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Scientific Consensus

If you believe that a scientific consensus is the proof of the pudding and that the debate is over (the debate in science is never over – that’s the bloody point of it being science) then I suggest you acquaint yourself with the horrendous and brilliant life of Ignaz Semmelweis. He was pilloried (and in the end sectioned as a loon*) for challenging a scientific consensus. Specifically he thought it important for obstetricians to wash their hands between patients. And he was right and he had the facts and figures to back it up but he was shouted down by the broad scientific consensus of the time. By the time Pasteur proved the germ theory of disease (with some most elegant experiments) Semmelweiss was pushing up daisies.

Another way of looking at it is that Dr Semmelweiss just said “wash your hands” which in the context is hardly onerous. Our current “broad scientific consensus” is saying, “completely re-jig the global economy with particular focus on such minor issues as transport, manufacturing, electricity generation and agriculture”.

But then the powers that be in science and technology are not always on the side of the angels. Arthur Eddington was right in appreciating the profundity of the work of a relatively obscure German theoretical physicist. He was subsequently dead wrong in shouting down the work of an even more obscure Indian theoretical physicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who was later made FRS and a Nobel laureate.

And then there is Nikola Tesla. And the war of currents. Tesla invented polyphase power (that’s AC to the arts-educated) and got turned-over by Edison. Edison claimed it was dangerous and filmed the electrocution of an elephant to prove his point. Edison was a ruthless man. Elephants are big and high voltages were new so he also poisioned it just to be sure. He also ripped off Tesla for $50,000 back when that was a lot of money. It left Tesla in a hole quite literally because he had to get a job digging ditches for guess who? If you said The Edison Electric Co. You now have the cigar. Of course DC electrical distribution is bunk and we all know that now and Tesla is rightly lauded as the “Inventor of the Twentieth Century”. He was an absolute genius and raving mad. But I guess 18 months of digging ditches for your arch-rival does that to a chap. He was born on the stroke of midnight during a lightning storm but not even I am that romantic as to suggest that meant anything much. Isaac Newton was born prematurely on Christmas Day and apparently was so small he would fit into a quart pot. His mother subsequently prayed that “Though she loved all her children if God were to take one of them make it sickly little Isaac”. Fortunately God showed better judgement.

These are all fun stories and sort of scientific legends but they do (dimly) illuminate my point. History is made by individuals and without Nik and Isaac I wouldn’t be a blogger. I’d be handing out pamphlets on street-corners. Individual genius made what we are possible. “Broad scientific consensus” has achieved the square root of fuck-all. That’s not to say every maverick and whack-job and wild-eyed loon is a genius but it’s case by case. I have spent enough time in various Physics departments (I love the smell of cyclotrons in the morning) to have seen them queueing up with their perpetual motion machines or God knows what else. And they’re just nuts. Mostly harmless but if you question them further you rapidly find out that they also have absolute proof of the truth of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or that the Queen is actually a reptillian alien from Tau Ceti or that Freemasons run the EU or God knows what else. Seriously. I’m not making this up. I saw ‘em as an undergrad. And yes they had prototype perpetual motion machines which they had built in the shed with stuff bought at Halfords. Invariably they had just retired from something quite high-status but with nothing to do with physics, engineering or indeed anything even vaguely to the porpoise. The receptionists had to let them down gently… Though I would have been harsher, “In this building we obey the laws of Thermodynamics. Now fuck off!” Christ. It was like Dragons Den for the terminally unhinged. You can’t reason with ‘em. You get talking about Gibbsian Ensembles and such and they’re just saying, “Well it needs a bit of work”…

My point is that sometimes mavericks are right (though usually they’re not) and that a scientific consensus is meaningless. We have to appraise everything on it’s merits as science and obviously Tesla’s polyphase power works (otherwise I’d be shivering in the dark right now and this Tosh would be the planet’s most expensive doorstop) and obviously the twinkly old duffers (it’s always blokes) couldn’t demonstrate their perpetual motion devices (always with magnets) to a level that would convince the most lumpen undergrad** because it was drivel.

We either assess science on it’s technical merits as individuals (and consensus be damned) or we risk ending up like Mr Edison’s poor elephant.

*He may have had early onset Alzheimer’s or possibly syphillis which was not uncommon for obstetricians of the time for obvious reasons. Or he might just have had a fucking ‘nough.
**Always with excuses… It worked Tuesday or it needs a bit of tinkering or whatever. Never, “It doesn’t work because it violates a fundamental law of nature worked out by folks I’m not fit to mop the lab floors of”.


  1. RAB says:

    Well of course the story that nails this Scientific Consensus nonsense is

    The one of Einstein being interviewed by a reporter, after the publication of one of his Relativity theories ( dont know which one, Nick will)

    He was asked ( I paraphrase)

    Well many scientists dissagree with your theory.
    How many will it take for you to think that perhaps you are wrong?

    He answered

    Just the one.
    As long as he is right.

    That’s science!

  2. NickM says:

    RAB I think you’re wrong…. I think that’s Eddington. He was interviewed by a journalist who asked, “I heard only three people understand the theory of relativity”. Eddington paused. The journalist asked “why?” and Eddington replied, “Sorry, I was trying to think who the third person might be”. Current thinking is that about 20,000 people have a sound working knowledge of the General Theory of Relativiity. I am one of them. Studied it twice and all. Wrote an MSc on it too.

  3. RAB says:

    HAHAHA HA! (I have just been reading Russell T Davies talking to Caitlin Moran in the Times about what he’s just watched at xmas)
    Well I think YOU are wrong mr Maths and AstroPhysics!!!
    We lowly thick Law Grads may be crap at science, but some of us have very good memories, and that story related to Einstein.
    I aired it over on SI ages ago on some thread, and either Pa Annoyed or VeryRetired backed me up. Both smart fellas, I think you’ll agree.

    Your Eddington story (Nigel?) says something different.
    There are only two smart people in the world,
    and I am one of them!

    That’s ego, not Empiricism.

  4. Screw the concensus, or the lack of one.

    Greenland used to be covered with farms. Whose actions caused the warming that made this possible?
    Then it got cold again, and it’s been that way for about 800 years. Whose fault is it ?
    It may be, or it may not be, getting warm again. If you picture our total time on earth as a single 24-hour day, we’ve only been able to track temperatures of this type for about 15 seconds.

    We don’t have a clue. Not a clue. We should keep asking the questions though, because we don’t have a clue.

    The claims of the fundamentalist foot-washing, snake-handling, Pentecostal Global Warmers are best viewed through a lens of extreme skepticism. We should ask “who stands to make the most money?” “Who will receive more research grants?” “Whose constituents will be paid to manufacture the Magic Machines that will cool the earth’s temperature?”

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