Archive for the ‘consensus’ Category

Michael Crichton… sadly missed

Posted on timeNovember 8th, 2008 by userPali Gap    flagNo Comments

I was very sad to hear of Michael Crichton’s death this week. Of course he was famous for his books and films (The Andromeda Strain, Rising Sun , State of Fear, Jurassic Park and more) – but to my mind he had great insight as a thinker.

Here’s something from a talk at the California Institute of Technology on Jan. 17, 2003 that I believe is spot on:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. . . .

Consensus is the business of politics”  – that’s exactly it. If the  scientific revolution counted for anything it was surely the idea that our theories and ideas should be tested against Nature and Reason – not by the whim or bias of some arbitrary social group. Before that revolution it was the Church that exercised social control over ideas. The post-modern advocates of a consensus epistemology are simply replacing that discredited system with a form of control based on an entrenched academia (which in turn can be “managed” by the ruling political class on whom the academics are dependent for funds).

Let’s hope Science can survive!


No consensus on “consensus”

Posted on timeOctober 19th, 2007 by userPali Gap    flagNo Comments

When scientists do “philosophy of science” (meta-science) they can often be very naive. Many science text books will include in their introduction a quick theory of knowledge. In the past the stock explanation for “how science works” might be a simple empiricism: “we start out by making some observations. From these we deduce a theory. Further observations confirming the theory then establish that the theory is true“.

It seems to me that one of the by-products of the global warming debate has been the addition of the idea of consensus into the theory of science. Given that the global warming debate is about highly politicised science, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a concept fundamental to political progress (consensus) gets assumed to be at the heart of scientific progress.

(Of course “Consensus” is also one of those Orwellian newspeak feel-good words which modern politicians deploy because it seems to make its own argument).

The alternative view, as wonderfully expounded by Karl Popper for example, stresses the adversarial nature of science. On this view we should (insofar as we wish to think scientifically) never cease to challenge the consensus, to find refutations and look for critical tests. The best theories will be the ones still standing after exposure to the most powerful scepticism. Those who seek to shield their ideas from criticism by, for example, invoking a “closed shop” of men in white coats who alone are qualified to speak on the issue are being profoundly un-scientific. You see this attitude from latter-day warming-mongers like this:

  • “You claim AGW is scientific fact because there is an overwhelming consensus. But what about scientist …..(insert name) who disagrees?” Ah, but he is in the wrong department/in the wrong field/ retired/has a great aunt whose third cousin believed in creationism (delete as appropriate)
  • “But what about this scientist……. (insert name). He is an expert in the field!” Ah, but although he makes these claims, they have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • “But what about this scientist………(insert name)? His work is published in…. (insert peer-reviewed journal)!” Ah, but those are the wrong peers and this is the wrong journal!

A wonderful critique of “consensus” has just been published by John Kay. Here are some things he has to say:

“Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests. Consensus is achieved when the outcome of discussion leaves everyone feeling they have been given enough of what they want. The processes of proper science could hardly be more different. The accomplished politician is a negotiator, a conciliator, finding agreement where none seemed to exist. The accomplished scientist is an original, an extremist, disrupting established patterns of thought. Good science involves perpetual, open debate, in which every objection is aired and dissents are sharpened and clarified, not smoothed over.”

And: “We do not say that there is a consensus over the second law of thermodynamics, a consensus that Paris is south of London or that two and two are four. We say that these are the way things are.”

And: “Peer review is a valuable part of the apparatus of scholarship, but carries a danger of establishing self-referential clubs that promote each other’s work.”

And: “The notion of a monolithic “science”, meaning what scientists say, is pernicious and the notion of “scientific consensus” actively so. The route to knowledge is transparency in disagreement and openness in debate. The route to truth is the pluralist expression of conflicting views in which, often not as quickly as we might like, good ideas drive out bad. There is no room in this process for any notion of “scientific consensus”.


John Kay is one of Britain’s leading economists


Who said that?

Posted on timeJune 1st, 2007 by userPali Gap    flagNo Comments

I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.

To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change.

I guess I would ask which human beings – where and when – are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.Michael Griffin

These comments are from a taped interview that was broadcast in the U.S. on Thursday May 31st 2007 on National Public Radio as reported here. A transcript is available here for $3.95.

Michael Griffin is the head of NASA


Orthodoxy heavyweights lose climate change debate

Posted on timeMarch 16th, 2007 by userPali Gap    flagNo Comments

For those who are naive about the consensus on global warming it should come as a big surprise that three of the top hitters for the climate change orthodoxy could be taken on – and beaten – in a public debate. Yet this happened just recently in a ticket-only event hosted by the Rosenkranz Foundation (March 14 2007)

The Motion: “Global warming is not a crisis

Prior to the debate the motion had only 30% support from the audience.

After the debate – 46% of the audience had been convinced that global warming was indeed not a crisis, while just 42 percent continued to believe it was a crisis.

For the orthodoxy there were some big hitters:

  • Gavin Schmidt ~ a climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space. Gavin is chief guru-in-residence at (the prime resource for those seeking to stock up on anti-contrarian weaponry)
  • Brenda Ekwurzel ~ works on the national climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Richard Somerville ~ University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Who could the so-called ‘contrarians’ field to match this fearsome firepower?

  • Richard Lindzen ~ Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Philip Stott ~ Professor Emeritus of Biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Michael Crichton ~ MD Harvard Medical School & Postdoctoral Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. (Also a writer and filmmaker…)

If you favour an epistemology that respects argument & reason, then the result of this debate is interesting and thought-provoking. But of course not ultimately especially conclusive.

On the other hand if you hold to an epistemology that offers no better than ‘knowledge by authority‘ you will see the debate as quite insignificant and indeed ill-advised: only the “priesthood” should make up the audience, and presumably only certain “approved priests” should be permitted to conduct the argument in any case. Attitudes such as this can be found on show at the inquest that followed the debate held at here as in this kind of comment:

Our experience and that of all the scientists we know is that public debates with sceptics or denialists are not useful at all

By “useful” one supposes this contributor means: “convenient to our authority“.

Or take this counsel against public debate:

You’re guaranteed a hostile audience and a rhetorical ambush of some sort, your mere presence legitimates the proceedings, and they can always count it as a win with some justification afterward

I would have thought that advocates of sound scientific theories (Boyle’s law, Archimedes’ Principle, Relativity) have no fear of public debate. On the contrary how could a public airing be other than entirely welcome and quite “un-threatening“?

So why plead a “special case” for AGW (anthropogenic global warming)?


I have a transcript of the debate in PDF (255KB) here.


Czech President breaks ranks

Posted on timeMarch 4th, 2007 by userPali Gap    flagNo Comments

They say our atmosphere is getting laden with CO2 – in fact I imagine it’s so thick you could cut it with a knife when Czech President Václav Klaus gets together with European and World leaders at their regular jamborees. According to Klaus:

“Global warming is a myth”

Other top-tier politicians do not express their global warming doubts because a whip of political correctness strangles their voice”

Environmentalism as a meta-physical ideology and as a world view has absolutely nothing to do with natural sciences or the climate itself”

“…as a scientifically inclined man, I know how to read science articles about these questions, e.g. about ice in Antarctica. I don’t have to be a climate scientist myself to read them. The papers I have read simply don’t lead to the conclusions we may see in the media”

…environmentalism is a new incarnation of contemporary leftism”

(These quotes are from from Luboš Motl’s blog)

It seems that Václav Klaus is planning a book soon and one chapter will be reserved for expressing his scepticism over climate change.

Go for it Václav!


RSS feeds: