Science and Consensus

A number of media outlets have jumped all over Donald Trump’s appointment to of Scott Pruitt, Attorney General of Oklahoma, to head the EPA. The Washington Post ran a scathing editorial against Mr. Pruitt, questioning whether he was qualified to lead the organization. Why the fuss? Pruitt has challenged some of the prevailing notions of climate change.

In a statement addressing the issue, he noted that the debate about the effects of fossil fuels needs to continue. He stated,

Global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.

This statement is very carefully worded and hardly something that would set off a firestorm under normal circumstances. However, in this instances, such a statement represents proof of what amounts to cultural heresy.

In reality, the backlash reveals a vast misunderstanding on the part of Mr. Pruitt’s detractors. In the Washington Post’s denouncement of Mr. Pruitt, they write,

rejecting settled science strikes us as being in a different category. The Senate should probe Mr. Pruitt’s position on climate change. If he explicitly or implicitly rejects the scientific consensus, that would be justification to vote no.

The problem lies in the phrases “settled science” and “scientific consensus.”

The first is problematic because science is based upon observation and the scientific method. While observation can be good, observation can also err. A scientist may observe some state of affairs, form a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis. While others may replicate the results, the possibility exists that the there are, as of yet, unknown variables that affect the outcome. Thus, since science relies on humanity’s limited knowledge and we cannot say that something is ultimately settled because we do not know all of the gaps in our knowledge.

The notion of scientific consensus undercuts the entire scientific endeavor. The scientific method represents man’s best approximation at certainty through observation, and it intentionally omits the idea of popularity. Because science retains some subjectivity, in that experiments are designed by those trying to prove a certain point, the scientific method intentionally seeks greater objectivity by removing social acceptance from its criteria of validity.

Humanity is often deceived. Therefore it remains in our best interest not to allow humans to determine whether a fact is right or wrong. Imagine a world in which scientists reach the consensus that gravity does not exist and the competing theory that of invisible creatures keep us from floating away is the scientific consensus. By relying on the scientific method, we could devise experiments by which to demonstrate gravity but would have to be extra creative to design an experiment to show that invisible creatures exist.

The notion of scientific consensus must stop because it undercuts the authority of science. Science seeks to verify certain hypotheses regardless of the consensus acceptance. We need sound science that seeks and embraces that which is true even if it the consensus disagrees.

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