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Scientific consensus is the collective judgement, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity. Scientific consensus is not by itself a scientific argument, and it is not part of the scientific method. Nevertheless, consensus may be based on both scientific arguments and the scientific method. [1]

Consensus is normally achieved through communication at conferences, the publication process, replication (reproducible results by others) and peer review. These lead to a situation in which those within the discipline can often recognize such a consensus where it exists, but communicating that consensus has been reached to outsiders can be difficult. On occasion, scientific institutes issue position statements intended to communicate a summary of the science from the "inside" to the "outside" of the scientific community. In cases where there is little controversy regarding the subject under study, establishing what the consensus is can be quite straightforward. Scientific consensus may be invoked in popular or political debate on subjects that are controversial within the public sphere but which may not be controversial within the scientific community, such as evolution.[2][3]

Contents

How consensus can change over time

There are many philosophical and historical theories as to how scientific consensus changes over time. Because the history of scientific change is extremely complicated, and because there is a tendency to project "winners" and "losers" onto the past in relation to our current scientific consensus, it is very difficult to come up with accurate and rigorous models for scientific change. This is made exceedingly difficult also in part because each of the various branches of science functions in somewhat different ways with different forms of evidence and experimental approaches.

Most models of scientific change rely on new data produced by scientific experiment. The philosopher Karl Popper proposed that since no amount of experiments could ever prove a scientific theory, but a single experiment could disprove one, all scientific progress should be based on a process of falsification, where experiments are designed with the hope of finding empirical data that the current theory could not account for, indicating its falseness and the requirement for a new theory.[4]

Among the most influential challengers of this approach was the historian Thomas Kuhn, who argued instead that experimental data always provide some data which cannot fit completely into a theory, and that falsification alone did not result in scientific change or an undermining of scientific consensus. He proposed that scientific consensus worked in the form of "paradigms", which were interconnected theories and underlying assumptions about the nature of the theory itself which connected various researchers in a given field. Kuhn argued that only after the accumulation of many "significant" anomalies would scientific consensus enter a period of "crisis". At this point, new theories would be sought out, and eventually one paradigm would triumph over the old one — a cycle of paradigm shifts rather than a linear progression towards truth. Kuhn's model also emphasized more clearly the social and personal aspects of theory change, demonstrating through historical examples that scientific consensus was never truly a matter of pure logic or pure facts.[5]

Lastly, some more radical philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend, have maintained that scientific consensus is purely idiosyncratic and maintains no relationship to any outside truth.[6] These points of view, while provoking much discussion, have generally not caught on, even with philosophers.[citation needed]

See: Theories and sociology of the history of science

Scientific consensus and the scientific minority

In a standard application of the psychological principle of confirmation bias, scientific research which supports the existing scientific consensus is usually more favorably received than research which contradicts the existing consensus. In some cases, those who question the current paradigm are at times heavily criticized for their assessments. Research which questions a well supported scientific theory is usually more closely scrutinized in order to assess whether it is well researched and carefully documented. This caution and careful scrutiny is used to ensure that science is protected from a premature divergence away from ideas supported by extensive research and toward new ideas which have yet to stand the testing by extensive research. However, this often results in conflict between the supporters of new ideas and supporters of more dominant ideas, both in cases where the new idea is later accepted and in cases where it is later abandoned.

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions discussed this problem in detail.[5] Several examples of new concepts gaining acceptance when supported by accumulating evidence are present in the relatively recent history of science. For example:

For every new idea that has gained acceptance, there are far more examples of new ideas that were shown to be wrong. Two of the classics are N rays and polywater. However, most new ideas that have gained consesus were shown to be correct. This is because new ideas are typically being put forth by an individual and acceptance involves a great many individuals verifiying and/or duplicating scientific results.[citation needed]

Uncertainty and scientific consensus in policy making

In public policy debates, the assertion that there exists a consensus of scientists in a particular field is often used as an argument for the validity of a theory and as support for a course of action. Similarly arguments for a lack of scientific consensus are often encouraged by sides who stand to gain from a more ambiguous policy.

For example, many people of various backgrounds (political, scientific, media, action groups, and so on) have argued that there is a scientific consensus on the causes of global warming. The historian of science Naomi Oreskes published an article in Science reporting that a survey of the abstracts of 928 science articles published between 1993 and 2003 showed none which disagreed explicitly with the notion of anthropogenic global warming.[8] In an editorial published in the Washington Post, Oreskes stated that those who opposed these scientific findings are amplifying the normal range of scientific uncertainty about any facts into an appearance that there is a great scientific disagreement, or a lack of scientific consensus.[9]

The theory of evolution through natural selection is an accepted part of the science of biology, to the extent that few observations in biology can be understood without reference to natural selection and common descent. Opponents of evolution claim that there is significant dissent on evolution within the scientific community.[10] The wedge strategy, an ambitious plan to supplant scientific materialism seen as inimical to religion, with a religion-friendly theistic science, depended greatly on seeding and building on public perceptions of absence of consensus on evolution.[11] Stephen Jay Gould has argued that creationists misunderstand the nature of the debate within the scientific community, which is not about "if" evolution occurred, but "how" it occurred.[10]

The inherent uncertainty in science, where theories are never proven but can only be disproven (see falsifiability), poses a problem for politicians, policymakers, lawyers, and business professionals. Where scientific or philosophical questions can often languish in uncertainty for decades within their disciplinary settings, policymakers are faced with the problems of making sound decisions based on the currently available data, even if it is likely not a final form of the "truth". In this respect, going along with the "scientific consensus" of the day can prove dangerous in some situations: nothing looks worse on a record than making drastic decisions based on theories which later turned out to be false, such as the compulsory sterilization of thousands of mentally ill patients in the US during the 1930s under the false notion that it would end mental illness.[citation needed]

Certain domains, such as the approval of certain technologies for public consumption, can have vast and far-reaching political, economic, and human effects should things run awry of the predictions of scientists. One might observe though, that in so far as there is an expectation that policy in a given field reflect knowable and pertinent data, and well attested and accepted models of the relationships between observable phenomena, there is little good alternative for policy makers than to rely on so much of what may fairly be called 'the scientific consensus' in guiding policy design and implementation, at least in circumstances where the need for policy intervention is compelling. While science cannot supply 'absolute truth' (or even its complement 'absolute error') its utility is bound up with the capacity to guide policy in the direction of increased public good and away from public harm. Seen in this way, the demand that policy rely only on what is proven to be "scientific truth" would be a prescription for policy paralysis and amount in practice to advocacy of acceptance of all of the quantified and unquantified costs and risks associated with policy inaction.[citation needed]

Such considerations informed the development of 'the precautionary principle' most famously as Principle 15 of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. This stated that lack of scientific certainty was no reason to postpone action to avoid potentially serious or irreversible harm to the environment. Those who oppose robust and ubiquitous action to mitigate what the IPCC-led consensus sees as driving climate change frequently cite 'skepticism' as at the heart of 'true science' in an attempt to imply that concepts such as 'scientific consensus' can have no standing and thus play no role in public policy.[citation needed] Yet where this argument is not simply an instantiation of special pleading for 'business-as-usual' policies one can argue that this simply makes a false amalgam between scientific methodology as an intellectual discipline and scientifically informed policy formation, which is the benchmark for rational public policy in all areas where debates about the quality and significance of measurable real-world phenomena are pertinent.[citation needed]

No part of policy formation on the basis of the ostensible scientific consensus precludes persistent review either of the relevant scientific consensus or the tangible results of policy. Indeed, the same reasons that drove reliance upon the consensus drives the continued evaluation of this reliance over time—and adjusting policy as needed.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ http://www.greenfacts.org/glossary/abc/consensus.htm
  2. ^ "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2006-02-16. http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2006/pdf/0219boardstatement.pdf. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 
  3. ^ "NSTA Position Statement: The Teaching of Evolution". National Science Teacher Association. http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/evolution.aspx. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 
  4. ^ Popper, Karl Raimund (1934), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2002 ed.), New York: Routledge Classics, ISBN 978-0415278447  Originally published in German as Logik der Forschung : zur Erkenntnistheorie der modenen Naturwissenschaft. Vienna: Springer. 1935. OCLC 220936200. 
  5. ^ a b Kuhn (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996 ed.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ISBN 978-0226458083 
  6. ^ Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Atlantic Highlands : Humanities Press, 1975.
  7. ^ Steve Connor (4 October 2005). "Nobel for scientist who poisoned himself to prove his ulcer theory". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/nobel-for-scientist-who-poisoned-himself-to-prove-his-ulcer-theory-509513.html. 
  8. ^ Naomi Oreskes, "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change." Science 306:5702 (3 December 2004): p. 1686. Accessed 7 July 2006.
  9. ^ Naomi Oreskes, "Undeniable Global Warming." Washington Post (26 December 2004): B07.
  10. ^ a b Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," May 1981; in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994: 253-262.
  11. ^ The Wedge Document Discovery Institute, 1999.
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