Scientific Consensus, Expectation and Trust

This week, new research led to a revelation that a second US government body, the Department of Energy, declared that the COVID-19 virus more likely originated from an accidental lab leak in Wuhan, China. This has “thrown a spammer into the works” of building a scientific consensus that the coronavirus was caused by a species jump.

Wait, wasn’t that lab-leak claim some fringe conspiracy theory that was spread by lunatics, anti-vaxxers, survivalists and Donald Trump? Didn’t the WHO, Anthony Fauci and other prominent public scientists argue convincingly that there was a clear consensus among scientists that this coronavirus was transferred from animals to humans in a Wuhan wet-market? A group of public health experts even published their open letter with over 20,000 signatures in The Lancet supporting their zoonotic hypothesis and defending their Wuhan colleagues. (A year later, only 18 scientists signed a letter published in Science asking for an open mind on evidence pointing to the lab-leak theory … so a consensus was clear.) That debate was supposed to have been shut down – we all know the facts and anyone who still talked about it was a crank or an idiot.

See an interesting timeline on how this health authority consensus was built and how it was chipped away.

If I believed that this adamantly declared zoonotic consensus was a fact and, now, I find out that there is another, more plausible theory, that the coronavirus was created in the Wuhan lab and accidentally released in the population, whom do I trust? Should I keep my trust in these authoritative health experts who told me, so confidently, what I should believe? Consensus-building creates an expectation that an event or theory is reality – the truth – evoked by some authority. Each time a claim to the consensus is repeated, in this case by men of a scientific cloth, that expectation increases. Our trust of public authorities is closely tied to such expectations.

Authenticity occurs when experience meets expectation
(Happiness occurs when experience meets expectation
Trust is lost when experience doesn’t meet expectation

The key to happiness then is to lower your expectations
(at least that is what I tell Mrs Monger).

I have argued many times that consensus-building is not scientific, it is political, promoted by people with particular interests. When a consensus is declared, the tendency is to exclude any further data or research. There are different types of scientific consensus-building approaches and reasons for stringently promoting them:

  • In scientific debates, if there is uncertainty, as is usually the case, politicians take a group of scientists and ask them to agree on actionable facts (give us a simple Yes or No). The drinking water in East Palestine is safe.
  • Sometimes a group of scientists play the consensus card to stop debates that challenge their authority. By declaring an overwhelming consensus on climate change being due to human activity, the debate on details or the introduction of non-complying research has been shut down.
  • It is often felt that if a consensus is clearly communicated, then public trust will ensue. I have begged vaccine communicators to not declare, categorically, that vaccines are safe. Even a negative reaction rate of 0.01% can create thousands of anti-vax victims with social media accounts.
  • Would the public not trust scientists if they could not give categorical answers? A consensus could be defensively argued to try to protect the reputation of science. The Wuhan lab leak theory was originally spread by anti-science activists like US Right to Know to spread mistrust of researchers and technology. Scientists may have been afraid, especially given the results, to admit that accidents happen.
  • Some consensus declarations are just activist trawling to scare policymakers into taking action, like the claims we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. How can you have a consensus on that when we still lack reliable means of measuring biodiversity?

For whatever reason, political declarations of some scientific consensus put public trust on the line. If a widely communicated consensus is proven to not align with reality, their forecasts having fallen flat or just plain wrong, trust in science will suffer. The sad point is that most consensus-peddlers don’t give a damn about the reputation of science. They have their own interests, often they group together against those they disagree with and too often their arrogance overtakes their scientific training.

In reality, science abhors a consensus. The scientific method, if we follow from Karl Popper, is to continuously challenge all theories and their paradigms. The more an hypothesis resists these attempts at falsification, the stronger it is. It does not make it the truth or a consensus, but rather that it is stronger than other theories … at the moment. The word “sceptic” has been given a negative connotation when scepticism to widely shared perceptions, in reality, should be the job of all scientists.

I don’t understand why it is so important for a scientist to be seen to be right. Science is constantly readjusting its paradigms and theories. We make decisions on the best available data. If we get better data, we advance our scientific field by adjusting our conclusions. If we reject new data and hold on to our previously claimed consensus, we are becoming an obstacle to discovery.

The Mythical “We”: Common Sense Consensus

Our present prevailing cultural narrative in the West is built on a demand for certainty – why consensus-building now seems to be part of the scientific method. We expect the best available research to be considered as facts – the truth. “Risk” is a four-letter word and uncertainty is the bain of any decision-making process. Our docilian population expects to live in a zero-risk environment, kept 100% safe. And if this certainty cannot be guaranteed, then we expect regulators to invoke the precautionary principle.

If there is a risk, for example, that a primary school student with an allergy might be exposed to a peanut, then ban all peanut butter sandwiches. If there is a risk some teenagers might be attracted to vaping, then remove all e-cigarettes from the market. If there is a possibility that someone might misuse a pesticide, then the precautionary principle must be applied to all crop protection products. The only way to manage risks is to remove them regardless of the lost benefits or the consequences.

This demand for certainty has created a media market for something I would call “common sense consensus-building”, a trick exploited by NGOs. An NGO (essentially three people in a room with a laptop funded by a friend on the board of a trust or a foundation) claims to represent “the people”. This gives them license to use the term “We” as spokespersons representing a consensus of what civil society feels. They then build a common sense consensus by starting with an extreme risk and generalising it to a wider conclusion. For example, they will start with a common sense claim like:

  • “We don’t want food drenched in toxic pesticides” and conclude that we must ban all pesticides.
  • “We don’t want toxic waste dumped into our drinking water” morphs into the common sense consensus that we must remove all synthetic chemicals.
  • “We will go extinct in ten years if we don’t act now” becomes an agreement that we are in a climate crisis forcing us to immediately do XYZ (insert here the NGO’s key interest objective).

Nuclear reactor meltdowns in every village, biodiversity loss in every meadow, honeybees dropping out of the sky in their billions, horrible plastics floating up on some pristine beach … there is no shortage of some Armageddon scenario that “We” all agree we need to stop.

But who is this “We”? It is mythical. Green parties have fluctuated in most European countries between 5 and 15% of the vote (sometimes becoming minority partners in coalition governments). This mythical “We” is not concerned about food shortages, power blackouts, inflation or job losses (but the other 90% are). That is mere scaremongering by the “Them” and they are all liars. This is an example of how consensus-building is a manipulative process.

If these common sense consensus claims are well communicated, they are treated as facts. When policymakers do not comply and immediately remove all pesticides, fossil fuels, nuclear power and chemicals, the mythical “We” gets frustrated. Their common sense consensus has created an expectation that went unfulfilled. Our governments, clearly, are in the pocket of industry (Monsanto bought the world), leading to a further common sense consensus: We can’t trust our governments and must take action ourselves to stop industry and capitalism. Pass me the Super Glue and the brown beans.

Scientists then have a problem as the facts don’t often align with most common sense consensus messages established and deftly communicated by NGOs. This perception of public expectation creates a wave of demands built upon weak foundations. Can a scientific regulator stand up against this mythical “We” if, for example, the reality of pesticide residue levels or their effects are far less than the “drenched in poison” consensus assumes? Or if the demand for “all renewables now” won’t keep the lights on? We have been conditioned that it is very difficult to fight against the consensus (regardless how misguided it is). In 2019, I was stunned when I shared a panel with the EU’s head of the Pesticide Unit, Klaus Berend, and he blithely concluded that removing pesticides is what the people want. Fait accompli for the mythical “We”.

The mythical “We” common sense consensus is used on a wider scale than just environmental health issues and, with social media communications manipulation, is leading to increased populist extremism in our political discourse. A chasm between the left and the right, a dearth of leadership, building of insulated social media echo-chambers, a widespread public absence from political discourse and the lack of any pragmatic Realpolitik tradition have made the climate ripe for political swings between fascism and Marxism (with authoritarian populists speaking on behalf of their mythical “We”). With AI technologies, we won’t even need those three people in a room with a laptop to execute this common sense consensus – the consensus can be tailored according to your algorithms.

You’re a Denier! Get Out!

If you disagree with the consensus, you are labelled a denier, the equivalent of excommunication from the scientific community. The climate debate has turned ugly with groups of self-interested individuals shutting down debates with ad hominem ‘denierist’ attacks on those applying the scientific method. When the consensus on climate change was declared, all scientific discussions were expected to have ceased, so any questions of any emerging data not confirming the consensus was considered as ill-intended heresy.

The film, Don’t Look Up, ridiculed people who did not blindly follow the consensus on climate change.

I was accused of being a COVID-denier, not because I was running around ripping facemasks off of individuals, but because I felt that our authorities should have introduced certain risk-management measures before initiating precautionary lockdowns. It is very difficult to stand up against a powerful narrative claiming the consensus position. If, for example, you have issues about whether all vaccines being administered to children are necessary, you are an anti-vaxxer. If you question using children to frame the climate discussions or wonder if the demand to immediately stop all fossil fuel production is wise, you are a climate denier. Regardless of your qualifications, if you disagree with a proclaimed consensus, you are not allowed a voice in the discussions and any derisive personal attacks on you are not only tolerated, they are embraced. On politically hot issues, any questioning of the consensus becomes grounds to invoke mob behaviour.

But who is excommunicating the heretics? Scientists have become tribal. OK, they have always been but with scientific debates being played out across a wide range of media, their differences are becoming more pronounced and more immediate. In certain fields, this has led to multiple consensus theories in play with no common ground. On COVID-19, virologists were pitted against epidemiologists (with politicians deciding whom to listen to and when). On chemical exposures, biologists and chemists each have their own consensus on how to determine safe exposure levels. The glyphosate conflict should be framed as a battle between the Ramazzini-IARC camp and every government scientific agency over the value of a regulatory risk assessment versus a hazard assessment process. Unfortunately this question was distorted by a despicable few who enlisted mercenaries from activist communities, tort lawyers and the organic food lobby to turn glyphosate into a matter of good versus evil.

What happens when a perceived consensus hits a wall of reality? It takes a long time to undo the damage political interests can cause in cementing their position. Nuclear energy or GMOs may never be trusted even though the activist-created consensus of risk has been shown to be fictitious and ill-motivated. The idea of using carbon capture and storage as a means to continue pumping fossil fuels will never be publicly accepted given the force of the climate consensus against Big Oil. It does not matter what benefits these technologies might provide society.

So what about the health experts who so vehemently argued against the lab-leak hypothesis and relentlessly pushed forward their zoonotic consensus? Will it become another case in the US of the red-hats v the blue-hats or, as the pandemic is slowly passing into history, will the majority consensus scientists admit they might have been wrong?

Never underestimate what years of defending a consensus can do to one’s intellect and sense of professionalism. This is not science.

How did we Get Here?

Has science now become part of the political scrum? Is consensus-building what scientists should be doing with their time? It seems that many scientific discussions have morphed into the mere collection of signatures to declarations. It does not matter that an economist is signing a toxicology-based consensus statement – a scientist is a scientist, right? This is what EFSA director, Bernhard Url, once referred to as “Facebook science” – that the more likes or signatures you get, the more valid you think your scientific position is.

Scientific facts are not something voted on. When did being perceived to be right become more important than being professional?

The causes for this transformation of science into a consensus-building process are multiple, tied to:

  • shifts in research funding (and increased costs);
  • to the evolution from discussions in scientific journals to more immediate and tribal blog-site communications and social media swarms;
  • to the decline in peer-review publishing with pay-to-play online journals;
  • to the increased number of technology-based regulations (and the high levels of capital at risk);
  • to the influence of activist groups in setting the political agenda and getting involved in the research process; or
  • to law firms paying scientists to produce an authoritative consensus view for their lawsuits.

Whatever the causes, whatever the motivations, the consequence is clear – so long as the practice of declaring a consensus on complex scientific debates is tolerated, public trust in science will continue to decline when other information comes to light (and people in white coats do not stop behaving like they are wearing black shirts).

I’m sure Leibniz and Newton hated each other with a passion. Nobody knows what insults were hurled during the Solvay Conference of 1912. There has always been a certain arrogance built into the academe. When this arrogance is expressed in public attacks on those you disagree with, in the name of some authoritative consensus, the institution of science suffers.

Will Fauci and the WHO admit they were mistaken in pushing against alternative theories to their zoonotic hypothesis? Highly unlikely. Will those who believed them suddenly say: Oh, OK, I guess the conspiracy theorists were right? Will they then wake up and realise that similar consensus manipulators on climate change or chemical safety may have also excluded valuable data or manipulated the numbers? There is continuously emerging scientific research and then there is what you want to believe are scientific facts. Only one of them merits our respect and trust.

We don’t need more consensus building; we need more honesty, humility and professionalism in science.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I refer to the sentence “Scientists may have been afraid, especially given the results, to admit that accidents happen.” Such a thought does not make sense to me. Because we are all human, we all make mistakes or cause accidents. Expecting that no accidents ever happen, would imply that no work was done at all. If there was a speed limit of 0 there would likely be no accidents and nobody hurt. Except those instances where a tree falls on somebody walking the street, or they are overrun by a dog or child or bike rider, or swept away by a flood wave or avalanche, or … In short: even a speed limit of 0 does not guarantee never ever an accident happening. As such a denial that accidents happen is inplausible, or undecent, or simply a ly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RiskMonger says:

      Well spotted Hubert – I hesitated on building on that point – might be another article on scalability of accidents. Mistakes happen, accidents happen which may cost time, property or harm individuals. But if COVID-19 were due to a lab incident, the consequences (more than 7 million lives and a three-year disruption to the global economy) are more severe than just a simple Ooopsie. I think the global health authorities are terrified of admitting that the pandemic was a result of an accident given they are constantly trying to reassure a sceptical public that lab processes are safe. Of course they are damaging the reputation of science more by not being transparent.

      Liked by 1 person

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