Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Cracking the Consensus Question

Just a few weeks ago, our good friends at the National Center for Science Education announced they are stepping into the climate change arena. And that is welcome news. It’s never a bad thing having sound scientific, rational minds addressing the problems that concern us.

But climate change continues to be a very different type of inquiry point than say teaching creationism in science class. One of the reasons is, it’s often unclear what the claim or phenomenon is exactly that scientists are addressing. Just recently, BBC online reported that the scientific consensus on climate change may be cracking.

Now, that may seem ominous, but as the author of the BBC piece, Richard Black, points out, the idea that the “consensus is cracking” is troublesome in many ways. And I thought this idea would make for a great exercise in critical thinking and hopefully a good discussion.

What are your thoughts on this meme of “the consensus is cracking”? Is there any evidence for it? What exactly is the consensus that may be cracking? What are the scientific consensuses that could play into this notion? What is this on my elbow? If the idea that the concensus is cracking is true, does it matter? Why? Why not?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I think the most important issue is separating the mythical “scientific consensus” from the far more useful consensus of climate scientists (or whatever the correct term is – I’m not totally clear. Is it climatologists? Should meteorologists have a say?)

  2. @jupstin: The word is Climatologist. And no, Meteorologists should not have a say, since they for the most part know very little about the issues at hand. Meteorology is about the short term, Climatology about the long. The problems in the two disciplines are very different, and specialists in one are not usually specialists also in the other. A lot of meteorologists claim to know about climatology, but they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Not to mention that a lot of meteorologists have little to no solid scientific training (certainly that is true of most of the ones you see on TV, with the exception of “The Weather Channel”, which employs almost exclusively people with post-graduate degrees).

  3. As far as I understand it, there is absolutely no need for consensus in science. The whole point of it is to debate ideas to see which one better explains our reality. Consensus relies more on the principle of authority than on scientific analisys.

    1. Umm, not so much. The argument from authority would be if you pointed to one scientist, or a small group and claimed that because they said it, it must be true.

      When a branch of science reaches a consensus about some hypothesis, it’s because the reasearch has been done, peer review has run it’s course and all of the evidence points in a particular direction.

      Pointing to that consensus is not making an argument from authority, it’s simply pointing out that the scientific method has been employed, and to the best of our knowledge, (“our” meaning the scientific consensus), it appears as if x is true, or as close to the truth as we are able to get given our current level of understanding.

      1. Very well put erik! When I talked to people who have not had scientific training or classes in critical thinking, I find that think consensus is based on the ‘opinions’ of scientists. This ignores the fact that scientific consensus is backed up by a tremendous amount of testing.

  4. In one sense, it doesn’t really matter, because (as noted climate change denier Michael Crighton liked to point out) science is not a democracy: facts are not determined by popular vote. The precise number of scientists who sign up to one view or another is less important than the evidence, which points strongly to the fact that global warming is happening and is linked to emissions of greenhouse gases. Whether there is a ‘consensus’ or not, climate change will remain a fact.

    In another sense though, it does matter, as most people don’t take their views from the evidence itself but from what scientists say, or rather, what the media report scientists as saying. As a result, media reports of a ‘cracking consensus’ do a great deal to damage efforts to build such a consensus among ordinary people. And since, well, they’re basically wrong – the vast majority of scientists who know something about the area do think that global warming is happening and caused by us – we do indeed have much to be concerned about.

  5. Thanks jjg.denis.robert. Then I will restate my original post: The best possible outcome would be to re-frame the whole discussion by replacing “scientific consensus” with “climatologist consensus.” If this could be accomplished, it would prevent the conflation of some random zoologist’s or chemist’s opinion with actual results of climate research interpreted by those qualified to do so

  6. How about “A consensus of qualified experts”?

    A consensus matters to the layperson, as it’s arrogant to the extreme to deny a scientific consensus on one issue or another. You don’t have the relevent knowledge to dispute what the majority of experts in a field believe to be true, now matter how many Holiday Inn’s you’ve slept at.

    To an actual expert, it matters only in the sense that if you are going to try and over turn a consensus, you better have your ducks in a row because it aint gonna be easy and shouldn’t be.

    Any consensus is provisional, but the myth that science changes it’s mind about things all the time is also not true. Science is more of a gradual building process, adding knowledge to an existing base, expanding our understanding. Rarely does a scientific discovery turn science on it’s head and change the prevailing view. More often than not, it enlightens it.

  7. I think the problem with the “the consensus is cracking” meme is that it is not a thing at all. It’s disinformation, perpetrated by spin doctors on an uniformed public. It’s a pushback by the right against alarmism from the left. Two extremes at opposite ends, and the truth lives in the middle, where the scientists do their work. And the larger public is too damn busy trying to keep the rent paid and their kids fed to be able to really look into the issue. So, they get what news they get from Bill O’Reilly or Chris Mathews – neither of whom is worth two shits as a source of information. On *anything*, much less hard science.

  8. What are your thoughts on this meme of “the consensus is cracking”?

    It’s made up bullshit. Evidence for climate change and evidence that it is caused by humans is piling up and the evidence against those positions has not emerged or has been shown to be flawed. Those questioning the consensus are not experts.

    If the idea that the concensus is cracking is true, does it matter? Why? Why not?

    Of course it does, it matters a great deal. It would be indicative that good evidence has emerged providing alternate explanations for previous evidence or that previous evidence had been found to be flawed. When you are talking about a consensus you are not talking about a vote from a half informed public, you are asking how the evidence in the field is viewed by the experts who study it. That is a very important question to those of us who are not experts and do not have an intimate understanding of the evidence.

  9. I’m not really smart enough to figure out climate change on my own, but it sure seems to me like people in the developing world having more of a say into what people in industrialized nations are pumping into everyone’s air and water is a good plan, even if the science we use to get there ends of being imperfect.

  10. Sam: sorry to pull you up, but I think its important to note that the BBC article did NOT report “that the scientific consensus on climate change may be cracking”. It merely highlights that the denialist camp has been saying this, and saying it repeatedly for years. It presents no evidence that the consensus is cracking, and in fact states clearly that there is an “absence of any evidence that it’s actually true”.

    It is also important to note that, to date, scientists that say that the science on climate change is wrong are more likely to not be active or experienced in relevant fields of enquiry, than those who say it is correct. I suggest you read the rebuttal to the WSJ letter, which ties it up pretty succintly in its opening sentence – you don’t go to a dentist with a heart condition. See:
    Also, read the paper by Anderreg et al (2010) in PNAS
    This from the abstract: “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”

    In short, the consensus amongst those sufficiently qualified on the matter remains sound.

    1. ‘Sam: sorry to pull you up, but I think its important to note that the BBC article did NOT report “that the scientific consensus on climate change may be cracking”. It merely highlights that the denialist camp has been saying this,’

      Exactly! The article cites to prominent sources the notorious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and the also notorious Lord Monckton. This article was just more manufactured controversy.

  11. This seems to be one of those “language issues”, sort of like Theory vs. Scientific Theory, or Doctor’s opinion vs. Doctor **of** X opinion. Its like Dr. OZ being consulted about Veterinary Medicine. He gets a huge amount wrong in human medicine, due to not having a damn clue about anything in those fields, let alone something that is, ironically, even more complex.

    In short, he isn’t the person you want to go to for a “consensus” on much of anything. You don’t consult people making guesses,with whether or not scientific theory is true or not. Its not even a good idea to ask someone who knows, say Physics, what their “consensus” on Biology is, because you get people who don’t know anything about the later, and start trying to, like one crank, prove that our cells “flash” coherent signals, which let cold reading con artist, wait, sorry, that’s “psychics”, read other people’s minds. After all, those flashes can’t be already explained, as a side effect of basic metabolism, with a threshold too low to register from 5 feet away.

    Doctor can mean everything from MD, to Altie Med, to Witch Doctor, and tells you jack about what any of them know, unless you know what they specialize in.

    Theory can mean two different things, depending on who is using it.

    And, finally, “consensus” can mean, “We voted on it.”, to, “We feel is must be true.”, to, “There is nothing that otherwise explains what is going on adequately, so it is likely what is going on.” Guess which one of those *isn’t* being used by the general population…

    We either need to be **much** better at communicating things, or we need to stop using words that mean one thing to the 2% of the population, and sometimes even specific field, which has a clue what we mean by it, while the other 98% hear it, unqualified, or otherwise, and think, “I heard something completely different!”

    And, it doesn’t help that bloody magazines, and other *general public* sources, are almost as bad as fashion mags, when it comes to getting the damn facts straight, without either a) accidentally altering the meaning, thinking its making it clearer, or b) not recognizing when the scientist themselves is trying to “dumb down” the result, and screwing up their own meaning. Both are likely, because the person being interviewed doesn’t talk like the average person, use the same words, or even mean the same things, with the words they do, and so people can read the “common” definition into things, and get it dead wrong, or someone could try to avoid that, by using simpler words, while completely failing to comprehend that some variation of those words is already being used to mislabel, mistranslate, and misrepresent, their own, or a similar, subject.

    To be clear require clear words, and… almost any word you can pick, some bloody fool has invented an similar, but alternative, and thereby horribly confusing, alternate definition for. Especially if it lends them false credibility, like Chopra and “quantum”.

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