Why we should trust scientific consensus: An extension of Naomi Oreskes’s argument

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Timothy Hibbins

Keywords

Science, research, scientific consensus, Naomi Oreskes

Abstract

Since the very beginnings of modern science, findings that have challenged various aspects of the social status quo have been met with extreme resistance. Even after ideas such as heliocentrism, natural selection, vaccination, and global warming achieved consensus support within their respective fields, many opponents have continued to deny them on the grounds that the scientific consensus is corrupt, mistaken, dogmatic, or some combination thereof. It was in response to contemporary manifestations of this concern that the historian of science Naomi Oreskes wrote an article for Time magazine titled ‘Science isn’t always perfect—But we should still trust it’ (2019). In the article she presents a nuanced case for why non-scientists can and should trust in scientific consensus. The purpose of this essay is to delve deeper into her argument and ultimately to strengthen it with the addition of new premises. I start by offering a brief reconstruction of the original argument before examining some key objections to it. After assessing the strengths of these objections, I suggest a way of addressing them that involves introducing a new distinction between two different types of consensus. I conclude that consensus only carries epistemic weight when it emerges from the process of scrutiny described by Oreskes, but that when it does, we are obliged to heed it.

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