Is Science Guided by Consensus?

Science World - From FlickrShould peoples opinions (or more accurately opinion polls) be a valid method of deciding what is, or isn’t good science? Is science, or the , something which can be validated by debate?

On Pharyngula, there is an interesting post (as always), titled “Ken Ham is still getting his PR for free” which has the following extract (from a blog entry on an ID supporting museum):

“Mocking publicity is free publicity,” Looy [curator] said. Besides, U.S. media have been more respectful, mindful perhaps of a 2006 Gallup Poll showing almost half of Americans believe that humans did not evolve, but were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Skeletons - Flickr ImageNow creationist nonsense aside, the bit which intrigues me is the assumption that because almost half Americans believe something it must be valid. This is a recurring theme where ever bad science, creationism and the like try to get publicity.

There are routinely requests for the likes of Richard Dawkins to attend public debates about Evolution vs Intelligent Design and the same thing happens in other areas (vaccinations springs immediately to mind, but there are lots more).

Now, what scientific purpose can be achieved by having two people trying to score points of each other in front of a lay audience? More importantly, the side with the better speaker will win, independently of the quality of their science. If someone has an excellent trial lawyer arguing that (for example) gravity doesn’t exist while a stereotypical physics professor tries to argue it does there is good reason to assume the audience will walk away thinking Gravity does not exist.

Yet it would still exist.

“Science” (for want of a better term) is independent of public opinion. The Popperian scientific method requires repeatability and falsifiability as the hall marks of “good science” not simply being “believed” in. It constantly amazes me that people will assume that simply because lots of people believe in something which is wrong, it must be right.