Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled?

Daniel Moyniham quote everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own factsWe are constantly told that “everyone has a right to their opinion” and “there are two sides to every story.” Our entire news system is predicated on the notion that we need to give fair time to both sides of every situation. The problem with this type of thinking is that it leads to the misconception that both sides are equally valid, or, at the very least, that there must be some truth to both sides, but in many cases, only one side has any merit. In other words, it’s often not opinion #1 vs. opinion #2, rather, it is fact vs. fiction. One “side” is reality, while the other “side” is a fairy tale. For example, if you want to say that the island of Jamaica is being carried around on the back of giant sea turtle, that’s not your opinion, you’re just wrong. There wouldn’t be two legitimate sides to that story. Rather, there would be the fact that Jamaica is not being carried by a sea turtle, and there would be the crazy person who thinks it is.

This problem is never more relevant than in “debated” scientific concepts. For example, we have all probably heard creationists insist that we need to “teach the controversy,” and if there actually was a controversy about evolution, I would agree with them. The problem is that from a scientific standpoint, there is no controversy. Similarly, the “debate” about climate change only exists in the minds of climate change deniers. There aren’t two sides to that story. Rather, there is the fact that we are causing the climate to change, and there are people who are wrong. Nevertheless, the media and anti-scientists do a marvelous job of creating the illusion of conflict where none exists. In technical terms, this is what is known as an inflation of conflict fallacy, and it is what I will devote this post to. I want to first explain what we mean when we say that something is settled in science, then (in a second post) I want to look at some of the tactics that are used to fabricate a debate.

The topic of settled science is a complicated one. You see, science doesn’t deal in proofs (with the exception of mathematical proofs in certain areas of physics). Rather, it deals in probabilities. In other words, it tells us what is most likely true, but it does not tell us what is absolutely true. It is inherently incapable of proving anything with 100% certainty because we are inherently incapable of knowing everything, which means that we always have to acknowledge the possibility that there is some other piece of evidence which eludes us. Another way to think about this is that science tells us what is correct given the current evidence, but it cannot completely eliminate the possibility of unknown evidence. So in the strictest sense, there is no such thing as “settled science.” It is always possible that some new discovery will overturn previous ideas, but, and this is the really important part, that doesn’t give you the right the assume that other evidence is out there. In other words, the fact that something technically might be wrong, doesn’t mean that you can assume it is wrong (that would be logical blunder known as an argument from ignorance fallacy). Many things in science have been so thoroughly tested and so consistently make accurate predictions that it is almost inconceivable that they could be wrong. So even though we cannot be 100% certain that they are correct, we can be 99.9999999% sure, and that is good enough to consider them essentially “settled” (note: the argument that “scientists have been wrong in the past” is flawed for numerous reasons which are explained here).

Laws and theories are good illustrations of this concept. Consider cell theory, for example. It tells us that all living things are made of cells. It is accepted by essentially everyone everywhere because it has been tested over and over again (i.e., every time we stick a living thing under a microscope, it is made of cells), and it makes consistently accurate predictions (i.e., it predicts that when we stick something under a microscope, it should be made of cells). So it is, by any reasonable definition, “settled,” but we can never be 100% sure that it is correct, because that level of certainty would require examining every single living thing in the entire universe.

burden of proofNow, let’s say that for one reason or another, you think the there are organisms that aren’t made of cells (perhaps your religion says so), it would be utterly absurd of you to argue that because cell theory can never be proved, we don’t have to accept it. This all comes back to a topic that I discuss frequently: the burden of proof. According to the rules of logic, the one making the claim is required to provide the evidence. In other words, if you are going to claim that cell theory is wrong, the burden is on you to provide strong evidence that it is wrong. In the absence of that evidence, it would be absurd to claim that there is debate about the issue. The fact that you disagree does not mean that there is debate. Further, you don’t get to be offended when people make fun of you for your ridiculous belief, because that belief is clearly wrong. You have a right to believe whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else has to take you seriously and respect your delusions.

Cell theory is obviously an extreme example because virtually everyone accepts it, but I wanted to start with it to demonstrate the concept that science gives reliable answers even though it doesn’t provide proofs. Now, let’s turn to topics like vaccines, evolution, GMOs, climate change, etc. There is no significant scientific debate on these issues. There just isn’t. Yes, there are a handful of scientists who disagree with the mainstream view, but that doesn’t mean that there is a significant debate. As I often like to say, no matter what crackpot notion you believe, you can find someone somewhere with an advanced degree who thinks that you are right. Becoming a scientist doesn’t guarantee that you are smart and it doesn’t guarantee that you know what the crap you’re talking about. So for almost any position (including things like heliocentrism and the germ theory of disease) you can find a handful of scientists who disagree with the consensus, but that clearly doesn’t mean that these issues aren’t settled or that there is debate about them.

So if we are never going to get 100% of scientists to agree, then how do we define a debate? One quick and easy approach is to look at the number of scientists who hold a position. For example, roughly 97% of climatologists agree that climate change is happening and it’s our fault. That is an extremely strong agreement. There actually aren’t many topics on which 97% of scientists agree, so by that point it is fairly safe to say that there isn’t a debate. Nevertheless, some topics don’t have quite that strong of a consensus, and relying on a consensus is inherently problematic because science isn’t a democracy. It’s decided by facts, not what people think.

climate change global warming infographic peer-reviewed papers scientific consensus

There is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific literature that anthropogenic climate change is real. Image via DESMOG.

Therefore, a better approach is to look at the recent literature. If there is still significant debate about an issue, then you should find lots of high quality, peer-reviewed studies which supply evidence in support of the minority view. If, however, the only studies that you find are of low quality and are published in minor or questionable journals, then you can fairly safely conclude that there isn’t a significant debate. For example, good luck finding high-quality, peer-reviewed articles supporting creationism. They are essentially non-existent. Why? Quite simply, because there is no evidence to support creationism, and, as a result, there is no scientific debate about it. Anthropogenic climate change is a similar story, with virtually no papers denying it (to be clear, this link goes to a blog, not a peer-reviewed literature review, but you are welcome to replicate what the author did, you’ll get the same result). Vaccines and GMOs are a bit trickier because there are papers that disagree, but those papers are still in the extreme minority, and the vast majority of them are of low quality and are published in less than reputable journals (for example, see my recent post debunking several anti-GMO studies and this post explaining the problems with Tenpenny’s “Vaccine Research Library), so they still do not constitute evidence that there is significant disagreement among scientists.

Invariably, someone is going to say either that the publications are all about the money (debunked here) or that it is peer-pressure and it’s just not possible to publish anything that goes against the mainstream view (debunked here). In short, the fundamental problem with these claims is that scientists absolutely love to publish papers that defeat common views. Discoveries like that are what we live for. No one becomes a great scientist by agreeing with everyone else. You become a great scientist by discovering new things and discrediting old ideas. If you actually had solid evidence that climate change wasn’t happening, evolution wasn’t true, etc. you would have just guaranteed yourself a Nobel Prize.

In conclusion, for all of these topics (and many others) the science really is settled. Yes, there are still a few scientists who disagree, and yes, it is technically possible that we are wrong, but so many studies have confirmed the mainstream views and so little evidence is available against them that it is not logically valid to assume that the consensus is wrong.

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47 Responses to Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled?

  1. When people say the science isn’t settled, they’re using the fallacy of equivocation (aka bait-and-switch). Scientific claims to knowledge, like all claims to knowledge, are *in principle* revisable, and in science this is raised to a formal principle, known as fallibilism. The really nasty trick, perfected by creationists among others, is to slide from in-principle revisability to reasonable doubt, which is totally different.

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  2. The person making the claim bears the burden

    Do you think you bear such a burden when you claim evolution is a fact?

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    • Robert L Bell says:

      It appears that you have missed the entire point of this article. Evolution is well established, uniformly accepted except among a small gang of cranks and charlatans, and is in fact the most strenuously tested and widely verified theory ever proposed. (and before you start caviling about theories v laws v facts, I suggest that you read up on these concepts so that you understand what they are and how they are related)

      The burden of proof in favor of evolution and its place in Science has been satisfied. If you want to stand up now and claim “Everyone is mistaken, Evolution is wrong because…” then you are welcome to do so. If you actually have a case, as opposed to yet another dreary repetition of nonsense that was debunked a hundred years ago, then people will give you a listen. If you turn out to be correct, which as discussed in the article is in principle possible, then prizes and fame and adulation await.

      Just please, don’t serve up the same old hash and pretend that it’s grass fed prime rib.

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      • Robert:

        Evolution is well established … and is in fact the most strenuously tested and widely verified theory ever proposed.

        So your answer is “yes” I take it, you bear a burden when you claim evolution is a fact.

        The burden of proof in favor of evolution and its place in Science has been satisfied.

        I didn’t know that. Can you explain how that was done? In other words, can you support your claim (since you have agreed that you do bear the burden of evidence)?

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          Before evolution was established as fact, the burden was on the people saying it was true, but now that it is accepted, that burden no longer exists, just as someone who claims that gravity is true does not bear a burden to provide evidence for that claim.

          Evolution has been experimentally demonstrated numerous times, and is supported by genetics, the fossil record, biogeography, etc. Most importantly, it consistently makes accurate predictions (for example see this post on the predictions it made about the fossil record https://thelogicofscience.wordpress.com/?p=345). Google Scholar contains literally thousands of papers on the evidence for evolution. I encourage you to read them.

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  3. Steve says:

    The problem isn’t in the facts of science, it’s the opinion of what we should do to influence our society. Climate change is a good example, we know it’s happening. How much? Is it good or bad? How much good how much bad? Right now most of what I’m hearing is 95% bad and maybe 5% good. The other problems are how much, if we go back to the 80s, we know we were wrong about the hockey stick graphs, we also had a hiatus in global warming. Regular forecasters give the confidence intervals in probability (30% chance of rain), which are not given with climate forecasts to help the public understand. What should we do about climate change? Stupidly enough shut down everything that creates CO2 in the usa and send our coal/oil to China/India to be burned (with less restrictions on scrubbing I might add). Climate change is a buzzword, even geophysics are using it in their papers and scientists also seem to love to be doomsayers instead of contributing to rational discussion.

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    • Robert L Bell says:

      Funny story. I looked up a reference the other day from a 1989 issue of Science Magazine, and their editorial page caught my eye. Evidently then-President George HW Bush had caught some species of fish while on vacation in Maine and the teevee news people were yucking it up because that species was traditionally found off the coast of Long Island. The Editors took the opportunity to remind the President that this habitat shift, with warmer waters up to the north, was yet another piece of evidence supporting Global Warming: chemistry and biology and physics and oceanography and meteorology, the science even twenty five years ago was absolutely incontrovertible.

      It has become fashionable for politically motivated nay-sayers to heave rocks at the science, because they have decided they don’t want it to be true, but that is a dangerous road to follow: the Commies threw away genetics and adopted Lysenkoism for political reasons, and that led to mass starvation.

      William Nordhaus has an outstanding series of seven books on the science and economics of Global Warming. I recommend starting with the first and reading all the way through, to get a solid education in the evidence and modeling, but nobody has the time for that so you can skip right to the end: Climate Casino. After seven iterations of revising and editing and improving the arguments, the presentation is clear and concise and specific. Not a wasted word. Climate Casino has the facts about what is happening today with global warming and the world economy, what is likely to happen in the near future under plausible scenarios (with error bounds), and the economically efficient tools for dealing with the problem. Give it a look: it makes so much sense, the greenies hate it.

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      • Karl Popper wannabe says:

        It is perfectly natural for habitats to expand and contract, even in the absence of climate change.

        I suspect that if the range of that fish had been contracting rather than expanding, Science magazine would also be citing that as cause for alarm.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul says:

    No increase in temperature by satellite measurements in 18 years even though co 2 has been steadily increasing during this period thus the models are wrong that predict the temperature rise due to increase in co2.

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  5. Jim says:

    Having been part of the peer review process, I cannot in good conscience support the standard of just checking with the journals to see what is in them. Peer review is helpful, but also acts as gatekeeper. When you are starting your scientific career, you absolutely must get published, preferably in high impact journals. Of course, scientists are like anyone else and suffer from confirmation bias so it is vastly easier to get published when you agree with the consensus.

    Given how insanely hard it is these days to get a something like a tenure track research position and how hard it is to secure funding, it is perfectly plausible that scientists self-select the data they try to publish which leads to an edge towards those who agree with the consensus. This was certainly my experience. Trying to publish a paper that questioned a marginally famous protein tertiary structure was vastly harder when I drew a reviewer who had done the old X-ray work. Publishing work that agreed with the big shots in the field subsequently was vastly easier. Shockingly, this lead to one area of my interest being vastly easier to fund and publish and not the other. Guess which one has supplied over 90% of my funding.

    Scientists are like anyone else, we have confirmation biases. We game systems on which our careers ride. We accord respect to people rather than ideas and are harder on unknowns than legends in the field. Fun experiment, give scientists a fake study with data they agree with – they will almost always accept the methodology as valid and useful. Give them a study with the same methodology, but have the data speak against their beliefs – they will almost always nitpick the methodology. This isn’t something wild eyed that we peer review is worthless, just that it is say 10% easier to be published in any given tier as the young researcher who agrees than the one who seeks to challenge some level of consensus. Unfortunately, that extra 10% effort has to come from somewhere and the modern career track just doesn’t have much margin for added hurdles. Sure, you can secure a career by demolishing a fallacious consensus, but good luck getting the funding to get the data until you are well established. Of course, once you are established, other questions have dominated your time and effort for so long, how likely are you to abandon them and go back to the other stuff?

    Peer review was maybe once a fully valid indicator, but these days we have so much competition and so much of your career rides on being published, I cannot doubt that science ends up with some skew from controversial areas of exploration being dropped because it is just easier to get published and secure grants for studying something else.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      It is certainly true that there are problems with the peer-review system, and it can be hard to get a novel result published (your results must be impeccable). Nevertheless, I still argue that on issues like climate change where there are thousands and thousands of published papers saying climate change is real and almost none saying that it is false, it is a good yardstick. The system isn’t so totally broken that such a strong consensus can’t be trusted. There are still enough of us that do critically analyze all papers (even ones that agree with us) that such an overwhelming consensus shouldn’t exist if there actually was strong evidence against climate change.

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  6. HenryC says:

    The majority of climatologist have never taken a stance on man caused global warming. The 97% are a percentage of those that have. Of that 97% many do not believe it is catastrophic in nature. Man has likely caused 60% of the warming of the last century, most of that likely by urbanization and deforestation.

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  7. Rob Speer says:

    If we agree that climate science is settled, we are only agreeing that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that human activity is increasing the concentration in our atmosphere. Settled science does not extend to predictions of our future climate based on projections of future increases in the CO2 levels, because these predictions are based additional factors, such as positive feedbacks. While these feedbacks are well founded in science, we do not have enough evidence to use this information to predict the global temperature 20, 50 or 100 years into the future. The earth’s climate is a dynamic system, which is inherently unpredictable. We see evidence of that unpredictability in the recent warming pause. This pause has been reasonably explained by the oceanic heat sink effect, which proves that there are still too many unknowns to establish a feedback multiplier as most global models do. There are still many good reasons to want to curtail our use of hydrocarbons that it is not necessary to use catastrophic climate change as a boogeyman to get people on board with plans to move to renewable sources of energy.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Details of future changes are certainly debated, but the concept that continuing to increase our CO2 will continue to change the earths climate is settled. There is very little disagreement on the fundamental point.

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  8. Karl Popper wannabe says:

    “For example, roughly 97% of climatologists agree that climate change is happening and it’s our fault.”

    Citing non-scientific and thoroughly debunked internet polls does little to support your argument.

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  9. Mark W bailey says:

    Two things to consider on the science of global warming. First, the entire basis of global warming concerns is a set of computer models of the worlds climate. The models are necessarily incomplete and probably inaccurate because our knowledge of the climate is incomplete and some of it is probably inaccurate. Given the current status of our knowledge, the measure of the models is their ability to predict. I have yet to see or hear of a report in which the global weather data for several decades was put into the model and the next two decades’ climate change trends were successfully predicted. I have seen and heard of a great deal of data manipulation to make the data match the models. This may or may not be justified but it does call into question the accuracy of the data used for the models.
    Second, global warming theories do not exist in isolation in the hands of scientists. They are also being used to justify significant changes in the energy use and manufacturing economy of the entire world. In many cases these changes are expensive and represent major changes to human societies. But the people proposing the changes and the scientists backing them have “no skin in the game”. If they are right, great. But if they are wrong, they will not suffer financially, academically, or most likely politically. They only have an incentive to make the predictions and suggest the changes that bring more funding.
    One more thought. I was taught that the ability to reproduce experimental results was one of the touch stones of the scientific method. Theories were proposed, experiments conducted and the results published, along with the data and experimental methods used. Climate science has consistently resisted giving out the raw data, the methods and reasons for adjustments when made, and the programs used to make the predictions that have been published. The skeptic in me ( not the climate skeptic but the engineer skeptic) can help but ask, why? And why is there a move not to refute climate skeptics but to silence them?
    I am a professional engineer, not in a climate related field, and over the years have seen the fall of many barriers that were thought to be insurmountable. I have seen many “facts that everyone knew and agreed on” proven to be partially or completely wrong. Why should climate science be any less fallible than every other field of science?

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      There is lots of evidence for climate change other than models. Retreating glaciers, home range shifts, alterations in migratory patterns, changes in hibernation cycles, changes in the marine ecosystem, direct measurements of CO2 output and the amount of energy entering and leaving the earth, etc. all support it.

      Also, many models have correctly predicted future changes.
      http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2015/01/claims-that-climate-models-overestimate-warming-are-unfounded-study-shows/

      The fact that scientists “have no skin in the game” is totally irrelevant.

      Finally, climate change deniers aren’t “silenced” there are refuted using data. The evidence for climate change is just as repeatable and falsifiable as any other field of research.

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  10. Author misses the whole point. I like the author AM personally interested in facts, but most of us most of the time don’t care, except when decided exactly HOW to go about what we have decided to try and accomplish. And that, is a fact.

    Climate change is a good example, of abuse of science. Yea science maybe could tell us whether it is happening; whether people are a major cause; whether modification of human activity would be likely to reduce climate change. And it has: the answers are yes; yes; yes.

    But it would be abuse of science to say that those three “yes” answers ALSO mean that we ought to do anything about it, or any particular thing, or use particular ways of causing change in place, or accept a particular distribution of who gets to pay for what, either directly in money or indirectly by being told more than they currently are about what society will or will not punish them for doing.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I’m very confused by your comment. The entire point of my post was about whether not science is settled, not about what we should do with settled science.

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  11. So then molecules formed into living cells by random chance is settled science. Scientists agree on this, but who has actually witnessed this conversion?

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  12. M Lithgow says:

    Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this article is making the following claim: one can determine whether a particular issue is settled in (contemporary) science by evaluating the published literature, weighting articles according to the prestige of the journals they are published in. If a position on an issue has overwhelming support via this methodology, then it can be considered settled.

    Assuming I have understood this correctly, there seem to be some problems with this thesis. Yes, it is a reasonable way to determine whether an issue is settled in “science,” certainly. However, it doesn’t seem to be a helpful way to determine whether a particular position reflects reality or not. The reason being that the proposed method relies on the authority of journals and the peer process behind publication rather than on the quality of evidence and argument. Yes, the second-last paragraph does attempt to head-off some common critiques of the reliability of published papers, but the problem of relying on authority rather than logic doesn’t go away by attempting to defend against some attacks against it. Authority is a treacherous foundation because it hides all sorts of errors, not just the ones we are aware of. (I am unconvinced by the “debunking” of the latter of these critiques, as is an earlier commenter, but that is beside the point.)

    Now, perhaps modern science is simply too complex for a third party to trace the logic and at least sanity-check the evidence, and so we must rely on authority. But if that is true, then how can peer review contribute anything useful? Peers are, after all, third parties (appropriately educated third parties). Either science has become so arcane that we must rely on the magisterial approach advocated here, or genuine intelligence and effort can be brought to bear on particular issues potentially undercutting the received truth of science. But it appears that the author does not entirely disagree with this claim. Why then the reliance on authority?

    The assumption underlying the author’s argument seems to be that so many scientists, who are all genuinely competent, honest, truth-seekers, could not all get something so wrong. The scientific method would not allow that. The published consensus thus reflects the likelihood of the agreed position reflecting reality. The problem with this assumption is not in its characterisation of the motives or abilities of scientists, but in its misunderstanding of how science actually works. A quick read of Polanyi, Popper or Kuhn would be helpful, but basically science, like all human activities, is a social activity, and suffers from significant epistemic limitations as a result. The authors just mentioned (and many others) discuss the ways that this has happened and continues to happen in science. Thus the assumption that the method of science is highly unlikely to generate a consensus on a false claim is unreliable at best.

    Finally, it should be pointed out that dissenters to the various views mentioned in the article tend not to rely on authority in making their claims. Rather they tend to offer evidence and argument, which surely should be evaluated honestly and appropriately (as tiresome as that may be).

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I think that you are committing something of a strawman fallacy here. I am simply talking about whether or not something is settled, not whether or not it is true. As I acknowledged early on, it is technically possible that an overwhelming consensus could still be wrong. My point is that you cannot claim that there is debate when non exists, and that you cannot assume that the consensus is wrong. Rather, you must provide evidence that the consensus is wrong. For example, the fact that nearly all scientific papers agree that evolution is true does not automatically mean that it actually is true, but it does mean that there is no significant debate about it, and it means that we should accept it as the most likely explanation unless some new and contradictory evidence arises.

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      • M Lithgow says:

        I’m afraid I can’t see where the strawman is, since I pointed out just what you say in your second sentence. My point is that whether science is settled or not is irrelevant to whether we should accept disputed areas, whereas your point is that we should not even accept disputes (and thus not consider the truthfulness) in areas where the science is settled, as per your method.

        Your approach places great faith in the current methods and operations of science, assuming that overwhelming consensus approximates quite well to likelihood of truth. My point is that this approach violates the underlying spirit of science which is empiricism: relying on the evidence and models built on that. The nature of science (and knowledge in general) means that a consensus can be quite misleading, and there are particular areas (where science tangles with religion, philosophy or politics, for example) where this is more likely. Scientists, like anyone can develop a “blind spot” in their vision of the world, and the mechanism of science can encourage this. My suggested authors explain how.

        The fact that all of the disputes that you mention involve intelligent, careful application of empirical data in dispute of the consensus, as well as providing explanations for the existence of the consensus, means that dismissing debate because there is a consensus is an application of dogmatic faith (consensus trumps evidence). That is the flaw with this approach.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          “My point is that whether science is settled or not is irrelevant to whether we should accept disputed areas, whereas your point is that we should not even accept disputes.”
          That doesn’t make any sense. Something that is settled isn’t disputed, that’s my entire point.

          “Your approach places great faith in the current methods and operations of science, assuming that overwhelming consensus approximates quite well to likelihood of truth.”
          Again, this is no in any way shape or form what I am saying (thus it is a strawman). When I say that something is “settled” I am not saying that it is definitely true. Rather I am saying that there is no significant debate about it among scientists and based on all available evidence, it is true. To quote my original post, “Another way to think about this is that science tells us what is correct given the current evidence, but it cannot completely eliminate the possibility of unknown evidence. So in the strictest sense, there is no such thing as ‘settled science.’ It is always possible that some new discovery will overturn previous ideas, but, and this is the really important part, that doesn’t give you the right the assume that other evidence is out there.”

          “There are particular areas (where science tangles with religion, philosophy or politics, for example) where this is more likely.” Anytime that you are dealing with those topics, you are by definition, not doing science. Science tells us, for example, that evolution is true, but it cannot tell us how that impacts religion. Similarly, it tells us that we are causing the climate to change, but it cannot tell us the most moral action given that information.

          “The fact that all of the disputes that you mention involve intelligent, careful application of empirical data in dispute of the consensus.”
          Except that they don’t, that is my point. There are essentially no high quality, properly conducted, empirical papers showing that evolution is wrong, global warming isn’t true, vaccines are dangerous, etc. If they existed, then there would be a significant debate, but they don’t exist, that’s my point.

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          • M Lithgow says:

            Clearly the difference between us is over what “settled” means in relation to a scientific issue. Let’s try looking at it from another perspective, which might help clarify my concerns with your approach.

            What does someone mean when they ask, “Is the science behind global warming settled?” We can discern their meaning by looking at the reason for their question. If global warming is anthropogenic, and we (humans) are in control of the mechanism (e.g. CO2 output), then we need to take action. But that action comes at great cost, and will cause substantial, immediate suffering. If we don’t take any action, and the consensus is correct, then there will be substantial suffering later on. Thus when we ask, “Is the science settled,” we are asking, “Is it beyond any reasonable doubt?” To suggest otherwise is, I suggest, unhelpful obfuscation.

            So, then, does a consensus in the current literature place a particular model or theory beyond reasonable doubt? The history of science shows that the answer to this is “no.” How then do we achieve such a thing? How about this: a model that accurately predicts effects from relevant causes; research demonstrating that (known) causes other than the proposed ones are not producing the seen effects; reliable and, ideally, multiple, independent datasets; transparent literature documenting all this so that disputes need not degenerate into we-said/they-said. (It is obvious that unknown causes or even effects can later overturn even such a “settled” model, but provided we have looked for all the possible causes we can find with our current technology, we have done all we could.)

            When an area of science experiences public failures in any of these areas and insists that, despite this, the science is “settled,” the public rightly grows suspicious. If we were happy with mere consensus building then we could rely on the politicians and wouldn’t even need science. But science is a distinct discipline because the empirical data actually matters. Promoting inaccurate models, ignoring known causes, and providing opaquely massaged data is not something that “settled” science should be doing.

            Certainly, if a model meets the above requirements, then a consensus will build around it, but the consensus is not what legitimates the model, rather the model’s fulfilment of these virtuous characteristics legitimates the consensus. That is why I think your attempt to define a scientific issue as “settled” by simply counting papers is misleading. Science doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t work that way.

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  13. Bob says:

    What kind of non-scientist wrote this article? It is not a question of a mythical 97% of scientists agreeing on global warming. That particular study has been de-bunked so many times that its authors should be ashamed of their attempted fraud. Yep.They defined their data acceptance of peer reviewed paper and found over 12,000 papers that met their criteria. Then they threw away over 8,000 of those papers because, on second thought, they didn’t like them. Then the psychology students in Australia didn’t understand the rest of the papers, so they trashed most of those. They wound up with a couple of hundred papers that they could actually understand, and built their conclusion on those few. Peer reviewed papers soon appeared to show that it was a dumb paper, but by that time the climate change people had accepted the paper.

    Climate change is just a marketing term. We are really talking about CO2 driven global warming. Since the average global temperature has not risen in the past eighteen years, and the CO2 atmospheric concentration has increased dramatically, you have to question the basic theory. If you don’t you are denying science

    Science is all about the data. Real, physically measured data. The IPCC models have never shown accurate temperature forecasts, and are therefore suspect as scientific tools. They are not validated with empiracle data.

    So, the author has fallen into the trap of writing about the red herring argument of a 97% scientific consensus when nothing like this exists. It sure smacks of a lack of research. Maybe his dog ate his homework.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      If there is significant disagreement on climate change, then where are the numerous dissenting papers? Please show them to me. Look through the literature for yourself, there are literally thousands of papers supporting climate change and only a tiny handful rejecting it. Also, figures of roughly 97% have appeared from multiple surveys using multiple techniques.

      Finally, the models actually have been correct.
      http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2015/01/claims-that-climate-models-overestimate-warming-are-unfounded-study-shows/

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      • Bob says:

        You are going to have to produce those 97% papers. Credible studies do not exist showing anything near 97%. Oreskes and Cook papers have been discredited so many times it is futile to bring them up.

        Besides, I never said global warming didn’t exist. You are mistaken. I said that the global average temperatures have not increased in almost two decades (18 yrs). There is no dispute about the fact that CO2 concentrations have increased, and the temps have not. I am referring to the more stable satellite measured temps that don’t have to rely on the paucity and inadequacy of surface thermometers that don’t exist over the oceans and much of the land mass of the earth.

        It is a fact that ” climate change” is just a marketing term, and was only used in the popular press when it was obvious that the temps were not increasing.

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  14. In the interest of transparency (of which I have several boxes, as well as two overhead projectors), I do not believe that computer modeling is sufficiently congruous with reality to accept the *inevitability* of catastrophic global climate change. But I don’t dismiss those predictions out of hand, either.

    What I think would be helpful for discussions is a meaningful distinction between “weather” and “climate”. I’m of the opinion that a 30 or 40 year baseline is not “climate”, and that including unprovable inferences about past meteorological conditions or tacking on the predictions, also unprovable, of computer models *does not* cross the threshold that would permit definitive statements about “climate”. Weather, yes. Climate, no. The issue is perhaps irredeemably confused because of this admixture of weather events with climate. And the climate change alarmists bear most of the blame for this. Most who believe in anthropogenic climate change are not alarmists, but the world has never lacked for Torquemada-like inquisitions: believe or die.

    I will readily concede that weather has shown trends over those decades. And to the extent that there are anthropogenic causes for weather changes, and to the extent that these weather changes could eventually become climate changes, humanity should begin to respond (responsibly). But given that there is no foreseeable replacement for fossil fuels (except nuclear fission), there is a choice to be made: either continue civilization as we know it by using fossil fuels, or return to the stone age. And don’t assert that something will, as if by magic, come to fruition and replace the energy supplied by fossil fuels. Because if you do, I can respond that something will, as if by magic, come to fruition and reflect sufficient solar radiation to avert a catastrophe caused by fossil fuels.

    Words mean things: Weather is not Climate, and Climate is not Weather.

    Say what you mean and say what can be defended. That is science.

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    • peter38abc says:

      Dang, Randy you stole all my thunder but said it better than I could have. This article is more “slick” than “science”.

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      • Randy Carlson says:

        It’s rare that I get compliments for both contents & clarity. But be careful, peter38abc, my point of view is not re-hashed pablum from well-regarded & peer-reviewed scientific literature, and as such cannot be settled science. So don’t adopt my ill-informed and blindered opinion, lest you become a fellow pariah.

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  15. Bob says:

    The author of the article has not done his/her homework. The so-called peer reviewed paper by Cook et al claiming a 97% consensus is simply a spoof. The author has not read the paper, and if he/she did, they would retract their statements with great shame. The Cook paper was DEBUNKED quickly after it was published. Cook defined his data, and assembled over 12,000 papers to make his case. He discarded all but 200, and then made his so-called 97% conclusion. He discarded most of his data because it didn’t support his preconceived conclusion. This is what you get from a bunch of Australian psychology students. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11191-013-9647-9

    Is the science ever settled? The answer is clearly, no. Does some trumped-up consensus make a difference? Probably not, especially since the same handful of scientists are portrayed as the 97%. Just as a reality check, Mr/Ms author, you cannot get 97% of any group to agree on anything, especially a bunch of science divas.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      You accuse me of not having read the paper, but it’s pretty obvious from your comments that you have, in fact, not read the paper. For example, where exactly did you get the notion that they took 12,000 papers and eliminated all but 200? That is blatantly untrue. To quote the paper,

      “The ISI search generated 12,465 papers. Eliminating papers that were not peer-reviewed (186), not climate-related (288) or without an abstract (47) reduced the analysis to 11,944 papers
      written by 29,083 authors and published in 1,980 journals.”

      They analyzed 11,944 papers, not 200. Even if all you did was look at the figures it would be obvious that they were analyzing several thousand papers, not 200. So clearly it is you that hasn’t read the paper.

      Further, you are ignoring the fact that they emailed 8,547 authors and asked them to assess their own papers stance on climate change, and 1,200 authors responded with an even stronger consensus than the 97% from the lit.

      Additionally, you are ignoring the other surveys which have come up with a number of roughly 97% (sources and a further explanation of Cook’s paper here http://www.skepticalscience.com/97-percent-consensus-robust.htm).

      On a side note regarding your “This is what you get from a bunch of Australian psychology students” comment, not only is that and ad hominem fallacy, but it’s also not true as only 1 of the 9 authors are affiliated with a psychology program.

      Finally, you are still ignoring my request for the contrary papers (see my comment on your previous comment). You are claiming that there isn’t a consensus, but you have yet to provide a single shred of evidence to support that claim. Where are the copious papers claiming that anthropogenic climate change is false? Until you can produce them, you have no argument. The burden of proof is on you.

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      • Bob says:

        Of course I have read the paper and other related pubications. Cook only came up with 177 people that agreed with his premise. He got those by throwing away the REST OF THE DATABASE!

        Remember, ignorance is your only defense as I believe in manmade global warming. Unlie you , I am not stupid enough to believe in catastrophic global warming. By the way, you are still using BLOGS for your source. That is really ignorance in action. There is nothing scientific about Skeptical Science. It is run by a John Cook, a psychology student. PSYCHOLOGY, not science.

        I have no burden of proof. I have given you peer reviewed literature, and an accurate description of Cook’s fraudulent paper. You quote a blog by a non-scientific person. That’s about as ignorant as it gets.

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        • Miguel says:

          Bob, Bob, Bob.

          You say: “Of course I have read the paper and other related pubications. Cook only came up with 177 people that agreed with his premise. He got those by throwing away the REST OF THE DATABASE!”

          No, you have not, and no, he didn’t.

          Here, have a link: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/article (you are welcome)

          I know it wont move you an inch, but at the very least when you launch your next attack maybe it will be a bit better aimed.

          Oh, and since you sound a bit confused: the Cook in your first, second, and third paragraphs are one and the same.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          Where are you getting these numbers? The number 177 isn’t even in the paper. The authors analyzed 11,944 papers, contacted 8547 authors, and received responses from 1189. There is no evidence to support the claim that they where throwing out papers, and your numbers are fictitious. Please tell me the page and paragraph where you are getting these numbers.

          Regarding skeptical science, first, I was posting it mostly because it contains links to the other relevant papers (notice I said, “sources and a further explanation…here”). Second, given the Cook wrote the paper, doesn’t it make sense to cite his explanation of it?

          “I have given you peer reviewed literature” no actually you haven’t. My request was for the literature showing that there is a debate, not literature criticizing Cook et al. Discrediting Cook et al. (which that paper fails to do btw), would not prove that there isn’t a consensus. In other words, if there is actually a significant debate, then where are the thousands of papers claiming that we aren’t causing it? That’s what I want, and that’s what you haven’t provided. So yes, the burden is on you.

          Finally, whether or not I accept “catastrophic” global warming depends entirely on what you mean by that. Do I think the sea will rise a few cm, the average temp will increase, droughts will increase in some areas and floods in others? Yes. Do I think it is going to be a disaster that kills billions of people? No. It will make life harder, there will be casualties, and we will loose many species and natural resources, but I wouldn’t describe it as “catastrophic.”

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  16. Bob says:

    Hi, Miguel. Glad you got my name right🙂

    John Cook is indeed the same person throughout my comments. Quoting the paper, “papers published from 1991–2011 using topic searches for ‘global warming’ or ‘global climate change”. As you can see, the data was defined and at that point all the data has to be included in the calculations.

    According to Cook it is OK to throw away all those papers that did not, to Cook’s inspection, express an opinion. FOUL! Cook defined all 12K papers to be in the sample space, and must express the few hundred positive AGW opinions as a percentage of that total. Cook defined his own rules, and then chose to break them.

    That’s the arithmetic. The data is the data, and thou shalt not screw with it.

    Cook’s position on discarding data, whatever excuse he has, is untenable. By simple, back of the envelope calculations, using Cook’s numbers, the degree of so-called consensus is no more than 15%. We both know that this is not an accurate number, but it is an indication of the farcical magnitude of Cook’s paper. His methodology is deceptive and I believe it is dishonest.

    I am sure that Cook is a very intelligent guy, unless they give away PhD’s in popcorn boxes in Australia. Well, maybe they do in the world of psychology. I am also sure that Cook understands the power of a well placed lie.

    From the Legates abstract:
    “inspection of a claim by Cook et al. (Environ Res Lett 8:024024, 2013) of 97.1 % consensus, heavily relied upon by Bedford and Cook, shows just 0.3 % endorsement of the standard definition of consensus: that most warming since 1950 is anthropogenic. ”

    The 0.3% number in the Legates study is the result of using COOK’S OWN DEFINITION!

    John Cook is the author of his own problems, and shoddy work like the consensus-hoax paper will follow him like a bad dream for his entire career.

    By the way, I am sold on the idea that mankind is responsible for some of the global warming in the last century. As I said in another comment, thinking people don’t believe the Catastrophic aspect of so-called climate change, which is still the old global warming meme.

    Like

    • Miguel says:

      “As you can see, the data was defined and at that point all the data has to be included in the calculations.”

      From Cook’s et all paper “The ISI search generated 12 465 papers. Eliminating papers that were not peer-reviewed (186), not climate-related (288) or without an abstract (47) reduced the analysis to 11 944 papers”.

      7930 of them did not include an opinion on AGW, 3896 endorsed it, 78 rejected it, and 40 express doubts.

      So the question is, where did you get that 177 number from? Like Fallacy Man, I’m also curious.😉

      Arithmetic does not lie, but pulling the initial numbers from thin air you can “prove” that the earth is flat if you want.

      And your numbers don’t add up. Since when 177 is a 15% of 12K? And then you say “the few hundred positive AGW opinions”. 177 a few hundred?

      You know, that’s why I said earlier that you seem a bit confused, some of your arguments and numbers seem self inconsistent, as if you have not made up your mind yet.

      So many juicy arguments against Cook (you think) that you can’t reject any, even when they contradict each other. Is that so?

      Like

  17. Bob says:

    Miguel, my man:

    The number of 177 came from off the top of my head. Mea culpa. I don’t intend to be dishonest, and I ask forgiveness. The number was from my faulty memory, but it makes little difference in any debate because I was being generous and the real number is much, much worse. You guys insist on ignoring the elephant in the room. More on that, later.

    Cook et al data reveals that Cook himself could only name 64 papers as definitely qualifying as agreeing with his view of the so-called consensus. Cook had THREE consensus definitions. This is important because it confuses the entire character of the study, and therefore its credibility.

    “The unquantified definition: ‘‘The consensus position that humans are causing global warming’’ (p. 1),
    The standard definition: As stated in their introduction, that ‘‘human activity is very likely causing
    most of the current warming (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW)’’ (p. 2), and
    The catastrophist definition: That our enhancement of the greenhouse effect will be dangerous
    enough to be ‘catastrophic’ (i.e., ‘‘explicit rejection’’ of the consensus view ‘‘provides little support
    for the catastrophic view of the greenhouse effect’’, p. 3).

    Understanding that, here are Cook’s numbers. Which definition was at the base of his queries into the papers? Not exactly consistent, is it? ”

    From Legates et al :

    “Cook et al. (2013), after a subjective review of only the abstracts of 11,944
    papers on climate change which ‘‘matched the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global
    warming’’’ (p. 1), conclude that 97.1 % of those that expressed an opinion endorsed the
    hypothesis as defined in their introduction (i.e., the standard definition). However, 66.4 %
    percent of the abstracts had expressed no position. Thus, 32.6 % of the entire sample, or
    97.1 % of the 33.6 % who had expressed an opinion, were said to be in agreement with the
    standard definition. However, inspection of the authors’ own data file showed that they had
    themselves categorized only 64 abstracts, just 0.5 % of the sample, as endorsing the
    standard definition. Inspection shows only 41 of the 64 papers, or 0.3 % of the sample of
    11,944 papers, actually endorsed that definition.
    It is not possible to discern either from the paper or from the supplementary information”

    Even before you get to this, the audience will run a smell test on the Cook paper. The number of discarded papers stands out like a sore thumb. Why did he discard 2/3 of his data? WHY?

    Here’s the elephant.

    The elephant in the room, and the indicator of a stinking paper is the discarded data. Discarding 7,930 papers because you cannot figure out what they say is goofy. Oh, just call it, “No opinion”, and everything is fine. You don’t do this. This is entirely unacceptable in any academic sense, and I am surprised that intelligent, thinking people will buy this man’s work without the slightest due diligence.

    I will say it another way. What does Cook’s data say about a consensus? Is it 41 abstracts out of 11.944? Is it 64 abstracts out of 11,944? Is it something over 1,000 papers out of 11,944? You see, when Cook defined his dataset as containing 11,944 he was stuck. He had to use his data, and not discard 2/3 of his defined and accepted papers.

    Maybe Cook should have blown-off his so-called study and did a properly designed experiment. Maybe, but he didn’t. The problem is that he couldn’t get to his predetermined conclusion by doing things honestly.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Oy, where to begin.

      First, it’s important to realize that the papers were sent out to other people to be assessed. So it wasn’t Cook sitting there deciding which ones to use and which ones not to use.

      Second, they didn’t “throw out” 66.4% of abstracts, those abstracts simply didn’t state an opinion on climate change (which is hardly surprising). You’ll notice that those papers are included in the figures and are discussed. You’ll also notice that the number that that were neutral increased over time, which is actually what you expect from a growing consensus. For example, papers on physics don’t say, “gravity (which we accept as true)…” rather they just use gravity with no comment on or defense of its accuracy because there is a consensus that it is accurate. Further, if you actually read Cook et al. you will notice that they randomly selected 1,000 of the “no statement” papers and carefully re-analyzed them (that’s hardly throwing them out).

      Third, the only possible way to assess the consensus is to look at the papers that actually made a statement on whether or not they accepted climate change. This is really no different from any normal type of poll. When Gallup says, “40% of Americans think X” they didn’t survey all Americans, rather they surveyed a representative subset, and you can’t say, “Gallup shouldn’t be trusted because all that they actually showed was that 40% of the people who expressed and opinion think X.” Even so, in this case, the scientists expressing views on climate change are the relevant ones for determining whether or not there is a consensus, so Cook et al.s methods were completely valid.

      Regarding Legates “64 papers” I’m honestly not sure how they came up with that number, because I have been unable to replicate their result when I look at Cook et al.s raw data.

      Also, much of Legates argument is a strawman. There is certainly debate over how much damage climate change will cause and how much change will take place, but the core concept that humans are the primary factor causing the climate to change is very widely agreed upon, and Legates’ semantic arguments don’t change that.

      Finally, you (and Legates et al.) are ignoring the fact that they asked 8547 authors to rate their own papers, and 1,200 responded, and the consensus was actually stronger among the self ratings. In other words, Cook et al.s ratings were conservative compared to how the actual authors viewed their papers. That is an extremely important piece of information that cannot be ignored.

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