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Scientific Consensus, Take It Or Leave It

I read a very interesting study that came out recently that tries to explain why people accept some scientific data and reject other even though the quality of the data is similar.  Before I get into the study let me set the stage and throw in my opinion.

Are you hot or cold to the idea of global warming?  Regardless of increasing evidence that supports the idea that humans have an effect on the rising global temperature, doubt is steadily growing around this topic.  Why?  We have discussed global warming on my podcast many times, often inciting emails from some concerned/aggravated listeners.  Some have written in arguing the point that the “global consensus” is either wrong or misrepresented.  Others believe in global warming but don’t agree with man’s influence on it.  These emails reminded me of similarly toned emails from anti-vax believers.  In the face of a mountain of legitimate data and the vast majority of experts in the field agreeing, some people just don’t buy it. 

My logic works as follows. I don’t claim to be an expert on any topic I discuss on the show or in person.  I am, like most people, a reader and regurgitator of other peoples work.  I vet what I read as best I can and only after time and consideration (this greatly varies depending on the claim) do I consciously let things become truth to me.  I happily change what I consider truth when information is improved.  Even when I really relate to a longtime belief if better information comes my way I am willing and capable of changing my mind. This happens often enough.  We as skeptics relate to this concept since its part of the scientific process.  When I read about topics like the proven benefits of vaccination, who am I to question the overwhelming consensus that it works? I am not a researcher, scientist, scholar or teacher.  I am a reader, a thinker, a fan of science and what it teaches us. When there’s a scientific consensus about a topic, my trust in the data and conclusions drawn from that data are as high as it gets. 

I of course am not saying that we should not question things.  That’s all I do..sometimes too much.  But when we get down to it, if we don’t trust the leading scientific consensus what can we trust?  Why then would I believe the bulk of most studies on any particular topic especially when the actually studies conducted could be as low as one?  The holy grail of evidence to a guy like me is scientific consensus.  I’ve trusted science and engineering so much I let a machine fly me to 42,000 feet.  All this trust without once reading a study on jet propulsion.

An organization called The Cultural Cognition Project  which is “a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs”, recently designed a study that tests the hypothesis that cultural cognition shapes perceptions of scientific consensus.  From the above website, cultural cognition “…refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”

This study attempts to explain why people accept some information and reject other.  They have studied the perception of risk in varied topics ranging from climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes and Nanotechnology . 

The study concluded the following:

“…scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute on such issues not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe. Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept as a result of a cultural availability effect that influences how readily they can recall instances of expert endorsement of those positions.”

It seems from this study that there indeed is measurable causation.  I don’t see me using this study in a future argument with someone I’m crossing swords with but it does show how affected we are by our culture.  I would be fascinated to see an example of this in effect in my own beliefs.

9 comments to Scientific Consensus, Take It Or Leave It

  • irishjazz

    Interesting study in that is suggests that people are, in effect, self-inoculated against ideas that contradict their core beliefs.

    Then again the scientific consensus plus 50 years often (but certainly not always) turns out to be a quaint misunderstanding. It’s best if confidence doesn’t calcify into certainty.

  • I’m interested in how you arrived at the conclusion that there is a scientific consensus about global warming. I’ve never seen the claim supported by evidence, and people making the claim don’t always agree on what the consensus is.

  • skyguym42

    —-I would be fascinated to see an example of this in effect in my own beliefs.—-

    I would venture to say that lumping everyone who is beginning to wonder about the data on AGW in with the Antivaxxers might possibly be an example. You seem so comfortable with anything from CRU that you let them slide in ways you wouldn’t and don’t let others slide, and likely that is a cultural effect.

    I was hot on AGW, but am cooling somewhat. I’ve not changed sides, but I am now less confident. I realize that in SGU’s eyes, I’m now no different than a Holocaust denier or Jenny McCarthy, but that’s SGU’s classification, and while unfortunate, will not kill me.

    The problem to me is that the data UPON WHICH loads of these other studies were based now seems to have been less carefully collected, less accurately processed, and seems to have said exactly what the researchers had already hung their reputations on it saying.

    I work with statisticians every day, and a number of them who were quite convinced about AGW and its extent are now less so having read the emails between the programmer and the scientists. At the very least, the programmer felt very little confidence in the meaningfulness of the data. This is only a tiny bobble to you, but as an engineer, it’s a bright red warning flag to me.

    There is indeed a mountain of other studies, but how many used CRU’s data as a base? If only a few, then this will blow over and I will regain my confidence. But I haven’t been able to find out. When I’ve asked, I’ve gotten the “well, there’s another denier trying to attack these brilliant saintly scientists” treatment.

    The tone of the emails was enough for me to become suspicious. Their defensiveness smells funny, and they seem to be reacting in exactly the way people do when they’ve been caught fudging data. They have made statements that seemed to indicate they were quite capable of “pious fraud” in order to get action.

    For the record, I believe that AGW is real, but I now have much less confidence in the extent or speed of the effects. That is an important point, as it bears on whether we should be spending our effort to stop AGW (and if CRU is right, it’s probably already too late) or if we need to be working on adaptation to it.

    I have doubts I didn’t have before after hearing the quite unscientific and fundamentalist tone with which these people talked about their work.

    Sad to be saying goodbye to SGU, but I’m sure you won’t miss an unreasoning dolt like me. Rebecca, don’t forget to insult me.

  • Locutusbrg

    When you look at giant complicated issues like global warming it is the complexity and size that is the major issue. Human history tells us that unpleasant truths real or not are often dissmised until a solution is produced. It is not new issue in the “Modern Age”. Over the last 3000 years ago there was “Concensus” in supposedly supported facts: The earth as the center of the universe, miasma caused disease, the flu was caused by H.influezae, pluto is a planet, from 1967-1978 global cooling… Etc. People get a generilzed sense that a majority concensus does not always equal accuracy. Most people are unwilling or unable to evaulate the evidence themselves. So it is an issue of trust. Add in a short lifespan and a myopic view of the universe it is very easy for confirmation bias to rule your feelings on a matter. I personally have tried to learn as much about climate change as a non-expert possibly can. When I examine the evidence I find global warming undeniable. I still have resevations about the degree of impact CO2 directly has. The current solutions are laughable, impractical, improbable, and for the most part useless. Convincing people to change to a painful solution that might work, with visible problems, and unpredictable results will always be received poorly. So I am a global warming believer, yet the polical and environmentalist leaders in my opinion are on the wrong track trying to force carbon restrictions. So I do not support those initatives. People like me fight the endless screaming for pointless restrictions carbon budgets and zero net sum energy solutions. The vocal minority percieve this as global warming deniers or right wing nuts. This attack tends to make people into idologes. This is a example of a behavior that makes humans become more resistant to changing their ideas. The more you are challenged the more you become self convinvced. So how do you solve it. As stated previously one of the best way is to present the problem clearly with a simple solution. You will not turn ideologes with that approach but you will gain a majority. If you lack a solution you will always meet resistance froma majority. If the solution is very difficult or unwieldy same problem. Basically ask him for the keys of his SUV to save the planet and that response is pretty universal. Ask a third world citizen to stay in his mud hut without electricity to save some polar bears and you will get the same response. Humans are much more predictable than the weather. We like to think we are very altruistic when in fact we are not.

  • John Draeger

    Great post Jay. You’re right, the consensus of experts in a particular field of science is the best source of trustworthy information we can get.

    The availability heuristic, cognitive dissonance theory, and the confirmation bias are all involved when people believe things that aren’t supported by the majority of the objective scientific evidence. A great discussion of this was on the last For Good Reason podcast with Carol Tavris, http://www.forgoodreason.org/carol_tavris_mistakes_were_made

  • Nacreous

    @ Damned Skeptic on Feb 24, 2010
    “I’m interested in how you arrived at the conclusion that there is a scientific consensus about global warming. I’ve never seen the claim supported by evidence, and people making the claim don’t always agree on what the consensus is.”




  • Nacreous,
    Thanks for the links, looks like I’ve got some reading to do.

  • Nacreous,
    Interesting. The Bray/Storch survey says “… the data seems to suggest, the
    matter is far from being settled in the scientific arena” which contradicts the other two. I’ll probably have more thoughts on the links, but I’ll post them to my own blog since it’s likely to take me awhile.

  • Hoopenstein

    Regardless of increasing evidence that supports the idea that humans have an effect on the rising global temperature…

    I don’t claim to be an expert

    That’s good, because if any evidence is increasing it’s to the contrary.

    It’s gone from “the science is settled, everyone panic” to “ok so we might’ve exaggerated a little bit here and there, but it’s still settled” to “we might be not be right about this, but what if we are?”

    There may still be legs in the theory, albeit reined in considerably, but the movement as an alternative religion peaked two years ago and is unlikely to ever regain political traction.

    Unless, of course, they succeed in actually getting one prediction right, rather than try to retrofit weather events into a theory after the fact.

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