Science is a way of knowing – it’s a rigorous process that ideally winnows away the possible options until the best answer remains for the present time. It’s the most reliable way of knowing because of how strict scientific testing is. It’s not perfect (because it’s done by humans, obviously, who will certainly make some mistakes), but it’s the best method we have. Consider the other options – intuition, imagination, revelation, tradition, personal observation. These can give us the illusion of knowledge but they are not as reliable to others and the pitfalls of using those methods abound.
When a body of experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, or committees assembled by the National Research Council, evaluates all the published research and then issues recommendations based on the evidence they found, YOU OUGHT TO LISTEN CLOSELY. They probably know what the scoop is better than anyone. [Hall, H., Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 2014]
There are those who will blatantly challenge the scientific (or appropriate discipline’s) consensus because they hold strong personal views that conflict with it. For example, you hear actors, and now politicians, talking about vaccine safety.
It’s exceptionally clear that vaccines are one of THE most effective public health measures devised. EVER. They have been well tested and administered to millions and millions of people with great benefit and extremely rare cases of serious complications. The benefit HUGELY outweighs the small risk. Yet, TV celebrities and maverick activists tell their audiences that vaccines are dangerous. Do they know better than a committee of medical professionals who have seen all the data? Those denying the medical consensus give the public something worse than no information if they give out misleading information.
Would you take medical advice from a plumber or an accountant? It makes no sense to do so. It also makes no sense to rank the advice of non-experts over experts especially regarding health concerns.
As with everything in life, there are exceptions to the general rules of thumb. There are MANY “experts” in particular fields who make poor judgments and use their expertise as a means of bolstering their influence. There are even wrong-headed professionals in each particular field who challenge the consensus opinion. Those who challenge evidence-based consensus ought to propose an alternative that is superior to the existing status. But, it almost never is superior. So, it fails to change minds and the majority continues to follow the consensus view. We see examples of this in conspiracy theories or alternatives to scientific concepts such as evolution or AIDS-HIV denialism or in historical studies about art, artifacts or literature. Fringe ideas are weirdly fascinating but they just do not stand up to critical evaluation.
97% of scientists subscribe to human-induced global warming. But the public percentage is much lower. It’s very difficult to convince 97% of scientists of ANYTHING so that’s saying something. The public may have many reasons to reject this conclusion based on their personal values that have nothing to do with the science or evidence presented.
One way of evaluating a consensus is to look at the opposite opinion and see who is supporting it. What sorts of values do they have? Are they qualified to go against those who have spent careers studying the subject? How long has the consensus stood up to scrutiny? One example is the vehement few who INSIST that William Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays! It’s good drama, but it is a terrible argument. But this anti-Shakespeare group is really invested in their opinion to the point where no amount of evidence will likely convince them to give it up.
The evidence in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship and the lack of evidence for anyone else’s primary authorship is so compelling that the question isn’t even really a question worth considering.
Scientific and academic majority opinion on their respective subjects is valuable. Researchers want their field to advance. They have checked the work, examined the options inside and out, and reached the same conclusion. It may not be lock-tight, but it’s far more reliable than any outsiders conclusion. If something new is discovered that has actual merit to change opinions, the majority opinion will follow. Play the safe odds. Consult the consensus of qualified experts and listen to what they say.
Addition: This new study shows that readers may be overly influenced by anonymous commenters on websites that undermine the scientific consensus.
Check out: What’s the Harm in Vaccine Denial?
Should you accept the opinion of this woman about vaccines, which is contrary to scientific opinion, when her most famous accomplishment is posing as a model?
How about this one who publicly told one person’s biased story that has no basis in medical facts in order to promote her own personal agenda?
Neither are experts in health and their words can result in parents not getting their children vaccinated.