Science Eats Her Young – Consensus vs Correctness, the Scientific vs the Political and the happy news of the unkown unknown

Karl Popper, the godfather of falsifiability [Φ phi studios 2014]

Karl Popper, the godfather of falsifiability                                                           [© phi studios 2014]

There is a new guest article up at Judy Curry’s blog, Climate Etc. by Will Howard titled Appeals to the Climate Consensus Can Give the Wrong Impression that is of particular interest to Meme Merchants because it is both relevant in scientific current affairs and is also relevant generally in the discussion of scientific epistemology in regards to how people generally are supposed to know what the state of the science is at any given moment.

The article was originally posted at The Conversation.  Will Howard is a Research Scientist at University of Melbourne  School of Earth Sciences and is also the Deputy Chair of the Australian National Committee for Antarctic Research.

On the current events front of science, there is a bitter and on-going debate about the supposed scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming due the volume of CO2 emitted by human activity.  The debate rages far and wide about this supposed consensus: what is this consensus actually? how many scientists hold this ‘consensus view’? which scientists [or who’s] really count in the matter?  who should do the counting? who owns the ‘consensus’, and what does all of this mean for the rest of us anyway?

No Meme Merchant is going to settle the debate about the specifics of the consensus about the catastrophic global warming debate – there are lots of places trying to do that – but we would like to take up a very confined look at the “what does all of this mean anyway?” specifically in regards to Mr. Howard’s article – before I launch into a rave about what’s so great about science as a way of knowing.

What does consensus mean?

I’ll let Mr. Howard give a brief account of his position, redacting the bits specific to global warming so as to prevent needless distraction from the subject at hand – scientific consensus making.

“Consensus” is understood differently in science compared to politics or society….

Scientists use this word to refer to consilience of multiple lines of evidence that underlie widespread agreement or support a theory….

But in public and especially political discourse, “consensus” tends to imply majority opinion or concurrence. As consensus in this public context is often arrived at by negotiation, saying there’s a scientific “consensus” may imply to the community that prevailing scientific views represent a negotiated outcome. This is the antithesis of science….

Consensus of the non-scientific kind does have a role to play in the climate debate. This includes negotiating whether warming is a “good” or “bad” thing and what, if anything, we should do about it…

These are not scientific questions. These are issues of values, politics, ethics and economics. As a nation and as a global society we need to reach consensus to resolve those questions and to make and implement appropriate public policy.

Mr. Howard makes a pretty good case for the concept of scientific consensus and the distinction between that and the more everyday social and political version of consensus.  No real problem so far.

How Does Science Work?

Mr. Howard uses three concepts to illustrate, briefly, how science is supposed to operate in the context of establishing scientific consensus:

Science is based on three main things: data, testability and contestability.

Scientists, for example, don’t “negotiate” with data. We may re-analyse, reject outliers, replicate, recalibrate, but we do not negotiate. If the thermometer reads 25C, we don’t say, “I’d like 30; how about we settle on 27.5?”

Testability is a particular challenge for climate science, because we can’t do a laboratory experiment to test the hypothesis that humans are causing climate change. Most of the impacts we are concerned about are in the future and we have no data for the future. Instead, we use models based on the best understanding we have of physics, chemistry and biology to anticipate possible climate futures.

Again I have no real disagreement with his first two criteria: data and testability.  However, when it comes to contestability I think he goes off the deep end where he says: [my bold]

That last attribute [of science] – contestability — is the antithesis of “consensus”. Indeed, it is the adversarial nature of science that is its real strength. In science you’re right until you’re proven wrong, and theories survive only as long they stand up to challenge.

Granted everything written by fans of Karl Popper about empirical falsification of scientific propositions [and all who argue against him], I think this is a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

Maybe Mr. Howard was only being a little loose in his use of the word “right” and didn’t mean the usual interpretation of the word: ‘correct’.  I think a much more appropriate word to use would be accepted, at least in some limited sense, meaning: by scientific consensus based upon the predictive power, durability of the evidence, and the “Consilience of multiple lines of evidence that underlie widespread agreement or support a theory.”  Actually,I would prefer to go even further than this, in many cases in science what we really mean, or maybe ought to really mean, is provisional acceptance – acceptance with clear foreknowledge of the eventual modification or rejection of the proposition, because it is always* the case – you just have to be a little patient and wait for the happy news; which may not be so happy if its your pet theory, but happy if you are interested in science.

Myself, I don’t see anything magical taking place with a theory once a consensus starts to build.  There can be any number of theories [maybe you can think of some] that are almost mutually contradictory, but all have some predictive power, all have expert supporters, and all enjoy some degree of consensus.  But, obviously they can’t all be “right until proven wrong.”  There is, of course, also nothing that prevents a long held scientific consensus from being completely and utterly wrong – it has happened before.

A Famous Example

The Ptolemaic conception of the universe for instance – the consensus view for 1,400 years – was the best science of its day.  The product of some of the brightest minds of Western civilization.  It was based on observations that were within a few percent of what we measure today, its predictive power was… ok for certain purposes.  But hey, they didn’t even have telescopes back then.  Then comes along Copernicus with a new theory and later Galileo with his telescope, a better set of observations and suddenly this thousand year intellectual edifice gets binned.  Actually it wasn’t quite so simple as that of course for those involved, hardly anyone believed Copernicus, they wanted to condemn Galileo, and they actually did burn Giordano Bruno

That what happens when men make themselves a priesthood of truth.

Different cultures have different views of the world that change with time. Most are unaware or even think about them and live quite happily. For 2000 years western Europeans were happy with the Ptolemaic view of the solar system with the Sun going round the Earth. It was replaced by the Copernican view, which troubled the church but not the people. As long as the Sun rose and set it didn’t matter. It wasn’t proved scientifically until 1837 by the astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel.
     ~ Dr. Tim Ball

Another Example – the Dogma of the Academic Orthodoxy

Mr Howard mentions the famous example of Wenger’s theory of continental drift, and describes its initial rejection and final acceptance once the mechanism of plate tectonics became known – and generally accepted.

Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift (which sought to explain how the continents are distributed across the earth) was rejected for decades. That was partly because there was no plausible mechanism to explain continents moving, and because most geologists at the time viewed vertical movements as the dominant earth-shaping forces. Wegener had been trained in astronomy and most of his work was in meteorology, so he was an “outsider” in geology.

Geological and geophysical observations in the 1960s and 1970s provided the evidence that the earth’s surface could and had shifted, moving continents in the way Wegener had suggested.

The problem with the continents was that a bright nine year old with a map could see that Africa and South America fit together like puzzle pieces, yet, if you were a child of the correct generation and informed any adult of your discovery, especially a scientifically educated adult, you were patted on the head and politely informed that this was a coincidence.

 P. W. Bridgman once said, famously, that, “A coincidence is what you have left over after you apply a bad theory.”

So much for coincidence.

As it turns out here, yet again, the previous and universally accepted theory [at least among those over age nine] was completely and spectacularly WRONG, so wrong that if one were to go back in time and read what the scientific consensus actually was pre-tectonics you would risk grave tempero-mandibular injury in astonishment that modern science could have ever come up with such a wacky scheme.

I mention this example because about ten years ago I had the experience of comming across a 1961 edition of, I think, the World Book Encyclopedia still sitting on a school library shelf [a now extinct school].  I had time on my hand and read its pre plate tectonics account of how the continents came to be as they are.  The incredibly tortured account of vast oceanic abysses being filled with sediment uplifting continents and mountain ranges beggars belief, yet, this was the very best that science could do, and everyone believed it without question – especially the smart people.

Well, almost everyone.

We, in the aftermath get to appreciate the irony of how precisely similar the two episodes were to one another: the Copernican shift and the dynamic lithosphere shift, one at the dawn of science as an activity separate from philosophy, and one within living memory when academic science has taken on a cast of its own priesthood of truth.

Science Always Gets it Wrong the First Time

It is the most ordinary business of science, the publishing of new results that disprove previously published results, or to extend previously incomplete results.  What you are supposed to get from this enterprise, the take-away, is that science is always wrong or  incomplete, in whole or in part – we just don’t know which parts yet.

Readers at this point may be forming the opinion that I am somehow down on science, no not at all, what I am down on is scientists who are up tight about being wrong personally and who let that particular problem affect their own work and science generally.  The other thing I am down on the naive notion that the scientific method ought to be able to produce correct and complete theories out of the first pass with the data, when clearly the process can produce, at best, partial correctness and incompleteness – but that’s ok.  The real state of affairs, however, is actually much worse despite our best intentions and best efforts.

John P. A. Ioannidis published a paper in 2005 Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,[2]  in PLOS Medicine, his result was a rather sobering account of the as published accuracy of much of current research, from the abstract: [citations redacted]

Published research findings are sometimes refuted by subsequent evidence, with ensuing confusion and disappointment. Refutation and controversy is seen across the range of research designs, from clinical trials and traditional epidemiological studies to the most modern molecular research. There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false. Here I will examine the key factors that influence this problem and some corollaries thereof.

Some of the section headings hint at a disturbing set of problems:

“Most Research Findings Are False for Most Research Designs and for Most Fields”

“Claimed Research Findings May Often Be Simply Accurate Measures of the Prevailing Bias”

I find the second heading particular sobering for any field of science.  The point of science as a way of knowing is to eliminate the prevailing biases, if the practice of science is actually reinforcing the prevailing biases then we may have a real problem.  This, however, seems to be the normal situation in science and contributes to a systematic overconfidence in the current state of the knowledge.

We can take some comfort in that science as an epistemological method and as a practice of art are, or should be viewed as, iterative processes, you are never done; therefore, all results must be treated as provisional – and that’s ok.

Seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?  See? no conspiracy theories here at all, and no appeals to academic fraud or misconduct were required [lest you were leaping to conclusions].

Science Eats Her Young

Lynn Sykes, a co-worker along with Jack Oliver and Bryan Isacks who together published the seminal 1968 paper: “Seismology and the New Global Tectonics” in the Journal of Geophysical Research recalled, “I had been told as an undergraduate at M.I.T. that good scientists did not work on foolish ideas like continental drift.“[1]

Fortunately for us all, their previous work prepositioned them to be at exactly the right time, with the right equipment to provide the confirmation of tectonic activity that sealed the fate of countless geologist’s careers – or at least their previous opinions.

As the happy news of seafloor spreading rose to the surface of scientific thought, torpedoing the status quo, by 1970 only the most knuckle headed could still cling to the notion of a static earth where what obviously once fit together could not be allowed to fit for the sole reason that scientists lacked the courage to face the unknown.  Because of the fact, we, meaning science, did not yet have the imaginative capacity to envision the mechanism of continental drift, the experts in the field negated the possibility of a dynamic lithosphere altogether.

It seems that a certain amount of patience is required with new theories, there are always the inevitable first few wrong guesses.

Some scientists seem to maintain a certain willful blindness to the fact that being wrong is part of the job of being a scientist and an intrinsic part of the process – science is the business of being correct, isn’t it?  Yet, lurking out there, undiscovered, are unknowns that will unravel even a seemingly well formed theory,  the unknown unknown.

The Happy News of the Unknown Unknown

As scientists, we are supposed to understand that there are always unknowns:  known unknowns  and unknown unknowns, and that every theory is inherently incomplete or in error – in whole or in part.  This does not mean that most theories that have been through the wringer a few times aren’t correct enough and complete enough to be useful.  This doesn’t mean we cannot rely upon a theory to accomplish real and useful ends to high degrees of precision, it just means we need to be clear about where the boundaries of practicality are for the theory.  It just means we don’t know everything yet – no worries.

This notion is really no more than a simple restatement of the Socratic Paradox, which wise philosophers take to heart early: ‘I know that I know nothing’. This quote of course a simplification of the original from Cicero’s Academica, “He himself thinks he knows one thing, that he knows nothing.”  Or, if you must impress your friends, on the weekend, in the original Latin:  “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat.”  

We call this enterprise “science” because it is a way of knowing, an epistemological method – not a vocation – remember a vocare is what a priest has when he is called to God.

Where is it writ large that a man is supposed to carry a true map of the universe?       ~ Uncle Terrence

This particular way of knowing, science, is deeply entwined with what is yet unknown.

Did you ever notice that as you build the bonfire of knowledge brighter, the surface area of the unknown revealed grows ever larger?”  ~ Uncle Terrence’s younger brother Dennis

The concept of the unknown unknown comes to us in popular culture in an off-hand remark made to reporters in a press briefing in February of 2002 by the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pertaining to the apparent lack of evidence for Saddam Husein’s weapons of mass destruction.  He said: [my bold]

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

At the time, Rumsfeld caught quite a bit of flak for this apparent bit of gibberish, though it is actually a perfectly well formed thought, people didn’t know what to think of it because it sounded to them like officialese.  It seems that Rumsfeld himself had only recently taken the concept on board at a presentation on uncertainty given to the DoD by none other than Nassim Nicholas Taleb author of the 2007 book The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable, an author who Meme Merchants will remember was the subject of an early essay here: Black Swan Bad, which discussed Taleb’s well formed thoughts on the impact of the improbable and his singularly poorly formed metaphors on the same subject.

Now, as scientists, that we are armed with the powerful concept of the unknown unknown we are better prepared conceptually to prepare for them in our work.  We should also be better prepared intellectually to stand the shock of a life’s work suddenly unhouseled by the unexpected appearance of new known out of the previously unknown – c’est la vie.

For every theory of Continental Drift eventually confirmed and originator promoted to glory, there are one hundred careers doomed to infamy.  The poor phlogiston people seem to have an eternity of bad press and snide remarks ahead of them.

As a scientist it is of some vital importance to recognize how a social, psychological, and conceptual inhibition to the existence of the unknown unknown inhibits the advancement of science.  Many, if not most, of the truly great discoveries in science entailed a shift in thinking that allowed something that was previously was unthinkable suddenly becoming thinkable:  the earth moves around the sun ⇔ the earth is something itself capable of motion; the continents move across the face of the earth ⇔ the continents themselves are capable of motion.  The capacity to question the status quo and the kindred capacity to imagine the possibility of what is unknown is a kind of intellectual solvent that dissolves the boundaries around the previous frames of reference and allows an expansion into a deeper and more complex frame of reference.

It is worth considering how many of the most profound discoveries of science were first proposed, though not necessarily confirmed, by outsiders, amateurs, or non-experts in the relevant field, or by the rare type who’s expertise and genius spanned many fields.  Maybe you can think of some exceptions.  The people who are actually thinking outside the box, it seems to me, are generally the ones living outside the box.  BTW, its also interesting to note how many of these people were also musically talented – check it out.

The Reference Frame

Another example, with our current classical theory of gravitation you cannot construct a proper string because we do not yet have a quantum theory of gravity that is complete at the distances on the order of the Plank Length; we can’t even construct a proper galaxy without requiring some kind of a dark-fudge-factor too keep the thing from flying apart, and God help you if you try to construct an entire Universe on your own, you’ll probably wind up needing some kind of a dark-Constant to make things work properly.  And, this is Gravity, supposedly the most secure, and foundational of all our physical theories.

Question is, are dark-matter and dark-energy merely chimeras of our scientific misunderstanding caused by us looking at the Universe from an inadequate frame of reference, even as the Ptolemaics struggled to free themselves from the earth centered frame of reference?  The world wonders – I do at any rate.

As an outsider to physics and cosmology I happen to notice how phlogiston-like Dark-Matter and Dark-Energy function scientifically, specifically that rather than recognize and repair a possibly defective theory, they both avoid a fundamental questioning of the legacy theory and instead propose a new substance that explains the apparent discrepancy – where have we seen this before.  This Star-Trek-new-radiation-of-the-week paradigm, it seems to me, smacks of the same kind of physicalist thinking that held the Greeks back for so many hundreds of years in their mathematics, and required another group of outsiders, the Abbasids to resolve the problem.

I’m no physicist, but in my meta-analysis of the situation I see many similarities in our current state of the physics to where science was at the time Max Plank set off to work on the black-body problem, look what happened there, an entire new order of physics replaces the old – at least mostly.  Pre-Plank you had a highly developed system of physical theories, to the point where Plank’s professor at Munich Philipp von Jolly is reported to have advised Planck against going into physics, saying: “In this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes,” yet within the span of a few years the whole classical construct is replaced with a strange new one.  Of course you can still do classical physics, as the classical scales, in the classical way, but all of the smart people are supposed to understand that the old theories are veils covering up a much more fundamental layer of reality.

Yes, it is true, you can just calculate the quantum field equations and get answers that are very, very close to observations [if done correctly], but that still hasn’t solved the quantum gravity problem, or dark matter, or dark energy – or much else.  The conservative physicist might say, “All we need is just one more collider, just 10 more GeV, just ten more years of observations and they’ll have the whole thing sewed up.”  Maybe, but the fact that the best and brightest of the experts have failed so far to solve these problems suggests strongly to me that a more radical recentering of the theory might be required.

The Ptolemaics all said, ‘Just give me one more epicycle and I’ll have the whole thing wrapped up.’

Of course, I could be wrong, I am probably wrong, I just won’t be at all surprised if some smart person pulls out of the hyperspacial halls of the imagination another entirely new order of physics that resolves these discrepancies [and that even fewer people will be able to understand correctly than QED and M-Theory].

There is of course much we can do with our current understanding of gravity, but if a young physicist is keen on replacing God with himself, he needs a stronger theory.

The truth of the matter is no one knows how much of our current conception of the Universe might have to be discarded to reconcile the effects of gravity at the very smallest and the very largest scales of the Universe.  No one knows what boundary dissolving act of cognition will be required to see things correctly.  We may have to pull the Universe inside out though its own navel in order to gain a sufficiently clear understanding of the situation to understand what gravity is really a manifestation of.

Towards a Stronger Epistemology of Science

The last person to know everything that was known, some people say, was Aristotle.  Think about that for a moment; the last person who could claim to hold the complete contents of what was know [at least in one small corner of the globe] died in 322BCE.  Now think about how much of what Aristotle knew we now know to be wrong, or hopelessly naive.  It  hasn’t gotten any easier for any of us to know the world, even though the amount of information about it is expanding exponentially.

Modern knowledge is a enormous web of interconnected and interrelated bits of knowledge, some of those bits of knowledge are wrong, some are right – and we can’t be sure we know which is which.  For the most part we as individual don’t really know much, we mostly rely upon the authority of others that a thing is so and assume that it is reliable – hope that it’s reliable.  Some authorities are more reliable than others, but even some very great authorities eventually are shown to be wrong, or incomplete.  There is simply no way to confirm everything for ourselves so there isn’t much choice in the matter.

What to do.

There are a some things which we can have a good deal of confidence, those things that have truly stood the test of time and whose boundaries of applicability have been thoroughly tested and those things which we have confirmed for our selves.

“A mage can only control what is near to him, what he can name exactly and wholly.  And this is well.” ~ Kurremkarmerruk

For a scientist this boils down to an epistemology of uncertainty that is stated something like this:

There is that which I know, then there’s everything else.

The quantity of that which is known becomes very small indeed, and everything else suddenly expands to the limits – and that’s ok.  You aren’t going to suddenly cease to exist if you discover [or someone else discovers] you are in error about something or other, you’re ego may tell you you’ll die [lying bastard] – but you’ll be fine.

Ultimately being either a scientist or a philosopher boils down to asking for every proposition that presents itself to you: “Is that true?”  Then keep on asking until you find out.


*  I’ll make a sly exception to this statement in regards to the maths, mathematical logic being a branch of knowledge which is unique in its methods of proofs – though even there of course Gödel leaves me a sly out.

  1. Kenneth Chang, ‘Quakes, Tectonic and Theoretical’. New York Times, 1/15/2011
  2. John, P.A. Ioaninidis, ‘Why Most Published Research Findings are Wrong’.  PLOS Medicine, 8/30/2005

3 thoughts on “Science Eats Her Young – Consensus vs Correctness, the Scientific vs the Political and the happy news of the unkown unknown

  1. Pingback: Heyerdahl and Parallel Evolution at the Talkshop | The Coraline Meme

    • We’re glad you ‘liked’ it. Unfortunately we never seem to be able to pull together an effort like this quickly enough to post before the original conversation that instigated the thought peters out.


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