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Consensus science is a phrase used to describe a position on an issue that is primarily supported using existing or purported scientific consensus as an appeal to authority or appeal to the majority. It can also refer to a use of scientific consensus in a logical argument as the primary means to demonstrate, establish, or promote a view based on scientific or statistical data which may or may not be part of some hypothesis or theory.
One who perceives a scientific theory to be supported by both scientific consensus and conclusive evidence would not consider it "consensus science", because a supporting argument can be easily formulated using the existing conclusive evidence without relying primarily on consensus for support. The term "consensus science" does not refer simply to a scientific theory which has a consensus, but rather to an argument in which the consensus of scientists is given as the primary support of the argument. For example, the scientific consensus on Global Warming that it is happening and is primarily caused by human production of greenhouse gases would not be called "consensus science" if a scientific consensus is not the primary supporting argument. If conclusive evidence that Global Warming is occurring and caused by human activity has resulted in a scientific consensus on the issue, the conclusive evidence is the main support rather than the consensus itself so the term "consensus science" would not apply.
History and Background
Although it existed beforehand, the term consensus science gained wider exposure after a 2003 speech by Michael Crichton entitled, "Aliens Cause Global Warming" , in which he disussed what he believed to be the impropriety of basing scientific conclusions primarily on scientific consensus. This is the speech which fostered the quote:
- "Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus....There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period." - Michael Crichton
Another well known individual who publicly cautions about the proper role of consensus in science is Brian David Josephson, Nobel Laureate in Physics. Professor Josephson wrote: "if scientists as a whole denounce an idea this should not necessarily be taken as proof that the said idea is absurd: rather, one should examine carefully the alleged grounds for such opinions and judge how well these stand up to detailed scrutiny." Josephson's home page
Emeritus professor Garth Paltridge wrote an essay at Tech Central Station entitled "Climate Models and Consensus Science"  in which he cautioned against relying too heavily on climate models and stated "we have to get away from simply running models and comparing their final output in some sort of search for a consensus on the results. Consensus is not science. Consensus tends to the politically correct. Consensus is not the sort of thing on which sensible people put their money."
It was widely believed that saccharine is dangerous based on the conclusions of animal studies conducted in the 1970s that appeared to show it could cause cancer. However, further studies have failed to confirm that analysis and none have shown a link between normal doses of saccharine and cancer in humans. In this case, the apparent scientific consensus turned out to be false. It is used as an example of the dangers of "consensus science".
There are a number of popular theories which are described by some as consensus science and much like the label junk science, there is often considerable disagreement as to which are supported primarily by consensus and which by conclusive evidence.
The term consensus science is often used as a criticism of the subject or theory to which it is applied, as use of the term implies that scientific consensus is used as the primary means of support. However, it can also be used non-judgmentally as a means of arguing the need for more or better research to clarify the validity of a given theory.
The major criticism of the consensus science term is the claim that by using the term, one is insisting that theories have conclusive or compelling evidence. However, a consensus can arise based upon unconfirmed results. Although reproducibility is an essential part of the scientific method, duplicating a result may be expensive, difficult, or blocked by ambiguous procedures in original study.
Resistance to Contradiction
Accusations that a particular field is a consensus science also include accusations that some researchers in the field, or others speaking in support of the field, exert a resistance to contradictions to that consensus. The accusation is made that because consensus is important to the support of the field, contradictions which threaten that consensus are strongly opposed, and are thus actively suppressed.
In 2001, the controversial political scientist Bjørn Lomborg published a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. Subsequently many took issue with Lomborg and the book, subjecting him and his book to criticism and calling for his professional censure in spite of the fact that the book had passed a more extensive peer-review that Cambridge Press usually applies to books they publish. Lomborg has also received extensive criticism from some environmental scientists and has become a point of reference for others who disapprove of the mainstream view.
In 1990, Dr. Richard Lindzen of MIT wrote an article for the American Meteorological Society in which he criticized the recommendation "that skepticism be stifled" with regard to the issues surrounding the question of global warming. The comment was in reference to an editorial in the Boston Globe of 12-17-1989. PDF file.
- Cargo cult science
- Consensus theory of truth
- Consensus decision-making is a decision process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision
- False consensus effect refers to the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.
- Groupthink is one process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions.
- Majoritarianism asserts that a majority is entitled to a certain degree of primacy.
- Philosophy of science studies the philosophical foundations, presumptions and implications of science.
- Propaganda is a specific type of message presentation aimed at serving an agenda.
- Pseudoscience is any body of knowledge purported to be scientific or supported by science but which fails to comply with the scientific method.
- Scientific consensus is the majority agreement of the body of scientists in a particular field of science.
- Scientific method is the underlying scholarly methods of scientific practice.
- Sociology of scientific knowledge considers social influences on science.
See also logical fallacies
- Logical fallacy
- Appeal to authority
- Appeal to the majority
- Argument from numbers
- Bandwagon fallacy
- Special pleading
- "Consensus Science" and Public Policy
- Aliens Cause Global Warming - a Caltech lecture on consensus science
- Pathological, Precautionary and Consensus Science - An editorial from the Canadian Association of Physicists.
- In Support of Skepticism
- How dangerous are peer review and consensus in science?
- No Proof is Sufficient - An analysis of the reaction of researchers to measuring increased soil moisture when consensus supported climate models predict decreased soil moisture.
- A website dedicated to reuniting the distance-weighted average and its variance
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