Science is not by popular vote.
It is a refrain heard often in debates concerning climate change. A charge levied at supporters of the theory of anthropogenic global warming when the existence of a scientific “consensus” creeps into the discussion. The implication being that a simple survey was distributed to scientists with but a single question, “Do greenhouse gases emitted by the industrial activities of mankind impact global climate?” And when the results came back, a consensus was born.
The reality is a bit more complex.
In part, the scientific consensus supporting anthropogenic global warming is derived from the “Physical Science Basis” components of the assessments produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These scientific components are compendiums of the published scientific literature on the subjects being addressed at the time of publishing. They represent a summarization of peer-reviewed scientific studies. As concurrence amongst published scientific studies grows, this agreement is reflected in the assessments.
From the IPCC (ppt):
Each report is an assessment of the state of understanding based upon peer-reviewed published work. IPCC assesses published research but does not do research. Each assessment goes through multiple reviews and revision and re-review over a period of years
If the IPCC assessments did not accurately reflect the consensus of opinion as documented in the scientific literature, the approach to their dismissal would be straightforward. Simply show where the reports diverge from the majority of published scientific studies. Not a single study, but the large majority of published studies. However, once again, the reality is a bit different.
While likening challengers to modern-day Galileos taking on the hubris of the Catholic Church, the predominant methods employed in such challenges utilize the exact tactics demonized by those voicing opposition. Surveys are distributed. Petitions are signed. Lists are formed. Qualifications are minimized. Votes are taken.
The examples are numerous and propogated by those at the forefront of the skeptic community.
OISM: Thousands of “Scientists”
The commonly referenced Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) petition project claims a list of 20,000 American scientists alone who dispute harmful anthropogenic global warming and advocate the benefits of increased CO2. The early response to the list was that it contained the names of fictional characters. The authors claim to have scrubbed the list of such entries, but even now, only a Bachelor of Science degree is needed to be added, and that’s assuming that such accomplishments are validated. As the holder of such a degree, I could be deemed a “scientist” for the purposes and intents of OISM. And while I am content to organize and publish this site, I would never consider myself among the ranks of climate scientists, even if OISM sees fit to bestow upon me such a title.
Inhofe’s Weather Forecasts
Senator James Inhofe proudly boasts of a list of 400 “prominent scientists” who disputed “man-made global warming” in 2007. These disputes did not have to be in published studies on climate change in peer-reviewed scientific journals. They only needed to be in the media. Even then, a closer examination revealed a list including television meteorologists and economists.
Avery and Singer’s Assumptions of Concurrence
Renowned skeptics Dennis Avery and Fred Singer take a different tack. They use a logical fallacy to imply a scientific disagreement with anthropogenic global warming. Avery and Singer attribute modern warming to a natural climate cycle that occurs roughly every 1,500 years. Many scientists have found physical evidence to support the existence of such a cycle. Where Avery and Singer take the next step is to assume that if these scientists concur with the existence of a 1,500 year cycle, they must also concur that this cycle is responsible for modern warming, which is quite a large leap to make.
They take a similar approach with solar influence on climate. If a scientific study has found that variations in solar irradiance have driven climate change at some point in history and Avery and Singer suppose a solar influence on the 1,500 year cycle which in their opinions drives current warming, the authors of these studies must invariably concur with Avery and Singer and disagree with anthropogenic global warming. Making such grand assumptions, Avery and Singer have been able to compose a list of over 700 scientists who supposedly disagree with anthropogenic global warming with an air of authority since these scientists are published in peer-reviewed journals. Avery and Singer go so far as to list these scientists as “co-authors”. But such a list is fundamentally flawed.
Based on these faulty assumptions, the list, not surprisingly, contains the names of well known supporters of the anthropogenic global warming theory. Subsequent to the release of the latest additions to the list by the Heartland Institute, DeSmogBlog recently contacted 122 of the scientists listed. Within 24 hours, 45 of them responded that they did not concur with Avery and Singer, many rather vehemently disagreeing.
It is easy to see how a list of supposed “skeptics” of any desired size could be generated. However, the methodologies employed are the exact ones derided by those utilizing them.
Contrary to science, skepticism apparently is by popular vote.
- IPCC AR4 Working Group 1
- National Academies of Science Joint Statement
- Additional National Academies of Sciences Joint Statement