When to Doubt a Scientific Consensus

The 12-red flags below are very applicable to American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) related consensus and public policy.    When viewed through this lens the science and research all falls apart.

(1) When different claims get bundled together.
(2) When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.
(3) When scientists are pressured to toe the party line.
(4) When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish.
(5) When dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.
(6) When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.
(7) When consensus is declared hurriedly or before it even exists.
(8) When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus.
(9) When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution.
(10) When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies.
(11) When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible.
(12) When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus.

Peddling Fiction

  • Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd. Many false ideas enjoyed consensus opinion at one time. Indeed, the “power of the paradigm” often shapes the thinking of scientists so strongly that they become unable to accurately summarize, let alone evaluate, radical alternatives. Question the paradigm, and some respond with dogmatic fanaticism.
  • So what’s a non-scientist citizen, without the time to study the scientific details, to do? How is the ordinary citizen to distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom? Conversely, how do we tell crankish imperviousness to evidence from legitimate skepticism?” Are we obligated to trust whatever we’re told is based on a scientific consensus unless we can study the science ourselves? When can you doubt a consensus? When should you doubt it?
  • Your best bet is to look at…

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