Hearing – Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method
US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
March 29, 2017
Motivated by the mandate from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the climate community has prematurely elevated a scientific hypothesis on human-caused climate change to a ruling theory through claims of a consensus.
• Premature theories enforced by an explicit consensus building process harm scientific progress because of the questions that don’t get asked and the investigations that aren’t undertaken. As a result, we lack the kinds of information to more broadly understand climate variability and societal vulnerabilities.
• Challenges to climate research have been exacerbated by:
o Unreasonable expectations from policy makers
o Scientists who are playing power politics with their expertise and trying to silence scientific disagreement through denigrating scientist who do not agree with them
o Professional societies that oversee peer review in professional journals are writing policy statements endorsing the consensus and advocating for specific policies
• Policymakers bear the responsibility of the mandate that they give to panels of scientific experts. The UNFCCC framed the climate change problem too narrowly and demanded of the IPCC too much precision – where complexity, chaos, disagreement and the level of current understanding resists such precision.
• A more disciplined logic is needed in the climate change assessment process that identifies the most
important uncertainties and introduces a more objective assessment of confidence levels.
‘Scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms – science does not prove anything. Scientists have a vision of reality that is the best they have found so far, and there may be substantial disagreement among individual scientists. Science works just fine when there is more than one hypothesis to explain something – in fact, disagreement spurs scientific progress through creative tension and efforts to resolve the
How scientists fool themselves
Prior to 2010, I accepted and supported the consensus conclusions from the Assessment Reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – I felt that this was the responsible thing to do. However, following the revelations of ClimateGate,4 I realized that I had fallen victim to ‘groupthink’ – a pattern of thought characterized by conformity to group values and the manufacture of
consensus that results in self-deception. I undertook an investigation into the ways that scientists can fool themselves, by examining deceptions from other fields of science and reading analyses from the perspectives of psychology and the philosophy and sociology of science
Premature theories and manufactured consensus
A scientific argument can evolve prematurely into a ruling theory if cultural forces are sufficiently strong and aligned in the same direction. Science policy expert Daniel Sarewitz describes the process: “Like a magnetic field that pulls iron filings into alignment, a powerful cultural belief is aligning multiple sources of scientific bias in the same direction. The belief is that progress in science means the continual production of positive findings. All involved benefit from positive results, and from the appearance of progress. Scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered.”
I have argued that cognitive biases in the context of the IPCC’s consensus building process surrounding human-caused climate change have resulted in the consensus becoming increasingly confirmed in a selfreinforcing way, to the detriment of the scientific process.