Myth: Scientific consensus is not the best way to discern truth.
Fact: The alternatives -- truth by fiat, individual intuition, minority verdict, or non-expert verdict -- are worse.
There are three commonly cited ways to identify truth. The first is God -- but which God, and which divine message, is a controversial question. Christianity alone features 2,500 different denominations in the U.S., many of them quite different and opposed to each other. The second way is individual recognition of the truth -- but the mere existence of error in history disproves the notion that individuals have an innate capacity to recognize absolute truth. The third is scientific consensus, or the general agreement of our best and brightest minds. This does not eliminate the possibility of error, of course, but it does reduce it to the smallest degree possible. The alternative is minority agreement, or the agreement of our worst and dullest minds, which obviously raises the chances of error.
One of the most critical questions that needs to be resolved in any person's life is how to identify truth. In an imperfect world, all the ways to identify truth are bound to be imperfect as well -- even though there is no shortage of charlatans who claim to have access to Absolute Truth. Many liberals believe that scientific consensus (or the majority agreement of our brightest and most educated minds) is the best method, despite its apparent limitations. Needless to say, many people disagree, for a variety of reasons.
Some approach the problem of identifying truth by claiming that God is the source of all truth. But this hardly resolves the problem, because religion is one of the most disputed topics in the world. There are some 2,500 different Christian denominations in the United States alone, all of them with their own unique interpretation of the Bible, all of them claiming to have the best one. (1) The most charitable thing, of course, is to acknowledge that these many different members are sincere in their beliefs. After all, it is impossible to believe in something that you don't believe in. But if everyone sincerely believes in a different God and a different divine message, then we are no closer to knowing which source of "absolute truth" is the right one than before.
Another common argument is that individuals have the ability to recognize absolute truth. According to this argument, we all have an innate capacity to discern between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. It is when we disobey that inner voice that we become immoral. But this hardly solves the above problem. First, we should note that this argument confuses morality for truth. Hindus might feel that eating meat is immoral, and would feel crushed with guilt if they did. But it doesn't necessarily follow that their belief about the animal reincarnation of souls is true. Second, the individual search for truth has resulted in a galaxy of Christian denominations, some so contradictory that they call each other the anti-Christ (as some fundamentalists and Catholics do). And listening to the arguments raging between liberals and conservatives, you could scarcely maintain that both did not passionately believe in their quite different philosophies. Yet at least one of them is wrong -- proving that individuals who seek the truth are not guaranteed to find it. An even stronger refutation to this argument is the mere presence of any scientific error at all in human history. Unfortunately, individuals have passionately defended giant errors down through the ages, from slavery to the flat earth to The Witch Hammer.
So, is there a reasonably reliable source of truth? Yes but an imperfect and limited one. It is the scientific consensus of our best and brightest minds, be they theologians, political scientists, economists, sociologists or whomever has devoted their careers to the study of these issues. The consensus part is just as important as the best and brightest part, because without one, the other is much less valuable.
Consensus is valuable because it means that an argument is so clear and logical that it has swayed a majority of people's minds. This is the rationale behind democracy, for example, and verdict by jury.
The best and brightest are important because merely average people (no offense intended) make greater errors of logic. Needless to say, those who study a certain topic should know more about it than those who don't, and therefore their opinions should be much more valuable to us. The Founding Fathers accommodated both of these concerns by making ours a representative democracy, in which the passage of laws requires a majority vote by our most educated and literate minds. (Presumably, that is.)
Two things go into the making of our best and brightest. One is talent, the other education. Again, these traits go hand in hand, and without one, the other is much less valuable. For example, the 13th century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas was arguably one of the sharpest minds in history. But he was informed by the teachings of Aristotle, and that is why he proclaimed the earth to be the center of the universe. Today, even a high-school dropout knows a truer position of the earth in the solar system, thanks to the improved education and data of this century. But high-school dropouts are not capable of Aquinas' level of genius. The ideal scenario would be to place St. Thomas Aquinas in a modern university, and watch as he uses current data to make unimaginable scientific discoveries.
There are, of course, many objections to basing truth on the consensus of our best and brightest. The history of scientific consensus is a rather poor one -- for example, it was once a scientific consensus that the earth is flat. Other famous debacles include the "ether" of the universe, the medical benefits of bleeding a patient, and the natural justness of slavery. Furthermore, almost every great scientific revolution started out as a minority opinion, and often had to fight the consensus before it became widely accepted.
These objections, although worthy, are not conclusive arguments against the value of scientific consensus. Imperfect as it is, scientific consensus is the best we have. What are the alternatives? Should the size of the atom be left to the "votes of shop girls and farm hands," as the famous saying goes? Should we value minority verdicts over majority verdicts? Should we prefer the conclusions of our own limited education over the assessments of geniuses and Nobel-prize winners, whose day jobs are to study these topics?
Furthermore, minority opinions which are more logical and truthful than the majority opinion do not stay in the minority for long. Eventually, these arguments' greater logic will sway an increasing number of other scientists until they become the prevailing wisdom.
Finally, as the discoveries have mounted in history, and the scientific method has improved, famous blunders like the flat earth theory are becoming less sensational and less frequent. In fact, the achievements of science are becoming more and more spectacular, as the Space Age and the Human Genome Project show. Scientific consensus is becoming more valuable with time.
In the U.S., scientific consensus is forged by the National Academy of Sciences. This organization promotes two vital instruments for consensus-building: the scientific conference and the peer-reviewed journal. In these forums, the nation's best scientists publicize their theories and allow others to critique them. The debate is often brutal and extensive. On some issues, consensus remains elusive as controversies rage on -- but that probably means the theory is weak, or the evidence itself is conflicting. On other issues, scientists arrive at a consensus after arguing it out. The value of the argument phase cannot be overstated -- it weeds out bias, fraud, error and ideology. What's left is the closest thing we can call the truth. For example, the academic fights between liberals and conservatives are notoriously heated. But this only makes it all the more significant when they finally agree on an issue. Scientific consensus, especially in this day and age, is a powerful thing.
The flip side: cranks
In 1952, Martin Gardener published a classic book about pseudo-science, called In the Name of Science. It was Gardner who invented the term "crank" to describe the most eccentric of those who are cut off from the scientific mainstream. Gardner made two general observations about cranks. First, a crank does not participate in the usual discourse held by mainstream scholars. "He does not send his findings to the recognized journals," Gardner writes. "He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit." (2)
The second feature of a crank is the way he challenges scientific consensus. Admittedly, this is a time-honored tradition in science -- but the crank does not challenge established science in the usual educated or reasonable way. Cranks are often angry at the scientific mainstream for rejecting their unorthodox theories. Rather than admit that their theories might be flawed, cranks hurl accusations of basic stupidity and corruption at the entire scientific community. "Iím right -- the whole world is wrong" is their credo.
It is important to note that you cannot call your opponents cranks just because you disagree with them. The National Academy of Sciences is filled with liberals and conservatives engaged in furious debate. But on some level they respect each other because they are highly talented and educated scholars, and they agree on most of the basics. No, cranks are a much different breed. Their expertise is such that they often have no idea what they are attacking, even though they are swaggeringly confident that they alone possess the truth. They are the novices who enter an established and experienced chess club and loudly announce, "I am a chess master!"
To Gardnerís observations can be added a third: cranks are usually not educated in the fields in which they attempt to speak. The field of economics is perhaps the best example. One would think that the most qualified economists would be those who had actually studied the subject and earned their degrees in the field. But there is no shortage of cranks from other fields who think they know more than the experts: journalists, lawyers, radio talk-show hosts, politicians, former football quarterbacks, businessmen, Hollywood movie stars -- you name it, everyone knows more about economics than economists. This is not to say that one must be formally trained to have expert knowledge in a field -- informal training can be just as valuable as formal. But given the abysmal success rate of non-credentialed "experts," the odds are really quite low.
What are some examples of cranks? One of the best is undoubtedly "creation scientists." Unfortunately for creationists, about 99 percent of all biologists and geologists believe in evolution. But creationists have a small organization, called the Institute for Creation Research, which employs a few dozen scholars in a two-story building in San Diego, California. The purpose of this organization is to find scientific proof for the stories of Genesis. Most of its researchers are not biologists or geologists at all, but theologians and ministers who are attempting to pass themselves off as biologists and geologists.
Creation scientists refuse to submit their papers to peer-reviewed journals or participate in scientific conferences. If they did, their ignorance of even the most basic data (forget about theories) would be exposed for what it is. To avoid this, they publish their arguments in their own books and newsletters, and preach to their own choirs (in this case, literally!). Their debates with mainstream scientists are limited to public forums like TV or talk radio. But these are hardly the same thing as a scientific conference, due to their extremely limited time formats and the fact that the debaters are appealing to a lay audience, not a group of highly trained scientists.
Finally, creation scientists have accused the entire scientific establishment of corruption -- for example, censoring their work and denying it a fair hearing in academia. But a three-year study of 135,000 submissions to scientific journals found that creation scientists are not even submitting their work. Thus, the scientific community cannot censor what is not even being submitted. (3)
Other examples of cranks include supply-side economists (not to be confused with mainstream conservative economists, who are a respected species in academia) and Gaia scientists, who claim that the earth is literally alive.
Some may criticize the value that many scientists place on consensus, claiming that it sets up an "orthodoxy" to which all disagreement is "heresy." But scientific orthodoxy is not dogmatic in the way that many religions are. Change, diversity and debate are celebrated in science, and there is an established system that promotes these goals: the peer-reviewed journal and the scientific conference. The very system is organized to let opponents meet. In this meritocracy, those with the best and most convincing arguments rise to the top. Anyone is free to challenge this orthodoxy at any time. The only requirement for victory is that you make a better case.
Return to Overview
1. David Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982)
2. Martin Gardner, In the Name of Science (New York: Putnam, 1952), p. 11.
3. Eugenie Scott and Henry Cole, Quat. Rev. Biol. 60, (1985), p. 21.