January 06, 2004

Crichton on "Consensus Science"

Michael Crichton has another interesting speech on the role of science in public policy: Aliens Cause Global Warming. While he ratchets up the rhetoric pretty high, he has a point about how science gets used in political debates, particularly the relatively frequent use of "consensus" when instead science should be silent on the issue. The way Bjorn Lomborg was treated was pretty outrageous — when political correctness muzzles scientific research, we have a problem.

To head off a critique from the Wife: yes, I think Crichton does put too much stock in the ideal of "disinterested" science. Science is a social institution, one of many, and while I, on pragmatic and instrumentalist grounds, accept it as one worth protecting and perfecting, it's worth remembering that there was no golden age of disinterested science. It has always been and will always be used to further agendas, some of them dispicable.

That being said, it is worth striving for the unobtainable ideal of pure science and condemning "consensus science" is one way to do that.

Update: here's another speech where he labels "environmenatlism" the new religion. Again, over the top, but some more interesting points.

Posted by richard at January 6, 2004 12:58 PM

This sort of issue came up with the Wife, who hoped to publish a result so divergent from accepted truths within her field that readers of her paper told he to understate it, lest the peer reviewers decide she had just screwed up the experiments. The damned-if-you-don't side of the dilemma, of course, is that if you downplay the result, the paper is less publication-worthy because it's not as interesting.

Now I'm not saying she was offering the MoBio equivalent of evidence to support a heliocentric solar system. Hers is very specific research in a very specific field. But even at that level of specificity, the tyranny of consensus in science combines with the will to innovation to make "pioneer" the flipside of "Cassandra complex."

All that said, I'm tired of all these scientists and their studies that say the food I like is going to shorten my life. Why don't we all pool our resources and get some research on whether barbecued ribs are actually good for you? Or that the stress of not eating a slab of barbecued ribs does more harm to your circulation than the sweet, juicy fat?

I would pay $25 for a study like that.

Posted by: Brad A. at January 6, 2004 07:25 PM