When Consensus Doesn't Mean Consensus


A few days ago a letter [pdf] written by scientists at Brigham Young University -- a traditionally conservative school -- plopped onto the desks of Utah’s governor and state lawmakers.  The letter is being called a “stinging rebuke” and criticizes how, in a recent session, legislators gave equal value to fringe, skeptical climate change views as they did to the broader scientific consensus that our climate is changing and we are to blame.

During their October meeting, the state’s Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee listened to two climate change scientists -- as HCN noted here.  The first, professor Jim Steenburgh, chair of the University Of Utah Atmospheric Science Department, presented the more scientifically backed view that climate change is man made.  The second scientist--professor Roy Spencer, climatologist from the University of Alabama, Huntsville--presented skeptical views, arguing that climate change is a natural phenomena, caused by natural cycles, not humans.  (Listen to the meeting)

Spencer was specially invited to the meeting by co-chair of the panel, Republican Mike Noel, and his views were reportedly well received.  Steenburgh, on the other hand, was attacked after his presentation—many lawmakers shunned his views, claiming global warming is a natural phenomenon.  One representative even accused the movement to address global warming as, “the new religion to replace Communism.”

 The BYU scientists’ point of contention is that legislators gave the same, if not more, weight to Spencer’s fringe views as they did to Steenburgh’s widely accepted views, noting that “well over 90% of scientists would agree with Steenburgh’s ideals.  They wrote:

We believe that if a legislative committee—composed entirely of non-specialists in the relevant fields -- entertains testimony from someone representing the scientific minority, the responsible course of action would be to give considerable weight to an overwhelming scientific consensus, and treat fringe positions with respectful skepticism.   

The scientists seem genuinely concerned about how Utah’s legislators are going to handle climate change in the state, only wanting legislature to be backed by sound science, writing:

As part of an arid continental interior, Utah may sustain serious damage due to a warming climate, and Utah’s climate scientists are a valuable resource to help public officials decide how to respond to the threat.  Collectively, Utah scientists have spent many decades trying to unravel the relevant issues in the context of this region.  It is irresponsible to alienate them by setting aside their testimony in favor of easily debunked fringe science.

The group of BYU scientists added that they “represent a number of political persuasions (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents,) and disagree with one another about how society ought to respond to the threats posed by a warming climate,” and also that their views “do not necessarily reflect those of (their) sponsoring institution, Brigham Young University.”

To the scientists at BYU who wrote the letter -- well done. Way to step up and drop such a valid point on Utah lawmakers.  Of course legislators should hear every point of view -- this is America, people -- but that doesn’t mean they should give equal weight to all views during the law making process.  If 19 out of 20 PhDs say one thing, and one PhD says another, maybe think twice about deciding the fate of your state’s environment on that one lone wolf’s opinion.

Now the real question is whether our boys up on Salt Lake’s Capitol hill will consider the arguments made in the letter.  So far, I’m not counting on it.  Provo Republican Chris Herrod told The Salt Lake Tribune, “The more (BYU scientists) say there is consensus, the more they lose credibility.” 

Hmmmm, last time I checked, 90% of scientists in agreement on a single topic is considered a consensus.  But who knows, in the Utah House of Representatives, numbers don’t always add up, especially when they are attached to environmental figures.