Science and the Public Part 3: A Scientific Consensus is Based on Evidence, not Peer Pressure and Adherence to Dogma

In this post, I am going to debunk an argument that is very commonly used by the anti-science movement. Namely, the argument that scientists merely go along with the accepted dogma of their field and either refuse to consider contrary evidence, or even if they realize that their position is flawed, they refuse to speak up for fear of being rejected by the scientific community. I have frequently heard claims such as, “many scientists realize that global warming isn’t true, but they keep quiet because if they spoke up they would be ridiculed by their peers and might lose their job.” This argument generally appears either in an attempt to persuade people not to trust scientists or as a response to the dilemma presented by the fact that there is enormously strong agreement among scientists on issues such as global warming, vaccines, evolution, etc. In either form, it is horribly, horribly flawed. In the former situation, it commits both the ad hominem and question begging fallacies, and in the later, it commits the ad hominem and ad hoc fallacies. These are the same logical fallacies committed by the conspiracy argument (see Part 2). These arguments attack the scientists, rather than their results (ad hominem). Further, there is no evidence to support them, and they wouldn’t be believed by anyone who wasn’t already convinced that the scientific results were false (question begging/ad hoc fallacy depending on context). So I could really stop right here. Anyone who says that you shouldn’t believe scientists because they are either involved in a conspiracy or are simply refusing to accept contrary evidence is not following the rules of logical analysis and you shouldn’t listen to a word they say. Nevertheless, I will explain the problems with this argument in more detail.

To avoid a strawman fallacy, I will begin with a quote from a conversation I recently had with an anti-scientist, “All [scientific education] does is indoctrinate people with pre-established beliefs and prevent them from truly thinking for themselves. That’s why it’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation with most ‘scientists.'”

Overlooking how completely insulting this is to those of us who spend our entire lives studying science, let’s consider the many problems with this statement. First, this statement (and every statement like it that I have ever seen) was made by someone with no scientific education. So in what way is this person qualified to comment on scientific education? Further, this statement makes it blatantly obvious that people in the anti-science movement have utterly no clue how science actually works because not one word of this statement is even remotely true. Someone who has never attended a science class, published a paper, gone to a professional conference, etc. is in no position to make any judgments about how science works.

A scientific education accomplishes multiple things, not the least of which is to impart a massive amount of background knowledge. Science is complicated, and there is an huge quantity of knowledge that is required to be able to properly analyze scientific results. If I were to stack together all of the scientific books/papers that I have studied, the stack would be taller than I am. Notice, this is in no way an “indoctrination,” rather, this is learning what is already known. All that any scientist does, is build on what has already been discovered, but you can’t do that unless you know what has already been discovered. Science cannot move forward unless we know what other scientists have found. This is one of the key problems with the anti-science movement, the bloggers and other anti-scientists have not acquired the necessary background knowledge. Time and time again when I read anti-science blogs, books, etc., they are wrong on the most basic scientific facts. No wonder they don’t accept vaccines, global warming, etc. when they don’t understand the concepts behind them!

The next major function of a scientific education is, in fact, to teach you to think for yourself. As a graduate student, I am constantly encouraged by all of my professors to question the accepted wisdom. Graduate students are required to take seminars which are specifically designed to make us question and think for ourselves, and we are repeatedly cautioned NOT to blindly follow what’s in the literature but to analyze the data for ourselves and compare it to other studies. Further, the whole point of conducting independent research (i.e. our theses) is to see whether or not we can think for ourselves and solve unique problems. Where anyone got the idea that a scientific education is an indoctrination is beyond me. Virtually all scientists got into science because we love to ask question and acquire new information, that’s the whole point of being a scientist. The statement that a scientific education renders us incapable of thinking for ourselves could not be more untrue. A scientific education is specifically designed to force you to think for yourself, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about.

Finally, lets address the nonsense argument that evidence against vaccines, evolution, climate change, etc. is unpublishable because the scientific community refuses to accept it. My fellow graduate students and I have often laughed at this claim because it is so absurd. For example, if I had evidence that truly disproved evolution, I could publish in any biological journal that I wanted. I would have just made my career. I would have my pick of universities to work at, and I would probably get a Nobel Prize. No scientist in his right mind would sit on data like that. All of history’s great scientists have been great because they found evidence that was contrary to a common view. It is every scientists dream to find a groundbreaking result that alters the way that the entire scientific community thinks. So the notion that a lot of us actually know that vaccines don’t work or that the climate isn’t changing, and we are just sitting on that evidence for fear of reprisal is, quite frankly, idiotic. Once again, anyone who makes that claim clearly doesn’t understand how science works.

Look around you, everything from the computer you are sitting at to the headache medicine that you will surly take after reading my rant was brought to you courtesy of modern science. Science works. The anti-science movement is miss-informed and downright dangerous. If individuals want to personally live in ignorance, that is their problem, but we should not allow them to drag all of society back to the dark ages where logic is unheard of, leaches are used to cure illnesses, and magnetism is the result of supernatural forces.

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