Do scientists vote on what is true?
Is it true that “97 percent” of scientists working in the fields of climate, meteorology and planetary atmospheres stand by the current consensus, that human generated, carbon-rich gases produced by human industry are responsible for substantial, rapid climate change?
That claimed figure — long denied by one major wing of Culture War — now appears to have been verified systematically. Almost all of the extremely smart folks who study climate on eight planets and who were responsible for transforming the Weather Report’s range from two hours to ten days agree that something reckless and perilous is going on, and some carefully discussed and economically bearable alteration of habits may be in order.
Does 97% agreement means that something is necessarily true? My late colleague, author Michael Crichton, led the charge for those on the right whose catechism now declares that “science cannot vote on what is true: there is no such thing as scientific consensus.” Indeed, like many polemical lies, that line has a basic level that is true. Nature, indeed, cannot be coerced by mass opinion, even among brilliant scientists. There have been times when 97% of them were dead wrong.
Take these examples from a well-written little piece on the Fox News site that relates “five blunders in science.” Indeed, at the surface, these interesting anecdotes — (e.g. Lord Kelvin’s calculation of the age of the Earth and Einstein’s cosmological constant) — simply go to show that science is not a realm of all-knowing priests, but of brilliant and not-so brilliant workers whose interplay of argument and experiment and criticism is just as important as coming up with terrific models. (When you and I read this article, we’ll say, there’s evidence that science works well. Ah, but then note where this piece was published. And imagine the sub-text lesson that is drawn by the average Fox customer.)
In fact, those occasions when 97% of scientists get it wrong are rare. And science has been much better at correcting them than polemical political mobs have been. In any event, those rare cases are irrelevant to the matter at hand…
When 97% of those who know a lot more than you do about something warn you that there may be danger ahead, only idiots blithely ignore such expert diagnoses and go charging ahead with business as usual.