“The question I wish to answer can be put simply,” writes Mike Hulme, “does the pronouncement of a scientific consensus on an issue such as climate change increase or weaken the authority of science?”
Hulme’s piece is published in “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall,” a collection of essays that mark the transition of UK chief scientific advisers from Sir John Beddington to Sir Mark Walport.
In setting forth his argument, Hulme quotes Jon Elster:
I would in fact tend to have more confidence in the outcome of a democratic decision if there was a minority that voted against it, than if it was unanimous.
A scientific body that doesnot partake in … a politics of transparent social choice — one that hides both its substantive disagreements and its disciplinary and sectoral interests beneath a cloak of consensus — is not a fully democratic one.
Science would provide better value to politics if it articulated the broadest set of plausible interpretations, options and perspectives, imagined by the best experts, rather than forcing convergence to an allegedly unified voice.
The drive for consensus within the IPCC process, and its subsequent public marketing, has becomes a source of scientific weakness rather than of scientific strength in the turbulent social discourses on climate change.
Hulme’s article is also available as standalone pdf and on video from a January 2013 talk at a Steps Center Symposium on “Credibility Across Cultures.” Also in the Whitehall collection are essays by Sheila Jasanoff on the accountability of scientists and Geoff Mulgan on evolving perceptions of expertise and evidence.