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Scientific Consensus and Settled Science

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. What is Consensus and Settled Science?
  3. Historical Examples
    1. The Precession of the Perihelion of Mercury
    2. Continental Drift
    3. The Structure of the Universe
  4. Conclusions
  5. Disclaimer


The Proverb “People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones” should always be remembered during any debate or discussion, especially in scientific discussions. Many scientists live in glass houses constructed by the limitations of their own knowledge and their improper “Reasoning”. It can be no other way as it is impossible in modern scientists to have complete knowledge of their subject matter, as well as other subject matters that may impact their scientific expertise. As scientists are also human, they make mistakes in their reasoning, as do all humans. And scientific consensus and settled science can lead you astray, as it has been wrong in the past and will continue to be wrong as new knowledge is obtained. This is not to say that scientific consensus or settled science is unimportant. It is, in fact, very important. But it is only to say that consensus and settled science is not a determinative factor in science. All scientific consensus should be open to critique based on new knowledge and better reasoning. All settled science needs to be reexamined in the light of new knowledge.

What is Consensus and Settled Science?

Scientific Theories are the best explanation of physical phenomena that fits all the known facts, and much science requires a mathematical foundation to be proven correct. Also, scientific theories cannot be “proven”, as new facts are often discovered, which requires that the Scientific Theory be modified or replaced, as outlined in my Science Article “On the Nature of Scientific Inquiry“. Mathematics is the pursuit of knowledge unconstrained by the physical properties of the Universe. Much of mathematics has no foundation in reality, but much mathematics is needed to explain reality. Mathematical Theorems are a rigorous pursuit of mathematical truths that require strict standards for the proofs. Less strict standards for Mathematical Conjectures are allowed, but such conjectures are not proofs, but speculations that require a proof to be developed to be accepted as a Mathematical Theorem. Mathematics, therefore, cannot be utilized to prove anything except that the mathematics is correct. And Statistics and Studies can and are often done improperly, misinterpreted, and mis-utilized as I have written in my article, "Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave".

In science, it should be remembered that nothing is settled. A scientific theory is simply the best explanation that fits all the known facts based on observations and experiments. New facts from observations and experiments, or discrepancies in older facts, or a new hypothesis that better explains a scientific phenomenon often leads to a reevaluation or replacement of a Scientific Theory. Under these circumstances, a scientific theory must be reevaluated, perhaps modified, or even replaced by a new scientific theory. Often this reevaluation comes from dissident scientists who dispute the consensus or settled science of other scientists. Throughout science history, many scientific hypotheses, when first proposed, were doubted, and the consensus was against them. With the accumulation of new and more scientific knowledge, these doubts were surmounted, and the new hypotheses began to be accepted if not outright embraced.

To scientifically dissent from a scientific consensus or settled science is good for science. It forces scientists to reevaluate their ideas, and perhaps come up with better. However, a consensus in Science is only an indication of a majority opinion, an opinion that can be as wrong as it could be right. And scientific consensus can lead you astray, as it has been wrong in the past and will continue to be wrong as new knowledge is obtained.

Therefore, never interpret a scientific consensus as something that is scientifically settled. Always be wary of anyone, including scientists, who claim that something is the consensus of science or is scientifically settled, as they are most probably wrong. Only when all the observations and experiments have confirmed a scientific hypothesis is it elevated to a Scientific Theory. A Scientific Theory that you can believe is scientifically settled, but always be wary as a new observation or experiment that may overturn settled science.

You should also consider the thoughts of the American author and filmmaker Michael Crichton:

“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.”
 - Michael Crichton

Historical Examples

Three historical, scientific examples illuminate this problem, one each from the beginning, middle, and end of the twentieth century:

The Precession of the Perihelion of Mercury

A long-standing historic problem in the study of the Solar System was that the orbit of Mercury did not behave as predicted by Newton's Theory of Gravity equations. This problem became observable in the 19th century as advancements in telescopes and measuring instruments made it possible to accurately measure the precession (moving forward) of the perihelion (the point of closest approach to the Sun) of Mercury. The problem is that as Mercury orbits the Sun, it follows Newton’s theory ...but only approximately. It was found that the precession of the perihelion of Mercury does not always occur at the same place in space, but that it slowly moves forward in Mercury’s orbit. Some precession of the perihelion of the orbit of a planet was predicted by Newton’s equations, but Mercury’s perihelion was precessing greater (but by a very small amount) than Newton predicted. This anomalous rate of precession of the perihelion of Mercury's orbit was first recognized in 1859 as a problem in celestial mechanics.

This discrepancy cannot be accounted for using Newton's equations. Many ad-hoc fixes were devised to explain this discrepancy. One explanation was that an undiscovered planet orbited between the Sun and Mercury, causing a perturbation (a secondary influence on a system that causes it to deviate slightly) of Mercury’s orbit, which was observed as precession. The race was then on for astronomers to discover this planet. This supposed planet was even given the name “Vulcan”. A few astronomers claimed that they had discovered Vulcan, but it was determined that the discoveries were equipment anomaly’s, observational errors, or very small, long-duration sunspots. No astronomer ever discovered Vulcan for the simple fact that it did not exist. Another explanation was for an adjustment to Newton’s equation to explain this discrepancy, but such adjustments threw off the other predictions of Newton’s equations and were, therefore, unacceptable to scientists.

When Einstein developed his Theory of General Relativity, he applied it to the problem of Mercury’s Orbit. Einstein was able to predict, without any adjustments whatsoever, that the orbit of Mercury is correctly predicted by the General Theory of Relativity. When he did this, Einstein realized that General Relativity was correct. However, he required an additional observation of phenomena that Newton’s Universal Gravitation had not predicted to prove that General Relativity was correct. He found this in his prediction of the Deflection of Starlight and General Relativity replaced Newton’s Theory of Gravity, and it has become a foundation of modern science.

This historical problem is an example where the then-current scientific theories could not explain a scientific anomaly. Torturous means were developed to shoehorn the scientific anomaly into the then-current scientific theory, to no avail. It required a brilliant mind, Albert Einstein, to reject the then-current scientific theory and to rethink the problem. Rethinking this problem and a new hypothesis (later theory) resolved this problem and set science on a new course.

Today, there are scientific discoveries that occur that do not precisely fit the scientific theory. In most cases, the scientific theory can be modified to account for these discoveries. This is a good thing for the advancement of science. Just because the new discovery does not fit the current theory does not invalidate the current scientific theory. A new discovery usually requires a minor adjustment to the scientific theory. The question is if this shoehorning is appropriate or does a new scientific theory need to be developed? Most often, the answer is – No! However, the answer is sometimes yes, and unfortunately, many of today’s scientists are unwilling to say yes as it may impact their funding and perhaps prestige.  More of today’s scientists need to be willing to admit they may be wrong and say yes to a need for a replacement of a scientific theory.

Continental Drift

In the 1950s, all but one geologist believe that the Earth’s continents were fixed on the mantle of the Earth. When one geologist hypothesized that the continents were not fixed but floated on the mantle, and were in constant motion due to rifts in the mantle on the seafloor spewing magma that expanded the seafloor, the other geologists though that this was harebrained. The refused to hear his viewpoint and evidence, did not allow him to publish in scientific journals, and would not allow him to speak at Scientific conferences. However, he refused to accept this condemnation and continued to gather evidence for his hypothesis. Eventually, his evidence became so overwhelming that the other geologist had to accept his hypothesis. Today the theory of Continental Drift driven by Plate Tectonics is a bedrock (pun intended) of Geology, and it is a Scientific Theory accepted by all geologists.

The Structure of the Universe

By the end of the 1980s, Astronomers were confident in their understanding of the structure of the Universe. The Universe began with the Big Bang, and was composed of energy and matter, bound together by “The Four Forces of Nature“. The scientific question for Astrophysicist and Cosmologists were encapsulated within this settled science. However, the discovery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the 1990s overturned all of this settled science. Instead of a Universe of just matter and energy, we had a Universe that was just over 70% Dark Energy, just over 20% Dark Matter, while the previously known energy and matter was just over 5%. Therefore, settled science prior to these discoveries was only aware of about 5% of what we knew, and it could be said that we lived in the ‘Non-Dark Age’ of Astronomy. This is an excellent example of new knowledge overtaking settled science.


There are many other examples in the history of Science where consensus or settled science turned out to be wrong. It is important when examining any new scientific hypothesis, or relying on scientific consensus or settled science that you put aside your biases and only examine the facts and reasoning to reach a sound scientific conclusion. Therefore, you should not reject a scientific hypothesis based on settled science or scientific consensus, nor accept Scientific Consensus or Settled Science as definitive. Discussion and debate on issues based on scientific consensus or settled science should always be cognizant of these issues and concerns, as science is never settled, and consensus may be wrong.

Scientists should also remember the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin:

“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”


“doubt a little of your own infallibility.”

So, therefore, scientists should doubt their own infallibility and be willing to change their mind or opinion based on better information or fuller consideration.


Please Note - many academics, scientist and engineers would critique what I have written here as not accurate nor through. I freely acknowledge that these critiques are correct. It was not my intentions to be accurate or through, as I am not qualified to give an accurate nor through description. My intention was to be understandable to a layperson so that they can grasp the concepts. Academics, scientists, and engineers entire education and training is based on accuracy and thoroughness, and as such, they strive for this accuracy and thoroughness. I believe it is essential for all laypersons to grasp the concepts of this paper, so they make more informed decisions on those areas of human endeavors that deal with this subject. As such, I did not strive for accuracy and thoroughness, only understandability.

Most academics, scientist, and engineers when speaking or writing for the general public (and many science writers as well) strive to be understandable to the general public. However, they often fall short on the understandability because of their commitment to accuracy and thoroughness, as well as some audience awareness factors. Their two biggest problems are accuracy and the audience knowledge of the topic.

Accuracy is a problem because academics, scientist, engineers and science writers are loath to be inaccurate. This is because they want the audience to obtain the correct information, and the possible negative repercussions amongst their colleagues and the scientific community at large if they are inaccurate. However, because modern science is complex this accuracy can, and often, leads to confusion amongst the audience.

The audience knowledge of the topic is important as most modern science is complex, with its own words, terminology, and basic concepts the audience is unfamiliar with, or they misinterpret. The audience becomes confused (even while smiling and lauding the academics, scientists, engineers or science writer), and the audience does not achieve understandability. Many times, the academics, scientists, engineers or science writer utilizes the scientific disciplines own words, terminology, and basic concepts without realizing the audience misinterpretations, or has no comprehension of these items.

It is for this reason that I place understandability as the highest priority in my writing, and I am willing to sacrifice accuracy and thoroughness to achieve understandability. There are many books, websites, and videos available that are more accurate and through. The subchapter on “Further Readings” also contains books on various subjects that can provide more accurate and thorough information. I leave it to the reader to decide if they want more accurate or through information and to seek out these books, websites, and videos for this information.

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I will review reasoned and intellectual correspondence, and it is possible that I can change my mind,
or at least update the content of this article.