The things people ask about the scientific consensus on climate change

The things people ask about the scientific consensus on climate change
So many questions on climate change. Credit: Shutterstock/Kuznetsov Dmitry

It's been almost a month since the paper I co-authoured on the synthesis of research into the scientific consensus on climate change was published. Surveying the many studies into scientific agreement, we found that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.

It's a topic that has generated much interest and discussion, culminating in American Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse highlighting our study on the US Senate floor this week.

My co-authors and I even participated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on the online forum Reddit, answering questions about the .

While my own research indicates that explaining the scientific consensus isn't that effective with those who reject climate science, it does have a positive effect for people who are open to scientific evidence.

Among this "undecided majority", there was clearly much interest with the session generating 154,000 page views and our AMA briefly featuring on the Reddit homepage (where it was potentially viewed by 14 million people).

Here is an edited selection of some of the questions posed by Reddit readers and our answers.

Q: Why is this idea of consensus so important in climate science? Science isn't democracy or consensus, the standard of truth is experiment.

If this were actually true, wouldn't every experiment have to reestablish every single piece of knowledge from first principles before moving on to something new? That's obviously not how science actually functions.

Consensus functions as a scaffolding allowing us to continue to build knowledge by addressing things that are actually unknown.

Q: Does that 97% all agree to what degree humans are causing global warming?

Different studies use different definitions. Some use the phrase "humans are causing " which carries the implication that humans are a dominant contributor to global warming. Others are more explicit, specifying that humans are causing most global warming.

Within some of our own research, several definitions are used for the simple reason that different papers endorse the consensus in different ways. Some are specific about quantifying the percentage of human contribution, others just say "humans are causing climate change" without specific quantification.

We found that no matter which definition you used, you always found an overwhelming scientific consensus.

Q: It's very difficult to become/remain a well-respected climate scientist if you don't believe in human-caused climate change. Your papers don't get published, you don't get funding, and you eventually move on to another career. The result being that experts either become part of the 97% consensus, or they cease to be experts.

Ask for evidence for this claim and enjoy the silence (since they won't have any).

As a scientist, the pressure actually is mostly reversed: you get rewarded if you prove an established idea wrong.

I've heard from contrarian scientists that they don't have any trouble getting published and getting funded, but of course that also is only anecdotal evidence.

You can't really disprove this thesis, since it has shades of conspiratorial thinking to it, but the bottom line is there's no evidence for it and the regular scientific pressure is to be adversarial and critical towards other people's ideas, not to just repeat what the others are saying.

Q: What's the general reasoning of the other 3%?

Interesting question. It is important and diagnostic that there is no coherent theme among the reasoning of the other 3%. Some say "there is no warming", others blame the sun, cosmic rays or the oceans.

Those opinions are typically mutually contradictory or incoherent: Stephan Lewandowsky has written elsewhere about a few of the contradictions.

Q: Do we have any insight on what non-climate scientists have to say about climate change being caused by CO2?

In a paper published last year, Stuart Carlton and colleagues surveyed biophysical scientists across many disciplines at major research universities in the US.

They found that about 92% of the scientists believed in anthropogenic climate change and about 89% of respondents disagreed with the statement: "Climate change is independent of CO2 levels". In other words, about 89% of respondents felt that climate change is affected by CO2.

Q: It could be argued that climate scientists may be predisposed to seeing climate change as more serious, because they want more funding. What's your perspective on that?

Any climate scientist who could convincingly argue that climate change is not a threat would:

be famousget a Nobel prizeplus a squintillion dollars in fundinga dinner date with the Queenlifelong gratitude of billions of people.

So if there is any incentive, it's for a scientist to show that is not a threat.

Q: I was discussing politics with my boss the other day, and when I got to the topic of global warming he got angry, said it's all bullshit, and that the climate of the planet has been changing for millennia. Where should I go to best understand all of the facts?

Skeptical Science has a list of common myths and what the science says.

But often facts are not enough, especially when people are angry and emotional. The Skeptical Science team has made a free online course that addresses both the facts and the psychology of climate denial.

You can also access the individual Denial101 videos.

Also, remember that you may not convince him, but if you approach him rationally and respectfully you may influence other people who hear your discussion.


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Consensus on consensus: Expertise matters in agreement over human-caused climate change

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May 13, 2016
"It is important and diagnostic that there is no coherent theme among the reasoning of the other 3%."

There is always a small tail of a knowledge distribution that says they don't know. But why that is I don't know.

May 13, 2016
As a scientist, the pressure actually is mostly reversed: you get rewarded if you prove an established idea wrong.

This is a sentence that all the "scientists just follow mainstream"-proponents on here should read. Then reread. Then copy out and write down. A hundred times. Then stare at it. Then memorize it. Then try to understand it....and if they finally manage to get this through their microscopic skulls they can stop making themselves look like utter fools.

"Me too" studies don't attract funding.

May 13, 2016
But if you see the utter fools in some utterly foolish way...you might conclude that they're something less than foolish, particularly if you focus on irrelevant demographic information that happens to match your own. Then being one of the fools becomes a matter of proud ego identity. This is where I think the usual crew of cranks on here and people such as yourselves differ. To you it's a question. It's out there. To them it is about lifestyle, affiliation, representation- it's a political party to them. That's why they project that on to us so often, that there's "an agenda backed by liberal interests". Pure projection of their agenda backed by retrograde interests. They literally don't know how to take anything objectively. In their world things are either a part of that socio-political affiliation, or it is not important. That's why they're so inflexible. AGW couldn't be accepted without changing on a raft of other issues. Not, but that's how they see it.

May 13, 2016
Many thanks again to the people here who, day after day, reply to the small irrational minority (they will soon be here in this very thread) who deny AGW.

... remember that you may not convince him, but if you approach him rationally and respectfully you may influence other people who hear your discussion.

May 13, 2016
I think the biggest thing deniers don't get about the meaning of consensus is that it's not a bunch of scientists all saying the same things, doing the same research, getting the same results. It's a bunch of scientists all saying *different* things, doing *different* research, getting *different* results, but coming to the *same conclusions*. Each scientist is pursuing their own different path to look at reality from their own different angle; when they all come to the same conclusions, it's a powerful body of evidence that those conclusions are correct.

May 13, 2016
There's a simple rule of science - if anyone talks about "consensus" they are not a scientists but a politician. Consensus is a political term, where people vote for beauty queens or politicians and real scientists know that the only deciding factor is the evidence and not consensus.

So in future, please stop these stupid political inspired articles and instead lets hear some real science from a real scientist - who doesn't care about the number of people only the quality of the evidence.


May 13, 2016
There's a simple rule of science - if anyone talks about "consensus" they are not a scientists but a politician.
I think this is a very political point of view, and doesn't have much to do with how consensus operates in science. A consensus in science isn't something a scientist joins as a goal, or is convinced by some rhetorical argument to join; it's something they discover they're a member of, because that's where the results of their research led them. This difference in the meaning of "consensus" in these different spheres of activity is at the heart of a great deal of misunderstanding (some if not most of it disingenuous, and aimed at misrepresenting scientific consensus for political reasons) of what "scientific consensus" actually means.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
LOL.
Well, that other infamous cult not only found that it works, but finds it absolutely essential in furthering their cause, so, why shouldn't the AGW cult.
http://christians...cessary/

https://wattsupwi...ings-up/

May 13, 2016
[contd]
Consensus is a political term,
No, it's not. There are different meanings of "consensus" in different contexts. The meaning of consensus in scientific terms is completely different from its meaning in political terms. It has nothing to do with popularity and everything to do with evidence. Scientists don't build a consensus; they find themselves led by their research to be members of it. Scientists don't lobby one another to join a consensus and if some of them tried they'd find themselves ridiculed by the majority of scientists.

where people vote for beauty queens or politicians and real scientists know that the only deciding factor is the evidence and not consensus.
Scientists don't vote for a consensus, and they don't decide whether they're a member of the consensus or not based on subjective criteria. You've completely misunderstood the meaning of "consensus" in the scientific context.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
[contd]
So in future, please stop these stupid political inspired articles and instead lets hear some real science from a real scientist - who doesn't care about the number of people only the quality of the evidence.
Since your premises are incorrect, your conclusion is also incorrect. In addition, there are articles on various parts of the evidence for AGW published on this site on an ongoing basis, weekly or more often. Perhaps you should read them- and perhaps you should acknowledge that they all seem to be saying the same thing, using different lines of evidence. THAT is the consensus: many different lines of evidence all militate toward the same conclusion.

May 13, 2016
"Me too" studies don't attract funding.


Depends on what you're studying. Cellphone radiation seems to be a perennial topic, and the lack of results is always a call for more studies.

But really, the main point of objection is that while the pressure from the scientific point of view is to dissent and prove everyone wrong, the pressure from the political point of view is a whole other issue.

If you manage to prove all the climate science wrong, you won't actually make billions of people happy - about half of them will scorn you for taking away their political platform and the other half will say "knew it all along, didn't need to tell me".

It's incredibly naive to assume that people are not trying to ride on the coat-tails of science to do politics, and that the funding for science is not politically motivated. After all - we're so eager to call out for oil company shills or tobacco industry shills, but accuse our side of shilling? Never.

May 13, 2016
There's a simple rule of science - if anyone talks about "consensus" they are not a scientists but a politician.

You don't seem to understand the difference between political consensus and scientific consensus.

Political consensus would be if they'd asked just anyone in the street who knows nothing about science. But they asked climate scientists who *independently* came all to the same conclusion in their work.

It's like giving a hard math problem to a class of students. If one solves it and the others just don't bother and say "sounds about right" then that's a consensus that isn't worth much (political consensus). But if all start doing the math and each one comes up with the same result then that's a pretty strong (scientific) consensus.

May 13, 2016
"Sounds about right" is the perfect slogan for AGWite activism.

May 13, 2016
@Eikka: "It's incredibly naive to assume that people are not trying to ride on the coat-tails of science to do politics, and that the funding for science is not politically motivated. After all - we're so eager to call out for oil company shills or tobacco industry shills, but accuse our side of shilling? Never."

We see political pressure in US, Canada (under the former regime) and Australia to suppress climate science, yes. And there are politics in large scale research. (Say, where LHC should lie and who would pay.) Finally, there are individual scientists that get funding from industry - but they are *always* supposed to declare interests, so no 'shilling' as such.

Is science free coupled from politics? Obviously not, here climate scientists can inform politics on risks, costs and benefits of energy politics.

Is scientists bought shills? Obviously not, in general they declare conflicting interests.

May 13, 2016
"Me too" studies don't attract funding.
Depends on what you're studying. Cellphone radiation seems to be a perennial topic, and the lack of results is always a call for more studies.
I'm no proponent of the cellphone cancer scare; I don't think much of scares over EM fields from power lines either. But one of the biggest problems with the studies that had been done the last time I looked into it was that they did not have sufficient breadth to decisively eliminate either power line EM fields or cellphone RF as potential causes of minor increased risk of cancer. For a good overview, here's a pretty trustworthy source, the American Cancer Society, which had no problem standing up to the FUD from the big tobacco companies: http://www.cancer...r-phones

They state that it's not yet fully clear that there is zero risk; and I'd have to agree. On the other hand, any risk there is looks microscopic to me.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
[contd]
But really, the main point of objection is that while the pressure from the scientific point of view is to dissent and prove everyone wrong, the pressure from the political point of view is a whole other issue.
There is some truth to this, but I don't think it's sufficient to override the scientific pressure in most cases. What it is sufficient to do is attract hangers-on with trumped up credentials to support denialism. The risk therefore is limited to untutored public opinion, not science. And this is bolstered by noting that the majority of climate deniers are also evolution deniers. Poke one and you're likely to find the other. And this is politics in its purest form.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
[contd]
If you manage to prove all the climate science wrong, you won't actually make billions of people happy - about half of them will scorn you for taking away their political platform and the other half will say "knew it all along, didn't need to tell me".
First, this is extremely unlikely at this point given the number of lines of evidence that all lead to the same conclusions. Second, in fact, most people would be relieved to find out that in fact we're not knocking on the door of a number of major catastrophes, however slow moving they may be. Third, I'd say that implicitly claiming that half of everyone is a political climate extremist is an extraordinary claim and I'd like to see some extraordinary evidence to support it. So I'm sorry, I simply don't agree with this, unless you've got some extraordinary evidence you haven't presented.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
[contd]
It's incredibly naive to assume that people are not trying to ride on the coat-tails of science to do politics, and that the funding for science is not politically motivated. After all - we're so eager to call out for oil company shills or tobacco industry shills, but accuse our side of shilling? Never.
@Eikka, I simply don't buy even a large minority, far less a plurality, of geophysicists risking their careers on a political position. Whatever the politics may do, a working scientist has to maintain credibility and fudging data is not something they can get away with. There are too many undergrads and post-grads out there looking to make a name for themselves. It's easy to see how fossil fuel companies and tobacco companies can pay their shills, but it's a great deal harder to see how someone could shill for a politically unpopular position and expect to still be paid after they get caught.

[contd]

May 13, 2016
There's a simple rule of science - if anyone talks about "consensus" they are not a scientists but a politician. Consensus is a political term, where people vote for beauty queens or politicians and real scientists know that the only deciding factor is the evidence and not consensus.

So in future, please stop these stupid political inspired articles and instead lets hear some real science from a real scientist - who doesn't care about the number of people only the quality of the evidence.
I can't help but think that you are purposefully missing the point. It is the same zombie argument that gets raised every time the discussion surrounding the fact that the majority of scientist (The word is Consensus - look the word up) agree that it is happening. Not because the majority agree, but because the vast bulk of the evidence supports the fact.

Why can't you get this simple fact through your head? The consensus did not lead to the fact, the facts lead to consensus.

May 13, 2016
[contd]
In short, I'd like to see some extraordinary evidence to support your extraordinary claims, @Eikka. I think you grossly overestimate the number of scientists who are willing to compromise their reputations for some pie-in-the-sky political position, and grossly underestimate the number of less talented scientists who are willing to compromise their reputations for cold hard cash from interests with a lot of money to spend. And since you brought up naivete, I think you're being quite naive in doing so.

May 14, 2016
The consensus did not lead to the fact, the facts lead to consensus.
And this is the difference between a political consensus and a scientific consensus. We need to keep saying this over and over and over again. Well stated, @Maggnus.

May 14, 2016
"Sounds about right" is the perfect slogan for AGWite activism.

Actually, it much more clearly fits the ideology of the EU crowd - especially you. Your whole argument on every subject is underscored by opinions you take from others, which are mostly bereft of facts or experimental evidence, and a utter lack of anything objective - even something as clearly objective as actually SEEING it happening.

You are a hypocrite and an Acolyte of the EU cult. You no more belong on a science site than a creationist or a ISIS commander. Your words are empty slogans, nothing more.

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