Friday, July 24, 2015

On Legitimate and Bogus Scientific Consensus

John Horgan is one of the most colorful and thought-provoking science writers of the last several decades. He defies pigeonholing and enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. In the best Socratic tradition, he has been a gadfly to the scientific community, constantly urging it to be more self-reflective and to strive for sober understanding of the scientific enterprise—its prospects, possibilities, and pitfalls.

Erik Larson of interviewed him on various scientific topics, among which was the top of scientific consensus and the proper role of dissent.

Q. Erik Larson: John Stuart MillIn line with the last question, what do you think about the proper role of dissent in science? John Stuart Mill famously argued for the need of dissenters because otherwise people come to accept issues uncritically, after which true inquiry stops. And yet censorship and vilification seem common in science (witness the controversy over climate change). What do you say to those who argue that once science has reached a consensus on a given question, people should just shut up and accept it? What advice do you have for the general public as it tries to navigate the claims of scientists insofar as these impinge on public policy?

A. John Horgan: This is a tough question. I’m not a hard-core postmodernist. I believe that sometimes scientists achieve consensus because they have arrived at the truth. They have actually figured things out, and hence you see widespread agreement on the big bang theory, relativity, quantum mechanics, natural selection, the genetic code. But at other times—string theory, genetic theories of war, and chemical theories of depression come to mind—consensus is achieved for non-scientific reasons, which have more to do with politics and economics and other social factors. The hard part is knowing the difference between legitimate and bogus consensus. I believe that all citizens have the right and even the responsibility to question any given consensus, although you also have a responsibility to do your homework and not challenge a consensus lightly.