Feb 26, 2010

Let There Be No More Scientific Consensuses

[desktop wallpaper version available here]

It's good news that Rajendra Pachauri's leadership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now going to be scrutinized. His behaviour has been conspicuously less-than-professional and it's difficult to imagine informed people taking the IPCC seriously as long as he remains at the helm.

But climate science problems extend far beyond one man. In my view, they can be traced in large part to a phrase that should be struck forever from the scientific and journalistic vocabulary: "scientific consensus."

Science is about doubt – not certainty. Journalism is supposed to reveal – not conceal. When scientific organizations claim there's a consensus, they step over the line into political advocacy. When media outlets trumpet said consensus they "disappear" highly-qualified, dissenting scientists.

There's nothing wrong with saying there's a prevailing or dominant view among scientists on a particular topic. There's nothing wrong with saying there's a preponderance of opinion in one direction. But those phrases do something the term "scientific consensus" does not. They acknowledge the existence of alternative points-of-view.

The IPCC has spent years striving to establish what Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick refer to as "Official Science" (see pages 34-40 in their book, Taken By Storm):
Official Science may serve many functions, but it is most important to understand that Official Science is not science. Moreover, those involved with it represent only a minority of people involved with science, and they are not appointed by scientists to speak on their behalf...while scientists are skeptical of their own work and that of others, Official Science speaks with the simple confidence that good politics requires and journalism demands, but which science abhors.
When we're told about an alleged scientific consensus therefore, what's being described is not certainty or unanimity among all scientists – but merely the opinion of a small group of people who, via a political process, managed to get a seat at the table during the meetings at which, via another political process, the Official Science was decided upon.

When I began examining the climate change debate I was shocked to discover a huge disconnect between how the media described matters and what a few hours of independent research revealed. The Economist, a publication I normally trust and respect, spoke of a "consensus on global warming" as though it were gospel that had been hand-delivered by Yahweh himself.

The once stodgy Time magazine insisted there was "a clear scientific consensus connecting the rise in man-made greenhouse gas emissions" to physical changes in the natural world. Wired magazine, which is aimed at an educated, tech-savvy audience, illustrated beautifully what happens when we think and speak as though scientific consensuses are meaningful. The next step is to proclaim, as a journalist in that publication did in June 2008, that: "No one with any scientific sense now disagrees about the severity of the climate crisis."

But here's the catch. Freeman Dyson (one of the world's most accomplished, admired, and famous theoretical physicists) does disagree. Below are just three relevant Dyson quotes:
The idea that global warming is the most important problem facing the world is total nonsense and is doing a lot of harm.

Just because you see pictures of glaciers falling into the ocean doesn't mean anything bad is happening. This is something that happens all the time. It's part of the natural cycle of things.

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories.
Let's revisit the Wired writer's declaration: "No one with any scientific sense now disagrees about the severity of the climate crisis." Dyson, despite his enormous stature, is thereby reduced to a no one. He doesn't exist. He has been journalistically "disappeared."

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying Dyson's views are correct. That's a different discussion. What I'm saying is that his presence in this debate must be acknowledged. His opinions must be heard. It is wrong and it is dishonest for anyone to behave as though he isn't part of the landscape.

Dyson is a blue-chip intellect with a distinguished career. He's one of hundreds of similarly eminent scientists from around the world who have loudly and publicly dissented from the alleged scientific consensus on climate change. Two dozen such scientists are profiled in Lawrence Solomon's The Deniers. Indeed, thousands of scientists have expressed their reservations. Yet for years, the media has told us such people are less substantial than ghosts. They are invisible. Absent. Simply not spoken of.

This is the sort of thing that happens under totalitarian regimes. It is not an activity that journalists in democratic nations should in any way be party to. Pretending that these scientists don't exist is not only disrespectful, it's a profound betrayal of the public's trust. Journalists are supposed to inform the rest of us about current events and important debates. They aren't supposed to conceal an entire class of highly-relevant participants from public view.

Never again, therefore, should any journalist tell her readers about a "scientific consensus." Never again should any scientific body make use of that term.

By all means, tell me that a majority of scientists believes something to be true. Tell me that most indicators suggest that X is more likely than Y. Tell me there's a high probability, based on the available evidence, that a certain event may take place.

But never, ever talk to me about a scientific consensus. Those two words don't belong together.


h/t to Jeff at the Air Vent, whose post yesterday sparked this one

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