In Science Consensus Is Irrelevant

I’ve been on the road today, with no time for writing. So for tonight we have for you an evergreen speech by the late Michael Crichton on how real science works.

Money quote:

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Also this:

Has everybody lost their minds?

Read the whole thing here.

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8 Comments

  1. “Has everybody lost their minds?”

    Not quite. Many Leftists haven’t had one ab initio.

    Posted December 5, 2016 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  2. Criticus says

    Hi, Malcolm. I think that the criticism of the significance of consensus that one hears out there from climate science skeptics is overblown and tends to obscure the complexity of the situation. Consensus reached through sufficiently independent means is certainly _not_ irrelevant. On the contrary, it’s very relevant. And it’s simply false, in terms of both actual scientific practice and idealized science, to say that consensus is somehow contradictory to science. Yes, there are obviously concerns about the legitimacy of various alleged examples of consensus. But that is a different issue.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Consensus is not contradictory to science. It’s just not science. It’s opinion.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  4. A well-known example of consensus is a Supreme Court ruling, which is authoritative and taken as the ultimate law of the land, albeit still vulnerable to being overturned by a future ruling of the Court.

    A Court ruling is made by a vote of the nine Justices, and the majority determines the ruling. Hence, the majority opinion establishes the law of the land.

    But the law of the land is not established by the scientific method. It is not science. It is opinion, which can change in time.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Criticus says

    You quoted Crichton saying:

    “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

    That sure sounds to me like the idea that consensus is contradictory to science.

    If someone gets a result in science and five other laboratories independently confirm that result and a consensus emerges that the hypothesis tested is true, that is very significant and is very much an important part of how science progresses.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  6. Criticus,

    “Contradictory” implies “opposition”. But opposition necessitates operations within the same field of activity. Science and opinion are not in the same field of activity. That is what Malcolm meant when he said they are orthogonal (i.e., geometrically perpendicular). They do not contradict each other because they do not operate in the same “plane” of activity. Science and opinion have nothing in common with each other.

    Consensus is majority opinion. Truth is not assertion, and assertion is not proof. Science requires experimental proof of validity. And proof is neither opinion nor assertion — not even authoritative assertion. Proof is proof.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Criticus,

    What Henry said, pretty much.

    I do understand why the Crichton quote could be interpreted the way you are reading it, and I’ll agree that he did sacrifice a little precision for rhetorical flair.

    The real point, I think, is that truth and consensus are not identical, and to the extent that science lays claim to truth, then consensus and science are not identical. (Of course, we all realize science is not supposed to lay claim to absolute truth, but rather to represent itself as a self-correcting means by which we may orient ourselves in the direction of truth, and with some good fortune, actually move toward it.)

    As you say, scientific consensus may well lie close to truth. But it can also be wrong, and has been again and again — and so mere consensus shouldn’t be trotted out to end debate and silence dissent, as the global-warming climate-change “consensus” is routinely given to a bedazzled and almost wholly ignorant public with no higher authority to appeal to.

    If someone gets a result in science and five other laboratories independently confirm that result and a consensus emerges that the hypothesis tested is true, that is very significant and is very much an important part of how science progresses.

    So it is. But as Mr. Crichton points out, that is not the case with global warming. There have been no experiments, let alone repeatable and confirmable ones, and so the only “data” have been computer models and projections, which have already turned out to be embarrassingly inaccurate. Even the extent of the so-called “consensus” — which we are told again and again stands at 97% — is not what it is sold to us as.

    So yes, “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” does make it sound as if the very existence of a consensus among scientists somehow refutes the scientific work itself. But that’s obviously false, and I’m sure Mr. Crichton knew that it was. His only point was that consensus is not the same thing as truth, and the only things we should care about when thinking about science are exactly what you mention: repeatable results, and the ability of falsifiable hypotheses to make accurate predictions and stand up against systematic attempts to falsify them.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    At the risk of splitting hairs, let me belabor this just a little bit more:

    If A and B are not identical, then A is not B, and B is not A. And if that’s so, then, because A and B are two non-identical things, it’s true to say “If it’s A, it’s not B, and if it’s B, it’s not A. Period.”

    Science and consensus are not identical things – so on second thought, maybe Crichton hasn’t really sacrificed any precision at all.

    Should a consensus among scientists about some hypothesis increase our confidence in the hypothesis? Sure, but only to a point. Lack of experimental confirmation, reliance on models in lieu of data, observable discrepancies between what those models predict and what actually happens and obvious social, political, and economic bias are good reasons for doxastic caution.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

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