Sep
13
2007

Obviously some new meaning of the word “consensus” with which I was not previously familiar*

Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.
Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.

Discussions of global warming almost always include some allusion to “scientific consensus” – the idea that many / most / almost all scientists agree that the warming is real, is caused by humans, and/or will have catastrophic effects on the planet.

There have always been two problems with this:

  1. “Consensus,” while a wonderful thing in politics, is meaningless is science. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with a statement; all that matters is whether or not the statement can be verified by independent observation or experimentation.
  2. The “consensus” is not as universal as has sometimes been presented. Scientific studies that proclaim “we’re all doomed!” naturally get a lot more attention than those that say “everything is normal.” Unfortunately, this imbalance of attention has led some people to conclude that the scientific argument is one-sided, when this is far from the case.

Yesterday The Hudson Institute issued a press release counting 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers disputing some aspect of the global warming hypothesis. According to the report,

More than 300 of the scientists found evidence that 1) a natural moderate 1,500-year climate cycle has produced more than a dozen global warmings similar to ours since the last Ice Age and/or that 2) our Modern Warming is linked strongly to variations in the sun's irradiance. … Other researchers found evidence that 3) sea levels are failing to rise importantly; 4) that our storms and droughts are becoming fewer and milder with this warming as they did during previous global warmings; 5) that human deaths will be reduced with warming because cold kills twice as many people as heat; and 6) that corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate.

What is The Hudson Institute?

Let’s not mince words: The Hudson Institute is not a scientific organization. It is a political think-tank; it supports conservative policies; and it receives funding from some major corporations. It is easy to imagine they simply reviewed thousands of published reports and simply picked the ones that happened to fit their world-view.

(Of course, Al Gore is not a scientist either; he has a liberal political agenda; and he gets money from political contributions. What’s more, the Clinton-Gore administration funded many of the reports he now uses to support his global warming hypotheses.)

None of that matters, though. The Hudson Institute isn’t claiming to have done any original scientific research. They are simply pointing to research that has already been done by other scientists which dispute some aspects of global warming, and thus undermine claims to “consensus.”

So, where do we go from here?

Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg has a new book out called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming He has recently been interviewed by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed caused by human activity. But he argues that the dangers have been over-hyped, and that “Anti-warming policies (like those of the Kyoto Protocol) that require energy taxes or other checks on economic dynamism are inefficient and even harmful.” For example:

Mr. Lomborg cites studies showing that by implementing Kyoto--at a cost of trillions of dollars--we might be able to achieve a 3% reduction in fluvial and coastal flooding damages. If we instead adopted smart flood policies--e.g., an end to public subsidies that encourage people to settle in flood plains, a shrewder use of levees--we could achieve a 91% reduction in damages at a fraction of the Kyoto cost.

So, if global warming demands a response, it must be a clear-headed one – both scientifically (using all the information at our disposal, and not creating an artificial “consensus”) and socially (making rational decisions based on costs and benefits). As the Journal article notes, “[r]ather than governments imposing costly energy taxes to little benefit, Mr. Lomborg argues, they should fund research programs aimed at finding breakthrough technologies.”

* Tip of the hat to Douglas Adams

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Jim's picture
Jim says:

Whether or not it is an issue, global warming is still a reality. I think it's one reality we should be more constructive about, just the way we treat our own bodies we should put the same emphasis on this little blue ball we call home. Screw the statistics, I believe its more a case of preservation than hypotheses. Take a look at the animal kingdom and how many species of wildlife that have died out because of human negligence, now it seems the cycle has simply found a new route. A route called global warming, do we wait to figure out the results of our actions or do we do something to preserve what we still can??

posted on Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:13am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Agreed! ALL the facts are NOT in, but a great amount of data has been gathered and the vast majority of scientists working in this field are in agreement. That is called consunsus and in science consensus is VERY important. Just ask a scientist. That is why large scientific organizations publish position statements. The notion that there is significant scientific debate and dissent on the issue of human caused climate change is simply innacurate. There will always be skeptics surrounding every topics. There will be "think tanks" and "dissenting experts." And science has been wrong in the past. We thought protein carried the genetic material for cells, but then found out DNA does. Should we now not believe that DNA carries the genetic material and abandon all the genetic diagnostics we use daily in medicine? Socitey, individuals, leaders and scientists have made dreadly mistakes in the past. Like ignoring Germany bombing, murdering and occupying all of Europe for more than 2 years before the Japanese Pearl Harbor bombings dragged us into WWII.

The facts are that the climate is warming. There is great data to suspect that increased human caused CO2 is the reason for climate warming. This warming is unnatural and rapid and the end results are undetermined. Lastly, we can decrease the amount of carbon emissions.

posted on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 12:16pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I'm sorry, but it is incorrect to state that "consensus is very important in science." Consensus is, in fact, meaningless. Observable, repeatable evidence is all that matters; all else is opinion. Your example proves my point -- the consensus at one time was that genetic information was carried by proteins. Evidence and experimentation proved the consensus wrong.

(The rest of your analogy, I confess, eludes me. We would only "not believe that DNA carries the genetic material" if we believed consensus was more important than evidence.)

500 peer-reviewed papers poking holes in different aspects of the global-warming model would also seem to contradict your assertion that there is no "significant scientific debate and dissent on the issue of human caused climate change."

posted on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 6:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I wonder why those folks from the Hudson Institute didn't publish that fine review of 500 peer review articles arguing against human caused climate change in a a peer reviewed journal. I am sure it was a fine, objective review and could have been submitted to an excellent scientific journal. Maybe a book format is just more lucrative.

posted on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 3:44pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

A peer-reviewed review of peer-reviewed publications published in a peer-reviewed publication? But then who would review it? ;-)

posted on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 6:32pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Reviews of peer reviewed studies are published by the thousands every year. These are called meta-analyses. Meta analyses are very important because by grouping several independent studies together the results are statistcally much more powerful. JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science and all major scientific journals ROUTINELY publish meta analyses. Wonder why this meta anaylsis was not published in such a journal....

posted on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 11:36pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

From what I gather it's not a meta-analysis. It's a listing of 500 articles addressing many different aspects of climate change. To be a true meta-analysis, one would need all the articles to address the same phenomenon.

posted on Tue, 10/09/2007 - 3:59pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Just wondering why anyone would write an entire blog about an article that couldn't get published in a peer reviewed journal and dismiss the thousands of articles on the same topic that do get published under much greater scrutiny. Is it about a river in Egypt?

posted on Fri, 10/12/2007 - 2:32pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I'm not sure whether the article in question was ever submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. The 500 studies cited by the article were all submitted to, and accepted by, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

As for "de Nile," we have discussed elsewhere how that word is used in an un-scientific attempt to stifle debate. Sadly, Gene is not easily stifled, as his co-workers will attest! ;-)

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 7:39am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

So is a list of a bunch of articles that one group interprets as evidence against human driven climate change valid? Does it deserve mention, validation, comment?

posted on Fri, 10/12/2007 - 8:20pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Yes. Those articles underwent peer review and were found, by working scientists, to be valid. They are part of the debate.

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 7:37am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The problem with the aboveargument is that it entirely relies on non-scientists at a political think-tank to interpret the significance of prior published science. I believe that there are some high quality peer reviewed papers that are published and some of those are likely cited in this prss release, but these broad conclusions that are made by NONScientists and published by the biased Hudson thinktank are not well supported with multiple studies. For example, their logic that cold weather in the 1500's killed more people than heat does today means that global warming is "safer" for humans is some extremely fuzzy logic, not taking into account the fact that although there were less than 500 million people on the entire Earth during he dark ages, today over one billion people live in current and potential flood zones and malaria has already spread more in higher elevation cities in Africa where it previosly did not exist. Take a look at the other "conclusions" these folks made in the article you refer to and then go to The LIbrary of Congress and see if you can pull up primary literature that really supports these claims.

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 9:10am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Not to pick on you, but this is an example of an argument that appears frequently in this and other global warming threads.

The Hudson Institute is an organization with a political agenda. It combed through the scientific literature and picked out papers that support its position. It presents these findings in a non-peer-reviewed form. This, apparently, is bad.

Al Gore is a politician, also with an agenda. He combed through the scientific literature and picked out papers that support his position. (Many of these studies were funded with federal money during the time when he was the Number Two man in the government.) He presents these findings in a non-peer-reviewed movie. This, apparently, is just fine.

Interesting...

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 4:50pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I understand that even today more people die of the cold than from the heat. If it is true that "cold weather in the 1500's killed more people than heat does today," when the world population was only 1/12th what it is now, then that simply amplifies the greater threat of cold weather.

The same article also makes the point that flooding is a greater threat in cold climates than in warm.

I do not need to look up the primary research. That's what peer reviewers do,

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 4:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

who do you think you are

posted on Sat, 10/13/2007 - 11:34am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I think I am Gene, though I may be mistaken. I am reasonably certain that I am not anonymous.

posted on Thu, 08/07/2008 - 10:43am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

There is NOTHING wrong with the Hudson Institute doing its own "reasearch" of prior published literature. I just do not feel that politically biased sources with no peer review should go on to be cited as strongly as you have done here. Note that I have not cited any politically based sources, including Al's film. I find it curious that your entire thread here is about this press release from a non-peer reviewed source, when the bulk of public scientific opinion and data sits on the other side of the argument.

As for "more deaths from heat than cold" this does not take into acount the second most common killer in the world, and oe of the top five killers in the world, infecting nearly one quarter of the global population. That would be infectious diarrhea and malaria, both of which only exists in tropics and subtropicalareas, both of which are worse in flood zones and malaria is nontransmissable in freezing areas. Public health experts and medical microbiologists are very concerned that as temperatures rise, areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, India and China will continue to see the rising incidence of these disease that have already started.

posted on Sun, 10/14/2007 - 9:13am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Dear Anonymous --

I apologize if I misunderstood your position. In my defense, there are lots of people posting on this blog anonymously, and I have no way of knowing which comments are yours. Certainly, many many people, here and elsewhere, are citing Gore's film in much stronger terms than I cite the Hudson Institute report.

We have a thread on the Gore film, so it seems reasonable that we also have one on the Hudson Institute report. As for the purpose of this post, we are often told that the scientific community has reached "consensus" on the issue of human-produced global warming. At various times I have heard that there is little disagreement, disagreement only from a handful of fringe characters, disagreement only about some minor details. Gore himself has used a fairly strong version of the "there is no dissent" argument. This report gives the lie to such pronouncements. Yes, the papers here may be in the minority. Yes, they may eventually be proven wrong. But clearly, they deserve consideration -- especially when some of the proposed responses to global warming threaten to be catastrophic in their own right.

As for malaria, it is simply not true that it is a tropical disease. It was once prevalent in the United States -- some of the worst outbreaks were right here in cold, swampy Michigan. It used to be common in Siberia! What happened is that wealthy northern countries embarked on public health campaigns and eradicated the mosquito that carries the disease.

posted on Sun, 10/14/2007 - 5:08pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Al has likely minimized the amount of dissent, but nevertheless, a very large majority of scientists are on his side of the argument. I agree with you that we should acknowledge other data and views> On the other hand it seems prudent to entrust the scientific leaders to read, decipher, condense and discard the appropriate findings and manuscripts and then to offer their expert opinion in the form of consensus statements in order to educate, warn and guide us non-scientists.

Indeed malaria was pushed outside of the US(mostly), and has existed in smaller numbers in cooler climates, but to a MUCH smaller extent. It is convenient that mosquitos die in the winter and this helps keep the disease at bay. The fact is that the largest killers worldwide are infectious disease (by far!) and the leaders of the pack flourish to a much greater extent in warmer climates. Increased flooding and warming are ligitimate concerns for infectious disease experts around the globe.

posted on Sun, 10/14/2007 - 11:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Science is not decided by majority vote.

Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, not only argues that there is no scientific consensus on global warming, but that the very notion of scientific consensus is dangerous, for reasons very similar to the ones you offer:

Claims of consensus relieve policy types, environmental advocates and politicians of any need to [understand the science]. Such claims also serve to intimidate the public and even scientists.... Secondly, given that the question of human attribution largely cannot be resolved, its use in promoting visions of disaster constitutes nothing so much as a bait-and-switch scam.

Infectious disease is the world's greatest killer. It thrives in poorer countries -- which today happen to be concentrated in the tropics. (Your wealthy tropical countries tend to have lower incidence of these diseases; your poorer temperate countries tend to have higher incidence.)

Journalist Mark Steyn cites a scientist who predicts one million people will die this century from droughts, hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters brought about by global warming. Meanwhile, over 2 million people die of diarrhea each year, mostly in poor, tropical countries. Steyn notes:

If you clobber the global economy [to fight global warming] and slow down Third World development, they'll continue to die — 2.2 to 5 million per year, or a minimum of 204 million by the year 2100.

So, the choice is ours:

A) a thriving global economy that contributes to climate change; kills about 10,000 people a year; but saves a million or more each year by raising them out of poverty so they can afford sanitation and health care;

or

B) a crippled economy; which will have no effect on global warming (perhaps slow it down, but no one expects reducing carbon emissions to lead to cooling); may save 10,000 lives a year by avoiding various natural disasters; but will condemn million more each year to die.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:40am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How does increasing efficiency and decreasing emmisions necessarily imply a crippled economy? The above argument makes a very large assumption that accepting that anthropogenic global warming is real means an immediate crippled economy. Is that fair?

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 11:31am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

You overstate my position -- or perhaps I did not state it clearly enough. Let me try again.

No, accepting that humans cause global warming does not mean the economy will immediately be crippled. It doesn't even necessarily mean that the economy will be crippled. However, a lot of people are arguing that accepting that humans cause global warming means the economy should be crippled. And this is what I object to.

It is estimated that fully implementing the Kyoto accord would cost trillions of dollars, would have no measurable impact on global temperatures, and, by severely hampering industry, would indeed cripple the world economy, leading to poverty, disease, and a host of other serious problems.

I am 100% in favor of increasing efficiency. I am 100% in favor of decreasing emissions. But I am 200% opposed to doing these things in such a way as to have disastrous effects on the people of the world.

This is all separate from the question of whether or not one should accept that humans are causing global warming, based on current evidence.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:20pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Like I said, "Increased flooding and warming are ligitimate concerns for infectious disease experts around the globe" because infectious diarrhea does kill more than 2 million people worldwide anually and noncholera vibrios flourish in warmer waters and cholera, e coli, salmonella and shigella all flourish in water supplies contaminated by fecal flora, which occurs more often in regions of flooding, such as Bangladesh, India, china, Indonesia, etc. Richard Lindzen is a decorated Physicist, not an epidemiologist.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 11:45am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Yes, and the other day someone was saying how we need to pay attention to what the NSA says about global warming because its members had produced all these fabulous medical advances.

Professor Lindzen is not just any physicist, but Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT. However, I did not quote him in support of any disease-related issues.

We agree: infectious diarrhea kills more than 2 million people a year, mostly in the tropics. Why? I argue it is because these countries are poor, and cannot afford Western-style health care and sanitation. If their economies are allowed to develop, they will reduce the number of these deaths. However, some of the more extreme responses to global warming (e.g. Kyoto) call for severe reductions in the world economy which would condemn these people to continue to die.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Scientists have begun looking at the effects of temperature variation on malaria incidence (Public Health Rep. 2003 Jan-Feb;118(1):65-71) and on salmoenllosis (Int J Biometeorol. 2007 Jul 11; [Epub ahead of print]) and Japanese encephalitis (J Infect. 2007 Aug 20; [Epub ahead of print]). These studies all show that warmer temperatures are positively associated with increasing incidence of these infections. This field is in its infancy, and these studies were done in Australia and the East, but the concern is valid and other countries are concerned and therefore studying the effects of climate change. It would be ridiculous to think we could predict all the changes in such a complex gloabl ecosystem, but the idea that climate change could effect the incidence of bacterial and viral infections is valid.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 11:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Why do you support increasing efficiency and decreasing emissions?

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:23pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Because that's the kind of wacky guy I am! ;-)

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

You did not cite Professor Lindzen regarding disease-related issues, but you should have when you brought up the ole' malaria in Michigan and Siberia arguement that Dr. Lindzen used in his op-ed piece, which was short-sighted and a half-truth.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 12:48pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I had learned of malaria's history in the north from an epidemiologist, and did not think to look to Professor Lindzen for corroboration. (Although, just because he is an expert in one field does not mean he can't cite experts in other fields accurately.)

I would disagree with the assessment that historical data is short-sighted or half-true. But that's just me.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 1:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What is half true is your above assertion that "As for malaria, it is simply not true that it is a tropical disease. It was once prevalent in the United States -- some of the worst outbreaks were right here in cold, swampy Michigan." Yes, it does and has existed outside the tropics, but the incidence of malaria and infectious diarrhea are both positively correlated with warmer temperatures. That is a fact. Nothing short. Your assertion and Professor Lindzen's claim is simply false.

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 2:58pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Professor Lindzen says:

Malaria, claimed as a byproduct of warming, was once common in Michigan and Siberia and remains common in Siberia--mosquitoes don't require tropical warmth.

This is also true. And not half, either.

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 4:19pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This is from the CDC website:
"Where malaria is found depends mainly on climatic factors such as temperature, humidity, and rainfalls. Malaria is transmitted in tropical and subtropical areas, where:
Anopheles mosquitoes can survive and multiply Malaria parasites can complete their growth cycle in the mosquitoes ("extrinsic incubation period").
Temperature is particularly critical. For example, at temperatures below 20°C (68°F), Plasmodium falciparum (which causes severe malaria) cannot complete its growth cycle in the Anopheles mosquito, and thus cannot be transmitted."

There is a very nice map with geographical distribution of malaria. Check it out at: http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/distribution_epi/distribution.htm

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 3:04pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I am familiar with the map. In fact, we are using it in an exhibit on infectious disease, opening here at The Science Museum next year. I have linked to it myself in our threads on malaria.

In 2004, the British medical journal The Lancet published “Global Warming and Malaria: A Call for Accuracy.” In it, nine leading malaria experts dispute the notion that global warming would lead to malaria spreading, calling the idea “misleading” and “display[ing] a lack of knowledge” of the subject. The full article does not appear to be available to non-subscribers, but the lengthy abstract can be found here.

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 4:27pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Paul Reiter, director of the Insects and Infectious Diseases Unit of the Institut Pasteur, Paris, has co-authored an article in The Wall Street Journal that states:

The concept of malaria as a "tropical" infection is nonsense. It is a disease of the poor. Alarmists in the richest countries peddle the notion that the increase in malaria in poor countries is due to global warming and that this will eventually cause malaria to spread to areas that were "previously malaria free." That's a misrepresentation of the facts and disingenuous when packaged with opposition to the cheapest and best insecticide to combat malaria – DDT.

posted on Tue, 04/15/2008 - 10:29am
Rico's picture
Rico says:

Don't know if this relates, but I just wanted to point out that we are experiencing one of the largest global species die-offs, or extinctions, in history. While I am not claiming it to be THE BIGGEST, it ranks in the top 10. And you may notice that the theories surrounding the other mass extinctions directly involve changes to the environment. You could argue that the animals are that are expiring are doing so because of human encroachment on their habitats and not change in the climate, and not because of man made global warming, but it's the same thing really.

posted on Wed, 12/26/2007 - 10:00pm

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