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How the Scientific Consensus Is Maintained -- and How It Can Be Challenged
by Granville Sewell
This is a story about how the scientific consensus is often maintained on controversial issues, even when it is bad science -- and how it can be challenged. Parts of this story have already been told before here at ENV, but allow me to put it all together.
Anyone who has ever argued that the spectacular increase in order seen on Earth seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics -- at least the more general formulations of this law -- is familiar with the standard reply: although entropy (disorder) cannot decrease in an isolated system, the Earth is an open system, and entropy can decrease in an open system as long as the decrease is compensated by increases outside the open system. Isaac Asimov, for example, in a 1970 Smithsonian Magazine article (Asimov 1970), expresses the argument as follows:
Remove the sun, and the human brain would not have developed.... And in the billions of years that it took for the human brain to develop, the increase in entropy that took place in the sun was far greater; far, far greater than the decrease that is represented by the evolution required to develop the human brain.
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Most people, when they hear this "compensation" argument, realize there is something terribly wrong with the logic. If we watched a video of a tornado running backward, turning rubble into houses and cars, would we argue that this did not violate the second law, because tornados derive their energy from the sun, and the increase in entropy on the sun is far greater than the decrease seen on the video?
Yet Asimov, Richard Dawkins, and every general physics textbook that mentions evolution and the second law argue that the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms on our once-barren planet into high-speed computers, libraries full of science texts and novels, cars and trucks and airplanes, did not violate the second law because the spectacular decrease in entropy seen on Earth is compensated by increases outside our open system. How is the scientific consensus on this issue maintained? How has such an argument remained almost unchallenged in the scientific community for so many years?
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