Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano Analysis #7: Scientific consensus

with 13 comments

This mini-debate between  Maslin and Morano first caught my attention because of Morano’s “accusation” that Maslin was using an “appeal to authority,” and Maslin’s assertion of something like a scientific consensus in reply. Claims that the IPCC represents an authoritative “consensus” have been prominent in representations of the IPCC’s reports since the very beginning, and in one of my current projects I’m trying to figure out how consensus claims  work (or don’t).  The example here, though small, is worth examining closely.

Here’s what the debaters say, minus the overlapping speech–which means minus a lot, since the interaction between the two men has definitely gotten heated by this point near the end:

Morano:  You can’t get away with this professor.  Climategate has shown it. And your idea that five thousand UN scientists?–you need to apologize and retract that immediately.  The biggest number you can come up with if you include delegates is 2800.

Maslin:  Absolute rubbish.  Oh.  You know, I’ve been, I’ve been having this debate for the last twenty years.  The key thing is every single intelligent person, every key politician in the world, listens to the key scientists, they actually look at the data.

It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here.  Maslin is dividing the world in two:

  1. the “key scientists,” and the “intelligent” people and “key” politicians who “listen” to them.
  2. the non-intelligent people and non-key politicians, and perhaps some non-key scientists as well, who go against what the #1 people think.

Maslin, of course, thinks of himself as a #1 person, while Morano has got to be a #2.

Let’s face it:  Maslin’s remarks here are a great example of what Randy Olson has called “rising above” one’s speech partner.  Listening in to scientists during the evolution/intelligent design, Randy found:

The voice that came through in all of these blog posts, and even more intensely in the comments of fellow evolutionists, was not just offensive;  it was also incredibly condescending and arrogant. . . . [T]he single biggest impression [high school students watching one group of scientists] walked away with was not that the intelligent design advocates were dishonest, which they clearly are in the movie, but that the evolution professors were arrogant, condescending, and irritating  (Don’t Be Such A Scientist, p. 126-7).

Morano recognizes he has another ‘gotcha’ moment, and rubs it in by responding: “Oh, intelligent people!”

Authority as “blackmail”

Maslin’s frankness is useful, since it makes apparent one aspect of how all appeals to authority work.  An appeal to authority really does put the audience in the position that, if they don’t go along, they’re going to appear to be a bad sort of person.  Consider:

If a police officer says stop, and you don’t, you’re now seen as a disobedient person.
If your reverend great aunt tells you not to blow your nose on your sleeve, and you do, you’re now seen as a disrespectful person.
If your investment advisor tells you that a stock is a terrible bet, and you invest anyhow, you’re now seen as an imprudent person.

The last example is an appeal to epistemic (knowledge-based) authority, like Maslin’s. Unless you have some really good reason why, not “listening” (to use Maslin’s word) to what your investment advisor, your doctor, the librarian at the reference desk, the safety engineer, or whatever other expert–not “listening” to them is going to make you appear un-“intelligent.”

Nobody–in particular, no citizen in American democracy–likes to be “blackmailed” like this.  So we are clever in coming up with reasons for why not “listening” is really excusable.  One common technique is to seek a second opinion;  if the experts themselves disagree, it frees us up to choose our own path, without being seen as un-“intelligent.”

That’s where the idea of a “scientific consensus” comes in.  It’s not just that 2 or 5,000 or even Morano’s “100,000” scientists will tell us the same thing about climate change. If there is a scientific consensus about climate change, then whatever scientist we ask, we’re going to hear the same answer.  So we’re not going to be able to wiggle out from under the “blackmail” that the appeal to epistemic authority creates (at least in this way).

Authority as “bond”

But what if we find someone who says he’s a scientist, but tells us something different?  If there is a scientific consensus, well, then that person just isn’t a legitimate–or as Maslin says, a “key”–scientist, at least on this point.

This is the other side of the appeal to authority:  the “bond” that the authority is offering us to back up what he says.  An ordinary expert “bonds” his statement as his best expert opinion;  if we find out later that he was really giving us self-interested advice, we legitimately feel outraged that he’s broken our trust. When scientists get together and say that there is a scientific consensus endorsing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), they’re promising us that the scientific case is so strong that they’re willing to bind themselves collectively to it.

There are such things as scientific consensuses: things that all scientists in a field are obligated to accept (as Bill Rehg has recently persuaded me). (Note that the emphasis here is on the legitimate obligation to accept;  it doesn’t matter whether every or even most scientists actually accept an idea–what matters is that they ought to.)  Scientists take on an enormous burden when they identify such obligations, however.  The scientific process by which some idea becomes a matter of scientific consensus had better be pristine. Otherwise, the declaration of consensus will be deeply unfair to those people (and there will be such people) who are going to get removed from the ranks of scientists because of their failure to go along.

And from the outside, to us ordinary folk, scientists forcing on us an imperfectly formed consensus will appear to be just another elite interest group attempting to exercise power under the guise of legitimate authority.  Their alleged misuse of knowledge will mean that Science will be joining Big Business (alleged misuse of financial power), The Press (alleged misuse of media power), The Government (alleged misuse of coercive powers) and others on some Americans’ lists of corrupt institutions to resist.

Maslin’s appeal to a scientific consensus comes right after Morano’s second reference to climategate–poor timing, that. I do not think that anything revealed in the CRU emails does significant damage to the scientific case for AGW.  But they, and the recently revealed series of IPCC mistakes on dramatic points, do weaken the public’s ground for trust.  The force of an appeal to expert authority–it’s “blackmail” power over the lay audience–is proportional to the credibility of the “bond” the expert can offer to gain our trust. When scientists are no longer able to say “trust us–this is good science,” they are no longer able to require politicians and persons to “listen.”

Leaving some wiggle room

So, what could Maslin do?  Probably not salvaging the authority of the IPCC by fighting the battle of climategate in this small space, especially since the five minutes is almost up and the moderator is about to try to close things down.  But there are lots of things the institutions he’s representing could have done in advance, that would have helped him out.

Scientific consensus is a WMD among rhetorical appeals.  Holders of such appeals can therefore expect massive pre-emptive strikes from their opponents.  To head off such strikes, why not try a bit of unilateral disarmament?  The appeal to scientific consensus locks scientists into speaking with one voice and layfolk into “listening.”  Giving each side some wiggle room might lighten things up.

Instead of representing “the” scientific consensus, what if the IPCC represented the range of views in the peer-reviewed literature?  That would mean including both some more catastrophic figures for temperature and sea level rises, as well as some on the more skeptical side.

Instead of demanding that citizens “listen,” what if those deploying the IPCC report in public discourse explicitly adopted what I’ll call the Pielke Principle, offering citizens an expanded range of choices which it is their sole power (and responsibility) to make?  That would take the focus off the purity of the IPCC process, and put it instead on the crafting of policy.

Of course, building in more wiggle room does decrease the authority of the IPCC;  that’s the point. It’s either that, or making sure that everyone involved in the IPCC is so holy that their feet never touch the ground.  Otherwise, those that are sending spokespeople like Maslin out into the world, are hanging them out to dry.

For more: see bibliography: appeals to authority.

Written by jeangoodwin

March 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm

13 Responses

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  1. I really can’t understand why you would say this statement “I do not think that anything revealed in the CRU emails does significant damage to the scientific case for AGW.” The fact that the scientists are admitting that they don’t know what is causing the current lack of warming??? When they telling everyone the case was closed and they were were sure the warming was MAN MADE? Or the computer code itself which clearly shows manipulation of the data which violates good statistical as well as computer programming practices? So the fact that they didn’t predict teh current cooling, and that the very Temperature record which establishes the RATE of warming is suspect. YOu don’t consider THOSE to be damaging to the case. This is why so many people say that AGW is a religion, not science.


    March 30, 2010 at 4:47 am

    • Exactly, Climategate was enough to kill it for me. The scandals since then merely made the theory even more questionable.

      John B

      March 30, 2010 at 7:29 am

    • Hi, Robin: I’m trying to make a distinction between two different methods of reaching a conclusion:

      1. Weighing all the evidence oneself (in this case, all the scientific studies), and reaching an overall conclusion.

      2. Figuring out whether you should trust the person who’s telling you something, and believing what they tell you.

      In these posts, I’m focusing only on method #2.


      March 30, 2010 at 7:34 am

      • he problem is I can’t do all the studies myself. Weather science is dependent on gatekeepers. A scientist can’t take temperatures and wind speeds all over the world by himself, he has to rely on the gatekeepers which look very compromised. I have to have trust in the people who process the information, which Climategate and the many scandals following it destroyed. The IPPC has been proven to have made exaggeration after exaggeration so why should I trust them? If the CRU tainted the data then nothing that relies on it can be trusted. The CRU even through out the raw data which is a HUGE problem in science. Even if you are honest it is harder to find your mistakes (and being human you WILL make them) if you have no raw data to compare it with.

        John B

        March 30, 2010 at 10:25 am

      • Jean,

        Thanks, I think this whole series is great from a teaching perspective about the art of rhetoric. I just think that the statement I highlighted points out how deeply held beliefs tend to make people gloss over or explain away major logical faults with their position. The hardest thing for anyone to do is have an open mind about something in which they are emotionally invested. Given that so many people have spent almost their entire academic careers supported by government grants, not to understand how the climate works, but to prove that man is affecting it, shows how bias was built in from the very structure of the incentive system of the IPCC. That’s why I think the skeptic side has so many retired scientists. They have nothing to lose now by speaking out about the significant logical holes in AGW theory. Younger scientists have a SIGNIFICANT amount to lose by doing so.


        March 30, 2010 at 4:10 pm

        • Hi, Robin: One of the reasons I’m interested in big political controversies is that they are one of the few places where we meet up with people who have very, very different deep beliefs from ourselves. I hope all citizens are (as you say) emotionally invested in their views–that’s what keeps democracy strong. Of course, it’s also important to make sure our views are right!

          Another thing I’ve been thinking is that although it’s relatively easy to see other people’s biases from the outside, it’s very difficult to actually persuade them of this and get them to correct themselves. At least one purpose of debate is just that: to get other people to see their own views more clearly. Still, even sharp debate is unlikely to have many positive effects in the short term. So an additional solution may be for each of us to spend some time examining our own passions, and seeing what we ourselves are not noticing. This is sort of the “log in our own eyes” advice.

          Thanks for the kind words–always appreciated by a blogger!


          March 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm

          • Actually this has been a good exercise for me, and I feel like I am actually learning something about how to more effectively frame my arguments. I consider myself a skeptic because I have actually looked at the “evidence” and concluded for myself that we don’t actually understand the climate well enough to say if the warming is a natural cycle or if the human influence is affecting those cycles in ways that will cause a crisis. My bias right now is that the earth will continue to do what it has been doing despite the influence of man because in the actual observed temperatures (especially the satellite record) that is what we see happening. Since 1880, three very strong cycles of approx 30 years warming, and 30 years cooling, with us now entering the fourth cooling cycle, despite the fact that man made emissions of CO2 continue to rise. What would it take to convince me that man was having a strong influence? Evidence that the natural cycles have been changed, AND we can definitely eliminate natural causes. Until I see THAT evidence I will remain a skeptic. The one thing that has really turned me off to the Warmist position is that whenever I see them in a debate all I hear is appeals to authority, which if you really dig under the covers is not 2500 scientists, it is more like 48 scientists, many of whom are in the CRU Climategate emails. AND, ad hominem attacks, (WHICH I HATE) AND which again if you check credentials, I would put Singer, Lindzen, Choi, Cristy up against Mann, Briffa, Jones ANY day and twice on Sunday, because they have long records of humility, and being open to evindence based arguments. ALSO, I have yet to see a warmist argument based on actual data and not the predictions of some computer model I am a Technology consultant and I work with financial and network models all the time and models are frameworks for undertanding complex systems, but they are NOT evidence. Only actual measurements can count as evidence, and on that count the Warmist arguments fail pretty badly IMO.


            March 30, 2010 at 7:42 pm

          • Robin,

            Well said. The self-examination that is going on in a small part of the AGW clique demonstrates what you are saying, to wit: the recent comments of Nordhaus, Shellenberger, Lovelock et al. The constant refrain of “consensus” was always a falsehood to dominate the argument by an appeal to an non-existant authority. And the debate, in fact, had not been engaged in for 20 years but rather an increasingly shrill scientific complex feeding at government troughs left the rails of science and expected everyone to bow. Science is advanced by skepticism, and skeptics, not consensus. The Jones, Briffa, and Manns of this world do not need to sharpen their rhetorical skills, but remedial science.

            John Levine

            April 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

          • John,

            Thanks, I agree. My biggest fear though is that because the IPCC was initially set up by political figures for political purposes, skeptics may win the science battle (argument that human CO2 emissions will cause catastrophic warming), but lose the political war. In the US it looks like we are about to implement some sort of carbon cap and trade system, potentially by executive order, DESPITE increasing doubts about the science. Once the Investment Banks, NGOs and UN Have the framework established for a global system to regulate carbon, it could be almost impossible to undo. And once the structure is in place it can relatively easily be adapted to other purposes. I wonder how many of the climate scientists realize they have been playing the role of useful idiots to achieve political goals that they probably aren’t even fully aware of. I tend to agree with James Lovelock. Man is too stupid to save the planet, but too arrogant to avoid killing a lot of people in the developing world while trying. I often tell people that in my business, my clients (Fortune 500 Telecommunications companies) wouldn’t even invest $10M dollars based on the amount of evidence supporting AGW theory. The IPCC and UN are asking us to sign up for trillions!!!


            April 1, 2010 at 3:07 pm

  2. Trust is certainly among the top issues for me. You can be caught lying or exaggerating so many times before you have no credibility left. Global Warmists have been caught cheating too many times for me.


    March 30, 2010 at 5:12 am

  3. Micheal Mann has also made some very questionable statements “proving” Global Warming including saying there isn’t a 20 or 30 year time frame over the last 50 where it was cooling. That is 40-60% of the timeframe!!! So in his world if something doesn’t happen at least 40% of the time it doesn’t happen at all! This is particularly bad when the arguement agaist AGW is that nature has multi-decade cycles. 50 years is not nearly enough. Warmer than 150 years ago? I should hope as The Little Ice Age ended around that time!

    John B

    March 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

  4. The fact that the scientists are admitting that they don’t know what is causing the current lack of warming???
    Exactly, Climategate was enough to kill it for me. The scandals since then merely made the theory even more questionable.
    The IPPC has been proven to have made exaggeration after exaggeration so why should I trust them? If the CRU tainted the data then nothing that relies on it can be trusted.
    Only actual measurements can count as evidence, and on that count the Warmist arguments fail pretty badly IMO.
    The constant refrain of “consensus” was always a falsehood to dominate the argument by an appeal to an non-existant authority. And the debate, in fact, had not been engaged in for 20 years but rather an increasingly shrill scientific complex feeding at government troughs left the rails of science and expected everyone to bow.

    The Climate deniers come out to play on your blog. That is not by chance.
    You have created an environment where they feel at home.
    I understand that you have a particular focus on communication techniques and you don’t want to go off-topic but you could at least make some token effort to provide rebuttals to denialist talking points as opposed to letting them pass unchallenged.

    A scientific consensus is not created by magic. It’s not a secret handshake in some old boy’s club. The scientific consensus on Climate Change is created the same way as the the scientific consensus on the Theory of Evolution or the scientific consensus on the efficacy of vaccines etc. No short-cuts. No hanky-panky.

    The disinformation campaign the sells doubt and smears the reputation of scientists is no different from the Intelligent Design disinformation campaign or the tobacco lobby campaign to convince the public that there was no link between cancer and smoking. It’s the same playbook and, in multiple examples, it’s the same money and fake experts.

    You can both explore what happens when scientists “enter the barnyard” and, in the same breath, clearly and strongly support good science literacy amongst the public. I urge you to do more on taking to task denialist talking points and help promote the scientific position of the global science community.

    Cedric Katesby

    July 19, 2011 at 4:50 am

    • Hi, Cedric! I think that most of the comments argue against the existence of AGW because my blog once was linked from Mark Morano’s popular Climate Depot. Plus the occasional person on the other side may tend to think of me as “the enemy” and just leave, or send me email. So thanks for your post–it’s encouraging!

      I share your commitment to supporting citizens’ engagement with climate issues. The problem is that I don’t have any special mastery of the science. If I answered the comments you point to, (a) nobody should believe what I say; and (b) I’d risk losing the debate, thus causing more damage to the cause you support. Not good!

      There are lots of blogs with opinions about climate science, including a few that are worth following–like Climate Etc., which may be how you got here. My contribution to public engagement with science (or science literacy) is to deal with how science can be communicated appropriately and effectively, especially in the course of civic controversies. That’s only a tiny piece of the big puzzle, but it is a piece–I hope.

      Finally, when people post comments that are completely irrelevant to the topic of the blog entry they are supposedly responding to–don’t you think they sort of disqualify themselves?


      July 19, 2011 at 8:53 am

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