Monday, March 13, 2017

Consensus - the underbelly of science.


"If it's consensus, .. then it is not science. .. " 

"Geology is becoming like a puffball; the core of the science is rotting out inside a thin hard shell of the avant-garde and fringe.  There is more than one Professor of Geology who has never made a geologic map, looked down a microscope, or studied rocks, minerals, fossils, or seismic sections, or logged a core. Classic field-based observational geology is being squeezed out. Microscopy and optical mineralogy are being phased out and students are not taught to map properly and make field observations. How can one do serious petrology without optical mineralogy? The Universal Stage is a powerful tool in petrography yet is now scarcely taught or used. Whole departments are ignoring the fundamentals, and undergraduates who want to study geology are being cheated. The future of geology is now at serious risk because the young are not being properly trained in the basics, especially in the field. Francis Pettijohn said "The field is where the truth resides; rocks do not lie, and there is nothing as sobering as an outcrop." Field geology can be intellectually and physically very demanding, sometimes hot and sweaty or freezing and wet but without it, a resulting  map, and observations of rocks, minerals and fossils, nothing much useful can be done.

"To the young, I say "take up the challenge to preserve geology and our universities if you care about them." You have the power through your faculty senate, to take charge. Don't get sucked into the system; remain uncorrupted but remember, ...the ruling clique in the funding system and administrations may try to get you through funding, tenure, and promotion. Your university does not care about scholarship and what research you are doing; they are concerned mainly with the overhead, the number of papers that you have published in refereed journals, and external recognition through medals, awards, and prizes. Your promotion and tenure depend upon these factors while only scant regard is paid to university service, teaching, and serious scholarship."    http://rock.geosociety.org/sgt/2006_Career_Award_Dewey.pdf

("Puff-ball"?   Read more by John Dewey.)
(Make sure you get down to the bit about University slush funds,)

On the face of it one could be forgiven for thinking that consensus is a good thing.  If after all it is what everyone thinks, then surely it must be right - or largely so.  However the above commentary from John Dewey (a dyed-in-the-wool Plate Tectonics advocate) as he retires from the academic profession implies a less than commendable picture of consensus, one that is far from 'scientific'.

 It is false to think that consensus necessarily represents what is true, it merely reflects what is used - just as elite dictionaries state that their purpose is not to lay down any correctness of meaning, but simply meaning as it is used.  And often what is used as a consensus is quite far from what is correct.  Nor is there necessarily any heroic intention to be correct, in fact anyone pursuing correctness in science gets very short shrift if it goes against the popular consensus.

(Sam Carey) : "Through the 30s and 40s and 50s if you dared to propose this sort of thing [mobility of continents = continental drift = Plate Tectonics]  in America you'd be laughed at, you're a ratbag flat-earther. And there was no chance of getting a job if you had that kind of idea."  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2002/526793.htm    and click 'show transcript'

It is far more important to the career scientist to be published (and therefore have career options) than it is to assert personal views about what is or is not properly correct.   The career scientist does not hold views about what is correct.  His concept of correctness is far more likely to be coloured by expediency than it is by any commitment to 'the truth'.

"..So I appeal to all of you, as judges at all levels, from what you and others write to whom you support or hire or promote, to recognize that consensus may not define truth. Changes as profound as plate tectonics, and as unanticipated by the majority, likely lie ahead."
(W.B. Hamilton)  ... ?speech>

His interest is career and that means publishing, and publication is most assured by going with the flow of consensus.  If a researcher does have a view about what is correct, and this aligns with consensus then fine, and even better if it returns emotional reward, ..but if his view conflicts with the general consensus then no matter what emotional investment he may have made, or determination he may have to express truth, virtually by definition he does not have a career.  He may have the conviction of 'truth', but the trade-off is antagonistic peer review and either a crippled career or none at all - on a sliding scale according to his degree of dissent.

So who then sets the agenda of consensus?  All other things being equal those who publish most are in the strongest position to win the most prestigious places, and those who publish most do so by remaining within the established consensus position, not through dissecting the roots of consensus and risking controversy in some heroic pursuit of truth.  Controversy implies peer refusal at least fifty per cent of the time and therefore invites a serious reduction in publication rate, ..a severe handicap to any career scientist.   Lowering the bar includes others, but the top layer of consensus amounts to very few people in very few institutions setting the consensus agenda, which others are encouraged to follow (if they know which side their bread is buttered).

Consensus therefore becomes amplified by feedback, generating ever more focus in the interest of those who set the agenda - not through any conviction or substantiation of veracity, but simply because it is consensus.  In the end consensus becomes a solid bastion from which many feed, with the actual science its least (/lesser) consideration.  Whoever - or whichever university - controls consensus, sets the bar for the enterprise.

"Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has said that "The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, naccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong." [11]   ?snip>...

" .....Some sociologists of science argue that peer review makes the ability to publish susceptible to control by elites and to personal jealousy.[12] The peer review process may suppress dissent against "mainstream" theories.[13][14][15] Reviewers tend to be especially critical of conclusions that contradict their own views, and lenient towards those that accord with them. At the same time, elite scientists are more likely than less established ones to be sought out as referees, particularly by high-prestige journals or publishers. As a result, it has been argued, ideas that harmonize with the elite's are more likely to see print and to appear in premier journals than are iconoclastic or revolutionary ones, which accords with Thomas Kuhn's well-known observations regarding scientific revolutions.[16]

"Others have pointed out that there is a very large number of scientific journals in which one can publish, making total control of information difficult. In addition, the decision-making process of peer review, in which each referee gives their opinion separately and without consultation with the other referees, is intended to mitigate some of these problems. Some have suggested that:  "... peer review does not thwart new ideas. Journal editors and the 'scientific establishment' are not hostile to new discoveries. Science thrives on discovery and scientific journals compete to publish new breakthroughs."[17]

"Nonetheless, while it is generally possible to publish results somewhere, in order for scientists in many fields to attract and maintain funding it is necessary to publish in prestigious journals. Such journals are generally identified by their impact factor.  The small number of high-impact journals is susceptible to control by an elite group of anonymous reviewers.[citation needed] Results published in low-impact journals are usually ignored by most scientists in any field. This has led to calls for the removal of reviewer anonymity (especially at high-impact journals) and for the introduction of author anonymity (so that reviewers cannot tell whether the author is a member of any elite).[citation needed]
See article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review#Criticisms_of_peer_review> for citations. [This review by R. Horton has been edited off the wikipedia, but it can be found by googling a wordstring .]

The consensus view is the core curriculum taught in schools and universities.  Teachers complain about web plagiarism but the student is in fact encouraged to be the cut-and-paste regurgitator of consensus.  For example, right now,  at the time of writing (25/12/2007), googling the wordstring "The outward transfer of earth’s internal heat drives convection"  returns 212 word-for-word entries.  These are not students' exam papers, but websites of educational institutions, many of them listing the year's curriculum.  So, ..copying is not restricted to students.  And anyway why should the student labour to construct a new form of wording within a held consensus view, when it is the rote informed phrase that wins favour?


And so we return to the above quotation by John Dewey.  But who today would care what he says?  Is he now only an old man, who can say what he likes because by his own admission it no longer counts?  I don't think so.  In fact I think he's right on the money,...and he has much more experience of academia than me.

See what I mean about the power of consensus and publication and the need for it?.  Even science (especially science) carries the seeds of its own destruction, ...for consensus is its sterile child.

[See also :-
Companion page) ..

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