Science was my first love. Was fortunate enough to go to school in a time and place where, as long as you were keeping up and weren’t distracting other students, the teachers were willing to leave you alone. Got to spend grades 5 – 8 basically reading stuff while making a very occasional and token contribution in class.We had a pretty decent little library for a small working-class Catholic school – at least, it kept me happy for a couple years. The public library was only a couple blocks from school, so, when I was ready, I ‘graduated’ to it.
Worked my way through the Time-Life science series first. In the one on electromagnetism, there were instructions on how to make a working electric motor out of paperclips, tacks and wire. I made one for the science fair – it worked great, but was very fragile. I failed to make sure that the teachers saw that it worked when I dropped it off, because, by the time the show came around, it didn’t – don’t know why, something was out of alignment or the batteries died, who knows. It didn’t do well, which irritated me, because *I* thought it was cool, and way fancier than most of the stuff the other 10 year olds were making, but to the judges it must have looked like a pile of wires.
I relate this story only to give some idea of why, despite my great interest in science, I never studied it formally outside of a few classes in high school and college – I lack something, call it the experimental knack. In college, I once caused the evacuation of the science lab by failing to consider that, once I’d reduced a liquid to powder in a crucible over a Bunsen burner, it would be a good idea to let it cool before titrating some nasty chemicals into it. Sigh.
But the theory – man, I was all over it. Unlike many famous scientists today, I understood instinctively and from a very young age that there were things science could tell you and things science could not (which, I think, is why I ended up studying philosophy).
So, for the last 35+ years, I’ve been very suspicious of anybody who figuratively (and sometimes literally) stands up at the podium, looks down his nose, and pronounces that science has shown this or that. Similarly, the phrase ‘scientific consensus’ sets off all kinds of alarms – I’d like someone to point out to me some great scientist, someone whose contributions reverberate around the world and fundamentally affect what people do and think – Newton, Einstein, Planck, that level of scientist – saying ‘the scientific consensus’ somehow settled something. I’d think, rather, that claim would merit a sneer or a laugh, for one very good reason – these are the very guys who made their marks by *upsetting* the consensus of their day.That’s often how science works.
Experiment, data, falsifiable theory – that’s science. Browbeating questioners with claims that the *real* scientists all agree is not, especially when the argument is fundamentally circular: real scientists are the ones who agree.
The point isn’t that claims of ‘consensus’ prove any wrong, but rather that they prove nothing at all. There’s a scientific consensus, for example, that water boils at 100c at sea level and under normal pressure. It’s a consensus *because* anybody so inclined can check it out for themselves. The experimental data backs it up.
In an earlier post, I discussed how people with an agenda, if they are at all smart, are always on the lookout for their Guy Fawkes – that guy on the other side who behaves so egregiously that he creates sympathy. “See! See!”, you can claim, “our opponents are dangerous lunatics!” In Guy Fawkes’s case, he stands in for all the perfectly sane and reasonable people willing to die for the belief that the Crown of England was not and could not truly be the head of the Church in England. When admired judges, bishops and young mothers are willing to die for this belief, it makes the other side look bad – and so, in the nick of time, mad bomber Fawkes appears, to supply the kind of opponent the Crown needed.
In the same way, Andrew Wakefield is useful – see, he’s a fraud! See the kind of people who oppose the scientific consensus! And look at all the gullible people who follow him! And, it’s all true – Wakefield is a fraud, and millions of gullible people still follow him. And Fawkes really did want to blow up Parliament. But what none of this proves is that those who oppose a scientific consensus are, by that fact alone, shown to be frauds or nuts. Only the data can do that.
What pains me is not when some nut or suffering parent is wrong, but when scientists who should know better start playing the ‘we know better’ card. So often, it’s a guy like Wakefield, who’s in it for the money, or Sagan, who was in it for the fame, who use science as a club to beat us lesser mortals into submission.
And, here’s the kicker: it has always been thus. The history of science is full of grandstanding self-promoters (Galileo, for on prominent example), petty back-stabers (Newton) and frauds (too many to list – how about Freud and Kellogg?).
The data is sacred. Bad data yields bad science. Theories only mean anything when based on good data. Problems with the data result in problems with the theory. And the frequency of saints among scientists is no greater than among financial advisers.