The scientific consensus

"[The] planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612. This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909. On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said.... Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report."

―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince" [1]

"If 75 doctors are telling you that you have cancer and the other two say it is a conspiracy, who do you believe?"

―Franny Armstrong, film director [2]

Franny Armstrong's quote might not be very worthy of attention if it were not representative of a widespread argument that there is alleged agreement among scientists that man-made global warming is occurring. There are many errors in the quote, not the least of which is that we never claimed that it is a conspiracy. Certainly there are some skeptics who think it is a conspiracy, some skeptics who think it is stupidity, some who think both, some who think that human society is chaotic and therefore you can't find exact reasons for everything, and so on. Dividing scentists into global warming alarmists and conspiracy theorists means that you cannot distinguish shades of grey.

There are several problems with the consensus argument. The first one is that it is difficult to define what consensus means and to verify whether such consensus exists. The media often claim about alleged consensus, but if you look carefully, they don't explain why they think that there is consensus.

If by "consensus" we mean that almost all organisations who have stated an opinion agree that man-made global warming is occuring, then, yes, there may be consensus. This, however, is not the right way to define consensus. We'd need to examine a good number of these organisations, and check who their members are and what is the process by which the decision for the stating of the opinion was reached. Did the members vote? How were they invited to vote and how many responded? Was the decision made with a 90% majority? Or maybe only 51%? Or was it maybe an elected board who decided? Organisations are often driven more by politics than by science, and when we say that a specific organisation has a specific opinion, it is quite difficult to know what this means.

Therefore, rather than looking at organisations, we'd better look at individuals. Again, there are problems, and many opinions have been heard on whether individual scientists agree. A recent study by Doran and Zimmerman [3] found that there is consensus, and if you go and read it you'll see the problems for yourself. Doran and Zimmerman seem to have done careful work and have presented it nicely, but it is still questionable. For example, the most important question of their questionnaire is "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" Despite a number of controversial assumptions that this question contains ("significant contributing factor" is quite vague, and "changing mean global temperatures" reveals a certain way of thinking that is not necessarily correct; we explain both those in the epilogue), we could probably reply "yes" (with a sidenote that this is not our scientific response, but the closest of the three choices the questionnaire gives us). Still, this does not prove anything. One could think that human activity is a "significant contributing factor" in the alteration of the landscape; this does not necessarily mean that he'd think that the landscape is being destroyed. This question is only one of the problems in the study; we can see many more.

The difficulty in defining and measuring consensus, and the heated discussions about whether consensus exist, tempt us to make this provoking question: Is there scientific consensus that there is scientific consensus? You may think that this is a silly question, and we agree, but if you think that you are unqualified to judge things by yourself and therefore you can only count scientists as if they were casting votes, then you have a problem: counting them is quite difficult, and, similarly, you are probably unqualified to judge the counting, and you will be trapped in our silly question.

The second problem with the consensus argument stems from the first. Since consensus is difficult to define and estimate, if you use it as an argument then everyone believes in something simply because everyone else believes so. What's more, there is a conscious effort to silence dissenting opinions. Margaret Beckett, former UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that climate change skeptics should be denied media air time [4], and Franny Armstrong has suggested the same [2]. If you deny media air time to the skeptics, you can certainly create any consensus impression you want. What is even sadder is that this is not anything new; the way they put it makes it show as if all these years there has been sufficient debate, and that now the science is allegedly settled; but not only is science not settled, not only denying air time to the skeptics would be wrong even if the science had been settled, but such statements about stifling skepticism have been made since 1989, if not earlier [5].

The final problem with the consensus argument is that science is not democratic. If one hundred thousand scientists believe something and one scientist demonstrates that the something is wrong, then the something is wrong. In the previous chapters we've explained that the man-made climate change hypothesis is unfounded, and even if all other scientists in the world disagreed, we'd still hold to it. Luckily we are not alone.

Unfortunately, in practice science is strongly affected by politics. The quote from the Little Prince illustrates this reality, and people besides Antoine de Saint-Exupéry have explained the problems in more detail. Donald Miller [6] is good reading, explaining how the research funding system works, and the devastating way in which it pushes scientists from skepticism, which is the essential quality of a good scientist, to conformance. More than 25 years ago, J. Scott Armstrong [7] explained that, in order to be successful in publishing papers, scientists should not pick important problems, not challenge existing beliefs, not obtain surprising results, not use simple methods, not fully disclose how they reached their results, and not write clearly. Leading scientific journals such as Science and Nature refuse to publish dissenting opinions [8]. There are also scientific fraud incidents. In 2006, what had been thought to be groundbreaking research results in biotechnology were found to be entirely fabricated [9]. An investigation is ongoing about serious allegations of data fabrication by a well-known climate scientist, and serious allegations of cover-up by his university [10]. People who work in academia are painfully aware that these are not isolated events, but the tip of the iceberg of the dominant science culture today: push for publications, push for image, do favours to colleagues and expect favours from them, and neglect science ethics. See also Lindzen's paper [11] for a more in-depth investigation of these problems. (Update: [12])

In conclusion, rather than arguing about whether there is consensus (or consensus of consensus), we'd spend our time much better if we carefully looked into these problems, and tried to create and implement the groundbreaking policies needed to reverse the sad fact that science, to a large extent, has been reduced to business and politics.

Next: The pre-emptive action


[1]Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince", translated by Katherine Woods, Gallimard, 1943.
[2](1, 2) Sammy Wilson, "Condemnation over climate change 'doubt'"; available at, accessed on 2009-04-06.
[3]Peter T. Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, "Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change", Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 90(3), January 2009; available at, accessed on 2009-04-21.
[4]Brendan O'Neill, "A climate of censorship", The Guardian, November 2006;
[5]Richard S. Lindzen, “Some coolness concerning global warming”, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 71(3), pp. 288-299, 1990; available at, accessed on 2009-04-07.
[6]Donald W. Miller, Jr., "The government grant system: inhibitor of truth and innovation?", Journal of information ethics, 16(1), Spring 2007; available at, accessed on 2009-04-20.
[7]J. Scott Armstrong, "Barriers to Scientific Contributions: The Author's Formula", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5, pp. 197-199, June 1982; available at, accessed on
[8]Robert Matthews, "Leading scientific journals 'are censoring debate on global warming'", The Sunday Telegraph, 1 May 2005; available at, accessed on 2009-08-01.
[9]Science Editorial Statement Concerning Stem Cell Manuscripts by Woo Suk Hwang, et al., 12 January 2006;, accessed on 2009-09-25.
[10]Douglas Keenan, "Remarks on the fraud allegation against some climatic research of Wei-Chyung Wang"; available at, accessed on 2009-04-21.
[11]Richard S. Lindzen, "Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?", 29 November 2008; available at, accessed on 2009-09-18.



This web site, and therefore the paragraph about the politicization of science, was published on 17 November 2009, just two days before the scandal that became known as Climategate broke out. If you read the paragraph again, you'll see that the revelations would hardly surprise us (although we did find them illuminating); we were already painfully aware of what's going on in the scientific community. It is vitally important to understand that Climategate is not an isolated case either, but the tip of the iceberg.

At the time of this writing, information about Climategate is still scattered around the web and changing fast; a possible starting point is the Wikipedia article,

28 November 2009