Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Science ≠ Consensus

In my presentations on 'global warming' I have a slide that asks,

What is the role of consensus in science?

The answer, of course, is "none."

Yet, time after time, we keep hearing that global warming "deniers'" position is unreasonable because it flies in the fact of scientific consensus. But outside of climate "science," skepticism is valued and consensus is scoffed at.

Here is a news story, out today, about the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry

JERUSALEM (AP) — When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman claimed to have stumbled upon a new crystalline chemical structure that seemed to violate the laws of nature, colleagues mocked him, insulted him and exiled him from his research group.
After years in the scientific wilderness, though, he was proved right. And on Wednesday, he received the ultimate vindication: the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The lesson?
"A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks," Shechtmansaid.
The shy, 70-year-old Shechtman said he never doubted his findings and considered himself merely the latest in a long line of scientists who advanced their fields by challenging the conventional wisdom and were shunned by the establishment because of it.
In 1982, Shechtman discovered what are now called "quasicrystals" — atoms arranged in patterns that seemed forbidden by nature.
"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled. "I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."
The discovery "fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in awarding the $1.5 million prize.

That must be the exception, right?  Wrong! Here is a story from the Associated Press about the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine:

Dr. Barry Marshall was so determined to convince the world that bacteria — not stress — caused ulcers that he drank a batch of it.
Five days later he was throwing up, and he had severe stomach inflammation for about two weeks.
It was just the result he was hoping for. His bold action over 20 years ago symbolized the perseverance Marshall brought to proving a controversial idea — one that gained the ultimate validation Monday as he and Dr. Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in medicine.
The discovery by the two Australians that ulcers weren’t caused by stress, but rather by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, turned medical dogma on its head. As a result, peptic ulcer disease has been transformed from a chronic, frequently disabling condition to one that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and other medicines, said the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm...

Dr. David A. Peura, president of the American Gastroenterological Association, said the prize-winning work “revolutionized our understanding of ulcer disease” and “gave millions of people hope.”
He read about the H. pylori theory in 1983 while serving as a gastroenterologist in the Army, and “I thought it was crazy,” he recalled Monday.

Peura, who met Marshall when both worked at the university and considers him a friend, said Marshall’s perseverance was responsible for the eventual acceptance of the theory. “Any lesser of a person probably would not have been able to withstand some of the ridicule and scorn that was thrown at him initially,” Peura said.

So, science is at its best when someone challenges conventional wisdom with experimental evidence and facts. Consensus? Unscientific.

Hat tip: Anthony Watts

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