The Harvey-Weinstein scientific model

It is widely believed that science is the process by which experts collectively decide on the truth and post it up in “peer-reviewed journals”. At that point, once you have “peer-reviewed research articles” then the truth is known.

Less naïve people raise the bar somewhat. They are aware that individual research articles could be wrong, but they believe that science is inherently self-correcting. That is, if the scientific community reports a common belief, then this belief must be correct.

Up until at least 1955, well-regarded biology textbooks reported that we had 24 chromosomes. The consensus was that we had 24 chromosomes. It had to be right! It took a young outsider to contradict the consensus. In case you are wondering, we have 23 pairs of chromosomes, a fact that is not difficult to verify.

The theory of continental drift was ridiculed for decades. Surely, continents could not move. But they do. It took until 1968 before the theory could be accepted.

Surely, that’s not how science works. Surely, correct theories win out quickly.

But that’s not what science is. In Feynman’s words:

Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.

That is, science is about doubting everything, especially the experts.

Many people struggle with this idea… that truth should be considered to be an ideal that we can’t ever quite reach… that we have to accept that constant doubt, about pretty much everything, is how we do serious work… it is hard…

Let me take recent events as an illustration. Harvey Weinstein was a movie producer who, for decades, abused women. Even though it was widely known, it was never openly reported and denounced.

How could this be? How could nobody come forward for years and years and years… when the evidence is overwhelming?

What is quite clear is that it happens, all the time. It takes a lot of courage to face your peers and tell them that they are wrong. And you should expect their first reaction to be rejection. Rejection is costly.

The scientific model is not what you are taught in school… it is what Feynman describes… an ability to reject “what everyone knows”… to speak a different truth that the one “everyone knows”.

The public consensus was that Harvey Weinstein was a respected businessman. The consensus is not about truth. It is a social construction.

Science is not about reaching a consensus, it is about doubting the consensus. Anyone who speaks of a scientific consensus badly misunderstands how science works.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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