Sunday, July 17, 2011

The attack on "consensus" science

I've just concluded an "argument" with an enormously ignorant non-scientist who has cited various blogs about science in support of his conclusion that "faith in global warming consensus isn't science, it is anti-science." This person, like a surprising number of others (including those who should know better), has no comprehension of what scientific consensus really means.

Anthropogenic global warming deniers cite such notions as the "consensus in science (and religion) [was once] that the earth was the center of the universe" as "proof" that consensus science is just an argument by authority. That isn't the meaning of consensus science at all! It's not an argument by authority but rather is the core of the ideas that are currently accepted by the majority of those who are actually participating in that science. If we have no core of agreement, we can have no discussion at all!

By the way, these folks also talk glibly about "proof" in science. I've already discussed that here, and it's a clear indicator of ignorance about how science really works to hear someone talk about "scientific proof". Even more pathetic is their understanding of the so-called "scientific method" - as if some simple formulaic approach can constitute the "scientific method". Pitiful, indeed!

For people laboring under these ignorant delusions, I recommend they read my essay about how science works. In that essay, I state:

... it may come as something of a revelation to many that scientific consensus is the sole basis for scientific arguments. Most scientists accept certain principles and consequences of those basic principles as the starting point for their work. This large and pervasive consensus is the core of a science education curriculum - it takes years to be taught the fundamentals for a particular discipline and to know the acceptable rules for drawing deductions using those fundamentals. The "state of the art" in science is always on the margins of this dominant background consensus. Is the consensus always right? No. It's axiomatic that nothing in science is sacred, even elements that are widely accepted as fundamental and basic to all that scientists do. Most scientists understand this principle, but they don't act as if everything needs to be repeatedly validated. They simply accept the consensus - what T.S. Kuhn called the dominant paradigm. There are various levels of consensus on different topics - many scientists bristle at some of the consensus even as they accept the majority of its canons. Hence, on the whole, there's always an undercurrent of attack on the paradigms. Virtually all scientists accept another principle: if you take on something fundamental, you have to be prepared for a spirited response to your claims to have overthrown a paradigm. The saying goes (I know Carl Sagan said it in "Cosmos"), "If you make extraordinary claims, you have to be able to provide extraordinarily convincing evidence!" As already noted herein, someone with a talent for designing revealing experiments can go far in science. Some parts of the consensus understanding are always vulnerable, perhaps owing to their never having been tested sufficiently rigorously. Others may have seemed so obvious that they have hardly been tested at all, so there are always many targets for a young scientist seeking to make a contribution.

The basic notion here is that a consensus emerges when the majority of scientists active in some area of research accept "something", and this "something" is the consensus. No one is making any argument to the effect that the consensus is invariably and inevitably correct. This is simply what most scientists active in some field believe at any given moment. It's a provisional understanding that can be changed, but changing it will require evidence more substantive than just an opinion!

When it comes to the host of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) deniers, they're dominated by those who are not actively engaged in global climate research, including my recent "opponent" in an argument. They have opinions about this topic but those opinions simply can't carry the same weight as those whose work has been consistently in the field of global climate. Anyone is allowed to have any opinion they want, for whatever reasons, but in science, opinions are nothing particularly noteworthy unless they're backed up by serious research that is published in scientific journals. Not everything in journals is "true" in some absolute sense, but it has met some important standards (associated with peer review).

Yes, it's an elitist argument. But whose opinion should mean the most? Those who have been engaged in the field for many years, publishing articles in refereed journals on their scholarly research, or those who have no data of their own to present, no track record of publishing articles in scientific journals, nothing at all that is the result of their own research? Surely the answer to that is obvious.

As I've stated elsewhere, I know a thing or two about how the atmosphere works, and I know several of those whose work is represented in the IPCC "consensus". Although I'm not a climate scientist myself, I trust those people and I trust the consensus simply because I'm not qualified to gainsay their findings. But I understand enough of their arguments to be reasonably convinced about the consensus in which their work is represented. In any case , I daresay I'm a hell of a lot more qualified than those deniers whose background in science is nonexistent. A few of the deniers are, like me, atmospheric scientists but not participants in climate science. They should understand, as I do, that their credentials as a scientist in another subfield don't necessarily qualify them to contravene the work of specialists in another discipline. By far the majority of the deniers have essentially no credentials that would support their ability to dispute the consensus, notably including the person with whom I recently had an "argument" - sort of like debating with a moron, that. His contributions to science are essentially negligible and his credentials as a meteorologist are not such that he can argue credibly against the climate scientists.

Sure, the deniers might be right. That is a logical possibility, of course. Science is not determined by majority vote and the consensus understanding is not inevitably correct, as history has shown repeatedly. Science works because it fits the evidence - there is no other standard. But do I trust these amateurs to be able to marshal a convincing argument by scientific standards for their extraordinary claims to overthrow the IPCC consensus? No. A thousand times NO!

The whole debate is a slur on the integrity of those whom I know to have impeccable integrity. I resent the very notion that the IPCC consensus represents some sort of cabal to defraud the public for the personal gain of those framing that consensus. The very idea of such a conspiracy is ludicrous in the extreme for anyone who knows anything about how science really works, and who knows the people involved in developing that consensus.


Anonymous said...


WeatherRusty said...

Couldn't agree more. The problem is it takes so many words to counter the skeptical mantra, "consensus science isn't science".

Don Paul said...

It's gratifying to see someone who is quite literally much more learned than I am say so articulately the things I've been to say on my station weather blog.

Thanks, Chuck!

Best wishes,
Don Paul
CHIEF (pause for effect) Meteorologist