Monday, April 24, 2017

Scientific Consensus


I recently saw a video of Senator Bernie Sanders grilling Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the post of director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout his seven minutes Sanders repeatedly demanded that Pruitt affirm that 97% of scientists believe that global warming is a grave threat to the planet; that it is caused by human activity; and that the government must take steps to shut down the use of fossil fuels. Of course, Sanders jumped in and interrupted every attempt by Pruitt to answer his questions. He ended by saying that he could not vote to confirm him, as if there was ever any doubt.

To be fair I must say that Sanders qualified his question by adding that the 97% figure referred to the percentage of peer-reviewed papers that had appeared in climate change journals and other similar publications. I think that this qualifier is overlooked when most people consider the question of scholarly or scientific consensus. I can certainly believe that 97% of these peer-reviewed papers support the human responsibility for global warming. What is hard to believe is that 3% of the papers were able to sneak their way through the peer-review process and cast doubt on the hypothesis.

My own experience makes me skeptical about the whole peer-review process. For years I have subscribed to a couple of scholarly journals on the Renaissance. Inevitably, they feature articles or book reviews on Shakespeare. Never have I seen one that would even hint that the great plays and poems might have been written by a man of much greater education and life experience than the man from Stratford on Avon.

Great writers like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Henry James raised the question in the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud shared the view that someone else was the author as did Shakespearean actors like Orson Welles and Derek Jacobi. Dozens of books on the authorship question have appeared in the past few years but most go unmentioned in the peer-reviewed journals.

My own experience in the field of Renaissance art history has also made me question the peer-review process. In the past dozen years, I have been able to arrive at plausible interpretations of some of the most well-known but most mysterious paintings of the Renaissance. I have done the research, written up my findings but found that the peer-review process is a closed shop, only open to peers. Necessity made me turn to the web and in 2010 I put my interpretations on a website and also created a blog, Giorgione et al..., to explore the subject further.

Scholars often urge their students to “think outside the box” but rarely follow their own advice. Although their politics may be liberal and even radical, they tend to be conservative when it comes to their own subject. Graduate students have to be aware of the danger of criticizing their mentors. Professors must still publish to keep their jobs, advance their careers, or gain grant monies. It is very difficult to challenge the traditional wisdom or orthodoxy.  As one art historian wrote,
“To do so would be to question the competence of most of those who have written on the subject, and this is something that no one…wants to do…the longer those views have gone unchallenged the greater the authority that they have acquired.”
Galileo is a hero to so-called “freethinkers” but in his time, he stood virtually alone against all the professional scientists and mathematicians of his time who dominated the institutions of higher learning. He used a primitive telescope to destroy the elaborate system accepted by more that 97% of the leading experts. Oddly enough, a few Jesuit astronomers were among his few early supporters.

Climate change has become like a new religion and its priests can be found in the scientific establishment. Their devoted followers march in street processions to proclaim their beliefs and attack heretics. For them the issue is settled and no further debate is necessary. What are they and Bernie Sanders afraid of? Why did he find it necessary to interrupt and ignore any attempt on the part of Scott Pruitt to reply?


1 comment:

  1. David comments from England,
    As far as climate change goes, I have no idea who is correct on this. But on the broader point, I’m in agreement with you. Supposed ‘experts’ should rarely be trusted. There as so many areas where these experts pronounce – medicine, education, city planning are just a few – and after a period of time is quite clear that they were entirely wrong. A few years ago, the government here promoted diesel vehicles, claiming they were much better for the environment. Now they have worked out what they are doing to air quality and are desperately back-peddling. Twenty years ago ‘low fat’ was all the rage – eventually, it was realised that these processed low fat foods were stuffed with sugar instead, which was far worse. As far as science goes, many of the greatest discoveries have been discovered by outsiders, often hated by the establishment – which is why I enjoy the work of Rupert Sheldrake. The same certainly applies to art history.
    A highly intelligent young man we know gained a first at university and was tempted to climb the academic ladder, aiming for a PhD. He discovered how restrictive it was – the university department virtually dictated what his field of study should be, one that would bring credit to the department. Leaps of imagination and originality were not what was wanted. Toe the line or you are out.