Skip to content

Naomi Oreskes’s Fantasy Consensus

Doug L Hoffman, The Resilient Earth

To compare Alfred Wegener and the story of plate tectonics to anthropogenic global warming is a false analogy. A theory derives its legitimacy from how well it describes nature, how well it fits observed reality – not from consensus.

Nothing associated with the global warming scam has been more insidiously deceptive than the constant trumpeting of consensus regarding the cause and expected impact of climate change. In a cleverly disguised piece in the journal Nature, Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes has attempted to use the story of plate tectonics as an analog for anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The article is a blend of historical fact and illogic, aimed at giving the consensus science view a sheen of validity, when nothing could be further from the truth. Consensus has its place, primarily in politics, and by extension in history. It is unsurprising that Professor Oreskes embraces consensus while missing the fundamental concepts of science and the scientific method. She is an historian, not a scientist, and that difference can not be covered over by taking a poll.

Naomi Oreskes has been at the periphery of the climate change debate for decades, primarily as a cheerleader for the idea that scientific legitimacy can be bestowed by taking a poll of scientists or counting journal articles on various sides of an issue. In an attempt to promote this wrong headed line of argument, Oreskes has penned an article, “Earth science: How plate tectonics clicked,” in the opinion section of the September 5, 2013, issue ofNature. On the face of it, the article recounts the efforts of various scientists that eventually led to the acceptance of plate tectonics, the scientific theory of how the continents move over time. Here are a few paragraphs from the beginning of the article:

By the time German geophysicist Alfred Wegener proposed continental drift in 1912, palaeontologists had long accepted that past connections between now-separate lands explained the spread of similar fossils and rock layers across them. Geologists, too, knew of slabs of Alpine rock that had been displaced hundreds of kilometres during mountain building.

But the arguments for continental motions did not gel until the 1960s, when a drastic expansion of geophysical research, driven by the cold war, produced evidence that reopened and eventually settled the debate.

One influential study was published in Nature 50 years ago this week. British geologists Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews interpreted stripes of alternating magnetic-field polarity in ocean bedrock as evidence of a spreading sea floor that pushed continents apart. Acceptance that large crustal motions were a reality soon followed, culminating in the theory of plate tectonics.

So far so good. Indeed the story of Wegner and his struggle to have the movement of the continents accepted as scientific fact is an intriguing and instructive one. When Wegener coined the term “continental drift” in 1912, he was far from the first to propose such a thing. Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander von Humboldt and many others had noted that the shapes of continents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and South America, seem to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But they could not explain why this should be so. As we explained in The Resilient Earth:

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), a German physicist and meteorologist, was the first to use the phrase “die Verschiebung der Kontinent,” German for “continental drift.” In 1912, he formally published the hypothesis that the continents were once all together in one large land mass and had somehow drifted apart. Unfortunately, he couldn’t convincingly explain what caused them to drift. His best explanation was that the continents had been pulled apart by centrifugal force resulting from Earth’s rotation. This force caused the continents to “plow” through the sea floor to new locations. Wegener’s explanation was considered unrealistic by the scientific community.

The key thing to note here is that his idea was the continents moved over time. He did not have a satisfactory answer for why they moved—he lacked a mechanism to explain his continental drift. It is also interesting in that Wegener was not a geologist by training. He was well respected in meteorological circles but was a geological outsider. There is nothing an established group of scientists dislikes more than an outsider upsetting their long held prejudices.

Even though Wegner had amassed copious volumes of supporting data, geologists mostly ignored his theory. The theory’s main problem was the lack of a satisfactory explanation of how continents moved through the solid rock of the ocean basins. Most geologists did not believe that this could be possible. Instead of investigating possible sources for Wegener’s anomalies, the geological community rejected the theory out of hand, preferring their erroneous but familiar existing beliefs. As Wegener himself said in his “The Origins of Continents and Oceans:”

Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence… It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine ‘truth’ here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw.

Here is wisdom that the members of the IPCC would be well advised to heed. Sadly, Wegener and a companion went missing on what was to be his last expedition to Greenland in November, 1930. Wegener’s body was eventually found in May, 1931. The suspected cause of death was heart failure through overexertion. His theory of continental drift had not found acceptance during his life and it was left to others to provide the compelling evidence Wegener could not.

Four major scientific developments spurred the formulation of the plate-tectonics theory: discovery of the youth of the ocean floor; confirmation of repeated reversals of Earth magnetic field in the geologic past; proof of seafloor-spreading and the recycling of oceanic crust; and the realization that the world’s earthquake and volcanic activity is concentrated along oceanic trenches and submarine mountain ranges. Today, the wanderings of the Earth’s continents is well accepted and documented, as shown below.”

Over time, the continents move and rearrange themselves.

For a more complete history of plate tectonics see Chapter 8 of TRE, “Moving Continents & Ocean Currents (PDF).” But let us return to Dr. Oreskes’ article. As far as her historical account things are accurate and acceptable. It is in her underlying analysis of the theory’s acceptance that she runs quickly into the weeds.

In its slow convergence of ideas and evidence, the history of plate tectonics holds lessons for today’s debates about human-induced climate change. Although science is always evolving, and our attention is drawn to controversy at the research frontier, it is the stable core of ‘consensus’ knowledge that provides the best basis for decision-making…

In recent months, several of my colleagues in climate science have asked me whether the story of plate tectonics holds lessons for their field in responding to those who disparage the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. I believe that it does…

Many critics of climate science argue that expert agreement is irrelevant. Science, they claim, advances through bold individuals such as Wegener or Galileo Galilei overturning the status quo. But, contrary to the mythology, even Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein worked within scientific communities, and saw their work accepted. In glorifying the lone genius, climate-change dissenters tap into a rich cultural vein, but they miss what consensus in science really is and why it matters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that science is always evolving, more often than not the consensus of the scientific community only advances in fits and starts. If anything, consensus has a negative influence on the acceptance of new ideas, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Good science is conservative science and a true conservative only changes when presented with a demonstratively better choice than current dogma.

Wegener’s central claim was that the continents moved. He did not have a compelling explanation of how they moved. Even so, all that was needed to prove Wegener’s theory correct in principle was for careful measurements to demonstrate that the continents were, in fact, changing position. As it happened, the discovery of seafloor spreading provided measurable evidence that the plates the continents ride on were moving, proving Wegener’s conjecture and serving up a mechanism at the same time. Not that the subject is closed, work on the mechanisms underlying plate tectonics continues to this day.

The mechanisms driving plate tectonics are still a mater of active debate.

The case of AGW is not so simple. If the theory only posited that global temperatures were rising, a history of direct temperature measurements would suffice to prove the point. But that is not what AGW says. It says that human CO2 emissions are causing Earth’s temperature to rise at such a rate that there will be many calamitous impacts in the fairly near future. To date none of this has been proven, meaning that the consensus view that AGW is true is nothing more than a majority opinion.

Note that Wegener’s view was opposed by the current consensus during his lifetime. Hess and others who came to support his view were also opposed by consensus. In the end, the shift in consensus was not what vindicated Wegener, it was the preponderance of the physical evidence that made him right. The continents do move, and whether or not the scientific community believes this is immaterial.

To compare Wegener and the story of plate tectonics to anthropogenic global warming is a false analogy. If Oreskes was a true scientist she might understand the differences. She sites the boiler plate definition of science and even references Kuhn (a true philosopher of science) to bolster her case. Some how she embraces Kuhn’s assertion that science advances by sudden shifts in accepted dogma yet still holds consensus as a mark of validity. “A debate comes to a close once scientists are persuaded that a phenomenon is real and that they have settled on the right explanation,” she states. “Further discussion is not productive unless new evidence emerges.” Evidently, in Oreskes view, the consensus is right until it isn’t.

The problem is, there is no proof of AGW. As with Wegener’s doubters, there is no identified mechanism that can provide the amount of warming forecast by the IPCC’s modelers. Climate scientists measure the rising amount of CO2 in the atmosphere but their projections all come from computer models that are filled with conjecture and ill-defined feedbacks. Most damning of all, the real climate is not behaving like the models say it would—a fundamental truth that climate scientists can no longer deny. Further discussion is not discounted, it is demanded.

Research today is expensive and largely government-funded; almost all major scientific accomplishments are the collective achievement of large teams. This reality — more prosaic than the hagiography of lonely genius — reminds us that although great individuals are worthy of recognition, the strength and power of science lies in the collective effort and judgement of the scientific community.

Great scientific discoveries come from the work of singular genius or from the collaboration of a few like-minded individuals. True, they all build on the work of others. As Newton said, “if I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Science is an accumulated body of knowledge that many scientists work to perfect and expand. But the fact remains, no great discovery was ever made by a committee.

Nature stubbornly refuses to follow the modelers’ predictions.

The strength and power of science lies in the ability of others to reproduce results claimed by the originator of an idea. In other words, large groups of scientists may labor to verify a theory, but they do not frame important new theories. A large group of scientists may work on a project like a large particle accelerator or telescope, or a massive effort like decoding a genome, but they do not all contribute at the same level as the few who propose a theory, put forth a question or design an experiment.

As if her flawed logic to this point was insufficient, Dr. Oreskes serves up one more example, a straw-man argument intended to drive home her point. Instead, it discredits her faulty reasoning and exposes her nonscientific thought processes.

Full blog post