April 24, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate, science and politics: The certainty and consensus confusion

In this, my probably final, blog post on climate change, I’ll return to a topic that has troubled me for many years, namely religious rhetoric used in debates about climate change science and climate change politics.

The terrain between climate change science and climate change politics has become a bit of a swamp and the more you explore it the more murky things look. The use of religious metaphors makes this swamp even murkier and more dangerous. They pose dangers to climate science and climate politics but also, and more importantly to science and politics in general. As the underlying theme of our Leverhulme Trust funded programme of research entitled ‘Making Science Public’ is ‘science and politics’, it is important to explore these potential pitfalls of a particular use of language in the context of climate change.

Certainty and consensus

For a long time climate scientists have been saying/warning that something is wrong with the climate (that’s the science bit) and that governments should contemplate doing something about this (that’s the politics bit). One would therefore expect some political or societal action to kick in over the years. That seems straightforward, even linear, but it isn’t. A certain type of rhetoric has contributed to twisting this generally straightforward connection between science and society and science and politics. This may be one reason among many others why, between around 2005 and 2015 in particular, climate change politics has not really moved on a lot, especially at a global level. This might change after the 2015 Paris climate summit (or not).

Debates around two key concepts in particular have contributed to this quasi standstill of political will and political action. These concepts are: certainty and consensus. For a long time, ever since climate scientists alerted people and policy makers to the potential dangers to society posed by climate or global warming, some have argued that climate science was still very uncertain and that, therefore, politicians and people in general shouldn’t do anything until these uncertainties were dealt with (an impossible task, as science is not there to ‘eliminate’ uncertainties, but to scrutinise them, and some will always remain). After various IPCC reports, which highlighted increases in certainty regarding a number of scientific issues related to climate change, and, in particular after 2009 and ‘climategate’, this changed. Some people – especially in the blogosphere – began to argue that climate science was becoming too certain and therefore one shouldn’t engage in any climate change politics either. Climategate acted as a rallying cry for people supporting this position, as stolen emails between climate scientists were used to shake confidence in climate science and what one might call climate certainty.

Science, religion and dogma

Here is where religion comes in. Some campaigners began to create and entrench metaphorical links between a certain image of religion or faith and a certain image of science. Scientific certainty was portrayed as religious dogma, scientists as high priests and so on. At the same time (again from around 2005 onwards but with an up-tick after climategate) another concept was mobilised which has also been mapped onto dogma or ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ or ‘orthodoxy’ and so on. This is the concept of ‘consensus’ – which is sometimes conflated with certainty.

Instead of saying scientists should not be believed and politicians should not act because the science was either too certain or too uncertain, some people argued that either there was not enough consensus or that there was too much consensus.

The consensus debate is still raging, especially in the blogosphere, much less so in traditional newspapers. On the one hand mainstream climate scientists and mainstream climate change communicators argue that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that recent climate change is largely caused by humans, is real and has real consequences and that this should be widely communicated (or more precisely that “Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities”). On the other hand some people argue that such a consensus and such emphatic communication of a consensus is dubious for a variety of reasons. Here too religious metaphors are mobilised and consensus is framed as ‘religion‘ or ‘dogma‘.

Before going on to say why such mapping of religious concepts onto scientific ones may be dangerous, I just want to point out that religious metaphors are not only used to cast doubt on the workings of climate science and climate scientists; they are also sometimes used (but more rarely it seems) by climate scientists or advocates or communicators when criticising those who still have, express or spread doubts about climate science and climate scientists. It would be interesting to study the relative aptness of the metaphors used in both types of discourse.

Potential impacts of religious rhetoric

But why do these metaphors trouble me in particular when they are applied to science? They trouble me because they misrepresent the process and products of science and distort the public image of science, of what it is and of what it can do for us. This also has repercussions for the relation between science and politics.

Science is not done ‘by consensus’, but it should always be publicly consensible. Science is certainly not ‘manufactured’ by consensus, as some writings about certainty and consensus seem to imply. This does not mean that agreements (consensus) about certain things do not emerge over time (some might even point to these islands or atolls of agreement and call them ‘facts’ or ‘truths’). Where such scientific agreements have (always provisionally) been reached, they can become a usable and useful basis for science-based and evidence-based politics, for public understanding of science and for understanding science as a public enterprise. Such emergent agreements should not be dismissed out of hand as dubious and suspicious, just because they exist. They should certainly not be framed as a forced consensus or dogma, i.e. ‘a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true’.

Science, unlike religion, is based on public information that is (forever) open to debate and challenge – it is consensible but also contestable. Scientific information circulates, is discussed, tested, queried, aggregated, calibrated, questioned, prodded, dismissed, and reformulated until it can’t very easily be poked any further.

This stage of public and documented scientific agreement, what some call a ‘consensus position‘, has been reached with respect to understanding some aspects of climate change. There is, of course, still much prodding to be done with respect to other aspects of climate change and its impacts on society. A consensus position doesn’t mean the end of an argument, but the starting point for many more. To quote Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson echoing Rilke: “Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.” (Quoted in this lovely ‘Brainpickings’ blog post)

Science, politics and openness

Acknowledging a status of relative scientific certainty and relative scientific consensus means that there are some solid foundations available from which politicians can start to think, negotiate and operate. It doesn’t mean that scientists can rest on their laurels. There is still an awful lot of work to be done – and the questioning never stops. One more quote – again from ‘Brainpickings‘: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.”


Further reading:

Nerlich, B. (2013). Science as public and consensible knowledge.

Nerlich, B. (2013). Consensus on climate change: Tracing the contours of a debate.

Nerlich, B. (2015). Consensus in science.

Image: Still from YouTube video on ‘Assessing the scientific consensus on climate change‘ (marked as labelled for reuse on Google images)

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics