American science journalist John Horgan, who is best known for his 1996 book, The End of Science, has written a provocative column for Scientific American, titled, Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts”, in rebuttal to journalist Chris Mooney’s recent essay, This Is Why You Have No Business Challenging Scientific Experts. While Horgan shares Mooney’s alarm at the proliferation of pseudo-science, he considers the cure proposed by Mooney to be worse than the disease that it is supposed to remedy:
In support of his position, Mooney cites Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, a book by sociologist of science Harry Collins. Rejecting the hard-core postmodern view of science as just one of many modes of knowledge, Collins argues that scientific expertise is uniquely authoritative…
The irony is that the “No Business Challenging Scientific Experts” argument applies not only to activists like Jenny McCarthy but also to journalists like Mooney and me…
I agree with Mooney and Collins on some fundamental issues. I’m not a Kuhn-style postmodernist, the kind who puts scare quotes around “truth” and “knowledge.”…
Also, I give great weight to consensus and credentials, which provide a fast and dirty way to decide whether a claim should be taken seriously….
But the history of science suggests — and my own 32 years of experience reporting confirms — that even the most accomplished scientists at the most prestigious institutions often make claims that turn out to be erroneous or exaggerated.
Scientists succumb to groupthink, political pressures and other pitfalls…
And it’s precisely because we journalists are “outsiders” that we can sometimes judge a field more objectively than insiders. Mooney surely agrees with me on this. There is an enormous contradiction buried within his “No Business Challenging Scientific Experts” argument. He obviously doesn’t want us to yield to every scientific consensus, only to those that he, Mooney, deems credible.
Horgan provides a couple of handy examples of how scientific consensus can be controlled by irrational influences:
More than a half century ago, Freudian psychoanalysis was a dominant theory of and therapy for mental disorders. The new consensus is that mental illnesses are chemical disorders that need to be chemically treated.
This paradigm shift says more about the financial clout of the pharmaceutical industry – and its control over the conduct and publishing of clinical trials – than it does about the actual merits of antidepressants and other drugs.
The recent, widely touted discovery of gravitational waves, which was supposed to prove the theory of cosmic inflation, is another case in point. Horgan, a seasoned science journalist, expressed doubts about the alleged discovery, despite its backing at the highest levels of science:
No less an authority than Stephen Hawking declared that the BICEP2 results represented a “confirmation of inflation.” I nonetheless second-guessed Hawking and the BICEP2 experts, reiterating my long-standing doubts about inflation. Guess what? Hawking and the BICEP2 team turned out to be wrong.
I’m not bragging. Okay, maybe I am, a little. But my point is that I was doing what journalists are supposed to do: question claims even if – especially if — they come from authoritative sources. A journalist who doesn’t do that isn’t a journalist. He’s a public-relations flak, helping scientists peddle their products.
In the interests of accuracy, I should point out that Horgan is not an evolution skeptic: he lists “evolution by natural selection” as one of the things that scientists have gotten “right, once and for all.” Nevertheless, his column provides a refreshing antidote to the shrill claims of journalists, politicians and scientists who tell us that laypeople have no business challenging a scientific consensus.
Speaking of consensus-busting, I found the following articles on climate change to be of interest, and I warmly recommend them to readers:
Anatomy of a Collapsing Climate Paradigm by David Middleton.
Matt Ridley: Fossil Fuels Will Save the World (Really) (excerpts from his article in the Wall Street Journal, 14 March 2015, via The GWPF). [Definitely worth reading – VJT.]
Significant new paper by Nic Lewis and Judith Curry lowers the range of climate sensitivity using data from IPCC AR5 (September 24, 2014).
Follow-up article: New Study: Climate Alarmism Takes One Helluva Beating (March 20, 2015).
What do readers think?