Panhandle Perspectives - Oct. 25, 2016

What is scientific consensus and why is it important?

By Jeff Bradshaw, Associate Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Communicating new information and ideas is critical for the advancement of society. The improvements in people’s lives during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment followed important communication efficiencies enabled by technology and institutions like the printing press and libraries.

Panhandle Perspectives
Jeff Bradshaw

The improved ability to communicate not only brought about advances in science, but also in social institutions like democratic government and the modern university system.

In modern times, information transfer is only limited by the speed of light. Social media networks have enabled mass distribution of information and ideas on a scale once reserved for traditional news media. While this expansion of communication methods has brought many benefits, it has also created some problems – namely, the difficulty of filtering and curating this firehose of information.

As a society, we have chosen to trust in the university as a special place to generate, study, and curate information and forge this information into good ideas that bring knowledge for all of civilization to consider. I take my academic responsibilities seriously and try my best to help curate the parts of the firehose of information that relate to my area of expertise, including information moving through social media channels.

However, curating scientific information can be difficult on a social media platform where a speaker’s popularity, rather than a speaker’s scientific expertise, can determine what information is accepted and propagated.

A recent interaction I had on Twitter left me confused. An individual with over 12,000 followers suggested that there is no place for consensus in science. Really? Was he confusing “consensus” with “compromise”? As I came to understand, this individual and his followers disagreed with an idea on which there is scientific consensus. To argue against this idea, the group equated the scientific “consensus” with “conspiracy.” 

This interaction made me wonder how many people misunderstand how science is conducted and, therefore, mistrust it. I believe many people think about the word “consensus” in a social consensus context, such as when decision-makers gather in a room to talk about ideas and vote on an outcome. A scientific consensus develops in a very different manner, following a set of procedures called the “scientific method,” which has proven to be an incredibly powerful way to figure out how our world works.

The scientific method relies on a series of steps to determine how or why a phenomenon might occur: 1. Observation of a phenomenon, 2. Hypothesis (a tentative description of the observation), 3. Prediction of how or why a phenomenon might occur (based on the hypothesis), 4. Experimentation (to test the validity of the prediction), and 5. Repetition of steps 3 and 4 many, many times until there are no discrepancies between hypothesis and experiment.

Step 5 of the scientific method is what generates scientific consensus. If enough scientists conduct research on a given phenomenon and the hypotheses all support the same idea, scientific consensus (or theory) is established.

However, a scientific consensus is never set in stone. The scientific method enables improvements and advancements by counteracting the human tendency to seek a “final answer” or to stick with what is known or convenient. The scientific method encourages a constant questioning of scientific consensus, but that questioning must meet certain standards.

Ideas that support or weaken a scientific consensus must meet standards of statistical evidence. These standards do vary somewhat by discipline; however, they are all verifiable and objective to each discipline. Modern scientists have agreed to a system of communicating scientific ideas that helps to propagate only those ideas that meet standards of statistical evidence – a filtering system that does not exist in social media. Specifically, ideas must be published in a “peer-reviewed” journal.

This peer-review standard is important because many topics related to science can become polarizing and controversial: for example, climate change, evolution, GMO, pollinator health, and so on. Making public policy decisions based on personal opinions or popularity of an idea rather than on peer-reviewed recommendations of scientific consensus generated by the methods, standards, and review process offered up by the scientific method may generate a result that will be detrimental to the public’s interest in the long run.

In my next Panhandle Perspectives article, I will describe the role of the peer review process in scientific consensus and how it differs from the way in which social media propagates social consensus on scientific issues.