The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward


Mike Hulme had an interesting essay at The Conversation, the main message of which was

In the end, the only question that matters [for the public debate about climate change] is, what are we going to do about it?

Hulme correctly argues that the basic science is clear enough so that for society the important issues to discuss are not science related, but policy related. I argued much the same here. He writes:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does).

Let’s leave the minor quibble aside that AR5 puts the anthropogenic contribution at ‘extremely likely’ having caused more than half of the recent global warming.

The part where I disagree with Hulme is where he argues that showing the existence of a scientific consensus on the above (it is warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad news) somehow stands in the way of  getting society to discuss that most important question. I think the opposite is true. It is the continuous doubt about the science, sowed by those who oppose a serious discussion about what to do, that is a stumbleblock. Showing that a consensus amongst experts exists would enable society to more swiftly move on to the important conversation on what to do about it. I agree with Hulme that on this deeply ethical question there is, and ought to be, a multitude of opinions.

As Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a response to Mike Hulme:

The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments  should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).

Unfortunately, ideological arguments are often dressed in a sciency-looking cloak. From that perspective, I appreciate the honesty in Lindzen stating blunty “we’ll all be dead by then”, the obvious implication being: so why care. That’s indeed what a lot comes down to: How do you value the future compared the present?

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15 Responses to “The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward”

  1. andthentheresphysics Says:

    Good post. I too find it strange that Mike Hulme seems so critical of the consensus project. If you really want to move onto focusing on policy rather than science (which I think would be a good thing) then illustrating the strength of the consensus within the scientific literature would seem to be an important part of the process. I know the consensus project is only one paper, but it is part of a bigger group of papers that all seem to be illustrating a similar level of agreement.

  2. Eli Rabett Says:

    Now Eli does not know Mike Hulme from David Koch’s off ox, but that method of argument is real real real close to the smoke screen that his friends Richard Toll, Roger Pielkes, Bjorn Lomborg and ilk scatter to the winds. Some how, the nasties are reserved for those who perceive a risk from changing climate and want to do something about it when there is time, while you can hear the birds chirping when someone asks about folk like Myron Ebell, Judith Curry, Fred Singer and those such.

    Clearly those who wanted action taken on tobacco were much too shrill and, who would have thought that our friends at Philip Morris were doing anything.

  3. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.

  4. johnrussell40 Says:

    I suspect that Mike Hulme is someone who exists in a blog and Daily-Mail-free world. He clearly sees the scientific consensus and at the same time fails to recognise the significant public confusion driven by a hard core band of denialists and the cynical manipulation of a large element in the popular press that makes it impossible to move on to discussing policy. I’m guessing he just can’t see the necessity of proving a consensus that he and all his colleagues already know exists.

    There are people who live these detached lives, y’know. I remember the amazement in the press during a trial when a judge asked in court who the Beatles were.

  5. Bart Verheggen Says:

    It’s indeed rather peculiar that he clearly sees the scientific consensus (see the second quote in the blogpost) and takes that as a given, seemingly oblivious to the strident attacks on these relatively well established parts of science. If the existence of this consensus was widely known across society, he’d be right in saying that underscoring this consensus would be rather pointless.

    I’m wondering though whether he’s not aware of this dynamic or whether he has a different view of it. The second explanation seems much more likely to me. We shouldn’t forget either that spending years in the trenches of the blogospheric arguments also influences one’s perspective on things. The climate blogosphere is a small and not necessarily representative part of society. Perhaps those who are steeped in the blogosphere (myself included) sometimes put a little too much emphasis on “the attacks on science”, relative to its importance in society at large? That’s a possibility we shouldn’t dismiss. Also, it makes one much more defensive towards other opinions. The blogosphere, or at least the frequent arguments amomgst opponents and proponents of mainstream science, tends to make people more entrenched in their opinions it seems. Something to be aware of.

  6. Bart Verheggen Says:

    See also this comment at ATTP:

    it may well be true that the concern some have is about how the existence of a consensus is used, rather than whether or not a consensus actually exists.

  7. Dan Olner (@DanOlner) Says:

    “Perhaps those who are steeped in the blogosphere (myself included) sometimes put a little too much emphasis on “the attacks on science”, relative to its importance in society at large?”

    A tricky one to test. On one basic level – no, the attacks are absolutely vital. See this on an upcoming UK select committee meeting: denial is bedding down in one of the two main UK political parties. It’s been bubbling up for a while but it’s working its way deeper into the sinews of government (not least via having a class A Gish Galloper as environment secretary).

    Anyone part of the small group of climate blogosphere types will be able to play denial bingo with that Paterson quote (at least eight) – so those points came from somewhere we recognise very well. And more importantly, they are having a direct effect on policy, here and now.

    I also wonder, though, about people around me – friends and family. It’s here that my climate blog obsession stands out more: otherwise highly intelligent people know very little about what’s going on and, while being generically concerned if I mention it, are busy living their own lives. We certainly don’t have in-depth conversations about it. I say something, we all go “tsk” and move on.

    I don’t know if that’s media-related. It’s certainly true that even the BBC were rolling out “no change since 1998” stuff just before AR5. Unless you’re reading the blogs, then, you might not have much idea what’s going on – but is that a consequence of where people are getting their information from?

    Slightly off-topic, possibly, sorry.

  8. Bob Brand Says:

    Hi Bart,

    I find that Mike Hulme’s arguments and their philosophical underpinnings can be pretty obtuse, at times. The discussion at ATTP does illustrate this: several of the commenters are trying to second-guess what Hulme actually means with his acceptance of ‘the consensus’ on the one hand vs. his criticism of ‘the consensus’ on the other hand.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Hulme’s book, but very crudely he suggests there is three-step process society has to go through to achieve significant action on climate change:

    1) Accept the science (the scientific consensus, if you will).

    2) Agree broadly on values (ecology vs economy, long term vs short term, societal change vs status quo, etc.)

    3) Implement these values by means of specific policies.

    I’m guessing that Hulme finds we are stuck in first gear. We assume incorrectly a full recognition by almost 100% of the population of the scientific consensus is necessary, before we can proceed to steps 2 and 3.

    However, many if not most of the objections which many ‘skeptic’ or ‘undecided’ people in society have do not stem from science at all.

    These objections only get expressed AS IF they are about step 1, the acceptance of the science. In reality many people are ‘uncertain’ or divided about steps 2 and 3 but there exists no fruitful and productive way in present society to discuss these values. So what people do is… express this as doubts about ‘the science’. It is not about the science at all.

    In such a situation it may be counterproductive to keep stressing ‘the consensus’, because this gets interpreted as if there would be a consensus about steps 2 and 3, which is not true.

  9. Bart Verheggen Says:

    Dan, I agree that contrarian myths are gaining political traction so they’re not at all unimportant societally. That said, there’s still a dynamic of supporters of mainstream science becoming overly defensive by spending so much time in the blogospheric trenches.

    I notice it myself: if in my daily life I come across a silly statement about climate change, I usually pound on it like a pitbull (“that’s not true. It’s so and so”). I’ve been told that perhaps a more friendly and interested approach (“oh, that’s interesting. And why do you think so? But what about this?”) could work better. Really depends on the interpersonal dynamics of course.

    Bob, good explanation of where Hulme is likely coming from. And in that sense, he’s right. He’s just barking up the wrong tree along the way.

  10. Dikran Marsupial Says:

    “Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).”

    This is a good point, however I would go further and suggest that there is also a substantial problem in the debate due to dissimulation (concealment of ones true position) and simulation (actively misprepresenting ones true position). These (particularly the former) are perhaps only to be expected in ideological and political debates, but are both antithetical to scientific discussion, which should aim to determine the truth, and so requires openness. I generally like to ask direct questions in scientific discussions that are intended to clarify the position of my “opponent” (it shouldn’t really be adversarial, but I couldn’t find a better word). If someone is trying to discuss the science, you would have thought that they would be only too keen to give a direct answer to their question, and hence help me to understand their argument without ambiguity. However, generally what you get is evasion and getting a direct answer is generally like extracting blood from a stone. The problem for the rhetorician is that giving a direct answer to a direct question is that it commits them to something that may prove a hostage to fortune and limits their room for manoever. If you are interested in the scientific truth, rather than just winning the argument, this isn’t a problem, as you will be willing to be proven wrong if that is the case.

  11. johnrussell40 Says:

    Bob Brand: the authors of the ‘consensus paper’ have always made it very clear that it’s just about the consensus of the science. It’s a survey of scientific papers, so how could it be anything else? They also state that the ‘consensus paper’ was undertaken primarily as an aid to people to be able to move on to the next stage: discussion of policy.

    If people misinterpret the consensus paper as being about a consensus of something else, then that’s their problem. If Mike Hulme in turn misinterpreted the consensus paper as being about a consensus of something else, then that’s his problem too.

    It appears that once his mistake was pointed out to Hulme he realised that the word ‘infamous’ was inappropriate and, quite rightly, removed it.

  12. dikranmarsupial Says:

    The thing that I find rather perplexing is that Prof. Hulme may accept the existence of a scientific consensus and think that we should move on to the socio-economic and political issues, and I would agree to a substantial degree. However, while he might think that we shouldn’t be discussing the existence of a consensus, it is hard to see how his article in The Conversation is a step in that direction. All it has done is to cause *more* discussion about the existence of a consensus, and given encouragement to those that would argue that there is no consensus (see the comments for a demonstration of this).

    If Prof. Hulme wants the debate to move on, then he needs to suggest some practical means to make that happen. If ideologically motivated people argue that there is no scientific consensus on climate change, so there is no need for us to do anything, how exactly does Prof. Hulme think we should counter this argument without collecting evidence of the existence of a scientific consensus? Not contesting such arguments is a pretty sure means of making sure that no action will be taken, simply because none of us *want* to forgo the benefits of fossil fuel use, so such arguments are likely to be effective, even though they are factually incorrect.

  13. Bob Brand Says:

    Hi John Russell,

    I’m a defender of John Cook’s consensus paper and of its methodology, Bart can attest to that. ;-) And Mike Hulme is quite right in removing the “infamous” qualifier from his essay:

    Leopard – no I haven’t changed my view in any significant way, but my essay on The Conversation was not about the Cook et al. study – I simply used the 97.1% number to illustrate my argument. It is perhaps a ‘controversial’ study, but not an ‘infamous’ one.

    However, it is only an illustration of Hulme’s point that the usual ‘debate’ on blogs etc. is mostly a proxy for an ethical, moral and cultural dialogue on values which is not happening.

    The dynamic seems to be that ‘skeptics’ voice their values as if these are points about the science itself. And playing along with this, e.g. by stressing the scientific consensus over and over, makes these people think ‘science’ or at least the scientific consensus is actually the enemy of their value system.

    It is indeed the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ problem, as elucidated by the superb philosopher David Hume.

  14. johnrussell40 Says:

    And hi Bob. Apologies if I appear to have made an assumption.

    I guess the fact that the ‘fake sceptics’ are so incensed about the ‘consensus’ paper proves they’re scared of its power to influence discourse. You only have to read how many times they bring up the same old tired—and very short—list of contrarian scientists, to realise how much they value those people as (apparently) credible support for their denial memes. The ‘consensus’ paper shows up the weakness of that tactic.

    Although I agree the consensus ‘paper’ might make “these people think ‘science’ or at least the scientific consensus is actually the enemy of their value system”, I don’t think there was any alternative but to publish it. The people you write about, that I call ‘fake sceptics’, are just a small but vocal percentage of the population and the consensus paper is not aimed specifically at them, because they’re entrenched. No; it’s aimed at providing hard statistical evidence for the media and ‘our side’ to use in undermining the popular view amongst the bulk of the population that there is a debate going on among scientists about the causes of man made climate change. It justifies everyone on our side firmly pointing out the facts.

    Ultimately the sceptics don’t really matter. When the tide turns—which thanks to extreme weather events making their mark, could be quite soon—they’ll be left right behind. Then there truly will be a consensus; right across society.

  15. citizenschallenge Says:

    Speaking of trying to convince the public

    What are the bets on this bit of news making any difference…
    If not, where do we go from here?

    Varying planetary heat sink led to global-warming slowdown and acceleration

    Xianyao Chen, Ka-Kit Tung
    Science 22 August 2014:
    Vol. 345 no. 6199 pp. 897-903
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1254937

    Deep-sea warming slows down global warming

    Global warming seems to have paused over the past 15 years while the deep ocean takes the heat instead. The thermal capacity of the oceans far exceeds that of the atmosphere, so the oceans can store up to 90% of the heat buildup caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Chen and Tung used observational data to trace the pathways of recent ocean heating. They conclude that the deep Atlantic and Southern Oceans, but not the Pacific, have absorbed the excess heat that would otherwise have fueled continued warming.
    Science, this issue p. 897

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