Why you’re wrong, and the scientific consensus is right

That’s skepticism for you.

I don’t care who you are, unless you’re millions of independent scientists.

The age-old `skeptical` argument: Yeah, but science has been wrong before; how can I rely on the scientific consensus without understanding for myself, while knowing they’ve been constantly wrong throughout history?

For a change, I’ll get into this debate admitting one thing: all of you who bring-up this argument — you’re completely right; the scientific consensus could be wrong about a lot of stuff, and surely will be wrong about some. They could be wrong about some of the things they currently hold true. After all, we as a species used to think the sun revolves around us, literally — so I can see how it can be tempting to see science as just a history of things it has been proving itself wrong about. A collection of theories.

However, it’s worth noting that our powers of observation have also increased significantly: there are many things we no longer need to theorize about, because we can see for ourselves. Space efforts have plainly showed us what’s out there, just past our bubble — that the earth revolves around the sun is no longer a theory. It is a truth we have seen for ourselves.

Of course they could be wrong about other things, still. After all, the scientific consensus is but a global, for the most part anonymous, community of people from all walks of life — who at times share nothing but a formal education in the field with one another, and a desire to discover. But, as our powers of observation have extended to include microscopes, telescopes, tiny cameras that can navigate the human body, and anything in between, the gravity and significance of our species’ errors has decreased significantly.

The recent history of scientific-consensus-level mistakes is quite…boring, for a layman. The errors are most often so fine and their understanding requires so much scientific background, that people like me (not-scientists) can’t even really comprehend what it was we were wrong about. Oh — this sea-slug I’ve never heard of before actually has a subtly-different decision-making process than you thought. Fascinating. This changes science as we know it.

Sarcasm aside, the scientific consensus is just a bunch of people. They’re all human, and all subject to human error. Collectively, however, they hold the ultimate, simple power that is multiple people who never saw each other independently reaching the same conclusion.

That is the scientific consensus: hundreds upon hundreds of formally educated scientists from a particular field, independently analyzing the same data available, and reaching the same conclusion, without having ever known the other hundred dozens simultaneously working on the same thing.

Well, I’m sure the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t due to soon borrow that definition for the scientific consensus, but it’s a very practical way of looking at it.

No matter how brilliant an individual, they’re but human, subject to their human condition; they will inevitably be biased (either fond of one theory in particular because it’s theirs, or because it’s neat, or because it’s convenient, or simply because normal human behaviors in general).

One single, brilliant, amazing, convincing mind, no matter their number of followers on social media, cannot logically beat the think-tank that is a collective, field-educated mind, reaching the same conclusion independently.

If, by now, my fellow Trekkies are thinking `Pfft. The Borg.`: you’re not that far off, in terms of efficiency-potential. For those of you who are understandably not Star Trek obsessed, allow me to try and explain bias and how it comes into play here. Wait, don’t go, I’m not about to leave you with an infinitely-scrollable list of cognitive biases and wish your arguments good riddance. (As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think that kind of discourse is constructive.) What I’ll be attempting instead, is a more palatable approach:

The race against the human condition: Subjectivity and Bias

Our perception on everything is inherently subjective; we filter reality through the looking glass of all our previous experiences and our internalization of the circumstances we’ve encountered.

As my awesome psychologist mother would say, the only difference between a person who has lost their legs in an accident, and is now running the marathon — and a person who has lost their legs in an accident, and is now scared and unemployed, is their perspective on reality. And that perspective is shaped by our trauma, by our success, by the people who’ve inspired us and those who’ve brought us down, by the culture we were raised in, by anything and everything we’ve ever experienced.

Quite philosophically put, that’s bias: the various ways in which you interpret reality, based on your previous experiences and shaped by the subconscious processes that are our human nature. Bias goes on `behind the curtain` — you’re not aware of the fact that you interpret reality, you just…do.

Enter peer review: the way out of subjectivity

The only logical way to account for human bias in science is to make it statistically irrelevant. How do you do that? By having as many people as possible who work in the same field run the same experiments and tests and confirm or disprove those conclusions. The more formally-educated people you have run the same experiment independently, the more statistically irrelevant their individual bias becomes.

Let’s look at a sadly-popular example: vaccination. Time and time again, peers in the field have reviewed this matter, and come to the conclusion that it’s the best possible approach for the entirety of the human race. This one, long-since-discredited study linked autism with vaccination, and try as we all may ever since to explain that there was bias at play and hundreds upon hundreds of cross-generational scientists in the same field have since proven him wrong — we still can’t seem to come to the end of this debate.

Now imagine how bad your own bias about this gets if you happen to have personally met an otherwise-respectable doctor in their 50s telling you over the dinner table that big pharma is out to silence his work, but he knows that the cancer industry is a scam and in fact all you need to do is this revolutionary diet/energy cure/etc. In that moment, your trust and affection for that person you may have known since childhood silence the voices of millions of scientists in the field. Especially since this `alternative theory` you’re presented with is so convenient and within your own control.

Because the Big Pharma

Yep. Big pharma is totally `a thing`: it’s an immense industry with immense interests at stake. Does that mean your dermatologist might get some side-cash if they prescribe you this more expensive cream instead of the other, cheaper alternative out there that contains the exact same thing? Yep. Does that mean they can keep an entire `cure for cancer` secret from the human population for the sake of profit? Not really.

Saying that all of the scientists working in a particular field are either silenced or paid by The Big Pharma is, pardon my bluntness, not only insulting to millions of people like you out there who happen to be scientists, it’s also a bit delusional. We’re talking about so many people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, interests, etc. — how can you claim that they’re all either your uncle, or money-craving monsters?

Scientists are people, just like you, who vaccinate their own children, and come to the sad hazard that is life, go through cancer with them just as they recommend all of us do. Yes, some will be money-craving monsters. But I refuse to believe in a world where that is the norm, rather than the exception.

Let’s look at another big-something example: the oil industry. Is the scientific consensus that climate change isn’t real and what we’re doing is okay? Nope. The scientific consensus is: we’re irreversibly destroying our planet; the Great Barrier Reef is officially dead — congratulations, humanity. That’s what the voice of science is telling you. They were not all bought or silenced by Big Oil in order to preserve the industry. They don’t need to be, they’re just being ignored and that seems to suffice for now — but more and more people are hearing and spreading the message; people like you and me want change.

Well, I can understand the science behind climate change. I’ve made that decision myself, after having reviewed the evidence.

Actually, I’m sorry to say, but unless you’re an actual field-educated scientist…you don’t. You just think you do. You use your intuition, to filter and digest the information through your own perception-filter.

Understanding that understanding is an illusion unless you work in the field

I’m not saying people who aren’t scientists shouldn’t try to understand and just blindly trust; I love science, and I love trying to understand. But I also understand that on a deep, detailed, complex level, no matter how much side-reading I do on the subject, I can’t amount to an entire body of formally-educated professionals who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of that field.

If I don’t work in a particular field, everything becomes philosophy to me; nothing disappears, everything is transformed — it almost sounds like a metaphor for the human soul. Except, it’s not. To the human body, it kinda just means that your decaying remains reintegrate into the circle of life and become something else, with you per-say still being very much dead in the process. Or, you know, at least the historic scientific mind behind that famous internet-quote never meant anything philosophical to come out of it, it was the elegantly-phrased conclusion to nearly a lifetime of hard, analytical, painstaking work.

Though, arguably, that was back when science still had elegantly-phrased conclusions, which did border on philosophy. “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme.” — this could easily be poetry, especially with my rudimentary French skills. I could easily and accessibly use my intuition to interpret this statement, even though I’m not a Chemist myself. Which, I often do. And it’s quite entertaining to do, and an intellectually-stimulating use of your pastime.

However, beware the trap of thinking your conclusions or the conclusions of those you love and respect, above the consensus of millions of educated scientists. Even though you’ve never met them, those anonymous heroes are more-often-than-not people just like you, with families they love, maybe a couple of cats, who take vacations to Crete once a year to unwind from the stress of having been viewed by so many as a money-starved monster who’s sold their soul to big-something.

Yes, it’s great to wonder, to always ask questions, to never settle, to constantly keep searching for the truth with your own mind and your own logic. And I highly recommend that everyone on the planet do so, every day. Honestly, with respect for their intellect, as well as humbleness in the face of their smallness — and with awareness of the power we have as a human race to discover the truth together, once we stop pointing so many fingers. Skepticism is amazing; add unity and logic to it, and it becomes a really accurate tool.


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