Counterfeit Consensus
August 28, 2011, 10:55 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

When it comes to anthropogenic global warming we all know that a ‘consensus’ of Scientists believe the science is settled. So one thing the evil, know-nothing Deniers (such as myself) regularly face is that the AGW believers can regularly point to gigantic numbers of The Scientists who (they say) are on their side.

Are they right? I have no idea! And neither do you! And neither do they! What to do with a claim such as “97% of scientists agree with me”? Is it right? Wrong? Provable? Disprovable? None of the above?

I believe I’ve pointed out that part of the problem with such claims is that they tend to be inflated/padded by the participation of scientists who are not climate scientists but (nevertheless) add their name to various Consensus Lists in a show of what, I guess, is a sort of misguided academic solidarity. To find an example for this post, I dug around for one of those Open Letters of The Scientists demonstrating Consensus we’re always hearing about, and I found this one. 255 scientists! Impressive!

Dudes. Are there even 255 working qualified climate modelers in the entire world?

Let’s take a closer look shall we? I clicked on the first 10 names to get a sense of what those guys actually research. In order: anthropology, biochemistry/plants, geology, biology, page not found, geography/urban planning, plants, paleoanthropology/geography, evolutionary genetics, and NMR. Not to take anything away from any of those fields, and not to deny that some/many of them may touch on and influence (and be influenced by) climate projections, but literally none of these people are climate modelers and (lacking further information about their qualifications/background) their a priori claim to any sort of expertise or credentials for opining on global warming is precisely zilch. If the rest of that 255-long list is anything like the first 10 (a cursory glance will find some actual climate-model researchers, but lots and lots of apparent biologists and people who work for this or that ‘school of medicine’), it may as well be a list of random names out of the phone book as far as I’m concerned.

Someone please explain to me why such a ‘consensus’ about global warming is not counterfeit. I’m all ears.

The problem is that such lists are still very impressive to most people in more or less direct proportion to their length. The page on which I found this letter asks, in response, “Can 255 scientists be wrong?” Well to answer that in two parts: (1) Yes. Humans can be wrong! And it is unscientific to believe otherwise. (2) Hell yes, when they’re not speaking about their actual field of expertise.

I think people just have very little idea how balkanized and fragmented and specialized scientific research actually is. Even within my own field (mathematics), people have only the foggiest idea what people with a different focus are working on. If I had gone around the department I studied in and point to everyone there and say “their research is correct! Believe them! I stand by them!” such a statement would have and should have counted for diddly-squat. (And not just because I was a subpar researcher…) For most people around me, I simply didn’t know either way! I wasn’t working on the same stuff!

Such counterfeit consensus seems to plague the global warming debate. Why are non-climate-specialist scientists lending their names and credentials to these counterfeit consensus declarations? It’s irresponsible and misleading. This seems to be a case where what these scientists are really bolstering is not the consensus view on global warming per se, but the consensus view on Scientist Credentialism: ‘Laypeople, don’t ever question those with scientific credentials!’, is what they are really saying. After all, while only a small subset of scientists are qualified to speak about climate-change, they all seem to have a vested interest in making sure society elevates Scientists to unquestioned-high-priest status – and they clearly know it.

This is an unhealthy development in science, because it foreshadows orthodoxy and stagnation. What these scientists are primarily trying to cultivate is an environment of deference to scientists, of obeisance to credentials. One understands why they are doing this, but it is not conducive to actual scientific progress. In general, there needs to be a lack of deference between the various scientific fields, there needs to be constant questioning and skepticism of the claims of scientists working in one field by scientists working in other, unrelated fields. That’s what I’d like to see in a healthy scientific establishment and I think it is a failing of academics in general that there’s not more of it.

9 Comments so far
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[…] Sonic Charmer takes a look at the notion of scientific consensus, and discovers that when we hear that some overwhelming number of scientists agree with concept x […]

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Yeah but there are a lot of actual Professors of Literature and Political Science who totally support the theory so the consensus can’t be dismissed that easily.

Comment by Anon.

I love your article, but I think it might get more attention if you titled it something like,


Comment by Pastorius

Pastorius, 1000 professors of literature can’t be wrong.

Comment by Anon.

Academic freedom requires that society organize itself according to what a consensus of credentialed professors of literature assure the rest of us climate scientists have discovered. Indeed.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

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[…] What’s that? They’re ‘Groups’? And they Agree with Global Warming? Add ‘em to the tally! SCIENCE! Anyway, for my contribution to this important debate for economics-bloggers, here’s […]

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[…] this was just another exercise in what I identified long ago as counterfeit consensus. […]

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