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Author Topic:   The Nature of What We Know Scientifically
Posts: 18309
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 2.7

Message 1 of 4 (412125)
07-23-2007 8:51 PM

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast for June 14th, 2006, contains one of the best explanations of the nature of scientific knowledge I have ever heard, and most incredible of all, it was offered off the cuff.

Stephen Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society and an academic at Yale, first reads this email question from a listener concerning the previous weeks episode that included a short discussion of global warming:

Stephen Novella reading an email from Mark Goddard writes:

I would like to inform Mr. Novella that consensus is not a scientific term. He should make his decisions based upon evidence rather than basing them on a consensus. I thought that that's what skeptics were supposed to do.

It would also serve Mr. Novella well to reacquaint himself with his list of logical fallacies. His argument for the existence and seriousness of anthropogenic global warming is clearly relying upon the argument from authority. He believes in global warming because there is a consensus. Real skeptics follow the evidence. I suggest Stephen do some actual research before reaching a conclusion, and if he finds some evidence to support his predetermined conclusion then he should discuss that on the show. Evidence for or against the idea of global warming should be more information than a broken record repetition of consensus, consensus, consensus.

Stephen Novella then responds extemporaneously to Mark Goddard, and it's a lollapalooza, a home run!

Stephen Novella responds to the email writes:

Well, thanks for writing the email, Mark, we appreciate the question, the feedback. And this is an excellent topic because we deal with this issue quite a bit, and it really gets to the heart of scientific skepticism.

I do think that there is a difference between the argument from authority and having an appropriate level of respect for a consensus of scientific opinion, because honestly, most of us, all we have in the areas outside of whatever our area of narrow expertise, and if you're not a working scientist that's all areas of science, is a distillation from the consensus of scientific opinion.

I think that if you think that your own personal reading of the evidence supersedes that, that is incredibly arrogant. And actually, at the same time, it's naive. It really means that you don't understand the gulf that exists between the amount of information that we have as lay people versus the amount of information that scientists at the cutting edge of any discipline have.

So, to look at this another way, when I am conveying a consensus of scientific opinion, I'm not saying this claim is true because there is a consensus. I'm saying there's a consensus because it's probably true. And the reason why I can say that, my premise to this, is that if you have a mature scientific discipline where there has been decades of robust, transparent, open debate about an issue, a specific question or a specific scientific discipline, and a fairly solid consensus emerges from the evidence and the research and the debate, that consensus is very highly reliable. It's not necessarily true, it can be wrong. Science is always tentative and contingent and is amenable to revision if new evidence or new ways of thinking about things comes to light, but we can rely to some degree upon a hard-earned robust consensus of scientific opinion. At the very least, if you disagree with that consensus, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. And dismissing it as an argument from authority is not appropriate, and that is an actual abuse of that logical fallacy.

I do think that where people get into trouble with the argument from authority is investing authority in an individual scientist. Any individual can be biased, quirky, can just be wrong, for whatever reason, but when you have a community of scientists hammering out the issues over a long period of time there is some legitimate authority that you can invest in that.

Interjection from one of the other panelists: So in other words, the consensus here is that this guy's a jerk?

No, this is a very common misunderstanding about the argument from authority. But again, if you do take it to that extreme, to say that basically you can never refer to the scientific community, the opinion of either the scientific community as a whole or specific organizations that have panels of experts that have reviewed the evidence and come to consensus opinion, if you just routinely dismiss all of those then what do we have, again, to rely upon? Again, it's arrogant to think that as a layperson who hasn't spent a career studying this data, who isn't intimately familiar with the technical literature, that your opinion can somehow supersede those who have and are.

The website is http://www.theskepticsguide.org/, the podcast is from June 14th, 2006, and this segment begins at 17:20.

I'd like to propose this for the Is It Science? forum in case anyone would like to take issue.


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Message 2 of 4 (412126)
07-23-2007 8:58 PM

Thread moved here from the Proposed New Topics forum.
Member (Idle past 2657 days)
Posts: 418
From: Belgium
Joined: 08-08-2005

Message 3 of 4 (424214)
09-26-2007 9:16 AM

Steven Novella
Steven Novella is quite something. People should really check out his Blog, Neurologica (http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php, plus check out the link to older archives going a year back or so)

I've been reading skeptical resources on the web for several years now, but Novella is THE absolute master in bringing the scientific and skeptical mindset to the layman/woman. Nearly each of his Blog posts is a little jewel. Comprehensive, well thought-out and structured, intellectually honest, calm and composed, sharp... It's intellectual doping, lol. He makes so much sense that it's almost scary. The kind of guy you want to have on your side in a debate (if you're on the side of truth, that is).

Don't miss it.

Replies to this message:
 Message 4 by Percy, posted 09-26-2007 10:36 AM Annafan has not yet responded

Posts: 18309
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 2.7

Message 4 of 4 (424234)
09-26-2007 10:36 AM
Reply to: Message 3 by Annafan
09-26-2007 9:16 AM

Re: Steven Novella
Steven Novella can only be described as a genius/savant for the layperson. There seems no subject he is not familiar with. No one should miss anything he writes or says, so I will also highly recommend his podcasts at the The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, also available through iTunes.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 3 by Annafan, posted 09-26-2007 9:16 AM Annafan has not yet responded

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