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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