A recent Watts Up With That (WUWT) highlights various reports and articles that discuss scientific consensus and controversies. There is a general tendency within the skeptic community to regard a scientific consensus as unscientific. I believe the implication is that it implies that scientists have converged on an opinion about the results or what is sometimes referred to as a “consensus building approach”. The implication is – I believe – that the scientists have already decided on the answer and are working towards how to “prove” that they’re correct. My view is that this interpretation is wrong. Consensus in science refers to a consensus about the strength of the evidence, not necessarily that the outcome is completely settled or that alternatives aren’t possible. There is an excellent video showing a discussion between Paul Nurse – the ex-President of the Royal Society – and James Delingpole – who writes for the Telegraph. In my opinion, James Delingpole, flounders and changes the subject when Paul Nurse gives a very good example of a situation in which reaching a scientific consensus would clearly be appropriate.
One of the reports highlighted in the WUWT post was by a group called SINTEF and the report was presented at the Royal Academy of Belgium. I read some of the report and it all seemed a little odd. Lots of mentions of philosophers, but no real substance. It cited WUWT posts something like 7 times and cited Watts et al. (2012) which is, I believe, a paper by Anthony Watts that has yet to be accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. There was also a section on the 4 myths of climate change, which were
1) Lamenting Eden
2) Presaging Apocalypse
3) Constructing Babel
4) Celebrating Jubilee.
Really? I’m not completely clear what they’re getting at here, but they seem to be implying that climate scientists somehow suffer from some kind of bias and have a desire to produce certain results because of some underlying human frailty. I’m more than happy to accept that scientists are human and will find it difficult – at times – to be completely objective and unbiased. However, I have seen no strong evidence to suggest that climate scientists are any different to other scientists. If you believe that climate science is fundamentally flawed because of the human frailties of those involved, you should assume the same for all science. If so, however, it then becomes incredibly difficult to understand how – in the last few hundred years – we’ve achieved what we have.
Another common theme by those skeptical of climate science is that climate scientists should stick to the science and should not be aiming to influence policy. I have some sympathy with this view. Scientists should aim to remain objective and unbiased. If a scientist starts to believe too strongly in their scientific results it becomes unlikely that they would be willing to consider evidence that their results might be flawed. However, there is a subtlety to this. Much of science today is very complicated and so there is an expectation that scientists engage with the public and with policy makers. The idea is that scientists should be willing, and able, to explain their science and its results to educated lay-people so that they can make up their minds about the significance of the work. As much as I believe that the results of publicly funded work should be open to all, expecting the public or policy makers to read peer-reviewed journals and make up their own minds (without any input from the scientists) is unrealistic.
However, in my opinion, the term scientist is very broad. It doesn’t just refer to someone paid to do research and who publishes in peer-reviewed journals. It refers to anyone who actively engages with the science. Anyone who looks at the data, tries to interpret the data, tries to develop a model, or carries out a calculation should be regarded as contributing to science. That means, in my opinion, that if “professional” climate scientists should refrain from trying to influence policy, skeptical climate scientists should do the same. It sometimes seems to me that those who are skeptical think they sit in some special place. The supposed rules that they believe apply to who they think of as climate scientists somehow don’t apply to them. They seem to think that their role is simply to find errors in bits of climate science and that once they’ve found that error it invalidates the research. That they have some kind of oversight role. That they’re somehow special. That they can impose rules upon climate scientists that they don’t need to follow themselves (because somehow they think they’re not real scientists???).
In my view there are basically three categories of people in a typical scientific exchange – scientists, the public, and policy makers. If you’re a scientist, you should present your evidence to the public or to policy makes so they can decide on the strength of the evidence and what it implies. If you’re a member of the public or a policy maker, you should listen to as much evidence as possible so as to make up your mind about a science area (and, of course, you should be willing to change or adapt your view as more evidence is presented). If you want to impose certain conditions on the behaviour of scientists (and I’m not sure we should, but let’s assume that we could) then you have to be willing to define what a scientist is and you should apply these conditions consistently. You can’t act like a scientist but then pretend that you’re not, so that it’s alright for you to influence policy even though you think scientists shouldn’t. Skeptics shouldn’t think that they hold some special place. They’re part of the process and should apply the same “rules” to themselves as they would like to apply to others.