Should You Believe Scientific Consensus?
TLDR: The public should feel comfortable believing scientists on matters of consensus.
There seems to be a widening gulf between people who believe scientists and those who do not. Instead of accepting scientific consensus, some people choose to believe fringe explanations for things like climate change and pandemics. Why? Part of the problem may be due to a misunderstanding of how scientists work and speak.
Scientists have a particular way of conducting research and communicating their findings. The process is designed to be methodical, transparent, and subject to rigorous scrutiny within the research community. A journal article may be just 15 pages long, but it likely represents many hundreds of work hours. Before a study is accepted and published, it must meet scholarly, ethical, and mathematical standards. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific process.
What is Peer Review?
Peer review means that impartial experts dig into the study to dissect its methods, measurements, calculations, and conclusions. Some reviewers might find flaws or gaps and recommend revisions before publication. It is not uncommon for peer-reviewed journals to reject manuscripts. Peer review is not about attacking and discrediting scientists; it is about publishing valid information.
Imagine presenting your best work and then inviting your colleagues and rivals to tear it apart to find weaknesses and disprove your conclusions. Sounds scary, right? Welcome to peer review!
Wishy-Washy or Absolute Truth
By the time a scientific concept reaches the point of broad consensus, it has been thoroughly scrutinized, viewed from multiple angles, tested, challenged, and corroborated by independent teams. Since scientists are careful to leave room for new information, they express conclusions in terms of probability. Even long-standing, evidence-supported scientific conclusions may not be called "proven." This is because of the understanding that fresh evidence might come to light tomorrow, which would necessitate reevaluation. So rather than using words like "definitely true," or "guaranteed," or "always," or "never," scientists use phrases like "based on what we know right now, this is the most likely explanation."
That may sound wishy-washy or inconclusive, but it is how scientists speak. "Based on what we know right now, this is the best explanation" is just about the closest you will get to hearing a scientist say "This is the absolute truth."
Are Scientists Just Guessing?
When pressed with questions like, "Can you tell me you're 100% sure about this," experts will not provide absolute certainty. Even if the data indicate a 99.9999% level of confidence, that 0.0001% chance keeps a scientist from claiming proof. This does not mean that scientists are just guessing, expressing whims, or voicing opinions. It simply means they acknowledge the possibility that even the best explanation, supported by the most substantial evidence, might not be accurate 100% of the time.
Then What's the Point?
Science is an approach to understanding the world. It is beautifully open-ended. While gathering information, measuring phenomena, testing hypotheses, and predicting outcomes, scientists remember how much more there is to uncover. During the quest for knowledge, scientists might discover new or contradictory information and use it to reinforce understanding or refine explanations. Sometimes, ideas are revised, reconsidered, or rejected, as better information is accumulated. This does not mean that the original researchers were stupid or that their work was shoddy; it is part of the process. Over time, the iterations of research and peer review lead to robust conclusions that form solid foundations for future projects.
Most Scientists Seek Truth
Every profession has its bad actors, and some scientists are careless, greedy, or intentionally misleading. Fortunately, the peer review process helps expose weak research and unethical practices. Shady authors usually do not get their work published in reputable journals. They are instead relegated to self-publication or posting on social media. The likelihood of an incorrect or falsified research conclusion making it through multiple rounds of investigation and review is minimal.
The Bottom Line
If most expert scientists agree on a particular conclusion, it's not just that they share an opinion. It's because they have systematically scrutinized evidence, and it has led to that conclusion. So yes, you can probably trust them.