A Brief History of Consensus

Ignorance doubles the dangers of too much pollution

That's Wild

by Rikki Hall

The house I grew up in had Time and Sports Illustrated on the coffee table like most houses, but we also had copies of Scientific American . My brother and I begged our parents to take us to the Los Angeles Science Museum. Science was important not only in my home, but it was valued by my nation as well. After the Soviets beat us to space with Sputnik, Americans took patriotic pride in racing ahead of them in all areas of science. I was raised on science not just because I had a strong interest in math and nature, but because the United States needed scientists to win the Cold War and lead the nation to a prosperous future.

The science I grew up with had no place for consensus. It was about disagreement and debate. Scientists published findings, and peers challenged their methods and conclusions. This was healthy and normal. Demands for proof are what make science scientific. Questions were never resolved by consensus. Consensus happened by default when the last desperate dissenter recognized the futility of his position.

In the early centuries of science, astronomers and physicists debated whether Earth was flat and stationary, as it appears to the casual observer. Astronomers amassed observations that challenged this notion, like Mercury's retrograde orbit, but it was not until we developed adequate math and physics to devise a better explanation that the debate was settled. Now we know Earth is round and revolves around the Sun with several other planets. This is not a consensus position. It is proven fact.

Truth be told, if you polled everyone, especially if you included children, consensus would probably say Earth is flat and stationary. This is why science distrusts consensus. So why are scientists declaring consensus on global warming?

There is good reason for it, or good intentions at least. Climatology is a young science enabled by the advent of computers capable of simulating a system as complex as our atmosphere. The core motivation for developing climate models has been to produce better weather forecasts. Between elaborate visualization tools and powerful forecasting models, the weatherman has gotten quite good at knowing which way the wind blows. Still, weather is not sexy.

While toiling for the weatherman, climate scientists also applied their skills to studying the impact air pollution has on the atmosphere. It is a matter of both current and historical import. Could a volcano wipe out the dinosaurs? How large a comet would it take to cause a mass extinction? How much exhaust from smokestacks and tailpipes can the atmosphere take? If we pollute too much, will disaster result? Apocalypse and destruction are sexy, so climate science has been presented to the public wrapped in controversy and calamity.

â“Three-day forecasts reach new accuracy milestoneâ” is not a gripping headline, so journalists focused on scarier stuff. They sensationalized predictions and exaggerated disputes in pursuit of mass appeal, and climatologists felt increasingly misrepresented and misunderstood. They thought declaring consensus on certain core matters would clear up the misunderstanding and bring back grounded, reasonable discussions about air pollution.

At first their strategy worked. The debate over whether Earth is warming was settled. Critics silently conceded the point and shifted to arguing that humans are not culpable. It is not a credible objection. The credibility litmus test for deniers is whether they acknowledge that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides have spiked well above their historical maximums since the Industrial Revolution. Deniers ignore these facts because credibility is not the point. Eking out a few more years of status quo and gluttonous profits from cheap oil is the point. Our shift to more efficient and modest energy use is inevitable and imminent, and even belligerent holdout Exxon has conceded that efficiency and cleaner fuels are important.

Ironically, the consensus statement on climate change that helped big business recognize the risk has stirred up a foe of a different stripe: the completely uninformed buffoon. The News Sentinel ran an opinion column by Dr. Pete Stevens, who wrote hundreds of words about global warming being a hoax, but not one word indicating he knows the first thing about climate science. He cited Ted Dansonâ"the actorâ"as an expert on oceans and left the impression that he gleaned his scientific knowledge from People magazine. Informed readers were left disgusted the column was even published, and naive readers came away stupider than they started.

Nonetheless, Dr. Stevens was correct about one thing: consensus has no place in science. Neither does ignorance or sensationalized and distorted journalism. Climatology is full of disagreement and debate like any healthy science, but years ago the debate moved beyond whether air pollution is changing the climate. It is, and the risks of doing nothing about it greatly exceed the costs of energy conservation.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.


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