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Politics needs consensus, science needs debate

October 24th, 2016

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In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created under the United Nations to demonstrate “scientific consensus” on greenhouse-warming theory so that political leaders would agree to take the expensive actions necessary to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Twenty-seven years later, this strategy led successfully to the Paris Agreement on December 12, 2015, when representatives from 195 nations agreed to spend trillions of dollars to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. If greenhouse-gas theory is correct, these actions will be seen in hindsight as heroic. But what if we reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and have no effect reducing global warming?

The IPCC was not formed to look for the most likely cause of global warming—it was formed to demonstrate consensus around one particular theory. We have learned a lot since 1988. Climate models have not predicted temperatures correctly for the past 18 years. Greenhouse-gases do not appear to absorb enough heat to explain observed global warming. Perhaps most damning, greenhouse-warming theory has never been shown by experiments in the laboratory or in nature to actually cause the observed warming. How could we be on the verge of spending more than $1500 for every man, woman, and child on Earth without having demonstrated by a simple experiment that greenhouse-warming theory actually works? Meanwhile thousands of peer-reviewed papers, summarized by the IPCC, try valiantly to fit the square peg of greenhouse-warming theory into the round hole of reality.

The problem is that science is not done by consensus—it is not even done by popular vote. Michael Crichton, most famous for writing science fiction novels, was a very bright fellow who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in biological anthropology and earned an MD from Harvard medical school. In a talk at Caltech in 2003, Crichton said:

“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.”

“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.”

Science is done by observation, careful analysis, and thoughtful discussion of new ideas. Max Planck, one of the fathers of modern physics, wrote in 1936,

“new scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.”

Most scientists have 101 reasons why any new idea must be wrong—why the current consensus must be right. Nurturing new ideas takes patient and thoughtful analysis of supporting and conflicting data. It takes time to flesh out a new idea before it can stand up under major scrutiny. Most new ideas turn out not to be correct, but as the very creative Linus Pauling said, “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

Has the drive for political consensus, corrupted the scientific process? Are we sure that greenhouse-warming theory is correct? All it takes to defend the consensus is a simple experiment that has never been done successfully. That is why I am offering to pay $10,000 from my children’s inheritance to the first person who can demonstrate experimentally that observed increases in greenhouse gases can actually explain global warming observed since 1970. Don’t you think we should do this inexpensive experiment before spending trillions?

Science is not done by consensus. Quality science is done by careful observation and thoughtful debate.

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