Monday, January 24, 2011

The consensus is...

The blog below notes some instances of stated "consensus" in science in the last 25 years that are no longer the consensus. This kind of thing is tricky, though. It has to do with the optimal level of trust towards people in our (and other) disciplines. If we always take other people's results and claims on good faith, scientific progress would slow and maybe halt as false results were accepted on authority. On the other hand, if we never accept other people's results and claims, we would open ourselves to lots of beliefs that are wrong or even ridiculous with a high probability - especially outside our own domain of specialization. We want a diversity of views challenging each other in order for the scientific process to work, but we also want the scientific process to lead to "consensus" views that we can feel reasonably confident in.

Amplify’d from

Robin Hanson reminds us that the scientific consensus is often wrong. Ron Bailey did a Nexis search of the phrase 'scientific consensus over the past 25 years, and found the following:
  • saccharin causes cancer in humans
  • dietary fiber appeared to reduced the incidence of colon cancer.
  • agents found to cause cancer in animals should be considered suspect human carcinogens
  • fusion energy reactors would produce more energy than it consumed within five years
  • acid rain is destroying lakes and forests

These are no longer consensus findings. He did find the phrase 'scientific consensus' in regards to uncertainty about when life starts, which probably still stands. Yet in all, that's a pretty weak record for the consensus.


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