I’ve had a chance to read the recent Beyond Climate Consensus paper by Warren Pearce, Reiner Grundmann, and colleagues. I’ve only just realised that it cites my blog, which might be a first. The paper itself is a Commentary, rather than a piece of original research, but is (as I understand it) peer-reviewed. The basic argument of the paper is essentially that consensus messaging/arguments
misunderstand the relationship between scientific knowledge, publics and policymakers.
and that it is
[m]ore important is to focus on genuinely controversial issues within climate policy debates where expertise might play a facilitating role.
Let me try and clarify three things related to consensus messaging.
- That there is a strong consensus amongst relevant experts, or within the relevant literature, about anthropogenic global warming is essentially true. Most experts and most relevants papers accept/endorse that humans are causing global warming (or some suitable variant of this).
- There is a misconception among the public about the level of agreement; the public perception is that the level of agreement is considerably lower than it actually is.
- Consensus studies aim to quantify the level of agreement amongst experts, or within the literature. The results of these studies suggest that the level of agreement lies somewhere between 90% and 100%, which depends somewhat on what/who is surveyed and what question is asked. Since I’m advertising some of my own papers, I’ll add that it is probably not as high as 100%.
- Consensus studies are clearly motivated by the public misconception about the level of consensus and an aim is to provide information for the public and for policy makers.
- Some will clearly use this information if they regard it as useful and if it allows them to support their views. There’s nothing wrong with this; the reason we do research is to provide relevant information. Some might mis-use it, but this does not mean that one shouldn’t provide it. It may, however, be important to correct this misinformation
At the end of the day, the goal of consensus studies and consensus messaging is very simple. Consensus studies aim to quantify the level of consensus with regards to humans causing global warming and consensus messaging is simply a strategy aimed at addressing public misconceptions about the level of consensus. It’s not intended to be the only messaging strategy; it’s not intended to replace, or undermine, alternative strategies; it is intended to be complementary to alternatives and aims to provide a very simple message about the basics of this scientific topic.
Given the above, a great deal of the Pearce et al. commentary appears to be simply savaging strawmen. Of course there are complexities that consensus studies/messaging does not address. It isn’t intended to address these complexities, nor is it intended that these complexities should be ignored. There is no claim (explicit, or implicit) that there is a consensus about all aspects of this topic; the only claim is that the level of agreement about the basics is high. If anything, a goal of consensus studies/messaging is to get people to accept this high level of agreement about the basics so that it becomes easier to discuss the complexities. In fact, I don’t even really see how you can start addressing the complexities if there isn’t an acceptance that there is a lot of agreement about the basics.
There is also a suggestion (which I’ve also seen elsewhere) that there is too much focus on consensus messaging and that this can be harmful (both in terms of preventing alternative messaging strategies and in terms of the resulting policy decisions). Well, there may be some truth to this, but I find it a little odd. I’m not really convinced that consensus messaging is as prevalent as is claimed. It clearly does play quite a big role, but there is an awful lot of information out there. Also, if it is quite prominent, but does more harm than good, why have those who choose to use it not worked this out yet? It seems slightly odd that something that’s supposedly ineffective and harmful, can then play such a supposedly prominent role.
Okay, this post is getting rather long, so I’ll try to wrap up. The Pearce et al. commentary end with
we have argued that repeated efforts to shore up the scientific consensus on minimalist claims such as “humans cause global warming” are distractions from the more urgent matters of knowledge, values, policy framing and public engagement. We maintain that researchers concerned about the relationship of knowledge to policy would be better advised to invest their efforts in these areas rather than in exercises of quantifying consensus about tightly drawn statements of scientific fact.
It’s not all that unusual for researchers to argue that there are important research questions that are not being addressed by their field, but the above seems more a value judgement, than a suggestion that there are important research topics that are being ignored. Can Pearce et al. give some examples of important research questions that are not being addressed because people are focussing too much on studying the consensus? If there are important research questions that are not being addressed, why don’t they actually address them, rather than spending their time criticising a messaging strategy that essentially promotes information that is true? One way to reduce the supposed reliance on consensus messaging would be to present an alternative that would clearly be more effective and more appropriate.
A final note. If one is concerned about matters of knowledge, values, policy framing and public engagement then maybe one shouldn’t publish papers that get highlighted by the Daily Caller and Watts Up With That, but that’s just my opinion.
- Watt about being gobsmacked. A post about Warren Pearce’s Guardian article asking if climate skeptics are the real champions of the scientific method?.
- Certainty and meaning. A post about a paper by Greg Hollins and Warren Pearce arguing that the IPCC press conference was confused. There’s another post about our published response.
- Less science, more social science. A post about a Reiner Grundmann comment in Nature Geoscience which was suggesting that the expertise of social science needed to be recognised.