The Danger of Scientific Consensus

by Stuart Gray

When discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.

In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…

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