Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Climate Consensus And How It Harms Us All

Here is an essay on the use of the concept of consensus in science, and how dangerous and damaging it is. Truth must prevail, or we are headed down a slippery slope and destined for a crash. Those of us who can, must resist this trend.


Climate consensus and the end of science
Terence Corcoran
Climate consensus and the end of scienceNational Post (Toronto), June 16, 2006 Column by Terence Corcoran It is now firmly established, repeated ad nauseam in the media and elsewhere, that the debate over global warming has been settled by scientific consensus. The subject is closed. It seems unnecessary to labour the point, but here are a couple of typical statements: "The scientific consensus is clear: human-caused climate change is happening" (David Suzuki Foundation); "There is overwhelming scientific consensus" that greenhouse gases emitted by man cause global temperatures to rise (Mother Jones).

Back when modern science was born, the battle between consensus and new science worked the other way around. More often than not, the consensus of the time -- dictated by religion, prejudice, mysticism and wild speculation, false premises -- was wrong. The role of science, from Galileo to Newton and through the centuries, has been to debunk the consensus and move us forward. But now science has been stripped of its basis in experiment, knowledge, reason and the scientific method and made subject to the consensus created by politics and bureaucrats.

As a mass phenomenon, repeated appeals to consensus to support a scientific claim are relatively new. But it is not new to science. For more than a century, various philosophical troublemakers have been trying to undermine science and the scientific method. These range from Marxists who saw science as a product of class warfare and historical materialism -- Newton was a lackey of the ruling classes and pawn of history -- to scores of sociological theorists and philosophers who spent much of the 20th century attempting to subvert the first principles of modern, Enlightenment science.

Reproduced on this page is the latest Wikipedia entry titled "Consensus Science." It sets out a bit of context for one aspect of the use of consensus in science. While the Wikipedia item is a useful, if rough, polemical introduction to the issue, it doesn't begin to plumb the ocean of dense philosophical discourse behind the movement to turn science -- the pursuit of fact, knowledge and truth through the scientific method, based on reason and experiment -- into a great social swamp of beliefs marked by consensus, social arrangements and customarily accepted ideas.

Throughout the 20th century, science was overwhelmed by the sociology of science and "sociological explanations of knowledge." At the extreme, we end up with the idea that there are no facts and nothing is verifiable. "Customs and conventions are seen as the creations of human agents, actively negotiated and actively sustained, under the collective control of those who initially negotiate them.... Scientific knowledge is seen as customarily accepted belief." This is from "Sociological Theories of Scientific Knowledge," an essay by Barry Barnes, University of Edinburgh, in the Routledge Companion to the History of Modern Science (1990).

Most of the recent history-of-science theory is a series of attempts by one camp after another to demolish the basic principles of science and install a new order based on political and sociological collectivism. While early hard-core Marxist views on science were too crazy to gain support, various "New Marxists" came along with more subtle forms of subversion. "This New Marxism," said Roy Porter of London's Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, "has aimed to depriviledge science, restoring it to the same plane as other belief systems."

If science were to become a belief system, then the belief with the greatest number of followers would become established fact and received knowledge. Knowledge based on observation and rational inference would play second fiddle to what Barnes calls "customarily accepted belief." This belief is "sustained by consensus and authority." This is not just one science writer proposing a theory. Barnes is reporting on the mainstream elements of new-science thought over more than a century. Ideas come from such well-known brand names such as Marx and Kant, but mostly from a procession of philosophers even most scientists have never heard of. It's a jungle, to be sure, filled with impenetrable language and philosophical jargon. But the trend is clear.

Global warming science by consensus, with appeals to United Nations panels and other agencies as authorities, is the apotheosis of the century-long crusade to overthrow the foundations of modern science and replace them with collectivist social theories of science. "Where a specific body of knowledge is recognized and accepted by a body of scientists, there would seem to be a need to regard that acceptance as a matter of contingent fact," writes Barnes. This means that knowledge is "undetermined by experience." It takes us "away from an individualistic rationalist account of evaluation towards a collectivist conventionalist account."

In short, under the new authoritarian science based on consensus, science doesn't matter much any more. If one scientist's 1,000-year chart showing rising global temperatures is based on bad data, it doesn't matter because we still otherwise have a consensus. If a polar-bear expert says polar bears appear to be thriving, thus disproving a popular climate theory, the expert and his numbers are dismissed as being outside the consensus. If studies show solar fluctuations rather than carbon emissions may be causing climate change, these are damned as relics of the old scientific method. If ice caps are not all melting, with some even getting larger, the evidence is ridiculed and condemned.

We have a consensus, and this contradictory science is just noise from the skeptical fringe. Jasper McKee, professor of physics at the University of Manitoba and editor of Physics in Canada, asked recently: "Is scientific fact no longer necessary?" Apparently it's not. "In the absence of hard scientific fact or causal relationships, a majority vote of scientists can determine scientific truth."

Perhaps, says Mr. McKee, the great scientific revolution begun in the Renaissance of the 17th century is over and the need for science is gone. "The prospects," he says, "are alarming." In the end, though, real science can only win. If real science produces truth that the consensus method cannot, any consensus will inevitably fail to hold. Until then, however, we will have to live with the likes of David Suzuki.

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