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Global warming consensus matters

Two recent studies have shown that 97 percent to 98 percent of researchers who actively publish peer-reviewed research on climate change agree that humans are significantly affecting Earth's climate. Many of the general public and their elected representatives justify their rejection of the overwhelming consensus by observing that "science isn't about consensus — it's about evidence!" Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for example, maintains a page on his web site called "Climate Change 101", in which he chides "alarmist" scientists for dodging objections by appeals to authority.

Shouldn't true scientists be open-minded enough to answer every objection, no matter what the source, with convincing evidence?

In some circumstances, Hatch would be right. It would be unacceptable in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, for instance, to brush aside legitimate objections to a theory by saying the vast majority of researchers in the field agree. That just isn't how science is done. But when scientists speak to the media or to congressional committees, they aren't really "doing science." They're just trying to boil down the main conclusions of a large amount of very specialized and technical research for a lay audience.

Here scientists simply don't have time (and the audience typically doesn't have the interest) to lay out all the evidence, the arguments and counterarguments, in full detail. Isn't it legitimate, then, to simply note that almost all the experts have been convinced of a given point? Does Hatch really want to go to all the work it would take to be able to make informed judgments about competing expert opinions on climate change?

It's clear from "Climate Change 101" that Hatch hasn't gone to all that trouble. Amid his pleas for more scientific objectivity, he supports his rejection of the consensus via a number of red herrings, but a couple of his arguments deserve special note. First, he argues that a single 2009 paper "disproves" the conventional wisdom about how sensitive the climate is to increases in greenhouse gases, but it turns out that this paper has been strongly criticized in a couple of 2010 studies for cherry-picking data and ascribing global significance to regional phenomena, among other things.

Second, Hatch argues that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's forecasts of global temperature and carbon dioxide evolution have so far been terribly inaccurate, based on two graphs he borrowed from the Science and Public Policy Institute's Christopher Monckton, who is not a scientist. In this case, a number of scientists (including me) have shown that these graphs contain blatantly fabricated data.

My point is not to bash Hatch for uncritically accepting scientific-sounding nonsense. Rather, my aim is to show that if you decide to dismiss the overwhelming consensus of experts about climate change, but don't want to bother doing the work to become truly informed, it's very likely that you will be fooled by whatever arguments tend to confirm your biases.

For Republicans like me, our bias is to view with suspicion any environmental problems that might require government regulation to solve.

Barry R. Bickmore is an associate professor of geological sciences at Brigham Young University. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of his employer.