Posts tagged with: Scientific Consensus

As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.

Today, George Cardinal Pell delivered a lecture at the invitation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation titled “Eppur’ si muove, or ‘yet it moves:’ One Christian Perspective on Climate Change.” He insisted that a scientific consensus is a lazy basis for the making of policy, and that before states impose drastic environmental regulations, an analysis of their demonstrable costs and benefits must be undertaken.

Galileo is supposed to have muttered the lecture’s title after recanting his heliocentrism in the face of a “scientific consensus.” Cardinal Pell spent a large portion of his lecture demonstrating the historical existence of a Medieval warm period which in the last ten years the green movement has tried to explain away, since it’s rather inconvenient to find that pre-industrial man lived in a hotter climate when you want to assert that carbon emissions must be causing current global warming. “And yet, it was warm,” the Cardinal is saying.

Cardinal Pell began with the Tower of Babel, and quoted Leon Kass’s description of that project as “the all-too-human, prideful attempt at self-creation.” Before making any sort of climate policy, the Cardinal warned,

we should ask whether our attempts at global climate control are within human capacity, (that is, the projected human imperium); or on the other hand, are likely to be as misdirected and ineffective as the construction of the famous tower in the temple of Marduk, Babylon’s chief god.

Where is the borderline separating us from what is beyond human power? Where does scientific striving become uneconomic, immoral or ineffectual and so lapse into hubris?

Even more dangerous than ineffectual scientific striving is ineffectual unscientific striving, which what we have when policy is made based not on scientific finding, but on scientific consensus. Of this consensus, Cardinal Pell says it “is a category error, scientifically and philosophically. In fact it is also a cop-out, a way of avoiding the basic issues.” He goes on:

What is important and what needs to be examined by lay people as well as scientists is the evidence and argumentation which are adduced to back any consensus. The basic issue is not whether the science is settled but whether the evidence and explanations are adequate in that paradigm.

The complacent appeal to scientific consensus is simply one more appeal to authority, quite inappropriate in science or philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas pointed this out long ago explaining that “the argument from authority based on human reason” is the weakest form of argument, always liable to logical refutation. [Summa I, 1, 8 ad 2]

Then the Cardinal goes into his lengthy defense of the Medieval warm period, which you may read for yourself in the full text of his speech.

After poking a hole in the green lobby’s weather balloon, Cardinal Pell makes his appeal to lawmakers and bureaucrats.

A final point to be noted in this struggle to convince public opinion is that the language used by AGW proponents veers towards that of primitive religious controversy. Believers are contrasted with deniers, doubters and sceptics, although I must confess no one has dubbed me a climate change heretic.

The rewards for proper environmental behaviour are uncertain, unlike the grim scenarios for the future as a result of human irresponsibility which have a dash of the apocalyptic about them, even of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The immense financial costs true-believers would impose on economies can be compared with the sacrifices offered traditionally in religion, and the sale of carbon credits with the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences. Some of those campaigning to save the planet are not merely zealous but zealots. To the religionless and spiritually rootless, mythology — whether comforting or discomforting — can be magnetically, even pathologically, attractive.

For this reason (among others) I support the recommendation of Bjorn Lomborg and Bob Carter [in The Australian] that, rather than spending money on meeting the Kyoto Protocol which would have produced an indiscernible effect on temperature rise, money should be used to raise living standards and reduce vulnerability to catastrophes and climate change (in whatever direction), so helping people to cope better with future challenges.

It is folly, the Cardinal says, to rush into climate regulation efforts of little proveable benefit when their cost will be extreme. The city of Athens spent half its GDP building the Parthenon, and after eleven years of work had a fantastically beautiful temple to show for its expense. Al Gore hasn’t yet called for a 50 percent green tax, but when he does, will a two degree drop in summer temperatures be worth it?

The text of the speech was released at 3:15 ET and will soon be on the Archdiocese of Syndey’s website. We’ll link it here when it’s up.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Acton Institute welcomes a new writer to the commentariat today with this piece on Climategate. The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a psychologist of religion and a priest of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia.
Science and the Demands of Virtue
By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Contrary to the popular understanding, the natural sciences are not morally neutral. Not only do the findings of science have moral implications, the actual work of scientific research presupposes that the researcher himself is a man of virtue. When scientific research is divorced from, or worse opposed to, the life of virtue it is not simply the research or the researcher that suffers but the whole human family.

Take for example, the scandal surrounding the conduct of researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University in the UK. Whether or not the recently revealed emails and computer programs undermine the theory of anthropological global warning (AGW), it is clear that current public policy debate is based at least in part on the research of scientists of questionable virtue who sacrificed not only honesty and fair play but potentially the well being of us all in the service of their own political agenda.

All of this came to mind recently when a friend sent me a talk on the environment (Through Creation to the Creator) by the Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Ware argues that all creation is “a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe.” Unlike the Gnosticism that holds sway in many areas of life (including scientific research) the Christian Church argues that the secret of creation is both knowable and known. Creation, Ware says, points beyond itself to “the Second Person of the Trinity, the Wisdom and Providence of God” Who is Himself both “the source and end” of all created being. Insofar as the Christian tradition has an environmental teaching at all it is this: Jesus Christ is the “all-embracing and unifying” Principal of creation. (more…)

Here’s your broad, strong agreement among scientists:

In 2004, history professor Naomi Oreskes performed a survey of research papers on climate change. Examining peer-reviewed papers published on the ISI Web of Science database from 1993 to 2003, she found a majority supported the “consensus view,” defined as humans were having at least some effect on global climate change. Oreskes’ work has been repeatedly cited, but as some of its data is now nearly 15 years old, its conclusions are becoming somewhat dated.

Medical researcher Dr. Klaus-Martin Schulte recently updated this research. Using the same database and search terms as Oreskes, he examined all papers published from 2004 to February 2007. The results have been submitted to the journal Energy and Environment, of which DailyTech has obtained a pre-publication copy. The figures are surprising.

Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers “implicit” endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no “consensus.”

And here’s your incontrovertible scientific evidence:

For a weatherman who has spent most of his career in front of a TV camera or radio microphone, Anthony Watts was a little concerned about speaking in front of dozens of scientists.
“Although I’m great at giving a weather forecast, I’m a little rusty giving a scientific presentation,” Watts said Friday.

During a scientific workshop this week in Boulder, Colo., Watts presented his research on hundreds of weather stations used to help monitor the nation’s climate.

The preliminary results show Watts and his volunteers have surveyed about a quarter of the 1,221 stations making up the U.S. Historical Climatology Network. Of those, more than half appear to fall short of federal guidelines for optimum placement.

Some examples include weather stations placed near sewage treatment plants, parking lots, and near cars, buildings and air-conditioners — all artificial heat sources which could affect temperature records…

…The research received new prominence, being cited in articles and commentary on global warming after a recent recalculation of global and U.S. temperatures at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. After adjusting for a discrepancy between two weather data sets, the recalculated data showed that 1934 was the “hottest year” on record for the United States, rather than 1998.

Although the change was a slim fraction of degree, Watts expressed concern that the numbers being talked about by the media and the public may not be fully accurate. He said his goal is to ensure the science is correct.

It’s upon this type of evidence and strong consensus that climate change alarmists want to reshape society and create massive economic disruption. Are we really sure that’s a good idea?