Scientific Consensus

What it is and why this is a good time to start caring.

Scientific Consensus

What it is and why this is a good time to start caring.

The next time you visit your local market, take a look at the health and hygiene aisle. There are probably countless toothpaste brands with eye-catching labels that prompt you to use them .

Chances are, you’ve seen the “9 out of 10 dentists recommend [insert product name]” strategy. It’s Marketing 101, and there’s a good reason why: consumers are, generally speaking, more inclined to believe ‘scientifically-proven’ statements, no matter how great — or rather how little —  their understanding.

Anyone that isn’t an expert is susceptible.

Even policies and rules that govern countries have been citing “scientific evidence” in the hopes of gaining support. For example, the United States government has used studies to enforce their mandatory vaccination as a requirement upon enrolling in a public school. The idea that a parent should vaccinate their child as early as preschool isn’t one made by a some delusional policy maker in a cubicle, but one that is well supported by research and data.

Under a new government in 2019, Denmark has begun to reform its climate policy in order to meet the demands by the EU towards the Paris Agreement. While economists agree that continued reliance on fossil fuel could potentially help to improve the economy, scientists have shown that the Earth won’t last very long if we choose that path. And so, we must change our lifestyle in the name of science.

This is a testament to just how much we believe in scientific studies: we’re willing, as taxpayers, to spend our hard-earned money in their name.

But why is that so?

Let’s say you’re taking a drive and you come up to a bridge. Would you stop and Google whether it’s safe before driving across?

No! Of course not. We’d never get anywhere if we did that!

Do you know anything about bridge construction? The right building blocks? Safety factor? Life expectancy? Unless you’re an expert in that particular field, the answer is always a no. And yet, you drive across it without a doubt now don’t you?

It’s something that you (and most of us to be fair) take for granted but you had always put your faith in the hands of the engineer who built it, and you know that you’ll make it out in one piece.

It is impossible for us to know everything within a single lifespan. It’s one of our biggest limitations as human beings. But we’ve found a way to overcome this: collective intelligence.

Shared information built upon for generations through collective effort and competition by experts.

By putting our faith in the architect and engineer who built that bridge, we are acknowledging their expertise as a part of our collective intelligence. It is the reason we believe that a plumber will be able to fix a leaky pipe, or that a car won’t explode when the key is turned in the ignition. (Unless it’s an action film. Then the car will absolutely explode when the key is turned in the ignition.)

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be sceptical at times. An adequate amount of curiosity keeps us from being blind sheep that believe everything we read online, something that’s increasingly important today.

But first, let’s look at why it’s important to acknowledge the scientific consensus agreed on among experts.

Scientific consensus is the collective judgement, position, and opinion of the scientists in a particular field of study. Basically, it’s the shared opinion of most scientists in a community. And by using one  others’ peer-reviewed papers, we can ultimately get closer to the “objective” truth.

To be clear, though: going around collecting signatures from scholars isn’t considered a consensus because different levels of expertise are weighed differently. After all, the last thing you would want is to let a few fresh university graduates dictate what the consensus is.

That being said, it isn’t that scientific consensus is unanimous. It is subject to questions and doubts, and these challenges can expose and help fill any hole in an idea.

But, perhaps most importantly, with the right arguments, and backed with sufficient evidence, the consensus might just be made to change.

Isaac Newton, the renowned physicist, believed in the idea of ether — a hypothetical medium through which waves moved, a fluid like air or water. However, this idea was later scrapped by Albert Einstein, who proved that light could travel even through vacuum.

This tells us something important: scientists aren’t always right. Even Newton, who technically ‘discovered’ gravity and invented calculus, made mistakes just like most of us.

Though it may seem strange, we have come to the wrong conclusions from time to time as a collective group. The example of ether is one kind of mistake: where something believed to be correct is, in fact, wrong.

But it could also go the other way.

In 1912, Alfred Wegener came to the realisation that you could slide South America right up against Africa and have them fit perfectly, like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The idea that our continents were once a single megaland was first introduced well before the 20th century. It had never quite been thought about very much, until Wegener came along. While he didn’t manage to explain the underlying mechanisms either, Wegener did put together all the continents to form a larger supercontinent.

No one believed him, of course. Due to the lack of evidence, it was always rebuked by the consensus who assumed the deep part of the Earth was steel hard, and that there was no way the continents could drift across the ocean.

Then a series of leaps in scientific equipment allowed scientists to better explain it, and 1965 saw the first symposium on continental drift at the Royal Society of London. In just fifty years, the scientific community went from considering Wegener a conspiracy theorist to a man ahead of his time.

These examples of scientific breakthrough highlight a few things:

First, scientists aren’t immune to drawing wrong conclusions; just because they’ve come to a decision as a whole doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the absolute truth.

Second, it takes a discussion among experts to truly determine the validity of an idea, and no  single scientist can decides the validity of any studies.

And finally, it is vital to constantly challenge an idea in order to either debunk it or fill any gaps. Otherwise, as history has proved, we’re left with a fact that might as well be a misinformed truth.

Here’s a question.

We have very clear records of scientists getting something wrong. And if they have failed us before, who’s to say they won’t fail us again?

Well, to be entirely honest, believing in science is simply the lesser evil. It’s a plain and simple fact. You rely on your plumber to fix your broken pipes. You get an insurance agent to manage your healthcare. You pay people for their expertise. So why wouldn’t you trust a scientist to science?

We put our trust in scientists because the alternative is relying on our own common knowledge, and that just won’t get us very far.

In 2017, Warren Pearce wrote a paper arguing against the importance of quantifying consensus due to the challenges it incites by other scientists, because of the resulting confusion in the eyes of the public. John Cook responded stressing the importance of direct communication between the scientist and the public, without any filtering by the media.

I’d said it before and I’ll say it again: scientific debate is a vital step in creating progress. As the exchange above shows, even the idea of needing scientific consensus is still being debated.

You’ll never have 100% of all scientist agreeing. That’s not how progress in science works — Neil deGrasse Tyson

In science, debate is progress.

Science has no agenda. We are all committed to finding the truth, or at least getting as close to it as possible.

The bigger issue arrives when external interference disrupts the delicate balance of debate and consensus. Individuals or organizations which twist the public’s perspective on the agreed scientific consensus are truly terrifying. Any benefits gained from forcing a consensus are for some external party, rather than a scientist.

This interference comes in different forms: policy makers, private companies, or even political parties who are willing to go as far as creating a campaign to sow doubt in people, so they can reap the benefits of public support.

What do companies who stick the ‘scientifically proven’ label onto their products gain? Profit.

What are politicians selling? Themselves, of course.

So what happens to scientific facts that contradicts what they sell?

It’s okay to believe in just about anything —  as long as you’re not compromising your health, wealth, and responsibility.

However, scepticism without expertise is no different than refusing to cross a bridge because you didn’t build it yourself. As a matter of fact, even common sense without expertise can lead to stupid conclusions: if you can’t see the sun at night, does it cease to exist?

In times like today, there are many questions floating around public discourse. Is COVID-19 really terrifying? Or not? Are we just over-hyping the situation? I don’t have answers; however there is one thing I can say.

Consensus isn’t absolute, but it’s the best we have.