The (political) nature of the consensus

Some quick thoughts before going to the Cook lecture this evening.

One question that kept popping up when looking at the consensus is why some people feel the need to prove that there is a “scientific consensus” on Global Warming. It has obviously nothing to do with science. The Cook paper was an eye-opener in that regard.

Just look at how it starts:

An accurate perception of the degree of scientific consensus is an essential element to public support for climate policy (Ding et al 2011). Communicating the scientific consensus also increases people’s acceptance that climate change (CC) is happening (Lewandowsky et al 2012). Despite numerous indicators of a consensus, there is wide public perception that climate scientists disagree over the fundamental cause of global warming (GW; Leiserowitz et al 2012, Pew 2012).

Also look how it ends:

The public perception of a scientific consensus on AGW is a necessary element in public support for climate policy (Ding et al 2011). However, there is a significant gap between public perception and reality, with 57% of the US public either disagreeing or unaware that scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth is warming due to human activity (Pew 2012). Contributing to this ‘consensus gap’ are campaigns designed to confuse the public about the level of agreement among climate scientists. In 1991, Western Fuels Association conducted a $510 000 campaign whose primary goal was to ‘reposition global warming as theory (not fact)’. A key strategy involved constructing the impression of active scientific debate using dissenting scientists as spokesmen
(Oreskes 2010). The situation is exacerbated by media treatment of the climate issue, where the normative practice of providing opposing sides with equal attention has allowed a vocal minority to have their views amplified (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). While there are indications that the situation has improved in the UK and USA prestige press (Boykoff 2007), the UK tabloid press showed no indication of improvement from 2000 to 2006 (Boykoff and Mansfield 2008).

The narrative presented by some dissenters is that the scientific consensus is ‘…on the point of collapse’ (Oddie 2012) while ‘…the number of scientific “heretics” is growing with each passing year’ (All` gre et al 2012). A systematic, comprehensive review of the literature provides quantitative evidence countering this assertion. The number of papers rejecting AGW is a miniscule proportion of the published research, with the percentage slightly decreasing over time. Among papers expressing a position on AGW, an overwhelming percentage (97.2% based on self-ratings, 97.1% based on abstract ratings) endorses the scientific
consensus on AGW.

They didn’t hide their motivation. It is about the perception of the consensus, not if it is true or not. The more the public perceives that there is a consensus among scientists, the more they will support climate policies. By “proving” a consensus Cook and his team want to influence policy making in one direction. It is political in nature, not scientific. It should be considered the work of political activists, not of scientists.

I wouldn’t exactly agree that the scientific consensus is on the point of collapse, but I do have the (subjective) perception that the skeptical side is growing.

I never understood the “providing opposing sides with equal attention”-statement. I don’t have that perception. At least in my country, the mainstream media is dominating with a very one-sided story, focusing primarily on the alarmist side and basically ignoring or even ridiculing the skeptical voices. Also, at least in my country, that “vocal minority” is hardly heard in the media. That is far from receiving equal time.

My own experience tells me that it is very difficult for a member of the public to get information about both sides of the issue. It is therefore even more surprising to see skepticism … grow. So obviously something else is at play here.

Despite the claim of the contrary, global warming is still a theory, not a fact. As far as I know there isn’t conclusive evidence yet and the grounds of the evidence very shaky. There is however overwhelming circumstantial evidence, but only if you look at it in a one-sided way.

But, you might say, isn’t it convincing that this is the “most comprehensive analysis” until now? Extending the analysis of Oreskes and both pointing in the same direction. Isn’t that part of this overwhelming evidence? Well, yes and no. As mentioned before, this is not a scientific analysis. At the very best it analyses how many papers endorse the theory, not whether the science is solid. I agree that the number of papers rejecting is indeed a minuscule proportion of the published research, but I am not really sure this has to do with scientists knowing the science is solid, but rather with the polarization of the debate, peer pressure,…

This paper doesn’t analyze WHY scientists endorse the theory. It could be that they know the evidence, but it could well be that they just have trust that anthropogenic global warming is real, without having a look at the evidence themselves. Since most, if not all, of the papers that were used in the survey were unrelated to the attribution question, I think that last option will be much closer to the truth.

The term “accurate perception” made me smile. “Accurate” is not a synonym for “correct”. Just as for example a thermometer can measure a wrong temperature very accurately (for example when it is badly sited), a survey with a bad methodology can measure a consensus where there is none. As seen in the previous post, the papers used in the analysis were not relevant to the question asked (whether the warming over the last 100+ years is caused by humans). With such a flawed methodology, no matter how many papers they might have examined in the process, be it 1,000 or 12,000 or even a million, that wouldn’t even make a difference.

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