Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Scientific Consensus

There’s a new book out from author Debbie Nathan called “Sybil Exposed”, which categorically exposes the multiple personality story of “Sybil” as a complete, deliberate hoax.

The story of the girl with 16 distinct personalities, Sybil, became quite popular in 1973, when a book was released purporting to tell the story of this Minnesota farm girl who wound up in New York City and on a therapist’s couch, telling horrifying stories of her torture and abuse, which fractured her personality into multiple parts.  They even made a very popular movie about it, with Sally Fields playing the title role.

As Nathan chronicles, “Sybil” is actually Shirley Mason, who met Manhattan therapist Cornelia Wilbur in the early 1950’s.  Wilbur suggested the two of them could make a lot of money if they concocted this wild story about Mason’s travails and fractured personality.  The two collaborated with writer Flora Schreiber, and the myth of Sybil was born.  In 1958, Mason “came clean” and issued a statement that the whole Sybil thing was a complete fiction.  (Nathan’s book is based on this statement and other materials now archived at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY.)

But Wilbur so aggressively promoted the story of her multiple-personality patient among psychiatric circles that she came to great fame; made a fortune off Schreiber’s  1973 book – which is still in print and which you can buy today on Amazon for $9.99 – and the whole idea of multiple personality disorder was born.  It became an official medical/psychological disorder designation which exists to this day, because the consensus of the powers-that-be in the world of psychiatry was that Wilbur’s stories about Mason were true.


As Nathan’s new book so clearly illustrates, consensus can be a very dangerous thing.  The consensus of leading medical authorities was that Joseph Lister was crazy, when he postulated that nearly-invisible organisms called “bacteria” were the cause of so many post-operative deaths in hospitals in the late 1800’s.

The consensus of leading environmental scientists in the 1970’s was that the earth was on the verge of another ice age, because of the global cooling they’d observed.   Thirty years later, the consensus of leading environmental scientists is that the earth is rapidly heating up because of man-made factors. Many of the same scientists; much of the same data.

In Lister’s case, he proved beyond any doubt that carbolic acid has antiseptic properties, and that what it does is kill bacteria.  All the others were wrong, and he was right.  Think of that the next time you rinse your mouth out with Listerine.  (Yup – same guy.)  Lister is only one of many cases that illustrate so clearly that science is not about consensus, but about demonstrable, repeatable fact.  Truth, if you will.

I don’t know if the earth is cooling or warming or if greenhouse gasses are behind it or if the hole in the ozone layer is a factor or if the hole was caused by fluorocarbons or what.  I do know that consensus is fine for resolving a discussion about where to go for dinner, but that it has nothing to do with science.


  1. If I say "good point" am I part of the problem instead of part of the solution?

    I think the real problem is when people don't know whether the "consensus" is backed by fact, and whether that fact is something you can trust. I recently was asked my opinion about milk marketing claims, and to determine whether I thought they might be crossing the line into deception, I read the history of the studies that discussed whether milk is really healthy -- and found quite a lot of reason to conclude that the "consensus" on one side might not be unbiased.

    So "consensus" about global warming is only as good as the facts those scientists are reviewing and agreeing on.

  2. The problem with coming up with any irrefutable facts about global warming is that it's impossible to set up a grand experiment that even the most scientifically-challenged person can understand. You can't say, "OK, here's our world where we've released a lot of pollutants into the atmosphere, and here's the control: a world exactly like ours that hasn't been polluted by its inhabitants." So you have to approach the problem sideways and do a lot of little tests and measurements that produce solid data, and then have all these little facts add up to one big conclusion. It's hard to get people to make that leap.

    What about evolution? None of us have witnessed the human species evolving, yet evolution (for the most part) has been accepted by the general public. It's a lot of little pieces of information that added up to one big conclusion. And new pieces of information supporting evolution are still coming in.

  3. So you have to approach the problem sideways and do a lot of little tests and measurements that produce solid data,...

    OK. When will they start doing that w/regards AGW??

  4. And when will you believe them, Dad? Your mind is closed on the issue.

  5. Not really. I don't quibble with those who say that the climate is warming--nor with those who said that the climate was cooling.

    But those who present as Holy Writ that warming and cooling are all a result of 'human activity' are incapable of proving their assertions--except by the tried-and-true method of fraud, lies, and ignoring the sun.

  6. Oh, by the way: they also present as Holy Writ that there IS such a thing as an "ideal temperature."

    Except they won't specify it--for good reason: if we get there, the money-bucket machine stops.

  7. Anonymous,

    >> And when will you believe them, Dad? Your mind is closed on the issue. <<

    "Belief" shouldn't be at issue. Why MUST we "believe" anything? Either a thinking human being can come to a conclusion based on evidence or he can't.

    As usual, the "believers" in global warming are interested in much more than establishing the validity of its existence. Namely, that all sorts of political actions should be taken to mitigate the effects of said warming.

    It's as if the people who "believe" that evolution is established fact would want the government to encourage human evolution through genetic improvements. Improve the breed or we'll die far short of our human evolutionary potential!

    As it is the global warming johnnies want governments the world over to spend untold billions to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases...when the evidence in favor of global warming has shown that mitigation at even the most aggressive and expensive levels will do next to nothing to decrease those same gases.

    So, like, forget about berating somebody for not "believing" in global warming.

    The Town Crank

  8. Oh, I don't know. Global temperature change and its effects are right there in front of our faces, as clear as skin cancer. I rank the snipers at peripherals as kin to the anti-evolutionists, holocaust deniers and Chernobyl Never Happened folks. Better dig that cave deep. You're gonna get eaten first.

  9. I've said it here before: Facts don't care if you believe them.

    Evolution is at least as well established as the theory (yes, it's "only" a theory because it has not been directly observed) that the Earth circles the sun.

    The consensus believers, with their "conventional wisdom" and malformed notion of "comon sense" and their "Holy Writ" nonsense who disagree with the science are the dangerous ones. Galileo could have told you about that.

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