There’s a list of scientific mavericks who were ridiculed by hidebound reactionaries but later vindicated that’s been going viral. … my impression is that only a third of these people really fit the pattern. Most of them were doubted for very short periods, continued to be respected in their fields for their other accomplishments even during those periods, or were part of medium-sized movements rather than being lone geniuses. After a few years – maybe an average of ten, very rarely as long as thirty – their contributions were recognized and they assumed their rightful place in the pantheon. Science isn’t perfect. But it is darned good.
I’ve always thought something like:
Scientific consensus is the best tool we have for seeking truth. It’s not perfect, and it’s frequently overturned by later scientists, but this is usually – albeit not literally always – the work of well-credentialed insiders, operating pretty quickly after the evidence that should overturn it becomes available. Any individual should be very doubtful of their ability to beat it, while not being so doubtful that nobody ever improves it and science can never progress.
– and I still think that. But I’ve shifted from being the sort of person who shares viral lists of maligned geniuses, to the sort of person who debunks those lists. I’ve started emphasizing the “best tool we have” part of the sentence, and whispering the “isn’t perfect” part, rather than vice versa.
I knew some criticisms of a scientific paradigm. They seemed right. I concluded that scientists weren’t very smart and maybe I was smarter. I should have concluded that some cutting-edge scientists were making good criticisms of an old paradigm. I can still flatter myself by saying that it’s no small achievement to recognize a new paradigm early and bet on the winning horse. But the pattern I was seeing was part of the process of science, not a condemnation of it.
Most people understand this intuitively about past paradigm shifts. When a creationist says that we can’t trust science because it used to believe in phlogiston and now it believes in combustion, we correctly respond that this is exactly why we can trust science. But this lesson doesn’t always generalize when you’re in the middle of a paradigm shift right now and having trouble seeing the other side.
where this fails is not in the experts but in the ability of people who don’t listen to the experts to get disproportionate social power and hide the existence of the expert consensus.
Scientific consensus hasn’t just been accurate, it’s been unreasonably accurate. … The idea that scientific consensus is almost always an accurate reflection of the best knowledge we have at the time seems even more flabbergasting than any particular idea that scientists might or might not believe. But it seems to be true.