Dialogue on Two World Systems
Being a parody on Galileo’s book of similar title.
Chapter 3: The Wreck of the Old 97
Premise: Our disputants, one McMannus and another, Lintzenius, are arguing the case of human induced, catastrophic global warming. As we open our scene, Lintzenius has just opined that there is serious doubt about the validity of the claim that the science is settled and there is no room for any debate and that there actually are concerns about the science accepted by something called the consensus of scientists that human emissions of carbon dioxide are causing unprecedented warming of the earth’s atmosphere with other, dangerous consequences in the offing. We pick up their conversation…
McMannus: Don’t you know that 97% of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is real and it’s mostly attributable to human activity?
Lintzenius Where did you get that information?
McMannus: Well, it’s a scientific study?
Lintzenius Which branch of science conducted the study?
McMannus: Well, climate science, I suppose.
Lintzenius Do you now who the researcher was? Did you actually read the study?
Lintzenius Might it have been conducted by a psychologist?
McMannus I suppose.
Lintzenius Would that make a difference to you about the validity of the study?
McMannus No. Many polls are conducted by psychologists.
Lintzenius How did the people who published the study derive the 97% number? Was it a poll? Who was polled?
McMannus I don’t know the particulars.
Lintzenius Do you know if there have been any research papers which refute that 97% study?
McMannus I don’t know.
Lintzenius Why is it significant that everyone holds this up as proof? What is so significant about it?
McMannus Well, most of the world’s scientists agree.
Lintzenius So, the value of 97% makes it a significant finding?
Lintzenius What if it was 96%? Would that still be significant?
McMannus Of course.
Lintzenius What about 90%?
McMannus Absolutely. That’s still most scientists.
Lintzenius I’m curious. If ten out of every 100 scientists thought something was wrong with the research and interpretation, and that is not considered significant, would you think it was significant if 20 out of every hundred were not in concurrence?
McMannus Well, that’s more significant than 10 out of every one hundred.
Lintzenius That still leaves 80% agreeing that humans are responsible for catastrophic climate change correct?
Lintzenius So is that still a significant majority, such that everyone should accept without question the consensus of the 80%?
McMannus Yes, I think so. But its only academic, as the number is actually 97%.
Lintzenius And if the percentage of scientists who say there is catastrophic global warming was 60%, is that still significant enough that we should take action against climate change?
McMannus Yes, that’s a majority, so we should not risk not acting.
Lintzenius OK. Just humor me, if the number was 50%? Half and half. How significant would that be?
McMannus At that point’ we would have to weigh evidence from both sides equally.
Lintzenius But we wouldn’t have to consider the opposite interpretation at, say 51% in agreement? We could ignore the other 49%
McMannus Well, I mean, that’s close enough to 50% that we probably would have to consider the alternative still.
Lintzenius OK. What about 55%?
McMannus I don’t know. That’s getting very specific.
Lintzenius You said that at 60% that’s still a majority and we should act, so I’m trying to understand at what exact point we would have to at least consider an alternative interpretation. It would have to be exact because we are now working within the confines of a single 10% range out of the whole 100%. So, going back to the 80% scenario, am I correct that what you’re saying is that if 20 out of every 100 scientists disagree with the mainstream, that we should not take their position seriously, but if 50 out of every 100 disagreed, then we would have to consider both sides?
McMannus Well, it’s not as black and white as that.
Lintzenius So, would we have to consider an alternative position if 20% of scientists did not agree with the consensus view, but not with as much weight as if 50 out of every 100 held the same view?
McMannus It doesn’t matter. The number is 97 out of every 100 concur.
Lintzenius But if 2 out of 10 disagree, isn’t that as compelling as 5 out of 10?
McMannus No, it’s not as significant.
Lintzenius But would we have to consider what they are saying – allow a forum where the differences of opinion could be worked out? Or is 2 out of 10 not significant enough and we should go ahead with action?
McMannus I think we should listen, but not delay action.
Lintzenius Would there be a point in listening, then?
McMannus Well, we would want to be certain, in that case, but we shouldn’t delay so we wouldn’t be behind in our action. We could always slow down or stop an action if it turns out it is not necessary, but if we delay, it could be too late to be effective.
Lintzenius So in the case of 50%, would our consideration of the alternative conclusion mean that we should delay action?
McMannus No. But we should consider their position while action is implemented.
Lintzenius What if, let’s say, only 36 out of every one hundred scientists thought humans were the cause of climate change, would that be a significant enough number that we should follow their advice and change societies and economies?
McMannus What do you mean, change societies and economies? That’s not what we are discussing. And no, if only 36% said there was some condition, we should look very closely, scrutinize what they are saying, but we should not delay any action.
Lintzenius So, let me make certain I understand. If 64% of the world’s scientists said the hypothesis of man-made climate change is not correct, we should still scrutinize and consider the position of the 36% who say it is a problem?
Lintzenius So, conversely, if 64% say it is a problem and 36% say it is not, your position is that we should act without question and ignore the 36%. That is your position?
McMannus Yes. It is too dangerous to risk not acting and there’s no risk with acting.
Lintzenius OK. So, in your opinion, what is it that leads you to conclude that the risk is so high that we have to act, even if there is some legitimate doubt.
McMannus Well, the 97% conclusion shows that the condition is dangerous.
Lintzenius So, something is dangerous if most people say it is dangerous and what makes it dangerous is that most people say so. Could you tell me what percentage of scientists would have to conclude that human influence is not significant enough for action before you would consider it safe to not act. You already said that action would be warranted if only 2 out of 10 scientists thought there was a need for action. Would it be significant enough to not act if only 1 out of 10 thought it was a problem?
McMannus No, action should not be postponed regardless, because we are dealing with a dangerous condition and any risk is too high to not try to do something.
Lintzenius Any risk is too high? So a 1% risk is too high? One scientist out of 100 says there’s a potential risk so we should seriously consider policies to mitigate that potential risk?
Lintzenius By corollary, if 1 scientist out of 100 says there is no risk, do we have to listen to and consider that position?
McMannus No, because there would be no risk factor if we ignored that person.
Lintzenius What if the danger espoused by the 1 out of 100 scientists cost taxpayers 100 million dollars to evaluate?
McMannus It would be worth it if the risk could be reduced.
Lintzenius The actual risk, or the potential risk?
Lintzenius What if it turns out that that the scientist was wrong and there was no risk?
McMannus It would have been worth the cost to be certain.
Lintzenius What if the money, that 100 million dollars, had been transferred from a public account dedicated to helping fight actual known diseases?
McMannus The potential danger to society at large related to the climate is so great that the cost is worth it regardless.
Lintzenius Going back to the 97%. Where did that number come from?
McMannus It was a published scientific paper.
Lintzenius Was there a poll of scientists?
McMannus I suppose so.
Lintzenius Was there just one poll of scientists?
McMannus I don’t know.
Lintzenius Have you heard of a poll in which the percentage of meteorologists and earth scientists who agree that humans are the primary cause of climate change is different than 97%?
Lintzenius Have you heard of one that the percentage that do not agree is actually 36%?
McMannus No, and now I can see you are trying to trap me.
Lintzenius I’m only trying to learn why you think the number 97% is valid. Was that 97% number based on a poll – do you know?
McMannus I suppose, but no, I don’t know.
Lintzenius Was it based on someone counting published papers and then concluding whether the authors intent was to concur that humans cause global warming which is potentially catastrophic?
McMannus I don’t know.
Lintzenius Do you think that’s possible?
McMannus I guess so.
Lintzenius What would be more reliable in your opinion, having someone interpret what a researcher meant in his conclusions to his research or asking the researcher directly for their conclusion?
McMannus I guess it would be more reliable to get the conclusions directly from the researchers.
Lintzenius Which would you think is more reliable: a study in which about 40% of the scientists actually polled said that there is no concern related to climate change and humans are not solely responsible for it anyway; or a study based on a third party reviewing papers and concluding that 97% of the papers reviewed claimed that climate change is caused by humans and dangerous.
McMannus Well, based on the overwhelming difference in the percentages, I’d still have to say the 97% finding is more significant.
Lintzenius Are you aware if any of the researchers of the papers reviewed to reach the 97% number were polled after the fact to see if the counting of their research as supporting catastrophic global warming was correct?
McMannus No I’m not, but I suppose you’re going to tell me that is the case.
Lintzenius In a statistical study, such as one which concludes that 97% or 64% or whatever, agree with some position, does the method in which the data were collected and analyzed matter to the reliability of the finding?
McMannus Yes, I suppose so.
Lintzenius For the 97% paper, do you know how many papers were reviewed by the researcher to come up with the percentage?
Lintzenius Do you know how the papers were categorized?
Lintzenius Do you know whether the same data were re-analyzed by any other researcher?
Lintzenius Do you know the methods of the poll in which 36% of earth and atmospheric scientists responded that the climate change hypothesis is not a concern?
Lintzenius Which of the two is more significant in your view?
McMannus They both show a majority of scientists say we need to act, so it doesn’t make a difference what I think.
Lintzenius But at almost 40% dissent, you don’t think we need to evaluate the alternative interpretation of the same data at all, but at the same time you think that 1% concluding there is a problem is enough to spend 100 million dollars on research?
McMannus Yes, because if there is any risk, it’s worth reducing, but if the 40% turn out to be correct and there is no risk, we are not in a dangerous situation.
Lintzenius So you said that if it were 50-50, it would be worth considering both sides. What if it were 70-30 in favor of scientists who conclude that there is no risk?
McMannus The 30% possibility should be evaluated to make certain there is no danger.
Lintzenius Does that mean that at 30% there might not be a real danger?
Lintzenius But at 97% there is a definite danger?
Lintzenius I’m still trying to get to what point would the definite danger become only a potential danger. Anything above 1% is potential and 97% is definite. Where’s the cut-off between real and possible?
McMannus I couldn’t say.
Lintzenius But is there a point where the risk changes from potential to actual?
McMannus I don’t think there is a single point. You can’t hone it down that fine.
Lintzenius But anything less than 50% of scientists concluding there is no risk is not worth considering their conclusions because there is no risk?
McMannus Yes, that’s right.
Lintzenius So, at 50% we are at potential risk still. Therefore, the point at which we cross from potential to actual is between 50% and 97%?
McMannus Yes, I suppose so.
Lintzenius But even a 1% potential risk is worth spending at least 100 million dollars, money taken from some other use, to evaluate whether that potential risk is real?
Lintzenius But 99% concluding that there is no risk would not override that 1% potential risk?
McMannus No. It must be evaluated.
Lintzenius Regardless of the cost?
McMannus Well, it has to be paid for one way or another but the money should be spent. It’s too dangerous not to.
Lintzenius So if it cost $10 Billion would it then be worth the evaluation?
McMannus Perhaps, if the threat were high enough.
Lintzenius And, going back, you judge the level of threat, or the danger, based on how many scientists conclude that something actually is a danger. But if only 1% conclude it is a danger, by your reasoning it can’t be a severe risk, can it?
McMannus We don’t know that until it is evaluated.
Lintzenius Do you, therefore, know the actual danger in the case in which 97% of scientists conclude there is a risk – a danger?
McMannus Well, not until it has been evaluated.
Lintzenius So your statement earlier that we know human climate change is a real danger because 97% of scientists say it is, is not correct?
McMannus That’s not a correct statement. The fact is, that this issue has been studied by scientists and based on the evaluation 97% do conclude it is dangerous.
Lintzenius To what data, specifically, do you refer?
McMannus Well, the temperature data. Sea level data, ice data.
Lintzenius What conclusion do those data support?
McMannus That the globe is warming drastically.
Lintzenius OK, I don’t agree, as the data do not actually support that, but let’s go with the assumption it does. What data are there that the temperature increase you posit results from human emissions of carbon dioxide?
McMannus Well, there is an undeniable increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and an undeniable rise in temperature. And 97% of the scientists who study that data conclude there is a cause and effect.
Lintzenius And it wouldn’t matter to you, based on your answers above, if only 1% of the scientists made that causal connection? It would still be a risk worth hundreds of millions of dollars of evaluation?
Lintzenius So, if there was a study published which provided definitive proof that the temperature increases you mention were not caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide, but one scientist out of 10,000 said he didn’t accept it, you would still want to spend the money to evaluate it and possibly take action?
Lintzenius What if that one scientist was not actually an earth or atmospheric scientist, but was, say a computer scientist? Would you change your assessment and say that that one scientist out of 10,000 should not be given credibility and we should not spend the money?
McMannus We would have to consider the data before deciding to spend the money but any potential risk is a real risk until proven otherwise.
Lintzenius And in the case of the unqualified computer scientist, we should consider his view as valid?
McMannus Yes, because he could be correct, even if it’s not his main area of research.
Lintzenius But a researcher who is qualified, concluding there is no risk should not be considered a valid participant in the decision to take action?
McMannus No. As I said, if he is right and there is no risk, who cares if he was right?
Lintzenius What would it take for you to decide that there is zero risk and that we should spend no money?
McMannus There would have to be complete consensus among scientists that there is no risk.
Lintzenius So, any scientist, from any field of study, could say there is a risk from human emissions of carbon dioxide and you’d want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure there is no actual risk?
Lintzenius But if 50% of all relevant scientists, that’s earth and atmospheric scientists, said there is no risk, we should not pro-rate the amount spent, but should go on spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make certain?
Lintzenius If 99% of all scientists surveyed were earth and atmospheric scientists and they concluded there was no risk, and one computer scientist said there is a risk based on his computer analysis, you would want to spend the money.
McMannus Yes. The danger is too great to not act.
Lintzenius In your opinion, which should have more weight in an evaluation: the consensus of scientists or the actual data.
McMannus Well, data are interpreted by scientists and they all have the same data, so the consensus should be given more weight in consideration.
Lintzenius Have you heard of Plate Tectonics?
Lintzenius Do you know what it is?
McMannus Sort of.
Lintzenius Do you know of any earth scientist who disagrees with it?
Lintzenius Do you know when it was first proposed as a real data-supported scientific hypothesis?
Lintzenius It was back around 1920, OK?
McMannus All right, I’d have to take your word for it.
Lintzenius Do you know how many scientists, percentage, accepted it at that time?
Lintzenius Would it surprise you to learn that it was about 1 in 10,000?
McMannus Well, yes.
Lintzenius And do you know why 100% of earth scientists accept it now?
Lintzenius Because the data forced them to change their conclusions. Could I convince you that the 97% agreement value is not correct?
McMannus You might be able to, but as long as there is any potential for risk, we need to act.
Lintzenius Do you know how much real, empirical data there is to tie any warming of the atmosphere to human emissions of carbon dioxide?
McMannus No, but I expect its significant.
Lintzenius The number is zero. Do you know how the 97% number could be made real, and how it could be increased to a real 100% consensus?
Lintzenius By producing one piece of real world, hard, reproducible data that any measured temperature increase in the past or present can be correlated positively and directly to the cause of increased carbon dioxide emissions and that the small percentage of actual carbon dioxide which caused the change is the roughly 4% attributable to human emissions, is the causal factor. Every scientist who does not now concur with the consensus view would be forced to re-evaluate with the likelihood of concurrence.
McMannus It wouldn’t matter. Their opinion doesn’t matter to public policy to act. As long as there is one scientist who concludes the data support a position that there is a potential risk, action is the only prudent choice. And it wouldn’t matter if they all turned out to be correct. Then we are in no danger and the money to confirm that would have been well spent.