Evidence Shmevidence 2: Consensus Nonsense

Evidence Shmevidence - Consensus nonsensePreviously, on Zongo’s Cancer Diaries….

The world is full of ideas….. How do you decide which ideas are right?  Which ones to believe?…. You would want to see the evidence…Right?   But some people believe in all sorts of stuff…. And when you get down to it, their arguments always seem to involve the same two claims:

1) “Well, science hasn’t disproved it yet, has it?”

2) “You’re only against it because it goes against the Scientific Consensus!”



So, my last post addressed the first argument above, the “science hasn’t disproved it” one.  In this post, I’ll be talking about the second argument, the “Scientific Consensus” one.

This is one of the hoariest pieces of nonsense that the Anti-science brigade come up with.  I’ve come across this type of statement over and over again.  A lot of them act like there is this strange, all-powerful entity called SCIENCE, standing over humanity and dictating “THE TRUTH” from on high….”I Am SCIENCE! I Have SPOKEN!”  And I’ll often come across criticisms of scientists that run along the lines of, “Science should do this…Science should do that…Science doesn’t agree with this…..Science is scared of that…”

But the world doesn’t work like that.  The “scientific consensus” is not one booming, scary voice barking out orders.  And there isn’t a list of SCIENTIFIC TRUTHS that are decreed from on high and which we all believe with religious fervour.   Believe me, having spent 20 years working in a research lab and having met plenty of professors and senior academics, I can tell you that if you stick a bunch of them in a room and try and tell them what to believe, you’ll start a bloody riot!   (Although actually, if you stick a bunch of senior academics in a room, they are more likely to start squabbling about who should sit at the head of the table and who gets first dibs on the chocolate biscuits, than they are to try and proclaim “THE TRUTH”.)

Instead, science advances by experimentation and testing of hypotheses.  This leads to the construction of new theories and hypotheses, which are then interrogated by experimentation in turn.  And who is it that is doing all this?  Individuals.  That is how the real world works: by having individual scientists working in their own areas of interest, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes in competition.  And each individual scientist will have their own beliefs and opinions, which they form by reviewing the evidence in their own field and coming to their own conclusions.  Independently.

And the scientific consensus is just that. A consensus.  If a majority of individuals independently come to the same conclusion, then that becomes the consensus view.  And that’s all the consensus is.  It is simply the view point that is held by the majority – not everyone – just the majority. So, if you want to change this consensus view, you don’t do it by trying to convince a non-existent SCIENCE, you do it by convincing individual scientists.  Convince enough individuals, and the overall, majority consensus view will change.

That’s it.  No decrees from on high.  Just a big number of individual scientists that need to be convinced.  Individually.

But, unfortunately, there are a helluva lot of people out there who can’t accept this, and still cling to the idea of the scientific consensus as an almighty Thing proclaiming “THE TRUTH” from its Ivory Tower.  And, according to research into public perception (as described here), it seems that whether or not you agree with the consensus has very little to do with the actual evidence that exists, and a damn sight more to do with your pre-existing beliefs and values.  People don’t like to be challenged.  That is why some scientific facts for which there is overwhelming evidence – like evolution, like global warming, like the fact that homeopathy doesn’t work – these ideas are still resisted.

But, I urge you all: don’t take any old claim at face value.  Look at the evidence.  Where does it come from?  Is it reliable?  And question the evidence…. Even if it contradicts your own long-held beliefs.  If you do, you’ll be taking part in the scientific process.  You can add your voice to the consensus.  Who knows, you may be able to make a difference.

…But, if this doesn’t appeal to you and you are still content to accept outrageous claims without evidence…… then can I interest you in helping me transfer $4 billion from the Nigerian Finance Ministry?

Just send me your bank details and I’ll happily get to work…..

Kahan, D., Jenkins‐Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural cognition of scientific consensus Journal of Risk Research, 14 (2), 147-174 DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246


AG McCluskey (2016). Evidence Shmevidence 2: Consensus Nonsense Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


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