Five oceans? How consensus evolves

The National Geographic Society's announcement to recognize a fifth ocean is an excellent example of how scientific consensus evolves and changes over time.



July 2, 2021 - 1:12 PM

In a handout image provided by The White House, President Barack Obama looks at a map donated to the White House by the National Geographic Society, on June 10, 2009 in Washington, D.C. (Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images/TNS)

As much as political leaders and pundits like to cite scientific consensus as unarguable fact, consensus can change. New classification schemes can emerge. New information can shake loose even the most firmly held beliefs as the scientific method is impartial to politics or patronage. This flexibility and willingness to learn is key to discovery and to human knowledge.

Still, it can be jarring when basic truths seem to abruptly shift. Things like the number of planets or, say, the number of oceans on Earth.

The National Geographic Society announced in June that it will include a fifth ocean in its maps of the Earth’s waters, recognizing the Southern Ocean as a distinct body.

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