Thursday, December 27, 2007

Scientific consensus: a communal crossword puzzle

Always open for re-assessment, it’s the best we got

There are some interesting posts today regarding the difference between a skepticism bound by reasoned evidence and that which broaches these confines extending deep into denialism and crankery.

The discussion belies a level of skeptical angst due to the existence of a broad general consensus, a “super structure” of knowledge if you will, upon which we must rely that helps define the scientific community. This might immediately bring to mind a rigid and dogmatic towering institution hell bent on world domination.

Fortunately, these dark thoughts quickly dissipate as it becomes quite clear that the concept of a scientific consensus acts much more like a communal effort; like many people working on a huge crossword puzzle. This analogy, put forth by Susan Haack (Defending Science: within reason) is not a bad analogy because it takes into account the critical essence that describes scientific consensus.

That is, gathering data, observations, evidence, and then combining these to form coherent theories that actually work and explain things - and are examined by others doing similar things. This slow building up of interrelated information indeed resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Dogma not required, needed, nor wanted.

It is important to note that there are different levels and strengths of consensus depending on the level of knowledge or field of study. There might be weaker consensuses on the fringe of that knowledge, or regarding the less science based fields such as the social sciences. Even so, these areas need to rely on the preponderance of the evidence as the basis for whatever level of consensus it allows. In other words, it is important to follow a critical methodology that takes away as much of ones bias and personal ideologies in the interest of getting closer to the truth of things.

The all important communal quality of scientific consensus safeguards it against the ever present pitfalls of dogmatic thought and belief. In this way an honest skeptic can retain their status as inquirers and still confidently rely on a consensus that can flex and grow like a living breathing organism.

Orac nicely describes the difference between an honest skeptic as compared to those that work the data with prejudice and make empty claims against this living communal scientific consensus.

“Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. This is perhaps the key characteristic of cranks and the biggest difference between a crank and a true skeptic...

...What a lot of this distinction boils down to is that crankery, denialism, pseudoskepticism, or whatever you want to call it tends, either intentionally through ideology or unintentionally through an ignorance of the scientific method, to conflate and/or confuse nonscientific, ideological arguments with scientific arguments. This is not to say that scientists and skeptics are free from their own biases, whether ideological or simply a desired result that they hope to find. Far from it. However, skepticism means applying the scientific method to claims, whatever its faults, scientific method is the best method thus far devised to minimize these biases. As scientists, the reason we use the scientific method is not because we consider ourselves superior to the cranks, but rather because we recognize that we are human too and thus just as prone to falling into the same traps as they. Moreover, we know that science is a work in progress and that what is considered correct today may well be modified tomorrow. This change, however, is not brought about by cranks cherry-picking data but by rather skeptical scientists probing for weak spots in our current understanding, making hypotheses, and then testing whether current theory or the new hypotheses make the better prediction.”

NOTE: In a past post “The Skeptic’s Dilemma” , I touch on some of the pitfalls that impede the skeptic from achieving an honest intensity of inquiry

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