Beware “Consensus”?

If your doctor discourages you from seeking another opinion, you have even more reason to get one. (more)

Honest contrarians who expect reasonable outsiders to give their contrarian view more than normal credence should point to strong outside indicators that correlate enough with contrarians tending more to be right. (more)

Perhaps one strong outside indicator that a contrarian view is right is when the media goes out of its way to say that it is opposed by a “scientific consensus”! Ron Bailey in July:

Several [out of the eight media-declared] scientific consensuses before 1985 turned out to be wrong or exaggerated, e.g., saccharin, dietary fiber, fusion reactors, stratospheric ozone depletion, and even arguably acid rain and high-dose animal testing for carcinogenicity.

It seems to me that for folks with a contrarian bent, getting more better studies like this should be a high priority. More details from Ron:

I decided to mine the “literature” on the history of uses of the phrase “scientific consensus.” I restricted my research to Nexis searches of major world publications, figuring that’s where mainstream views would be best represented. … My Nexis search found that 36 articles using that phrase appeared in major world publications prior to my arbitrary June 1985 search cutoff.

One of the first instances of the uses of the phrase appears in the July 1, 1979 issue of The Washington Post on the safety of the artificial sweetener saccharin. “The real issue raised by saccharin is not whether it causes cancer (there is now a broad scientific consensus that it does)” reported the Post. …Thirty years later, the National Cancer Institute reports that “there is no clear evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans.” …

Similarly, the Post reported later that same year (October 6, 1979) a “profound shift” in the prevailing scientific consensus about the causes of cancer. … One of the more important [new] findings was that increased dietary fiber appeared to reduce significantly the incidence of colon cancer. … In 2005, another big study confirmed that “high dietary fiber intake was not associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.” …

In its June 1, 1984 issue, The Washington Post reported the issuance of a massive new report by the White House science office supporting the scientific consensus that “agents found to cause cancer in animals should be considered ‘suspect human carcinogens,’” and that “giving animals high doses of an agent is a proper way to test its carcinogenicity.” Although such studies remain a regulatory benchmark, at least some researchers question the usefulness of such tests today.

The December 17, 1979 issue of Newsweek reported that the Department of Energy was boosting research spending on fusion energy reactors based on a scientific consensus that the break-even point—that a fusion reactor would produce more energy than it consumes—could be passed within five years. That hasn’t happened yet. …

An article in the June 8, 1981 issue of The Washington Post cited a spokesman for the American Medical Association opposing proposed federal legislation that would make abortion murder as saying, “The legislation is founded on the idea that a scientific consensus exists that life begins at the time of conception. We will go up there to say that no such consensus exists.” It still doesn’t.

In the years prior to 1985, several publications reported the scientific consensus that acid rain emitted by coal-fired electricity generation plants belching sulfur dioxide was destroying vast swathes of forests and lakes in the eastern United States. … In 1991, … study … actually reported … “Acid rain was not damaging forests, did not hurt crops. …

Interestingly, the only mention of a scientific consensus with regard to stratospheric ozone depletion by ubiquitous chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) refrigerants was an article in the October 6, 1982 issue of the industry journal Chemical Week. That article noted that the National Research Council had just issued a report that had cut estimates of ozone depletion in half from a 1979 NRC report. … “The steady state reduction in total global ozone…could be between 5 and 9 percent.” Such a reduction might have been marginally harmful, but not catastrophic. … [But] the discovery of the “ozone hole” over Antarctica … quickly led to the adoption of an international treaty aiming to drastically reduce the global production of CFCs in 1987.

With regard to anthropogenic climate change, my Nexis search of major world publications finds before 1985 just a single 1981 New York Times article. “There has been a growing scientific consensus that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is creating a ‘greenhouse effect’ by trapping some of the earth’s heat and warming the atmosphere,” reported the Times in its January 14, 1981 issue. …

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  • The problem here has little to do with scientific consensus and just has to do with the problem that the popular media does a very bad job reporting the actual scientific consensus. It is moreover complicated by examples like the abortion one and fusion research where some groups had direct interest in claiming consensus where none existed.

    • Dan Weber

      I’m also wondering how many of the “scientific consensus” articles pre-1985 are still considered correct today. There were 36 articles, but many were duplicates.

      • Jason

        1) I agree with both of these, especially on the fusion. I worked in fusion research as a student in the 1990s; there was never any consensus.

        2) I do not trust medical results. Those get turned over way too frequently.

        3) No one ever mentions the scientific consensus that the sun is 6000 K.

        4) I wonder how many times a positive result (rejecting the null hypothesis) has taken over the scientific consensus and then gone away, outside of medicine/social sciences? Zero? Does Piltdown man count? I can’t think of any. There was the recent cognitive scientist, but other people couldn’t reproduce his results — hardly a consensus. The big ones from Kuhn’s book are all things that were new ideas that weren’t accepted immediately. Not the same as a consensus that adopted a new incorrect result, changing the status quo. String theory? There is no consensus there. Looking it up on wikipedia, I get N rays and polywater, but neither rose to the level of consensus.

    • Tim Fowler

      I don’t want to turn this in to an abortion debate (and perhaps more to the point I don’t think Robin does and its his blog), but I would say that its reasonable to say that there is a scientific consensus, or beyond just consensus, that life is present at conception. What there is no consensus about, and what isn’t even really a scientific issue, is the significance of that point. Life existing was never really an issue. Some would say “a person existing” is (and then you have to define “a person”), others would say “a new human life” is the relevant issue, others would talk about a life combined with statements about potential. Others would say that it doesn’t matter, that some other point is the issue (for example those that argue that even if the fetus is a person, the woman should not be ‘enslaved to it’). But no one with any real understanding, from any side of the controversy would actually dispute that a fetus is alive.

      An issue like abortion simply can’t be decided by scientific consensus even if one exists.

      The fusion issue is about a specific time table for the future, for the success of a combination of multiple complex new processes. Such predictions are always questionable.

      But even with the other issues I think simply deferring to the consensus is potentially rather problematic.

      As for interest in proclaiming consensus on the fusion and the abortion issues, I think your right that such self interest existed in those cases, but it is hardly limited to them. I’d say its relevant to at least part of different opinions on the issues of anthropocentric climate change and the proper response to it.

  • Lots of references to the Washington Post. And Newsweek is (or was) owned by them.

    I wrote a little while back “My general heuristic is to accept that I am probably not smarter than the expert consensus and to consider their conclusions the most likely. […] I accept that the expert consensus can be wrong, so I don’t necessarily have strong commitments to particular beliefs”. I haven’t changed my mind, but I am now more mistrustful of the Washington Post.

  • The choice to call something a consensus is in part a political power play, and is most useful when the outcome is in fact uncertain. (Nobody needs to bully folks into accepting gravity). Consensus talk can be viewed like a dictator spending lots of time and energy on rallies – it screams “strength,” but signals weakness.

    • MPS

      It seems to me that you’re correct, that the phrase “scientific consensus” is used mostly when there is some political or social conflict. I’m not sure it’s always used to misrepresent the level of uncertainty.

      When confronting religious extremists, I’m not sure the word “consensus” per se is used, but certainly the same manner of argument is deployed, regarding biological evolution or big bang or geology etc. And here it’s an objective representation of fact. This kind of “power play” is necessary not because biological evolution is lacking in merit, but because religious leaders actively misinform and deceive their followers.

      Industry leaders also have incentive to misinform and deceive the politicians and the public, and certainly they do. To what extent this extends to the safety of their products or practices is of course what we debate. But the point is, their resources make them formidable opposition, and this might be why the “consensus” power play is used.

  • MPS

    I don’t understand the example of colon cancer. It’s hard to read with the ellipses, but it seems to me that the studies indicating dietary fiber reduces risk of colon cancer were going against the consensus, and the consensus has been confirmed with the more recent studies.

    I’m under the impression that break-even fusion has occurred, though it’s still not sustainable. Also, fusion-energy projections were based on promised federal funding which never came through. Also I find it hard to believe there was really a consensus that progress would be made so fast; I suspect as said above it was a poll of insiders.

    I don’t know, but I’m under the impression acid rain and ozone depletion have not panned out as major problems precisely because their sources were successfully regulated in a timely manner. This might be true of the food additive carcinogens as well (you speak about betting markets; if a new substance had been found to cause cancer in rats, would you consume, or allow your family to consume, corresponding amounts of it?)

  • A.

    Joshua Zelinsky’s point about vested interests is an important one, and indeed I would be naturally more skeptical of any “scientific consensus” by which people stand to gain large amounts of money. The thing about the APGW consensus is that the opposite is true – there’s lots of money to be gained by ignoring the problem (in the short term at least).

    • JamieNYC

      A. – not trying to hijack the debate, but are you saying that the climate scientists (those who form the “consensus” in this case) stand to gain a lot of money if the problem is ignored?

  • PeterisP

    This research shows that a journalist mentioning in an article ‘X is scientific consensus’ has only a weak correlation with actual scientific consensus; demonstrating that the current journalistic techniques of determining the existance of a consensus are faulty.

    It would be interesting for each of these topics to sample the publications in peer-reviewed journals around that year, and verifying if the actual expressed opinions matched what Washington Post called a consensus.

    • If scientists in the relevant fields didn’t believe the media reports of a scientific consensus on all the health scares of the past few decades (remember salt?), they sure didn’t do a whole lot to protest the appellation.

  • Douglas Knight

    It would be useful to try to distinguish between outsiders fabricating a consensus, experts fabricating a consensus, and actual expert consensus. I’m not sure it would change the results too much, though.

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  • I think the best sign that a fake consensus is developing is if people are using petitions instead of arguments. We hardly ever hear of pro-evolution or anti-tobacco petitions even though those topics have been politicized.

    I have a theory that when scientists sign petitions instead of stating their beliefs individually, it is because they are trying to hide behind each other. If the petition turns out to be nonsense, they can blame somebody else.

    In the case of global warming, both sides have been organizing petitions.

  • Scientific discoveries have nothing whatsoever to do with consensus. Scientific discoveries are proved or disproved on the basis of facts, i.e., on evidence. Almost every scientific consensus of the past 2,000 years has eventually been proven incorrect. Conversely, every new paradigm shift has been considered ridiculous by the scientific consensus until the facts proved otherwise.

    What’s more, the scientists whose opinions are sought in order to bolster a particular point of view are often not experts on the topic being discussed. This was especially true in the arguments regarding nuclear winter, and it is even more true in the global warming controversy. As soon as someone has to rely on consensus to support their position, it automatically indicates that they do not have the evidence to support their theory.

  • Doug Winter

    This is just a dumbed-down version of the Pessimistic Meta-Induction with all the same flaws.

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