Consensus in science

In 1914, there was a consensus among geologists that the earth under our feet was permanently fixed, and that it was absurd to think it could be otherwise. But in 1915, Alfred Wegener fought an enormous battle to convince them of the relevance of plate tectonics.

In 1904, there was a consensus among physicists that Newtonian mechanics was, at last, the final word in explaining the workings of the world. All that was left to do was to mop up the details. But in 1905, Einstein and a few others soon convinced them that this view was false.

In 1544, there was a consensus among mathematicians that it was impossible to calculate the square root of negative one, and that to even consider the operation was absurd. But in 1545, Cardano proved that, if you wanted to solve polynomial equations, then complex numbers were a necessity.

In 1972, there was a consensus among psychiatrists that homosexuality was a psychological, treatable, sickness. But in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association held court and voted for a new consensus to say that it was not.

In 1979, there was a consensus among paleontologists that the dinosaurs’ demise was a long, drawn out affair, lasting millions of years. But in 1980, Alvarez, father and son, introduced evidence of a cataclysmic cometary impact 65 million years before.

In 1858, there was a consensus among biologists that the animal species that surround us were put there as God designed them. But in 1859, the book On the Origin of Species appeared.

In 1928, there was a consensus among astronomers that the heavens were static, the boundaries of the universe constant. But in 1929, Hubble observed his red shift among the stars.

In 1834, there was a consensus among physicians that human disease was spontaneously occurring, due to imbalanced humours. But in 1835, Bassi and later Pasteur, introduced doctors to the germ theory.

All these are, obviously, but a small fraction of the historical examples of consensus in science, though I have tried to pick the events that were the most jarring and radical upsets. Here are two modern cases.

In 2008, there is a consensus among climatologists that mankind has and will cause irrevocable and dangerous changes to the Earth’s temperature.

In 2008, there is a consensus among physicists that most of nature’s physical dimensions are hidden away and can only be discovered mathematically, by the mechanisms of string theory.

In addition to the historical list, there are, just as obviously, equally many examples of consensus that turned out to be true. And, to be sure, even when the consensus view was false, it was often rational to believe it.

So I use these specimens only to show two things: (1) from the existence of a consensus, it does not follow that the claims of the consensus are true. (2) The chance that the consensus view turns out to be false is much larger than you would have thought.

These are not news, but they are facts that are often forgotten.

58 Comments

  1. This is not meant as a counter argument to this post, as I agree with the point you’re making, but my impression is that there is not a consensus among physicists with regard to string theory.

  2. Noah,

    You’re right in a sense; but to describe that sense means defining exactly what’s meant by “consensus”, which I do not want to do.

    Let’s say “theoretical physicists”, or maybe even “mathematical physicists”, instead of “physicists”.

  3. Scientific Consensus, and equally important engineering consensus relative to implementation methods and procedures, exists for the following.

    1. Nuclear irradiation of all organic food would save lives and at the same time reduce the resources needed to produce foodstuffs by the significant reduction in food wastes.

    2. Nuclear power is at present the best alternative fuel source to fossil fueled base-loaded electricity production.

    3. Genetically modified food crops have the same benefits as listed in 1 above.

    4. Use of biomass crops to reduce consumption of oil for transportation has very significant adverse impacts on the environment and more importantly on human populations through higher costs for food necessary for health and safety.

    5. The proper use of DDT can very significantly reduce unnecessary deaths in less-developed countries.

    6. Development of lesser-developed countries through easy access to abundant electricity will very significantly reduce unnecessary deaths while at the same time reduce unnecessary use and destruction of natural resources.

  4. You raise an important point, but to what end?

    The question we face is, given the existence of a scientific consensus at a given point in time on a question that is of political-policy relevance, how are we to act given that history tells us the consensus might be wrong?

    One approach, used by Michael Crichton in his famous “aliens and global warming talk” at CalTech, is to tick off the list of Wegener et al as the foundation for an argument that “consensus isn’t science”, and therefore that public policy decisions should not be based on an appeal to consensus.

    But Crichton’s argument ignores the second part of your point here, which is that there are many cases where the consensus holds.

    On any interesting scientific question (say, the nature of black holes), one generally finds broad consensus and interesting outliers. If all we’re interested in is the nature of black holes, we can all happily wait while the astrophysicists fight it out. If the outliers are right and the consensus is wrong, we’ll all know soon enough, and there’s nothing we really need to do about it in the meantime.

    But what of those cases where political-policy action is required in the interim? It seems reasonable to me that the consensus – that is, the bulk of the views of the experts at any given time – is really the best that we’ve got to work with as a foundation for action. Interestingly, we quite comfortable do this all the time, soliciting expert opinion as a foundation for decision-making and acting on the results. The “questioning consensus” argument generally only comes up when the answer raised by those experts is politically unpalatable to some.

  5. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that isn’t so!”

    Closer to daily life and current reality than the vicissitudes of weather or cosmology: We really need an honest model from which can be published a regular US inflation index to compare to the gamed products of government and various players.

    Too many of us don’t notice the decline in our retirement investments until time to spend them, which is too late. If more of us noticed sooner, government might become less profligate…

  6. John Fleck, the point is: Don’t use “consensus” to shut down debate–as is done with the “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) consensus”. It is an easy point to see, after all. Don’t shut down debate. Simple. Second graders can understand it, although most journalists, politicians, and faux environmentalists are having trouble with the concept.

    As for Dan Hughes (3) list of “consensuses”, his #4 is badly flawed, and poorly thought out. Government mandates that boost idiotic ideas like corn / maize ethanol and soybean biodiesel are the problem–not “biofuels” or “biomass”.

    Biomass and biofuels have the potential to be tremendously beneficial in an incremental way in providing energy and fuels, without adverse environmental impact. The junkyard dog attack against biofuels in the media is very similar to the junkyard dog attack against “climate change deniers.”

  7. John,

    Your point is excellent and pertinent. Like I said, it is sometimes rational to believe that the consensus view is true, even when that view later turns out to be false.

    But in order to act on that belief we need to estimate the probability that the consensus view is true. Compiling a list of historical consensus examples helps us see how often that large groups of highly-educated people can be wrong. Such that, in the case of significant man-made warming, we might like to lower our certainty the consensus is true, and act accordingly.

    Though perhaps my list suffers a huge flaw. Nearly all of my examples were about questions the outcome of which did not depend on the behavior of mankind (the psychiatry example is an exception). A far better list would compile consensus views where mankind’s behavior did form a premise.

    On the top of my head, is overpopulation (false), noxious effects of local pollution (true), global cooling (false), nuclear winter (probably false), and that’s just the environmental side.

  8. A consensus is simply groupthink for the lazy. On almost any-
    thing of real importance in our lives we have the means to gather enough information to make a reasonably good decision, at least
    as good as the consensus of over educated “experts”. And we’ll
    have our own best interests in mind as someone trying to snag grant money or secure a position at the political trough will not.
    Of course there are people very good in area of training but their
    opinions are only of use in making our own decisions and if it
    seems best to ignore their opinions so be it. They have their own
    blind spots and bias like everyone does. Consensus? phooey!

  9. “Consensus” among the National Academy of Sciences:

    Global warming is real; human activity is the primary factor; we need to radically change our approach to obtaining energy; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to affect restorative change.

    I really do not understand how anyone could characterize the above statements as a product of laziness, particularly when confirmed after decades of research.

    Re: consensus overturned: The leap from pre to post plate tectonic theory, for example, is interesting only in the academic sense. The connected Pangea super-continent may have metaphoric teeth (we were, and still are, one people/race) but has little influence on how we should conduct our lives.

    By contrast, global climate crisis has EVERYTHING to do with how we create policy and should not be even remotely placed near relatively inconsequential theories as the above.

    Finally, what is the worst that can happen if we make what most climatologists think is an imperative shift and it proves to be wrong? Less pollution, cities and towns designed with pedestrians and bicycles in mind. Green industry most of which are labor-intensive, creating a wealth of new employment, habitat restoration (more plants means more Co2 absorbed, less erosion, etc) the list goes on…

    Sorry, but it seems like a no brainer to me.

  10. re: #9 Al Fin, ok I’ll modify the statement to say that “as presently implemented … ” And then I have to say that so far as I know all data from the actual real-world working systems support my statement. In contrast you say ‘potential’.

    Will you kindly point me to other data from actual real-world working systems that show no negative impact on either the environment or the price of foodstuffs, and additionally show proven reductions in CO2 releases over the complete cycle including final consumption.

    Thanks

  11. Re: #14

    ‘Consensus’ among the National Academy of Sciences:

    Global warming is real; human activity is the primary factor; we need to radically change our approach to obtaining energy; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to affect restorative change.

    I really do not understand how anyone could characterize the above statements as a product of laziness, particularly when confirmed after decades of research.”

    Confirmed?

    This stated when it has recently been shown that sea level is not rising ( climatesci.org/2008/02/15/important-new-paper-by-willis-and-colleagues-on-sea-level-rise-and-ocean-heat-content-changes-published/ ), global temperatures are cooling ( http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.C.lrg.gif ) as solar activity drops, and IPCC temperature forecasts have been — consistently — too warm ( http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/prediction_and_forecasting/index.html#001330 ).

    Yes, I’d say calling them “confirmed” is lazy thinking.

  12. Dave:
    If what you are saying is that you support the re-establishment of nuclear power as a major and dominant source of electricity generation then I guess I might agree. On the other hand, you also have to persuade the Chinese and Indians of the same logic -otherwise it is very easy to see the overwhelming downsides.

    Your argument would have been more persuaive without the green utopia added at the end. It makes you look totally naive.

  13. What’s the difference between consensus and the wisdom of crowds? This is something that another blogger Chris Dillow brought to my attention. The wisdom of crowds idea is that a lot of _independent_ decisions is more likely to be correct than a few. So if the consensus was the result of independent decisions, I’d be worried about going against it.

    The problem of course is that the climate-warming consensus is the accumulation of a lot of _correlated_ opinions, and so is scarcely better than a few idependent ideas. (The catchphrase for this is “a herd of independent minds”).

  14. Dave: LESS labor-intensive agriculture allows us to help feed the world, LESS labor-intensive manufacturing allows us
    the leisure to worry about animal habitant and the wealth to do something about it. The changes in earth”s climate have been attributed to the sun, plate tectonics, orbital shifts, cosmic rays
    and the list goes on but none of these are subject to human control.
    And PLEASE! Consensus at NAS? The only consensus there is is
    that funding goes to those that stay within the herd. What’s the worst that can happen if that “imperative shift” proves wrong?
    We are beginning to get a taste. Higher food and fuel prices in
    a bid to cure a non-problem, CO2 in the air at a level much lower
    than many times when life flourished on earth. And if wrong do you imagine the bureaucrats will give up their power and taxes
    and offices to find honest labor-intensive jobs? Phoooey!!!!!

    Administrative note: this post was ever so slightly modified to keep the discourse more in line with Chesterton’s ideal of a blissful eternal convivium. The word “Phooey” was kept because we like it. Argument first, invective last, gentlemen.

  15. Bernie,

    “Utopian” efforts exist in cities such as Portland, Oregon where mass-transit flourishes, cyclists are not fearful for their lives, merchants try to reduce their waste, use efficient tech. etc.–a society reducing their carbon footprint without suffering economically. In fact,many businesses have actually flourished in part because of lower overhead via lowered energy costs. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it’s a move in the right direction.

    If that’s naive, sign me up.

    And I never claimed “utopia” That’s your own snarky exaggeration, which undercuts any argument you may have had.

    Going green is practical–nothing loopy about it.

    Nukes are a failure, by the way. Ask Wall Street which does not seem interested or perhaps 200,000 years of radioactivity.

  16. There are dozens of combined-heat-power (CHP) projects using biomass that provide significant heat and power to their regions (Denmark, UK, India, etc.) , have a net CO2 impact of zero, and the only significant environmental effect they have is to deprive landfills of bio-bulk. In the plants where biomass is burned alongside coal, there is a significant net decrease in emissions.

    There are likewise dozens of Jatropha Curcus biodiesel projects in India at this time with a net CO2 impact of zero, and a highly positive environmental effect. (if you knew anything about jatropha, you would understand this already)

    The problem is that the public (especially journalists and many bloggers) are abysmally ignorant of both the state of the art, and the very near future, of biomass and biofuels. Too bad.

  17. Dan Hughes wrote:

    “Nuclear irradiation of all organic food would save lives and at the same time reduce the resources needed to produce foodstuffs by the significant reduction in food wastes.”

    When I was involved in persuading the Tasmanian Government that there ought to be a moratorium on food irradiation, we had two major arguments. The first was that the particular industry who wanted it most had failed in its due diligence. They wanted to irradiate a tropical fruit (mangoes IIRC) that is particulalrly susceptible to decomposition before it’s sold. Unfortunately, the varieties that the market wants turned to an unappetising pulp when irradiated. There was no market demand for the one variety that retained its desirable characteristics.

    The other case was somewhat more alarming. A shipment of oysters into the UK was rejected because it was in a state of decomposition. The oysters were shipped to Holland (IIRC) where they were irradiated which had the effect of deodorising them, but not destroying the bacterial toxins they contained. I’m not so sure about “saving lives” by poisoning people.

    In the event, we seem quite capable of inventing new ways to preserve food longer that pose far less risk than the oyster case. Certainly, reducing produce to an unappetising, albeit nutritious, pulp would be unlikely to have a positive impact on growers’ incomes.

    Engineers and scientists may well be in consensus about reducing farmers’ incomes, but it would be hard to find such a consensus among farmers.

  18. Well, if Dave accepts the “consensus” on global warming, no wonder he thinks mass transit “flourishes” in Portland. Here is a quote from one of many critics of the farce that is the Portland transit system.

    “in 1980, before Portland began building light rail, 9.8 percent of commuters rode transit to work. Today, {2007}thanks to the high cost of rail, which forced Portland to raise bus fares and cut back on bus service, only 7.6 percent of commuters take transit to work.”

    Copied from http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=270

    If Portland’s mass transit continues to ‘flourish’ they will contine to drive (as it were) away riders.

  19. I should have said earlier, “Perhaps a closer examination of the facts would give you better understanding of reality” but here in fly
    over country we tend to be plain spoken. ahem. But back on
    subject. A consensus on any subject is just a useless glob of opinion and nothing more. The consensus of Germans was that
    Hitler was a great leader while there was no consensus on the U.S. Constitution just lots of compromise. There is a consensus
    that Einstein’s math is correct but only after rigorous testing and anyone can challenge him without being deemed worthy of burning at the stake. But a consensus doesn’t make him right nor does it make the earth round or global warming real. Consensus sounds like “some studies suggest a possible link to certain associations, blah, blah, blah”. Consensus? bah! humbug! but in a kind and respectful way….

  20. Terrence, Having used the N.Y. City subway a bit I can say it works pretty well as mass transit. Stations are close to where a lot of people want to go, stations are out of the weather and getting on and off is easy. I would say that the cost (not counting a Kevlar vest and a concealed weapon) is reasonable. Unless
    the light rails can do as well they always will be expensive novelties with the cost per mile per passsenger higher than most
    anything else. Of course that doesn’t mean SOMEONE isn’t making money from stuff like lightrails.

  21. You could also have mentioned that in the 1970’s there was a consensus that what was called “Nuclear Winter” would result from things like atomic explosions and volcanoes.

    And that were were entering an ice age from whixh we might not recover.

    And some where back there we were to have reached a population figure that COULD not bw supported.

  22. Dave:
    I will grant you that O’Toole’s piece is more noise than light. What his report seemed to lack was any coherent presentation of trend data particularly around ridership and cost. The same is also true in the piece you offered up to counter O’Toole. So I went looking for the ridership data. These are represented as TRIMET’s own audited data, so I assume that you will accept them.
    http://trimet.org/pdfs/ridership/busmaxstat.pdf
    The numbers do not point to a major success story. (The cost numbers also appear to completely ignore the capital costs. The Trimet Transit Investment Plan (http://trimet.org/pdfs/tip/tip.pdf) suggests that Passenger Revenue is 20% of TRIMET’s budget not 27% as the ridership numbers seem to indicate. )
    By the way, I have nothing against public transportation so long as it is recognized that it is by no means an economic panacea and that riders are garnering significant subsidies from taxpayers.
    As for the comment on your green utopia, you should really read your own prose.

  23. It seems that saywhat? (respectfully) is trivializing the word “consensus” in a way similar to how the religious right subverts evolutionary “theory” by suggesting that “theory” is simply an amplified opinion. When scientists use the word, “theory” they obviously don’t use it in the way of someone “theorizing” their way toward a parking space: “I’ll just think positively and the space will emerge–it works every time!” Or, “I have a ‘theory’ about why my second cousin is so difficult to get along with.” Such trivia are untestable and are not particularly subject to peer scrutiny as are paleontology or climatology.

    Re; saywhat? (again) I would hope that the “consensus” of Hitler’s “greatness” might better be described as “mob rule” or “temporary-collective-mania.” Where was the testable hypothesis behind such darkness? Where was the triple blind study? By contrast, the “consensus” of global warming slowly arrived after decades of “rigorous testing” as you mentioned (respectfully) much like with gravity. Why defend one but not the other?

    Yes, science has its own biases and will never be entirely objective, but good science, in part through it’s own inherent skepticism, is as close to the truth as we are going to find. Yet many people exploit the skeptical aspects of science as an excuse for perpetual inaction a.k.a. “paralysis by analysis.” “Well the studies only show a 90% certainty of climate change, so they most not REALLY know what’s going on.” C’mon.

    Recently, 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers came to the conclusion that human impact played a significant role in global climate change. Yes, there is dissent outside this particular group but at some point you gotta bite the proverbial bullet. It also seems that much of the dissent is guilty of what the political right has accused the left of engaging in for decades: relativism.

    In other words, to be fair, we should give the opinions of a handful of global warming skeptics EQUAL billing against the overwhelming majority of scientists who tell us in no uncertain terms what we need to act now.

    How does this make sense?

  24. Dave:
    The audited TRIMET ridership data do not seem to indicate any dramatic growth in the last few years. Moreover the TRIMET Investment Plan seems to indicate that passenger revenue covers 20% of the costs of the system.
    As for my Utopia comments – you really need to read your own prose.
    As for nuclear power – you need to be realistic about the alternatives and the lead times to bring on major new technologies.

  25. All:
    My apologies I thought I had lost the first post in response to Dave’s defense of Portland’s mass transit sytem..

  26. Denmark’s Meteorological Institute states that the ice between Canada and southwest Greenland right now has reached its greatest extent in 15 years.

    ‘Satellite pictures show that the ice expansion has extended farther south this year. In fact, it’s a bit past the Nuuk area. We have to go back 15 years to find ice expansion so far south.

  27. dear dave

    I dont think you ever studied science as a sociological event.
    Dr. Briggs is telling you that “science” has opinion leaders and faults and simply does not represent the truth all the time.

    Consider some common teachings from the last thirty years:

    ulcers: prior to 1992, over ten thousand scientific articles were written on the pathophysiology and psychology of ulcers. They were clearly the scourge of the modern day. It all had something to do with drinking and smoking and diet and corporate life and psychology and stress.

    This was not only the consensus, it was the truth. There were not any skeptics or deniers.

    Academic careers flourished by studying the relation of acidity to stress stimuli. gastric freezing devices were patented.

    the data was universally accepted.

    And it was all absolutely completely wrong. every single paper, every single textbook

    If you are for energy independence for the USA, if you like smaller landfills, and less poisons in our rivers ( like cocaine) then be for those things. You dont need global warming to serve as a vehicle for your wishes.

  28. Mr Briggs
    There is also this example which documents particularly well the modern group think mentality : in 1993, there was a huge consensus in the medical community that ulcer is caused by stress and is cured by rest (I have some relatives who suffer long pains for lack of appropriate medication). In 1994, the theory ulcer is caused by helicobacter pylori and may be cured by antibiotics is confirmed by the National Institutes of Health after more than 10 years of wrestling with the consensus by Warren and Marshall who later received the medecine Nobel prize.

  29. For the person above who mentioned “the wisdom of crowds” can I recommend the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds” and indeed it’s modern day equivalent “Mobs, messiahs and markets”. Among other delusions, the latter goes over our delusions that house prices always rise and that debt doesn’t matter. What we want to believe is really what we end up believing.

  30. Bernie,

    Here’s my “utopian” prose which–believe me–I have really read:

    “Less pollution, cities and towns designed with pedestrians and bicycles in mind. Green industry most of which are labor-intensive, creating a wealth of new employment, habitat restoration…”

    Less pollution: even the overwhelmingly consumptive United States has improved their emissions standards since the 50s (cadillac converters) and most states are pretty good about timely inspections. And this example is not particularly ambitious–one would hardly characterize “less pollution” as necessarily “utopian” By contrast, if the US were to become more aggressive and improve fuel standards by, say, 5-10% over a few years, which again, is not pie-in-the-sky, we would save enough fuel to render the drilling of ANWR (Alaska) unnecessary. Consider looking into Amory Lovin’s work or the Rocky Mountain Institute if you’re still skeptical.

    “Pedestrians and bicycles” Rails-to-Trails. Western Massachusetts just got a 100+k grant to extend the network. I use it most of the year to do errands, see friends, etc. Without it, I probably would not bike so often, faced with the treacherous corridor between Northampton and Amherst. (I’ll grant you that Portland’s LR is a mixed bag, so I’ll instead use examples closer to home) Can’t bike paths be received with at least some appreciation rather than cast aside?

    Green industry: North Dakota is often called the Saudi Arabia of wind. The industry has recently become competitive with coal and hydro in terms of price-per-unit of electricity. Such equipment, along with photo-voltaics, solar adaptation, etc., requires ongoing maintenance and is often site-specific, tending to be more “labor-intensive.”

    Habitat Restoration: Since the mid 70s, Wangara Maathai–along with her organization–planted, by their estimates, 1,000,000 trees in Kenya. In 1988, I spent about 5 months there, mostly in the Western Provinces, where firewood was scarce and deforestation was undeniable. It likely propelled Maathai’s group to do something about it. I have trouble understanding how such efforts are “utopian” which literally means “no place” when they have actually occurred.

    I do agree with you that “lead times to bring on new technologies” needs to be considered, but you might also consider how “new” some of these technologies actually are. Rudolf diesel demonstrated his engine at Chicago’s world’s fair in 1903. He used peanut oil (a renewable crop) as his fuel choice. 100 years later, bio-diesel distribution has at last become common. No magic bullet here–only an improvement.

    I realize that when someone gives you a laundry list of all the things we could do, as I have, it can seem a little dreamy. But, again, such concepts have worked in the past, are working in the present and should also work in the future. I appreciate that you are not inherently opposed to mass transit, and that their should be some oversight in terms of efficacy. Some of these enterprises might be poorly executed, becoming nothing more than a cash cow for the would be contractor under the guise of green–an exploitation of “carbon footprint” sanctity so as to deflect all and any criticism no matter how legitimate. Some have cited Cape Wind as a prime example of such snake oil out in Nantucket sound. That’s fine.

    All I’m proposing is that we balance realism with creativity and err on the side of assuming that 928 peer reviewed climate crisis papers are worth taking seriously. There is an inherent worth in reducing out carbon footprint independent of global warming in that our quality of life would likely improve as well as the overall condition of the ecology. If global warming eventually proves to be beyond anyone’s doubt, then, I think you would agree, all the more reason to have taken the appropriate steps. If global warming proves to be false, it does not necessarily follow that our economy would suffer in preparation for something that never came to pass. Most of what I have read and experienced suggests that a green economy would encourage technological diversity, use less resources (saving cash), create less waste (also saving cash) and encourage more democratic decisions via de-centralization. With a measured eye, it would be a vast improvement from what we have now.

    thanks.

  31. Dave, your religious fervor is something to behold. But, you really should have a look at the masses of independent scientific evidence (not Playstation climate ?models?) that does NOT support the assumptions of the Church of Manmade Global Warming. These scientists are independent researchers; they are not in the pocket of Big Climate; i.e., they do not get grants and funds to preach that the sky is falling in the Church of Manmade Global Warming, a la Galileo?s opponents.

    Do you understand what Bernie said about ?ulcers: prior to 1992, over ten thousand scientific articles were written on the pathophysiology and psychology of ulcers?? You actually say something about all of 928 peer reviewed articles. Good grief, Dave, so what? Just as ten thousand articles can be shown to be wrong by ONE study, so can, and HAVE, 928 ?peer reviewed articles on ?climate crisis?.

    An increasing number of astrophysicists are pointing out that the sun is entering one of its regular, predictable, quiet periods; and, surprise, surprise, that means that the earth will cool (these people use science ? observation and measurement ? not Playstation games as the IPCC does). Many paleo-geologists have been pointing out that there is NOTHING at all unusual about earth?s current climate; they also point out that the earth may be going into yet another cooling period. The global temperature for last ten years is constant or cooling; it is NOT increasing.

    I could go on about the silliness of ?carbon? being a pollutant, and that we have ?high? levels of CO2 in the atmosphere today that need to be reduced (we do not), but so much science has been written on about it I won?t (science, as opposed to political ?crisis? propaganda and Playstation games). Most people who pushed the CO2 boogie man do not understand basic physics (as many scientists have demonstrated).

  32. Terrence,

    Re: “sky is falling” funding for what you term the “Church of manmade global warming”

    (Lindzen, from MIT, is on your team.)

    “Lindzen has frequently claimed that within the scientific community “alarm is felt to be essential to the maintenance of funding”. I have yet to see any empirical evidence of this and a brief perusal of active NSF grants related to climate change reveals a lot of interesting projects but none that jump out as being ‘alarmist’. Having sat on panels that decide on funding allocations and as a reviewer of proposals for both US and international agencies, my experience has been that these panels actually do a very good job at deciding which proposals are interesting, tractable and achievable. I have not seen even one example of where the degree of ‘alarmism’ was ever a criteria in whether funding was given.”

    –from Real Climate. (nice try though)

    –sorry Terence, but I gotta get back to my playstation…

  33. Terrence,

    Sometimes the force of an argument can be strengthened by satire or exaggeration (I am no stranger to this), but sometimes not.

    Briggs

  34. Mike at # 34,

    “‘Denmark’s Meteorological Institute states that the ice between Canada and southwest Greenland right now has reached its greatest extent in 15 years.
    Satellite pictures show that the ice expansion has extended farther south this year. In fact, it’s a bit past the Nuuk area. We have to go back 15 years to find ice expansion so far south.'”

    And the quoted article at:

    http://sermitsiaq.gl/klima/article30834.ece?lang=EN

    goes on to state:

    “To sum things up, global warming hasn’t been called off. In the meanwhile, western Greenlanders will have to accept that the cold weather continues for some time. At least until next Tuesday when milder weather could be on the way, according to Polarfronten online.”

    george at # 35 and the others who jumped on this one,

    Good of you to point to another consensus “busted” and one, more relevantly closer to our time when much fuller evidence is available on a wide variety of subjects than many often put forth as cautionary tales. The thing I find quite interesting is what happened when additional evidence emerged from the research effort into ulcer causation. New results were examined, shown to be accurate, and accepted into the “consensus”.

    Some highlights of the time line runs from Warren (June 1993) and Marshall (June 1983), and Marshall and Warren (June, 1984) letters in the Lancet; full funding of their resesearch by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (June, 1994); to the World Congress of Gastroenterology recommending eradicating H. pylori in order to cure duodenal ulcers (1990); and the NIH Consensus Statement (1994) naming the bactaria as the cause of Peptic Ulcers. It’s also interesting that stress seems continues to be associated, and 20% of gastric ulcers do not show presence of H. pylori. Five minutes on Wiki at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_peptic_ulcer_disease_and_Helicobacter_pylori#_note-BM-hp

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peptic_ulcer_disease#_note-3

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicobacter_pylori

    Forgive me if I?m not much convinced by Mike’s echoing of factoids stripped of context and thrown against the wall in hopes that something sticks, or by arguments about climate change being “just natural” in the face of consistant causation explinations backed by huge amounts of confirming data. Or, by mischaracterizations that prior accepted knowledge in a field of study was:

    “? not only the consensus, it was the truth. There were not any skeptics or deniers ?. the data was universally accepted. And it was all absolutely completely wrong. every single paper, every single textbook.”

    I haven’t extensively read our hoast’s contributions to the advancement of understanding, and I’m hopeful that it is motivated to presented useful information. While I’m a some what leary that he may be engaging in a bit of bias confermation, I do appreciate what seems to be using a measured tone, nor practicising all spin, all the time.

  35. Dave:
    This discussion is both far easier and likely less productive than those involving consideration of the facts of AGW.

    The issue at hand is what are the alternatives to our current carbon based energy system. Ironically your quite laudible involvement in the reforestation effort in Kenya demonstrates our long term dependence on carbon albeit for firewood.
    Your outright rejection of nuclear energy puts you in a bind since there is no other viable replacement for current coal or natural gas plants. Wind, solar, and hydro can all contribute but only at the margin and by virtue of their lack of reliability (plus inefficiencies due to transmission losses) can only be used as supplements. Without nuclear your vision of the future is …utopian. Your characterization of North Dakota wind farms is misleading. According to DOE statistics wind farms in 2006 contributed about 3.6% of North Dakotas electiric power generation capability. There are indeed plans to bring this capacity to 10% of ND capability… but lets get real, that 500MW represents 1% of Illinois current MW capacity. DOE statistics can be checked here
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/fuelelectric.html
    The reliability point emerges if you look at the difference between % electic power capability from wind power (i.e., 3.6% of mw) and the % electricity actually generated mwhrs namely 1.2%. In other words, those wind turbines are 1/3 as efficient as the carbon based plants! This is not surprising in sofar as it means that optimal winds occur relatively infrequently.
    Again, do not get me wrong, I am all for wind power and geothermal (I am currently having plans developed for my house — but I am fortunate to have the acreage that makes it possible and economically feasible. Most people do not.)
    If you believe in AGW you have to support nuclear – and that is exactly what Maggie Thatcher had in mind when she underwrote the first IPCC efforts.

    You also have a strange view of what constitutes the target for most people — personally mine is not having to labor at all, let alone intensively.

    Bike paths are nice and I am pleased that you get the use of it. The question then becomes one of who pays? $100K buys little so I suspect that the full cost of the bike path is in excess of $100K – see TRIMET data for example. What is your contribution? When it snows, who removes the snow? Whose land is it on? Was it donated, purchased or expropriated? The real economic costs of these “nice” projects are seldom fully articulated. For example, when they restored the train service to where I live, a quick back of the envelope calculation using MTA’s projected figures revealed that it would be cheaper to give everybody free bus rides to Boston than extend the rail service. This is, as the saying goes, hardly the way to run a railroad.

    More generally, effective rail transportation depends heavily upon population density and employment density. In NY and Chicago it is viable. Outside 128 in Massachusetts it is not economically viable and continues to exist purely because of massive direct and indirect subsidies.

    If you have data that contradicts the above points I look forward to looking at it.

  36. Dave:
    The contributors at Real Climate are not above misrepresenting reality. The politics of research funding is a different topic. I am sure Prof. Briggs can share some anecdotes on this one.
    Personally, I sat on NSF panels and can assure you that one’s worldview very much counts as to which proposals get the nod – though I agree that most such proposals are technically sound and conceptually interesting. The issue is not which technically sound proposals get accepted but which technically sound ones do not. Do you honestly think that Michael Mann would support a Steve McIntyre proposal to re-analyze dendro proxies?

  37. The point is:

    Consensus does not exist in science (theory). Science does not need such a construct like “consensus”. I takes just one scientist ore one publication to change science/history against the consensus of the rest of the world.

    Consensus is a political element. Only politicians need consensus (under certain circumstances), but scientists do not.

    The IPCC is a political organization, not a scientific one. And all those “consensus statements” are the work of just a few people who presume to speak for the whole group/organization under the aegis of consensus.

    Look at the IPCC: the reports are the work of a few editors, most of the 1500 postulated scientists did not even write a single comment to the reports (others, who have written critical comments have been ignored).

    This is not consensus.There have been attempts to formalize “scientific consensus” for scientific forecasting in the 50ies by the Rand Corporation (they called it Delphi Method). But this method still has the drawbacks from social effects (stronger opinions always influence weaker ones, regardless if they are right)

    And the largest pitfall is: consensus does not provide the truth. According to Briggs excellent article How many false studies in medicine are published every year? consensus, or “good ideas” are rather rare. And the IPCC lowers the straightedge to 0.1.

    Current state of the art in forecasting science is maintained by J. Scott Armstrong and Kesten C. Green: Principles of Forecasting

    They made a scientific assessment of the IPCC 4AR: Global Warming: Scientific Forecasts or Forecasts by Scientists? Out of 140 principles only 89 could be judged and only 17 (out of 140) are fulfilled.

    This 12 per cent fit together with the theory that ~ 10% of (scientific) ideas are “good ones”. Let us start with the IPCCs “Very Likely” (>90% Probability), let us give their predictions a “power” of 80 (I am sure it is lower than 25) and the IPCCs “hit rate” of 0.1214 the chance that the IPCCs predictions are wrong is 47% (if we consider other flaws in the process and biased assumptions and reduce the power to 25 (a common coefficient for studies in medicine), the likelihood being false raises to 74%).

  38. If it isn’t covered in secondary school these days, the history and philosophy of science, starting with, say, Aristarchus of Samos, should be a compulsory introductory subject in all tertiary science courses.

    Although a layman, I feel many graduates lack an appreciation of the ‘landscape’.

  39. Christopher:
    I agree that any college prep program would be greatly enhanced by ensuring that students know how to think logically and precisely about the world and how really, really smart folks can be all wrong if their fundamental assumptions are not valid, e.g., heliocentric versus geocentric assumption, Pythagorean circlular versus ellipitcal orbits. Of course, this can only be demonstrated in Math and Science classes.

    The interesting thing is that so many folks today start with the assumption of dominant AGW.

  40. A more contemporary failure of the consensus can be demonstrated by the strange affair of Dr. Robin Warren, the small-town discoverer in 1979 that a particular type of bacteria, called Helicobacter Pylori, caused nearly all stomach ulcers and was easily cured, which the establishment had no interest in accepting for a variety of reason (most financial, other merely scientifically stuck in a rut), and fought strenuously for years insisting stomach acid was the cause, but which turned out to be true. The previous prevailing view was beyond mere consensus being virtually unanimous and was not altered until 1995 despite much evidence and in-fighting after colleagues of Warren were forced to experiment on themselves to prove their theory and disprove the “consensus.”

    The more deadly example can be illustrated by the effective banning of DDT use because of a shameful “consensus”, which resulted in the untimely deaths of uncounted millions of mostly women, children and elderly depried of its protection.

  41. This is pretty cool. You don’t have to believe anything anymore, because people were wrong in the past. Awesome!

  42. Here’s a few good ones for you:

    For most of mankind, folks thought the earth was flat.

    For most of mankind, folks thought that their emissions did not lead to global warming.

    Both of these arguments were proven to be incorrect, but not without a great number of naysayers.

    This argument works both ways. huh. go figure.

  43. To “wow”.

    The difference being we can put a plane in the air and see for a fact the earth is not flat. However, every day new statistics come out that reinforce that AGW is NOT CONFIRMED. The only difference between the two is, one has factual proof, the other relies on models. If you really believe in computer models that much, then, by all means you take an (or all) IPCC model(s), predict the average earth temperature for 2009 within .01 degrees C (since that’s what they report in), and I’ll take the field. Put your money where your consensus is.

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