by Judith Curry
Isn’t everyone in the 97%? I am. – Andrew Montford
I’m sure most of you have encountered the recent paper by Cook et al. (2013) Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, which includes John Cook and Dana Nuccitelli of SkepticalScience fame. And the many critiques of this study that have appeared at WUWT, Blackboard, etc.
IMO, the main point of all this is that he concept of a ‘consensus’ surrounding climate change is becoming increasingly meaningless.
Ben Pile’s recent post What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms? has certainly stirred the pot. Some excerpts from Pile’s post:
On the pages of the Guardian’s environment blog, Dana Nuccitelli (who is not a climate scientist) compiled a list of what he thought were Neil’s mistakes. ‘These are your climate errors on BBC Sunday Politics‘, he proclaimed. But half of Nuccitelli’s rebuttals related to Neil’s treatment of the study into the extent of the scientific consensus on climate change, co-authored by Nuccitelli, which represents (according to the study) the views of 97% of scientists. Davey had cited the study during the interview, but Neil had said that it had been largely discredited.
(M)any sceptics have pointed out that the 97% figure encompasses the arguments of most climate sceptics. In evidence to the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee last week, Roy Spencer, a climate scientist who is routinely vilified for his apparent climate scepticism, claimed that his arguments fell within the 97% definition. Here in the UK, climate sceptic blogger and author of the Hockey Stick Illusion, Andrew Montford tweeted in the wake of the survey, ‘isn’t everyone in the 97%? I am’. This prompted Met Office climate scientist, Richard Betts to poll the readers of the Bishop Hill blog, ‘Do you all consider yourselves in the 97%?’. It seems that almost all do.
Just as Donald and Painter’s evidence to the STC reflected either naivety or a strategy, Nuccitelli’s survey results are either the result of a comprehensive failure to understand the climate debate, or an attempt to divide it in such a way as to frame the result for political ends. The survey manifestly fails to capture arguments in the climate debate sufficient to define a consensus, much less to make a distinction between arguments within and without the consensus position. Nuccitelli’s survey seems to canvas scientific opinion, but it begins from entirely subjective categories: a cartoonish polarisation of positions within the climate debate.
Yet the survey was cited by Davey himself in defence of the government’s climate policies in the face of changing science. Whatever the scientific consensus is, the fact that this consensus can be wielded in arguments about policywithout regard for the substance of the consensus creates a huge problem.
The consensus referred to by Davey and Nuccitelli, then, is what I call a consensus without an object: the consensus can mean whatever the likes of Davey and Nuccitelli want it to mean. Davey can wave away any criticism of government’s policy simply by invoking the magical proportion, 97%, even though those critics’ arguments would be included in that number. Consensus is invoked in the debate at the expense of nuance. A polarised debate suits political ends, not ‘evidence-based policy’.
But what a broader view of these debates reveal is a more troubling phenomenon of an uncritical reproduction of orthodox thinking on climate science by putative experts in science and public policy, across Twitter, the blogosphere, print media, the academy and political institutions. Physicians, heal thyselves!
The consequence of excluding non-expert opinion (other than expert opinion’s cheerleaders) from the climate debate is, paradoxically, the undermining of the value of expertise. Rather than engagements on matters of substance, a hollow debate emerges about whose evidence weighs the most, whose arguments are supported by the most experts, and which experts are the most qualified. The question ‘who should be allowed to speak’ dominates the discussion at the expense of hearing what they actually have to say.
Accordingly, rather than being a dispassionate study into scientific opinion, the 97% survey was a superficially academic exercise, intended to obfuscate the substance of the climate debate. Those who fell for it forget that its authors, aside from having their own — shock horror! — agendas, have no expertise in climate science, much less any interest in taking the sceptics’ arguments on.
But what the squabble over the Sunday Politics interview reveals is that political debates descend to science; they are often not improved by science and evidence as much as they degraded by undue expectations of them. Being an advocate of science seems to mean nothing more than shouting as loudly as possible ‘what science says…’, second hand.
And those who shout most loudly about science turn out to be advancing an idea of science which, rather than emphasising the scientific method, puts much more store — let’s call it ‘faith’ — in scientific institutions. Hence, the emphasis on the weight, number and height of scientific evidence articles, and expertise, rather than on the process of testing competing theories.
The comments on the thread are very interesting, with this comment by Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia making quite a splash in the climate blogosphere:
Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it. It offers a similar depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to that adopted in Anderegg et al.’s 2010 equally poor study in PNAS: dividing publishing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?
There is very interesting discussion on the thread, including comments by Dana Nuccitelli and further points from Ben Pile.
JC comments: In case you missed it the first time, check out my recent publication No consensus on consensus. So, what the heck does the ‘climate change consensus’ even mean any more? The definition of climate change consensus is now so fuzzy that leading climate change skeptics are categorizing themselves within the 97%. IPCC and other leading climate scientists can’t agree on the cause of the lack of surface temperature increase for the past 15+ years (i.e. see the recent article in the New Republic).
The utility of the ‘consensus’ in delineating the ‘tribes’ in terms of the climate policy debate was further muddied this past week by the identification of Dana Nuccitelli’s place (WUWT) of employment is Tetra Tech, an environmental consulting firm that apparently includes gas and oil clients.
The ‘consensus’ often characterizes climate change skepticism being more rabid in the U.S. than any place else. However, it is my perception that we are seeing far more respect for skepticism and skeptics in other countries notably the U.K., which is enabling a more sophisticated dialogue on the topic of climate change.
Ben Pile’s characterization of ‘consensus without an object’ is spot on IMO; this has degenerated into the use of ‘consensus’ by certain individuals as a power play for influence in the policy and political debate surrounding climate and energy policy.
It’s long past time to get rid of the concept of ‘consensus’ on climate change. An excerpt from the Conclusions to my paper No Consensus on Consensus:
The climate community has worked for more than 20 years to establish a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. The IPCC consensus building process arguably played a useful role in the early synthesis of the scientific knowledge and in building political will to act. We have presented perspectives from multiple disciplines that support the inference that the scientific consensus seeking process used by the IPCC has had the unintended consequence of introducing biases into the both the science and related decision making processes. The IPCC scientific consensus has become convoluted with consensus decision making through a ‘speaking consensus to power’ approach. The growing implications of the messy wickedness of the climate change problem are becoming increasingly apparent, highlighting the inadequacies of the ‘consensus to power’ approach for decision making on the complex issues associated with climate change. Further, research from the field of science and technology studies are finding that manufacturing a consensus in the context of the IPCC has acted to hyper-politicize the scientific and policy debates, to the detriment of both. Arguments are increasingly being made to abandon the scientific consensus seeking approach in favor of open debate of the arguments themselves and discussion of a broad range of policy options that stimulate local and regional solutions to the multifaceted and interrelated issues of climate change, land use, resource management, cost effective clean energy solutions, and developing technologies to expand energy access efficiently.