Consensus as the New Heresy

Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf, William Connolley, and Raymond Bradley

Andy Revkin, who’s one of the best journalists on the climate beat, wrote a curious piece in the NY Times discussing the ‘middle stance’ of the climate debate. It’s nice to see news pieces on climate that aren’t breathless accounts of a new breakthough and that take the time to point out that the vast majority of relevant scientists take climate change extremely seriously. To that extent, the message of this piece was a welcome one. The curious part, however, was the thread running through the piece that this middle ground is only now emerging, and even curiouser, that this middle ground can be characterized as representing some sort of ‘heresy’.

Heresy, is commonly defined as ‘an opinion or doctrine at variance with the official or orthodox position’. So where does this idea come from, and why is it now ‘emerging’?

It has often been remarked upon that scientists and academics make their reputations by breaking down orthodoxies and by challenging previously widespread assumptions (but it will only work out well if they’re right of course!). Nobody makes much of a name for themselves by agreeing with all previous thinking. Indeed, to be thought of as a radical new thinker, one must assume the role of the heretic, challenging the stale orthodoxies of the past. And given some of the scientific iconoclasts in our pantheon (Galileo, Einstein, Wegner etc.), we see this as a completely natural state of affairs.

However, there is a big difference between really challenging the majority opinion and simply stating that you are. We are all often ‘contrary’, but here at RC we also generally find ourselves firmly in the mainstream on many of the central scientific points: e.g., our views on the most probable value of the climate sensitivity (around 3C), the likelihood of the imminent Gulf Stream reversal (zero), or the possibility of Venusian-style runaway greenhouse effect happening this side of a billion years (extremely small). That these positions are in line with conclusions drawn by IPCC is no surprise, because those reports result from intense discussion and peer-review involving a large fraction of the community, thus they reflect the views of the climate science community very well. Most scientists present these widely shared conclusions when speaking to the public, and where their own views diverge from it, they make it clear that these are their own conclusions rather than a generally accepted view.

In reading about the new ‘heretics’ then, one might have expected that associated with them would be statements that would contradict IPCC or that we (as mainstream scientists who do not claim to be heretics) would otherwise find objectionable. So let’s consider the specific tenets of the ‘new heresy’ mentioned in the article:

Page 1 of 3 | Next page