Climate Change – “Scientific Consensus” or Pathologies in Public Discourse

By Brent Fewell

There’s been a fair amount of controversy – some might even call it an old fashion dust up – involving a recent study by John Cook et al. that claims 97.1% of scientists endorse the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. scientific consensus The study has been used by some in the media as a rallying cry to force a public consensus as well as policy action.  Step number one in any change management strategy is to create a sense of urgency, the burning platform that drives change.  Yet the “consensus” study has been resoundingly criticized by some, including Professor Mike Hulme, as poorly conceived, designed and executed, and contriving a debate that is irrelevant and unhelpful in advancing policy solutions.  This latter point is supported in part by a recent Pew Research study that reveals 7 in 10 Americans believe global warming is occurring, but only 4 in 10 believe that such warming is caused by human activity.  So a super-majority believes climate change is happening, but less than half are convinced that warming is caused by humans and/or don’t support drastic policy measures being advanced by those who would seek to kill the Keystone Pipeline project.  So the purported “disconnect” is not about whether there is a problem; rather, it’s how we address the problem.

The purported disconnect between this scientific consensus and public opinion although baffling to some, is quite explicable.  Many have sought to explain the divide as the product of a well-funded communication campaign by so-called deniers and skeptics.  Others have blamed the sorry state of affairs on a failed communications.  For example, Dan Kahan, Professor of Yale Law, who I’ve discussed previously on this blog, and who has performed Yoeman’s work to inject greater rationality into a debate increasingly devoid of rational thought and discourse, blames much of the disconnect on the tone and content of the communications.  I encourage you to visit Kahan’s blog – it’s good stuff.  Expressing frustration in a recent post, Kahan notes

Studies making materially identical findings [regarding scientific consensus on climate change] have been appearing at regular intervals for the better part of a decade. Every time, they are widely heralded; indeed, the media have been saturated with claims that there is “scientific consensus” on climate change since at least 2006, when Al Gore made that message the centerpiece of a $300-million effort to build public support for policies to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S.

But it is demonstrably the case (I’m talking real-world evidence here) that the regular issuance of these studies, and the steady drum beat of “climate skeptics are ignoring scientific consensus!” that accompany them, have had no—zero, zilch—net effect on professions of public “belief” in human-caused climate change in the U.S.

On the contrary, there’s good reason to believe that the self-righteous and contemptuous tone with which the “scientific consensus” point is typically advanced (“assault on reason,” “the debate is over” etc.) deepens polarization.  That’s because “scientific consensus,” when used as a rhetorical bludgeon, predictably excites reciprocally contemptuous and recriminatory responses by those who are being beaten about the head and neck with it.

Such a mode of discourse doesn’t help the public to figure out what scientists believe. But it makes it as clear as day to them that climate change is an “us-vs.-them” cultural conflict, in which those who stray from the position that dominates in their group will be stigmatized as traitors within their communities.

This is not a condition conducive to enlightened self-government.

Strong indictment of John Cook and others who from all intents and purposes would seek to protect humanity from a sure path of destruction.  Kahan I believe is correct to admonish those who would seek to use so-called consensus into compelling or bludgeoning others into a similar state of belief.  In response, Cook offers a thoughtful rejoinder to Kahan’s critique here, wherein he agrees that science communication must be more evidence-based.  But I would argue that it’s more than just a communication problem.  It’s a trust problem.  If one is deemed or has proven himself untrustworthy, no amount of scientific data will convince the masses of the veracity of “his” truths.  Sadly, apart from evidence pointing toward anthropogenically caused climate change, scientists have a real credibility problem, which is compounded by self-inflicted wounds, as illustrated in the noted problems with the 97% consensus claims.  See Forbes article titled Global Warming Alarmists Caught Doctoring ’97- Percent Consensus’ Claim.  The study has been criticized for lumping prominent skeptics into the 97% or simply excluding skeptics entirely from the results.  It’s unclear whether this was simply the result of poor quality control, inherent author biases, or, worst yet, an intent to mislead.  But even giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, the damage from a careening mistrust continues to be wrought in the name of science.

This deep-seated mistrust, combined with the inability of the scientific community to dispassionately engage in transparent dialogue on a matter involving scientific complexity and uncertainty exacerbates the cynical divide and drives scientific denial.  Within this vacuum, the public is left to its own devices.  And not knowing who or what to believe, each seeks out familiar voices, such as the Rush Limbaughs or Al Gores, who, although trusted as experts, lack scientific expertise.  Several pieces of advice for my climate scientist friends:  (1) stop making yourself easy targets of deniers, (2) approach the topic with greater humility and openness regarding the scientific uncertainties and (3) refrain from apocalyptic screed aimed at scaring the public into action.  Maybe then, we’ll be able to make some headway on policy solutions.

Lastly, for those who remain interested in understanding the science of climate change and the ongoing debate over governance and policy solutions, Kahan’s blog is edifying and a treasure trove of useful information.