The Consensus Trap

Fri, 2006-12-22 09:53Jim Hoggan
Jim Hoggan's picture

The Consensus Trap

One of the quickest ways to trigger a backlash of cynicism and suspicion in the climate change conversation is to insist that there is a “consensus” among scientists about human responsibility for global warming.

To begin, many people misunderstand the word “consensus.” Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a general agreement,” people tend to think that it means a unanimous agreement and, therefore, that if a single scientist stands up anywhere in the world and argues the point that the consensus is invalidated.

So, let's be clear: there is NOT unanimous agreement on the causes and implications of climate change. While the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academies of Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - really, every major science organization in the developed world - all agree that anthropogenic climate change is a real and pressing problem, there are a couple of respected scientists (Dick Lindzen , Bill Gray ) who question “the consensus.” There is also a larger group of climate change deniers who are either not experts in the field, whose views are fatally tainted by their association with the fossil fuel industry or both (eg., Tim Ball).

Henceforth, we at the DeSmogBlog plan to be more careful about how we present the “general agreement.” And we would appreciate it if our increasingly fiesty correspondents would also exercise some responsibility in their blanket denials of a “consensus.”

I hope we can forge unanimous agreement that this conversation is too important to get hopelessly mired in semantics.

Previous Comments

Very good comment Mr. Hoggan. It is also important to note that those who question certain aspects about AGW are not immediately labelled with the derogatory term “deniers”. In my opinion, too many people abuse the valid consensus to promote alarmist scenarios which are outside of the current consensus.

As this remains a polarized and heated debate, any steps which help bring it back into the realm of healthy discussion and realistic action is to be welcomed. Regards,

I agree with you and I also

….hope we can forge unanimous agreement that this conversation is too important to get hopelessly mired in semantics.

I firmly believe that the use of pejoratives and ad hominem agruments does not put us on a path to agreement.

Many of the science organizations issued opinions without surveying their membership. Therefore, although technically the opinions came from the organizations they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the entire membership, but rather the opinions of some members. This is another semantic issue should not stifle the discussion.

Jim Hoggan refers to Richard Lindzen as one of the respected scientists questioning the consensus. This MIT scientist is indeed invariably wheeled out as the most prominent dissenter in the climate change debate. What would change for him if he now caved in and admitted that he has been wrong for 15 years? Just about everything I think. From being very prominent, from being invited,for instance, by the British House of Lords and President Bush, to hold forth on his views, he would have to take his place at the lower end of the table marked ‘consensus’.

Thus even if there are no financial incentives for him to hold on to his views (and that is a moot point) he cannot relish the prospect of such a ‘demotion’ either.

He makes one think of that other Richard, Richard Owen, the contemporary of Darwin.This Professor of Zoology was probably the most prominent ‘denialist’ of the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. And, like Lindzen, he enjoyed official favour (the Royal family presented him with a cottage in Richmond Park and PM Robert Peel put him on the Civil List). In his case too one has the impression that he dug himself in so far that a retreat was hardly possible, even though he had initially some sneaking sympathy for Darwin’s views (until the latter became too prominent).

Daniel Grossman published an interview with Lindzen under the title ‘Dissent in the Maelstrom in the Scientific American of Nov.2001. Lindzen is reported there as saying something that is worth quoting in full:

“At a high-profile congressional hearing, physicist James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies went public with his view: that scientists knew, “with a high degree of confidence,” that human activities such as burning fossil fuel were warming the world. Lindzen was shocked by the media accounts that followed. “I thought it was important,” he recalls, “to make it clear that the science was at an early and primitive stage and that there was little basis for consensus and much reason for skepticism.” What he thought would be a couple of months in the public eye has turned into more than a decade of climate skepticism. “I did feel a moral obligation,” he remarks of the early days, “ALTHOUGH NOW IT IS MORE A MATTER OF BEING STUCK WITH A ROLE.” (emphasis added A.B.)

There was no direct public interest involved in the acceptance or otherwise of the theory of evolution. It could therefore for Richard Owen only be a personal matter whether or not he would give up his role as ‘prominent denialist’. This is not the case with the issue of climate change. One would therefore hope that ‘the most prominent’ denialist there can find it in himself to escape from the role he has declared he is ‘stuck with’.

Arie Brand

I would hardly characterize Lindzen as a respected scientist. Bright yes. Respected no.
What bugs the hell out of me is the argument (which I think M. Crichton first made) that there cannot be a consensus in science. I’ve written about that here: http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com/2006/12/michael-crichton-on-consensus-sci...

“Disappearing world: Global warming claims tropical island

For the first time, an inhabited island has disappeared beneath rising seas.

Environment Editor Geoffrey Lean reports
Published: 24 December 2006

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India’s part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.” http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article2099971.ece

Oh brother. Not another of these articles again. Where is the evidence that GW affected this island? Where are the photos? Notice that no one even bothered to try and visit the island? And how did a 2mm rise in sea level obliterate it? And of course, no peer-reviewed literature supporting this scientifically unsupported claim. This is about as credible as the Tuvalu Island nonsense. Regards,

First, Paul, did you read the article before dismissing it? Second, I have to acknowledge that the link to climate change is weak, although I am not sure what peer review has to do with recording the disappearance of an island. I suspect that if you load Google Earth, you can review the evidence yourself.

But you effectively push us back into the “weather event” box. No single event can attest to the truth of the global warming hypothesis. That's true. But for anyone who can grasp the knowledge of many events, each of these pieces becomes compelling in its own right.

Of course, you can always cling to the “it's not happening here” defence. You can always imagine that just because other men die of heart attacks or prostate cancer, that would be no reason to check your own risk factors (to join the PSA debate, for instance). Just because somebody else's house burned down, that would be no reason to buy insurance. Just because the best scientists in the world generally agree that we are facing major risk factors (of which this vanishing island MAY indeed be proof), that's no reason to look at the sustainability of global energy consumption - which is an impending crisis, even without climate change.

No reason.

Forward

The report about the disappearance of this island has become a controversial item in the blogosphere. This controversy focuses on two questions: when did it get submerged and what are the causes for its disappearance.

Tim Blair picked up from the Indian press that it in fact already disappeared more than two decades ago. The India Express did indeed report on the 30th of October this year that the island ‘vanished from the map’ two decades ago. Wikipedia says that the island was permanently flooded in the 1980’s. Thus Blair had good fun in accusing the environment editor of The Independent of being a bit behind with his news.

However, the expression ‘vanished from the map’ is not literally correct. Things can actually disappear before they ‘vanish from maps’, because maps are manmade things. According to the Calcutta Telegraph of 30th Oct.2006 the research team of the School of Oceanographic Studies of Calcutta’s Jadavpur University first noticed that the island had vanished while working on a government of India funded project in 2001 and this finding was only recently inserted in an official report by this research team. So in that sense it was not old news.

Blair who accuses the environmental editor of The Independent, Geoffrey Lean, of an omission fails himself to report this side of the story.

And now about the possible causes for the submergence of this island.

Professor Sugata Hazra, the Director of this research team from Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies is quoted as saying: “A preliminary survey reveals that around 7,000 people have been displaced from their original habitat in Sunderbans over the last 30 years. They have turned into environmental refugees due to the sea-level rise, coastal erosion, cyclone and coastal flooding.”

Blair quotes another bit of testimony on this. It comes from Atanu Rahu, who is apparently Director of the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve. Raha is quoted by him as saying: “Erosion and accretion are natural phenomena. Across the world islands submerge and new ones emerge. This is natural.”

According to Hazra the sea level rise he thought to be one of the causes is 3.14 mm a year. Sceptics have poked fun at this as well. You need quite a number of years (about thirty in fact) to see the sea rise by only 4 inches. All the same 4 inches could be a hassle for low lying islands.

And can one take comfort from that small number?

Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Ocean Physics at Germany’s Potsdam University, reported recently in the journal Science that the rising temperature could make sea levels increase by as much as 1.4 metres (4.6 feet) by 2100. This is a lot more than the previous estimate which gave a range from about 12 to 34 inches.

Arie Brand

Of course I read the article Richard. And I am correct in dismissing it. Read the post by Arie a little bit down this page. The island disappeared over 20 years ago it appears. Fancy that.

Since the loss of this island (over 20 years ago) can not be linked to AGW, then it can not be reported to be linked to AGW. It’s as simple as that. Regards,

The climate change debate is so funny (DeSmog included) that I and some journalist colleagues have revived our old satire site – The Washington Pest. See http://thewashingtonpest.blogspot.com/ I have a DeSmog Pest in the works and will let you know when it runs. Enjoy! David Wojick http://www.climatechangedebate.org
Nice to see that people can still laugh at risk for the world as a whole, and mainly at the potential serious losses of others.
Dear David, I feel like you may benefit from some advice on how to be taken more seriously. Here are some examples of “funny is, and funny is not” Funny: 1. When I put my hand under my armpit and start flapping away. (this works when I am six.) 2. When you put your wiener dog in a hot dog bun costume and send the pictures to your friends. 3. Watching Will Ferrell running down the street naked, yelling “look, I’m Naked.” Not Funny: (no matter which side you stand on). 1. The debate between Cindy Sheehan and George W. Bush over troops in the Middle East. 2. The small group of people who argue that there is no link between cancer and smoking. 3. The tens of thousands of people who were killed, injured or displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina. David, nobody on this blog disputes your right to an opinion and to be honest, I personally look forward to seeing you post here. It means that we’re doing our job right when we get to present all sides of the debate. It’s just your utter lack of regard for rational and intelligent discussion that has me concerned. I’ve said it once to you and I will say it again - a legitimate scientist or intellectual or any expert in their field for that matter, doesn’t resort to the type of “ha ha, I won” banter that you choose to deliver your opinion through. If you want to be taken seriously than you must act accordingly. Why don’t you start showing us that you have something legitimate to say, unmarred by juvenile, attention seeking tactics, and using specific examples of sound science to back your points. PS - googling some articles and postulating that there are ‘probably’ some skeptics” in there doesn’t count.
People who talk glibly about a consensus in climate science have no idea the vast scale of the scientific community they are claiming to know about. I am doing research on this issue. Here are some examples. Go to http://scholar.google.com/advanced_scholar_search? which searches just on research articles, not all web pages like Google does. 1. Search on “atmospheric” and “radiation” in the All Words box. You should get about 890,000 articles. (Notes: 1. Many articles are undated so using date ranges drastically reduces the results. The date range 1900-2006 returns just 360,000 articles for 106 years. Almost all articles are less than 20 years old. 2. Many articles are counted more than once, but many have multiple authors as well so this tends to balance out.) 2. Search on “solar” and “variation”. You should get about 657,000 articles. 3. Search on “ice” and “core” gets about 490,000 articles. Conclusion: there are at least one million articles relating to climate science, written by many thousands of climate researchers. My estimate is around 100,000 scientists. Given the estimated world-wide budget of $4 billion/year for climate research this estimate seems quite reasonable. The IPCC uses around 200 authors. There is no reason to believe this is a representative sample of the estimated 100,000 climate scientists. On the contrary, most of the IPCC authors are well known AGW activists. We have no idea what the distribution of beliefs about climate change and the AGW theory is among the estimated 100,000 climate scientists. Many are probably skeptics. David Wojick http://www.climatechangedebate.org

You once claimed, Dr.Wojick, that Oreskes had bungled her survey of the literature on climate change by asking the wrong question (a spurious argument but I will let that rest here). You now seem to take good care not to be exposed to the same reproach by not asking any question at all of the hundreds of thousands of articles you claim to have spotted. You merely assert that among the 100,000 climate scientists you believe to be actively publishing ‘many are probably sceptics’.

If that is so, Dr.Wojick. why is the group of vocal skeptics so small that one sees the same names time and again - so small that one can rightfully refer to it as ‘the usual suspects’. Why, also, did the letter from a group of contrarians who earlier this year wrote a letter to Harper only have 61 signatures – though this group was scraped together from all over the world and the number had been boosted with the names of non-climate scientists (including yours)?

You claim that the 200 or so authors the IPCC allegedly draws on do not constitute a ‘representative sample’ of those 100,000 climate scientists you believe to be active. According to you most “are well known AWG activists”. What exactly does the word ‘activists’ stand for here Dr.Wojick? Are they by any chance actively involved in the plot of underdeveloped countries to get vast sums of money and free technology transfer from the developed world – a plot that according to you constitutes part of the UN climate change agenda that allegedly the IPCC is party to? Or are they more interested in the bringing about of ‘global governance’, that other part of the UN climate change agenda according to you?

Anyway, if you don’t believe these IPCC-climate scientists to constitute a representative sample of your one hundred thousand why don’t you form your own sample and go the hard yards by actually studying summaries, like Oreskes did. Just claiming that there are many (remarkably well hidden) sceptics among this vast army of scientists will not get you very far.

Ari is making great sense, here, which distinguishes him entirely from the illogical Dr. Wojick. The latter offers exactly no evidence for his contention that the relatively silent majority of people loosely involved in climate science agree with his position> And he dismisses the legitimate efforts that the worldwide scientific community has made to survey the best of their members.

Look again at the list of 60. This is not a top-notch group of global experts. It is a tiny cadre that includes many badly compromised industry apologists and many more whose scientific credentials are woefully thin.

Wojick keeps insisting that he cares about science - about scientific method and the standards of “proof” - but there is no evidence of exacting standards in his really laughable “probably skeptics” conclusion.

Wow, goggle scholar, David. We are awestruck. You are certainly digging deep. Yes, I think you are right that this is information way beyond the knowledge of scientists. Way to go.

Very informative and useful article indeed. I really like the way writer has presented his views. I hope to see more great articles in future as well.