Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scientific consensus supports the view that Michael Crichton is dead

Michael Crichton died last week. The Wall St. Journal printed an excerpt from his 2003 Cal Tech lecture "Aliens Cause Global Warming." Here is an excerpt from that excerpt.

"I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

"Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be
right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

"There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. . . .

"I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. . . .

"To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: 'These results are derived with the help of a computer model.' But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world -- increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

"This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynman called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

"Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we're asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?"

--

I wish he was completely correct there. But, unfortunately, this lecture pre-dated the bulk of the intelligent design "debate". To the shame of evolutionary biologists worldwide, "scientific consensus" was frequently invoked as one fact or argument against creationism. Granted, it wasn't the only line of reasoning used, but we (that is, science) would have been far better off if that wasn't even raised as an issue - if, in fact, scientists had smacked down the press and lay afficionados of science at every turn for stooping to such subjective argumentation - because we have libraries of evidence, the facts of reality, and sound inference on our side. Why introduce the bully of group opinion onto the field of rational persuasion?


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