A new paper by Brent Ranalli looks at the concept of scientific consensus, how such consensuses are used by the public, and whether they can be trusted. In particular Ranalli is concerned with what he calls a "hard-won" consensus.
Here is the abstract.
What makes a consensus among scientists credible and convincing? This paper introduces the notion of a “hard-won” consensus and uses examples from recent debates over climate change science to show that this heuristic standard for evaluating the quality of a consensus is widely shared. The extent to which a consensus is “hard won” can be understood to depend on the personal qualities of the participating experts; the article demonstrates the continuing utility of the norms of modern science introduced by Robert K. Merton by showing that individuals on both sides of the climate science debate rely intuitively on Mertonian ideas—interpreted in terms of character—to frame their arguments.
The paper packs a lot in but could be read as a defence of those who would question the consensus on global warming. Ranalli notes that both sides of the climate debate share a common set of assumptions about what makes a consensus reliable, for example:
Consider that Lawrence Solomon (2010) eloquently argues for the authority of scientific experts in a defense of climate skepticism—and that Joseph Romm (2008) advances arguments almost identical to Crichton’s in a rebuttal of climate skepticism. This paper is a study of arguments, and one of its goals is to demonstrate that even as they square off in vehement disagreement over scientific theories and facts, those who participate in the climate debates share a common stock of flexible rhetorical strategies and a common stock of ideas about the proper working of science. Specific ideas about what makes a consensus “hard won,” and therefore likely to be reliable, are widely shared on both sides.
As well as the role of experts, Ranalli's common ground includes the role of bias, groupthink and self-interest in forming (and undermining) consensus and also of the importance of the character of scientists. This, he suggests, might lead to some interesting places:
One outcome is an appreciation of the extent of common ground they share: in particular, common standards for judging the behavior and character of scientists. Thus it would be profoundly wrong for science communicators and climate change policy advocates to assume that the bulk of climate skeptics are “antiscience.” Even though they may at times hold expertise in contempt, many skeptics have a strong commitment to the norms of science. At times this commitment seems even more puritanical than that of the scientific establishment itself: as seen, for example, in skeptics’ demands for more inclusive participation (universalism) and more open sharing of data and methods (communalism).
Half of the paper is taken up with a survey of familiar parts of the climate debate, taking in the Hockey Stick story, Climategate, the inquiries and the roles of McIntyre and Judith Curry. The Hockey Stick Illusion is cited a couple of times, as is my GWPF report on the Climategate inquiries. This next mention was obviously gratifying.
Montford (2010)—and on the other side, Oreskes and Conway (2010)—though clearly impassioned, impressed me as scrupulous in scholarship: diligent with source attributions, respectful of the reader, and careful to point out alternative interpretations before drawing conclusions. Having formed an impression of them through their texts, I would gladly read and be inclined to rely on further writings by these authors.
Ranalli's paper is not without fault - I grimaced at this for example:
When I see a commentator use the expression “hide the decline” in a way that suggests climate scientists have conspired to “hide” from the public a “decline” in global temperatures, my first instinct is to write off the individual as an unscrupulous partisan, a hack whose mind is closed to reason. After all, from even a glance at the very short email that is the source of the phrase it should be obvious that the author, climatologist Phil Jones, was not referring to a decline in real temperatures (Climategate email 0942777075.txt).
...I don't think any prominent commentator has suggested such a thing since Sarah Palin and James Inhofe did so in the immediate aftermath of Climategate. Such minor nits aside, the paper is well worth a read if you are able to lay your hands on a copy. Unfortunately it is not online.
The reference is: Ranalli, B. Climate Science, Character, and the “Hard-Won” Consensus, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal Vol. 22, No. 2, 183–210.