The right to doubt (a tale of three Nobelists)

An excerpt from the book “The pleasure of finding things out” by Richard Feynman (particle physicist, Nobelist and one of the brightest minds of the 20th century):

A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty, that when a statement is made the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. (…) We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.

Historically, authoritarian systems (be they of a religious or secular variety) attacked the right of citizens to doubt the indisputable, official version of the truth. The Earth is the centre of the Universe. Communism is the most advanced socio-political system. There was no room for doubt – those who did not agree were subjected to ridicule, persecution or worse. One would hope that the times of totalitarian control over what we are allowed to doubt are over. But are they?

Consider the theory of anthropogenic global warming. We are repeatedly told that, based on a “consensus” opinion of climate scientists, the facts are beyond doubt. The Earth is warming as a result of human activity and, unless preventive measures are taken, this warming will have catastrophic consequences for mankind. No dissent is tolerated – those who disagree with the consensus view are labelled “deniers”, derided and ostracised. They are the right-wing, backward thinking shills of the fossil fuels industry. Papers have been written on the effective ways to counter the “deniers” arguments:

http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2012/2012EO270007.shtml

How scientific is the idea of a consensus? Here is the perspective offered by another Nobelist, Ivar Giaever, in his letter of resignation from the American Physical Society (bolding original):

Thank you for your letter inquiring about my membership. I did not renew it because I can not live with the statement below:

“Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes. The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”

In the APS it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim (…) is that the temperature has changed from ~288.0 to ~288.8 degree Kelvin in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this ‘warming’ period.

So what is the value of a “consensus” in scientific investigation? In many cases a majority view is more likely to be correct than opinions held by few but the truth is not a matter of opinion polls. Let us have a look at what a third Nobelist, Albert Einstein, had to say about that. After he had left Germany fearing anti-Semitic reprisals his views were attacked by the German physicists subservient to the Nazis as “Jewish science”. They put together a book “A hundred authors against Einstein” which was a politically motivated compilation of misdirected attacks on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Having read the book Einstein commented:

They did not need one hundred authors. If I were wrong, one would be enough.

Consensus is not a scientific concept but rather a political tool. In democracies a majority view is important and, ideally, decisions should be made based on a consensus. In science the validity of a view depends solely on how well it describes reality. The Earth did not care what people (before Copernicus) thought about its position in the Universe. Science and politics are uneasy bed-mates. Politics has its inertia, hence the pressure to suppress challenges to the status quo in the science which the policy decisions are based on.

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