I find myself defending the consensus project again, and it’s getting both rather tedious and rather confusing. In particular, because some of those who are critical of the consensus project appear to completely accept that the scientific consensus associated with anthropogenic warming (AGW) is strong; i.e., a large majority of climate scientists agree that most of the warming since 1950 has been anthropogenic and that if we continue to increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations, we will continue to warm in line with IPCC projections.
So, what are the typical issues? I’ll try and highlight and discuss them below.
- The consensus project did not actually address the strength of the evidence. Or, only 64 of the abstracts directly addressed the warming since 1950.
Let’s clarify something. It was a consensus study. It wasn’t an attempt to address the strength of the evidence; it was an attempt to determine the level of agreement in the literature. If I want to understand the level of agreement about Newton’s Law of Gravity, I don’t go and only look for papers that directly study gravity; I look at how many papers use gravity and what fraction of those use Newton’s Law of Gravity (almost all, apart from those that need to use GR and those that are considering modified forms of Newtonion gravity).
Similarly for AGW. You find all papers that are considering/using AGW and determine what fraction of those accept the IPCC position. For example, if a paper uses results from a global climate model (GCM) to understand the possible future impact of AGW, that paper accepts/endorses the consensus position. Why? Because – as far as I’m aware – there is no GCM that suggests that less than 50% of the warming since 1950 was anthropogenic. Therefore any paper that uses results from a GCM either implicitly or explicitly endorses the IPCC position.
So, if you’re going to criticise the paper itself, at least try and understand what it was doing.
- The study was unethical because one of the goals was to influence policy makers and the public.
Let’s think about this for a moment. A group of scientists/social scientists recognises that both the public and policy makers’s understanding of the consensus with respect to AGW is likely very different to the actual level of agreement. They decide to do a study to quantify the level of agreement (the consensus) and the goal of this study is to address this gap between the actual consensus and the public/policy makers’s perception of the consensus. I see no problem with this at all. We all do research for some reason. We don’t just do random things. We identify something that is not well understood and we study it. We do so in the hope that we will gain more understanding of whatever we’re studying and in the hope that this research will have a broader impact. Arguing that something is unethical because they’d already decided what impact they were hoping to have seems patently absurd. Feel free to convince me otherwise, but I’m really struggling to see the logic in this argument.
Having said that, if someone could show that those involved in the consensus project fraudulently generated their results so as to present something that wasn’t a reasonable representation of the actual position, then that would be unethical. However, you can actually go to the consensus project website and you can download a file that contains the ratings for all the abstracts. You can also go to an interactive rating system and rate abstracts yourself. If you find a huge discrepancy between your rating and the consensus project rating, then maybe you’d be able to start questioning their honesty. Without that, though, you’re simply making claims based on nothing other than hearsay, in my opinion at least.
- The messaging associated with the consensus project is ultimately ineffective and possibly damaging
I’ll accept that this may be a valid argument. It may well be that the messaging hasn’t been effective and that ultimately it’s done more harm than good. Although – having said that – I do think that there is some evidence to suggest that it has been effective, but I don’t actually know if it has or hasn’t. In my view, however, there are two issues with this argument. One is that – in my opinion at least – the impact that a paper/study has does not necessarily reflect on the paper itself. Even if this has done more harm than good, it doesn’t mean that the consensus study was flawed or that the results are wrong. It simply means that the publicity associated with the study did more harm than good (and, to be clear, I don’t know if it did). You could argue that they shouldn’t have done the study, but then you’re starting to cross into academic freedom territory and that just seems too ironic to consider further.
The other issue with the argument that the consensus project has done more harm than good, is that those making this argument appear not to dispute the existence of a strong consensus. So, what they seem to be saying is that they don’t dispute the consensus, but that pointing out this self-evident truth has done some kind of damage. This may be true, but that would seem to reflect more on those who responded poorly to this self-evident truth than on those who pointed it out. Additionally, what impact have those who keep claiming that it’s damaging had on this situation? What would have happened if they’d all simply said “yes, we agree that the consensus is strong. Let’s accept this and move on.” I find it hard to believe that their own position hasn’t also done more harm than good. It’s difficult for me to see how it’s acceptable to suggest that pointing out something that is true is the wrong thing to do.
So, I find this whole situation immensely irritating and very confusing. If everyone agrees that the consensus is strong, why have we not all simply spent a bit of time pointing this out so that we can all move on to much more important matters. Arguing that consensus messaging itself is preventing this, just seems both counter-productive and ironic because one of the reasons for consensus studies is because people seem to attack them whenever they take place. If people – who agree with the consensus – stopped doing this, maybe consensus studies would no longer be needed. Anyway, FWIW, that’s my view. However, maybe I’m wrong, so if you think that I am, feel free to point it out. And, if you can’t point it out because I’ve banned you, maybe you should have tried harder to stick to the moderation and comment policies in the first place.