In Brief
Scientific consensus isn't reached only through whipping up votes. It's actually born out of an overwhelming agreement between scientists of varying fields of study regarding a particular issue at hand.

Science in the Modern Age

As if providing a systematic framework for understanding how everything in the cosmos works wasn’t enough, science is often found in the realm of the social — how people relate to each other as they live out their everyday lives. Across the world, arguments about bills and policies that govern entire countries cite “scientific facts” for support before they are passed into law. Companies convince their customers to purchase their products with appeals based on “scientific facts.”

From this, it’s easily seen how such facts are privy to manipulation—how they are used by people in order to achieve a certain goal. To this end, science, as a field, often gets dragged in the mud. However, that doesn’t mean that science is bad. The issue is simply with how science is being rhetorically cast. Fortunately, there is something that can help us wade through this muck to get to the truth, and it’s known as a “scientific consensus.”

Indeed, a scientific consensus is of vital importance, and can tell us much about the world around us. But before we get there, let’s break this down a bit: Exactly what is a scientific consensus, and why is it important?

Reaching a Consensus on Consensus

A scientific consensus, in general, is what most scientists believe to be true about a certain issue based on their interpretation of all of the evidence that we have at our disposal. In other words, it is the collective answer of scientists to a particular question. For example, if the scientific community is asked: “If I let go of this apple in my hand, will it fall to the ground?” The answer will be “yes,” following the scientific consensus the apple is subject to Earth’s gravity.

This, however, brings into question the validity of a scientific consensus. How sure are we the consensus is indeed, scientific?

It’s always useful to remember that, first, a scientific paper is not a run-of-the-mill paper. It is a paper that is reviewed by a host of individuals in the community who scrutinize its limitations, its experimental processes, and its findings. Only after the paper has been through this peer review process is it accepted for publication. And each new paper builds on the information disclosed in the papers that came before.

Hence, the birth of a scientific consensus isn’t subject to a majoritarian rule. It actually signifies the fact that a great many scientists from different backgrounds have considered the question at hand and have reached similar conclusions.

That doesn’t mean that science is a panacea—it doesn’t mean that science is perfect or always 100% correct. It is important to remember that science is adaption; it’s change. But what it does mean is that we have a pretty good understanding of how things work, and it will take a mammoth amount of evidence to change our current understanding.

CONSENSUS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

On the issue of climate change — whether it’s real and whether it’s caused by human activity — the scientific consensus is clear: on both counts, the answer is yes.

A recently published paper by John Cook along with seven other authors of climate change studies found that 97% of publishing climate science endorse the consensus position of anthropogenic climate change. Further, the paper found that the studies conducted by more expert scientists reaffirmed the consensus more.

John Cook
John Cook

As opposed to politics, where vested interests contend for supremacy, science is a field where the single goal is to discover the truth. The spirit of science propels those who work in their various fields to make sure current popular beliefs are tested for veracity.

In short: When a bunch of scientists, each with years of training in a particular field, come together to assert something (that is inherently scientific in nature), it doesn’t mean that the argument is totally over (an argument is never totally over in science). But it does mean that the assertion is likely free of individual opinion or beliefs, and that it’s supported by a virtual mountain of evidence. Thus, for the most part, scientists stop interrogating this particular issue, as it’s already largely settled, and they start building on this agreement (interrogating things that are related to it).

In short, a scientific consensus tells us things that we have already learned, and it lets us know when things have stopped being debated in the sciences.