måndag 14 september 2009

Consensus in Science and Sports: An Inconvenient Truth

The idea of scientific consensus is used by the alarmists of global warming and by the wikipedians controling the information on Wikipedia. However, scientific truth cannot be determined by majority voting, only by scientific facts and arguments. One fact or argument by one scientist can outweigh the consensus of billions of people. Scientific consensus can lead astray, since it can give the false impression of scientific truth, when it is only the superstition of many.

Political truth in democratic societies is determined by consensus of the majority,  but scientific truth should not be determined by consensus, in particular not by third-party majority consensus, but by real combat between active living scientists. 

It is the same in sports: The Wimbledon matches between Borg and McEnroe were not determined by consensus of the spectators, but by Borg and McEnroe alone. 

Borg and McEnroe represent the active living scientists carrying the scientific knowledge at any given time, who by playing matches of science or disputations in seminars and journals decide the current truths. 

In sports, you win by walkover if your opponent does not show up to the match, and it is the same in science. You cannot defend your position by saying nothing, neither can the songbird  defend its territory by singing nothing.

An illustration is given by the match about how to resolve  d'Alembert's paradox in fluid mechanics which has been going on for 255 years. This long match has now come to an end by the publication of my resolution together with Johan Hoffman in the leading Journal of Mathematical Fluid Mechanics. The victory is declared by Google putting our resolution in top position in a search on "resolution of d'Alembert's paradox". It is a walkover victory because the entire editorial board of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics says nothing.

d'Alembert's paradox of zero drag in inviscid flow is important since much of modern fluid mechanics is related to the paradox in one way or the other, as explained in my knols on fluid mechanics.

Michel Crichton expresses the essence very clearly: 
  • 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.
  • The work of science has nothing whatsoever to do with consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it is consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it is not consensus. Period."

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