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Consensus is actually a real part of science

9_c365-2-lOne of the many unfortunate aspects of arguments over climate change is that it’s where many people come across the idea of a scientific consensus. Just as unfortunately, their first exposure tends to be in the form of shouted sound bites: “But there’s a consensus!” “Consensus has no place in science!”

Lost in the shouting is the fact that consensus plays several key roles in the process of science. In light of all the consensus choruses, it’s probably time to step back and examine its importance and why it’s a central part of the scientific process. And only after that is it possible to take a look at consensus and climate change.

Standards of evidence

Fiction author Michael Crichton probably started the backlash against the idea of consensus in science. Crichton was rather notable for doubting the conclusions of climate scientists—he wrote an entire book in which they were the villains—so it’s fair to say he wasn’t thrilled when the field reached a consensus. Still, it’s worth looking at what he said, if only because it’s so painfully misguided:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results.

Reproducible results are absolutely relevant. What Crichton is missing is how we decide that those results are significant and how one investigator goes about convincing everyone that he or she happens to be right. This comes down to what the scientific community as a whole accepts as evidence.

Click here to read more from this September 4, 2014 ars technica article by John Timmer.

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