Philosophy:Scientific consensus

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Short description: Collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists

Scientific consensus is the generally held judgment, position, and opinion of the majority or the supermajority of scientists in a particular field of study at any particular time.[1][2]

Consensus is achieved through scholarly communication at conferences, the publication process, replication of reproducible results by others, scholarly debate,[3][4][5][6] and peer review. A conference meant to create a consensus is termed as a consensus conference.[7][8][9] Such measures lead to a situation in which those within the discipline can often recognize such a consensus where it exists; however, communicating to outsiders that consensus has been reached can be difficult, because the "normal" debates through which science progresses may appear to outsiders as contestation.[10] On occasion, scientific institutes issue position statements intended to communicate a summary of the science from the "inside" to the "outside" of the scientific community, or consensus review articles[11] or surveys[12] may be published. In cases where there is little controversy regarding the subject under study, establishing the consensus can be quite straightforward.

Popular or political debate on subjects that are controversial within the public sphere but not necessarily controversial within the scientific community may invoke scientific consensus: note such topics as evolution,[13][14] climate change,[15] the safety of genetically modified organisms,[16] or the lack of a link between MMR vaccinations and autism.[10]

Change of consensus over time

There are many philosophical and historical theories as to how scientific consensus changes over time. Because the history of scientific change is extremely complicated, and because there is a tendency to project "winners" and "losers" onto the past in relation to the current scientific consensus, it is very difficult to come up with accurate and rigorous models for scientific change.[17] This is made exceedingly difficult also in part because each of the various branches of science functions in somewhat different ways with different forms of evidence and experimental approaches.[18][19]

Most models of scientific change rely on new data produced by scientific experiment. Karl Popper proposed that since no amount of experiments could ever prove a scientific theory, but a single experiment could disprove one, science should be based on falsification.[20] Whilst this forms a logical theory for science, it is in a sense "timeless" and does not necessarily reflect a view on how science should progress over time.

Among the most influential challengers of this approach was Thomas Kuhn, who argued instead that experimental data always provide some data which cannot fit completely into a theory, and that falsification alone did not result in scientific change or an undermining of scientific consensus. He proposed that scientific consensus worked in the form of "paradigms", which were interconnected theories and underlying assumptions about the nature of the theory itself which connected various researchers in a given field. Kuhn argued that only after the accumulation of many "significant" anomalies would scientific consensus enter a period of "crisis". At this point, new theories would be sought out, and eventually one paradigm would triumph over the old one – a series of paradigm shifts rather than a linear progression towards truth. Kuhn's model also emphasized more clearly the social and personal aspects of theory change, demonstrating through historical examples that scientific consensus was never truly a matter of pure logic or pure facts.[21] However, these periods of 'normal' and 'crisis' science are not mutually exclusive. Research shows that these are different modes of practice, more than different historical periods.[10]

Perception and public opinion

The public substantially underestimates the degree of scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change.[22] Studies from 2019 to 2021[23][24][25] found scientific consensus to range from 98.7 to 100%.

Perception of whether a scientific consensus exists on a given issue, and how strong that conception is, has been described as a "gateway belief" upon which other beliefs and then action are based.[26]

Politicization of science

In public policy debates, the assertion that there exists a consensus of scientists in a particular field is often used as an argument for the validity of a theory and as support for a course of action by those who stand to gain from a policy based on that consensus. Similarly arguments for a lack of scientific consensus are often encouraged by sides who stand to gain from a more ambiguous policy.[citation needed]

For example, the scientific consensus on the causes of global warming is that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused primarily by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.[27][28][29] The historian of science Naomi Oreskes published an article in Science reporting that a survey of the abstracts of 928 science articles published between 1993 and 2003 showed none which disagreed explicitly with the notion of anthropogenic global warming.[27] In an editorial published in The Washington Post , Oreskes stated that those who opposed these scientific findings are amplifying the normal range of scientific uncertainty about any facts into an appearance that there is a great scientific disagreement, or a lack of scientific consensus.[30] Oreskes's findings were replicated by other methods that require no interpretation.[10]

The theory of evolution through natural selection is also supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus; it is one of the most reliable and empirically tested theories in science.[31][32] Opponents of evolution claim that there is significant dissent on evolution within the scientific community.[33] The wedge strategy, a plan to promote intelligent design, depended greatly on seeding and building on public perceptions of absence of consensus on evolution.[34]

The inherent uncertainty in science, where theories are never proven but can only be disproven (see falsifiability), poses a problem for politicians, policymakers, lawyers, and business professionals. Where scientific or philosophical questions can often languish in uncertainty for decades within their disciplinary settings, policymakers are faced with the problems of making sound decisions based on the currently available data, even if it is likely not a final form of the "truth". The tricky part is discerning what is close enough to "final truth". For example, social action against smoking probably came too long after science was 'pretty consensual'.[10]

Certain domains, such as the approval of certain technologies for public consumption, can have vast and far-reaching political, economic, and human effects should things run awry with the predictions of scientists. However, insofar as there is an expectation that policy in a given field reflect knowable and pertinent data and well-accepted models of the relationships between observable phenomena, there is little good alternative for policy makers than to rely on so much of what may fairly be called 'the scientific consensus' in guiding policy design and implementation, at least in circumstances where the need for policy intervention is compelling. While science cannot supply 'absolute truth' (or even its complement 'absolute error') its utility is bound up with the capacity to guide policy in the direction of increased public good and away from public harm. Seen in this way, the demand that policy rely only on what is proven to be "scientific truth" would be a prescription for policy paralysis and amount in practice to advocacy of acceptance of all of the quantified and unquantified costs and risks associated with policy inaction.[10]

No part of policy formation on the basis of the ostensible scientific consensus precludes persistent review either of the relevant scientific consensus or the tangible results of policy. Indeed, the same reasons that drove reliance upon the consensus drives the continued evaluation of this reliance over time – and adjusting policy as needed.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Ordway, Denise-Marie (2021-11-23). "Covering scientific consensus: What to avoid and how to get it right" (in en-US). 
  2. "Scientific Consensus". Green Facts. 
  3. Laudan, Larry (1984). Science and Values: The Aims of Science and Their Role in Scientific Debate. London, England, UK: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05267-6. 
  4. Ford, Michael (2008). "Disciplinary authority and accountability in scientific practice and learning". Science Education 92 (3): 409. doi:10.1002/sce.20263. Bibcode2008SciEd..92..404F. "Construction of scientific knowledge is first of all public, a collaborative effort among a community of peers working in a particular area. 'Collaborative' may seem a misnomer because individual scientists compete with each other in their debates about new knowledge claims. Yet this sense of collaboration is important: it checks individual scientists from being given authority for new knowledge claims prematurely.". 
  5. Webster, Gregory D. (2009). "The person-situation interaction is increasingly outpacing the person-situation debate in the scientific literature: A 30-year analysis of publication trends, 1978-2007". Journal of Research in Personality 43 (2): 278–279. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2008.12.030. 
  6. Horstmann, K. T., & Ziegler, M. (2016). Situational Perception: Its Theoretical Foundation, Assessment, and Links to Personality. In U. Kumar (Ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Personality Assessment (1st ed., pp. 31–43). Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. ("In Personality Assessment, Walter Mischel focused on the instability of personality and claimed that it is nearly impossible to predict behavior with personality (Mischel, 1968, 2009). This led to the person-situation debate, a controversy in psychology that sought to answer the question whether behavior depended more on the subject's personality or the situation (or both) and has received considerable research attention (Webster, 2009).")
  7. Przepiorka, D.; Weisdorf, D.; Martin, P.; Klingemann, H. G.; Beatty, P.; Hows, J.; Thomas, E. D. (June 1995). "1994 Consensus Conference on Acute GVHD Grading". Bone Marrow Transplantation 15 (6): 825–828. ISSN 0268-3369. PMID 7581076. 
  8. Jennette, J. C.; Falk, R. J.; Bacon, P. A.; Basu, N.; Cid, M. C.; Ferrario, F.; Flores-Suarez, L. F.; Gross, W. L. et al. (2013). "2012 revised International Chapel Hill Consensus Conference Nomenclature of Vasculitides." (in en). Arthritis and Rheumatism 65 (1): 1–11. doi:10.1002/art.37715. ISSN 0004-3591. PMID 23045170. 
  9. Antzelevitch, Charles; Brugada, Pedro; Borggrefe, Martin; Brugada, Josep; Brugada, Ramon; Corrado, Domenico; Gussak, Ihor; LeMarec, Herve et al. (8 February 2005). "Brugada syndrome: report of the second consensus conference: endorsed by the Heart Rhythm Society and the European Heart Rhythm Association". Circulation 111 (5): 659–670. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.0000152479.54298.51. ISSN 1524-4539. PMID 15655131. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Shwed Uri; Peter Bearman (December 2010). "The Temporal Structure of Scientific Consensus Formation". American Sociological Review 75 (6): 817–40. doi:10.1177/0003122410388488. PMID 21886269. 
  11. Anderegg, William R. L.; Prall, James W.; Harold, Jacob; Schneider, Stephen H. (2010-06-07). "Expert credibility in climate change" (in en). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (27): 12107–12109. doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107. ISSN 0027-8424. PMID 20566872. Bibcode2010PNAS..10712107A. 
  12. Cook, John; Oreskes, Naomi; Doran, Peter T.; Anderegg, William R. L.; Verheggen, Bart; Maibach, Ed W.; Carlton, J. Stuart; Lewandowsky, Stephan et al. (April 2016). "Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming" (in en). Environmental Research Letters 11 (4): 048002. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002. ISSN 1748-9326. Bibcode2016ERL....11d8002C. 
  13. "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2006-02-16. 
  14. "NSTA Position Statement: The Teaching of Evolution". National Science Teacher Association. 
  15. "Joint Science Academies' Statement"
  16. Nicolia, Allesandro; Manzo, Alberto; Veronesi, Fabio; Rosellini, Daniele (2013). "An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research". Critical Reviews in Biotechnology 34 (1): 77–88. doi:10.3109/07388551.2013.823595. PMID 24041244. 
  17. Pickering, Andrew (1995). The Mangle of Practice. IL: Chicago University Press. ISBN 978-0-226-66802-4. 
  18. (in en) "Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process: Volume I". 1992. doi:10.17226/1864. ISBN 978-0-309-04731-9. 
  19. Kerr, John R.; Wilson, Marc Stewart (2018-07-06). "Changes in perceived scientific consensus shift beliefs about climate change and GM food safety" (in en). PLOS ONE 13 (7): e0200295. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200295. ISSN 1932-6203. PMID 29979762. Bibcode2018PLoSO..1300295K. 
  20. Popper, Karl Raimund (1934). The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2002 ed.). New York: Routledge Classics. ISBN 978-0-415-27844-7.  Originally published in German as Logik der Forschung: zur Erkenntnistheorie der modenen Naturwissenschaft. Schriften zur Wissenschaftlichen Weltauffassung. Vienna: Springer. 1935. OCLC 220936200. 
  21. Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996 ed.). University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-45808-3. 
  22. "Public perceptions on climate change". June 2022. p. 4. 
  23. Powell, James (20 November 2019). "Scientists Reach 100% Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming". Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 37 (4): 183–184. doi:10.1177/0270467619886266. 
  24. Lynas, Mark; Houlton, Benjamin Z.; Perry, Simon (19 October 2021). "Greater than 99% consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature". Environmental Research Letters 16 (11): 114005. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac2966. Bibcode2021ERL....16k4005L. 
  25. Myers, Krista F.; Doran, Peter T.; Cook, John; Kotcher, John E.; Myers, Teresa A. (20 October 2021). "Consensus revisited: quantifying scientific agreement on climate change and climate expertise among Earth scientists 10 years later". Environmental Research Letters 16 (10): 104030. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac2774. Bibcode2021ERL....16j4030M. 
  26. "Scientists are from Mars, Laypeople are from Venus: An Evidence-Based Rationale for Communicating the Consensus on Climate". Reports of the National Center for Science Education 34 (6). November–December 2014. Retrieved 2018-04-12. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 Oreskes, Naomi (December 2004). "Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change". Science 306 (5702): 1686. doi:10.1126/science.1103618. PMID 15576594. 
  28. Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. 2010. doi:10.17226/12782. ISBN 978-0-309-14588-6. 
  29. "Understanding and Responding to Climate Change". United States National Academy of Sciences. 2008. 
  30. Oreskes, Naomi. "Undeniable Global Warming". The Washington Post. 
  31. National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine (2008). Science, Evolution, and Creationism. 105. National Academy Press. 3–4. doi:10.17226/11876. ISBN 978-0-309-10586-6. 
  32. "That this controversy is one largely manufactured by the proponents of creationism and intelligent design may not matter, and as long as the controversy is taught in classes on current affairs, politics, or religion, and not in science classes, neither scientists nor citizens should be concerned." Intelligent Judging – Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom George J. Annas, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354:2277–81 May 25, 2006
  33. Gould, Stephen Jay. "Evolution as Fact and Theory".  in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994: 253–62.
  34. "The Wedge Document" Discovery Institute, 1999.