2005-01-03

Consensus science

Happy New Year to all.

There is a vein of septicism going around, roughly to the tune of "Science isn't done by consensus. There is a consensus on global warming. Hence, global warming must be wrong". Put as baldly as that, the argument is obvious nonsense (note, BTW, that this abandons another of the favourite septic arguments - that there is no consensus on GW. But consistency was never a strong point of the septics).

So, here is my take on it, intended to make the subtle distinctions clear:


  1. There *is* a consensus on global warming (see http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=86).
  2. The consensus is based around the IPCC reports which (by synthesising a vast number of scientific papers) do a fine job of outlining what is and what is not known, and carefully referencing everything back to the original papers.
  3. Scientifically, you cannot argue "There is a consensus: therefore...". But you *can* argue "The IPCC says such-and-such; therefore...". Because the IPCC is reporting the science; and if you disagree you can go back to the original papers and find out why.
  4. The argument that "Science isn't done by consensus" is irrelevant. Its close to true (I suspect that various philosophical strands would argue that the current scientific paradigm does indeed influence what research is done) but its irrelevant. Because no-one is arguing that. Science *is* done by saying: "these papers say such-and-such, therefore...".
  5. Sometimes, people say "but the best science is done by breaking with consensus". It certainly true that the most groundbreaking stuff is done this way - just about by definition. But that arguement *can't* be used to imply that the current consensus is wrong. Its simply a logical fallacy.
  6. The most obvious groundbreaking work in the 20C was relativity and QM. But in both those cases they were *not* sudden shifts from there-is-a-consensus-on-the-old-theory-everything-is-OK to spiffy-new-theory. Instead, there was a slow accumulation of results inconsistent with the old theories, and leading scientists grew more and more unhappy, and various theories were proposed to solve this. That doesn't fit GW very well - most of the GW septics are grumpy old men, not groundbreaking young scientists.


Did that help?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget that the septics also claim that there is a consensus that global warming is not happening, based on questionable petition drives. I would add plate tectonics to major 20th century developments. It has become the central theory of geology.

6:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just thought that i should point out that the QM in the last part of the anser stands for "Quantum Mechanics", and that General Relativity was one of Einstein's works

8:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> I would add plate tectonics to major 20th century developments. It has become the central theory of geology.

Uh, except that when it was introduced the concensus of geologists was that Plate Tectonics was wrong, it wasn't until after his death that the geologists saw the writing on the wall.

Concensus is a good guide, but it isn't always in the right.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> I would add plate tectonics to major 20th century developments. It has become the central theory of geology.

Uh, except that when it was introduced the concensus of geologists was that Plate Tectonics was wrong, it wasn't until after his death that the geologists saw the writing on the wall.

Concensus is a good guide, but it isn't always in the right.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True believers excepted, it seems unlikely many will be pursuaded by the preponderance of personal attacks and hate speech that exist on this site concerning those who disagree with the "concensus".

12:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science is not done by saying - these papers say such and such and these papers say such and such. Science is done by forming a hypothesis and reproducing results - often what the consensus of whom wrote these papers (and who wrote these papers? just some high named scientist and his buddies who are popular? guys who want to change policy?) young scientists are a bunch of egotistical money grubbers who just go with the fray... Just because a consensus of scientists say that the Earth goes around the sun, doesn't make it so - it is what it is. Look at poor Pluto - a consensus of scientists say that it's not a planet - so now it's not a planet. Pluto has been out there amongst our neighbors long before humans ever touched foot on the Earth, and it will be long after we're gone.

We can go on and on... The Big Bang theory for example. Everytime I turn on a science show they talk of the big bang theory as being fact -- It is not, but a consensus says it is.. that is just total bull.

I love how bloggers have a little site, and then think they are the smartest people around. Go ahead be a sheep and follow your wacko brothers.

4:45 pm  
Anonymous Shza said...

Granted, science may be consensus sometimes but a consensus not allowing opposing hypotheses is dogma. Anyone who read a introductory to physical science book in school understands climate change, the real debate is if humans can affect it or prevent it.

6:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

—Usage note Many say that the phrase consensus of opinion is redundant and hence should be avoided: The committee's statement represented a consensus of opinion. The expression is redundant, however, only if consensus is taken in the sense “majority of opinion” rather than in its equally valid and earlier sense “general agreement or concord.” Criticism of consensus of opinion has been so persistent and widespread that the phrase, even though in common use, occurs only infrequently in edited formal writing. The phrase general consensus is objected to for similar reasons. Consensus is now widely used attributively, esp. in the phrase consensus politics.
1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question of whether Pluto is or isn't a planet is merely a question of how the word "planet" is defined. Pluto is exactly the same whatever definition is adopted and whether the definition includes Pluto or not.

9:05 pm  
Blogger badcop666 said...

Putting your wee summary of why you think you are correct next to a pile of books on the philosophy of science and scientific method and the history of bad science leaves me in no doubt that you haven't emotionally detached yourself from what you already believe.

The history of scientific thought through the blood-bath of the 20C, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and the age of western barbarism against the third world, is a sad story of a slide into irrationalism. Publicly science is no longer science. Privately, and in industry, scientific knowledge increases and is implemented exponentially. Publicly it is a sad, reactionary, voodoo world. This is the dark ages. But how would you know it's dark if your eyes are shut or you're blind?

Yes, individual studies by individual scientists or research teams can be rigorous and scientifically valid. But when they take off their white coats and go home to their Joe Average lives, they generally cease to be scientific citizens.

When talking to people who are experts in narrow fields, it is remarkable how short their rational framework extends into the world outside their expertise. Politics and society are a scary, unknown. People generally attach themselves to cardboard cutout beliefs and don't get round behind things for a good look. Most people can't articulate what their core interests are. Knowing and believing? One is now disguised as the other.

The phenomenon known generally as Confirmation Bias operates at many levels and is forgotten at our peril. The Memory of Water should be remembered every morning by laboratory technicians and 'scientists' before starting work.

Yes, the environment is sick, and is poisoned, and is dying. But how about the intellectual climate?

You're missing the point my friend. Missing it by a v-e-r-y long shot. I genuinely suggest you take a long long long step back from what you believe you think you know you understand and rebuild your 'rational' framework.

My journey from Climate Science has thus far taken me from atmospheric chemistry to physics, astronomy and astrophysics, and geology (to name a few) all the way to philosophy, history and politics.

Add to that the history of the super-power institutions such as the United Nations and you *should* be starting to feel unhappy with the historical process that has given rise to AGW theories.

Science read out of its historical context and without a basic political understanding, is as useful as the IPCC's climate models which have been extremely poor at predicting the climate we've already had, let alone, LET ALONE! our future climate.

I look forward to your response.

badcop666

12:25 am  
Blogger Barry said...

Ok, science seems to be done on the academic level by consensus. But real science is the act of a truly inquisitive mind, not some crazy information Nazi sitting in some institution telling you what is and isn't a "valid" questioning process.

What made Einstein and the likes of him great was that he did not care about pacifying a consensus. He always asked questions and sought answers to these questions.

9:43 am  

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