Scientific consensus is in the news. Scientists agree (at least in public) on all sorts of things: evolution is Darwinian, global warming is real, taking money from patrons like Jeffrey Epstein is great but mustn’t be publicized, etc. The history of science is the history of shifting consensus, and of scientists who shifted it, for better or worse.
Of late, scientific consensus has been apocalyptic. When you read this morning that we only have a few years left before we are incinerated by our over-heated planet, it’s worth recalling the science apocalypses of recent memory.
Science Apocalypses Past
The Competitive Enterprise Institute has done for us what scientists won’t — that is, remind us of science apocalypses past. It’s amusing:
- “Space satellites show new Ice Age coming fast” (1974)
- “Already too late to avert famine” (1975)
- “New York City’s West Side Highway underwater by 2019” (1989)
- “Snowfalls Are Now Just a Thing of the Past” (2000)
- “Rising Seas Could Obliterate Nations by 2000” (1989)
- “Britain will be Siberian in less than 20 years” (2004)
Science apocalypses can only be understood in context. The context is that there have been a lot of them, there are a lot of them, there no doubt will be a lot of them, and they’re always wrong. And, obviously, there’s a scientific consensus that you shouldn’t pay attention to the last scientific consensus.
The Sales Pitch
The contemporary sales pitch for this stuff — that evolution is only by chance and necessity, that DDT will silence the spring, that overpopulation is reaching a Malthusian brink, that man is burning the planet to a cinder — needs to be distinguished from science, which is the work that challenges the consensus.
Scientific consensus is not science. Actually, scientific consensus has almost always been wrong. It was consensus that heavenly bodies move in epicycles, that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, that phlogiston is what burns in a furnace, that malaria is caused by bad air, and that light propagates in ether. This is not to condemn scientific consensus. Science is a business, so scientists have to agree as a corporate body to get things done.
A Consensus at 30,000 Feet
Scientific consensus that isn’t true is consigned to oblivion, by scientific consensus. Scientific consensus that is true is engineering. Scientific consensus governs the construction of bridges and power plants and airplanes. On my commute and when I flip a light switch and when I look out the window at the clouds below I’m grateful for scientific consensus. I like engineering, especially when I’m at 30,000 feet.
Science is a search, and precludes consensus. Consensus is a means to act, whether wisely or foolishly. The scientific consensus that penicillin kills streptococcus has saved millions of lives. The scientific consensus that DDT causes cancer has cost millions of lives.
But we must never confuse scientific consensus with science. Science is inquiry. Consensus is cloture of inquiry. What is consensus is not science. Yet consensus has its place — it makes it possible to act corporately.
The purpose of consensus in science is to manipulate. It’s a political act. It permits scientists to act as a polity. The purpose of the scientific consensus in engineering is to manipulate nature. The purpose of scientific consensus in evolution, in global warming, and in discreet patronage is to manipulate you.