by Judith Curry
When unanimity of opinion is forged among the most learned men across various bodies of knowledge, such agreement must be protected against the threat of violent upheaval by one careless agent with only the most meager qualifications. A broad base of common agreement is necessary for the progress of scientific knowledge which alone carries the hope of civilization, thus it is no exaggeration to say that our very survival is at stake. It is imperative that we voice our united opposition to this threat to the common good posed by the irresponsible propagation of that one man’s abominable theories.
Pop Quiz time! Don’t worry, it will be a multiple choice. What is the source of the above?
Kevin Rice has an interesting post at the blog Catholibertarian entitled “On the dangerous naivety of uncritical acceptance of the scientific consensus.” Rice provides the following choices for the source of the above quote:
A. It is from the transcript of a speech before the faculty of CERN by Director Rolf-Dieter Heuer urging their support for a gag order to silence the fully science-based public dissent of Henrik Svensmark, Professor of Physics at the Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen, from the “scientific consensus” on global warming, resulting from his discovery of the correlation between solar activity and climate change.
B. A June 2004 letter to the Council of the Biological Society of Washington protesting the editorial decision of Richard Sternberg to allow peer-review publication of Stephen C. Meyer’s article “Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories”.
C. From an internal memo of the American Psychological Association regarding the inexplicable and unwelcome success of the unorthodox acupressure-based therapeutic methods of Dr. Roger Callahan, founder of Thought Field Therapy®.
D. H.J. Fulbright arguing for the dismissal and academic blacklisting of archaeologist V. Steen McIntyre Ph.D for the latter’s insistence on publishing the authentic data gathered by the team of diggers who worked with the professor on the dating of the ancient city of Hueyatlaco, which indicates far greater age than existing theories can permit. Dr. McIntyre’s reputation was destroyed and the professor’s career in archaeology ended.
E. From a 1925 appeal by Leipziger geologist Franz Kossmat before American Association of Petroleum Geologists to ignore and suppress the findings of astronomer and then-amateur meteorologist Dr. Alfred Wegener regarding his widely rejected theories of Pangea and continental drift first published in 1912 (which now form the basis of the science of Plate Tectonics).
F. From a 1943 appeal by George Gaylord Simpson published in the American Journal of Science, urging his colleagues to continue the academic blackout despite mounting evidence that the (by then) late Dr. Alfred Wegener was right all along (The appeal was heeded – the blackout continued well into the 1960s).
G. An open letter by Albert Einstein to his colleagues in all the sciences urging them to ignore and suppress the then-fringe cosmological theory of Monseigneur Georges Lemaître, now known as the Big Bang Theory.
H. A letter from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Medical Association justifying their mutual tacit support of the federal government of the U.S. seizing the equipment and research of Dr. Wilhelm Reich and destroying it in a government incinerator.
I. Professor Carl Edvard Marius Levy speaking before the Danish Maternity Institute of which he was the head, regarding his support for the widespread rejection by the medical and scientific community of the discovery of Ignaz Semmelweiss that infant illness and mortality could be cut dramatically if physicians and midwives would simply wash their hands. Semmelweiss’s insistent promotion of the radical new “hand-washing protocol” in the teeth of the medical and scientific consensus led to his dismissal from his post at the hospital in Vienna where he worked, and eventually he was committed to an asylum where he died of sepsis (as a consequence of that institution’s rejection of the very basic hygiene he advocated).
J. Dr. Robert Pitt, from the proceedings of the College of Physicians, regarding William Harvey and whose bizarre “crack-brained” theory of the circulation of the blood was widely reviled and whose scientific work was marginalized, censored, dismissed and ignored by the physicians of his day.
K. Translated from Latin, it is an excerpt of address by the Jesuit astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc to the professors at the Roman College, with former rector and Cardinal Inquisitor Robert Bellarmine in attendance. The subject is Galileo, whose support of Copernican heliocentrism threatened to overturn the cross-disciplinary paradigmatic commitment to the theories of Aristotle.
By now the astute reader realizes that the correct answer is Z. All and None of the Above. None of the above because I wrote that section of text myself, but All of the Above because they all reference genuine examples of the suppression of scientific knowledge by the scientific consensus (though I admit that I embellished a bit here and there on the precise details of who was involved and how it came about). You can Google any of them and confirm that.
With regards to climate change, Rice refers to several articles by Kyle Cupp:
Last November my old friend Kyle Cupp published a couple of blog articles about climate change and the scientific consensus: A Question For Climate Change Skeptics at Vox Nova, and a follow-up on his own blog a day later entitled Climate Change, Consensus and Political Action.
To his credit, my old friend Kyle is quite up front and honest about his ignorance of climate change science, nevertheless he is inclined to trust the conclusions of the scientific consensus and support the urgent and coercive actions of the state to curb the carbon dioxide emissions of much of the industrialized world which would certainly lead to a catastrophic collapse of the global economy and a massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a very small club of billionaires who control most of the still highly ineffective, inefficient (and incidentally, environmentally destructive) “green jobs” technologies, all on the chance that anthropogenic global warmingmight be happening, and the even smaller chance that such drastic action might save us.
“I’m no climate scientist; I couldn’t construct a serious argument in support or in opposition to idea that human beings have caused significant changes to the climate. I have to defer to the experts if I’m to have any position on the matter, and as the matter here may be one of urgency and grave importance, I’m inclined to go with what those trained and active in the field of climate science have to say. From what I hear, the vast majority of actively-publishing climate researchers buy into the tenets of anthropogenic climate change, so I’m willing to take a stand and say, ‘Yeah, I suspect there’s something to this.’ “
Kevin Rice responds to Cupp’s argument:
Kyle feels he is justified in throwing up his hands and saying, “Oh it is all too complicated for little old me, don’t ask me to think critically about it. Let me just trust what most of the experts are saying.” But the true examples I have given above should give the reader pause about the track record of trusting the scientific consensus and the wisdom of such an attitude of resignation (to say nothing about the subsequent retrieval and adjusted application of a critical attitude, now aimed at global warming skeptics). I do not grant that non-expertise excuses critical thinkers, especially self-styled skeptics of the establishment (which Kyle wants to believe he still is) from a grave responsibility to continue to contend with the data and hold consensus conclusions (and for that matter, the organized opposition to the latter as well) in suspicion when so much is on the line. Otherwise one cannot avoid taking “an irresponsible position” (his words), no matter what position one takes. If you abdicate your responsibility to draw your own intelligent conclusions based on all the evidence available while you yet retain the ability to come to them on your own, you may accidentally end up accepting the sound argument as and its true conclusion as our own belief, but you do not do so responsibly.
How do we non-experts decide when to take the pronouncements of the scientific consensus with a grain of salt? The reader may well find the following rules of thumb quite helpful. Be skeptical of scientific research, even that which supports, and is favored by apologists for, the scientific consensus, whenever:
1. …the people paying for the research have a vested interest in the results.
2. …vast concentrations of wealth and power hang in the balance on the results.
4. …the dominant paradigm is threatened.
In considering Cupp’s and Rice’s arguments, it is useful to remind ourselves of what Bertrand Russell has to say in his 1928 Skeptical Essays:
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. …. Nevertheless, the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
JC comment: Bertrand Russell’s statement to me defines rational skepticism. Political motivation for establishing a scientific consensus associated with a policy prescription, such as occurred in the context of the UNFCCC/IPCC, seems to me to provide grounds for non-experts to question the consensus.
Put in this light, engaging in the climate blogosphere, challenging the consensus and demanding accountability is part of our individual attempts to draw our own intelligent conclusions and do so responsibly.
It is interesting to see this perspective emerge from a catholibertarian.