Opinion | Morgan Liddick: The unreliable argument of scientific consensus
Special to the Daily
“What? You mean there was no deep fat? No steak? No cream pies, no hot fudge?”
“Yes, but these things were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what science now knows to be true.”
Anyone having even a passing familiarity with the comedic genius of Woody Allen will recognize the discussion between Dr. Malik and her colleague Dr. Aragon in the 1973 movie “Sleeper.” At issue is the hero’s choices for breakfast after having been frozen for 200 years: wheat germ and organic honey, the “charmed substances once thought to prolong life.” It’s still hilarious because like all great comedy, it contains more than a little truth.
For decades, cholesterol has been one of the villains of choice for our “healthy eating” scolds. Anyone following the medical herd on the topic could be forgiven for being paralyzed with fear that those two t-bone steaks in the fridge would somehow break out of the kitchen and murder them in their bed. Now the FDA is preparing an announcement that comes down to “never mind.” Not for the bad, high-density blood-borne cholesterol, no; that’s still villainous. But there now seems to be little concrete evidence that what one eats has a significant impact on that aspect of blood chemistry. Oops. Thirty years of fear and loathing, of nagging and finger-wagging, down the drain.
This is only one of a myriad of examples of “scientific consensus” gone wrong. Remember “aspirin therapy?” One 81-milligram aspirin a day, for life, as a precaution against heart attack. It was all the rage for 20 years. Except, recent news from the “medical community” has been mixed, with increasing evidence and weight given to severe internal bleeding the drug sometimes provokes. In May of last year, the FDA refused to approve aspirin for continuous use by people who had not had heart attacks. Nor are these sorts of second thoughts confined to medicine.
For 76 years following its discovery in 1930, Pluto quietly went about its business in the suburbs of the solar system. Everyone knew what — and where it was: the outermost planet even when, due to the eccentricity of its orbit, it wasn’t. But in 2006, the “scientific consensus” among a group of astronomers at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union changed and Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet,” a category it shares with the former asteroid Ceres, the Kuiper belt object Eris and several others. And that’s just a small fraction of science’s ambivalences.
Not too long ago in human history, the Earth was the center of the solar system. There were no other galaxies. Diseases were caused by “bad air” or imbalances of the body’s “humors.” Witches abounded and obeyed natural laws, which were studied. Electricity was unknown save as a force of nature, which was rightly feared. The Earth was created on Oct. 26, 4004 BCE (at 9.00 am). As human knowledge grew, each of these “known facts,” the product of intellectual consensus in their time, was abandoned.
Why do people resort to the argument of “scientific consensus” when it has proven unreliable in the past? Because it tends to be a conversation-stopper, a useful brake when an argument is not going one’s way. In this sense, we have made a fetish of science: We use it to do things for which it was not intended, and we invest it with powers it does not have. We do this for our own ends, and it works because most of us do not understand what science is.
Science is not a thing. It is a process; a way of thinking about things. It is a tool of unparalleled usefulness in exploring nature, using both observation and experiment. It relies on hypotheses which can be falsified: If climatologists claimed in 1975 that we were beginning a new ice age which will have immediate and dramatic effects, folks in Manhattan better be strapping on skis to get to work today. But they don’t, so … hypothesis disproved.
Science can be tricky, and can be abused in the search for power or money. From Piltdown Man to cold fusion to global warming’s “hockey stick” and falsification of temperature data as recently reported in the UK “Telegraph,” we are surrounded by reminders of why Albert Einstein remarked that “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
We should also remember that science is never “settled.” It is always contingent, open to new information or analysis, willing to accept new proofs. Or, in the words of “Sleeper’s” Dr. Aragon: “… now get it deep into your lungs. It’s tobacco smoke! One of the best things for you …”
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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