It will come as no surprise to those who read my blog, that I fully accept the scientific consensus on climate change. The question is why? And what would cause me to change my mind. No matter what your position on this issue, I think everyone can agree that people who are unwilling to change their mind, no matter what, are irrational. It is for that reason that from now on, anyone who wishes to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change here on this blog MUST clearly state:
- Why they don’t accept the conclusions arrived at by the overwhelming majority of scientists.
- Why they think the vast majority of scientists are wrong.
- What would change their mind and make them accept anthropogenic global warming and why they chose those criteria.
It seems only fair that I also answer these questions.
Clearly if I wish to claim rationality (and I do) it must be possible for my mind to be changed, and it is. But in order to understand how my mind can be changed, one needs to understand why I so readily accept the consensus.
The most basic reason is that I accept mainstream scientific opinions. I trust the scientific method, and the conclusions it arrives at. I understand that these conclusions wont be right all the time (science has and will make mistakes), but far more often than not, science will get things right. Especially when a consensus exists.
The vast majority of scientists, the IPCC the National Academies of Science from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA, the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of America, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, thousands of peer-reviewed journals, and even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists [UPDATE: As was pointed out in the comments, the AAPG position statement is noncommittal], all agree that climate change is not a political concoction or a scientific hoax, but very real and is caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. In fact no scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of the human influence on the recent climate. If that isn’t a consensus I don’t know what is.
It isn’t necessarily fallacious to consider that thousands of climate scientists writing in peer reviewed journals might know more than you do about such a complex subject. Of course, this one is a little tricky for newbies, and I’m sure I got it wrong myself initially. Nizkor is one of the many sites that tries to explain it:
…a person who is a legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it is reasonable to accept it as being true.
What we have here is trust in the scientific method. And we trust it because we have reason to believe it works – just look around you. (You’re reading this on a computer aren’t you?) And on a blog that promotes science and the scientific method, I’d have to be pretty perverse, or have a very good reason, to oppose thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers. Note that what we should have is trust in science. This is not the same as faith... Faith is belief without evidence, while trust is acceptance of something based on what we have experienced before – ie what has worked and what has been right. In other words, trust of the scientific method is based on evidence that it works. Claiming that trust and faith are the same thing is the fallacy of equivocation that I have written about before.
I’d say that makes a strong case for accepting the scientific consensus. And in many ways we use this logic on a daily basis. When we need to understand something complex, we look to expert opinion. When we get sick, we go to the doctor. If it is particularly serious we go see a specialist. When our car breaks down we take it to a mechanic, when our computers aren’t working right we take them to a technician. The list goes on, but we intuitively understand that expertise matters, and not everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
The case is further strengthened when you realize that successful challenged to scientific orthodoxy, have virtually always come from WITHIN the scientific community. The current cohort of deniers are decidedly not scientific. Instead of publishing research in the peer-reviewed literature, they resort to standard denialism tactics:
- Selectivity (cherry-picking)
- Fake experts
- Impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts)
- General fallacies of logic.
I would add a sixth: continuing to repeat arguments long after they have been debunked, and a seventh: Misrepresentation and bald-faced lies about the conclusions of recent peer-reviewed research.
These are not the tactics of people with legitimate criticisms of the science, but rather the tactics of people more interested in obfuscation, than honest debate of the subject. And these tactics wont change my mind.
So what will? That is the easy part. Show me substantial legitimate debate within the scientific community, and I’ll change my mind. Show me legitimate debate and I’ll agree that the consensus is no more. What constitutes legitimate debate? Op-eds, blog posts, and other writings in non-scientific sources are most certainly not legitimate scientific debate.
So what is? First and foremost any legitimate criticism of the science must withstand basic scientific scrutiny, and in that regard must pass the minimum standard of peer-review. But as “one swallow does not a spring make“, one peer-review paper doesn’t signify a significant debate. Their are literally mountains of papers providing supporting evidence (from many different angles) for anthropogenic global warming; one paper cannot stand against all of that. At best a single paper will provide the beginnings of debate, but as John Mashey informs us:
Peer-review only says “We didn’t find obvious errors in a quick review and this might be worth reading”. Passing peer-review does not prove correctness or importance. Not being able to get papers through peer-review should be a major red flag for the reader. Scientists with new major results do not just write OpEds or web pages, or publish them in Energy&Environment or Journal for Scientific Exploration. They send their results to Science, Nature, or other credible journals…
The publication cycle of the most credible peer-reviewed journals is long enough that a non-expert should be prepared to be wary of any paper only 1-2 years old, especially if it has novel implications counter to mainstream established science.
This is especially true if the papers aren’t cited much. Good papers with interesting ideas get cited frequently. The ideas presented are built upon by scientists, and scrutinized by others. By contrast, ideas that lead to a dead end are not cited much as the scientific community quickly moves on. This has happened in regards to climate change. Take Richard Lindzen’s “Iris” hypothesis for example.
It originally attracted interest, but did not gain widespread scientific support, as substantial conflicting evidence existed. There may still be some interest, but this paper did not suddenly invalidate AGW as some wanted to think.
In other words it was a false start, and wasn’t substantial debate.
A substantial debate would require several papers, over the course of at least one year (preferably longer) that withstand the significant scrutiny that would be applied to them. A good indication of such debate would be if one or more of the major scientific societies (NAS, AAAS, the Royal Society, etc) revised their position statement on the issue and acknowledged the debate. This would be a clear signal that the consensus no longer exists, but it would not be an invalidation of AGW. It would merely indicate that science if no longer sure of the issue. To refute AGW we would want to see an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human activities are not causing the climate to warm.
Yes I have set the bar very high for those that wish to change my mind on climate change, but there is a very good reason for that. Carl Sagan was known for saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
I don’t see accepting a mainstream scientific position that is supported by an overwhelming majority of the worlds scientists as an extraordinary claim. On the other hand people who take the opposite side and are opposed to the mainstream scientific position are most certainly making an extraordinary claim. A claim which requires extraordinary evidence to back it up, and so far that evidence has been anything but extraordinary.