Monday, December 18, 2006

Addressing Crichton

In my previous post I linked to a transcription of a speech by Michael Crichton. I found it an interesting read with some valid points. Now I wish to debunk one of his claims.

"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."

Here Mr. Crichton has made up a term, consensus science, and then said it doesn't exist. I believe he is attempting to address the fallacy of ad populum. Just because a majority of people believe something does not make it true. Consensus does play an important and useful role in the work of science. It is part of the process of scientists designing experiments to support or refute each others' work. It helps to push supported hypotheses forward for scrutinity. If a hypothesis can be scrutinized and accepted by enough teams of scientists, then a consensus begins to form around the theory the hypothesis supports, leading to more hypotheses and more studies.

One of the cases that Mr. Crichton uses to refute the value of consensus is "In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compellng evidence. The consensus said no." First, a consensus itself cannot say no. A consensus of who said no? Holmes reviewed the work of scientists before him, and supported the growing consensus.

...the concept of a transmissible "contagion" of some kind as the agency of infection in puerperal fever had gained some but by no means general acceptance. There was still much equivocation and denial in high places, and widespread ignorance among practicing physicians of the risk of contagion...

Holmes analyzed existing evidence and, in a persuasive treatise...he defined the obligations of all who attend at childbirth. It has been rightly observed that Holmes was not an obstetrician nor had he done independent research on his subject, but he was the first to give unmistakably clear and credible voice to the emerging consensus that puerperal fever was contagious, a specific infection often conveyed by doctors and nurses. from this source
A consensus of scientists is often necessary to overcome "widespread ignorance." One of the works of existing evidence that Holmes analyzed was Alex Gordon's work, another scientist that Crichton claims was rejected by "the consensus."

In Crichton's speech he said, "Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post"

It wasn't a "consensus" who dismissed him from his post. He was fired by his superiors for being a troublemaker.
[Semmelweis] particularly resented attacks by the self-serving forces of the authoritarian medical establishment, and he lashed out against them. His doctrine was opposed by powerful members of the academic hierarchy...The damning evidence that they were themselves the remorseless messengers of death was a scarcely veiled threat to their pride and eminence. Semmelweis was unsparing in his condemnation of those who denied his doctrine in spite of the high mortality rates in their own institutions. From this page of the same source above
Those who opposed Semmelweis were hardly a consensus. They just happened have positions of power in the field effected by his findings, and felt threatened by the implications, and resented Semmelweis's unsparing condemnation, and they retaliated against him.

It is true that valid scientific discovery has been met with skeptism, he misidentifies the cause. It is not "consensus" that is the naysayer, it is vested ignorance. It is consensus based on scientific discovery and understanding that overcome the obstacles of ignorance and self-interest.

In the case of global warming, I am not convinced either way anymore. I originally jumped on the doomsday band wagon, but realized I hadn't understood enough of the science to have a meaningful opinion. I certainly have concerns. The Great Smog of 1952 convinces me that there is danger in our industrial emissions, but I'm not convinced either way that we're causing inevitable widescale disaster. Interesting to me that it was reading one of the scientists that Crichton criticizes that got me to let go of my belief that it's hopeless: Carl Sagan's Billions and Billions. Unless I can read and understand the studies myself, I will look to those scientists that seem the most credible to me, and see what the consensus of those credible have to say. That's what I will use to cast my votes in the ballot box and in the court of public opinion.

edited on 12/20/06


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