Attacking consensus – a sure sign of a crank

Sandy Szwarc continues to wage her war against the “obesity myth”, and has fallen into the classic crank trap of the attack on scientific consensus. It’s right up there with attacking peer-review as a sure sign you’re about to listen to someone’s anti-science propaganda.

She cites this article at the financial times by John Kay which lauds the Crichton view of science.

Michael Schrage’s comment on politics and science (September 26) struck a raw nerve: and provoked an extended response from the president of the UK’s Royal Society. Lord Rees advocates that we should base policy on something called “the scientific consensus”, while acknowledging that such consensus may be provisional.

But this proposal blurs the distinction between politics and science that Lord Rees wants to emphasise. Novelist Michael Crichton may have exaggerated when he wrote that “if it’s consensus, it’s not science, if it’s science, it’s not consensus”, but only a bit. Consensus is a political concept, not a scientific one.

Readers of this blog will remember that line comes from Crichton’s infamous anti-global warming crank speech “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, which is one of the more pathetic crank attacks on science of all time. It’s just one long Galileo gambit that suggests whenever scientists agree, you’re being hoodwinked. This is, of course, total nonsense. Scientists strive for consensus on difficult topics. Review papers essentially are statements of consensus by people familiar with the field. Consensus conferences are routinely held to pour over data and determine things like the best treatments for a disease, or policy recommendations. The attack on scientific consensus is illegitimate, and is more or less, a subtle Galileo gambit. The article also has this great line:

Often the argument will continue for ever, and should, because the objective of science is not agreement on a course of action, but the pursuit of truth…

Boy I bet the cranks would love for this to be true. Sorry to burst their bubble but HIV causes AIDS, humans evolved, the CO2 causes global warming, the holocaust happened, and we landed on the moon. This idea that scientific concepts should be debated endlessly is absurd. If the data do not fit the theory, that’s when you have a debate. If new methods and new findings show a theory is limited, that’s when you have a debate. You don’t have a debate because some people don’t like what they hear.

And remember what I said about not trusting people who attack peer review?

Peer review is a valuable part of the apparatus of scholarship, but carries a danger of establishing self-referential clubs that promote each other’s work.

And if that wasn’t enough:

Statements about the world derive their value from the facts and arguments that support them, not from the status and qualifications of the people who assert them. Evidence versus authority was the issue on which Galileo challenged the church. The modern world exists because Galileo won.

And there we have a Galileo reference! Of course, on these topics it’s the denialists who use status and qualifications rather than data and evidence.

Kay Ends with this stunning piece of naivete:

The notion of a monolithic “science”, meaning what scientists say, is pernicious and the notion of “scientific consensus” actively so. The route to knowledge is transparency in disagreement and openness in debate. The route to truth is the pluralist expression of conflicting views in which, often not as quickly as we might like, good ideas drive out bad. There is no room in this process for any notion of “scientific consensus”.

Again we have the annoying appeal to some perfect ideal of debate club. The problem is that some people are liars. They are not honest brokers in the debate. They aren’t interested in providing evidence and data for their point of view. Instead, they lie, cherry-pick evidence, and smear the opposition. This idea that consensus isn’t real and instead we need to debate denialists, and cranks as if they have something to contribute is absurd. What we need is to arm people with the knowledge to detect nonsense when they hear it, and accept that the expertise of bodies of scientists is preferable to the ramblings of hacks paid by groups like AEI or CEI. One recognizes, also, a conspiratorial tone in these attacks on consensus. As if scientists, when they have conferences on such topics, aren’t actually evaluating data but trying to figure out how to attack political enemies. This is absurd. When scientists gather to debate a consensus they do just what Kay advocates, they fight it out and argue over what the data says. When cranks respond by covering their ears and yelling “Al Gore is fat!”, that’s not an alternative presentation of data, it’s just useless bullshit, and is rightly impugned and ignored.

Now, this is not to say that increasing obesity or its links to morbidity is even one of those difficult questions that we need to have consensus conferences on. We’re way past that. It is known, it is real. It causes illnesses like diabetes and hypertension, increases morbidity and mortality, and we should pursue methods to prevent obesity from developing because, as we’ve discussed, once obesity has developed it is difficult to reverse. No one seriously doubts the link between obesity and these consequences, and Sandy’s latest foray into the classic crank realm of attacking consensus is just another great example of why she’s not a real skeptic at all. Like her fellow CEI fake skeptic Steven Milloy, her site exists to muddy the waters on the science rather than clarify it. They would love for us to believe that it’s our duty as scientists to perpetually debate them as if they honestly had something to say. I think we’ve made the point with this blog that this is not a wise course of action or a good use of time.

P.S., I’m heartbroken Reasic has disappeared and his beautiful take down of Michael Crichton’s speech is gone with him. If you’re still out there Reasic, forward me that post and I’ll preserve it here.