A Way of Knowing: Scientific Consensus and Global Warming

Is it prudent to take the risk that 99 percent of scientists could be wrong about climate change?


| November 18, 2009



Fossil fuel coal

Ninety-nine percent of the men and women who publish in refereed journals on climate have concluded that humans burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — is the major source of the carbon dioxide increase in the Earth’s atmosphere.


ISTOCKPHOTO/ANDY OLSEN

One of the first lessons a scientist learns is that 100 percent agreement on scientific matters is rare. And a consensus can be reversed. But that reversal won’t come from talk radio or TV pundits. It will come from those who publish under the stringent demands of scientific journals.

It is scientists’ right to disagree with the consensus in their field. I could even argue that it sometimes is their obligation. There are a small number of medical researchers who do not believe the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS. One is on the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley. I have a friend who knows him and who thinks his argument plausible. If he wants to overturn the dominant idea with data, power to him.

However, I don’t yet want a blood transfusion from someone who authorities tell me is carrying the HIV virus. I’ll stick with the overwhelming consensus of most scientists.

Which brings me to my most important message. I’m a geneticist, not a climatologist, and have no training in that discipline. But, because I hold to a scientific way of knowing, I accept the view of 99 percent of the men and women who publish in refereed journals on climate. What have they concluded? That humans burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — is the major source of the carbon dioxide increase in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is causing the planet to heat up, and for our health, and the planet’s, we must cut our fossil fuel consumption to 20 percent of what it is now long before century’s end.

Unfortunately, for purported balance, the media give disproportionate time to the 1 percent who are not convinced. But there are 2,000 scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, and among them the consensus is overwhelming.

I used to ask my students whether they believed that Earth went around the sun or if the sun went around Earth. Of course, they all believed the former. I would then ask them why they believed that and whether they ever stopped to check it out for themselves. They hadn’t. Few people have in our time.





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