Here is the word-for-word opening in the Vox “explanatory journalism” tidbit “John Oliver shows how to debate climate deniers“:
That climate change is occurring, and that humans are the primary cause, is beyond dispute at this point. Surveys have found that 97-98 percent of climate researchers and 97 percent of climate papers expressing a position on the subject agree with the consensus view that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change.
If one wants to claim the proposition “That humans are the primary cause of global warming is beyond dispute” is true, one immediately defeats oneself by saying only 97% of climate researchers agree. If 3%, or 2%, or 1%, or even just one solitary climate researcher, disagrees that humans are the primary cause of global warming, the proposition is not “beyond dispute”. It is, in stark opposition, actively disputed.
I am one of the climate researchers who disputes the proposition. Again, therefore, the proposition is not “beyond” dispute. Dispute is not only a live option, it is a respectable scientific position to take. It is not, of course, a politically correct position; no small point.
Because why? Because there is good evidence that the Vox tidbit writer meant his argument to be taken politically and not scientifically. For one, the writer has absolutely no scientific credentials and appears to believe that voting in science, like in politics, decides truth. For two, he badly summarizes the science: not one word on the more than two decades of failed forecasts, ample evidence that the theory which drove these predictions is probably false.
Vox, incidentally, might be described as the NPR for the web; that is, a place for those who think themselves intelligent and convinced they haven’t the time to learn. A place to have preformed opinions confirmed, where the intellectual challenge of understanding has been replaced by “information cards.” But never mind.
Voting does not decide truth, not in science nor in politics. Nor anywhere.
Now even if no climate researcher disagreed with the proposition above, it would still not be beyond dispute, because all experience shows empirically derived, which is to say scientific, theories are subject to updates, corrections, and even complete refutations. A theory as complex as global warming will almost surely be modified as time passes, not the least because it needs to fix its blush-inducing forecasts.
In short, a vote taken of qualified climate scientists, even if such a vote be unanimous, which it is not, would not settle the proposition. Such a vote would not settle any scientific question “beyond dispute.” To think it could would be like saying mathematicians could eschew formal proofs and adopt systematic votes to judge the truth of theorems. Sure would save a lot of time.
Votes are useful in deciding actions or settling conflicts in the face of uncertainty and differing priorities, but only where there is shared foundation underlying the disputes. Votes are useless, and even dangerous, to fix foundational truths. Desire is only coincident to truth, not its definition.
A failing society, by the way, is one which has lost its grasp of shared truth and begins to resettle questions which cannot be resettled by voting…by voting. Much as we see in Western culture today. Houses built on sand, said the wise engineer, will fall. Or perhaps the better metaphor is—could this be a coincidence?—the same fate of the divided house.
This applies on smaller scales, too, as in scientific organizations that purge membership rolls of those who do not hold the correct political views. It is not always wrong to bar members who hold contrary views, such as the physics club which rejects perpetual motion advocates. But notice that in this example there exists a solid proof of the truth that perpetual motion machines are an impossibility. There is no such proof, nor anything like it, that “climate disruption” and out-of-control global warming are about to strike.
Update Because there was some confusion on Twitter, caused by my inexactness, this update. There are indeed some truths beyond dispute, therefore the phrase does have some value. Take, for yourself, “I exist”. But these are all metaphysical truths. There are no contingent truths beyond dispute. Rampant out-of-control killer tipping-point global warming that can only by mitigated by massive infusions of government is one of these and is eminently disputable.