Is the scientific consensus ever wrong?

Ok obviously the answer is yes. Allow me to clarify.

One of the common arguments made by ID fanatics is that the scientific community is entrenched to the point that ideas contrary to the prevailing consensus cannot penetrate the discourse. Some ID proponents take the stronger position that scientists are predisposed to take active steps against evidence that God might exist or that evolution might be wrong.

Are there historical examples of this kind of thing? Can you think of any theories of the 20th century that were met with hostility only to prove correct? How do such examples reflect on the ID controversy?

Posted: April 24th 2008

Dave Hitt www

Of course, and other posts show several examples.

But science is based on facts and evidence, not consensus. If the consensus is A is caused by B, but in reality A is caused by C, then the consensus is wrong. All it takes is one scientist (let’s call him Willy) to find new evidence that proves that A is not caused by B, but by C, and the consensus will change to reflect the facts.

It won’t happen immediately. There will be debates and arguments and tests and tests and more tests, but when the evidence shows that Willy is right and the previous idea was wrong, the entire scientific community will rapidly adopt this new way of thinking. And Willy, having survived the trial by fire, will be famous and respected. The entire process will only take a few years.

Compare that to religion, which rabidly fights off new ideas and clings to old, outdated ideas no matter how many facts prove they’re wrong.

This malleability of science is sometimes used by the dogmatic to argue that science is weak and untrustworthy. The opposite is true – the ability of science to change in the light of new facts and evidence is one of its greatest strengths. It is the reason science provides us with the most accurate view of reality, a view that is in line with real, tested, proven facts.

Posted: September 16th 2008

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Quantum mechanics is a good example.

All of physics up until that time had been very hard and deterministic – you had a formula, you put in a number, and you got an answer. Physicists liked it, because it made sense to them.

Planck and Einstein came along and came up with the concept of “quanta” and the photon, which was a very different concept that fit the data very well.

Then around 1924 de Broglie put forward a theory that particles are waves and waves are particles, and all hell broke loose. We got Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the bizarre double-slit experiment.

Einstein himself was quite skeptical of the uncertainty principle, leading to his statement that “god does not play dice with the universe” as a comment on the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics.

So far, however, quantum mechanics remains the only game in town, and we haven’t found an underlying theory that doesn’t feature the probabilistic nature.

And if anything, quantum mechanics has only gotten weirder. The late Richard Feynman said, “I think it’s safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics”.

Posted: May 1st 2008

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SmartLX www

The Big Bang theory is an obvious one.

The accepted state of affairs at the turn of the 20th century was a “steady state” universe; one that essentially just sat in place forever, and had always done. When Einstein’s calculations suggested an expanding universe, he himself was so averse to the idea that he introduced an arbitrary factor to his equations, the cosmological constant, to balance it out. He later said it was his greatest blunder.

Nobody was terribly fond of the idea that the universe was expanding, for the same reason the idea that the earth was moving around the Sun was unpopular. It shook people’s perceived place in the universe, and made them feel unsteady in a sense.

So the Big Bang theory (the natural beginning of the expansion) had to fight for almost the whole century to gain acceptance. It was the discovery of cosmic background radiation and Stephen Hawking’s work which solidified its position at last. Observational evidence was the key at every stage after the initial mathematics had been done.

Don’t think for a second that Intelligent Design proponents are prevented from sharing their views or evidence. They’ve got a million different outlets: books, flyers, public access television, lectures, films, word of mouth and of course the internet. But to be taught as science, ID must be accepted by the scientific community as science. Every scientific theory had to achieve that. (Evolution took decades to get into schoolbooks.) ID isn’t even a theory, it’s a hypothesis, but if its proponents claim it’s a scientific theory then they should accept that it needs to be established over its rivals before it’s taught along with or instead of them.

Posted: April 30th 2008

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flagellant www

There is a very good example of how the scientific/medical consensus was wrong but, it is arguable, that is because the established view was not soundly evidence-based. I am thinking of the matter of stomach ulcers.

It used to be thought that stomach ulcers should be treated by eating a bland diet. This was a consequence of the theory that fried and spicy foods stirred up excess stomach acid; this then ate holes in the walls of the stomach and duodenum. (This is very occasionally true, but not in the majority of cases, as we shall see.)

In keeping with this theory, it was also supposed that the stomach was such an alien environment for bacteria that there was no chance of an infection being responsible. Indeed, so prevalent was this view that some instruments used for stomach operations were never sterilized.

However, in 1983, Australian gastroenterologist Barry Marshall, and pathologist J. Robbin Warren proposed their theory for the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers. This view was not entirely unreasonable because similar bacterial effects in the stomachs of pigs had been noticed some thirty years earlier. However, their ideas were so radical, and up against well-entrenched orthodoxy, that they were not readily accepted.

Marshall therefore infected his own stomach with the relevant acid-tolerant bacterium – Helicobacter pylori – and made sure that his condition was diagnosed accurately. He then proceeded to cure himself with doses of antibiotics.

Faced with his evidence, the sceptics were forced to reconsider.
The overall result is that now many stomach ulcers are successfully treated very simply with common antibiotics.
The lesson from this story is that evidence is critical.

The evidence in favour of evolution is massive, generally consistent, and growing; there is no evidence in favour of ID (NB: there is no controversy – ID is just rubbish). Whenever ID comes up against serious argument (e.g. in Dover, Pennsylvania ), it gets thoroughly trashed.

The strength of science is that it changes its mind in the face of evidence. The weakness of ID is that it does no such thing.

Deservedly, Marshal & Warren won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005 for their ulcer work.

Posted: April 30th 2008

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