COLUMN: Scientific consensus cause for concern

Appeal to Reason

By Ron Heusen

I regularly hear from people who condescendingly scoff at the science around human-caused climate change and defend their position by stating, “The science community can’t even agree and argue about it regularly.”

The process that moves scientific opinion forward can admittedly be foreign to the average person. A doctoral candidate who has defended his or her thesis before a panel understands, but experience separates them from us.

A scientist presenting a new paper goes through a process called peer review, where qualified people in the relevant field make recommendations as to the suitability or acceptance of a paper for publication.

Peer reviews, especially when the paper is complicated, can be very rigorous and time consuming and during the process the presenting scientist expects questions that challenge the veracity, accuracy and precision of the paper.

Science requires peer review to keep science honest and because nobody else is qualified to do it, but the process does raise some issues.

The non-science community may misinterpret normal scientific debate and questions as controversial disagreement, which can mistakenly cast doubt around the credibility of the paper and the science that supports it.

The peer review process can be very slow and tedious as questions and clarification occurs, which to the uninitiated observer gives the appearance of a group incapable of agreement.

Furthermore, when the submitting scientist picks the peer(s) doing the review, it exposes the process to accusations of being an elitist filter designed to keep out dissenting opinion, when in reality there may only be a few specialized scientists capable of understanding the paper.

In addition, consensus creeps into peer reviews and resulting scientific positions, a concern when consensus becomes a function of acceptance of the lowest common denominator.

The science of global warming and climate change has gone, and continues to go through, peer reviews. As observers, we must resist assuming the scientific questions of peers are a repudiation of the facts, and understand questions are a normal verification of data, methodology and supporting evidence.

While this process occurs, we must vigilantly resist self-serving interests who purposely attempt to discredit the science of global warming by representing peer questions as dissention and doubt about the science.

We must focus less on the process and more on what has become the overwhelming final consensus of every scientific body of national or international repute; that human activities are changing our climate and we have to change our behavior.

The sheer weight of the global scientific base in agreement gives the science supporting anthropogenic global warming and climate change, significant reliability.

If there is one apprehension I have, it resides in consensus itself. How do panels resist taking the safest, most easily defended position?  The position that does not risk reputations, elicit accusations of confirmation bias or result in public rejection?

If the least contentious scientific thresholds surrounding climate change are what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change based consensus on, then anthropogenic influences on climate may be worse than we think and we may have even less time to respond.

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Retired Nanaimo resident Ron Heusen writes every second week. He can be reached through the News Bulletin at editor@nanaimobulletin.com.