Scientific consensus as orthodoxy?

by endlesspsych

This post has been inspired by JoK’s recent tweets about climate change and the series of blogs he intends to write, exploring the evidence for climate change, the evidence for it being man-made and if it is what can be done about it. I described this as a fool’s errand – not because I think JoK is in any way a fool but because I believe he has set himself an impossible task. Now I am not a climate scientist but I am reasonably familiar with science the method (intimately) and the philosophy of science (to an extent) which is why I tend to trust the scientific consensus in such matters. The scientific consensus is that climate change is happening and that it is manmade. There are few, if any, scientific papers published which provide evidence that runs contrary to this. See the quote below taken from this article which looked at papers published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change”.

The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.

Admittedly, authors evaluating impacts, developing methods, or studying paleoclimatic change might believe that current climate change is natural. However, none of these papers argued that point.

This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.

In ten years no papers listed by the institute for science knowledge database promoted or argued the idea that climate change was man-made. Of course the consensus could be wrong but thats something that should be determined by evidence not by mudslinging or underqualified peoples interpretation of the evidence (like myself and like most non-climate scientist denialists and confused laypeople) but for the field itself.

This seems to raise folk to accuse scientists of elitism or of following an orthodoxy. But really it’s not the scientists who follow an orthodoxy it’s the laypeople who are or are not convinced by the theory. It is probably true that both sides  can be accused of mudslinging but one side is right and one side is wrong (according to the current evidence and science on the matter).

Jack of Kent wrote on his twitter feed:-

I am a former historian (before being a lawyer) and used to orthodox/heresy/infidel distinction. Am currently a savage but bemused infidel.

I am working under the assumption that this refers to the “climate change skepticism” that set off somewhat of a twitstorm yesterday and earlier today. This further leads me to conclude that the scientific consensus is being referred to or compared to an orthodoxy. I hold that if this is the view held that it is on shaky ground to say the least and probably says a lot about many peoples incorrect conception of how science and scientists operate.

To undermine the credibility and strength of my argument I shall now quote from wikipedia:-

The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos “having the right opinion”, from orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “praise”, related to dokein, “to think”), is typically used to mean adhering to the accepted or traditional and established faith, especially in religion.

The association with religion is an important point to highlight…  As is the meaning of the greek root “having the right opinion”… The wiki article also goes on to state the following (which I believe is what JoK may well mean to imply):

In certain intellectual contexts, the terms “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” are used in an unfavorable sense, similar to that associated with “dogma” and “dogmatic”. The implication is that orthodox beliefs are not rationally justified but are imposed by some overseeing body, such as the dominant group in an academic discipline. For example, the term orthodox economics is commonly used by critics to refer to the dominant approach to economics, which its supporters would more commonly call mainstream economics. In this sense, orthodox economics is commonly counterposed to radical or heterodox economics.

Now to imply that a remarkably strong scientific consensus seems to me to be folly – does anyone doubt that when you drop something (in normal circumstances walking a top the Earth) that it falls to the ground? Does anyone doubt that the reason for this is gravity? Despite the fact we don’t actually know what it is… Despite the fact there are (at least two – I’m not really a physicist either) theories that aim to explain why? I’ll hazard a guess and say that for the majority of those questions the answer is no – even when the information at the end is taken into account.

So why do people trust gravity exists but not AGW? Where there is only one game in town (so to speak) and the scientific consensus overwhelmingly points to the fact that not only is climate change happening but it’s happening in no small part because of us. Of course people will state that it is the link between the last two that causes them the problem – “how can it be us that is having such an effect guv’?” Well I dunno but given nigh on every climatologist (probably not the real term but I like how it sounds) on the face of the Earth says thats whats happening what scope do I have to disagree or argue with them? I mean sure I could invest the time and energy to become a climatologist my self and understand the complex models and concepts that together explain climate change… Or I could trust (like I and so many others do everyday around the world) that the scientific method works and that when nearly all the experts in a certain field say the same thing it’s probably FACT (in nice big capital letters just like at the start of a DVD). The differnce between gravity and AGW… Well not many people have a vested interest in gravity being wrong and set up astro-turf movements to try and give root to the idea it is false…

How can I have such confidence?

Why do I have such confidence?

Well essentially because science is not an orthodoxy, it is not dogmatic – it operates by a method (or is the method depending on your view on the philosophy of science) that is tried and tested in many fields – in fact outside of the arts and the humanities it is applied in all fields. It is used day in and day out by researchers worldwide who use it to produce the best, most probable, models to explain our world, our universe and ourselves. Science is anti-dogma – it discourages cults of personality (which is why Freud and his cronies are considered unscientific and psychoanalysis is now separate from psychology and any other serious exploration of the mind and brain.) it also actively discourages dogma by virtue of its insistence on providing evidence and falsifiable and testable hypothesis. It is, in short, about as far away from orthodoxy, from dogma, from “having the right opinion”…

Because ultimately and essentially science is different from some many other forms of human activity because it abhors an orthodoxy.

I wish JoK well in his intellectual adventure – and agree with some of his points on denialists (but they do exist and should be called on it – if they did not exist then there would be no need to start “questioning” the evidence in the first place!). People shouldn’t be pounced on for dissenting positions – at least until the evidence has been shown to them and their reaction betrays them as either a dogmatic denialist or reveals them as simply someone (like me and many others) who just finds the whole thing a touch baffling. But I think that it is a fool’s errand if the aim is to explore the near-mythical evidence of the denialist side.

In short I think it is a search for something that does not really exist and is therefore an impossible task.

Just as it’s ok to trust the medical profession (or more accurately the associated scientific consensus)  when it comes to your health, vaccinations and the like it’s ok to trust the climate scientists when they say AGW exists, it is happening and it is happening now. The clue is in the meaning of the term scientific consensus:

Scientific consensus is the collective judgement, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity. Scientific consensus is not by itself a scientific argument, and it is not part of the scientific method. Nevertheless, consensus may be based on both scientific arguments and the scientific method.

AGW is, and will remain to be, a scientific fact as determined by almost unamity of the scientist working with the climate field.

At least until someone provides convincing and irrefutable evidence to the contrary. As thats how science works.