Someone call Wikipedia

Below is a great quote from a lecture by Michael Crichton at the California Institute of Technology in January ’03 (thanks to Matt Jones for leaving a link lying around his blog). If you’ve spent any time on Wikipedia reading the “talk” pages or the guidelines for posting articles you run into this “consensus” stuff a lot. It can get silly…although I don’t really know of a better way to do it. In any case, this is something to keep in mind when reading Wikipedia, or anything really.

This is also interesting because I’m currently taking a class (History 312) that covers the scientific revolution–we’ve gone from ~1500 and are just now getting to the mid-1700s when people were actually starting to do science as we know it today. There have been some interesting ideas that had consensus (they were still teaching on the four basic elements, earth , fire, air, and water in Universities up through about 1750). And who wants to talk about phlogiston anymore? That was a step in the right direction at least. Anyway, here’s the quote:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA
January 17, 2003

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