There is plethora of problems one could point out about the reporting around climate change, many of which are a lot worse than that which is the subject of this blog post. However, the media often portrays the scientific consensus surrounding climate change as evidence. For example, the Guardian newspaper features a blog entitled “Climate Consensus – the 97%”, referring to the percentage of research agreeing with the idea that global warming is human made. The subject of scientific consensus may not have been communicated as effectively in other media outlets but I will outline in this post why I believe its use in this fashion is a deeply unscientific one.
The Ptolemaic, or geocentric, model of the solar system said that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system and the other planets wandered the heavens along epicyclical orbits. It may seem laughable to us now that people believed this was the case but the theory was mathematically beautiful; epicycles are used to describe the path of stars orbiting the centre of mass of a galaxy. More importantly, Ptolemy’s model agreed with observation. That’s what made it so persuasive. In fact, during ancient times the Ptolemaic model was the scientific consensus.
I can’t help but draw parallels between this historical example and the current consensus concerning climate change. A recent study published in the Institute of Physics journal says 97% of current research agrees humans are driving global warming. As an ardent believer in the science I am easily persuaded of the existence of anthropogenic climate change when hearing statistics such as these. It is taken, almost on faith, that when so many scientists agree it must, unequivocally, be the truth. It is the nature of science and the scientific method that a theory can never truly be proven to be true, we can only offer our best guess at how a certain process works.
Copernicus overturned hundreds of years of scientific hegemony by breaking with the assumption that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system. He said it was the Sun around which the rest of the planet traveled. When combined with early telescopic observations by Gallieo Galileli it was shown to more accurately reflect the nature of the solar system. Modern climate science could be stuck in a similar state of stagnation; a deeper truth could be out there waiting to be discovered. Hence the use of “the 97%” as evidence for climate change is a deeply unscientific argument. Opinion portrayed as fact.
Having personally reviewed some of the evidence I agree climate change is still our best theory to describe the unprecedented rise in temperatures. It’s pleasing to see that, at the time of writing, 79 of 197 signatories have ratified the Paris climate agreement. Instead, this post is a case for caution on the consensus concerning climate change. “Consensus as evidence” is a manifestation of a deeper problem with communicating science in the media from climate change to GM crops and vaccinations.
Keir Birchall is a student at the University of Nottingham in his last year of MSci Physics. When not doing Physics, he enjoys practicing photography and listening to live music.