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Scientific consensus is the collective judgment, position, and opinion of scientists in a particular field of science at a particular time. Scientific consensus is not, by itself, a scientific argument, and is not part of the scientific method; however, the content of the consensus may itself be based on both scientific arguments and the scientific method.
Consensus is normally achieved through communication at conferences, the process of publication, and peer review. These lead to a situation where those within the discipline can often recognize such a consensus where it exists, but communicating that to outsiders can be difficult. On occasion, scientific institutes issue position statements intended to communicate a summary of the science from the "inside" to the "outside". In cases where there is little controversy regarding the subject under study, establishing what the consensus is can be quite straightforward. Scientific consensus may be invoked in popular or political debate on subjects that are controversial within the public sphere but which are not controversial within the scientific community, such as evolution and climate change.
The issue of consensus is important in the philosophy of science. The view that the goal of science is the creation of such a consensus holds that the scientist is a skeptic using his or her analytical and critical faculties to evaluate all evidence presented before delivering an opinion. Unlike other forms of knowledge, scientific knowledge consists of messages that are consensible — that is they can be mutually understood so that they can be evaluated for agreement or dissent and have the possibility of becoming part of the consensus. Thus, consensibility is a prerequisite for consensuality.
Lack of substantial doubt
In its strongest form, the term is used to assert that on a given question scientists within a particular field of science have reached an agreement of rational opinion without substantial doubt, through a process of experimentation and peer review (see scientific method).
For example, in physics there exists scientific consensus on general relativity and quantum mechanics. Special relativity and quantum mechanics are unified in the framework of quantum field theory (QFT). There exists scientific consensus that QFT is a very useful description, but it is not a final theory. For example, it does not include gravity. General relativity and quantum mechanics may be unified by superstring theory but there is no consensus whether this candidate unifying theory is the correct description of reality.
Uncertainty and scientific consensus in policy making
In public policy debates, the assertion that there exists a consensus of scientists in a particular field is often used as an argument for the validity of a theory and as support for a course of action. Similarly arguments for a lack of scientific consensus are often encouraged by sides who stand to gain from a more ambiguous policy.
For example, there appears to be a strong scientific consensus on the causes of global warming. The historian of science Naomi Oreskes published an article in Science claiming that a survey of the abstracts of 928 science articles published between 1993 and 2003 showed none which disagreed explicitly with the notion of anthropogenic global warming. In an editorial published in the Washington Post, Oreskes claimed that those who opposed these scientific findings are amplifying the normal range of scientific uncertainty about any facts into an appearance that there is a great scientific disagreement, or a lack of scientific consensus.. MIT professor Richard Lindzen claimed, in turn, that there is considerable doubt within the scientific community as to whether human activity is affecting the global climate in any noticeable way. In this instance, "scientific consensus" is being used by both parties as a justification for a certain policy position, and debating whether there is such a consensus becomes a fight for the validity of one policy position over the other.
Similarly many creationist organizations have argued that there is considerable debate over the theory of evolution, and used this to justify claims that evolution not be considered the only possibility for education in scientific curriculum. Opponents of these creationists, such as the late biologist Stephen J. Gould, have claimed that the creationists misunderstand the nature of the debate, which is not about whether evolution occurred, but how it occurred. Again, in this instance "scientific consensus" is seen, if it exists, as mandating a certain form of policy, and disputing whether it exists is the way of combating this mandate.
The inherent uncertainty in science, where theories are never proven but can only be disproven (see falsification), poses a problem for politicians, policymakers, lawyers, and business professionals. Where scientific or philosophical questions can often languish in uncertainty for decades within their disciplinary settings, policymakers are faced with the problems of making sound decisions based on the currently available data, even if it is likely not a final form of the "truth". In this respect, going along with the "scientific consensus" of the day can prove dangerous in some situations: nothing looks worse on a record than making drastic decisions based on theories which later turned out to be false, such as the compulsory sterilization of thousands of mentally ill patients in the US during the 1930s under the false notion that it would end mental illness. Certain domains, such as the approval of certain technologies for public consumption, can have vast and far-reaching political, economic, and human effects should things run awry of the predictions of scientists.
Additionally, because of the inherently uncertain aspect of scientific knowledge, it is easy for political opponents to emphasize the constructed nature of facts employed, making the argument that the claim of "science" is just a way of justifying whatever opinion one wants to go with. As such, the domain of science and policy has been an area of constant controversy since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, but especially so in the period after World War II.
How consensus can change over time
There are many philosophical and historical theories as to how scientific consensus changes over time. Because the history of scientific change is extremely complicated, and because we have a tendency to project "winners" and "losers" onto the past in relation to our current scientific consensus, it is very difficult to come up with accurate and rigorous models for scientific change. This is made exceedingly difficult also in part because each of the various branches of science functions in somewhat different ways with different forms of evidence and experimental approaches.
Most models of scientific change rely on new data produced by scientific experiment. The philosopher Karl Popper proposed that since no amount of experiments could ever prove a scientific theory, but a single experiment could disprove one, all scientific progress should be based on a process of falsification, where experiments are designed with the hope of finding empirical data that the current theory could not account for, indicating its falseness and the requirement for a new theory.
Among the most influential challengers of this approach was the historian Thomas Kuhn, who argued instead that experimental data always provide some data which cannot fit completely into a theory, and that falsification alone did not result in scientific change or an undermining of scientific consensus. He proposed that scientific consensus worked in the form of "paradigms", which were interconnected theories and underlying assumptions about the nature of the theory itself which connected various researchers in a given field. Kuhn argued that only after the accumulation of many "significant" anomalies would scientific consensus enter a period of "crisis". At this point, new theories would be sought out, and eventually one paradigm would triumph over the old one — a cycle of paradigm shifts rather than a linear progression towards truth. Kuhn's model also emphasized more clearly the social and personal aspects of theory change, demonstrating through historical examples that scientific consensus was never truly a matter of pure logic or pure facts.
Lastly, some more radical philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend, have maintained that scientific consensus is purely idiosyncratic and maintains no relationship to any outside truth. These points of view, while provoking much discussion, have generally not caught on, even with philosophers.
See: Theories and sociology of the history of science
Scientific consensus and the scientific minority
In a standard application of the psychological principle of confirmation bias, scientific research which supports the existing scientific consensus is usually more favorably received than research which contradicts the existing consensus. In some cases, those who question the current paradigm are at times heavily criticized for their assessments. Research which questions a well supported scientific theory is usually more closely scrutinized in order to assess whether it is well researched and carefully documented. This caution and careful scrutiny is used to ensure that science is protected from a premature divergence away from ideas supported by extensive research and toward new ideas which have yet to stand the testing by extensive research. However, this often results in conflict between the supporters of new ideas and supporters of more dominant ideas, both in cases where the new idea is later accepted and in cases where it is later abandoned (See: List of minority-opinion scientific theories).
- the theory of continental drift proposed by Alfred Wegener and supported by Alexander Du Toit and Arthur Holmes but soundly rejected by most geologists until indisputable evidence and an acceptable mechanism was presented after 50 years of rejection.
- the theory of symbiogenesis presented by Lynn Margulis and initially rejected by biologists but now generally accepted.
- the theory of punctuated equilibria proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge which is still debated but becoming more accepted in evolutionary theory.
- the theory of prions -proteinaceous infectious particles causing transmissible spongiform encephalopathy diseases- proposed by Stanley B. Prusiner and at first rejected because pathogenicity was believed to depend on nucleic acids now widely accepted due to accumulating evidence.
- the theory of heliobacter pylori as the cause of stomach ulcers. This theory was first postulated in 1982 by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren however it was widely rejected by the medical community believing that no bacterium could survive for long in the acidic environment of the stomach. Marshall demonstrated his findings by drinking a brew of the bacteria and consequently developing ulcers. In 2005, Warren and Marshall were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on H. pylori
- Consensus (medical)
- List of minority-opinion scientific theories (a discussion of scientific theories not part of the current scientific consensus)
- Yogesh Malhotra, Role Of Science In Knowledge Creation: A Philosophy Of Science Perspective. 1994. URL: http://www.kmbook.com/science.htm
- Naomi Oreskes, "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change", Science 306:5702 (3 December 2004): p. 1686, available online at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/306/5702/1686. Accessed 7 July 2006.
- Naomi Oreskes, "Undeniable Global Warming," Washington Post (26 December 2004): B07. Available online
- Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," May 1981; in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994: 253-262. Available online.
- Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
- Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Atlantic Highlands : Humanities Press, 1975.
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