"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Missing Musser

I referred once to an interesting article in Scientific American by George Musser on the question of consensus. As if they knew nothing about the web, Scientific American has broken the link, and I can't find the article.

As evidence that it was interesting, here is what Greg Laden had to say about it.

Can anyone find this article in print or online? If you have it in print, what issue? I've made several attempts to contact Scientific American about this to no avail.

Update: OK, here it is, thanks to "ishtar". Text probably belongs either to George Musser or to Scientific American but in any case not to me. Please don't sue me. I'll take it down if you ask, but I'd much rather if this excellent piece didn't disappear altogether.
Please Stop Talking About the Global Warming Consensus
George Musser
(c) 2007 Scientific American

Last year, I started a thread on this blog to discuss doubts about global warming and humanity's role in it. I tried to catalog the misgivings in as evenhanded as way as possible and conducted a simple poll to see which broad category of doubts people found most persuasive. The top two results were:

  • II. The present warming could be a natural uptick.

  • VII. People who argue that human activity causes global warming cannot be trusted.

I offered a partial reply to the first of these last year. To summarize: different influences on the climate produce distinct patterns -- for example, of spatial variation in temperature -- and the observed patterns match what greenhouse gases should produce. They do not match what intrinsic climate variability or other natural causes would bring about.

But the climate debate
that my colleague Dave Biello and I went to last night reminded me that the second of these concerns is still very much alive. Most of the arguments raised by the debaters and by audience members seemed to stem from the feeling that climate scientists and activists are haughty, sanctimonious, and hypocritical.

Like the climate itself, this is a very complex issue, having to do with attitudes toward intellectuals in our society and the way scientific findings can enter a meatgrinder of politics and ideology. Let me bite off just one piece: what I see as overuse of the term "scientific consensus."

When scientists use this term, they mean it to say that certain scientific questions have been settled to most people's satisfaction and that it's time to move on to other questions. But when non-scientists see this term, it sounds like a case of groupthink.

There's no doubt that the term is useful. A consensus view in any field of science represents humanity's best guess as to what's going on. The guess might well be wrong, but what else is there to go on? It's not as though there are answers in the back of the book to look at. People often say that science isn't a democracy; scientific questions aren't decided by majority rule. Well, then, what are they decided by? Experiments and observations, surely. But who runs the experiments and makes the observations? Who interprets the outcome? Who double-checks them? It is a social process.

If as a scientist I disagree with the consensus, I have to be very sure of myself to put my own judgment up against the collective wisdom. And if there's one thing scientists learn very early in their careers, it is that such supreme self-confidence is usually misplaced. Nearly all scientists have painful memories of being pounced on in an oral exam for giving a sketchy answer, or presenting a paper before hundreds of people that turned out to be dead wrong. Most experts in a field realize that the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. They learn to doubt their own judgment. If I get one answer and everyone else gets a different one, my first inclination should be that I'm wrong, not that everyone else is.

Sometimes, the individual is right and the community is wrong. It happens in times of scientific revolution, which by definition involve the overturning of a consensus view. But such revolutions are rare. We remember Einstein because he was unusual. Climate science shows no signs of being in a revolutionary phase. Evidence for anthropogenic warming is getting stronger with time. Discrepancies are diminishing rather than increasing. Technically, scientists are correct to assert that their field has reached consensus.

So the invocations of consensus are seen, by scientists, as expressions of humility. Yet the general public sees them as expressions of arrogance. To the man in the street, all the talk about scientific consensus sounds like: "Trust us, folks. Don't worry your pretty little heads about it. Just think what we tell you to think."

That rubs Americans, in particular, the wrong way. America wouldn't be America without its suspicion of establishments of every kind. Hollywood valorizes the lone outsider fighting the powers than be. I think this romantic view is a healthy part of our country's culture -- it's a safeguard against tyranny and an incentive for individuals to get involved in public life. But scientists can find themselves on the wrong side of the stick. They may see themselves as lone outsiders, but much of the rest of the country sees them as part of the machine. The British, for their part, really get off on puncturing pretentiousness -- god help you if you walk into a pub and act full of yourself, as many climate scientists do.

The term "scientific consensus" is counterproductive in other ways, too. It sounds like asking people to take things on faith, which is contrary to the whole point of science. It also lets skeptical scientists claim they are being muzzled. They can argue that they are estranged from mainstream science for what they say, when in fact the problem is how they say it -- their incomplete arguments or their unwillingness to apply the same skepticism to their own results that they apply to others'. Talking about consensus shifts the responsibility for their estrangement from them to the faceless wall of the powers that be.

So while I think there's a role for mentioning scientific consensus, it should be used very sparingly. Telling people that there is a consensus cannot substitute for explaining why there is a consensus. As much as climate scientists may be wearying of debate, they need to press onward and treat each question as though it was the first time they had ever heard it.

Posted by
gmusser Mar 15, 2007 3:00 AM EDT


Nathan Johnson said...

I can't find it on the SciAm site, but there's an archived copy you can grab.

Andrew Dessler said...

try this: Musser, G., 2001, Climate of uncertainty: The unknowns in global warming research don’t have to be showstoppers, Scientific American, 14–15.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article, but it's a bit unsatisfying in that it gives some very good reasons on why a scientific consensus is relevant (and I wholeheartedly agree, see e.g. http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/06/14/how-do-we-know-theres-a-consensus-and-why-does-it-matter/)
but then sais that the term should not be (over-)used without explaining what it means. He gives some good reasons, that I haven't realized enough before, e.g. the cultural resistance against anything that reeks like an estabilshment, but he doesn't really provide an alternative.

The existence and relevance of a consensus is such a central theme to combat the manufactured controversy, that throwing away the concept without exchanging it by something better is perhaps not a good solution. Perhaps we have to explain better why it is relevant, but quite often we need strong one-liners rather than a lengthy argument with all kinds of qualifiers on what exactly we mean. If “consensus” doesn’t cut it, what would?


emma said...

In agreement to this article, “scientific consensus” has little to no meaning regarding global warming. While Al Gore is preaching global warming like it’s the next World War, there are many facts to prove that global warming isn’t happening. Although “Going Green” can’t hurt, climate change is not something to fear. It’d help preserve wildlife, forests, and ultimately make our Earth cleaner. This can only help us in the long run, especially with our use of fossil fuels. Maybe they do hurt the environment. But the real issue here is that someday, they’ll be gone. Conserving will only help us for the future.
Scientists are telling us that global warming will harmfully affect life as we know it today. Not only that, but global warming has to potential to kill off millions of humans and wildlife around the world. But there are two sides to every story. How can scientists predict the future and tell us what to do or what not to do? In my opinion, these guys don’t know any better than the rest of us. Sure, they’re good at calculating and conducting experiments, but do they truly know that climate change is upon us, and we have yet to face a dark and gloomy future? No.
For those gullible few, “scientific consensus” is all the facts they need. But think logically here. Global warming is not something to fear. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt us to reduce, reuse and recycle, but I don’t believe any of this reflects climate change or the “fear” that we should have about the future. Besides, our government has more important things to worry about than the “scientific consensus” regarding global warming.
Surely, it is difficult for any human to have a totally objective perspective on anything. Scientists are trained in an area where they're taught these sorts of things. "Scientific concensus" may mean something to them, but to the rest of us who have a totally different perspective, it means something else. This is not the majority's opinion, but America is persuaded to believe these facts. I think that people should starting forming their own opinions instead of listening to the garbage that's thrown at them.
"So while there's a role for mentioning scientific consensus, it should be used very sparingly".
I wholeheartedly agree with this statement found in the article. I don't believe that scientific consensus is the right words to use when describing global warming.

With that said, great article! I highly agree.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

i think that this article is very strongly written but i still think its a bunch of garbage. obviously gore knows more about what he is talking about than any random person simply due to the fact that he is getting paid to do what he does. thats called a professional, hes just like baseballs albert puljols... he gets paid to do what he does becuase he knows what he is doing. people should try to find out what the real facts are before saying that al gore is striaght up wrong when their "facts" are just opinions

erinn said...

I'm Erinn and we are talking about Global Warming in our English classes. My assignment was to write on this blog so here i go. I don't believe that the earth warming is all caused by us humans. The globe has been warming since the last ice age, I just think we are helping it along a little bit. I'm really surprised that not every country is trying to put caps on industries ex: China, just like the United States. I think most people really won't care about changing their habbits to help earth until it's way to late. To me it's kind of sad realizing that so many people don't try harder to maybe reduce their carbon footprint by even just a little bit. If we all pitched in just a little bit we could slow the warming of our planet.

Michael Tobis said...

Kids, for you this is an exercise in reading comprehension, not in posturing.

Please take some care to understand what the author (Mr. Musser, not myself Michael Tobis) is trying to say. Does Musser believe there is a consensus on the question? Does he believe that is a good thing? WHy does he think the topic should be avoided? By whom? Under what circumstances?

Your job is not to come up with 200 words or so that vaguely indicates that you have read some of the words in the article. Your job is not to discuss Al Gore or polar bears or glaciers.

Your job is to understand what Mr Musser has said, and to summarize it. If you can manage that, it might make a little sense to say whether you agree or not. Your response to an article you didn't understand is not going to be interesting to anybody.

Make no mistake, I would like you to agree with me on the things I write about. I'd like it even more still, though, that you understand what I (and the people I find interesting) am saying. The world is better off if people disagree but understand each other than if we think we agree but are all saying different things.

Many of the readers of this blog and of the original article are PhD level scientists. Maybe your teacher has asked you to read something harder than usual when you were assigned this article. Usually the newspapers, magazines and TV are more direct and simple about what they are saying.

This is the kind of article that you will be tested on for comprehension in your college entrance exam. For the purpose of your English class, you should not see this as an opportunity to take sides on a science question or a politics question. You should see it as a challenge to make sure you are understanding what you are reading.

This may come as a shock, but the summary you should write is not about you.

Padraig Tomas said...

For people like Greg Craven or indeed for myself the point that there is a scientific consensus is a starting point for thinking about this issue. Dispite the fact that I am an undergraduate I have a good understanding of the dilemma that an invocation of consensus could be seen in the scientific community as an expression of humility while at the same time being seen as an expression of arrogance. It is a problem which I have encountered. In some circles making the observation that the satellite data for North Polar ice extent only covers the period from 1978 to the present will be seen as a warrant for making the statement that recent icemelt is of little significance. By way of contrast while discussing the issue with a professor of mine the significance of the fact was seen as merely being that prior to 1978 our information is not as good, but still good enough as to provide a basis for drawing good credible conclusions about the magnitude and significance of recent changes in the arctic. To me if there is a problem in the discussion of this issue it arises from what I see as the over use of the notion. In particular when an analogy is made between other scientific concepts for which there is a consensus both amongst the public and the scientific community and the understanding of climate. The idea that one could expect assent to the notion of anthropogenic climate change by saying that there is a consensus about the usefullness of vacination and that there is a consensus that anthropogenic climate change, and that therefore as you accept one notion you should accept the other goes a bit to far. However it does seem a good arguement for saying that one should not reject the idea out of hand, and I feel that it is one which is apt to be effective if it is used properly. The problem is not a particular phrase or word. The problem in the United States is that some on the right through their unending work have sold the notion that those who are working to take action on climate change are acting in the service of an ideology which is anti-capitalistic, and that any appeals to science are false.

Overcoming this problem will require more than not using the term consensus.