I’ve been engaging in some discussions over at cliscep (yes, yes, I know). It included Ben Pile, who seems to think that the phrase is play the man, not the ball. Ben’s mantra appears to be that there is a group of consensus enforcers – of which I’m either one, or I associate with them – who somehow go around enforcing the consensus; preventing others from presenting their alternative views.
Since I haven’t had a consensus post for a while, I thought I might comment on this. I may regret this decision, of course. Climate science is a little unusual in that there is research into quantifying the level of consensus. In most research areas, this isn’t necessary, because all you really need to do is ask someone. In climate science, however, there are claims that there is no consensus, and – consequently – there are studies aimed at establishing if there is one and, if so, quantifying it. The basic consensus is that we are causing global warming and, if you consider relevant experts, or relevant papers, you find that the consensus is probably somewhere between 90% and 100%.
Essentially – which is no great surprise – there is a strong consensus with respect to anthropogenic global warming. This means, of course, that if people go around suggesting that there isn’t, others will point out that they’re wrong. Similarly, if someone presents ideas that appear inconsistent with the consensus position, they’re likely to be challenged. This doesn’t mean that anyone is trying to enforce the consensus. Overturning a strong consensus is difficult, especially if the consensus position is supported by many lines of consistent evidence. Therefore, any attempt to do so is very likely to be heavily scrutinised.
Overturning a consensus takes a lot of work. It’s unlikely that a single study is suddenly going to do it. It’s much more likely that those presenting alternatives have made some kind of fundamental error, than they’ve suddenly overturned something that has developed over many years and that is based on many lines of evidence. It’s not impossible, but it’s not very likely. Challenging those who claim to have done so is an essential part of normal science; it’s got nothing to do with enforcing anything.
My impression of the consensus enforcer narrative is that it is largely supported by those who don’t like what the consensus suggests, but who don’t have the confidence – or ability – to present their views in a manner that is particularly convincing. It’s easier for them to complain that others are enforcing the consensus and, hence, that they’re being excluded, than it is to consider that they just don’t really know how to construct a compelling argument. Admittedly, constructing a compelling argument that involves disputing the consensus position is difficult, so maybe it’s understandable. Of course, that’s one reason for highlighting the consensus; it makes it difficult to construct arguments that aren’t based on the best evidence available.