Monday, July 13, 2015

Scientific consensus and arguments from authority

This is the sort of thing every citizen should know. In a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, it should be taught throughout our school systems.

Scientists already know this. But not everyone can be a scientist. You're not an expert in climatology? You don't need to be. You're not an expert in biology? You don't need to be. After all, not even scientists can be experts in every scientific discipline.

But all of us need to understand how science progresses. All of us need to understand how science works. All of us need to understand the scientific consensus - and the difference between that and arguments from authority.

In a democracy, we the people make the decisions, so we the people need at least a minimum level of understanding so we're not prey to every charlatan, true-believer, conspiracy enthusiast, corporate PR hack, and political strategist out there.

In an earlier post, I received a number of comments from a mechanical engineer about what "really" drives climate change,... according to him. I kept asking why we should believe him. After all, he's not a climatologist, and even if he was, the overwhelming consensus of climatologists is that he's wrong.

More importantly, why is he blogging about his ideas - multiple blogs, all about how the consensus of climatologists is wrong - and commenting on blogs like this one, trying to convince people who know nothing about it, rather than writing scientific papers and convincing people who know a lot about it?

If you really did know something about this, why try to convince those of us who are ignorant about climate change? Why not convince the experts? I'm not a scientist at all, let alone a climatologist. But I do know how science works. So if you want my opinions to change, just change the scientific consensus.

He pointed out that "The consensus was once that stress caused ulcers." Very true. But that consensus changed because a medical researcher had evidence of a bacterial cause and wrote scientific papers demonstrating that evidence. Other researchers investigated his findings, confirmed them, and wrote scientific papers of their own.

That's how scientists change the scientific consensus. Scammers and conspiracy enthusiasts try to convince the ignorant and the gullible. Scientists try to convince other scientists, and they use the evidence from peer-reviewed research to do that.

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