A Dangerous Recipe for Science • Watts Up With That?

Reposted from Climate Etc.

Judith Curry

by Judith Curry

Politically-motivated manufacture of scientific consensus corrupts the scientific process and leads to poor policy decisions

An essay with excerpts from my new book Climate Uncertainty and Risk.

In the 21st century, humankind is facing a myriad of complex societal problems that are characterized by deep uncertainties, systemic risks and disagreements about values. Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic are prominent examples of such wicked problems. For such problems, the relevant science has become increasingly like litigation, where truth seeking has become secondary to politics and advocacy on behalf of a preferred policy solution.

How does politics influence the scientific process for societally relevant issues? Political bias influences research funding priorities, the scientific questions that are asked, how the findings are interpreted, what is cited, and what gets canonized.  Factual statements are filtered in assessment reports and by the media with an eye to downstream political use.

How does politics influence the behavior of scientists? There is pressure on scientists to support consensus positions, moral objectives and the relevant policies.  This pressure comes from universities and professional societies, scientists themselves who are activists, journalists and from federal funding agencies in terms of research funding priorities. Because evaluations by one’s colleagues are so central to success in academia, it is easy to induce fear of social sanctions for expressing the ideas that, though not necessarily shown to be factually or scientifically wrong, are widely unpopular.

Activist scientists use their privileged position to advance moral and political agendas. This political activism extends to the professional societies that publish journals and organize conferences. This activism has a gatekeeping effect on what gets published, who gets heard at conferences, and who receives professional recognition. Virtually all professional societies whose membership has any link to climate research have issued policy statements on climate change, urging action to eliminate fossil fuel emissions.

The most pernicious manifestation of the politicization of science is when politicians, advocacy groups, journalists, and activist scientists intimidate or otherwise attempt to silence scientists whose research is judged to interfere with their moral and political agendas.

Speaking consensus to power

A critical strategy in the politicization of science is the manufacture of a scientific consensus on politically important topics, such as climate change and Covid-19.  The UN climate consensus is used as an appeal to authority in the representation of scientific results as the basis for urgent policy making.  In effect, the UN has adopted a “speaking consensus to power” approach that sees uncertainty and dissent as problematic and attempts to mediate these into a consensus. The consensus-to-power strategy reflects a specific vision of how politics deals with scientific uncertainties.

There is a key difference between a “scientific consensus” and a “consensus of scientists.” When there is true scientific certainty, such as the earth orbiting the sun, we don’t need to talk about consensus. By contrast, a “consensus of scientists” represents a deliberate expression of collective judgment by a group of scientists, often at the official request of a government.

Institutionalized consensus building promotes groupthink, acting to confirm the consensus in a self-reinforcing way. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has worked for the past 40 years to establish a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.  As such, the IPCC consensus is a “manufactured consensus” arising from an intentional consensus building process. The IPCC consensus has become canonized socially through a political process, bypassing the long and complex scientific validation process as to whether the conclusions are actually true.

The flip side of a manufactured consensus is “denial.” Questioning the climate change narrative has become the ultimate form of heresy in the 21st century.  Virtually all academic climate scientists are within the so-called 97 percent consensus regarding the existence of a human impact on warming of the Earth’s climate. Which scientists are ostracized and labeled as deniers? Independent thinkers, who are not supportive of the IPCC consensus, are suspect. Any criticism of the IPCC can lead to ostracism. Failure to advocate for CO2 mitigation policies leads to suspicion. Even a preference for nuclear power over wind and solar power will get you called a denier. The most reliable way to get labeled as a denier is to associate in any way with so-called enemies of the climate consensus and their preferred policies—petroleum companies, conservative think tanks, or even the “wrong” political party.

Covid-19 provides a very interesting example of a manufactured consensus.  The consensus that COVID-19 had an entirely natural origin was established by two op-eds in early 2020—The Lancet in February and Nature Medicine in March. The Lancet op-ed stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The pronouncements in these op-eds effectively shut down inquiry into a possible origin as a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape to be out of the question or extremely unlikely.

The enormous gap between the actual state of knowledge in early 2020 and the confidence displayed in the two op-eds should have been obvious to anyone in the field of virology, or for that matter anyone with critical faculties. There were scientists from adjacent fields who said as much. The consensus wasn’t overturned until May 2021 with the publication of a lengthy article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that identified conflict of interests in the scientists writing the Lancet letter in hiding any links with the Wuhan lab. This article triggered a cascade of defections from scientists – the fake consensus was no longer enforceable.

What is concerning about this episode is not so much that a consensus was overturned, but that a fake consensus was so easily enforced for more than a year. A few scientists spoke up, but they were aggressively cancelled from social media. The vast majority of scientists who understood that there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the origins of the virus did not speak up. It was becoming increasingly clear that any virologist who challenged the community’s declared views risked being labeled as a heretic, being canceled on social media, and having their next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.  The ugly politics behind this fake consensus are only now being revealed.

Political and moral biases in a manufactured consensus can lead to widely accepted claims that reflect the scientific community’s blind spots more than they reflect justified scientific conclusions.  A manufactured consensus hampers scientific progress because of the questions that do not get asked and the investigations that are not undertaken.  Further, consensus enforcement interferes with the self-correcting nature of science via skepticism, which is a foundation of the scientific process.

Broken contract between science and policy makers

Speaking consensus to power acts to conceal uncertainties, ambiguities, dissent, and ignorance behind a scientific consensus. Greater openness about scientific uncertainties and ignorance, plus more transparency about dissent and disagreement, is needed provide policymakers with a more complete picture of policy-relevant science and its limitations.

A manufactured consensus arises from oversimplification of the problem, which leads to restricting the policy solution space and mistaken ideas that the problem can be controlled.

A manufactured consensus on a complex, wicked problem such as climate change or Covid-19 leads to the naivete of thinking that these are simple risks, and the hubris of thinking that we can control the risk.  Even beyond the technical issues, greater realism is needed about the uncertainties and politics underpinning the pursuit of control for wicked societal problems.

The pandemic illustrates that our tools for acting on a complex global problem—experts, precise scientific metrics, computer models, enforced restrictions— have resulted in much less than the desired quality of control. The global energy transition and worldwide transformations to sustainability are far more challenging than the global COVID-19 pandemic. The modernist paradigm of mastery, planning, and optimization is not appropriate for the wicked problems of the twenty-first century.

As a consequence of the exaggerated sense of knowledge and control surrounding climate and Covid-19 policies, some highly uncertain issues that should remain open for political debate are ignored in policy making. Premature foreclosure of scientific uncertainties and failure to consider ambiguities associated with wicked problems such as climate change and pandemics results in an invisible form of oppression that forecloses possible futures.

With regards to climate change, what is going on represents more than politically motivated consensus enforcement and cancel culture. Climate change has become a secular religion, rife with dogma, heretics and moral-tribal communities. The secular religion of climate change raises concerns that are far more fundamental than the risks of bad policy.  At risk is the fundamental virtues of the Scientific Revolution and the freedom to question authority.

The road ahead requires moving away from the consensus-enforcing and cancel culture approach of restricting dialogue surrounding complex societal issues such as climate change. We need to open up space for dissent and disagreement.  By acknowledging scientific uncertainties in the context of better risk management and decision- making frameworks, in combination with techno-optimism, there is a broad path forward for humanity to thrive in the twenty-first century and beyond.

This article includes excerpts from my new book, Climate Uncertainty and Risk.

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