I often cringe when I hear the media use the word consensus
in reference to some area of science. The concept of consensus is antithetical to the scientific method. I
have no problem talking about "mainstream" or "conventional" science, or
saying that "most scholars accept" some claim. But "consensus" is not right.
like the equally bad phrase "settled science," consensus implies that
the debate is entirely over. That indisputable proof exists. That anyone who
disagrees is simply wrong as a matter of objective fact. Worst of all,
it implies that truth can be determined by a majority vote.
|Who believes in gravity?|
nothing is ever final. Everything is constantly subject to re-evaluation
and re-testing. In fact, if a statement is not falsifiable
then it's not considered a scientific claim in the first place. And it
takes only one person--not a majority--to overturn an existing finding.
"But wait a minute, Jason," every reader is surely now saying. "Didn't you use the term consensus
to describe the foundations of IQ research?" Guilty as charged, but that was actually a calculated appeal to the journalists who formed my target audience. The reference is in "Why can't we talk about IQ?"
published by Politico. (Of all my responses to the dissertation controversy from eight months ago, that's the one I am most proud of.) To show that the media had denounced scientific findings about which there is little technical dispute, I wrote:
What scholars of mental ability know, but have never successfully gotten
the media to understand, is that a scientific consensus, based on an
extensive and consistent literature, has long been reached on many of
the questions that still seem controversial to journalists. [emphasis added]
I went back and forth on whether to use the word consensus
to describe that set of views shared by nearly all cognitive psychologists. In the end I went with it, because the word carries a certain resonance with my intended audience. It was an appeal to those on the Left who are accustomed to hearing consensus
thrown around in the context of global warming, second-hand smoke, same-sex parenting, and so on.
I wanted Politico readers to consider that they might be just as wrong about IQ as they believe their opponents are about those other issues. So I deliberately used "consensus"
rather than "mainstream" or "rarely disputed."
Anyway, this whole post was motivated by the alleged consensus on government preschool, which I discussed
in National Review recently.