The consensus explained: “we just stopped arguing”

we stopped arguing

Writing a blog can be satisfying. But the downside is that there is less time to follow other blogs. I spent much less time on them since the creation of this blog. But sometimes I find something that I would never find before. One example is Eight Pseudoscientific Climate Claims Debunked by Real Scientists by Joshua Holland. Never heard of the Bill Moyers site, not likely to go back.

The author uses statements of scientists to give it more power. Those “real” scientists seem to be Kevin Trenberth, Ben Santer, Andrew Dessler, John Abraham and Katharine Hayhoe. Not really the most balanced ones in the debate, to say the least.

The pseudoscientific climate claim that interested me most was the claim “4. Yes, There Is a Scientific Consensus”. That was what I was looking for in the first place.

It starts rather predictable:

The most important thing to understand about the scientific consensus that human activities are causing the earth to warm is that it isn’t a result of peer pressure or someone policing scientists’ opinions. It results from the scientific method.

Having read a big part of the climategate emails and with the latest revelations of Lennart Bengtsson this is something I would take with some grains of salt. I also guess that I have a different definition of what is “the scientific method” than the author…

Then John Abrahams is quoted:

“Scientists are very interested in theories that other factors may be causing climate change,” says John Abraham. “The contrarians put forward ideas and the consensus scientists investigate them honestly and find that they don’t withstand scientific scrutiny. This happens all the time. That’s how science works. In fact, showing that these guys are wrong makes the science better.”

Now I get all soft and fussy. In the world of the unicorns those nice scientists reach out and take the ideas of the contrarians to investigate them in order to find the Truth. I can have it wrong, but in the real world I see a lot of name calling and ridiculing the skeptic arguments. Calling skeptics “deniers” or “contrarians” will probably not help. 😉

A scientific consensus emerges when the weight of evidence for a proposition becomes so great that serious researchers stop arguing about it among themselves. They then move on to study and debate other questions. There’s quite a bit of scientific debate about lots of different aspects of climate change, but the question of whether humans are causing the planet to warm isn’t one of them.

Now I start to recognize the controverse again … the science is clear … the evidence is unequivocal… I would have no real problem with that in an exact science, but in a field with sparse data, large uncertainties, that depend on many disciplines and that is politicized, I would find it rather unbelievable that researchers stop arguing about it. That humans are causing some warming is not really uncontroversial. The big question of course is “how much” and is it significant.

But then the ultimate argument:

There have been three studies, using different methodologies, that have shown that almost all working climate scientists – 97 percent – accept the consensus view.

The link goes, of all sites, to Skeptical Science. Nice of course that the three studies with different methodologies come to the same conclusion, but this doesn’t really prove anything. It is an opinion, a survey, not real evidence in the scientific sense of the word.

In the scientific field of climate studies – which is informed by many different disciplines – the consensus is demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change – and that’s nearly all of them. A survey of 928 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject ‘global climate change’ published between 1993 and 2003 shows that not a single paper rejected the consensus position that global warming is man caused (Oreskes 2004).

The statement: “stopped arguing about what is causing climate change” is an interesting one. Really? In the complex and chaotic system that is climate, there are a gazillion possible causes, some maybe not even known, other with no or hardly any data, other put forward as THE main cause (probably for political reason, not scientific ones). But yet, no doubt anymore about the cause of climate change?!?!

The three studies were those from Oreskes (2004), Doran (2009) and Cook (2013). They all agreed that humans had some influence on temperatures. But not much more than that. None of them was really specific in what they were looking for. Such a consensus is rather meaningless. No wonder they found so many to agree. None of the three asked anything about the catastrophic nature or the need to act, as it is often marketed.

Science doesn’t advance via consensus (consensus is not a valid scientific argument). The fact alone that one needs the opinion of scientists, even if it are climate scientists, means that the underlying evidence is not solid. If it were, we would rely on the evidence. A survey of scientists is not proof of anything. Nor pro, nor contra. That is an opinion of scientists. When you think about it, there is a reason why we have to rely on the opinion of scientists and that is science doesn’t provide the hard evidence.

If I have the choice to call something pseudoscientific, I would choose this specific claim. It is a extremely nice example of the headcount fallacy and appeal to authority.

Consensus is about level of agreement, not about the amount of evidence. People agree about many things with each other. Not necessarily for good reasons.

2 thoughts on “The consensus explained: “we just stopped arguing”

  1. eSell

    I’m leery of polls, of “truth by popularity”, but I think these “studies” (polls, if you will) have been done b/c a lot of politicians (in the US) at least run on a campaign of “CC hasn’t been proven–there’s still a lot of debate in the scientific community”. When they say stuff like that, well, if the people whose job it is to study CC don’t even agree if it is real, then it must not be! SO, things like this have to be done.

    I tend to think that the vagueness of the question is intentional–before we can start asking “is CC caused by CO2 alone, or by other human activities” or “is it even that big a problem, do we really have to start hiring every Dutchman we can find to start building sea walls around Florida?” we first need to know whether it is even a thing. I see it as a hierarchy…Does CC exist > Is CC caused by humans or is it natural > (if human caused) Is it mostly from CO2 or is it a combination of many factors (deforestation, urbanization, etc) > Is it necessarily catastrophic > THEN, FINALLY, based on the answers to all the above, we can finally ask What do we do about it.

    I tend to think it is a bit sad that three “studies” have had to be done to ascertain whether a consensus exists on whether “human activities are causing CC”, but I think it has become necessary b/c of the politicization of the topic; this helps inform Public Opinion, which can (hopefully, though doubtfully) influence how they vote–whether they vote to do anything about it, or vote on what to do, etc.

    But, of course, I’m still new in this arena (and am FINALLY trying to research this topic to my own satisfaction), so your opinion on all this carries more weight than mine–kind of like the opinion of climate scientists carries more weight than the opinions of geologists in the CC debate…


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      This is a though one to reply to. I think it all depends how meaningful you think science-by-vote is and how certain the scientists can be in a complex issue like the climate system. I have to admit that I had the same thoughts about this in the past. As you already know, I was a believer and I believed in the consensus. I believed that it was very meaningful because it was an agreement by climate scientists, it was their profession for goodness sake. The more I looked into it, the more I started to doubt that climate communication is really reliable.

      You are right that the authors of those studies wanted to influence the public, They stated that in their papers. That is not hard to understand, politicians depend on the public for their vote. If the public believes there is a “scientific consensus”, politicians will have it easier to to advance some specific policies. But then you need to now that what we hear about the issue is reliable and trustworthy. In your example it is in fact going from “Is it really an issue?” directly to “We should act now!” and skip all the rest, because “the science is settled”.

      It all boils down to how accurate and honest you think climate communication is. If you think that a politicized, post-normal science, that is studying a chaotic system with high amount of uncertainties and sparse historical data, really can claim a very high confidence (+95%!), then you are right. But I doubt it. It doesn’t give me a much confidence in skipping those important questions in between.

      Glad to hear that you started to look into the issue yourself and liking the experience. But don’t give me too much credit here. I am just a fellow traveler. If you look into the matter yourself your opinion carries as much weight as mine.



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