Thursday, October 13, 2005

Indonesian hobbits and global warming consensus

I like following some non-political scientific controversies, partly just because they're interesting, and partly because they are the "control" group that might help us understand the proper way to handle politicized scientific issues.

Carl Zimmer has written on multiple occasions about the "hobbit" people fossils discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores. They were about 3 feet tall, and the only complete skull had a brain one-third the size of our own, about the same size as a chimp's brain. The scientific controversy is whether these people are Homo sapiens or if they're descendants of an ancestral hominid species that survived on Flores long after being wiped out elsewhere. The recent discovery of additional fossils provides support for the latter claim, although proponents of the other view remain unconvinced. As best I can tell, there are a lot of supporters for either claim, and one can't say that the vast majority of relevant experts firmly believe in one of these claims as being the clearly correct position.

This will be a fascinating debate to watch for its own sake, but I have a thought experiment we can conduct right now. Let's suppose that five years from now, additional evidence will have convinced almost all the experts that one side is right. It doesn't really matter which side - let's say all but a tiny fraction of experts end up believing that the hobbits were H. sapiens like us.

The question is, should we non-experts rely on this turn of events to come to any conclusion as to whether that dominant side is right?

If you're Michael Crichton, then you have no better idea under this future scenario as to who is right than Crichton has right now. As he says, "If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period." Crichton draws no conclusions from the fact that the vast majority of experts in that field will have changed their minds, dropped their uncertainty, and drew their own conclusions in one direction.

If, on the other hand, you've evolved to a Homo sapiens-level intelligence, you would conclude that the consensus of a majority of experts that the hobbits were part of our species probably means something. If the die-hards on the other side complain about not getting equal time and money, their first task should be getting enough experts on their side to reopen the question, and not come running to us.

The hypothetical consensus about the hobbits compares to the existing consensus about anthropogenic global warming that's developed over the last two decades. I'm sure Crichton's view that this scientific consensus is meaningless is itself something that will go extinct - I just hope it doesn't take too many of us with it.

key: science, global warming, politics

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