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Can't We At Least Agree That There Is No Consensus?

Posted on 19 August 2010 by gpwayne

This post is the Basic version  (written by Graham Wayne) of the skeptic argument "There is no consensus".

Science achieves a consensus when scientists stop arguing. When a question is first asked – like ‘what would happen if we put a load more CO2 in the atmosphere?’ – there may be many hypotheses about cause and effect. Over a period of time, each idea is tested and retested – the processes of the scientific method – because all scientists know that reputation and kudos go to those who find the right answer (and everyone else becomes an irrelevant footnote in the history of science). Nearly all hypotheses will fall by the wayside during this testing period, because only one is going to answer the question properly, without leaving all kinds of odd dangling bits that don’t quite add up. Bad theories are usually rather untidy.

But the testing period must come to an end. Gradually, the focus of investigation narrows down to those avenues that continue to make sense, that still add up, and quite often a good theory will reveal additional answers, or make powerful predictions, that add substance to the theory. When Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev constructed his periodic table of elements, not only did he fit all known elements successfully, he predicted that elements we didn’t even know about would turn up later on – and they did!

So a consensus in science is different from a political one. There is no vote. Scientists just give up arguing because the sheer weight of consistent evidence is too compelling, the tide too strong to swim against any longer. Scientists change their minds on the basis of the evidence, and a consensus emerges over time. Not only do scientists stop arguing, they also start relying on each other's work. All science depends on that which precedes it, and when one scientist builds on the work of another, he acknowledges the work of others through citations. The work that forms the foundation of climate change science is cited with great frequency by many other scientists, demonstrating that the theory is widely accepted - and relied upon.

In the scientific field of climate studies – which is informed by many different disciplines – the consensus is demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change – and that’s nearly all of them. Several studies confirm that “...the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes”. (Doran 2009). In other words, more than 95% of scientists working in the disciplines contributing to studies of our climate, accept that climate change is almost certainly being caused by human activities.

We should also consider official scientific bodies and what they think about climate change. There are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Not one.

In the field of climate science, the consensus is unequivocal: human activities are causing climate change.

Note: we're currently going through the process of writing plain English versions of all the rebuttals to skeptic arguments. It's a big task but many hands make light work. If you're interested in helping with this effort, please contact me

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Comments 51 to 58 out of 58:

  1. batsvensson at 00:38 AM on 25 August, 2010 no problem batsvensson; I suspect my post with slightly pompous actually! I think the essential problem relates... (i) .....a little to what you pointed out earlier; i.e. we have to be quite explicit about which specific element of the climate system and climate science we're referring to when we talk about consensus. ...and (ii) a little to the fact that much of what we know about the natural world has significant elements of uncertainty associated with it. So for example while there is probably quite a strong consensus amongst climate scientists that the climate sensitivity is unlikely to be less than 2 oC of warming per doubling of atmospheric [CO2] and also unlikely to be greater than 4 - 4.5 oC (without some poorly anticipated major positive feedbacks), and even that the most likely value is somewhere around 3 oC of won't find any climate scientists (zero consensus) that consider that the climate sensitivity is 3 oC (per doubling of atmospheric [CO2]). So on most things (and especially those concerning future predictions/projections in the natural world), there simply won't be a "hard number" (just like there won't be a hard number in the prognosis of the survival time for someone diagnosed with lung cancer). Unfortunately uncertainty is something we have to live with and also understand and address maturely...
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  2. batsvensson wrote : "Can you explain what "the truth" is?" The 'truth' in this instance is : A quick count shows that they have 21 papers on the list by me and/or my father. Assuming that these are Hypothesis 1 type bloggers they'd better change that to 429 papers, as their list doesn't represent what they think it does. Roger Pielke Jr's Blog - Better recheck that list Which is a response to Poptech's belief that "Pielke Jr. made no request to remove papers..." I wasn't trying to claim knowledge of 'The Truth' - Heidegger gave it a go, though : Truth is correspondence. Such correspondence obtains because the proposition is directed to the facts and states of affairs about which it says something. Truth is correctness. So truth is correspondence, grounded in correctness, between correspondence and thing. The Essence of Truth And to carry on the philosophical theme, so-called skeptics remind me of the group of people (from Plato's Allegory of the Cave) who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall : Wouldn't it be said of him [that escaped and then returned to the cave] that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn't they kill him?" (Plato - The Republic, 517a)
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  3. Poptech wrote : "Did I list Pielke Jr.'s papers because I thought they supported his Hypothesis 1?" No, you listed them because you believed that they were sceptical about AGW (alarmist or not, depending on whether the title or the introduction to your little personal list is most descriptive), despite Pielke Jnr's own views that they shouldn't be on your list. He also suggested that you change the list to be YOUR list and not a list of sceptical papers, which your list isn't - except in your mind. By the way, the list is constantly discredited and any serious person can see this. You do not understand what peer-review is and very few of the papers and journals on your list are properly peer-reviewed.
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  4. poptech #69 Your legend in your own mind approach is most tedious. However, thank you for your response. It does a very good job of confirming the validity of what I said at comment #61. Your understanding of science and the scientific process is most deficient.
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  5. Guys, I think we have given PT enough rope.
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    Moderator Response: Yes, there is no progress in that discussion, so let's just agree to disagree.
  6. scaddenp wrote : "Guys, I think we have given PT enough rope. Moderator Response: Yes, there is no progress in that discussion, so let's just agree to disagree. Enough rope, as well as the hook, line and sinker. In the end, though, those of us with normal lives and outlooks on life, have to know when to call it a day and move on to something more interesting. I get very dizzy going round and round in circles. Any observer should be able to see how warped that list is by now but it will be interesting to see which so-called skeptic tries to link to it next ! (Cue Poptech posting : "I have not been given enough rope. My list is interesting. You have not...etc., etc., ad nauseum)
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  7. JMurphy at 03:24 AM on 25 August, 2010 Did you understand what I wrote?
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  8. chris at 01:34 AM on 25 August, 2010 There is a difference in saying: 1) Given what we know then this or that can happen. 2) Given what we know then this or that will happen. When we talk about predictions its important to know which case we are talking about, in particular if we want to connect a scientific consensus to the prediction.
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