Watt about evidence versus consensus?

Watts Up With That (WUWT) has a newsbyte post called Science is about evidence not consensus. It quotes a Wall Street Journal OpEd by Matt Ridley also called science is about evidence, not consensus.

Matt Ridley’s OpEd has been very nicely rebutted by Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, in a fantastic post called Another Wall Street Journal Global Warming Article Misses the Target. I won’t say much as Phil Plait rebuts it much more effectively than I could and you can read what he has to say in his post.

I will say, however, that this tendency to focus on the philosophy of science is quite frustrating. There’s nothing wrong with discussing the philosophy of science, but you don’t gain understanding about some science area by philosophising. You gain understanding by doing science. It’s indeed correct that science is about evidence, not consensus, but this – in my opinion – is a classic strawman argument. Noone is claiming that we should base our view of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) on the existence, or not, of a consensus. The existence of a consensus, however, tells us something about the level of agreement in the scientific community about AGW. It’s indeed true that the existence of a consensus does not mean that the science is completely settled or even correct. There are clearly examples where there was a consensus that turned out to be wrong. However, I suspect that this is getting less and less common as we gain more and more understanding of the world around us. Also, there are many more examples where a consensus turned out to be correct than examples here it turned out to be wrong.

So, although I agree that science is about evidence, not consensus, the existence of a consensus does not – in any way – indicate that there might be something wrong with a particular science area. It indicates a high level of agreement. If you think there is an issue with an area where such a consensus exists, you’ve got to provide evidence as to why all these scientists are wrong, not simply philosophise about how such a high level of consensus does not necessarily mean that these scientists are correct. Just because something could be true does not make it true or even make it likely.

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16 Responses to Watt about evidence versus consensus?

  1. It’s something I’ve been pointing out for a long time; a scientific consensus is based on evidence:

    This is something you can get across to a so-called sceptic, as they often can be convinced. But you won’t get this across to the most ardent climate science deniers. As it presents a real problem for how they attack a scientific consensus.

    Especially when you point out that many fields and subjects have a scientific consensus based on the evidence we have. Like germ theory or the theory of evolution, they really can sound like creationists with how some argue their points on this matter.

  2. I did not expect that the link would turn into a full embed…

  3. A full embed makes it easier to see what it is. Really good little video. I really like what Sam Caldwell pointed out (I may have said something similar in an earlier post). In this context, we mean a consensus of evidence not a consensus of opinion. Couldn’t help chuckling when Monckton referred to himself as a “a specialist in the field of the determination of climate sensitivity”. I guess anyone can make such a claim about their expertise. Not everyone will necessarily be correct though.

  4. Fragmeister says:

    The WUWT crowd have to shout that science does not proceed by consensus because consensus is what happens when the evidence is overwhelming. It’s not hard to understand.

  5. That embed was a segment from a 2 hour long video, makes citing specific points easier:

    http://www.realsceptic.com/climate-changes-but-facts-dont-debunking-monckton/

    I just don’t understand how for example can claim to be “a specialist in the field of the determination of climate sensitivity” with the mistake he made in the APS newsletter (the “Climate Sensitivity Reconsidered” article where he devised a forcing by three).

    Or that he can say that there is no consensus on climate sensitivity, which we know isn’t true with the reviews done of the scientific literature.

    Though that’s just a continuation of the misinterpretation/misrepresentation of what we mean by consensus.

    But I’m not quite following what you’re saying here:
    “I guess anyone can make such a claim about their expertise. Not everyone will necessarily be correct though.”

  6. dana1981 says:

    It’s a strawman, but the consensus only exists because the evidence is so strong. It’s hard to convince 97% of scientists of anything.

    The reason we push the scientific consensus so hard is mainly for the general public. Scientists with sufficient expertise can evaluate the evidence for themselves, but most people don’t have that expertise, and would prefer to defer to the conclusions of the experts and expert research. It’s why we go to the doctor for health problems, the mechanic for car problems, etc. Sometimes we’ll get a second or third opinion from other doctors and mechanics. But we defer to the conclusions of experts all the time when we face questions that we don’t have the expertise to answer ourselves. That’s the smart thing to do. Unfortunately deniers are aware of this, and have been very successful in convincing the public that there is no expert consensus.

  7. dana1981 says:

    I believe the point is that anyone can claim to be a “specialist” in whatever they like, because “specialist” is a very vague term. But clearly Monckton doesn’t qualify as a climate sensitivity specialist by any reasonable definition of the word.

  8. Collin, all I meant was that there’s no law against lying. Monckton can say whatever he likes (as long as he doesn’t incite people to violence or say something libelous) but, as Dana points out, in the case of Monckton, there is no reasonable definition of the word “specialist” that would allow one to conclude that Monckton is one.

  9. To add to your doctor analogy: climate science deniers basically shop around till they find a doctor that tells them what they want to hear, ignoring the fast majority of other doctors that say something completely different.

    (Credit to Richard Denniss for making this point very well with the same analogy during the National Press Club debate with Monckton.)

  10. @dana & wott: Ah, of course, should have picked that up. Think it’s time for me to sign off for the day. ;)

  11. The whole consensus issue is a bit of a catch 22. Under normal circumstances one wouldn’t need to explicitly point out the existence of a consensus. It would just become obvious. All other alternatives would simply disappear and the accepted view would become the norm. The existence of a dis-information campaign, however, means that the general public need to be told explicitly about the consensus so as to point out how those promoting the alternative are in the minority. Of course, doing so then provides some more ammunition to those who are trying to undermine the accepted scientific evidence.

  12. Yes, that’s almost certainly the reason. Start with “there’s no consensus”. When that no longer works change to “science isn’t done via consensus”.

  13. Once again, Watts et all are attempting to hide behind nonsense and tomfoolery in order to distract people’s attention away from facts. ‘Give em that ol’ razzle dazzle…’ Watts.

  14. Lars Karlsson says:

    Without consensus, science could never progress. If scientists could never agree about anything, science would never get past the most basic questions. Instead, scientists would still be debating Newton vs Aristotle, and heliocentrism vs geocentrism,

  15. Exactly. There are areas where the agreement is so strong that we don’t think in terms of there being a consensus. We simply accept the science. There are others that are less certain and there might be disagreement about how to evaluate the evidence and so to make decisions requires some idea of the consensus about the evidence.

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