Friday, February 27, 2015

The problem with consensus

The issue of scientific consensus on climate change is back in the news again. For a good primer, see Chris Mooney's latest piece in the Washington Post: "Researchers think they’ve found a “gateway belief” that leads to greater science acceptance." I just want to jump quickly to what I find so challenging with focusing on consensus (and there are many) as a means to sway public opinion: if you view the climate change issue through a conflict lens, consensus is not the answer. Research actually shows the opposite -- that in intractable conflicts, which I believe climate change has become, introducing nuance, shades of gray, and multiple perspectives is what leads to change.

When it comes to thinking about conflict, I have found that the work of Peter Coleman of Columbia University and the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity resonates with my own experiences. He specializes in intractable conflict, which can be defined in various ways but is, in general, long-term, chronic, polarized, and not easily approached using common conflict resolution approaches like mediation. For me, one of the most interesting things about thinking of some environmental conflicts as intractable is that it changes the kinds of solutions that might be considered useful.

Coleman's work has led him to focus on "dynamical conflict resolution." In general terms, the idea is that because one of the challenges with intractable conflicts is that things become incredibly polarized -- there is only black and white, wrong and right, us and them, etc. -- one of the solutions for working with it is to reintroduce nuance and complexity into the situation to begin to "break open" the two opposing perspectives. (There is a lot to read on the topic if you are interested and a good starting point is here.)

The idea of purposefully introducing, or even simply allowing, nuance and complexity is a bit counter-intuitive. As scientists and practitioners, much of the training that we get in terms of communication outside academic circles is about simplification and streamlining, distilling complexity down to a couple key points to be repeated over and over, focusing on more accurate information as a solution. It may work well a lot of the time. But what if that kind of approach heightens conflict in certain situations? I can't help but conclude it's less about "digging in" and consensus, and more about communicating a diversity of perspectives and solutions.

Note: some content repurposed from a previous post on conflict. 

Related posts:


  1. Thanks for this. Climate science definitely suffers from over-simplification with most of the real-life examples being simply wrong e.g. arctic warming, polar bears, past temperatures, predicted IPCC surface temps, etc.

    The science is completely damaged by scientists moving on and ignoring the fact that they got it wrong. There's still an energy budget argument they can make, but there's no conclusive evidence either for or against.

    1. Just to be clear, I'm not arguing with climate change research, just the use of scientific consensus as a tool to sway public opinion in what I increasingly view as an intractable conflict. In the case of intractable conflict, focusing on consensus just seems to create further polarization.

  2. I agree. They should not be focusing upon consensus, especially when a review of what members of various scientific groups actually think varies wildly from 'consensus'

    Instead, they should be focusing on explaining why hurricanes and tornados have decreased over the past decade; why coral reefs are not only handily recovering but thriving, even in waters considered acidic; why the stratosphere has been warming the last 10 years instead of cooling, as the theory predicted, and so on, and so forth.

  3. The point of mentioning consensus is to emphasize that the crackpot outliers are crackpots & liars.

    If your conflict lens can't see that the conflict is between science and paid liars, smash it.

  4. The consensus is real. That is to say that most of the topics treated as real issues in the blog science world are either not open questions or not important. This certainly applies to most of the issues Otter raises, except where the point is simply wrong.

    That said, there is a real question of how one defines "consensus" and how one defines "publication" or "expertise"; an outsider trying to confirm the consensus will obtain different results depending on where they set the boundaries. So ANY attempt along these lines can be criticized.

    But there's also the experience of people working in the field to contend with. Almost nobody with any chops in physical climatology doubts that the climate of the near future is going to be drastically different from the climate of the recent past.

    It's like doctors arguing whether a genuinely sick patient has real pain or is malingering. They may have to do that in some cases. But if you're the patient, you know the pain is real.

    Now as to whether it's an effective messaging tool, I think there's evidence that it is, if it's done convincingly. I totally agree with the parent posting about nuance; the scientific community should not be cherry picking evidence.

    But there really isn't any scientific doubt that CO2 is accumulating due to human activity, that climate is going to change drastically as a result if we don't change our ways soon, that the changes are beyond marginally detectable as they were a mere decade ago, and that most of the changes are in line with expectations.

    I think that agreement should matter to an informed and nuanced conversation about what to do about it. But I like the plea for nuance nonetheless.