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Scientific Consensus

The phrase “Scientists agree that …” is ubiquitous in the popular press. Such statements are employed to sell pharmaceuticals, inspire conservation efforts, and alert the public about health emergencies. Only rarely are these politically or economically motivated statements entirely true, and even when scientists do agree, the assertion that “scientists agree” masks the considerable effort made to achieve agreement.

Still, scientists are motivated to achieve consensus. The concise definition, the identifiable single causal agent, and the elegant proof are the anticipated ends to frenzied, even messy searches or years of deliberate and tedious investigation. The excited conversation, the multiple theories, and the competition are expected to eventually subside, leaving the simple factlike statement—X is the cause of Y, or X is Y—distributed in textbooks and protected ...

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