“Consensus science” – by definition – is not “science” and is a dangerous thing

The internet is full of polls that I generally find irritating. How many believe that “A” will happen? or that “B will win? or that “C” is better than “D”? Whatever the result of the poll may be, they show nothing more than where the preponderance of belief  lies. The polls are evidence only of what people believe; they are not evidence of the subject being voted upon.

Either something is or it is not.

If we don’t know whether it is or is not, we can formulate it as a hypothesis and address it by the scientific method. The formulation is then as a falsifiable hypothesis and we then predict what data might be collectable if the hypothesis was false. We then collect data and where data is not available we design and carry out experiments to provide such data. These data and their analysis should be tested – for the classical scientific method – to see if the hypothesis is false (not – it should be noted – to show that the hypothesis is true). Where the data cannot show the hypothesis to be false it means only that the hypothesis is still unproven but the data set adds to the body of evidence in favour of the hypothesis in the particular circumstances in which that data-set was collected.

When we don’t know we can still suppose the hypothesis to be true or false. But that is just a supposition and lies in the realms of belief and religion. We can take a vote within some group and see how many believe it to be true or to be false. Commercial and other interests may be vested in the supposition. Lobbying and persuasion can be applied in favour of or against the supposition. Voters can be influenced and cajoled and persuaded to vote for or against. A completely democratic and transparent system of voting may be applied. And  the result may be overwhelmingly in favour or against the supposition. But even where a majority – even an overwhelming majority of say 97% – of some group believes the proposed hypothesis to be true, the vote adds not one iota of evidence in favour of or against the hypothesis. An overwhelming vote that a hypothesis is true when it is actually false makes it no less false. All the vote can show is the preponderance of belief (and belief – by definition – comes into play when and because evidence is lacking).

And all that democratic process to establish what people believe brings us no closer to answering the question of whether the supposition is true.

But it gets worse.

Once a “democratic” majority has confirmed its belief in a supposed “truth” of a supposition, then there is a immense societal pressure against proving the supposition to be false. Falsifiable hypotheses are reformulated to be no longer falsifiable. The scientific method is perverted – for reasons of the vested interests – to now produce anecdotal evidence trying to “prove the hypothesis” rather than trying to collect data to try and show the hypothesis to be false. Evidence against the majority belief is not collected because it is no longer expedient to do so. Not only is it not collected, it is ignored even when it is plain and obvious. The moment a scientific hypothesis invokes or has to invoke a majority vote or a consensus in its support it leaves the scientific arena and enters the  political universe. Truth becomes whatever the majority believes. Proper scientific effort directed to falsifying the supposition is not just discouraged, it is penalised and attracts sanctions in the form of reduced funding and rejection of publications. It becomes heresy. Even where the believed supposition is actually true, the supposition remains as belief and cannot easily be brought back into the rational world.

As Judith Curry wrote recently:

With genuinely well-established scientific theories, ‘consensus’ is not discussed and the concept of consensus is arguably irrelevant.  For example, there is no point to discussing a consensus that the Earth orbits the sun, or that the hydrogen molecule has less mass than the nitrogen molecule.  While a consensus may arise surrounding a specific scientific hypothesis or theory, the existence of a consensus is not itself the evidence. ……. 

Given the complexity of the climate problem, ‘expert judgments’ about uncertainty and confidence levels are made by the IPCC on issues that are dominated by unquantifiable uncertainties. It is difficult to avoid concluding that the IPCC consensus is manufactured and that the existence of this consensus does not lend intellectual substance to their conclusions.

“Consensus science” has no option but to become science by majority vote. Polls replace evidence. And where the belief is false, the belief itself prevents a return to the truth. “Consensus science” as belief cannot be “science”. The simple fact is that whenever a “scientific hypothesis” invokes a consensus in its support it is – per force – just a belief. It becomes religion and not science. And that is a dangerous thing.

Related: Climate change: no consensus on consensus

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3 Responses to ““Consensus science” – by definition – is not “science” and is a dangerous thing”

  1. MattinValencia Says:

    This post is excellent. With regard to climate change, however, the evidence is overwhelming. The majority of environmental scientists agree that temperatures are rising. Only scientists, or those people who are particularly interested in science, understand the evidence. Consensus is useful for convincing those who don’t understand science that there is a serious problem.

    Climate change is so important that politicians need to change policies to mitigate against it. The evidence won’t change their minds; the consensus of those who understand the evidence, might.

    Check my latest blog post for a parody about how the media portrays science.

    • ktwop Says:

      I too like consensus when it agrees with my beliefs. And who am I to challenge your beliefs.
      But it does not make it science. – ktwop

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