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Disagreements and arguments more useful than consensus science, policy analyst argues

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In “The voice of science: let’s agree to disagree” (Nature, 5 October 2011), Daniel Sarewitz argues, “Consensus reports are the bedrock of science-based policy-making. But disagreement and arguments are more useful,”

The fuss over mistakes in the 2007 reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights a related problem: a claim of scientific consensus creates a public expectation of infallibility that, if undermined, can erode public confidence. And when expert consensus changes, as it has on health issues from the safety of hormone replacement therapy to nutritional standards, public trust in expert advice is also undermined.

The very idea that science best expresses its authority through consensus statements is at odds with a vibrant scientific enterprise. Consensus is for textbooks; real science depends for its progress on continual challenges to the current state of always-imperfect knowledge. Science would provide better value to politics if it articulated the broadest set of plausible interpretations, options and perspectives, imagined by the best experts, rather than forcing convergence to an allegedly unified voice.

Once science became bureaucratized, some began to equate suppressing dissent with verifying information: Firing the guy who says, “Well, those weren’t my results” eliminates further non-standard results. Thus consensus develops the apparent force of fact, without the substance. A situation that probably bothers the bureaucrat less than it does most people.

Most people don’t live or die by science, so the tensions of creative uncertainty don’t pose the same problem as they would in, say, a relationship. It’s one thing for a scientist to say, “We don’t yet know enough to be certain what happened here,” and quite another for a guy to be saying to his lady friend, “I don’t really know if we are in a relationship or not … ” 😉

See also: Science papers: The lowdown on retraction

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