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Scientific American journalist: Everyone has the right to challenge a scientific consensus

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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?

By definition a scientific consenses could only be between small numbers of actual thinkers on these complicated matters. Its not everyone , even in a field of study, that has thought it through. They just memorize and repeat same. Science is a small world since its about speciality. Its very likely people, tailless primates, can not only be wrong but mostly wrong and the rest just will be shown wrong too in the future. All evolution and geology and other things are wrong. The bible is right. By the way mental things are not chemical problems mostly or at all. I say they are all triggering problems with the memory and chemical inbalance is just only a mechanism within the bigger trifggering mechanism. Thats why drugs can work and work well. They simply interfere with memory conduits. Robert Byers
Hi bornagain77, Thanks very much for the links to Dr. James Tour's speech. Well worth listening to. Cheers. vjtorley
Dr. Torley, around the 35 minute mark he even mentions the Matzke incident that was related to your article, although he does not mention Matzke by name bornagain77
Dr. Torley, I thought you might particularly enjoy this recent talk by Dr. James Tour since you wrote an article pertaining to him: Does Science Make Faith Obsolete? James Tour - video - March 9, 2015 (talk given February 18, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB3ZmLatcUI Dr. Torley's article on Dr. James Tour A world-famous chemist tells the truth: there’s no scientist alive today who understands macroevolution March 6, 2014 https://uncommondesc.wpengine.com/intelligent-design/a-world-famous-chemist-tells-the-truth-theres-no-scientist-alive-today-who-understands-macroevolution/ Quote: “I build molecules for a living, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that job is. I stand in awe of God because of what he has done through his creation. Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God." James Tour – one of the leading nano-tech engineers in the world - Strobel, Lee (2000), The Case For Faith, p. 111 bornagain77
Yes, you should be able to challenge an expert. But a challenge is not necessarily well-founded just because it's a challenge. I could challenge a leading string-theorist about the theory, if I was so minded. But I know next to nothing about string theory so what does that make my challenge worth compared to the knowledge of the expert? It's a bit like the debate about evidence. No, it's not the same as proof, nor does all evidence compel belief. But there's an awful of of people out there who don't have such a nuanced understanding of the concept. When they hear that there is evidence that St Joseph of Cupertino levitated on hundreds of occasions, they'll believe , probably on the no-smoke-without-fire principle, that it almost certainly happened. The proper approach, ideally, is to look at all the evidence and weigh to carefully. In practice most non-experts don't have the capability to do that. They have to rely on the experts. The thing to bear in mind is that even experts can be wrong, particularly if they are commenting on areas outside of their own expertise. But within their own field they are more likely ot be right than you are. Seversky

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