemical and that *could* be a problem. If they had asked someone writing computer software, or even fracking folding origami or something, a lot of people could have told them that "Yeah, when tab A needs to fit slot B, you kind of need A and B to be in the **right places**!" lol

There is now at least one company that has set itself up as a cross discipline group. The concept is, if you are dealing with organic chem, and just can't quite figure out why something doesn't fit, maybe one of the companies engineers, computer people, or even a physicist can see something you are just totally blind to.

This however is a far cry of them idiotic idea that we should dredge up failed ideas and crank BS as "alternate disciplines", to check people's facts with. I suspect peer review could probably be helped by "some" non-related fields looking things over too. If for no other reason that you might get a call from someone studying protein folding the next morning saying, "You know, I think I have a way to solve the problem your paper mentioned about molecular adhesion using blah..." They might have actually run into your solution while trying to fix something that wouldn't work right in their field, but the way things have become so specialized, while its necessary, does have the drawback of leaving most people blind ignorant and even outright stupid about what anyone in any other field is doing, or how it might effect theirs.

I'm technically obese, though I carry it so well that most people don't think so ... of course there's no doubt that I do look fat.

Until I fell down some stairs and hurt my rib and knees, I was exercising (aerobics) and doing weight work 5-6 times a week, working out for 1-1/2 hours per day. I regularly check my bloodwork for cholesterol and diabetes. I'm not under any illusion that my weight has, and may continue, to cause health problems.

But I've noticed a kind of glee certain people take in constantly pointing out how more apt fat people are to die. True or not (and I certainly am not a denialist), there's a smug attitude that creeps through, a sense of superiority ... I would never be that undisciplined, that lazy, that fill-in-the-blank, etc. etc. I've seen commenters on blogs where this subject came up rant and rave as if they personally had a stake in proving their point.

Yes, obesity is a problem. In my case, it's very much tied in with psychology and genetics as well as the usual culprits. I've known for years that I "self-medicated" with food; it's like any addiction, easy to get and very hard to get rid of when you've had it since you were a toddler. Antidepressants haven't helped. Don't know if I'll ever be able to change, but I'm doing what I can with what I've got. And I hope my knee heals quickly so I can get back to the exercise.

Another great post, Mark. Thanks!

Where does the line between "accepted theory" and "consensus" get drawn? Many scientists engage in consensus when they do not have a specific theory. Citing examples from astophysics, biology and other disciplines is easy. I was disturbed by your comment;

"Sorry to burst their bubble but HIV causes AIDS, humans evolved, the CO2 causes global warming, the holocaust happened, and we landed on the moon. This idea that scientific concepts should be debated endlessly is absurd"

First, you are only espousing one "accepted theory". That is the mechanism for AIDs as a consequence of HIV infection. Although, people live with HIV and do not contract AIDS with the help of retrovirals. The statement that CO2 causes global warming may be a consensus - and even an accepted theory in some circles - but it is quite different from the German WWII Holocaust (to differentiate it from the myriad of other Holocausts) and the moon landing. These are, quite simply, facts. They are most definitely NOT "consensus".

Most scientific concepts receive some level of debate throughout their existence. They are shaped and prodded until they dissolve or transcend into the realm of factual information. The earth orbits the sun, for example has moved from a concept to fact.

Calling someone a "crank" may be a convenient rhetorical device - and sometimes these positions are extremely distasteful - but silencing debate is the antithesis of the scientific method.

I would rather people engage in challenging the minority (and majority) view on the basis of arguable facts - rather than emotion and bias.

PS - Is that a new photo of Chris?

To elaborate on what Kagehi said, the problem with peer review is that scientific peers are great for evaluating what Thomas Kuhn calls Normal Science, the incremental improvement and filling in of the details within current scientific paradigms. Scientific peers can be terrible at evaluating paradigm breaking advances. Galileo, Darwin, Einstein met with terrific resistance, not because their hypotheses didnt fit the existing data, they all fit the existing data better than what was the scientific consensus of the day (such as it was). Scientific peers are experts in their specialties in existing scientific paradigms, they are ignorant novices in scientific paradigms that are as yet unestablished.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence, but the claims of Galileo, Darwin and Einstein were not extraordinary in any sense that I can discern. A hypothesis that fits the data better than an existing hypothesis is not an extraordinary hypothesis, it is a better hypothesis. The need for extraordinary evidence to displace an existing hypothesis with a hypothesis that fits the data better is not a scientific need, it is a human need based on human foibles of ego, stuborness, ignorance and self interest. Cranks have an extremely high threshold for allowing their ideas to be displaced by hypotheses that fit the data better.

As scientists, we should adopt what ever hypothesis fits the totatality of the data better than any other. When we are ignorant of the scientific details, it is a natural human reaction to fall back on non-scientific methods of evaluation, the old standbys of ego, stuborness, ignorance and self interest. When we do this, we are no different than the cranks. It is difficult for one, or even a fairly large group of people to know the totality of the data and so evaluate an existing hypothesis against a new hypothesis.

Galileo, Darwin, Einstein met with terrific resistance, not because their hypotheses didn�t fit the existing data, they all fit the existing data better than what was the scientific consensus of the day (such as it was). Scientific peers are experts in their specialties in existing scientific paradigms, they are ignorant novices in scientific paradigms that are as yet unestablished.

First, Einstein was not treated with 'terrific resistance' - his ideas were published, evaluated and accepted in what is actually a rather short time considering their eventual impact. Comparing the scholarly criticism and evaluation of Einstein's papers with the fanatical fundy opposition to the Galileo and Darwin is simply not historically warranted.

Second, I would argue rather vehemently that the notion of 'paradigm shifts' in science is atrociously overrated. Galileo and Darwin were arguably genuine paradigm shifts. Then again, they arguably established the sciences of physics and biology where none was before (or, in the case of Darwin, a smattering of only vaguely related fields lacking a unifying structure). I would argue that there have been no paradigm shifts in physics since Galileo established conservation of energy and momentum (even if he used rather different terms for them than we do today).

This may seem like an extreme position, but if you actually go back and read for example Einstein's papers, you will see that he is operating entirely within the conceptual framework - the paradigm if you will - of contemporary physics.

He was attempting to reconcile the Maxwell equations with the principle of relativity, as is evidenced by the title of his paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies in which he introduces special relativity. That the need for such a reconciliation was widely appreciated in the physics community at the time is evident by the simple fact that other contemporary physicists were proposing and testing other solutions. Einstein simply had the good fortune of proposing the correct one.

Similarly with quantum mechanics, the development is a series of gradual - evolutionary, if you will - modifications to the existing theories of Hamiltonian dynamics. That is not to say that they were not significant or that they do not represent a substantial realignment of the focus of physics, but those are conclusions drawn with the benefit of hindsight, and hindsight is always 20/20. By the time the scale of the modifications to existing theories needed to account for the various quantum phenomena was widely appreciated, the fundamental principles - the paradigm change, if you will - were already widely appreciated.

- JS

Citizen,

Calling someone a "crank" may be a convenient rhetorical device - and sometimes these positions are extremely distasteful - but silencing debate is the antithesis of the scientific method.

I'll have a big post up about this soon. It's something I have to repeat a lot so I think I'll just have to create a single link.

The basic issue, and the focus of this blog is what type of scientific debate actually is debate. In other words, how do you tell between honest debate and dishonest debate. When people challenge science with the methods we write about, they're not honest brokers in some debate using reason and logic to come to legitimate conclusions. They are trying to confuse and muddy the waters and prevent clarity.

When they do this you no longer have to engage them as if there is a debate to be had. It's a waste of time, they can generate reams of BS arguments that take forever to debunk since they are only limited by their imagination while we have to present evidence. Recognizing the tactics of anti-science as a method allows one to avoid the trap of entering a debate with a dishonest actor.

Further, with most of these issues it's better the cranks and denialists are specifically not debated with as if they have a legitimate position. When you do this you legitimize their nonsense as being "the other side". This should be avoided whenever possible.

I was re-reading Lipstadt's book on holocaust denial and she makes this exact same point. When someone is dishonest, you don't treat them like they've got equal footing in an academic or scientific debate. That's what the anti-science types want, they want to be the other side next to people who value the process and evidence. She doesn't debate deniers, I think it's a bad idea too. Instead, point out how their tactics are dishonest, dismiss them as any kind of legitimate information source and move on.

That's what the anti-science types want, they want to be the other side next to people who value the process and evidence...

A handy word that I've seen used for those who operate in this way is "contrascientists" - Mullerian mimics passing themselves off as being invested in an honest scientific debate towards the end of destabilizing it, using dishonest applications of accepted techniques of scientific discourse. Applying legal definitions of "true" or "proven", and techniques from politics for skewing debate; well, just about anything that the AEI, say, has to offer in the AGW issue, for example. Michael Crichton would make a good poster boy for this crowd. Lomborg also, in some regards.

I would have to disagree. Criticism on scientific consensus should not be discouraged. Mindless "attacks" of course are worthless. But often it is possible to advance rational scientific criticism. See, for example, this recent post of mine. Anything wrong with that?

I think you might need to take a somewhat more nuanced position. I had the experience a few years ago of being an author on a paper with extremely good data and methods published in a very well-respected major journal but the results did not sit well with the violently held views of a couple of influential scientists. Their approach was to immediately state that our paper should NOT HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED and that there should have been some kind of consensus conference held at which the obvious plan was that they and their associates could have outvoted us and effectively suppressed or trivialized our results. I am not making this up.

Independent scientific consensus is one thing. However, certainly in some fields, there are a lot of people whose fame and fortune depend on a certain view prevailing as orthodoxy, regardless of what the evidence actually shows, and "consensus" in that situation is of relatively little value.