Rejecting scientific expertise is probably not a good idea

Recently, an updated version of Carl Sagan’s legendary series Cosmos aired in the US. To watch it in legally in Australia, you had to wait until 16 March and sell your first-born to Rupert Murdoch. Phil Plait, a science blogger at Slate, wrote about the first episode here. In particular, he mentioned that the episode featured the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian monk ‘who theorised that the stars were suns, that other planets existed, and that life existed everywhere’.  For propagating these assertions contrary to established dogma, Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church on 17 February, 1600.

It’s a important chapter in scientific history, and a testament to the philosophy of following the evidence, wherever it leads, even when it leads to your ashes being dumped unceremoniously in a river.

Unfortunately, this narrative of brave, stoic martyrdom is co-opted regularly, due to a particularly pervasive logical fallacy. Specifically, it’s been horribly twisted and deformed by climate change deniers, to the extent that rejecting scientific expertise with regards to the outcomes of climate science is somehow classified as a virtue.

It’s a weird, popular claim, and it’s worth digging into why it emerges so regularly.

The Outcomes and Acceptance of Climate Science

Climate scientists have already established a set of strongly-supported conclusions about the drivers behind our measurably shifting climate system. The IPCC state, in their most recent report, that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

This isn’t a rare view among climate scientists – a study published by John Cook and Dana Nuticelli examined the question of human influence on climate change amongst climate scientists. They found 97.1% of climate scientists accept human-caused global warming:

So, climate scientists seem quite certain that levels of warming have increased, we’re responsible, largely, for those increases, and that it’ll get worse if we keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They’re as certain of these claims as medical researchers are that smoking causes lung cancer, or that broken bones heal best in plaster casts.

Despite this, a fair few Australians continue to doubt humans play any role in our changing climate. The CSIRO’s ‘Fourth Annual Survey of Attitudes to Climate Change’ indicates 38.8% of Australians think humans play no role in rising temperatures, and a further 7.6% think temperatures aren’t changing at all:

This isn’t a recent phenomenon either – Essential Vision polling shows public opinion hovering around these levels over the past four years:

The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle

Why is it acceptable to reject the scientific consensus on climate change, but not reject the scientific consensus on the healing of broken bones? One of the components behind this seeming hypocrisy is the idea that rejecting consensus lies at the heart of scientific purity. One of my earliest experiences of this came from the Liberal MP Dennis Jensen, in an article I read in September 2013. I kept a clipping, because it struck a note with me:


“In the climate area there is appeal to authority and appeal to consensus, neither of which is scientific at all……Scientific reality doesn’t give a damn who said it and it doesn’t give a damn how many say it”

Jensen’s usage of this line of reasoning actually goes back a fair few years – back to 2009:

“Albert Einstein was very much criticised by Hitler, and Hitler actually had a group of 100 top scientists in Germany write a book called 100 scientists against Einstein,”

“Einstein was asked: `Doesn’t it bother you Dr Einstein that you’ve got so many scientists against you?’

“And he said: `It doesn’t take 100 scientists to prove me wrong, it takes a single fact’.”

In 2010, Jensen called for a royal commision into climate science. Without a mote of irony, he writes:

“I am calling for a Royal Commission into the science of climate change and the roles played by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Only a Royal Commission into the science of climate change will provide the most climate effective and cost effective solutions in this debate.”

The probability of the near-entirety of the global community of climate science experts being absolutely, utterly wrong seems quite low, but Jensen’s at ease with this improbable assertion. I’ve tried digging into whether Jensen’s philosophy of martyred consensus rejection extends to other fields of science:


Naturally, I didn’t get a response.

It highlights hypocrisy in the efforts of climate change deniers to paint themselves as scientific purists – heroes bucking the trend, and going against the grain of mainstream science in the tradition of Einstein railing against Adolf Hitler. They reject expert consensus only when that consensus grates against their worldview, not when that consensus grates against evidence. Yes, this consensus is often challenged, as it should be, but that’s done by scientists qualified to understand, interpret and discuss the evidence.

It filters down to the less literate and significantly angrier fringe groups as well. The Galileo Movement, one of a cluster of domestic climate change denial groups with links overseas, derive their name from Galileo Galilei, another scientist who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church for stating theories contrary to established dogma.

This fanciful image of assumed scientific martyrdom is based on a fallacy that has a beautiful name – the ‘fallacy of the undistributed middle’. Galileo Einstein and Bruno went against the orthodoxy, and were vindicated. Climate change deniers also go against the orthodoxy. Therefore – climate change deniers will be vindicated. Obviously.

Let me scientifically illustrate this using a Venn diagram:


In the red circle: Galileo. In the grey area: that guy who thinks he’s built an infinite energy device from crystals and old bits of shoe


The fallacy goes beyond the simple denial of scientific consensus, and advocates the active rejection of expertise, in the hope that donning this contrarian attitude means you automatically transmogrify into a contemporary analogue of Galileo or Bruno battling religious orthodoxy, or Einstein standing up against a tyrannical dictator, in the name of scientific evidence.

It’ll be interesting to see how this fallacy surfaces with the recent release of the joint Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) / CSIRO ‘State of the Climate Report’. They state, simply, that “Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise and continued emissions will cause further warming over this century”.

Is there a way to stave off the motivated rejection of particular fields of scientific expertise, and perhaps in the process place climate experts back on the mantle of trust, among doctors treating broken limbs and chemists and geologists and physicists? Personally, I think we ought to put much more effort into getting the voices of Australian climate scientists out into the public. You could ask them to rap, like Hungry Beast did back in 2011, or you could interview them , like The Climate Institute did below.

What keeps a climate scientist up at night? from The Climate Institute on Vimeo.

Tim Hollo thinks there are a plethora of good ways we can give the facts a much-needed boost, and he writes here about combining the facts, as established and confirmed by experts, with stories that cut through the din of motivated climate denial. I agree with him, but I wonder if we could weave in an exploration of argument, logic and the history of science in these stories, in the same way Neil Tyson does in his re-booted version of Cosmos. It seems that a large portion of public discourse around climate science is predicated on the misunderstanding of scientific inquiry. Perhaps fewer elected officials would be willing to equate themselves with Albert Einstein if the stories underpinning scientific inquiry were better communicated. I think that if they were, climate science could edge back towards widespread public acceptance, amongst astrophysics, medicine and geology.

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain – “Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de’ Fiori, Rome”

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