Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Nature and Value of Consensus in "Truth"

I'm going to do some research on this over the next days and weeks, but it occurs to me that we are badly in need of some rules regarding the nature and value of consensus in various kinds of investigations of truth. As we have been battling out the issues here, a great deal of the debate revolves around what is and is not evidence. My friend and fellow blogger, Michael Williams, had this post yesterday:

I just wanted to quote a snippet from Michael Crichton's critique of global warming "science" that deals with the popular acceptance of "scientific consensus".

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.

In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of. Let's review a few cases.

Examples follow, but plenty should be obvious to even the casual thinker. As I listed in my earlier post about "scientific consensus": Copernicus, Galileo, the Wright Brothers, Newton, Einstein, etc.

Finally, 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.
If we compare the concept of consensus in Science to the same concept in history, philosophy, feelings, etc., we should, I think have different weight for consensus as a valuable insight into truth.

If 100 people witness an accident, and 99 of them see it the same way, then this would seem to have very strong weight. If 100 people study the history of an event and 99 come to one or more conclusions that are virtually the same, this would have substantial weight, but not so much as the witness situation. If 100 people look at a picture of a certain scene, and 99 express a feeling that is fairly consistent (e.g. What a beautiful scene), again this would cause reasonable people to expect to get the same feeling if they saw it.

I would also agree that if scientists study historical evidence regarding evolution or global warming, and substantial percentages come to the same conclusion, this has weight. However, it is not the same weight as should be given as the result of an experiment. These results would be more like the eye-witness.

In every case, skepticism has its place, and other evidence may undermine even the seemingly indisputable event (i.e. magic or optical illusions.) But it shouldn't matter how many scientists line up on the side of a "proof." That is just selling, not science.


bernardo said...

When I read Michael's post, it did indeed remind me of your post about how the fact that most people believe in God could be seen as "evidence" for their being right.

My responses are:

1) I kinda wish you'd keep global warming out of this blog. It's your blog, and you can do whatever you want, but global warming is an issue about which I'm still sitting on the fence, so any mention of it as an analogy to theological belief just makes me kinda confused.

2) The global warming debate is about whether or not certain causal relationships exist out there in the earth's environment. This is something that can be tested. Data can be compared. Alternate factors can be explored. The God debate, however, has to do with whether the universe has a purpose, with the psychology of belief, with the nature of faith, and with the question of whether miracles or naturalism is more far-fetched. Any piece of data can go both ways in the God debate, depending on how you wanted to interpret it to begin with. It's very different from a debate about a natural phenomenon.

There are similarities, though: In the global warming debate, you have massive groups of people whose financial and political interests lead them to try and promote one viewpoint or the other. The majority opinion depends on what data we are exposed to, and what data we are exposed to depends on who pays for the research and marketing. In the God debate, you have people's own psychology working against them, you have intuition taking mystical made-up things and fooling people into thinking those things are "explanations". What interpretations of data become more popular depends on what people WANT to believe. And what people WANT to believe may or may not be determined by reason.

"If 100 people look at a picture of a certain scene, and 99 express a feeling that is fairly consistent (e.g. What a beautiful scene), again this would cause reasonable people to expect to get the same feeling if they saw it."

No. Reasoning is one thing, feeling is another. A reasonable person might have an understanding of why most people have a certain reaction to some stimulus, and this understanding might be quite separate from the emotional reaction itself. This understanding, and/or repeated exposure to the stimulus in question, might desensitize a person from experiencing the "normal" response to the stimulus, and there is nothing unreasonable about this. The God debate is one area where feelings and reasoning can pull in opposite directions. In religion, reasoning must be suppressed in order for necessary leaps of faith to be made. Like an illusionist, religion take advantage of the way our brains work, and misleads people into thinking that some impossible thing actually happened.

Like I keep saying, I think that most religion is good for the world, and that if you want to have faith in God, then go ahead, I can't claim it to be a bad thing. But you have to be honest about what faith is, about the way in which it can lead you to conclusions that reason will not lead to, about the fact that religion is more about what you WANT to believe than about what beliefs you can reasonably justify. Or at least that's the way it seems to me, and many smart religious people have agreed with me, although they might not put it quite like that.

Just because a psychological phenomenon is experienced by many people, this does not make it "true". So these questions (about whether certain perceptions/intuitions/feelings are "true") are different from questions that can be scientifically tested. Of course, religion can be scientifically studied as a psychological/neurological phenomenon. But that's not the same thing as claiming to approach religious questions/claims scientifically (such as the existence of God, intelligent design, the history of Jesus, etc). So the nature of religion can probably be approached scientifically, but the views promoted by religion probably cannot. Which is fine.

(Sorry, I am not usually this cranky an atheist. I do think I am usually more of a relativist. But I guess reading this (and the comments) put me in a "Richard Dawkins mode", from which I will probably recover in a few days).

Ben Bateman said...

Bernardo, the problem with global warming is that it cannot be tested on any reasonable time scale. It's similar to evolution that way. And it's nothing at all like discovering what you get when you mix chemical X and chemical Y, or discovering what stem cells can do. Most of what we think of as science can be observed in the present, but not global warming or evolution.

bernardo said...

"Most of what we think of as science can be observed in the present..."

That's not really true. A lot of science relies on hints from the past. Geology and astronomy are two that come to mind, along with evolutionary biology and some aspects of climate studies.

All right, the theory of anthropogenic global warming cannot really be tested. But the theory is a proposed series of causal relationships. Either these relationships are happening to some degree, or they are not.

What I'm saying is, when it comes to debating the existence of God, depending on what you consider to be a "meaningful explanation", I can be right when I say there is no God (since the idea of God is not a meaningful or likely "explanation" to me), and you can be right when you say there is a God (since a solely naturalistic world may not seem likely or a meaningful "explanation" to you). However, science defines things more carefully, with less ambiguity and less wiggle room: Either a causal relationship exists, or it does not. Unlike with religion, you can't reasonably say "Oh, because of my world view, this side of the debate makes more sense to me personally, so that is the view I will believe in".

The kind of relativism that comes into play when we talk about how people personally simplify the world around them (i.e. what "meaningful" is, what an "explanation" is, what "why" means when asking about how things came to be) is not really part of how scientific models ought to be evaluated. When evaluating scientific models, you just look at different factors, and different relationships between those factors' contributions. There's no need to question the very nature of the questions being asked, there is no need to decide which KINDS of questions are important and which are not.

Sure, every now and then some field of science undergoes a paradigm shift that requires a different world view to be accepted (like quantum physics making the world no longer deterministic, or relativity showing that there is no absolute space, time, simultaneity, etc). But even then, you have to rely on data, not on personal preferences. Once a scientific model is shown to be critically incomplete, only a fool would still believe in it over the more complete one.

So comparing scientific models is not like having a God Vs No God debate. Definitions are not arbitrary, and one model can be shown to be superior to another. (This does not mean that one model is "true" and the other is "false", but it means one model is more precise or takes more factors into account, or makes better predicions in the majority of cases, etc).

Or, at least, that's what scientists aim for.

Ben Bateman said...

"science defines things more carefully, with less ambiguity and less wiggle room: Either a causal relationship exists, or it does not. Unlike with religion, you can't reasonably say "Oh, because of my world view, this side of the debate makes more sense to me personally, so that is the view I will believe in"."

I wish that were true, Bernardo. The problem with both global warming and evolution is that they aren't falsifiable. The temperature can go up or down, and that supports global warming. The fossil record can show smooth transitions or sharp discontinuities, and either one supports evolution.

Scientists are only people, and science was never designed to withstand political pressure.

Anonymous said...


You have stated you are content and satisfied with your decision not to believe in a God. Christians are content to believe in a god. Both people live lives they choose. So be it. There is only one difference in the end. The non Christian goes no where at death. The Christian goes to the God they have choosen.
The basic argument is in the end. If you are wrong you lose eternity. It Christains are wrong they still had a great life, if they are right however, they get all that they have been talking about.
It is a choice and you have made yours, so go live it. It is a waste of time for all of us.

bernardo said...

Yes, Mr Pascal, I have made my choice. I'm not going to believe simply out of fear that I could be wrong.

If I invent some god whose punishment for not believing in him is worse than what you get for not believing in the Christian God, would you switch over to my god? Nah, didn't think so.

I'm not trying to get Christians to stop believing. Like I have said, I am fairly sure that Christianity does more good than harm. What I would like, ideally, is for Christians to be more honest about the leaps of faith they must make, about the fact that their beliefs cannot be reasonably proven (even though they might be right), and about the fact that it is quite possible that we live in a naturalistic universe that was not deliberately created or shaped by supernatural forces. If, after all this, you choose to remain a Christian, then you are a Christian for the right reasons, rather than a Christian who is deceiving themselves about the "evidence" for Christian beliefs.

bernardo said...

Here's a Calvin comic for you:


bernardo said...

Oh, and one more thing; What exactly "is a waste of time for all of us"? Me questioning your choice and allowing you to question mine? It is certainly not a waste of time for me (I am learning a lot), and I hope it is not a waste of time for you (just don't read this blog and its comments if you feel you're not getting anything out of it).

Randy Kirk said...

I would agree that pure science has less wiggle room than the evidence I propose as being valuable for a determination of the "truth" of God. That doesn't mean the God evidence doesn't have value.

My constant refrain in "how much weight?" How much weight for historical witness of an event? How much weight for personal sensory perception? How much weight for emotional feelings?

A huge percentage of the social sciences is based on self reporting of sensory perception and emotional feelings. Why is it acceptable science if it has to do with how I do or don't hate a certain group, but not useful to evaluate the existance of an ability to communicate with the spiritual realm? As a sociologist, it is very important to me if 90% of any population group feels a certain way or responds in the same way to certain stimulae.

Anonymous said...

Scientific reasoning or logical thinking is used correctly can lead to proof of a creator. No doubt. If you want to learn more, check out Biola University web site. They have a whole department on apologics.

However, knowing God more requires more than science and logic. It would be like studying basic math. Can one use just the teachings of basic math to create and design a tunnel in a hill. Obviously some rudimentary skills of add and subtract are necessary, however a knowledge of calculus would help create the curves, etc. on the tunnel. Similarily we are using basic math ( science and reasoning ) to study God ( which requires more ( like Calculus ).

Now do you understand a little more clearly, Bernardo? ( the engineer ) I too worked at Boeing a few years as a software associate engineer testing FPCCM programs. Thus I understand you a little.

God isn't a two or three dimensional being. Is the universe just a two or three dimensional entity. Of course not.

Just as mathematics developed from our point of reference. God's position develops from his point of reference. They are different very different.

It is nice to know there is a God. Yes, when one really knows there is a God they want to. You would too if you took the time to know God. Try it Bernardo. Learn of God from God not men.

bernardo said...

"Scientific reasoning or logical thinking if used correctly can lead to proof of a creator. No doubt."

I do doubt that.

"If you want to learn more, check out Biola University web site. They have a whole department on apologetics."

Maybe I will. I'm always looking for more people to talk to about this stuff.

I think I have encountered most of the major arguments of Christian apologetics, though, and none of them is air-tight. None of them "proves" that I am wrong in my atheism. So I still insist that atheists could be right and that theists could be right, you just pick the one that works for you.

"However, knowing God more requires more than science and logic".

Doesn't that contradict what you said about how science and reason can lead to proof of a creator?

In any case... I understand that. I can see that you need faith to believe, and faith does not come from reason. "Knowing" God requires speculation far beyond what can be reasonably jutified. However, as I have said, I do not think that knowing the rules of the universe requires more than science and logic.

So I'd agree to keep science away from trying to approach questions about the nature of God. If only the religious people would agree to keeping religion from approaching scientific questions...

Randy Kirk said...

A while back I saw a little story that illustrated on of anon's points above. If I were living in a two dimensional world, it would be totally impossible for me to have any clue as to how a three dimensional world works. The story gave examples which I can't site, but if you think about it for a minute, it is obvious.

Well science needs to consider that a few billion people have experienced a different dimension, and that this dimension is very difficult for us to understand from our limited perspective.

bernardo said...

"Well science needs to consider that a few billion people have experienced a different dimension..."

Sure, the issue of whether or not this is made-up (i.e. triggered by something inside the brain or only explainable by something external) is one that science could approach.

"...that this dimension is very difficult for us to understand from our limited perspective".

That depends on what you mean by "understand". First of all, if it is made up, then of COURSE it's difficult to understand, just as (for example) the magic in Harry Potter can't really be understood by the reader. And things like the human senses (hearing, color vision...) can lead to experiences that are very hard to describe, whose impact in our brain may be impossible to track down to the last detail, yet the mechanisms behind those senses are pretty much "understood". Same thing for many mental diseases: I can't know what it's like to have them, and no one knows precisely what in the brain they upset, but this does not mean we can't investigate them, learn about them, etc. It's like creationism: If your "theory" is "This can't be understood", then you'd bound to not get very far (kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Randy Kirk said...

I am hopefully of winning just one point in this debate today. Christians do not and have not given up the pursuit of knowledge. They are at the forefront of the pursuit and have been. The almost 100% congress of the US and 100% administrative branch of the US are Christian, but they continue to fund Hubble and 1000's of other scientific inquiries into the nature and sources of the universe. Sure, priorities may change, and I know that many in the scientific community think that the current administration has shortchanged dollars for science. Any chance that science had to give up a buck or two because of meds for old folks, war in Iraq, and Homeland security?

Christians are not anti-science. They are, however, justifiably concerned that the science community often wants more than truth. He who make the truth also gets to "engineer" the future. See my upcoming post on this. Still tonight, I hope.

bernardo said...

I'm not saying that Christians don't want to understand things the way science explains them. Christians want this kind of understanding AS WELL.

All I'm saying is, there is a kind of understanding that the believer craves but that the non-believer does not need. The non-believer is satisfied with the scientific kind of understanding. The believer also sees the value of that kind of understanding, but they want a different, additional kind.

Like I keep saying, the two kinds of understanding (which I think of as "How" and "Why") are not mutually exclusive. Most Christians can reasonably explain how they complement each other nicely. The thing is, us atheists don't personally find speculating about "Why" to be very satisfying or reliable.

bernardo said...

I should have said "but they ALSO want a different, additional kind."

Randy Kirk said...

Cordin said over on his site

"The great majority of people on earth do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he died for their sins."

I think this tells us that folks do take into consideration as evidence of truth what folks think. Isn't that why we do polls?

Cordin said...

I'm confident I'm not considered the spokesperson for all non-believers. My blog is a reflection of my thoughts only, unless of course I'm quoting someone in context with my beliefs. (Feel free to do so with my ideas at this blog. I would very much prefer a visit to my site, however.)

I do believe consensus and common sense can be a touchstone of which a search for truth may be founded upon. However to use consensus as the sole basis for proving a point would obviously be dubious.

If everyone claimed to see 'something' that I did not, it would add weight to the need for more investigation on my part. Perhaps I'm looking from the wrong angle? In the end, though, if I could not see what others saw, it would be immoral for me to believe otherwise without evidence. The burden of proof would then be upon me. In science, if done properly, it's up to the new theorist to provide facts in overturning the 'old' and can at times be accomplished with only a single valid argument. Truth, though, is truth whether 1 or 1 billion persons believe in something.

We should never rely solely upon the faith of the majority, but it should cause a certain amount of reconsideration on our part.

For example, on the previous thread, I argued that Jesus made a false prediction. If true, than no amount of theological gymnastics can convince me that He was the Son of God, regardless of how many might. (In fact as I've been quoted, most do not - less than 33% of those professing a religion). No one should of course abandon treasured beliefs without carefully considering the evidence. But I truly believe that a single pivotal fact can overturn a mountain of 'evidence'

Randy Kirk said...

Is ESP real?