FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #70: ” There is no such thing as ‘consensus’ in science.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 14th, 2011

Science is not an Exact Science

Science is not an exact science.  It’s a process.  It starts with observation.  You see something.  Hear something.  Feel something.  And it makes you curious.  So you start asking questions.  Why did that happen?  How did that happen?  And will it happen again?  So you start a longer process of observation.  You record data from these observations.  Called empirical data.  And you start seeing patterns in the data.  You start to see order.  Some cause and effect.  You note that whenever ‘A’ happens, you observe ‘B’.  And when ‘C’ happens, you observe ‘D’.  You start to experiment.  You make ‘A’ happen.  And, sure enough, you get ‘B’.  And when you make ‘C’ happen, you get ‘D’.

You can now reliably predict what will happen.  You form a hypothesis.  You break down what you saw through empirical observation and your experimentation into a mathematical formula.  And you discover something.  The formula you put together holds true under a wide set of conditions.  You now see that a lot of things can be accurately predicted by your formula.  Which leads you to a theory.  You do more experimentation.  And more empirical observation.  You’re on to something.  And it’s pretty big.  You test your hypothesis over and over again.  And you always get the same results.  You’ve discovered something.  If your observations and experimentation are correct.  If you haven’t made any false assumptions.  Or conducted your experiments in an uncontrolled environment.  You don’t think you have.  You’re pretty confident you did everything to the highest of scientific standards.  So you publish your results.  And have your peers review your work.

Your peers are very interested.  Some have been working on similar experiments.  They want to compare your work to theirs.  Interest spreads in the scientific community.  And they put your work to the test.  Through more experimentation and empirical observation.  They will push your research to the limits to see if it always holds true.  If it breaks down under certain conditions.  Or if they can find a critical flaw in your logic and/or experimentation that undoes all of your work.  After the peer review, if no one disproves your conclusions, your theory will hold in the scientific community.  Until disproven later.  Because science is not an exact science.  Things can change.

The Scientific Inquiry Never Ends

The scientific process never ends.  Because science isn’t exact.  But it’s often close enough to be useful.  Some theories have problems.  They don’t always hold true.  Then on further research these theories may be refined to fix some of the problems they had.  For example, we once thought the orbits of the planets were circular.  The theory was pretty accurate under empirical observation.  But there were problems.  The planets didn’t always travel in circles.  Then Johannes Kepler came along.  He theorized that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, not circular orbits.  Subsequent empirical observations showed that the planets indeed traveled in ellipses around the sun.  But there were still some observations that Kepler’s Laws didn’t explain.  Isaac Newton then improved on Kepler’s Laws by introducing the force of gravity into his equations.

Each step in the development of these theories improved on the past theory.  This is the scientific process.  The scientific inquiry never ends.  We continually test theories via experimentation and empirical observation.  We never accept past theories as scientific fact.  Every part of science is open to inquiry.  And we often have to revise long held theories based on new discoveries. 

Some of our old theories did quite a lot for us.  They took us to the moon and back.  Gave us jumbo jets.  And smart phones.  Incredible advances in technology.  Yet, we’re revising the science that gave us these things.  Because the scientific process never stands still.  No matter how right or how sure we think we are.  The work of Newton and Einstein was pretty good.  But some think we can improve on them.  Using Quantum field theory.  And String theory.  Which may be able to explain how everything works by looking at subatomic particles.   It could change everything.  But planes will still fly.  And smart phones will still work.  They may just do these things better.

Science by Consensus is not Science

One thing science isn’t is a democracy.  There is no voting.  No consensus.  Some early scientists were attacked when they challenged accepted beliefs.  By their fellow scientists.  And even the church.  It was these lone scientists against the world.  Like Galileo.  Who agreed with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun.  Not that the sun revolved around the earth.  Got Galileo in a lot of trouble with the church.  And spent the rest of his life under house arrest for trying to advance this view.  Because it wasn’t the accepted consensus of the time.  The church would later vindicate Galileo.  But it goes to show you that science isn’t a democracy.  Majority opinion doesn’t validate scientific beliefs.  And that a consensus in science is more politics than science.

Science by consensus is not science.  And it can be a very dangerous thing.  It was the accepted consensus that blacks were inferior to whites.  Which justified whites owning blacks as slaves.  It was the scientific consensus in Nazi Germany that the Germans were the master race.  That the Jews were an inferior race.  Subhuman.  And should be exterminated.  A lot of people bought into this ‘science’.  Happy to go along with the scientific consensus.  And it got a lot of people to do some pretty awful things.

Science by consensus is nothing more than mob rule.  It’s a tool to organize the masses.  To use for political gain.  Or for social or financial gain.  Because people will do things more readily if they believe there is a valid reason.  You just have to give them something to believe in.  And there are few things better than junk science.  Like the Alar scare (listed as a carcinogen after mega doses in test animals caused cancer).  Or the Saccharin scare (listed as a carcinogen after mega doses in test animals caused cancer).  And then there’s DDT.  Which almost eradicated malaria from the world.  Few things killed mosquitoes better.  But we also used it as a pesticide in agriculture in much higher doses.  Which apparently made egg shells thin, threatening species of birds.  And ‘possibly’ caused cancer in humans.  So we don’t use this wonder chemical anymore.  And malaria is alive, well and spreading today.  Because of the consensus that it was harmful to the environment.  And to people.  And millions of people die of malaria because of this consensus.

Good Science is built on Experimentation and Observation 

Some people accept some theories as fact.  Like the theory of evolution.  But it’s still called a theory.  Because it’s impossible to submit it to scientific inquiry.  The theory states that life evolved over hundreds of millions of years.  Even billions.  Fossil evidence can provide some information about the past.  But there is no way to test under laboratory conditions a process that occurred over such a vast time period.  So it remains a theory.

Global warming is another theory.  It, too, is impossible to submit to scientific inquiry.  Events happen over too great a time period.  And there are far too many variables involved.  It is difficult to accurately predict tomorrow’s weather let alone the next 10 years of climate.  And even if they have some empirical data that says the earth is warming the data is itself questionable.  Because the same data once predicted the earth was cooling.  And for all the doom and gloom of life-ending climatic changes, the earth went through far greater changes before man ever discovered coal.  The earth has cooled and warmed numerous times.  Great glacial ice sheets advanced and receded over land that became our great cities.   And here we are today.  Still here.

And it’s these big theories that we should be most careful with.  Because good science is built on experimentation and observation.  And if you can’t do either it’s just not science.  It’s only consensus.  Which makes it political.  And though politics can be fascinating, they have no place in science.

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