Close This site uses cookies. If you continue to use the site you agree to this. For more details please see our cookies policy.

Common Questions: 6  Surely the Scientific Consensus about Darwinism can't be wrong? 

It seems eminently reasonable that in matters scientific we should always go with the consensus of opinion within the scientific community.  After all, you might argue, the experts surely know what they are talking about, and how credibly can the non-specialist challenge their conclusions? 
I agree that in science as in most areas of human endeavour, the accepted consensus of opinion should be treated with respect and given the status it deserves.  However, just because a proposition becomes the accepted wisdom does not mean that it is invariably correct. 
For example, in the era of the Blairite government, the consensus was that diesel cars were far safer in terms of atmospheric pollution than petrol ones.  Opinion has very recently and dramatically changed because the evidence no longer sustains that position, and among the many considerations involved in this is that some motorists may have to be financially compensated for buying vehicles in line with the consensus view. 
Again, within recent memory, the consensus among many leading bankers was that the anticipated inflation in property values, among other considerations, justified giving people very high mortgages.  However, after the financial crash of 2008, I heard one banker identify the key reasons for the mess as greed, arrogance, ignorance and stupidity.  The consensus among bankers up to the crash was clearly well wide of the mark, with devastating consequences for the nation’s finances.  Sadly, those bankers who had argued that the policies of the major banks were reckless and who saw what was coming were side-lined and sometimes derided. 
In the development of modern science over the last few centuries, shifts in the scientific consensus are not infrequent.  Examples include the ‘Copernican revolution’ which overturned a geo-centric view of the solar system, Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood which replaced the ebb and flow theory, the discovery of the cellular nature of life which transformed biological science, and the existence of micro-organisms which replaced earlier theories of infection and demolished the idea of spontaneous generation of life in rotting material .  Nearer to our time is the idea of a steady-state universe being largely abandoned in favour of its origin in the ‘big bang’. 
A current and rather spectacular example of a shifting scientific consensus is the fairly rapid demise of the ‘junk DNA’ claim.  Though still popular in scientific textbooks, the proposition that most of our DNA is just evolutionary detritus, and therefore useless, is being systematically dismantled by the stunning work of the ENCODE project in Cambridge[1].  This research work is increasingly demonstrating biochemical functions in most, if not all, of our DNA.  An iconic argument for evolution is clearly crumbling, and a consensus shift on the nature of DNA is inevitable. 
Science often progresses by challenging accepted theories and modifying or rejecting them when fresh evidence demands it.  Because of the colossal advances in science and technology in the last century or so, scientific pronouncements understandably have huge credibility.  But the point about science is that it is not the consensus which determines what the position is, but the strength of the evidence.  You would hope that the scientific consensus would be firmly based on a correct interpretation of the evidence, but it is not always so. 
Darwinism is a case in point.  While the various strands of Darwinian theory, including adaptation, common descent, and random mutation with natural selection as the generator of new life forms, carry varying degrees of credibility, the central proposition that life arose and developed through blind purposeless forces is not only counter-intuitive but substantially lacking in any solid evidence. 
Adherence to the scientific consensus that only natural forces should be invoked to explain life’s origin and development does not make that position correct.  In fact, that position is not based on the empirical evidence, but on the philosophy of naturalism which is itself an unproven and unproveable assumption.  It flies in the face of data about the fine-tuning of the universe, the specified complexity of living things, and the vast information content of DNA.  Regardless of the consensus, these phenomena and other features of the natural world suggest the existence of intelligence beyond nature. 
Interestingly, the American evolutionary biologist, Stephen J Gould, in another context, wrote about the problems of consensus:
Judgments based on scientific evidence, whether made in a laboratory or a courtroom, are undermined by a categorical refusal even to consider research or views that contradict someone's notion of the prevailing "consensus" of scientific opinion. ... Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a courtroom, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth. ... The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists[2].
Intelligent Design (ID) is not the first time in the history of science that the consensus has been challenged by the evidence.  As noted above, in some celebrated examples, the scientific consensus has been overturned[3].  In this connection, it is noteworthy that the Royal Society sponsored a conference in London in November 2016 to explore necessary modifications to standard Darwinian Theory, and a number of scientists and others are now publishing material on this theme[4].  In proper scientific method, just one scientist with compelling evidence which challenges the consensus can be more powerful that an accepted position which fails to account for all the data. 
There is, too, a sinister side to the Darwinian consensus.  I heard of one scientist who acknowledged privately that it was more than his job was worth to show sympathy for ID.  I’m reminded of the truism that if someone’s job depends on the answers s/he gives, we have good reason to question their validity. 
Fundamentally, in science we need to be concerned with the kind of explanations the evidence demands, not just with what the prevailing consensus asserts. 
Alastair Noble
May 2017

[1] See eg and Zombie Science, J Wells, Discovery Institute Press 2017, chap 6. 
[2] Brief Amici Curiae of Stephen Jay Gould (and other scientists) in support of petitioners, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) (No. 92-102). Quoted also in The Nature of Nature, ISI Books, 2010, p119 ref 45. 
[3] See also on this site the article How the Scientific Consensus can hinder Science.
[4] See eg Evolution – A View from the 21st century, James Shapiro, FT Press, 2011; Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, OUP, 2012; What Darwin got Wrong, Jerry Fodor et al, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Image credit:
Thumbnail - © Christopher Holden,, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Alastair Noble, 17/07/2017