Guest essay by Dr. David Deming
We live in a scientific age. The sciences are viewed as the only real sources of authoritative information. Knowledge derived from other epistemological systems is regarded as having less credibility. The conclusions of philosophy are untestable, and religion is often cynically interpreted as nothing more than superstition and myth. Public policy decisions made upon the basis of scientific recommendations may have economic consequences measured in trillions of dollars. Yet few people realize how unreliable scientific authority can be.
The popular conception is that scientists dispassionately discover truth through a foolproof technique called the scientific method. In some simplistic views, the scientific method reduces to a series of procedural steps analogous to instructions in a cookbook. The results produced by this hypothetical scientific method are verified by something called peer review, a process that allegedly certifies reliability.
But the common understanding of science is largely an ignorant misconception.
Although most science is based on observation and reason, there is no such thing as an agreed upon scientific method. It doesn’t exist. With the exception of supernaturalism, almost everything is allowed in the sciences. Both inductive and deductive logic are employed. Analogical reasoning is alright. So are speculation and hunches. Serendipity plays a role in scientific discovery. Both radioactivity and penicillin were discovered accidentally. Objectivity is not required or taught, nor are there any totally objective human beings. Bias is ubiquitous and fraud occurs.
Peer review is a highly unreliable process that produces nothing but opinion. A study conducted in 2010 concluded that reviewers agree “at a rate barely exceeding what would be expected by chance.” Furthermore, the peer review process may be, and usually is, cynically manipulated. Scientists aggregate in social cliques that facilitate orthodoxy and suppress dissent. When manuscripts are submitted for review authors are commonly asked to suggest reviewers. Invariably these tend to be acquaintances holding the same views. Thus peer review often amounts to pal review. Neither does peer review detect fraud. In 2011, Tilburg University in the Netherlands suspended psychologist Diederik Stapel for publishing at least 55 scientific research papers based on fabricated data.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that climate science is “irrefutable.” He is categorically wrong. There is no certainty in science. The very notion of scientific consensus implies that the validity of scientific knowledge is subject to human judgment and therefore inherently problematic. No one speaks of consensus when discussing geometrical proofs. Scientists are not philosophers trained to avoid intellectual fallacies, but technical specialists possessing ideological and political persuasions that influence their scientific activity. Like other human beings, they tend to take note of what is consistent with preexisting beliefs and filter out what contradicts preconceptions. The influence of money can be corrupting. A group of people offered billions of dollars to investigate climate change is unlikely to conclude that it is a benign, natural process unworthy of further attention.
The history of science is a chronicle of revision. For two thousand years, physicists maintained that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Astronomers thought the Sun moved around the Earth. Physicians supposed that plagues were caused by bad air and treated their patients by bleeding them to death. The icons of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, all made serious errors. In the late eighteenth century, Neptunists formulated a theory to explain the origin of rocks. They described their conclusions as incontrovertible because everywhere they looked they found evidence that supported their theoretical conceptions. The Neptunist theory turned out to be completely erroneous. At the end of the nineteenth century, geologists thought the Earth was less than 100 million years old. Radioactive dating in the twentieth century showed they were in error by a factor of 46. In the 1920s, American geologists rejected Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift with near unanimity. They were all wrong. The history of science is a history of error. Has the process of history ceased? Has human nature changed?
We are now asked to change the world’s economy on the basis of yet another scientific theory. The fifth assessment report of the IPCC has concluded that there is a 95 percent probability that humans are responsible for climate change. We are induced to accept this conclusion on the basis of naive faith in scientific authority. But this faith can only come from an ignorance of how science really works. Count me out.
David Deming (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a geophysicist and author of a three-volume history of science, Science and Technology in World History (McFarland, 2010, 2012).