- Manufactured Scientific Consensus: A Reply to Ceccarelli
It is with bemusement that I come to query Leah Ceccarelli’s promotion of the phrase “manufactured scientific controversy,” especially as a pejorative.1 It would seem to presume that there is something wrong when scientific controversies have not come about in some “natural” way. The phrase also invites a complementary consideration of “manufactured” and “natural” scientific consensus. The philosophical paper trail on this latter issue starts with Charles Sanders Peirce and runs through Karl Popper and eventually to Jürgen Habermas. Peirce set this inquiry on the right footing when he proposed that scientific validity is governed not by the moment-to-moment epistemic drift in scientific opinion but an envisaged agreement in the ultimate set of inquirers “at the end of time.” This normative horizon encourages us to go beyond merely extrapolating from present trends into the future—a fetishization of the current orthodoxy—to imagining that the shape of long periods of change in the past will be reproduced in the future. Such reasoning is akin to the sort of knowledge that financiers aim to have of the firms in which they might invest, and corresponds to the vision of would-be scientific revolutionaries who happily risk collective past achievements on behalf of a bolder if speculative future.2
Seen from that second-order perspective, those angling for a Peircean consensus should endorse what Hilary Putnam dubbed the “pessimistic meta-induction,” according to which, based on science’s historical track [End Page 753] record, most of what we believe now as fundamental explanatory principles—though not necessarily the evidence invoked in their support—is likely to be superseded in a century’s time.3 Here we need to take the Gestalt switch model of scientific revolution seriously: What makes a previously duck-looking figure suddenly appear rabbit-like is a change not in the figure’s details but in the overarching frame of reference used to interpret it. But if Putnam is right, why even wait a century to witness this radical change in frameworks? Why not manufacture controversies, the outcomes of which will get us nearer that ultimate consensus? This was certainly the spirit in which Popper offered falsifiability as the mark of the scientific: It was meant to expedite progress, perhaps even at a rate faster than the scientific establishment would wish, especially considering how the outcomes might affect investment and employment patterns in science. (That alone may explain why science is not Popperian in practice.) Of course, not every attempt at falsification is destined to succeed—in fact, most fail. But assuming that the results are publicly available (per Popper’s “open society” vision of science), everyone will have benefited from the lessons drawn from these tests to established thinking.
My response to Leah Ceccarelli’s “Manufactured Scientific Controversy” begins on this note because there is no reason to presume either that consensus is normal in science or that whatever consensus exists in science is anything more than an institutionally sanctioned opinion about theories whose ultimate prospects are still up for grabs. If science is ultimately about following the truth wherever it may lead, then one should expect inquirers to diverge in their paths, as they extend the same knowledge base in various directions, only some of which will bear substantial fruit, sway colleagues, and have other positive outcomes. However, this inertial tendency is periodically interrupted by the perceived need for the scientific community to present a united front. The source of this need is at least threefold: resource constraint, legitimation crisis, and policy relevance. The first threatens to turn alternative research trajectories into potential competitors, the second corresponds to the self-generated “crisis” of a Kuhnian paradigm, and the third refers to the situations on which Ceccarelli focuses. In this last set of cases, there is a general expectation that “science” must speak in one voice to a pressing matter of public concern.4
Ceccarelli’s normative horizon is most clearly explained in terms of a distinctly American “liberal” sensibility that recoils at the thought of HIV-AIDS [End Page 754] denial, global warming skepticism, and antievolution.5 I say this because nothing...