A philosophy professor proposes an Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus
In June 2022, scientists at Durham University each received an internal email from Peter Vickers, a professor at its philosophy department. Besides a brief personalized greeting, each message was identical. The content was succinct: “Colors don’t exist in the external world, they’re just a way that human beings represent the world in their minds. Do you agree or disagree?”
“It was a philosophical question but, according to textbook science, grass isn’t really green, it’s just the light reflected from it has a certain wavelength,” Vickers says. “I thought there’d be a consensus on it.”
Instead, Vickers’ question prompted fierce semantic debate. Some colleagues argued that grass has objective properties — color being one of them. Others contended that only light exists in a physical form: what a human perceives as green is merely certain molecules reflecting electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength between 520 and 570 nanometers.
The open-ended, theoretical question rendered the survey data nearly worthless. Rather than general agreement, all that emerged was lively scientific and philosophical discussion across academic inboxes. But the high response rate gave Vickers encouragement: his idea for an Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus could really work. All he needed was to ask a more straightforward line of inquiry.
It was while writing his book on the relationship between science and truth, Identifying Future-Proof Science, that Vickers became convinced that there should be a more accessible way to establish general academic agreement on disputed topics. “The traditional theory, even for non-experts, is to decide what to believe based on the science itself,” he explains. “But the more I wrote, the more I thought, ‘That’s not how the real world works.’ You’d never say to someone worried about getting vaccinated, ‘Here, read this textbook on the science of vaccines’ — it’s summarizing decades of research; you’re asking someone who might not have the background knowledge to read, judge and understand it.”
Help for the time-stressed non-academic, says Vickers, will come in the form of a large-scale poll of global experts responding to popular scientific issues via a set of four options, ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” at the extremes, and “weakly agree” to “weakly disagree” in the center. Results will be published in academic journals, with the eventual aim of a physical institute housing vast teams of researchers, data scientists and IT experts working towards the goal of greater societal consensus on subjects like climate change and pandemics.
Vickers’ hope is to also aid academia itself: there is a lack of hard data quantifying how many experts agree on the biggest topics of the day. “It’s actually difficult to find how many global scientists believe that Covid-19 is caused by a virus,” he says. “And the best attempt to quantify the scientific community’s opinion on whether climate change is driven by human activity has 2,780 respondents: a tiny fraction of the world’s scientists you could ask, and nearly all were from Western countries.”
Driving the initiative is the fight against misinformation. Expertise has long been weaponized as means of power and deception, particularly among marginalized and minority communities, says Nicole Grove, editor-in-chief at the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review. In some cases, it’s created a sense of mistrust, undermining the credibility of some institutions. “It wasn’t that long ago that doctors were recommending ‘healthy’ brands of cigarettes to their patients, where seemingly scientific research was used by tobacco companies as verifiable evidence that we now know was completely manufactured.”
Experts say that there has perhaps never been more dispute than there is today on what makes a fact, a fact. “The internet is an amazing access point for knowledge, but it’s also changed the way people are able to produce what appears to be evidence to support any point of view,” adds Grove. “One can always find someone with credentials who will take on any position at any time. My sense is misinformation is more about bombardment than a lack of information.”
Social media has also created echo chambers that fan the flames of conspiracies, even in the face of incontrovertible proof. “Research suggests that people are attracted to conspiracy theories when their psychological needs are frustrated,” says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “They can turn people away from mainstream politics and science in favor of more extreme political views and anti-science attitudes. And these theories seem to arise even when the scientific consensus is clear.”
Vickers acknowledges that his proposed consensus-finding institute won’t appeal to sections of the population that think the whole system is corrupt. But he believes his idea could benefit broader society, particularly on health issues. He cites a June 2022 study showing that Covid-19 vaccine uptake was significantly boosted in the Czech Republic once a skeptical public were shown that 90% of 9,650 doctors trusted in its safety. “The high consensus helped correct a misconception that only half of physicians were confident in the vaccine,” he says. “It ultimately led to higher vaccinations, meaning fewer deaths. It may sound dramatic, but the cost in a lack of consensus can be that stark.”
Beyond health crises though, there are questions over whether experts should be burdened with an altruistic role in educating the public on what they consider to be a scientific fact. “Scientists shouldn’t be loaded up with societal duties no one else has,” says James Ladyman, professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Bristol. “The rise in misinformation is a matter for regulation and government — it has nothing to do with science.”
There are also concerns that a frictionless polling model could supersede the complex, nuanced pursuit of acquiring and discussing knowledge. “Science is a highly structured social organization in which consensus is achieved semi-formally through conferences, meetings and journal publications,” adds Ladyman. “It’s not a flat structure where people vote and everyone has equal say. When a scientific institution wants to take a position on a topic, it typically sets up a subcommittee that writes a report with details of their inquiry — it doesn’t poll all its members.”
While a hard figure may not exist, there is a consensus among the scientific community that smoking cigarettes is a leading cause of cancer and that human activity is the main driver of climate change. Determining a general agreement among more debated topics, such as whether biological sex is the main determinant of gender, may pose more of a challenge.
“A shared commitment to telling the truth about nature, and to getting that truth out there, still leaves a lot of room for disagreement among even the most expert of scientists,” says Gregory Radick, professor of history and philosophy at the University of Leeds. “And much is lost when scientific knowledge gets boiled down to an answer to a simple ‘yes or no’ question.”
It means that facts can be disputed by experts. Ladyman says that a mass-survey model risks creating more noise in a system already blasting information round-the-clock. “In principle, finding out the scientific consensus on a topic could be good. But it presupposes that the information can’t be found out already. I find it unlikely that a significant number who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change would change their mind if they saw there was a huge scientific consensus about it — they probably wouldn’t care.”
However, Vickers believes that his Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus needs to happen, especially if it can help people make better informed health decisions. “In the 20th century, it was too easy for the tobacco industry to make it look like there were two sides to the story — a global poll would have shown there were perhaps only 2% of rogue scientists that existed,” he says. “The goal isn’t to tell the public the facts — it’s to accurately measure the opinion of the scientific community and then provide people with data that could be useful to them.”
Vickers’ epistemic agency is still in the funding stages. His team is currently debating who qualifies as a scientist, from the obvious choice of an academic affiliated to a relevant science department or institute, to the borderline cases of a former nurse now giving health lectures at universities.
Then, there’s dividing the scientists up: a meteorologist and, say, a pediatrician may receive an equal vote on a climate change question; the consensus among each scientific discipline, however, could be shown separately. Finally, there’s the issue of ensuring a high enough response rate for strong enough data — the plan is for a personalized email to be sent within institutions, just like in the original question to Durham scientists, to get as many survey queries answered.
Consensus for an institute determining scientific consensus is, ironically, difficult. The next step is a pilot program in April, involving 18,000 scientists from 31 institutions across 12 different countries. The planned opening question should, at least, elicit strong assent: “Has science proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Covid-19 is caused by a virus?” “It’s not a particularly interesting question as most people accept that it’s been established, but we want to set a baseline for what solid scientific consensus looks like,” says Vickers.
In an age where a rabbit hole of misinformation is only ever a few clicks away, Vickers’ hope is his idea will reach well-meaning people left confused by the online maelstrom. “Had a mass survey of global scientists existed when the pandemic began — questions on how Covid is transmitted, mask efficacy, vaccine safety — I think it would have helped the public,” he says. “There’s a mess of information out there.”
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