Repeatedly, in many scientific discussions, I have heard the word “consensus” invoked in order to justify a scientific claim. This trend has only gotten worse in recent years, and even proponents of scientific theories I accept have engaged in this pernicious practice.
A Logical Fallacy
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines consensus as:
1 a : general agreement : unanimity <the consensus of their opinion, based on reports … from the border — John Hersey>
1b : the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned <the consensus was to go ahead>
2 : group solidarity in sentiment and belief
If we go by definition “1b”, we can assume from the definition of the word “most” that “scientific consensus” means “51% of scientists accept a claim, or 51% reject a claim.”
This runs into all sorts of problems in practice. Where does one draw the line between who is a “scientist” and who is not one? What level of education is needed? How many years of experience? What if someone is a “scientist”, but has never worked in the field they are commenting upon?
But these problems are minor quibbles compared to the much more serious problem of relying on “scientific consensus” as a logical fallacy. In truth, appeals to scientific consensus are actually disguised form of the widely-known fallacy of “appeal to authority.” Sadly, several pages discussing this logical fallacy appear to have drunk the Kool-Aid, and state disclaimers such as “argument from authority is not a legitimate reason for rejecting scientific consensus.” What baloney.
I shall emphasize a key set of points to the reader (I’ll use a blockquote for emphasis):
Scientific consensus in no way indicates that a claim is true or false, or even that it is probably true or probably false. What gives weight to a scientific theory is that falsifiability conditions are satisfied, the predictions agree with the data within the margin of error, and the theory has resisted multiple attempts to disprove it by experimental means. Furthermore, a theory is never, ever proven “true” in science; disagreement with accurate experimental data can prove it false, but agreement with the data can never prove it true.
The table below illustrates my point:
From the table, we can draw an important conclusion (again, I use a blockquote for emphasis):
Scientific consensus is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a claim to be true or a claim to be false. It tells us nothing, other than that > 50% of a class of people agree on something.
Examples abound where “scientific consensus” was flatly wrong. This is not to besmirch the work of scientists (hell, I’m kind of one as an engineer). It just gets the idea of the scientific method wrong. Observe the scientific method below:
Where is “consensus”? Where is “agreement”? It plays no part in the scientific process. If 100% of scientists believe something to be true, but a lowly graduate student disproves their theory by direct counterexample, then 100% of scientists are wrong!
Race and Intelligence and Climate Change
These two controversies in particular tend to bring up the idea of consensus repeatedly in their dialogues. While I feel that there is a definitive, genetic link between race and intelligence, it is not scientific consensus that leads me to this conclusion: it is the voluminous evidence, collected over decades, indicating the validity of the concept of “IQ” and that racial (and ethnic) differences exist in IQ. Appeals to consensus are utterly worthless (and unnecessary) in this debate, since the evidence speaks for itself. The evidence for a genetic link to intelligence will only become stronger with greater inquiry into human biology.
The “climate change” controversy has a different problem. More specifically, the controversy rests on the claim of “anthropogenic climate change” (ACC), that human activities of industrialization are having a strong, deleterious effect on the Earth’s climate, and that this effect of climate change is going to lead to future catastrophes, such as a rise in sea levels, increased frequency of extreme weather events, permanent changes in local climates triggering mass migrations, and a serious loss of human life and economic output.
The major problem with this theory, is that this topic has become so politicized, that the signal-to-noise ratio is near zero. Governments have enormous interest in pushing the theory, as it lubricates the public for increased government intervention in the economy, thus making it easier for politicians to enrich their friends and create sinecures for party loyalists. Dishonest scientists have enormous incentive as well to bend the truth, since it allows them to manufacture a “huge problem” that “only they can solve” – in other words, ACC is a potential cash cow of government grant money.Obviously, there is push back from the other side, since most Westerners (especially Americans) enjoy driving cars, dwelling in air conditioning, and eating red meat.
As an example of how politicized ACC has become, look at this malarkey that Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders uttered at one of the Democratic
dog-and-pony shows debates:
Scientific Consensus, Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and Climate Change
A repeated claim made by ACC is proponents is that there is wide scientific consensus (the oft-quoted number is “97%”) that the Earth’s climate is changing for the worse, and that humans are to blame. Again, as I have already stated before, statements such as these carry no weight with me, since evidence is required to evaluate scientific claims – not consensus. What is most irritating, is that the general public is unable to view this (allegedly) huge body of evidence for themselves, as academics are hellbent on publishing their findings in expensive paywalled journals (aside from PLOS).
Another issue I have, is that there are multiple examples of climate change advocates living their own lives in a way diametrically opposed to how they want everyone else to live under the assumption that ACC is true. Many celebrities (admittedly, not scientists) live in the lap of luxury, but preach self-abnegation and self-impoverishment as acts of nobility. Celebrity scientists, e.g. Richard Dawkins (whose own research has nothing to do with climatology, meteorology, or atmospheric science), possess wealth and live a cushy life style my parents never had. Why don’t they give all their money and wealth away, and become organic dairy farmers?
I am not even sure if the major proponents of ACC even believe it themselves. Al Gore has been the John the Baptist of global warming since even I was a kid. Why then did Al Gore spend millions on ocean front property in a posh California neighborhood? Won’t the rising sea levels wipe out his investment?
There is also inconsistency with the claims made by ACC proponents. These people have been prophesying the impending end of the world so many times and been wrong as to throw themselves in the same bin with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. First, global cooling was supposed to destroy crops and lead to mass famines (now the world faces an obesity crisis). When I was a kid, global warming was massively pushed, especially on the television channel Nickelodeon. I remember all sorts of preposterous claims being made by propaganda commercials on the network, which even as a kid I viewed with skepticism. One commercial encouraged kids to not use glass bottles, since there are “5 years worth of energy in one glass bottle”, or some nonsense similar to that. The imminent destruction of the Amazonian rainforest was prophesied, which was preposterously claimed would cause the Earth to run out of breathable air. The propaganda campaign for global warming reached a crescendo with the production of a huge Hollywood film, 1995’s “Waterworld“, at the time the most expensive film ever made (it ended up being a box office bomb.)
A fly in the ointment, is that the predictions about global cooling and global warming have not panned out, and so now every extreme weather event is blamed on “climate change.” Since climate change covers all the bases, it is pretty much impossible to dismiss even horribly cold weather. Hell, Bill Nye pretty much admitted this is what the strategy is behind the marketing of the phrase “climate change.” (It should also be mentioned that Bill Nye is a mechanical engineer by training, only possesses a bachelor’s degree, and has no formal training in climatology.)
Another issue undermining the credibility of ACC advocates, is their vicious campaign of character assassination against anyone who disagrees with them. Instead of friendly disagreement and a reasoned effort to reach the truth, ACC skeptics are labeled as “climate deniers“, an allusion to Holocaust deniers, as though disagreeing with ACC is somehow on par with massacring 11 million people (which has humorously prompted the ADL to whine and complain about the irreverence toward the Shoah).
Not only is there a campaign of character assassination, but now ACC proponents want to use the power of the State to jail the skeptics. Bill Nye wants criminal penalties for being skeptical of ACC, and the Justice Department is considering using the RICO laws to go after the “climate denial networks.”
How is this behavior remotely related to “science”? Is that how the truth is arrived at? By jailing someone with a different theory from your own? How is this any different from what the Catholic Church did to Galileo and Copernicus? Even if the climate skeptics are wrong, when did the penalty for being wrong (or honestly mistaken) in science become a jail sentence? Stalinist Russia?
The Elite Benefits from Climate Change Propaganda
Ultimately, I cannot help but conclude that climate change is in truth a psychological warfare operation being financed by elite interests with the intent of leading mankind into a technocratic feudal society, where a small percentage of nobles and elite aristocrats will be waited on hand-and-foot by armies of poorly-educated servants, and the great mass languishes in abject poverty. The end game of such a system is that a small, privileged technocratic elite dwell in high-tech pleasure palaces, capturing all the benefits of economic growth for themselves, while armies of impoverished sharecroppers dwell in neo-feudal serfdom.
The interesting thing though, is that for the most part, this psy-op has not really swayed public opinion much, at least from what I can conclude in private conversations. Global warming has simply never come up, which suggests to me it is not a very high priority for most people. Then again, most people don’t talk about race either, even though the American consciousness is utterly preoccupied with the topic, so perhaps that is a poor metric for judging the effectiveness of a propaganda campaign. However, the fact that ACC proponents want to be permitted to jail the skeptics strongly suggests to me that they are losing the argument with the general public.
I hope that my little rant here has served to educate the reader on really what science is about – or at least, what it is not about. It is not about consensus, smearing your competitors reputations, or wanting them locked up behind bars. It is about the pursuit of truth, based on the formulation of theories that comport with empirical evidence. To reiterate, theories are never ruled in; they are only ruled out by failure to reproduce the observed data. Theories that can always contort themselves to fit the observations are unfalsifiable, and hence are inherently unscientific theories; a valid scientific theory must be vulnerable to disproof by experiment.