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Scientific Consensus

by Enza Ferreri

I believe in science as a method of acquiring knowledge, I don't believe in "scientific consensus". Scientific consensus is the modern equivalent of the Medieval "ipse dixit", (he himself said it, meaning Aristotle), which was then the way to settle a dispute. It is an authoritarian principle, and so is scientific consensus if used in the same way.

One can and should certainly consider, examine in depth and at length and give weight to widespread scientific opinion, as Aristotle's opinion for that matter was worth studying in the Middle Ages and even now, but neither should be used as the last word on a matter.

Scientists are human beings, after all, with all the defects, irrationalities, social pressures, need to conform, pre-conceived ideas, tendency to corruption and self-serving interests of other human beings.

There is, besides, a strong element of dogmatism in the scientific community and even, according to many leading historians of science and philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Amazon USA) or Amazon UK , in the scientific process itself, which is not a bad thing per se, because it means that a theory is not abandoned too soon, before it has had time to prove its worth, but scientific dogmatism goes well beyond the point where it's useful. The history of science is full of examples of that.

So, although there is nothing wrong in consulting and considering scientific consensus per se, it's wrong to use it to settle a question as the final word on something.

"Nothing in science is ever "settled". Science thrives on debate and controversy, and is not a democratic process, scientific disputes and disagreements cannot be resolved by opinion polls among the scientists."

We must be particularly wary of claims we often hear, for example, from people defending the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming that on the matter the science is "settled".

Nothing in science is ever "settled": this is a concept foreign to science and borrowed from the political discourse. Science is a continuous process that never ends.

Some of the most established scientific theories, like Newtonian physics, which had for centuries been considered the unshakeable paradigm of science to the point that philosophers asked themselves how such a wonder of human understanding of nature was possible at all, came to be challenged and replaced by the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Science thrives on debate and controversy, for the obvious reason that they push the boundaries of knowledge and introduce new elements, so much so that preeminent historian of science Thomas Kuhn saw the moments or episodes of detachment from scientific "consensus" as science at its best, what he termed "scientific revolutions".

When Copernicus introduced the heliocentric theory of the earth rotating around the sun, it was against the contemporary scientific consensus, which believed in the Ptolemaic geocentric theory according to which the earth is at the centre of the universe, with the sun orbiting around it. It was the scientists of the time who supported geocentrism before the Church followed that scientific consensus.

Science is not a democratic process, scientific disputes and disagreements cannot be resolved by opinion polls among the scientists.

On the specific subject of "global warming", the scientific consensus is much less than the public is commonly led to believe. The areas of consensus among scientists are few, narrow, rather obvious and do not concern the conclusions that environmentalists, politicians and the media claim.

There is agreement that the earth climate is always changing now as before, that the planet is currently, on average, warming, that man's activity is increasing the atmosphere levels of greenhouse gases, and that these, coeteris paribus (everything else being equal), can have a warming effect. Beyond these general statements there is no consensus.

One of the few areas of concurrence which is not trivial regards the Kyoto Protocol. There is scientific agreement that Kyoto, the commitment to which in the UK, by making electricity consumers subsidize wind farms, has pushed energy prices so high that 1 in 4 Britons is now in "fuel poverty" having to spend 10% or more of their income on energy bills, is totally ineffective in stopping in a detectable way any warming that may occur in the future.

But that's another matter.

We've recently heard many times that the media should not give equal coverage to the so-called climate change skeptics as to the mainstream scientific opinion on man-made global warming of catastrophic consequences. The two sides, the argument goes, should not be considered on a par as in a debate over an issue which is not decided by science. But this argument, thinking of the scientific community as divided between a majority and a minority over an issue to be decided by "democratic" means, misses the point of what science is all about: it's not the number of scientists holding a position that matters, it's the validity, theoretical interest and empirical foundation of the various hypotheses held by them. Science is not a head count. Most, if not all, of the greatest scientific theories started as minority views.

What the media should do, if the journalists involved had the ability to do so, is trying to evaluate for themselves the respective merits and the basis of the different claims, and grant them coverage that reflects these evaluations and give them weight accordingly. The neutrality and impartiality of the media is a myth. You cannot write without a viewpoint, any more than you can take a photograph without a place where to stand with your camera.

If, on the other hand, the journalists involved can't or don't want to make the necessary research, equal coverage is anyway the least bad, safest option.

To show how interests other than scientific can be involved in research on climate change, here is what a believer in the catastrophic man-made global warming theory, Spencer Weart, says in his book The Discovery of Global Warming:

"Climate scientists had established that their research deserved substantial funding, and they continued to use international committees to coordinate loosely the way it was spent. At the start of the twenty-first century the world was devoting several billion dollars a year to climate research... It barely sufficed for a subject where the fate of entire populations would be swayed by dozens of factors, each planetary in scope. Long gone were the days when the great questions of climate could be profitably studied by a few people taking time off from their usual research." [Emphasis added]

Money makes the world go round, and global warming is an industry like all the others. Here's a cynical but realistic motive for climate alarmism on the part of some scientists: no catastrophe looming, no research funding, or at least not half as much.

And the skeptical Christopher Horner writes in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism:

"Why would [scientific] articles examining something unrelated to Manmade climate change mention 'global climate change'? Many scientists now throw a party-line paragraph about global warming into articles or grant proposals because it helps one gain publication and/or funding. Several researchers are on record complaining about editors requiring such obeisance. This is equal parts scandalous and illustrative about the state of science and the insidious influence of billions in taxpayer funding, so sensitive to political influences and considerations."

The scientific mind (or attitude) is the one that says: I'll follow this research or investigation to the end wherever it takes me, and I'll accept its results whatever they will be. The non-scientific (or ideological, or political, or superstitious, or simply self-serving in a narrow sense) mind instead is the one that says: I know in advance of any investigation what its results must be (for whatever reason, reached through a process that has nothing to do with knowledge), they are the only results that I'll accept and I'll endeavour to get them (by manipulation of data and many other means).

I believe in science, not scientists. To reach one's conclusions on a subject, I think that the best way is to examine the main arguments and principal evidence for oneself - even when the topic is specialistic or complex it's always possible to form a reasonable opinion - and to compare views and work of different scientists and researchers, both those supporting the mainstream paradigm and those in the fringe, sceptical, maverick or minority camp.

To accept and rely entirely on a theory only because it represents the "scientific consensus" is just as risky as to ignore scientific consensus altogether.

After all, scientific consensus on countless specific subjects at any given time in the past was in contradiction with what scientific accord about them is now.

There are times when scientific consensus turned out to be right and the etherodox opinion was wrong, as in the case of Dr Wakefield and his theory that MMR vaccination is associated with autism in children. And there are times when the heretic view in the end showed itself to be valid and prevailed, as in the case of Louis Pasteur's germ theory.


Enza FerreriEnza Ferreri is an Italian web author with a degree in Philosophy of Science living in London, and former journalist.

Email: enza at



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