This is the version of the Guest Editorial in the Virginian Pilot today with hypertext links included.
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter who said it. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”- Richard P. Feynman
It was settled science.
The consensus was nearly total, and those who questioned the consensus were shunned in academic institutions and even arrested and compelled to recant. To state that the Earth was not the center of the universe was heresy.
The consensus was wrong, and the evidence of its error had been known for over one thousand years when Galileo was brought before the Inquisition to answer for his support of the Copernican model of the solar system, in which the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun. But science had been captured by what was then the largest bureaucracy on Earth, the Catholic Church. So, if you wanted to advance as an academic, you taught that the Sun, Moon and planets revolved around the Earth.
Skeptics pointed out that while the Sun and Moon appeared to smoothly circle the Earth against the background of the stars, the five visible planets instead seemed to move forward, stop, back up, and then move forward again. That retrograde motion was not consistent with a geocentric solar system. Supporters of the geocentric consensus claimed the retrograde movement was an illusion of parallax, and proposed complex mathematical models that claimed the planets orbited in loops called epicycles and constructed machines called planetariums (later, Orreries) which were mechanical versions of computers on which to run their mathematical models.
It was all hogwash, Copernicus and Galileo were right, but both were long dead before the Catholic bureaucracy admitted the Earth was not the center of the universe.
Of course, nothing like that could happen today, now that science is no longer in the grip of religion, right?
Turn over a can of chili and you will find a government mandated “Nutrition Facts” label warning you of the cholesterol content. It is there because the consensus in medical science for the last fifty years has been that high levels of cholesterol in the blood were a risk factor for heart disease and that severe restrictions of cholesterol in the diet would thus prevent heart disease. For decades, scientists outside medicine argued that cholesterol levels were mostly determined by heredity and that dietary limits were largely useless. They were right, but they were ignored by the medical consensus or dismissed as being in the pay of the meat, dairy and poultry industries. New guidelines have finally emerged abandoning limits on dietary cholesterol and we have learned that the old restrictions on meat, eggs, and dairy wee useless and their replacement with carbohydrates has in no small measure contributed to the obesity epidemic. But for the last fifty years, any physician who told you to go ahead and enjoy your bacon and eggs would have been dismissed as a quack by the medical consensus. But he would nonetheless have been right.
We now face drastic political and economic choices based on a consensus in Climate Science, whose adherents, like the 17th century clergy, have constructed elaborate mathematical models to support their failing theories. When those models do not conform to observation, they insist their models are right and the observations must be wrong and adjust the data to conform to theory.
That is not science. Science advances only when the consensus is continuously questioned and tested against reality. The researcher who finds error in what is believed to be true advances science every bit as much the one who finds new truths, if not more, as we cannot build new truth on old error.
Albert Einstein echoed Feynman when he warned that “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
Feynman and Einstein have, in their simple statements, given us the central truth of science. Theory must forever yield to observation, because theory is only a guess at the nature of that underlying reality. Science is never settled.
Settled science is dead science.