Aug 27, 2010


Long time no writing, I know... That's because my present contract was finishing and our project turned out to be more complicated than we thought... Anyway, let me start by suggesting a game. Watch this video:

Now, how many logical fallacies can you spot in this talk? (Hint: List of Fallacies) I will point to four:

  1. Argumentum ad populum
  2. Negative proof fallacy
  3. Proof by example
  4. Appeal to accomplishment
I won't tell you where they are, let us consider as an exercise for the reader to find them in the video. Be careful, for some of the fallacies in the list are almost the same although they are listed with different names in different categories. Actually, I would group them together anyway, they are just special cases of more general concepts.

Before anyone gets angry, I have no intention of talking about global warming. What I want to talk about is the idea of the speaker that science is made by consensus. To make a long story short, it is not. And if you were about to argue that he is a scientist, so he must know what he is talking about, I suggest you to review the list of logical fallacies above. In any case, I'm a scientist too.

Consensus has nothing to do with science, actually. It has to do with social interactions. Now I would be lying by saying that in general scientists do not develop an emotional attachment to some ideas to the point that a whole generation decides to adopt that point of view. After all, scientists are humans and share all emotional states that other humans do. They want to be accepted in their group, they want to be listened by the others, they do not want to look like fools, they have a need for surviving (meaning, earning money) and all that. Many are religious people. And many has the necessity to be sure that they are not wasting their lives with something that won't turn out to be true. So, they appeal to consensus.

However, and I will probably repeat it many times in this blog, science is not a political campaign, even with the governments' incentive for that kind of behaviour. Science is a kind of adventure where we try to understand (whatever that means) how the world really works. How nature really works (not how we would like it to work...). And we know that the opinion of the majority IS NOT the best way to do it. Any kind of idea that is based on consensus has the risk of not even being a scientific idea! And at this point I am being really broad about what I would call a scientific idea.

You may have noticed that the speaker talked about the Earth being flat was science at that time because that was the consensus. There could not be something more false. The Earth was taught to be flat at the dark ages because the world decided to forget about what the Greek have learned about nature. That can hardly be qualified as science. Besides, even if it were considered as science at that time, I think quite disappointing that some part of the scientific community haven't updated their understanding of what is science in the last 500 years. As far as we know, even what we think is science today may turn out to be wrong upon further thinking! That is the beauty of science, it evolves. It evolves even its own foundations by accumulating experiences, by rethinking, by not being afraid of assuming that a previous statement was wrong and that now we, at least think, that we know better.

Next time you listen someone telling you that something is probably true because it's consensus, think hard about that. Try to challenge it inside your mind. If that is really true, it will survive the challenge. But above that, you must understand why that is or is not true. Don't commit the (logical) error of accepting something just because most people believe in that. THAT IS NOT SCIENCE. And also, that is not wise.

No comments: