Today, there seem to be many vested interests in scientific consensus. Universities and science associations often make use of the concept when explaining the importance of science in society and in making pronouncements on issues of public significance. Consensus is relevant to funding agencies, who focus their awards on science that appears to be building on an existing knowledge base. It is a factor in peer review, for it is much harder to get unorthodox ideas past the journal review processes. It influences the media: who is regarded as an 'expert' and who should not get exposure because of their unorthodox ideas. How refreshing, then, to find the Royal Institute of Philosophy offering some cautionary words in an editorial:
"One of the most striking aspects of Karl Popper's philosophy of science is his insistence that scientific consensus is sleep inducing, intellectually speaking. He did not actually put it quite like that. What he pointed out was that the most successful scientific theory ever devised turned out to be false, even though it had been treated as scientifically practically unquestionable for nigh on two centuries. Popper was thinking of Newton's theory, whose refutation (as Popper saw it) in 1917 was a key moment in his own intellectual life."
Popper "called for a clear demarcation between good science, in which theories are constantly challenged, and what he called "pseudo sciences" which couldn't be tested. His debunking of such ideologies led some to describe him as the "murderer of Freud and Marx". [Some of us think the name of Darwin should be added to this list]." (Source here)
Even more welcome are the two examples selected of modern-day scientific consensus: "critics of the theory of evolution and of the reality of climate change". Although the public has been assured time after time that the "science is settled" on these issues, the guardians of these consensus positions will not be pleased by these cautionary words, nor by the judgment offered that the critiques "are not all or entirely without weight".
"Popper's lesson is little heeded to-day. Critics of the theory of evolution and of the reality of climate change are not so much argued with as vilified, excluded and marginalised in polite scientific and even political circles. It is what one might expect from a very powerful institution, like the medieval Church, but not perhaps from one ostensibly committed to critical rationality and the pursuit of falsification. The criticisms which are made of the theory of evolution and of climate change, as these things are currently and consensually understood, are not all or entirely without weight."
It appears to me that the philosophers are not making a judgment on the science, but on the quality of the debate. There are real issues to discuss - the philosophers can recognise that. Furthermore, they are not impressed by the way the defenders of scientific consensus are treating the critiques: ad hominem arguments, straw man arguments, much handwaving, smokescreens and even a refusal to engage with the real issues. Even saying there should be a proper debate can be dangerous:
"We hope that saying that will not bring a heap of opprobrium on our heads. But even if the criticisms were off the wall, those who take Popper seriously may still occasionally catch a whiff of the falsifying rat behind the painted and perfumed consensus."
A recent example of the lack of real debate can be found in the reception of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Here is Douglas Futuyma in Science (7 May 2010) in a review entitled: "Two critics without a clue".
"Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini show little familiarity with the vast literature on genetic variation, experimental analyses of natural selection, or other topics on which they philosophically expound. They are blithely agnostic about the causes of evolution and apparently uninterested in fostering any program of research. Because they are prominent in their own fields, some readers may suppose that they are authorities on evolution who have written a profound and important book. They aren't, and it isn't."
Another example is the ID prediction of functionality for Junk DNA, and the establishment Darwinists defence of Junk. An interesting report on some recent exchanges is by Jonathan Wells. This concludes:
"If one overlooks the nastiness, it is clear that there are some interesting issues in this debate. Conceptually, what does it mean to say that a segment of DNA has function? Empirically, what does the evidence show? One might think that professors Matheson, Hunt and Moran would address the conceptual issue calmly, rationally, and collegially. But they don't; instead, they stoop to misrepresentation and ridicule. And one might think that they would address the empirical issue by citing published scientific evidence. But they don't; instead, they simply proclaim themselves the only authorities on the subject."
What we are seeing is a warped science. Instead of championing empiricism and testing of hypotheses, the consensus scientists end up appealing to authority and treating the evidence lightly. They are making the same mistake as the Medieval Church.
Philosophy, April 2010, 85(2), 181 | doi: 10.1017/S0031819110000161
[Much of the text of this editorial is cited above]
See also this review by another philosopher:
Midgley, M. What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli Palmarini, The Guardian, 6 February 2010.
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