I forget now just where I was, but it was a comment thread about global climate change. One line kept coming up: “Science isn’t done by consensus.”
My (unwritten) thought at the time was, “What are you, nuts? Of course science is done by consensus. It’s all about whether you’re able to reproduce someone else’s results, and then comparing notes.”
It was the rote incantation of the phrase that caught my eye. It was so consistent it seemed like there had to be a source.
As far as I can tell, there is: the 2003 Michelin Lecture at Caltech, by Michael Crichton. Here’s probably the relevant section:
I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
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.
My problem with Crichton’s argument may be summed up by pointing out the two entirely contradictory sentences he puts next to each other in that passage: “In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results.” Huh? As soon as you say “reproducible,” you’re bringing in at least one other person to do the reproduction. That means you have to reach agreement — or what we laymen call, “consensus” — about what the premises are, how they’re to be tested, and by what criteria those tests may be said to show success or failure. Ideally, you don’t bring in one other person to see if the hypothesized results are reproducible, but many people, to create as broad a data set as possible… Whereupon you all write to each other and say, “I got this set of numbers — what did you get, Jennifer?”
How is that not consensus? How is that not intrinsic to the very nature of science?
Look at Crichton’s sentence just before that: “Science… requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.”
Again, either he thinks verification is being done by the original researcher (in which case Pons & Fleischmann were right, and we should’ve started building cold fusion power plants long ago), or somehow the results are verified by a process not involving consensus. Robots? Dictatorship? It’s hard to say.
Crichton was an OK novelist. Given the number of people out there who are now his intellectual dupes and repeating this meme of his, I suppose he was a middling polemicist.
I wouldn’t exactly call him a logician, though.