Re: [asa] Consensus science

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Wed Aug 26 2009 - 20:38:27 EDT


Thanks for your comments on this question.

I don't object to your comments generally. I think they are very
appropriate for most fields of science -- metallurgy, celestial mechanics,
electromagnetism, organic chemistry, aerodynamics, anatomy, etc. But what
is appropriate *generally* may not be appropriate for certain special cases,
and it is precisely those special cases (Darwinian evolution and
anthropogenic global warming) that we most frequently discuss here.

So, while not rejecting your comments as wrong, I think there are many more
things that need to be added:

1. Regarding Darwinian evolution, that there is a clear consensus among
biologists, palaeontologists, etc. is not denied, even by those who oppose
Darwinian evolution. Those who oppose Darwinian evolution just happen to
think that the consensus is wrong; they do not deny that the consensus

2. Regarding anthropogenic global warming, the case is different. It is
not just that AGW doubters disagree with the purported consensus; it is also
that AGW doubters believe that the degree of consensus has been greatly
exaggerated and misreported, for political reasons. So there is a
difference not only about the science, but also about the description of the
consensus. And "the description of the consensus" is not a scientific
subject. It is a scientific question to ask: "Will a temperature rise of
one degree melt the polar icecaps within 30 years?" It is not a scientific
question to ask: "Do the majority of scientists believe that a temperature
rise of one degree will melt the polar icecaps within 30 years?" To answer
the first question, we use the methods of science; to answer the second
question, we use the methods of library science, sociology, etc.

In other words, it is *not* an attack on "consensus science" (let alone an
attack on good science or true science) to be critical of, say, a report
that says that 97% of all competent scientists support AGW. There may be
very good reasons, *independent of the critic's beliefs about the actual
science of global warming*, for doubting that such a statistic is accurate.
It may be that not all relevant scientists have been polled, for example.
It may also be that scientists who simply believe that the earth is warming
(GW) have been lumped in with those who believe that man is responsible
(AGW). It may be that journalists of a leftist persuasion are lying,
exaggerating, or simply making up numbers (all of which they have done in
other cases). It is not *anti-science* to question statements that are made
*about science* or *about the views of scientists*.

3. Whereas probably 90-95% of life scientists with tenure would, if asked,
nod in assent to Darwinian evolution (which does not exclude holding some
private doubts, but leave that aside), it appears that it is *not* that high
a percentage of scientists who know something about climate change who agree
with all the conclusions that have been drawn regarding AGW. Further,
whereas in the case of evolution, many of the scientists who have dissented
are not very high-profile in the fields of biology, palaeontology, in the
case of AGW some of the dissenting scientists are at the front of their
disciplines, holding prestigious chairs at American and European
universities, or heading scientific or science-administration organizations.
For both of these reasons, the AGW debate and the evolution debate are not

4. Regarding the first point in 3 above: when does a consensus become
merely a majority? If 98% of scientists in a field agree on something, we
can speak of "consensus". What if it's only 90% What if it's only 80%?
75%? 51%? What's the dividing line between a consensus and a mere
majority? And should we slavishly follow a "consensus", while we are
allowed to responsibly disagree with a "majority"?

5. Regarding 2 above, a question to be raised is why those holding fiercely
to AGW would have an interest in over-stating their numerical superiority
within their discipline. For example, it is not honest to claim that 97% of
competent scientists agree with you when only, say, 80% do. The reason for
over-claiming must be extra-scientific, and is likely political.

6. Most of the public's information about the "consensus" on AGW comes from
non-scientific sources: science journalists in the New York Times, U.N.
reports, reports of Scandinavian science committees, reports of official EEC
bodies, etc. All of these sources tend to have a politically leftist slant
and in some cases an anti-American slant. They should not be simply
accepted as the neutral voice of the best academic science.

7. When other sources become available, e.g., the report I cited the other
day, which showed (or purported to show) that (based on a major database of
8,700 scientific journals, covering in fact virtually every scientific
journal in the world) scientific opinion on AGW *changed in a major way*
between 2003 and 2007, the public generally doesn't hear about such results
from the sources mentioned in 6 above. The reason is obvious. It's not in
the interest of the AGW group to give the public direct access to what a
broad body of scientists are thinking. They prefer to give the public
knowledge only of what the activist group of scientists, journalists and
politicians who support AGW are thinking.

8. Note that when I pointed out this survey the other day (which I wasn't
even endorsing, but just indicating as something that ought to be
considered), it was savagely attacked by a member of this list who (a) does
*not* match your criteria for being a scientist working in the field, since
(though he would not admit it when directly asked) he holds a doctorate in
*no* science, but only a B.S. in computer engineering, and zero
qualifications in any climate-related science, and therefore almost
certainly lacks the mathematical and physics training to even understand,
let alone criticize, the (very complex) climate-change models he is
championing; (b) is clearly politically partisan; (c) showed *no* interest
whatsoever in following up the survey by going to the original scientific
papers upon which it was based, to see if in fact it *was* accurately
reporting was scientists were thinking between 2003 and 2007. When the
loudest champions of AGW are like this (and they frequently are), the
general public has every right to be suspicious of AGW motivations and

9. More generally, you do not seem to be as worried as I am that "the
specialists" may quickly become a self-promoting group, with less interest
in truth than in maintaining their position. I am old enough to remember a
time when the older generation regarded chiropractors as witch doctors,
quacks, etc. They were encouraged in that opinion by the medical
profession. Now, surprise, surprise, everyone goes to chiropractors. The
specialists (i.e., the M.D.s) were wrong; the chiropractors *did* know
something. The medical profession in the West similarly treated acupuncture
as an unscientific procedure. Now, surprise, surprise, it is used in the
West, as well as by 1.1 billion Chinese (in a society dedicated to science
and technology). In short, specialists can be narrow-minded and defensive.
And it is often *not* internal scientific criticism among the specialists
which causes change in attitudes, but outside pressures by which the
specialists are forced, grudgingly, to accede to new knowledge (e.g.,
legislative action which gives chiropractors certain recognition whether
doctors like it or not, and a wave of successful chiropractic treatments
which prove, against the specialists, that chiropractic treatment is based
on a sound body of knowledge). Your account leaves this out entirely.

That's why I don't share your faith that if AGW science is bad, this will be
brought out -- in time to avoid a public policy disaster -- by the active
scientists. If the majority of active scientists are *committed* to a
one-sided view, they *won't listen* to important objections from dissenting
scientists. And if the USA were to abide by Kyoto, thus destroying its
economy, and ten years later, the AGW scientists finally listened to
critics, and said, "Oops, we were wrong with those models -- sorry!" --
what good would that apology do to the millions of Americans unemployed by
the policy based on bad AGW science? The time for the AGW lobby to listen
to criticism is *now*, not according to the pokey academic timetable that
you allow. The dominant view in *any* field is not going to be in a big
hurry to change, and we need a more critical assessment of AGW models *now*,
because policy decisions have to be made *now*.

Frankly, I think your view of how science proceeds is a bit naive, from a
sociological point of view. It would be how science proceeded if all
scientists were guided only by truth and honesty, rather than by ego,
careerism, defending views they've committed to, etc. I subscribe to the
view that serious scientific change doesn't come about because scientists
are fair, and change their minds directly in proportion to the evidence;
serious scientific change comes about when the old generation dies off and
the new generation's "truth" takes control. The AGW gang won't go down
before evidence or argument; their position will fade away only as the old
guard retires and young scientists with more open minds take their place.
But that is going to take too long, given the current policy crisis.
Politicians are being pressured by left-wing activists, most of whom can't
tell Fahrenheit from Celsius, to act on incomplete temperature science, and
risk wrecking Western economies as a cure for an alleged future danger
(apocalyptic global flooding, etc.) which may never come to pass.

10. When I was in grad school, all the "specialists" told me that obeisance
to the historical-critical method was absolutely necessary to understanding
the Bible, and that merely literary approaches were of no "scientific" value
at all. Surprise, surprise, most OT scholarship, and much NT scholarship,
is now heavily literary, and the old-time historical critical methods have
been put in a much inferior position (not abandoned entirely, but no longer
in a position to dictate what counts as scientific within Biblical studies).
Holistic literary methods of interpretation are now considered to be as
"scientific" as historical-critical methods. If the "specialists" had had
their way, they would have strangled the literary methods in the crib. (In
fact, they did so in the case of the careers of many individuals known to
me.) In Biblical studies, "consensus" about the historical-critical methods
merely masked a tyranny; and I have never forgotten the smugness and the
condescension and the political viciousness which went along with that
consensus. I can now recognize those same attitudes in any walk of life,
academic or non-academic. I see them clearly in the Eugenie Scott and Ken
Miller, and I see them clearly in the AGW lobby. I can tell when a body of
people claiming knowledge is over-stating the strength of their arguments,
driven by something more than a pure theoretical interest in the truth.
Appeals to authority, the inconsistent treatment of data and arguments, the
lack of careful qualifications, the failure to admit the inherent
limitations and possible weaknesses in one's models, the use of rhetoric in
place of fact and logic, failure to treat opposing arguments at their
strongest, and the personal and professional mistreatment of intellectual
opponents, have a certain bad smell about them, no matter what the field of
human endeavour.

11. More generally on evolution and AGW. Note that in *both* cases, we are
dealing in a science which has many, many, variables, all interacting in
extremely complex ways. In evolution, you have natural selection, mutation,
drift, and many other considerations. In climatology, you have CO2, water
vapour, sunspot cycles, effects of ocean currents, etc. Even explaining
what has *already* happened in terms of precise mathematical models is
frequently impossible, and in the best case is fraught with uncertainty;
predicting what *will* happen is in the case of evolution utterly impossible
(as David Campbell has conceded), and in the case of global warming very,
very difficult. A tiny error of measurement today, or the neglect of the
effects of one minor term in a mathematical model, could lead to a huge
error in the temperature 50 years from now. Anyone who pretends otherwise,
Ph.D. in climatology or not, member of the Noble International Order of
Expert Climatologists or not, is either dishonest or a fool, and a bad
scientist to boot.

In every science on which people of this list are competent -- cosmology,
computer science, etc., the practitioners here recognize that disputes can
be very complicated, that much can depend on things which are very difficult
to measure, that models can be flawed, etc. But when it comes to AGW,
nobody here seems to even *consider* the possibility that the complex models
used to predict future temperatures and future ocean levels might be flawed
in any way. They are just Gospel. This is an utterly unscientific
attitude. And the only possible explanation that I can think of for this
attitude is that some people here are being driven by a leftist political
stance towards accepting AGW uncritically. After all, the "cure" for AGW
recommended by Kyoto and its other champions includes hitting Western
industry hard, while giving Chinese industry and the industries of other
polluting countries a free pass to pollute; and the unspoken rhetoric of
Kyoto is "West bad, third world good" (frequently with the unspoken rider,
"Europe only moderately bad, USA incarnation of evil"). And of course the
leading political proponents of Kyoto are all on the political left (e.g.,
Al Gore, David Suzuki, Gwynne Dyer).

12. My original comparison was between the cultural ethos of UD and the
ethos here. I think it is fair to say that the general tone of UD indicates
a more conservative set of attitudes, not just on evolution, but on a whole
range of things. Such discussions as have been held here on biomedical
ethics, gay marriage, etc. indicate sympathies here for liberal positions
that would not generally be found among the sort of people who post on UD.
Such discussions of politics as have cropped up here (negative remarks about
G. W. Bush, etc.) indicate to me a greater sympathy with the political left
than one finds on UD. What I am driving at is that scientists are human
beings, and their interpretations of nature are not hermetically sealed off
from their views on other things. I don't think it's an accident that
mantras about AGW science being settled and Darwinian science being fact,
not theory, are found in a place where the politics is more left-wing and
the biomedical ethics is more left-wing and Christian theology is more
left-wing and so on. There is a cultural difference between UD and the ASA
list -- I don't say the ASA membership as a whole, because this list is not
representative of that -- and I think that cultural difference affects even
how scientific matters are presented.

I am not saying that the cultural conservatives are right and the cultural
liberals are wrong; rather, I am saying that it is preposterous for the AGW
people here or elsewhere to expect me or anyone to believe that they have
all the "objective' science, and that the objections to AGW over on UD are
all "political". There is objectivity on both sides, and political
manipulation of data and theory on both sides. Denying a rise in global
temperature for right-wing reasons is wrong; but shouting down, for
left-wing reasons, those scientists who have genuine mathematical and
scientific objections to the assumptions made in global warming models is
equally wrong. The "arguments" made on this list have generally consisted
of shouting down the opponents of AGW, not refuting them. I suspect this is
because most, if not all, of the proponents of AGW here are not
scientifically competent to analyze the models in detail, and have simply
taken their opinion from the news reports and web sites that they favour,
ignoring what does not suit their left-wing view of the world.

So yes, Randy, I grant that, other things being equal, it is prudent to side
with the majority of competent scientists if one is not competent to judge
oneself. But when there are strong reasons for suspecting (a) that the
majority of competent scientists is not nearly as great a majority as has
been made out, because many competent objectors are being shut out or not
included in the statistics; or (b) that the majority of competent scientists
are operating under a bias, whether methodological or political -- your
principle goes out the window. Once the integrity of the scientific
process, or the integrity of the journalistic process which reports on the
scientific process, is questioned, the integrity question must be dealt with
before we can even talk about acceding to the opinion of the majority. This
is the position the AGW lobby finds itself in. It may be *entirely right*
about the science; but, due to the irresponsible behaviour of both the AGW
scientists themselves and their political allies, AGW is under a cloud of
suspicion. I don't feel any more sorry for these poor "experts", who can't
get the public to accede to their superior wisdom, than I do for the
Darwinists. When you (a) unscientifically over-claim regarding the
certainty of your results; (b) unscientifically under-report the potential
weaknesses in your models; (c) ally yourself with zealous, obviously
partisan propagandists and let them carry the burden of public persuasion --
people are not going to trust you, and you have no one but yourself to blame
for what happens.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Randy Isaac" <>
To: <>
Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 2:07 PM
Subject: [asa] Consensus science

> Cameron wrote:
> "> I have found it interesting, though -- and relevant to the purpose of
> the
>> ASA, which is in part to promote responsible science and analyze the
>> foundations of scientific belief -- that over the last several months, on
>> this site, people are always linking to sites and articles and blogs that
>> purport to show beyond doubt that the data posted by the "deniers" is all
>> wrong, filled with lies, written by the oil companies, etc., whereas over
>> at UD, an equal or greater number of sites and articles and blogs are
>> cited that purport to show beyond all doubt that world temperatures have
>> "flatlined" since about 2002, that the arctic icecaps have almost
>> recovered, etc. Almost all the ASA people have appeared to believe their
>> sources uncritically, and almost all the UD people appear to believe
>> their sources equally uncritically. So who is an intelligent, neutral
>> person supposed to believe? The dozens of facts and opinions endorsed by
>> admiring ASA people, or the dozens of facts and opinions endorsed by
>> admiring UD people?
> ....
>> If I am wrong in saying the above, I invite correction. But if I am
>> right, I cannot understand the uncritical attitude that pervades this
>> list, leading to the mere following of consensus or authority on major
>> controversial issues. Why do people here trust the AGW websites and
>> opinions, and not the anti-AGW websites and opinions, *unless they can do
>> the science themselves*? I simply do not believe that the almost complete
>> submission to AGW here, versus the almost complete rejection of it over
>> at UD, is a statistical fluke. There are "predispositions to believe"
>> and "predispositions to disbelieve" going on here. Why should there be
>> such a correlation between ID and AGW skepticism, and TE and fervent AGW
>> endorsement? Something deeper is going on here than a mere debate over
>> the techniques of measuring Arctic ice thickness."
> This is a great segue for me to comment on some aspects that are near and
> dear to my heart. Consensus science, though a term not liked by some on
> this list, is an extremely important concept. I use it to refer to the
> results of science that are agreed to by the vast majority of scientists
> actively working and publishing in that particular field. It does not
> include untested assumptions or speculations in frontiers of science.
> The concept of consensus is critical because as scientists we recognize
> that any individual can influence their scientific results inadvertently
> through an ingrained bias or subtly flawed experimental technique or any
> of a multitude of factors that can affect results. Consensus means that
> multiple individuals or groups have worked on and studied the same
> phenomena independently and have arrived at the same conclusion. The more
> individuals who have done this, the less likely it is that subjective
> elements have distorted the results.
> Once consensus has been reached, it is a highly reliable basis for further
> research into the unknown. Contrary to popular perceptions, science almost
> always makes progress by building on consensus science, not by overturning
> it. Yes, some love to point to anecdotal counterexamples and they do
> exist. But they are not the rule.
> The net is that if one is not actively working or an expert in a
> particular field, and if one does not have time to study it in detail, and
> if it comes to a choice between uncritically accepting consensus science
> versus cynically rejecting consensus science, the former is always the
> safer bet. Occasionally one might lose the bet but not very often.
> I am particularly fond of ASA because it consists of Christians who have
> actual responsibilities in science, either in teaching or in research or
> retired from those vocations. They understand science and have a good
> intuitive feel of what one can trust and what can't be trusted. So I think
> it is a high compliment to say that ASA members on this list uncritically
> accept consensus science in areas where they are not expert rather than
> rejecting it. It is even better that we usually have an expert in every
> field who is working and publishing in that field and can explain the
> details to the rest of us as needed.
> Furthermore, in our quest to integrate our faith with science, a great big
> yellow (or red) flag must be raised if such integration requires a
> modification or repudiation of consensus science. It may be right but the
> odds are against it. The same can be said if it requires a repudiation of
> the basic creeds of Christianity.
> Yes, some people, most notably Freeman Dyson, love to be contrarians. By
> nature they rebel against accepting anything just because other people say
> it's the consensus. There's a place for such an attitude and it can be
> helpful at times in ferreting out new ideas. But few people are able to
> know when to rebel and when not to. Too often this is a cover to simply
> maintain a rebellious attitude in an area where they have philosophical or
> theological reasons for opposing consensus science.
> To move from the general to the specific, both anthropogenic global
> warming and the theory of evolution are examples of consensus science. I
> think we can all agree on that, even those who object to the theories
> themselves and think they should not be the consensus. Yes, there are many
> vocal expressions against these ideas but the fact that none has gained
> traction in the community of scientific experts is not because of bias or
> lack of consideration but rather because all these arguments have already
> been dealt with, one place or another. If these areas of consensus science
> are in fact wrong, that will become abundantly evident in due course
> through the work of the active scientists.
> Randy
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Received on Wed Aug 26 20:42:46 2009

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