I got to thinking about how science progresses. Science is a funny beast. It’s not a “thing”, it’s a process. The process works like this:
- One or more people make a falsifiable claim about how the physical world works. They support it with logic, math, computer code, examples, experience, experimental results, thought experiments, or other substantiating backup information.
- They make all of that information public, so others can replicate their work.
- Other people try to find things that are wrong with the original claim, including errors in the logic, math, computer code, examples, and the rest.
- If someone can show the original claim is wrong, that claim is falsified and rejected.
- If nobody can show the claim is wrong, then it is provisionally accepted as scientifically valid … but only provisionally, because at any time new information of any kind may show that the claim actually is wrong.
Note that there is two things that must be present for this process we call “science” to work. The first is total transparency. If the author of the claim refuses to provide the data, computer code, or any part of the supporting evidence, the claim cannot be either replicated or falsified and thus it is not a part of science.
The second necessary component is that the claim must be falsifiable. If I say “There is a Pastafarian God who controls the universe through his noodly appendages”, no one can falsify that statement … so it’s not a scientific claim.
Now, let me point out what doesn’t make any difference in this process. The following things do not matter at all in real scientific investigation:
- The nationality, sex, educational level, previous accomplishments, publications, age, credentials, shoe size, or hair color of the person making the claim. They mean nothing—the claim is either true or not, regardless of those meaningless side issues.
- The location where the claim is made. It is either true or not, regardless of whether it is published in a scientific journal, posted on the web, or written on an outhouse wall.
- The nationality, sex, educational level, previous accomplishments or publications, credentials, shoe size, or hair color of the person who has found problems with the claim.
- Peer review. The peer reviewers have a lifetime invested in their own work and beliefs, and if their worldview is overthrown by a new scientific paradigm, they may be out of work. As a result, these days peer review mostly functions as the gatekeeper of the consensus, preventing the publication of any claim that disagrees with the agreed theories. It is no guarantor of scientific validity. From the National Institutes of Health: “We have little evidence on the effectiveness of peer review, but we have considerable evidence on its defects. In addition to being poor at detecting gross defects and almost useless for detecting fraud it is slow, expensive, profligate of academic time, highly subjective, something of a lottery, prone to bias, and easily abused.”
- Personal attacks. Attacking the person instead of attacking the person’s ideas is called an “ad hominem” attack, from the Latin meaning “to the man”. The most common one in climate science is when someone calls their opponent a “denier”. This is a childish attempt to discredit the person rather than deal with what they are saying. My rule of thumb with these kinds of personal attacks is “When someone starts throwing mud, it’s a sure sign they’re out of real ammunition.”
- And finally, to get to the subject of this post, it doesn’t matter how many people believe the original claim. Consensus on the claim is meaningless. It makes no difference if every learned person in the world, backed by the Catholic Church, believes some idea is true—as Copernicus and Galileo proved, scientific validity is not determined by either consensus or a vote.
In fact, all scientific advances occur in the same manner. Someone questions the revealed wisdom. Someone doesn’t believe the agree-upon explanation. Someone doesn’t think the current theory is quite correct. Someone disagrees with the learned scientific societies, the consensus of experts, the accepted paradigm.
And in the process, new scientific ideas are brought to light and agreed upon … until such future time as they, in turn, may be overthrown.
So I thought I’d provide a few quotes from profound thinkers on this very question. Let me start with the polymath Michael Crichton, author, director, medical student, television producer, Emmy winner, and most interesting man.
I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. — Michael Crichton
Next, gotta have a few quotes from the OG of scientific breakthroughs, Big Al, noted “Isaac Newton Denier”:
Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of the truth. — Albert Einstein
To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself. — Albert Einstein
When a pamphlet was published entitled 100 Authors Against Einstein, Einstein retorted “If I were wrong, one would be enough.” — Albert Einstein, perhaps apocryphal but absolutely true
Then there’s Richard Feynman, one of the best physicists of the last century:
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. — Richard Feynman
Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look at what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable? — Richard Feynman
Here’s Scott Adams, cartoonist, hypnotist, author, and general troublemaker:
One thing I can say with complete certainty is that it is a bad idea to trust the majority of experts in any domain in which both complexity and large amounts of money are involved. — Scott Adams
Whenever you have money, reputations, power, ego, and complexity in play, it is irrational to assume you are seeing objective science. — Scott Adams
And if you will allow me a short digression, I can’t let the opportunity pass without quoting Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons:
When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned. … … Do not have sex with the authorities. — Matt Groening
Facts are meaningless! You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true — Homer (Simpson)
… but I digress. Let us return to the important issue of the meaningless nature of scientific consensus by quoting the aforementioned Galileo Galilei:
In the sciences, the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man. — Galileo
Among the authorities, it is generally agreed that the Earth is at rest in the middle of the universe, and they regard it as inconceivable and even ridiculous to hold the opposite opinion. However, if we consider it more closely the question will be seen to be still unsettled, and so decidedly not to be despised. — Nicholas Copernicus
Nor is this idea of questioning the authorities new. One of the clearest visions of how science is the process of disbelieving the experts comes from the 11th-century Persian physician, philosopher, and astronomer Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna, who over a thousand years ago wrote:
The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency.
Thus, the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, to attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency. — Avicenna
Astounding insights from a man writing in the year 1000 … nothing new under the sun.
And why have I written all of this? Well, it’s because I’m bone-tired of people saying “But Willis, don’t you know that all the scientists agree about the ‘Climate Emergency’? Don’t you realize you’re going against a hundred years of settled climate science? Your work can’t possibly be true, it isn’t peer-reviewed, and besides you’re a climate denier! Surely you must know that there’s a 97% consensus that eeevil humans are responsible for ruining the climate, and that everyone who is anyone agrees that bad weather can be prevented by poor people paying more for gasoline?”
Yes, I know all of that … and for all of the reasons given by all the people above, I don’t give a rat’s gluteus minimus about the existence of some claimed consensus or other. That’s not how science works, never was, and never will be.
My best to each and every one of you, commenters, lurkers, haters, the mildly curious, and all the rest.