TCS Daily

About Those Nobel Laureates...

By David Douglass - July 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Should anyone expect a plumber to know about electrical work; a gynecologist to know about brain surgery? I think not. Nor should anyone expect a Nobel Laureate to be knowledgeable outside his/her field of expertise.

Recently 48 Nobel Laureates issued a Statement endorsing Jjohn Kerry for president which received wide coverage. In the New York Times account Laureate Burton Richter is quoted saying "Nobel Laureates tend not to use their names for anything outside of science." I know many Laureates and most would not only adhere to this declaration but would also restrict comments to their own field of science. Unfortunately, some, including many who signed the Statement do not. For in the Statement they say:

"And by ignoring scientific consensus on critical issues such as global warming, they [Bush administration] are threatening the earth's future."

To arrive at such a conclusion these scientists are either knowledgeable about the science of global warming or they are relying on a "consensus." Most of these scientists do not work in climatology and cannot have first hand knowledge of this field. As a physicist, I can state that none of the 18 physicists who signed the Statement works in this field; nor to my knowledge has ever published a paper on this subject. It must be concluded that they have relied on what they have read about a "consensus".

Whether the above quote is true or not, I conclude that they have forgotten or ignored one of the most important premises in science: Scientific knowledge comes from observations and not from consensus.

Indeed, scientific truth by consensus has had a uniformly bad history. Michael Crichton speaks for me and many scientists in a recent Essay on this subject. In the Michelin Lecture at the California Institute of Technology he eloquently describes "consensus science" as a pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. It is a way to avoid debate by claiming that a matter is already settled. He states that the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Crichton cites a few historic examples of scientific truth being suppressed by "consensus": Galileo Galilei and the Copernican system; Alexander Gordon and puerperal fever; Joseph Goldberger and pellagree disease; and Alfred Wegener and continental drift. Then there are also the cases of scientific consensus in favor of things that were not true: Carl Sagan and "nuclear winter"; Paul Ehrlich and mass starvation of millions due to the "population explosion"; the National Academy of Science abetting the "ice age scare" of the 60's and 70's.

Every one of these Laureates would ridicule and deny tenure to any colleague in their own field who offered a scientific conclusion based upon a proof by consensus. This poses the question: why in their own case would they violate this premise? I suspect that they subscribe in part to the philosophy of Stanford professor Stephen H. Schneider who stated [Discover Magazine. Oct 1989] :

"We are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but...which means that we must include all the doubts, caveats, ifs, and buts. ... On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we have to get loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."

It is disappointing and embarrassing to the science profession that some Nobel Laureates would deliberately use their well deserved scientific reputations and hold themselves out as experts in other fields. The lay public needs to understand that these Nobel Laureates have no special expertise outside of their field.

David H. Douglass is Professor of physics, Department of Physics, University of Rochester.


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