Sunday, April 23, 2017

Consensus Isn't Science

On Saturday, in conjunction with Earth Day, the March for Science was held around the country.

The march was portrayed as a non-partisan but it seems that the only grievances of the marchers were directed at President Donald Trump.

What are their chief gripes?

It seems they are principally upset that Trump is not a blind believer in man-made climate change. In addition, he is proposing cuts to the National Institute of Health's budget and some other research programs funded by the federal government.

I was in Oxford, Ohio on Saturday and happened to come across the March for Science at their political rally on the campus of Miami University. It is probably not surprising that there were a lot of marches on college campuses since any NIH and science research cuts would hurt academia the most.

The March for Science gathers for speeches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio 

Trump is proposing a 18% cut in the NIH budget for next year. To put that in perspective, the NIH spends about $32 billion on various research grants each year. The Trump budget proposes cutting about $6 billion of that total that goes for "indirect" costs for university overhead. It does not propose any cuts for direct research grants for science. It merely wants to cut back the money it is giving colleges and universities that is not going directly to research. Of course, the universities say they need this money for administration of the programs. Can you say bureaucracy?

I recently wrote about the massive subsidies the federal government is providing to the Ivy League in my blog post, "Higher Cost Education". The NIH grants are part of what I was referring to and it is not chump change.

  • The eight Ivy League universities actually derived more in revenues from the federal government through government contracts and grants ($25.27 billion) than in supporting their educational mission ($22 billion in student tuition) for the fiscal years 2010-2015.
  • The eight Ivy League colleges actually receive more money annually from the federal government than do 16 states!

The first question you need to ask is whether this is a March for Money rather than a March for Science on those college campuses?

It might also be worth remembering that the projected federal budget deficit for the current year is $559 billion. If we are to ever get the federal budget under control where are the savings supposed to come from? For some additional context here is a chart that shows federal spending on research from 1970-2016 in constant dollars

I have written about the climate change issue many times over the years. I wrote the following in 2011 in one of my first blog posts and it still summarizes my views on the issue. You can read some other posts that I wrote on the subject here, here and here.

I am not a climatologist or meteorologist. However, I consider myself a practical thinker who makes decisions by looking at facts. I have also learned that it is always important to look beyond the "facts".  How are the facts packaged and what is the motivation of the messenger?
Over the years, I have listened to the claims about human created global warming. Without even spending a lot of time on the science, these claims never seemed to make sense to me.  The planet is known to have warmed and cooled over the years.  Even if the data shows it is warming, how do we know it is caused by man when you look at past history?  We know there was an ice age.  We also know the ice melted.  How did it ice up? How did the ice melt?
I can't help but be a little skeptical when I also see the changing explanations about the climate.  In fact, it does not even seem to be global warming we are worried about any more, it is climate change. We also heard a few years ago that we would see far less snow because of global warming. When we got more snow, we were then told this was also caused by the warming. 
It is all very confusing for something that is supposed to be so settled in science. I also remember in the late 1970's and 1980's all of the talk from scientists was concern that the planet was cooling.  What happened?  That was only a few short years ago- a speck of time in the history of the earth.

When it comes to settled science, there is no doubt that we have climate change. It changes every hour, every day and every year. It has changed over the centuries.

The question is not whether it is changing but whether man is impacting that change and, even if that is the case, whether we can even do anything about it?

Whenever we hear about the "science" of human related climate change there is nothing "settled" about it. That is why we hear that this view is supported by the "consensus" of scientists.

Of course, "consensus" is not the same as facts. And consensus is not a scientific fact. A scientific fact is the law of gravity, the boiling point of water or the distance to the moon. 


Prior to the 15th century, the consensus of scientists was that the earth was the center of the universe.

In the 18th century, the consensus of medical scientists was that blood letting was the best method to cure illness.

As recently as 25 years ago the consensus was that peptic ulcers were caused by stress. We now know it is caused by bacteria.

I could go on and on. In fact, in most cases like these, the consensus of scientists was proven wrong by one person who did not believe the consensus and proved it wrong.

All of this "consensus" of science talk reminded me of a speech that the late Michael Crichton gave at Caltech (if there was ever a center for science that is it) in 2003 titled "Aliens Cause Global Warming". Don't the charts below show that has to be true?


Of course, Crichton's entire purpose in the speech with that outrageous title was to call attention to the "increasingly uneasy relationship between hard science and public policy." There is no better evidence of that than in the March for Science. This march had nothing to do with science per se. It had much to to do with public policy. More importantly, it was about money. It almost always is.

Consider a few of the observations that Crichton made about the subject of consensus science.

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.

It is advice worth remembering especially to those who are among are our best and brightest who seem to be letting their emotions overrule the more logical parts of their brains.

Of course, it is easy to do. All the more so when gigantic sums of money are involved.

In one of my earlier posts on the subject of climate change, I cited the fact that since 1993 over $193 billion had been spent by the federal government on research on the subject. I pointed out that if there is that much money in play for academics, researchers and climatologists into proving global warming, how much effort is going into looking at data that might be contradictory to that conclusion? 

Indeed. Consensus isn't about science. However, the scientists that marched on Saturday seem to want us to believe it is. And at its core the consensus they are trying to promote is for us to keep spending our tax dollars on their research projects---whether it is science or not.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
                                                                     -Upton Sinclair

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