Is there a quorum of scientific opinion?

Claim: Ever since the early 1990s I have heard that climate scientists agree that global climate change is really happening and is a threat. Many people rely on the opinions of experts in their fields (I certainly do). If global climate change is indeed a majority opinion amongst experts, this to me is a strong indication that it is real.

Objection: Sometimes scientific consensus can form around something that is incorrect, due to peer pressure or conflicts of interest. Is there evidence that this is the case?

Objection: Perhaps there is not actually a consensus, and experts in the field are genuinely divided. What evidence is there for this?

9 Responses a “Is there a quorum of scientific opinion?”

  1. Marco Says:

    I will say that peer pressure is a real problem when you are relying on peer review from people with similar underpinning philosophies.

  2. Richard Says:

    From what I’ve read recently, no one disputes the physics of the greenhouse effect. No one denies CO2 is rising. Very, very few believe that is this is going to have no/negligible effect on global temperatures. The debate is over how much of a contribution man made CO2 is going to have.

  3. admin Says:

    I’m not sure whether everyone agrees about the physics of the greenhouse effect and that CO2 levels are rising, but I suppose that as long as nobody *here* disputes it, that discussion can go onto the back-burner.

    I’m still struggling with how to structure all this discussion (or if such structure is needed or useful). For me, the core areas for discussion appear to be:
    – with the best current scientific understanding, what are the odds of each of the scenarios eventuating (eg. what are the odds of a sea level rise of x cm in the next 50 years, say).
    – regardless of fault, can human reduction in CO2 emissions mitigate this risk? How much?
    – On a personal level, how much risk are we comfortable with?

  4. admin Says:

    Marco – I think peer pressure does affect peer review, but not sufficiently. The reason people get into science in the first place is to find the truth.
    In my opinion, a view that peer pressure is significantly affecting scientific results posits a massive scale of corruption and/or self-deceit that I just don’t see evidence for.
    There are certainly scientific mavericks that claim they are being oppressed by the system, but I haven’t seen any with any real credibility. This might be an interesting avenue to pursue, however, if you think it’s the case – perhaps you could start with a case study of someone you think has been particularly unfairly treated?

  5. Marco Says:

    As with democracy, where I agree with someone that said that it is the worst system, except for all of the other systems – I think that peer review is the worst system except for any other devised system so far. I will try to find the article that found a lot of shortcomings with it in a scientific study.

    As to specifically with climate science, I feel that there is some individual scientists that are being labelled maverick or old school and I get the sense that their research is not being given a fair hearing because peer review involves some arbitrary discretion.

    On sites such as RealClimate, I find that the moderators don’t make it clear when they are being a scientist and when they are being climate activists, where they actively suppress ideas that might muddle the “message”.

  6. Chris Says:

    Disclaimer: This is anecdotal subjective evidence.

    (1) In private discussions, physicists and physical scientists of my acquaintance are about as likely to be ‘skeptics’ as muggles are, if not more so. At JCU, John Nicol who taught us Physics is a big wheel in a national skeptics organisation; Peter Ridd seems to have a large web presence dismissing the idea that rising CO2 is a threat to the reef; and of course you know Bob Carter. A prominent geologist here (who I won’t name because of point (3)) is also a thorough ‘skeptic’.

    (2) I have been working for a few years on a project involving technical solutions for water conservation that requires me to read a good deal of ‘climate science’ literature (nothing to do with AGW). Some of it is good, but in general, it is more empirical and slipshod then the proper physics and physical chemistry literature; it is very much “physics lite”. I think yes, there is a strong consensus in this ‘climate science’ world; but *not* in the larger world of physical sciences that it is a subset of, and that is as well or better equipped to assess the data.

    (3) There is strong peer pressure to suppress doubts about AGW, not directly, but because there is a lot of research money involved. I try not to be too inhibited, but I am wary of expressing my views because I have collaborations where the $$$ ultimately derives from concern about AGW. An email recently came around for expressions of interest in Antarctic projects – *every one* was involved in some way with AGW. This sort of thing exerts a strong selective pressure on a timid skeptic to stay away.

    Disclaimer (2): You know that in my other identity I am as mad as a cut snake.

  7. admin Says:

    I wish I was better at correctly weighting elements such as anecdotal subjective evidence. All I can do is mention that I have many more physicist and physical scientist friends who have evaluated the evidence and have been convinced that there is a problem, than those who have not. It’s pointless doing such comparisons of anecdotal subjective evidence, of course, but they hold a lot of personal subjective weight. Sigh.

    As for point (2) – there’s the old joke about chemists, physicists, and mathematicians, of course. All of the “harder” sciences look down on those requiring more empirical data. And everyone looks down on engineers! What do you think is the cause of what you perceive as the inferior work in climate science? What would you be doing differently if you were a climate scientist?

    Regarding point (3), I’m skeptical that peer pressure would be a sufficient factor in suppressing doubts about AGW (actually, do you think AGW is a good term? Is it widely accepted? Perhaps AGCC for Climate Change, instead?). Wouldn’t the various “think tanks” sponsered by the various oil companies be perfectly happy to fund the more skeptical research? It’s my perception – possibly incorrect – that oil companies are spending quite a bit of money to throw doubt on climate change, as they are perfectly legally entitled to do, and have high incentive to do. Finally, regarding antarctic projects – I would imagine this would be an area where climate-change related projects would congregate, as there’s lots of interesting stuff in the antarctic for climate research! What other projects are there in the Antarctic, traditionally? Do you think these are being suppressed? I guess I don’t quite understand this point.

    Regarding your disclaimer – I’ve noticed you keep putting this one in to make it easier to disagree with you without feeling bad (at least, I think this is your motive). Please stop it!

  8. Chris Says:

    For point (2), I am not sure. I will have to come back to it later. Climate is something that is at the same time ‘too hard’ (in that it cannot be confidently reduced to a model system) and ‘too easy’ (in that progress towards a model requires a lot of ‘stamp collecting’ of data which is not intellectually very interesting). I think the ‘too easy’ aspect means that it attracts people who do not have the physics/physical chemistry background to notice that they are missing something important – e.g., on my blog I discuss the coupling of mass and energy transport across the air/ocean interface which Leon Phillips published years ago but wasn’t taken up by the climate modellers, and the linear dependence of warming on carbon dioxide concentration in that seminal Hansen paper.

    AGW is the term Marco and I always seem to use. I could google it to see how often it appears cf. AGCC but might leave this as an exercise for the reader. Replacing ‘GW’ with ‘GCC’ seems to me a dodge to make the model less falsifiable.

    Point (3) is very clear in my own mind and I will have a go again at making it clearer. There is no conspiracy, no suppression – but there is a LOT of money out there for “The effect of climate change on X”. It is hard to get money. If you go around saying “climate change is bunk”, no one will give you any money to research the effect of climate change on X. My own experience is with research related to biofuels, which I think is intrinsically interesting and important from a sustainability perspective despite climate change being bunk – but the justification for funding it in this time we live in is always tied up with climate change. As for think tanks funding skeptic research, I am emailed about funding opportunities all the time – and I’ve never seen anything of the sort. And I don’t know anyone who has received funding from such a source. Maybe things are different in countries with a stronger tradition of private funding of research.

    As for my foolish disclaimer, I have felt that you thought I was some kind of crazy ideologue who was beyond logic, since you have shied away so strongly from arguing with me – I *want* to believe things because they are true; life is short and I want to figure out as much as I can before I have to go. I don’t want to go on believing things that are wrong. I feel also that I went too far in the direction of being uncivil and put you off and would like to behave as nicely as I can when visiting your blog and make amends. (Sorry for that long run-on sentence. And I am very sorry to have fallen out of contact for so long.)

  9. Chris Says:

    My reply seems to have been et. I will just see if this one gets through in real time…

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