The consensus was wrong

In an article in the Guardian, Richard Tol wrote that “There are plenty of examples in history where everyone agreed and everyone was wrong”. He didn’t give examples there – perhaps he thought this was so well known that it wasn’t worth commenting on, or perhaps space was too limited.

Here are a few examples of where the consensus has turned out to be wrong (thanks to @Fastcomm, @intrepidwanders, @DerrickByford, @nmrqip and @Beautyon for suggesting many of these). More examples welcome! 
Yes, I know, these stories are all greatly oversimplified.

Copernicus, Galileo and the Sun. For some time after Copernicus wrote his book saying that the Earth goes round the Sun, most scientists continued to believe the opposite.

Ernst Chladni and meteorites. The consensus was that meteorites came from the earth, perhaps from volcanoes, until, around 1800, some nutter suggested they might come from outer space.

Cholera and John Snow. The consensus was that cholera was caused by ‘miasma’ – bad air, until John Snow identified a link with a contaminated water pump in the 1850s.

Semmelweis, hand-washing and puerperal fever. His results were rejected because they conflicted with the consensus of scientific opinion.

Evolution. The consensus was that God created species in a few days. Darwin was so worried about the consequences of what he’d found that he sat on it for many years.

The Aether and the speed of light. It used to be thought that light travelled at a certain speed relative to a background known as ‘aether’. Experiments and then Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that this was wrong.

Wegener and continental drift. Wegener was attacked and ridiculed for this theory.

George Zweig and quarks. The consensus was that protons and neutrons were fundamental elementary particles until Zweig and Gell-Man came up with quarks.

Barry Marshall and stomach ulcers. The consensus was that gastritis and ulcers were related to poor diet and stress. in 1984, Marshall had to ingest the bacteria, helicobacter pylori, to show he was right that this was the cause, and eventually won the Nobel Prize.

Stanley Prusiner and prions The consensus was that disease agents needed nucleic acids. Prusiner’s theory of prions in the 1980s led to incredulity, personal attacks and then a Nobel Prize.

Barbara McClintlock and “jumping genes”. Another Nobel Prize winner whose work wasn’t accepted at first because it went against received wisdom.

Maybe all those people insisting on how important it is to convince the public that there’s a consensus on climate change need to take a basic course in the history of science.


27 thoughts on “The consensus was wrong

  1. I indeed had little space and thought that everyone would have their favourite example.
    Mine is the economic crisis of 2008. Theory says that a liquidity crunch cannot cause an economic recession. Yet it did. Theoreticians are still scratching their heads.

  2. Another example:
    People used to think that value was absolute, given by the gods (Socrates), God (St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas), land (Quesnay, Turgot, Wackernagel), or labour (Smith, Ricardo, Marx). Jevons, Menger and Walras showed that value is relative: demand relative to supply.

  3. Dark matter and dark energy were big recent surprises to physicists. Expanding universe measurements by Hubble made Einstein correct his general theory of relativity. Of course, special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics each came as surprises to those comfortable with “settled science.”

  4. Another example: the age of Earth.

    Biblical scholars (e.g. Bishop of Usher) estimated that Earth was around 5,000 years old by counting back the generations in Genesis. That worked fine as a consensus until Victorian-era natural scientists found they couldn’t pack their fossils and stratigraphy into the time available.

    Lord Kelvin had several attempts, and came up with a figure of about 30 million years. His method was to cool a ball of molten iron and rock to arrive at a planet with a molten core and a solid crust. That was an improvement, but it still seemed very tight. Nevertheless, it was natural science vs. physics, and the numbers won out. Another consensus.

    The great unknown-unknown was the heat generated by radioactive decay. Kelvin was out by about 4.5 billion years. That’s the problem with unknowns. Oops.

  5. Some consensuses are so ingrained that scientists aren’t even aware of their assumptions. It was assumed for a long time that the universe obeyed Euclidean geometry, because no-one even knew that an option was possible.

  6. I would drop the Galileo/Copernicus item. All they had to offer was a theory with little observational support. This was pointed out at the time by Cardinal Bellarmine. Today the consensus on this issue is misguided.

    Of course, much later their heliocentric guesses were shown to be true.

    The Cardinal’s quote is in one of my Karl Popper books and I don’t have it at my fingertips, but he was totally rational and cogent in ibis analysis.

    From WikiP: Some of the views he cited were those of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, whom he quoted as saying “The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.”

  7. 1. Pasteur and “spontaneous generation”. Nope!

    2. Mendel (and several others, Wright etc) and “blending inheritance”: Sometimes, but depends on how you define blending.

    3. Stebbins, Mayr and others on instantaneous biologically-caused reproductive barriers and speciation: Yep!

  8. You could add the chromosome count for humans, 46.

    “The number of human chromosomes was published in 1923 by Theophilus Painter. By inspection through the microscope he counted 24 pairs which would mean 48 chromosomes. His error was copied by others and it was not until 1956 that the true number, 46, was determined by Indonesia-born cytogeneticist Joe Hin Tjio.[6]”

    Source: Wikipedia

  9. Prior to WWII, conclusions from the cutting edge of science as advanced by Einstein, Planck, Curie, Aston et al. had started to merge with those from ancient religions and spirituality, like astrology and AA’s 12 Step Program.

    This friendly merger ended abruptly and became antagonistic after:

    a.) The FORCE released from cores of uranium and plutonium atoms destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, and

    Was immediately followed by:

    b.) Unreported CHAOS and FEAR amongst world leaders in late August 1945 after Stalin’s USSR forces captured Japan’s atomic bomb plant at Konan, Korea.

    Post-normal science became more dogmatic and less rigorously honest than many programs of religions and spirituality after 1945, before finally surfacing as Climategate emails in late November 2009.

    Here’s the rest of the story:

  10. Prior to 1998, nearly every astrophysicist believed that the universe was expanding at a decelerating rate. This view arose from the natural extension of Einstein’s General Theory which explains gravitation as a curvature of space-time. Since the universe was made up of matter, it caused a space curvature which could only possibly slow the expansion of receding galaxies.

    But observations by the High-Z Supernova team led by Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt were published in 1998 showing that as galaxies receded, the recessionary velocities actually increased, a finding which completely upended the decades-long “consensus” of astronomers and cosmologists. Riess and Schmidt won a Nobel Prize in physics in 2011 for their work.

  11. This 2003 Caltech lecture by Michael Crichton has some good stuff on consensus:

    He regarded “consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks”. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. Nor does it seem likely to do so. He gave some excellent examples (most noted above) of the poor track record of consensus:

    Puerperal fever: it took 125 years before Alexander Gordon’s suggestion that such fevers were infectious processes to be accepted as correct. In the meantime women were dying unnecessarily. (Noted above)

    Pellagra: it took a long time for Joseph Goldberger’s insistence that the disease was caused by poor diet, not germs, to be accepted. In the meantime, thousands of poor people in the southern US were dying.

    He refers to Wegener and continental drift (noted above), Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory (noted above), fibre and colon cancer, HRT … Useful data.

  12. Thanks Robin, those are wise words from Crichton.
    “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics.”
    “The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.”

  13. And there used to be a consensus that climate could not change over times as short as a human generation. The arctic seems to disagree.

    I don’t think your argument demonstrates that everything on which there is consensus is wrong. Climate change could still be real. Time will tell I suppose.

  14. The argument is not that consensus proves falsity as you absurdly imply. Rather, the assertion is that consensus does not confer accuracy. So you twisted the implication.

    Additionally, there was never any consensus about the Arctic after the 1930s since the Northwest Passage was navigable in the late 1920s and early 1930s and had less ice cover than it does today. It had far less ice in the Middle Ages which allowed Nordic explorers to penetrate deep into latitude that are impenetrable today. It also allowed them to settle and farm areas of Greenland that are encrusted in feet of ice cover today.

  15. I credit Michael Creighton with this Caltech Lecture “Aliens Cause Global Warming”,, in which he identifies numerous examples of so-called consensus,, which ultimately were disproved but often years if not decades later, to the detriment of society.

  16. An off the beat example: the consensus on what the consensus is.

    Not only does it include people who don’t think warming will be significant or a problem, the best scientific agreement on what the most effective solutions would be is also very different than what most people seem to think. I would easily bet that the mainstream economic opinion on policy agrees more with people called skeptics than with people who use the the term scientific consensus to promote their policies.

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